Sunday, December 28, 2008

Has Been - What Have I Done For You Lately IV

9/11, CarlsonCreative, Frank Stella, Has-been, Leo Burnett, Our Town, SARS, Thornton Wilder, William ShatnerChristmas began quietly with a fine Special K breakfast and one or more of my more than loved homemade drip coffees, I forget. I lingered, languished and played the holiday boy until boredom set in - besides, it was time to finish the Christmas blog post I had begun the day before - so it was off to the cafe to finish, just in time to hit America aping Santa at his chores. I could have my post in their stockings without making a sound before sunrise. My phone chortled with sprinklets of sound that told me I had text messages in hand: one from Australia, another from a friend and finally one that was rather hard to place. It was a from a guy I would have previously called a friend but hadn't seen in a month. He sent a flurry of cryptic texts to me a month ago and moved from his apartment quickly enough that the owner had asked me later if I knew where he had gone. She wanted to know why he had left so many shirts and other items still in the house. There was no mention of money owed so it's safe to say he paid the rent, but by his rather stealthy escape, was clear he didn't much want to let anybody know where he was going. But the Christmas text message was about as curious as his texts a month ago. Broken words and snippets of clarity revealed that he was not happy with my description in this blog of a person we know who carts around a thousand pills in his cargo pants from a previous post. The text signed off by calling me a "has-been" and that was it. It was quickly followed by another text that said "Merry Christmas cockroach" - and honestly, since I haven't seen the guy in over a month, don't know what the intent of the slurs was. We had no issues before. Between friends these things can roll off one's back pretty easily and even be considered terms of endearment. How many times have guys called other guys dickhead or scumbag just to slap the other on the back and be off to the next topic of locker room discourse. Plenty. But this didn't strike me in that way - a friendly way. Honestly, I'm not sure how it struck me - on Christmas day. Maybe odd would be the best description. I've included a William Shatner song called "Has-Been" in the podcast. It's odd too, but in a good way.

It did, however, dovetail with something the guy with all the pills used to say to me, and he said it more than once. "My how the mighty have fallen", he was fond of saying in reference to my former six-figure corporate life, compared to what some would call simple and others might say pauperly life today. After a few times hearing it, I confronted him, "Why do you say that to me?", I asked him. "Do you think it makes me feel good? Is it a compliment? Or does it just make you feel good to say it?" - My intent here was not to get an answer but to get him to stop it. It was patently rude and maybe conciously insensitive. I had seen him insult his girfriend repeatedly, to her face by calling her fat and criticizing her English, and wanted no part of this part of this person. I knew he had this in him, but I considered myself his friend and outside of his wrath - but apparantly not - so this was no kind of friendship I needed. Maybe he and the text message guy have become friends now.

I've noticed, maybe particularly here in Vietnam, or maybe particularly at this stage in my life, that there are a great number of people who derive some sort of pleasure from the misfortunes of others. And they make a point of pointing it out in social situations. The water-cooler people. They do it because it makes them feel better about themselves, I suppose - or it makes them feel as if the things they haven't accomplished weren't that important anyway - a kind of cognitive dissonance, "See, that guy failed, so it's better that I didn't even try to do what he did in the first place". - This kind of attitude would truly drive me loony, or suicidal, or both, because the one thing I can say about my time on this planet is that I've made goals, accomplished them, and then made more, repeatedly - always on the same cycle - like surfing. If anything I can could be considered by many to be feloniously guilty of trying to do too many things and putting more on my plate at any one time than would be considered do-able by many - many, maybe more intelligent people. But I do it anyway, maybe a little less than I used to, but I still do it. This desire to chase after things that are not whithin my immediate daily grasp has become a pattern over the years - and a pattern I have become accustomed to - like an addiction, but an oddly healthy and profitable one - like surfing. By continually creating and accomplishing new objectives makes one a serial has-been in almost all ways. To succeed you must leave the past life behind - realize it, learn from it, and then put it on the mantle where it belongs, but leave it behind to get over the next wave. Surf safely. Another wave is always on it's way, if you're ready.

Has-Been #1: Actor - Probably the first time I became a has-been was my exit from the world of theatre. At the age of thirteen I had become an unintentional child-star of our local community theatre by accompanying a friend to auditions and then landing the role he was seeking. The Moss/Hart production was trashed but the reviewers had been kind to me and complimented my spirited performance. My role was depicted by a newspaper photo of another actor hitting me over the head with a stick. My character was to be a dickhead and I had apparently executed that quite nicely. I continued with that theatre for a number of years before a role for a coming-of-age young man came up, the role of George in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". After a good number of auditions I was informed by the director that I should stick with teenage roles as I did not possess the physical attributes to take this character from the ages of 18 to 28 as called for in the script. I became a has-been actor immediately and took the position of assistant director on that production, a position that would serve me well later, in the advertising business - in that job I learned how to organize a cast, crew and put on a show. A has-been actor moves on.
Has-Been #2: Painter - "David, you have no taste." These were the words of my High School painting teacher Mrs. Partridge on viewing my latest Frank Stella imitation. But later at the gallery exhibition I heard people interpreting all sorts of things in my paintings that I certainly had not intended. Good things. The lesson here is that everyone sees something different, so just keep on painting and wait for the people who like your stuff to buy it. Truth was, I was a terrible painter, in the classical sense, but knew my sensibilities would be perfect for the burgeoning field of graphic design. The has-been painter moves along.
Has-Been #3: Student - My first project for the graphic design program at Southern Illinois University drew the attention of Mr. Mahieu, our notoriously persnickety typography teacher, in the comment, "For the first time in my career one student has scored 100% on his first assignment. Mr. Carlson, would you please stand up." That pretty much ended my career there. Everyone immediately hated me and wanted nothing more than for me to fall off the face of the earth and die. I was later nominated for the department award, did not recieve it, and went on to be the only student ever from the program to work for two top ten agencies. The has-been student goes to work.
Has-Been #4: Employee - Over the next 17 years I would work for 6 different advertising agencies with a birth and death and rebirth cycle to each transition. With one, I declined a 30% raise to pursue something that offered more freedom. At another I declined a similar raise and a VP title to pursue the same. I was fired from two and got unbelievably better positions after each. And at the last, I just flat quit. "Dave, you've been with us for eight years and you don't seem to be fitting into the family", said Bud Ujhelyi at the Leo Burnett company in Chicago. I'm quite sure he meant that I had missed some important ass to kiss but honestly, the place was churning senior management so quickly that by the time you kissed any ass it was no sooner being booted out the door. Fucking pointless, so I did very little of that. My last day came on July 4th, 1996 with a more than rude fax in Korea from the home office calling me home because of financial reasons. Independence day. And the has-been employee becomes the President.
Has-Been #5: President/CEO - The formation of CarlsonCreative in Seoul was a whole lot more emotion than logic, but in the end was supported by sensible finance, good business sense and superior work. We chased the big agencies in town like rats to the sewer and managed to place work in international award shows along with making our bucks. At our apex, people were just fucking scared of us. Learning that international events like SARS and 9/11 along with the resulting finacial contractions were well beyond my grasp was not an easy lesson for me. I fought it until I had spent every last dime we had. Would getting out earlier had been a better idea? I remember at the time that we had thirty grand left and saying "Who wants to go back to the US with 30 grand in his pocket? You'll just be a dog people can kick around". To this day, I'm glad I stayed and fought. At least I got to spend the money at my own company. The has-been President/CEO moves into the unemployment line.
Has-Been #6: Teacher - For all of the teachers who set that out as their goal and love to teach, I salute you. For all those doing it because you can't find work or success in your chosen field I say, get the fuck out of the education business and pursue your dreams - I certainly have pursued mine and it's been a mix of catching those dreams along with the emotional and financial viruses that accompany them. Currently I'm teaching and taking in the odd marketing consulting job when it comes along, but I'm much better suited to something other than teaching and it's just not where I plan to spend the rest of my working life. I need to be a has-been teacher and move on, once again.

I can't imagine ever saying to anyone that they are a has-been. Should I meet an actor, an artist, a musician, a pop-star, a mathemetitian, a business person or anyone (and I've met quite a few of the above) who has enjoyed any modicum of success at any time in their carreer, I would say, "good for you". I would respect them and know that they played at the top of their game for as long as their game would have them. I can't see that calling someone a has-been serves much more purpose than maybe making a never-been feel better. Can you imagine two has-beens in a bar insulting each other? That's a damn funny movie scene.

I'm going to stick with the writing for now. Then, when I finish with that, I can be a has-been human, cause I has-been a lot of things in my life but never dead!


  1. I like your Xmas breaky, I was in bed with migraine on Xmas day lol.

  2. Wishing you a wonderful and prosperous 2009.


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