Front of the Back

Me climbing stairs

There’s really no good reason anyone should be doing this. 

I stood at the X on the RFID-chip-enabled timing carpet getting ready to climb a 36-floor, 780 step building not one time, not two times, but three times. 

“5…” The starter said, “4… 3…” I felt my insides clench. “2… 1…” I clicked the start button on my watch. 

“GO.”

I lifted my right foot up two steps, grabbed the handrail with my left hand, lifted my left foot and placed it two more steps, prepared to double-step the whole way up. 

My thighs felt like wet concrete from the nerves. My feet felt like they weren’t ready for a set of stairs, let alone my first steps in life. They felt like stumps. No toes. Just stumps. But here I went. 

Why?

It’s the end of, and what I hope is the beginning of, a process of mild, incremental improvements made over the course of five years. It’s tackling an event that got in my bones as a kid and then I left behind for 25 years. It’s a midlife comeuppance, but not quite a crisis, like Boomers before me. It’s being alive. It’s knowing, perhaps for one last time, before it’s too late to know.

It’s about blooming late.

This all started in the fall of 2014, a few years after what I call my “Welcome-to-midlife injury.” I was in reasonably good shape at the time and decided to bound up the stairs when I heard, from outside and inside my body, my right calf POP

The injury put me on the shelf completely for a few weeks and when I went back to running, the calf would tighten up, feel like it was going to tear even worse, and the pain wouldn’t subside. It was as if someone had sewn a horizontal stitch through the middle of my calf. The injury robbed me of my joy of running and I found myself slowly backing off running while slowly putting on weight. 

My exercise habits changed, but my eating habits didn’t change with it. It’s not unusual, those who say such things say.

So, with a two-month old daughter at home, this unhealthy 38 year-old one-time average-athlete-of-a-man with tissue damage in his calf, a total cholesterol of around 300, borderline hypertensive-level blood pressure, a BMI of 27ish, had finally had enough. 

I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going for a run.” 

My first steps felt like I was a seal hopping on its tail—the fat bouncing up and down my body, weighing me down, and I was not moving very far on each push off.

I made it about a block doing this thing I came to call “shufflejogging” before my right calf was so tight I could barely move. I stopped to stretch it. Then, I shufflejogged another block or so and had to stretch it again. I made it to the end of my street, maybe another ½ mile, where I had to stretch my calf yet again. I turned back, my body already feeling the strain of the run, stretching my calf again in the same spots before returning home.

It was a mess. I was a mess. But it felt great.

Looking back, perhaps I deserved the injury. 

For years, I had been burning both ends of the candle. I had been working crazy-weird hours for far too long and living like a perpetual 22 year-old throughout my late 20s through my mid-30s. I was childless and had no real responsibilities to anyone besides work and found myself out on the town too many nights a week. The nights I wasn’t out, I was staying up too late, having drinks on my own, and then was exercising pretty heavily. I also wasn’t getting enough sleep. 

In retrospect, it’s sort of amazing I hadn’t been injured before my calf went pop.

I was using all the freedom I had in the world to do whatever I wanted, and then the one thing that truly brought me a feeling of freedom—running—was taken away from me. And so here I was, trying to shufflejog my way to freedom. 

After that first run, I started running more, but nothing too seriously. My calf was constantly on the verge of cramping or feeling like it was going to tear again, limiting me to running 20-25 minutes at a time with some regularity if I stopped to stretch along the way. To stretch, I used a wooden electricity pole at the same spot each run on the way out and the way back. You had to watch where you placed your hands because there were a thousand staples stuck to the pole, built up from decades of lost dog and garage sale flyers.

I often wondered if my neighbors saw me stretching and wondered what my sad, bloated self was doing out here and is he trying to push the light pole over?  

My fitness goal was modest, though, and I had to learn not to care what others thought. I just wanted to get back into a little bit of shape, take it slowly and, most importantly, not get injured again. 

It took months of shufflejogging before I no longer had to stop to stretch my calf on a run. Instead, I had to stretch multiple times a day when I wasn’t running. My calf was a source of constant upkeep and is still a point of concern to this day.

About a year after my first run, I was feeling nervy and signed up for a 5K. The farthest I had run to that point was a little more than two miles. I was deeply concerned I wouldn’t make the full distance without needing to walk. I remember worrying aloud about it to a co-worker at the time. 

She was supportive. 

It was nice of her.

I showed up at the race and, nervous as I was, started slowly and shuffled my way through it, finishing somewhere around 35 minutes. I tried to finish with a closing sprint. I felt like I was flying, but from the outside I probably resembled a seal doing a butterfly stroke across a pool of jello. 

I didn’t come in last place, though, which was not something I was exactly expecting, but was a relief and a small source of feel-good energy. Still, it was certainly depressing to be this out of shape and I wanted to tighten the screws a little bit.

For the first time since I started running again, the race gave me a measuring stick of where I was physically compared to others. Sure, just by completing a 5K in my late 30s put me in slightly better shape than the average midwestern American male and while I knew I would never win a race in even my best shape—I’m not that guy— the results gave me some resemblance of aim.  

“That guy is 68 years-old,” I’d think to myself. “How did he beat me? Surely I can beat him. That woman is my age and beat me by 3 minutes, surely I can beat her. How can I be in better shape? How did I let myself get in such poor shape?” 

I would study everyone’s times and imagine shaving a minute or two off my own time. I’d calculate the pace I’d need to run to do it. I’d fantasize about taking an ever bigger chunk off my time and see where it would place me. I would visualize being a respectable runner, about being in the middle of the pack. I’d then figure out what pace I would want to hit and wonder what I had to do to get there. 

Rather than motivating me, though, that thought exercise would often leave me depressed about how much I would have to change, who I was, and ultimately, who I was not.

I am lazy. I work hard at my job, sure, because that’s the thing to do in America. But, I’ve never been the laser-focused person who achieved, achieved, achieved. I’m not great at seeing things through. For example, throughout primary school, I was more interested in figuring out exactly how much work I had to do to get a certain GPA rather than just doing the work and getting a truly good GPA. You could call me an achieving slacker. I did enough to get by, stay in the game, and make my parents happy-ish, but never really went after it. 

This trait baffles my wife. 

I was a partier as well, which started fairly early on in high school. I ran track in 8th grade, 9th grade, and my junior year, but by the time my senior year rolled around, knowing I wasn’t going to the Olympics and having already been accepted to college, I developed a world-class case of Senioritis that lasted well beyond high school. I didn’t run track my senior year and watched my teammates win the State Championship in the 4×400—an event where I was on the fringe of being good enough to have been on that squad. In retrospect, disappointing.

My partying habits stayed with me, like a long tail dragging through the mud. It’s not unusual. But, I couldn’t figure out how to shake the habits. And, a great deal of the time, I loved it. My life was built around these habits. My friends, my social life, my roommates, even my job to some extent. That’s why many addicts can’t stay clean—their whole lives are built around their use of whatever drug they prefer—friends, family, social life, etc.

Knowing all this about myself, the idea of a whole life shift to get in killer shape just seemed like a setup for failure. What did seem doable, though, was making an incremental change or two. Lose some weight, add an extra day of running. Run a few minutes longer on my runs. That felt like a small change I could handle. After that, I could see how I would fare in races. 

Keep it modest, I’d tell myself.

To get motivated, I started looking for 5Ks to run on trails. As I had run trails in my 20s and really missed it, I went with that plan. Signing up for races gave me something to work towards to keep me on some sort of training track because I didn’t want to totally embarrass myself, essentially. In anticipation of the race, I’d again study the results from previous years.

“That guy is my age. He finished in 9-minute miles. He finished 150th out of 250 people. Can I do that? Where would that place me in my age group? Can I get in the top 5?”

Once the race was through, more often than not, I’d land somewhere in the back half of runners, after the good runners and before the absolute worst runners. I was modestly better overall in that my runs felt better and I had more energy in general, but I was consistently placing around what I called, “The Front of the Back”. 

I started looking at more and more results from races to see where I would or could finish and I began to notice a pattern in the finishing times. Not counting the elite runners who would kill everyone and the total laggards who were just walking the course, there were essentially three groups of finishing times with observable breakpoints where there wouldn’t be as many finishers. 

It looked something like this:

The leaders: The top 5%-15% or so of finishers who you’d say to yourself, “Those are good athletes. Whether they’re underachieving or overachieving for their individual ability, they are good.” These are the guys and gals who were winning or placing near the top of deep, competitive age groups (i.e. ages 18-49). 

After the leaders, the cluster of similar times would spread out a bit and drop before the times condensed and clustered again around another group of runners:

The middle of the pack: These are the middle ~40% who are either good athletes in poorer shape, decent athletes in good shape, or middling-to-poor athletes in the best shape they could possibly be in. This pack is where most mortal runners reside. This is the group the race directors depend on to show up in droves to keep an event worthy of having.

And then again, the cluster of similar finishing times would spread out and drop before the times condensed again around another group of runners: 

The back of the pack: The back 20-30% who are either poor athletes in decent shape, good athletes in terrible shape, or middling athletes in middling shape. 

The back of the pack was my jam for a long time. I was finishing toward the front of this pack—“The Front of the Back”—but it was still the back of the pack. No mildly serious runner would ever take me or my training very seriously. To them, at least I was “doing something.” 

Yay. 

The thing about the results patterns is they are particularly true for local races where there is no qualifying time for entry. Whether it was a road race, trail race, a duathlon/triathlon, or a competitive stairclimb, it didn’t matter: There were elites, there was the front pack, middle, back, and then the last finishers. 

In matrix form, it looks something like this:

What this matrix represents in practical terms is it’s easier to move up within a pack than it is to move up a whole pack. Within the pack, a 30-second improvement resulted in a considerable jump in the overall standings. But to jump up a whole pack, I needed to take minutes off my finishing time.

The farther up I looked in the standings, I noticed something of a logarithmic difference between my best and the elite’s best. This is because the athletic baseline difference is just too much to overcome by sheer training alone. Elites are elite for a reason.

Married to that algorithmic difference are the diminishing returns to how much exercise it takes relative to improvement in time. I knew that a little more work would give me quite a bit of improved results, but to make a great leap forward, it would take a much larger amount of effort and time that I just didn’t have or wanted to take on. At a certain point, you’re fighting for improvement by inches, not feet or yards. I was looking for feet and yards. Still am, in many ways.

While I would dream about being in the front pack and believed deep-down that I could get there, the effort required and lifestyle change involved to train that heavily was overwhelming to think through. Thinking about moving up within a pack, however, fit perfectly with my personality and desire to eke out more from myself. I could jump up a lot of spots with a small bump in training. 

And if I ever were to jump up a whole pack, it would need to be one notch at a time. 

It’s important to know that while I do look at the results to see where I place, I try not to get too caught up in where I finish relative to others. Sounds disingenuous, I know. Sure, I would be ecstatic to win my age group, but my goal is to be the best I can be given the constraints of my life and my baseline personality. So, I use the overall results to measure myself, but only as a means to measure myself against my overall potential of what I know I could do if only I had a little more discipline and trained a little bit harder. There’s a difference there.

I also want to see the results to learn about how my training affected my results. Staying in shape keeps me in tune with my true age and my own mortality. To me, that’s a healthy thing. It helps me fight.

If I trained my butt off and came in last place, I have nothing to be ashamed of. The true goal is to be the best I can be given my life, my potential athletic ability, and how much of my potential I use. The results are a guide and benchmark, not a judgment. That’s all. 

I kept at running for a couple years, with some lags here and there, and we welcomed a second child in April 2017. That’s when things got dicey. I was 40 years-old, had a newborn, a child not yet three years-old, sleeping very little, a full-time job, drinking too much, running 12-15 miles a week, and just grinding myself into the ground.

In late August, I got really sick and went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with mono, something I’d had as a teenager. I was so physically burnt, mono re-bloomed in my system. Because of mono, I was forced to stop drinking because the virus that causes mono can cause long-term liver and kidney damage if you drink at all while you’re sick. So, I got sober while I convalesced.

It took six weeks to bounce back from mono and, feeling so much better mentally and physically, I stopped drinking and haven’t had a drink since. 

But, the mono also took whatever gains I had in running. I was dead flat. I picked up running again, but there was nothing there. I had no verve and no speed.

I muddled along for about six months, and in the fall of 2018, took a break for a while because my hips and back constantly ached. This was mostly as a result of lifting my 18-month-old, 25-pound bowling ball of a son up and down a thousand times a day. That, and he gave me a case of hand-foot-mouth disease. 

For the unfamiliar, H-F-M disease is like an old world plague that simply hinders you in all the most important ways, but won’t kill you. You get sores all over your hands, feet, and mouth. I got sores the worst in my throat and the bottom of my feet. To give you a sense of what that felt like in my feet, it was similar to the pins-and-needles feeling you get when your limb “goes asleep”, but the feeling was on max-blast for two weeks. Every step was painful. 

Then, in my throat, I had a dozen open sores. Imagine trying to swallow anything with sores all over the inside of your mouth and in your throat. Drinking water hurts so bad, I could barely take it. Heck, just swallowing my own own saliva hurt. I lost about 10-12 pounds in those few weeks. I put it all back on in about the same amount of time.

After all of that, in late 2018, my dad asked me if I wanted to do a stairclimb—the Bop to the Top in downtown Indianapolis. I did a few stairclimbs in the mid-80s as a child and did one in 2016, but they are an incredibly difficult physical challenge. So, I wasn’t exactly stoked to do it, but it gave me something to shoot for. 

Stairs are miserable. Most people take the stairs as a necessary evil and that’s it. Everyone’s always winded after two flights.

With joy on his face, Leon looked at his friend, Ron, and said, “Let’s take the stairs.” Ron replied, “You mean, instead of the elevator? Yes!”

Leon never said that to Ron. Because no one says that.

With worry to what was to come race-wise, I started my training. I happened to work in an 11-story building and had access to the stairs, which became a boon. I roped in a naive, young co-worker to do the stairs with me and we started by doing 5 laps once or twice a week. Climb up, elevator down. After a couple weeks, we extended it to 6 laps. Then 7. Then 8, 9, and, occasionally, 10 laps. 

I did the Bop and I did OK overall, but placed pretty poorly in my age group. I was still not great because I was coming off of a couple tough years physically. But, something was lit inside me. For the first time, I felt like I was actually doing focused training for an event and, sensing the improvement, wanted to do more. Plus, without drinking, I had more time and energy than I had in years.

For those unfamiliar with competitive stairclimbing (which is most people), climbing stairs is a low-impact activity, high-cardio activity where injuries are uncommon unless you’re really worn down or slip somehow. To boot, stairs give you the cardio burn of running with a weightlifting edge that crushes your lactic threshold because you are lifting yourself constantly against gravity. Stairs are just about the hardest cardio exercise you can do.

Environmentally, stairs are like exercising in your high school detention room. Stairwells are an incredibly spartan environment. There are no windows, no pictures, the walls are typically unpainted concrete or drywall, and they are commonly dirty. Stairwells are the last thing any cleaning crew looks to keep up. With climbing stairs, you have to be OK with process, tedium, and the challenge of just you and the stairs. If the process isn’t enough for you, you’ll quit.

The positive of stairs is you do laps, which gives you the satisfaction of immediate results. After each lap, with a trusty old school stopwatch, I knew exactly how I did and what progress I was making. It’s also easy to compare training sessions. I could see my improvement in my times, and that was energizing. It made me want more. 

After a few months of regular stair training and seeing a marked improvement, I wanted to test myself with something more rigorous and googled for more stairclimbs. It turns out that, in the last few years, the American Lung Association has started doing a series of stairclimbs across the country called the Fight For Air Climb. I found an event a few hours from my home in Springfield, Illinois. It was 32 hotel floors, which are shorter than office building floors by a few feet. Going through the event site, I noticed they had an event called the “Ultimate Climber” where you climb the building as many times as you can in one hour. On a desperate whim to see what I had, I got the last spot of 75 entries after someone dropped out. 

It felt like fate, if you are wont to believe in such things. 

Before the event, I did what I always do: I studied the previous year’s results. Looking through them, I thought I could reasonably finish in the front of the back once again—somewhere around 50th place—and scale the building 5-6 times. I would feel reasonably good about that. (The winner does like 14 laps or something ridiculous.) 

To my surprise, I completed eight laps and finished dead middle in the field: 37th out of 75. For the first time since I ran a trail race in my mid-20s, I had surpassed my expectations. And, for the first time, I had moved up a whole pack. I finished in the middle! 

(Reasonably judged, I finished closer to the back of the middle as there were some people who signed up who were clearly unprepared for the challenge, but either way, I had done it: I moved up a pack.)

Now that I had moved up a pack, a fear struck me: I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to lose the gains I had made. Something else happened, too. My confidence in completing endurance events went up, however slow I would go. Without meaning to, I had cleared a mental hurdle.  

But, most importantly, I didn’t want to lose my precious, hard-earned gains.

As the weather got warmer, I climbed stairs for a while, but wanted to get outside and I ramped up my running. This time, though, thanks to the cardio bump from stairclimbing, I was actually sort of really running.

With my newfound confidence at endurance events, I picked out a few trail races at a distance of 15K (9.3 miles). In terms of difficulty, a 15K on the trails is roughly similar to a half-marathon on the roads, except harder in some ways. I fought severe calf cramps in the first race and did moderately better in a second 15K, leaving me feeling like I had more to give. 

My strategy of slowly notching up was finally beginning to pay off. 

In the fall, I trained for and ran my first road half-marathon, hoping to clock 9-minute miles. I came in at 8:48 miles with my last mile being the fastest—a 7:50 pace—which is something I didn’t know if I had in me any more, let alone the last mile of a half.

I felt better than I had in at least 15 years. Honestly, I didn’t know I could feel this good again. 

A few weeks after the half-marathon, on Thanksgiving weekend, I ran a charity 5K and, based on my half-marathon pace, set a goal of 8:20 miles. I started a little slowly on purpose, aiming for a reverse split. It was a crowded field of about 3000 participants, a little more than half of whom were simply walkers or shufflejoggers. 

I surprised myself and ended up running a 7:40 pace, good for 214th place. I was over the moon. I wasn’t the front of the pack, but for this race, this one time, I was front of the middle.

And yet, I still feel like I have more in me. I can feel it in my legs. I can feel it in my heart, in my body.  

I have a dessert problem, though. I’m not as light as I should be considering my workout load because I love dessert. One thing that often happens when you drink regularly and then quit is you replace the alcohol with sugar. I have a chocolate habit, to say the least. The sugar intake is only after dinner, but I can kill me some chocolate. Dessert holds me back in some ways, but life is still to be lived, I tell myself.

A couple weeks after the Thanksgiving 5K following some easy weeks to recover, I turned my focus to the stairs. The building I work in now is 14 floors, making it easy to get in some serious stair workouts.

So, as I stand at the bottom of these stairs getting ready to climb this 36-floor building three times, I’m staring at the last five years of my life. I’m staring at years of injury, illness, and shufflejogging. I’m staring at bone-dry sobriety. I’m staring at myself. 

I’ve tweaked and tightened my life to get I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since my mid-20s. As I hit another level, I got more motivation. As I had disappointments, I re-thought and re-committed to my approach. I’ve read a ton, studied results, read multiple training programs, and have had some mental and physical breakthroughs. 

It’s been pretty incredible so far.

That said, it’s taken me 5 years to get here and many days are a fight. And it’s not like I’m a 150-pound killing machine with my workout regiment. I’m in great cardio shape, but I don’t have a ton of muscle definition and I carry a little too much fat around my waist because I have that dessert problem. My wife says you can see that I’m in shape, though. So, that’s something.

Even with my recent racing success, stairclimbs are just different beasts. For mere mortals like myself, you never quite know what to expect out of yourself. Plus, I’ve never done this event where I climb the building three times. It’s also been nine months since my last stairclimb.

The morning of the event, I’m realistically hoping to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. I don’t want to set my expectations too high for fear of mega-disappointment later. I would feel pretty good finishing in the middle of the pack and anything better than that will feel great. 

I know, though, that deep-down I probably won’t be satisfied with a middle-of-the-pack result. My ego tells me I’m a better athlete than middle-of-the-pack. My workouts tell me I should be better than that, but that’s why we do these things: To see where you are versus yourself. 

After a lifetime of being blasé about things, I’m starting to get it now. I’m trying to run a reverse split on life, pick up steam as I go, even as the headwinds of life erode my capabilities. I’m not doing it necessarily to beat anyone, I’m doing it because I want to see what I can do. For once. 

This stairclimb is a measure of all of that. 

I ended up finishing 23rd out of 151 climbers. Third in my age group. All three laps were PRs for me. You could argue I was back of the front pack, but judging by the times, I was firmly in the front of the middle, which feels about right for where I am physically.  

The next leap in fitness is the great leap. It’s the hardest thing to do. If I just slowly keep tweaking my approach, I may just get there yet. 

Someone I don’t really admire much, but has some wisdom nonetheless, told me once that it’s not important when you bloom, it’s that you bloom. That feels about right. I’m blooming late, which is better than not at all.

I don’t always know why I’m here at these events, but I know now that I am on the verge of maybe finding it. I’ve grown tired of just trying to get away with things. Or working around the problem instead of just solving it. I’m on the verge of making the breakthrough I’ve been slowly angling towards, but I’m not sure exactly how to get there or what to expect if I do.

But I also know now that all this craziness is not about where I am compared to anyone else, it’s about where I am compared to myself. And if I can fulfill that, I’ll have fulfilled something for once. 

The next step will be not losing it all, either through injury or fatigue. While all blooms slowly recede, we can stay in bloom longer with a little care. One little notch at a time.

Been a long time

I am going to start trying to write again. It’s been a long time and it’s odd to see some of my old writing on this site, but I think there was actually something there that I let waft away.

When I started the blog in 2008, I was fresh out of grad school, had a hard time finding work, was just really starting my career, was single, had no children, and was stuck at my parents’ house as a potentially-overeducated 32 year-old man. I used the blog then to keep my mind sharp and show that I had some writing chops to potential employers or clients.

It worked, to some extent. Once everything got rolling career-wise, the blog almost became a liability and I had nothing to explore because I really wanted to write about politics, perception, and design, which is risky when you’re trying to get a career going. And then, life happened. A lot of life happened.

I’ve learned a lot in the years this blog has been dormant and, in some ways, feel like I’ve learned nothing. Getting older is funny like that.

I have an idea of what I want to write about, but I don’t know how that’s going to go. So, more than anything, I hope this blog is an avenue for me to explore what I want to write about until I find my voice or a topic or a lesson that demands deep attention. We’ll see how it goes. It may be a bit bumpy at first, but I hope to at least be entertaining and perhaps give you something to think about or reflect on as you go about your life.

For those one or two scant souls who may run across this old dustbucket of thoughts and dreams, I thank you for reading. And, please, share it if you like it.

What Happened?

Well, for those few of you out there who check my blog every so often, it’s become pretty clear that I’ve let it languish, set sail, twist in the wind, bleach and dry out underneath the shine of the Internet’s sun, erode against the relentless Internet wind.

Yeah, it’s a ghost town here.

The long and short is that I just haven’t had time to really update this. For the past 18-20 months, I’ve been working two jobs: 1) Full-time Professor, and 2) Practicing Designer. It leaves me little time or energy to gather the thoughts necessary to publish frequently.

Further, a lot of the stuff I’d like to write about, I can’t. I can’t talk about my impressions of my students, my impressions of the current political climate (as it relates to messaging), or my feelings on the world in general as it relates to design, thoughtfulness, purpose, and all that good stuff.

It’s obvious why I can’t talk about my students (unseemly and unprofessional). I won’t talk about politics because most folks can’t separate the medium from the message and I’ve gotta make a living. Ya know? And I simply don’t have the time to dive in to this messy world and the wonderings of purpose, intent, and the big Why. Why not? I don’t want to do it carelessly, without much consideration. That takes time and that is something I don’t have much of these days.

Perhaps when the school year finishes, I will find the time to update this lovely sojourn in word.

Until then.

The Masks of Mad Men

Upon reading a recent article about the role of women as central characters in TV shows, specifically Mad Men, it got me thinking about the show and work and life and what the show is really about.

In the article, they ask the question about whether Mad Men would be as compelling or popular if Peggy Olson, Don’s protege, was the lead character instead of Don.

To which, I answer simply: No.

Why? While the central plot line through the show has mostly been “Who is Don Draper?”, that’s not what the show is ultimately about. It’s about masks. Don’s mask is more interesting and somehow, more relatable than Peggy’s.

Masks

The central tension in Mad Men is the masks they all wear. We see deep inside each character’s actions and then we see their interactions as they hide what’s inside.

Don with his philandering, drinking, workaholism, and his mysterious past all butting up against his reputation and family life.

Roger Sterling with his family inheritance, drinking, and womanizing pushing up against his desire to put on an air of credibility and infallibility.

Pete Campbell with his holier-than-thou attitude and domestic aspirations coming face-to-face with his sense of entitlement, smarminess, and affair with Peggy.

Peggy Olson with her career, desire to grow independently, yet hiding her pregnancy from Pete, and becoming whoever she needs to be for whatever boyfriend she gets (going so far as to act as if she a virgin).

Joan with her blend of social intelligence, control, and put-together perfection—all while she’s had three abortions. (The most recent being one that happened in an affair with Roger while her husband is in Vietnam.)

Bert Cooper has his masks as well. He comes off cultured, refined in a 1950s-meets-Eastern culture way. But we learned recently he used to be a bit of a womanizer himself before he literally had his testicles removed. Who is this guy really?

The firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is one big mask as they try to appear stable while the ground is falling out from underneath them.

The mask of advertising: Attempting to sell someone a thought or feeling that may or may not be real so that they, too, can wear that mask for others.

Masks.

Rarely has a show delved so deeply in to the contradiction between who we present we are versus the reality of who we are.

Don’s masks are probably the most unique of them all, if not the deepest. If Mad Men were about anyone else, that character’s masks would have to be deeper, more interesting, or more relevant today than Don’s. That simply doesn’t exist with any other character on Mad Men than it does with Don.

For those who watch Mad Men, we know that Peggy’s struggles are the most closely aligned to Don’s. Yes, she’s a very interesting character I want to know more about. But her struggles are tied more closely to a period-specific set of troubles, which changes everything.

MIx It All Together

If Mad Men were a show about Peggy Olson, it wouldn’t be Mad Men. Her external circumstances of being in a male-dominated world would be immediate and pressing—and largely out of her control. This is depressing and frankly, Mad Men is depressing enough already. Mad Men with Peggy as the central character would be a different story, one that would likely be about her triumph in the face of her cultural circumstances. Again, that’s a different show.

Don’s circumstances, on the other hand, are largely of his own doing, his own demons. Yet it’s mostly in his control, free of the cultural oppression of the times. However, he is not free from the culture in which he lives.

That is where Mad Men gets interesting. You mix the masks with the 50s & 60s culture and it forms a toxic, exciting soup to taste. As viewers, we get to see both sides of all their lives, so out there, obvious, sinful, and yet still beholden to the decorum of their day. To our modern senses, it creates a heightened reality that leaves no doubt as to the tension, the masks.

Today, we all wear masks to get forward in the world. Same as it ever was. We may have exchanged daytime drinking for daytime running. Smoking for yoga. Office affairs for online affairs. Steak for sushi. We may feel better physically, but we are no less beholden to our culture than Don or Peggy or Roger or Bert was by theirs. We may be more Puritanical, but we are no more pure.

The difference is that, today, men and women often stand shoulder to shoulder in the workplace. (I have worked for many female bosses.) Further, with facebook, twitter, email, and everything else, our work lives and professional lives are constantly crashing into each other. We may wear our masks more subtly, but we also rarely get a break from them. We are acutely aware of our own masks, yet we are unsure that others wear them, too. But, we all do.

This is why Don Draper is the central character and not Peggy: Don’s struggles and his masks more closely reflect the broad spectrum of today’s masks in society than do Peggy’s. This is a good thing. The best thing, actually.

Sure, Don comes from nothing, he hides his past, and drinks, smokes, and has sex in ways that only James Bond could relate. But more and more women today wear the Don Draper mask than the Peggy Olson mask: The balance of work, life, family, and the suffering of choices not limited so much by external circumstance as much as by their own choices, for good or ill. We can relate to Don even as our jaws drop at his actions.

The best thing, it turns out, is to fail of your own doing, and to relate to that—not because someone stopped you for no good reason. The best thing, in this case, is that women are more able to relate to Don Draper than ever before, not Peggy Olson.

Mad Men, indeed.

Taking on Nussbaum (Grandparents Gone Ga-Ga)

About a month ago, Bruce Nussbaum, a popular Design + Business guru and writer for Business Week, wrote an article called F*** the Boomers, Screw the Xers, Give Gen Y Power Now. In it, he proclaims the Boomers need to step aside and let the Gen Yers (a “search-learn-make-share” demographic) take over because they are better equipped than Boomers and Gen Xers to remake and reverse the US’s global decline.

All of which is fine enough. But, Mr Nussbaum goes so far to say that the reason Gen Xers should be skipped over is because “Xers still don’t get it” and that “Sure the Xers will whine but they will follow (they always do). And deep down, they’ll feel relieved of the burden of responsibility and embrace the irony of losing out (once again).”

Huh?

As one of the younger members of Gen X (I was born in 1976), I fail to see how Mr. Nussbaum’s viewpoint makes any sense at all. I would go so far to say that he is misinformed, possibly delusional.

Sure, it may be true that we are the generation of Slacker and many of us spent many years wandering the wilderness of society, but the Xers I know are nothing like what Mr Nussbaum portrays.

The Xers I know are entrepreneurs, educators, leaders, hard workers, committed to family and community, world travelers, intellectually curious, and perhaps most importantly, fighters.

(Fighters? You must be joking, right? No.)

The oldest of the Xers began their journey in the workforce right as the 1988 recession hit. Some of us were the soldiers in the first Gulf War. We enjoyed a few good economic years in the go-go 90s, where we were the workforce behind the web’s explosion before the boom went bust. We have since led the charge for the much-more successful second generation of the web. All Xers were adults during the tragic events of 9/11 and its ensuing recession and war. We’ve had no choice but to sit by and watch as the Boomers-in-charge began shipping manufacturing jobs overseas. We are now dealing with the “Great Recession” that has caused the greatest levels of chronic unemployment since the Great Depression.

And we did all this while having come of age right as the US was changing from an analog, monolithic, and segregated society to a digital, diverse, and integrated society. We have been (and are) the bridge between the analog-inclined Boomers and the digital-savvy Gen Yers. This is no small feat or task.

Boy oh boy, my rankle is rousing.

Consider:

We are a rather small generation compared to the Boomers and Yers, leaving us with less people to do more.

While the Boomers may have made it cool to care about the environment, Xers have carried the torch and spread the fire, if you will.

While the boomers may have started the running and fitness craze, it is the Xers who made it mainstream.

We have been leaders in urban revitalization efforts, populating cities left for dead by the Boomers. (This conveniently helps work towards solving both the health and environment problems in one efficient stroke.)

Throughout the recessions and wars, we were given hope the Boomers would start retiring and we would fill those jobs. It hasn’t happened. So, instead, we’ve had to innovate and find new ways to make a living.

All this doesn’t even begin to touch the millions of Xers who work in the civil sector, fight our wars, work in the arts, volunteer for non-profits, went in to the Peace Corps, or simply do whatever they have to do to to feed their families.

Go on, tell me that Gen Xers “don’t get it.” What a smug, careless statement.

Instead of gaining respect for our tenacity and savvy, we’re overwhelmed by a media that celebrates the 60s and Boomer culture while cooing over Gen Yers that have had very little time to accomplish anything. All this while our achievements and cultural touchstones are barely acknowledged in any meaningful way besides infomercials for 80s and 90s pop music. Sweet.

But, ya know, hey, it’s cool. We’re used to it by now.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant against Gen Yers. This is about the popular perception from a Boomer culture loathe to admit that Xers, for all our warts and bruises and worries, have earned the right to more respect than a dismissive comment by a popular business + design writer and educator.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though: Grandparents are always harder on their own children than their grandchildren.

Before all is said and done, Gen X will have left its mark. We are the bridge between the old America and the new one. We are the translators and innovators between two generations within a culture shifting markedly day-by-day.

If anyone thinks the Xers are done or to be passed over, I wouldn’t bet against us. We’re still relatively young and if history has shown anything, we’re relentless. Quite the opposite of Mr. Nussbaum’s blind, bland, boring, and bumbling notion of a generation of irony-seeking slackers.

After all, I would argue that we were slackers not because we didn’t care, we were slackers because we did care, but had no meaningful outlet. That has changed.

Our dissatisfaction is our fuel. And trust me, we have plenty of it.