it takes someone special.

norm grey has ruined masturbation for me.

it’s taken about 30 years, but he’s done it by being devious, subversive, stealthy, cunning, charming, cruel, extremely patient and methodical.

back in 1985 i was a graphic design student at the portfolio center, one of those portfolio-building schools where, metaphorically, masturbation is practiced copiously in obvious preparation for real sex – the kind with another person. anyway, a bank came to the school for some free work, so all the upper-quarter students were required to participate. norm was the teacher and the class was huge. i submitted a bunch of stuff but all I remember producing is an 8.5 x 11 black-and-white ad, sort of a call-and-response idea: big headline in the upper left quarter of the page, franklin gothic condensed, all caps, tight leading and kerning, justified saying “what did we learn at the bank today?” response, lower right corner, “sharing” in small lower-case caslon italic. the corner of a dollar bill poked in from one side. the line cracked me up. i thought it was hilarious. but, as i recall, i got not comments, no feedback, nothing about the writing or art direction. where was the guidance? the constructive feedback? where was norm, the ad guy, the teacher? the ad went in my portfolio, but i thought: really? that was when doubt and suspicion started creeping in. was norm laughing at me? did he set me up?

in the mid-’90s, i worked at a place named newsletters plus – obviously doing newsletters and not much else. the atlanta ad club came to us for a monthly publication and norm was our contact person. we dubbed it “adlines.” we had some meetings, and his direction? make it like “spy magazine.” 16 typefaces, tiny type, some very small columns, dense, smart, tasteful but busy. again, i thought: really? but did it. after a couple of issues had been published, norm says, “calm it down.” like, that was fun but no one likes it, ha-ha.

one issue of “adlines” had an article about norm. he was being awarded the ad club’s silver medal award – a lifetime achievement sort of thing (over 20 years ago!). he sent me a black-and-white headshot with a big frito bandito mustache drawn on it with a sharpie and a note on the back saying something like, “let’s have some fun, not take this thing too seriously.” was this a sign from a like-minded co-conspirator in the amusement trade? he mustve thought it was funny. i did, but also wondered: are we the only two laughing? are the readers going to think i did this on my own? are they going to think i’m a jerk and disrespectful?

to explain norm’s process and make me feel better, i imagined a scenario: norm’s at college lounging in a smoky dorm room with a bunch of stoners. norm says, in his new york accent, “hey, anybody ever tape a frog to a frizbee? oh, hey, i gotta go do some jewish stuff. be well!” shrugs, waves and shuffles out the door. he’s lobbed the big “what if” into the mind of the listener, whose imagination is now engaged, redirected but is also likely to take action. they say, “let’s try it!” norm knows this. and later he will hear all about it.

see what I mean? devious.

by the way, it was at newsletters plus that i got in a conversation with a coworker about our future agency names. his would be walk like a man. mine hey, that tickles cuz i’d like to think my work is witty but mostly cuz i thought it would be hilarious to hear the receptionist answer the phone. (i don’t have an agency, never have, but i do have a blog and it’s named hey, that tickles. not quite as funny cuz my blog doesn’t have a receptionist… right?)

anyway, another 10 years later, mid-2000s, i’m head of the design department at the creative circus (another portfolio school) and a design student, ryan hoelting, is taking an advertising teams class with norm. one day ryan shares something norm said to the group. norm said, “when you masturbate, you only please one person.” so there it is, bottom line, crystal clear: norm is calling me out! i must be a chronic masturbator!

(dammit, norm, it’s all your fault with his let’s-try-it-and-see-how-it-feels encouragement. easy for you to say, too: some one else takes all the risks and you get to keep your pants on.)

most recently, during the creative circus graduation ceremony, slides were created to separate each grads’ speeches, giving them time to walk back to their seats. somehow (was it norm’s idea? definitely his enthusiastic encouragement.), i got the job of writing and designing these things, a riff on the first-i’d-like-to-thank-the-academy routine. i’ve done about 100 of them. for one, i guess i thought i’d have some revenge. since norm’s the emcee of the ceremony, i thought it would be hilarious to hear norm read, “and then i’d like to thank….mis pantalones caliente.” norm’s thanking his hot pants! (stop and listen for chuckles. point out that you wrote down “stop and wait for chuckles.”) yes, i pleased myself. i still think it’s funny. and if norm’s laughing, he’s probably laughing at me. again.

mis calientes pantalones

so how has norm ruined masturbation for me?

well obviously, over the past, what, thousand years (norm’s joke), norm has enthusiastically encouraged everyone else to do it, too – and do it publicly. since everyone else is doing it, then, masturbation’s really not so special any more. but – and i’m sure i speak for us all when i say – because of norm, i just can’t stop doing it. it’s too fun!

thanks, norm. (i won’t shake your hand.)


— delivered thursday night, october 23, 2014, when the national advisory board for the creative circus roasted norm grey at ruths chris steakhouse. norm ate fish.