How To Do Nothing

I’m enjoying not doing much of anything.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  In fact, it’s taken me a lifetime to get to this point.  I’m not sure how long it will last but, boy, I’m hoping it doesn’t end any time soon.

And if I work real hard and am real lucky, it won’t.

At the height of self-quarantine in early April I had a routine appointment with a doctor whose office is located in a hospital.

Admittance into the hospital required a temperature check at the door and when I was told mine was a little over 101 degrees, well, imagine my surprise.

Definitely channelled my inner Maya

I had a headache, which is not unusual for someone with severe seasonal allergies such as mine, and that was about it.  But after several more temp checks and a call to my doctor on the inside I was told a COVID-19 test was ordered and I was to return later that afternoon.

Some hours later I was driving down to the hospital’s lower level parking lot where about 20 hospital workers, dipped in what looked liked head to toe HAZ-MAT suits, with long plexiglass shields around their upper torsos, stood at tables on either side of me in my car.

Their hands were weaponized with small plastic test tubes, synthetic clipboards with official looking paper lists and Q Tips the size of the twelve-foot ruler I hadn’t seen since my elementary school days,

It looked sort of like a scene from Alien or Star Trek crossed with a yet to be filmed Tim Burton movie about mass corruption in the medical establishment.

Roughly what I saw from my car

Nevertheless, I soldiered through, weathered the teacher’s measuring stick far up my nose, was told the next day I was negative and then soon after was diagnosed with a bad sinus infection.

It took a while to get better, both physically and psychologically.  I mean, there was something about the Q-Tip ruler up my nose that still gives me the willies despite NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s very apt demonstration last week on TV that it was nothing to be afraid of.  (Note: Good for him.  And notice they didn’t show his face in close-up).

Notice he’s smiling… BEFORE the swab goes in #notpleasant

I also had a lot to preoccupy me while I was healing.  There were four 2-3 hour Zoom sessions per week with college writing students now dispersed all over the country I was supposed to be teaching meaningful skills to as well as reassuring.  Not to mention, dozens and dozens, and still dozens of their pages to read and type feedback to.  On the more personal side, there was also an endless loop of food prep/food buying that included literally HOURS of wipe downs with chemically smelly products that can’t, in the long run, be good for your you OR your food.

In addition to ….well, a  TON more.  I mean, it’s only been this last week that I began to master the art of mentally measuring what it means to really be six feet apart from anyone while walking my dog.

Of course, I still haven’t mastered the art of wearing a mask with glasses.  For a while I thought the advice of washing your specs in soap and water before going outside would prevent the mask from fogging up but that proved to be as effective as stopping the hiccups by having someone scaring the life out of you.

I’m going to have to look this stupid, huh? #signmeup

Yet since I handed in my grades earlier this week after reading 352 screenplays and TV pilots in 14 days (Note:  Okay, not really, but still A LOT), and having increased my speed in disinfecting, distancing, zooming, prepping and cleaning, I do find myself with…..idle time.

Yes, I’m one of the fortunate ones to not be working on the front lines, not have any friends or loved ones fighting for their lives against COVID, and not in immediate danger of being thrown out of my apartment or deprived of my next meal because I can’t meet the rent or afford the grocery bill.

And so are many of you.

Also known as Twitter

Yet there is this strange restlessness, anger and resentment in the air I can feel amid the aforementioned MANY I am lucky to be a part of.  People are climbing the walls, screaming at the TV and complaining endlessly about being sentenced to life at home with their computers, televisions, phones and loved ones by their side or a zoom chat away.

Boo-hoo.  Boo, boo, boo, boo, HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.  WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!

Adopt the ruthlessness of Sally Draper

Believe me, I get it.  I don’t like to be trapped or idle either.  And before you go ballistic, I’m not speaking about people who are freaked out because they can’t work and fear they’ll lose everything, or whose very small children are driving them up the walls they probably wish were padded by now.

Instead, I’m speaking of the millions of the rest of you in MY group who, really, just need to hang out for a little while longer and calm the f-k down.

I’ve NEVER been good at not having a plan to give me control over a situation.  I’ve also been the ambitious type, spending my life plotting the next project that will move me forward in my life, my career or in my relentless search for the answers to all the nagging existential questions I’ve had about life and human existence since I was a wee child.

Me, in third grade

The latter might seem silly to you but it’s been both a motivation and an anxiety-ridden plague to me on and off for decades.  So if you can’t relate to it as an example simply substitute anything you try to balance away by activity that you know can easily grind you into the ground if you let yourself get too carried away with it.  These could include love, alcohol, food, work, shopping, crime, sex, gaming or your undying love of all things cyber.

Now that you’ve been ordered to endure some additional self-isolation for a few more months (Note: At least by those who know best) those of you in my very privileged group this summer can start to deal with this by simply saying to yourself and your over active minds/egos….

STOP.  Like, full stop.   You have ZERO reason to be freaking out over what you’re NOT DOING and instead take the time to enjoy NOT DOING anything.

Don’t let those “somethings” tempt you

Human nature being what it is, you have nothing to worry about because pretty soon, you will do something.  Maybe it’s checking in with a friend, being of service to someone less fortunate than you at the spur of the moment or, I don’t know, baking your first loaf of bread.

These activities, none of them, need be IMPORTANT or building towards ANYTHING at all.  They only need to keep you in the moment of just how freaking fortunate you are to be stuck at home with no end in sight without any PLAN or PROJECT for the immediate future.

Oh, something will occur for you to do everyday – many things and many of them mundane – until they’re not and then they are again.

Enjoy it, and then REALLY enjoy it, while you can.

Bruno Mars – “The Lazy Song”

The Real Thing

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 11.59.35 AM

Can people substantially change who they are? Or do they, as they get older, just become more of who they are?

Mad Men – one of the best-written series ever on television – grappled with the question of change and identity via the lens of the American psyche throughout its eight-year,seven-season, run. So it seemed only fitting – and simultaneously both obvious and brilliant – that this would be the primary question it answered in its finale episode.

A television program can only do so much but for my money and time there has not ever been a show to so accurately yet obtusely capture how Americans think, change or refuse to budge as this one. We have taken a lot of heat as a country for being a bit self-obsessed just as we have also always been lauded for our sometimes unsolicited generosity of spirit to others when their or our backs are to the wall. Perhaps America as a bastion of freedom that will always lend a helping hand and open door to those less fortunate has taken a beating in recent years. But the idea of the U.S. – and the desire for there to be a place where people can live free and be who they really are regardless of what they may or may not really be, observe or come from – is a concept that seems to only grow with power as time goes on and the world grows more (yet seemingly less) connected.

Don Draper's 1960 utopia

Don Draper’s 1960 utopia

The reason Mad Men was so often able to address these questions so brilliantly is that series creator Matthew Weiner chose exactly the right decade – the 1960’s – to tackle them. There has not been, nor probably will there ever be in the future, a ten-year period with so great a shift in cultural, political and social mores. It saw an unprecedented period of sweeping changes in how we thought, felt, and even dressed. Free love, the peace movement, a relaxing of social conventions that caused us to become (Note: Sometimes kicking and screaming) more inclusive and less discriminatory against the marginalized or less fortunate? Well, five plus decades later some of it would last – for a while – until segments of the majority in power (Note: Did I say the 1980s? Oh, now I did) decided to take a few more steps backwards from that advancing direction. But then again, all of this societal stuff tends to be cyclical anyway if you look at the rise and fall of any the world’s great super powers. At least we – well, many of the most fortunate of us, that is – still have a few more choices now than we did back then.

When one says Mad Men was about the sixties let’s be clear about something – it was really about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The decade we really think was the sixties didn’t actually begin until after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Before that it was just the 1950s but with a more youthful glow. The 1960s then happened and took us through Vietnam, rock ’n roll, drugs and the search for love and that dirty term nowadays: self-actualization. But that ended after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, television bringing the atrocities of the Vietnam War home, and the unmasking of all of the rest of the American dream for every bit of the invented sham it always was. That, in essence, was where our slow recovery – meaning the 1970s – began and continues to this very day.

Don's reading materials

Don’s reading materials

None of this is meant as an insult to the American dream or to negate the fact that many beneficial aspects to it still do exist. But make no mistake – it was and is invented and made up. The very nature of all dreams is that they are NOT REAL. Which, on the other hand, makes them no less true (or potentially true) in some form. I tell this to my students in every writing class I’ve ever taught when they voice concerns that their stories are too contrived. Well, of course they’re contrived! I answer. All of this stuff is made up, even if it’s based on real life. The task is to make it not seem like it is – to somehow have it evoke reality. That was hard fought advice I gave to myself after decades of self-flagellation whenever I myself grew overly frustrated that nothing I ever wrote seemed real ENOUGH.

There is no main character – nee protagonist, nee anti-hero or hero, depending on how you want to see him – to dramatically travel so effectively in, around and through these issues as a man whose job it is to manufacture American dreams, wants and desires – meaning an American advertising man.

From the pilot episode

From the pilot episode

And what kind of ad guy – how about one whose entire personal identity is made up from the very beginning – both literally in Matt Weiner’s mind and figuratively in the character of Don Draper, a man who is really named something else he didn’t like or want to be and instead chose to assume the name and new life of a dead man. This is a guy who is so perfect looking, so talented, and so continuously successful in everything he does even when he is failing miserably – that he couldn’t be real. In fact, he couldn’t be anything more than the invention of some smart and savvy mind on Madison Avenue – which is what he is.

Don Draper’s journey from stud, to family man, to phony man, to rich man who remembers being a poor man, to rogue, alcoholic, reformed rogue with half a heart back to pseudo real, tortured American stripped bare at the end of the decade, seemed iconic and ironic enough. But it was only in the last episode this weekend, where the flawed yet somehow always enviable Don Draper took center stage alongside such other fictional American icons as Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad and even All in the Family’s Archie Bunker.

Television's (now) former leading men... casting long shadows

Television’s (now) former leading men… casting long shadows

It is giving nothing away (Note: Or perhaps it is so if you’re a stickler for these kind of things you might want to skip over the paragraph) to say that at his seemingly lowest point in the series Don decides not so much to change but to pull himself together the best he can and achieve what in his heart of hearts he’s always wanted – something uniquely his own and thus personally iconic.

But he does this not through the personal epiphany he has in the scene before when, in a burst of uncharacteristic, unguarded emotion, he is able to identify with and even hug a fellow lost male soul in a California encounter group when the man compares himself to an unchosen item in a refrigerator and laments that people “look right through you” and don’t see you. I mean in that moment you wonder if what Don feels is not so much kinship for a guy to whom he is essentially saying – that’s right, I feel the same way, they don’t see me either and I know how you feel – or whether as he’s hugging this poor shlub he is really saying – Listen bud, I AM the ideal, the guy you always think they see and who, in fact, they do see and always choose, and it’s no better on this side either. I don’t feel like anyone really knows me because I don’t know me, and let me tell you, just like you that feels like shit.

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season's "The Forecast"): "Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere."

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season’s “The Forecast”): “Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere.”

This would seem to be Don’s emotional catharsis and moment of self-actualization and perhaps it is in that moment. But like all heroes in very American art this hero has to take what he’s learned and apply it to real life. Or as they say via our take on modern dramatic film and TV writing, The Hero’s Journey — he needs to Return with the Elixir from whence he came and put his knowledge into practice in his own ordinary world.

Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems that Mr. Weiner’s (and Mad Men’s) answer to all this is NOT to have Don go home and become a better father, join the Peace Corp or set up a foundation for other lost souls less fortunate than he.

No – what happens is that during a subsequent day of mediation (complete with a joint OHM and all that entails) a literal bell goes off in Don’s head and he smiles – presumably with an idea.

Suffice it to say this is not a notion for how to achieve world peace or the beginnings of a cure for cancer. Though perhaps it is the ad man’s equivalent of that – a brilliant idea for a …Coke Commercial?

Say what you want about all of us as a culture, or as artists, but there is no idea too pure or life event too personal that we are above cannibalizing if we can turn it to our benefit into great art or at least a great business idea – though hopefully both.

Which I couldn’t help thinking about when Mr. Weiner revealed Mad Men’s final song and image – Don Draper’s last great idea. Cue one of the most famous television ads ever seen – a multi-cultural group of young people of different colors and nationalities atop a mountaintop having HIS Kumbaya moment but singing a song espousing the benefits and joys of us humans one day existing in perfect harmony as we each drink…our Coca-Colas.

You tell 'em, Rita!

You tell ’em, Rita!

Anyone who is of a certain age remembers I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.  If not click here. First it was an ad jingle, then it was one of the first world videos, and then, and only then, was it re-recorded with new lyrics where it would become an…international hit record.

It was the beginning of another era – that of media cross-pollination, which would eventually give way to mass corporate ownership of the arts and vertical integration of all its divisions into a new world order.

Yes, we do have the Don Drapers of the world to thank for that.

But only THE Don Draper – and those who created him – to thank for seven seasons of appointment TV that, even in our current and vast media landscape, will sorely be missed.