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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Mad Men … Lost People … and Coming Clear

I came to the TV series Mad Men late. Although I'd heard about it from friends, it wasn't until a few months ago that I began borrowing the first three seasons from the library. I thought I'd be interested in it because of my background in advertising. My father was an account executive, my mother was one of the first female copywriters, and briefly toward the end of the seventies, I entered the family trade as a secretary and production assistant (material I put to good use in my novel Plan Z by Leslie Kove). But none of this prepared me for the kind of euphoric, sometimes shattering, shock I felt watching this show.

I grew up one town over from where Don Draper lived in the suburbs. Betty Draper's missing gynecologist when she gave birth (Dr. Mendelowitz) was my mother's doctor and my own first experience of that kind of exam. Although we weren't remotely WASPy, I grew up in Draper terrain; my family was dysfunctional, to put it mildly. But until watching this remarkable series, I never realized that our dysfunction was simply a microcosm of a cultural dysfunction. Namely the world of advertising in the late fifties to 1965 (as of the last episode in season 4, which I'm watching on iTunes). My family was symptomatic of a culture where self-medication through nicotine and booze was the norm; where everybody lied and manipulated and pretended to be who they were not; where it was assumed that men would treat women like throw-away objects; where women accepted it … until they didn't. (I remember the first women's liberation march down Fifth Avenue, but I'm time-leaping. Maybe the show will get to that.)

My father actually took the leap from the skyscraper shown in the opening graphics of each episode. In the graphic, Mad Man Don Draper never hits ground, but believe me, unless he starts being honest with himself, he will be blown to smithereens on impact.

I watched the latest episode ("The Rejected") last night — the one where Don Draper's secretary, Alison, who he slept with when he was drunk, confronts him. It was the first time anybody in the show called him what he is: "a drunk" who can turn on the charm at will and take no responsibility for what he does when he's drunk because he can't even remember it.

I was thinking about all this this morning as I sat next to the Lake in Central Park hearing the voices of an angelic choir singing Bach's Fugue in D Minor across the water in the echo chamber of the tunnel at Bethesda Fountain place. I love that piece of music. It sounded like the Swingle Singers' arrangement that I listened to as a teenager, so when I got home, I pulled out the album and listened to it on my record player for the first time since I switched to CDs. This music won a Grammy in 1963. If anybody in Mad Men listened to music, they might be listening to this now.

But it makes sense that, except for one self-consciously liberal and rebellious character, these mad men and women don't listen to music. Lost people, in my experience, don't hear, don't listen to anything that might interfere with them being lost, might call them back … to be found. In this world of sanctified lostness, nobody calls a drunk a drunk—unless he literally pees in his pants, in which case all the unnamed drunks laugh and kick the pee-er out as an unfortunate case who can't handle his liquor.

In a way, watching Mad Men has called me back, has helped me be found, even though I haven't been feeling particularly lost. The series has given me a bird's eye, compassionate perspective of my family that I never had before. Everybody is…was…is so afraid of being known. And at the same time, we long for the sensations of it. What a funny species we are.

But thank God for music. Bach called me back this morning. I hope the mad men and women will have some moments of hearing. Every episode of Mad Men ends with a piece of music for the audience's ears only. Selected by series composer David Carbonara, each song or composition is so astonishingly elegant, articulate, and honest, that could the characters hear it, there would be no more story … because they might cease being lost.

Thank you, David Carbonara, for ending each episode with a heartbeat. And thank you, writer and series creator Matthew Weiner, for being so fiercely honest about the dishonesty of lostness.




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