A Day in the City

Woke up late agin. 12:30 I think. Got on the mobile device to hit up a friend of mine I was suppose to meet earlier in the day. Eventually I get it together and pour some coffee and smoke a rolled up cigarette. Man have I been hitting the smokes lately. After sufficient waking time, I hop on the bike and ride the Metro over to the City.

I’m late. Can’t seem to be on time anymore, not that we ever set a definitive time. He’s already been to the park we were going to meet at, come home and gotten ready for a nap, sunburned. I drag him down to let me in to his living space filled with anti-capitalist, anti-state, and generally anti-society art and literature strewn all over the place. This has become a comfort zone for me, a reprieve. Big common area, tables and couches, and a general do-what-you-like attitude pervade. (It’s gone?)

We walk to the park (his second time today) gabbing about the meaning of privilege and its effectiveness in shutting people up who would otherwise resist vs. encouraging those who currently wouldn’t have without it. Looking back, it amazes me how fluent I’ve become in the lingo of the anti-caps – it literally just streams out my mouth when I relax with friends.

We approach the hilly park full of young and colorful people grouped up into small corpuscles. Each little crew has managed to separate themselves from each other by establishing a common distance between them that could probably be measured within a margin of error of a few inches. I make sure to comment on the lack of consciousness in the park. Only now (writing this) am I taken aback at the strangeness of myself commenting on the “consciousness of the masses.” Remembering the days of blissful indifference takes concerted reflection; my self-confidence, together with a willingness towards self-criticism, has entrenched a defiant stance that I’m happy to keep.

We lie on the grass and talk – it’s getting hotter. We’ve done this before. Sprawling out a few zines and books on the ground between us, philosophy of the European flavor plus what some might call “ultra-left” pamphlets, and begin. He’s a declared egoist, anti-civ guy and I’m fine with it. We’re past he initial pointing out of obvious hypocrisies and ironies; we know the situation we’re in, the systemic impasse. We speak together precisely because of this, because we can see the composition of forces constricting us, and we’re willing to change it. It is a question of how at this point. The fuel to light the fire already exists: we need a trajectory.

I speak about the labyrinth metaphor and its connection with another article that was laid on me by a mutual friend. One was about the labyrinth of the history of science & philosophy, the other about the labyrinth of a situationist’s dérive through the city that begins and ends with a undeveloped hint at “the occupy thing”. In a dérive, the city does the guiding. The specificities of the urban environment are supposed to do the directing, while the ambience invokes and provokes the participants around. The article seemed to suggest the entrance and exit to the labyrinth of the city lay in occupying the square, with so much history, geography, and ideas mashed in the middle. He drops me another article by the same author about negation and ethics. I would read it later that night in my bed.

We muse about civilization, humanity, the Earth, the police… On the way back we agree about the clarity to be found in the revelation that there is an enemy to position oneself against – an enemy with its vice grip on the future. But I stop and launch into another improvised digression on the choosing of one’s enemies. An antagonism born of revenge against the lowly denizens appears trite within the context of the thoroughgoing disintegration of the system of the Earth by the system of Capital. One’s enemies tell much about who one is. Yet we cannot seemed to get beyond the police.

Having family obligations I must depart. We have discussed enough words and theory to chew on until our next meeting. After all, he’s facing a legal battle over his living space that demands clarity of language. The pain of departing from my friends had grown noticeably more acute since things have died down. So much so that within the last half-hour or so, a feeling of forlornness dawns on me early and we tarry about his space.

The spot has since been evicted. The building was bought and they were kicked out of the city by the new dollar-eyed landowner. I don’t often go to that part of the city anymore.

I arrive late for the show. The doors have closed and I will not see the play that my family has invited me to. Instead I grab a beer at a sports bar and watch the end of a baseball game. An old gay man stands at the corner of the bar and talks about his 15-minutes of fame: he was arrested at the Supreme Court of New York to protest for gay rights and I eat it up. He spoke of the arresting officers not knowing where to take him, so they just kept leading him down the macabre catacombs of the Supreme Court building that eventually turned into a sandy basement. I remember the intentionally soft voice of his – like a children’s story reader enrapturing little kids – as he repeated “going down, down, down…” I get bits of the article my friend gave me in-between him, the game, and the cheerful tourist couple to my left. I make a note of being in between an old man having already lived through his activist glory days and an out-of-town couple looking for something novel and distinct about this city.

When I left the bar I stopped to pick up some tobacco on the advice of a particularly hostile homeless man who for some reason took a liking to me. I give him a cigarette when I come out and we talk briefly about something forgettable. Making my way down the street I find that the show is over and everyone has left. Unable to contact my family for lack of internet access, I linger a bit longer in the Metropolis and talk to some more homeless people. I even shout at a security guard trying to move a guy away from his employer’s doorway, but this guy is too feeble and incoherent to realize what I have done for him.

I wander around the roads a bit more, biking up hills and avoiding speedy cars. I expel some more energy into the city streets, not really sure where I am going. Stopping at a small convergence spot near a public transit section, I roll another cigarette and tentatively look for another random conversation. Someone starts talking about my bike and we compare them with flattery. The slightly larger than usual sidewalk is surrounded by fast-food restaurants, a large neon-lit bar, a fancy hotel and a chic department store. There are pockets of people grouped-up and traveling in different directions. They scan each other, make short loud cries of laughter, and try to maintain a sense of direction. I stand with my cigarette observing everyone with my buzzed and oddly curious gaze. “Creepy dude” they must be thinking. Finally, I decide to go home. When I arrive, I feel grateful for having a house.

Many messages are on my mobile device when I get home. My family is wondering where I am. My absence must be felt considering my righteous intensity as of late. I reply to one: “I’m not coming, don’t worry about it.” I pause at this last word and wonder about whether to go with “it” or “me”. “Don’t worry about *it.” … “Don’t worry about *me.” …

I decide this isn’t about me at all, it is about the situation.

(Written in summer 2012)


Mad Men’s Commune

In episode 4 of the current season 7 of Mad Men, one of the central characters in Roger Sterling has a run-in with a hippy commune in upstate New York. Sterling’s daughter has run away, leaving behind her five year-old son to find happiness in a new living situation. The episode brings up some simple yet potent points about the family structure and hierarchical structures in general. The presence of hierarchy and the father figure have been important themes of contention throughout the show, as seen in the intricate dynamics of working at a New York City firm and living in a 1960’s white suburban household at the height of American power. Generally, the show has handled the trials of women and minorities in a male-dominated world very well, with moments of subtle and not-so-subtle imbalances in gendered power relations. But this episode was especially eye-opening for its giving the viewer a glimpse at an alternative living situation outside of the city and suburbia that actively tried to counter family-based power structures. At stake is the morals attached to such a patriarchic family structure and how well Mad Men’s commune subverts them.

Roger Sterling first gets word of his daughter Margaret’s flight to utopia at his office from both his ex-wife Mona and his son-in law who married her. The two are in conflict about whether to even enlist Roger for help and Roger ends up siding with his son-in-law: he should go as the husband to fetch Margaret back and reunite the family. Mona tries to push Roger to head the retrieval party: “A father is a powerful thing”, she says. But Roger abdicates and agrees with his son-in-law: “Let the man be a man!”, he fires back at his ex-wife. But the husband fails and instead of convincing her to come and resume her duties as mother he gets in a fight at a bar and winds up in jail. So Roger and his ex-wife journey through beat-up country roads to try and pull their daughter off of the commune and back into her family role as a mother.

The two together fail as Mona is far too insistent, laying guilt upon her daughter for abandoning her son (breaking the family line, so to speak), but Roger is far more suave. As an accounts man at his advertising firm he is responsible for smooth-talking clients and wining and dining them to give the diplomatic “human-touch” to the business interaction. Some of his one-liners are pretty sharp, but more importantly he has also experimented with LSD many times. As we learn from previous episodes in the season, he has been shacking up with a hippy girl and sharing the bed with random drop-outs of the sixties era. So when he sees the commune his daughter has been staying at, he takes the opportunity to get a taste of the country-hippy culture to go along with his greater goal of bringing back Margaret.

In the car ride, the family-based morality of where Margaret came from is layer bare:

“It was my fault.” Mona says, “She only had one job and that was to find a husband and she mucked it up.”

The two seem only capable of diagnosing her problems as a wife or a mother or a daughter. The family nucleus is the bedrock of happiness, and any deviations from that path to familial bliss can be corrected by family intervention.

Mona goes on: “She has been a little bit strange lately…” “And a little bit philosophical?” Roger interjects. “Yes…” she replies, “I thought she was finally happy.” End scene.

The blindness of the two to is exacerbated by the fact that they divorced when Margaret was young. They come charging out of the city to pull their daughter back to the family, having already displayed the harshness of their own separation . The family is their conceptual limit of the good life, despite their own failures. A bad conscience is shared by everyone in this episode, a perfect tool for keeping all personal and social problems within the realm of the family.

When they arrive, they find Margaret has changed her name to Marigold and she is steadfast about staying. She stares at them with big bold eyes in layered ponchos and moccasins, dishing back the guilt they try and heap on her. Mona demands be responsible and devote her life to her son, when Marigold reminds Mona of her own depression and heavy drinking problems. Roger mostly stands by and offers money – another sign of his absence as a father and devotion to his work.

“I’m tired of accepting societies definition of me,” says Marigold. “I don’t pray to that anymore.”

Her rejection of the family comes with strings attached: the morality of individualized guilt and innocence is kept in breaching the family structure. When the two parents try and convince her to come back, the moral arguments they use are spun right back in their face. It becomes a stand-off over “who is the worse family member?” instead of a competition of living styles. Mona gets fed up and leaves, convinced her daughter is lost, while Roger stays to try and meet her half-way.

It is the short, yet impactful lines on the porch of the commune that lay bare the motivations for leaving behind the family life. They peel potatoes in an old white farm-house with a few other escapees, passing around a joint.


The man who first met Roger and Mona and tried to direct them away says, “There is no hierarchy here man.”

Roger fires back, “Believe me, there is always a hierarchy.”

Another proclaims, “we do things by true consensus here. If we can’t all agree, we come up with something else.” Marigold adds on: “Everyone does what they want.”

“I haven’t felt this at one with nature since I was in the Navy.” Replies Roger.

Roger is critical of the commune’s logic, but he hangs with it throughout the night. He and Marigold rest in sleeping-bags outside, staring up at the stars and chatting. Eventually, she says, “I’m really glad you’re a daddy.” (not “I’m glad you’re *my* daddy”). Margaret is Roger’s only child, so she subtly cuts off her position in the family line but simultaneously affirms his. She’s looking for a way out of family-centered life, but only seems to be able to judge Roger based on his position as a father. He either fails in his duty as a father or is praised as a father, a kind of judgment that Marigold is seeking a way out of, yet having a hard time voicing it.

In the middle of the night, Roger is awoken by Marigold running off into the house with a man. In the morning, the same guy who first greeted Roger and Mona at the entrance to the commune walks out of the house right before Marigold. This is also the same guy who had short words with Roger about hierarchy on the porch. It isn’t much of a leap to say that Roger’s presence on the compound was a threat and the hippy-guy made a play to steal away Marigold from she and Roger’s night under the stars. This is perhaps an instance where “everybody does what they want” becomes troubled: desires and power-plays will forever disrupt a simplistic idea of full-consensus.

When Roger wakes up he is through playing games. He forcefully grabs Marigold and leads her away from the house to leave. He picks her up and carries her kicking and yelling, like a patriarch asserting his dominion over his daughter. “I don’t care what you want”, he says before making his move. In the struggle he slips and they both fall in the mud. He makes one last plea: “How could you just leave him? He’s your baby.”

Marigold responds by essential saying “you where a bad father, it’s your fault as well.” She speaks about the times he was never there, working or screwing around himself without paying any attention to her. “Your conscience must have been eating you alive.” she says. The two only seem to be able to hurl blame at each other. Whose fault was it for ruining the family? is the only question they can seem to ask each other.

Earlier in the season, Margaret has an awkward lunch with Roger in which she forgives him ambiguously. He’s confused as to why, but it is clear: Margaret is seeking the moral high ground and forgiving him prematurely for his sins. The communication between the two is in shambles. They are both experimenting with the radical attitudes of the sixties by taking drugs, having multiple partners, and living communally but are unable to relate to each other’s experiences because of the father-daughter relationship. Both are kind of ‘bon vivants’ but cannot find a way to share those life-altering moments together because of the moral imperative imposed on the family structure. He’s the father and has obligations as head of the household (mostly by providing security in wealth) and is reproached for not fathering enough. Marigold is chastised for abandoning her family role as mother. Her flight to the commune comes off as a moralistic rebellion against her father in Mad Men, framed in terms of who is in the wrong? who is to blame?


The family structure is exactly what communes help subvert and attempt to find a genuine alternative to oppressive patriarchic life and its morality. When the two parents go out to the rustic commune full of hippies to pull their daughter back into that life, they run up against logic constraints that prevent them from adequately expressing themselves to each other. They throw around guilt to justify their actions or else the father resorts to forceful aggression. Even in his attempt to understand the culture and have an experimental moment his Marigold, the father-figure haunts Roger, coming from Marigold’s own voice and the (soon-to-be) dominant hippy-guy’s subtle challenge.

Breaking down those moral-familial relationships is difficult in a society like our own, but Mad Men is unclear in its message as to whether this can or should be done. They often laud the responsible father for reassuming their role in the family as teacher and provider when they have previously been indulging. The father figure haunts the country commune house in this episode, but must it? Living in such a way can seriously and effectively change the patriarchic structure, but all we get is the same moral assertions about who’s family role is performed well and who has a bad conscience. This episode could stand as a warning that escaping patriarchy is more difficult than idealistic youths from the late sixties in America thought, but it could also be a way to load down Roger with blame for not being a good father.

Where the show’s writer and director stand about hierarchy, the family, and communes I still cannot tell. Is Roger asserting the universality of hierarchy merely coming from his embedded and privileged role as successful business man and father? Or is the commune’s free-love idealism and unwillingness to use “technology” misguided simply misguided? Of course, assigning blame to one or the other – the father/businessman or the idealistic hippies – would be to fall for the same moral logic that keeps tripping up Roger and Marigold. I would pinpoint the failure of Roger and Marigold’s relationship there on the moral-ground, but it is unclear as to whether that is the intended message. Seeing as they are both experimenting in the burgeoning counter-culture but cannot communicate except in those terms (“pray”, “conscience”, “forgiveness”), the break-down of their relationship is due to the vain attempt at achieving moral purity or pure happiness instead of just spending time together.

The moral-familial system is the real culprit for preventing Roger and Marigold from sharing their fun-loving experiments in liberation together. This episode was especially powerful in showing this because the commune tried to create an alternative to it, but, like so many communes of the era, failed in confronting the specter of moral purism – one used chiefly for the desire to control populations – but also one that Roger’s business in advertising is helping to perpetuate in the image of the happy, consumer family.