At long last

My uncle collected walking canes, grandfather clocks and beer steins. Lots of beer steins, enough to cover an entire wall in the family room of his Colonial house. But his real pride and joy was a classic red ‘66 Mustang convertible, 6 cylinder 3-speed automatic, chrome wheels with very low mileage, no rust, no stains, no dents whatsoever. He parked it in a nondescript garage and drove it around the neighborhood once or twice a year just to keep it purring along.  No one except his family even knew he had it. He worked long hours, was devoted to his family and hung around the house.  He was not gregarious.

He and I liked to hang around the house. When I was a kid I too had a few collections, but none of them involved expenditures of money. My dad saved me stamps from business correspondence from places around the world that I never heard of: Kenya, Senegal, Lithuania, Iran and Iraq.  As he was a snack food manufacturer, he imported 80 lbs sacks of fava beans from Iran, roasted them in safflower oil, lightly salted and packaged as cocktail snacks.

As I got older, perhaps in high school, a new collection consisted of profound sayings, phrases and advice about wise living from books and articles I read. I wrote them down in black ink on lined 3”x5” index cards and stored them in a plastic grey flip top box for easy access and reference.  From my teenage years I was always looking for answers to burning existential questions that eluded me. There were quotations from judges, authors, scholars, philosophers, psychologists, statesmen.  These were thoughts and sentiments that would provide tutelage and insights that would have spared me much angst and trouble if I had followed them rather than slogging through life itself to discover the truths.

”Each man’s life represents a road toward himself” said Herman Hesse.

”Nothing can bring you peace but yourself” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

”No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched” by George  Jean Nathan.

But I learned on my own that one doesn’t learn how to be a human by strictly reading about it; one learns by doing. Michael Jordan said he became a great basketball player, the one who his teammates turned to for the last best shot that might win the game by making a lot of mistakes along the way.  He learned what to do and how to do it when the game was on the line by failing so many times. Basketball success, like life, seems to come down to a matter of percentages. Author Malcolm Gladwell writes in “The Outliers: The Story of Successful” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (“The 10,000 Hour Rule”) in order to learn a skill or develop a talent. The secret of one’s success is easy: it takes practice, practice, practice. Nike says simply “do it”.

Just doing it was not always easy for me. I was a well-behaved, studious kid who observed and took stock of things rather than rushing into things. I had varied pursuits including baseball, calligraphy and lettering . With lettering I used a fine point Rapidograph pen and black Indian ink. I was interested in artwork and design but it wasn’t revered or encouraged by anyone in my family, so I did not take classes in it like others may have been able to do.  My family was focused on pragmatic pursuits and art did not make the grade. So I did what I could do on my own in private without drawing (no pun intended) much attention to it, and dreamed about it as an interest to cultivate one day.  I taught myself how to make thumbnail sketches, basic layouts and guidelines with a light pencil. I looked at lettering style books and fonts. I learned about the difference between sans and sans serif letters. Helvetica. Bookman. Futura, Avant Garde.  I bought Communication Arts, New England Ad Week, Advertising Age and U&lc magazines. I drooled looking at the creativity that popped off the pages dreaming of the day that I might be able to produce typography as a communicative element.  I looked forward to seeing the latest designs of Herman Zapf, Herb Lubalin and Milton Glaser.  (Glaser died just two weeks ago at age 91 in Manhattan.)

But instead of becoming a graphic designer I became a copywriter with a particular interest in direct response marketing, letter writing and other promotional material. I never worked in an agency and that was probably a good thing.  I learned that agencies are not glamorous, are profoundly political and cut throat. I worked well for corporations, mostly start ups, as the client in marketing communications departments for high tech companies,. If I didn’t do the writing, I hired freelancers and boutique agencies to produce creative and effective promotions that worked well and produced awards.

Back to collecting. As a copywriter, influenced by John Caples and David Ogilvy, I collected proven advertising truths and kept them in mind: long copy sells more than short copy, specifics are more believable than generalities, the most effective  headlines appeal to the reader’s self-interest or give news.  Facts and figures that capture benefits and drama about the product helps make the sale. I became a market researcher’s best friend devouring facts about the values and preferences of the audience, knowing the market landscape, differentiators from the competition. So I collected research reports, analyses, quantitative documents, graphs, demographic estimates and other factoids that could be dramatized.  A story line that moves people to act or can be developed into an appeal that snares the reader is only possible by getting real close to the product, how it’s made, understanding it’s processes and peculiarities.

Today, though retired, I receive a steady stream of authoritative and credible source material from ResearchBuzz that whets my appetite for knowledge about our changing world and how to maneuver through it. New pages on academic websites, analysis and compilations about health and medicine, privacy and security, search engines, coronavirus.  There’s also with more fascinating information about technology, the law, and the upcoming election. I can’t keep up with it. I spend hours sifting through the content, discarding, prioritizing, archiving and filtering the 950-odd emails in my inbox. I can’t easily throw them away.  There’s truths in most of them of value. So I save many of them – just in case.

There’s just so much to read and do and learn, think about and plan for. To experience.  To talk about and share. I’m caught between doing all the things I’ve put on hold (like lettering and drawing) and being active in social causes like saving our democracy, getting out the vote, supporting climate activism and public health.

Fifty years ago after my initial attempts to make sense and find meaning, I’ve come around full circle. I continue to step back and try to understand the human condition. I’ve come to accept the truth that I’m a work in progress and always will be.  So much depends on listening to others, asking questions, being mindful of one’s own “self talk”, on self-acceptance, forgiveness and contributing to the good of others.  Dare yourself to be your best self!  This much I have learned.




Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

8 thoughts on “At long last

  1. I find all your pieces— including this— very entertaining. For me, b/c you’re my brud, I don’t mind the meandering across so many subjects, tho a more conventional objective reader might find that troubling. I, on the other hand, get a kick out of the details, even if seemingly disconnected, because I know ultimately they ARE connected: they relate to you.

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This post had the highest # views, visitors and comments of any to date! I now have someone in Finland viewing it too!

      That being said, I know you’re busy, but I have to share the response that my friend Ellen wrote.

      How’s it going at the camp?

      Richard Sent from my iPhone


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ever watch Spaulding Grey? I think of him when I write because he performed very unusual dead pan monologues with lots of details like his “Swimming to Cambodia“ and “Monster in a Box”. He grew up in Providence. Maybe I’ll write about him sometime. Not everyone would like his stuff but I do. I’m kind of weird.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great writing. It’s interesting hearing about your past, and who you were then. I worked for a large ad agency in Boston for 6 months. We were at the 39th floor of the Hancock Tower. It was glamorous for some of those Madmen, and high stress too of course. A great ad campaign takes lots of research, understanding the product, the customer, and understanding the client!


      1. Hi, the agency was Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos…now known as Hill Holliday. Yes, Jack Connors was one the partners, and the “salesman’ of the group. We actually had the entire 39th and 41st floors of the sleek glass Hancock Tower. Jack’s corner office was huge with green, wall to wall carpet with a real golf hole and flag pin! I interned and did market research, mostly to help out with getting market data when we made our pitches to get big clients. When I was there, some of our many clients were Bay Bank, Wang Computers, Brighams, and Boston Globe. I actually interned with the son of the then Boston Globe President, who went to BC with Jack Connors! Jack was the most energetic and positive person that I ever met. Thank you


  4. Another thing. You said that you were influenced by Ogilvy, and Caples. They were legends. As was Leo Burnett in Chicago. Though they probably made most of their money in TV ads, I used to marvel at their ability to write great copy in their magazine ads. Some campaigns that come to mind are Volkswagon, and Avis. There was a glamour to that time, and certain advertisements seemed to capture that spirit.


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