Don Draper and the life I thought I’d be living

My first awareness of the Mad Men television series, about a decade ago now, came in my daughters’ outraged question – “Was there really that much sexual abuse in the workplace back then? They’re making that up, aren’t they?”

They were incredulous at the blatant sexism and racism of the time I grew up in, even after I confirmed it was there.

What they described was confirmed and more in my recent binge viewing of the series. Let’s just say I was quickly emotionally engaged in the show.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was repeatedly told I belonged in New York rather than in my hometown. Advertising was, in fact, one of the career paths I was considering, and like journalism and publishing in general, Manhattan was still the center of the universe.

Watching the presentations reminded me, to some extent, of the first offices I worked in, even in Ohio. And Don Draper, the advertising creative director at the core of the story (I started to say “heart” but he is rather heartless), reminded me of some of my livelier bosses as well as a kind of ideal of what I was aspiring to or perhaps was being groomed for, at least before the hippie influence kicked in.

Yes, there was cigarette smoking everywhere, and liquor – and functioning alcoholics. (Should I say “functioning alcoholics who smoked”? Or is that too redundant?)

There were also some incredible secretaries, who were far more than typists. The best held the office together, far more than the corner office they reported to.

Let’s just say that the workplace changed drastically in the years since, in part through the digital revolution.


The show also hit close to home through the father of my best friend in high school, who was a vice president in a boutique advertising agency, one titled with the initials of the three of the partners’ surnames. Not that he was anything like the ad men in the show. Through him, though, I learned of the intricacies of billing, production challenges, deadline crunches, marketing analysis, and purchasing print, broadcast, billboard, and direct mail access – things that were touched lightly on, if at all, in the plots but still a factor.

And during college and the first year after, I was exposed to families that could well have mingled with the Drapers – executives, attorneys, and politicians, plus their wives and children of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


My daughters were swept up in the show’s fashion mindfulness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s but unhappy with the styles as the chronology moved on in the final seasons. We can argue there.

My biggest criticism is of the cheap shots taken at hippies, falling into stereotypes rather than the more carefully crafted type studies up to that point. In doing so, the writers and producers lost an opportunity to more sharply critique the cynical, superficial world Draper and his colleagues inhabited. The tone of these segments, quite simply, was out of line with the rest of the production.

Even so, I was devastated by the final episode.

Could that have actually been me? Thank God, I escaped.

I’m East of Acadia, if not quite Eden

I like to think that natural beauty can be found anywhere, but I have to admit that too often, what’s happened is that brute ugliness has prevailed in far too many places, typically as a result of greed. There’s no excuse for much of that, either. A little extra expenditure could have added grace to any development, created visual intrigue, lessened the harshness. Urban or rural or what’s in-between, alas.

Whenever possible, I chose career moves that opened me to natural or artistic settings and inspiration – along with opportunities to shine professionally. It’s meant avoiding suburbs, for one thing. Sometimes, though, it’s also meant invoking a sliding scale of value – you know, finding pockets of serenity within otherwise harsh localities. And then there were some other postings that principally industrial, even when it was mostly farmland. So it’s been a mix.

Still, as I’ve said, I came to realize that had I remained in my native corner of Ohio, I wouldn’t have been able to write poetry, the vibe was simply wrong. Or, if I had, it would have been much different from what I’ve done.

On the other hand, the four years I lived two hours east of Mount Rainier, back in the late ’70s, gave me repeated access to one of America’s greatest national treasures, often from lesser-known perspectives. What memories! And that’s before I turn to much of the back country and wilderness that was closer to our home. I even came to love the beauty of the desert where I was living, a landscape that initially struck us as hideous.

Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park, glimpsed from the east.

Now I’m finding myself dwelling two hours east of an even more popular natural park, Acadia. Already, I have glimmers of many backwoods and remote rocky shores to explore in-between.

Technically, all of Downeast Maine is also Acadia, the French name of the region. For most folks, though, Acadia means the park.

The biggest land mammal out west was the elk, while here in northern New England, it’s the moose. Just as the celebrated shellfish here is lobster, rather than Dungeness crab.

The fact is, for many people, either place is about as close to paradise as you’d find on earth.

And, yes, I’m feeling lucky – or especially blessed – that way.

Returning to high school and its misery

I thought I’d left all this behind me.

After high school commencement, most of my buddies headed off to campuses elsewhere, while I was stuck living at home and attending a local commuter school while working part-time. I didn’t even have a car of my own, unlike the assumption of so many kids these days. Well, after I graduated there was a hot round of romance with someone a year behind me, but then she, too, headed off before I finally made my own escape. I’ve always missed her, though my biggest regret was in not responding to her desire for me earlier. Yes, too late, as it turns out. Always turns out?

Eventually, my zig-zag career across the continent put all of that far behind me. So I thought.

Even so, I did ponder attending the 50th anniversary reunion, maybe just to brag, but complications came up. It would have involved a long drive or costly flight, and then a bunch of embarrassing pictures with old people who were nothing like me. As well as a high probability of a fatal heart attack, as I learned later. End of the book, right?

Except that in the past year I heard from someone I’d emailed a dozen or more years ago but never heard back. Maybe a good thing, considering how gushy it likely was.

And now? It’s opened an emotional can of worms, as well as some conversations we should have had then but didn’t. Or should I say couldn’t? We were so uptight. Period.

Ours was a largely middle- and working-class, all-white, high school, and in retrospect I’ve realized how whitewashed our indoctrination was. In my innocence or ignorance, I had no sense of how many pregnancies happened, even in our college-prep circles, just for starters. Not that I had any clue how to interact with a girl or any life in the other levels of our classmates, even in our homeroom, which was never exactly homey.

The new communications have sent me back to the yearbooks, where I see half of our classmates already probably never had a chance. Let’s be honest, breeding starts to show, or maybe the dull look in front of the camera, in contrast to the good-lookin’ ones, who also have all kinds of activities behind their names. I suspect I was walking a fine line between the two camps, not really belonging to either. As for the in-crowd, we never would have gone into the secrets of their home lives, although all of that becomes more suspect today.

Naturally, you know who I avoided or maybe never, ever, really saw or considered. It was a fine line we never explored. Besides, I was being told I belonged in the big city, far from where I was growing up. Now I see that as another way of saying I didn’t fit in, not fully. Still, I tried. Oh, my, did I.

This was the main entrance to our high school. I’ll explain the rest of this in a minute. If it had happened in real life, I’m sure they would have been in detention or maybe even suspended. Oh, I wish there were another term for being kicked out of school for a short while. By the way, skateboards were still way off in the future. We didn’t even have rollerblades quite yet.

That seemingly out-of-the-blue phone call and then emails led to Facebook, a platform I usually avoid, though this time with a raft of new contacts. A blast from the past, as we would have said back then.

So this is where they are now? But where are how many others? WTF have we done with our lives? All of that, and more.

The biggest kick in the gut came from an FB public figure page called the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, outrageously funny and caustically humorous. It quickly spun me into a depression.

You have to understand that the Bell-Ettes were our high school’s elite girls, a marching corps perhaps modeled on the Rockettes in Manhattan and sexier in general than our wholesome cheerleaders, not that I would have discounted any of them. For full disclosure, I even took one to the prom.

The anonymous Disillusioned Bell-Ette displays a prodigious talent in montaging images of the corps’ members and our school mascot, a bison – here I had been wondering if it even had a nickname, though she insists it was Bucky, uh-huh. Not so sure on this end, which makes it even funnier. Especially when she has a special, uh, affinity for him. I’m impressed by the sheer labor in putting these together, as if anyone’s actually watching. Or is she venting?

Yes, we were the mighty. mighty bison. Bucky defies the image.

Beyond that, there’s the candor of being disillusioned after being at the top of the social pyramid, the destructively adolescent structure.

More to the point, what about the innuendoes regarding a faculty member’s sexual proclivities?

How provocative!

And I had already been wondering about that. Coincidence?

And I had also already been wondering about one Bell-Ette, two years older than me and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper as well as a member of our church, who was engaged to be married after she graduated. Was she the disillusioned but very talented host of the site? For now, I’m inclined to say not. But don’t rule it out altogether.

Missing is the wonder of how we ever came to have a buffalo as a mascot in the first place or how our drill marching team came to be widely known as cowgirls. We were in an industrial city so far from the Wild West. How weird!

Our school was all about athletics and not much else. Even so, some of us managed to survive, albeit not entirely unscathed.

All of this had me recalling some dreams – literally, visions in the night – where upon awakening I imagined how I would have redone the Hilltopper, the school newspaper, to include everyone. I would have condensed the club stuff to an Eye or Ear on the Hill column, with snarky comments. And then had a focus for each edition: Food, Transportation, Personal Style, Jobs/Working, Free Time, Survival (advice to the underlings and to the future), Favorite Teachers (a sly way of suggesting who to avoid, if you could), Engaging the Arts & Entertainment, Electives, Dating & Relationships, Personal Style, Living with Siblings, Prepping for Summer, Graduation and Moving Up. That sort of thing, inviting entries for the next issue, too, open to all. The focus would have been on the whole possibility of having fun rather than trying to meet the standards imposed from elsewhere, including in the paper’s case, a remote scholastic press association and its judges, who misplaced our entries for a whole year, anyway, thus failing to give us any useful guidance or feedback along the way. So much for my failings as ed-in-chief, not that I would have had any backing in attempting such a revolution.

Oh, well, a few more missed opportunities in my life. And a few more letdowns from those who were supposed to support us.

He was obviously as clueless as I was.