Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mad Men: Then, Now and (One Hopes) Forever

A hundred years ago when I was too mental for a permanent job but not too mental to work as a temp (temping is a good solution for mentals as you can pass up jobs when you’re having a breakdown and, if you recover, get another assignment), I spent several days as an office drudge for an ad agency in San Francisco.

The only reason I’m recalling it now (cuz trust me, I try very hard not to recall one single thing from my odious past) is because Mad Men—praise be—has finally come back. And even though season five picks up in the year 1966, it seems not so very different from my own Mad Men stint that took place about seven years later. By which I mean that everyone who worked in this ad agency was very good-looking. Maybe not as gorgeous as Joan (a character I could watch evermore) but certainly right up there: No grown-up Chubbettes, and not one Deformo.

(By Deformo I mean a Facial Deformo, which I was at the time, and still am within my traumatized brain, never mind that I got the deformity surgically “solved” almost three decades ago. Having become a Deformo at the age of 13, I was, shall we say, acutely attuned to (completely obsessed with) the mandibular symmetry—or not-- of all others. All I wanted was to find just one other person whose mandible was even slightly askew, and every time I did not, I felt newly irate and cruelly betrayed. Which is just one explanation for why I wasn’t that sane. What I was instead was maniacally conscious of American standards of beauty and which people met them, and which did not--and, crazier yet, why they did not. I never made these observations aloud, of course, as I was simultaneously trying to pass for a person who might be mistaken, if only by the blindest of drunks,  for Jean Shrimpton.)

I’d been answering their phones for two days before I noticed the agency’s bulletin board, on which my least favorite things—photographs—were posted for everyone in the office to see.

“These are from our company picnic,” a perky version of Don Draper—if such an oxymoron could even exist—told me when he saw me studying them.

Being insane almost always you gives you a bad personality, which is why I said: “Why do you hire only good-looking people?”

Skipping barely a beat while ignoring my question, he said: “Everyone’s good-looking when they’re happy!”

“No, they’re not,” I said, which is just one reason why people with bad personalities have a hard time staying employed.

“Sure they are,” he insisted. “Look, everyone’s smiling.”

They were all smiling, displaying white and radiant teeth, their sleek tresses shining as if Hair & Make-up had just touched them up. I was preparing to say that smiles had nothing to do with it, that a euphoric Quasimodo was still Quasimodo, that a sulking Warren Beatty was even more of a sex god, and, by the by, which man would he choose to sell cigarets--but by the time I’d formulated this tirade, someone had stolen Don Draper away.

Someone like Jean Shrimpton, no doubt. For a six hour lunch steeped in equal parts Gin and Mad Sex. Unless it was someone more like Roger Sterling, in which case the Mad Sex would be replaced (as it so gloriously was in an earlier season) by Mad Barfing. 

Either way I’m grateful I can sit back and watch it, as having to live it would be too totally maddening. And I'm pretty sure--nay, unflinchingly sure--I'm quite mad enough as it is. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

You Might As Well Live on the (Yuck) Whites of Eggs

I used to limp into Dr. Mars’ office, collapse like an abandoned accordion onto his couch, and beg him to try just a little bit harder (and 50 times faster) to make me even slightly less mentally ill.  Now that he’s somewhat accomplished this feat, I march right in, perch on his couch as The Raven might have once perched on Poe, and announce what will be our theme for the day.

What I actually announce is the quote that inspired the theme for the day--usually a philosophical point made by some deceased writer or other. E.M. Cioran’s He who has never envied the vegetable has missed the human drama used to sum things up for me perfectly. But recently I came across a quote that sums things up even more perfectly:

Without an ever present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

This (as I patiently informed Dr. Mars) comes from the late Muriel Spark, the woman who secured her financial future, (i.e., her future) by writing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  This particular pearl comes, however, from another Spark novel called, much more fittingly, Memento Mori. Which, as I also patiently told Dr. Mars, translates to English as: Yer gonna dah ‘n’ dontchew fergit it.

Dr. Mars, who almost always pretends to warm to my themes, dutifully asked if I was finding my own life insipid, to which I replied:

“Au contraire, Dr. Mars. I’m completely awash in Hollandaise sauce.”

“Hollandaise?” he asked in that handy shrink dialect known as The Echo.

“Bernaise,“ I said. “Pot de crème. Custard.” Then I gave up and said: “Rich golden yolks.”

I realize everybody my age (sixty-doyoumind-two on the dreaded June 4th) feels compelled to observe this, and now I will too:

Getting closer to death (or absolute penury which is the same thing) really does enhance life the way falling in love (or sexual swoon) used to do, only it does it without the romantic delusion. In fact, that’s the whole point, the lack of delusion.

We really are going to die (which, as my previous and late shrink used to say, is the fact that keeps life from getting too ghastly), and finally believing this makes everything--except maybe hospitals, funerals, acute pain and grief—both brighter (like yolks) and (like the yolks in Zabaglione) much sweeter.
For me anyway.  But maybe that’s because, despite Dr. Mars’ valiant efforts, I’m still, you know, sorta mentally ill.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Long and the Short of Otis's Vowels

Imagine my megalomaniacal joy when, seven whole days after I’d drilled him to death, Otis still remembered his vowels.

“A E I O U and sometimes Y!” he said with a triumphant grin. Now imagine that grin disappearing as I told him we weren’t done with them yet, that the vowels he’d learned were the ones they called Long, and that every Long Vowel had a short brother.

“The short ones are just as good,” I added, since I happen to know Otis has a big brother who probably exceeds him two feet in height. “It’s just that the short ones have minds of their own.”

I didn’t say that the short ones had to have minds of their own for the simple reason that they weren’t, like their longer brothers, first-born, nor did I say that the first-borns didn’t need minds at all because they would inherit everything anyway while the second-borns had to enter the clergy.  And I certainly didn't point out that this explained why the short ones broke rules--that they weren’t merely short, but  poor and resentful. All of which I know he’ll find out for himself as soon as he starts reading Jane Austen, which, let’s face it, is why I show up.

“Let me put it this way,” I said. ”If the U in Seuss was short and not long, Dr. Seuss would be Dr. Suss.”

“Suss?” said Otis, looking repulsed as he took this in.

“Yes,” I said. “Suss.  And that, as you know, would be so very wrong.”

That's when I started in on the drilling again, this time with the Made and the Mad, the Neat and the Net, the Bite and the Bit, the Hope and the Hop, the stroll one sometimes took By the Gym, and,  just to refresh, the Seuss and the Suss, indeed---

The very same Suss 
Who gets on a bus 
To visit Huge Gus
Who makes such a fuss
Over wearing size Plus

at which point Otis balked.

“He didn’t really write that,” he said.

“Well, he could have,” I sniffed, because I am twelve.

I then asked Otis what horrors he thought might occur if the vowels in our names switched their identities, if the longs went short and the shorts went long.  It took a while but he finally suggested that he’d be known around the world as Ah-Tise (tise like precise, not like circumcise), which would be very horrid indeed, not that being known as Ms. Go-Nike (nike like a bike, not a shoe) would be any better.

The only rough spot came when Otis studied the cover of his Dr. Seuss book and finally noticed the odious E. “What does the E do?” he just had to ask.

Here's the truth: I have no more idea what the E does in Seuss than I do what the A does in my first name.  Not that I can ever admit this to Otis. I need him to think I understand English grammar which, very frankly, I never have. I’ve always absorbed it by reading good books. Which is what I want him to be able to do, to swallow the syntax he sees on the page until correct grammar becomes second nature. Which is why I want him to read Pride and Prejudice before he moves on to, say, Naked Lunch.

I was about to tell him that the E in Seuss was there for no reason except to be quiet when a crazy thing happened: the recess bell rang and, for the first time in history, Otis ignored it and stayed in his chair. He was so busy getting that the first E in recess was just as long as the second was short, and delighting in the glory of getting it—I mean visibly delighting in that he glowed like a bright giddy lamp--that he did not want to stop.

I would have let him go on forever, but my supervisor, who has, you know, sense, pushed him out the the Reading Room door into the vicious, Darwinian playground.

Did I feel, for that moment, like Annie Sullivan?

Reader, I’ll say it: I totally did.