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Meditations on a Mad Man

Meditations on a Mad Man

“Now I’m quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” — Frank O’Hara, “Mayakovsky”

“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand.” 
— Simon & Garfunkel, “Bleecker Street”

I. Early last March, I woke up one morning to eerie silence and a hangover. I went in to Philadelphia the night before for my film professor’s book release party and got roped into going to a couple bars with some other students. I had a few too many and ended up passing out on my couch when I got back to my apartment.

I had class that day and was dreading making the trek up to campus to sit in multiple classrooms in my weakened state, but I slowly got up and turned on my computer anyway. I checked my email and saw that all of my professors had cancelled class because of “a snowstorm.” I was puzzled. It wasn’t snowing when I went to couch at 3 a.m.

I looked outside my window and saw the small town of Swarthmore covered in a clean layer of snow. I checked my clock and saw that it was ten in the morning. Usually at this time, there were people out walking their dogs, heading to the train station, entering Hobbs, the local coffee shop. But today, there was nobody out. You could hear a pin drop it was so quiet.

I was in desperate need of some coffee, so I put on a coat over my t-shirt and pajama pants, and set out into the world. As soon as I stepped onto the street, I confirmed that I was the only person outside for miles. I headed in the direction of Hobbs but found it was closed because of the snowstorm. In fact, all the local businesses in town had closed, except for Dunkin Donuts, the only corporate shop downtown. They were open. I bet headquarters forced the sole woman behind the counter to get in her car and drive through the storm in case anyone was foolish enough to leave their homes to get some coffee and donuts. I was that foolish person.

I’m from Chicago, a place known for its cold weather and semi-frequent snowstorms, but because it’s a city, people are still out and about even when the world is all but calling out for you to stay home. So it was surreal walking through a town with a hangover and hearing my own footsteps because every other living soul in the area was snuggled in their beds. I could even hear the air hitting my coat. It was awful.

I paid for my coffee and drank it in the small Dunkin’ Donuts. Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t the only person in there. Two seats down from me sat a mother who was yelling at her two children for not sitting perfectly still. When one of her children was struggling to put on his mittens, she snapped at him, “Bradley, you’re five years old. It shouldn’t be this difficult.” I watched the scene in silence.

After I had finished, my hangover had dulled, and I officially entered the “dazed and confused” stage of post-booze recovery. You know that stage? When the headache is gone but you’re so emotionally and physically drained you feel like you’re watching your life from outside your body. It was at this moment that I decided to walk up to campus and see how the snow had affected my soon-to-be alma mater Swarthmore College.

The town of Swarthmore sits at the bottom of a hill, and the college campus sits atop it. I walked up the hill and, like the town, initially didn’t see a single college student on the grounds. Granted, it was in the morning, and I’m sure classes had been cancelled for most everyone, so I assumed they were still asleep. Maybe they all were nursing hangovers too.

I walked around, slowly but surely, and observed the quiet, snowy landscape. It felt like I was walking on a white bed cover that The Weather had laid over all us children. In the distance, I saw a group of three taking pictures of each other in the snow. To their right, I saw two students sledding down the hill, squealing in delight. It was so quiet their voices sounded like they were filtered through a loudspeaker even though they were all speaking at a normal volume.

I walked to Worth Courtyard, an area named after the surrounding Worth dorms. I saw a guy in the courtyard walking his cat, a small little tabby with mittens on his paws. He had the cat on a leash and was walking him around like it wasn’t a strange thing to do. I approached him. He asked me if I wanted to pet his cat. I politely declined. I asked where he got his cat, and he replied that he got him at an animal shelter. I nodded, said my goodbyes, and went on my merry way.

I walked all the way to another courtyard on the opposite end of campus. Wharton Courtyard, named for Wharton dorms, was completely empty, and the snow on the ground was fresh, not a footprint in sight. It seemed like no one from Wharton had even walked outside yet. So I started to make circles around the courtyard, carefully making each fresh footprint with my brown boots like I was walking on the moon.

When I read “War and Peace” my sophomore year, I learned about the concept of ostranenie, an artistic technique of defamiliarization, of making familiar things seem unreal. That whole morning felt like I was in a dream of someone else’s devising, like I hadn’t actually woke up yet and a stranger had hijacked my brain and introduced me to a world that looked like the one I knew, but didn’t feel like it at all. The fact that such few people were outside and that it was so eerily quiet led me to believe that this snowstorm was designed just for me to witness. Everything felt raw and somewhat off — the mother barking at her children, the sledders, the guy with the cat — as if it was some oneiric facsimile of the world I thought I understood. The silence was getting to me, but I didn’t want to shut it out with music. I wanted to walk through it.

After a while, I slowly started to question the strangeness of the day. Maybe the world wasn’t that weird. Maybe I had just drunk too much whiskey the night before and it was affecting my judgment. Maybe my brain was so desperate for profound significance that I was reading into every little thing I saw. Maybe I just wanted all of this to mean something.

I would later walk back to my apartment and sleep the rest of the day away and wake up to the world I knew. But at that moment in Wharton Courtyard when I was making feet in the snow, I felt a calm run through my body, and an inner peace flood my chest. For a few brief moments in time, I felt connected to my surroundings and all of the people hidden from my view. I was alone but standing in a crowd.

II. For the past seven weeks, my mother and I had hour-long discussions about “Mad Men” over the phone every Monday morning. We’d try to hurriedly unpack everything — aesthetics, symbolism, this scene, that scene, “What’s Don gonna do?”, etc. etc. — and then after we had exhausted every possible “Mad Men”-related topic, we’d catch each other up on our lives, and then we’d hang up. It quickly became an unplanned, unconscious routine.

One Monday morning, early in the last run of episodes, my mother said something that has really stuck with me. I can’t remember what we were talking about that provoked this statement, whether it was about Don, or the McCann merger, or Joan’s refusal to accept institutional misogyny, or something entirely unrelated to TV, but she said to me, “We all want to be white men.”

My parents are Indian immigrants who assimilated to American life with relative ease. My father emigrated to the U.S. in 1975; my mother in 1977. Dad went to LSU for graduate school, and by ’77, he entered a PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh. He left Pitt after six months to attend Stanford where he eventually attained his PhD. Mom was in Washington D.C. getting an associate degree at the University of Maryland while also working at a department store. They met in 1979 through a relative and were married by August of 1980. They settled in Evanston, Illinois when Dad became a professor at Northwestern. They became U.S. citizens. They had one child. They moved to Chicago. They made sure I could go to a good school, and have good things, and live a good life because what’s the point of all of this?

Along the way, they became acclimated to American culture. At LSU, Dad learned about football when his professor couldn’t believe he was working in an empty library on a Saturday. Mom learned about “Saturday Night Live” because everyone at the department store was talking about it every Sunday morning. They watched movies and TV.* They became two of the most die-hard Bruce Springsteen fans in the world.** They loved American food. They loved going out. They found comfort in aspects of American life we all, including me, take for granted.

(*My parents were ahead of the curve when it came to the “New Golden Age of TV” (quotations intended). They were bugging their friends to watch “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” during their first seasons before that became common practice.)

(**I love The Boss, but for a long time, I found it hilarious that two immigrants loved, and I mean loved, one of the most self-consciously American artists of the 20th century. Then you hear lyrics like, “We’re out here tonight to case the Promised Land,” and “We gotta get out while we’re young,” and it all makes sense.)

By all accounts, my parents “achieved” that glorious American Dream promulgated by every facet of The Culture. They started over in a foreign land and eventually became a part of its fabric. After spending close to four decades in America, this is their home. It’s where they made their life, and it’s a good life. It’s not an easy life, or a simple life, or even a particularly fun life, but it’s a good life. They beat the system and won.

But despite the assimilation, and the love for American pop culture, and the upward mobility, and the whole victorious “beating the odds” thing, that outsider feeling never goes away. My parents have spent so much time in this country that at this point, they might as well be on the inside, but they’re not. They can’t be. They’ve still retained that outsider immigrant’s perspective because that’s who they are. They’re still people desperately trying to fit in and make good and live right even after all this time. You can pretend that you’re one of them, but you’re not. As hard as you try, it never ever goes away.***

(***I should say that my parents might disagree with this assessment. They might find all of this a little dramatic and unnecessary. As The Wise Man once said: “So it goes.”)

I’m an American because I was born here and grew up here. I found comfort in all of those same American things as my parents. I went through most American rites of passage. I’ve made close friends. I’ve lived as an American. But even though I should feel like I’m on the inside of this whole game, I never have. I’ve always felt out of step and out of place, lost in my own environment, uncertain of what to do or how to proceed. I’m sure if you ask any of my close friends, they’d scoff at that assessment. I don’t blame them. This outsider feeling doesn’t somehow inhibit me from being alive. I’m sure I don’t act like an outsider. But no outsider does. It’s how it goes.

We all want to be white men.

III. “Mad Men” premiered two months before I entered high school. It ended last Sunday, exactly two weeks before I graduate college. I’ve watched pretty much every episode live since the pilot. I cannot ignore these facts.

There’s a part of me that’s never going to be comfortable with how much I care about the stuff I care about. I come from a family of doctors and teachers, people who’ve made their lives doing real things that help real people. They’re citizens who have their feet planted firmly on the ground. So it’s always a little embarrassing for me whenever I wax poetic about some movie, or some TV show, or some silly song. Trivial. Disposable. Irrelevant. Those are the words that come to mind whenever I feel myself giving a shit about something like fiction. I know we’re all not supposed to feel shame about the things we love, that we’re all supposed to feel good about ourselves and our choices no matter what, but that’s not the way the ball bounces for me. That feeling never goes away.

I loved “Mad Men” for all the reasons everyone else loved “Mad Men.” It’s an existentialist workplace drama. It’s the story of the 1960’s from the perspective of the generation on its way out. It’s a critique of established American power structures. It’s a comedic tragedy. It’s about redemption. It’s about failure. It’s about self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-destructive behavior. It’s about missed opportunities. It’s about being your own worst enemy. It’s about that yearning and desperation that lingers in all of us.

But for me, and I cannot stress that “for me” bit enough, it’s (somehow) more than that. Whenever I try to articulate why, I come up short, but if I’m being honest, it always comes back to Don because, and I know this is shallow, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more in tune with a fictional character’s internal struggle like with him.

Look, I personally don’t give two shits about things like “relatability” or “likability” or “seeing myself on screen” or anything like that. I completely understand why people care about that stuff, and why it’s important and why it matters, but I’ve never cared about any of that at all. It’s just not my bag. I just like a good story that looks good. But sometimes things happen, things you didn’t expect.

The fact remains that I’m not white, nor attractive, nor exorbitantly rich, nor have some innate talent that wows the hell out of people, but I get Don Draper. I know what it feels like to be lost in your own self. I know that feeling of moving forward but walking in place. I’ve looked out at the world and seen something I don’t understand. I’ve looked at my life and have asked myself, “Is that all there is?” I understand his fears of not being loved, of not making anything of your life, of constantly fucking up. I know what it’s like to extend a hand out to the world and have no one take it.

Does any of this matter? No. In fact, you can argue that it so strongly doesn’t matter that me bringing it up is irrelevant at best and cringe-worthy at worst. You can rightly argue that Don’s characterization is designed to be universal, and the implication that it somehow uniquely applies to my life is myopic and narcissistic. You can also argue that Don is hardly a unique character, and that the precedents for his creation are numerous, and me treating him like he’s a singular entity illustrates the gaps in my understanding of history. And you’re right. It doesn’t matter at all. He’s not unique, and I’m not unique. But sometimes things happen. And sometimes things matter.

I graduated college without a plan. I’m moving back in with my parents for the foreseeable future. I am the poster child for aimless post-collegial youth. But I’ve felt lost long before now. When I was younger, I foolishly believed I knew how the world worked, and I knew what I had to do to “beat” the system, to work it in my favor. But then something happened, an internal disaster, and my understanding of everything I thought I knew completely shattered. All of my sources of happiness and satisfaction no longer provided me with anything but numbness. Nothing I did felt like it had any purpose. I felt like I was floating through space, going through the motions without any internal drive. Eventually, that terrible feeling dulled, but not completely and not for very long. It never really goes away. And now that I’m approaching the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s back with a vengeance.

A month ago, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sat down with Matthew Weiner at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage and discussed how his series reflected the Jewish experience of coming into their own in post-war America. “I don’t like sweeping generalization about the show, but if you want to say it’s the story of how we all feel like outsiders, absolutely,” said Weiner, stating the obvious, but it was interesting to hear him talk about issues of marginalization and assimilation, and how those themes ran through the series without taking over the text. But the moment during the interview that got me was near the end when a person from the audience asked if Dick Whitman referred to Walt Whitman, and Weiner calmly replied that it didn’t, and that in fact it was meant to indicate White Man.

IV. And now to the finale.

Before I get to that moment, I loved that “Person to Person” was in the business of providing new beginnings that functioned as endings but not “endings.”**** Peggy found love. Joan enters the great unknown with a new business. Pete flies to Wichita with his family in tow. Roger marries an age-appropriate woman who sees through his bullshit. There’s a way to read these as happy endings, but that would be missing the undercurrent of uncertainty that ran through everyone’s stories. Though she has Stan by her side, Peggy still has to fight even harder for a modicum of control in an anonymous corporate behemoth. Joan gave up a good guy in favor of a business, and still lives in that tiny apartment with her mother and her son. Pete’s life in Wichita may be less than advertised.***** And Roger may blow it with Marie, just like he’s blown it with every other woman in his life. “Mad Men” ended on brief moments of happiness that could easily portend fresh starts or endless struggle. Chances are, it’s both.

(****Other stray thoughts: 1. Though I’m not the biggest Doors’ fan in the world, “Hello, I Love You” may be my favorite song of theirs, and I thought its placement in the episode was perfect in that less-than-subtle kind of way; 2. I loved the sly introduction to cocaine as the drug of choice for the 1970’s; 3. The scene between Sally and Bobby was wonderful, and Sally fully accepting her role as the adult in a family full of children was played really well by Kiernan Shipka; 4. Every scene featuring Roger was hilarious. In fact, I loved that “Person to Person” followed the “Mad Men” tradition of navigating between comedy and tragedy; 5. Pete’s last words to Peggy were brutal, especially his, “I don’t know. No one’s ever said that to me.”; 6. Fuck Harry Crane.)

(*****If Pete had such a hard time living in Cos Cobb, how do you think he’s going to take living in the Midwest?)

The title “Person to Person” refers to the three operator-assisted phone calls that Don makes to the women in his life — his daughter, his ex-wife, and his friend — but it also refers to that connection that everyone in the series has been looking for. In an interview with the New Yorker, Weiner was asked what the show was really about, and he responded, “…human privacy and loneliness and distance, and trying to overcome that with love?” “Mad Men” has that sentimental idea ingrained into its DNA, that a personal, honest connection between one human being and another could help us overcome that aimless, desperate feeling that lies in the pits of our stomachs. It’s a series about reaching out to strangers, through advertising, sex, booze, lies, love, and hoping that they reach back, and that that process could help us figure out who we are. And the character that most embodies that idea is Don Draper.******

(******I know there are plenty of people out there who find Don and his story dull, who secretly wished that he wasn’t the series’ protagonist, who thought “Mad Men” should have focused more on other characters and left him behind, who believed we didn’t need another show about a white guy feeling sorry about himself. But I never bought that. Don was always an outsider wearing the mask of the Established White Man, hoping that no one would figure out he’s a fraud. He was born into an existential crisis, always lost and searching. It’s how someone like me can see myself in a middle-aged guy from a different time.)

After saying goodbye to his dying ex-wife, Don heads to Los Angeles to meet Stephanie, his “niece.” He learns that she, like Peggy, gave up her child, and now she’s wracked with guilt and feels lost, just like Don. She whisks him away to a retreat where people learn to get in touch with their feelings so they can have a better life. Don tries to be open to it, but all he sees is a bunch of hippie bullshit, especially when a seminar leaves Stephanie in tears after a woman politely tells her off for abandoning her child. “You didn’t grow up with Jesus. You don’t know what happens to people who believe in things,” he tells her. He offers to move out to L.A. to help her, and gives a paraphrased version of the “It’ll shock you how much it never happened” speech, but Stephanie’s not buying it. She knows that it happened, and she knows that running away from it doesn’t suddenly make it go away, and Don is evidence of that fact. So, she leaves with the car, stranding Don in an environment that begs him to open up to foreign ideas and new beginnings.

Then Don calls Peggy to confess his sins in the second most heartbreaking moment in “Person to Person.” Weiner shoots Don from a low angle, forcing his loneliness and fear to tower over us. Peggy tells Don to come home. “I can’t,” he sadly replies. “I can’t get out of here.” He tearfully tells her he messed everything up, and that he’s not the man she thinks he is. She asks him what he ever did that was so bad. “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took a man’s name and made nothing of it,” he says with a broken voice. She tells him she doesn’t think he should be alone. “I’m in a crowd,” he says despondently, knowing that he”s always stood alone in every crowded room he’s ever occupied.

Finally laid low by every decision he’s ever made, Don collapses on the ground in a heap. A seminar leader approaches him and asks him to join her in another confessional seminar. It’s there he sees a man who doesn’t resemble the other hippies in the room. He slowly walks to the confessional chair and confesses he feels alone, unimportant and unloved. He shares a dream he had where he’s on a refrigerator shelf and there’s a party just outside of it. People open the refrigerator but never choose him. So he’s forced to stand outside, hearing the feelings he so desperately wants to experience, but knowing that those on the inside are reaching out to him even though they can’t quite get there. The man breaks down in tears and Don watches him, overwhelmed with the connection he feels to a complete stranger. Don crosses the room and embraces him, crying with him, because he finally knows that he’s not alone.

And then not long after, that moment happens: Don sits in a meditation circle, chanting “Om” with a group, and the camera slowly pushes in on his face. He flashes a smile, there’s a ding of a bell, and then it cuts to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Fade to black. Cue credits.

Like any good ending, “Person to Person” leave it open to interpretation what that moment means. Maybe Don came up with the Coke campaign while sitting in that spiritual environment, made the trek back to New York, and wrote one of the most famous ads of all time. The episode certainly allows that reading; Peggy even tells him that he can work on Coke at McCann, and “The Milk and Honey Route,” the preceding episode, has that moment where Don fixes the Coke machine at the motel. But maybe Don didn’t come up with the ad. Maybe someone else came up with it and packaged that genuine feeling of spiritual connectedness into a commercial to sell soda, practically the goal of consumer capitalism. Maybe Don stayed in California and finally stopped running from himself. Maybe that commercial was a metaphor for what we all wish we could have: deep connection with everyone who walks among us, even if it’s through Coca-Cola.

I’ve seen plenty claim that the ending represents Weiner’s black tar cynicism, that Don went through all of that healing and took nothing from it but an idea to sell garbage to the masses. Needless to say, I think that’s bullshit. Whether or not Don went back to New York to write the ad (and again, I can’t stress enough how unimportant that question really is), that moment of happiness feels entirely sincere and genuine. Don is a guy who’s lost everything that makes up his identity — his family, his job, his apartment, his car — and he’s stranded in a new world that’s reaching out to him with love. He’s dressed in all white, as opposed to his dark suits, and finally open for reinvention, for starting over anew, not with a new identity, but with himself. He’s been knocked down again and again, failing to learn the lessons each time, but that smile indicates he has learned something, that happiness comes from within whether or not you’re an ad man or a hippie. You can feel a profound moment of spiritual awakening and come up with a great idea for an ad; in my mind, the latter doesn’t shortchange the former one bit.

When I watched the episode live, I was emotionally overwhelmed by the ending, so much so that I was initially shocked when people cried foul, because to me it was so obvious that it ended with a moment of deep inner peace in the midst of a never-ending crisis. Weiner ends Don’s story like the others, with a “happy” ending that signals a new beginning. Obviously that might not pan out, just like it might not pan out for the others, but I personally don’t think that’s the case with Don. He’s been put through the ringer his entire life, and it’s finally now that he can see clearly. It’s only after he’s lost everything that he can open up and embrace uncertainty, and hope, and love. Like all of us, he’s on an open road that has many twists and turns, but he’s been on the road before, and though he doesn’t know what’s up ahead, he finally knows himself and how to navigate an unfamiliar world.

After it was over, I thought of that day in the snow. And I thought of how much time had passed. And I thought of my parents. And I thought of my uncertain future. And I thought of all those times I was lost. And then I thought maybe, just maybe, I’ll be okay too.

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