There’s a scene somewhere at the end of one of the seasons of mad men where Don Draper is told by the woman he is currently dumping that he only likes the beginning of things.
I watched this television show for almost 7 years season by season year by year and all through I did not want to be Don. A lot of people did, a lot of men wanted nothing more than to be Don Draper and at first blush you could see why. Here was a guy who could effortlessly get the girl. Perhaps not effortlessly but the work he put in did not go to waste. He spoke in this muted way, an eclipse of sound and excess of importance that made you pay attentuon. Nobody could give a pitch like Don. Painting the emotion he wanted to make you and then showing you how to arrive there. Since he was in advertising the emotion he aimed for most was longing. This is after all what you want to bring out in people who watch an advert, a longing for something. A feeling that their life is not complete, not right now. A feeling that it could be. Or a feeling that it once was-these were the best pitches in mad men, the ones infused with the feeling that life was once perfect and that that day in the sun with your brother and your sister, that night in the club with your friends and your hope, that ride in the car with your sun and your possibility could always be captured again if only you controlled for x. x being whatever product was being thrown at you.
And that doesn’t even begin to capture it.
Of course men would want to be Don Draper. But there was something wrong with him. There is a proverb I half remember that said something like the worst thing about being rich is that once you realise wealth can’t t make you happy you begin to think that maybe nothing can. If you watched Don you began to think that maybe nothing could. As the run-up to the last episode began I watched some of the episodes that stood out in my memory the most and those that stood out in other people’s memories (the internet will give you all types of lists even without looking.) There was one recurring theme, a golden thread that ran through all the history of Mad Men. Don Draper was a sad man. He could walk away with the most beautiful woman in the room, make the most emotionally rich ad pitch you ever heard, fix a broken sink as the man of the house stared helplessly on and do it all with a cigarette in his mouth but….
Many, many years ago I watched face-off. There is a moment in the movie where John Travolta is talking to Nicholas Cage who currently inhabits the face of the villain whose spirit resides in Travolta. He tells him “but you’re just not having any fuuuuun!!” it’s the classic Joker needling Batman moment. You could have everything but if you’re just not having any fun what’s the point of it all? And even now as I go through a shaky catalogue of scenes and episodes in my brain I can’t remember Don having any fun. His drinking was not the kind that resulted in him laughing his ass off and having a great night. It resulted in him ending up in drunk tanks, it found him waking him all wept out, it wiped out memories of nights and days as if the earth had just blinked away some of his life. It was necessary the way he drunk. It seemed to come with a sense of relief, like letting the cap off a balloon but there was never the sense of anticipation.
Many Kenyans when they pick up a bottle of liquor and before they splash it around in the glasses that it’s going to be served in slap its bottom three times with their palm or their elbow. Three quick slaps. Something that signifies the beginning of this too. There are a thousand bullshit reasons for why this is done starting with cracking the seal, shaking the spirit, abusing the alcohol. I think it’s because it’s fun. It’s a break from the normal, a drink is. A drink is a way to escape the ordinary and mundane that life throws at us every day. Alcohol is a not-so-secret door to a better life and before we enter there is nothing wrong with knocking. Knocking in a way we won’t for soda or juice or milk or anything else. We don’t pour our liquor like its bitter tasting water. We treat it like its special; we announce its arrival because such a secret the whole world should be in on.
Don would never do this. With a withering look he would make everyone feel silly for this. Alcohol without the joy, sex without the fun, life without the happiness. This was the theme of Don’s life. New wife that he truly loves and can’t help cheating on and then he takes a drag of the cigarette in bed and tells his mistress that he needs to stop doing this. That was one of those moments in mad men that blew me away. There was an opportunity for change but he had tumbled back into who he always was. A man too weak to stop himself from doing the things he loathed. A man self-aware enough to hate it and want to change. A man strong enough that he could give word to his intentions. But that’s not what intentions need, they need action and inaction is the thing we are most capable as human beings. The same problems, the same promises, the same piss-poor attempts, excuses and iterations. Round and round and round again.
I wanted to be Roger Sterling. I wanted to be able to spout off the lines he used to with no pause for thought. Definitely one of the wittiest people ever put on the screen. Every time he came on there was a reason to smile “when God closes a door he opens a dress.” There was a childlike and frankly wondrous quality to the way he looked at the world. To the way he tackled it like it would bend to his will. Maybe having enough money to throw at the problem is much greater grease than we like to admit.
Of course like a child Roger broke things. It’s easy to break things when you are a child. To drop plates and shatter cups. To somehow crack that inner silver lining in a thermos. Children don’t really see the consequences of their actions and maybe they don’t remember them. Happiness comes at a cost and maybe that cost is the happiness of others. The ability to be happy after disappointing the people around you, the strength to find more joy in yourself when the ones who gave you joy walked away one by one. This is a difficult thing and maybe it’s the sign of a selfish man. Maybe only selfish men are happy in this life. If you really look around at the world you are living in and realise that people are dying by the droves because they have no water and are still able to be happy maybe there is some selfishness in you. Unhappiness is what this world demands of us. Misery and pain are the most common of currencies so when you feel happy in yourself, with yourself, with your lot in life it means you are turning your back on a lot of other people. You aren’t trying to feel their pain; you aren’t doing enough to alleviate it. You are being a child and you are being selfish and I’ll tell you what more than anything I wanted to be Roger. You can bet your last gold coin that he would take that liquor bottle and hit it with all he got before giving a speech so hilarious everyone bought him a round at the bar. He was having fun.
Rewatching some of the episodes of Mad Men last week i remembered reading or hearing somewhere that it’s important to read books at different points in your life. A book that told you something at 14 will tell you something very different at 40. It may tell you more of life, or less. There may be a character there that you loved and that you come to loath. Things hidden from your understanding, outside the realm of your experience are suddenly crystal clear because life happened. It happens with everything, a song, a movie. It happened with this TV show.
There is an episode where Don’s wife runs away from him. On a trip to…somewhere she ducks out and leaves him because he was Don, and Don could really be a horrible human being. He gets home shook with worry but not chastened at all. Not apologetic. Sure that he was in the right. I remember something like that happening to me, the feeling that something you had was lost because of something you did. The feeling that things in life are so fragile that shaking just a little can cause them to break is a disorienting feeling. It leaves you far outside yourself. You question your decisions and you assign some of the blame around. Anger can burn but it may be better to let it burn out before it burns things up. And I’m not even 30. I can imagine that in the life I have ahead things will have higher stakes, that the pain that will be caused to me and the anger aroused in me will be stronger and purer than anything I’ve felt before. There isn’t to my way of thinking any anger and frustration as strong as the one you feel towards somebody who your life is hitched to. Somebody you chose or life chose for you. Somebody who knows just where to hit and just how to gouge. I get scared of it sometimes. There is of course the light of companionship, the happiness it can bring. But nothing in this world is not also potentially its opposite.
Don would get up and go sometimes. In the middle of a meeting, of a pitch, of the workday. Roger is once told Don walked out of a meeting on Tuesday and nobody has seen him since, “yer he does that sometimes.” He would just leave and get on the road. On a trip to a place where he felt…even he could not say. He just needed to get out. Life is claustrophobic, we can all agree to this. The older you get the more it boxes you in. this may not be true of all people but it is true of most of us. As someone who i can’t just now attribute this to said once the web of alternative futures gets smaller and smaller. It’s less open, it’s more planned. It’s less fun, it’s more routine.
Whenever I’m on Thika Road and I see those signs that say Moyale is only 800 kilometres away I feel like some devil put them there. I understand what Don did when he left. If I could without repercussions, if I was rich enough or good enough at what I did that I didn’t have to also be a reliable I know I would take that road. Keep going until there was no more going and only then turn back. Maybe he was running away from something. Maybe there was just something he was longing for, something he thought he could get out there. And I feel that sometimes, wanderlust, the need to take a walk, a trip a flight. To go somewhere nobody knows me and see who I really am.
Longing is one thing we all love to do. Longing is even better than having it doesn’t come with the disappointment that accompanies everything we actually get. It’s a memory of happiness, and a promise that happiness can happen again. Human beings are happiest in memory after all. The present is not a time to be happy in; it’s a time to be remembered later as that time when we were happier. Longing has the beauty of no consequences; it allows us to explain away our misery. A sadness that we all have that may be part of how we are made. As long as we long though we can say that when we get that thing we will be happy. It’s almost happiness. It’s the closest most people get except maybe Roger, he knew what the present is.