Monthly Archives: June 2013

Mad Men Season 6 Finale — Wherever You Go, There You Are

If living a lie is killing you, and you make your living by lying, where does that leave you?

We started the season with Don reading The Divine Comedy, and it’s felt like a slog through hell. The preacher who gets kicked out of the whorehouse had a point – maybe the worst thing is not believing that God can forgive you — that change is a possibility, redemption possible. It’s as good a definition of hell as any.

Certainly, the starting place for many in recovery is belief – if only in some kind of abstract power greater than yourself. Maybe, just maybe, Don is getting there. Maybe a god with a sense of irony set up the other preacher – the asshole in the bar who makes the remark about RFK and MLK Jr– in order to provoke Don into finally punching him. What better way to hit bottom, than to do it while finally standing for something? Remember after MLK Jr had been killed, when Megan and Sally went to a rally, while Don stayed home and then took Bobby to the movies, and both the women gave Don that “what a pathetic excuse for a human” look.

He may have been drunk and disorderly, but at least he was engaged.

So what else happened? None of the carnage we might have feared. Megan is not dead, but the marriage might be – which is not a bad thing, given that Don married her in a desperate attempt to (again) reinvent himself, and when he tried to remake her in his image and failed, he gave up and got into bed with a neighbor’s wife. Sally is not dead either, and after months of alienation, perhaps Don’s moment of honesty with his kids, might be the beginning of their reconciliation although that’s way too neat, fake, and unlikely. The thing that is likely, is that Sally is getting a hell of an education for a future as a memorist or fiction writer.

Ted does the right thing for his family, but still comes off as a douche, leaving poor Peggy to her embittered future, unless she and Stan get a clue, partner up in life and work and start a new kind of agency together.

In the season premiere, we met our first double of Year 6, the soldier about to go to Vietnam. We sense he won’t make it back, but will die as Dick/Don should have. There were tons of other doubles – Jim and Roger, Ted and Don, and of course Don and Bob. The season ends with Benson ascendant and Draper fired. We also see alcoholic Duck, who was fired by Don, walking in to the agency with Don’s replacement. But the biggest surprise surrogate of all is Mrs. Campbell. Don almost runs away to California. Mrs. Campbell takes a cruise. Don creates a campaign with the slogan, “the jumping off point, which features an empty suit left on a beach, and all the clients can see is death. Where’s the body? It’s not Don who vanishes at season’s end, it’s Mrs. Campbell Was she pushed? Did she change her name and start again? Or did she jump? Leap into the unknown?

What will the final year bring? While people may gripe that the show isn’t what it used to be and hasn’t been since maybe the pilot, one of the good things is the way in which it continues to surprise.

Despite the feel-good sentiment of Moon River, one hopes Joan holds her own and doesn’t rekindle her“romance.” with Roger. Joan is all about trying to do the right thing. She fails regularly, but Roger just brings out the worst in her – fooling around with a married man, careless sex on the street while your rapey-husband is in Vietnam, prostituting yourself to save the agency because he didn’t try to stop you. (Joan and Peggy, each with her own career path and path to or away from love, provide another mirror.

It will be a letdown if Don starts going to AA meetings and begins to recover from his alcoholism. Despite the idea woven in that we can all be forgiven, we can’t all just start over. He can’t drop the Draper persona. He deserted the army and stole another man’s identity. There are consequences. He can’t really leave advertising either. There’s nothing else he knows how to do. You need tools and support to fight addiction. He has neither. He drinks because he’s an alcoholic, but he’s an alcoholic in part because he’s self-medicating. Living a lie and lying for a living is stressful, and other than sex, tobacco, and alcohol Don’s got nothing to fall back on. Addiction is a progressive illness. While Don may now be grasping with the beginning of the skill-set for recovery, it’s a bit like a man wondering around the desert who just found enough water to maybe stave off dehydration for another hour.

Your Saturday Book Review — Moses and Monotheism

Since I’m slogging through A Naked Singularity and won’t be ready to review it for at least another week or three, I’m stuck writing about a book I read previously. So this week, it’s Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud, which I think I last looked at sometime before the birth of a niece who just graduated college.

You may have already bounced from this blog, or you may be asking yourself, “Why? Why the hell would I want to read anything by that discredited, misogynist fraud?”

Here’s why: No matter what you think of psycho-analysis, Freud was a hell of a writer. He may have been clueless about women. His take on “penis envy” was likely his own projection based on his being a circumstanced Jewish guy with maybe not the world’s largest genitalia, in the land of the uncut German uber-schwanz. And some of the other stuff may also have been personal, more about him than about a theory that explains everything, but even in translation, his prose is sharp and his voice distinctive. He’s got skills!

Moses and Monotheism is an essay written toward the end of his life (1937) when he was on a crap-load of morphine for the oral cancer that was torturing him, and maybe chasing it down with a little of his old favorite — cocaine. There’s an urgency to the writing that makes it easy to imagine Freud composing it the wee hours of the morning, when even doped up, he desperately needed to distract himself from both the physical pain of his cancer, and the spiritual pain of exile as he watched the world he knew come to an unimaginably horrible end.

It’s a short, tight, highly-accessible work — an essay in which he retells the biblical story of Exodus through the lens of psycho-analysis. It’s a great example of taking a hypothesis and running with it over hills and into valleys, cul de sacs, and labyrinths.

Freud goes through the “baby floating downriver in a the basket” fairytale and posits early on that Moses was an Egyptian, and the myth was needed to hide his Egyptian heritage. Then he follows through with much further speculation based on “If Moses was an Egyptian then ….” He writes of Judaic-monotheism’s being rooted in the proto-monotheism of ancient Egyptian worship of the sun god. Because that was primarily a cult of the royals, Freud further concludes that Moses was not just any Egyptian, but indeed a “prince” of Egypt. He further posits that “if Moses was an Egyptian” of course he would introduce the nomadic people he had decided to liberate,  lead and civilize to the Egyptian custom of circumcision.

He continues to (psycho) analyze biblical passages for their hidden meanings, using his Oedipal theory to conclude that at some point Moses’ “people” rebelled and killed their (father) leader. He sees in the story of Exodus, the cover-up of a great crime.

In terms of how to how to deconstruct a text, create and solve a puzzle, and impose an original new text – it’s a masterful job, and one from which we can all learn. Whether or not any of it is “true” is another matter entirely.

Your Saturday Book Review — The Girl Who Loved Camellias

As far as I know, Julie Kavanagh’s The Girl Who Loved Camellias is the only full-length English language biography of Marie Duplessis, a name that few Americans would recognize. The author herself mentions her need to study French in order to read what other writers had to say about Marie, including several who met her. The problem is that few of her letters survive and she kept no journals or diaries that anyone is aware of, so what we know about Marie is always based on how others saw her and remembered her.

In her lifetime, she was a well-known courtesan – a fashion tend-setter who could often be seen at the theater or at her box at the opera, a woman whose name was mentioned in whispers. While she wasn’t invited to the places where she might mingle with “respectable” women, her home became a salon to some of the most well-known and accomplished men. If she is remembered today it is primarily as the woman who inspired the opera La Traviata and the Greta Garbo movie, Camille. Of course, long before Anna Netebroko put on that red dress, there was a novel, La Dame Aux Camilias, written by a young man with a famous name – Alexander Dumas fils. When the novel came out, shortly after Marie’s death at age twenty-four from “consumption,” it was viewed as an account of their relationship, though Dumas admitted that much of it, including the idea of the whore with a heart who makes a great sacrifice for “love” was pure fiction. Once the play of the same name became popular, Marie as Marguerite Guatier belonged to the world.

While the book is heavily sourced, Kavanagh quotes often from the Dumas novel and play, even though these are both fictional portrayals. The author sometimes speculates, for instance wondering if the close relationship Marie had with another courtesan had a “sapphic” character, but also telling us that if it did, Marie would have kept that to herself. Later Kavanagh imagines that a “friend,” who was said to have been staying with Dumas while he was writing his book, might have been another of Marie’s lovers, and the true inspiration for the character of Armand, but she offers no evidence that Dumas was more than causally acquainted with that particular rival.

The book is useful for learning about Marie’s milieu, the demimonde, and its interaction and connection to the larger world. There is no modern-day equivalent of the great courtesans. These were women who were celebrated and known. They were independent operators who could choose their alliances, at a time when women had few choices. Unlike the ladies who could not be present when men gathered to speak frankly of ideas, politics and even art, women like Marie were expected to be there and participate.

But there are mysteries at the book’s core which are never solved. How did uneducated, abused Alphonsine Plessis manage to transform herself into the glamorous and wealthy Marie Duplessis? That is, we know who kept her and have the dates, but why her? What was it about her in particular? It’s hard to know how Marie actually “felt” about anything. She was known to lie, having once quipped, “I lie to keep my teeth white.” Often people who knew her wrote entirely different versions of the same events. So while Kavanagh manages to fill in some blanks, we are left with an empty space at the center, and the question remains: Who was Marie Duplessis?

This is a new release and a bit pricey. The Kindle version is $13.99, and the hardcover is on sale for over $16. There’s no paperback yet. If I wasn’t especially interested in the subject of the biography, I would have waited for the Kindle price to come down or reserved it from the library

Courtesy — It Works!

Per a recent CNN blog: In response to customer complaints, Whole Foods is enforcing an English only policy during work time on employees, in – of all places – 47% Hispanic New Mexico.

Whole Foods is known for being staunchly anti-union, so this is no surprise, but before going all politically correct regarding the language issue, is it possible that both sides of this “debate” are missing an important point?

I get why employees want to be able to speak the language they are most comfortable in to each other, and why most Spanish-speaking people are resentful of “English only” anything — especially in a place like New Mexico where many residents are quite proud of their heritage.

I understand why customers aren’t comfortable when employees are speaking in a language they don’t know. Their reasons include statements like: “My grandparents came to this country and they had to learn English.” That may not be particularly rational, or even historically correct – said grandparents may have come from an English speaking country, or they may never have actually learned enough English to get by without help. There might even be an underlying prejudice, and there’s a limit to “the customer is always right.” Sometimes the customer may ask for something that clearly is not right, as in “Fire the girl with the headscarf or I won’t come back.” Assuming the headscarf, and not job performance, prompted the complaint, the correct answer from management would be, “We’ll miss your business.”

But the “English only” crowd may have other reasons besides “English is the official language of these United States” which is not a true statement no matter how often it’s said. They may feel like people are talking about them when they can’t Continue reading Courtesy — It Works!

Your Saturday Book Review — No Earthly Notion by Susan Dodd

It’s unlikely you’ve heard of No Earthly Notion by Susan Dodd. It’s a short novel published in 1987. Long ago I happened upon the Penguin, Contemporary American Fiction paperback. If ever there was a publishing brand you could trust, Penguin, Contemporary American Fiction was it.

The protagonist, Murana Bill, is left orphaned when her parents are killed in a train wreck and she is just old enough to take on responsibility for her younger brother, Lyman Gene. She sees him through high school. He joins the army, and then returns from Vietnam, more in need of her care then ever before. To tell more of the plot would diminish your joy in reading it, so to put it simply, this is a novel where not much happens, but we, as readers, are made to connect with Murana, a character whom in “real life” we wouldn’t even see if she were right in front of us.

Kirkus found it “soddenly sentimental.” There’s a touch of Southern gothic about it as well. After Lyman Gene’s return his only pleasure is food and Murana feeds him. The people that Murana gets close to all have a way of dying off. In the hands of a lesser writer, Kirkus‘ verdict might be correct, but Dodd saves her story by employing a stylistic minimalism that says more with less, and shows both restraint and control. Dodd is unsparing in her portrait of Murana, and avoids sentimentality by staying true to her character. There’s no sudden transformation, no easy solution. This isn’t about a woman losing three hundred pounds, or an ugly duckling turning into a swan. It’s about baby-steps, which in themselves are both ordinary and miraculous.

The last line of The Office series finale was “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.” That would make a fine epitaph for this novel as well.

Availability: Not on Kindle, but you can find it new and used starting at $0.01