This blog is on hiatus.  I can still be contacted at the e-mail address included in the “About” section or, alternatively, through my Twitter account https://twitter.com/Mbenn75

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Living With A Wild God – Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of such books as Nickle & Dimed and Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, was inspired to write Living With A Wild God after she found her teenage journal while sorting through her papers. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was ‘facing the possibility of a somewhat earlier death than seemed fair.’ Against this backdrop of frightening uncertainty, Ehrenreich found within the pages of her journal her recollection of an event so ‘cataclysmic’ that the words to describe it properly don’t even exist.

The book’s full title “A Nonbeliever’s Search For The Truth About Everything” sets what Ehrenreich tries to do in context, but, just as the thoughts and words of a teenager are’ tangled and evasive,’ as Ehrenreich admits herself, so too is the narrative of this book. An important point to make is that Ehrenreich’s parents were atheists, although the distance that grew between them was more down to the irrationality of her alcoholic father and ill-tempered mother, rather than her own “spiritual” experiences. These experiences, when they are described, are more sensory than spiritual and culminate in an overwhelming and ‘furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.’

In his review of the book for The Sunday Times, Christopher Hart quoted the 14th-century Christian text The Cloud of Unknowing: that God ‘can be well-loved but he cannot be thought.’ And perhaps therein lies the real problem: God, or rather faith in God is a lived existence for sure, but is God, or in a more modern sense, spirituality, too transcendent to be anything other than felt in the most intuitive of ways, thus defying true description?

The New Yorker has called Ehrenreich a ‘veteran muckracker’ and she is a brilliant investigative journalist. And yet, with this book, the cold certainties of the kind of atheism she was grounded in by her parents undermines her efforts to transcend rationality and logic.  The book is an interesting failure but a failure all the same.  Ehrenreich’s efforts to find an explanation for what happened to her are admirable (and set against the context of cancer, understandable), but childhood questions are slippery things and if they remain unanswered, returning to them later may find them elusive still.

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Ted Hughes


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“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” ― Letters of Ted Hughes

“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”


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May 2014 – Some Things That Stood Out

  • After the James family of New Jersey lost their dog during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, they searched for months for the terrier-pit bull, but finally decided to give up hope and visited a local animal shelter hoping to adopt a new pet.  Instead they came home with Reckless, their long-lost dog.  Chuck James recalls: ‘He was a little bigger than I remembered because they had fed him well.’ Officials asked if they could verify that the animal was theirs, so a friend sent over a picture showing the family with Reckless.
  • CNN’s iReport citizen journalism initiative reported the supposed end of the world before pulling the story.  The iReport platform allows users to submit unverified and unedited stories, which are published under the CNN masthead.  The story in question reported that scientists working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had ‘detected a large object the size of Manhattan possibly on a collision course with Earth,’ with an estimated impact death of ‘March 35, 2014,’ which, presumably, fact checkers would have picked up on.  The page on which the story had appeared was  changed to read ‘NASA has confirmed via email that this story is false.’

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Mad Men, Waterloo, Review

(This post contains spoilers).

‘The moon belongs to everyone.  The best things in life are free.’

But everything else comes at a cost; everything else has its price.

We have to make connections in life and, sometimes, the hardest part of doing that is determining the price we pay – what the cost will be to us as individuals.  In the end, though, the most important connections cost us nothing at all because they enhance; they don’t take away.

Waterloo is set against the backdrop of the July 20, 1969, moon landings and as Apollo 11 lands on the surface of the moon, viewers watch characters watching the event unfold on television.  The moment for the Burger Chef pitch has also arrived, but fearing that he has no future at SCP after Jim Cutler moves to terminate his employment, Don hands the Burger Chef presentation back to Peggy in order to secure her future, at least. We’ve been waiting for seven seasons for the moment that the torch would pass from Don to Peggy and this was it. There have been coded references all season to Don’s carousel pitch from Season 1 and the Burger Chef presentation was Peggy’s carousel moment.  The looks exchanged between Peggy and Don as she makes her pitch say it all about how their relationship has matured.

Don’s future, at SCP at least, looks brighter after Roger – stung in part by Bert’s assertion that he is not a leader – does a deal with Jim Hobart to sell a majority stake in SCP to McCann-Erickson.  Roger’s most immediate motivation, however, is Bert’s death, which removes one vote in favour of retaining Don.   Selling the deal to Ted takes persuasion, largely by Don, and Pete and Joan, giddy at the prospect of a windfall, endure some angry and frustrating moments before Ted accedes.

Much commentary about Joan this season has centered on doubts about her enmity towards Don, expressing skepticism that she could really be so hostile towards someone who has treated her with more respect than some of the other men in her life.  But Joan has seen herself being bought and paid for her entire adult life and her attitude, for me, appears to be “if I’m a commodity, as these people seem to think I am, then I’m going to have a price.” It’s not subtle and it is cynical, but from a position of vulnerability, Joan has built herself up and she’s damned if anyone – friend or foe – is going to take that away from her.  Besides, she risked a lot when she agreed to spend the night with creepy Herb from the Jaguar dealers association, only for Don to throw the account away because it didn’t suit him. Joan was paid, by way of a partnership, but the price she paid in return was everyone knowing what she did to get it. Another point is that Joan has been nasty in the past.  She was nasty to Peggy in the early seasons. She had a particularly nasty attitude towards Paul Kinsey’s African-American girlfriend.   And she did rule the office with something of an iron fist, so Joan can dish it out when she’s of a mind to do so.

In the midst of all the agency turmoil, echoing Season 3′s finale, there is another callback, as Don’s marriage ends.  His and Betty’s marriage disintegrated amid much rancour, but Don and Megan accept the end of their relationship gracefully.  And showing that she’s not of a mind to repeat her parent’s shallowness, Sally kisses the nerdy brother of the visiting family, rather than the older jock.  As Seth Stevenson writes on Slate.com, Sally might just be eschewing ‘the attentions of the scholarship athlete in favour of the dweeby misfit who knows how to make the universe a bigger place for her.’

The partners stand together at the end of this mid-season finale, but the real connections have been made elsewhere – Don and Peggy have repaired their working relationship and friendship; Peggy feels genuine motherly affection and care towards her 10-year-old neighbour, and Roger shows that his admiration of Don is about more than just business, constructing the selling of a majority stake in part to save his colleague’s future.

The episode could be interpreted as being largely positive, but Waterloo was Napoleon’s last stand and the use of it as a title portends major events when this final season resumes next year. The musical ending is eerie and not merely because Don is watching Bert’s ghost sing and dance. It suggests that for all the positivity and light of this episode, the darkness still lingers. The ghost may be Bert but another ghost – and a living one at that – is Jim Hobart. It’s always been about Jim Hobart. He’s been circling Don like a corporate shark since Season 1 and now he’s got him. But then Bert’s ghost appears to tell Don that the best things in life are free. In the previous scene, Don suggests to Ted that with the McCann buyout both of them can leave business behind them and get back to just being creatives, but Don may decide in the second half of this season that he wants to be free of it all.

Loose notes:

  • Jim Cutler took part in the bombing of Dresden. Of course he did – all that unleashing of destructive technology
  • For most of this season, an overarching theme has been the replacement of man with machine, as in the substitution of creative with the computer.  In fact, advertising is one of those sectors where that transition has never played out.  What has happened, however, is that smaller agencies, like SCP, have been swallowed whole by the larger agencies, as occurs at the end of Waterloo
  • Roger Sterling line of the week: ‘Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he’s going to die’
  • Pete Campbell line of the week: ‘Marriage is a racket,’ his bitterest line perhaps since last season’s iconic ‘Not good Bob’
  • Betty’s old friend, Carolyn, who came to stay with her family, is played by Kellie Martin of Life Goes On and ER fame
  • Harry Crane’s timing stinks – the guy can’t catch a break – thankfully. He spent too long negotiating the terms of his proposed partnership and is then cut out completly when the McCann deal materializes.  The divorce he says Jennifer has been threatening him with may now materialize
  • Robert Morse’s musical number was a fitting send-off for an actor best known for his work in musical theater, especially in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  He also starred in the 1967 movie version


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Mad Men, The Strategy, Review

(This post contains spoilers).

Watching this episode, I recalled a conversation I had with a friend some years ago about workplace relationships and whether they can ever offer the same depth of quality as relationships with family or friends. If ‘The Strategy’ is to be believed they can, insofar as work relationships can tell us a great deal about ourselves, which is no real surprise, given that we spend so much time at work. An anxiety felt by some of the characters in ‘The Strategy’ is that as personal/family lives become deconstructed – Don and Pete, for example – or remain unconstructed – Peggy – are there viable alternatives?

In my review of last week’s episode, I noted that there was no mention of Bob Benson. This week, he turned up and dropped more than one bombshell. SCP’s man in Detroit wasn’t the only person flying into New York, but he was the only one eager to propose to Joan. Or should that be desperate? Bob brings two GM executives with him, one of whom – Bill Hartley – he has to rescue from the jailhouse after the man is arrested in a sting operation for coming onto an undercover police officer. In their subsequent conversation, Hartley tells Bob that GM is ditching SCP and bringing the Chevy account in-house but that Bob will be offered a job with Buick. Panicked, Bob decides that if he is to join GM, he’ll have to have a wife and so he proposes to Joan, who turns him down.

Joan knows Bob is gay and, besides, she doesn’t need the type of arrangement Bob is offering and would rather wait for love. But armed with Bob’s disclosure that Chevy is leaving, Joan calls a partner’s meeting, at which the divisions that have plagued the agency this season become deeper, with both Joan and Roger objecting to Jim Cutler’s suggestion that Harry Crane be made partner. Don votes in favour. After all, Harry told Don about the Philip Morris meeting – something that obviously remains unknown to Jim, who continues to champion Harry’s credentials.

The main plot of the episode concerns the agency’s work on Burger Chef and an ad campaign based on a wife’s submission to her husband has Lou grinning from ear to ear. Matters are made worse when Pete suggests Don deliver the pitch, presenting the idea to Peggy as a fait accompli. Pete has a wish, an ugly wish, to dominate, reflected in his attitude to Trudy – he resents that she is possibly seeing someone else and more or less accuses her of being a bad mother. In another sense, though, he has a loyalty to Don and genuinely wants to bring him back into the loop by delivering the Burger Chef pitch. Unfortunately, Peggy is in the way of Don doing that so Peggy gets ditched because Don is a man and men have authority, don’t they? It turns out that they might not have the authority they think they have, with one exception – Don. And he uses his authority to coax greatness from his protégé, Peggy.

Don and Peggy tease out the Burger Chef pitch late into the night and, in the process, reconnect, culminating in a slow dance to “My Way,” as is they were father-daughter. For the second time this season, Don has someone showing genuine affection for him, following Sally’s Valentine’s Day deceleration of love. That it is Peggy resting her head on his chest means so much to Don and the look on his face is another of surprise – surprise that someone would feel genuine affection for him – untainted by all the bad things he has said and done. ‘The Strategy’ has been compared to ‘The Suitcase’ from Season 4 and like that episode, it shows Don and Peggy together as allies and it showcases the acting riches of both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss.

The episode ends with Peggy, with Don present, giving her changed pitch to Pete in a Burger Chef restaurant and as the camera pulls away, we see the three sat at a table, a “family” unit alongside actual families but no less closer for all the divisions that have kept them apart. If Mad Men had ended its entire run at that moment, I would have been deeply satisfied. As Maureen Ryan wrote in her review for the Huffington Post, ‘The new Burger Chef ad was about finding a space that was welcoming and free — it was about finding a respite. That wish didn’t come from a place of shame and doubt; it came from a place of energy and hope.’ With eight episodes left, Mad Men is bound to return to darker places than it reached at the end of this episode, but a spark of hope has been lit.

That it is Don, Peggy and Pete sitting together, “breaking bread,” is appropriate. As SCP falls apart and the likes of Roger, Jim and Joan distance themselves from each other, these three remain a unit, bound by life’s experiences to each other. Pete knows Don’s true identity; Don has a paternal interest in Peggy; Pete and Peggy had a child together. Families, real families, always know each other’s secrets and if they are lucky, the secrets that have the ability to tear them apart will never matter as much as the bonds that keep them coming back to each other.

An underlying theme on Mad Men has been creativity. Some of Peggy’s angst is whether her pitch for Burger Chef is good enough and, if not, what can replace it? As Stan tells her ‘There’s always a better idea.’ When Peggy and Don work into the night on the presentation that uncertainty prevails, but Don, for one, accepts it. He says to Peggy ‘I want you to feel good about what you’re doing. But you’ll never know. That’s the job?’ When Peggy asks him what the job is, his stark response is ‘Living in the not knowing.’

Living in the not knowing is the anxiety with which creatives live – not knowing if their work is good enough. The “good enough” is good enough in their own minds. What’s spontaneous for a child – whether it’s drawing a picture or making up a story – becomes something far more difficult for an adult because doubt exists in their minds over the value of the work.

Another aspect of creativity is that creative genius can be confused with madness. In an essay he wrote celebrating the playwright Tom Murphy, the Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne distinguished between the psychotic and the artistic genius:

‘The artistic genius and the psychotic have in common their existence in the alternative reality, the intuitive, fantasy mode of consciousness, the deeper dreaming other world, but they differ starkly in the use they make of it. Every genius, every great artist, has learned the trick of being able to differentiate these two (and perhaps other) modes of consciousness……While the psychotic is terrified to face ordinary reality and to tackle the anxiety of practical day-to-day living, the writer, playwright or poet, when he actually gets down to writing, not only emerges into an everyday work habit but characteristically works harder and shows greater self-discipline in organizing his day than the rest of us.’ (1)

On Den of Geek, Frances Roberts writes that ‘Each of Don’s pitches over the last seven seasons, from the carousel to the Hawaiian resort to Sugarberry Ham, were fantasy solutions to his own problems, lies he told himself and managed to sell to other people. This time, with her bright fantasy of how an ersatz family and a fast-food restaurant isn’t just a replacement for, but better than a loving home, it was Peggy’s turn to choose the lie.’ In other words, Peggy – like Don – constructs a fantasy alternative out of the frustrations of everyday life and because she can channel those frustrations into work, and creative work at that, she achieves a catharsis. Thus, creative genius is both a curse and a blessing.

Loose notes:

  • “My Way” was released in June 1969 and would become Frank Sinatra’s signature tune in the final decades of his career.
  • As Megan cleans out the apartment in a bid to find her things, she uncovers a newspaper from the weekend of President Kennedy’s assassination. On seeing the paper, Don is shocked and why shouldn’t he be? That weekend in November 1963 was when his marriage to Betty truly fell apart and now his second marriage is headed that way also, as much as he likes to pretend it isn’t. Megan’s line to Don when he gets out of bed – ‘you were dead to the world’ – made me somewhat uneasy.
  • Don tells Peggy that he and Megan went to see I am Curious (Yellow), the 1967 Swedish drama briefly banned in Massachusetts in 1969 on the grounds of obscenity – the movie features frank nudity and staged sex scenes. The movie was a hit in the U.S., attracting audiences drawn to the idea of seeing such an openly pornographic movie in a mainstream setting.
  • Willa Paskin makes the valid point on Slate.com that Peggy needs Don’s permission to carry on with the work (while acknowledging that so too does Pete in terms of his acceptance of that work). She writes ‘Peggy and her gender are not one and the same, and yet they are also completely, frustratingly inextricable.’ The broader point is surely, however, that, in a way, everyone needs Don’s permission or approval, or at least think they need it. Either that or they think crushing Don will bring some kind of resolution (Jim thinks this and Joan appears to also). But Paskin’s argument regarding the episode does stand on its own merits and as if to reinforce Peggy’s standing, both in her mind and in the minds of the male executives standing in her way, Don’s response to her suggestion that the Mum in the Burger Chef ad should be coming home from work is ‘it’s too sad for an ad.’

(1) Browne, Ivor, “Thomas Murphy: The Madness of Genius,” in The Writings of Ivor Browne, Atrium, 2013, p. 210.

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Do I think with my head and lead with my heart, or do I think with my heart and lead with my head?

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