Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mad Men: Would You Work With These People?

A little bit of fun eye candy for you from the good people at Television Without Pity.

Tomorrow is Halloween. My son is going trick-or-treating as Boba Fett and I am tagging along in black with a black velvet cape. Like anyone on the kiddie route is going to get me as Joan Holloway.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Apres aujourd'hui, le deluge

Basically after this afternoon, I am going to be very busy with grading midterm exams and assignments. I have annotated bibliographies coming in from three of my classes, midterm exams from two of them, and a hot batch of poems coming tomorrow. I'll be busy trying to get these graded for the rest of October. Midterm grades for the semester are due by October 31. Some young 'uns will be getting tricked instead of treated this year!

So what does this mean for the blog? Well, shorter entries, more focused on Mad Men. I missed the first run of "The Jet Set," because of malaise. I want to get back on the ball with the newest episode, which was awesome. So, I have to run and eat lunch, then teach my classes, then prep for the Weight Watchers meetings I'm leading this week, and get some knitting and sewing done. Ciao!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading Slumps--What do you do when you don't feel like reading?

Sassymonkey over at has a great post on "reader's slump." What do you do when you self-identify as a voracious reader, you have a pile of books to read, and yet, you don't feel like reading them?

I have felt this way at times, and for me the issue was if I felt like the reading was required in some way. In graduate school, I experienced slumps when I felt like all I was doing was reading, and the reading was someone else's idea, not mine. I got through it, but it was with mental temper tantrums.

Currently, I experience reading reluctance when it comes to student writing. If a paper or creative assignment is unbearably bad, for example, I just can't stop reading it the way I could put down an unengaging book or article. I have to finish it, and worse, think about it. I have to come up with at least one good thing to say, as well as carefully phrased criticisms that will help the student writer improve. This is more mentally exhausting than reading a well-written book about a difficult subject, such as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Also, and I hate to say this, since I started reading and reviewing books for my blog, I feel like it has transformed reading into a chore. When I pick out books for the library, the question behind my selections is usually, "Can I blog about this?" This transforms my style of reading. Normally, I am a very fast reader, but my retention is not always great. Now that I read with an eye to reviewing, I slow down my reading, so I can understand the book and come up with some sort of judgment about it. This takes time and effort, and thus reading starts to feel like a chore again.

If you blog about books, do you feel similiar? Does reading go from joy to chore, from escape to obligation?

There are times I say to myself, "I don't have to do this. I could quit blogging about books." But I won't quit, darn it! What does keep me going is the idea that someone reads my reviews. If you do read my reviews, please post and let me know what you think!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mad Men: The Inheritance.

Nada. Nothing. Or not what you expected. Pete and his brother get nothing instead of the anticipated fortune. Pete is threatened by his ice-cold motherwith being disowned if he and Trudy consider adoption. Pete has the pleasure of telling her that her husband left her nothing, that he spent her money on other people. Ha ha ha.

Betty sees her father after his latest stroke. What does she inherit? In her dad's lapses of memory (and a really uncomfortable lapse of judgment), she inherits her mother's role as hostess and wife. She doesn't get the items that matter to her--her mother's portrait, the ottoman with the birds, the jardiniere--and complains that she needs to put her name on objects. Well, duh, Betty. People aren't mind readers; they can't give you what you want unless you tell them. Just like Don keeps asking you what he should say or do, but in that case, you're smart to withhold information and make him sweat.

Depending on whether she reconciles or not with Don, Betty may also inherit the mantle of head of household chez Draper. She has a talk with Helen Bishop (the divorcee and mother of creepy Glenn, Betty's prepubescent admirer) in which she admits that Don has moved out. They talk about the effect on the children, and Helen sighs, "The hardest part is realizing you're in charge." I think this is what Betty has been dodging. Being in charge means you are fully accountable to yourself and others, such as your children; it means making difficult decisions on your own. It means you can't lie about in your housecoat sipping red wine in the morning, feeling sorry for yourself because that's not helping your children's emotional development.

Speaking of children's emotional development, we have the return of Helen's son Glenn, older, unhappier and still stuck on Betty. As the two sip Cokes and watch cartoons, does he seem to be inheriting Don's role as head of the household? After all, he is wearing one of Don's T-shirts and Betty seems more concerned about Glenn's comfort than Don's. Betty seems more open and at ease with him than she does with her own children. I think she is touched by the idea that he has a crush on her, but I also think she would be definitely disturbed if she allowed herself to see that crush has a sexual component to it. It's cute and flattering when an eleven year-old boy says he wants to rescue you, but if you knew what he was fantasizing about doing with you. . . another Ewwww moment for Betty. I was definitely creeped out by his taking her hand and getting closer to her just before Carla returned with Sally and Bobby. Betty does the right thing, relegating Glenn to a child's role (he is supposed to go upstairs with Sally and Bobby to see the new train set) and calling Helen to come get her boy. Poor Glenn gets his heart broken, when he realizes Betty has betrayed him and returned him to his mother.

Pete's bizarre conversation with Peggy: he still totally digs her. She's the only person he can confide all his socially unacceptable thoughts and weird fantasies to. I think he hopes to reignite that disturbing, yet powerful chemistry between them, so he can fully be himself with another human being. It's like he thinks the more shocking the confession, the more Peggy will bond with him. I could see this going to some strange extremes:

Pete: Peggy, I just pierced my genitalia with 600 pins.
Peggy (a moment of shock and disgust then a polite social mask of stunned
Pete: The funny thing is, it doesn't hurt. Well, it does, but
it's also pleasurable. Kind of like the stinging you get after pulling off
a scab. You know that feeling, right?
Peggy: (with her firm social smile)No, I don't pick scabs.
Pete: You should. It makes you feel alive because you feel
pain, yet pleasure in the tingling. Just like I'm feeling now.
Peggy: (the disapproving, you've-gone-too-far-now, mister face and tone):
This isn't appropriate to talk about at work.
Pete (crushed, sneering): It's so easy for you.

Peggy, on the other hand, is done with him. She handles him just like she handled Father Gill when he got too pushy about personal matters in "A Night to Remember"; polite parries to keep the weirdness at bay. Unfortunately, this means no burn-up-the-office hot sex between Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser, which is a waste of some perfectly smoking chemistry.

So what did you think of this episode of Mad Men? Let me know!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mad Men: WWJD, What Would Joan Do?

Earlier this week, I almost lost it in the world literature class I was teaching. I wanted to give my students advice on how to improve their oral presentations. The first thing I told them was that they needed to give me a written version of their report right after they finished presenting it. This led a student to state that I hadn't made that clear in the syllabus. So I showed them where I stated that requirement in the syllabus. The student wouldn't give up; she said it wasn't clear that I wanted an essay and that's why she thought she could hand in her notecards as a "written form." I was exasperated because I had explained what I meant by written form the first day of class, the day I had students sign up for topics, and I have office hours, an mail address and an office phone number so they can contact me if they have any questions about an assignment before turning it in. Even after stating this, I had another student ask, "Do you mean a printout of our PowerPoint slides?" No. Another student griped, "So you want us to do another paper." No, I want you to transcribe your presentation into an essay form, not to write on a new topic or do new research. The student who started this kerfluffle still persisted in saying that the directions still weren't clear and that I hadn't stated there would be a penalty for turning in the written form late. Good God, I was this close to calling them all idiots. These weren't first-year students. They are sophomores and juniors, in the honors program at our university, no less. One student did state that he felt my instructions were clear, and that as young adults and honors students, they had a responsibility to pay attention, read the syllabus, and ask for clarification before completing work. But he was the only one. I cut class short because I was about to get loud and sarcastic. Later, after I vented with a couple of colleagues, I cooled down, wrote some very clear instructions that I posted on our class's web page, and still felt uneasy. That's when I asked myself: What would Joan have done?

I thought about how authoritatively Joan Holloway moves throughout the office. She not only has control of the secretaries, but she also keeps the men in line. Think back to the recent storyline involving her and Don Draper's new secretary, Jane. Joan has no problem informing Jane to dress more appropriately, and she tartly informs the ogling men "to pitch their tents elsewhere." Then I think of how well she handled Jane after she and the men had snuck into Bertram's office to see the painting. Jane lies twice (badly) and Joan doesn't back down. She makes it very clear that Jane has crossed a line. The closest she comes to losing it is when she suddenly decides to fire Jane, but even then her anger is controlled. Her decision was emotional, spontaneous and questionable, but she delivered it with icy control.

Then there's the great confrontation scene between Jane and Joan, when Jane has returned back on Monday, despite being fired. Again, cold, controlled anger as Joan asks Jane what she is doing there. Jane starts off terrified, but gains confidence as she not only implies Roger saved her job but he has confided in Jane that Joan is known for emotional outbursts. A nasty little dig. Fortunately, Joan does not lose it (thus falling into Jane's trap and proving her exagerration of Roger's statement to be true), but coolly lets Jane know she knows what the situation is. On some message boards, people thought Joan was going to give Roger an earful, but I don't think so. First, their relationship has been over for almost two years; Joan doesn't have that hold over Roger anymore, so he won't listen. Also, Joan is the model of discretion and self-sufficiency. Unlike Jane, she won't run to somebody to fix the problem.

So what could I have learned from Joan?

First, stay cool. When that student brought up all the legalistic squirming about the syllabus, I should have not engaged in extended rationalization and explanation. I should have said it was on the syllabus, if she had had questions she should have brought them up before her presentation, and if she still had a problem she could see me after class about it.

Stay on track and control the conversation. When the instigator tried to make it sound as if she were speaking for the class, I should have reminded them I already described what I wanted, it was their responsibility to pay attention and read the syllabus, and they had ways of contacting me if they had questions. Then I should have shut that line of discussion down, and moved on to the next piece of advice (which I never got to). Instead, I felt blindsided, exasperated and I talked too long and too much, which leads to

Keep it short, sweetie. A nonacademic friend had to remind me of this. As an English professor and writer who delights in language, I can pile it on. I make metaphors, try three different rephrases of the same statement, invent insults, etc. I needed to keep it short and simple and stop repeating myself. If they didn't get it the first and second time, there's little reason to believe they'd get it the third and fourth.

Don't let them see you sweat. Sometimes a calculated display of anger works, but in this case I hadn't planned on getting angry. I should have stayed calm and cool. I could feel my heart racing, I could hear my voice getting louder and tighter, and I knew I needed to leave or I would get nasty. Bad idea.

Show them who is boss. This can make me uncomfortable because sometimes students do raise legitimate concerns and sometimes professors do act tyranically and unfairly. But as a general rule, I do think I am a fair and accomodating professor. If I make a mistake, I admit it, fix it and move on. But I have to remember that this is my classroom; I have proven myself throughout my undergraduate and graduate courses, my job interviews, my tenure process, and my conference and publishing record. These students have to prove to me that they are worthy of being called honors students, and that they are capable of doing the work.
Make them sweat. Remember how terrified Jane looked when Joan came right at her? She knew she would have to explain her presence to her. Joan was furious at seeing her, but she didn't lose control. I need to keep calm and turn the tables on these students. Generally, I don't call on students in class; I let them volunteer to speak. But only two or three students in this course speak up regularly, so I think I'm going to call on the quieter ones. If anyone complains about the "unfairness" of this, I'll state that it is perfectly fair for me to assume that they have read the material andthey are prepared to answer a question about it. After all, they are honors students, aren't they?
Do you find yourself wondering what certain characters from Mad Men would do in real-life situations? Do you find yourself using them as models for how(not) to behave? Let me know!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

National Sewing Month Ends; Coat Progress Continues

Today, we bid adieu to National Sewing Month, but I have just barely begun work on the Soho Coat. I have cut out the pattern pieces and have marked all but the front and the sleeves. I might be able to squeeze in a couple of hours of work on it this week, but I'm not sure. After all, Halloween will be coming up, and my son and I still don't have costumes yet. We're thinking Mario and Luigi. . . .
What are you sewing for Halloween?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mad Men: Six Month Leave

"Six Month Leave" seemed to me like a pause to take a breath after the dynamic past two episodes, "A Night to Remember" and "The Golden Violin." But it's not only a release of tension; it's also gathering up the energy to set us up for some more powerful developments in the lives of the characters.

(photo courtesy of

For example, after all the recent focus on the women, we have a boy's night out that reveals how the men at Sterling Cooper react to the loss or threatened loss of what defines them as men. First, loss of a job. Freddy Rumson is being let go in the nicest possible way because he has crossed the line when it comes to liquor consumption. Roger and Don send Freddy off in a haze of booze and illegal gambling. Freddy's own sense of loss--"what will I be without my job?" he asks--isn't taken seriously by either men. A sense of impending doom seems to engulf Freddy as a taxicab takes him home, possibly to a long suicide of alcoholism.

Then there's the discussion of Don's personal situation, living apart from his family. Roger claims he's been where Don is now, and all it takes is "the grand gesture"--I assume, a tearful apology, a false promise, some nice jewelry or a trip--to get back in Betty's good graces. Don's admission of no sadness but relief instead, could be either real or macho posturing, but it seems to floor Roger. It's as if Don has opened up the possibility that one doesn't have to stay married at all, and as we know about Roger, he can't tolerate the comfort and familiarity of marriage. He's all about the chase. So Roger stupidly uses Don's early morning ramblings to justify leaving Mona for Jane. Jane! of all people! Foolish man, invigorated by the chase and novelty-- he is only setting himself up for a series of marriages to pretty young things who will suck him dry.

We are given some historical context to set the date (August 1962)in people's reactions to Marilyn Monroe's death: The teariest women are those who see their looks as a major asset. Jane snivels about never taking pills and gets sympathy from other secretaries. Joan, more reflective and closer to Monroe in age, takes a moment to lie down in Roger's office. She sees Monroe as a victim of men's fantasies and exploitation, eventually discarded by them when they were bored. During this scene with Roger, I thought of the "Happy Birthday Mr. President" footage--Monroe is almost scary in her ghostliness and breathless, catatonic state. Think of the flurry of books and documentaries about the rumors of a Kennedy conspiracy to kill her before she talked and stage it like a suicide--is Joan prescient in her statement about the world destroying Monroe?

I also vividly recall Peggy's clear-eyed assessment of Pete after hearing about Freddy being let go. When he explains to her that this is how business is done and how people advance, you can see her thinking, "yes, that's true." But when he lays his hand on her shoulder just a touch too long, you can see the revulsion flicker across her face. It's like she is thinking "One time that would have turned me on, but now it feels disgusting." Elisabeth Moss is a very thoughtful actress; you have a sense of a real intelligence behind those eyes, even when she (as Peggy) is trying to hide her thoughts and feelings.

Back on the home front, a depressed Betty sets up her horsey friend Sara Beth and the young guy Arthur at lunch: I see that as spiteful payback for Sara Beth going on about her devoted albeit boring husband, her sexy dreams of Arthur, and how Betty is so lucky because Don is so perfect. The setup also allows Betty not to divulge her own tenuous marital situation during a friendly lunch. I loved how mechanically she moves about the kitchen as Sally and Bobby make cookies, and how she takes the phone off the hook without any hesitation so her friends can't find out why she hasn't shown up. There's something evil and also pathetic about setting Sara Beth and Arthur up for a possible affair; it's cruel to put them in a scenario in which they will make the wrong choice, but it also shows how she can't get at the person she wants to hurt most: Don. So she's given up on kicking Bobby and now she's manipulating other people into punishing situations instead.

Finally, there's the encounter between Don and Betty when he brings the kids back home. He asks her repeatedly what she wants and she won't tell him. I don't know whose side I'm on at this point. On the one hand, I want Betty to drop the passive-aggressive approach and tell Don how things will be from now on. On the other, I know--and I think Betty knows, hence the refusal to say what she wants--that Don isn't asking because he really cares about what Betty wants. He just wants a set of instructions to follow so he can keep his facade of the perfect family life intact. If Betty were to tell him, "I'll take you back on these conditions: home every night by 6pm, a babysitter every Friday so we can go to the movies, free 24-hour access to your desk, and you in nothing but briefs doing yardwork every Saturday," he would accept it, because he could follow the directions without any real emotional commitment. But Betty won't give him such an easy way back home.

So let's take our deep breath, and see what happens when this show exhales on this thread, shall we?