Out of Bondage and into Exile

If I think of the times or places where I feel comfortable in my own skin, where I feel like I belong exactly where I am, what springs readily to mind are games of Ultimate Frisbee. As I think about it, I can almost feel the roughness of the nicks and grooves on the lip of the disc from where it has skidded across asphalt after an errant throw. The chaotic crissing and crossing of my teammates trying to run away from their coverage, the premonition that a throwing lane will be open in a half a second but swallowed up again two tenths of a second later. The billions of blades of grass brushing their muddy pomade into the grooves of my feet. It’s calming but invigorating blend of forethought and intuition, competition and cooperation, somehow both fundamentally lighthearted yet brutally serious.

Virtually everywhere else, though, there’s a discomfort and a disconnect. Perhaps some of that stems from being older than most of my friends but younger than most of my coworkers. Maybe part of it is developing interests that few of my current friends have, and not finding friends among those who currently share those interests. Perhaps it’s the utter scarcity of feeling simultaneously welcome and appreciated. I’m not sure. But when you get told you’re different often enough it stops feeling like a compliment.

I spent much of Memorial Day wandering alone by the Mississippi riverfront. It was a beautiful day for it. I came upon a set of adjacent condos which shared a courtyard. Pink and lavender petals of a purpleleaf sand cherry tree were scattered about, shifting in the wind but not going far. There was an empty row of benches – criminally empty, but rife with potential. The French actress Jeanne Moreau once said, “To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude.” I wonder if to sit alone on a picturesque bench is to accept solitude while acknowledging the possibility of something else.

Bus Stories 2

On Easter Sunday, conversation with my family turned to my many bus stories. My aunt suggested that these things probably happen all the time but few people notice them. “I bet often you were the only person aware of what was happening,” she quipped. We discussed why that might be. Do I have an innate skill to perceive simmering conflict about to bubble over? Perhaps – I have studied face reading, nonverbal emotional expression, body language, and psychology in some depth. But maybe that’s only a small part of it. Maybe I notice these things because I feel irrevocably set apart from what’s going on around me. I feel out of place, and that offers a heightened awareness as a small consolation.

Bus Stories

Jawaharlal Nehri was India’s first Prime Minister, occasionally described as the “architect of the modern Indian nation.” He grew up the son of a wealthy attorney and as a result was sent to England to study, first at Trinity College and later at Cambridge. When he returned to India, he met and befriended Mahatma Gandhi, who later became his mentor. But his role in Indian independence and his leadership of that nation did not make him feel part of it.  “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West,” he said, “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” The philosopher Gerald Arbuckle compared Nehru’s feelings to those of migrant children: accused of abandoning their heritage, never feeling accepted by their new society. “I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it,” Nehri lamented. “But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.”

The curse of the exiled is to long to be someplace where you feel loved, only to find that it no longer exists. It is to wish for that place where you are embraced with welcome and appreciation. In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is discussing the idea of utopia with Rachel Menken. She says, “They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia.’ The Greeks had two meanings for it: ‘eu-topos,’ meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos,’ meaning the place that cannot be.” The exile is left to wonder if he can ever find home again, or if home has become that good place that cannot be. Thinking back to Memorial Day, a friend asked I wanted to come celebrate. I turned down the offer: “Sometimes it feels less lonely to be alone.”

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Six Months in Bondage

As a sophomore at Northwestern, I took a writing class called Autobiographical Writing. We had to read “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner. We wrote three essays on whatever personal story we wanted to share. I wrote one essay on how dating mishaps seemed to define my life. My opening line was, “Most people could not tell you the exact moment they fucked up their lives.” I swore to be edgy. Professor Hougen made me get permission from my peer editors first. Hougen also didn’t think I used enough similes. So I circled all of them – three per paragraph, on average – and brought it back to her to be re-graded. She gave me the same grade. Another essay was about growing up without a father. My peer editor said my opening paragraph was the best thing she’d read in college. It went without saying that the rest of the essay didn’t live up to it. I don’t remember what the third one was about.

People say that hindsight is 20/20. As a superficial aphorism, I couldn’t agree less. I don’t think we are much better at teasing out the foundations and factors and motivations driving our behavior when we reflect on them than we are when we do it in real time. But the closure that comes with retrospection lends an undeserved confidence to that analysis. Our belief in our self-understanding swells up like a knee sprain. On the other hand, though, I do think the patterns in our life become easier to see when they are laid out behind us. If we squint hard enough it becomes possible to make out distinct shapes from the chromatic blur. Whether we are glimpsing reality or just another play of shadow puppets is a difficult question to answer; it is telling, however, that I have been writing variations of the same essays for the last ten years.

Another essay I have written several times has been about struggling with depression. This is a paragraph from one I wrote in 2007. The swearing, again, tells you how seriously I wanted to be taken.

Perhaps the hardest thing about depression is the knowledge that when you are depressed, your perceptions about life and living are the most accurate they’ve ever been. You see things suddenly for how fucked up and shitty they really are…. The depressed are afflicted with an honest view of things, and it sometimes makes them want to die.

I don’t remember what combination of stressors stirred together to mix that cocktail. It seems important that I wrote that as the weather was turning cold and snow was starting to fall. I can remember typing those words on my grimy white MacBook, looking out over the pond behind the student center, watching the intramural volleyball players plow accidental rivulets in the snow on their way back from Erickson.

It would be six years before I was filled up with that sort of depression again. (Although I don’t like that image. Depression is less a filling up than a letting out. Think of a slow leak on a tire. But it is hard to convey magnitudes in that way.) And once again, I don’t remember my stressors. I just remember that the weather was turning cold and snow was threatening to fall. I was lying on a couch at a friend’s house, my cheek pressed against the leather cushion. “Only Hope” by Switchfoot came on Pandora; it was the first time I’d heard it in years. As I made out the line, “When it feels like my dreams are so far sing to me of the plans that You have for me over again,” I became aware of warm water pooling around my cheekbone.

In church last Sunday that I realized I’ve lived in bondage these last six months. Pastor Steve teased next week’s message, quoting the verse he’ll be preaching on: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” It is one thing to call yourself free, it is another to take off your shackles. Perhaps it is beyond me break free on my own, but the chains holding me to the millstone aren’t depression. They are pride and shame. Pride, that I should be good enough and strong enough on my own. That I can beat this alone. That I am my own salvation. Shame that I am not, that I need help and support and encouragement and love. Shame that I have to ask for it.  In that same essay, I wrote, “Depression makes you turn from the mountain and wonder why the landscape is so flat.” Turn your head.

The Man Who Invented Orange Juice

The man often credited with being the father or modern advertising was a Texan named Albert Lasker. Lasker worked for the Chicago firm Lord & Thomas since turning 18, first as an office boy and later as a salesman. When he turned 32, he purchased the company. Lasker was one of the first ad men to use copy to persuade people to purchase a product rather than simply describing what it did. Lasker was one of the men who inspired the creation of Don Draper. (In the first episode of the series, Draper tells Lucky Strike to describe their cigarettes as “toasted.” In reality, this was Lasker’s idea. Lasker also sold cigarettes to women by marketing them as weight-loss aids.) Among his other sins, he is even credited with the creation of the soap opera.

Lasker

In 1907, the California Fruit Growers Exchange (CFGE) was producing a surplus of oranges. Americans at the time didn’t know much about citrus fruit. Demand was low. Few, if any, orange producers were able to turn a profit. They hired Lasker in the hopes of convincing more Americans to buy oranges. His solution was simple albeit, at the time, revolutionary. To sell more oranges, Albert Lasker created orange juice.

I have been thinking lately about the various ways we market ourselves. When we apply for jobs. When we meet new people. In dating. When angling for promotions or power or any number of other things. Sometimes we can’t make a sale because we don’t believe in our product; sometimes we can’t make a sale because we don’t know how to communicate its value. But sometimes we are sitting on the raw materials for a product that doesn’t yet exist but people soon won’t be able to live without. Lobster used to be fed to prisoners because ordinary well-to-do folk refused to eat them. That’s the lesson of Albert Lasker. Sometimes what we perceive as valueless could, with a little creativity and the right pitch, be a source of great wealth.

Don Draper and the Art of Loneliness

1.

In the pictures available for Victor Frankl, his hair is combed straight back and he’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses that would have been very much en vogue these last few years. Fankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who had the great misfortune of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied land. According to UCLA psychiatrist Paul Puri, “back then the common wisdom of the time was that if you take away people’s food and shelter and everything else, they’ll devolve into animals and they’ll tear each other apart to survive.” But Fankl witnessed something different. “They were very generous with each other, and they gave food to each other even when they were starving.” Frankl and his wife ended up at Auschwitz. She did not survive. This is what he wrote about her in his 1959 book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

“The salvation of Man is through love and in love.” To pursue salvation in any other form is, to borrow a tired metaphor, hitching rides on sinking lifeboats. And it’s the best way for me to understand Mad Men’s Donald Draper.

2.

I don’t know if Donald Draper is running to something or running from something, but he is always on the move. He goes to war in Korea to get away from his abusive familial life in Pennsylvania. He hounds Roger Sterling until Sterling gives him a job. He is always pursuing the perfect pitch, and when the afterglow of a sale wears off and his discontentment resumes, he seeks satisfaction in sexual escapades. According to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Donald Draper represents the “split message” given the American male. “You are told that you, to be attractive, on the the one hand you have to be a Little League coach, and PTA guy, great husband, great dad; on the other hand, you are supposed to smoke as much, drink as much and get laid as much as possible. Those two messages are being sent at the same time.” Draper is the existential dilemma that arises from trying to be everything other people are telling you to be.

But that is not the only duality in Donald Draper. Externally he is a man that has everything we are meant to want: a high-paying job, considerable power, a beautiful wife and children, a luxury car. But internally he feels the sort of loneliness that Mother Teresa described as “the most terrible poverty.” Aaron Vallely takes it a step further. “A state of loneliness is not something we share in conversation with each other, something seen by some as a weakness, concealed as embarrassing and shameful in our hard culture of success and popularity. Loneliness is an anonymous heckler, a merciless colonizer, a savage presence.” Donald Draper believes himself  to be not only alone, but fundamentally unknowable. Whether by happenstance or design, Donald Draper is a placeholder for our broader discontentment. He enables us to ignore our own riches and focus on our poverty.

In Don’s quintessential Kodak Carousel pitch (seriously, watch it), he talks about the dichotomy between the “new” and nostalgia, and how a Greek copywriter named Teddy taught him to harness them in advertising. “Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Don doesn’t need the new to create an itch: he is constantly agitated by his own existence. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again…. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

3.

Love is the ultimate goal to which Man can aspire. Bertrand Russell put it another way. “Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.” In a bizarre way, both Frankl and Russell turn love into a version of the calamine lotion that Don references. Is love the capacity to know bliss when we have nothing left in the world? Is love our means of escape from loneliness? They are right, of course, that love offers these beauties and benefits. But that view is something like saying the value of a car is in its heated leather seats. It misses the point entirely. I don’t mean to sell either man short: I don’t think that’s the ax they were grinding. And it’s a beautiful thing that the image of Frankl’s wife gave him strength and invigorated his will to live. Love, properly understood, is our Salvation. But the pursuit of love, the pursuit of feeling loved, could just as easily be our destruction.

I promised myself that I’d never use this oft-quoted passage from The Four Loves by CS Lewis, but it fits. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To revisit Frankl, “In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Don Draper

Nazi Spies and the Problem with Gossip

In the summer of 1943, a dead British soldier had drifted onto shore near the Spanish town of Huelva. He had a briefcase chained to his belt. His wallet identified him as Major William Martin, a courier for the Royal Marines. He had a receipt for an engagement ring in his coat pocket, along with a photograph of a woman in a swimsuit, a letter from a creditor, and a ticket stub for a play. A sealed envelope contained a letter addressed to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer in Tunisia, and it discussed the thrust of Allied strategy for the impending invasion of Southern Europe.

By 1943, the Allied forces had beaten back Nazi tank divisions in North Africa and were planning to cross the Mediterranean. Would they invade through Sicily, as Mussolini and a number of Hitler’s top generals expected? Would they take Sardinia, a safer target but one that was less valuable? Or would they run an end around and invade through Greece, cutting off Nazi supply lines? Hitler suspected Greece. The letter in Major Martin’s briefcase made that suspicion explicit: the Allied armies would mount a simultaneous invasion of Greece and Sardinia.

Major Martin’s documents were passed along to the Nazi spy Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal. Kuhlenthal was tall with a hawk-like nose. He wore double-breasted suits and kept his fingernails perfectly manicured. He drove a French coupe and was said to play tennis “beautifully.” The locals of Madrid called him “Don Pablo.” Kuhlenthal came from a wealthy and prestigious German family. His father was a distinguished solder who rose to the rank of general and served as the military attaché in Madrid. The head of the Abwehr – the Nazi equivalent of the CIA – was a close relative. He was also part Jewish. This made him, as journalist Ben Macyntire notes, “frantically eager to please, ready to pass on anything that might consolidate his reputation.” Kuhlenthal needed to stay as far away from Germany as possible. Giving the Fuhrer good news was the best way to do that. It didn’t occur to Don Pablo whether Major Martin’s documents might be fake. He declared them authentic, and passed them to the next man up the chain.

That next man up was Baron Alexis von Roenne. Von Roenne presided over the intelligence branch of the German army’s high command, what was known as the Fremde Heer West (FHW). Von Roenne had what Macintyre describes as a “mystical reputation for divining and predicting Allied intentions.” Hitler himself thought Von Roenne to be infallible. Von Roenne was both short and slender and looked like a banker, but he was a Word War One hero and the recipient of the Iron Cross. “Hitler had implicit faith in Von Roenne and in his reasoning ability, and seems to have liked him personally,” says Macintyre. The feeling wasn’t mutual: Von Roenne intensely disliked Hitler and was appalled by the Nazi regime. Von Roenne, at every turn, actively sabotaged the Nazi war effort. He helped convince the high command that the Allies would land at Calais rather than Normandy. And though he suspected Major Martin’s documents to be a hoax, he dutifully passed them on to Hitler. “There is absolute, convincing proof of their reliability,” he said.

von roenne

None of us are part of the intelligence community, but we often participate in what could easily be described as social espionage. Maybe a trusted friend is tearfully telling you that your girlfriend is cheating on you. Maybe the talk around the water cooler suggests that the next person up the rung just bombed an important presentation. Perhaps an unnamed source is suggesting who your team will be selecting in the NFL draft. It hardly matters. The problem with espionage – whether it is dealing in classified intelligence or everyday gossip – is we can’t know when it’s been apprehended by a hidden agenda. There are people like Kuhlenthal who pass on secrets because they believe it helps themselves. And there are people like von Roenne who pass on secrets because they believe it hurts their enemies. We want to believe that people have our best interests in mind, but that is rarely the case. Whether or not they actually know the truth is entirely irrelevant. Whether dealing in state secrets or the high school rumor mill, one principle applies: you can’t trust spies.