Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mad Men -- Mad Women

I am a Johnny (Joanie)-come-lately to AMC TV’s "Mad Men", having only just recently become a viewer. Blind to the story’s history and characters, my impression after viewing the first time was of excruciatingly slow movement, and I said so in a remark on Facebook. Very quickly, I got a response from a younger woman—probably close to the age of my daughter and her generation of women, who said, “My mother calls it excruciating. I love it!” Her friends had been laughing and throwing around comments about how every time they watched an episode, they felt like “smoking cigarettes and having Martinis”! They were obviously having fun. Which made it all that much more apparent to me how differently I was responding. Now, I had to stop and examine my gut as to what this description, “excruciating”, was all about for me, and how it was that another woman/mother, ostensibly near my age, had used the very same word in expressing her reaction to the series. As I probed through my insides, I began to discover I’d encountered a similar, but stronger stew of feelings when I’d seen the movie, "Revolutionary Road", around the first of the year. I had been drawn into the plot of this movie like a moth to the flame, and had sat, transfixed to its movement, marking the paces of each scene like steps forward in a Russian winter death march. "Dr. Zhivago"—excruciating. But along with the sense of plodding towards a predictable fate, I had felt saturated in an aura of accusation and shame—and bewildered as to why I would be feeling this way.

I was a very young teenager in the late fifties and early sixties, the era in which both of these plots were situated. I suffered all the angst of adolescence characteristic to every generation, but, as a young girl living in this period, I felt stifled. Stifled by its formality and restricted to a narrow locality, like the Chinese girls I had seen in "National Geographic", whose feet were bound at birth so they could never wander too far from home. I felt like any movement forward was agonizingly restrained--like trying to walk underwater. And, now, as I begin to more fully identify the wrappings of this experience, I am likening it to the paralysis of sleep, or the limp powerlessness of being mesmerized in trance. Hmmm, this is beginning to sound archetypal…

These were the days when I was compelled to survive the stultifying culture of conformity while I lived for my future freedom. After all, there were hints of another world out there, somewhere—“somewhere, there’s a time and place for us; it waits for us somewhere”.

I was never an avid feminist later in the sixties, though I reveled in the atmosphere of activism and change. I was in college at U.T. the year the metamorphosis from sorority girl to flower child occurred—just like caterpillar to butterfly, so it was for all of us. It was a metamorphosis from greek signs to peace signs—and it was as if a time wave passed through a the campus, The Drag, The Mayfair House, and we were all changed—in the twinkling of an eye! I was aware of feminism, like I was aware of the shift in music, clothes values, and dating practices; what was cool and what was not; the growing acceptance into our circle of marijuana, LSD, and other exotic hallucinogens--of loosened attitudes about sex. And this was before the Pill—or bordering on the time of its widespread availability without parental consent. These were the times that lit my mind in neon—offering flashes of hope I could be released from the oppressive bondage of the past. But I was also afraid.

Where the rush of potential flight was exhilarating, the fear of free-falling into uncertain space was terrifying, and my alarm was in contrast to my college companions who were reeling forward at a reckless pace. Yes, you heard right, the pubescent one who had dreamed of being Beat like Kim Novak in "Bell, Book, and Candle", and had been dragging herself through quicksand to get here, had reached a point in the turn to twenty where she was compelled to pull her board back from this great wave rising under her—this invitation to ecstasy. My practical nature wouldn’t allow me to go against my early warning system and catch that wave to feel the exuberance of its power. My gut told me that ride could only end with me being devoured by the wild surf. I am adventurous of mind and spirit, but afraid, at core, to act.

My Mother and Grandmother valued boldness; and my family, rugged independence and self-sufficiency. The Mothers also believed in being responsible to their families and placing themselves at the service, not of their men, necessarily, but of their children. The women in my family were not much like Betty or April, but I could tell they felt held back from achievement. They both wanted the limelight, but in different ways. My grandmother wanted to achieve wealth and status, social position and stability--but I believe she resented having to sell herself into marriage to do so. In her later years, she liked walking into the country club dining room at Champion’s and having the pianist abruptly stop the elevator music to play “Alley Cat” while she strutted across the room throwing her head high as she flung one end of her mink stole over her shoulder with flourish. No-one there knew that she spent most of her days sitting frozen on her perch in that trance of lost vision while she gazed out onto the golf course through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, only to awaken ever so often to smoke another cigarette.

My mother was aware she must fit into the social set in any place we lived, but she was competitive. She worked hard, giving herself to church and community service in the same way as she gave herself to her family. But she was a maiden who wanted to be king—in every club or activity where she became involved, she achieved leadership. She was aggressive, but she loved people and loved their attention and appreciation, so she was often at odds between her need to rise to a position of power and control, and her need to be loved and belong. She was also a natural athlete who taught us girls when we were little, to try and kiss our elbows so we could turn ourselves into boys and play baseball in the major leagues. My grandfather used to say she taught her two boys to be too soft, like girls. But he’s a whole other story…

So, apparently, the “excruciating” feeling I had of being bound up in slow moving molasses the first time I watched "Mad Men" didn’t arise out of viewing it during a slow time for TV on a slow end-of-weekend Sunday night. While my younger Facebook friends were admiring hunky Don, marveling over Betty’s wardrobe, and craving cigarettes and Martinis—enjoying their ride through time from a safe psychological distance, I was being drawn back into dangerous territory. I am in peril of discovering that I have unfinished business—I am still that ingĂ©nue—no more advanced than the women who went before me…

Revolutionary Road

I saw the movie , Revolutionary Road (directed by Sam Mendes and screenplay by Justin Haythe) last night and was quite moved. Not only did it bring back personal deep-seated feelings, I could see where they were wrought--from my intensive reading of the literature and my attunement to the film culture of the fifties and early sixties. I remember all the angst of repression built in the fifties surfacing in the sixties, because it became quite personal to me as an individuating teen (with a revolutionary mind and spirit).

Naturally the zeitgeist of the early sixties would light my fire of mind, if not stir my more cautionary nature to rapid response. A fence sitter, I was not, but torn, I was -- between my own two natures. Much has been said lately about American Exceptionalism and about the sense of entitlement of the Baby Boom generation, who came to believe the world was made just for allowing their suns to shine. There may be some truth in that to be seen in the arrogant recklessness we have recently witnessed with the Bush administration's grab for power and the financial markets' rabid excess of financial irresponsibility (though I would attribute the latter more to Generation Jones). But in a field of thought outside this box, there is also some need to question the whole notion of a spineless social conformity that would have us in step with a Stepford wife type mentality. Into this movie (I never read the
book, but will now), where we might initially expect romance, creeps the theme of a compelling culture of conformity that so stagnates the human spirit that it becomes overwhelmingly depressed and dispassionate. It is altogether too tempting from a "conformist" mental health perspective to "diagnose" the existential depression of the chararacters in this Tennesse Williams type drama as being caught up in a form of manic-depressive psychosis that is worthy of the electro-convulsive shock treatments given back in those times before the advent of Abilify (or behavioral health care).

Even though the press for freedom, for adventure and free-spirited expression of uniqueness may be considered childish things to be left behind as we accept the limitations of becoming responsible adults caring for our careers, our families and children; it remains important, does it not, to live with passion and with meaning as unique individuals? This is the question Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road (published in 1962), and other writers of the late fifties and early sixties put before us. How do we answer it? In it lies both an internal psychological and an external cultural archetypal dilemma to somehow be resolved. A challenge to the individual, a challenge to human nature.

Clearly, without the newly acquired affluence of a broadening middle class in the fifties and early sixties, this question could never have been asked. Without the security of those conditions, it would have been impossible to risk thumbing our noses at a deadbeat job or a lifeless marriage that didn't allow us to “follow our dreams". And will the freedom to have dreams and desires of expressing ourselves as unique individuals once again have to be set aside as we deal today with an economy (and climate and energy resources) gone critical, a rapidly shrinking and unstable middle-class? In times such as these, the call to the "exceptional" life becomes quite risky. Answering such a call may be threatening to our very survival. In times such as these we plunge to the lowest level of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. We fall from the level of individual achievement and “self-actualization” to the scrapper mentality of physical survival.
In these times of economic--really, global insecurity, we seem to be called upon to surrender our higher callings and our deepest longings (or is it our foolish illusions?) for a narrow focus on survival which requires personal sacrifice.

Can you feel the pain?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dances with Death

Pink moon peers through my window
With his longing steals the key
Haunts me with his wanton woeful
Face, he looks on me

Pink moon listens at my door
While I shift and move inside
Opening to be his whore
Wanting to confide

I break the paint and crank glass panes
And open to the night
Breeze floods in sweet smell of bane
And all that pale pink light

And just when I begin to speak
He pinches off the flow
And binds the sweet release I seek
Caressed with voice so low

No, not now he says so soft
I barely hear his words
He winds his way into my loft
And beckons me with chords

That promise holds of pleasure’s pain
The music of restraint I feign
It moves me, minor notes they strain
My brain, I am no longer sane!

Just then he pulls his pink moonlight
Back through the open door
And as he walks into the night
I call out wanting more

From far away I hear his song
While colorless and cold
I lay in pools of longing
My quilts of love unfold

And dance outside my window
Dance bring down the moon
Bring down that pale and rosy moon so low
It falls to swoon

Then suddenly, surprisingly
His hand is up my skirt
Pink light on bare skin dancing
With Death I am the flirt

He throws me down onto the ground
Into night garden’s dirt
And pounds me down ‘til I am found
No longer can avert

The knowing I am Queen of Death
Persephone I die
The little death, exhale the breath
To live again, come, hie!

August 22, 2005
Copyright 2005
All rights reserved

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Third Coast Woman

The upper half of her ample body lay stretched for 150 miles from the hill country to the coast where her broad hips sank into the liminal beach sands bordering the gulf, and the wetness between her thighs sweetened the currents of the waters there. Her legs, spread wide, extended out to the deep blue drop beyond the sand bars and formed protective jetties that broke the power of the surf, preserving the land against the sea’s encroachment. Her rounded breasts softened by the years of suckling her many children are the limestone hills that replace, in this time, the once mighty mountain range that was slowly eroded by her rain and wind children. From her headlands pour the rivers, her tears, her laughter, the stories she tells her people by their campfires in the night.

Gold and Global Collapse

Hot and flushed, my heart was pumping hard to do the double task of cooling my body while providing continuous energy to my legs as I ploughed through the scratchy thickness of this south Pacific island jungle. My throat swollen and engorged from my body's effort to get blood to my brain, I struggled to breathe. Seeing a tiny clearing ahead, I slowed my pace for a moment anticipating a break in this forced walk, and immediately I felt the heaviness in my thighs and the weakness in my knees and ankles. A small patch of bright blue sky beamed through the opening in the immense green canopy surrounding and overtowering me.

I sank to my knees, pulled my water bottle out of my pack, guzzled down some of its coolness and poured more over my face to relieve the stinging and itching from the palm fronds scratching against my skin. The only direction from here was down as the broad landscape flowed towards its ending in the narrow crevice where a pool of cold, clear water lay embraced by its mountainous banks. It was on a ledge beneath and behind the narrow thousand foot falls cascading into this pool that I had hidden the gold and now I must, somehow retrieve it and return before I was discovered missing.

On the day of the collapse, we’d loaded up the stash of bullion onto the flatbed, breaking it out of the hole where I had it bricked up in my cellar. We’d taken the bars a few at a time from the vault at work when we realized the end was near. Getting to the edge of the valley of the falls was easy, but getting the gold down the mountain through the thick jungle was another story. John had devised a line and pulley system I won’t begin to describe here, because it is his area of expertise. Together we had sent load after load down the lines we’d poled to the base to get to the pool. Stacking them along the narrow bank, they'd laid in wait of the more labor intensive job of placing them on the ledge underwater behind the falls.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Even Global Warming Gets Gulf Breeze

Sinking back on my heels for a moment and pulling away from the task that had me breaking a sweat, I became aware of the constant but variable cool breeze coming through the window. Mid December, now, was unseasonably, unreasonably warm, even for this subsiding area on the south side of Houston. As the wind currents stirred about inside this storage container where I was emptying Natalie’s toys and books, it occurred to me that this part of town from which I'd moved away when I was seven, was close enough to the gulf to get that steady, comforting breeze that consistently blew in on summer afternoons along the coast of Texas.

This realization immediately spurred a recollection of afternoon naps in my mother’s room in the house just a few blocks away from here. Her bed in that room had been shoved up against the open window facing south, and the stiff breeze activated by the daily pressure shifts on the coast would blow across the bed and wake me from my sweaty slumber with its cool relief every afternoon. Immersing myself in the memory and drifting in its rich sensory flow, I acknowledged the security I felt in its dependability. It occurred to me that during my youth nearby the coast, I had actually learned to tell time by it. Laughing silently to myself, I thought about how most often in those years, it had signalled release from the daily afternoon nap-time incarceration imposed upon us by my mother .

I hadn’t been in this declining area of town for many years, but being here now, I reacognized it as a place of high impact for me in early childhood years. Many of the old houses and stores had already been torn down or had fallen down, perhaps even vandalized or set on fire for the insurance money. John had recently purchased two lots in this broken-down part of town, trusting the investors who believed this area would be the next big attraction for urban reclamation. He was moving his and Natalie's things into storage here while finalizing plans for the studio he would build on the property, a place where he would begin his life again following the divorce from Natalie's mother.

Now, looking out the window of the large storage container placed here just last week, the hazy patch of sky visible within its frame appeared broken and torn by the gnarly black branches of the old oak tree left standing in the yard after the clearing. Empty of its leaves on this balmy winter day, it remained as a landmark to some young couple in the fifties who had planted it as an attribute to their new suburban home. Today, the ambient temperature had brought sweat to my brow, and now, a breaking wetness under my arms and between my legs began to evaporate as I sat back and allowed the stillness in my spread-eagle posture and the motion of the breeze combine to cool me.