The finale of Mad Men was not what I expected. The day before the finale aired I was hoping Don Draper would change his name to Dick Whitman and turn his back on the advertising world. I hoped he would buy a ranch in Wyoming and fall in love with the perfect woman (a woman he would never even consider being unfaithful to). Then Don would become the perfect father and teach his children how to ride horses and appreciate life. Most of all, I hoped that Don Draper would find inner peace and happiness. But wait a minute, maybe he did. And maybe he did it in typical Don Draper fashion.
In the final scene, while meditating on retreat, Don seems to have an epiphany. What I love most about his enigmatic smile is that it leaves so much up to the imagination. What is Don thinking? Is he experiencing true inner peace and happiness for the first time in his life? Or did he just have the idea for the iconic Coke ad, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke?” Does he rush back to Manhattan, and take the advertising world by storm? Or does he phone the idea to Peggy, letting her take the credit for it? Or is it possible for him to have it all? Somehow I think that is exactly what Don Draper would do.
In 1971, I was just a little girl. Every night while we ate dinner, we listened to the news. My father kept the television around a corner so that he was the only one who could see the screen. We could still hear the newscast and somehow this made it worse. Our nightly dinner was filled with the sounds of machine gun fire from the Vietnam War, reports of race riots, assassinations and the mass murders of Charles Mansion.
Then the Coke, hilltop ad came out. Every time it was on television, I ran to the screen and watched that ad intently. I wanted to forget about the machine gun fire and the mass murders. Instead I wanted the world to be just like that ad. I wanted to live in a multicultural place where diverse people were accepted and everyone got along. I wanted there to be peace and cooperation and happiness. I wanted the world to be a loving home where everyone belonged.
It might sound corny to some, but it didn’t sound corny in 1971 when the civil rights movement still had much to accomplish and the Vietnam War was not yet over. It had been only three years since Dianne Carroll stared in the first TV series to feature a non-stereotypical, African American woman, a role for which she received death threats. In contrast, the Coke, hilltop ad had so much hope in it and it may have featured the first authentic, multicultural group every to be broadcast on national television.
But what about Don Draper? If he created that iconic ad, then no doubt he became even richer, but since when has Don Draper really cared about that?
So what does Don Draper really care about? In his confession to Peggy, he’s ashamed that he “Took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” If Don Draper were to make something of his name, what would it be?
No doubt Don Draper is a cheat, a liar, a philanderer and a deserter, yet he’s also generous, kind and caring. He sometimes forgets to help his wives and children. Yet somehow he always manages to help perfect strangers. He’s painfully aware of his faults but what makes him easy to root for is that Don Draper wants desperately to be a better person.
He seemed to identify most with Leonard, the man whom nobody notices. Leonard says, “I’ve never been interesting. I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And nobody chooses me.” Then this man named Leonard sobs and Don hugs him and sobs too.
Handsome, successful Don Draper is the man whom nobody sees, just like Leonard. And at that moment he is the man whom nobody chooses. But Don wants to be better. And we want the same things that Don wants.
We want Don to be a better person.
We want the world to be a better place.
We want to be better people too.
Advertisers know this and they convince us to buy products by promising that the products will make us richer, prettier, more popular, smarter, thinner, and happier. Advertising works because it convinces us that we will become better people, if we buy their products. They promise the transformation that everyone longs for. The products they sell by and large don’t provide any transformation, but just the mere promise of transformation will make us happy to spend our money.
So in the finale of Mad Men, I see the potential for Don Draper to finally become a better person, to finally make something meaningful of the name he stole.
Maybe Don continued to practice meditation. In 1971 some of the first meditation centers opened in Manhattan. Maybe Don didn’t just create the iconic ad that gave people hope for a better world. Maybe he continued to help people like Leonard. Maybe he encouraged other businessmen to practice meditation or to find some other way to achieve transformation.
With the inevitable death of Betty Draper, I hope Don found a way to be a better father to his children. I can even imagine him as a faithful husband with a happy home. Whatever we imagine happening for Don Draper, we should remember that advertising is just the promise of a better life. Actual transformation is the real thing, and I like to think that Don Draper found the real thing after all.
Publisher’s Weekly Review for ‘The Wife of John the Baptist’, quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
It’s always a pleasure and a relief to receive a positive review, especially from a source such as The Publisher’s Weekly. Only a few more weeks to go before they announce the next round of finalists. Wish me luck!
This is not the John of the Gospels. Instead, he is sensual, sociable, humorous, easy-going, flirtatious, and sexually active. And, yes, he is married. And a father. This previously unexplored angle is deftly traced by the woman of the title, Hessa, daughter of a Greek trader in the Roman province of Judea, who is possessed of the unique ability of knowing the history of an object and the character of a person simply by touch. Fleeing her father’s wrath after their marriage, the two wander the desert, moving from one encampment of outsiders to the next. All the while, John vehemently rejects the title of prophet pressed on him by those drawn by his magnetism, yet gradually, despite all his protestations, he grows into his Biblical role and the fate that goes with it. The route of the narrative from man to martyr is richly told and well crafted, introducing Zealots, Essenes, other cults gathered along the River Jordan and, most chillingly, the cruel torments of the Roman occupation of Judea. And finally, in a refreshing surprise that demonstrates the manuscript is strong enough to stand on its own, Jesus only has a walk-on role.
Soon after The Wife of John the Baptist was published, I decided to enter it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition. I wasn’t sure if I would win anything. After all, it seemed like a long-shot. Thousands of novels were entered and my novel was just one out of the many. It took the judges a long time to read through all the novels and I almost forgot about the contest entirely. Then one day, I received an email telling me that I had been selected as a semi-finalist. I was thrilled. Now my novel was one out of the few.
I’ll have to wait until July to find out if I won or not, but until then I’ll just be happy I made it this far. If you want to read the first few pages of the novel and submit a review, follow the link above and see my entry. I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say.
I didn’t expect my life to change when I entered the sparsely-furnished, literature classroom at the Universidad de Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico. The long-haired, political-activist professor who arrived late was a bit of a surprise, but that would pale in comparison to the stories and novels he was about to introduce us to.
We didn’t have any books. Instead the professor handed out faint, mimeographed pages containing the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of magical realism and literary journalism. We read them aloud while our professor became increasingly animated in his enthusiasm, pausing only to push the hair from his eyes. As the stories came alive, we realized that this level of learning could not be contained to a bare and dusty classroom. Some of us accompanied the professor to a series of cafes around town, drinking beer until we were tipsy, talking for hours and filling our hungry souls with the delicious adventures of shipwrecked sailors, old Caribbean soldiers, ethereal beauties and the ghosts who coexist with the living only because they are too stubborn to succumb to death.
The world of magical realism was an epiphany and I suddenly realized that life was not the black and white, cut and dried reality I had learned in hometown America. A whole new world opened up in which the supernatural, the spiritual and the physical all coexisted in an exotic mélange that changed my view of life forever.
This epiphany was to set me on a lifelong pursuit for adventure, travel and opportunities to experience different cultures; a continual thirst to see the world through different eyes and to write about it. For the first time I had been given license to be the person I really wanted to be. The magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez had given me the freedom to soar.
When I ran home after class and told the senora in the house where I lived about my discovery, she handed me a succulent plateful of carne de res, arroz and the bright red flower petals known as colorin. I told her how wonderful it was to read about a world that was turned upside down but that made so much sense at the same time. She looked at me with a dry expression, “Es normal,” she said. “That’s how we all see the world.”
Her comments made me smile. I borrowed an antique typewriter and with senora’s blessing, I started writing my first, full-length novel on her kitchen table. The family’s elderly, maiden aunt, Tia Pilar showed up even before I was finished with page one. “I will keep you company while you finish your task,” she explained. “We will be like sisters every afternoon.” True to her word, she showed up each day to sit nearby fingering her rosary, while my own fingers tapped on the typewriter keys. She only stopped coming when I had finished the last page.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened my young mind to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, creativity and diverse cultural experience. It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and in a very real way it changed the course of my adult life forever. So today, as I pay homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I dust off my tattered copies of his books, open One Hundred Years of Solitude and begin to read. Here once again is the band of ragged gypsies who arrived in the mythical, Caribbean town of Macondo, bringing with them the learned alchemist, Melquiades. In turn, Melquiades brought the first magnets that anyone had ever seen in Macondo.
The gypsy dragged the enormous magnets behind him through the streets of the town while “pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumbled down from their places,” and followed him down the street.
“‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’”
My husband and I were always proud to have an ‘international marriage,’ as it was called in Japan. I was an American expat living in Tokyo and my husband was Japanese. Our marriage spanned two nations and two cultures and for us, it seemed ideal. Not long after we were married, we saw a TV documentary in which mixed-race children around the globe were interviewed about their experiences. In each case, the children complained bitterly about the lack of a single identity, about not knowing where they belonged, and about the racism they experienced from the races of both parents. There was only one exception, the young man who lived in Hawaii. Being from two cultures and two races was for him, the best thing in the world. He talked happily of having the best of both cultures, of speaking two languages, of celebrating all the festivals, of having the most fun and best of all, of eating a variety of delicious food. I turned to my husband and said, “If we have children, we’re moving to Hawaii.” He agreed.
When my daughter was born, we talked of moving often but it didn’t happen until we began the search for an elementary school. We spoke with many parents and children and while most were content with schools in Japan, there were several students who experienced serious bullying because of their mixed race heritage. Some were taken out of school to be home-schooled. Some were put into expensive, private international schools but the emotional scaring remained.
A few months later we moved to Maui. We told my daughter how lucky she was to have two cultures and two passports and how wonderful it was to be able to live on Maui and visit Japan. She embraced it all and like most of her new friends, she was proud to be Hapa, the Hawaiian word for half. As a family, we appreciated that all children in Hawaii are cherished and being Hapa was the most normal thing of all.
Most people think of Maui as a paradise because of its beautiful beaches and terrific weather. But for us, Maui was an island of wonderfully kind people living in a paradise of zero racism. Once we settled in, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only was our diverse family accepted, we blended right in with everyone else.
Soon my daughter was inviting her new friends over to play in our condo pool. Her friends were from every possible combination of different backgrounds: Asian, Caucasian, Hawaiian, Tongan, African-American and Hispanic. Once in awhile my African-American neighbor would stop by and watch them play. “Your daughter and her friends are Martin Luther King’s dream come to life,” she once told me. And it was a beautiful sight to see, not just because of the children’s diversity, but because they had no idea that race mattered to anyone. They didn’t know what racism was, and didn’t learn about it until they were much older and studied it in school. Even then, it was a distant, historical subject, an oddity that happened only on the mainland. In short, they just couldn’t believe that people acted that way toward each other. Their worst fears were that something like that might happen to one of their friends, if they visited the mainland.
Unfortunately life in the islands has not always been a paradise of tolerance. In 1893, after years of turmoil instigated by small groups of mostly American businessmen, missionaries and sugar plantation owners, Hawaii’s monarch, Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown. This coup took place with the help of the U. S. military. The reason they gave was that it was necessary to protect American interests and the American citizens who lived in Hawaii. An act of aggression on this scale would cause an international outcry today, but in 1893 it went unchecked. The problems for Hawaii didn’t end there. There was racism on the part of the white overseers and bit by bit, the Hawaiians lost their ancestral lands.
A local man once told me that his family originally owned several miles of beach front property. But their land was taken away until they only owned enough land for one house and they struggled to pay their property tax. “This land was ours for hundreds of years before the US government took over. Why do we have to pay property taxes now? I’ll pay income tax, sales tax, any kind of tax they want, but I don’t think Hawaiians should pay property tax.” In a culture where the aina, the land is everything, he spoke without any anger or racism but only from a place of deep sadness.
When Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, Princess Kaiulani, the heir to the Hawaiian throne, said that when she saw the Hawaiian flag being taken down, “it was bitterer than death.” Hawaii finally became a state in 1959 but culturally, it is and will always be its own proud Hawaii.
In light of their history, why then is Hawaii this present-day oasis of racial equality? I give credit to the Hawaiian people who believe in ‘doing what is Pono’, which translates to ‘doing what is right’. In short, they chose the higher road and I have the greatest respect for the people of Hawaii. If Maui is a paradise, it is first and foremost because of its people and I will always be eternally grateful for what Maui gave to my daughter, a much cherished childhood of racial acceptance, a childhood in paradise.
I can’t help noticing the incredible potential that children have. When I talk with my daughter and her friends, I find no limits to what they can achieve. Among them are talented actors, dancers and artists. They are compassionate, intelligent girls and they amaze me. Seeing potential in the young is not such an unusual experience but a strange thing happened the other day. I began to see potential for greatness in everyone. I’m not just talking about potential for financial success. I’m talking about the potential to inspire others, the potential to rise above difficulties in a miraculous way and to be the hero of our own life story.
The first person I saw this in was a homeless man living on the beach. His intelligence was still intact despite years of drug use and he spoke to me about his experiences and how he wanted to write a book. “Not many people can write about what I’ve seen,” he said soberly. I agreed and offered him all the encouragement I could.
The next person I met was an elderly woman in the grocery store who leaned on her shopping cart for support and smiled up at me from her permanently stooped posture. She seemed surprised at my offer for help, and laughingly explained, “I’m nearly ninety but I can still do everything myself.” Her enthusiasm for accomplishing small tasks had me smiling all day.
Last was the happy child from a neighborhood welfare family who wandered through my front door without knocking to ask for rice crackers. (She does this all the time and is always smiling despite her bad teeth.) She stayed to eat her crackers and talk to me about school before skipping off to find a friend to play with. As far as she is concerned, she has as much potential as anyone and I think she is right.
Seeing such potential in everyone I meet is like finding an unlimited treasure trove. And not only this, the potential seems close to the surface, unstoppable. We all have the potential to be great in our own way, to become the fully realized heroes of our own lives. Find your greatness. Embrace it. Your greatness is closer to the surface than you think.
My grandfather didn’t live to witness this Recession. Perhaps it’s just as well. It would have dredged up too many unhappy memories of the Great Depression.
When I was little, I used to twirl around on the red, swivel, architect’s stool in front of his drafting table, listening to him tell stories about his life during the Depression. He sighed heavily and shook his head often. After all those years, it was still hard for him to talk about.
He told us how the Depression moved across the United States slowly, like locusts or a disease. His family listened to the news reports on the radio, hoping that the Depression wouldn’t make it to Colorado but when it did hit, it hit hard.
All construction ground to a halt and since my grandfather was an architect, he no longer had work. His family lost their home and their possessions. They fell out of the middle class and into a poorer class. They left the town they lived in and retreated to a family homestead in the mountains. It was an old log cabin and no one lived there anymore, but there was space for a garden and they could hunt. They cut back. They made do. They went without. They went hungry. It was not romantic. Both my grandfather and grandmother were college educated, but financially, they had been thrown back in time more than seventy years.
When our Recession hit, I lost money and jobs just like everyone else. I cut back. I made do. I went without. I went hungry. I lost my social class and found myself in a poorer one. I was college educated, but financially, I had been thrown back in time more than seventy years. I remembered my grandfather’s stories and sometimes, I wished I had somewhere else to go. I thought about that homestead cabin once in awhile and wondered if anybody lived there.
My grandfather’s stories of the Depression took a hopeful turn when he talked about the WPA. The WPA was a federally funded program which employed millions of men, and some women and youths to do public works projects. For the first time in three years, my grandfather had work. In fact, every male relative I had, who was alive at the time and old enough to work, was employed by the WPA. That federally funded program saved my family. It gave my grandfather hope and diffused his anger over a Depression that happened through no fault of his own.
When the WPA went into effect, my grandfather moved back to town. Architects were only allowed to bid on one job in one county but my grandfather bent the rules a bit and drove his old Chevy truck from county to county bidding on jobs. He worked so many jobs at once that he sometimes got them mixed up. My grandfather said he never worked harder in his whole life than he did during the Depression.
When our Recession hit, I remembered everything my grandfather taught me and I worked several jobs at once. I did anything and everything: cleaning, laundry, ironing, gardening, freelance writing, baking, garage sales, teaching, tutoring. I often worked so hard that cleaning chemicals filled my lungs and gave me headaches and nausea. I was often dizzy and at night I had trouble with my eyes. I thought about my grandfather a lot, knowing that at night when his vision got blurry, he parked by the side of the road and slept on the old, cracked seats of his truck.
Even with all his hard work, my grandfather barely survived. Even with all my hard work, I’ve barely survived.
Programs like the WPA, which saved my grandfather, and the GI bill, which later educated my father, allowed America to grow a flourishing, educated middle class. My father didn’t have student loans to pay off. He began saving money to buy a house right after college. He felt securely and permanently part of the middle class. He always knew he’d belong to the same class.
I always assumed I’d belong to the same class too, the one I had identified with since birth. Now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be middle class again. .
Today’s generation is just as frugal and hardworking as my grandfather’s generation. My grandfather’s generation and my father’s generation worked hard, but they also got a lot of help from federally funded programs. How will our generation pull ourselves back into the Middle Class without help?
What would their lives have looked like without the GI bill and the WPA? Would America even have an educated middle class? And what about my generation’s future? Will we ever have a flourishing middle class again? Our Recession may not be exactly the same as my grandfather’s Depression, but in so many ways, the situation is just as debilitating.
This article was originally published on the first page of the Huffington Post in the blog section.
I graduated from college during the recession of the ’80s. I had the same youthful high hopes that all college graduates have and I assumed I’d find a job. After all, I was a Phi Beta Kappa honors student with work experience. But the only jobs I could find were part-time, low-paying teaching positions. To make ends meet, I cleaned houses, the same job I’d had at 16. I owned almost no furniture. I ate very little. I was always sick but I couldn’t afford a doctor. I felt betrayed. I had studied so hard but there was no reward.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to get a job in Japan. I taught in a community college and wrote for a Japanese newspaper. My profession was well-respected and I was well-paid. My apartment, transportation and health care were all paid for. I saved money. I traveled. I had plenty of time to work on my novels. I never worried. Those years I spent in Japan were the only time in my adult life that I felt successful and securely part of the middle class.
I married and had a wonderful daughter. We lived in a nice apartment in Tokyo and we had a housekeeper who cleaned and cooked twice a week. My greatest joy was all the time I spent with my daughter and husband.
When my daughter was older, we moved to Maui so that she could attend a good private school and grow up happy and healthy. Not long after this, things began to go wrong. My husband discovered he had diabetes. He rapidly went blind and lost his business. He was hospitalized and that’s when we discovered he had cancer. He died a few months later. My daughter and I were on our own. Then the recession hit.
I had two priorities: survival and to give my daughter a good education. So I taught for a private school and worked in a hotel. But even though I worked hard enough to develop heart palpitations, I had trouble making the rent.
Meanwhile my daughter flourished. She was an honors student and I vowed to keep her in the school she loved. I knew that cleaning houses was a good way to survive on Maui, but at first I was too proud to work the same job I’d had in high school. Finally I swallowed my pride and started cleaning houses.
The work was hard. The heat and tropical climate on Maui are wonderful if you are sitting in a deck chair enjoying the view. But they are not so great if you are vacuuming and scrubbing, up to your elbows in hot water. After work, I made dinner for my daughter, often falling asleep at the kitchen table. At night, I lay down saying, “Oh God, please don’t let me die in my sleep.” When I woke up in the morning, I always breathed a sigh of relief. I know three women my age who have suffered fatal heart attacks.
When I first moved to Maui, I was shocked to meet people who couldn’t afford to leave the island. A few hundred dollars for a plane ticket was impossible for them. But now I was one of them.
Piece by piece, I sold off all of the jewelry my husband had given me, plus my family heirlooms, to pay for my daughter’s education. I sold a beautiful strand of pearls to a debutante from Chicago. On the day we agreed to exchange them, I put the pearls around my daughter’s neck and showed them to her in the mirror. I explained how valuable they were.
“As beautiful as these pearls are, you and your wonderful mind are much more beautiful and precious to me. I guess from now on, we’ll call these ‘our pearls of wisdom’ because they are going towards your education,” I told her.
She laughed and hugged me.
Despite everything we never had enough money. I begged and then pleaded for financial assistance to keep my daughter in school. I held garage sales. The families I cleaned for rummaged through their closets and generously donated items. I sold cookies and brownies. I cried on the day I learned how to apply for aid because work as slow. Somehow I managed to work on my novels a few minutes a day, my only solace.
I quickly learned that most of the things we consider middle class essentials are really luxuries. The list is endless, from television and a land line to hair products and household products to vitamins, most medicines, fast food, drinks other than water and all non-essential groceries.
We eat mostly fish and rice with vegetables and fruit from the farmer’s market. I splurge on tea and coffee. Sometimes I cut my food intake in half so there is more for my daughter. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 years. When they get holes in them, I mend them. I gave all of my cute Tokyo clothes to my daughter. When I can afford to buy clothes, it’s usually at the thrift shop and almost always for my daughter.
I began to feel I had slipped so low that I was no longer respected. I lost self confidence. I stopped talking about my writing. Soon nobody knew that I was a writer or that I’d ever gone to college. Nobody knew me. I became invisible.
But hard work and sacrifice does have some rewards. My daughter graduated and she was awarded a full scholarship to a top private university on the West Coast. People still ask me, how did you manage to raise such a wonderful girl and get her through private school all by yourself? I never know what to say because it still seems like a miracle to me. So many times I thought I would fail, but somehow we made it through.
Before my daughter left for college, I told her that true success is not just about money. True success is measured by how happy you are. Always strive for happiness, I told her.
I’m still cleaning houses and eating very little to save money for when my daughter comes home on vacation. I worry that I won’t have enough money to feed her. I try not to think about my own future. Retirement is something other people do. I assume I’ll work until I die.
Each day as I go from one cleaning job to the next, I stop to talk to the working homeless who live on the beach and who own nothing more than some clothes and a cell phone. The next minute, I’m talking to someone who owns several, multimillion dollar beach-front homes and a private jet. I walk a treacherous tight rope between these two worlds, always afraid of falling. Sometimes I wonder, “Am I the face of the new American middle class?” I hope not. I really hope not.
Every morning, I see schoolchildren, our Little America carrying their backpacks and lunches to school and laughing with their friends. Each one of them possesses great originality and hidden talents waiting to be discovered. Little America is full of energy and enthusiasm but also extremely needy. Just as we once were, they are in need of knowledge, inspiration, and a canvas for their imagination.
Who helped us when we were Little America? Think back to a time when someone taught you something that became very important to you, or that amazed you. or that changed your life. What a gift that was! Give that same gift back to the children in your life, to our Little America.
A teacher isn’t always a person who stands in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk in their hand. A teacher can be anyone who cares about Little America.
When my daughter was younger, the neighborhood children used to come over to play and together she and I would teach them to read. We laughed and had great fun. We called it ‘playing school’ but it was really teaching.
We used to throw imagination tea parties for all the neighborhood children. The parties always started with a nature walk and as we walked, I started an imaginative story about the adventure that we were on together, allowing them to finish it any way they wanted. As they became excited about the stories they were creating, they all talked at once and at times I thought I might go deaf. This experience taught me that we don’t just need to educate but also to listen, for only by cultivating independent and original thought, we will arrive at a brilliant future.
Everyone in America can take time to teach a child. It might be a five minute conversation with a neighbor child. It might be an hour long session each evening with one of your own children. If you have ever been taught anything, you can teach it to someone else. If you have ever been listened to when you had something important to say, you can listen to a child.
And to Little America, I only have this to say.
“If someone is trying to teach you something, listen. They are trying to give you a gift.”