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Mark Bricklin passed away over the weekend.
If you don’t know his name, maybe you’ll know it when I’m done.
Mark was the first guy to take an actual chance on me in the full-time working space.
He hired me for my first writing and editing gig, despite my inexperience — perhaps because he found one joke he liked in my sample tests, and that I also looked like I worked out 19 hours a day. My pecs had abs. And my abs had pecs. And my biceps had calves. (I could do this forever).
in the winter of 1988 just weeks after the Loma Prieta earthquake broke the mirror in my mom’s living room and sent me on a bicycle to the liquor store — I flew from SFO to a cold, mysterious place called Allentown, Pa., previously known to me through a morose musical effort by Billy Joel, who made a bundle from singing about despair. That’s impressive. He would later squander that genius on “Uptown Girl.”
The job I had applied for was assistant editor for Prevention magazine, the world’s largest health magazine at the time. It was, like me, digest size — but also absurdly popular among millions of older, stretch-band brandishing ladies. These were the ladies you saw race walking at the indoor mall, usually in groups like ducks in sweatpants.
I had perhaps applied to hundreds of places, and the fact that I had accepted moving to Allentown from what used to be the best place on earth (northern California), said everything. I was desperate. It was time to stop waiting for the perfect opportunity and seize the next opportunity and make that the perfect one.
When I showed up at the bucolic, rural campus of Rodale Press in a place called Emmaus, I was struck by one thing. In order to get to the offices, I had to wait for a local train to cross the entrance. There was a train that went thru Emmaus separated the rest of the city to the parking lot where you pulled in.
The place could have been in the Ozarks… It was beautiful, mountainous and surreal for a right wing bodybuilder who spent the last year sleeping on couches in San Francisco and driving my mom nuts in San Mateo.
The Rodale buildings were actually old school houses and a printing factory. They were campus-like — and I felt I had returned to college without the bad habits and the debt. Everyone there worked out regularly. Except for a few who worked at the warehouse, and ate sausage like their lives depended on it.
Rodale Press later became Rodale — they actually hired consultants to make that call. I could have told them that for a six pack of Yuengling.
During the interview, they had me take some editorial tests, including a copy-edit quiz which I know I failed miserably. If you want to keep real talent from your staff, stick to a copy-edit test. You’ll only get grammar Nazis.
Every single job I didn’t get was because of the copy-editing test. I never knew the symbols they used. I didn’t learn that until I became an editor in chief and hired copy editors to deal with those symbols.
Anyway, I think my test was so bad it confused the other editors present, but Mark laughed heartily at a joke I made in one of my sample articles, and with that he said, “LETS GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE AND GO TO LUNCH.”
I remember the joke he laughed at — a play on words about “buzz.” It was nothing special, but it made the lead sentence jump off the page, and it caused my future mentor to chuckle enough to forget my horrible copy editing.
Mark was the editor in chief of Prevention, as well as the editorial director and VP of other products, including Men’s Health which he created. He was one of the innovators behind the health movement. And while he sold millions of magazines as well as books, he also smoked Marlboro Reds, drank whiskey and shot bullets from handguns into phone books (I can attest to participating in all three behaviors with him). He was an avid race walker — which causes its participants to swing their hips awkwardly like they’re imitating Jude Law from “The Road to Perdition.” But he was first and foremost, an oddball. He was analytical, logical and rational, but then go off and launch magazines called “Pets, Part of the Family.” Which in reality, came and went before its time.
Bricklin understood human nature, the importance of incentives, and how life was meaningless without a good time. And man did we have a good time.
That interview day — we headed to a place called Finley’s on Lehigh Street, right in the middle of that usual auto mile. It was alien turf for me — waitresses who call you “Hon,” and people praying before they eat their lunch, right there, in public.
Later I would come to adore all the diners in the Lehigh Valley, and especially the Powderbourne Gun Club. I learned to love scrapple.
When you’re interviewing for a job at a health magazine, you pretty much pay attention to what you’re ordering. I ordered skinless chicken breast. I can remember ordering that, because I would never have done that anywhere else.
But then Mark ordered a massive taco salad which turned out was the size of his head, and came with an edible bowl – which I’m fairly certain he ate, with pleasure.
He seemed surprised he could eat the bowl, and it made him happy. He did not moderate his eating style even in a job interview. He could not give a shit.
I sat with the other two editors and looked on at this brilliant guy who was roughly my age now, back then in 1988. You could tell his mind was working, but he also ran everything by his gut — which is really just experience based on hearing ideas that fail.
His instincts were dead on, except for a few occasions. But it told me something was a bad idea, he was always right. Sometimes his good ideas weren’t great, but his great ideas changed behaviors. And when he said “I don’t know Greg, that sounds like a really stupid idea,” he was probably right.
In that first meeting, we talked about exercise, and frankly not much else. And then we went back to the offices, and I could tell they weren’t thrilled with my test results, but they liked the flashes of humor. So a week later I got a call, and an offer — $22, 500 annually, to start. I got the sense the other editors had someone else in mind, but I got the offer.
I took it and moved to Allentown, where I lived briefly in a hotel across from a halfway house/ homeless shelter and a few bars that I ended up frequenting. Then I found a place around the corner from a tiny cemetery and walking distance to some incredible dive bars (Lentz’s) and restaurants (Louie’s).
I became a regular at the bars. My first week moved in, I was interviewed by the daily paper about the first night of Operation Desert Storm. I was drunk in a tiny dive, and the reporter came in and interviewed me.
So in my first week on the job, all my co-workers saw me on the front page. That had to be a sign of something.
I was single and 25, moving to a place ranked at the 300th city, out of a list of 300 cities by USA Today. My girlfriend at the time traveled to see me, but bailed shortly after — marrying a drummer from a cruise ship band. I learned later she got knocked up on a cruise with her parents! Her parents drove across two states to pick up her things from my apartment, which consisted of a milk crate. They should have called first.
Bricklin took me under his wing and taught me to write not for myself, but for an audience. And that in time they would conflate to a type of writing that is unstoppable.
Bricklin was the most honest editor, and the people he mentored — like me, or Mike Lafavore or Mark Golin — picked it up. Bricklin and Lafavore would cross out entire blocks of your writing and it would crush you. Then, the next page they would write “HAH” next to a line, and you’d be back on course feeling awesome. Golin was more diplomatic — he would just say, “It sucks.” And then he would rewrite the entire article out loud talking to you.
Bricklin taught you to write tight and fast, and trim everything that didn’t matter.
He had a simple test — he called it “the hot spot.”
Every paragraph — yes — every single paragraph — had to include one memorable sentence that made the paragraph worth existing. If that hot spot didn’t exist, you had to kill that paragraph, without remorse.
Try it some time.
I was responsible for a section called Health Front, and it included 8 or 9 short articles about drugs, treatments, exercise research. Maybe it would be five paragraphs an article — and within each one I had to quote a real expert — not a marketing squid, but an actual M.D.
People don’t understand that health journalism was a tightrope act — you had to entice readers without telling them something that would kill them. So you had experts and advisors reading your work — and you had meticulous fact checkers who came in and swept up after your flourishing messes. “No Greg, chromium doesn’t grow muscle on your penis, and please stop using that one study from Grand Forks USDA.”
The “hot spot” method is the fastest way to sculpt good stuff out of bad. If you have 1,000 words of shapeless dreck — just working down that mass with the hot spot criteria turns it into commercially viable, readable stuff.
Under Bricklin’s tutelage, I learned how to write as fast as I thought. That was the secret to all writing…writing as fast as you think. Bricklin pointed me in that direction. But we also became close pals — watching prize fights at his house, taking road trips to gun ranges or pubs, sitting around at night brainstorming topics for the magazines we worked on.
One thing we did twice a year was a pilgrimage to Tower Records in Philly. We both loved music, and it was hard to find the stuff we liked. So we would drive down there, and get some food and booze and spend our cash. I got him into punk, but he found his tolerance, sadly, with Green Day.
I had my first book party (for a little book called “The Scorecard“) at his mansion in West End Allentown. My family flew out, and stayed at a local hotel. The party got out of control — substances were shared and even the bartenders were a mess… I am fairly certain members of my family threw up the next day.
Ultimately, however, like all companies taken over by the drones — they turn on those who made them profitable, and that’s what Rodale did to Mark.
They had no patience for understanding his genius, and instead saw him as a human being at a certain age — and they kicked him to the curb.
It was appalling. And as it should be, the company was never the same. It got sold and broken up into whatever.
I also got the shaft and moved onto Stuff Mag, then to Maxim UK, then of course launching “Redeye” at Fox.
All the while, Mark would check in with me, and I would do the same to him. Our politics grew apart more and more — but with him, it didn’t matter. He really couldn’t care less. That’s a true friend.
Mark experienced some true suffering in his life, a thing that most people don’t experience, but I won’t share it here, because he only told me years later, after we’d become friends. But it made me see a side of a brilliant man that I didn’t see.
Life’s purpose is almost entirely based on making life better for others. And it’s that purpose that helps you deal with life when it’s made yours worse.
One time Mark decided to launch a social group for people at work that would inspire them to go to plays and movies and all that. He called it the Culture Vultures.
I’ll never forget the first outing, when the bus dumped us out by Port Authority in the ugly heart of Manhattan, and Bricklin proceeded to give us an on-street martial art lesson in fending off muggers.
I can still remember the grunts he made while making the karate chop motion toward some poor lady who meekly volunteered to be his mug-test dummy. Golin and I moved away from the group, smoked cigarettes and pretended we were from Germany.
It was on that Culture Vulture trip that he met his future wife and now widow, Lynne Gavett. She made his life better, and I’m sure he made hers brazenly interesting.
Mark made millions of people’s lives better, true. Especially mine.
I never lost touch with Mark, until today.
RIP Mark Bricklin.
Greg Gutfeld: When the hot spot burns out — remembering my friend and mentor Mark Bricklin