Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why I Like Mad Men

(Image courtesy of these folks)

Sometimes a peek at the past can show you just how far you've come, baby.

Like many of my pals, I've waited (and waited) for Mad Men to resume, and not just because I need to spend more time holding a remote. It's because Mad Men is a type of archeology for me. Mad Men's first season was set in 1961, the year I was born. As I've watched the series unfold, I am astonished to see things I remember in my mother and father: eye-opening things that have informed so many attitudes that I saw back then but didn't understand at all.

My family emigrated to the US from England in 1965. My mother became one of those pretty secretaries that could type like a demon. My dad was a blue collar guy, working in a tool shop making the molds that punch out all manner of plastic widgets. We made our way to California in 1966, and settled into suburbia in 1967. Dad bought a station wagon to tow the motor cycles he had started racing. Mom still preferred her Corvair. Dad gave up smoking before I was born because of a bout of TB, but Mom always had one in her hand - held just the way the Joan does in the show.

What I remember of the 60's is tinted pink with that hopeful feeling that the progress of the decade gave birth to. From the outside, our family looked good. When my folks split in 1971 I was utterly blindsided. While I know now that they weren't happy, watching Don and Betty split has been a revelation. I can see that, like Don, Dad didn't understand that his wife wasn't fulfilled in her roles as mother and secretary. He brought home a decent wage and thought it was enough. Mom, I found out later, wanted a more creative life. She noodled with writing children's stories, but never took it anywhere because it was so far out of the nurse/teacher/secretary mold that the 1960's offered her. She couldn't be Peggy because I was already here. She was stuck being Joan. And while she made sure she was really good at it, stuck was still stuck. And I didn't get how stuck that was until I saw Joan's excitement at being given creative work to do, and her crushing disappointment when it was taken away. If my mom had had the choice, I think she would have been a childless career woman. It really makes me appreciate the choices my generation has.

(As an aside, such moments in the show are raising my consciousness for the older battles of feminism so that I am armed for the ones we obviously have still to fight... but that's for a different day).

After the divorce, I went with Dad back to England, and he quickly remarried. He made sure that wife #2 was decent mother material, because, let's face it, that was her job and where he needed the help. Over the years he and I have gotten closer, but back then he was still the guy that came home for dinner and only really got involved when I ventured into "wait until your father comes home" territory. My teen years were turbulent, as all teen years are, but I can see now that the cultural shifts added to the tornadoes. Step-mom wanted me to be a secretary, like her. Dad wanted me to do something intellectual (he didn't get the chance to go for higher education). He told me I could have any dream that I was willing to work for, a pretty modern attitude. When I chose art, embracing that modern attitude and my cultural right, dammit, it wasn't what he had in mind.

Over the years, Dad and I have clashed about his some of his more misogynist, bigoted and racist views - things I knew were a product of his times, but the show has really brought those times into sharp, gasp-inducing focus. Did they really just say THAT? Yikes! Lucky me to have become aware in an age where second wave feminism was blossoming, and the immigrant migrations of many cultures was becoming commonplace. While we've made many peaces, neither Dad nor I are shy about having an opinion, and these days I can see how fast our culture changed between his 20s and mine, between the Beatles and Disco (and even faster between Disco and Grunge). For both of us, it has seemed such cruel fate at times that he ended up with such a strong willed daughter (although he must realize that I get it from him). And while I don't like that he hasn't kept up on the tolerance front on occasion, I get that his generation, despite being the architects of the rocket age, is still having trouble with the speed of how things change. Heck, my son is light years beyond me already, and I like to think I run pretty hard to be hip, even though I often fall short.

And so it's Sunday night, and Mad Men will be back shortly. I'm excited. Not only for some good storytelling, but for some more revelations. Thus far, it's been an unexpectedly profound way to relearn my personal history. More please!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bob's Your Uncle

My Uncle Bob passed away at 69 on December 30th 2011. What follows is an expanded version of the eulogy I wrote for his service (with a little clarifying detail for the American audiences).

“Bob’s your uncle.” As a child, I remember hearing this and interpreting it literally, thinking “Well, yes, he is.” It took a while for me to catch on to the more common translation of it meaning “there you have it.” Still, I always thought I was lucky when that phrase came up because, indeed, Bob was my uncle.

For those of you who don’t know, my Uncle Bob was quadriplegic. He had a motorcycle accident when I was a baby, one of those horrid twists of fate where the bike and a wet road had a difference of opinion. If he hadn’t been moved by a well meaning Samaritan his spinal injuries might have been resolvable – but alas, this was not the case. I never knew Bob out of his wheelchair, but really, it is hardly the thing that defines him for me. He was always so much more than his labels – as really, we all are.

My first really good memory of Bob comes from a visit to him when I was about 8 or 9 years old. He was on the old long term disabled unit at Stoke Mandeville (a top UK residential spinal injury center) and he was in bed. With a bunch of family trying to crowd into the tiny room, his wheelchair began to look pretty inviting as a place to sit. It was also something of great curiosity to a child who, despite knowing that she needed to behave, had excess energy to burn and was itching to play with that chair. Bob understood this, and rather than going along with the awkward pretense that it wasn’t good manners to be curious about such things, he saw the look in my eyes and encouraged me to haul the wheelchair out into the corridor and go play with it. At the time it occurred to me that Bob still understood what it was like to be a kid.

Playing in Bob’s wheelchair was a pretty pivotal moment for me in many ways. While I endured many a lecture from my family on the dangers of motorcycles over the years, nothing taught me more than those few minutes wheeling Bob’s chair, imagining what it must be like to not be able to get out of it. I think Bob probably knew that too, and let the lesson be learned through my seat rather than my ears.

Bob was the cool uncle. I had a silver charm bracelet through my teens, and he often added to it at my birthday. He always chose fascinating charms that opened or twirled – the most memorable being an apple that opened to cheekily reveal the anatomically correct Adam and Eve. While all the other adults were asking me about what I was studying at school, Bob would cut to the chase and ask the really important question when you are a teenager - was I was courting anyone interesting? That’s the Bob that so many of us knew – all directness and no pretensions.

Bob was always ahead of us with new fangled technology. While the rest of us were getting the hang of radio cassette players, Bob had a top of the line multi-component hi-fi, and with a graphic equalizer no less. He was the first of my family to get satellite TV and a flat screen. As it turns out, he was ahead of us in other ways too. He used that directness to fight for the things you and I take for granted, long before society got politically correct about rights for the disabled. Through his absolute belief that he deserved as good a life in his chair that you or I could have without one, he blazed a trail that eventually led to richer lives for so many others. He lived this belief, from the seemingly small challenge to the ward rules that finally allowed him to share a room and later a disability retrofitted house with his lovely wife Sally, through to his friendship with Jimmy Saville (a famous UK radio and TV personality) that led to national fundraising drives that built a beautiful new residence wing at Stoke Mandeville (that resembled apartments rather than a hospital ward). As I said, Bob was so much more than the chair.

The last time I visited with Bob he made me a full-on Sunday dinner, with extra roast potatoes because he remembered that they were my favorite. I asked him where on earth he learned such a feat, and he said that his mum made sure he could cook a roast in case he needed to impress a girl. Trust me when I say this girl was very impressed.

So there you have it. Bob’s my uncle. Lucky me.