The Big Yawn

dog-picture-photo-chihuahua-spitz-puppies-yawn

You’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead!”  — Aunt Nan.

Broadway legend Patti LuPone played a character based on my Aunt Nan in the 1993 movie I wrote called Family Prayers, so my thinking is this – any advice given by a person who readers, executives and audiences (okay, it was a small audience, but still…) uniformly embraced as a film character should be taken seriously.  And if you knew Nanie (my nickname for her), sort of a cross between a real life Auntie Mame and a white Pearl Bailey (younger people might want to substitute a more grounded, earthy version of Jessica Walter on Arrested Development or in Archer) you’d be scared not to.

Two sassy bitches

Aunt Nan and Lucille Bluth: two sassy bitches

Still, I wouldn’t be her nephew if from time to time I didn’t take a moment to, like her – sit back perched on my sofa, drink in hand, and totally disobey an authority figure (even if it is her) as I utter exactly what I think in the moment.  In this case, it boils down these four words:

I AM SOOOOOOOOOO EXHAUSTED!!!!

Stop complaining, you say.  It’s not like you’re working down in the coal mines or, to use a more contemporary reference, are in danger of being subjected to another season of Smash.  To this I answer (as Nanie would) – go to hell or, to use a more contemporary analogy, go bury yourself in a sea of Justin Bieber tweets.  Someone has to speak the truth and I’m the ingrate to do it.  At least today.  Tomorrow might bring out a nicer, more constructive me – the kind some of you (but not all) have grown used to.  But that’s only if I get a good four nights of sleep and I am able to time travel to my favorite moments in 1968 and 1973 and 1984 with all the knowledge and empowerment I have right now and take care of a few people and things as I wave a magic wand and wipe out laser disks, 8 tracks and any trace of Michael Bay movies for all of eternity.  So don’t dress.

This current wave of vitriol-spewing sloth was brought on by too much work, too little exercise, too many personal and professional mini-crises to handle in the last few months and a profound lack of sleep that we all suffer from time to time.  In other words, everyday life.   It might also have to do with the anticipation of the next weeks, which are renowned to be a trying time for college professors worldwide as they settle down to read tens of thousands of papers, screenplays and other written material, attempting to  constructively critique and objectively rate (translation – give a grade to) work that is totally subjective and un-rateable in less time than it takes to turn out a very bad episode of the worst and most offensive reality show on television.  Fill in your title of choice on this one – mine is Keeping up with the Kardashians.  Sorry (not really) Kim.

In an effort to be fair to both students and readers given these circumstances, I thought it was only good form to get some of this out of my system.  After all, experts tell us the best way to revitalize is to unload your burdens either through physical activity or mental excavation as you relax and unwind via one or several of the many millions of methods available.   Though I know the former is better in the long run I much prefer the latter – especially when I can subject others to it and get it out of my house of cards and into  yours uh – theirs.  And since we know misery loves company, perhaps some of this will help re-invigorate a few of you to add to the list — or simply re-appropriate stuff from mine and allow me some additional extra relief.

(Cautionary Note: Obviously I’m too tired to care what happens once these thoughts leave what’s left of my brain, so — beware.)

REASONS FOR CONTEMPORARY EXHAUSTION IN THIS ONE PARTICULAR WEEK IN 2013 AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT:

ZACH BRAFF KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN BACKLASH

That's over 2 million, haters.

That’s over 2 million, haters.

Zach Braff has raised more than $2 million in three days to finance an independent movie ten years after he was nominated for an Oscar for writing and directing the film Garden State.  Question: Why does this bother ANYONE?  How does this take away money from poor filmmakers?  Don’t you know that studios don’t even want to make movies with live action people anymore, much less small quirky stories that have no sequel or Happy Meal/App potential?  Garden State was a cool film.  I wish I had done it and want to see more like it.  So – wait for it – I gave him money.  As I regularly do to projects from former students and other poor people.  If you’re spending time hating on ZB, you’re not working at your own stuff.  Get. Over. Yourself.  Meanwhile I’ll see you (not!) at the rough-cut screening I’m invited to next year.  Wearing my free T-shirt.  And carrying my autographed copy of the script.  So there.

RYAN MURPHY PONTIFICATING FROM THE MOUNT

You know how we feel, Ryan.

You know how we feel, Ryan.

I admire Ryan Murphy and love that he’s a creative force in the industry.  American Horror Story is one of my favorite shows on TV.  Glee helped so many kids with self-esteem issues and was a lot of fun (well, at least during the first two seasons).  But if I read one more article telling me Ryan has been known to tell his writing staffs things like “I’m obsessed with the color orange right now.  Figure out a way we can do a tribute to orange”; hear one more anecdote about him and his husband and their perfect son who was born through a surrogate; or click on one more video where Ryan is showing off the overpriced personal artifacts he had flown from all over the world into his heavy handedly-designed sprawling L.A. house, I’m going to pull what little hair is remaining in my scalp out and will be as bald as he is. (And I don’t have the budget for his cool hats).  Ryan – you’re wonderful. Please, please, please – for the love of God (or whoever you believe Her to be) – STOP.  Less is the new….More.

AMANDA BYNES-BASHERS

Yeesh. Turn the cameras off.

Yeesh. Turn the cameras off.

There is nothing funny or even newsworthy about young, formerly hot actresses roaming the city streets as they tweet inappropriate words and thoughts about their private body parts and looking confused after they shave off half of their hair.  I don’t know this young woman.  I wasn’t ever a fan or a foe.  And I have a pretty sick sense of humor and a fairly devout passion against censorship.  But contrary to what some comedians claim, some jokes about some people are just not right in that moment.  Lindsay Lohan being trailed across the world by the paparazzi day in and day out as she slowly implodes and explodes is no more entertaining than the photos of the late, great crack-addicted sad story Amy Winehouse wandering the streets of London or falling down onstage as she warbled off key with barely a vestige of her unique, once-in-a-lifetime voice.  Last week I saw the brilliant British actress Tracie Bennett sing and act the part of Judy Garland at the end of her life onstage in The End of the Rainbow.  It was amazing work and captured a woman who was funny, sad and, even at her drug-addled end, still able to pull together her amazing talent.  Many of these young women today are not as fortunate.  And it’s far from amusing.

VEGAN-ESE

I think you know what this looks like to me..

I think you know what this looks like to me..

I love my vegan friends, eat no red meat myself and very much enjoy salads and vegetables.  But tempeh and tofu are not chicken and burgers.  They are perfectly acceptable proteins on their own if one so chooses.  So why, why, why are they constantly being referred to as such in vegan restaurants and by food writers and the mass media?  Also, full confession:  I willingly eat a little cheese.  It’s not the end of the world.  As Ava Gardner says in an attempt to calm Howard Hughes at the height of his OCD in Martin Scorcese’s very underrated The Aviator – “Nothing’s clean, Howard.  But we do our best, right?”

BRANDING

Pick your own cattle prod!

Pick your own cattle prod!

Can’t anything just be what it is anymore?  Why does it have to be a part of or spawn countless subsets?  Granted, we are all a bit of something else – our parents, our families, mankind, people who survived George W. Bush.  But do we have to constantly be reminded of it?  I remember watching the original Bonanza as a kid in the 1960s (look it up) and it often featured cattle and fire branding.  Does everyone need to have a prime Grade A logo of a commodity burnt into their unique flesh, or in this day and age tattooed, onto their arm, behinds or latest piece of work in order to be deemed worthy?  As a gay, Jewish, intellectual, brown-haired (sort of), writer, teacher, one who lives in a domestic partnership, and someone who is part of the group that is on the very end cusp of the baby boomer generation, and even larger and more notable group, I say — NOT!

 

WORST ALLERGY SEASON EVER

My best chance of survival this spring..

My best chance of survival this spring..

You don’t want to know how many pills, inhalers and shots I do daily and monthly in order to maintain my current state of precarious health.  I don’t need to constantly be reminded about how bad the air is in comparison to what it was 25 years ago or warned that the next month, year or decade will be even worse.  Logic, headaches, a cloudy state of mind, sight and my mood tell me this.  And if you write in and tell me it’s because I am not vegan I will personally brand you a non-Belieber and let you know my worst allergy of all is to nuts – a staple of the majority of vegan foods.  Incidentally, this was discovered when, as a 3-year-old, my parents tried to shut me up in the back seat of a car with a can of Planters mixed nuts and instead had to rush me to the hospital.  It didn’t work for them then.  It won’t work for you now.

SPEAKING OF BELIEBERS…

In lieu of a pic of Beiber, here's Jon Hamm walking his dog.

In lieu of a pic of Beiber, here’s Jon Hamm walking his dog.

Stop saying Justin Bieber looks like a lesbian.  Lesbians are much cooler and hipper.  He’s an adolescent with a gabillion dollars who can sing and dance well in a very mainstream, non-threatening sort of way.  He didn’t have much schooling (you sooo don’t want to tell me about the school of life) — of course he doesn’t understand the ramifications of publicly asking in writing via the guest book at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam whether Anne Frank would have been a Belieber?  What is wearying is how much more time was spent on that rather than on the contents of Anne’s diary during this or any other month of the year and/or decade.

DUBYA REDUX

On display at the Bush Library... where to start?

Maybe I should have posted another Jon Hamm pic?

By any objective intellectual or polling standard, George W. Bush was THE worst American president in modern times and perhaps of all times.  I can’t blame him for wanting to open a library and reinvent his legacy but I can blame the media and his paid consultants and friends for playing fast and loose with the facts during his time in office.   To wit: 1.  The attacks of 9/11 spearheaded by the master terrorist he was warned about over and over again in writing — Osama Bin Laden. 2. The worst crash of the American economy since the great Depression. 3. Record deficits from record inherited financial surpluses left to him by impeached president Bill (@PrezBillyJeff for those in the Colbert Nation) Clinton. 3. The debacle of Hurricane Katrina. 4. Trumped up evidence to finance the costliest and perhaps most pre-determined war in American history – The Iraq War.

Fact:  It’s all a matter of public record.  Creating an interactive presidential videogame at the Bush 43 library doesn’t change anything, especially since it doesn’t include all of the top secret, classified information any American president is privy to at the time they make their decisions, to play with.

Lesson:  When your game is rigged, you can’t ever look really bad – that is, unless people refuse to play the game you’re offering.  Reality:  Despite the touted polls, most of us are not playing and Bush was not and never will be a really good play-ah.

 

SHORT TAKES:

SNACKS1

  • Matt Lauer and Ann Curry have broken up.  Everyone: Let. It. Go.
  •  A change in your routine – any change at all – can be exhausting at first but WILL provide a spark of life and a tad of energy after a few seconds.
  •  James Franco is in too many places at once.  I simply get weary thinking of him.
  •  Writing anything in a journal for 15 minutes first thing in the morning can do wonders for your mood the rest of the day (This advice is appropriated from Julia Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artists’ Way).
  •  Any students or people who use the word its instead of it’s (it’s = it is) or there instead of their (there = over there) should be forced to watch a full season of Keeping Up with theKardashians, culminating with Kim’s wedding.  On a loop.  For a year. (Or perhaps they already have and this is the reason for their misusage).
  • Exercise of any kind (use your imagination) makes you less tired in the long run.  The question is, how do you make yourself do it. (Branding? Cattle prod?)
  •  High art fans who think highly of themselves:  Stop pretending you’ve never seen a sitcom, soap opera or reality show.  Ever.  And get a TV if you don’t have one.  You can join the world and still be brilliant.  (You might even feel less exhausted). 
  •  Low art fans who think highly of themselves: Turn off the TV, go to a museum, watch a film that is not in English, and read a book that is not part of a brand, preferably one in paper and not on a screen.  It feels different.  And it just might be energizing.
  • Everyone Else:  Try. Something. (Or Someone). New. 

As for me, I’m planning to do at least one of these things and report back next week.

Hopefully, I’ll be up to it.

After my nap.

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Breaking News

Hashtag News

Hashtag News

The 24/7 news cycle ramped up through social media is one of the BEST things to happen to society in recent decades. Don’t believe that?  Then you’re not paying attention.

Twitter, Facebook or  (fill in platform of choice) enables information to be dispensed to massive numbers of people in mere moments.  Television stations like MSNBC (my addiction), CNN (no one’s real addiction) and Fox News (unfortunately, too many people’s addiction) are forced to cover and convey information on stories way beyond the mere half hour networks used to devote to their nightly news broadcasts.  People in general are engaged and MORE informed (no, the more is not a typo) on world issues than they ever have been at any time in history, partly because they can’t help but not be.

PLUS – two terrorists were brought down within days after blowing up hundreds of people at the annual Boston Marathon (3 dead, scores of others with severed limbs) in part due to the massive dissemination of information through these means.

Busted through broadband

Busted through broadband

That would be information on a story you wanted to know about but, after a bit, also wanted to turn away from.   Except nowadays you don’t have a choice.  You can’t. Every time you turn around someone is telling you something you don’t necessarily want to know.  But probably should.

We can never be sure how much television news and social media contributed to that key person in Watertown, MA being so acutely aware so continuously of this massive manhunt that they couldn’t help but notice that there was blood on the tarp of the boat behind their house – a boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old bombing suspect was hiding after managing to escape from the police showdown where his 26 year old accused fellow terrorist brother Tamerlan was killed (some say by the car Dzhokhar was speeding away with).

But what we do know is this:

In the world of police work and reportage one clue leads to another, information begets information, and it is the piecing together of all the facts by dogged reporters and investigators that in turn leads to the solution of a case and the satisfactory completion of a story. 

There is no telling what the alternative ending would be if you removed any of the steps along the way that led the person to go behind the house, and check out the boat, and notice the blood, and look further in to see the guy moving in the boat, and walk back out without going further to call the police at the number that was posted everywhere you looked, to tell them about the things that they saw before the guy had enough time to regroup and flee.  If there were a way to predict such things, Back to The Future, a film that cautions against playing with the sequence of events that have already occurred, would not still be a perennial piece of movie wonderment that held any meaning at all among my young twenty something students (and, I can assure you, it still is).

Twitter as the new flux capacitor

Twitter as the new flux capacitor

Why is it then that much of what I heard in my informal survey during the last week were endless complaints of the sensationalizing of a situation on TV that couldn’t get any more sensational, of the news gone amuck, and of a society that was being encouraged to fixate on this latest unfortunate event of world terrorism the United States was currently enduring instead of fixating on…. well, what I’m not sure.

Of course, I have NO IDEA why people incessantly posted on sites that the 24/7 news cycle is trying and taxing and sensationalistic.  This IS life.  This IS what the world is about now.  This IS the connection technology has wrought – for both good and bad.

Perhaps I’m wondering aloud now but here’s a question to ask ourselves — what should television instead be showing? More episodes of Ready for Love  (cancelled after just two) or The Bachelor (which, like Celine’s heart, will go on and on and on) — is that what we’re missing?  What SHOULD be broadcast instead of 24/7 news?  How many more game shows? Soap operas?  Local news about the weather or perhaps chance of bad weather?  Or maybe a 24/7 obsessional show about bad weather (Intervention: Doppler Edition?).  Maybe more reruns of I Love Lucy or Cheers or The Cosby Show?  Or Friends?  Maybe more Dr. Phil?  How about an extra episode of Smash? (Yes, it’s still on).  I mean, I do love Mad Men, but the current number of episodes on the air (all 10,000 of them, including reruns) is just right, thank you very much.

Though I would be in full support of all day re-airings of episodes of Baggage. (petition to bring back the show on next week's post)

Though I would be in full support of all day re-airings of episodes of Baggage. (petition to bring back the show on next week’s post)

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not even close to saying that the cable news stations or their network counterparts are getting it right all of the time or are necessarily in it to make the world a better place.  You couldn’t possibly think that when you see something like this on CNN right after the terrorist face off:

The only thing Zooey likes about this... is being mistaken for 19

The only thing Zooey likes about this: being mistaken for 19

No, our New Girl had nothing to do with this.  The best anyone can figure is that the computer auto correct of Dzhokhar is Zooey.  Also, Zooey has forgiven them.  And if you want to know how I know it’s because Joel McHale from Community and The Soup tweeted it to Ms. D via Twitter and she tweeted back and those tweets were both run on a website I frequent and all of it was then reposted on Facebook by my most intimate of Facebook friends, who never lies to me about such stuff.  So there!!

But if the Zooey mishap and too many human interest stories related to major crime scenes that seem neither particularly human or even very interesting is the price to pay for being that much more aware of the world around us, I say we should keep ponying up.  See – the networks have realized even before us that breaking news is not only much cheaper to produce than fictionalized drama but that it is inherently more….dramatic.  Even better, technology has enabled them to present it in a way that is not dissimilar to a fast-moving hour procedural drama, albeit over an eight-hour period of time.

Yeah, I'm looking at your Caruso.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, Caruso.

Here’s what I got watching television all day Friday:

A major American city on lockdown.  A fugitive at large who might have a bomb (or two or three) in one of the most densely populated areas in the US.  Not enough clues to figure out what happened and a metropolitan dragnet and cast of characters better than any of the ones in any of the 23,432 Batman movies.  Jigsaw puzzle pieces of info on the shooters, the victims and the families of each and endless speculation of too many talking heads about all of it (really a show all on its own).

Then suddenly at the all is lost point at the end of act two, (screenwriters will best understand this), right on cue we get new gunshots fired in Watertown, MA. They think they have the shooter surrounded. Wait!  Weren’t we just told live by the police chief that it was more than possible the suspect had fled the area and that you couldn’t keep the entire city locked indoors any longer?  Well, maybe that was a ruse to smoke the guy out?  Or perhaps it wasn’t and time was just running out?  Oh, who cares.  This is real life. Not TV drama. (Or is it?)  Wait, now there’s spontaneous cheering from a crowd on the streets.   Then a firefight around a boat behind a house.  Followed by a lot of silence.  Followed by reports of a suspect bleeding.  Or not.  Then reports of a fire, which could be from the shots.  Then background on a woman who reported blood on the boat in the back of her driveway which, thanks to Google maps, we can see a visual of as we get reports that the bleeding suspect has been apprehended and now is in police custody.  To which we then hear thunderous rounds of applause from hundreds and then thousands of people gathering around on the streets of Boston to thank law enforcement.  A spontaneous show of affection that many on the air are saying is a first.  Or at least the first in a while.  Cue end of scene and end of story.  At least for now.

Freddie said it best: Is this real life or is this fantasy?

Freddie said it best: Is this real life or is this fantasy?

Since this took place over the approximately 8 hours I was watching television, I suppose I could be making this seem more exciting than it was in real 24/7 news time.  But if you want to live in the real world and see how real life happens this is it.  The reporting of stories is not what it is in the movies or on series television.  Neither is police work.  It happens in actual time and it doesn’t have three or five or seven act structure that will induce you to stay tuned in through the commercials or network IDs.

My time in journalism school and my early years as a reporter taught me that working on a story can be almost as slow and tedious as the “hurry up and wait” feeling you get being on a movie set that I experienced as a screenwriter – only 12 times as frustrating.  This is because eventually the scene you are waiting for on a movie set will be filmed.  Yet there is no guarantee or even likelihood a story will ever get written or aired if it doesn’t pan out.  And most times they don’t.  Except when they’re newsworthy.  That means that eventually….some do.  One way or the other.  And living in 2013 we are all lucky enough to be there watching it live.  If we so choose.

There are lousy journalists and great journalists.  That’s what we’re getting.  And we’re really, really fortunate to get it.  If we don’t like what we’re getting – we can TURN. IT. OFF.  But we have to stop complaining.  That includes you and me too – because given another particular issue – I’m no better than anyone else.

As a public, we’re already amped up.  The news doesn’t make it worse.  Information is power.  The lack of it is when we get in trouble and the bad guys win.  Or worse – take over when our backs are turned and we’re not paying attention.

Those Were the Days?

Photo courtesy of Dear Photograph

Photo courtesy of Dear Photograph

Nostalgia:  a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.

The man credited for thinking up the word nostalgia was a 17th century Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer who, in his dissertation at med school, used it as a way to describe the type of anxieties he saw displayed in Swiss mercenaries longing to return home from foreign countries, as well as in students and domestics living and studying abroad and missing their native lands.

I am not sure what Dr. Hofer would think of the constant loop of nostalgia that has engulfed pop culture in the last century or if he would even recognize it as such. The new Robert Redford film The Company We Keep, the Emmy winning Mad Men as well as whole networks like TV Land and Nick@Nite, the ranting social speak of the religious right in favor of  “the way it’s always been” traditional marriage, and the evocation of our Colonial constitutional right to “bear arms” (aka muskets) as a counterargument to enacting any legislation at all to prevent the sale of contemporary military style assault weapons – every one of them seem to suggest that the ideals and realities of decades past were… what?…Rosier?  Moral?  Or just plain fun?

I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s only that we long to return to a time that we believe existed a certain way but in all likelihood and any given human memory (or at least mine these days… and after all it, IS white guys over 50 who do tend to write history), never really ever existed that way at all.

However, what I am positive about is the medical condition of nostalgia could be considered at this point in time a worldwide pandemic from which there is little chance of recovery.  The old begets the new, which grows old and then begets a “new” new, which is really not a recycle of anything new at all – just a reinvention, or post modern de-mythical re-representation of what’s come before it.  Using this definition everything contemporary is nostalgic in some form and we are all very, very, very sick with Dr. Hofer’s disease – a disease to which there is, and has never been, any known cure.

Well, I guess there are worse medical diagnoses to receive and both the world and we have received them – global warming, AIDS, cancer, you name it.  And that everything old is or isn’t new again is certainly not news or even very interesting or original.

However, what is fascinating about it to me is just what we are all remembering and how much of it, if anything, has any degree of accuracy to the real past or, more importantly, to what our present lives are now.  I mean, if the very facts we recall are actually wrong, doesn’t that negate what meaning they have for the current day?

Before your brain starts to break, let’s move on to some pop culture – as we all often do – to illuminate our thoughts.

the-company-you-keep-poster-600x887

This week I took a gang of 15 college students to the glamorous Arclight Theatres in Hollywood to see The Company We Keep, a film directed by and starring Robert Redford that is about his character’s possible involvement in the radical sixties political group The Weathermen.  We took the trip because nearly half of these students are writing movies set in the 1960s, which in itself is certainly proof that the nostalgia bug is alive and well and living in 2013.

Well, I certainly enjoyed reliving the political speechifying and long lost world of American left wing radicals played by right correctly aged actors like Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot, among others.  Heck, they were portraying the kind of larger than life older siblings, uncles and cousins I wish I had as a child in the sixties.  As for my students, who before the screening told me their fascination with the period probably had a lot to do with “missing out on all the excitement” – let’s just say they were not quite as taken by this trip down memory lane.  All they felt was “lectured to” about “the good old days” and all they saw was “a depressing group of older people” who “missed what they used to be” and had for the most part lived “pretty sad lives.”

My students upon seeing the "real Sixites"

My students upon seeing the “real Sixites”

My knee jerk answer to this group of early 20ish critics is that all they got to represent them in the film was Shia LeBouf playing an obstinate reporter (is there any other kind?) in a pair of hipster glasses (to repeat: are there any other kind?) and a few unknown actors to whom they couldn’t relate.  But my more thoughtful response is what they actually got was a bit more dramatic reality of the period and the people who made it.  In other words, a somewhat melancholy recognition that huge social change comes in long, drawn out decades and that what seems exciting about any one particular 10-year period are really only small high points amid months and years of ordinary life.  This reality, however, is not what we want to or choose to make of the sixties – especially in mass entertainment.

The above is what makes television’s Mad Men and its success on all levels even more impressive.  But I won’t go on and on once again about the show I consider the best on television.  I will only state that its use of the sixties as a backdrop to social change heaped on a group of fairly non-extraordinary people in New York is accurate and enticing because it doesn’t get hung up in the gauzy glow of an era but instead traffics in everyday looks and behavior amid those moments.   This became even clearer to me last season with the debut of my namesake – a neurotic Jewish writer from the boroughs of New York named Ginsberg (guilty!).   Ben Feldman, the actor (and, FYI, Ithaca College grad) who plays him, not only looked a bit like this young Ginsberg, but even talked and behaved like the older brother I never had in the sixties.  In fact, they so got it right that it didn’t make me feel nostalgic at all, only mortified that I could have ever thought it was fitting to act and dress the way he did.  And if you don’t believe me (and I KNOW I will regret it), picture THIS:

Brothers?

Brothers?

(Note: My photo was from 1972 but I lived in Queens and we were a few years behind the times then).

The television reruns on Nick@Nite certainly give us an exacting view of pop culture at the time and are accurate nostalgia items only if one remembers that I Love Lucy, Dragnet, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Friends, Happy Days and Leave It To Beaver were never true representations of anything but entertainment.  The TV Land network seems to recognize this by merely putting aging (does that mean anyone over 50?) stars like Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Fran Drescher in old-fashioned type situation comedies that don’t pretend to evoke anything but kitschy pop culture.  Perhaps that is reason alone for both its limited success and general lack of critique – it knows what it is and understands it would be misguided to be anything more than that.

This kind of reminiscence is fine for television and movies but when it begins to literally bleed over into politics and social change it becomes more like the disease Dr. Hofer described, still in search of a cure.  Take gun control.  Interpreting our Constitutional right to bear arms as a guarantee every American can own military style weapons our forefathers never could have imagined seems as realistic as applying the separate twin bed sleeping arrangements of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy to any young, typical show business couple of today.  That’s how marital bliss was first portrayed on television, right?  So doesn’t it follow that the same rules be carried over?

Or — maybe that’s an argument better suited to the traditional marriage conundrum.  Things worked so much better in the 50s and 60s when Ward and June Cleaver presided in the suburbs over their two precocious young boys and when the Happy Days’ Cunningham family gave away Joanie in marriage to Chachi.  Well, they worked as long as one dared not be (or marry) any other shade but white, or of any other socio-economic status than middle class, or of any other particular sexual orientation than 100% heterosexual.  I mean, can you imagine if Chachi would have actually wanted to marry Fonzie and adopt children a la Cam and Mitchell in Modern Family?  Or what if Joanie were really in love with Laverne?  Or Shirley?  Would we as a society even be exiting today?  Especially since everyone knows marriage is primarily there as means for a loving couple to procreate.

Though I would have loved to see their offspring..

Though I would have loved to see their offspring..

As unjust as you might think this comparison might be, remember that it was only last month that Rick Santorum, the runner up for the 2012 Republican nomination for US president, in 2012, blamed the shift in favor of marriage equality to include gays and lesbians squarely on the shoulders of television – and in particular one show only — Will and Grace.

Of course, Will, or is it Grace, does live a life closest to mine, so I could be a bit biased.  Certainly, my twisted life does not belong on the tube, influencing the younger generation away from the tried and true traditions of nostalgia.  No – those rantings of mine should stay only in the classroom (Oops!).

A walk down memory lane

A walk down memory lane

Maybe Woody Allen said it best (as he often does) in Midnight in Paris.  In choosing to direct and write an entire film that is a tribute to looking back, he simultaneously sees the past in the beautiful purple hues of glamorous 1920s Paris streets and in the timeless romantic disappointments even that past cannot mask. This speech, delivered not by his hero but by a clear-thinking intellectual in the present (who better than to deliver bad news) pretty much sums up the negative.

Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.

But even Woody himself decides at the end of two hours to leave his nostalgia loving main character with a chance of a happy ending.  Of course, that’s only after he traveled back in time, learned a few lessons, and then came to a new, slightly improved understanding in light of what he had so painfully experienced.  Perhaps  that’s the most — and the best — we can hope for when we’re so determined to idealize the past.

Who are you?

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Within the last week my computer was stolen and within the last year my federal tax return refund was issued to someone else who illegally filed a claim in my name.  Now don’t panic.  I have another computer and about 65% of the stuff from the missing one is either backed up or in hard copy.  I also filed a new claim with the IRS stating that some jerk stole my social security number for tax purposes only – apparently a common occurrence these days – and have been assured by my accountant that within the next year or so I should get my full refund in the mail.

Of course, none of this takes away how absolutely creepy it feels to know that someone other than your dog has their paws on, inside and around private parts of you and your life.  It’s kind of like a blind date you didn’t ask for who stays over without permission and, aside from your wallet, steals some of your most personal items from your house, including, most importantly, your personal space.

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

All of this got me thinking about the two-hour season premiere on Sunday night of the best written series on television – Mad Men – a show that at its core is about how the social and political revolution of the sixties forever changed (some say stole) the identities of American men and women but also allowed us to evolve into who we are today.  Not that I’m recommending it but theft and the turmoil it brings can be good too – waking us up to who and what we really are beyond who and what we possess.  (As if all that isn’t temporary anyway).

In approaching the herculean task of a season set in the often overwritten year of 1968, series creator Matt Weiner shows us a world of individuals who up until now were determined to be defined by what they have rather than who they are because the latter is just too scary and impossible to think about or really even know for sure.  This presents the ultimate problem for his characters because, truthfully, almost none of them have even so much as a passing clue as to their inner selves.  In fact, I’d venture to say that even if a magic Genie appeared to them offering to grant any three wishes of their greatest desire, they would be flummoxed to choose what the top three real wishes would be.  This perpetual conflict and uncertainty is why Mad Men continues to work year after year.  It is a show that series creator Weiner has acknowledged publicly has “no concept at all other than its characters.”

True words, man.

True words, man.

But in real life, as opposed to television drama (which in the case of MM, is much funnier, subtler, more dramatic and better executed), we all do have an identity, which is why no one can truly steal it if deep down you know who you are. That is the reason why I don’t get personally freaked out by the thefts mentioned earlier and why I don’t give a hoot about my Facebook privacy settings or how many items I buy online using a credit card that someone can possibly take and use as their own. Oh sure, these robber barons can make my life temporarily miserable and cause some financial strain or personal heartache, but can they truly take who I am and make it them???  I don’t think so.  Not unless they want to walk xxx number of years (not sayin’ the number, sorry kids) in my shoes and have each identical experiences of joy, heartache and everything in between that I have learned, or sometimes not learned, from.  (Note on the latter: I am nothing if not a work in progress.  Or, if you like metaphor, a chair still under construction but not completely built).

Still, it is also why the entirety of my, or most anyone else’s, true life would not make a good television series or movie.  We don’t live in constant conflict and wit that serve a three or five (or more) act structure and don’t have the best writers, directors and actors to perform it.  We only have ourselves.  Which brings us back to MM, American society and the year 1968.

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU'RE HOT!

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU’RE HOT!

It is not surprising that in its next to last season Mad Men is finally tackling the issue of personal (and on a large scale, American?) identity because its iconic leading Man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm… did I mention Jon Hamm?), is someone whose own identity was literally stolen from a dead soldier and molded (by the real character, along with his writers and the actor playing him) into the alpha male of his time by stealing other traits from the best and brightest of what he saw around him in his travels from his rural American childhood, to the snazzy streets of Madison Avenue, to posh suburban New York, and then up to the polished penthouses of Manhattan.  Now in its final years, Mad Men has lost none of its own polish and luster because more and more the faux Madison-Avenue-American-dream-world from the late 50s it created is beginning to crumble before our eyes.  Rather like the way the economic bubble of the 2000s (aughts?) brought down the financial avarice of the 1980s’ “greed is good” culture and the failed American foreign power grabs of the 1980s, 90s and aughts has provoked a bit of an isolationist break from war on the part of the vast majority of the American public today.

As Mr. Weiner and company spend the next number of months against the backdrop of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the campus shootings at Kent State, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the body bags of the Vietnam War, flower power, marijuana, bell bottoms, good and bad hairstyles (depending on your POV and the kind of hair you have) and rock ‘n roll, all topped off by the election of Richard M. Nixon to president (do I have to live through it a second time?!!), it is important to remember that every bit of these moments and many more are all part of what brought us all to where we are today.  It is why China, France, Germany or Japan will never actually be the United States, just as the United States can never aspire to be any one of those countries.  That’s not a quality judgment on us or them but merely a statement of fact.

You can steal an idea of something but, as Mad Men consistently shows us, ideas are intangible until they are embodied and fully fleshed and executed out by the actions of people and the reactions of others to what they do.  If you have any doubts that this show does it well – consider all of the many films and TV shows that attempt over and over to wallow in the backdrop of the late sixties for dramatic effect and how over and over again those television series and movies fail miserably, or at least in great part, in almost every way.   It is never about the backdrop or the surface or the literal of what we see.  It is always about what’s below the surface and how what is and isn’t there is played out by the people inhabiting that world.  To wit (very limited spoilers ahead):

Taking in the view (last Hamm  joke for this post I promise)

Taking in the view (last Hamm joke for this post I promise)

  • When Roger Sterling, the blue blood jokester partner at Don Draper’s ad agency, lies on his psychiatrist’s couch and ponders “What’s it all about, doc?” the effect is meant to be a comically indulgent comment on the sixties that will later surprise us with a lot more.
  •  When Don’s overfed, arch ex-wife Betty travels down to Greenwich Village to find a lost 15 year old girl and is told by a hippie gang leader that “You can’t grok (the word for understand in Robert Heinlen’s seminal 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land) that we (young people) are your garbage” it’s meant to sound misguided and dishonest until later on Betty shows us through her own actions it really isn’t.
  • When Don’s former protégé Peggy, now running her own creative department at a rival agency, tries to do what Don, her former boss, would do when she’s stumped on how to save an ad campaign of hers that unintentionally evokes an American military atrocity in Vietnam, it feels obviously poignant until Peggy’s wry self-satisfied smile later proves it to be anything but.
  •  And, while taking his official agency photo against the backdrop of Manhattan in his too immense office, Don himself can only stare blankly into the camera lens when a desperate photographer pleads with him to just “be yourself,” it feels too quaint for words until the last scene of the season premiere proves that for this ad man drawing a blank was the only truly honest response he has in him during the entire episode.

I tell my students all the time to not worry about anyone stealing their ideas. Original ideas can never really be stolen because it is always about how they’re executed – how they play out from scene to scene and in total. 

The only thing you have to fear... is wasting post-its

The only thing you have to fear… is wasting post-its

This is much the same as our lives and how we really live them rather than how it might seem to the world.   That is also the way it is with our favorite television series, particularly ones like Mad Men, which was never about the window dressing of the often portrayed 1960s but the ways in which the people who identified as Americans got through it… and came out the other side.