Something to live up to

I’ve just caught up wit the final episode of the most recent season of Mad Men. Something about it made me ache.

Don is near breaking point. His past haunts him. Aspects of his life have spiralled out of control. His daughter despises him. And there’s some self-contempt in him.

In many ways he appears the same in-control Don Draper, still the strong, often brusque personality. But there are signs too. The frequent absences. The reliance on alcohol, and the shaking hand when he tries to give it up. Then there is the unexpected admission to Hershey’s about his past as it becomes too much. He is enveloped in the past he cannot escape – and so he returns to it, as we see in the last scene of the show.

One of the things I always liked about Don Draper is that he is the best. That’s what a lot of people like about him I think. He personifies an ideal. He’s the Madison Avenue creative director admired, respected and occasionally feared. He knows he’s good. That’s a big part of his personality. He’s been driven to become this person in an attempt, we learn throughout the series, to blot out, overcome, or usurp a past he has lied about and is ashamed of. That’s his big, dark secret that he bulldozes by being Don Draper. He’s numero uno, and everything is secondary to that.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. And that’s why the show is so compelling, and why I relate so closely to it. I don’t have that dark secret. But I have the same desire to be the best, not something close to it. And to partner it I have a bunch of my own flaws I have to attend to. Talented, but complex.

As I sit and watch shows like this thoughts slide through my mind. I find myself conjecturing, wondering, feeling at the same time as things unfold on screen. In shows like Mad Men I see so much that reflects back to me. It’s different things at different times, but put together it adds up to something. Today it was the insight about Don needing to be the best. I understood that. A desire like that becomes an attribute of personality. It’s not just something you are, but something you can’t understand except in that one way. In all honesty I don’t see any other point but trying to be the best. Perhaps that’s easy for me to say. I have the wherewithal to be good. If it’s in my capability to slam dunk, why lay up? Rephrase then. Why would you not what to be the best you can be? What point to life other than that?

That’s all very valid, but to get to the nub of someone like Don Draper, and me, being the best we can be is secondary I think to being the best, full stop. There’s a quantitative measure there. Being an 8 is insufficient. We want to be leaders. 10 is it. We have to be more. You can figure out the fragile psychology of that for yourself.

That’s how I live, strange as it may be given my circumstances. I want to be superior. I say that to people in describing my aspirations and my capabilities, but I say it in lower case. I write it down, how important it is to over-deliver, to do it just as it should be. They’re clichés really, but in my case they’re true. That’s how I feel it. I can’t imagine settling for mediocrity. I want to squeeze every drop out, and I’m confident there’s a lot to be squeezed. You can say it’s ego, and I guess there is a fair dash of it, but it’s ego become philosophy. The overman.

How incongruous it is then, to be in the situation I’m in. Almost a mockery of all that. I swallow that lest I choke on it. I can wallow, or I can go on. I may not be the best now, but I can aspire to return to that again. It feels a part of who I am, or meant to be.

All this goes through my head, much quicker than I’ve written it here, but extrapolating from that starting point, and sensed as much as thought. That’s going through me and I’m watching the show with rapt attention and as I watch wisdom dawns on Don. For all he has, for all his achieved, for all the best he is, he’s failing. It’s moments like that which redeem him as a character, and bind us to him. His life is toxic for all the glitz and approbation. California beckons.

I almost sighed. It hit me, bang. How I knew that. Again. That’s my big mental out. Take off somewhere, reinvent myself, if nothing else works – which seems close to reality. Except I can’t really do that. I’d happily end up in some place like Tokyo or Amsterdam, except it’s unlikely, and doubly so because of the mutt. The best I can contemplate is a place in the bush or by the sea – and it is alluring.

Then it comes at me: have I been pitching myself at the wrong target? Don imagines a different life in the sunshine of the west coast, a smaller office, a new beginning. A break from what has been. That thought lingers in me. My inner eye searches, for wisdom, understanding. Have I led myself down these wrong paths because I could? Am I so competitive that whatever I turn to I need be best, or something like it, even if it is the wrong thing? To date that has been business of some sort. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Question mark. Maybe I’m just throwing myself at this because that’s what I’ve always done; and maybe because of my dad.

I’ve been good, but how many times have I thought that this is not what I’m made for? Though a lot of me gets used up, its always felt as if some of the best parts of me don’t get a look in. One day, I tell myself, and put it out of my mind. Anyway besides, this pays good, when it pays.

So suddenly the whole new leaf as a concept is in my head, like it is for Don. It intoxicates. Maybe I should just read the tea leaves I think, and move on. And if I have to move then to something more in sync with who I am today. I’m torn, but it’s something to think about.

The show ends. I wonder how I’m going to manage the time till the next series. I get up from the couch. I pour myself a Scotch – something of Don has rubbed off on me. I wander into the study to check my email and there I find an unexpected and interesting message. Someone has a proposal for me. They want me to join their association. I’m referred to as a “recognised leader in Business Process Re-Engineering industry in Asia-Pacific”. Hmm, I think. Really? And I’m back to square one.

The sins of the father…

Before I went on my travels, to Malaysia and then China, I made sure that I had set the iQ to record Mad Men in my absence. Mad Men is my favourite program on TV, and has been from the moment it began. It’s one of my all-time favourite TV programs. When I returned though I found I had no interest in watching it, and no real curiosity as to what I had missed.

After a few weeks I decided it was time I got back into it. There was no real desire to watch it still. I switched on rather because the episodes were piling up and I wanted to clear the backlog. I figured once I began watching again that the love of it would return to me.

That’s pretty much been the case. I’m still a few episodes behind, but I’m catching up fast. Some nights I watch episodes back to back so immersed I am in the program. It seems so familiar to me, though I went a whole year last year without it. It comes back on the small screen and I know exactly where I’m at.

I’ve written in the past of how I identify with Don Draper in certain aspects. I’m sure there are a lot of men out there who make the same claim, and probably in the same egoistic fashion as I did. Don Draper is the heart and soul of the show, the raison d’etre, and while I don’t doubt that he and I share some traits (as well as some perversities) it struck me the other night how much he reminds me of my dad.

My dad at the time of the show would have been about 10 years younger than the Don Draper character. Instead of working in advertising in Madison Avenue in NYC my dad was climbing the corporate ladder here in Melbourne – he was the precocious wunderkid and manager at 19. There are differences between my father and Don Draper, but as a type they are very similar.

Watching Mad Men in the last few days has had me picturing my old man in his environment at that time. No doubt it was much less glamorous and racy than is depicted on Mad Men, but the ambition and drive, the cut and thrust and getting-aheadness must have been very similar.

Even as a child I had the sense of my father as being aggressive, ambitious and driven. As with Don Draper I think he felt a sense of his self-proclaimed manifest destiny validated by the work he did, and the triumphs he experienced. My father had success after success, working himself up to CEO and MD before he was 40, and traveling around the world at different times doing deals and acquiring companies. As with Don Draper I think it’s fair to say that there was a strong individual identity to my father outside of the family group, and beyond all the other points of ordinary cultural reference. He was contained within himself in a way that may be seen as narcissistic and even selfish, but also must be recognised as essential to that person.

My father was, and remains, bold in certain ways, strong in self and blatantly determined. He was smart – smarter than most people – and knew it. As with Don Draper he was defined by his confidence and belief in self – to the point occasionally of arrogance, and even intimidation. Dark and handsome like Don Draper, I gather he was just as popular with the girls and equally as interested, though – as far as I know – without Don Draper’s serial philandering. Was my father driven to erase a stain in his past like Don Draper? Or was it all simply the fulfillment of self? I think likely the latter, but it’s hard to know with my father.

I guess in the light of all that it’s easy to understand why dad’s marriage to mum failed, though there was fault on both sides. It’s hard for me to shake the thought that his family – us – was only a part of his life. He loved us, but we did not give him the fulfillment his work did, at that time anyway. As his son I was somehow aware of that, and it affected my behaviour. My father back in those days seemed an incredibly impressive figure to me. He was strong, hard, masculine, formidable. I saw how other people viewed him, witnessed the respect and frequent deference. He was like a diamond, shiny and hard.

It’s easy for me to say that I shared many of his attributes, but from this vantage point I’m not sure if that’s true. Did I have them in me already, or did I acquire them in the contact – and inevitable conflict – with my father? In any case I know I wished to break through to him, to pierce that hard carapace and for him to admire me as I did him – bear in mind I was in my teens then. My method of doing that was to stand up to him. What I saw as an admirable rebellion he saw instead as a insolent insurrection. We clashed, and clashed hard.

That’s not really what I want to write about here, but rather is the background to what I’m about to say. If worth noting though that, if my analogy is true, then I am effectively the son of a Don Draper.

About 25 years ago dad gave all his corporate life away. It was hard to understand then, and even more so now. My parents had been divorced for nearly 10 years and my dad re-married for about 5. With his wife he decided to pick up their collective super and buy a motel in Narrandera on the road to Brisbane. He had done his homework and was famously hard working, but the venture failed. Dad was never free with the details, but I gather he lost everything and more, and was left with a deep deficit to recover.

I remember one day then calling him up from work. I guess the business was in receivership or similar, for it was another man who had answered. My father was not there at present, but this man – an administrator or similar I presume – opened up to me. He was full of admiration and respect for my father. He told how hard my father had worked to save the business, how much still he did to salvage all that he could. He did not complain or blame others. He knew he was in deep shit, but that was the way it was.

The kindness of strangers is always the hardest thing. I listened to the voice of this man so filled with an obvious respect that I became emotional. I loved my dad like I never had before. I remember the man said to me about dad, “he’s so tough,” he said, “but be there for him”. I saw him mighty still, though fallen. I knew it would be hard on him, less the practical loss than the moral. He would brush aside what happened as being done, he would, as I knew him so well, remain positive – but I thought inside somewhere deep he would feel this as an unexpected and unknown defeat. And in a way I felt it too.

There are many reasons I remember this now. There are strange parallels. Mostly I am reminded after a conversation I had by phone with dad the other day. For one of the few times ever he alluded to that time, and referenced how tough it was. We talked about how humbling such a thing is, and how you end up doing things you never thought you would, or even could, but now must. It was important, we agreed, to separate yourself from these things. You do what you must and swallow it, no point dwelling on that or the things that you cannot change. I recognised so much of that in my father as we spoke. You had to remain positive and keep looking ahead – one day things would change, and you have to believe it.

His disaster was 25 years ago. He recovered, though most of what he lost was lost forever. In time he entered the corporate arena again and once more climbed to the top. I never doubted that. Now he does his thing, and though he’s over 70 now he continues as he ever was, driven, fiercely intelligent, defiantly unbeaten. We all have stories, and that’s just a part of his.

Dad and I are alike in many ways, and very different in others. Some of the similarities are key, however, and at times like these come to the fore.