Thursday, October 28, 2010

I actually agree with Malcolm Gladwell

About social media!

I say this because I rarely agree with anything else he writes. But I don't think he's doing his usual counterfactual mishmashy thing here - his example in the Clay Shirky book about a Wall Street trader getting his phone back by using the coercive powers of the Internet on a single individual is pretty telling - at the end of the day, you can shame individuals into action, but not countries, and this seems about right to me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Something New

Until yesterday, in my 12 years in Toronto, I have never heard someone order an escort for an evening of debauchery on public transit.

Until yesterday.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Defence of Don's Engagement

(Warning - if you like Mad Men, and didn't see the season finale last night, and want to avoid all the Internet commentary on said finale - don't read!)

Further to my previous post about the horrific realisation that I am a hopeless Romantic (yes, capital R), I would like to post my own thoughts on what is emerging as the overall consensus on Don Draper's sudden engagement to his secretary Megan during the season finale of last night's Mad Men.

The consensus? Don hit rock bottom this season, and he was just cleaning himself up, and then he goes and gets engaged to his young and pretty secretary(!) in a fit of recklessness, leaving his current girlfriend in the dust.

I was actually surprised at how many people took this to be something really dumb and out of character, but I think a case could be made for the fact that, rather than this revealing Don as slipping further into pathetic middle age, medicating himself with a new woman, as one commentator put it (I can't remember which!), this is a sign of his progress.

Yes, she is 25 and pretty, but why should those be strikes against her? I find it very interesting that the opinions of the other cast members (that marrying his secretary was an act of recovering his lost youth and could only end in tragedy) has been echoed quite consistently in the commentariat - and yet, thinking that he's made some kind of mistake because she's young and pretty plays into exactly the kinds of prejudices that feminists (male and female) have spent 40 years attempting to work away from? She couldn't be a good mate because she's young and pretty? What does that say about us that this is the first major problem people see in all of this?

I mean, from what little we know of her, they have tried to portray her as, for lack of a better word, deep. There appears to be a lot more to her than a young, pretty secretary - couldn't Don's desire also be traced to recognizing that if he is medicating himself with a woman, it should be someone who might actually be able to cure him? If everyone had to be perfectly whole before they got involved, no one should be in a relationship...

Ok, I'll admit getting engaged is impetuous, but having worked together, they have known each other for quite some time, and why shouldn't that count for something? Sometimes the gut is more accurate than the mind, and the show has certainly spent a lot of time trying to convince us that she's very special...without getting into the possibility of ironic narration in TV (now that's a interesting would one even know?), if we take her characterization seriously, we can see why Don is taking her seriously, and not merely because she is pretty and young.

It's also interesting that this happened in California - the show has consistently set California up as a place of healing for Don, where he can be "himself", and so asking her here seems also to be indicating his own willingness to bring together his divided self (Don Draper/Dick Whitman) into a single one, symbolized by his using Anna's ring to marry her.

Obviously, only time will tell if the show's creators will bear my feelings about this out, and I suspect the key will be when (or if) Don tells her about his whole identity thing, but I think there is a very plausible reading of Don's actions as being a sign of mental health rather than a sign of failure.

That they were seen roundly as a failure is interesting to me though, because it says more about where we are now as a society, and I think the best thing about Mad Men right now is what it reveals about us through the past, as this brief defence of Don's engagement reveals something about me!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010



Do you ever think about how difficult it is to stop believing in something, even when the truth is staring you in the face?

I have a confession to make (and don't let small children read this!!!) - I believed in Santa Claus for far too long. There was a good reason for this - I was told something by an adult which implied that a gift I received for Christmas didn't exist yet in the stores, and so the logical conclusion as a child was that Santa must have created it - I mean, isn't that his whole bag? Being magical?

I held on to this experience and belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, until my father finally put me out of my misery. I was pretty upset about it, but I see now how the tenacity of that belief resided in large part out of the lived experience that confirmed it. Some shopkeeper's mistake became a truth that I was unwilling to part with.

But the reality is that I must have also wanted to believe. I mean, I don't want to psychoanalyse my young self, but there must have been a deep desire on my part to believe that there was some magic in the world.

Part of growing up is recognizing that there isn't this kind of magic in the world. But it often feels as though we don't just give up on magic, instead we move away from magical creatures and onto something like, say, romantic love.

It was easy to believe in something ephemeral as Santa Claus, so how much easier it is to believe in someone real, especially when the person who loves you back confirms that belief incessantly! It is like a thousand incompetent shopkeepers telling you what you want to hear each and every day! Santa Claus is really real!

How much more entrenched this kind of magical belief becomes! Even when you are faced with the fact that this belief in someone is no longer real, it is that much more difficult to stop childhood, when you stop believing in that person, one often finds that it takes everything with them. So sometimes it seems to make more sense to keep believing.

Oddly enough, it was Revenge of the Sith that got me thinking about this. As I've mentioned before, my son has become a big Star Wars fan, and I have developed a form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome from having viewed the most recent films a number of times.

Anyway, my son enjoys watching the opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith, with the space battle and the lightsabers and the robots. However, once we get past the first 20 minutes, he wants to do something else, like play. But it was in the DVD player a few mornings ago, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

(A warning - I know that analysing Star Wars seems ridiculous, but you take things as they come!)

Although George Lucas gets knocked around a lot, he described the whole series of films as a "domestic tragedy", and I think that's about right. And what separates this film from the other prequels is that we actually find ourselves identifying with Anakin's decision, because the entire movie revolves around Anakin's preoccupation with his wife.

His turn to evil centres on his love for his wife and desire to protect her. But I realised watching Anakin destroy everything to save Padme was that he was really doing was trying to save himself from his own pain.

This is the dark underbelly of sacrificing for our beliefs, is it not? That in sacrificing everything for love, one is also trying to end the possibility of their own suffering, their own loss? That the burnt offering you provide will ensure the gods forever look favourably on you? That there is selfishness in that selflessness?

It feels as though we exchange one kind of pain for another - the pain of the present, of what is there, to foreclose the possibility of pain in the future. But as life always demonstrates, things don't work this way, especially in love, because no matter how much one might sacrifice, it might be too much for the other - at the end of the day, no one can imagine Padme at the end of the film looking at Anakin and saying "sure, you've just killed a bunch of children, but I'll be OK with you raising mine".

Although we might not do what he does (obviously!), we understand his transformation, there is something human about it, as troubling as that is. We even understand why he cannot go back on his belief, terrible as it is. Once he is lost, he is lost, and although one might wish that we alone can rescue ourselves from our darkest thoughts, it is usually only with others, those who care about us, where one can find the space in which to heal ourselves.

Moreover, he has to keep believing because he is alone - who can he possibly let go to when the one person who might have saved him, his wife, is no longer there? And in trying to save himself from his own pain, he reifies it - indeed, the suit becomes the physical manifestation of his failure to control his own pain from the outset. He spends his life embodying the very pain he tried so desperately to avoid.

Nevertheless, does one remain alone in their lost belief, or barring the return of the object of that belief, do they sacrifice that belief in the hope that they might again believe? In the end it remains about believing, because the price of total disbelief seems much too high...

Or maybe it's just me. Although I bask in the cool light of the Enlightenment, I cannot escape the reality that I am probably at my core a Romantic...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Più docile io sono, e dico di sì.

Do you remember the end of the last scene of the Marriage of Figaro?

It’s the point where Count Almaviva has discovered Figaro and Susanna’s tricks, and declares that he will never forgive them. And then the Countess arrives - she had pretended to be Susanna, and the Count had courted her in disguise, and the Count realises this. At this moment the Count realises the jig is up.

Although creating the sublime was, for Mozart, something like breathing is for the rest of us, I’m not sure he achieves it more fully anywhere than this moment where the music stops after Count Almaviva says:

“Contessa, Perdono”

We sit and we wait, and it feels like forever, because we do not know if the Contessa will say "I forgive you", we do not know if she, who has just been seduced by her husband while pretending to be another woman, will forgive him.

We have spent nearly three hours watching him try to seduce Susanna, and basically be a terrible asshole to everyone, especially his wife, who, on our first encounter, is on the verge of suicide over her husband’s conduct - Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro!

The very idea of forgiveness seems problematic to our modern eyes and ears - how awful it is to ask for forgiveness, when forgiveness is no longer a gesture that acknowledges a human relationship, but is a matter before the courts. The acceptance of responsibility now is as much a material gesture as it is an emotional one.

Yet to forgive! What other event heals us so quickly, so fully, as to see someone, on bent knee, asking us to acknowledge them, and in that very moment, the moment when you have all the power in the world over this person, you dissolve it? And in that moment of forgiveness, when all might be lost, everyone is redeemed - how this flies in the steely bureaucratic resolve required of modern life!

So we are stuck, afraid to ask for forgiveness and afraid to give it. And the comfort that our new “social” world gives to this fear - safely ensconced at our computers, in our vaunted privacy, we can lash out at those without fear of the possibility of that face staring back at you, those tears, the moment when you realise that you must accept their apology, because, despite everything, they mean something to you. Not their words, but them.

The Count begs for forgiveness.

The Countess replies, and as she does, we cannot help but imagine that, through all the pain the Count has caused her, the Countess cannot forgive him - how can she? How can she, even though she loves him? Indeed, because she loves him, how can she forgive him for this, the betrayal of their covenant?

But she does. She forgives him.

Is this not everything we want in life?