The Mad Men Finale: Creativity as a Way of Living in the World

As readers of this blog know, I am a huge Mad Men fan. So, whether in the hope of adding something new to the gigabytes of fan analysis and commentary that fill the internet; or consoling my grief at the end of one of television’s finest creations; or simply trying to stop the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song from replaying in my mind all day, I would like to share my own thoughts on the series finale. In particular, although many commentators have described the resolution of Don‘s journey simply as a cynical return to advertising with a great idea for a Coca Cola commercial, I found it to be a deeply resonant insight into the joys and struggles of living a creative life.

MadMenEnsemble

First, a few words about the other characters, whose stories expanded the themes of the show with remarkable power:

I found Joan’s story to be the most moving, being both heart wrenching and triumphant. Although I had hoped she would find the love she desired, I had suspected that the need to realize her professional and creative potential would become the center of her life. How can someone with her intelligence endure the abuse of unimaginative, sexist, corporate drones without developing an overwhelming drive to realize the gifts that had been denied for so long?

Although I was initially disappointed that Peggy turned down Joan’s offer of a partnership in her production company, I believe that her instincts were right. Joan was as much a mentor to Peggy as was Don, and it was clearly time for Peggy to move past both of her teachers and navigate toward her own goals. I do not know what will become of Peggy’s romance with Stan, but it is part of the process of finding her own creative voice.

As to Pete Campbell, I found myself happy for him, in spite of his ingrained tendency to selfishness, deceit, and self-pity. Although I doubt he will remain faithful to his wife for long, I do believe he has learned to keep his affairs discreet, short-lived, and out of town – an approach greatly simplified by the Lear Jet now placed at his disposal. I also believe Trudy probably will come to recognize and accept the arrangement, at least at an unconscious level.

I find Roger and Marie’s romance to be surprisingly sweet, and much deserved for a man who was possibly the sweetest character in the series. As they settle into a deep connection, made almost unbreakable by the intensity of their sexual passion and the ferocity of their arguments, I can see them becoming icons of sophisticated, New York Bohemianism, sitting at their usual table in a well-worn cafe, surrounded by a growing community of artists, writers, and assorted eccentrics.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the finale showed Don’s daughter Sally washing dishes in the dimly lit Victorian kitchen while her domineering, cancer-stricken mother sat smoking at the table. I can only hope that Don’s past and future presence in Sally’s life will help her to shake off her mother’s influence and live her own life – a possibility suggested by the strong albeit turbulent connection between Don and his daughter, and by Betty’s surprisingly perceptive comment in her last wishes letter: that Sally would indeed walk to her own drummer.

LOW RES image - Don Draper MAD MEN finale credit: AMC

That leads us to Don’s strange, somewhat ambiguous satori on the meadow overlooking the California coast. Although his “enlightenment” was ultimately grist for his advertising work, producing the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial, I disagree with those commentators who describe it simply as Don failing to rise above his life as an ad man. If we look past Don’s sexual irresponsibility, his desperate alpha-male persona, and the harm he has caused those close to him, we can see his journey as a flawed Everyman’s effort to realize the gifts of great creative ability in spite of the obstacles of modern society and his own fundamental loneliness. Continue reading

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The Day I Met Thelonious and Nica in Heaven

Nica and Thelonious
Nica and Thelonious

I was sitting in my music room the morning after the biggest snowstorm of the winter, alternately practicing my guitar and looking out at the snow piled heavy on the trees. My wife walked in with a late morning cup of coffee.

“I hate winter,” she said.

Not wanting to disappoint her, I gave my standard answer. “I love it. It’s pretty. Besides, we get to spend the morning drinking coffee and looking at the snow.”

“Some of us have to go out and run errands,” she said, sipping her coffee. “What are you working on?”

“A Thelonious Monk tune: Pannonica,” I said handing her the sheet music. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

She looked it over. She’d had early training on the piano and could read music easily. Sometimes, I felt envious.

“I’ve heard you practicing this,” she said. “You sound pretty good to me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I can play the notes OK, but I just can’t get the feeling right.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a love song, but I can’t seem to make it sound like one.”

“A love song?” she said looking over the music, her eyes narrowed in concentration. “It looks strange for a love song.”

“That’s Monk’s genius. He could make all those odd chord changes and dissonances sound beautiful. You see,” I went on, “it’s a song he wrote for a woman who literally saved his life. I just can’t seem to give it the feeling it deserves.”

My wife took another sip of coffee and sat down. She knew I wanted to talk. Continue reading

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Death and Spreadsheets

It has been too long since my last entry in this blog. This is not a result of ill health or other problems (in spite of the title of this posting), but comes from the very happy fact that I have finally started work on a long-planned novel. After finishing six chapters, I find myself wrestling with some structural issues in the plot, and thought it might be helpful to step back from the project for a Sunday afternoon, and share some other thoughts that have been on my mind.

I am retired, and fortunate enough to enjoy a pension from my former employer as well as Social Security (which I have paid for and expect my government to honor, Mr. Boehner). Still, I do depend upon my investment portfolio for a significant portion of my income. Being a computer scientist, I have constructed a number of spreadsheets using risk analysis, Monte Carlo Modeling, and other techniques to determine if I will outlive my money (certainly a blessing, but like many blessings, it is one that would create some degree of inconvenience).

death-and-the-miser
Death and the Miser, Jan Provoost (1465-1529)

 

I have done this for a few years now, and was happy to see that each year, the probability of my money lasting seemed to improve. At least I was happy until I realized the reason this was so. Each year I live means I have fewer years to pay for. Death, it would seem, has become a major factor in my financial planning. Continue reading

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What are the stages of a man’s life, and what the hell am I doing in this one?

This morning, as my wife and I were relaxing after our Sunday morning breakfast and enjoying a last taste of coffee and orange juice before starting a busy day of not watching the Super Bowl, she decided to play one of the Twilight Zone episodes she recorded from the New Years SyFy Channel Twilight Zone Marathon (NYSFCTZM). It was the episode with Andy Devine as Frisby, the doyen of a group of old coots whose lives centered on telling tall tales around the stove at the local gas station. I won’t go into details about the episode other than to say that Frisby’s tall tales result in his being abducted by space aliens, and his atrocious harmonica playing leads to his release. The story ends with all the other old coots throwing Frisby a surprise party on his sixty third birthday, and refusing to accept his sworn account of the abduction as anything other than another tall tale.

978px-Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_Google_Art_Project
Rembrandt: One old coot regarding the bust of another old coot

Unfortunately, watching this episode, and its implication that men of my age can legitimately be relegated to old coothood made me wonder about the current stage of my life. I am a few years older than Frisby, but hardly consider myself to be an old coot. I asked my wife for some reassurance on this note, and received an affectionate, witty, but disturbingly ambiguous response. As a result, I began thinking about this stage of my life, and what it all means. This is something I do from time to time, probably because I am at this stage of my life.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know of a clear alternative to old coot that I can use to describe myself. I don’t really feel comfortable imagining myself in the demographic group assigned to me by popular television news and entertainment shows and their commercials, which characterize men of my age as reinventing themselves with great vigor and creativity, in spite of being obsessed with golf, unable to make love to their sexy but age-appropriate wives without pharmaceutical assistance, and possessing an overwhelming urge to vote Republican.

So, I have decided to spend this Super Bowl Sunday in a pursuit even less productive than watching football. I have decided to develop an improved model of the stages of a man’s life, in the hope that it will help other men my age escape the stigma of premature old-coot-hood. I will limit it to the lives of males – actually retired, white, American, former professional, middle class males – since that is the only sort of life I have experienced. Continue reading

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Lou Reed Died Yesterday

On the day his obituary appeared in the Albuquerque Journal, an article appeared on the front page describing how a Republican State Representative challenged a physical education instructor for having her students stretch before exercising. Although the teacher referred to the exercises as “stretching or mat work,” and did not mention yoga to her students, the representative, Alonzo Baldonado, objected because he did not want his daughters exposed to non-Christian religious practices.

“You can’t depend on no miracle
you can’t depend on the air
You can’t depend on a wise man
you can’t find ‘em because they’re not there

“You can depend on cruelty
crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
you need a busload of faith to get by.”

Lou Reed, Busload of Faith

Goodbye, Lou. You will be missed.

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