Saturday, December 25, 2010

Unwrapping a Psyche on a Dark and Stormy Christmas Eve

Happy Holidays! Or something! 
               art by Justinian Ghita
    (Dec. 25, 2012) Nathan knew that the "yuletide season" was of no interest to me, so he asked if I'd be willing to come in and work with him on Christmas Eve Day. Everyone else had a four-day weekend, and we needed to do a final edit on a presentation for a prospective client.
    I was delighted to oblige. He was the creative vice president of one of the country's top advertising agencies, and I wanted to know him better. In the month that I had worked there, he had stood out as a particularly gentle, respectful and humble man, even though it was his job to keep 200 employees -- many of them neurotic and ruthlessly competitive, as well as creative -- devising one stylish ad campaign after another. He was the great soother and smoother. I would never have guessed that he saw himself as Steppenwolf: "My face was gray, forsaken of all fancies, wearied by all vice, horribly pale."

Oh Sigmund: Look at what you've done to our hearts!
       And Nathan would never have guessed, I assume, that I was here essentially to spy on this venerable ad agency -- one whose witty and eye-catching campaigns I had studied in college. 
    I was lying, in a sense, to find truth, as I obtained internships at several top-tier ad agencies for an investigative article that had been commissioned by Harper's magazine. This was the third of five such internships.
    I told those who hired me that I wanted to learn the ropes of the big-time ad biz. My true intent was to obtain a behind-the-scenes look at the manipulative techniques inherent in advertising, and to examine the mindset of those who devised the strategies. 
    Which of our psychic weaknesses were they seeking to exploit, and how? 
Don't be afraid. All you need is the right deodorant.

    To what extent were they using current scientific research about ego, peer pressure, social taboos and gender norms to lure consumers to make one choice over another -- choices that might not be in their best interests? 

    Did they regard us as "Pavlov's dogs," who could easily be trained to salivate on cue?
    Were the advertising impresarios able and willing to appeal to our subconscious fears and weaknesses? What gimmicks were in their repertoire to mold our sense of what was beautiful, prestigious, effective? 
    How did they create a sense of need for a new product that had never been needed before? 

    The material I had been getting was so good, I could barely contain myself. In brainstorming meetings with writers, account managers, researchers and outside experts, I could hardly take notes fast enough to keep up with all the revealing remarks being made, some of which were merely cold, callous and cynical, while others bordered on the sinister (especially those about "getting" children and inculcating "lifetime brand loyalty" in them). 
They were in their own universe, clinically looking down at us.
    Many of these advertising hotshots seemed disdainful of their fellow human beings, who could so easily be "conditioned" to run out and buy whatever the agency was assigned to sell. They laughed quite a bit as they concocted  "little tweaks" that could make all the difference in their quest to commandeer  consumer behavior.
    I had expected this to some extent, of course, which is why I proposed the article to Harper's. But the assumption that this sort of thing goes on is quite different from witnessing it firsthand. The reaction that hit me over and over again was that these people were traitors. They were serving "the other side" (the  titans of industry). They were selling out "their own kind" (you and me) in exchange for a glamorous job and great pay. 

    I never got over how unsavory this Deal with the Devil was. To say that it made me feel dirty to be a part of it sounds melodramatic, but it did -- even though I was there to help my "own kind" rather than to betray it. 
                                                            by Lloyd Gill
    I guess I may have felt even "dirtier" than I otherwise would have, because I found myself tempted to get swept up in the creative and scientific game of finessing and seducing the masses: to move them, change them, control them. Just for fun! Just once, and then I won't do it anymore!
     I could see that it might become quite an intoxicating power trip to become a winner in this high-stakes environment that was helping the Grand Capitalist Marketplace to become ever-grander.
    These weren't bad people, of course. Although many of them were ambitious and aggressive to an extent that I found cringe-inducing, they were enjoyable on a personal level. I'm sure that in other contexts, they were loving, generous, even moral.
    This was probably the first time in my life that I had knowingly been exposed to what is now referred to as compartmentalization: the ability have one set of ethics for one part of your life and another one entirely for the rest.

    Nathan, from what I had been able to tell, hadn't been forced to do any compartmentalizing, at least not since he had been promoted 15 years ago. He didn't have to engage anymore in all that scheming that went into compiling a knock-'em-dead, mess-with-their-heads ad campaign. Instead, he managed those who did. He was the Big Daddy who unruffled feathers, who provided the shoulder to cry on, who defused competitive antagonisms and who generally set a tone of warm collegiality in the office.
     It seemed to me that when he walked into a room, the whole vibe changed. He both exuded and elicited warmth. 
    For me, it was magical. I was already developing an anxiety disorder, which was a condition I wouldn't hear about for many years. I had begun to use alcohol to medicate myself for it. But for me, Nathan's very presence was medicinal. Just seeing him reassured and calmed me. I could focus. I could breathe. He smiled at me across the room and winked.
                                                 photo by Studio 54
    I soon learned that I wasn't alone in my affection for this man. His underlings were positively rhapsodic about the key role Nathan played in their work lives. He gave them the golden conviction that they would get through one more wacko, high-stress day and do some elegant work in the process.

    On Christmas Eve Day, Nathan and I spent the morning and early afternoon in the conference room. We read through the lengthy proposal that was designed to attract a new client -- oh great, a major fast-food company -- and proofed the scripts for several TV ads.
    I was astonished at my good fortune in getting to see how an agency sells itself. If that "pitch" had been submitted as a term paper in an undergraduate class, I would have given it a C+ at best. "Sophomoric" seemed like a good word to describe it.   
    This firm undoubtedly could hire the brightest people in the business -- the cream of the crop. So why was their product so mediocre that it was almost laughable? I guess they thought that the Reader's Digest folks -- all those poor, plain people who were unfortunate enough to live outside of New York City -- were stupid animals who could be prodded one way or another, using hardly any electricity. The proposal provided in-depth analyses of such profound issues as which color -- red or yellow -- the drive-through workers' hats should be. I felt like I was in a "Saturday Night Live" skit. How could anyone take this stuff seriously?

    Nathan and I had a long, late-afternoon lunch in a Japanese restaurant. I had never been into one of those little private rooms, where you sit on the floor and are waited on by adorable Geisha girls. We talked and talked, mostly about our families, after Nathan  introduced me to yet another delightful alcoholic beverage: Saki martinis. They sound terrible -- and they are, as first. Just hang in there, and you'll  learn to appreciate them, especially if you have a plate of vegetarian tempura as well. 
                                         by Fabian Perez
    We were rosy and lighthearted after a couple of hours in that invisible world of rice-paper walls, incense and flowered satin.
    It was getting dark and starting to snow when we emerged from the restaurant. I was looking forward to walking the five miles to my apartment on the Upper West Side. It was under the influence of alcohol that I had discovered the pure exhilaration of striding around, feeling my muscles working, my posture improving and my mood elevating. I walked all over town, day and night, even in downpours. People shivering under the awnings along Broadway would call out, "Get over here, you crazy thing! You'll catch pneumonia!"
    But Nathan asked me if I'd mind coming back up to the office for a moment. He wanted to show me "something" (his etchings?).
                                            etching by Marion Chapman
    Normally, this kind of situation would have immediately flipped my "Uh oh" button, and I would have backed away, with my warning lights flashing.   
    I trusted Nathan, though. He was one of several brilliant, sensitive, faithful Jewish husbands with whom I would be honored to work during my New York City days. He wasn't going to put any moves on me, even if he wanted to, which I don't believe he did. 

    The always magical view from Nathan's  24th floor corner office was heavenly at night. Through the floor-to ceiling windows, we could see the glittering skyscrapers all around us. The snow, which had been swirling, was now hurling down, as if someone on high were throwing a fit.
    "I've never shown these to anyone -- not even my wife," he said. 
    I didn't like the sound of that. I always side with the wife.
    He hauled out several large cardboard cylinders and began unrolling paintings on canvas. I could see right away why he might be uneasy about showing them to people. They were riveting, but most were disturbing -- some of them extremely so. 
    There were about thirty of them, but I only remember a few clearly. One depicted Nathan's  mother sitting in an easy chair. She was being horrifically electrocuted by her reading lamp. Her hair stood on end, and her face was distorted with hideous panic.
    The one I recall most vividly showed a young boy in an idyllic setting -- something between a forest and a jungle. He knelt next to a river and was holding up a large rock, getting ready -- apparently for fun -- to smash a small green reptile. Behind him, a massive, dinosaur-like version of the little reptile loomed, ready to exact revenge. 
     I think the painting hit me especially hard because I've always, even as a child, had an inexplicable sense of cosmic justice: The pain you inflict will not go unnoticed by the Universe. At some point, and perhaps in a seemingly unrelated fashion, you will be punished. I guess it's the Karma thing.

    Nathan and I were kneeling on the floor as I examined one masterfully rendered artistic work after another. There were rage and anguish, guilt and self-hatred, humiliation and futility in them. The paintings  revealed the antithesis of a man who was so loved for his serenity and for what we all construed as a reverence for humankind. His style ranged from classical to cubist to impressionistic. A few of them were quite prescient in depicting the aesthetic of death metal music, which wouldn't emerge for nearly a decade.
    I'm usually a talker, but my memory is that I was basically speechless as we crawled around on the carpet to view his exhibit. I was shocked, so much so that I almost felt as if I were in an altered state of consciousness. I was both drawn to and repelled by the
primitive, howling domination he depicted, and the twisted sexuality,  and the wrenching gore. 
                                                      by daz-01
    It was devastating to imagine that these paintings reflected how he really felt about life and himself. It was even more devastating to realize that he felt so alone, emotionally, that he had been unable to share his pain with anyone. 
    I am inclined to cry at moments like this, and I was surely on the verge of it, but I pushed it back down firmly. I didn't want him to regret exposing me to these images. 

    Why did he pick me with whom to share his work? My theory is that alcohol had a lot to do with it. Also: He knew I would only be in his life for another few weeks. Thus, there would be no "witness" or evidence against him during his ongoing inner courtroom trial for being a weak, cruel, perverse beast.
                                                           by Goratory
    He might also have intuited that I was pretty messed up myself -- under the cool, convivial persona I had cultivated -- and that I would more readily relate to his feelings than people who were psychologically healthier.
    I asked him why he had kept this collection a secret, even from those closest to him.
    "It sounds childish, I know, but I'm afraid that if they saw this, they wouldn't love me anymore," he said. Of course that wouldn't happen, and I think he realized intellectually that it wouldn't. But he apparently had a deep-seated need to be praised and trusted. His "real self" could complicate matters. He might very well lose his heroic status and be just one more bright, attractive man. It might cause some people to recoil in horror, and he feared that kind of revulsion more than anything -- even death, which terrified him (and me) (It's amazing what you can learn over lunch).
                                                              by Guttural
     "But Nathan, anyone would understand that these just show a small part of you," I told him. "The generous and decent parts aren't negated by them." I tried to convince him that all of us have deep wells of feeling that we repress for self-protection. He just happened to have the talent to express them. 

    The paintings were so powerful. In spite of their wretchedness, they were beautiful. I wished that he could be proud of them.
    Most of all, I wished he could be proud of himself.
    But I know that self-esteem is hard to come by, unless it's instilled in you at an early age. You can spend your whole life being successful, prominent, productive, but it's never enough: You are still a piece of crap.
    The picture of Nathan's mother being electrocuted said a lot about his formative years. There were others that were much more harrowing. 
                    by slavoj zizek
    Some of us always feel, in our hearts, that we are frauds. We are convinced that if people knew our real selves, they would run like hell, screaming, "You're disgusting! You're ugly!"
    Do you ever feel that way?
    Try writing a blog, in which you reveal your humiliations, afflictions, insecurities, moral compromises and irrational fears. What you will learn about yourself and others is interesting. 
    When we parted ways, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 52nd Street, Nathan thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for allowing him to share his pain. I thanked him, with tears in my eyes, for the honor of getting to know him better.
    We stood there for a few minutes more, debating who should be thanking whom -- who gave and who received -- and who should feel honored and who looked more attractive with tear-filled eyes. Then we laughed, and I walked home, high on alcohol and on an encounter I knew I'd always cherish.
More gore -- the Christian kind.
     It didn't occur to me until decades later what an irony the whole episode had been: Two atheists came together for what was, at least for me, a true religious experience on that "holy day" of Christianity.
    Nathan is retired now, living on a houseboat in Mexico and painting full-time. I know that he has regular exhibits in New York and Sao Paulo. I hope he is still painting with honesty, as he was back then, but I hope even more that his Truth has changed after all these years.

The paintings used for this story are not Nathan's, of course, and his name isn't Nathan. Everything else is true.