Monday, November 16, 2009

What's Missing From "Mad Men": Silvio Dante and the Ducks

Is Mad Men the new Sopranos?

The shows have a lot in common: a changing world, a fraught nuclear family – ambitious, dissatisfied wife, cheating husband, stunted kids. A powerful charismatic patriarch involved with morally questionable business, surrounded by dubious cronies; plenty of drinking and smoking; characters who ‘disappear’ when their usefulness ends or they become a threat. You can even play a sort of colorforms game, putting the heads from one show on the bodies of the other.

A few obvious examples come to mind --

Tony Soprano is Don Draper of course. Betty.

The kids are the kids.

Christopher Molisanto? Ken Cosgrove

Bobby Bacciolini? Harry Crane

Paulie Walnuts? Roger Sterling.

Junior Soprano? Burt Cooper.

Richie Aprile? Jimmy Barrett.

Dr Melfi? Peggy Olson?

Adriana? Joan Holloway?

Yes, you sensed it, the comparisons start to break down a little as we go down the lost. The real gap is Silvio Dante. Mad Men has no Silvio. Don Draper has no Consiglieri. This goes to the heart of the differences between the two shows. Tony Soprano was an honest man. He grew up in the mob, lamented the good old days of organized crime, lived like a king and died like a thug (yes, he died in that last episode). Carmela knew him inside out. She even knew where the money and guns were hidden. His kids had no illusions (Meadow figured out on that memorable college visiting trip). Betty is confused an unfocussed, a not overly bright sorority girl who supposed went to a college for the best and brightest, where they don’t even have sororities; an equestrienne who can’t really ride; a mother who dislikes her kids. Carmela feels so solid by comparison: affectionate, forgiving, but utterly ruthless at the same time, more than a match for her blustering husband.

Livia is missing also. Tony’s monstrous mother, the ruling, tyrannizing spirit of the first few of The Sopranos , the woman who plotted her son’s murder when she found out he was seeing a psychiatrist, has no parallel on Mad Men. Don’s mother died in childbirth. He fled his step mother – and the rest of his family -- as soon as he could. Nd he only looks back – as in the “Hobo and Gypsy”episode -- when he has no choice.

By contrast, Tony Soprano was a family man, and the extended family of his friends and colleagues had been with him all his life. Don couldn’t be more different. He has no close friends. Could Pete Campbell be his Silvio? The kid who tried to blackmail Don, who wants his job? The craven little spoiled rich kid? I wouldn’t trust him to pick up a pack of cigarettes, much less kill my nephew’s stool-pigeon girlfriend. The junior ad men look all like a boy scout troop in Don’s shadow, and he likes it that way. The accumulated weight of lies and secrets squeezes the life out of Don’s relationships. He pays a price for being an enigma, and the audience winds up paying, too.

Tony Soprano was a full-bodied, passionate, open-hearted sociopath you could love as well as hate. He pulled you into that meaty embrace. You could almost smell the garlic. Don Draper keeps you at a distance. And that distance is the precise surveyor’s measurement of the troubled territory between an excellent show and a great one. Don started to come clean last week, and Mad Men pushed itself farther than it has ever gone before. I hope they keep it up, across that last difficult acre and across the border and into a country few shows have ever approached. It’s like Conrad Hilton told Don in that crushing final meeting: when we ask for the moon, we want the moon. Or perhaps just the ducks in the swimming pool.

Nothing less, no matter how quick and clever, will do.

Cheating, A Love Story

They met on the third day of the Marriage Reconciliation Boot Camp, by the dumpsters where people smoked forbidden cigarettes, and it was love at first sight.

“I hate this place,” he said.

“Me, too.”

“Travers Houghton. What a miserable prick.”

“And he’s fat. If he wants to convince me he know the secret of life he should skip a few meals.” She blew out a tight cone of smoke.

“My wife made me come.”

She smiled at that. “Sounds like grounds for divorce, right there. Intolerable cruelty. Irreconcilable differences. Or whatever.”

“She’s having second thoughts, believe me.”

“Does she know you’re smoking?”

"Does your husband know you're smokin g?"

"We both know and pretend we don't."

"Sounds like you have come communcation problems."

"That's why we're here."

"No more secrets."

She shrugged. "I like secrets. So do you. Obviously."

“I was going to bring mouthwash but we never kiss anyway.”

“Which is all supposed to change now,” she said.


He looked across the half empty parking lot to the woods. “I wonder what the statistics are, at this place. I mean, does this shit ever help anyone?”

“I don’t know. Now you’ve got me thinking about divorce. That would be a quick fix. Half of what we’ve got would set me up for life.”

“That’s the difference – you’d be getting half. I’d be losing half.”

She shrugged. “So what? You’ve got your share and you’re out.”

They smoked in silence for a few moments. Rain clouds were piling up at the northern edge of the sky. No spousal intimacy bag races today.

“So,” she said, dropping the last of her American spirit and stepping on the butt, “When was the last time you got laid?”

“Do infidelities count?”

“You’re telling me you cheated on your wife?’”

“Don’t you believe it?”

“You’re not the type.”

“Hey -- I take that as an insult.”

“Sorry, but it’s true. You would have made a move already.”

“Because you’re so attractive?”

“Because that’s what you’d do. People like you. Players.”

“Which I’m not.”

“So not.”

“Oh well.”

“It’s charming. It’s intriguing.”

“My aura of smug virtue doesn’t put you off?”

She laughed. “You’re not virtuous. You’re not even faithful, not really. Except by default. If an attractive woman came on to you that would be it, buddy. You’d be gone. One kiss and out. You’ve been standing on the brink for years.”

He dropped his own cigarette, crushed it with the toe of his shoe. He stared at her.

“Prove it.”

She took two steps and kissed him, mouth open, arms twined around his back. He fell into the kiss as he remembered falling into swimming pools on hot summer days when he was a kid: the bliss of submission, the thrill of immersion, the soundless splash into enclosing silence.

Finally he had to come up for a breath.

“I want to go somewhere and fuck you,” he said.

She smiled. “Pushover. I knew it.”

They wound up in an empty room on the third floor of an unused dormitory. The college rented out the campus during the summer to organizations like Travers Houghton’s Boot Camp. The bed was just a bare mattress on a plank. They didn’t care. They had no idea how long the Testimonial Assembly was going to last and they didn’t care about that either. As long as couples wanted to stand up and ‘speak their hearts’ to the crowd, they were safe. It could take all day.

Both of them were sure they wouldn’t be missed – especially by their spouses. This place made you glad for a few minutes to yourself – like trying to cure claustrophobia by trapping you in a stalled elevator.

After the first frenzied missionary style slam she rolled over and said “What does your wife refuse to do?”

He laughed. “We just did it.”

“She must have been willing to fuck you at some point. Did she give you blow jobs?”

“Yeah – no, not really. Sort of.”

“How do you sort of give a blow job?”

He propped himself up on an elbow, turned on his side to face her. She was alert, bright-eyed, gorgeous. And impossibly, supernaturally easy to talk to.

“She treated it like Mount Saint Helens. An interesting spot to visit, but make sure you get the hell away it before it goes off.”

“Oh. The blow job that turns into a hand job.”

He took a deep breath and nodded – more with his eye-brows than his chin, which was resting on his palm. “I only had one real blow job – some one night stand just before the girl got married. Those were my favorite one-night stands back in the day. No loose ends, no hurt feelings. You get to be the last fling. Anyway. She kept sucking as I came, harder even. Is this too …”

“No, no, I’m fascinated. Nobody tells us this stuff.”

“Well … they always talk about swallowing, as if that was some big deal all by itself, or some Male power trip or something. Turns out swallowing is incidental. If you’re sucking that hard you can’t help swallowing. And for the guy … the whole feeling is so much more intense. It’s insane, it’s like she was pulling my balls out through my dick, just convulsively draining everything and – I don’t know. I never tried to describe this before. It’s like crack, except I never tried crack. It’s what you hope crack would be like, what it ought to be like since people get so fucked up on it all the time. But I only had one time. That girl got married the next day and I never got a real blow job again.”

“Until now.”

“Are you serious?”

She slid down the bed. “It’s worth a try.”

“But what can I do for you? What won’t your husband do?”

“Well … you could take me to a Sandra Bullock movie.”

He laughed. “You drive a hard bargain.”

She paused. “But you promise”

“Anything. A double feature.”

“All About Steve? Miss Congeniality?”

“And Miss Congeniality 2 -- a triple feature, Ok? I’m begging you now.”

“You really are. And for some reason I find that incredibly sexy.”

So she slipped the rest of the way down and gave him the totally committed blow job he’d been longing for since he was twenty-two years old and it was everything he remembered and more and when they slipped back into the auditorium each of them stood up and gave heartfelt declarations of love for their spouses and they were so convincing the other couples gave them standing ovations.

The rest of the week was all sex and subterfuge: slipping out of bed when everyone else was asleep and making love on the lawn of the big quadrangle, pleading illness or (best of all) a headache for a secret rendezvous on the bird watching path behind the Chapel.

Once they walked down the steep hill into town and ate an illicit lunch at the bad Mexican restaurant on State Street, drinking 2-for-1 margaritas and ducking their heads when anyone they knew passed the big picture window.

“So what went wrong?” She asked him, over the second slug of crushed ice lime juice and tequila. He pushed his cooling enchilada across his plate. “I haven’t been able to give her the life she expected. She doesn’t get to live in the manner she wanted to become accustomed to. Like they say in celebrity divorces. When the woman is trying to explain why she needs ten thousand dollars worth of cut flowers every day.”

“So it’s just money?”

“It’s money and couches and new cars and a bigger condo and the freedom to travel, and no stress about her spending habits. I was supposed to take the price tags off the world for her.”

“So all you need to do is win the lottery.”

“Until she spends it all. And believe me, she can spend.”

“It’s just the opposite for me,” she said. “I just wish he could do what he wants. Really paint for a while try to get a gallery. Instead of the crap he does. Story boards. Free-lance art directing for d-list agencies. Drawing dancing teddy bears from some peanut butter account. They’re all going to cgi now, anyway. And he can’t even open his own e-mail.”

“So tell him to bail.”

“I’ve tried. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t get it.”

“That’s why you’re here. Talk to him.”

“And say what?”

“Say – I don’t know. You want him to be better. Be all that he can be, that’s appropriate for boot camp. An army of one.”

“What a weird ad campaign. I was hoping for an army of two.”

“Whatever. You want him to be happy. Tell him that.”

“Or I could just send a Hallmark card.”

“I like mixing them up – sending a nice condolence card when people get married.”

She laughed. “Or a get well soon when they start a new job.”

“That’s the idea.”

“He never even tries to make love any more.”

“Maybe he’s given up. Seduce him. I know you can do it.”

She smiled. “Maybe all it takes is one good blow job.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

In between their assignations they duly played all the touching games and the trust games and the confessional games; they allowed themselves to be video-taped and sleep-deprived. They stripped naked in front of strangers, and cried in front of strangers and confessed their sins and and everyone forgave everyone else and said the worst thing they could think of and shared their most bitter regrets and most shameful secrets and then everyone got one good night’s sleep and they were on their way back home.

He met her on the steps of Dewey Hall. For a moment they were alone. No one was watching them. He set his suitcase down.

“Well, this is it,” he said.

“You’re my last fling and I’m off to get married?”

“Or vice versa.”

“What a shame.”

“I don’t know. It was a tough week but I think it worked.”

“Did you fall in love with your wife again?”

“Did you fall in love with your husband?”

They both nodded, smiling.

“So all that role playing actually worked,” she said.

“Just like Bev and Marty said it would.”

“—as long as we threw ourselves into it.”

‘”Yeah. That’s what they said.”

“I hate admitting they were right.”

“Me, too.”

Travers Houghton strode past and lifted one fist, his signature greeting. They returned the salute.

“Because he really is such a pompous asshole.”

“A rich pompous asshole. Thriving by word of mouth.”

“So we do have to tell them.”

“I guess. But first I want another sublime blow job or two.”

“And we’re going to have the complete oeuvre of Sandra Bullock on our netflicks queue.”

He bowed his head, nodding in mock defeat.

When he looked up she was smiling. “You’ll do some real painting, too, won’t you, Mike? I’ll model for you. Any pose you want.”

He pulled her to him and kissed her.

“I feel like marrying you right here and now, Houghton is an ordained minister.”

She put a finger to his lips, shook her head.

“Been there, done that,” she said.

Then she picked up her bag, took his hand and started lightly down the steps to their car.

The Homecare Diaries: Surreal Life

It looks like my mother is going to have to move in to the nursing home. We just can’t do what needs to be done any more. Every day we are faced with our own ineptitude and clumsiness and ignorance. I can read to her from Tim O’Brien and make her cry, I can tell stupid jokes and make her laugh. But I can’t adjust medications and do physical therapy and take care of her around the clock.

So I spend my days now trying to find cards I don’t recognize with information I don’t know so that people I’ve never seen can fill out forms I know nothing about … all to get my mother into a facility where none of us wants her to be in the first place.

It’s Kafla-esque. Kafka would actually be amused by this situation. He couldn’t read The Hunger Artist to his friends without cracking up. Meanwhile I feel like my entire nervous system is being peeled one layer at a time like an onion and someone seems to have attached lead weights to all my joints. I can’t even read at night any more: my eyelids secrete glue. The centrifuge of illness and misery sends the separate parts of my life flying in all directions. Some neurologist I’ve never met changes my mother’s medication and sends her into a tail-spin and he acts irritated when I call him up in a panic, after office hours. He’s not the doctor of record. “But you’re the neurologist,” I say, and I’m thinking, they haven’t passed tort reform yet, you miserable prick.

Meanwhile, my mother’s head floats above the dining room table, the spitting image of a younger self, and we discuss the nature of confidence and the rules of grammar and the failures of the president (“I have only one question for him: When are you going to end the war?”) and she instructs me in the best way to dredge the scallops (seasoned bread crumbs and white corn meal after a quick dip in the milk and egg mix). Then she stands up and her legs won’t hold her and all her features pull down in pain and she’s unrecognizable and I can’t adjust.

I’m changing my mother’s diaper and she has no modesty left and takes it in good humor, and she has no idea of the shock wave it sends through my nervous system, like gunshot wound, the sonic boom pulverizing the soft tissue ahead of the bullet. Why is this so disturbing? It should feel natural, tending to the flesh of a parent, as she tended to mine and I tended to my own children and they will tend to me. And yet every fiber of every nerve screams in protest.

But even that is changing. The most surreal part of the experience is that I’m actually getting used to it. I woke up this morning early (Annie had to catch a 6:30 boat). When I I came downstairs Mom was on the floor by the bed. She had slipped down. Her robe and pajamas were wet; so was the bedding. After a split second flinch response and a sort of snap clenching, of the spirit (Time to wake all the way up, buddy!), I performed some internal recalibration and saw the scene as a set of logistical problems to be solved: get her off the floor, seated on the walker, into the bathroom; then change the bed, get the laundry in, find new pajamas, get her off the toilet, get her dressed, cheer her up, tuck her in … and make coffee for us. Annie’s alarm was set for five, and she was just getting up when I finished. So I’ve crossed a strange new rubicon now, into a twilight world where finding my Mom on the floor and fixing the nighttime mess just feels like another part of my day, a mundane routine like walking the dog or brushing my teeth: the new normal.

Still, bizarre things keep happening. After days of being unable to stand, Mom woke up in the middle of the night last week, certain she was all alone in the grand foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in our old neighborhood in Manhattan. She made her way to the top of the grand stairway and then decided she had to get outside to hail a cab. She walked across the whole downstairs of my little house, looking for a way out of the museum – I know this because I left my sneakers near the front door and she was wearing them when I found her: giant reeboks on her tiny feet. She almost got the basement door open (that actual narrow stairway would have killed her) before she woke up enough to realize that she was at home. How did she do that? The basement door is hard for healthy young people to open. And why aren’t we figuring out some way to harness the over-riding power of that dream in her waking life?

I don’t know. No one knows. She can’t taste food but she loves to eat, she can’t move but she can tour the house in a dream. The people who know how to help her don’t seem overly interested and the people who care the most are helpless. Life is upside down but I’m getting used to walking on the ceiling, skirting the light fixtures and high- stepping the door jambs.

I haven’t been arrested for no reason, as Kafka described in The Trial. I haven’t been turned into an enormous roach and neither has my Mom. I’m not spending my days trying to penetrate the faceless bureaucracy of The Castle—though it all sounds a little too familiar. I’m not living in Kafka’s world.

But I’m starting to understand it.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Homecare Diaries: Animating the Map

I spent half an hour this morning helping my mother put on her bathrobe.

The goal was to get her bundled up and across the ten feet from her bed to the kitchen table for breakfast. Like some hapless, out-numbered platoon trying to retake some anonymous numbered hill in Korea, ultimately we failed. We managed to get the robe on, with me bracing her trembling legs and holding her up from the back while we searched for the second arm hole – the second arm hole is the killer, elusive and maddening, always too high and too far back, so it seems as if she will have to dislocate her shoulder to fit her hand in. Suddenly in the closing hours of your life, you have to be a circus contortionist simply to get dressed. Still, we did it. But we couldn’t get to the dining room table because her legs simply couldn’t support her weight this morning. It’s particularly upsetting because she seemed to be making so much progress over the last week. Sometimes the physical therapy and occupational therapy and the exercises seem like nothing more than worry beads, a soothing distraction, a way to keep body and mind occupied before the next onslaught of the disease. Because when it happens, when the storm surge arrives, all the sand-bagging and levee building amounts to nothing, swept away by the greater force of an illness no one understands, not even the doctors.

We finally got Mom into her ‘cadillac’ walker – it doubles as an ad hoc wheel chair, and we maneuvered her to the dining room table where she ate cereal and drank coffee and talked the situation over. I remain awestruck by the tenacious ability of the human brain to accept an ever-narrowing world and inhabit it, accepting an ever shinking set of goals and small victories. Mom had hoped to start up her communications consulting business here, and go shopping, and move into the lovely assisted living home on Main Street. Now she takes it as a satisfying and hard won triumph when she can walk on her own to the bathroom late at night. I admire the stoicism with which she adapts to this contraction, but entering the claustrophobic world of her illness, living there with her even as an outside observer, takes a grim toll. It’s exhausting and frightening. At first I thought it was loosening and uprooting the structural supports of my own existence, but I realize now that I was mistaken. Instead, it’s revealing the structural supports of my existence, placing the realities of my life and life itself under the raw and unforgiving fluorescent lighting of mortal truth. It’s my illusions that have been torn up strewn about the ground: the illusion of immortality, the illusion of the ever-nurturing Mom, the illusion of a benevolent universe. I’m going to die as she is dying; I have to nurture her now and the universe, God-controlled or the product of random chance, really doesn’t care at all. The result is I feel old myself, inches not miles from my mother’s precipice, caught up and tangled in the same sticky web of decay and disorder.

It makes you understand how delayed stress disorders happen. During a car crash, or a wartime trauma, things happen too quickly to grasp the nature of the event. But here it’s all occurring in slow motion. You can feel yourself shoving your emotions aside, stamping them down, packing them like boxes into an overstuffed closet. You can feel the effect of looking down and pushing forward with each day, the stress building up like a toxin coating the nerve endings. It will take years to cleanse the blood of this sorrow, and it may never happen. I may not have enough time.

As a caretaker, the erosion of your world happens on so many levels at once – that’s what’s hard to grasp from the outside. Your time is shredded, days starting later and ending sooner and trimmed from the middle with new obligations. This means that money becomes an issue and even though the thought of a nursing home draining away a life’s savings feels grim and Dickensian, some fist inside me clenches and says “better her than me” I cannot go bankrupt here. I have to work. That’s not a debate point, it’s a fact. Having no choice simplifies decision-making. But I’m exhausted and that slows work down, also. I have no private time now; Annie and I have no time together except for a stolen cup of coffee or a brief talk in the car, parked in the driveway. I’m writing this as the visiting nurse works with Mom, tapping a few stolen sentences into the computer between consultations and conversations. The emotional wear and tear combines with my mundane practical worries and the inexorable presence of death, the grinning skull suddenly pushing out of the surface of everything, and the sadness and the pity, and the stupid childish anger and the guilt over that anger to create a separate disability that folds over and magnifies the effects of its own symptoms. It reminds me of baking bread, folding over the dough and kneading it, watching it double in bulk under a checked cloth on a warm window sill.

But no one wants to eat this loaf. No one.

Mom was in the hospital for a couple of weeks after a bad fall in the bathroom and we got the house back and dismantled her bed and tried to live normally. But of course life revolved around the hospital and we knew it was just the eye of the hurricane. The next storm wall was coming. I log onto Weather Underground a lot these days – the weather has taken on some mysterious new urgency. I see the blob but I have no idea what it means for me until I click on the ‘animate map’ button. Then I can see which way the weather is moving, caught in a half hour loop. I relax: it’s heading Northeast of us, despite the fact that the official forecast calls for rain. I need to click that same tab in my own life, in my mother’s condition. I see the blob, the angry yellow and orange of a harsh Nor’Easter. But what does it mean? Is this a brief setback, or just another bump in a bumpy road. Does it signify the beginning of the end, or is it the prelude to a miraculous resurgence? I have no way to tell.

But I take comfort in small things.

When I found my Mom on the bathroom floor that morning three weeks ago, and helped her to her feet, both of us thought it was all over.

She hugged me and said. “We had fun, didn’t we? Nobody had more fun than us.”

It was true. Some days, some part of each day, it’s still true.

So we hang on and hope for more of them. There’s nothing else we can do.