Hombres Locos [April 25, 2015]
I love your “best lines of the week” conceit for this week’s blog post.
This was my favorite episode of the (SOB!!!) final season so far, due in large part to generous helpings of Sally, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, all my favorite Mad Men femmes. With at least 3 of them involved in sex-related situations or conversations during the episode, life couldn't be better!
(GIANT ASIDE: Speaking of commercials-as-punishment, which you brought up in your opening paragraph: I sometimes end up re-watching Mad Men episodes on the computer. And while grateful that AMC makes them available this way for further study, the strategy for delivering commercials during these online viewings is heinous. Quartets of commercials abruptly interrupt the show, often at key moments (nothing new there). But unlike watching network TV as you described, where you usually get an array of different commercials each break, online you see the same one or two commercials EACH DAMN TIME. During some of the frequent commercial barrages, you see the same single commercial four times back to back. (I turn the sound off so at least I don't have to hear them.) Highly obnoxious. When this indignity occurs, I console myself by leaving the room, to pet dogs, secure snacks, pee, or take a close look at my eyebrows in the bathroom mirror (always edifying, I find. You can tell your future by scrutinizing your eyebrows.) And I keep a list of the products that are advertised in this mind-battering, abusive way, so I will remember NEVER to buy ANY of them. I feel Don Draper would rather be celibate for life than ever allow ads for any product Sterling Cooper represented, be it peanut butter cookies or pantyhose, to bludgeon a poor, lowly computer user in this abusive way. END OF CRANKY ASIDE.)
I love two pairings or doublings in this episode. ONE: we get to see both Joan and Don woken up as the show opens. Don's overslept and his realtor lets herself in to show his on-the-market house, and thus wakes him. On the opposite coast, Joan, on a business trip, is awakened in her hotel room by her annoying mother, who's babysitting her little boy back in New York, calling too early because she just can't keep it straight about the time difference. We get the fun of hearing what Joan orders for breakfast from room service, which is a perfect character description of Joan via food: “A glass of skim milk, a grapefruit, a pot of coffee..............(significant PAUSE) ..........and some French toast.”
The second pairing is a kind of image/dialogue rhyme. When Joan is having sex with Richard for the first time, there's a little jokey pillow talk about how avid he is. He teases, “I just got out of jail.” She smiles and sweetly replies, “And you're acting like it.” When Sally and Betty are dealing with travelers checks for Sally's impending school trip, Betty lamely tries to extract a promise from Sally that she won't launch into teen nymphomaniac mode on the trip: “There are going to be boys everywhere. So I hope you won't act like you were just let out of a cage.” This is an interesting remark on a number of levels, but the image of surging sexual appetite being analogous to being freed from a cage or jail is arresting (ha ha).
The mother/daughter scene with Sally and Betty was excellent. It made me realize that, in many ways, Sally is more sophisticated than Betty. Maybe this is true of most mothers and daughters, once the daughters reach young womanhood? Betty seemed suddenly hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch trying primly to warn Sally about “boys.” As you noted, Sally used the opportunity to land a verbal sucker punch.
This episode contains one of Betty’s finest hours, in my view. She is often the beautiful woman fans love to hate, but in this episode, dealing with the distraught Glenn Bishop who's about to ship off to Vietnam, she actually treats him tenderly, with a mixture of maternal and sexual wisdom we rarely see from her. She is kind to him, and rebuffs his awkward advance (I thought) with real gentleness and concern, her vaunted haughtiness and narcissism nowhere in sight. She knows what he needs to hear at this crucial moment. “You're going to make it, I'm positive!” There has always been chemistry between Betty and this kid, ever since he was a small boy. (I also applaud Mad Men's writers, for being brave enough in early episodes to allow their story line to deal with the sexuality of children, and I admire the way they have pursued that plot thread now in this final season, rather than dropping it, though it is a hot potato topic.) It's been so amazing to watch Glenn and Sally grow up and come of age on this show!
I loved Don and Sally’s terse interchange as she was boarding the school trip bus. She may at times seem more sophisticated than Betty, but her relation to Don is a different story, and of course they are very alike. He's able to take on the chin her rather vicious adolescent attack on his parenting, and his reply is to tell her that while she's beautiful, she could be so much more. For all his Don Juan antics, he takes women seriously, and in some cases tries to get them to take themselves seriously as well.
There's online scuttlebutt about Joan's two divorces...claiming she was married to someone named Scottie prior to her tying the knot with the inept Army surgeon, but I'll have to do further research. Glenn has performed that miracle that adolescents do, turned from a lumpy, funny kid to a wonderful creature, a tall, good looking young man (yuk hairdo, facial hair scraggles and sideburns of the period notwithstanding.)
Since you were speculating, David, about what the closing scenes of Mad Men will be, I wonder if the show's last moments are going somehow to involve Don’s so-called “Gettysburg Address,” the speech about the company's vision and future direction that Roger has sloughed off onto our favorite Lothario? What thinkest thou?
Till the next installment,
Others have probably observed that Don Draper’s “born again” moment – the moment when he took on the identity of a deceased officer in a Korean War battle – is an identical repetition of what shirtless Bill Holden has done in the POW camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai. But though poor Bill comes to an unhappy end in that remarkable movie, it is not what I foresee for Don when Mad Men reaches April 1970, Nixon moves against Cambodia, and four Kent State students die at the hands of the National Guard. Unlike the literalists who believe that the falling-man motif in the opening credits must control what happens at the very end, I feel that the aptest concluding sequence would have Don alone at the bar of a cocktail lounge, approached by a woman (or that woman’s friend) – with the implication that nothing is terminal. . . that Don will continue to be Don, a true Don though not in the Corleone sense. . . and that “some things that happen for the first time / [will] seem to be happening again. . .”
Don’t go all moral on us, Matt Weiner. We did not identify ourselves with Don Draper because we disapprove of him (though we may well disapprove of a lot of the things he does).
It surprises me that Megan is so bitter. And that her mother would clean out Don of his furniture. And that Don, headstrong though he is, would go all-in on Diana, the waitress from Racine, Wisconsin.
It doesn't surprise me that, thanks to Marie Calvait, Don's apartment is devoid of furniture, and he stands in it, disconcerted, surrounded by emptiness.
It doesn’t surprise me that media maven Harry Crane should so sleazily and brazenly hit on Megan when lunching with her ostensibly to discuss her agent and her career . . .although I am surprised that Harry, whose fashion taste has always been erratic at best, is wearing a nice suit and tie when entering Don’s office. Don’s navy suit and tie are, to be sure, three times nicer.
It doesn’t surprise me, but it disappoints me, that Harry covers his ass so shamelessly in Don’s office, telling him that Megan is “unstable” and will say “crazy things.”
It surprises me that Don writes out a million dollar check to give to Megan while their divorce attorneys behave like attorneys and prolong the negotiations. “Nothing about you is real,” she tells Don and gives him back the engagement ring that came from Don Draper’s real wife and widow. “You’re nothing but a liar – an aging, sloppy, selfish liar,” Megan says. Well, OK, but she deserves better lines. . . and the point about Don has been made and need not be emphasized at such moments.
It surprised me that art director Stan’s girlfriend Elaine is so loving and so adventurous, willing to pose in the nude for his photographic portfolio.He turns out to be a nice guy -- after such an unpromising start. . . .
It surprised me that Megan has a sister. Can’t see the advantage of introducing her now, but who knows?
It doesn’t surprise me that Megan’s mother would call on Roger Sterling to do a service for her. . .a service combining money (Marie needs him to pay $180 to Megan’s movers) and desire (“please take advantage of me,” she says breathily),
It surprised me to encounter hustler Pima, the photographer with the great reputation, who will do anything with either Peggy or Stan or both to get a lucrative assignment . . I don’t see a future for her, but I’m not plotting the show.
If I were, well, I am missing Sally, hoping for a reprise of Dr. Faye Miller, maybe a flashback of art director Sal or crazy Krishna Paul, and a return to the office of Michael Ginsberg.
If they asked me I’d want a major advertising crisis – the need to satisfy a well-heeled but hopelessly resistant client, an ingenious solution to a thorny problem.
If it were up to me. . . but it isn’t. Who, by the way, is singing “C’est Si Bon” over the closing credits? Henri Betti?
What did you make of the episode?
Speaking of being born again: Betty scared the bejesus out of me in that opening scene where Don was babysitting at Henry and Betty's house, making chocolate milkshakes for his and Betty's little boys. How did she terrify me? By declaring that she was going back to school for a master's degree in psychology, aiming to re-invent herself as some kind of counselor or therapist. Can you imagine having a shrink who looks like Grace Kelly, only aggressively sexier, and who has the poor impulse control and unchecked, rabid narcissism of a sulky four year old?
David, I heartily second your plea to the admired Matt Weiner: "DON"T GO ALL MORAL ON US" Don't "punish" Don for being Don in concluding Mad Men. That would be an expected, tidy exit strategy unworthy of that character, the series or your audience.
This episode's color scheme seemed to be warm earth tones, hovering around the red, orange, red-brown and rust part of the spectrum. Remember Pete's hilarious tomato red golf sweater, Don's dark red shirt in the initial milkshake scene, and Betty's peach print gown in that same scene? Stan and Harry are clad mostly in brown this episode, Peggy 2/3rds of the time in orange, and rust red (and once in green to disrupt my scheme); Meredith in buttercup yellow, and then an orange jumper. Pima carries a bright red umbrella in the scene where she tries to seduce Peggy. Megan wears a very fetching rust colored dress in the fancy hotel room she and her sister and mother occupy in Manhattan, in contrast to her sister's dowdier (by comparison) brown frock. Don's bedroom is deep red. Stan and Pima presumably have sex in the weird red light of the darkroom. Sultry waitress Diana's now has a brown-red uniform (matching the color scheme of the more upscale steakhouse she seems to have graduated to from the coffee shop.) The walls of her crummy hotel room are red orange, complete with red bedspread, in the scene where the episode grimly ends.
Speaking of Diana, this hot bit of speculation just in from tenured professor of Mad Men studies Denise Duhamel:
A friend obsessed with the show said that there is a theory that Diana, the waitress, could be Don's DAUGHTER!
Remember when he was raped in the whorehouse?
I really doubt that would be the case, but why would Mad Men bring her Diana in and drop her, when all I want is more Peggy, Joan, Betty, and especially SALLY?
Indeed, the question on everyone's lips is "Whither Sally???" And thanks, learned colleague Denise Duhamel (who shares initials with Don Draper! Could this be one of the factors that initially drew professor Duhamel to this important field of research, in which she has so distinguished herself in recent years? If waitress Diana is indeed Don's Daughter, then one version of her maiden name would be Diana Draper, another set of nicely alliterative initials to monogram her leather luggage with, should she ever have enough dough to buy any.)
Favorite line of the episode: probably the one delivered by Harry Crane in the squirm- worthy scene you referred to, David, where Harry tries, with the suaveness of Sasquatch, to put the old casting couch make on Megan. Never has poor Harry acted like more of a cad (perhaps he was still smarting from being referred to as "Mr. Potato Head" by an unkind client in last week's installment.) Reeling from how gorgeous Megan looks when she joins him for lunch at a snazzy hotel restaurant, he gapes and gasps: "You're like Ali McGraw and Brigit Bardot had a baby!" (Perfect description of actress Jessica Pare in this part.)
Things I loved about this episode:
1. Roger's code for the clients who are "blotto after lunch:" N.A.C. NO AFTERNOON CALLS.
2. When Don is nuzzling Diana, he murmurs, "You smell incredible. What is that?" and she replies dryly, though also a bit dreamily, as Don's nose is gently snuffling her hair, "shampoo." (She continues after that, talking about how it's Avon shampoo, remarking "I bought it in my living room," perhaps setting us up for door to door sales of cosmetics as a business model Don's agency may take an interest in?)
3. In Pima's photo shoot for a Vermouth commercial, all the models seem to be dressed like sexy witches.
4. Stan's ultra-cool, pot-smoking, cute wife Elaine, whose nurse uniform and hat seem to rhyme with Diana's waitress uniform and very similar starched white cap.
This episode is not unique in featuring lying as theme. One might even say that to the cynical among us, lying is a foundational concern of the show, as all advertising could be viewed as a form of lying. Diana fibs to Don about being childless, then later confesses "I lied to you." Don responds wonderfully, with a tender, quizzical "Already?" When Peggy tells Stan that Pima made a pass at her, too, and that she's a hustler, he growls "I don't believe you." Peggy looks him in the eye and says, "Which part?" When Roger asks Megan's mother if Don really agreed to Megan taking every stick of furniture from their formerly shared apartment and ship it to California, she says he did. Stan's wife asks how Pima liked his cheesecake photos of her, and he responds, "She loved them." As you noted, when finalizing their divorce, Megan calls Don an aging, sloppy, selfish liar, when actually, he's probably the least dissembling main character featured in this episode.
Till next week
OK, let’s get our bearings. The more things stay the same, the more they change – on the surface at least. Peggy Lee sings “Is That All There Is?” while Peggy Olsen’s midriff expands; hem lines are going up and these boots were made for walking; the tension between Peggy and Joan gets more intense; the transformation of Ken Cosgrove from nice guy with level head to one-eyed sourpuss continues apace; and the guys usher in the dawn of the worst decade of male fashion with ugly mustaches – Roger’s white stache in the Rollie Fingers mode; even worse, perhaps, Ted’s big brown concession to the Zeitgeist.
The trio of oversexed McCann ad men who can’t get enough of Joan’s panties, hose, and bra: did we (men) really behave that crudely back then? (Don’t answer.) And if, onomastically, Harry Crane echoes Hart Crane, and Dick Whitman evokes Walt, and Michael Ginsberg recalls Allen, then meek John Mathis in the flesh, who reports to Peggy and matches her up with his brother-in-law, will disappoint all of us who made out to Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” in suburban cellars prepping for the high school prom in 1966. I have never before used the word onomastically in a sentence.
Things have changed on the Semitism front at least. The dark-haired waitress waiting on Don, Roger, and three female accomplices in a diner – the waitress named Di – reminds our boy of Rachel Katz, nee Menken, and the first of the last episodes of “Mad Men” go right back to episode one of season one when the heiress of Menken’s department stores gets treated rudely by Don and company in the then-judenrein firm of Sterling and Cooper. In a dream Rachel is one of the models auditioning for the chinchilla ad that the agency is planning. In the most memorable dialogue of the week, she tells Don “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight” and he replies with the over-sincerity of a commercial: “Rachel, you’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.”
Rachel Menken has died of leukemia. It happened just a week ago. Don is stunned; he pays a shiva visit to Rachel’s sister Barbara, who needs not explain what this seven-day period of mourning entails. Don knows. He has, he says, lived in New York for a long time. Barbara’s husband: “We need one more for a minyan.” Don: “I’ll be glad to help.” Barbara: “He can’t. He’s not Jewish.” The men doven while he stands in the vestibule looking on. You think of the Jews we have met since Nixon and Kennedy faced off in series one: Jane Siegel, who marries Roger; Jane’s pint-sized cousin, butt of jokes, mocked incessantly by Roger until he deftly aims a punch at Roger’s solar plexus; Abe who loves Peggy; Ginsberg, crazy as a loon but right up there with Don and Peggy in the copywriting department; foul-mouthed comedian Jimmy Barrett and his wife, Bobbie. Don has slept with Bobbie, he has slept with Rachel, and it could be that the antidote to anti-Semitism is good sex. As Ava Gardner put it, when accounting for why she and Sinatra fought constantly yet played their romance through to its end, “If a man’s good in the feathers, you can forgive a lot.”
Meanwhile, Don remains the Lothario de ses jours, shtupping the waitress in an alley and topping a midnight visitor on a wine-stained carpet. In the immortal words of every TV critic in America, Does he know who he is? Will he ever find out? And how will it end? Will he jump? Will he fall? The last two questions reveal too literal a reading of the opening credits and should be disregarded. To the first two questions: Sure. He’s the guy who radiates confidence when he sells you a Mercedes. “The best – or nothing.”
Something I have been wondering: would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but Walter Scott would still be dead. Would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but let’s not mistake it for sacrifice or pretend Walter Scott would not still be dead. I spend time in Black spaces, in Black family, amid Black love, I know Black genius and have known Black bodies and know just about nothing of what it is to be Black but I would be it, would surrender my whiteness to be it and Walter Scott would still be dead.
Something I have been wondering: what would happen if whiteness as we know it disappeared? What if whiteness carried on its broad pale back the unbearable weight of enslavement, of three-fifths, of Jim Crow and Tuskegee and the prison capitalist industry and the long and unqualified failure of Brown vs. the Board of Education? What then for my blue-eyed nephews, my pastel godson? Would Walter Scott still be dead? Would my father? My grandfathers? Theirs? In trees? Behind trucks? In fields? As experiments? On ships? In rebellion? Running away?
I can tell you I would not exist. My mother’s mother met my grandfather during the Great Depression; he was driving a boat and she was swimming off the family’s lake house pier. My mother met my father at a dance in the same lily-toned summer community. Remove skin privilege and the stories fall apart, my DNA a rope unraveling.
Make fate stronger than this, make them meet in bread lines or protest rallies and I exist, but who am I? Shift the locus of my birth, shift the solidity of my public schooling, shift the capacity of my parents to pay for college, shift the easy slip into employment, shift my safe white walk through everywhere – turn it all on its head, an inversion, and name me someone else. Because I am white, which is indivisible from privilege.
And what if tomorrow it all were different. If in an instant, skin became no indication of whom to kill or kidnap or fire or disdain or dismiss or enslave or arrest or detain or shrink from, clutching one’s expensive handbag on the subway. Would we find another marker for target, and construct a new national horror story on that? It would need to be visible, like skin. Be inherited, generationally unshakable. Who would be Walter Scott then, be Michael Brown, be Tamir Rice, be John Crawford, Mariam Carey, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Alberta Spruil? Who’d be dead?
So much conjecture, and Walter Scott is still dead for nothing. Dead for nothing but his pure skin. And my father is alive, and my nephews and my godson being raised into good men. And my grandfathers died of old age and cancer and I can’t surrender or abandon or strip off this whiteness any more than I can bring back the dead.
But I can ask this question: what does it require for a human to be seen as human in any skin?
How many Coast Guard photos, how many sweet-faced senior pictures, how many Black boys leaning into their father’s good shoulders, how many hands up, how many face down, how many can’t breathe, how much footage of cops handcuffing newly dead humans do we need? These are bodies, living or once living. These are human, human, human bodies.
Billie Holiday on repeat, you know the song, the poplar tree, white bark, white branches, indivisible from its history, white like bones white like teeth and flags of surrender tied to branches and bayonets Walter Scott, I surrender. I am sorry. Michael Brown, I surrender. I am sorry. Ferguson, I surrender. I am sorry. Dear living dear living dear living, I can’t take the white from my body but here is my white mouth, here are my white hands. I will not surrender to history. I will speak. I will try to put them where there is need.
Nothing brings back the 1975 World Series better than Jack Jones singing this adaptation of jazz standard "Talk of the Town" to sell Chrysler New Yorkers:
Episode 1: "Time Zones"
Episode 2 "A Day's Work"
Episode 3: "Field Trip"
Episode 4: "The Monolith"
Episode 5: "The Runaways"
Episode 6: "The Strategy"
Episode 7: "Waterloo"
Check back weekly for the Gerstler-Lehman recaps of the final episodes of Mad Men.
There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.”
This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV.
Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.
It was a few kapunas (elders, but like so many Hawaiian words, much more than elders), those remaining from the 400 speakers in 1960, who brought the sounds and traditions of real Hawaiian direct to these students. Auntie Lolena Nichols—I could devote a whole blog to how kinship patterns in orality are as complex as nuclear fission, but right now let’s just say “Auntie”—was one of these native speakers from Ni’ihau. These days she divides her time between the children at the punana leo and graduate students at the University of Hawaii, Manao. In oral consciousness, people are books, and as the language activist/scholar Puakea Nogelmeier is fond of saying, Auntie Lolena is a PhD in living Hawaiian. When I first met Lolena, I presumed a Hawaiian greeting: forehead to forehead, nose to nose, you breathe in the breath of the other. Lolena’s power almost knocked me over.
Nogelmeier, himself is a very special man with a deliciously deep voice. You get to hear it every time you take a bus in Honolulu. Most of the streets still have their original Hawaiian names, but as the language died out so did proper pronunciation. The names became haole, the Hawaiian word for white people, but as the language movement (not Bernstein/Andrews, but the push for mother tongue survival) gained momentum one of the successes was hearing Puakea’s dulcet tones pronounce real Hawaii’an as you take public transportation in Honolulu.
One thing you notice right away in the language is the ‘okina, the glottal stop, considered an actual letter in Hawaiian, one of eight consonants. There are five vowels. Thirteen letters altogether, and one of them is the silent “hitch” you hear when you say uh-oh. Having a language with such a few number of letters, each of which is pronounced in only one way (well, vowels are short and long, but long just means they are longer, not that they have a different sound), gives Hawaiian only 18 phonemes, one of the fewest of any language (English has 57, the Koisan click languages over 140).
It also makes Hawaiian an extremely easy language for speakers to read. Think of the evolution of written English, its centuries of inconsistent spellings and idiosyncratic pronunciations. How different it was for literacy to arrive in Hawaii. When the first missionaries arrived in 1820, they quickly developed a written language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian, the better to convert the populace. They gained the full support of the royal family, who even at this time were considered not the descendants of gods, but actual gods. And when these kings and queens took up the advocacy of reading, it took less than fifty years for Hawaii to surpass the Mainland in literacy, eventually having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was said that Hawaiians could read upside-down – because of the lack of reading material, four people would stand around a book or newspaper – two read sideways, one straight on, one upside down.
One of the reasons this happened was the advent of Hawaiian newspapers. Over the next 100 years, more than 100 native language newspapers were founded. But it wasn’t the news they were reporting, it was the incredibly rich Oral culture that they were recording. Every endangered language that is being revived develops techniques for adding vocabulary for new things and concepts (computer, cell pone, defriend, Pringle-ization), and for words that have been lost. But it’s only Hawaii, where the people fell so in love with reading that now researchers can “mine” this trove to find forgotten vocabulary, ideas for new words, and still hear the voices from the days when the language was teeming with energy, the essence of Hawaiian culture full flower.
I want to talk about my visit with William Merwin, who of course lives in Haiku on the island on Maui, telling me that Hawaiian will be back when it is “considered a first language, when you make jokes in it, play around with it.” I want to travel way up the mountain and tell you about my visit with Keali’I Richel,who told me how hula became the way that language survived during the years that the American colonists outlawed it, how “you can have a hula poem without the dance, but you can’t have the dance without the poem.” I want you to meet Kaui sa-Dudoit, the Mother of the Language Movement, whose dozen kids all grew up in immersion schools, all rebelled as teenagers and stopped, and all came back.
And I want you to see David Grubin and me actually getting in the water, up to our knees, daring the Pacific in our bermudas, trying to write a poem while the waves tried to push us over. But instead, it is time to go to Wales, and meet a language that has survived for over a thousand years while the powerful onslaught of bully English ruled the land.
Alice Quinn, in all her ebullience, “Bob, this is Eve. Eve Grubin. She’s David Grubin’s daughter! She’s a poet.” This in the sunny, energized Poetry Society of America offices—what a great meeting. Eve was a young poet with a new job. Her dad, a renowned PBS producer/director, had just created “The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets” hosted by Bill Moyers and shot at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. My own PBS series, “The United States of Poetry,” had been broadcast at the same time. There’s so little contact between poetry and television—seemed like David and I were the only people in the universe uniting these two opposites. But plenty of people thought David and I represented two different camps of poetry – academic and street/spoken word. But David had had me be in his film and – oh, this was so marvelously complicated! But it was terrific meeting Evie that day at PSA, thinking of David also as a father, like I was with my daughters. And now we could say hello at parties! Who knew where this might lead?
The story begins The Poem’s new forms in the dawning of the Era of Digital Consciousness. In the beginning, (1980?), I knew television to be the Enemy. TV was why nobody was coming to my readings! They were all at home in front of the Cyclops in the Corner. But then, by luck and friends and a certain proclivity, I had the opportunity to get poetry on television—on WNYC-TV, before Giuliani sold it and it became NY1. For the six years that I produced “Poetry Spots,” television became just another way to transmit the poem. Funny what a little power will do.
I’d learned from Walter Ong that Orality is not a precursor to writing, but a separate and equivalent consciousness. This factoid changed my life. Television became just another platform for poetry to make nothing happen. For tens of thousands of years poetry was solely an oral art. Then came writing, famously followed by print. Now we have digital: film/video/internet. The medium of transmission may change, but the poem is always The Poem.
This interest in Orality is what led me to my fieldwork in Africa, searching for the roots of hip-hop. And I knew that if I were to make this expedition right, led by my guide, mentor and friend, Alhaji Papa Susso, I’d need a couple of cameras and a soundman. Luckily, this kind of realistic insanity is shared by my good buddy, Ram Devineni, who produced these explorations of oral traditions into a three-part series on LinkTV. As soon as we had DVDs of the imaginatively-titled “On the Road with Bob Holman: Africa and Israel,” I immediately sent one to my PBS doppelgänger, David Grubin. It had been 20 years since PBS did poetry.
And so it was that we found ourselves at a pleasant boite on the Bowery, discussing poetry over lunch. David liked “On the Road”! Well, I said, I think of myself as a poet in my documentaries. It was great to talk with a real documentary filmmaker, and heartening that he liked my work. Maybe I got a little nudgey when I asked David if there was anything he could do to help me with this project, and he replied, What do you have in mind? Why don’t we do a project together, I subtly suggested, With you as producer and director? And to my utter astonishment, David replied, Well, let’s see if we can get the money.
It may sound like a line out of Hollywood, but I didn’t notice. If anyone knows the production of an educational documentary from soup to nuts it’s David Grubin and his a fistful of Emmys. He said he’d try the National Endowment for the Humanities first, they had funded him in the past. When I went to the NEH website to check out the grant form, I couldn’t believe that their application model was for “The Buddha,” Grubin’s award-winning documentary. (“The Buddha”, by the way, has over 700,000 likes on Facebook now). This might happen!
And it did.
Here’s our secret. David is totally committed to poetry, as is his wife, the artist Joan Grubin. They read poems to each other every morning, and David’s memorized quite a number. He and I have a great time talking over everyone from Stanley Kunitz to Sekou Sundiata, and the synthesis of our sensibilities—I still remember the way that I was attacked by some people from the Dodge Foundation, “You can’t make a poetry film in MTV bursts, with no narrator!”—was really played out in our quest to use poetry as the engine to bring the world’s attention to the language crisis—half the languages on the planet will disappear this century.
I suggested we make the film in Africa, where Orality is a way of life. Africa is where poets, griots, have a real role in society—and they get paid, too. We could start off in the Kalahari, I said, and listen to Koisan, the “click” languages—they have over 140 phonemes (sounds), the most in the world. Listening to a Koisan speaker is like listening to a jug band in the mouth. And of course there’s the incredible griot traditions of West Africa, where I had previously spent so much time learning, straight from the origins, of African American musical traditions, the birthplace of the blues, jazz, hip-hop. David listened. We need an argument,” he said. We need to tell the story of how languages become endangered, and why that’s important. What do we lose when we lose a language?
Finally, after a lot of nudging on his part, I got it. How about we have a language that’s dying, say, a last speaker. and a language in the struggle of revivification, and close with a success story, actually the only success story (outside of the special case that is Hebrew) -- Welsh, the only language to have come of the endangered list.
And that was it. That’s what we did, and that’s how Language Matters came to be. The money came through from the National Endowment for the Humanities (thank you so, NEH!) and also some from (LINK) Pacific Islanders in Communication (mahalo!). The show will be broadcast this week in most parts of the US, but you’ll have to check your own listings to find out exactly when, and in some places, like Minneapolis, it won’t broadcast until April. Please check with your local stations. My sister Amy lobbied the affiliate in Richmond, VA, and now we’ll be seen there. Thanks, Amy.
One little anecdote for the road. We knew we had to have Wales, and when we met linguist Nick Evans we saw the camera-ready qualities of North Arnhemland, Australia. But for the “language in transition section,” I really thought we should head to Greenland, where some linguists are working in tandem with the population, leading the writing of poems in Greenlandic about walrus hunting and seal fat while actually engaging in the hunts—what could be better?
But Bob, David replied, W.S. Merwin is in Hawaii. He’s studied the language, and planted endangered species of palms that would make a great physical analogy. And the story of the punana leo, the language nests where children speak only Hawaiian…I just stared at him. Ok Bob, David said. You go buy the parkas. I’ll get the bikinis.
I work in an industry where everyone wants to be famous. Not only do they want to be famous, but success is measured by what degree of notoriety you have. I do two things. I host a show on local TV about books called Beyond the Book. For the show, I interview touring authors, talk about what’s happening in the local libraries, and (my favorite) visit and discuss local places that have been mentioned in books. More than almost anything, I’d really like the show to grow and be successful. I also teach College English, something I get equally enthusiastic and zealously passionate about. I have opportunities to read the beginnings of a could-be novel and at the same time, make sure students know their way around a comma splice. Geeky, right? It’s pretty awesome.
Working on Beyond the Book for the last few years has absolutely had me thinking about a next step. Could I bring the show to a larger network? Do I think it could ever be national? What would happen then? What would it be like to be famous? Fame. Walking down the street and someone recognizing your face. What would that be like?
Walking into school every day feels like someone just gave me a license to have meaningful input in what our next generation is learning. I can’t believe I get to be here, giving these people what was given to me in school and telling them things I wish I would have known a few years ago. In the classes I teach, I often require a paper, a script, a poem, or a short story, among other things. There have been a few times that a first draft has been so good-so inspiring and hopeful, that I read it and it’s hard to breathe. Teaching itself is beautiful, but anyone who teaches knows the politics that come with it. Working under a Dean, dealing with HR, and trying to work within or teetering between often pointless politics can suck the life out of you. Reading such a paper can jolt you back to life. It can make you want to reach through the lines of the page and hug the person who filled them with such untainted literary bricks of gold. It happened recently. A student handed me a poem that wasn’t perfect, but it had some perfect pieces, and it had heart. We sat down and I began to tell him how taken I was with what he wrote. Maybe the next step could be working towards publication. This student is in school studying graphic design, but my interest in his work sparked some excitement.
Ms. G, do you think I could get all my poems together and write a book of poetry? I also have some short stories. Maybe I could get them all published. I could do comical essays like David Sedaris. Did you know he was on Letterman? I could definitely imagine myself being famous. Why would a graphic designer ever be on Letterman?
Fame and celebrity have a pull that affects all of us, and I don’t pretend to understand why. I just have observations, and things that I make sure I tell myself when identifying why something is important to me. Success in the grandest of senses doesn’t always mean fame. What is celebrity anyway?
-- Rachel Fayne Gruskin
PART 1: INTRODUCTION; WATCHING FOOTBALL; THE VHS TAPE
THE GAME OF FOOTBALL begins for me in about 1983 or 1984. On my elbows and my stomach, legs stretched behind me on a pea green wall-to-wall carpet, I am three or four; my head is cocked; my mouth is slung open, and my eyes barely blink. On a 21" rabbit-eared Zenith, is a thrillingly simple smashing together of human bodies, which I for my part, believe I fully understand; it is the game of professional football, and it is the Cincinnati Bengals. Like everything that appears on that TV when the dial is chunked around to 5,9,12, or U, the bodies on screen are red, blue, and green dots in tiny triangles if I get close. I have been inching ever closer, wriggling forward, and now this is in my mind, and I stand up to confirm it again, and there they are again, tiny dots, red green and blue, just like in the Dukes of Hazzard; then there is a racket of male voices from behind. "He's standing in front of the television." "Hey Rob, the kid doesn't know what's going on." And my dad's voice, "Hey Matt, Mattie? Turn around. Hey, buddy, you gotta back off from the TV....That's it." I flop back down on the floor near my cousins, and there is a barb of awareness that I've just done something semi-public and dumb; it's a broader circle than the immediate mother and father; but it's fine; the dots are gone into the colorful, outsized men in helmets and pads; I am again watching the fantastic periodic choreographed colliding; our team is winning, and I'm clapping and yelling along with the rest.
In this, my earliest real memory of watching Cincinnati Bengals football [a looping GIF-like memory], what interests me are a few truly remembered seconds of watching the game. Maybe it's different for you, but a shame memory will sometimes leave the tape on for a few seconds or a minute; in my memory, black-shirted Bengals are driving a white-shirted, pale-helmeted team from right to left. And they are doing well at it. Of course I know now what I didn't then - that I was watching two of the great offensive linemen of the 1980s (Bengals left tackle Anthony Munoz and the lesser known but nearly as dominant right guard, Max Montoya) do their brutal work. But what interests me is the misunderstanding. In the memory, I am not yet watching the ball. Either I can't see it, don't know about it, or don't yet understand it as a focal point. Instead, I see something simpler, our Bengals, the good guys, the orange tiger-stripe helmeted, black shirted guys, lining up as a group and periodically slamming into the white shirted squad. Pushing them backwards alone constitutes success in this bewilderingly exciting and simple game called professional football; that is what I am cheering for. Their huddles are merely breathers, and an opportunity to get roused up, and when they're roused up enough, they clap their hands! And I clap my hands, because already I love those tiger-stripe-helmeted men! Oh, it's in me already. On some gut level, I am aware that the men on the screen represent me, represent us, father, grandfather, uncle, cousins, grandmother, mother, aunt (with a football helmet purse), and our place on a map. Far off, many many minutes away, in a stadium in downtown Cincinnati, they represent us, we who are just across the Little Miami in a room called a family room, and the MORE we love these Bengals on the screen, the MORE their deeds fire quicken our hearts, the MORE we feel, the more we win, the more we lose, the more we risk.
Somewhere deep in the memories of most fans of the game of American football is a mush like the one that I speak of, an almost primordial confusion of physical excitement, a wild aggressive jumble of intensity and bodies, and also, the sense of rooting for one side instead of another. If you were sitting across a table from me, particularly if you were a male 18-70 (forgive me), particulary if you hail from a place like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Kansas City, or Detroit, I'd here invite you to talk, tell me of that first mush, and how an understanding emerged from it. I think that by focusing on this mush, we might learn. Out of that first chaos of colliding bodies, America's most complicated, most specialized, and most popular professional team sport begins it's slow crystallization process. It is a process that has taken place in the minds of - if I might hazard a conservative guess based on Super Bowl ratings - one hundred million Americans, which is quite a few. For many of us, the process begins young. Very early as American boys (and increasingly as American girls) we learn this uniquely American game's strange rules, learn that the action stops when a player is brought down or leaves bounds, and learn that it starts again when the offensive center hikes the ball backwards; we learn that there is a clock, that the division of time is halves halved into quarters, that time is a resource that "runs out"; one team is trying to preserve it; the other is trying to erase it; we learn the concepts of down and distance, the various ways to score, the idea of field goal range and being within it; we learn the positions and their separate jobs; we learn that a team consists of an offense and defense, joined in a mutual interest, and that at higher levels, a player must choose a side; the levels that the game is played at (high school, college, professional) enter at some point, and we internalize the differences; in short, we learn the basics of a game that is a passion and a pastime for upwards of one hundred million people on our soil. Putting just a few out in prose reveals something: American football possesses quite a few basics - much more than any other sport; American football is as complicated as chess before the real complication even begins. Given the work of analysts like Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge in the last decade at explaining the x's and o's of the NFL to its audience; given our wider tv's; given our more intelligent sports talk radio; given the internet, fans today have an opportunity to learn more than any fans before. And with the NFL, it's easy to be caught up in the learning, because there is so much to learn; learning can be used for the purposes of gambling or for the sheer joy of itself...On a big flat rectangular contemporary TV, an NFL football fan that knows his personel and groupings can identify, for instance, that the Bengals defense has opened in a nickel on 1st down against the Patriots; he can see that the Patriots are themselves lined up in a power-I running formation with true fullback James Develin, and he can cry out in agony somewhat in advance of when he would have cried out if it were, say, 1965.
[CUT OUT: And we also learn to attach ourselves to certain players, and to the personalities of the players, which grow out of the positions, and attach us to positions. We learn that at the end of the one-and-done playoff at the end of the season, there is a game called the Super Bowl. Part and parcel with that, there is a first Super Bowl that every football fan can remember; like the bottom of a swimming pool, you can swim down and touch it, perhaps grab a few pebbles of it ("We ain't here to cause no trouble / We just here to do the Super Bowl shuffle!). Unfold the hand, and those pebbles are keys on a ring; they unlock whatever grade you happened to be in, whole colorful classrooms full of memories, a phase perhaps when your father wore a mustache, or your mother first had a streak of gray in her bangs.]
Where football is concerned, I am interested in the rudiments of the average fan's knowledge. I am interested in the child brain making sense of football; how does such a complicated game as American football get in? Unlike other team sports - soccer, baseball, or even basketball, football is a game that we experience from the outside long before we experience it from the inside (if we ever do). You must watch for some years before you can ever play in an organized way. With football more than other sports, to play the game in an unorganized way isn't really to play it, and the reason that you cannot play is that you are too young! As a very young American person, you are told this terrible truth over and over, and the game lives in the mind alongside such experiences as driving a car. Thank our post-Enlightenment concept of childhood, and I mean that seriously; in our society, there is an age-requirement for some activities on account of an inherent danger, and football happens to be classified as an inherently dangerous activity. But that children are kept from playing tackle football at young ages isn't due wholly to its violence. Football can be played with velcro flags on the hips, after all, and five and six year olds, lovingly padded, don't move fast enough to do much damage to one another. Rather, the game is simply far too complicated for small children. Even in its simplest forms, without quarterbacks attempting forward passes, it involves activities that are too specialized to be fun for tiny humans. "Hey four year olds, we're gonna play this really fun game with a ball, except you, Howie, you don't get to touch the ball, ever, because you already weigh 65 pounds, which makes you a lineman! Okay, now what we need you to do is all get in a line, and now the quarterback is going to say "Down! Set! Hut!" and on hut you and all the other heavy kids move at once, and push into that group over there..." No...football, like chess or contract bridge, is not a game for the youngest of our tribe. As a little person, your American football playing consists of playing at playing American football. By playing at football, what I mean is that you engage in low-risk games or activities that either increase the aptitude for the real game or develop the beginnings of the physical skills needed to play.
In my 1980s childhood, I remember three games or activities that "symbolized" American football or "played at" some aspect American football. The first was a game on a home computer. In my case, it was on a 1979 Texas Instruments job. No more powerful than a graphics calculator, but with a color monitor, that computer was already old technology when it was handed down to us, also in '83 or '84. Who cared? Not us. It had a keyboard, had a monitor, had a box full of power; you looked at it, and knew: that was a computer. In the primitive football video game that came with it, you were thrust into the role of coach and play-caller. You could select from several plays, running or passing, and then watch, wringing your hands, as helmet icons knocked against one another, and the plays played out. A tiny brown elipse, which was the ball, ejected from the quarterback helmet, traveled across the screen, and either magically wedged itself into the receiver helmet, or caromed off it enragingly, as if off a real helmet. You had no avatar on the field whose movements you directly controlled with your a joystick or directional arrows. Rather, you peered in like a paralyzed god or a coordinator in a booth or a parent in an audience, and watched your decisions succeed or fail without your ability to intervene. It was brutal on the nerves.
However, despite its crude simplicity, now that I think of it, this early '80s Oregon-Trail level game was strategically the most life-like of any football video game until those that have appeared lately. Unlike early incarnations of the John Madden franchise, where victory was as simple as nine-man blitzes and passing on four consecutive downs, (or "flipping the play," which threw all eleven members of the defense into a confusion), on this primitive Texas Instruments game, the programmers rewarded players with a Woody Hayes-like approach to the game. Imagine, people of the future: in the early 1980s there was a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" football video game. If you called passes on first down, you ended up with interceptions, incompletions, sacks, and holding penalties - the most infuriating and uncontrollable aspect of this little world. Oh yes! Folded into a black cartridge was the football intelligence and football ethos of a time late in the reign of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, one that perhaps looked ahead to the powerful offensive lines of the Redskins. From this game, this particular kid learned what a "blitz" was, what a "dive" running play was, what an "off tackle" play was; I learned about "sweeps," and saw guard icons pull on the sweeps (Max Montoya!); I saw receivers hitch, slant, cross, and run deep. From this game more than any source, I took the basics of football plays.
There were other games. On the floor of my parents' bedroom, I tried a few times to play what's known as "vibrating football" or "electric football." This particular game, which originally belonged to my dad, was one of the most disappointing toys ever sold by the tens of millions, and I honestly pitied him, thinking about him back in the 1950s, playing it. It consisted of a sheet of green metal painted to resemble a football field. Atop this sheet, two teams of tiny plastic men, about the size of "army men" stood in various football poses, a felt football about the size of a tic-tac under the arm of one of them. With the flip of a switch, electricty flowed, wires magnetized, a tiny electric motor whirred and buzzed and conferred enough motion to shake metal coils beneath to vibrating. The vibrations shook the sheet metal, causing the players above to quiver in way that supposedly led to movement. The problem was that they didn't move. They just quivered in place.
Perhaps this game could have been fun in several crooked NY apartments I've inhabited over the last decade. Orienting the board so that the incline tipped the game toward the advantage of the offensive side would cause at least the directionality that occurs in a football game. Gravity, symbolizing the rules of the real game, would help the offense take ground. Our house, however, apparently had "good flat floors," and as I child, I ddn't yet know about shimming. All I know is I attempted to play at this unfun game once with a fellow pre-schooler, a boy named Jeff, who was younger than I was by about 10 months. I lined up the men as they were lined up in my video game. Bored at watching me painstakingly align the men, he then laid the sides of his two hands down behind the lines and smashed the pieces together into a pile, growling and yelling something for about fifeen seconds, squeezing and tossing the little men: "No! THIS is football! Grwwwoorrwrwrorrr!!! GRRRRCKKCCK! Then they grrrrgg! Picckow!! Brrrrssshh!!!" By this point, I suppose here is a piece of evidence that I was getting out of the mush, but that mush was not so distant that I could see that he was still in it. Come along little friend! But you can't just say that and guarantee someone will listen.
A large joy of football, physically, is the joy of the football, of throwing and catching the football, of having it, holding it, tucking it, and running around with it. You toss it up in the air as a five, six year old kid; one second, playing, you are in the mind of a quarterback, in the next, a wide receiver. You stick the ball out into the air, you change your grip, and now you're a running back. To the outside, the picture is as simple as a kid throwing a ball up and catching it and running in circles by himself in a yard, but a fast and fluid role-playing is going on in his child-head. The joy of the football came into my life at about age five, but not in a yard, initially. In a house. In the house I grew up in. It was a low slung, but tough little house, and simply organized. The house was two floor, with two upstairs bedrooms, one large, one small. Three dormers looked south and east out of a pitched roof. Open the front door, and a short steep set of carpeted steps rose directly up the second floor, without a turn. When I was five, my old man, Bob, went down this flight of stairs suddenly and hard. In the way a cartoon character slips on a banana peel, his foot slipped forward and up on a sock (was it mine?), and his body followed his feet up into the air. He bounced twice on his lower back, and landed on the tiles of our entryway. I did not see it happen; I try to remember that it shook the house, but I could be imagining it. He stood up, walked out the door, and mowed the yard. The next morning he could not get out of bed. He'd shattered a pair of discs in his lower back, chipped up some vertebrae, and was informed he was lucky he hadn't end paralyzed.
At the time, Big Bob was 41 years old, 6'0" tall and 240 lbs. His frame was thick; he was big in the calves and the forearms and the thighs, big enough to acccommodate about 215 of those pounds; the remainder he wore as many men do - as a round, rock-hard, pot-belly, under which he buckled his pants. I was perhaps 45 lbs, with bones like the rubberized enamel bones dogs chew on; at age five, I used to slide and bounce down the stairs in every way I could figure to orient my body. I didn't quite get how he'd managed to hurt himself so severely by falling down those stairs, but he had. It was a climacteric event in our household.
After the surgery, while he was laid up in bed, he and I played. He lay on his back, propped up by pillows against a headboard, and I ran back and forth in about six yards of space, catching a small orange football rubberized football. He called out arbitrary numbers relating to the difficulty of the ball he was about to throw, and then he led me back and forth. To my increasing joy, he "threw me" all over that bedroom; the boundary of our field (where the highest scores were had) were on one end a bookcase full of psychology, chemistry, and biology textbooks, high school year books, photo-albums, and scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings of Big Bob's feats on the late 1950s Cincinnati public-high-school league grid-iron. On the other end was a closet door that we kept slid open, so that if ran too far in that direction, I'd collide with my mother's clothes, and not with a door. In that bedroom, I learn to catch the ball, and also to throw it. My dad couldn't move, but depending on where I threw it, he snatched it with either hand, like a hypercoordinated but immobile Star Wars hut. He was almost ambidextrous, one of those shoot-left, write-left, throw-right, bat-right, mixed-up handed people. He himself also loved every single kind of ball he ever met: golfballs, baseballs, basketballs, tennis balls, footballs, bowling balls, so it was a way of passing the time. He threw the ball back with whatever hand he caught it, on account of his back. "Right-handed!" I'd say, wanting him to transfer the ball to his better hand. Having not yet been to a batting cage, it was the most gloriously fun activity I'd yet experienced as a human being, and all while we threw, I asked him hundreds of questions - most of which had to do with football, the Cincinnati Bengals. Stuck in bed, he couldn't escape the barrage of attention.
[ANTS: Elsewhere in that bedroom at that time, my mother murdered tiny ants by the hundreds by licking lolli-pops, placing them on paper towels, and hiding them about the room. Inadvertently, I'd created an infestation. In my first experience with waitering, my strength gave out and I spilled a glass mug of hot jello the size of pitcher all over the bare wooden floor. I'd been attempting to carry it up to my dad in bed. Into the floor is a better description of how I spilled. I poured probably 48 oz of liquid hot red jello into our house, creating beneath the floorboards a cool goo as life-giving to tiny ants as petrie dish agar is to microorganisms. In the annals of Ants of the Ohio Valley, surely it's remembered as a boom town of legendary proportions; a whole way of life founded on a between-floor jello-layer! Ant Elysium! Anyway, these ants would march by the hundreds across my father's feet and ankles, and they'd end up glued as ant-mobs to the licked suckers. I remember it as a time of joy and laughter and all of us together in the same room, and a damaged father somehow in the middle of it.]
Anyway....to return to that dawning of the game of football in my fan mind, I'd like to throw another potato into the stew....the VCR. We were given our VCR in 1986 by father's older brother; oh goodness! it was a top-loading VHS in the time when VHS and Beta were in a two horse race for the industry standard. Had my uncle's family initially bought a VHS, then gifted it down to us upon getting a BETA? It's possible. That top loader, with its totally physical ejection mechanism, had the dimensions of a broiler drawer. Huge! It was huge. It was the oldest looking VCR I have ever seen, if appearance of age is defined by size and physicality. As a machine, it was analog as a 3-speed kitchen-blender, with buttons the size of piano keys; the buttons stayed engaged when you pressed them, and there was a button to pop the buttons out. A machine it was. It also worked better and more reliably than any VCR we ever had afterwards. Funny....Anyhow, the device's chief virtue, to my understanding back then, was its ability to capture a game or a program onto a tape, which made the tape an extraordinary and valuable thing, because it contained a game that could then be watched over and over, any time one wished. You put the television on channel 3. You selected on the VCR the channel on the TV you wanted, and you could record what was happening.
In the autumn of 1986, thanks to that VCR, I saw the NFL football game that would change everything for me, and make me somehow into what I already was: a Bengals fan of unusual intensity and positivity. Using the tremendous website Pro-Football Reference, I've been able to pinpoint the date, and pin the experience like a strange bug to my timeline. Monday October 13, 1986. The Cincinnati Bengals squared off at home against the bullies up the river, those "shitters into our drinking water," the smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a 1986 Boomer Esiason-led Bengals team two years and a few draftpicks from brilliance, and it was a Steelers team being led through one of its franchise's brief valleys by the dimunitive Bubby Brister; still, they were the Steelers. It was a Monday night game, which was a nationally telecast game. This meant the whole country would see our Bengals. In the opening segment, downtown Cincinnati's skyline, viewed from the Kentucky side, flickered and glittered, and I saw it with the sense that many more people in the world were seeing its beauty. Was I ready for some football? Electric guitars? Hank Williams Jr? Oh hell yes, I was. But it was 9:00 pm, and I was in the first grade, so I was sent to bed just after we proved our tape was working.
Why fight it? I made a plan to awaken at an ungodly early hour in the morning, enter the family room, rewind the tape and watch this Bengals game. As a small child, you can just tell yourself, "I'm going to wake up incredibly early," and then you somehow do, with no alarm. Up you pop into the sunshine, ready to do the thing you want to do. At around 5:00 am, before sunrise, I crept in there in a matching white suit of waffled thermal long-johns, stared down a rewinding tape, pressed play. To my great luck, I spent the next several hours privately viewing one of the most exciting regular season football games in the history of the NFL. Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers: October 13, 1986. A back and forth contest of multiple lead changes, a safety, and huge momentum swings, none was larger or more unusual than a 4th quarter 61-yard touchdown run by Bengals punter Jeff "Clyde" Hayes. On what couldn't possibly have been a designed trick play, not from the Bengals own 39 yard line in a one score NFL game, the punter caught the snap, saw an opening he'd probably been looking at all game, and broke off around the left end. The man made no attempt to punt; he just ran, broke off like a housebound dog that's been eying an opening-and-closing door for a month; I am in NY without access to this tape; it is back in Ohio in a box, or maybe it long ago joined Mt. Rumpke - the region's #1 garbage destination. I wish I had it, and a VCR to play it, because I want it to be how I remember it, or I want to have remembered it wrong; either way, I'd like to know if that punter even pretended to try to punt....By the time Bengals' punter Jeff Hayes made his run for glory, the sun had come up on a Tuesday morning in Ohio; both parents had awakened, forced me to dress myself, and I was eating cereal. My dad, who was trying to get me into a car and drop me at school, was standing in the family room watching. He didn't know what would happen any more than I did. "What the hell! Oh! Oh! Go! He's off! He's off! Touchdown Bengals!!! Touchdown Bengals!!!!"
For the next six months, and my mother would corroborrate this, I woke up at a God-awfully early hour and watched this one particular game. Oh I had others. Not many, but a few. This tape though; this tape was the one. I rewound it. I replayed it. I did this over and over. Early in the morning, alone with the Bengals. I tried to communicate time by it. What time did you get up, Matt? "When it was 14-9, Bengals winning" or "When it was 14-7, Bengals winning." (That game had a safety.) Over and over. One game. What I remember is that lunatic punter tried to run a second time! He was of course stopped. What I also remember is Boomer Esiason punting it with his left foot, and actually punting it very well. What I can know is that already by that age, I'd internalized enough of football to know that a punter didn't typically run, and a quarterback didn't typically punt, and that is why I remember those plays 28 years later....All this strikes me as both obvious but also amazing....My father would peer into the game, which tossed out the same colors in same orders in his family room every day; he'd watch that punter run and shake his head. "If that isn't the damn dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life; Mr. Brown ought to fire that idiot; dumb." But the real truth of what that first grade person I once was saw was much simpler. In the game I had on tape, which at that age was more permanent, more real to me, than the fleeting contests on Sunday afternoons, the Cincinnati Bengals came out victorious every single time. Against great competition, against the PIttsburgh Steelers, they won upwards of a hundred times in a single year! This voluntary self-induced brain-washing is the only explanation for my continued attachment to the Bengals all through the "Revenge of Bill Walsh: Part II" (the 1989 Superbowl) and "The Klinglering Our Way to Kitna Decade."
[ So I will stop right there for a moment.
I ought to have stopped earlier, but where I had an impulse to stop wasn't exactly a stop sign; more like a large red leaf....Friends, I have not written prose in a very long time, except for emails, and I'm finding that objects are farther away than they appear. By objects, I mean topics I am trying to get to, and points I am trying to make...Early on in my guest bloggings, I used the word "symbolized" to describe the games that I played at as a kid that "played at" playing football....Paul Tillich, the 20th century's great Christian theologian, said that whenever a writer uses the word "symbol" in any form, be it as a noun ("symbol"), verb ("symbolize"), or adjective ("symbolic"), he ought to stop where he is and explain in detail exactly just what the heck he means. If he doesn't know what he means, that will be the first thing he figures out. I won't perform that boredom for you right now, because I've already typed more than enough for a first post.
Later on today, or later on this week, I'll go into some detail on an idea of the symbolic. The ideas won't be mine, but Tillich's, though they'll come out in my terms I imagine. I bring them up at all for the following reason: the application of Tillich's ideas on the symbol to the game of American football, coupled with a speculative meditation on the cardboard hang-tag messaging you find on any dog toy or cat toy ("All animals play at activities necessary to their survival"), bounced off some 18th century Trans-Allegheny American history, cause the the game of American football to take on a strange sheen...For though one can play at football in a video game, or a low risk game like "500," what does American football itself play at? To what more real activity does it point? I've done some thinking on this head, and I figured I'd make an investigation of that thinking the topic of my week guesting at the Best American Poetry Blog. There will with some asides on technology, a few scoops of Marshall McLuhan, tales of the Cincinnati Bengals of present and recent yore, an aside on the tradition of war games going back to Ancient Rome; also, maybe a little John Ashbery and Vergil (I like it with an "e") since it's a poetry forum after all. That's what you're in store of in this week of blogging. Blabbing? Blogging. I realize my topic: AMERICAN FOOTBALL AS A GAME OF AMERICAN WAR isn't for everyone. If I do my little job here, though, by Thanksgiving (three days away) a picture of a uniquely American war-game and the frightening historical reality that it symbolically re-enacts should have begun to emerge in a way that (hopefully) pleases a rational mind. You'll also learn more about the Cincinnati Bengals and the perspective of their fan-base than you perhaps ever want to know, and for that I apologize in advance. I apologize too for any typos, and randomly unfinished sentences. Have a wonderful afternoon and evening, everyone!]
When I was little, I liked to make lists of things: sports I liked to play, bands/singers I liked to listen to, R.L. Stein books I’ve read and have yet to read. It was all usually things I liked, things that sort of defined me at the time. Today, I was similarly moved to make such a list, but this time, of TV shows I like, ones that warrant binge-watching entire seasons at a time. I don’t quite know why I’m compelled in this way. Why is the act of making a list a pleasurable thing? Is it the thinking process, the discerning? The result, the seeing them all together? Once I’ve exhausted the obvious ones, I’m forced to think of ones I might have forgotten about otherwise, thereby perhaps reinvigorating the idea? Homage? Inclusion? (Exclusion?) Is it like creating a club and I’m the leader who gets to approve membership (like picking teams in grade school kickball)? Am I attempting to keep myself organized? If I write down every city I’ve ever been to, will I then know myself more fully? Am I better able to hold myself together after listing every film that has ever made me cry?
And following this list of questions, another— Why the list poem? Similar to my list-creating desire’s elementary origins, the list poem is a technique often introduced to the young writer as a handy image-compiling tool. Some primary school teachers ask their students to create list poems to introduce themselves to their classmates, or when poetry is brand new. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s productive, straight-forward self-reflection. And all of these are assets to someone in her late 20s (or, anyone older than primary school age) too. The list poem enacts this youthful ease of compartmentalization, while engaging with the more mature task of exploring a thing from all its angles.
Catherine Bowman makes lists in “Sylvia’s Photo Album,” “Things To Eat, Paris, 1953” and her series of “Things To Do” poems, all from The Plath Cabinet. Susan Firer’s list poems include “Small Milwaukee Museums,” “Where Song Comes From,” and “The Wave Docent.” Paul Guest gives us “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” “To-Do List,” and “Things We Agreed Not to Shout,” which is reproduced here:
Things We Agreed Not to Shout [by Paul Guest]
Mom is dead. Dad melted. Again.
Bitter recriminations. Bitter infidelities. Bitter.
Streisand is on. Finnish curses on the firstborn
of everyone who held us back. My credit rating.
Your many catalogs of shame. Scrapbook time.
Do you remember where we sank the kindergarteners?
Infectious constipation. In our spare time,
we enjoy perfecting methods of evisceration.
Bingo. Also, fire. Let’s make a baby.
Not anymore. You feel kind of weird inside.
My brother’s indiscretions. My indiscretion
with your brother. That lost weekend in Vegas.
Landslide of therapy. Moving to another state. Again.
We are running out of America. Faster.
Right there. Good girl. Judas Priest lyrics.
Freebird. Woo. Random latitudes.
Imagined injuries. Getting tired of your meniscus.
Seriously. Routing numbers
and decade by decade
delineations of your bra sizes. Beginning with the seventies.
You promised. I thought you were
asleep. I thought you wouldn’t mind it.
The list poem inherently invites the reader into its space. It asks for suggestions. What’s left out here? What could be added to this list? What kinds of things have you agreed not to shout? (To Guest’s list, I’d add, “Curse words at seagulls in the morning.”)
But there’s also a clear reason why the reader’s additions are not a part of the list already (so clear that it probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway): This is not my list. This list is a representation of the speaker at a particular moment in time. It’s possible that he might agree next week not to shout curse words at seagulls in the morning. But at the time of the poem, it wasn’t a defining piece of his character. Maybe it’s a piece of mine though… So maybe I’ll create my own list… And oh, another reason the list poem is so spectacular! The encouragement of new poems. And then, years after you write your own “things I’ve agreed not to shout” poem, you might write another one because maybe you’ve decided to start shouting at seagulls since then. It’s a wonderful process, really.
So I’m going to go make a list of all my favorite TV shows. Who really knows why. But when I’m done, the list will exist, and I will have it to look at and consider its implications, what it says about me as a TV watcher, an entertainment seeker, an American, a human being. And maybe I’ll never look at it again. Or I’ll make another list in 15 years because this list doesn’t define me anymore. Or maybe I’ll make a poem of it, like John Ashbery’s “They Knew What They Wanted,” a list poem comprised of film titles. And then he’ll write a poem in response to mine comprised of only TV show titles. And then… well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Casting Robert Morse as Bert Cooper, the firm’s senior partner, was an inspired move from the start. In the early 1960s Morse played J. Pierrepont Finch on Broadway in the Pulitzer-winning production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He rises from window-washer to chairman of the board in record time. It was the breakout hit of Morse’s career; it got him a Tony in 1962 and he reprised the role in the 1967 movie. Frank Loesser wrote the score, and Morse got to sing “The Company Way,” “The Brotherhood of Man,” the Groundhog fight song in a duet with Rudy Vallee, and the paean to self-love, “I Believe in You.”
So here he is, all these years later, playing the eccentric chief of the agency, who adores Ayn Rand, abstract art, and Japanese manners. He sports a natty bow-tie and well-tailored suits and makes you take off your shoes when you enter his domain. He is a detached figure but ready with the zinger when needed – as when he chews out Don for failing to take advantage of the media exposure when interviewed for the Wall Street Journal or when he intercepts the check that Lane made out to himself, forging Don’s signature. Among his more heroic moments was when Pete Campbell, righteously indignant, exposes Don as a counterfeit, an identity thief in the old-fashioned sense. Bert Cooper says, and I’m paraphrasing, so what. This is America.
Well, Robert Morse turned 83 years old on May 18, and on May 25, Bertram Cooper left the firm, the cast, the show, the planet, after uttering the one word “Bravo!” when Neil Armstrong gets out of the space capsule, takes his first step on the moon, and utters his winning line: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Bert expires and there is an announcement and the season is about to end, the managerial conflicts straightened out, the future of the firm secured by Roger Sterling’s brains and will, and Peggy’s presentation has won the new account (“Family Supper at Burger Chef”), and Ted will be coming back to New York because Don is leveling with him, mano a mano, and the deal is going to make all the partners rich, and Don is going back to his office when he hears a familiar voice calling his name.
And standing there is Bert, or rather Robert Morse, the old song-and-dance man with the gleam in his eyes, singing the verse and then the refrain of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” He does a nimble soft shoe, and dancing secretaries in mini-skirts join him on the floor. And with the air of having imparted words of valedictory wisdom, a blessing and a piece of advice, he sings, “The moon belongs to everyone, / The best things in life are free," exiting into his office.
And that’s how it ends, with Don alone at his secretary’s vacant desk. A very satisfying last shot, I felt, and not only because of my weakness for Depression Era songs. My mother used to sing this one, and the lines are perfectly apt for an episode organized around televised images of the moon-landing. The last words Roger says to Bert come from another song from that era, Irving Berlin’s “Let’s have another cup of coffee / and let’s have another piece of pie.” With his fear of failure coming to the fore, Roger mutters to Don that his last words to Bert were from a silly old song. He doesn’t specify which, but it is enough to give the hallucination a rational or Freudian explanation. But the beauty of the scene is its farewell grace – the sight of Robert Morse still hoofing and singing like his boyish old self. We’ll miss you, Bobby, but the show must go on.
At a time when the name Sterling is besmirched by the octogenarian owner of a basketball team, it is nice to see Roger Sterling pull a rabbit out of the hat and arrange for 51% of the firm to be bought by McCann, Ericson. Theoretically the acquisition will allow Sterling, Cooper to govern itself entirely, though that is not always how mergers and acquisitions work out in practice. This means that Don gets to keep his job and Roger gets to be president. Jim Cutler had sought to engineer a palace coup, with Don’s dismissal the first order of business, but in the end even he votes for the deal, which promises to make each partner a millionaire, in certain cases several times over. Joan is giddy with delight. Pete can hardly contain himself. When Jim Cutler’s hand belatedly goes up, he gets a quizzical look from Roger. “It’s a lot of money,” Jim says in his pitch-perfect deadpan.
To this white male it is heartening to be reminded that not all the dummies are men. Every once in a while, a woman comes along to drive a tractor in the office and sever an executive’s foot. So it’s pleasant when Meredith reveals herself as not just a gigglehead but a sentimental gigglehead. When she delivers bad news to Don, she jumps him. ”I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength,” she says. Kudos to the writer of that line. “Tell me what I can do,” she adds, and Don's answer is a model of efficiency. “You can get my attorney on the phone, and we can’t do this” -- "this" meaning sex. I love it that in complying she says, “not right now.”
The most sophisticated of aviation projects is on everyone’s mind on July 20, 1969, which makes it a perfect day for Ted to take a couple of clients up in his plane, cut the engine, and frighten them half out of their wits. An inner voice in me says, “serves ‘em right,” though I have nothing against these particular Sunkist execs. We never find out what has made Ted not only moody and melancholy but morbid and evidently even on the verge of suicide in the existential manner that Albert Camus wrote about. Why, wherefore, and what's to come for Ted -- this is a story line we can anticipate. We can be pretty sure, too, that Nick, the handyman who has given Peggy his number, will return when the show picks up next year. And maybe Peggy will have more confidence, be less brittle, though it seems to be her destiny that each achievement is eclipsed by some greater event, as winning the Burger Chef business pales in significance to what happens in the partners' meeting. And, of course, there’s Sally to look forward to. The changes are coming fast. She is now a lifeguard who wears lipstick on her way to the pool, a stargazer in the backyard who kisses the son of Betty’s college chum and then, when the boy is summoned back into the house, smokes a cigarette in the exact pose of her mother. I don’t think she is going to Woodstock or to a major anti-war demonstration in Washington in the fall, but you never know. Betty’s friend declares that Sally looks just like her mother did in her freshman year at Bryn Mawr. Does that mean there is not one Don but two in her future?
Lines I wrote down:
“Pete’s pregnant, he has to do what we want” (Don).
“You’re just a bully and a drunk, a football player in a suit” (Jim Cutler on Don).
“No one has ever come back from a leave. Not even Napoleon. He staged a coup but ended up on that island” (Bert)
“Every time an old man talks about Napoleon you know they’re going to die” (Roger).
“That’s a very sensitive piece of horseflesh” (Pete on Don).
“He’s a pain in the ass” (Bert).
“I’ll have the obituary ready in an hour” (Joan).
On Fri, May 30, 2014 at 6:21 PM Amy Gerstler wrote:
Delightful to read your take on the (halftime) season finale of Mad Men. As you know, the network decreed that this final portion of the series must be broken into two, seven episode halves, stretched across two seasons. And we’re seven episodes in. Therefore, we now face a dreary, Mad Menless interval of, how long, a year? in which to get cocktails and snacks from the kitchen till M.M. is on again, possibly gaining (in my case) 20 or more lbs before the show resumes. Sigh. Lead me to the ruffled potato chips, gimlets and cheesy poufs…
To begin with the episode’s close: I loved your description of that surprising song and dance performed (posthumously) by Bert and his bevy of fetching secretaries. As you put it “…the beauty of the scene is its farewell grace.” Indeed! Yes, firm founder Bert, capitalist extraordinaire, descends from heaven attended by a chorus of pretty amanuensis angels, singing about how the best things in life are free, right before the curtain falls on the episode (Bert’s curtain having already descended.) This after Bert having said in a previous scene, “Bravo!” which turns out to be his last utterance while alive. So it seems that Bert has presciently said “Bravo,” applauding his own lovely performance in the final scene! All this creates countless echoes, as you point out, reverberating back through Robert Morse’s career history and his character’s history across the run of the show so far. Pulling that unprecedented Dennis Potter (of The Singing Detective fame) move of having Bert burst into an old timey song (albeit a newly dead Bert in an advisory visitation aimed directly at the show’s protagonist) was, for me, genius.
Home and family lost, found, exiled and reconfigured seemed to thematically dominate this episode, these being chief among the show’s recurrent obsessions. The title “Waterloo” (the big defeat which led to Napolean’s exile) was but one of a cascade of loss of home/exile references. Others might include the following. Don seemingly loses Megan for good, as she’s decided she does not want him to join her in California after all. Do you think she will change her mind next season? Betty’s family is temporarily enlarged by the clan of her college chum taking up residence as houseguests, creating a new, larger “blended” family (to whom Betty is about to serve, in one lightning fast shot, a huge platter of rubbery looking fried eggs. The eggs unsettlingly resemble a pile of eyeballs a la St. Lucy. Or are they a fertility symbol? Will Betty become pregnant by current hubby Henry next season?)
Julio, chubby young son of Peggy’s tenant, is moving to Newark, thus losing his home away from home in Peggy’s apartment, to which he is ever escaping for popsicles, TV, solace, etc., AND his home in NY.The little boy weeps in her arms, sobbing that his mother doesn’t love him. Peggy tears up too, maybe thinking in part of the baby she gave away years ago. Was it a boy or a girl? Where is its home now? Will her son or daughter’s adoptive parents seek her out next season? (The open adoption movement gets going around 1970, so the infallible internet tells me.) Roger’s fragmented family is watching the moon landing, like everyone else in the episode. Wearing a toy space helmet, Roger’s grandkid Ellery looks dazed, having lost his mother to the clutches of an upstate commune. We get images from multiple wavery black and white TVs of the Apollo 11 astronauts, far from their home planet, setting boot on the moon. The family of McCann, Erikson is apparently going to marry into and blend with the family of Sterling, Cooper. The agency loses its founder/ “father,” Bert, who finds a home in heaven among talented, glamorous secretaries, as previously mentioned. Roger Sterling becomes the new Sterling Cooper “dad,” patriarch in Bert’s stead. Ted is pressured into relocating (again) for the good of the Sterling Cooper family. So he’s coming “home.” Is he returning to Peggy’s embrace? Or will he find her in the arms of the beefcakey home improvement handyman who was manfully repairing her apartment ceiling?
In a tiny odd detail, did you sense any echo of Othello when ditsy secretary Meredith makes a play for Don after tearfully informing him he’s been fired? He gently rebuffs her advance and hands her his handkerchief to dry her eyes. She pulls herself together and attempts to return his hanky (disappointingly for her, sans panky) but he doesn’t take it back, so she leaves with it. The handkerchief gambit reminded me faintly of the role of the stolen handkerchief as false evidence of infidelity, and its fatal results, in Shakespeare’s play.
*Sally has sex
*Roger falls in love
*Bert’s ghost returns for an encore from time to time, delivering a musical number aimed straight at Don when he needs it (corny, I know, and excessive, but I can’t help it.)
Yours in Mad Men Worship,
She Did It Her Way
Twinnings: parallel lines that meet somewhere between the cross-country plane and the clouds above. I'll list a few.
Peggy has just turned thirty, and Joan is nearing forty. No fear could quite compare with the fear of becoming an old maid.
On the flight back to LA are Megan and Pete’s fuck-bunny Bonnie, for whom Pete is not quite Clyde enough, and both are disconsolate for one reason or another.
Stephanie Paterik tells me that when Roger and daughter rough it in the Catskills, Dad and offspring adopt identical sleep postures. That was two episodes ago.
And this week, when the episode concludes with Don and Peggy and Pete at a Burger Chain, their formation echoes the visual configuration of Ted, Peggy, and Pete a year earlier at the airport lounge where they sit and everyone but Ted laughs, because everyone but Ted has been drinking whisky sours, and Ted is about to fly them in his little plane and catch hell from his wife -- only in the Ted episode it's a triangle and here it's more like Don and Peggy on one team and Pete on the other.
Prejudices persist. When Bob Benson bails out the handcuffed GM executive who “tried to fellate an undercover police officer,” the cop on duty says, “good night, ladies.” And when Bob – the only character who looks good in a plaid jacket – says he “struck out” yesterday when looking for a suitable present for Joan, her mother pipes up: “The Jews close everything on Saturday.”
This one-time shomer Shabbat yeshiva boy wonders: can the office be as judenrein as it was back in the benighted days of 1960? Gone are Ginsberg, to the loony bin; likewise the secretary who married Roger, took acid with him, won a big divorce settlement, and why can’t I remember her name? And then there's the latter's cousin, the pint-sized copywriter who went west, grew facial hair, went Hollywood, and after enduring one taunt too many, socked Roger in the solar plexus in season six.
Is Megan having an affair? Stacey said so as soon as she heard Don offer to bring a suitcase of her stuff (a fondue maker!) when he visits her next in LA, end of July, to which she replies she’d like them to meet somewhere else – “Not LA, not here, just us.”
The episode centers on Peggy and how she will handle the creative work for the national Burger Chef campaign. Pete imagines he is praising Peggy when he says there isn’t a better woman in the ad business – but she, and we, hear it as a left-handed compliment. Though the presentation gets Lou's approval, she knows there is something wrong with her family-friendly sequence of guilty mom, indulging dad, and hungry kids in the car. So what does she do? Light up a cigarette, have a drink, chew out an associate – just like the master himself.
Everything leads up to the heart-to-heart with Don. “Now I’m one of those women who lie about their age. I hate them.” She wonders, “What did I do wrong?” He answers, “You’re doing great.” In an epiphany that doesn’t quite announce itself as such, she asks, “Does this family exist anymore?” by which she means the family toward which she has pitched her ad – a family that eats as a group rather than watching television alone together. “What if there was a place you could go and there was no TV and you could break bread and anyone you were with was family?” And then on the radio comes the familiar opening chords of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way,” his mega-hit of 1969. “And now the end is near.” And Don and Peggy dance. (Will they end up together? Maybe, said Ron and David. No way, said Yoav and Stacey.) But taking her cue from the familiar voice, she will do the ad her way.
The literary allusion in the last scene is masterly. Pete and Peggy and Don sit at a Burger Chef. In a way each is a loser (and remember, even Sinatra in “My Way” says he is “tired of losing”), they come from very different backgrounds, yet they form a sort of family. She is going to have her ad shot here, because, she tells Pete, it’s “a clean, well-lighted place.” “Okay, Hemingway,” Pete has the wit to reply. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” one of Hemingway’s finest stories, the setting is a café in Madrid, where men in quiet desperation go to drown their sorrows. They believe in nothing, they do the most drastic things, like trying to take their lives, for nothing, because nothing matters. Nada. In one of Hemingway’s bravura performances, the word “nada” orchestrates a paragraph. In the mind of the waiter closing the café at two in the morning the word “nada” replaces the nouns in the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.”
It is the use of one literary allusion to counter another: Lou (who, according to a friend of mine, an advertising veteran, is the most believable character in the whole show) has responded enthusiastically to the original ad Peggy drew up for Burger Chef. “It’s good to see family happiness again,” he says, and the line’s true significance becomes clear when you take it into account that “Family Happiness” is the title of a novella by Tolstoy.
The ironies are multiple. An American fast-food joint takes the place of the Spanish café with the zinc bar and the brandy drinks that sound so exotic in a foreign tongue. Yet the nihilistic desperation is the same, even if Don, Peggy, and Pete smile gamely in the artificial camaraderie of their work.
There's my report, dear Amy. And I never even got around to Joan’s defiant response to Bob Benson’s proposal.
On Fri, May 23, 2014 at 9:17 PM Amy Gerstler wrote:
(You continue to field musical and literary allusions popping up in our favorite show with the alacrity of a legendary outfielder, a Raul Mondesi, or perhaps a Dusty Baker.)
THE FAMILY EPISODE:
(could this theme have been writ any larger?)
We began this episode with Peggy and cute, nerdy male office minion doing market research in the Burger Chef parking lot after sundown. The scene looked very B movie-- shadowy, streetlit. A beleaguered mom with kids roiling in back seat of her car hurriedly answers Peggy’s queries about her family’s fast food habits, eyes glued to the ten dollar bill she’s been promised. The birth of the focus group? Oh, America, whither thou goest?! So Peggy starts on the outside, standing uncomfortably, peering into a car in a dark, trying to keep her voice smiley and bright whilst gripping her clipboard, straining to get the data she needs. As you point out, by episode’s end she has moved into the light, sitting in the blindingly over-lit Burger Chef interior, in a booth with a pair of key members of her work “family.” The man who she lost her virginity to, whose baby she bore and gave away (Pete) and the man who has been her symbolic father, her mentor, who she desperately wants to be (Don.) Don’s small, wordless motion to Pete in the last moment of that scene, indicating to that egotistical blockhead (Vincent Kartheiser is soooo brilliant at playing narcissism) that he has a smear of catsup on his upper lip, is beautiful. It’s familial, intimate, and at the same time a bit condescending and smirky.
Speaking of family, Joan bravely fends off a marriage proposal from a gay colleague, Bob Benson, who wants her to be his “beard.” His offer to make a kind of alternative family with her, and be a father to her tiny son, while allowing both adults to pursue separate sex lives, doesn’t appeal to her. “We could comfort each other through an uncertain world,” Bob says, coaxingly. He even offers her a ring, a sort of image rhyme with the notorious scene in last week’s episode, in which poor demented Ginsberg, now in the loony bin, offers Peggy his lopped off nipple in a little jeweler’s box. Bob’s proposal quickly turns to a less-than-kind hard sell when Joan balks. “I am offering you,” Bob says rather loftily, “more than anyone else ever will.” I found Joan noble in this scene. “No, you’re not,” she demures, “because I want love, and you should, too.” Joan’s hard-won dignity is a radiant element of her considerable beauty.
Speaking of the varieties of love (or high altitude lust): Pete and his paramor Bonnie’s retreat into an airport bathroom at 30,000 feet for a quickie put me in mind of a paperback that was in heavy rotation amongst Junior High school girls I knew back in 1969, the year this season of Mad Men takes place. The book, which came out in 1967, is Coffee, Tea or Me. It purported to be a memoir chronicling the sexual adventures of a pair of randy young stewardesses. Later, the “memoir” was revealed to be the concoction of a PR dude called Donald Bain. Predictably, we pre-teen and teenage girls were ravenous all during secondary school to get our hands on any book that mentioned sex. The Happy Hooker (1971), The Godfather (1969, I forget which specific chapter, none of us read any other parts of the book, I’m afraid) and The Harrad Experiment (1962) were a few of the extracurricular titles that joined the immortal Coffee, Tea or Me on our secret mandatory reading list. I do have a growing fear that someone in this series is going to die in plane crash. Sometimes I read the gorgeous opening/credits sequence, where Don is falling, falling, falling, that way. I hope I am wrong.
Stan is wearing love beads to the office! I still think he has a yen for Peggy. They seem to understand each other on deep levels, and perhaps it’s symbolic that during a phone conversation about work Stan is eating a banana and his shirt is open to his navel. I know everyone and their cousin thinks that Peggy is going to sleep with Don. Maybe she will. I think she should sleep with Stan. There. I’ve said it. If only Stan could have been a fly on the wall, an invisible witness to the scene in which Peggy, unable to sleep because she knows she has to totally rework the Burger Chef pitch, does a sexy little jog across the room when she gets up in her semi transparent nightie, he might not be able to hold back any longer.
Later in the show, Pete grumbles, “I hate the word family.” Well may he say so. He has been absent from his little daughter Tammy’s short life so long she doesn’t recognize him. When he comes to visit, she refuses to come out from behind her nanny’s skirts, and is frightened of him as she might be of an intruder. Pete waits around after his paternal visit, after putting his daughter to bed, for ex-wife Trudy to come back from a date, getting smashed on her booze. He confronts her drunkenly and is so belligerent she eventually says, “You’re not a part of this family anymore.”
Footnote one: Correspondent Benjamin Weissman informs interested viewers that actor John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling, looks buff in his steam room scene this episode because he’s a real life surfer. For his own safety, we hope Mr. Slattery wears more than a gym towel when riding the big waves (there are SHARKS out there, John!) Speaking of sharks, the dialogue in that steam room is pretty vicious, quite biting.
Footnote two, in closing speaking again of family: My mother in law as absolutely swooning over the scene where Don and Peggy slow dance. OOOOh, she sighed. He was so tender with her. She seemed so overcome that I ran to the medicine cabinet for the smelling salts, in case they were needed, but that wonderful lady kept her head.
That’s all till next week.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.