Express yourself at your own peril

Writer at large, Tom Chiarella has an intriguing sidebar in the August issue of Esquire magazine, entitled “What Mad Men has taught me.” As we prepare for the show’s fourth season on AMC , I want to take a closer look at his commentary. Not so much to publicize the show or his remarks but to analyze them. And challenge them. He rightly claims the show has an ambiguous “moral center.” To be accurate he writes it has none. But he qualifies the remark by stating the show “is rife with lessons, public and private, cautionary and exemplary, and not just for white guys who secretly wish that all men wore hats.” While I think he’s being facetious and I know he’s being provocative, I’d like to challenge him on a couple of his points. They are as follows:

1) Don’t befriend the people who work below you. There is power in distance.

2) Don’t befriend the people who work above you. That way they will want you more than you need them.

3) Don’t ever tell anyone everything.

Basically, Chiarella is declaring self-disclosure a no-no in the office. He cites Don Draper’s adamant stance that “the past is the past” as epigram to the notion. Other cliché’s that fit would be “still waters run deep” or “always keep a stiff upper lip.” Stoicism is a virtue.

Most men, even those of us utterly unlike Don Draper, would believe there is wisdom in admiring, if not adhering to, the “strong silent type.” We’d like to think our fathers or their fathers were that way. We aspire to it, even if we fail doing so on a daily basis. That is why Don Draper is such a compelling character. Morally uncertain as he is, men nevertheless want to be him and, if the gossip magazines are correct, women most certainly want to be with him. He is the consummate anti-hero.

That’s Don Draper, the character. But what about us? I’m a creative director. I freely admit to failing the above three “rules” almost every day. I enjoy fraternizing with my “staff,” if staff is even the right word. And I look forward to friendly “face time” with management. In conversation with all parties, I self disclose. Christ, I’m doing it now in this fricking blog.

I understand this makes me vulnerable. But if at work I talk about relationship issues at home –it happens- will the listeners then have something on me? Does talking about my parent’s ancient divorce or my troubles with alcohol weaken me in the eyes of those above and below me? Are these subjects only weak men and silly women are allowed to talk about? Is not disclosing personal information a masculine virtue? In the world of Mad Men I know the answers. In real life I can’t abide. Can you?

I’d argue self-disclosure is preamble to creativity. We creatives are compelled to probe the human condition, be it ours or someone else’s well past the point of normal discourse. To do our jobs well we have to. This is why Don Draper does not exist in real life, thank God.

Recently, I wrote about various profound difficulties involving some people I care about. I shared with you my advice to them as they shared their dilemmas with me. Some of this took place in a professional environment and some of it didn’t. Of course I was discreet. But should we have all kept our mouths shut? Don Draper would have –except maybe when he was in the arms of his mistress or drunk at the club.

I do not want a mistress or to be drunk at the club. I do, however, want to relate to others as best I can. Those others are often fellow workers, above and below me. I am not one for small talk. I do not much care for rehashing golf scores. If we’re talking movies I want to know how the film made someone feel. A simple thumb up or down is not a conversation. In other words, the only way I can relate to others is by being emotionally honest.

Therefore, by Chiarella’s criteria, I am an abject failure as a man, at least as it pertains to my conduct at work. And so, it would seem, are the people who confided in me.

If Chiarella was not being glib (and even if he was), his “lessons” are something I worry and wonder about. A lot. In her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand rhapsodized about rare men who had zero interest in petty, emotional issues. I adored Rand (who didn’t?) until I realized I was a human being.

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Books unread and way past due…

Recently, I attended a charity auction for my kid’s school at a downtown club, where I found myself having a Don Draper moment in the unattended library, a stuffy, decrepit sort of room where the nicked and worn bookcases were filled with countless navy and maroon hardcover volumes. Clearly, none had been opened in many years. Maybe decades. There was dust on all of them. I even saw cobwebs.

I gazed upon the titles. I’d never heard any of them or their authors. I opened one up and read a few paragraphs, something about a bachelor going over his dead father’s keepsakes. The man’s name was Jack. Or was it Henry or Bill. Anyway, the sentences were finely written. They moved along nicely enough. For a moment I could almost see myself sitting down in the nearby armchair. But no. I already had a bad rap as being anti-social, especially at events like these. If my wife caught me wiling away the evening reading I’d catch hell. The car ride home would feature another steely lecture. I put the book back. Sliding it into the slot, I imagined the bookcase, a la Sherlock Holmes, opening up into a secret passage! Wishful thinking. I’d have to go back to my party.

Before adjourning to the ballroom, I pondered the books once more, and their authors, now so utterly forgotten. When I was younger I thought being a published author was the pinnacle of achievement. For me, it was the goal of goals. The penultimate. Even deeper I believed creating a book was a form of immortality, a legacy. I knew someday I would. Had to. Otherwise, it seemed to me, my inevitable death would be in vain.

Now, gazing upon these hundreds of decaying volumes, I had a different view. There is no immortality, even through books. Unless you are blessed with creating a masterpiece like Moby Dick or Portrait of the Young Man as Artist, nobody but no one will care about it or you. And even in the unlikely event you did create a masterwork, you’d still fade eventually. Ashes to ashes. Dust jackets to dust jackets. High school kids would be required to read your prose but they would do so begrudgingly. A few nerds might carry the torch, less and less of them every year.

Needless to say, the same epitaph exists for movies and other art. For every Hemingway or Caravaggio there are millions of fabulous nobodies. People like me. I’ve written three novels, struggled to have two of them published, and dozens of short stories last read by a college professor whose name I can’t recall anymore than he would my stories.

Staring up at all these old books, I realized how silly my ambition was. Legacy! Please. Besides my kin, who in the hell did I think would read my stories? In fifty years my novels would be lucky –damn lucky- to be housed in a decrepit room such as this. Unlikely, given they are paperbacks. Even online they will be “out of print.” Maybe even –gasp!- Google proof!

Still, I would not trade the years I spent toiling on my books for anything. The countless hours I’ve spent conjuring tales are among the best times of my life. Selfish in the extreme, it was and is the one place where I felt and feel in control. Certainly more so than in all those mind numbing cocktail parties I’d attended and will attend.

So, what’s the lesson here? What is my point? I think it has something to do with living in the present and not worrying about the future or fretting over the past. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating hedonism. This does not mean sex, drugs and rock and roll. Lord knows I tried that. It means if my present is about writing (be it books or ad copy) then that is what I should do. It is my ambition that needs to be tempered. Rethought anyway. For all my blessings, my ambition got me right here, between a few hundred unremembered books and about as many drunks in the next room.

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Same guy, different crimes.

Not my usual M.O. but in honor of summer distractions I’m writing bits and pieces this week. Some news, some rants. These are observations and ideas not big enough to warrant a full post but are on my mind, none-the-less. More to follow soon. Let me know what you think.

Let’s start on a high note. Euro RSCG in New York managed to win the Heineken account, beating out Weiden & Kennedy, TBWA and Strawberry Frog. Euro NY does a fabulous job with the same client’s Dos Equis brand so this seems like fair reward. “The most interesting man in the world” might be the best beer advertising in America right now, maybe even the world. Wonder what they have in store for the yuppie brew in the iconic green bottle. I should say my office in Chicago had nothing to do with this big win. I know the folks who did, however and they are that agency’s best and brightest. Congrats to all.

When it comes to broadcast advertising, cinema is the new TV. I saw five big budget commercials prior to the last movie I attended. Not so long ago these would have represented a typical flight on prime time. But since few of us actually witness commercial breaks anymore (thank you DVR), the movies are now the place where advertisers find a captive audience. This is either highly annoying or great news for agencies still wanting to produce films for their clients. Probably both.

Shifting gears completely: Love our new Prez, his family, even the dog. But why is everyone so complimentary of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe? I think much of what she wears is bizarre. Google her visit with the Pope. That outfit was downright scary. Hey, at least she’s her own woman.

Saw Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” Why the plural? Baby Face Nelson is in five minutes. Pretty Boy Floyd gets killed about 20 seconds after we meet him. Still, it’s a good period piece, full of nice suits and men wearing hats. Sort of “Mad Men” with machine guns. Continuing that comparison, John Dillinger is portrayed much the same as Dan Draper. Both men are handsome, driven, and self-destructive. Draper & Dillinger. Now there’s an agency to be reckoned with! Back to the film, I especially appreciated the way Chicago looked: a hell of a lot cooler than it did in “Dark Knight.” You can’t beat the rickety “El” for killer mise en scene.

Some rants in the next post so stay tuned!

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