Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tips for Better Literary Readings

• • • •
Author and audience members
at a recent reading
at Half King in Chelsea
• • • • •

Sitting through a literary reading when you can’t hear and the author isn’t really into it, as I did the other night at Half King in Chelsea, is more punishment than pleasure. I’m a bit of a literary event junkie. Readings are often free of charge and since I’m a book reviewer with a weekly deadline, it’s fun to scope out for myself what’s new and interesting. This accessibility to new books and authors is a genuine perk for those living in NYC.

I’m afraid that this style of lackluster presentation by authors is more common than you’d expect. A literary reading may be one of the last places where nose-thumbing at the all-mighty dollar is in full view. The anti-sell attitude, if you will, looks and sounds like this:

“I don’t need to notify friends and family of this reading. I don’t need to tuck in my shirt. I don’t need to think about what I am going to say. I don’t need to bookmark what I plan to read nor do I need to know what I will read. And I certainly don’t need to speak up or look up. Frankly I don’t need you people. I’m a published author, after all.”

That last sentence is, admittedly, mean-spirited supposition. I don’t actually know what compels authors to come to their own readings so unprepared and uninspired.

I’ve grown quite a bit as a reader, thanks in part to the honest feedback and help of friends. I’ve reversed my focus from putting my stage fright first to making it secondary to caring about my audience and wanting to entertain them. Luckily this effort was possible and my own way of managing is to dramatize the text as I wrote it and want it to be read by my readers.

On April 9 of this year I read briefly at my book launch in Rockport. It was — ta da — my first “Free Fall” reading. I barely looked up and I didn’t put energy into the reading. I heard about it afterward from friends. The basic message was: Try a whole lot harder.

A blogger who commented on the Half King reading Monday night (the performing author shall go unnamed here) interpreted the man’s demeanor as sincerely humble. How two people sitting in the same room could read a man so differently amazes, intrigues and delights me. This is proof that there is no truth, that there are a million stories for every second in time, that my well shall never go dry.

Some additional thoughts on reading out loud:

1. I need to get this off my chest. The Half King is a great venue for literary readings with one enormous caveat. They almost never invite women to read. Should I return? Should I give them my money for food and drink? Should I continue to review Sebastian Junger’s (one of the owners) books, as I have since he began publishing books? For me, this male orientation is serious bad business.

2. Now for the tips. Author: Look up. Take note of your audience. See who’s there and stay connected. Is someone getting antsy? Does someone dare look away from your scintillating story for even one second? Retrieve him! Read to him! Entertain that wandering mind till you have him safely back in the fold.

3. Apply due diligence to summoning the crowd. Consider filling the room your responsibility. Send out postcards, e-newsletters, news releases, emails, postings on Twitter and Facebook. Make fliers. The work is hard and you can never do too much.

4. Smile the minute you walk in the room and keep smiling. You can stop when you get to the passage about the baby seal being gutted by the great white shark. But when you turn the page, smile again. Let people know you’re happy to be there and happier still that they are there with you.

5. Do you tend toward unkempt appearance or physical ennui personified by slouching or a failure to shave? Take a hint from Lee Child, who has a furious reading schedule every year in the late spring. Buy one good shirt and one well-fitting pair of pants. Consider this your road show outfit and reprise it when called upon to address the public. It becomes something of a talisman that signals “Performance!”

6. Do you tend, as a jaded author, to wear a pall of ennui? Do you save your passion for the page or the sack? Give it up. Get lively for your tribe.

7. Use your finger, if necessary, to mark your place in the text so that you can LOOK UP. You need to know who’s listening and who’s not. You need to make genuine connections.

8. Read favorite passages that work. Read the same passage at other venues. Dramatize. People really enjoy being read to and entertained.

9. Don’t read for more than 10 or 15 minutes because people’s limbs start to fall asleep and their butts hurt. Also: Remember to start off by very briefly introducing your excerpt and explaining the characters and the setting.

10. There’s an odd whole-room pause the second you finish reading. If you want to take a few questions, wait for the applause and then wait a little longer. People need time to collect their thoughts and formulate their questions. I often try to help out by saying something like: One of the most often-asked questions I get is…. That always gets the questions coming.

11. Know in advance how you will inscribe the book. I now write: Enjoy the free fall. (It’s a line straight out of the book.)

12. Never forget that people have traveled to see you. Leave your humility at home and work for them.

13. If you are a man, and you happen to score a reading at Half King, here’s an extra tip: Authors must compete with a thunderously loud drinking crowd on the other side of the wall. And the sound system is not very good. Practice projection and articulation. Make good use of your manly voice.

14. Follow up with thank you notes to the bookstore or library, the person responsible for choosing to book you, and anyone who helped you make the event a success. Sometimes I even bring some wine and cheese when I know I’m going to have a crowd that’s made up of primarily friends and colleagues.

15. Finally, the reality is that you are one of the key hand-sellers of your book. Even seasoned, best-selling writers call up their regional libraries and ask for readings. You do this not just for the book, not just for your readers but for your long-term platform as an author worthy of consideration.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mad at Runner's World

Fabulous running
along the Hudson River Parkway
at the newly restored Chelsea Piers #61 and #62.

Women who exercise and age — and I’m guessing that’s a fair number of women — don’t have much to go on beyond common sense when it comes to determining safe and healthy ways to stay fit.

Magazine articles about women’s fitness avoid anything that remotely suggests there could be an arc (an upside and a downside) to the body’s ability to condition, train, and strengthen or that there may be ways to adapt to the realities as we age. And when I say downside, I mean the inevitabilities that come with living a long life such as arthritis, use of oxygen, changes in metabolism, etc. I believe magazine editors avoid such articles because they think it’s bad for circulation — readership numbers.

Is it wrong to suspect that the only valuable readership is a young readership?

Case in point: Runner’s World (online) just published a column ( by Kristin Armstrong (Lance’s ex-wife). She complains about age-related problems like a spot of fat somewhere in the hip vicinity but she vows to go on running, regardless of age-related infirmities such as this. She’s 36 years old. Aging is only acceptable if it’s not very old.

Runner’s World deserves serious censure for this sort of tactic but they are hardly the only ones. Even magazines like More, which is aimed at older women, target not exactly older women but women in their 40s at the oldest.

Commentary on Armstrong’s piece was predictably polite. Even in disappointment, women lead with grace. We need to get a lot more vocal if this is the best the magazine we’ve subscribed to for most of our running careers can do.

Sidebar: Stuck with a less-than-perfect running bra

I am a feminist who would never think of burning her bra. And from what I’ve read, bra burning was more myth than fact.

In fact most women runners embrace the bra though finding a good running bra isn’t easy. You have to turn to catalogues and reader reviews for the most comprehensive selection, which means trying them on and finding a good one can take months.

Most women with large breasts (I know whereof I speak on this matter) are not thoroughly pleased. Recent studies clarify what we’ve known for years. Our breasts aren’t easily contained! With continual impact they move in a figure 8, which isn’t the up/down motion bras were designed to handle. [note: I remember seeing such a figure 8 performed by a stripper in “The Graduate.” Who would have guessed we all have that capability?]

While these clinical studies and facts don’t enhance the romantic notion of the breast, we must muscle on. The study of the breast is important and with this particular finding, perhaps a better bra is not far off. Here’s the whole story:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Goodbye, again

Some of Betsy and Ed's guests
are pictured at a reading in their home.
Jeanne Peterson, who wrote "Falling from Heaven,"

and I read from our books and answered questions.

Thirty-five years is a long time. It’s a lifetime, for example, as far as my daughter is concerned. It’s also the amount of time Betsy and I have been friends. I mark this time less in years and more in seconds. Betsy has been a continual presence, even if she now lives in San Diego — a good 2,500 miles West as American Airlines flies.

There’s no such thing as always but that’s the way I think of Betsy. “Betsy and I always eat good food when we get together.” “We talk a lot.” (always is implied) “Betsy and I have a phone date at 4,” I tell Jim in such a way as to mark the occasion sacrosanct. “Here we go again,” I tell Betsy, “speeding up every time we talk and walk.”

Continuity is not really part of my life experience. I carry almost nothing from the first 17 years of my life. Running away from home and staying hidden till you reach 18 meant, for me, taking whatever I could carry in one small suitcase. Since then, I’ve made major moves across several states, changed jobs several times, and practiced serial monogamy most of my life.

Without a grandmother’s attic in which to find the old clothes and photographs and artifacts that stitch continuity into a life, I tend to think more in chapters than scenes, more in ends and beginnings than in transitions.

Betsy is far more than a yardstick, of course, though today I’m not wise enough or awake enough to think deeply and creatively about the rich and complicated nature of our friendship. That’s more of a book, actually, and Betsy and I have, in fact, read books about long friendships like ours.

I should clarify: Betsy’s not a yardstick in any metaphor I use to think about our friendship other than the comforts of continuity. I do see how I’ve grown whenever Betsy and I have a rare chance to be together face to face. On this visit I thought: I’m almost worthy now. That’s saying a lot.

It may not be friendship enhancing to say this, but Betsy is a lifeline. I wouldn’t know what to do without her. She knows me. She supports me. She comforts me. I don’t want it to be one-sided. I try to give back. The other day I gave her a nifty roll of doggie poop bags. Another time it was some dessert wine from a winery in central California and a delicious olive oil from Los Olivos. I give her things I value — exalted status of best friend, an introduction to Jim, whatever time she should ever want to discuss the novel she’s working on. Anything, really. Just ask.

The trip West is complete. Betsy and her husband Ed are more deeply embedded in my heart than I imagined possible. As I turn my attention to far less interesting matters than Betsy and Ed’s incredibly meaty, sweet heirloom tomato varietals, I do so feeling a little stronger and a little humbler at the same time.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Safe on Sunset Cliffs

Now that I’m in San Diego, I go out early in the morning for my runs. I’m up and cruising down the hill shortly after sunrise. I make a left at the bottom and I’m on Sunset Cliffs, here in San Diego. Jim is behind me, walking.

Theses cliffs and environs are good for both early exercise and sunset viewing and lots in between, such as surfing and pervert antics and hailing the wonders of whales and/or the green flash. The green flash may be myth or maybe not. It’s a purported flare up that happens just as the last of the sun slides below the Pacific horizon.

Though I’ve never seen the green flash, I’m pretty sure I saw the pervert who’s lately been harassing women runners on Sunset Cliffs. He’s an idiot who likes to try and humiliate women.

I sighted him a couple of days ago at 6:30 a.m. Granted I was stiff and tired from all the travel and anxieties I play host to, but I recognized the man and his suspicious behavior.

He has a bit of a baby face, wears a stocking cap and pulls down women’s running shorts and their underwear. While I’m sure that my own underwear are going to stay exactly where I put them, given my age, I retain the vestiges of female wariness. Tell me there’s an underwear-puller-downer in the neighborhood and I am going to keep my eyes open and my iPod volume lowered to a whisper.

My friend sent me a composite drawing of the man that the police issued just before we got here. I studied the picture and saved it to my laptop, should I need to refresh my memory before a run.

I was on the return trip to my friend’s home, still on Sunset Cliffs, when a beautiful, muscular young woman with blond hair passed me going in the same direction. She got out in front of me by a few yards when a man with a stocking cap appeared from one of the parking lots and began walking toward us on the path.

What I deemed suspicious was the way his eyes covered every part of her. If nothing else, he was rude to the point of belligerence. Aggressively scanning. Taking possession. Offensive. Disgusting.

Then he caught sight of me, noting his stocking cap, his baby face, his predator’s stench.

The young woman sailed past him, unaware, lightly breathing the delicious salt air. Her vision was trained on her panoramic view as she experienced that exhilarating sense of powerful self that comes with physical activity well done. Today there would be no blindsiding, no rude shock, no deconstruction of self.

Me, I had rehearsed this moment and did as I had tutored myself should I happen to run into this creep. I lifted my ear-bud speaker to my lips and said, “Hello? Hello?” Not original but effective all the same. Western women are fortunate. We have the support of friends and police and society. If we are abused or feel endangered, we can ask for protection and we get it.

There will always be predators and perverts. But there is a system of fairness and rules in place here in the United State. It hasn’t been easy. I remember a time when an accusation of rape was heard with suspicion and blame. But much has changed since the ’70s when I worked with women in my city to help educate our local police force.

What can we do, here in our gorgeous enclaves, to help other women much less fortunate? A recent Time magazine cover showed the mutilated face of a beautiful young Afghan woman. Her husband has sliced off her nose and ears because she tried to leave him after he’d abused her. His actions were supported and sanctioned by the locals, who helped hold her down. Afterward she was left to bleed to death.

Here some jerk in a cap pulls down a woman’s shorts and police issue an all-points bulletin. As it should be, of course, but consider the inequalities among women still.

So on I ran, past the perverted man and the danger and the need for hyper-vigilance. Intoxicated by the endorphins, I moved to reinforce the moment with a large shot of espresso at the small café. Jim met up with me and we made our way back to Sunset Suite and our dear friends.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Intolerant Voyager: Notes from the Pacific Surfliner

There’s nothing like travel on a crowded train full of Dodger’s fans to force you to turn your vision inward and think profound thoughts. Such as:

I just invented desperation meditation. I do this in a hurry when the little wired man in the train seat in front of me bounces in his chair. As a consequence, his seatback pummels my laptop lid as if it were a basketball. Mr. Bouncy goes at it for six hours. (Oh, pity the girlfriend.) I don’t need to be told this, but he announces on the 5.45-hour phone call he’s conducting — in such a way as to include all of us in the scintillating conversation — that he quit his psyche meds. And he feels much better now. Phew. That’s a relief.

Messages on Facebook and on my blog site from friends who’ve taken the time to read my blog or book are better than Christmas presents. Materially I have everything I need and want. What writers need is a two-way conversation between their work and their readers. Thank you. And, yes, it’s possible to read bouncy text between cleansing breaths.

It pays to travel business class on Amtrak when you’re in sardine mode. You get free wine, something fun wrapped in a big cellophane bag called snack packs that have great nuts and fruits and a smiling conductor who walks by and says, “Help yourself to the coffee in the urn in the front of the car.” Hey, Amtrak makes delicious coffee! Hide it from Mr. Bouncy.

We pass San Juan Capistrano. There’s a restaurant dug into the cliff and hundreds of people crammed together in similar sardine fashion, though their chairs appear to be plastic and mine is quite comfy. They await the sunset, at which time they will rise up, cheer and clap. I see they are geared up and ready because they wave and holler as our train of travelers zips past.

Why would anyone cram into a plastic chair amid hundreds of plastic chairs to watch a sunset when there are hundreds of miles of empty coastline from which to view the recurring miracle?

We love our fellow man. We crave proximity. Why didn’t we build the extended family into our lifestyle? Why are we so all alone?

Alone? Look around. Who’s alone?

Nevermind. Look at that gorgeous ocean. Good lord. That unique turquoise-blue water. That soft warm sand that firms as you near the surf. Look at all those runners and walkers and cyclists, hundreds of them, exercising their bodies on a hard, dusty path on the other side of the road. Does this make sense?

When did moving the body get put into a 45-minute slot between dental hygienist and paying bills?

For the record, you go numb from the feet up when you are wedged into a seat for six hours, no matter how comfy the seat. It takes about two hours for the paralysis to reach your brain. No prob. I keep my lips going with regular sips of free California Cabernet. This is good stuff.

There are too many people. Jim says it too. I see thousands upon thousands of coastal homes of all sorts (mobile and otherwise), from LA to San Diego. And on the decks and porches and front yards of these homes I see people in bathing suits. Lots of bikinis. One possible naked person. The people recline, for the most part, on chaise lounges. They have suntans and a week to decompress before revving up again. Did we mean for this to happen to us?

And now, encamped, finally, in the spacious Sunset Suite, at the home of my best friend of 35 years. Wow. Amazing. I arrive with a radical haircut I hate and didn’t ask for, much like the asymmetrical Sassoon cut I had the day we first bumped into each other at UNH with babies and fulltime college course loads. What’s really amazing is that she loves me because of my stupid haircuts, slew of crises and all the eccentricities. I love her for her brains and beauty and hard work and her drive to give back the best she has to offer, which is a lot.

Yes. Made it. Safe now. In the arms of loved ones. Where we all long to be.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Selective Recall

Let me set the scene:

Chaucer’s Books, Loreto Plaza, Santa Barbara. 7:07 p.m. Wednesday, August 11. I’ve begun my reading with three pages from “Free Fall” that describe a pleasant visit I had with my father two years before he died. A nice audience has gathered amid the tables of books and I stand and read to them.

And now, the story:

I look up now and then and see, watching me, a man who had positioned himself just slightly away from the rest of the crowd. He was well dressed and fit and had a look on his face that told me he carried a secret, something important. I would have to be patient and wait.

After the reading people came forward, one at a time, picked up a book and we chatted as I wrote personal notes and signed the title pages. The last one to approach was Alastair, the man with a secret.

“You and your mother wrote me a card, do you remember that? It was addressed to “The Lepidopterist.”

“I don’t remember.”

“I was your brother’s best friend. We used to hunt butterflies together.”

“Oh! Scott taught me how to hunt butterflies.”

“And I taught Scott.”

Thus…The Lepidopterist. A man who brought some beauty into the lives of a family bent on ruin.

Alastair was one of several who approached after having read an essay I had published the previous Sunday in the Santa Barbara News-Press. They came because they had some connection they wanted to share, some memories about our distant past. I had to tell every one of them: I don’t remember.

“I understand,” said Alastair. “I saw what was going on there. I had some idea.”

People were kind. “I am the gardener’s daughter.” “Your father could throw a ball, I must say.” “You moved to my neighborhood just when your father…he was a Marine?...came back from the [Korean] war.”

They never mentioned the neglect, the doors kicked in, the little girl who crawled out of her window in the middle of the night to get away, the police – six at a time – showing up at 2 a.m., or even that they, probably, were the ones who called. These recollections are like shadow memories – not inscribed in great detail but cast in broad dark strokes.

I took their email addresses and phone numbers. “Can I write?” I asked. “Can I call?”

Can I remember? Will you tell me?

Afterward Jim said, “You should come back for a couple of weeks or months. Interview everyone.”

I see that the city I ran away from, Santa Barbara, was also the city that saved me. “You were such a free spirit, running around on the grass, playing in the park by yourself, doing whatever you wanted to do.” The gardener’s daughter told me that.

That’s the Santa Barbara I come home to. She gave me joy and beauty and companionship. So lucky I connected back then. Now that I’m back, that’s the part I remember most.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

We're home

Jim in Long Beach, where his family
rented one side of this tiny duplex
for a few years before moving to Garden Grove.
He poses with the current occupants.

Three of us traveled 3,000-plus miles to go home to California. There we were, all together in the car, saying things like:

“Look! I rode my bike down this hill every day after school. In those days, everybody rode bikes everywhere. Nobody does that now.”

“Look! Sepulveda Boulevard. I remember that. Wow. Cool. Sepulveda [pronounced say-pull-vay-dah though Ms. Garmin says sip-ul-vee-da].”

“Look! That’s my old house. See that window there on the left? That was my room.”

“Look! There’s my high school. Go Argonauts!”

“Look! This is all new.”

Some of our houses are gone, replaced by others that are now gone as well. It’s an enterprising region, we see, with little respect for the aesthetics of our landscape. Oil derricks pump away between trees and in the middle of shopping malls. Anyone spending two days in LA will get this immediately. Beauty is the lost art. Thus Hollywood and Fantasyland, as if to compensate or perhaps to provide alternatives.

“What a blight, a sprawl, so deadly to the spirit.”

OK. So we’re not poets.

It takes time for this sensory overload to settle down. You see and do a lot in a day. We don’t so much sleep as pass out. Then, due to the three-hour time difference and solidified circadian rhythms, eyelids fly open at 2 am. What the …?

So much to weigh. This is where I came from. This is how far I’ve traveled. This is what I got done. This is what I didn’t do. And. This is what’s left.

I’m home now. Santa Barbara. This oak. This eucalyptus. This salt air. This chaparral. They may have taken away the Copper Kettle and I can’t find See’s Candy but I recognize that light shining on that stretch of ocean. I know how eucalyptus smells. And I know just how it feels to run in the sand.

That, I do again. It feels better than ever.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting to Know John

Jim’s friend John resides directly under one of the airplane approach patterns at LAX. This living situation, as you can imagine, has its moments.

Shortly after our arrival from NYC, we drove our rental car over to John’s house, a typical little Southern California bungalow that shows its age with a certain unapologetic candor. In its defense, the place is under continual assault from noise and exhaust. Not to mention the earthquakes that periodically rough it up. But the little bungalow was looking quite smug and cute with all its quirky nooks and alcoves and the shades drawn for better viewing of the golf game on TV. In California, dare I say, there is almost too much light.

We called John after touching down and he said, “I know you’re here. I heard you fly over.”

Yesterday was the first day of a 10-day trip home — Southern California — for both Jim and I, and our first trip to California taken together since we began our love affair. This ‘going home’ has been long awaited but once arriving here, I see that it’s not momentous. It’s just a trip. A good trip. An anxious trip in some ways. Mostly, a trip of small revelations that I might miss should I not pause now and then for thought.

Jim made friends with his super lively friend John when they were together at the Gurdjieff Foundation in NYC. Their friendship outlasted their Foundation participation. Both rambunctious men continue on, pushing social tolerances, laughing as they go.

At Venice Beach yesterday John walked up to a black man who was not wearing a shirt. His body was, without question, the envy of anyone with a breath left in him or her. Either you want to be like him or you simply cut to the chase and want him.

“Hey man,” said John, reaching out a hand. “I used to have a body like yours.”

The man’s body was great but his social graces were not. “Well, some days, despite this,” he said making a sweeping gesture that took in the length of his magnificence, “I feel just like you.” Hilarious. This is what happens when you are shamed by a compliment and not skilled enough to just let it ride with a thank you.

Upon returning home from our Venice Beach excursion, John, who has lived in Paris and NYC and India, announced with much passion that he loves his sweet neighborhood under the planes’ shadows. They pass over every two minutes. LAX was told it had to seal the homes on this street and install air conditioners in order to prevent the toxic exhaust from ruining the health of the people living there.

“They got within three houses of mine when the recession hit,” said John. Perhaps it’s less of an issue for John anyway, as he’s still smoking half a pack a day. And his habit is enabled by the fact that cigarettes are only $5 a pack.

John’s one of the few white men in this neighborhood made up mostly of Mexican families who, among many other things, we saw pushing their babies in strollers while they held on to their toddlers’ hands and negotiated the cracked sidewalks. Yesterday we also saw one man plant flowers along the grass in the front of his house and others made our meal in a restaurant. They bend over backwards to make sure we are happy. “Are you OK?” “How’s the food?” “Do you want more coffee?” I feel like I’m home when I’m eating out.

This morning we went to a diner at 6 am and the waitress, Mexican, was cook, hostess and waitress. Her cook and manger hadn’t shown up for work. We had the most delicious home fries, full of peppers and onions, buttery eggs and grits that we may ever have eaten in a restaurant — despite of her sizable challenges. “I can do this,” she says, smiling and rushing from customer to customer with coffee and hot sauce and steaming bowls of grits.

John is friendly and upbeat too, despite his challenges, none of which I surmise other than the obvious lack of enough money.

“Are you happy?” he asks me three times during our first visit. Wow. This was the very same question I asked Jim, the question that catapulted us from friends to lovers. Jim thought my question was a boundary violation. He appreciates boundary violations and makes them himself, part impudence, part mischief, part curiosity.

John’s version of the question struck me as a groundbreaker, though certainly one most people don’t use. It was interesting to experience how it felt to have my actions played back to me. That, it turns out, was one of the techniques used at the Foundation.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m happy.” Or maybe not. I suffer a lot. Live an anxious life. Wonder about my future. Am getting old. Don’t always like what I see in the mirror. Running is harder. “Are you happy,” he asks later. “I guess so,” I say. And then I think about the difficulties publicizing a first book and what this bodes for my future as an author. And my sister, from whom I’m estranged and who is suffering from chemo treatments and who lives nearby but will receive no visit from me. And the fact that for the first time I’m going to Santa Barbara without my father because he died in November. Am I happy? “It’s complicated,” I say the third time I try to answer his question.

Last night after dinner John and I walked to Walgreens to meet Jim. When paying for our purchases, John asked the young woman how she was.

“Pretty good,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. “Pretty good is usually code for not so hot.”

I’m just as emotionally invasive as John, I guess

She said, “Well, actually, I’m tired and exhausted.”

“You’re young and beautiful. How can you be tired and exhausted,” John exclaimed.

“She’s tired and exhausted because she is young and beautiful,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

If you keep at it, if you prod relentlessly, there’s no end to the information you can pry from people. And you really don’t have to pry that forcefully. People connect as naturally as moths to light. Little neighborhoods cluster despite the difficulties, fend off the toxins, plant flowers, walk their babies and offer sincere greetings and good wishes. If you happen to extend yourself even a little, ask one impertinent question — best done smiling — you may make a new friend.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thanks. I Needed That

It’s been a week since the prostitute slapped Don Draper across the face, but I’m still in wonderment. It’s not the slapping that’s got me interested but people’s opinions about why a man like Draper needs someone from the weaker sex, as women were thought of back then, to abuse his handsome face.

Sex workers, like Xaviera Hollander
a k a The Happy Hooker,
on right at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan,
have been hired by many a man in need of pain.

It’s only TV, I understand, and “Mad Men” is a period piece, to boot. What could possibly be inferred from scenes depicting a good-looking man decades back in time ordering, not a martini, but a rather impatient sex worker to just do it, for god’s sake. Slap me, he orders. Again. And again.

Draper didn’t look good in the season premier. Way before the slapping ensued, the man looked sallow, wiped out, bedraggled. Even his attire seemed slightly less fastidious. I guessed that it had been an exhausting hiatus between seasons. Perhaps he’d made a couple of movies instead of hanging at a pool. Draper didn’t project the ruddy glow I admired when we recently watched Season 3 on DVD.

The slapping incident provoked a lot of discussion in my household, where two 6-foot, 5-inch men (Jim, the father and his 42-year-old son) told me why they thought men, especially men who are important bosses, want dominatrices to slap them. As far as I know, they are not speaking from personal experience but that doesn’t stop them from proffering conjecture. And though I haven’t slapped any man myself, it hasn’t stopped me from countering their conjecture with some of my own.

According to Jim, the greater your altitude on the corporate ladder, the greater your need to be slapped into submission. A man bosses people and wants some bossing in return. Thus, the necessity of the dominatrix. It’s simple.

Maybe, but that’s not what’s happening to Don Draper.

Draper hates himself. Some of us, in fact, have a love/hate thing going with Draper as well.

He’s responsible for his brother’s death. He cheated on his wife so often it got boring, even to him. He’s awfully mean to wonderful Peggy, the one person with real talent at the firm. He just stole a lot of customers from his former employer. He sulks for reporters. And he has hissy fits with important clients. Of course he needs a good slap.

Frankly, he probably didn’t need to pay for it. There are plenty of people at his new company who would relish the opportunity.

Here’s where I differ with the CEO-needs-subjugation theory. Draper is not likely to relinquish control. The most he’ll do, probably, is get naked, flop over onto his back and let the goddess he pays handsomely for take the power position.

“Do it,” shouts the commander. And she does it. Whap. “Again,” he demands. Whap again. She looks disgusted. Well, there’s physical pain and emotional pain. He’s so bad he requires both kinds.


Gosh. That looks like it hurts.

Good, thinks Draper. This is all good. There’s enough pain generated here tonight for another round or two of ethically questionable shenanigans. Rest assured, folks. There will be a Season Four.

We humans do engage in all sorts of self-inflicted pain. In Draper’s case, he pays for it and he asks a woman — a gender of lesser value to him — to hit him. He gets the full gamut of abuse, from the slap to the humiliation.

Some people cut themselves, eat to excess or put themselves in harm’s way with a mate who’s abusive. There are all kinds of ways we can hurt ourselves. Eating a few too many Big Macs is harmful. But the kind of hurt Draper craves, requiring a witness and a violent act, pulls the self-loathing from some dark well in the psyche to the light of day. The sting is akin to comfort. It puts Draper in touch with his feelings of guilt. It’s the closest he gets to cause and effect.

When, in all the affairs we’ve seen him engage in, did he evidence the slightest twitch of discomfort? Never.

Draper takes his medicine and gets on with it. It feels like confession — a brief encounter with an arbiter and then you’re off to live your life in much the same ways you did before. A slap is recompense. The permanent loss of something valuable, like your family or your competency, is more cathartic. But Draper is not ready to change.

Advice to Draper: Get a facial. That face workout seems to be turning your skin to leather.