Who are you?


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.



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.

Diary of a Chair: Escape from Chicago

Sure, it looks good now, but just wait…

Saturday, Aug. 11, 10pm –  Our last night at the Chicago hotel that hosted this year’s tribute to Harry Potter-obsessed teenagers – Leaky Con.  This means that upon arriving into town three days earlier there were more than 1000 (mostly) teenage girls dressed as characters from all the books and movies in the lobby. When I asked the bell captain what was up he snidely smiled as he told me – “there are 4000 of them staying here to attend the conference.”  Yuk. Yuk.

As it turns out – 98% of the crowd are sweet and lively.  About 25% were young men.  And 5% were parents and adults of questionable character. Think — the cast of “Glee” but instead of musicals they all like young people’s English literature for their own particular reasons.

a sampling of attendees

Note:  Costumes were all homemade and one girl insisted I do a secret handshake with her, which turned out to be fun.  Of all those under 21, all were polite except for the two 18 year olds in the early check out line who happened to be staying in the hotel – but instead of being into all things Potter were mostly into oblivious texting on their sleek, black phones.  I can’t help but think this observation is significant.

Saturday, Aug. 11, 7pm – Earlier that evening, we’re at the finale banquet dinner of a 3-day academic conference held at the Adler Planetarium.  The views outside are  spectacular and it’s a fine choice for a finale.  But I do miss the Potter gals.

love her.

Also, I discover Planetarium light shows have not changed much since I was in fourth grade.  Why do we go out of our way to remind children of how insignificant humans are in the existential scheme of planetary existence??

Sunday, Aug. 12, 1:00 am – I can’t sleep thinking about the 5 am wakeup time to get to the airport for the 8:30 am flight back to Los Angeles.  It could be partly due to the root canal awaiting me this week and my dentist’s parting words:  “and then hopefully we can save the tooth.”  No one cared about such things in Potter world, I think.  In fact, I know that to be more of a contemporary American thing and consider picking up one of the books myself prior to flying.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 7:30am – I’m at the super cool Virgin America terminal awaiting to board our hipper-than-hip plane that allowed me to listen to Amy Winehouse on the departure flight while I was watching “Jeff Who Lives At Home” on the screen of the young girl next to me without the sound.  I am not stalking young females.  No.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:00 am – Mechanical problem on the plane that they’re working on.  Meanwhile, we talk to three sisters in their 70s going to visit a fourth sister for a “sister’s reunion” on Catalina Island.  I realize they’re way funnier than anything in the movie as they talk of ducking outside for “smokes,” the fact that one of their sons is wasting his life “shoving chicken out a window” at the neighborhood KFC and should go back to college, and question if the logo on one of a competing airlines is actually Lucifer or just looks like him.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 11am – A pilot who looks like the younger brother of Capt. Sully of Hudson River fame, explains to us they’re still working on the plane and there’s no word but that he will keep us informed and, yeah, it stinks to be so inconvenienced.  He’s sorry.  Aside from liking his manner and the fact that he’s central casting for a trustworthy airman, his name is Steve – as is mine and my partner in travel (and life).  I take this as a sign that everything will be okay.  Really.

Our pilot, in about 20 years

Addendum: Virgin gate attendants give out a game with 15 jumbles of airline-related words.  The two Steves have five college degrees between them and smile as snidely as the hotel bell captain, convinced we will be among the first five winners to unscramble them all and get free food and drink vouchers.  We don’t even come close.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 12:30 pm – Virgin scrubs our flight.  Since we’ve all been awake since 4am and waiting, no one is happy.

Bad news:  No other airline at O’Hare has empty seats at this late date on a Sunday.

Great news!  Snappy and “with it” Virgin Air will provide a special plane for any of us who want it that will get us out on a flight to L.A. that leaves at 11:00 that night.  We can hang out or just come back to the gate at our convenience an hour ahead of time.  As the Barefoot Contessa says on the Food Channel, “How Easy Is That?”

“SO easy,” says Ina.

In “I’m cool” news:  I manage to be the first to give my name the Virgin Air personnel so I don’t have to wait on line with the other 100 plus people reserving space for 11:00 pm.   And a few minutes later the sisters are even snuck a Virgin gift certificate to free meals at the Olive Garden!  It’s true – seriously!

Sunday, Aug. 12, 2:30 pm – We finish a not-so-good lunch at another terminal and, in an airport walkway, a passenger from our plane tells us our special 11:00 flight was cancelled and it’s a good thing he saw us cause we need to get back to the gate asap.  Not sure what this means for the sisters at the Olive Garden but we skedaddle to selfishly take care of ourselves.

Gee thanks, Ina

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:00 pm – We are sent downstairs for ticketing and spend 90 mins. waiting on line trying to get rebooked for any later flights at all but everything’s sold out.  A lady from Iran starts to yell, fearing she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t get home.  She later tells me later that she “expects this in my country because everything is like that – but this is America.”  I’m not quite sure what to say right then and there.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:30pm After two hours waiting, Virgin Air promises swears they will provide a plane at 9am for us since their other flights TOMORROW are booked.  They give us a voucher to the Double Tree Inn,  a 10-15 minute tram ride away and send us half a mile to the baggage claim area to pick up our bags once checked.  Then they instruct us to return to this airport no later than 6 or 7am the next morning – three hours prior to the take off of this flight.  My tooth finally starts to hurt.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 6:30 pm – The tram driver was Third Reichish , it’s starting to rain and we listen as a fellow passenger – a 20something guy with long-hair and a very cool affect – tell his odd relationship history with women to a female traveler from Hong Kong in the next seat who he flirts with.  I realize once again in my life that looks aren’t everything.  I hope to God she realizes this and I’m not even religious.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 9:00 pm – The long-haired guy is still bending the ear of the young woman in the Double Tree Inn Restaurant but they’re both in new outfits.  Uh, oh.  Also, a bartender with a deep voice who claims to have known Ryan Seacrest when he was working in Chicago radio (as the Olympics plays on TV behind him), plies two women with drinks on opposite ends of the bar.  One eventually starts to cry and he steps out from behind his post and rubs her back.  The other later orders another drink and he drops that he’ll “be here till 11.” Then she hints she might return.  As my grandmother used to say, “oy vey.”  I, however, admit to being equally repulsed and intrigued.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:39 pm – After watching snippets of the closing ceremony of the Olympics we leave the TV on NBC because the hotel room’s remote control won’t change channels and we need a diversion.  We miss several musical acts but get to see the pilot of something called “Animal Practice” and the Sunday night Chicago news, whose weather forecaster promises big morning thunderstorms.   When The Who show up to close the Olympics post newscast and I can’t help but wonder what happened in London as we were staring at a TV pilot, the local news and the threat of a Midwest electrical disaster that could down our plane.  A voice answers: NBC hubris.  But at this point I’m too tired to really fight.

WHO even saw this?

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:53 pm – My cell rings and it’s a local number.  But not one I recognize.  It’s our same favorite corporate Virgin Air reps telling us the 9am aircraft for tomorrow has mechanical difficulties too.  They can squeeze us on something that leaves Monday night but that there are only a few seats left and that, really, there is no guarantee with them or anyone else if we don’t book now.  The other Steve (my partner – not the pilot) starts to uncharacteristically fling nasty, non-Harry Potter insults at the Virgins in the background as I ask if we can count on this flight actually happening.  I’m told that “nothing is ever 100%.” Duh as if I didn’t already know that.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t write that anywhere.  Well, except here.

Monday, Aug. 13, 12:30 am –I think I see lightning. It is now raining.  Since I don’t like flying even in nice weather, this concerns me.  As do my teeth because due to stress and the fact they upset my stomach, I missed the last 6 hours of antibiotics meant to keep an almost dead tooth from becoming infected.  The other online-intrepid Steve meanwhile scours the web and eventually sneaks us on a 7:55 am United flight (take that, Virgins!) so we can get back in the nick of time for our jobs and my tooth.  To ensure this and to accommodate the machinations of weather and dictatorial tram drivers, we pony up another $800 as my finger shakily sets the hotel room wakeup call for…4 ayem.  I’m convinced I don’t need to sleep because not being alert to everything around you is obviously much too dangerous.

How I imagine this flight.. or the beginning of Lost

Monday, Aug. 13, 5:00 am – A new tram driver misses our stop at United completely even though we and another couple told him three times of our destination.  Note:  This couple bears no resemblance to any couple mentioned thus far and is not recognizable from the airport, bar or hotel.  I’m not sure if this is significant but think even the smallest detail could be at this very crucial and very early time.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:15 am – We are seated on our new United plane, convinced we’ve gamed the system (somewhat) and mentally composing our letter (email?)/phone conversation with the hideous Virgin Air to reimburse us. (Unless I can persuade a powerful friend who has met Richard Branson to give me his email address and his vacation home).  That is, until the pilot announces there is a bad smell in the baggage/engine area in this new United airplane that they need to investigate.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:17 am – We are told we can deplane if we like and walk around while they tinker or we can stay put until there is news.  I begin to worry about the other Steve next to me, reassured somewhat by the airline rule against passengers carrying guns onboard a plane and thrilled no Steves I know (or live with) actually have a permit to carry one.  Remembering the advice of a former writing teacher from many years ago, I quickly decide to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire’s greatest hits to calm me down..

Monday, Aug. 13, 10:15 am – We are ordered to take our seats again, passengers are ordered back inside, the engines rev and we are told we will be taking off.  No one seems to know what the smell was or if it’s affected the engine.  It’s as if it never happened, though suddenly I detect a distinct gasoline odor and become very concerned.  The other Steve threatens to behead me with his iPhone if I dare utter one word about it.  I shrink down in my seat, the stench of fumes all around me, and cover myself with a thin blue United Airlines blanket with a disinfectant chemical odor all of its own.  For many reasons, I don’t want to die this way.  I am not really happy.

Roughly how I spent the flight.

Monday, Aug. 13, five hours later, 1:30 pm – We land safely at LAX, 36 hours after our initial return trip began.   But I begin to wonder what Orville and Wilbur Wright would think about both the popularity and reality of air travel today.  And consider that more can happen since we haven’t deplaned.

A few minutes later, I think of the fine Lichtenstein exhibit we snuck off to at Chicago’s spectacular Art Institute and wonder if I’m too much of a complainer who hasn’t yet caught on to the fact that we’re all living in our own version of one of his comic book paintings.  I also ponder if me asking this very question is what Lichtenstein had intended all along.

I give in.

As we walk through the airport to L.A. baggage claim, I think of JK Rowling and consider if when she sat in her apartment conceiving Harry and Hogwarts if she ever dreamed of what the ripple effect would be of her mass invention (or if it would be).  And also, if she’s even aware of this obscure Midwest convention of Potterites called Leaky Con that, its brochures clearly note, have nothing at all to do with her or any of WB’s “Harry” films.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  Not even close.  The only thing I do know is that – strangely – I do miss the Potter kids at the hotel.  Though I have no plans in the near or distant future to ever travel back on an airplane to see them.

Then I have one last thought –  that perhaps I can invent another way – one that doesn’t involve the corruption of a really neat invention – by either mere neglect, inconsideration or some other sort of corporate malfeasance.

In a Potter-like land of make believe, I find myself, once again, hopeful.