Monday, April 14, 2014

Mad Men Seaon Seven: Week One

 mad men poster season 7
I don't plan on doing a week by week recap of the new Mad Men season, but I did want to get a few scattered thoughts down about last night's season premiere. I'm not going to go into the background of each character I mention, so I will admit that if you're not interested in Mad Men you might not be interested in reading on.

As has been the trend the last couple of years, the end of the previous season gives hints to what's going to happen in the future, with the new season beginning with a bit of a reset. Last summer saw a more open and honest Don Draper, whose marriage to Megan was over, ready to come to grips with his past and choose an actual identity. Last night saw Don and Megan still together, though "bi-coastal" and still strained. He's still in New York on paid leave from SC&P, though Megan doesn't know this little detail, what with her move to L.A. to pursue an acting career. Don is also clandestinely pitching copy to his firm by way of Freddy Rumson, still working as a freelancer. So much for the open and honest Don Draper/Dick Whitman.

Some honesty does come through by way of an encounter with a mysterious woman (played by Neve Campbell) on the red eye back east. Don finds himself next to a young widow who is obviously interested, but instead of going in for the "kill" he backs off, admitting that he's pretty much a dirty stomp around whose made a mess of yet another marriage and his wife knows it.  Don has these moments of truth every so often, but they never stopped him for being, well, Don. But he does pull back on the throttle, maybe because he wants to stay focused on getting back in the ad game, maybe because he does want to salvage his marriage, probably a little bit of both.

Along with Don, most of the old cast of characters are dealing with changes that they sought, or at least brought on themselves, and are suffering because of them. Ken Cosgrove wanted out of the pressures of Detroit and GM, but feels overwhelmed in his new position at the New York office. Ted Chaough wanted a clean break from New York to get away from the temptations of Peggy Olson, but the move to L.A. has been rough. Roger Sterling is moving deeper into a hedonistic lifestyle that seems to be leaving him with more of a constant hangover instead of the intended perpetual high.

Since they went with a standard 47 minute premiere instead of the double episode kickoffs of seasons 5 and six, many characters are left out or just mentioned in passing, but the only one who seems happy is the perpetually sour and grasping Pete Campbell. His move to the West Coast was an unwelcomed demotion remember, but he's tan, rested and content. He waxes poetic about a trip to client Tropicana's orange groves and the wonders of nature, and he means it; very un-Pete like. Maybe the lesson is that the blessings in life sometimes come when we let go and let things happen instead of trying to run after things we think will make us happy.

I admit that I do catch up on the post broadcast on-line commentary, and some of it is very good. I especially recommend the Orange Couch on You Tube. I don't always agree with their analysis, and they are pretty much coming from a left leaning politically correct sensibility, but they are good at picking up the overall themes and subtle undertones that come through by way of the 1960's pop culture references producer Matthew Weiner throws in. Last season the big buzz revolved around a series of Sharon Tate, Rosemary's Baby references that were meant to bring to mind the Manson Family murders. They came to nothing, but I was surprised that only one commentator I read this morning noticed that Megan is living in the "Hills" near the "Canyon:" where the murders took place. No one noticed Peggy Olson conspicuously flashing a Folger's coffee can around, making sure the label faced the camera. Abigail Folger, heiress to the coffee fortune, was murdered in the same rampage that took Sharon Tate's life in August of 1969 (we begin season 7 in January of that year). Ordinarily I would agree that sometimes a coffee can is just a coffee can, but Wiener and company are obsessive about such minute touches, and have made conspiracy theorist of all us hard core viewers. We'll see if this is a real hint of future events or just a tease.

I'll be back with more in a few weeks after we get a couple of episodes under our belts.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Moment Before You Want More: Happiness is the Truth? Part 3


 “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? Mt. 16:24-26

And did they get you to trade / Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees? / Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change? / And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage? 

"Wish you Were Here," Roger Waters, David Gilmore


The last few posts have been dedicated to the theme of happiness. To recap a bit, we can see that happiness comes in two basic forms: the first is a habitual state that doesn't come and go with passing moods that we can call blessedness. The second is a transitory state linked to physical or emotional comfort that we can call contentment. Both are good things, but our contemporary culture has tended to reduce the concept of happiness to the second kind. To be truly happy in a deep, profound way we need to know ourselves, know what is of true value, what our place in the world is and not allow ourselves to the shaken by the passing emotional storms of life. The self reflection needed to do this is not easy to accomplish in today's consumeristic culture that teaches us to find meaning in the material, passing fashions of life as opposed to any unchanging truth. 

To make it clear, I'm not saying that seeking contentment is bad. Both blessedness and contentment are good, only that contentment is good in a more limited way. If we are only concerned with our own comfort we can become blinded to the realities of life that may include a great deal of hidden beauty as well as injustices and pain. By focusing so closely on ourselves we run the risk of living shallow, meaningless lives. Dr. Peter Kreeft, who we talked about in the first installment, spoke about the Beatitudes, and how Jesus took our prevailing notion of happiness and turned it on its head. We do not associate poverty or mourning with happiness or blessedness, but Jesus does. We do not associate the struggle for justice with contentment, and nor should we, but we should connect it with blessedness, because those who engage in the struggle often find a peace beyond mere contentment. This is not a purely Christian idea; there are secular thinkers who would say similar things.

When I was an undergrad we learned about Abraham Maslow and his theory of self actualization. According to him self actualized people were those who developed and used their talents and abilities to the highest degree possible, thus becoming truly fulfilled in life. He identified certain basic needs people needed to meet, like eating and sleeping, as well higher needs like fostering healthy relationships and developing self esteem. But the highest needs involved things like problem solving skills and acceptance of reality as it is. Only then could we use our gifts to effect positive change in the world. I remember In our psychology text book there was a photo montage of people who Maslow believed had reached that level of of self actualization. Prominently featured were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, two men who suffered much and were murdered for their efforts to fight for justice and peace. Yet one could argue that they were happy men in the deepest sense of the word, even though they were far from content. How can this be so?

There is a certain peace that comes when you know that you're "doing the right thing." And I don't think you have to be a civil rights leader or father of your country to experience that peace. You may have to endure many "ordinary" trials and heartaches but the true measure of happiness comes not in the middle of the journey of life, or in the midst of a particular struggle, but at the end. Maslow spoke of the many "peak moments" that the self-actualized person experiences in life, but I'm not so sure. I think we don't always know how peak those important moments are until we look back. I know people who have cared for loved ones during terminal illnesses. As the person's condition worsens and the task becomes more difficult the caregiver can have his or her patience strained and their faith is tested. These are far from what we would normally call peak moments. Then there are the final days and hours of dealing with the reality that the one they love is passing away. But when it does come to an end, and the initial mourning has passed, there can be a feeling of peace amid the sadness, a peace born of looking back and understanding the fact that they did the right thing by their loved one, and their is no greater peak moment than that.

To wrap up the topic, I would say that in general the pursuit of contentment as the main goal of life actually leads to great unhappiness. This is because we can place a great deal of value in things that really don't last. Whether we are talking about material goods or even our physical strengths, we have to understand that they all fail eventually. When they do we search for the new and different that will fulfill us, and it never really does. We have lost touch with deeper realities, spiritual realities that bring life true meaning.

Today we don't really value spiritual things, but have placed our collective hearts on the material. Since we have stopped really believing in Heaven or Hell we see all we have to win or lose as being stored in our attic and basement. We see the peak moments of life as associated with adrenaline rushes or buying the latest gadget. When illness or age makes us unable to do what we once did, despair can set in. Rather than seeing suffering as redemptive and expiating, both for our own sins and the sins of the world, because we have bought into the idea that there are no sins nor a Communion of Saints in which to share spiritual goods, trials are to be avoided at all costs. The only solution then is to treat the ones we love, or even ourselves, like we would a favored pet and put them to sleep. 

But there are many euthanasias we have embarrassed in life, from abortion to substance abuse, that we turn to to either throw away "mistakes" or numb the pain that comes from meaninglessness. While we have to be careful not to judge an individual's motivation, the wide spread acceptance or prevalence of both by society, as well as of consumerism and sexual license, are signs that we crave escapes from responsibility and reality more than true fulfillment. But when it's all over we will have to ask if the short term pleasures we chose were worth the deep blessedness we passed up.

What Christ offers us is not easy. He doesn't say we will be dancing joyfully 24 hours a day down the street. Jesus loved wedding receptions and dinners with all sorts of people, so I don't imagine him to be a puritan. At the same time he offers us the Cross first and foremost. This is the the only path to true peace now, and happiness in Eternity.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It's Toasted: Happiness is the Truth? Part 2

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.--
Don Draper, Mad Men: Season One, Episode One: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 

When I say there's going to be a part two of a particular post that's usually the clear sign that there isn't going to be one. But I guess I did have more to say on the topic of happiness. Here I connect our contemporary conception of happiness with consumerism and offer the spirit of detachment as the antidote.

The last time out I wrote about happiness by way of a Peter Kreeft lecture and Pherrell Williams song. The basic premise is that what we call happiness denotes a temporary, subjective state of contentment as opposed to the deeper Christian understanding of blessedness as a permanent state that transcends moods or passing states of physical comfort. Dr. Kreeft makes a point that the Ancient Greeks had two words for happy that covered these respective ideas, but we have reduced it to the one related to a transitory, subjective condition.

This is important because we speak a lot about being happy in life, and how this is the standard by which we judge if we are moving in the right direction or not. If we aren't happy then that's a sign that we're either not in the right school, the right job or even the right romantic relationship and need to get out of where we are. Certainly feeling emotionally uncomfortable, stressed or empty is a clear sign that something is wrong, and that maybe a change of scenery is in order. Or maybe the change needs to come from inside of ourselves. There are people who jump from job to job or from one partner to another and after the initial novelty wears off they're back to feeling bored, empty and stressed. Because the focus is on the feeling of being happy as the standard of what is true we paradoxically can fail to really look inside of ourselves honestly, automatically assuming that the people or situation around us is the cause of our lack of contentment. If we are to be honest our consumerist culture doesn't help us any in the department of being self critical.

I'm not going to get into a big debate about the relative merits or lack there of of capitalism (I happen the think its taken an unfair beating of late). But there is no denying that a negative byproduct of modern capitalism is a consumerist mentality that reduces us to consumers of goods as opposed to people who use goods. We consume food and water because we can't live without these things, quite literally. While the computer I'm writing on makes this communication and it's posting to the Internet possible, and my life a lot easier, I will live to see another day if it crashes and I can't get my hands on another. Would I be content with the situation? Of course not. My hope though is that my self image or feeling of worth as a human being would not be effected by such an occurrence.

Consumerism ties our self worth, and our idea of happiness, to what we own. It tells us that we can't be truly contented in the depths of our heart without a particular car, or the latest electronic devise or the hottest new look. It focuses us on our selves, and in many cases creates needs we often wouldn't even consider wants if they weren't presented to us in a manipulative way. Goods are no longer products we use when we need them for practical reasons, but objects of desire that we project our self image and self worth onto. They become what defines us, even for only a moment. Next week, next month or next year we will be on to the "next big thing" that will bring our life meaning, or so we think. The last big thing is thrown away, whether we might be able to get some more use out of it or not because it's simply not the latest.

Consumerism can also be pandering. It really doesn't want us to examine our selves or the reality around us. It anesthetizes our conscience so that we will keep on this never ending cycle of consuming, throwing away and consuming more, without much thought to whether it's actually in our best interest.

In the very first episode of Mad Men Don Draper struggles to come up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes. It's 1960 and the government is already putting limits on the claims tobacco companies can make regarding their product's healthfulness in light of emerging research to the contrary. After almost losing the client Don does his usual quick thinking and comes up with the "It's Toasted" tag line (in real life this had been their slogan for decades). When he's informed that all tobacco is toasted, he replies, "No. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike's is toasted." With one simple phrase he evokes the feeling of wholesomeness and comfort, and no government agency or consumer protection group can accuse him of misrepresenting the truth because all tobacco is indeed toasted.

Consumerism is indifferent to consequences. It doesn't judge. As the quote above tells us, it is here to reassure us that whatever our activities or habits are, we are a good people. So keep on going the way you are going, don't change habits, just change brands.

Now, I'm Catholic, which means that I appreciate and value the material world. Genesis tells me that creation is good, and that God even called it "very good," after beholding all that He had made. I believe that God uses material things to communicate His grace through the Sacraments. So this is not a matter of judging material possessions as bad and spiritual ones as good. But it is saying that material possessions are only good in as much as they help us to fulfill our vocation in life. Don Bosco, who was well known for his frugality, spared no expense to buy the best printing press available for the Oratory so he could train his students and print his books and pamphlets. It's this spirit of discerned indifference, or detachment, that separates a consumer of goods from a person who uses material things as they are needed.

By keeping this spirit of detachment from material things we can judge better what is of true value, what is really necessary to our lives and what is superfluous. Detachment helps us see that our worth as human beings is not tied to our possessions but to the fact that we are simply human beings. Detachment helps sharpen our critical sense; since we understand that we really don't need things to be fulfilled we aren't as likely to be taken in by false claims and deceptive practices that try to convince us otherwise.

There is another dimension that I haven't developed as fully as I would have liked: the moral neutrality of consumerism's promotion of a transitory happiness. That will have to wait for another day. So, no promises, but don't be surprised if there is a part three somewhere down the road.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happiness is the Truth?

 Pharrell Williams - Happy (2013) - 1200x1200
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do 
-Happy Pharrell Williams 

I've had this post on the topic of happiness bouncing around my head for almost a year, since I saw a You Tube video by Peter Kreeft speaking on subject. As sometimes happens, time passes and new topics become more urgent and posts like this get put on hold. But, for what ever reason, the time seems right to finally get down to tackling the subject.

Dr. Kreeft makes the observation that in Christian thought, borrowing and building upon the Ancients, blessedness is what matters most as opposed to happiness. He sets up happiness as being analogous with contentment; a passing, subjective reality, where as blessedness implies some objective state that persists in spite of the mood we are in at a given moment. Lou Gehrig, the baseball player whose untimely death was caused by a disease that would later bear his name, called himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He was able to do this because he saw the many blessings he had received in his life, even though it would be hard to imagine that he was very content with his plight at the moment the words were spoken.

We place a great importance on happiness, the pursuit of which is among the basic rights enumerated by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence. As Dr. Kreeft implies, this is not a trivial or unimportant thing. The Baltimore Catechism famously states that we were made by God to be happy. But not necessarily to be happy here and now. St. Bernadette was told by the Blessed Mother that she could not promise the Seer of Lourdes happiness in this life, only in the next. Even so, we would all agree I think, as does Dr. Kreeft, that happiness, even if only thought of as freedom from physical, psychological or emotional discomfort is not a meaningless or unimportant thing. But is happiness, defined as a subjective state of contentment, really the purpose of our life here, and the thing that will bring us the greatest sense of fulfillment in the long run?

If you don't believe that we tend to reduce happiness to subjective, passing emotions or material security, we only have to look to the recent hit single Happy by Pharrell Williams. I'm not here to hate on Pherrell or anything like that; it's an infectiously catchy, beat driven number that makes the most of a rather minimalist, almost a cappella arrangement. Plus he gives a soulful vocal performance some have compared to the late Curtis Mayfield. More than the words, the video brings home this notion of happiness being a subjective state of mind. The four minute version is made up of quick cuts taken from, what bills itself as, the first twenty-four hour long form music video. For the most part we see clips of individuals dancing through the streets of Los Angeles along to the song, cheerfully oblivious to the world around them. Some dance really well, others have two left feet and clap awkwardly out of rhythm. But you know what; they're all happy because they know what happiness means to them, or so the song goes. And as it also states, happiness is the truth, so how can they be wrong?

I did not watch anywhere near one hour, let alone the entire 24 hours, of the long version, which focuses on individuals dancing along in "real time," so maybe I missed something. As I wrote, most people hop, skip and jump along solo; sometimes they are in pairs. But each is in his or her own universe. Some time is spent on a school bus, but rather than having a group dance, each person dances one at a time to the song in its entirety while the others sit indifferently in their seats. One young man is shown dancing along the streets in the wee hours, and actually tries to get a bystander to join in, but only gets an annoyed, "who cares" shrug.

There are numerous celebrity cameos in the video, but the one that really hit me was Magic Johnson's. He's smiling and up beat, which is par for the course for the hoops legend. In the course of his appearance he makes clear what happiness means to him; his big house, his NBA titles, along with the hardware that comes along with them (if you're not a sports fan, I mean trophies and championship rings). He points to them, along with his cars and swimming pool as he dances around his estate singing (OK, lip syncing) about how happy he is. Again, I'm not knocking the Magic Man; he earned everything he has, and is involved with numerous charities. But I am critiquing the video, and the message is clear; happiness is not just a subjective state of mind, but linked to our material possessions.

The Christian message is that while happiness is important, it's not everything. Jesus in the Beatitudes turns on its head any notion of true happiness as connected with material or worldly values (this is Dr. Kreefts main point). What I would add is that true, deep, lasting happiness can not be linked to the material or to mood because these things either pass, are lost, break, or become out dated and obsolete. The desire for them can make us blind to the needs of others, oblivious to the world around us, and the reason we have been blessed in certain ways to begin with.

We heard the reading about Lazarus and the Rich Man the other day at Mass. There is no doubt in my mind that the Rich Man, who ate sumptuously everyday, died as he had lived; a happy man. Yet he found himself in Hell because he lived to satisfy his appetites as opposed to seeking first the Kingdom of God, and righteousness. He had been truly blessed in his life, but was so caught up his own contentment he couldn't even see the starving man on his doorstep.

I'm going to end off here. This is the point at which I promise a part two that rarely comes. But I do have more to say, and it's linked to Mad Men, a show I write about a lot that will be coming back for a final season soon. Until then, keep on dancing, but try to find some partners.