Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: Thoughts on the Finale, or Confession is Good for the Soul


So what did you think of the Mad Men finale? This is my only break (of a day!) between more stressful travel and stressful conferences, so here is the only thing I actually want to do today, besides maybe go to Big Sur:

  • I wasn't doing Mad Men predictions, but I was happy to see two things come to pass: the Coke commercial and Don/Dick's time at Esalen: "Don renames himself Werner Ehrhard, invents EST, starts leading seminars for Stan the FBI agent and Philip on The Americans." I'm too culturally ignorant to know the difference between Esalen and EST, but that was what I was going for. Matt Weiner, you planted those clues just right.
  • The Coke commercial: confession time--I had hoped for this ending early on, when Coke became the Big Cheese for Don to land, but didn't think that Matt Weiner would dare to do it. I have always liked the song and even have the non-Coke version on my iPod, proof positive that commercial culture has entirely infected my brain and that I have no musical taste. Note: The Coke version is actually better.
  • Fun fact: the Doors' "Hello, I Love You," which was playing in the garage where Don apparently worked, was a huge hit, and it's well known that the fuzz bassline is almost identical to the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night." The Kinks have apparently dropped into "Hello, I Love You" on occasion in concert to mock/protest/acknowledge/kid/riff on this similarity.
  • Speaking of confessions: this was the last of Don's confessions, and, from the perspective of one who was raised Catholic, it was phrased exactly like a confession. We saw this earlier with Peggy's sister when she goes to confession: there's are set phrases and then what you might call the enumeration of sins before the penance and absolution.  
  • Look at Don's language in this segment, how oddly formal in language and I-focused it is, which leaves him all the blame: "I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it." Since when does Don use judgmental words like "scandalize"? It's reminiscent of "I took the name of the Lord in vain," which is one kind of common confessional formula.
  • Now look at how this scene is framed: He's framed as if he is in a confessional booth, a space of plain, dark wood where people can speak freely. He's in a
    partially open, partially framed public space, speaking to an unseen listener.  
  • The old confessionals had a screen separating the priest from the person confessing (maybe they still do), so that they could not see each other. He slumps down, spent, after his confession and says he can't move.
  • But Peggy, acting as his confessor, absolves him: "Come home. You know McCann would love to have you back. Don't you want to work on Coke?" Earlier in the series, she refused outright to confess to Father Gill.  Now, she is acting as Father Gill, a nonjudgmental one, in absolving Don. 
  • Then another woman comes by and says, like Peggy, "yes, you can move. Come with me to my seminar.  I'm late." After all he's done to women, they are the ones who save him.
  • Don's prayer of absolution?  If you watch him, he isn't saying "om." He's saying "home." 
  • Yes, we're meant to think he returns, reconnects with his family, and writes that commercial. Look at the clothes on the young women he talks to at Esalen (?), all red-tied braids and embroidery (h/t Tom and Lorenzo) and one of the women in the commercial.  
  • The big debate on the interwebs seems to be whether this is horribly cynical--great feelings exploited to sell us Coke--or sincere--Don actually achieves a measure of peace and learns that love is not an illusion. The jury's still out, but wouldn't you love to have seen that Coke pitch meeting?
  • Speaking of Coke, remember what Steve Jobs said when he recruited an executive at Pepsi to run some early incarnation of Apple: "Do you want to stay here and make sugar water or do you want to come with me and change the world?" He divided the two pursuits; the Coke commercial doesn't, for good or ill.
  • Don's not the only one who confesses. Of course there are all the "seminar" confessional scenes, in one of which Don breaks through his wall of isolation and hugs the man who feels as if he's in a refrigerator and is not being chosen by his family. But the one we've been waiting for is this one: Stan confesses his love to Peggy (on the phone), and she confesses in turn, first on the phone and then in person, the third or fourth use of the episode's title.  The sour commentators over at Slate, whose columns I skimmed in the airport yesterday, apparently wanted more misery for Peggy and less rom-com.  Not me. I'm happy for those two crazy kids.  If you want misery, go watch Game of Thrones.
  • What about the rest?
    • Joan is not ready to retire and be a plaything. Starting Holloway Harris in her apartment recalls the Season 3 finale when they all worked out of a hotel room. Even Kevin's caregiver sounds more professional.  Joan knows how to run things and especially how to whip underlings into shape. She'll do fine. Roger's visit: there's still a little bit of wistful "the one who got away" in Joan's comment about some woman finally getting the timing right.
    • Roger and Marie--Hilarious. Finally, someone who'll be crazy and imperious enough to give Roger the excitement he craves.
    • Pete and Peggy. "A thing like that!" is Pete's catchphrase, even more than "What is going on?" Peggy listened to him, maybe the only person at SCDP who did, and says it back to him. To paraphrase what Peggy said, very anachronistically, when she smoked dope with Paul back in an earlier season, they're in a very good place right now. 
    • Speaking of catchphrases, did you see Sally channel her mother when she wanted to talk frankly to Bobby and Gene was in the room? "Go watch TV!" Gene says his only word in the series except for "Bye, Daddy"--"No!"--but he goes anyway.  
    • Just realized also that Stephanie calls Don out on his catchphrase and overall philosophy of "This never happened."  "I'm afraid you're wrong about that, Dick," she says, sadly, and this time he hears it.
    • Pete and Trudy. It's amazing to look back and see how much Pete has always been enamored of aviation.  Sure, Secor Laxatives paid the bills, but what he wanted and could never quite get was American Airlines and Something Aviation.  Now he's got Learjet, Trudy, Tammy, and Wichita. 
  • Edited to add: One thing that has always confused me is this:  Betty has a dishwasher in Ossining, and she has one now in her goth mansion (the appliance with the big lever). So why does she do the dishes by hand, wearing rubber gloves, and why is Sally doing the dishes by hand, when they have a dishwasher? I can see if she's washing crystal wineglasses or something, but she and Sally do this for regular dinnerware.
  • Also, various sites keep talking about Anna's "wedding ring." It's not. A diamond solitaire is (or was in those days) an engagement ring, not a wedding ring, although maybe fashions have changed. 
Enough!  Back to the stressful part of my life. I've been waiting for my suitcase (delayed in yesterday's travel) to arrive so I can do a wash before heading out at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and it just got here. But I hope you enjoyed the finale as much as I did!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mad Men: Don Draper, Jack Kerouac, and the Divided Mid-century Self

I know that this is the second Mad Men post in a week, but there's only one episode left, so I won't be writing about it much longer. ("Doesn't this woman have any work to do?" you may be asking.  "Oh, wait--that's why she's procrastinating.")

Does he remind you of anyone?
I'm thinking of a parallel between Don and  Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road the spirit-Bert quoted to Don in a recent episode: "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"

For Kerouac, all that endless travel always led back to his mother, as Joyce Johnson writes about so beautifully both in her memoir Minor Characters and in her biography of Kerouac, The Voice is All.   

According to Johnson, Kerouac's drive to write and to create, to find a voice that could fuse the parts of himself--thinking in the joual French of his French-Canadian parents and writing in the English of the Beats that he would pioneer--was part of this restlessness.  Haunted by the death of his older brother, Gerard, when he was a child, Kerouac was on a continuing quest for some authentic voice that would admit perfection and ecstatic vision to be expressed through language. This and his insecurities led him through some self-destructive behavior, to say the least, including involvement with numerous women and heavy drinking. Oh, and he is drawn primarily to dark-haired women, leading him to tell the blonde Joyce Johnson (then Glassman) that he doesn't usually go for women of her coloring.

Sound like anyone you know? Does this mean that Don will be trying to get back to some state of origin, despite knowing that, as Thomas Wolfe, a great influence on Kerouac, put it,  "You can't go home again?" Don can never get back to his mother, although that doesn't stop him from trying to recapitulate the homecoming experience.  What Kerouac knows/knew is that even if you can go back physically, emotionally you never really can.

I'm not trying to trivialize Kerouac's achievement by comparing it to advertising, by any means, or trying to draw an exact parallel.  But if Weiner and company are trying to capture some essence of the mid-century man and the divided self, they couldn't have chosen a better model. 

Just as an aside: wouldn't you like to see the ending be what the writer over at Vox thinks might happen, the Mother of All Don Draper Pitches?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men: A few bullets of The Milk and Honey Route

  • Am I the only person who thinks that Chris Ellis, who plays Bud, the motel owner, bears a striking resemblance to Ryan Cutrona, who played Gene, Betty's father? (I've seen these actors in other things and always get them confused.) They even sang the same song, George M. Cohan's "Over There." Back in season 2 or 3, Don told Gene not to talk about the war (WWI) and the German soldier he had killed. Now, Gene # 2 is telling him to talk about the war.
  • A sad storyline for Betty, which now, in retrospect, seems inevitable.  The fortuneteller in the episode"Tea Leaves," when she had her previous health scare, told her that she was much loved and respected, and at that point Betty knew it wasn't true. Now it is. 
  • Pete hasn't fared too well in the heartland. Remember Detroit? "Not great, Bob!" But he's right about the corporate clientele for jets, even though he can't see how corporate wealth will rule everything by the twenty-first century.  Now that he's figured out he is better with Trudy than without her, and she's agreed, maybe he has really changed, even if he can't convince his loathsome babe-magnet brother ("Women have always found me attractive") to give up his wandering ways.
  • How is Don getting money for these travels? Is Meredith paying his Diner's Club/AmEx bills while he is away? I can't imagine that he still has a job at McCann. 
  • Don is confessing and confessing and confessing, although never the whole story to the same person. How many people now know that he's really Dick Whitman? And he's told a version of the explosion where the real Don was killed before, although never with such emphasis on his own responsibility.  But as we learned from Peggy's sister's jealous confession to Father Gill way back in season 2, confession doesn't lead to absolution, just more punishment (for Peggy, once Father Gill hears what happened to her baby). 
  • Don looks happy at the bus stop because he has maybe finally saved someone. He tried to save worthless Sad Diana, using his con man persona, and he failed. But he can take the fall for Worthless Grifter Kid and give him his Cadillac and a fresh start.  He has saved one person, even though he doesn't seem to be able to save himself.  Does this mean he can stop the downward slide at last?
  • Sadly, probably not. I used to have hopes for some happy ending for Don, but this entire season has been about his accepting a continuing punishment and humiliation in expiation for his behavior the previous six seasons.  He's the scapegoat and takes all the sins on himself, even the ones he doesn't commit. It won't be a quick end because Matthew Weiner wouldn't think that would be punishment enough. Best case: a fix-it shop in a run-down section of a nondescript Midwestern town.  Worst case: Sally trips over him on Skid Row as he asks for spare change.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

NY Times: Let me throw stones at you from my castle of privilege

Last week, it was someone at Princeton, decrying conferences as a waste of time. The writer is "weary of conferences."  Oh, sure, she can afford them--who can't?--but why go to conferences when you can discuss great thoughts with the world-class scholar across the hall?

And what do those grimy proles who look forward to them have to tell her anyway?

Some of her complaints are justified--about monotonous reading of presentations and so on.  These are the same issues that you and I and everyone else, everywhere, have been writing about on blogs for at least 10 years.  But then, we are grimy proles, and she has just discovered that water is wet and the sky is blue, so that makes it fresh knowledge.

Next it is our old friend Mark Bauerlein, who has exhausted the patience of extended his reach beyond the Chronicle to complain about students these days, and how they are disengaged, and all that stuff he has been saying for a while.  Edited to add: He could take this song to the Wall Street Journal, too, while he's at it, because they love to run the same lament.

As with Princeton Prof, he's not entirely wrong, but he seems really shocked that no one wants to be a disciple any more.

I am not Jesus, nor do I play a deity on TV, so I am fine with having a limited number of disciples.  I don't see this as the death of the university.

But Bauerlein is also shocked by this:
Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent.
This reminds me of Dean Dad's lament about college students' idealism. Could it be because students in 2015 have a legitimate concern about finding a job that will pay them a living wage? About the economy being destroyed by Big Finance in 2008 and still not recovering except for vast wealth for the 1% and disgracefully low-wage jobs for the rest of us? About being massively in debt with no way to discharge it (unlike our corporate overlords)?

Yes, both authors have books to sell.  Why do you ask?  For that reason, I can't blame the authors.  If academically privileged people can sell their opinions to the NY Times, and they always can, why wouldn't they?

However, I am at a loss why the editors at the NYTimes consider these opinion pieces as representative of education.

Maybe it's for the same reason that they worry obsessively about the life satisfaction of wealthy, well-educated white women.

Maybe they see opinion pieces from people of privilege as appealing to the same people who will read a lengthy feature article about the Kardashians, because God knows there is a serious, internet-wide dearth of any information about all things Kardashian.

But I would just once like to see an article there that doesn't paint education as a going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket enterprise with people from privileged institutions piling on to make the handbasket go faster.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Mad Men: Random Bullets of Lost Horizon

I should write about writing, about the semester, or about getting ready for a conference, but all I am interested in is the way that I can smell the lilacs when I sit outside to work.

And maybe a little Mad Men.
  •  Am I the only person who hears Ronald Colman's voice when I think of Lost Horizon? Or thinks about how Frank Capra staged the snow scenes?
  • Way back in "Maidenform" in Season 2, which Matt Weiner has said is his favorite episode, the song "Shangri-La" was played on an organ, as an accompaniment to the stripper. That should put paid to those romantic fantasies about any of our heroes finding a Shangri-La. But a man playing organ music while a woman dances to the music: by comparison, the Roger and Peggy version of this idea was pure joy.
  • Alan Sepinwall or maybe Tom & Lorenzo have listed some of the other Lost Horizon references; Don watches the Frank Capra version when he's at Megan's in California, for example.
  • Don spent six episodes of Season 7 trying to get his job back after the Hershey debacle at the end of Season 6.  He sat in his apartment all day working. He worked through substitutes (Freddy Rumsen and Accutron, anyone?). As an added bonus, he pitched Ted really hard on the meaning of work and what it was like not to have it.  Now he is going to walk away from it all and blow his career up again in a spectacular fashion? 
  • Don has always been very clear about his hatred for the farm and the country.  It's not like he's going to live on a commune somewhere even if he gets to California.  And is he going to leave his kids forever, which is something that Diana the Sad Waitress did and that shocked him?
  • Maybe there's hope. So Don's Moby-Dick, is he? Did Jim Hobart read the book? Hint: Ahab doesn't get the whale. The Whale gets Ahab. Twice--once fatally. "Is this what "Coca-Cola" is shorthand for? "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." 
  • Yet Ahab didn't listen to Starbuck, and he misinterprets what Fedallah tells him. Don is just as much an obsessive. He's determined to hunt down Diana, the Sad Waitress even if his spirit guide Bert tells him it's a bad idea. Diana, Don's lover/sister/double, is already dead anyway, isn't she, or else why would the landlord say that the guys could sell her furniture?
  • Joan is done, or should I say done in. Richard tells her that she can lawyer up or get "a guy" to talk to McCann-Erickson.  She talks about lawyers, but even in 2015, most women have to take the money instead.  Jim Hobart even negotiates like a Corleone.  Do you remember the part in the book where Michael offers half someone's fee and then offers nothing, because the next step is to have the person killed? Joan didn't have a choice, did she?
  • When did Meredith, who could barely walk and talk at the same time, become superwoman?
  • Peggy can do swagger, can't she, even in those dark rabbit-warren halls at McCann?
  • What's going to happen? What's not going to happen?
    • Don goes to Betty, gets insightful therapy, gets cured.
    • Don turns into D. B. Cooper, jumps from an airplane, becomes a legend.
    • Sally turns up, makes Don understand what's wrong with him; he returns to McCann and leads a happy, well-adjusted life in his new Meredith-decorated apartment.
    • Don renames himself Werner Ehrhard, invents EST, starts leading seminars for Stan the FBI agent and Philip on The Americans.
    • Don keeps up an endless quest for Diana the Sad Waitress, just as he did for Sylvia for hours and hours and hours and hours of screen time in Season 6. 
    • Don has a Willy Loman moment after seeing all those whiteshirt creative directors around the conference table. Biff tells Willy, "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen and so are you!" Don refuses to be a dime a dozen, and he ends up like Willy.
    • Updated to add: the theory that Don's hitchhiker is Bob Dylan? Uh, here is a news flash: every single white male hitchhiker in 1970 looked like that and had a guitar. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mad Men: Random Bullets of Time & Life

  • I didn't realize until tonight that Mad Men has been playing the long game of "false antagonist turned ally" versus "true antagonist." CGC is the temporary antagonist, but going back to Season 1, McCann has been the true antagonist, just waiting to overpower our Sterling Cooper partners with money.  Kill them with kindness? 
  • At any rate, they don't have to struggle for Heinz, the Coca-Cola of ketchup.  They now have the gold standard, the Coca-Cola of Coca-Colas.
  • Diana the sad waitress is mercifully absent, although Don looks for her.  I fear that she will meet Adam's fate because I have an illogical suspicion that she is somehow Don's half-sister, Archie's daughter.  [Edited to add: Think about it.  Don is born in 1926, and Arch is killed by a horse when he's 10, or 1936. If Archie has another encounter with a prostitute that had resulted in a child in 1935 or so, that would be about the right birth date for DtSW. That's why he creepily believes that he already knows her. Either that, or Diana is going to be Don's Charlotte Corday.]
  • But she is also Mildred Pierce, which is what Roger called her, with daughter dead of the flu (check), another living (check), and an ex-husband (check). Mildred would never have left her children, though. 
  • When Diana comes on, I keep thinking of Keats's "I have been half in love with easeful death." 
  • Why was Megan so angry last week that Don had to write her a check for a million dollars? How had he ruined her life? Giving her a shot at advertising and helping her acting career and financing her pretty lavishly for several years?  I missed the memo where that defined ruination--and anyway, if you look back to the beginning, the moves are mostly all hers. 
  • They went all the way back to Glencoe, really, to deny Pete and Trudy's daughter admittance to Greenwich Country Day School?  This episode really is about everyone's history and its inescapability, isn't it? 
  • Speaking of history, a nice callback:  when Peggy is telling Stan about the baby she gave up, the music in the background is "Stranger on the Shore."  That's the same music that played at the end of Season 2, "Meditations in an Emergency," when she told Pete that she had given up their baby.  What are the odds that it would still be playing on the radio in 1970?  It may have appeared in other episodes, too. 
  • I love that Peggy asked Stan to stay on the phone, the way they used to stay on the phone when working late at night. 
  • The other thing that this episode was about is people getting something that ought to be seen as good (as Don tells them all) but no one believing it.  
  • Also about tantalizing illusions: even if you hope Bruce Greenwood will swoop in and be Joan's true love, that wouldn't be enough for her.  Trudy and Pete back together? Stan and Peggy? Ted and college love? Roger and Marie? The Mad Men overlords won't permit this, I'm sure. 
Update: NPR tells me  that "Stranger on the Shore" also appears in Season 6, Episode 11, "Favors," but it doesn't fit my Peggy-son theory, so I will ignore it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Today in MOOC predation: ASU specific about making a profit, vague about everything else

Here is the ASU Plan, from Inside Higher Ed. 

First, go read Jonathan Rees's article about what ASU is doing with its MOOC "Global Freshman Academy.  The basic idea is that ASU is pairing with EdX to give MOOC credit--and, for a $200/credit hour fee, ASU course credit--for those who complete its "courses." Rees rightly points out that this is a smart predation or "no honor among thieves" model, in which whoever steals first steals best.

Then read Dean Dad (Matt Reed), who asks, very sensibly, why anyone would pay $200/credit hour to get MOOC credit when credit at a CC is about $83 per credit hour AND you get access to libraries, tutoring, and other supports.  "Where's the benefit?" he asks, and I can't see one.

It's an old principle in retail and drug dealing, of course: the loss leader. Give them a taste for free or near free, and they'll come back for more.

The private college version is to give heavy financial aid in Year One so that the student attends the school and then cut that aid in subsequent years, when the student is already committed.  I have known people so embittered about this practice after going through it as students that, decades later, they won't give to the school even though they are now exactly the kind of well-off alums that the school wants to court.

Back to ASU's MOOC plan.  Many paragraphs later, here are the specifics:

  • Courses are 7.5 weeks long, or what would be half a semester at Northern Clime and most universities.
  • It will consist of a "master teacher" and teaching assistants.  No word yet on whether the "master teacher" will be immortalized on a hard drive somewhere to teach lessons in eternity, but maybe that's in a future iteration of the plan.
  • What about grading nonquantifiable subjects like, say, writing? 

  • "Mastery in some courses -- math, for example -- is easier to track through multiple-choice tests or automated grading, but those tools won’t necessarily work in a freshman composition class. “When you have 50,000 students versus 50 students, the methods of evaluation and the methods of assessment will change, but we will have both formative assessments and summative assessments at the end of the course,” Regier said. “We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do in every course yet, and we know every course is going to be different.”

    To sum up: no plan yet. For now,  ASU plans to have "actual people" grade the work. No word yet on whether those people will be tenure-track or have an otherwise stable job with health benefits, etc.  Of course, this problem isn't unique to MOOC-inspired education. 
Leaving aside the questions we've posed before about eliminating the fun parts of teaching a class and leaving us with the un-fun parts, like grading, I have to give ASU credit for not using commercial software to grade essays--yet.  But I have to wonder:

  • Won't this dilute ASU's "brand," since there are no admissions standards for the MOOCs and ASU still has them?  The elite schools' MOOCs have been quite clear that no riffraff MOOC students will be getting credit from Elite U. 
  • If they're giving ASU credit, will that appear on transcripts without any qualifiers (like "MOOC Credit")?