Who is this woman, and why is she smiling?


We’ll get to that.

Now we have a piano. My wife is playing it as I write, giving the day a rather archaic feel – old summer nights always seemed to have the sound of a piano trickling from a window or two on the block, before everyone shut up the house for air conditioning. It wasn’t pro-style playing, with rippling arpeggios fluttering on the evening breeze like synchronized butterflies, but halting, clunky, painstaking playing, the sort of thing that makes you think of a kid squinting at the sheet music with her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth.

I don’t know if anyone actually does that, but it’s the universal symbol for Earnest Effort.

Can’t say I miss summer, because it’s still here. I do miss the old sounds of summer. The piano, bikes with playing cards in the spokes, a car drifting by with an AM radio playing a song with an actual melody. While I am a great fan of incessantly repetitive synth music with a groove like the Marianis Trench, the angry dull blunt boasts of standard rap bores the hell out of me. Today I was filling up the Element; a car came whipping around the island at hellish speed, and the fellow filled up while his radio played at a volume that would liquify your timpanium and loosen your bowels. A boor, of course; a man with no manners. One of the numberless army of narcissists who cannot possibly consider the opinions of anyone else. It’s not that he didn’t care; he just had no mental framework in place to process the possibility that other people mattered.

What I find amusing is how some believe that the death of civility is a new development.  It started with Joe Wilson and was compounded by Serena Williams. Civility has been chained to a rock getting its liver picked out by buzzards since the golden children of the  Greatest Generation were encouraged to let their freak flag fly, to use a horrid phrase. I read a few blogs that pick apart “Mad Men” – now the show for people to sniff they’ve never seen, and therefore must be overrated – and everyone seems to note the same tremulous undertones of this season, the sense that everything is going to fly apart in a way that’s joyous for some, interesting for others, and unnerving for the old guard who manage to keep up appearances long after their world has been superceded.

And by Their World, I mean this:


The show doesn’t have many drop-jaw moments, nearly everything that’s important or meaningful is communicated without words. (Unless it’s advertising, which is important and meaningful, both as the substance of the character’s lives and the role it plays in society. That said, the show evolved quickly beyond being an ad-shop drama; if it was just another TV show, it would be full of arch, brittle, devious plots about particular campaigns and the nervy jostle of office politics. It has that, but they’re all subordinate to character and period study.) Roger in blackface was one of those drop-jaw moments. You know how he’ll spend the later sixties: curled up in the cocoon of money, drinking himself to death, ending up in a hospital room in 1973 watching Johnny Carson in an opiate stupor.

I’ve always thought it’s imperative to stay engaged with your times until your time, singular, is up. Otherwise your sense of the world calcifies, and your worst impressions become your default opinion. The glories of the imagined past become a means of self-admiration, because you were not only lucky enough to be there but smart enough to get it. Kids today, they don’t. Perhaps growing up in the 70s kept me from idealizing my own past; the culture was all gimcrack glitz and second-hand hippie shite before the jams were well and truly kicked out by the anti-sloth movements of the late seventies and early 80s. They were musical and political; the former was all over the road and the latter emotional and naive, but I think they were the first attempts to wrest control of the social narrative from the early boomers, and as such were derided with the smooth weary conceits you’d expect from the generation that remade the world and expected the rest of us to line up and lay lauren wreaths at their sandaled feet.

Then the rise of internet culture saved the late boomers and Gen Xers from cultural obsolescence, because it was no longer necessarily to participate in any of the usual events to be up to the moment. On the internet anyone can be about 26 years old.

Anyway. Mad Men is about the sixties, and while everyone’s watching the signs of the old overculture dissolving underneath everyone’s feet, I sense all the things that came after the great rift. The worst thing about the sixties wasn’t the sixties. It was the seventies.

It is to much to suppose that a wary code of mutually recognized and dimly comprehended male aggression kept things civil? That it was also predicated on horribly, terribly, oh-so-wretchedly sexist notions about behaving in front of women made men behave? It probably took ten years after the end of Hats to breed a certain respect out of men; it took another ten years of dealing with The Confusion of the Door (if I open it, I’m a chauvinist pig; if I don’t, I’m a selfish manchild who lacks social graces. What does she want? What does she expect? Help me Hugh Hefner!) to give men the sense that societal norms were just BS, and the most valuable aspect of a person’s character was Authenticity, the sense that he was true to himself. It’s a telling fact of “Mad Men” that the only man who seems true to himself is the man whose life is predicated on the most colossal lie imaginable, and seems equally authentic when he’s committing an act that will force him to lie, or telling the truth in his role as a liar. In the end this may be the show’s message: lies have their uses. The truth hurts. Odd, coming from a show about advertising.

As for the woman up top? Joanie, the va-va-voom secretary, of course, pressed by her fiancee to work the squeezebox for a small dinner party.


If you don’t watch Mad Men, and you think it’s some Austin-Powers view of the sixties full of madcap over-the-top cultural schtick – they’re smoking, indoors! They’re drinking, at noon! No. There are various messages passed along in her performance, but a lesser show would have reached straight for camp value. It’s almost impossible to think of any other show allowing a big curvaceous redhead to pick up a squeeze box and sing a French tune without milking all the camp and / or swank possible out of the moment, but this was just what it was: people played the accordion in those days. I had one as a kid; my uncle had one. It may seem impossible to some, but people played the accordion without making sure everyone knew it was being done ironically, or was intended to be understood with a certain amount of irony. God knows I love irony, but it’s the condom the culture puts on when it doesn’t want to enjoy something completely for reasons it will regret in the morning.

Today: I think it’s comics, no? Yes! But it’s two comic-sins covers, to make up for previous slackage. Strib blog if all goes well; depends on the video duties. Here’s yesterday’s video – shot more for later days, this was the only thing we could get up today. I think this is the first bit with my co-reporter / co-anchor  Aimee, who’s been with the Strib video team from the start. I tend to overact; she can be witheringly dry. It’s fun.

The secret to not ending up cramped and small and old and bitter: find something new.   Make it fun. Roll with it. And when the guy who’s blaring the stupid music goes into the gas station to pay, let the air out of one of his tires.


97 Responses to Tuesday, Sept. 15

  1. hpoulter says:

    And then there’s the hand that cradles the rock, to quote Walt Kelly.

  2. On civility, we all know we are the most important person in the world, the key is not acting like it.

    On history, desegregation and related civil rights was the result of the actions of many types of people, black, white, hippies, mad men, house wives, Christians, Jews, students, working folks. No one group deserves all the credit just like no one group deserves all the blame.

    It is about the character of individuals, not traits of groups.

    Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. -Ayn Rand

  3. RebeccaH says:

    The worst thing about the sixties wasn’t the sixties. It was the seventies.

    As one who came of age in the sixties, I can verify that you are right.

  4. hpoulter says:

    Nancy :@Al Federber Dang Al, why do you bother to read this blog since you seem to disdain the core values of its author? You are of course not required to agree with him on everything, but your comments come across as (in James’ own words) “…cramped and small and old and bitter…”. When …

    Easy Nancy, you’re feeding him. Folks like Al visit blogs like this because it is their duty to correct and instruct the great unwashed gun-clinging, Fox-news-befuddled masses.

    What I wonder is if the poor fellow has any sense of humor at all.

  5. raf says:

    Perhaps, back in the days of vaudeville when blackface was common, it was one of those condoms James waxed eloquent about. People couldn’t actually *admit* that they enjoyed “negro music” for social acceptability reasons, but turning it into a farce allowed them to enjoy it without admitting that was what they enjoyed.

  6. raf says:

    “Something in the boor’s tiny brain tells him that he is really and truly the most important person in the universe.”

    Whereas I know better, because that person is me.

  7. @raf
    it is all a big act, everyone is a bunch of phonies /holdencaulfield

  8. Drew says:

    rbj, the entire series seems to be about loss. Mad Men shows us how it once was and doesn’t try to convince us that it was absolutely terrible back in the early 60s. It just . . . is.

    But I sense that the entire point of the series that when we kicked the chocks out from beneath the Old Culture of the 50s, we may have gained some wonderful sort of enlightenment, but we lost something ineffable. There is a sadness present in the series as we see the old falling aside to make way for the new. Perhaps that’s how it always is.

    But what is also felt is that the changes that we associate with that much-abused term “the sixties” did not happen overnight. And even the children of the 60s did not hold to some monolithic mindset.

    Clinton was hailed as the first Boomer president. “Hooray!” shouted the flower children! “One of us! One of us!” But I submit he was no more one of them than, say, George W.. The 60s were half over before “the 60s” began.

    Now, if you want to see a President who epitomizes what we think of when we say “the 60s,” look no further than the Current Occupant, who actually came of age in the 70s.

    And Mad Men is about those members of the previous generations watching as the world they knew — the rot, yes, but also things that were good — falls away as another generation rises.

    It’s probably something that happens to every generation. I was born in 65, but consider the 80s my formative years. In recent years I’ve found myself longing for 1982 again. (Yeah, no internet, but I would almost consider that a blessing.)

  9. jeischen says:

    I always liked the term “let your freak flag fly” for the alliteration, if nothing else. Watched Anthony Bourdain’s show last night on his gastronomical tour of San Francisco. Showed plenty of shots of “hippies” (all now wearing the de rigeur rasta dreadlocks) laying on the sidewalks of the Tenderloin. It was pretty sad, really, as if they were waiting for someone to find the portal to the way-back time machine for one last Grateful Dead session.

    When I find myself cursing the young whippersnappers pumping out the rumbling beats, I have to stop and remind myself of when I was cranking Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” through my crappy Kraco speakers. I would have killed to have had a quality stereo system at that age.

  10. raf says:

    “As one who came of age in the sixties,” I have always maintained that most of the sixties actually occurred in the seventies. I date the start of the modern conception of the sixties to the ’68 Chicago Dem convention. Earlier, it was mostly folk music.

  11. raf :
    “Something in the boor’s tiny brain tells him that he is really and truly the most important person in the universe.”
    Whereas I know better, because that person is me.

    What an Ego, be humble, I am sure there is someone more in important than me, however, I have not met them yet.

    (does my wife read this blog? It is not that she is not more important but, including her in analysis throws off the statistical sample)

  12. Spud says:

    Hmm, the bleat was starting to get a little screedy, but that’s OK by me ;) .

    Besides the “kitschyness”, the Who song “Squeezebox” helped kill the accordion. Nobody can play one with a straight face now, unless you’re portraying a geek playing one for laughs (ala Urkel). I’m guessing other countries still value the accordion, especially those who are not innundated by electronic entertainment vessels.

    The accordion could make a comeback someday, especially if more people get unplugged and seek ways to be entertained that does not involve electricity. And if hot redheads play them more often …

  13. Terry Fitz says:

    areader, al & others…There is no question that racism and sexism had (has) to be confronted. These things are wrong in themselves and bad for society. Having come to that realization, young people in the 60′s in particular were faced with the question of what to do about it. As a former young person and the father of two teens, I can say without fear of error that young people as a group are not wired to be content with evolutionary change. Only revolutionary change makes sense to them. Although I decry the decline in civility that people here are reasonably associating with the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, on the whole there is less injustice associated with lack of civility than with racism and sexism, and so I’m willing to concede that if (big if) it was necessary to lose a measure of civility in order to bring society to a place where racism and sexism are considered wrong by most people, then it was a good trade. The question for me is whether we need to accept a world without civility today, and I don’t believe that we do. Good manners and social grace are entirely consistent with a refusal to accept racism and sexism. Please understand that nostalgia for what we lost does not necessarily imply a disregard for what we have now. Nor does a wish that people (yes, including Joe Wilson) would develop and adhere to a sense of decorum imply a racist or sexist attitude.

  14. raf says:

    @bgbear (roger h)
    My conclusion comes from extensive sampling and statistical analysis. A sample size of 30 is usually good enough for statistically valid conclusions; I have gathered literally millions of observations. Everywhere I go, the universe is always extending infinitely in every direction. Ergo, I am the center of the universe. I understand that you might entertain similar thoughts, but you are just mistaken; MY observation is that you are off somewhere, over there.

  15. raf says:

    @bgbear (roger h)
    In assessing absolute importance, all wives are statistical outliers.

  16. @raf
    good point, my conclusion is based on the idea that if I accepted your greatness and then died, you would no longer be important to me.

    The truly “great one” will transcend my death. I hear there are things called “religions” which think this person exists (“God” “Allah” “Yahweh” “Flying Spaghetti Monster”). I am skeptical but, open to the possibility thus proving my ribbed condom of humility.

  17. raf :
    @bgbear (roger h)
    In assessing absolute importance, all wives are statistical outliers.

    “outliers” that was the word I was trying to remember, thanks ;)

  18. areader says:

    Terry, you civil reasoned response is appreciated. However, my underlying point is that the mythic era of civility was not lost in the sixties because it never existed.

    If you disagree, please let me know when the era started. I think that if you contend the dirty hippy types are responsible, you need to look at those seemingly civilized people in their dark trousers and pressed white shirts who were frothing at the mouth over the prospect of black people going to the same high school or college as whites. If there was an era of civility and some group of people are responsible for ending it, surely it was them.

  19. browniejr :
    So far no one has mentioned one of the best contemporary examples of “Super Sexed-Up Tart” vs. “Delicate Wilting Flower”- albeit it was on TV, and therefore censored to fit certain norms: On the old “Andy Griffith Show,” Andy and Barney once went out with “The Fun Girls” (the tarts), and Helen Krump and Thelma Lou (the flowers) were outraged. We knew Helen was a school teacher, and presumably Thelma was a fine, upstanding woman (I don’t think she had a job?), so we knew their backstories. Even so, Thelma would also cover Barney’s head with red lipstick kisses, so she was no wilting flower, when the lights were out! We could treat “The Fun Girls” like a stereotype, and assume all sorts of things about them, since they were treated in a cartoonish kind of way/ only appeared in a couple of episodes.
    Mad Men, and the way that Joanie has developed from jiggling secretary to fiance with a talent for the accordion, is an example of the way modern TV is done. The characters start out as a stereotype, and with time and character development, other sides of their personalities are shown. I wouldn’t doubt that Joanie has a cousin named Thelma Lou…

    ‘Fun Girls’? ‘No wilting flower when the lights were out’?

    As Woody once said on Cheers

    Woody “Back home, we used to have a saying about girls like that”

    “Really? What was that Woody?”

    Woody “Let’s date ‘em!”

  20. Darrell says:

    The baby got thrown out with the bathwater, plain and simple. Y’all need to lighten up, and go watch Firefly instead, and enjoy Christina Hendrix! Meow! :P

  21. The accordion has lost it’s point of reference for me (Myron Floren).

    That perspective was destroyed in 2002 when my then 1 year old discovered The Wiggles featuring a keyboardist / accordion player.

    They do, however put on a good live show, and their cover of Hoop De Do is quite nice (“I’ll take an old accordion, stretched about a mile. I always smile, because it’s got style!”).

    Still, I would have enjoyed hearing Myron Floren’s interpretation of “Black Hole Sun”.

  22. Drew says:

    j-JD, I assume you’ve heard Paul Anka’s lounge rendition of Black Hole Sun?

  23. raf says:

    I don’t think of “civility” as being the same as “good-heartedness.” The fact that people were “frothing at the mouth” inside while maintaining public rules of decorum does not mean they were really “uncivil,” it actually pretty much defines civility. Hypocritical? Only if you think people thought manners meant something more than appropriate public behavior. I personally knew a lot of nasty folks who nevertheless knew they had to behave in public if they wanted to be taken seriously.

  24. Drew :
    j-JD, I assume you’ve heard Paul Anka’s lounge rendition of Black Hole Sun?

    Yes, of course. Better still, Steve and Eydie’s version of Black Hole Sun. I like Anka’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

  25. Nancy says:

    Of course you are right. Got a little defensive of our most excellent host–but he can take care of himself.^^

  26. rbj says:

    Oh, and as for the accordion, while Polka may be out of fashion there is some very good Zydeco music out there.

  27. kahall says:

    My dad played they accordion. I always thought it was funny when he would get it out. I need to ask him why he started. I did not know it was a thing to do back then.

  28. boblipton says:

    bgbear (roger h) :
    good point, my conclusion is based on the idea that if I accepted your greatness and then died, you would no longer be important to me.
    The truly “great one” will transcend my death.

    Jackie Gleason?


  29. boblipton says:

    RebeccaH :
    The worst thing about the sixties wasn’t the sixties. It was the seventies.
    As one who came of age in the sixties, I can verify that you are right.

    No one came of age in the ’60s. No one. It was an era of unending adolescence.


  30. Mary Margaret says:

    Eras fade away instead of dying outright. I was born in 1962. My parents were social in the way extroverts were back then: Jazz cocktail parties, ladies luncheons, dinner parties, winter formals, etc… My father would accept hunting invitations, and, in his turn, sponsor deep sea fishing excursions. Always lot of alcohol and cigarettes.
    Yet, there were parts of my childhood that harkened back to an ealier time. We shopped at the corner grocery where chicken ran free and the ower and workers all belonged to the same Yugoslavian family. We had huge Sunday dinners after Mass. All the office workers downtown, be they secretaties or executives, took two hour lunchbreaks (an hour to eat and an hour to nap). My father always took a walk around the neighborhood before dinner and occaisionally beggars knocked on our door asking for a handout (my mother always handed them a sandwich and a mason jar of milk).
    Sometimes the worlds overlapped such as the surrealist memories my husband and i have of being dropped off at the movie theatre while a race riot was going on outside. Or my brother’s college friends who would come to my father’s house, eat my mother’s meal and criticize their politics.

  31. Terry Fitz says:

    areader, this will be my last today. My thanks to you and all for your kind indulgence. To be clear, I don’t necessarily believe there was an Era of Civility that was supplanted by an Era of Incivility in the year 19xx. Less do I believe that the Hippies, per se, caused that to happen. As someone else pointed out, these things can’t be marked by a date on a calendar. That said, I think most people would agree that our society has become progressively more crass, vulgar, profane, self-centered and loud since the mid-60′s. Frankly, I blame Hollywood movies and TV and Madison Avenue far more than I blame the Hippies.

    Take comedy as an example. Comedians have always had to play around the edges of the permissible. In smoky nightclubs they might cross the line now and again. But that was effective only because the line existed. Today, much of comedy is oddly humorless, and has the effect of a gross-out contest between angry, clueless teenagers. The movie Borat, for example. Now that we’ve seen a baggie of excrement at the dining room table…where to now? There is no line. The whole thing is a big snore, and uninteresting to most people past 17.

    Am I advocating a new era of repression? Of course not. Of self restraint? You betcha. In particular, we need to grow up about how we discuss politics, religion, race, gender, and all the things that divide us.

    When we stop watching Cathouse we may rediscover how sexy a kiss can be. When we stop paying to watch movies in the hope of a new and greater shock we may come to prefer being stirred to being shaken (h/t Sean Connery). When we acquire the veneer of manners we may develop the essence of true respect for all people. And when we speak to those we disagree with instead of seeking to score cheap points with those who already agree with us, we may learn something.

    I’d be surprised if you couldn’t agree on much of this, and I thank you for making the essential point that not everything was as it should be in days gone by. I don’t think any reasonable person could disagree.

  32. Mike Mistele says:

    Darrell :
    The baby got thrown out with the bathwater, plain and simple. Y’all need to lighten up, and go watch Firefly instead, and enjoy Christina Hendrix! Meow!

    Hear, hear! Yo-Saf-Bridge is hawt! :-D

  33. Tim says:

    weird… that top screen grab of Joanie (first pic) looks almost like a Star Trek scene. She could’ve been one of Mudd’s Women…

    Anyway, I am very much addicted to Mad Men! Best show since The West Wing, which I also watched with much enjoyment.

    The only thing I can add to this blog is when I watch that show I get a jarring sense of how different American Society is now from then. We’ve done away with the Grown Up. Watch any contemporary show that features families like Everyone Loves Raymond or Home Improvement and you notice right away the parents are always portrayed as constantly seeking connection and understanding with their children -to the point they start dressing and behaving like them. On Mad Men the characters seen with a family -Don Draper and his wife- live completely outside the world of their children. When the kids have a problem they say “go watch television”

  34. Andre says:

    And here I thought “Mad Men” was just “Bewitched” without the witchcraft.

  35. Crid [CridComment @ gmail] says:

    What MM blogs you readin’, James?

  36. Lileks says:

    House Next Door is my favorite.

  37. teach5 says:

    I’ve posted two comments and none have appeared. What’s up with that?

  38. shesnailie says:

    “everyone is out for himself. too many people believe that the best way to achieve something is to completely ignore your fellow man. or better still, be rude to him, shoulder him aside, insult him, and maybe he will go away and leave the way clear for you.” – john lennon 1969

  39. teach5 says:

    Will try this again…When Joan’s husband brought out that accordion, I was sure she would play ‘Lady of Spain’, which was a talent show hit of the day. Her performance was perfect, and the effect on her audience showed that.
    My question re MadMen is why Don and Betty live in that stodgy old house. After his trip to CA, Don was fascinated with all things new and shiny. Why don’t they live in ‘modern’ concrete and glass number in a chic suburb?

  40. jamcool says:

    I am waiting for the first great MM parody (a la Simpsons or South Park)…we already have a canine version from a episode of the “Dog Whisperer”-naughty canines at a dog-friendly ad agency-complete with falling dog silouhettes.

  41. Tim says:

    teach5 :
    …My question re MadMen is why Don and Betty live in that stodgy old house. After his trip to CA, Don was fascinated with all things new and shiny. Why don’t they live in ‘modern’ concrete and glass number in a chic suburb?

    I think the answer Teach5 is that in spite of appearances, Don too is cost conscious about everything outside of his wardrobe. Consider he was driving the old Dodge… a model from 1959 (it’s 1962) that runs fine but looks stodgy. It took a drunken fling with that TV comedian’s wife and ensuing car crash for him to take the ‘plunge’ and sink for a Cadillac Fleetwood. It was a sad touch to see he used it to get on the good side with his wife Elizabeth in a very phony and classist way… anyway, my take is that his character, growing up in the depression, kicked around by an abusive father, he learned to scrap and scrape and hold on to everything that wasn’t broken. Their kitchen works fine, it just doesn’t match the 1960s. However everything at Sterling and Cooper is International style, and of the latest trend to impress the clients, just as a company like Google or Apple would have the latest in furniture and styling that told you they were looking at tomorrow.


  42. Tim says:

    looking at the first pic at the top I thought James put in a frame grab from a TOS Star Trek (Mudd’s Women?)…

    “…is that you, Captain?”

  43. Tom Beiter says:

    My father played the accordion. He would get it out from time to time at family gatherings — Thanksgiving, Christmas — or just some evening when we kids would ask him. We would jump around dancing to German polkas — Too Fat Polka, Beer Barrel Polka, Pennsylvania Polka. We never thought it was funny. And if someone would have laughed, my dad would have kicked their a$$.

    By the way, I thought the scene with Joan and the accordion was possibly the best scene of that episode.

  44. [...] My post explaining the origin of ACORN and introducing the Cloward-Piven Strategy. Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government site. James Lilek’s article on Mad Men and the decline of civility. [...]

  45. [...] And speaking of the era’s personal aesthetics, morals and mores, in another post, Lileks writes: [...]

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