The full issue will be available soon. Find it here.
The full issue will be available soon. Find it here.
The finale: Is Om the answer?
Let’s start with the montage of images at the end. There’s Don standing before the mighty Pacific Ocean, a smile on his face, possibly devilish, possibly just a smile. Then there’s Don in a group of a dozen men and women in lotus position receiving the blessings of the morning sunlight and chanting Om. The trinity of images is completed with what is arguably the greatest TV commercial of all time: a chorus of multinational kids singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing / in prefect harmony” and “I’d like to give the world a Coke” and then the tag line, “It’s the real thing!” The commercial made its TV debut in 1971.
The ambiguity of the ending is perfect for our hero, who may, reverting to his character as we’ve come to know it, return to Madison Ave. armed with a new vernacular derived from his experience at Esalen in Big Sur, or wherever Don and Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie have gone for spiritual healing and group therapy. On this view, Don gets to work on the Coke account after all and this is what he comes up with – a good idea made great by the composer and writer of the jingle. (As it happens, McCann Erickson produced the commercial.)
But it is also possible, as no causality is given, that doing such work for Coca-Cola is precisely what our rootless wanderer has renounced in his journey westward – first to Racine (which means “root” in French), Wisconsin, and then to various locales in the Midwest and finally to California, up the coast from LA -- as he discards his property, his clothes, his car, and reaches the ideal nothingness of Existentialism or King Lear from the Fool’s point of view.
Is Om the answer? In that case, as Gertrude Stein would say, what is the question?
I have to interrupt myself. When the commercial came out I was living in Paris. At the time there were commercials before the feature film in Paris movie theaters, and it is was in its French translation, in a Left Bank theater, that I first heard the Coke jingle – “Soif d’aujourd’hui” (“Thirst today” or “Today’s Thirst”) to the tune of “it’s the real thing.” That same year I read Henry James’s story “The Real Thing.” I had the idea of writing a piece comparing the two things, the Coke “real thing” commercial and the James story. I still think it’s a good idea, though I never brought it to fruition.
It was, by the way, a Coke machine that Don fixed in last week’s episode, showing off his mechanical prowess.
A second digression but quicker: how well do I recall the obnoxious encounter groups of the period! Phony, embarrassing, fascistic in their drive toward conformity, power struggles concealed beneath a veneer of gentleness and concern, nasty revelations (“I kidnapped my girlfriend's son and drove past state boundaries”) papered over and always concluding with a plea masked as a query: “Has anyone’s opinion of me gone down?” Ugh.
Back to the finale. I’m glad that happy endings were arranged for some of our favorite folk – Joan, who is sure to make a huge success of her production company that was born in her crowded one-bedroom; Roger, who marries Marie, Megan’s indomitable mother, and who, despite his native xenophobia, orders lobster and champagne in French and jokes that Marie is his Mama; Pete and Trudy, wowed by their new status as Kansas plutocrats as they step into the company plane; and Peg, who gets not just one proposal but two in the course of the episode.
First it is Joan who bends Peggy’s ear with a career-changing offer: a partnership in Harris-Olson, the production company Joan is launching. This must have come as Mannah to the Israelites in the desert who envisioned a sequel to Mad Men focusing on Peggy and Joan in a decade during which the feminist rebellion won its victory.
But Peggy says no to Joan because of an argument made by Stan, the art director who seemed obnoxious when he joined cast and crew but has developed character and complexity over the years. The argument – in the second sense – spurs Stan to declare his love, and come to think of it, they have spent a lot of intimate time together, though mainly on the phone, so why not? Peggy declares right back and it seems a better match for our gal than anyone since Abe before he grew hirsute and self-important and she bought that awful Upper West Side brownstone, which would doubtlessly be worth a large fortune today.
In the very first episode of Mad Men, some of the fellows are going drinking and celebrating with Pete, who is about to get hitched. The well-wishers are Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, Paul (the pipe-smoking Princetonian whose lack of talent and charm lead him into the clutches of Hare Krishna), and Sal (the closeted art director who is punished for his homosexuality). This time around it’s a valedictory drink, but only Harry is left of the old guard, and Peggy turns them down when they ask her to join them.
It is not easy to forecast what will happen in the next five to ten years with Peggy, Joan, Pete, and Roger. There are no guarantees that the happy endings just announced will last even a year. As for Betty, doomed though she may be to an early demise, serene though she may be, she remains who she is, smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table.
But with Don the task of making a forecast is impossible. Don is unpredictable by nature, an enigmatic stranger in the cloak and fedora of ordinary if sophisticated urban life. Don’s destiny remains unfixed, though it does seem as though he has come closest to zero in California, at Esalen or its facsimile, and therefore, by this reasoning, he might just be capable of totally revolutionizing his life.
There was a season that began with Don reading The Inferno (John Ciardi’s translation). He has gone to hell and come back many times. There was the time when he lived alone, got drunk nightly, fucked his secretary. There was the time when he fucked his secretary, married her, and cheated on her with the woman who lives downstairs, whose husband is also his friend. And now this. . .two divorces down . . . the merger with McCann. . .the absence of a love life. . . the conviction that he has made a mess of the opportunity he had seized when the explosion went off in Korea.
At Esalen Don reaches the state of aloneness that may precede any life change. Don is deserted and rejected by his faux-niece, Stephanie, who brought him there – and who points out that he is fooling himself if he thinks that she is “family.” There is no exit for him – no car, no way of getting out. He has felt the sting of rejection, or of self-imposed anomie (as the sociologists used to say). He has children but they will not be in his custody. He has had two wives but one is dying and the other may be marvelous but she’s not right for our boy, either because of the age difference between them or because he expected their boss-secretary relationship to persist in their marriage.
What we know about Don is that he is handy, good to have in an emergency, favored by fortune in looks, capable of holding his liquor, and liable to act and react to events in thoroughly unpredictable ways. He doesn’t know who he is, but that s because he is a product of his own invention. Like Gatsby he sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. Like William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai, he has traded places with an officer during a battle scene – an act of impersonation that is profoundly interesting beyond its intense dramatic function.
What we didn’t know before Mad Men is that the existential hero existed not only in army jeeps on foreign soil or Montparnasse cafes but in suites of midtown Manhattan offices where, in some cases, as much intelligence went into the making of a TV commercial as into a song or a poem.
I’ll miss him, I’ll miss the show, and I’ll miss the chance to trade insights and observations with you, Amy. I can’t wait to read what you made of episode the last!
Love, your buddy in Madness,
Oh, the moment has come. I am sad the show's over, and a bit forlorn our collaboration has therefore run its course. I'm thankful Matt Weiner took the helm at the end and was solo writer/director for his last episode. That felt exactly right, and I think all in all, he acquitted himself excellently. His 7-year novel ended with momentous events/peak emotional moments in the lives of his characters, yet events that, as you observed, contain rich ambiguities. Decisive plot developments aplenty take place, which you enumerate, yet all story lines are left wide open, in great or small ways.
Anything could happen:
--to Peggy and Stan's new love relationship (and what of Stan's cute, redheaded, ultra cool, joint puffing, nude modeling nurse wife? was she kidnapped by aliens? accidentally vaporized by an experiment in nuclear medicine at the hospital where she was employed? did she run off with one of the doctors on M*A*S*H? )
--to the freshly, tenuously reunited Pete and Trudy (Trudy looking like Jackie O. with long hair, in her pink Chanel suit and hat in the last shot we see of her...)
--to Don, who has broken down completely, and then arisen into a kind of enlightenment, or at least a surcease of pain, to the tune of finger cymbals
--to Joan who has realized that she loves working, and any man who can't respect that can't really love her. (There is more than one kind of “coke” in this episode: Joan snorts cocaine for the first time and seems to really like it. oh, Joan, this is a slippery, snowy slope! will the white powder be passing fancy or dangerous obsession?)
--to Roger and Marie, who will torture each other, until it stops being fun
--to Betty, making her peace with a suddenly truncated life and trying to do her best by her children, in a way she never has before, attaining an almost holy focus and resolve
--to Sally, compelled now to grow up fast and become capable of adult tenderness. What will comprise Sally's inheritance? Betty’s beauty, skepticism and pragmatism? Don's candor, charm, flexibility, secretiveness, addiction to risk taking and imagination?
--Pete and Peggy part, surprisingly, on terms of mutual affection and (slightly imbalanced) respect
--Don and Betty, without ever saying so, forgive each other in an almost wordless long distance telephone conversation, where both are weeping silently, choking with grief, trying not to let the other person know how devastated they are
---Roger and Joan have an amazing interaction, intimate and open and real, almost giddy, in which Roger informs Joan he's leaving a good portion of his wealth to their son.
I'm not a big TV watcher. Never have been. (Not that I'm proud of being so outside the culture. I know it's shameful.) So the Mad Men devotion was a real aberration for me. I started watching it because of you, David. During the first season, when you told me how remarkable you felt it was, how sharp you thought the writing, and that there was a character reading Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems in a bar (did I get that right?) I watched once out of curiosity and was hooked. So I'm not a television expert, but for me this show was as perfectly cast and exquisitely acted as anything I've ever seen in that medium.
Indelible Moments from this last installment:
1. The depiction of how awful encounter groups were in the 60s and 70s! Such a toxic mix of dime store psychology recklessly and blindly applied, mob dynamics, faux innocence, sexual desperation, mistaking cruelty for honesty, and encouraging dangerous levels of vulnerability in a situation that portrayed itself as safe and was actually anything but. I’m old enough and was sufficiently curious and naive to have participated in some of these nasty gatherings when a teen, and I must say Matt Weiner and co. captured it all perfectly: the crying, the hugging, the brain-frying silences, the predators posing as facilitators, the misplaced trust, the narcissism parading as self-exploration or team spirit, the perversity, the terror, the pretend empathy, the outrageousness, the inadvertent comedy. I squirmed watching those passages in the show, which were so spot on: when the hostile old lady shoves Don; when the depressed, nebbishy guy says, in trying to describe his agonizing feelings of alienation, “I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator,” which is at once pathetic and hilarious; when hippie-ish, necklace wearing, facilitators keep intoning, ad nauseum, in fake-serene voices “how did that make you feel?”
2. Sally and Bobby's conversation about their mother's impending death, containing just the right notes of age appropriateness, exigency and forced sudden maturity. At the end of the scene, Sally gives her younger brother a cooking lesson, because he's going to need to learn.
3. The phone conversation between Sally and Don in which Sally tells Don Betty is dying. How Sally takes charge, not with hostility, but pure urgency.
4. The phone conversation between Peggy and Don when Don calls from “Esalen.” I didn't love all the writing in this scene, but the acting was searing.
5. I loved that the last word of the show was “Om.” Beautiful. Perfect. And exactly what does Om mean? Like zillions of people, I have been repeating that round sound before and after yoga classes for years now, without ever inquiring into its meaning very deeply. The almighty, all knowing Wikipedia declares “Om,” in a lovely bit of slant rhyme, “a mystic syllable.”
Valerie Reiss, in the Huffpost blog, is a little more voluble and enlightening:
The sound appears to have first cropped up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts that inform Hinduism. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to om, begins like this: "Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is om."
Good luck and Godspeed to all the brilliant actors who made Mad Men what it was. I look forward to seeing your future endeavors. All hail Matt Weiner, whose brainchild gave so many such pleasure, even an avowed anti-TV curmudgeon like yours truly. Can’t wait for his next project. Maybe he should consider a “dramedy” set in a creative writing department of an American University, possibly hiring a couple of poets as high paid consultants? David, does that sound good to you?
On a recent trip to New York City I was cruising down a side street off Times Square and stumbled on a sign in front of a Japanese restaurant advertising “Body Sushi.” The deal is that you get to eat sushi and sashimi off the body of a naked woman lying on a table.
Maybe you’re thinking, “This sounds like something cooked up by a restaurant marketing guy after martini number six.” That's an excellent guess. But it's wrong; “Nyotaimori” (serving food on the naked body) is a Japanese tradition dating back to Samurai times, where after victory in battle warriors would dine off the body of a naked geisha.
The practice continues in modern Japan, where strict rules of etiquette apply. The woman has to lie perfectly still for hours. She takes a bath with fragrance-free soap and gets splashed with cold water afterwards to keep her skin temperature down. She’s not allowed to speak, and it’s considered poor form for guests to speak to her.
I don’t know if the restaurant I passed followed the same rules. It would be interesting to see how much decorum a bunch of young American insurance salesmen show after an hour or two of pounding saki. One can imagine some interesting scenes: One night, Richie decides to show some buddies a good time. He rents a stretch limo, makes a reservation for Naked Sushi, and the boys cruise in from Jersey City for a little fun. When they check in, the hostess calls for the manager.
“Guys,” a little change of plans,” he says with a greasy smile. “You booked Darlene for tonight, but she had to take her cat to the vet. But I set you up with Rosanne, and she’s great. And I’ll give you ten percent off, just to make it up to you.” Richie looks at the guys, and they all seem okay, so he shrugs.
So they follow the manager into a back room, where stretched out on a long table, on her back, covered with sushi from stem to stern…
…lies Rosanne Barr.
On Tuesday, June 9, 2015, the Poetry Society of America will hold its Annual Benefit at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, honoring visionary artist Jenny Holzer.
The evening includes cocktails and a private viewing of FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life, followed by dinner and a celebration of Jenny Holzer's work. Guests are invited to a private tour of Kahlo's art and manuscripts in the Mertz Gallery from 6-6:30 pm. A short walk away, cocktails will be served from 6:30-7:15 pm in the Conservatory where Kahlo's garden and studio are reimagined. Dinner and a tribute to Jenny Holzer follow at 7:30 pm in the Garden's beautiful Terrace Room. Following dinner there will be a champagne toast and the premiere of Jenny Holzer's new installation.
For full details of the Benefit, please visit the PSA website:
Tickets to the Benefit are available for purchase here:
Founded in 1910, the Poetry Society of America was the nation's first organization dedicated exclusively to poetry. Its mission is to build a larger and more diverse audience for poetry, to encourage a deeper appreciation of the vitality and breadth of poetry in the cultural conversation, to support poets through an array of programs and awards, and to place poetry at the crossroads of American life.
I am eight when my head starts to itch soon after we move from Brooklyn to Lynbrook. The Lynbrook doctor says I have a ringworm infection, adding that I probably caught it leaning back in a Brooklyn movie theater seat; he emphasizes Brooklyn. It is highly contagious and I will miss a month of school.
As we wait for the doctor to write a prescription, I devise a plan to go to lots of movies and single-headedly turn Lynbrook into a village of scalp-scratchers. I stop smiling when the doctor orders my head shaved so salve can be applied daily. And, a nurse will come to the house every other day to give me a shot in my backside.
My father insists on shaving me himself so I won’t be humiliated in a barber chair. The walk to the bathroom feels like a march to the electric chair; my mother even let me choose pizza for supper. I sit on the closed toilet bowl, and my father cuts as much as he can with scissors. I keep my eyes shut and imagine I am a soldier who won’t squeal no matter what. My father plugs in the electric razor and starts shearing. When I feel my scalp exposed I begin to cry.
My father is thirty-five when he shaves his son’s head in the new house in the suburbs. He leaves the room, and I sit there wondering if I will have to finish the job myself. He returns with his Kodak Brownie camera—which I’ve had my eye on—and says I can have it.
I run my hands over my bald head and start to cry again. My mother comes in and hugs me, singing a Yiddish song I haven’t heard in years: shlof, mayn kind. My father says he has to do the books for his milk route, and he leaves me in my mother’s arms, bald and crying on the closed toilet seat.
Before the diagnosis, I checked out a thrillingly illustrated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the school library. My mother tries to return it, but the librarian says I can keep it “as a gift.” My father buys me a stocking cap, even though it is April. A kid teases me and I get into a fight. The cap comes off. No one wants to fight me after that.
I ride my bike in the early afternoons, and many days vow not to be home when the nurse arrives to inject my backside with a burning needle. But I never pedal so far that I can’t make it back on time.
I come up with a new plan: I’ll tell the toughest-looking kids how ringworm gets you out of school, and I’ll spread it to them through a head-rubbing initiation. I will lead a gang of elementary school dropouts. We will charge the enemy—whoever they may be—wearing our matching stocking caps. Then we will stop, bow, and tip our hats before letting loose a blood-curdling yell as we initiate the vanquished, emptying the schools and filling the streets with bald boys on bikes. All will be captured by my Kodak Brownie.
Instead, I ride alone. Eventually my scalp clears, my hair grows back, and I return to school.
(Ed note: this message comes to me from my dear friend Paul Tracy Danison, an American who has lived and worked in Paris for decades. He offers this service, which I encourage you to try during your next trip abroad. sdh)
American, I am a management coach living and working in Paris, France.
When I am feeling up or down, I walk. When I need to think, I walk. When I need to walk, I think. A good walk irons out most small and big existential wrinkles.
Paris is the best place I've ever been for this. It enables food, drink, new ideas and entertainment between the pricklier points on the psychic map.
All this is why, all-American that I remain, I live in Paris. The walking is good and the city lends some of its elegance and beauty to conclusions, decisions & actions.
I would like to offer you the opportunity to try a coaching based on my personal practice.
Here's how to set it up. Send me a theme - a single word will do: 'Balzac' - and I'll send you a walking proposition (street corner to street corner) as well as whatever recommendations might come to mind, and coordinates, conditions and tariffs.
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We'll then do a short telephone interview to clarify needs & expectations.
Aller se promener à Paris
Américain de pure souche, je pratique le coaching professionnel à Paris où j'ai choisi depuis longtemps déjà de démarrer une nouvelle vie.
Quand le blues et/ou la joie, majuscules, me gagnent, j’aime marcher pour me remettre en mouvement, me donner une perspective.
Ainsi, quand j'ai besoin de réfléchir, je marche. Et quand j’ai besoin de marcher, je le mets à profit pour réfléchir. Une bonne balade me redonne du sens, de la cohérence, retisse le fil de la réflexion.
Paris est la meilleure ville au monde pour la marche, la mise en mouvement personnelle et historique. Cette ville laisse toujours l’empreinte de sa beauté et de son élégance aux décisions prises et aux actions engagées.
Je voudrais proposer à mes clients l'opportunité de se faire accompagner selon ma pratique personnelle: faire un bout du chemin ensemble – (belle phrase de la RATP).
Voici comment je vous propose de procéder. Envoyez moi une idée, un thème - un mot, 'mousquetaires', fera l'affaire - et je vous renvoie une proposition de balade, de déambulation, de réflexion (carrefour à carrefour) aussi bien que des recommandations, s'il en y a, et mes coordonnées, et mon tarif.
Contactez-moi par mail : email@example.com
Nous ferons un petit entretien téléphonique afin d'établir vos besoins et vos attentes avant de s'engager.
His family name was Goomniak but at fifty
he changed it to Freed. Why Freed?
Because he was freed of the name
Goomniak. As a child he had been laughed
at for his name and even as an adult he
had been aware of suppressed laughter.
When he became Freed his business took off.
His company sold mail-order costume jewelry.
His niche was Army and Navy enlisted
personnel whom he reached through ads
in military newspapers and magazines.
Now, with his new name, Freed began
an internet marketing campaign on military
websites. It was like striking oil. Orders
doubled at first, then tripled.
One online ad showed a lady’s gold-plated ring mounted with a tiny
diamond. The price was a hundred dollars. But a red line ran through
the price, with text below: “Pay just $50 if you’re in the military!”
More text: “Order by the Fourth of July and pay only $40!”
Then: “Include this code word with your order and subtract another
ten percent! The code word is BUTTERCUP.”
Finally, in bold italics: “You risk nothing! Full money back guarantee!”
Since the rings cost Freed only three dollars, his business was like a
cash machine. The more money he made, the better he felt. He was
introducing himself as Jerome Freed or Jerry Freed and no one was
laughing at him anymore.
He divorced his wife. He freed himself of her. The cost was high but
so what? Their children were grown and his wife had become a millstone
around his neck. A millstone was something heavy and Biblical.
With his new confidence and his improved income Freed was attractive
to women. His sex life took off like his business. He would never get
married again. “Not in a million years,” he told his friends. “I’m having
too much fun.”
One night, lying in bed with a beautiful woman asleep beside him,
Freed reflected on the self-sabotaging tendency that had afflicted
him for so many years. Why had he remained Goomniak? At any
moment he could have become Freed.
Freed drifted off to sleep, and in that same hour he dreamed that
he was locking the front door of his apartment. As he secured the
lock and felt the bolt go out, the door somehow opened and a
well-dressed businessman rushed past him. Freed awoke in terror.
Friends since childhood, Freed and Mel Patak met weekly for
lunch at a cafeteria in the jewelry district. Amid the clattering of
knives and forks they amused and needled each other.
But on the day after Freed’s dream, Mel Patak saw that something
was wrong. “Jerry, are you okay?” he asked. Freed said, “I’m going
to die. I don’t know where and I don’t know how. But I will die
Mel stared across the table. “Are you sick? Have you seen a doctor?”
“A doctor won’t help,” Freed said. He told Mel about his dream of the
locked door opening and the well-dressed businessman. The dream
predicted his imminent death.
Mel saw this was not a joke. Freed’s face was pale. He looked like
he could die there in the cafeteria. Mel said, “Jerry, have you ever
heard of Rabbi Michael Mushnik?” No,” Freed answered, “I’ve
never heard of him.”
Mel was taking a cellphone from his pocket. He said, “You need to
see Rabbi Michael Mushnik about your dream. It’s probably nothing,
but you need to see Rabbi Michael Mushnik. ” Mel punched a message
into the phone as Freed watched skeptically.
A moment passed. Mel was staring at the phone. Then he brightened.
He lit up like an electric sign. “Yes! Rabbi Michael Mushnik will see
you immediately!” He took a pen from his shirt pocket, scribbled an
address on a napkin, and slid it across the table to Freed.
Freed glanced at the address. It was not far away, but he was
reluctant. After all, what was the use? “I’ll have to close the office,”
he said. “Close it then!” Mel’s voice was rising. “Close the office!”
Freed shrugged. “Okay, Mel, take it easy.” “Good.” Mel looked
relieved. “Go right now. And Jerry, bring some money.”
The address was a brick warehouse converted to living spaces.
Trendy, but could this be a home for a rabbi? On a directory beside
the entrance Freed pushed the “Mushnik” button. He was buzzed
in at once.
He entered a brightly lit foyer. At the far end was an elevator and,
to one side, a sharply inclined stairway. A voice came from above:
“Hi! Just take the stairs! I’m one flight up!”
Freed climbed the stairway. On the second floor landing a large
young man appeared. Freed recognized the uniform of an observant
Jew: white shirt, black trousers, a knit kippah on his head. “Welcome,
Jerry! I’m Rabbi Michael Mushnik!"
They shook hands. The rabbi grinned, squinting behind thick glasses.
“Let’s go inside.” As they crossed the landing toward an open door,
Freed noted the ritually knotted fringes, tzitzit, dangling from beneath
the rabbi’s untucked shirt.
“Were you bar mitzvah, Jerry? I’m just curious,” Mushnik asked. Freed
was actually uncertain. “I think so.” “Ha ha! You think so but you don’t
remember for sure. Well, if you were, your name is inscribed in the
Book of Life.”
They entered a spacious loft -- 1500 square feet, Freed estimated –
cluttered with furniture, cardboard boxes, book cases, sofas, bicycles.
There was a cat litter smell.
Mushnik closed the door, then spread his arms in an all-encompassing
gesture. “Torah is so large, Jerry. It’s not just wide, but also deep.
Nobody except a tzaddik can understand the whole thing. My specialty
is Chaye Sarah, 105 verses, 1402 words, and 5314 Hebrew letters.”
Still grinning, he cocked his head to one side. “Say something, Jerry.
Don’t be shy.” But Freed did feel shy, or disoriented. “You’re a large
man,” he managed to say. “I mean, you did refer to the largeness of
“That’s right!” Mushnik laughed, as if this were just what he’d been
waiting to hear. He clapped Freed on the shoulder. “I wrestled at 285.
Now I’m about 250. Here’s my study.”
His study was enclosed area walled off by bookcases, like a child’s
fort. On a narrow desk lay an open book of densely lettered Hebrew.
“Make yourself comfortable,” said the rabbi, indicating a folding chair.
He sat down at the desk, turned his eyes toward the ceiling, and sighed.
“How do I have the merit to see the future? The truth is, I don’t have
that merit. No one does except the tzaddikim. But for reasons known
only to himself – and I often ask myself why -- Hashem has bestowed
that aspect of his light upon me.”
He stared at Freed, still cheerful but intense. “Mel Patak texted me
about why you’re here, Jerry. You’re afraid you’re going to die. And,
unfortunately, I see you are correct. Your time is just about up. You
had a dream about this, I gather?”
Freed’s heart sank. He felt helpless, hopeless. “I had a nightmare,”
he whispered. “I was locking the door to my apartment. Then the door
opened and a well-dressed businessman rushed past me. I woke up
Mushnik nodded. “The well-dressed businessman symbolizes
death, obviously. But you want to live, right? So I need to know
why you want to live, Jerry. Tell me why you want to live, and I’ll
be fully motivated to help you.”
Though still shaken, Freed felt unexpected anger. Why did he want
to live? It was a ridiculous and insulting question. “Rabbi, I want to
live because I don’t want to die.” he said. “It’s natural. Life resists
“Yes, all life resists death,” Mushnik agreed. “A cockroach resists
death. A paramecium resists death. But are you a cockroach or a
paramecium? Don’t you have some higher purpose, Jerry? What is
your raison d’etre?” he demanded, in awkward French.
Freed’s heart was pounding. “I certainly do have a purpose,” he
proudly stated, and added in an accusing tone, “But I doubt you’ll
think it’s a higher purpose. You’re a rabbi, but my purpose isn’t
studying the Torah.”
“Of course. But there are many ways of studying Torah, Jerry.
In the Jewish religion the word ‘study’ has a multiplicity of meanings.
So does the word ‘Torah’ for that matter. Just be completely honest
with me. Lay your cards on the table. Let the chips fall where they may.”
“All right, fine. My purpose in life is to make love with beautiful women.
For years I ignored the women passed through my life. My name was
Goomniak. I was an upstanding citizen. But I changed my name to
Freed!” he exulted.
“No kidding? Really?” Mushnik inquired. He seemed fascinated.
“Your name was Goomniak, but now your name is Freed. And
when you changed your name, I’ll bet your life changed too.
Because you’re having sex more often, right?”
Freed was encouraged. “Absolutely. Beautiful women are flocking
to me and I’m fucking them. Excuse my language. And the more
of them I fuck, the more I understand the deep meaning of it.
Sometimes, even during the act itself, I mentally step back and
see how this is what I was born to do!”
“Wow. Just wow,” said the rabbi. “What can I tell you? Kodosh,
kodosh, kodosh, holy, holy, holy is the lord of hosts, the whole
Earth is full of his glory.” He thought for a moment. “Okay, here’s
something you’ll be interested in. Here’s something to think about....”
He spoke in a confiding tone. “Jerry, there’s a verse in Chaye
Sarah -- it reads, ‘Abraham was old and stricken with years’ – and
that verse anticipates the opening verse of the Book of Kings,
which reads, ‘King David was old and stricken with years.’ Do you
grasp the significance of that?”
As to draw energy from the sacred letters, the rabbi placed his
hands on the Hebrew book. ”You see, David was the reincarnation
of Abraham. That’s my personal opinion. Some would disagree,
which neither here nor there. Anyway …”
He leaned across the desk toward Freed. “King David was on his
deathbed, Jerry. He was cold. The servants covered him with
blankets, but he was still cold. So what did they do, Jerry?”
He slapped the desktop. The sound was like a gunshot. “They
found a girl named Abishag the Shunammite. Of course, that
name means nothing to you. Abishag the Shunammite? It’s
like a bunch of nonsense syllables. So I’d like you to do me a
favor, my friend…
“I’d like you to imagine the hottest woman in the history of the world.
Then I’d like you to imagine a woman even hotter than that. Much
hotter! As we read in the Book of Daniel, ‘The furnace was heated
seven times hotter than ever before….’
“That unbelievably hot woman was Abishag the Shunammite.
Eighteen or nineteen years old. Perfect body. Beautiful long hair.
Totally uninhibited. They put Abishag the Shunammite in bed with
King David, to warm him up, so to speak.”
He stopped. He seemed to relax. Was that the end of the story? “So
what happened?” Freed asked. “Aha!” Mushnik exploded, fully charged
again. “He wants to know what happened! Well, Rav Shimon Shalom
Kalish of Amshinov says one thing happened, but Rav Moshe Yitzchak
Gewirtzman of Pshevorsk says something else happened!”
But abruptly, disarmingly, his tone changed again. Now he was solemn.
“Did you bring any money, Jerry?” Freed was taken aback. “Money?”
“Yes. How much money did you bring me to save you from the malakh
hamavet, the angel of death? Five thousand dollars? Ten thousand?”
“I brought five hundred,” said Freed. The rabbi vigorously shook his head.
“What! “Five hundred? Did Patak tell you to bring five hundred dollars?”
“Patak didn’t tell me what to bring.” Mushnik was thunderstruck. “Patak
means goose in Bulgarian,” he muttered.
He seemed genuinely depressed. “Well, put it here,” he said, struggling
to recover. “Let me see the cash.” He tapped the desk. Freed took five
bills from his pocket and placed them down.
Mushnik gazed sadly at the money. Looking back at Freed, he spoke
slowly and emphatically, as if to an idiot: “All right, instead of you dying,
Jerry, thirteen Jewish men are going to die in your place.”
“Thirteen men?” Freed was incredulous. “Jewish men,” the rabbi
emphasized. “But don’t stress. They were going to die anyway. It’s
an administrative issue. I can’t explain it.” He waved his hand
dismissively, then removed his glasses. He looked younger without
them, like a teenager or even a baby.
“Now I’m going to enter a trance,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “While
I’m in my trance I’ll recite the names of the thirteen Jewish men.
Then I’ll stay in the trance for a while. So please just show yourself out.”
Rising slightly, he stuffed the money into his pocket. “That’s all there
is to it. Any questions? Everything okay?” His mood was elevating.
He was becoming cheerful again, his old self. “Um, rabbi,” Freed said,
“what if it doesn’t work?”
But Mushnik seemed not to have heard. His eyes were already
closed. His face sagged. His shoulders slumped. In a voice dreamy
and distant, but firm, he said, “Lou Margolis!”
It was the first name. Quiet followed. Freed waited, first confused,
then impatient. Mushnik was breathing deeply. Was he asleep?
"Bernard Inlander! Stuart L. Kroll! Herman Fishman! Mort Shaeffer!”
Using his fingers, Freed tried to keep count of the names. Five so
far. Meanwhile, something new and strange was happening. Freed
found himself believing in this. It was a tenuous belief for the moment,
like a fish on a line. He wanted to manage it correctly.
“Harry Perlin! Samuel Niederberger!”
Seven names. Another, longer hiatus began, but Freed felt confident.
He had seen it happen before.
“Leo Klein! Marshall Moscowitz!”
Nine names. Freed was really feeling much better. Giddy, in fact.
Now he understood Mushnik’s indignation about the five hundred
dollars. It was indeed far too little to pay. But five million would also
be too little, because you can’t put a price tag on life.
The rabbi’s breaths were becoming shorter. His face was turning
red, his eyes were closed tight. Freed closed his own eyes. The
possibility of becoming more observant of his religion occurred
to him. Did God exist?
Two names to go.
Freed opened his eyes. He looked at his hands. He’d counted twelve
names. Just one more….
That was it. A wave of warm emotion engulfed Freed. Behind the
desk, Mushnik now had a serene look, as if he’s given birth. His
breathing was steady, his chin was resting on his chest. Freed
realized that Mushnik was a good man, a decent man.
He wanted to hug and kiss Mushnik. He would never forget
Mushnik. Nothing was now as important to Freed as not waking
Mushnik. He would show himself out the door, as Mushnik had
said. He would let the good man peacefully repose.
On tiptoe at first, and then padding quietly along, Freed made his
way past the rabbi and out of the loft.
Darkness had fallen. As he flagged a taxi, Freed felt the city’s
night energy rising. He felt himself reborn. He felt himself
redeemed. He would celebrate with a sexual adventure,
something he’d often thought about. He would have sex with
two women at the same time.
In the taxi he consulted a list of women on his phone and chose
two: Ellen and Evelyn. He had no doubt they’d agree to participate.
For one thing – and he was frank with himself about this -- he always
compensated a woman for her time as they kissed goodbye.
Ellen: she worked in a men’s sportswear shop, honing her skills of
flattery and flirtation. Freed knew that most of what she said to him
was garbage, but sexually she was so ardent and authentic that
her screams of pleasure sometimes alarmed him.
Evelyn: she was from the Russian city of Ufa and had a humdrum
job in a fitness club. Yet Evelyn held a mysterious allure for Freed,
who had grown up before the fall of the Soviet Union. Once, lying
on top of Evelyn, he realized that she was a sort of forbidden fruit
and started fucking her with renewed energy.
Back in his apartment, visions of the coming hours disclosed
themselves to Freed with perfect clarity. Delightfully lewd
snapshots of what was going to happen flashed in his imagination
as he began sending text messages to Ellen and Evelyn.
During his marriage – all those years -- a threesome with hot young
women would have been unimaginable. Even one day ago, when he
was under a sentence of death, simply waking up alive in the morning
seemed too much to hope for. But now the sky was the limit.
As he knew they would be, Ellen and Evelyn were free that evening.
As he expected, they were eager for the adventure he proposed.
They were coming right over. They couldn’t wait. None of this
surprised Freed. He set up some candles in his bedroom.
What did surprise him, what took his breath away, was how far
the threesome exceeded his wildest dreams. Ellen and Evelyn had
never met before. They claimed to be “same sex virgins.” Yet they
tore off their clothes and rushed at each other as if magnetized.
Freed watched, wild-eyed, comparing their asses and breasts. Then,
interposing himself between the two women on the bed, he began
arranging them on top of himself and on top of each other in every
configuration he could possibly think of.
There was no limit to this, none whatsoever. The sexual possibilities
were expanding like the universe itself. Could it ever end? But then,
standing beside the bed during a momentary interlude, Evelyn
suddenly launched herself into the air like a leaping sailfish, executed
a front flip, and landed on her back on the mattress.
There was a split second of stunned silence, then uncontrollable
laughter. Freed had never laughed so hard in his life. As he and
Ellen struggled to catch their breath, Evelyn explained that as a
child in Ufa she had practiced gymnastics. More and more laughter
But the mood was slowly changing. In the glow of the guttering
candles quiet talk evolved, then whispers, then silence. Ellen
and Evelyn were asleep. Ellen was beside Freed, with Evelyn
beyond. Resting on his side, Freed was able to loll one of his legs
over both their asses at once.
Here again, as in Rabbi Mushnik’s study area, Freed was awake
amid the sleep of others. And now he felt for these dear women
the same unaccustomed magnanimity he’d felt for the rabbi.
He must let Ellen and Evelyn sleep, as he’d let Rabbi Mushnik
sleep. He could wake them later and fuck them again. He was
beginning to feel sleepy himself.
Who would have believed it? Life could seem predictable but
it was actually unpredictable. He had assumed he would always
be Goomniak. Some self-sabotaging tendency had caused him
to think so. But he became Freed.
His business had been stagnant, but it became a money machine.
His sex life had been nonexistent, but now beautiful women were
flocking to him. The dream of the well-dressed businessman had
seemed to portend his doom, but Rabbi Mushnik had appeared.
Freed drifted off to sleep, and in that same hour he died.
A Delicious end to Miami’s National Poetry Month in Miami
Almost nothing went as planned for Poetry Paella, the annual event that closes out National Poetry Month at The Betsy Hotel (thebetsyhotel.com). Torrential rains forced the occasion indoors. Featured poet Gerald Stern, the 90-year-old living godfather of American poetry, could not attend. And yet the evening was a resounding success. It’s been that kind of year for O, Miami and The Betsy - South Beach, partners in the by now nationally famous regional celebration of all things poetical each April.
Pablo Cartaya, Betsy’s Manager of Literary Programs (quite possible the only person with that job title in the country), opened the evening by quoting the hotel’s motto: “Creativity takes courage.” It’s a line written by Matisse that sums up the hotel’s commitment to all things artistic, and was worn on many lapels by night’s end, as that pin and refreshments were free and flowing for attendees.
The evening’s first bit of small daring, a reading by, Carlos Pintado, a Cuban-American poet who read his poems in Spanish, without translation. But it was a fitting addition to a month that featured numerous gestures across Miami’s language divide that both O, Miami and The Betsy are committed to traversing and connecting. In any case, even this monolingual English speaker could feel the rhythm in Pintado’s verses, and his humble enthusiasm for being on the bill with more prominent poets was charming and infectious.
While Stern bowed out of the event a few weeks earlier after a fall interrupted his plans, his poetry was recited by admirers like FIU’s Campbell McGrath and O, Miami’s Scott Cunningham who read poems by the American master throughout the evening, and they shared stories. Also on hand, Stern’s wife, Anne Marie Macari, a distinguished poet in her own right, who read from her new collection, Red Deer.“ “Miami is the place to be now, and Gerry is devastated he couldn’t come,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s too bad we have to cancel.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going.’” Anne Marie was also a visiting writer in Betsy’s Writer's Room for a few days on either side of the reading.
Another headliner was Major Jackson, an award-winning African-American poet. He read poems powerful and tender. He praised Stern (“a modern Whitman”) as one of his avatars. “I shouldn’t read from my first book, because most of it is cribbed from Gerry,” he joked. He too praised the Betsy and O Miami. “During Poetry Month, this feels like the spiritual center of the poetry world. I want to thank my friends in Miami for what they stand for...”
The Betsy’s Poetry Paella’s 2015 reading and feeding was moved to the lobby of the Carlton Hotel, due to undergo extensive remodeling in a few weeks that will join it to The Betsy. It suddenly seemed appropriate that this would be the last event in the old Carlton, as this will be a public convening space even in its new incarnation. “It’s been another great year for us and for O, Miami. We’re proud to say we were into poetry in Miami even before it was cool, “ said Deborah Briggs, who runs Betsy’s arts programs and is the daughter of mid-century poet Hyam Plutzik whose work was recited and then performed in a musical setting by singers from Florida Grand Opera.
Cunningham added his voice to the praise heaped on The Betsy, a key partner in his powerful poetry program for six years now. “We do events all over Miami-Dade, but the Betsy feels like home, thanks to all of our friends here,” he said. “Our goal was to reach everyone in the county with a poem during April. I think we’ve just about gotten to all 2.5 million people.”
Guest Blogger, Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out – sharing the creative viewpoints and talents of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com) during March, April, and May, 2015
O, Miami is a Knight Foundation-funded poetry festival, with a mission to reach every single person in Miami-Dade County with a poem during the month of April (National Poetry Month). Poetry Paella is one of O, Miami’s culminating events, held each year at The Betsy Hotel, co-presented this year with The Academy of American Poets and The Plutzik Poetry Series at the University of Rochester.
The Betsy-South Beach, named by CNN as one of the world’s leading Literary Hotels, has been O, Miami’s host hotel since the Festival’s founding in 2009. All of O, Miami’s visiting poets are hosted in The Betsy Writer’s Room, and many events are held at the Hotel. For more information: (betsywritersroom.com).
For this post, we're searching water.
"Pool" by Sabrina Orah Mark from issue #23
Make a splash, says Brother. Set an example for all the merry children lining up behind you, says Brother.
I turn around. These children do not look merry. They look very unmerry.
* * *
LYRIC by Kathleen Ossip from issue #26
I came from salt water in August I swim in salt water
* * *
Brain in a Vat by C.S. Ward from issue #22
I heard that the Bermuda triangle has been
hovering in Buffalo for the past 20 years,
says the twilight man beside me
* * *
INTERVIEW with Brenda Shaughnessy from issue #8
A fathometer measures the depth of the water by sound: it throws a sound down to the ocean floor and measures depth by how long the echo takes to come back up.
* * *
FOR THIS & MORE: Subscribe to jubilat.
Compiled by jubilat's managing editor, Halie Theoharides.
Thursday, June 11 | 6:30–8pm
Free with Museum admission; $5 after 5pm.
Bill Berkson envisioned this night of local Jewish poets reading the work of deceased Jewish Poets*.
Readings by CJM Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, Maxine Chernoff, Suzanne Stein, Alan Bernheimer, Susan Gevirtz, Norman Fisher, Norma Cole, Alli Warren, David Meltzer, and Bill Berkson. Presented in conjunction with Bound to be Held.
As we approach the end of the season, end of the series – game, set, and match -- I move that we keep in mind that a “terminal” is a noun as well as an adjective, a bus depot and therefore a place of origin as well as a destination and an end. It’s like the bus stop in the middle of no place where we see Don at episode’s end. You almost expect him to be ready to run across cornfield while a crop-duster attacks, like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, another handsome urban advertising man in a perfectly tailored suit.
Betty is, alas, terminal in the nasty sense of the word. There will be no new beginnings for her. Joan has lost her job and maybe her career in advertising. But Joan is nothing if not resourceful, and her talents, too good for the paleolithic types at McCann Erickson (ME for short), are such that she may re-launch herself spectacularly. But Betty is through. Lung cancer. Betty will die because of the product that Don’s firm used to service. And oddly enough, Betty – a tireless complainer and natural plaintiff – is OK with the dire forecast. Almost serene. Maybe it’s because of the Freud she’s been reading. Or maybe she is a belated convert to stoicism.
Pete is an apparent convert to Boy Scout ethics and he seems so boyishly earnest it looks like he’ll get the fabled American second-chance to make a go of it with Trudy. The pair and their toddler will uproot themselves to go where Pete’s new job takes them: Wichita, Kansas. The job comes with great perks – a company jet! – but still. For those of us who cannot forget the disgraceful, or conceited, or bullying, or malignant, or just clueless and gauche way he has behaved, Wichita may seem like punishment enough. The bars close early in Wichita, Pete, and they don’t measure up to the places you’re accustomed to, where you can close a deal over martinis and shrimp cocktails, moving your finger in a circle to signal to the tuxedo-clad waiter that it’s time for another round. “Wichita is beautiful – and wholesome.” Indeed. But this wholesome new life isn’t necessarily terminal. Would you bet on the marriage of Trudy and Pete in the heart of Kansas?
Henry, in denial over the death sentence Betty accepts, is not a convert to anything. He remains as sweetly loyal as a retriever and must have something going for him beyond his steadfast attachment to Betty, whom he sincerely worships. He remains an adviser on Rocky’s staff – that’s the governor of New York we’re talking about, and the most consequential man to hold the post in the last century. Henry has influence. He is not stupid. He can see right through Lindsay, who was able to walk through Harlem with his head held high and an amiable grin when other cities (Newark, Detroit) were hosting riots, because he, Lindsay, had had the foresight to bribe certain demagogues. Yet Henry has never had my sympathy, and I cringe a little when he is front and center. I think it’s because he is really so fundamentally different from Don, Sally, even Betty. I have read poems that lampoon Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid in Casablanca) because he is too virtuous. I feel that way about Henry and am not terribly curious about which bus he will board at the terminal when he enters his widower years.
Who else hasn’t changed?
Duck (whose real name is Herman) is still drunk, still scheming, still making pie-in-the-sky deals.
Trudy is still vulnerable to sweet talk and the illusion that Dartmouth-educated (class of ’56) rich-boy Pete can change.
Don is still the enigmatic, self-assured stranger who can’t keep his eyes off a likely lady but whose natural state is that of the loner. He is in Kansas, the very state of Pete’s second chance, but life is anything but idyllic. In his motel room waiting for his car to be repaired, he is reading the novel everyone read that year, The Godfather, two years before the movie. With a bunch of vets who drink too much and are as mean drunk as they appear friendly sober, Don makes the astonishing admission that he killed his C.O. (commanding officer) in Korea. That is not what happened. He may be guilty of impersonating an officer and, well, identity theft. But the real Don Draper died in the same enemy explosion that Dick Whitman survived. Does self-aggrandizement or guilt or some combination of the two stand behind Don’s lie? The Vets turn ugly, resentful, which seems to be middle America’s response to “Don Draper” in his custom-tailored Madison Avenue suit. Don is still as vulnerable to a sucker punch as he was when he was cruising his Ossining neighborhood in search of Suzanne Farrell – remember her? the idealistic teacher with the same name as the great Ballenchine ballerina -- and picked up a couple of hitchhikers who got him stoned unconscious in a motel room and stolen his cash.
Somebody did steal the cash that the Vets had raised – a theft that cost the wrongly accused Don dearly. Don apprehends the thief and makes him fess up. But he doesn’t take revenge, despite the beating he has endured. On the contrary: Don gives his car to the con artist. Could it be he recognizes something of himself in the younger man? I don’t think he is renouncing property and material values in line with the thirst for radical social change then becoming fashionable. Don never was and never will be an ideologue. If he knows anything it’s that he known nothing for sure. Aside from daughter Sally, whom he faithfully phones, he maintains his distance from everyone, keeps his options open. He is the embodiment of the great male invention of that period, to whom so many names and so much study were given. Dangling man. Irrational man. L’etranger. Alienated man, without direction or affiliation. The anti-type of the organization man, in rebellion against the codes of the one-dimensional man. He’s the guy at the bus depot who would buy a ticket to anywhere – or would if he had no car.
But Don is still behind the wheel, still the figure in his own dream who is pulled over by a state trooper.
“What were you doing?” The cop asks.
“Driving,” Don says.
The cop is unamused. “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.”
Don’s rejoinder (“driving”) is not just a wisecrack. Driving is like drifting -- albeit with an apparent purpose. And “driving” is as good a word as any for what most of us are doing at any given time in our lives.
That’s my take as we prepare for the finale this coming Sunday.
One of the closing observations in your blog text this week is “Driving is like drifting...” Exactly so. Don has been on the road for weeks now, without a clear destination, propelled into some kind of pilgrimage of self-reinvention. This episode's title “The Milk and Honey Route” is apparently a phrase from hobo slang, dating perhaps from the teens, 1920s and ‘30s. According to the internet, “Often hobos speak of a railroad as a ‘milk and honey route’. . . Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line.” Specifically, the phrase appears in writing by and about a guy named Nels Anderson (aka Dean Stiff, what a great nom de drift) who lived the “bummery” life for years before reinventing himself and attending the University of Chicago. He published a study of hobos, tramps, migratory workers, etc., based on his first-hand experience, entitled “The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man.” Hexagram 56 in the I Ching is called “The Wanderer.” The text says in part, “A wanderer has no fixed abode; his home is the road. Therefore he must take care to remain upright and steadfast, so that he sojourns only [in] the proper places, associating with good people. Then he has good fortune and can go his way unmolested.” I will try to beam this fine ancient advice to Don Draper, via time travel ESP, though I know, whatever his fate, it is already sealed, and will be broadcast, for good or ill, tomorrow night. He's not sitting at the deserted rural bus stop in the middle of nowheresville, grinning, any longer.
Lots of people are of course speculating about what the last episode will contain, what the final scenes will be, which characters we will get to glimpse again, what music will play under the last shot, sending us off into a Mad Men-bereft world. Will we see Betty’s funeral? Will Peggy be reunited with the child she gave away? Will more Sterling Cooper employees who were sucked up into the typhoon of the McCann Erikson merger extricate themselves? I was moved by Betty's instructions-to-be-read-after-my-death. Penned on blue monogrammed stationary, she handed them to Sally in the middle of night, slipping into Sally's room with her characteristic mix of grace and brusqueness, asking “Are you awake?” Of course Sally, who'd been told out of the blue that morning that her mother was ill and going to die, was wide awake. Electrified. Of course Sally doesn't wait, but opens the envelope almost immediately. Most of what Betty wrote had to do with how she wished to be buried, in what dress, with what hairdo, even including a color snapshot to indicate the gown and coiff. Exactly in character. Gorgeous Betty, always so perfectly dressed and made up, always so careful about her appearance, with a wide streak of complicated narcissism. She manages a lovely morsel of motherly wisdom for Sally, telling her at the end of the letter that while she'd always had a hard time with Sally’s fiery independence, she’d lately come to realize that it was a good thing. Betty sends her daughter off into her future with this blessing, “I know your life will be an adventure.” I loved Sally’s reaction to being told by Henry during his visit to her boarding school dorm room that her mother was dying. Her face crumpled and she covered her ears. I loved that Henry gave her permission to cry, and immediately began to weep himself, while Sally remained dry-eyed, her hand hovering for a moment above her stepfather’s slumped back, before she could bring herself to touch, to comfort him.
Other tiny details that stirred me this episode: Pete fingerpainting toothpaste on his little daughter Tammy’s knee as the go-to home remedy for her bee sting. The fucking doctor refusing to give Betty her diagosis, insisting on having her phone Henry so the diagnosis could be given to her husband. As though she were a child or a moron. As you note, David, Betty seems to make her peace with this stunning blow fairly quickly. Henry is panicking, wrecked, heartbroken, of course. I liked Don watching Red Foxx and Flip Wilson on the grainy TV in his crummy hotel room just before the TV went on the fritz. I cannot say that I enjoyed hearing the snippet of Merle Haggard's infamous Okie from Muskogee on Don's car radio, possibly one of the most hideous songs ever penned, but it was deeply appropriate in terms of plot and context. I just learned Haggard wrote it when he was newly out of prison! He said, of the inspiration for writing the song:
“When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away. Freedom is everything. During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause — we don’t even know what it was really all about. And here are these young kids, that were free, b—-ing about it. There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys. We were in a wonderful time in America and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak and what the hell did these kids have to complain about? These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers.” So it’s perfect for Don to hear, when he is sprung (whether temporarily or permanently, we don’t yet know) from his former job and life, and hits the road, seeking the holy grail of himself.
A spatula-wielding Betty pulling cookies out of the oven just as Sally arrives home (after having been enlisted by Henry to try to talk her mother into getting treatment) was a nice touch. Pete’s man-to-man chat with his brother at the fancy restaurant about infidelity, opportunity, risk-taking, what wives do and don't know was interesting. Vincent Kartheiser rocks. Betty's strength and quiet dignity when Henry confronts her the morning after her diagnosis, as she’s setting off for school, moved me. “Why are you doing this?” he asks incredulously (or some such expostulation.) He is amazed she’s toting her books, ready to attend class as though nothing has happened. “Why was I ever doing it?” She asks softly, continuing on her way. She seems both matter of fact and wistful, resigned and determined. I take her remark to mean that she was always just going back to school for herself, it was something she'd personally longed for, an end in itself. Maybe she felt a little foolish doing it initially. Maybe when she learned she likely had a few months to live at most, she felt even more sheepish. And yet...what else is she supposed to do? Her plan seems to be to maintain a facade of normalcy for her two younger children for as long as that's possible. Is this a good plan? Unfair? Is she perpetuating a falsehood that will ultimately rob her two small sons of the opportunity to say goodbye? These are unanswerable questions. That's all for me this week.
Till the final, dear David!
The day hostess at the Washington, DC Smith & Wollensky was a former Playboy Playmate named Elaine. Well into her 60s, her waist still curved in suggestively. Her breasts were high-set and firm (whether by push-up bra or genetics, I don’t know, though I’m guessing a mixture of both). When I was hired as the evening hostess, she eyed me with a look of both contempt and intimacy - she hated me, she hated herself, etc.
“How long have you been working here?” I asked.
“Since my last husband,” she said. There was no indication of how much time had elapsed within the word “since”, no clue as to whether he was dead or simply no longer her husband.
I took the job at Smith & Wollensky the summer I graduated as a stop-gap between college and my “dream job.” I stayed well into winter, even after I procured the 9-to-5 at a small publishing house on Capitol Hill. Having not worked in food service since I was 16, adult restaurant life was an ongoing sitcom of sex and late nights and making fun of people who made more in a day than most of us made in a year.
Though I never consciously entertained the thought, I know I believed I’d find a rich husband working there. It was one of the fanciest, most storied steakhouses in Washington, DC - just off the main drag of powerful law firms and NGOs on K Street. Evenings saw a regular patronage of attorneys, chiefs-of-staff, senators. A German prince dined there every time he was stateside, wearing a floor-length fur coat even in warm weather. Once, Governor Mitt Romney came in with his detail, a cast of muscled young Boston men straight out of Good Will Hunting. There was also a glut of pharmaceutical executives, newly wealthy and almost always slimy, hosting over-the-top parties in our event rooms. I was regularly tipped for no reason or given a bottle of expensive champagne with a wink from some some sweaty, tie-loosened bro on his way out the door.
My powerfully feminist ideals were dulled by the starched glamour of the Smith & Wollensky clientele. This, coupled with the reality of being on my own for the first time. I had just moved in with my boyfriend, who was still an undergraduate, and felt that sudden rush of post-grad loneliness. He still had the structure of school, the promise of a future that academics offers. I was angry with him, regularly, for living a reasonable life.
I also developed a crush on one of the waiters. His name was Joshua - not Josh, but Joshua. He was a struggling writer (of course), working there only until he finished his novel. He had a dog named Sundown. Unlike most of the other waiters, who were gassy and brash and had accepted a life of high-end servitude, Joshua and I were still young and bright. We were in on the joke, not the butt of it.
“Did you hear Elaine used to be a Playboy Playmate?” he asked me one night.
“I know ,” I whispered, flashing him my brightest eyes. “I’d love to write her story.”
“I also heard she poisoned her last husband!” he added.
“What?” I said.
Soon enough, I started to become a little slimy myself. Drinking all night, leaning into the attention of men who saw me as nothing more than what I was - there to serve them. What did I think I had to look down on from my drunken perch, treating champagne like a reasonable meal? Champagne I procured by chance, no less?
The men I worked with also stopped treating me like a lady. They shared their bathroom exploits with me, tales of cheating on their wives, and all manner of repulsive blonde jokes. Joshua quit for an editing job. The German prince stopped coming by. My life became late, and later than that. I was dragging myself out of bed at 9:30, squeaking into the office at 10am. (I’m lying to you even now - I was sleeping until 11 or later. It was not the ugliest, laziest thing in the world, but it was close.) My job at the publishing house - not to mention my relationship with my boyfriend - was in jeopardy. I was slowly, deliberately giving up a great job and a great love for a nothing job and the shady promise of a millionaire husband. A husband I didn’t even want.
One afternoon, during our shift change, I got up the nerve to ask Elaine about all the rumors. I was too hungover to be hesitant.
“Yes, I was a Playmate,” she answered without looking at me. “And I worked at the first Playboy Club in Chicago.”
“Wow,” I said. “That must have been fascinating.”
She shook her blonde head.
“It was the same as here. Just a big game of grab-ass.”
“No,” I said. “This is a steakhouse...it’s so...different….”
“Okay, honey,” she laughed. “Just because the outfit’s different doesn’t mean the job is.”
“Well did you poison your husband?” I blurted.
“Which one?” she smiled, pulling on her coat to go.
I’d like to say I quit that very same day, but that would’ve been too smart of me. I stayed for a few more months, weaning myself off the late nights and trying to do a better job at my better job. As far as I know, Elaine is still the day hostess there, foxy as hell at 75 and teaching foolish younger blondes how to move on with their lives.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.
Friday May 15th 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Address: 3620 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Lafayette CA 94549
This just in: Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery is hosting award winning writer, poet Amy Glynn for a reading / talk / degustation. The topic: the apple, its complex symbolism and what it can teach us about human behavior. There will be drinks. There will be snacks. And there will be TAROT READINGS by the lovely Benebell Wen, whose book “Holistic Tarot” is a great resource not only for the card-curious but for writers, philosophers, and anyone interested in the role of archetypes in the human psyche.
What a pairing! THIS WILL BE A FUN ONE!
In 1982, if you go as far west as possible on 125 St, you reach Marginal Street and what I imagine is the “old broken-down river pier” where Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac watched “the long, long skies over New Jersey” at the end of On the Road. And that’s where I find myself out of breath, pausing on a run, shortly after dark.
A car appears from Somewhere headed for Nowhere, and out come two young men, long scraggly hair, tattooed arms, heading straight toward me, stopping a few yards away.
“Hey there,” one of them says. “We drove up from South Carolina to see what New York looks like, and now we’re trying to get back across the river but looks like we reached the end of the road and don’t have the money to gas up.”
There is nothing menacing about the way he speaks, but I am boxed in.
“Two bucks should do it,” the other guy adds, asking for just enough to get me to reach for my wallet.
“That’s all you need?”
The second guy points to the long skies over New Jersey. “We got a buddy waiting for us in a diner, too chicken to come to the big city.”
I take out my wallet and peel off two bills while keeping my eye on the guys. But I now have two twenties in my hand. I put them back and this time make sure I get singles.
“Here you go, two bucks.”
“Much obliged to you, sir,” the first guy says and walks toward me.
I stiffen as he sticks out his hand for the bills, which he stuffs into his pocket. Out comes his hand again, hovering in front of me. Nothing happens. I shake his hand; he nods and turns around.
They wave as they get into their car, make a U-turn, and head toward the gas station up the hill.
Two guys came across a stranger at the end of the road, and he helped them back onto “all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.”
Since the inception of the MFA in Creative Writing program at The New School, alumni from each graduating class have gone on to create influential websites, magazines, and presses. Here is a representative — though far from comprehensive— look at some of those projects.
I stayed recently on Vermont’s Grand Isle, in the middle of Lake Champlain, a beautiful spot where spring had yet to show its face: cloudy, gray and button-your-overcoat cold, with patches of blue ice clinging still to rock faces lining the highway on the ride up. In the yard of the cabin where I stayed, rabbits rooted in piles of dried leaves for a snack, noses twitching, keeping sharp eyes for coyotes.
The cabin belongs to the generous neighbor of my friends Ken and Rebecca, a neighbor who let me crash there while he was away. I’d come to the island for a weekend celebration of Ken’s mother Shirley’s 95th birthday. Shirley’s one of a kind: hysterically funny, independent (still gardens and hauls wood for her fireplace), fiercely opinionated, and smarter than a room full of calculus majors. The unquestioned matriarch of a huge extended family, a few dozen of had gathered along with friends from Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, D.C. and elsewhere to hang out, laugh continuously, share family stories (some of which might have actually been true) and eat too much. (One night, a vat of Ken’s killer New Orleans gumbo. Another, a mass assault on a local restaurant.)
I’ve been going to Ken and Rebecca’s seder near Boston for a long time and met Shirley, who comes up from Atlanta every year for the holiday, at my first. There’s a Jewish tradition of adults giving children gelt at Chanukah: chocolate coins or actual cash. For Shirley, Seder’s close enough, so she was handing out ten-dollar bills to the kids in attendance. Then to my surprise she handed ME a bill…it felt a little like being adopted.
I folded the bill and tucked it in a remote corner of my wallet, thinking it would be good to have in case of emergency, and forgot about it. Some months later I stumbled across it while hunting for something else. I'd had a rough day, but seeing that bill lifted my spirits. I realized then the REAL emergencies Shirley’s gift was meant to see me through were those times when we almost forget that in spite of all the cruelty and ignorance, this world is filled with moments of unexpected kindness, and generosity, and grace.
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” His novella, "Spin Cycles," was published in November of 2014 by Gemma Media.
Lally's fans have come to expect certain pleasures from this gregarious, theatrical, funny, sometimes pugnacious master of the contemporary American idiom. The new book opens with a brilliant and very characteristic effort, "Before You Were Born." The recurrence of that phrase (or variants thereof) structures the poem. The assertive speaker refuses "to give up / the life of a poet and get a job, / but I already did that / before you were a gob of spit / hanging from the lip of / Charles Bukowski who had a / nice secure job at the post office back then." There's a double surprise here -- first the "gob of spit," then the invocation of Bukowski as either a role model or an anti-hero. It's funny but there is sadness, too, in the opposition of the speaker to a "you" who is younger and -- if only by implication -- less original, less daring, and more glibly "avant-garde."
Lally's poems flow from his refusal to give up "the life of a poet" and his determination to annotate it. But it is not only this cri de coeur, important though it is, that aligns him with the New York School. A hallmark of the New York aesthetic is the interior monologue projected outward into a theatrical soliloquy. Frank O'Hara was the master of this maneuver -- all conversational grace and ease.
One of Lally's major strengths is his skill as a conversationalist in verse. He is totally engaging -- chatty, direct, boastful as Whitman but ironically self-aware in the manner of O'Hara. To clinch the deal, or to illustrate it cunningly, I would give you the final part of "The Geese Don't Fly South" -- the part that may be said to begin with the line "Thank God for Turner Classic Movies" and to continue for sixty-eight more lines in which these subjects come up: the armed services, heroes, Hollywood, family trees, Hurricane Katrina, the novels of Walter Scott, and the war journalism of Martha Gellhorn -- but rather than quote it, let me encourage you to acquire the book, and I will just say here that there is a second New York School quality that Swing Theory exemplifies, and that is the reconciliation of the colloquial with the use of verse forms to restrain and give focus to the imagination.
Lally has a particular affinity for the sonnet and the sonnet sequence. In Swing Theory you will find "The Jimmy Schuyler Sonnets" (a group of five), "The 2008 Sonnets" (eleven), and "The San Francisco Sonnets (1962)" (five). From the last named, consider this nugget: "She said if I read Herman / Hesse's Steppenwolf it would change my life." The statement will catapult you back to the mind-set of the early 1960s whether you had the experience in real time or not.
Jerome Sala is on the mark when he speaks of the "jazzy rhythms and pre-hip-hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude" that you find in Lally's work. It turns out, as Sala observes, that Lally was ahead of the curve with his poems so congenial to the performative impulse. That vibrancy is just one thing Swing Theory has going for it. -- David Lehman
I continue to be inspired by Auden, Stevens, Bishop, MacNeice, Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, etc., the list goes on, but I don’t often read them. Once something has inspired you, that’s it. Somebody (maybe me) once described the situation as like standing on the deck of a ship that’s pulling away from shore, smiling and waving at friends who are waving back at you. They still love you and vice versa, but they can’t come along.
from the New York Times Book Review, May 7, 2015
We're having a simile contest -- a contest for the best short poem that is simile-driven. Either a poem consisting of all similes or a poem that goes to town with just one.
Consider these thoughts from "Next Line, Please," the part of the American Scholar's website devoted to our weekly contest:
Similes are underrated in contemporary writing. Well, maybe all rhetorical figures are underrated. The neglect of rhetorical devices, verse forms, rhyme, and other “adjuncts or ornaments” (as Milton would have it) is lamentable, but it does create a compelling opportunity for contemporary poets eager to embrace change and renew a past tradition. You can distinguish yourself from your peers just by making good use of similes.
A great simile opens a poem or narrative in a vertical way—it doesn’t advance the argument or plot so much as it deepens it. Whether introduced by “like” or “as” or through some other means (“the size of a grapefruit”), the simile adds a complicating element even as it appears to clarify matters. It can resemble a detour—or a shortcut. It should surprise and should not repeat expressions already in use. Paradoxically, the simile can work to illustrate a thought or image—which is, after all, its stated function—yet it can overshadow the thought or image to which it was supposedly a subordinate element. Like the bridge in a jazz standard, it can surpass in beauty or inventiveness the primary melody, as happens in “Body and Soul” and “Skylark.”
For brilliant similes, albeit in prose, I would recommend Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps—in which she tells us, for instance, that her heroine was the victim of a certain man’s “conscience, as Isaac very nearly was of Abraham’s.” The religious and philosophical concerns of this author are front and center in a sentence that very surprisingly uses scientific means to explain a moral proposition: “To know God and yet do evil, this was the very essence of the Romantic life, a kind of electrolytical process in which the cathode and the anode act and react upon one another to ionize the soul.” An enterprising professor could build half a college course around that sentence.
Nearly every page of A. J. Liebling’s great book on boxing, The Sweet Science, can boast a refreshing, inventive simile or two. Example: “But Attell, who looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan’s with a twisted septum, is not a sentimental man.”
>>>For more about the simle -- and the contest -- click here. Please enter! -- DL
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.