When I was seven, I was going to be a poet. I’d just written my first poem, entitled “My Boy Al and the Egg”; it was based a story I’d read about Thomas Edison. I was asked to recite it at a second-grade assembly. The applause was intoxicating. I could look forward to a life of that. Poetry was for me.
When I was sixteen, I was going to save the world. With writing, of course: I’d just watched a couple of Washington Post reporters take down the lying, crooked President of the United States. I was going to be a crusading journalist–get to the bottom of society’s ills and point the way toward making them right.
Me and, as it turned out, everyone else. There were no newspaper jobs when I graduated from journalism school. I could write, but I wasn’t much good for anything else. I found a job in advertising.
Of course, I still secretly wanted to save the world. Or be a poet. Anything had to be better than crapping out copy for small-town banks and farm equipment companies. My talents were being wasted. I’d sold out to The Man.
Megan Draper can relate. In “Lady Lazarus,” Episode 8 of Season 5 of Mad Men, Megan decides the agency life is not for her, after all. She’s always dreamed of being an actress, but after her marriage to Don, she let the dream die.
Or so everyone thought. As the episode opens, Megan gets a callback for an audition. She lies to Don and Peggy about where she’s going, then confesses to both of them the next day. Megan has been putting up a facade for the past eight months, but she’s not a good liar. In spite of her success, she can’t let go of her desire to be an actress. Her dream has come roaring back to life.
Don is no fool–or perhaps he’s a fool for love. He doesn’t get it, but he’s not going to stand in Megan’s way. He’s come to depend on her charm, her taste, her connection with a youth culture he doesn’t understand; in fact, he can’t tell the Beatles from the Wedgewoods. He lets Megan go, but she’s leaving a gaping hole in his work life, and Don can’t see to the bottom of the elevator shaft.
And Peggy is no Megan. Peggy has worked hard for everything she has. She loves her job. She knows how hard it is to be a copywriter, and she’s flabbergasted that Megan would throw away the promising career she’s been handed on a blue-and-orange Howard Johnson’s platter. Peggy congratulates Megan on her bravery. But she knows Megan has something she’ll never have.
Speaking of which, our oily friend Pete Campbell is venturing into forbidden territory, as well. On the train into Manhattan, Pete’s insurance salesman friend Howard brags about the love nest he’s set up in the city. That evening, Pete finds Howard’s wife waiting at the train station, and–sweet Rory Gilmore!–it’s Alexis Bledel. (This raises the question of why anyone in his right mind would cheat on Rory Gilmore. But Don Draper spent years cheating on January Jones, so we’ll let this one lie.) Alexis–let’s call her “Beth”–has locked herself out of her car. Pete gives her a ride home, and they have lamp-destroying sex in the living room.
Pete is infatuated, but Beth tells him it can never happen again. Later, he forces his way back into her life by pretending to need insurance. He arranges to meet her at a hotel, but Beth doesn’t show, and Pete is devastated. At the end of the episode, they see each other again at the train station, separated by car windows, each trapped in a sad and disappointing life. Beth draws a tiny heart in the condensation on the window and quickly erases it. Pete stews in his own misery.
And Megan is off to acting class. Before she leaves, she hands Don a copy of Revolver and suggests he play “Tomorrow Never Knows” so he’ll understand what’s happening out there in the world. He doesn’t get it. He lifts the needle from the record and leaves the room–
–and the song starts again, rolling over the credits. The youth revolution will continue whether Don wants it to or not. It’s a brilliant little ending to another delicious short story set in the Mad Men universe.
Stan the art director sums up the ennui of the advertising professional perfectly: “You work your ass off for months, bite your nails, for what? Heinz Baked Beans.” But these days, I don’t get so worked up about selling out. I’ve “sold” plenty of poetry, but you can’t eat contributor’s copies of literary journals no one’s ever heard of. Journalism ain’t what it used to be. I’ve figured out how to use my skills to do good in the world (here and here and here, among other places).
And I’ve channeled my literary ambitions into a little online magazine called Punchnel’s. I may have suppressed my dreams of being a poet and a journalist. But, even at age fifty-four, you can’t keep a good dream down.