Friday, October 31, 2008

A Tidbit of Terror for Halloween

The annual night of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties is the time to talk about terror. Not the political kind, the personal kind.

I’ve experienced the usual doses of fear: we sailed through the tail end of hurricane on the Schooner Appledore, and I was afraid for most of it; fear of the first day of high school; I got lost once as a child, and that was real fear; fear of finding out something terrible about a boyfriend; all day on Sept. 11.

But I only experienced terror once.

What is terror?

In philosophical terms, it ends up in the same discussion as the sublime. Not what I would have thought.

From Edmund Burke’s essay “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” of 1757, [where “terrible” means “of terror"]:

“whatever is in any sort terrible,…is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

In terms of power, I agree with him. The sheer magnitude of terror is part of what sets it apart from fear.

Ann Radcliffe, the queen of the Gothic novel, wrote an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry” written in 1826, where she said that terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Sure, if you call not being able to breathe a “high degree of life.”

My moment of terror came, of all places, in a nightmare, and it came in the form of sound. Deafening, terrifying, sickening sound.

In the dream I am in the house I grew up in, in my brother’s old room, which is the room I often stay in as an adult when I visit.

I am asleep, in bed. I wake up and I hear a deafening clanging sound, which for some reason I know is 1,000 ton doors that are slamming down into the street outside. The smashing sound was ear splitting, the weight of the doors terrifying itself. I could feel the weight of tons of steel in the sound—and they just kept smashing down into the street.

(It doesn’t make sense that there would be large, garage-door like doors falling in the street, but it was a nightmare, it doesn’t have to make sense.)

I was terrified by the sound—I “knew” that it meant something extremely dangerous. More dangerous than words can articulate. The sound displaced all the air in the room. It was so suffocating that I woke up gasping for air: I was in full terror. It took hours for my reason to regain control of my terrified emotions—to understand that I was still in my home, safe—and a full day for the effect of the terror to wear off.

As Ann and Edmund explain, terror has the factor of ambiguity, of not knowing.

Burke again: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

In the dream, I never got out of bed. I didn’t go to the street to see what was going on, it was all in the sound that was paralyzing me.

The terror was so deep that I went to a psychiatrist to try to learn what it was, what did the sound signify? Unfortunately, the Irish-in-therapy-issue kicked in, and I didn’t learn much.

It’s never been repeated. I hope it never will. Life is scary enough on a general basis without the need for the overdrive of the sublime in the fear department.

Happy Halloween everyone! Pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

“How Long Is a Piece of String?” Lou Dorsfman, 1918 to 2008

Lou Dorfsman died last week. He was a legend in the world of graphic design for having designed “every aspect of the Columbia Broadcasting Company’s advertising and corporate identity, including the set of Walter Cronkite’s newsroom and the typographically elegant sign system for CBS’s New York headquarters, known as Black Rock,” as his ample NY Times obituary says.

Michael Beirut has written an elegant post that summarizes Lou’s career achievements in "The Four Lessons of Lou Dorfsman.”

I knew a more flesh and blood side of the man. I was a young associate editor at The Museum of Broadcasting, which had been founded by William S. Paley 1975, when Lou came to oversee the publications after he retired from CBS in 1991.

For the first few years we worked together Lou used the talents of a cadre of designers who had worked for him at CBS and then gone on to set up their own studios. I developed the editorial for exhibition catalogues or screening schedules that we needed, and Lou worked his magic. That process was thrilling to be a part of.

“How long is a piece of string?” is my favorite of his many in-process lines. He said it to our client whenever they were asking for specifics about costs for a project that was just in the brainstorming stage. Something can be anything. It’s the creative challenge to find out what it should be. “M.A., when are you going to go get a real job?” was another line he said, a lot. More about that later.

But what was most distinct about working with Lou was . . . it was FUN! We laughed and laughed over things big and small. He was enjoying being retired from a high-pressured job, and I was too young to worry. We were the perfect partners. His Zorba-like spirit for living filled the office. He was irreverent, funny, boisterous, cantankerous, smooth, polished, charismatic. He loved his community of designers and embraced the knowing spirit that binds those who demand good typography together into a band of brothers.

And they were all men. Lou was from a gender-specific time in big-time design. He didn’t apologize for it and he didn’t’ defend it. There was a raunchy side to his humor, which sparked and crackled when he was with the brethren but was willingly stifled by a sense of decorum around women (or at least around me).

It’s a shame that Matt Weiner never met Lou Dorfsman: the Lou-gene is completely missing from his Mad Men and they are a bloodless, one-dimensional lot in comparison.

For ten years we worked closely, as his loyalty to William S. Paley meant he was going to continue to keep an eye on Paley's museum venture. He could be a very warm colleague, as he followed the vicissitudes of my dating with interest and advice. He loved to go out to lunch with the publications staff-—he was interested and engaged in everything.

One day, for no particular reason, he gave me a copy of the book about his career, Dorfsman & CBS, with this inscription, “To Dear M.A., Talented, hard working, underpaid . . .a delight to be in her company as an associate and friend-—all best wishes and here’s to a rewarding big career” Lou Dorsfman

It turned out that the piece of string we worked on together was long enough to turn into something "real" for me. It’s cliché to say “he taught me everything I know” but that doesn’t make it untrue.

I can’t match the professional accomplishments, but when things get needlessly grim in the office, I think about his ebullient spirit, and Bronx street kid sense of fight, and insist we all lighten up. For me, that's the best part of his legacy. The Gastrotypographicalassemblage (pictured above) is very nice too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live Blogging Mad Men: Crisis Management 101

It is possible to undergo a profound crisis involving non-ordinary experiences and to perceive it as pathological or psychiatric when in fact it may be more accurately and beneficially defined as a spiritual emergency. -- Stanislav Grof

The end of season two of Mad Men finds us all in crisis.

Crisis. It’s a very powerful and distinct word in the English language. It’s married to certain other words: the Cuban Missile Crisis (more about that later), the Energy Crisis of the seventies, the Savings & loan crises of the eighties, today’s Wall Street Crisis, the generic midlife crisis and spiritual crisis.

As we prepare to leave Don and the gang at Sterling Cooper, this is what we find:

Betty is in crisis from being forced to acknowledge Don’s cheating; Roger’s crisis is the classic midlife variety, with a woman younger than his daughter; Freddy Rumsen’s is the crisis of midlife unemployment; Pete Campbell has had several, from the death of his father to that of elusive parenthood; Joan’s is the most horrific--sickening proof her fiancé’s abusive nature—and not running from it.

And then there’s Don.

Don has finally been thrown out of his marriage by Betty, and while on the run in LA, he watches an aerospace presentation that portends the potential for Doomsday. There’s nothing like the reality of nuclear warheads to call attention to the meaning of your life.

From there, Don joins the Euro-grifters in Palm Springs, where he spends a lot of time lying down. In the final scene, he is nearly naked as a new-born babe, when Dick Whitman calls the first Mrs. Draper. This begins a series of flashbacks and present-day confusion, as he continues to be Dick Whitman, until he wanders into the ocean, either as Norman Maine, or as a seeker looking for the cleansing water of baptism.

Don is a living identify crisis-—not something you often see on television. I have vague memories of some characters in the seventies saying things like “I don’t know who I am” (oddly enough, Karen Valentine from Room 222 is popping into my head here, as is Ellen from Thirtysomething), but nothing that compares to the turmoil in Don’s borrowed soul.

I knew a priest who once told me that all crises after 30 are spiritual. (I was 26 at the time, but it still seemed reasonable.) And so it is that Don’s crisis is deeper than identity, it’s spiritual.

In today’s self-help language, it might be called a spiritual emergency. There are many blogs with personal transformation stories, like this one:

“I am an individual who has undergone a transformative experience that in this culture and setting would be identified as psychosis or schizophrenic. Other cultures and settings have other names for the same experience: kundalini awakening, shamanism, mysticism, gnosis, the psychotic-visionary episode, the dark night of the soul, ego death, the alchemical process, positive disintegration, post traumatic stress disorder with psychotic features, spiritual emergency, etc.”

I don’t know if Weiner knowingly tapped into this world of transpersonal psychology, or if he just had the creative idea of a man who takes another’s identity, and then plotted what he thought would be the emotional fallout from that. Either way, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency is an interesting touchstone.

As for the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis: there’s very little I can say about that. My parents, who both worked for Pfizer, sold a considerable amount of Pfizer stock when the market tanked in the uncertainty, and for one reason or another they didn’t get back in. The way they always spoke of it, I would have been a Pfizer heiress if the missile crisis hadn’t happened.

It’s art imitating life, all around.

You don’t want to miss the last live blogging of the season with Tom Watson and myself. Sunday night, 10:00 ET at newcritics.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Entry-to-the-World Day

I’m sending me and all my fellow celebrants this bouquet of autumnal flowers, and some October-love from the poets.

Today’s celebrants include Samuel Coleridge, Dizzey Gillespies, Carrie Fisher, Elvin Bishop, Manfred Mann, Ursula K. Le Guin, Whitey Ford, Patrick Kavanagh, Peter Graves, George Solti, Malcolm Arnold, Alfred Nobel, Alfonse de Lamartine. UPDATE: And Olivia on Fringe.

Pretty good company.

Well, it's a marvelous night for a Moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
'Neath the cover of October skies

Van Morrison, Moondance

October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night

Ted Hughes, October Dawn

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled

Robert Frost, October

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mad Men: EST, aka Even Suckers Transform

When we last saw Don, he was in the glow of sunlight through the window of DC8 on his way to Los Angeles to get away from his domestic travails. It’s the primal tactic of flight when fight doesn’t work. Good old running away. After the week we have witnessed, we should all be so lucky if we could escape from our economic travails by a geographical shift.

The most we can do is visit our fictional world of choice, where our hero is sitting on a jet plane. Hmm. An East Coast man, who is dissatisfied with his life with his wife and children and who has a penchant for reinventing himself, is heading out to California. Real-world thoughts start seeping in, and Werner Erhard pops into my head.

Why is that? Let’s see. John Paul Rosenberg was a used car salesman born in Philadelphia. He married and had 4 children before he decided he didn’t want that life. He went cross country with another woman, and reinvented himself as Werner Erhard in St. Louis. The Erhards bounced around the country for 10 years, but of course the important date is in 1971 when Werner held the first Est weekend in San Francisco after he created a personal empowerment program by putting multiple world philosophies into a cuisinart and turning it on high. Rosenberg/Erhard is a tale that would have much resonance for Whitman/Draper, the time shifting notwithstanding.

Rosenberg/Erhard actually relied heavily on an earlier work by Napoleon Hill called Think and Grow Rich, which came out in 1937 and which Dick/Don could have been familiar with. He certainly is acquainted with its three main principles: every achievement begins with an idea; plans call for their implementation and; what you think is what you do.

Don is a unique character on television in that reinvention of himself. We’ve met characters with 2 identities: Bruce Wayne/ Batman; Tony Soprano, suburban Dad/Mafia boss; Samantha Stevens, housewife/witch; Christian Slater now topping all that, with Henry/Edward.

But I believe Don is unique on our tv landscape in the very serious business of opportunistically shedding your identity and assuming another man’s life. It has dark undertones of metaphorical cannibalism, twinged with that most modern of nihilism: Don’s mask brings him no happiness.

But that’s depressing, and who can be depressed when we will all be visiting LaLa land together.

Stop by newcritics on Sunday night when Tom Watson and I will forget about the stock market long enough to feel Don’s pain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

QQF: Looking on the "Brite Side" of Wisgeuy

I was a fan of Stephen Cannell’s Wiseguy from the very beginning. I don’t know what made me start watching it back in 1987 when it debuted as a lead in to Knots Landing, amid a landscape that included Matlock, thirtysomething, and Beauty and the Beast. But Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) and Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Starkey) were a flash of something cool and dangerously homoerotic with none less than the Moody Blues as their soundtrack. Next came Mel “the toes know” Profitt with an unknown Kevin Spacey and I officially entered fandom.

An offhand reference to the Steelgrave arc by a colleague got me thinking about the series other great arc—Dead Dog Records. He kindly brought me DVDs from his own collection, and a bout with the flu gave me the time to watch them.

It was great to watch the arc as a continuous piece. The cast is even more fabulous than I remember: Glenn Fry, Paul McCrane, Deidre Hall, Paul Winfield, Patti D’arbanville, and the real stars, Debbie Harry and Tim Curry.

The arc follows the music business as Vinnie resuscitates a bankrupt label. Deborah Harry plays a washed up singer trying to make a comeback, and Tim Curry is the evil record producer Winston Newquay. She was cutting the album Def, Dumb, and Blonde at the time and released the single “Brite Side” through the episode. It’s hard to reconcile the current Spamalot Curry with the FrankNFurter Curry who could sing a searing version of “Sloe Gin.” But that’s the great cheap thrill about this time machine: Tim Curry here still has the mystique of endless nights lived close to the edge.

Glenn Fry gets some great lines that as a rocker he can put across:

Vinnie: “What’s out in Jersey?”
Travis: “The graveyard of the industrial revolution and the toddlers of rock n roll.”

There are lots of delicious high points: Ken Wahl himself, the Chris Noth of an earlier generation who, alas, never met a Carrie Bradshaw; Deidre Hall and Debbie Harry flaunting full 80’s regalia in a Dynasty-inspired cat fight; Mick Fleetword as a music superstar who likes air hockey and pastrami.

The arc had one of the great fake-outs in tv history. Newquay on a jail cot, disturbs his cell mate who was sleeping under it. A tall, menacing black guy snarls at the petite Tim, then gets in his face. It looks like Winston is finally going to get some karmic payback. Then the guy asks if he is WN, and he starts singing "Soul Man." Curry looks shocked, horrified, relieved, and then joins in, perfunctorily at first, and then letting it rip.

Tim Curry had two more memorable scenes: dancing on the grave of his competitor Isaac, dressed as Fred Astaire humming “Lullaby of Broadway,” when Isaac’s recorded voice yells “Gotcha”; and then in full leather Elvis, in his office in front of a mirror, singing as he descends into madness. And for just a few seconds on prime-time tv, there’s a flash of authentic Curry and the dark side.

Be bop a lula, she's my baby
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby,
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll

Friday, October 3, 2008

From Photojournalism to Changing Philanthropy: Signs of Sanity

Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.
Edward Steichen, Time, Apr 7, 1961

A spirit in my feet said 'go', and I went.
Matthew Brady, on why he photographed the Civil War.

In the ongoing revolution of instant information-—now led by ireporters with cell phones and bloggers around the globe following the last generation’s innovation of 24/7 news-—the question of the place or need for the traditional photojournalist can arise.

Photojournalists are generally employed by MSM to cover an event. They are credentialed and given access to get close to their subjects in beats like campaigns or the White House. They work sources when covering events in foreign countries to learn how to get to where the action really is.

Their product-—the image-—can seem quiet in such a noisy, frenetically moving age.

Until . . . you see the piece of art in person. Then you will be dazzled at the power of the amazing feat that freezes an image and keeps it still.

I don’t often tout things going on at the day job, but there is an exhibit at The Paley Center for Media called “The Power of Elections: A Tribute to Photojournalism” that is really worth seeing.

Cocurated with the International Center for Journalists, it shows election-related images from Haiti, Poland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezula, Ukraine, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and our own race for the White House. Each of the world-class photographers has captured “the moment” that tells an entire story. Beyond the historical significance, they are pieces of art. Taken all together, it really is dazzling.

And, beyond seeing them in person, the ICFJ is auctioning them off to raise money for its various programs. Each photo is signed by the photographer. You can bid for them on a site called BiddingforGood. You can get there from the ICFJ homepage. I’m bidding on one of the images of Hillary Clinton.

BiddingforGood is a great site. Many small nonprofits and churches use it to raise money. From their FAQ: " is a community that brings together cause-conscious consumers and organizations looking to raise funds to support their missions."

I’m going to do my Christmas shopping there this year. Rather than buying family gifts for people who really don’t need anything that can fit in a box, I’m going to take that money and bid on random things from small churches and organizations.

And, in one of the unexpected intersections in life, I found this site, because of the exhibit, just as I started reading Tom Watson’s book CauseWired, which looks at how the web, and social networking in particular, is changing philanthropy. And there I was actually participating in this new wave, rather than just reading about it.

I love when the universe makes sense, however briefly.

Photos, top to bottom, all being auctioned.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Campaigning in Portland, Oregon, 1966; Photographer: David Hume Kennerly

Voting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2006
Photographer: Lynsey Addario

Hillary Clinton's Farewell Address, Washington, D.C., 2008
Photographer: Barbara Kinney

Bhutto's Last Stand, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2007
Photographer: John Moore