More like a 360 degree turn

Like others, I found myself frustrated with last night’s Mad Men finale, but not entirely sure why. The series has always been fraught with tension and the closing shot of Don chanting at the Esalen Institute felt off to me. It was too comical, too easy. Then the Hilltop Coke commercial. At the time, it was the perfect embodiment of our country’s highest aspirations. We were still naïve and hopeful about honeybees and apple trees and caramel colored sugar-water. Could Don really have gone back to create that ad? Are there really second and third acts in America? But as the day wore on, it occurred to me that maybe it was the end of the era that upset me the most. Gone were the days of mystery and restraint. In are the days of too much self-disclosure and the blurring of lines between commerce and “real life”. The finale was not really the end but rather the beginning of our modern era. We’ve further devolved now to a culture where people gladly allow themselves to be observed 24/7 under the glare of reality TV and disclose every detail of their personal life on social media.

We have lost dignity and gained cynicism. The Coke commercial that was hopeful in 1971 appears saccharine and false to our 2015 eyes. We’ve grown smarter but have we grown better? So my last post’s prediction was wrong. Don was making a U-turn, but decided to bring it full circle. Life for profit. Are we any different?

Farewell Mad Men. Bye bye Miss American Pie.  A lonely nation turns its eyes to you.

Mad Men – End of the road or U-turn?

No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back –  Turkish proverb

I’ve been a fan of Mad Men since the early days.   It’s brilliance is how a story ostensibly about a 60s ad agency is really about life’s big issues – identity, love, work, death, life and meaning.  It is most certainly a contemporary drama, porkchop sideburns aside.

With only two episodes left, the big question mark is about Don Draper.   The last episodes having been bringing closure to the other characters — Joan finding love with her new California boyfriend, but unable to fulfill her career aspirations in what was (and remains today) a man’s world of business.  Peggy is crowned the heir of the SCD&P ad agency legacy evidenced by the bequethed Bert Cooper octopus painting and Roger’s vermouth blessing.  Pete and Trudy have enjoyed a reconciliation of sorts and Betty has evolved from an analysand to analyst.

But what of Don?  I used to think that Matt Weiner was leading us down a path to Don’s destruction.   Not brain surgery based on the opening sequence of a man falling out of NY skyscraper.  But recent episodes have shown — very subtly –how Don is a changed man, who has undergone a type of conversion that took full hold during last week’s Miller Lite meeting in the McCann Erickson conference room.  As Don looked out the window at the Empire State Building and saw the plane flying overheard, he had the epiphany that he was done with this particular life — this false life.  Not false because of his assumed identity, but false because of its empty promise of happiness.  A few seasons back, Ted was blissfully flying an airplane while Don was terrified out of his mind.  In last week’s episode, Ted has happily settled into McCann conformity, while  Don literally and metaphorically needed to fly away. It was another sign of Don’s willingness to give up control to live a life of greater meaning.  This, I believe, is the story Matt Weiner is trying to tell.

In 2007,  a book was published entitled,  “U-Turn – What If you woke up one morning and realized you were living the wrong life?”  Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007 and it wouldn’t surprise me if Matt Weiner had read this book and used it as inspiration for how to tell Don’s story.  The book includes over 300 stories of people who completely changed their lives:  people who changed political parties, doctors who become poets, hunters who became animal rights activists and financiers who became non-profit forces for change.  It is premised on the idea that reinvention is the great American myth and that when reinvention does occur it calls the great “American dream” into question by abandoning the quest for control and success.

For what it’s worth, and that’s not much, I predict Don Draper is returning to himself — not Dick Whitman exactly, but to another evolved version, someone wiser, and truer who isn’t running from his past but who will use it for good — for positive change.  The McCann team is peddling the false version of the American Dream and Don/Dick is about to start living out the real dream for the first time.  He has been changed, transformed.  I think life awaits him, not death. Don Draper is dead — long live Don.

I’ll check back in after Sunday’s episode.

Stay Young & Vital (1960)

Bob CummingsFirst, let me apologize for the long hiatus.   Perhaps you have started a new project with enthusiasm only to put it aside because of quotidian demands and general weariness?  Ok, not a great excuse, but it is the truth.

So  it is fitting that we next review “Stay Young & Vital” by Bob Cummings.   The book says it will help in “building vitality, enthusiasm and “youthfulness” at any age”. Now here’s something I can really use. It’s Vitameatavegamin on paper!   There is something so deliciously retro about the words “vitality” and “enthusiasm”.  I can remember watching ballet-shoed yet manly Jack LaLanne speak those words while urging my mom and me to do leg lifts.

In case you didn’t know, Bob Cummings was an Emmy-award winning actor whose heyday was in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  He starred in numerous movies and in the eponymous “Bob Cummings Show”.   Bob was married five times and had seven children, so he certainly had loads of vitality.  His enthusiasm is evident in the book inscription he  wrote for my aunt, Lois Nettleton, when they both starred in the play “The Wayward Stork”.

BC inscription

It reads ” To my adorable “wife” Lois- great good fortune, fantastic success, perfect abundant health and brimming happiness — you’re headed for the greatest stardom and “The Wayward Stork” will find his way.  Love, Bob Cummings”

The book is chock-full of advice on  how to eat well.   It emphasizes consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals. Chapter headings are marvelously descriptive of early 60’s zeitgeist:  “Chapter 1: Let’s Start Living” , “Chapter 5:  The Mystery and Miracle of You” or  “Chapter 7:  The Seven Rules for Flying High”.

Turns out that last chapter heading was literally true.  Bob was flying high.  He was a patient of the famous “Dr. Feelgood” otherwise known as Max Jacobson, the physician for JFK, Marilyn Monroe and many other Hollywood personalities.   Dr. Jacobson did indeed administer vitamins and minerals, with a healthy kicker of amphetamines — known as the “miracle tissue regenerator”.   The hyperbolic language in this case was not so charming and didn’t do Mr. Cummings any favors. Vitameatavegamin was  was really just alcohol after all, so it shouldn’t surprise that vitality was found at the end of a needle. He was likely unaware, at least initially, that those miracle shots were the start of a lifelong addiction to amphetamines,  ultimately costing him his marriage of 20 years and his career.

It’s a sad story with an ending that surprised me, too.  I was having such fun reading his book and listening to his Norman Vincent Peale-like admonitions. His positive style was the perfect antidote for my frayed nerves. That he turned out to have a drug addiction was a real shocker, but apparently this is a well-known Hollywood story.  Yet Bob lived to 80 so perhaps he did know a thing or two about his topic.  In the end, I thank him for his encouragement to my aunt and his optimistic outlook — obtained by whatever means.   With that, dear readers, let me wish you abundant health and brimming happiness!  Until next time.

Fireside Book of Baseball – 1958

An acorn fell from the oak tree on my front lawn this afternoon. It’s too sad to even mention autumn, so let’s talk boys of summer. The Second Fireside Book of Baseball is a collection of short stories edited by Charles Einstein and with an introduction by Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer.

baseballcover_crop The jacket cover is showing its age and my scanner is broken, so apologies for the poor quality image.

The book was published in 1958. The Brooklyn Dodgers last played at Ebbetts Field in 1957 and first played Los Angeles in 1958. Lois Nettleton probably acquired this title during her relationship with Jean Shepherd, an avid baseball fan. My guess (a wild guess) is that Shepherd was feeling wistful about the Dodgers leaving and purchased the volume to commemorate a happier time. 

Here’s a video clip of Shepherd at Fenway Park telling stories as only he does about Chicago, the White Sox, and Bullfrog Dietrich. So the book makes a lot of sense in Lois’ collection. It also pulls together a few threads — Lois, Shepherd, and Chicago, where my mom and Lois grew up.

The book has lots of photos, including this one that seems startingly prophetic.

"Emmett Kelly, the great clown, shares the grief of the moment with Roy Campanella, on the bench before the Dodgers' last Ebbets Field appearance.  Short months afterward, Campanella encountered the near-fatal automobile accident that ended his career".

“Emmett Kelly, the great clown, shares the grief of the moment with Roy Campanella, on the bench before the Dodgers’ last Ebbets Field appearance. Short months afterward, Campanella encountered the near-fatal automobile accident that ended his career”.

There is lots of good stuff here, including stories by Walt Kelly of Pogo fame and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Robert Penn Warren.  The book isn’t only about baseball — it’s about journalism and America and innocence.

Let me close with this cool illustration by Edmond Kohn that is printed on the inside cover of the book. It reminds me a bit of a Leroy Neiman, an artist whose work Lois had acquired.

Edmond Kohn

May you enjoy the remains of summer.

Pogo – 1958 and 1963

Pogo 1963_1965
As a child, Pogo was one of those comic strips that looked really funny but was hard for me to figure out. Sort of like Funky Winkerbean. But, then again, how could an 8-year old appreciate the social and politic satire of Walt Kelly?

Kelly is an under-appreciated part of American cultural history who inspired many including Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury, Jim Henson, and Robert Crumb. The comic strip ran from 1949 until Kelly’s death in 1973. It features Pogo the Possum as the central character, the straight man, surrounded by a motley crew of colorful anthropomorphic animals each representing a recognizable aspect of the human condition. Kelly used his characters and wit to unmask the hypocrisy of political figures such as Joe McCarthy (renamed “Simple Malarkey”) and expose the dangers of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society (or “Jack Acid Society” — say it aloud a few times).

His best known line is “we have seen the enemy and he is us”. If you have never done so, read Pogo and learn more about Walt Kelly. His comics offer an entertaining walk-through of 20th century politics and social issues.

Before Olivia Newton-John told us to get physical, there was Pogo.

Before Olivia Newton-John, Pogo told us to Go Fizzickle.

So what’s the connection to Lois Nettleton? Lois has at least seven Pogo books in her collection, likely acquired during her relationship with Jean Shepherd. Now, I’m not an expert on Shepherd. For expertise, you should check out this site. But there are parallels between Kelly and Shepherd — a subversive sense of humor and a genius for story-telling. Both were truly great humorists of the 20th century.

There is also an interesting connection to the beat poets with whom Jean was friends. The back cover of one of the Pogo books makes this link.
Pogo Beat Quote<

The Beat poets picked up where Walk Kelly left off — questioning authority and eschewing conformity.

Here’s one other bit of Lois-Pogo trivia. Lois was good friends with the actress Dolores Hart, who famously dated Elvis and left Hollywood to become a nun. Lois and Mother Dolores remained friends until the end. During her starlet days, Dolores Hart owned a dog named Pogo. He is mentioned in Mother Dolores terrific new autobiography, The Ear of the Heart. Who knew?

Many thanks to Eugene B. Bergmann’s (author of the excellent Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd) and Jim Clavin of flicklives.com for their encouragement and kind words. Both Eugene and Jim are great resources. Check them out.

Until next time, stay cool.

The Village Voice Reader – 1962

Village Voice Reader

This book was selected for the inaugural post because it captures the 1962 zeitgeist and a bit of family history. As shown on the cover, the Village Voice Reader prominently features Jean Shepherd of WOR radio and “Christmas Story” fame. Jean was married to my aunt — the lovely and talented actress, Lois Nettleton. She was an avid reader– the walls of her NY apartment were lined with books on art, humor, and philosophy. Her collection provides a view into the intellectual and artistic climate of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. These books were bequeathed to me and are the subject of the blog.

Many books in the collection, including this one, were acquired during her 1960-1967 marriage to Jean. When he first arrived in NY, Jean wrote for the Village Voice. According to wfmu.org, Jean Shepherd “evoked New York’s beat scene during the 1950s, spinning first-hand vignettes of Kerouac, Mingus, Feiffer and Ginsberg.” Quite the line-up.

This first edition is a short story compilation featuring Jean and his Greenwich Village pals. It includes “The Hip and the Square” by Norman Mailer and the intriguing "The Hip Historian Knows a Man's Pad is His Castle' by Suzanne Kiplinger.

The inside jacket provides this description:

" As most people know, Greenwich Village is that way out, Bohemian section of America located somewhere in New York City where tourists, flock to gawk, teenagers crowd for kicks, and where everyone listens to poetry. "The Village" is beats and beards, arts and jazz, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, the square, the hip, and the coffee houses. It is also a splendid residential district, a slum, an idea, a spirit, a fraud."

This captures some of the magic I felt when Lois visited my family in our small NJ town when I was a child. She brought a bit of this fairy dust and excitement that I hoped would rub off on me. The book's language, design, and typography evoke warm memories of her and of the longing created in me for a life beyond suburbia.

The book also tells us something about the roots of the Village Voice:

"In 1955 two young men, once a practicing psychologist and the other a scholar in philosophy, started an unorthodox weekly in Greenwich Village. of course, their background equipped them perfectly for newspaper publishing. The Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional or accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism. We wanted to jam the gears of creeping automatism. The newspaper succeeded."

So the Village Voice was a father to the blogger, giving a platform to those outside the established media. The viewpoints expressed by the Voice rarely reflect my own, but props to the founding visionaries for understanding the human need for creative expression.

And with that I close, grateful for the opportunity to share my voice with you. Hat tip to John Bowab for making this possible. Until next time.

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