The Eve of Destruction: A Mad Men fan fiction

“Nothing so rare as a day in June.”

“It’s not June. It’s September.” Peggy pulled her sweater tighter. A sweater set? Pearls? Low heels? She screamed suburbia. What had she been thinking? She knew. Cover the curves. The years had added pounds, as well as debt, resentment and a growing sense of disillusionment. She sipped her coffee and stared at the bustle outside the cafe. This had been her city once. Before she’d married him. Before she’d decided a career wasn’t such a big deal. Before she’d had Heather and Greg.

“You know what I mean. Beautiful day. Great day for Roger,” Stan said, perusing the menu. Would he order a big breakfast? If she’d put on curves, Stan had added the inner tubes of the Michelin Man. Yet, because of his height, he merely looked burly when he stood. And his health seemed as robust as ever.  At least he still had his hair, a bushy, if shorter, head of it. She’d caught a glimpse of Pete checking in the night before. His receding hairline had turned into no hairline at all. She had to admit he’d done the right thing by shaving it all off, though. That gleaming pate was a good look. A Bruce Willis look. Trudy probably nudged him on that. Why wouldn’t Stan listen to her when she suggested a health diet, more exercise? On the latter point, he’d say “when we pay off the mortgage, then we get the gym membership.”

“Roger is dead,” she said flatly. The waitress came over, and she ordered toast and fruit, narrowing her eyes when Stan asked for the eggs, pancakes, sausage and hash browns plate.

“But his legacy lives on!” Stan said with forced good cheer. Stan had become a veritable font of cheer over the past decade, trying to jolly her out of empty nest syndrome, encouraging her to go back to work. But an office held no appeal any longer. It was a cage after years of the flexible schedule of a stay-at-home mom. Her brief stint in a college PR office had ended after a year and a half, when migraines began plaguing her days. But she wasn’t giving up. Stan didn’t know, but she’d sent an email to Joan, after finding her on Facebook, and hoped to talk to her some time today, after the Roger memorial thing was over. Stan might be coasting into retirement. Peggy still had things to prove. To herself.

“Oh, look!” Stan said, gazing behind her, then standing and waving. “Joan! Over here!”

She turned to catch a glimpse…and tried to suppress her shock…


“You won’t believe this,” Pete said, clicking off his cell phone. “They screwed up the reservation.”

“What?” Trudy popped her head out of the bathroom, placing a diamond stud earring in. She looked gorgeous, as always. Still trim, with a chic haircut that emphasized her big eyes, her face as smooth as when she’d been in her twenties. And, despite their Kansas residency now, he knew she’d put many a Manhattanite in the shade with her Dior suit and Prada pumps. His heart swelled looking at her, and for the umpteenth time since moving from the city, he felt something bubble up in his soul–a prayer…of gratitude?

“The ceremony. They bollixed up the location. It’s being moved. Everyone should be getting a call.”

“Oh,” she said. “I was looking forward to being in that building. Damn. Maybe we can have lunch there tomorrow.”

“Sorry,” he said, inwardly cringing. “I have to get back. I moved up the flight time. How about breakfast?”

Disappointment morphed to happiness in a second. “I’ll take it. And when is it you said you’d retire?”

He shook his head. They’d been having this discussion for five years now. She wanted him free-er so they could travel more. Specifically, travel to see Tammy and Clay, now in North Carolina where Clay was establishing himself as a top-notch resort real estate agent. But it wasn’t Clay they both wanted to see. Nor, for that matter, was Tammy the drawing card. No, it was their three grandchildren–Peter, Abby and Dustin.

The thought of children rattled his serenity, but he shook it off. He’d deal with that. Later.


Sally Draper Wiggins plopped her soft leather attaché on the desk of her old friend, Bob Gremont, and clicked her phone to see the time. Just after six. He was late. Sure it was early, but it was the only time Bob could fit them in. Dammit. Couldn’t even make it on time for–

Bob breezed in, holding out a coffee while he got comfortable behind his desk. She thanked him and sat down.

“I appreciate you coming so early. Sleep okay?”

“Jet lag and the time change conspired against me,” she said good-naturedly. She’d flown to LA from Boston just last evening, and had spent most of the night poring over California law. Although she was a member of the Massachusetts and New York bars, she didn’t practice here. Thus her frantic appeal to Bob, and his squeezing them in before his day began. The suite of offices was dark, except for this lone spot, and the gray dawn had just begun to creep over the city.

A soft knock at the door was followed by the entrance of her father. She stood and waited for the hug and peck on the cheek, as she tried to control the geyser of emotions threatening to blow away her professional calm.

“Sally, Bob,” he said in that low reassuring tone, as if he were the host here. They all sat, and as Bob started laying out the issues, she glanced at her father, studying him. Except for a brief text exchange last night to announce she’d arrived safely, they hadn’t spoken since he’d been charged.

Man-men-LogoStill had good looks under there, she had to admit, but now his lean figure seemed less attractive, more…seedy…like the body of a drug addict who’d abused himself for too long. His skin was tan, though, and his hair–she really had to tell him to stop coloring it. The stuff he used was so monochrome that it shouted fake and just made him look older than the gray it tried to cover. His sport coat and open shirt were fashionable, but retro, and she wasn’t sure if the items were made to look vintage or had been sitting in the back of his closet for lo these many years. In a flash, she saw him as a stranger. And she realized he was the type of man who would normally make her skin crawl. A creepy, slick kind of fellow who thought he was more appealing than he was.

Oh, Dad.

“…so I’m going to recommend we settle for…”

He’d retired in ’86, a year after the Coke debacle. New Coke had been a disaster, and everyone knew that Don Draper had been a moving force in suggesting the formula reworking to the company. Once that scarlet F was emblazoned on his head, it was easy to push him out. From the bits and pieces she’d heard, McCann Erickson wasn’t sad to see him go. He was a problem employee, and his creativity didn’t seem to keep up with the times. The firm had brought on new blood by then, young men and women who understood the zeitgeist better than Don Draper, who, despite efforts to keep up, was as out-of-date as yesteryear’s science fiction movie costumes. They’d given him a nice sendoff, a gold watch, a severance package that made for a comfortable retirement, and he’d moved to LA, where he’d enjoyed partying with old buddies, until they started dying off, and he started getting careless.

Her thoughts screeched back to the present as she heard her father’s voice rising.

“She’s always been about the money! I tell you, that was what she wanted from the get-go!”

“That might be true, Mr. Draper, but the fact remains she was fourteen. Roman Polanski is still in exile for similar.”

Her father grimaced and shook his head. “But it sets a bad precedent. Any girl will see this payout and know I’m good for more.”

The anger she’d suppressed earlier shot up. “Then keep it in your pants, Dad,” she said drily. “For god’s sake, you’re what, seventy-five? Is it really that difficult to act as responsibly as, say, a well-raised teenager?”

“Oh, you mean like you back in the day?” he retorted.

“Was I a well-raised teen, Dad? And is that what you aspire to now–becoming like me, back then?”

She saw his jaw work, as he gritted his teeth. He didn’t like being told to rein it in, and he certainly didn’t like it when she acted the parent. She was prepared to say worse. Still up her sleeve: her brothers had told her to cut him loose, let him face the music on his own. They were done with him. And they lived in fear of the day they’d have to face taking him in.

Finally, he stared at Bob. “What’s involved?”

“They want a DNA test…”

“No,” she said, interrupting him. No DNA record entering the system. Not when Dick Whitman’s secrets were still buried. Just the other day she’d seen a story of long-ago war dead remains being shipped home from hither and yon. She knew some of her father’s history, and she knew enough of his temperament to realize there was peril in unearthing the past.

“Just negotiate a good settlement,” she said to Bob. “Contingent on charges being dropped–she comes up with a story that she lied about her age–”

“Who says it’s a lie?” her father groused, but she ignored him.

“–so the slate is completely clean. He pays, everyone’s happy.” She turned to him. “And you learn to grow up.”

In the artificial light of the office, he appeared old, no longer current. Standing still. Even during his most dapper days, though, he’d stayed the same, the one constant as time marched on like a news reel. That constant was out of place.

She remembered her drive from the airport. The taxi had gone past a newly developed block, with one lone small house in the middle, a holdout. But now its owners had lost their leverage, their prestige, their value and lastly, their looks. Her dad was that house. The world had grown up around him, faster than even the nimble Don Draper could keep up, and he’d eventually decided to ignore it all and stay who he was. Who he’d always been.


Kisses and hugs. Perfume so heavy, she nearly coughed. But then again, she’d nearly gagged when she’d seen Joan come in. Her Facebook photo had been flattering, of course, as if she hadn’t changed. But up close, it was apparent that constancy had been achieved through multiple plastic surgeries. Joan’s face appeared slightly distorted, eyes just a millimeter too uplifted, cheeks just the tiniest bit too firm, skin just the faintest bit too taut, its expert makeup adding to the artificial  effect. Her hair was an orangier shade, slicked into a contemporary cut that owed its waves to heavy doses of some product, and her tight-fitting designer dress hugged her Spanx-captured body the way her purse jailed a little pooch, whose head looked with sad eyes at Peggy as they sat down. My god, it was awful.

And, oddly, it made Peggy feel better. Joan might have a successful company–now run by her son, it turned out. She might live comfortably in a rent-controlled apartment in town and a beach condo in Florida. But if you had to carry a dog in your purse for company, something was missing.

“Did you hear?” she said in a voice more gravel than velvet now. “They’ve moved us! Someone double-booked the room.” She shook her head and gave a click of her tongue that took Peggy back to a time when Joan controlled appointments and schedules with the exactness of a military commander. This made her smile, too. Joan was meticulous, but not creative. She could organize things, not make them. With online programs, instant connection via cell phone, palm organizers, no one needed the Joans of the world anymore. Secretaries, how Joan had started, were becoming dinosaurs.

The door to the cafe opened again, and Pete and Trudy stepped in. Peggy’s attention flicked between them and the TV mounted in the corner where a picture of disaster flamed into view. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

“Oh, my God!” she whispered, her hand fluttering to her chest. Others turned to look. The world changed.


In the horror that followed, they stayed together in the restaurant, a band of survivors on an island, grimly fixed on the news reports, the occasional rumors that swirled into the cafe from people rushing by. They were far enough away from the towers that the rubble and dust didn’t find them when they fell. But Peggy found herself shaking uncontrollably at the thought that, had some weaker version of Joan not double-booked their room in the World Trade Center that day, causing McCann Erickson folks to scurry to find a hotel banquet hall nearby for the ceremony honoring Roger Sterling with a college scholarship fund in his name…they would all be dust.

As she sank into a chair, Pete came up to her, claiming the seat next to her. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Is anyone?” she responded, unable to take her eyes from the television.

“Peggy, I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

She stared at him. What on earth could be so important that he’d choose this time to bring it up?

“I signed up for the bone marrow registry a year ago–there was a drive at the office because some fellow’s niece needed one. Anyway, I’m a match for a fellow,” he said, leaning forward.

“That’s nice, Pete.” Maybe he needed to talk about something good in the world with all this evil destruction around them. She let him go on.

“A perfect match, Peggy. Perfect.”

He let the words linger. It took her a few moments to understand, and when she did, her heart fluttered again. No. Yes. Tears sprang to her eyes. She needn’t hide them. Not on this day. As she searched for a handkerchief, he went on.

“He’s in New Jersey. I’ll go for the procedure next month. I can let you know when it is. You could, well, visit me in the hospital.”

“But how do you know it’s him?”

Pete reached out and squeezed her hand. “They told me — the docs — that they’ve never seen such a good match, that it looked like a family match.”

“Does Trudy know?” she managed to squeak out.

He nodded, and she saw at that second Trudy turn around and look at them, her face a mask of compassion.

“He might not know he’s adopted,” Pete went on. “He might not want to know who his real…I mean, his biological…parents are.”

“But we could see him.”

Pete nodded.

She let out a heavy sigh. And then a sob broke through, as if against her will. Stan, who’d been close to the TV, heard and rushed over, kneeling in front of her as Pete pulled away.

“Honey, you okay?”

She let him hug her, rocking in his arms, sobbing into his shoulders. Yes, on this day of death and loss, she’d found something that was alive and whole. She was whole again.

“Thank you,” she mouthed to Pete.


On the street, Sally put the phone back in her purse and swayed. She felt unsteady, faint. Her father came over to her.

“You okay?” he asked. “Who was that?”

“Bobby. Our Bobby,” she clarified, meaning her brother, not the lawyer upstairs. “He said…he said….” She was hyperventilating. She had originally been booked for a flight from Boston to LA today for a late meeting this afternoon. She would have been on that plane if Bob’s office hadn’t called yesterday asking if she could do an early morning meeting instead.

She calmed herself, told her father the news. If he was shaken, he didn’t show it. He grabbed her elbow.

“You’re lucky,” he said, staring into her eyes as if he was a mesmerist intent on calming her. “Like me. Let me buy you breakfast.”

“Okay,” she said, happy to be led, to have her father play father to her. “Okay.”

They walked down the street, his arm on her shoulder, and she felt like a child again, cared for by a very imperfect but loving dad. She was lucky.


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Beach Blanket Bingo Summer Writing Program

So, this happened: I came across a promotion for a summer writing program at a prestigious college. Curious, I clicked through to see who would be there, what they were offering, and what the fee was. Several literary authors are on the bill, with promises of panel discussions with agents and editors. I recognized some of the authors’ names, but lately I’ve not been reading a lot of what passes for Lit-RAH-chure these days, so most of them were only vaguely familiar. I’m not judging them by my lack of awareness, though. But…

bookbannerParticipants have to shell out, oh, around $3,000 for this ten-day program. And they’re not guaranteed a slot. They have to submit writing samples first, to see if they’re worthy, I guess. And, in the FAQ section of the website, you learn: Participants stay in dorm rooms. Un-air-conditioned dorm rooms. Rooms do not have private baths. Baths are in the hallways. The dorms do not have elevators. There’s no parking. Breakfast and lunch are provided, but dinner, you’re on your own.

Sorry, but I started laughing then. I’m thinking: Why would I want to shell out several thousand dollars for ten days of what will most likely be at least some self-flagellation as I listen to critiques of my work or hear talks on what constitutes great literary effort these days (hint: probably not my stuff) and get to add to this “pleasure” by sweating away the nights in un-air-conditioned dorm rooms with hallway baths, while paying extra for dinners and having no place to park my car?

I have a better idea. I might try this writing seminar instead. I call it The Beach Blanket Bingo Writing Program (BBBWP, for short). Here are the deets:

For less than a third of what Prestigious Writing Program costs, you can rent a beautiful, comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom, air-conditioned condo with great parking on the Bethany Beach coast of Delaware. There is no writing sample requirement for the BBBWP. You are, however, encouraged to bring with you your favorite book(s) about writing, from Anne Lamott to Stephen King, and any novels/short story collections that inspire you. Also bring a computer, as BBBWP does not provide any, but Wi-Fi is available in each condo.

The BBBWP schedule is as follows for each of the ten days:


  • Rise early to view sunrise over the Atlantic.
  • Return to condo for yoga, meditation on your own.
  • Breakfast at nearby McCabe’s Gourmet Market on French pastry and coffee while engaging in amiable conversation with the Eastern European workers there.
  • Return to condo for either: reading or writing.

LUNCH in condo (in addition to bedrooms and baths and air-conditioning and parking, the condos also have fully equipped kitchens).


  • Spend time on beach thinking about writing.
  • Exercise in heated pool.
  • Nap.

DINNER ON YOUR OWN, either at the condo or at one of the many restaurants nearby.

As you can see, the BBBWP does have some drawbacks–you won’t be interacting with other aspiring writers or published authors or agents or editors. To compensate for this, the BBBWP will provide a phone line consultation daily. Because of call volume, however, you will hear only recorded messages, along the lines of:

  • AGENT RECORDING: “Your characters must be married to theme more.”
  • FAMOUS AUTHOR RECORDING: “The writing was beautiful and you are clearly highly skilled, but you seem to be stretching for a more literary feel than your writing actually achieves (unlike my writing, which is always spectacular and where everyone goes out for cigarettes and commits suicide at the end).”
  • EDITOR RECORDING: “I am so impressed. But I wanted more. More plot twists. Or something. I’m not sure – so I’m going to pass with thanks.”
  • EDITOR RECORDING: “I do see this working for someone else; it’s so well drawn.”
  • EDITOR RECORDING: “Surely some other editor will love this, and it will be a great success.”
  • EDITOR RECORDING: “I was very impressed with your unique premise, well-drawn characters and page-turning plot. But in this tight market, it won’t sell, so I have to pass.”

Most of these recordings, by the way, will have the advantage of being culled from the actual words of real editors and agents!

So, sign up today and get your BBBWP certificate (of need), along with the T-shirt and name tag lanyard (which will not have the BBBWP name on it, but will carry the name of the resort so you can get into the pool and private beach).

All kidding aside, if you do prefer the group experience with its promise of meet-ups with agents and editors, my advice is simple: Join Romance Writers of America (even if you don’t write romance) and go to a chapter conference or the big national one. You’ll find lots of supportive writers there. I’ve never come across a more supportive group of writers than those in RWA. They’re always eager to cheer you on, offer encouragement, suggest publishing routes and share information. As I said, even if romance isn’t your writing thing, you’ll still find something to like here and maybe, just maybe, a door will open. Unless you can be guaranteed one of those things — writing support and open doors — I’m not sure it’s worth shelling out thousands of bucks for any conference. But that’s just me.

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The “I am not worthy” syndrome

So, this happened: Patricia Arquette won the Academy Award for best supporting actress and used her moment at the podium to advocate for equal pay for equal work. Hear, hear. Meryl Streep gave a great fist pump, or some sort of gesture indicating endorsement.

And who wouldn’t endorse such a notion, really? Of course, women should be paid as much as men for equal work! What a ridiculous notion that anyone would believe they shouldn’t be!

rs_560x415-150222222309-1024-Patricia-Arquette-acceptance-oscars.jw.22215But out in Hollywood, famous for its left-leaning politics, you’d think you’d find those thoughts in action. Not so. As the hacking of Sony records revealed, female stars (not just actresses but bona fide, household-name stars with box-office drawing power) were getting less than their male costars. Oopsie. 

Sony’s now-former CEO Amy Pascal explained the gender pay gap bluntly in an interview:

Pascal said the problem was much bigger than just her studio. “Here’s the problem: I run a business. People want to work for less money, I pay them less money,” she said. “Women shouldn’t work for less money. They should know what they’re worth. Women shouldn’t take less.”

Ouch. But, the reason it hurts is because it’s true. Women often accept less because they don’t ask for more. This was also explored in an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Written by a woman, it went through the various ways women differ in their approach to jobs. Here was an enlightening tidbit about promotion-seeking:

Mr. Kaufmann of Cardinal Health noticed that if a job opening has five criteria, a woman with four of them won’t apply—but “a guy will have one of the five and will say, ‘Give the job to me!’ ”

A recent CBS News story about the gender pay gap being a myth interviewed a career expert who pointed out, among other things, that women business owners get paid significantly less than their male counterparts:

Women business owners make less than half of what male business owners make, which, since they have no boss, means it’s independent of discrimination.

I don’t think the pay gap is a myth, and I suspect most women don’t think so either. But count me among those who believe there are complex reasons for pay disparity, few of which are linked to outright discriminatory practices. In the CBS story, the expert noted that women business owners make less than their male counterparts often because they place more value on more flexible schedules and shorter work days/weeks, while men…just want the money.

Women also seem to suffer from the “I am not worthy” syndrome, as indicated in the Wall Street Journal essay mentioned above. I know I often do. Just ask me about my book royalties, and I’ll tell you a story about not paying adequate attention to them because I thought I wasn’t a best seller, so why bother. (I wasn’t worthy of success, see?)

Throw in the mix an angle to the problem that possible Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has been trying to draw attention to–seniority pay systems. Many unions use seniority to determine pay scale. Since a lot of women drop out of the full-time work force to rear children, this puts them at a disadvantage on the seniority scale. Fiorina argues that merit pay rather than seniority pay is part of the answer to some gender pay gaps.

What’s the right response to the pay gap problem? Is it legislation? Or is it…education? Maybe a combination of both. I find utterly distasteful corporate policies that forbid employees from talking about salaries. It seems to me that’s a violation of free speech rights. Information is power, and, if women knew what others were getting paid in an office, they might speak up more for similar amounts for the same work. (Actress Charlize Theron did just that after finding out what her male costar was making on a film–she demanded and got the same.) But I also think women need to be coached, mentored, educated on how to stand up for themselves, how to fight the “I am not worthy” syndrome, how to apply for promotions, place value on themselves and learn, most importantly, when to walk away from a deal that isn’t so sweet.

Women’s organizations would do a great service to their sisters by sponsoring such programs. Maybe many already do. This would be a far more serious effort to advance gender pay equality than some of the theatrics we’ve seen recently where pols on the left (who are guilty of paying women staff less than men, too) use the issue to bash pols on the right (who too often deny the problem).

Women should be paid the same as men for the same work. But they shouldn’t wait for men to solve this problem for them.

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Can I get a witness?

We’ve all been horrified, haven’t we, by the cruel executions carried out by ISIL? I can’t bring myself to talk about them, their barbarity is so horrible. And the question that dances around in my head is: What is to be done?

Not on a national or global level. But what is to be done on a personal level? How does one confront such evil acts on the individual level, in the here and now, in our own lives?

I’m too old to don a uniform and volunteer to fight to protect those who are in the path of this savage group. My thoughts instead go back to the gospel I’ve grown up with and embraced with more vigor as I age: Christ’s message of love. Love one another.

But to think of loving those barbarians who perpetrate such evil, horrific acts? It’s a hard slog. Far easier to love the person who irritates you or whose views you don’t share. There’s a smugness in that kind of love that lets you feel…superior. No, it’s far harder to love, to even seek to love, those who have only hatred in their hearts.

But I am a Christian, and this is the message of Christ, to forgive one’s enemies, to offer them love in exchange for hate. It’s hard to do. We can go through our entire lives without realizing how hard it is. The church’s life itself contains a history of not always recognizing the true meaning of the message of love.  As David Bentley Hart argues in his book Atheist Delusions:

“….men and women have done many wicked things in Christ’s name….(but) Christianity expressly forbids the various evils that have been done by Christians, whereas democracy, in principle, forbids nothing (except, of course, the defeat of the majority’s will).”

Hart’s point is apt.  Depending on your political sympathies, you might point a finger of blame for Mideast turmoil at the leader you think (or thought) most feckless and least honest.  But, come election day, the majority rules.

Speaking of majorities, Christianity is still the dominant religion in the US, according to Gallup, but over the years, the percentage of people identifying themselves with any religion has declined, and the percentage who belong to a church or synagogue has gone down even more. Gallup’s numbers on this are here.

john_15_12_love_one_another_poster-rac0d4c53566348458f59796e03c63b1a_au58_8byvr_512All of this leads me back to the word of Christ, His message of loving one another. There are a multitude of ways to exhibit such love . My friends and family provide examples for me daily, and I hope I reciprocate in ways that make a difference to them. Where I fall down on the job most, I think, is in spreading the gospel to those who might be seeking a spiritual home. I suspect many of us fail in that regard, if Gallup’s numbers are a reference. We don’t know how to reach out to seekers and searchers. We’re afraid of offending or turning off a searcher, especially in an age where religious sentiment is often mocked and religious-minded Christians painted as being one step away from an intolerant brand of fundamentalism that few share.

How does one evangelize in this secular, diverse time, where we celebrate tolerance and respect for other faiths — a good thing, a wonderful thing. But in our respect for other faiths and points of view, many of us have stopped celebrating our own beliefs. We think it impolite or politically incorrect to stand up and say, I’m a Christian, and Christ teaches us to love one another. Won’t you join me?

It’s that last question that’s hard these days. To ask someone of another faith to join you in your celebration of Christianity is, to some, an insult. “What–you don’t think my faith is good enough? You need me to convert to yours?”

Most mainline Protestant churches don’t do much evangelizing. The Catholic church doesn’t do much either. Oh, I know they all send missionaries overseas. But they don’t evangelize the way, say, Mormons do, going door to door. They don’t reach out the way evangelical churches might, on radio and television. It seems so déclassé, so outré, to engage in that kind of up close and personal religious persuasion. But maybe we Christians need to do more of it. Maybe we need to have the courage to stand up and actually talk about that message of Christ’s love and how essential it is in our lives. Maybe we need to…witness.

So, here is my witness:  I believe Jesus Christ came into a world of barbarity and said: It doesn’t have to be this way. You should love one another. Even when it’s hard. Let me show you just how hard it can be…

So, yes, I’d like to be able to say to those cruel barbarians across the ocean the same thing: There is a better way. And, in my view, it’s the way of Christ. But if you find that better way on a different path from mine, I will still be able to see Jesus in you.

If you love one another.

I cannot join the fight. I can only try to express the love of Christianity in my own life. For those seeking such love, let me issue an invitation–try going to your local church or temple. Find one where you are comfortable. It might take a while. You might need to go back several times to get to know people and figure out how you fit in.

My church is St. Edward’s Episcopal Church on Harrisburg Pike in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, you’ll find a loving group of people who’ll help you when you’re down but won’t badger you when you need to be alone. It’s filled with groups that try to do good by knitting shawls (the Knit Wits!) for those ailing in body and spirit, by feeding the hungry through a local food bank, by actually serving the hungry at a local shelter, by squeezing the hand of a friendly soul who is suffering an inner pain. We laugh together. Sometimes we cry together. We eat together. We worship together. We pray together. We love together.

In the name of Christ, I ask you to come join us.

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Review: SECOND CHANCE LOVE by Shannon Farrington

As I’ve noted on this blog, I have the privilege of being a copy editor for a major romance publisher, Harlequin. It allows me to read a wide sampling of books, everything from steamy suspense to sweet inspirationals through complex coming-of-age, mystery, and family tales. Anyone who thinks romance is one-size-fits-all storytelling should sit at my computer for a few weeks to have the lie put to that generalization. Romance, or more widely, women’s fiction, is enormously varied. I’ve edited some absolutely wonderful novels by talented authors over the past few years that deserve attention. (And don’t get me started on how many of these books get ignored by mainstream, especially literary, publications whose editors might curl their lips or roll their eyes when they see the imprint of the world’s most well-known romance publisher on a book.)

Recently, I edited an inspirational historical due out later this year. I don’t usually blog about a book that’s not yet released, but I asked the editor if I could do so with this one. So, here goes:

When Shannon Farrington’s Second Chance Love hits the shelves this summer, buy a copy. Buy one if you’ve never read an inspirational in your life. Buy one if you don’t usually read historicals. The reason I make this recommendation: Ms. Farrington’s book is about more than faith, about more than a love story, even about more than the historical period in which it’s set–the Civil War. It contains, amidst the love story and the historical detail, a lesson that we all should absorb today: Loving your neighbor means…loving your neighbor, not hating those who don’t feel the same way as you do.

First, don’t be put off by the fact that this is an inspirational novel (for those outside the publishing world, inspirational novels are stories with no sex or cursing, but do contain some faith elements; back in the day, these novels would have been mainstream–think Jane Eyre, which is drenched in faith messages). The story is a universal one about love both in the discrete sense (the love between a man and a woman) and in the general sense (those pesky neighbors).

The tale in a nutshell: In 1864 Baltimore, Elizabeth, the heroine, mourns the death of her fiance, a Union soldier felled not by battle but disease, specifically pneumonia. Adding to her grief is the knowledge that she could have married him before his death if not for his brother David’s advice to delay until the war was over. David, it turns out, had an ulterior motive for that counsel–he’s in love with Elizabeth. But now he’s overwhelmed with guilt, knowing his feelings might have denied his brother and Elizabeth at least some short happiness together. To make up for this mistake, he takes on the responsibility of aiding her family, taking a job at a local newspaper to be near them. He learns that Elizabeth is an excellent sketch artist and gets his editor to use her talents for the paper. As she accompanies him on assignments, the two form a close friendship that eventually blossoms into true love.

About those newspaper assignments: David covers the movement to ban slavery in Maryland. Many people might not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery in Union states, of which Maryland was one. So, it was up to the local citizenry to handle that task. Maryland did so by rewriting its constitution, which required calling a constitutional convention, drafting a new document, and then sending it back to the people for a vote.

Ms. Farrington handles all this detail seamlessly. You never feel you’re being treated to an “info dump,” where the author bestows all the hard work of her research on you, necessary or not. She includes enough history to keep the plot moving, and enough to educate you about a difficult period, but never so much that you feel pulled out of the story for a history lesson.

She also respects the time and place. I’ve written before about historical novelists who make faulty assumptions. Ms. Farrington does not fall into those traps. As a Baltimore native, I knew, for example, that the main railroad station is on Charles Street. But in Civil War days, that station had not yet been built. 1013-9780373829866-bigwA lesser author might have assumed it was the main train station back in the day because it is now. Not Ms. Farrington. She knew what stations to place her characters in, even what buildings now-well-known institutions occupied in the 1860s (different from those they occupy today). She respected the time period.

But here’s where her historical accuracy contained lessons for today–it’s easy, looking in our rearview mirror, to see how abhorrent slavery was and to wonder how any civilized people, especially those in a “northern” state (yes, Maryland was a border state, but Baltimore is more northern than southern), could find anything at all to debate about outlawing this “peculiar institution,” especially after their president had emancipated slaves elsewhere. Ms. Farrington shows as well as tells the story of the challenges of the debate in Maryland. Some abolitionists, the “Unconditionals,” wanted to go beyond outlawing slavery, imposing other requirements on their adversaries, such as taking a loyalty oath before voting. These measures rankled those whose minds were troubled by slavery but weren’t yet in the abolitionist camp.

Not for one second is Ms. Farrington sympathetic to a pro-slavery view. But she does show how outlawing slavery in Maryland was a closer vote than it needed to be, some of which was due to unsavory efforts of  “Unconditionals.”

And therein, for me at least, lies the great moral of this story, one that I’ve shared with friends and policy advocates over the years: if you want to move an issue forward, you have to love it and those it benefits more than you hate its opponents.

Three cheers to Shannon Farrington for wisely presenting this view in a beautiful story. Second Chance Love. Put it on your to-buy list. And while you’re waiting for its release, take a look at her two other books in this series, An Unlikely Union and Her Rebel Heart. I intend to read them.





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Historical lapses in historical writing: a copy editor’s tips

I enjoy an absorbing historical novel just as much as any fan of the genre. But there are a few things some historical novelists stumble over, so I’m putting on my copy editing hat to offer a few tips. And by “few,” I mean only…two. :) But they’re two big stumbles that can take readers out of your story:

1. When writing the historical novel, never assume that the way the world is now is the way it was back then: This seems like an obvious rule — after all, even the laziest researcher knows, for example, folks didn’t drive cars in the 17th century. But I’m not talking about that kind of glaring difference.

I’m talking about things such as having your character order a cocktail in a Mississippi town after Prohibition was repealed, not bothering to check if it was still a “dry” state. Some states remained dry, due to state laws, for years after Prohibition was repealed. Ensuring plot verisimilitude means digging a little deeper, beyond obvious historical milestones.


Hmm…what’s wrong with this picture?

Don’t have your 19th or even early 20th century character wander into a store on a Sunday, either. Virtually all places of business closed on Sundays back in the day — there were actual “blue laws” on many town/city/state books that required businesses to shutter on the Lord’s day. (Caveat: you can write a Sunday open-business scene, but you need to acknowledge to the reader this wasn’t common: “Clark wandered into the only place open on a Sunday, a small coffee shop near the local hospital.”)

Don’t just check when various items were invented–try to find out when most families would have been able to afford them. For example, the TV might have been invented in the 1920s, but wouldn’t have been widely available for many, many years later, and most households wouldn’t have been able to afford to purchase one even when they did become widely commercially available. Same is true for color TVs. I’m old enough to remember what a luxury a color TV was.

The same goes for things such as movies with sound. Even though the first feature film with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in the fall of 1927, it took years for theaters to be wired for sound. Many small-town movie theaters still played silent movies for quite a while.

While on the topic of movies, check release dates at You can’t have a character going to see The Jazz Singer in August 1927, since it wasn’t released until October of that year. And even then, it wasn’t released simultaneously around the country.

The above tips mostly concern 20th and 19th century issues, but the same principles apply to earlier times. Some things we take for granted now were not the same back then, and some things you discover through research might require a bit more digging to accurately reflect the time and place.

2. Words are added to the lexicon every year; make sure your characters aren’t using words and phrases from the future: This is a tricky topic because, if historical novelists were really being true to a particular time period, their manuscripts would be littered with odd spellings and hyphenations we don’t use today. Many closed compound words, for example, start as open compounds, progress to hyphenated ones, then close up entirely. Readers wouldn’t expect to see such words printed the way they were back in the day. And many historical novelists consciously decide to ignore language accuracy, giving their characters a more flippant, modern tone to convey distinct personalities and themes. If done well, it works, and the reader stays in the story. But in narrative, anachronistic usage might jar, so be careful.

There are some words that didn’t enter the lexicon until the 1900s or later that even readers who aren’t linguists or language experts might stumble over. For example, a 19th century duke wouldn’t think to himself that he is “out of sync” with the world — sync didn’t enter the lexicon until 1929 as a noun, 1945 as a verb (or so saith Webster’s 11th).

An 18th century duchess wouldn’t think to herself how unfortunate it was that the duke was “plastered” the night before. That word, meaning drunk, didn’t enter the lexicon until 1902.

And even a princess in 1900 wouldn’t muse on how “posh” her surroundings were–posh came into use in 1918 (and some believe it was an acronym for “port out, starboard home,” the best cabin positions on a trip to India).

I’m not arguing for being a language purist when writing historical novels (see my comments at the beginning of this point). But I do think readers with even a minimal knowledge of language might stumble over certain words, at least wondering to themselves: Was this really in use back then? They might not know the answer for sure, but if they suspect it’s “no,” they’re taken out of your story for a few seconds.

That’s it for now — hope these two tips are helpful, historical novelists. Now, get writing!

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Carmen, je t’aime



“Just at that moment we were passing one of the many narrow lanes one sees in Seville. All at once Carmen turned and struck me in the chest with her fist. I tumbled backward, purposely. With a bound, she sprang over me, and ran off, showing us a pair of legs! People talk about a pair of Basque legs! but hers were far better –as fleet as they were well-turned.”    from Carmen by Prosper Merimee

We — hubs and I and a friend — went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Carmen this week. We saw it at a local movie theater as part of The Met in HD series, where the company broadcasts live performances on Saturdays and reshows them on Wednesday nights.

I’ve sung in the chorus of two Carmen productions — one in a small company, one with Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center. I love the opera. Along with Puccini’s Turandot, it counts as a favorite. But like Turandot, it is also a very difficult opera to fully dramatically realize on the stage. Part of this is due to its pitch-perfect music. Everything you need to know about Carmen and Don Jose, their friends, acquaintances, family, is written in the score by Georges Bizet, from the seductive allure of the Habanera to the haughty pride of the Toreador’s Song to the melancholy of the card scene and even to the cheerful plotting of the smugglers’ ensemble (and let’s not forget the purity and fearlessness of Micaela).

carmenSo any staging of Carmen is destined to fall short, in a way, to the images one sees in one’s mind as soon as the first notes of the Fate Theme sound. Add to this the challenge of making some fairly static scenes come alive and some incredible coincidences (Escamillo showing up at the smugglers’ lair…and dressed well, to boot!) credible, and you have an opera that tests the artistry and intellectual understanding of the best directors.

The Met production was very good. The singing was outstanding. Anita Rachvelishvili’s Carmen was velvet lyricism from the top to the bottom of her range, not an easy accomplishment when so much of the low singing has to be done in chest voice which can become harsh and rough in the wrong vocalist’s hands. The other singers were equally wonderful.

What of the staging? The New York Times called it “grim,” likening it to a Wozzeck more than an opera about sensuality and high spirits before its sad denouement. I concur. There was a lot to like, but a few things didn’t quite work.

This production was moved up to the 1930s, and that meant no “toy soldier” costumes for Jose and his officers. Instead, dully green-gray, a nice touch. Other than that, why set it in this period? One kept waiting for some other tie to the period that never came. In fact, costuming was ragged with some choristers dressed as if they’d mistakenly grabbed 1800s’ garments, others not so much.

The cigarette girls chorus staging was odd. The women entered…from a trap door! Usually, the lilting, smoky tendrils of music that introduce this chorus are used to allow the choristers to dreamily, steamily saunter on stage, sometimes from a second-floor set indicating the factory’s upper stories. Why did the director choose to forgo using this evocative music to overlap that kind of visual and opt instead for women being helped out of what appeared to be a big…..sewer? Beats me.

Later, when this chorus reappears to take sides in the Carmen factory fight, the action seemed too stagey and static. The key to keeping this scene moving is to make sure that even the chorus that’s not singing is still doing something, not just waiting for its cue to come in. carmen2

While on the subject of the chorus (and since that’s what I know from true experience), the most difficult one is the fourth act, the pageant before the bull fight. This chorus can feel ragged with its  stops and starts, and it requires a real parade of supernumeraries to make the scene itself appear like anything beyond a high school production level of staging. Sadly, the Met had that high schoolish feel, a disappointment given this company stages far bigger pageantry for other operas.

But the most challenging part of Carmen is communicating with action, not just music, the deep attraction between Don Jose, the good soldier, and Carmen, the sultry gypsy, an attraction so strong and fierce that he ends up throwing away his good life to lead one of banditry just to be with her. In the Prosper Merimee story the opera is based on, Jose tells of how Carmen convinces him to let her go free after she’s taken into custody following the factory fight. The part of this story that’s always stuck in my mind is the passage I quote at the outset of this essay, where Carmen leaps over Jose’s prone body, showing him her beautiful “Basque” legs. How I’d love to see that enacted in a production of the opera! (And less of the vamping that Carmens usually resort to in order to communicate sensuality.)

I’d love to see, too, a sense of the pride and dignity of Jose. He might be a lowly corporal, but he is, after all, a “Don,” from Navarre, from such a good family that, in the Merimee story, he is spared hanging (for murdering Carmen) and will be killed with a garrotting, a death reserved for upper-class men. Jose must have the bearing of the elite. He must communicate with his posture that when he succumbs to Carmen, it’s a total transformation, giving up that ingrained sense of dignity. He is so besotted by her that he lowers himself.

But often, Jose is played a bit fecklessly, as if a smile, a wink, a flower thrown in his direction is enough to turn his heart and soul to a different path. To make this unbelievable moment believable, you have to see a strong man first who cannot bend in harsh winds; he can only break. Ironically, opera directors could steal a page from soap opera directors to capture this moment. This is a conceit often used on soaps — good guy or gal, maybe on the outs with their beloved, suddenly gives in to passion with The Wrong Type, and Consequences ensue (for many months of storytelling!). And it’s always believable. metcarmen14110

The Merimee story focuses more on Jose — it’s told from his point of view as he awaits his death for killing Carmen — so you become far more familiar with his obsession and how alluring Carmen was in his eyes. Her laughter, in particular, seduced him, and her free spirit that would not be tamed. You also feel, in the story, her love for him…until he pushes her too far.

Those are difficult transformations to capture in an opera, but careful staging, costuming and makeup could telegraph so much more than the typical Carmen production usually suggests. Why not, for example, have Jose’s hair longer, perhaps pulled in a small ponytail, in the smugglers’ scene–telegraphing the passage of time in this tumultuous love affair. Why not, too, have Carmen show more affection for him in that scene so that we see she did, in fact, love him, even as the embers cooled?

I do go on…but Carmen is such a great opera it’s hard not to offer one’s own vision for this magnificent story. The music just won’t let go!

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