It’s the Real Thing: “Mad Men” and the Art of Sincerity

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I honestly don’t care what happens to Don Draper. My girl Peggy found love!

“Mad Men”, a TV drama that was truly a work of art, came to an end last Sunday with the season 7 finale “Person to Person”. The most-debated question on the Internet is whether self-destructive genius Don Draper found enlightenment after his emotional breakthrough at Esalen, the New Age retreat center, or returned to New York to create the iconic 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. Style mavens Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out telltale costuming similarities between the real-life ad and the characters at Don’s encounter group.

As Oscar Wilde would say, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

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In my view, the ambiguous ending challenges us to examine our beliefs about the appearance of sincerity in art. The finale wrapped up most of the main characters’ storylines on a surprisingly upbeat note, giving us more closure and optimism than we’ve grown to expect from serious literary dramas. Was the final shot of the Coke ad supposed to challenge our enjoyment of happy endings–a jab from the show’s creators saying “This is fan-service, you asked for it, but remember this isn’t real“? The territory of simple, straightforward emotional catharsis has been so successfully colonized by advertising that a great deal of postmodern high culture is devoted to remixing those sentimental images in a degrading or dystopian fashion. The contemporary art museum is Don Draper’s wastebasket.

On an alternative reading, irony and sincerity are both performances. Our emotions are genuine but our expression of them is formed by social cues. Mass media bombards us with images of how to be whatever we are. Even if we don’t watch TV, we are watching other people who do, to figure out how to present ourselves in a way they’ll understand. George Saunders took this insight to extremes in his poignant, horrifying story “Jon”, where teenage lovers in a market-research prison camp literally can’t look at the moon without a commercial for Rebel CornBells playing in their brain implants.

Like me, Don is compulsively creative. He makes art to understand his feelings and to run away from his feelings; to connect with others and to substitute for personal relationships. (In that sense it’s an extension of his sex addiction!) I’m certain that if I’d wrecked my life, had a tearful breakdown in a therapy group, and found inner bliss on a mountaintop, part of my brain would constantly be observing myself throughout those experiences, thinking “What does this feel like? How can I describe it? How can I use it in my next writing project?”

In other words, the impulse to produce something worldly, even commercial, out of your moment of enlightenment doesn’t mean that enlightenment wasn’t genuine. And on the flip side, boundary-less emotionalism and flamboyant devotion to spiritual practice can also be a mask for egotism, passive-aggressive power, and seduction. I would have been more worried about Don (not to mention the women around him) if he’d instantly transformed into a smiling guru who hugged everyone. It was both funny and creepy to hear the middle-class hippies at Esalen using what I call the “group therapy voice”, the breathy, spaced-out delivery that disguises backstabbing judgments as vulnerable I-statements. 45 years later, it’s as much a pose as Betty Draper’s helmet hair and fatal cigarette.

I prefer to remember her this way.

For me, the show’s multi-layered ending could mean that we don’t have to concede the field of sincere feeling to McCann-Erickson. We can become conscious of the fact that our aesthetic nihilism is a defensive reaction to the emotional manipulations of Madison Avenue. “There is no Real Thing” is not necessarily any truer than “Coke is the Real Thing”.

Peggy Olson is my hero because she was always real. Whereas Don succeeded by presenting himself as whatever people wanted to see–so successfully that he lost sight of his own identity–Peggy succeeded by not caring what others thought of her. Her ego is in her work, not in her performance of “Peggy Olson”.

Which doesn’t stop her from being fiiiine.

New York City fans: There’s a “Mad Men” costume exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria till June 14. Next month, I will be in the presence of the holy relics of Peggy! Hail thee festival day!

UPDATE June 6: I went to New York City Ballet on Saturday night with my father and stepmother, and who should be sitting next to us, but the lovely Elisabeth Moss herself! She was so gracious to me when I recognized her, and signed my program. I didn’t want to seem crass by asking for a selfie with her. It was beyond my wildest dreams merely to be in the Real Presence.

I also didn’t tell her I have two of these prayer candles. Because that would be weird.

Alabama State Poetry Society’s David Kato Prize Celebrates LGBT Rights

The Alabama State Poetry Society’s annual writing contest offers numerous awards for poems in various styles and themes. The ASPS has a long history of supporting emerging and local writers. For the past three years, I’ve sponsored their David Kato Prize, for poems on the human rights of LGBT people. The prize honors a Ugandan activist for sexual minorities who was murdered in a hate crime in 2011. He was the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda; follow and support their important work on their website. The ASPS has kindly permitted me to publish the winning poems here.


Show Time
by Sylvia Williams Dodgen

An inexplicable moment, how did it happen
so quickly in such an unlikely place
or did it happen at all?
For I had seemed to hold my breath
not to dispel that surreal slot in time:
a sweltering summer midnight,
the corner of forty-second and tenth,
edging Hell’s Kitchen.
Following a bow-tied foursome
in white top hats and tails
into a pharmacy, the magic began.
The foursome asked for novelties.
I veered off and met a tall young man
in platinum wig, Marilyn style,
arrayed in light blue plastic bubbles, neck to thigh,
long legs gartered in silver hose with tiny bows,
ascending from stiletto heels,
taps clinking, as he moved along the shelves,
a larger-than-life Marilyn in moveable bath.
Gliding by, “Love your outfit, darling.”
“Yours too,” I smiled, rounded the aisle and
met an older woman in floor-length, rainbow vest,
hugging a cat in a pink crocheted cap.
Wagging his paw, the woman said, “Say, ‘hi’, Sunny.”
I smiled at Sunny
then moved to stand in line behind white tuxedos
checking out.
The young man in bubbles approached from behind
followed by the rainbow clad woman,
carrying her cat and a bottle of wine, like pots of gold.
Our collage exuded such energy the
air around us hummed.
I grinned and felt my hair roots lift,
my skin shine, as though I were a polished lamp,
with genie inside.
Bubbles whispered down to me,
“Feel the vibe? It’s show time,”
and burst into John Lennon’s lyrics.
Exiting tuxedos turned and sang in unison,
“Imagine all the people, living for today,”
Bubbles raised his arms and began to sway.



History Repeats
by Debra Self

My husband, our two children and I
passed through Indiana
as we traveled back home from vacation.
A cacophony of harsh sounds
emitted from Steve’s stomach
in rhythm to the girls’ bellies
so we pulled over at a Bar-B-Q dive.

As we walked in and sat down,
people began to stare at us
to the point of rudeness.
Then, instead of a waiter,
the manager walked over.

“Are you two gay?” he asked.
“Why, yes, sir, we are,” I replied.
“Then you need to get out.”
We were incredulous.
“Excuse me?” I blubbered.

“Did you not see the sign
on the door when you came in?”
“Apparently not.”

“It says that due to my religious beliefs,
I do not serve faggots. So get the hell out!”

Other people sitting around also began
name calling and yelling for us to leave.
Some even threatened to take away
our daughters. One woman actually tried
to grab them from us.

We gathered the girls, rushed to the car,
and quickly jumped in. The people had followed
us out and as we sped off, picked up rocks
and threw them at the car.

Both girls sat in my lap crying
as Steve carefully drove home.
We happily left the dust of Indiana
behind us.

I hope…



The Man Jesse
by Myra Ward Barra

Regretfully, Jesse was gone when I entered the family,
A young man, I’m told, who painfully dwindled away.

His loved ones often speak of him:
“Jesse, our brother with HIV.”
“Our cousin, Jesse, who had AIDS…”
“Jesse, my gay son who passed away.”

Over the years, I came to know Jesse in my own way,
Through thumbprints of his life, Jesse made himself known.

Once his siblings placed him in a box and took a photograph.
He was a rosy faced doll, a child’s present, gift wrapped.

Through his writing, I met a poet with incandescent light in
the darkness, a lamp of life glowing during bleak hours.

In a glossy, clay figure, I saw a potter transferring his thoughts to his hands,
forming a pudgy man in plaid clothes and a perky hat.

In a home video, Jesse was a ballroom dancer,
Pulling his grandmother to the floor, his free-style hair falling east and west,
His Versace tie swaying to Glenn Miller.

There was Jesse the animal lover, best friend, big brother, avid skier,
New York graphic designer.

Jesse deserves to be recognized apart from his illness.
Jesse was born a baby, lived with purpose, and died a man,
Jesse was not his disease.

Celebrating My Chosen Mother


(Roberta’s birthday, December 2006.)

I blog often enough about how my childhood with my bio mom resembled Disney’s “Tangled”. Today I want to celebrate someone who makes Mother’s Day a joyful occasion for me, despite the painful memories we share (or perhaps because we can share them): my mom-of-choice, Roberta “Bib” Pato.


(Roberta and I celebrate her freedom from 34 years with my bio mom, February 2011.)

Bib moved in with my bio mom and me when I was about 5. I wasn’t allowed to call her my other mother, though she certainly was. We were closeted, albeit not very convincingly, and my bio mom approached motherhood with a “no other gods before me” attitude. So she was my “babysitter” in public, and my “dad” when we affectionately joked around in private.

She taught me how to cook by having me chop vegetables and read aloud recipes from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet. Mmm, chicken with shallots and asparagus! She drove me to school in a succession of clunky American-made station wagons, and then in the little red Toyota that served us faithfully for 14 years till I totaled it as a student driver. She was a beloved teacher in the NYC public elementary schools for 30 years, from Lower East Side ghetto schools where the children came from homeless shelters, to the Upper West Side, where she faced down a system that assigned children of color to the classrooms that were perceived as less desirable.


(Roberta’s wedding to her now ex-husband, 1968, with her mom Bea at right. She makes a cute femme, but it didn’t stick.)

Since starting her new life in 2011, she’s become the center of social life in her apartment building, co-founding a tenants’ association and making many friends who are film professors, religious scholars, writers, and more. They know they can knock on her door at any time of night for a slice of cake and a binge viewing of lesbian soap operas on YouTube. She’s amassed what is probably the largest collection of lesbian films in Northampton, which is really saying something.

(One of those “gay for you” romances that is so common in the movies, not enough in real life! But I might kiss Lena Headey if she asked me.)

As an active member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), Roberta has attended conferences in Oakland and St. Louis, and (though she is staunchly pro-transgender rights) plans to visit the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this summer. Not bad for someone whose ex-partner wouldn’t let her leave the house! The “classy old dykes” whom I’ve met through Roberta have given me a new sense of solidarity with other women and a gratitude for feminist heritage. For Pride Weekend this month, Roberta and two of her OLOC friends produced playwright/actress Terry Baum’s “Hick: A Love Story”, a brilliant show about Eleanor Roosevelt’s closeted romance with journalist Lorena Hickok.


(Northampton Pride 2014. She raised “L” this year too!)

Last but not least, she is the world’s most devoted grandmother to the Young Master:


(Roberta holds Shane for the first time, April 2012. Look how tiny!)

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(Christmas/Roberta’s birthday, December 2014.)

Some grandmothers are always second-guessing the kid’s mom, but Roberta never criticizes. When I start to worry about the Young Master’s development or behavior, her unconditional love reminds me that Shane is perfect just as he is. Look at that face, right?

Thank you, Roberta, for showing me what a mom should be! We love you!

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.

Juvenile-In-Justice Gives At-Risk Youth a Platform to Tell Their Stories

I met prison librarian and youth advocate Jane Guttman 10 years ago when she invited me to teach a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Court School in San Bernardino, CA. Before then, I’d never had personal contact with prisoners. I unconsciously accepted the myths and fears that popular culture promotes about people who wind up behind bars. But I said a prayer, walked in there, and all those mental barriers dropped away. They were just kids–vulnerable, troubled, painfully sincere about their writing, grateful for books that could give voice to their feelings.

Jane has been working with criminal justice professor Richard Ross on his new website, Juvenile-In-Justice, which collects the stories of at-risk youth in their own words. Poverty, racism, under-resourced schools, and dysfunctional families create a deadly undertow that few can rise above. The system often fails them by throwing them in jail instead of providing support services. They become statistics and stereotypes to justify extending the prison-industrial complex. Juvenile-In-Justice shows us their faces, and their souls. Read these stories and let your heart be opened.

From “Welcome Home, Ronald”:

…At seven PM on Saturday night Ronald called. “I’m free Richard…I’m breathing free air.” Ronald Franklin, age 20, is now free after seven years—all of his teen-age years. Four and a half were spent in TGK while Ronald awaited adjudication. This isn’t a misprint. Yes, there is a sixth amendment and the right to a speedy trial, but in the case of adolescents, this is often compromised…

…I went to visit Ronald at a facility run by G4S, a private corporation that’s contracted by the state of Florida. In spite of being approved by his public defender, his mother and Ronald himself, I was turned away at the gate. Ockachoobee has 55,000 residents and 33,000 are incarcerated—but that’s another story and another time.

Ronald is free today, reconciled and living with a mother who was addicted for decades. Living around some of the roughest communities in the country: Miami Gardens, Liberty City, a Miami far from South Beach where privation and poverty are the norm. He is no stranger to subsistence living. For the past seven years the State of Florida spent $1.95 a day to feed him. Ronald will make it. He is planning on enrolling at Miami Dade Community College. He wants to do something with his life.

From “We Almost Starved to Death”:

This is the second time I’m here. I’ve been here three months now. The first time I was 15 and here for a month. I got tired of the stuff at home so I ran away. I survived by breaking into houses. So I’m here mostly for B&E and burglary. I live with my mom and stepdad. My sisters are both 6. And then I have a younger sister. My mom’s about 40. My dad died of heart attack when I was 4. My mom was doing crack and abandoned me and my sisters. I was staying in a foster home for two or three years. My little sisters and me were abandoned. We almost starved to death…

…They said I had behavioral problems and would break toys, push around my sisters, and go off by myself. I was so angry I would strip the bark off trees. They put me in children’s hospital. I was angry at the situation and my mother. I sometimes don’t want to see her, most times. She would badmouth my grandmother. She’s a tough one. Several times she would leave us all without food. I would get extra food at school for the twins and I got in trouble for that. She would leave my 8-month-old sister unsupervised. Where was DHR? I don’t know.

Follow Juvenile-In-Justice on Facebook for the latest posts plus news stories about prison reform. Now through May 17, you can also support Jane on Kickstarter to fund the creation and distribution of her book KIDS in Jail.

May Day: Political Links Roundup

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” sums up the state of social justice in America this week. Attorney Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) eloquently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. Meanwhile, African-Americans and allies took to the streets of Baltimore to protest the never-ending death toll of black men killed by police brutality.

The Baltimore protest was sparked by the April 12 death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed 25-year-old who panicked and ran after police made eye contact with him, and who died from a spinal injury sustained during his arrest (and possibly from police withholding his medication). It continues a nationwide groundswell of outrage that started with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in NYC last year. See the story at Colorlines, a black-owned news site. For reasons I’ll get to in a minute, I don’t trust the mainstream media on this one.

As many supporters of the protests have pointed out, there’s been more outrage over property damage than lost lives. When white college students trash their town because…uh, something about football? or St. Patrick’s Day? whatever, dude…the media portrays it as a big carnival. But black citizens standing against injustice are labeled “thugs”.

At the Poetry Foundation website, Jericho Brown rips into this racist double standard in “How Not to Interview Black People About Police Brutality”. Brown’s numerous poetry honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry. Watch the 4-minute CNN clip of Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Baltimore activist Deray McKesson (linked in his essay) and then read Brown’s tremendous takedown.

If you want to see nonviolence that’s anything but passive, it’s McKesson not blowing his stack in reaction to Blitzer’s persistent race-baiting questions. A superhuman effort that should never have been required. Contrast that to the white interviewer’s self-serving invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. to tone-police the protests. It reminded me of the way that Jesus’s message of nonviolence is twisted by abusers to keep their victims passive, as described here by Christian feminist blogger Sarah Moon.

From Brown’s essay:

Let’s be honest about white people’s attraction to Dr. King in the 1960s and your attraction to him today. If King’s mode of protest was the only protest occuring during his time, white people would not be such huge champions of him. He helped to create for you in your early adult years and for me before I was born a possibility for living in this nation without it being burned down. I think you know as well as I do that plenty of King’s contemporaries had ideas other than non-violence.

Your love of King is not a real love of him. Instead it is a fear of violence (and dare I say, of retribution). You NEVER mention his name on your show until you see the threat of violence. But as soon as someone in an understandable rage sets something on fire, you have the nerve to say “Dr. King” like he’s the token he never meant to become. Aligning yourself with King in this way in 2015 makes you an apologist for police brutality against black people, an apologist for police to murder black people and get away with it, and an apologist for a system that continues to structurally support these injustices.

Your point of view, your smug tone in this interview with Deray McKesson and other interviews suggests that Dr. King’s example of getting harassed, beaten, and arrested SHOULD be anyone’s ONLY option. Don’t you think people put in dire circumstances should at least have more options than what was available to them 50 years ago?

Before we reach the age of 20 in classrooms around this country, we learn how violently the Americas were colonized, and we learn how violently our founding fathers revolted against the Crown. When are you going to bring up the fact that the violence of rebels that founded this nation is taught as justice? When will you be honest about the fact that we are free to owe violence a great debt when that violence is perpetrated by white people?…

…Please stop saying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name if you’re not going to be honest about his existence on this planet. You throw his name around like he was some sort of saint who never wanted to whip a white cop bloody. Certainly, you have to know that this would have been impossible. Restraint is the exception for any human being who lives at risk.

The non-violent arm of the civil rights movement that white people love so much consisted of highly trained men and women capable of taking a beating. While I am glad those men and women did the work they did on this planet, I am always hurt to know that’s the work they had to do. Wolf, I want you to have the sense to be hurt, too.

And now for some good news. GLAD’s website summarizes the high points of oral argument before the Court on Tuesday. At issue in Obergefell v. Hodges was whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The full transcript is also a worthwhile read, and not too technical for non-lawyers. Justice Ginsburg astutely observed that the definition of marriage has already changed from legalized male dominance to equal partnership, so there’s no longer a reason to restrict the partners’ identities by gender. Even conservative Justice Roberts chimed in with the suggestion that this was “a straightforward question of sexual discrimination”. This framing would avoid the need to create a new protected class based on sexual orientation in Equal Protection law, a move that the Court’s conservative bloc wouldn’t buy.

My favorite zinger came from Justice Sotomayor during the respondent’s oral argument. John Bursch, an assistant attorney general from Michigan, made the case on behalf of state marriage bans. He argued that if our culture starts defining “marriage” based on adults’ feelings for each other, rather than their duty to their biological children, straight couples won’t feel that it’s important to get married and support their kids. To which the Justice replied, “Why would a feeling, which doesn’t make any logical sense, control our decision-making?”

Justice Sotomayor and Abby the Fairy wish you a happy Northampton Pride tomorrow!