Notes from Kansas, Part 2

I am once again back in Kansas, visiting my parents. My days are mostly filled with trips to Bartlesville for my Dad’s radiation, several trips to grocery stores and bakeries throughout southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, and driving around Independence, with my dog, looking at old houses and buildings. My Dad is doing well, all things considered.  

I get a little bored, our entire day revolves around a 10 minute radiation session. That’s not a complaint, it’s kind of beautiful really. Ten very important and hope filled minutes. 

I like the downtime. I like taking my dog Ricky out with me for a walk or a drive. I take him to Riverside Park and we walk around the fountain. Tonight, after two days of rain, the sun had returned, with a few lingering dramatic clouds. The trees a little greener, the sky bluer, I wondered if maybe this was the most beautiful spot on earth. Had I really travelled the world in search of paradise when all this time it was yards away from me?

I’ve said it before, but I can’t believe that after dreaming, moaning, bragging during my entire childhood that I would someday leave this hick town, that I am back, in awe of its beauty. Also, charmed by peeling paint on old Victorians, haunted by houses in varying states of decay. 

When I am in New York City, another place I once called home, I walk and walk and walk every day that I am there. I try to walk down every street and avenue. I ask myself when I was last on this block? Have I ever been on this block? I’ll see a structure, something noteworthy like a 100 year old church or a miniature park or a just a bakery and wonder, did I know about this and forget or never notice it before? 

And here, in my most hometown of hometowns, I find myself doing the same thing. I drive down streets just for the sake of taking it in, recovering old memories, like the SCF lock-ins at the Nazarene church or the carnivals that blanketed the Washington school playground or that library that I spent so much time in growing up, reading about people who lived in faraway places. 

Also, though, I discover new things, like an apartment building or a miniature park or a bottling plant and wonder, did I know about this and forget or is this completely new to me? 


And while I drive, and sometimes stop and take pictures, I wonder, why am I doing this? Is this going to make me smarter? More successful? What am I gaining here? 

To be honest, I don’t know. The other day, a friend, in all kindness, commented, “Your sincere wistfulness at the past is a lovely memory of the midwest.” I had to laugh as I wondered, am I the Miss Havisham of bloggers, weeping for a time that only lives in my memory which means maybe it never existed anyway? Am I the sentimental guy buying Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel slide machine? 

From that Mad Men episode: “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’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”

If you’re still with me, I reckon it’s because you have a place that holds that kind of weight for you too. I know I can’t say it better than Matthew Weiner, or Jon Hamm, but this week, these drives, these discoveries, these memories, they have fortified me. 

Maybe just as all children, whether they are close to their parents or not, must eventually make peace with the people who raised them, we must all make peace with the places that raised us too. Am I the only one who sometimes blames a weakness or failure in myself on the town that raised me? That thinks, I would have had so much opportunity if I’d just been raised in New Jersey?!?! (If I am the only one, don’t tell me, let me wallow in my delusions.) 

But this place, it’s pretty special. And not just because of Miss Able and William Inge and that first lighted baseball game. Much of what I am today is because of her. And just as we carry the people we love with us in our hearts, even when separated by miles and states, we carry with us, any place that we have ever called home. And Independence, I know this now, will always be my home.


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Happy Endings

betty-draper-coca-cola-mad-men.pngI’ve fallen into a pattern. In the last few months, I sit down to write a blog, write a few paragraphs, sometimes several paragraphs, and hit a wall. I go back and read what I’ve written and shake my head. Whatever it is I am trying to say, I can’t say it. So I save the draft and tell myself I will revisit it and then, of course, I don’t.

I started a blog on Sunday, before the Mad Men finale aired. I wanted it to serve as a prediction of sorts of how I thought the series would end. I had a title, Happy Endings, but again, whatever it was I tried to say, it did not come together.

The last few days, I have been sick and also I have been embroiled in the Mad Men marathon AMC hosted in the days leading up to the finale. I DVR’d every episode and had finished about 45 of the 92 before the finale aired. There was something about my feeling under the weather and my compulsion to binge re-watch these episodes that sent me into a bit of a downward spiral. In the last few days I have been rendered unable to talk about anything other than the lives of Don and Betty and Peggy and Joan and Pete and Trudy and Sal and Lois and Meredith and Miss Blankenship and well, you get the idea. And I’m not sure, but until this morning, I thought I’d lost my sense of smell forever.

My friend Linda texted me on Sunday with commiseration about Mad Men‘s end. She added that we needed to get together because it’s been awhile since we’ve hung out. (She lives 1.5 miles away from me.) I said, “Yes, let’s hang out soon.” But all I could think was I can’t make plans with people until I’m finished watching these 92 episodes of Mad Men. You know, priorities.

I could talk about the ending of the show, what satisfied me, what disappointed me, what confused me. But, you know, there is that chance that you haven’t seen it yet. Also, you’re not reading this to get my review. But I will tell you what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning, after I’d had a night or two to sleep on it.

On Sunday, between Facebook messages and texts, I had several conversations about how the series would and should end. I enjoyed hearing the theories, the hopes, the emphatic declarations of love or hate for Don or Betty or Joan. (Although, seriously, who could hate Joan?) I was in a Mad Mania and I loved it. Two of the people I communicated with on Sunday were friends from high school.

I’ll call them Bob and Emily. Now, I think it’s already been established, but it took a very, very long time for me to ever feel like I was more than just a Nick Carraway in someone else’s story. I’ve always felt like one of the Watchers sitting around watching the Do-ers do. I had been friends with Bob and Emily independently for several years when they got together sometime during high school. In true Nick Carraway fashion, I probably had a crush on both of them. Okay, not probably, I did have a crush on both of them. They both were emblems of everything I ached to be: good looking, intelligent, slim, funny, popular. Of course, there was something else about them that made them special, and it’s the kind of thing I never identified until I was in my 20’s, but, simply put, they always seemed to be in cahoots. Like there were a million things that made only them laugh and they could try to explain it to you, but it wouldn’t make sense. It was just between them. And while other high school couples might have been more glamorous or photogenic or romantic, Bob and Emily were what my high school picture of love should be. I’d go to sleep dreaming that my Bob or my Emily would come into my life. And we would be that couple. In cahoots.

Of course, Bob and Emily broke up when we were all in college. They each moved on, as far as I know. But for me, the Nick to their Jay and Daisy, and because I’ve spent little time with either of them in the 30 years since high school, I always see them together, whether they should be or not. Like Don and Betty, forever intertwined. I didn’t say that to either of them. These are not characters in a tv show or a novel or a movie, these are people.

In watching the early seasons of Mad Men these last few days, I was reminded of something that I had forgotten. We rooted for Don and Betty for a long time. For nearly three seasons, we all hoped that they could work out their differences. It broke my heart Saturday night to watch that scene where Don weeps about his childhood after Betty shows him the box. She rests her hand on his shoulder for comfort but you see in her eyes, it’s too late. She can’t love him anymore. And I sat there on my couch, weeping, because their love was real and it was never coming back. And, okay, small spoiler, but in the last episode, when Don called Betty and in the midst of their conversation, he called her Birdie, I lost it. It was the end and I, I don’t know, it just made me so sad.

Of course, I wasn’t just sad for Don and Betty. I was sad the show was ending. I was sad for Sally. Sad for myself because it had been a week and I was still sick. (Do I have lung cancer?) I was sad that couples that I thought should always stay together were not together anymore. Also, at that point, I was sad and worried that we were 20 minutes into the last flipping episode and Don was still in California.

I texted Linda later to tell her that she and a handful of my other good friends all came into my life the same summer that Mad Men did. We all met in a class. So much has happened to me since the summer of 2007. Most significantly, of course, I met Eric, who is a little bit Don, a little bit Peggy, a little bit Roger, a little bit Betty, a generous dollop of Joan and even a dash of Sal. And our relationship is as complex, imperfect, and on some days, jet-set, as any that Matthew Weiner has ever created.

Okay, this is the point where Don would make Peggy stay late, even though it’s her birthday, and they would drink and smoke and fight until they got the pitch for the meeting, until it all came together. You see, whatever it is I am trying to say here, it’s not exactly cohesive at the moment. It wasn’t cohesive yesterday when I worked on it either. Maybe I need a mouse (or a rat) to dart through my office for this to come together.

But just maybe I learned something from Mad Men. Maybe a neat ending is not always necessary, maybe sometimes it’s not even possible. Maybe, like in a phone call, I could just close by saying I’m really going to miss Mad Men. And you’re on the other end of the line saying, “I already knew that. Me too.”