years-late reflections as usual

                              

I’m probably the last person to see Mad Men. I can’t even claim to have jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it came to Netflix, because my initial attempts to stomach it there met with failure. “Shitty people leading shitty lives,” was my verdict. And to be fair, that’s still going on. I certainly don’t feel good after watching it; it’s such a downer. I suppose since my own prospects have plummeted since the last time I tried to watch it—job contracts ending, with no new ones in sight no matter how many applications I fill out—there’s a bit of schadenfreude going on now. Though really, if that is why so many other people watch it, they should’ve cobbled together funding to bring it back during the worst of the recession, no?

Anyway, I don’t have any long-winded not-exactly-revelatory things to say about the show. I’m only midway through season two, and progress is still slow because, as I said, it’s not exactly fun to watch. There’s the usual relief that I wasn’t born a woman in that time, the belated but heartfelt respect for those women who did survive it and manage not to go batshit crazy, etc. etc. I, like many others I’m sure, am impressed by the show’s highlighting of Draper’s datedness even when he’s in his prime, what with his morals and values (when he has them—which is to say, as regards his work) are already old-fashioned, and he’s only in his thirties. The focus of society has already shifted to the young and their mores, and all of this before Vietnam and the social revolutions that surrounded it, which is the usual line we are given to explain the societal shift toward youth.

(*SPOILERS BELOW*)

All that stuff’s been said, I imagine, and so probably has this. But the song that plays at the end of season one is more than just a knife-twist to the gut. It’s not the collapse of what you think is happening—something, good, finally!—and then the shatteringly empty reality devoid of all that warmth you thought was just filling this world you’ve been watching. It’s a startling reminder of the existence of so many other worlds during the same time the world of the show is taking place. Elsewhere in the series we see bohemian apartments and moody artistses, sure, but they’re set pieces, and trite before they open their mouths. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” though, like all the songs they play in the show, actually came out during the year the show is supposed to be taking place. That delicate thing took to the airwaves at the same time Draper watched his boss ride a drunk twin across the carpet of his corner office; the same time Betty posed with a plasticene smile in front of innumerable backdrops of cheery picnic-strewn nature for Coca-Cola. If Draper’s worldview has already become something other than the dominant, desired one, he’s hardly alone. Listen to this song that existed at the same time as those sneering assholes making cracks about lobster women, and doctors condemning mothers as crazy if they don’t want their babies, and the necessity of veiling attempts at pleasure as attempts at weight-loss. Part of the show’s appeal, I gather, is the inevitable “this is how it was” portrait it is thought to paint of that past time. But Draper, even with all his privileges, is going to be joining a jostling crowd of the tossed-aside, who never made it into that portrait.

(May I quietly, because it’s too beautiful for me to want to knock it much, say that this is rather a passive-aggressive song, too, and it’s quick to blame relationship problems all on the girl, and for it to play as Draper is the one who feels shafted and abandoned, is a bit of a thumb in the eye of, yes, “the patriarchy,” that I confess to relishing. Good fucking job, producers. I mean it.)

Bob Dylan is one of the shrines I tried to worship at and never managed to. I respected people who more than respected him, but I just couldn’t transfer the feeling. He rang too distant for me. What did this scratchy-voiced man my father’s age know, or care to know, about being an ugly little girl in the 1990s? It wasn’t that his being a man made me resentful; I had more distrust toward my own sex growing up than I could bring to bear against his. But it made him distant; irrelevant. I knew of the dogged fandom surrounding him, and something of the fractured splinters that composed it: the folk people vs. the rock people vs. the dylan-at-any-cost people. But though I bought a couple albums and tried to like them, they slid off me like water off a duck.

Maybe I just needed context. (And, sure, age.) Because this is beautiful. I’ve listened to it 20 times since it played at the end of season one. This song falling where it did, in such an empty, horrible moment of that show, makes it hit me the way I fantasize Dylan hit people in a better place to relate to him. More receptive. Less cold, maybe. This song existing, not that Draper hears it—it is for us—makes Draper’s collapse, and his retreat into the rough-shouldered masses of those who don’t move and shake the world, welcome. Not in a vengeful way, but because it restores the hope that—even if the show chooses not to show us this, and really why would it, given its tone—even Draper, that sorry son of a bitch, might turn into a better person, once he loses his power and everything he has used it to achieve. If the people who don’t move and shake the world produce music like this, maybe the sooner Draper falls, broken, into their ranks, the better.

weird things you remember

In first grade, I missed the day you had to be tested for running for physical fitness. I assume it must have been part of those National/Presidential contests, or else why would I have been forced to stay after school later—unheard of, and eerie, at that age, to be there as the shadows grow long and the light burnt yellow—to make it up? I can’t remember the name of the gym teacher, but he had a thick dark mustache and yelled often. Everything at school delighted me until I left that part of the country, so for me to have disliked this man, he must have been awfully antagonistic.

In the car on the way home, my mom asked me about the run, and I said it went all right (I did, in fact, like running), but that I didn’t like being there with Mr. WhatsHisFace, because of the yelling. She said I shouldn’t hate him, because for him to be so angry all the time he must’ve been sad for some reason. I don’t know if she emphasized “lonely” or not, but that’s what I took away from the conversation, and forever after that when I thought about him I imagined him always after school in the shadows and half-light, making kids who missed tests run, when most people were having dinner and relaxing at the end of a day. 

I don’t know where my tolerance or pity for yelling evaporated to after that, but it’s tapped out. Raise your voice to me and die.

the new adventures of the over-emotional superman

When I was young—much younger than I originally thought, to judge by the 1993-1997 run dates—I watched a lot of Lois and Clark, though more because my parents were watching it and I wandered in than because of any predilection toward comic books or superheroes. (I gather, in fact, from contemporary comics fans that they were scandalized by this series and its camp, and they abhor its treatment of the beloved Superman franchise…though I’m a pretty big fan of camp and have been disappointed in all other renderings of the character, which tend to lack it.)

One of the earliest journal entries I can remember writing about something outside my narrow, family-and-school focused world revolved around this episode and how it upset me so much I had to leave the room when it aired. At the time I said what upset me was the “open” feelings Clark and Lois displayed when (spoilers!) the shrinking occurs. This doesn’t mean kissing—it’s season three; kissing is old news—and it certainly doesn’t mean sex or violence because, hello, prime time TV in the mid-90s. I have no idea where that old journal is so I can’t look it up to confirm exactly what words I used, but I know I couldn’t have been able to bring anything remotely close to an adult eye to my response for years. When I found it on Hulu and rewatched it, I think there’s more at work than just adults being upset on TV. Which is what I assumed I took issue with.

I was huge into shrinking movies as a kid. Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Alice in Wonderland the musical, that Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Goosebumps where you can choose whether to grow large or shrink (I always picked shrink). I don’t know why I obsessed over shrinking; likely I spent so much time reading books about small creatures (Ralph S. Mouse, Redwall, The Indian In The Cupboard) that that was the most adventurous story I could think of. Not to mention the most accessible, since it makes the benign everyday parts of a kid’s life into obstacles to be written about with gusto.

So that’s why I was drawn to this Lois and Clark episode to start with. As soon as I saw the people locked up in the beginning, I was hooked. But what with the whole superman thing and all, Clark shrinks more slowly, and we hear from Lois what I would long regard as the  most horrifying line to ever come into your life: “What’s happening to you?” I remember that line specifically, writing it down and just shuddering and noting that, too. The helplessness of it, the implications of the unknown—they were awful. But also the repugnance. That’s what I get now, rewatching the episode, that I couldn’t articulate as a kid. When Lois sees Clark with his sleeves flapping, and she starts to joke “Well either your shirt’s growing or you’re…” And she trails off with this stricken look on her face, and Clark’s face twists in misery and he tries to hide the trailing shirtsleeves. The shame is what I didn’t get as a kid. I’m laying aside the vast majority of the sexual politics of this show because a.) I’m not rewatching the whole thing and b.) I was too young to care at the time, so obviously there are tensions I missed. But the message in this episode is clear: getting smaller is horrible. A terrible, terrible curse. Even though it’s only a couple of inches—only enough to Clark’s sleeves hang over his hands—he is mortified. And Lois not only sees his mortification, but she acts as though he is justified in it and tries to comfort him, even though she herself is terrified. And that whole emotional situation squicked me something awful as a kid.

Then there is the doctor. The seriousness of the medical setting. The grim faces. The words “begins to break down.” Not to belabor the point of my weirdness as a kid, but in addition to shrinking and natural disasters, I had a brief fascination with medicine. Or rather, what can go wrong with you that causes you to need medical care. Note how when the doctor tells Clark/Superman he has experienced “a loss of height and body mass,” and then notices how he towers over his patient, he lowers his eyes deferentially and stoops a little lower. Out of courtesy, or kindness, and to spare Clark’s pride. And Clark/Superman sees that, and says it’s all right, he doesn’t have to do that. Watching that I feel the ghost of a twist in my gut. That’s it right there, I think, that’s what I couldn’t stand. Clark’s knowledge of why the doctor is doing what he’s doing—it’s for his, Clark’s sake—and his gentle dismissal of it. It made my skin crawl.

And then, the absolute worst two scenes in the episode. Where Clark asks to meet her late at night at the Planet, and then hides from her while he talks to her, trying to keep her from seeing him so she doesn’t freak out. “I know that if you see me right now, you’ll be frightened. I’m frightened.” That whole exchange terrified me. I think, again, because of his attempt to protect her despite this weird, shameful thing that was happening to him. Happening, not “had happened,” because the ongoingness of it was also part of the terror. It was still happening and he was still trying to protect her. The tenderness there freaked me out. I left the room.

Now, older, I can also look at it and say that as a kid who would never, ever cry in front of people and who, when moved to do so by extreme pain or loss, was deeply embarrassed beyond all reason, perhaps part of what upset me was his seeing Lois unguarded. Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous for a kid to think, but I would have commiserated with Lois’s desire to appear tough at any age, and when she’s on the phone with the doctor and Clark is flying around the room, able to hear her but before she knows he’s there, she’s crying and flipping out in a way she wouldn’t want him to see. And especially when she hangs up the phone and cracks and says she needs him—oh, don’t laugh! see? I may no longer be a kid but I’m still hugely resistant even to vouching for that kind of (fictional!) undoing—especially when she says that, my stomach just flips over. She wouldn’t want him to see that. She’d want to be the tough-as-nails, we-can-totally-get-through this supportive person she thinks he fell in love with. And he snuck up on her and saw her at her weakest and most miserable! Poor Lois.

But, then, I had way better things to do as a kid—and as a teenager, for that matter—than moon around over some dumb guy, so none of the above would have occurred to me. I had no interest in relationships, either as objects of study or of desire, so that’s why I would’ve complained about the “open emotions” in the show, rather than honing in on ways one would or wouldn’t want to appear to one’s significant other, and how the foiling of those plans would be deeply unsettling. Unsettling is, I think, the best way to describe the episode’s effect on me. I wasn’t grossed out, or pissed off, or made to suspect that the same things (what, shrinking??) might happen to me one day. (Which makes it not simply a too-young medical phobia, like if you have a relative die of a cancer you learn is inheritable and then spend your childhood worrying you’ll get it too. It wasn’t that.)

Adults were supposed to be rational people. It was their approval I sought—I didn’t want to be good for my age, I wanted to be good, period, as judged by the rational beings in power over me. This show, however fictional, made it clear that adults could actually break down and fall apart the way I thought I’d be immune to, upon finally achieving adulthood. I knew they could get angry, sure—what kid doesn’t, unless I guess you’re one of those coddled brats who will turn into a clusterfuck of a personality disorder as an adult—but not sad. Not freaking-out, slamming-down-the-phone-and-crying-into-your-hands sad. My parents were rational people. My teachers were rational people. The fact that I could reach their status in life and still not be safe from that kind of collapse was deeply, well, unsettling.

Or maybe I just thought it was “the mushy stuff.” Who knows.

Girls

Things I’m Horrified To Relate To In HBO’s “Girls”

1.) Friends who are into my other friends way more than they are into me.

2.) Guys who have no idea why you do what you do with your body. And who end up mocking it when they try to figure out what it is.

3.) Those assholes who think giggling and listing each other’s strong points AD INFINITUM in front of other people is not ANNOYING AS HELL. Because it is.

4.) Ahahahahaha the male of the above couple TOTALLY looks like a former colleague.

Things I’m Grateful Not To Relate To At All In HBO’s “Girls”

1.)  The entire money situation. Good god.

2.)  Having generally horrible parents, money situation or no money situation. The fighting. The waffling. The complete lack of backbone and whinging daughter-worship. The very real possibility that our main character wrecked their marriage. My parents are great, and are people, rather than parental automatons who only break out of their doey-eyed parental roles to fight with one another.

3.) Pregnancy. Obviously.

4.) A bitchy pretty friend who designates herself my life coach. Noooo thank you.

what the thunder said

Dear residents of the Dunlap Ranch

You live in the loneliest part of this country I’ve ever seen. Lonelier than the burnt-out swathes of Detroit or the cold unforgiving stare of the Atlantic or even your neighbors in on the Hi Line in Montana or North Dakota, where at least the rolling hills and occasional bursts of greenery serve to inspire a sense of life and newness, even if it’s only every 100 miles.

Thunder Basin is the pits. The depths of isolation. Even a desert would provide you beauty to look on in your last minutes in the form of brilliant painted rock, or the fantastical delusions of dehydration.

If you still live there and have managed to stay sane, bravo. I couldn’t do it.

ETA: Actually, as I peruse more of the collection I gather that it is in fact gone. The windows are boarded up. They don’t live there anymore. And who could blame them? Driving through America as a kid I would look at abandoned houses, be they clinging to the edge of the tracks in rural Pennsylvania or rotting where they’ve been rotting since the 30s in Nebraska, and become viciously sad. I felt their absence as a kind of emotional burglary, as if I had any right to decide who should remain anywhere. But the absence of this place should come as a relief. You don’t have to have read Breaking Clean to know ranch life is bitterly hard. All the more so here, in the Thunder Basin, with not a damn soul for miles and miles and miles to depend on for help large or small. Wherever these people or their descendants are, at least it’s probably somewhere more conducive to happiness than here. So their absence should be a good thing.