I Didn’t Want to be Don Draper

We recently started watching “Mad Men.” I have no idea what took so long; I graduated from college with a BA in Advertising, after all, and once dreamed of living the Madison Avenue lifestyle. There’s no way I wouldn’t find the show compelling.

What I did not find compelling was advertising. I knew I wanted to be a writer as far back as middle school and initially set my sights on a career in journalism, but there isn’t much room for creativity in the news biz. My dad suggested advertising, and I thought, why not? Becoming a copywriter and churning out campaigns for billion-dollar corporations sounded appealing, so I dove right in. don_d

Halfway through my college studies, I realized that advertising wasn’t for me. I hated the cutthroat nature of the business and despised the idea of trying to sell expensive things to people who didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) them for the rest of my life. By then, I had no interest in switching majors and starting over from scratch—I was tired of school at that point and wanted to get on with real life—so I decided to  push on through, nose to the grindstone. I just wanted that piece of paper rubber-stamped with the governor’s signature and a fancy frame to put it in, figuring being a college grad was enough to ensure doors would open for me.

Well, those doors didn’t open. I had to bust my way through them while taking a long detour to get to where I finally wanted to be. Adding insult to injury? I never even got that fancy frame. My diploma is…somewhere. Honestly, I don’t have a clue where exactly. But it doesn’t matter, because I have learned over the years that a diploma really is just a piece of paper. I haven’t succeeded because of it, but rather, despite it. I mean, three months after graduating from college, I was stocking shelves at The Sharper Image. That’s about as far from the likes of Sterling Cooper as you can get. Customer service and call center jobs followed. Eventually, I powered my way into marketing and, through sheer determination and force of will, writing. It wasn’t easy. But few worthwhile things in life are.

I’m not dissing college. If I had it to do all over again, I still would. I’d just make damn sure I was certain of my career path before embarking upon it.

Watching Don Draper on the small screen, sure—his life looks glamorous. But even if I had followed through on the advertising dream, I remind myself that the Madison Avenue I’d have encountered was already decades removed from the one that exists on the show. Besides, pretty much every male on “Mad Men” is a prick. Fascinating as it is to watch, I can’t help but feel that I dodged a bullet there.

Today’s unusually contemplative post is brought to you by the first day of fall.


The past two months have been a whirlwind of visitors, and this past weekend was no exception. My daughter, Audrey, came up for a visit. When last we saw her, we were backing a loaded U-Haul out of my parents’ driveway, about to embark upon a 1,250-mile journey across five states for a brand new life in the Midwest. That was 15 months and an entire lifetime ago, so we were looking forward to seeing her again.

She arrived Thursday morning and left Sunday afternoon. In between, we did a pretty good job keeping her entertained. Did all the usual touristy things first-timers need to cross off their bucket lists (Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wall Drug, the Badlands). Cooked her favorite meals. Caught up on all the goings-on. It’s hard to say which she enjoyed best: the spectacular thunderstorm Friday night, a classic South Dakota storm that brought rain, hail, gusty winds, and nonstop lightning; or the opportunity to feed prairie dogs by hand. We stopped by Prairie Dog Village just outside the Badlands yesterday (was it really just yesterday??); it’s the only place I have ever been where the prairie dogs are so used to humans they actually run toward (rather than away from) you and eat peanuts right out of the palm of your hands. One of them even licked my fingers. Now, that is about as far from Sterling Cooper as you can get. How is THIS my life?!

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I’m so glad that fall is officially here! It was a downright chilly 39º this morning, forcing me to put gloves on during my walk. The weather is changing right on cue; there’s even talk of a few snowflakes over the Black Hills this weekend. It won’t be long until they’re flying through the air in town, as well. Autumn is hands-down my favorite season but it’s pretty short out here, so I intend to enjoy the hell out of it this year.

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The Third Cut is the Deepest

We writers are required to have a thick skin. It’s right there in the job requirements, alongside other necessary qualities such as:

  1. Cat-centricity. Not to be confused with eccentricity, though that’s a common stereotype, too. Hemingway famously owned a white six-toed cat and I have Sydney, so it’s gotta be true.
  2. Caffeine and alcohol addictions. Surely you’ve seen writers hunched over their laptops in your local coffee shop. I was one of them for much of last year. And again, ol’ Ernest can vouch for the booze part.
  3. Introverted-ness. Anybody who holes up inside and spends large amounts of time creating fictional worlds isn’t exactly eager to deal with the real one.

Stereotypes aside, we do love words. Especially our own. So when we’re asked to tear apart creations we have obsessed over perfecting, it feels like a slow death of sorts.

Now, just to be clear, I absolutely love my job. It’s hands-down my best gig ever. As far back as college, I dreamed of working in the publishing industry. I still pinch myself every now and then, not quite convinced this isn’t some blissful dream from which I might awaken. I really need to knock that off, because I keep showing up to work with unexplained bruises on my arms.

So far, so good.

In the publishing industry—much like NASA—space is everything. A magazine has column inches that are guarded more fiercely than some borders. Stray even an inch over and all sorts of alarms will sound.

We’re in the process of laying out our fall/winter visitor’s magazine, and there’s a big section on food and drink. I spent hours diligently researching and writing this spread (pun intended) and was very happy with the final outcome. I delved deeply into the history of South Dakota’s iconic dishes and really put my mark on it. (Yeah, another pun.) By the time I’d finished, I loved it. Our managing director loved it. Our creative director didn’t not love it, but his job is to make sure everything fits neatly into the tight confines of a 65-page publication.

Guess whose article didn’t fit neatly into the tight confines of a 65-page publication?

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OK, so I got a little carried away. Maybe readers don’t need to know that “bison herds numbering in the millions once roamed the vast prairie freely” or that “Cornish immigrants working for the Homestake Mine in the 1870s carried pasties in their lunch boxes” when I’m just writing about buffalo burgers and meat pies (not nipple tassels, as some of you might be thinking). What can I say? I’m a completist. The characters in my novels all have carefully-developed backgrounds, so why shouldn’t readers know that kuchen (the state dessert) was brought to South Dakota by German immigrants in the 1880s?!

Well, because of that jewelry ad. That’s why.

FINE. I get it. But I can’t promise I won’t cry a little when cutting down my own articles. By the time our creative director sent the article back for a third edit, I was a brokenhearted, slobbering mess. On the inside, of course. Outwardly, I projected the same calm, cool, and professional demeanor that defines me. Other than wailing, “My words! My beautiful words! All gone!!,” you’d never know I was in any sort of distress whatsoever.

Thick skin, people. Thick skin.

667 Miles for Oatmeal

I’m not sure if we’re crazy, but we basically just drove 667 miles roundtrip for oatmeal.

I may be grossly oversimplifying the situation. But we did go to Fort Collins, Colorado for a quick weekend getaway in order to stock up on essentials from Trader Joe’s. And it’s the second time we’ve done so this year. But this time, we had a brand new standalone freezer to fill. So, we threw a couple of coolers into the back of the Mazda and headed out Saturday morning, bright and early.

There was no snow and ice to deal with this time, as there had been in March, but the first third of the trip was foggy. By the time we reached Lusk—the first real town of any substance along that stretch of Wyoming—the clouds had broken up. Lusk seems like a charming place, complete with a historic main street and a stagecoach museum. One of these days we’re going to spend a little time there checking it out.

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We reached Fort Collins at 1:00 and naturally, our first stop was Raising Cane’s for chicken fingers. Afterwards, we hit a couple of local liquor stores, stocking up on ciders and sour beers—items that are harder to find in Rapid City. We hit the jackpot and scooped up some Wild Roots vodka from one place. Thanks for the tip, dad!

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Colorado sunflowers.

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Colorado is beautiful, but browner than South Dakota.

Last time we’d picked a motel a few miles from downtown, but we stayed at a Best Western in the university district less than a mile’s walk from Old Town. This was a much better location and it had a pool, so we took advantage and went swimming before heading out for dinner. We enjoyed the Crown Pub so much last time, we went there again. Killed a couple of hours with good food and drinks, then walked back to our motel, stopping by a couple of funky places along the way.

Fort Collins definitely has a Portland vibe, and there was even an event called Tour de Fat in which people dress up in costumes and ride fat-tire bikes downtown. The locals warned it was pretty outlandish, but it was tame by Portland standards. Translation: no naked people.

Sunday morning, we decided to drive up to Estes Park, a mere hour away. It’s the site of the famous Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining. Absolutely beautiful drive, and its location at 7,500′ in the Rocky Mountains is breathtaking. We grabbed breakfast and Bloody Marys and wandered through an arts festival before heading back. I would have loved to spend more time checking out Estes Park, but we still had to stop by Trader Joe’s in Fort Collins and drive the 5.5 hours back home. Tara and I have decided to book a room at the Stanley for our anniversary next September.

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The road to Estes Park.

Got back to town and loaded up two shopping carts’ worth of stuff from Trader Joe’s. This included seven boxes of steel cut oatmeal, six boxes of bird’s nest vegetable appetizers, four boxes of chile lime chicken burgers, and an assortment of soup dumplings, Chinese buns, ginger soy cod, etc. Not to mention the 14 packages of dark chocolate peanut butter cups, but in all fairness, most of those are going to Tara’s coworkers, who all placed orders with her in advance.

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We came. We saw. We loaded up our carts.

We had one last stop before finally heading home: Ridley’s grocery store, where we purchased half a dozen packages of the Basque chorizo we love so much. It wasn’t until 2:00 before we began the long trek back, arriving home around 7:30. All in all it was a fun, if expensive, getaway—but now we are fully stocked for at least six months.

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Long but uneventful drive back through Wyoming.

Super thankful that today is Labor Day. It gives us a day to recover before heading back to work. We plan to do not a whole lot other than grill ribeye steaks and enjoy Bloody Marys. It’s supposed to hit 91 today, which will ironically make this one of the warmest days of the summer. Fortunately, it’s only a one-day heatwave. Next weekend looks downright cool.

Bring on fall!