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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Mad Men and Puerto Rico: Ignorance can be a good thing

Posted By on 03.26.13 at 12:33 PM

Mad Men
  • Mad Men
The sixth season of Mad Men is almost here, and I wish I couldn't wait. Two unfortunate things have happened to Don Draper, about whom the drama turns: He remarried successfully enough that you hope the marriage works, but if it works the bottom falls out of the show (last season's problem). And the actor playing Don Draper revealed himself as a light comedian.

In the early seasons Don Draper was a man of mystery played by someone who might as well have been Don Draper, for all anyone knew about him otherwise. When in season two he slammed Bobbie Barrett up against a table and grabbed her under her dress, that was Draper at his outer limits of macho brutality. That scene would not play the same today, because it would be Jon Hamm, after Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock and Bridesmaids, letting us see he's got more to offer than just the good-natured goof.

Now I know just enough about Hamm's range as an actor to be put off by it. Ignorance can be a good thing. Ignorance breeds mystery and sets the imagination to work.

I just got back from Puerto Rico, a place about which I thought I understood a thing or two—largely on the basis of someone my wife knew more than 30 years ago. We were down there last weekend for a wedding. The wedding was up in the hills outside San Juan, at a place called the Hacienda Siesta Alegre, a venue amply endowed with palm trees and fiery red bougainvillea. Just down the hill cocks crowed, and from above our heads came cawing that I assumed was made by birds until our lovely headwaiter, Carmen (of Blaine Elementary and Lane Tech before her return to Puerto Rico), set me right. It is the sound of a tiny frog onomatopoeically named the coqui.

There is something about a wedding that makes guests introspective, tilts us to believe we have grasped something essential about the human condition. As Samuel Johnson said in his day about second marriages—"The triumph of hope over experience"—we say in our wiser day about the first. But it is the best kind of hope, and how empty we would be without it—and these are the thoughts that go through our heads at weddings. In this case, the wedding was a powerful piece of a larger project, which was taking Puerto Rico's measure.

The day before, we'd gone into old San Juan for a look around, and the sight of statues made me curious. Whom did they honor? Who is Puerto Rico's beloved liberator—William McKinley? I approached two statues. One was of Columbus, the other of a locally famous conductor-composer. There is probably something to be said for a society that build statues to its musicians—but I wondered if there was an important piece missing from the Puerto Rican character, the piece that can only be provided by fighting for freedom and winning it.

I raised this question with the groom's family that evening at the reception. What I was told was that the legal status of the island vis-a-vis the U.S. is the fundamental political question in Puerto Rico, with the leading political parties defined by the stand they take on it—for statehood, independence, or continued commonwealth status. With commonwealth being, don't you think, a fancy term for colony?

Puerto Ricans are much wealthier than Cubans, I offered. But on the other hand, the Cubans told Uncle Sam to go screw himself. My new friends took my point. They confided that many Cubans live in Puerto Rico, and these Cubans (unlike the ones in Miami, where the groom now lives) think Castro's a great man. But actual independence is unimaginable, they said, not with American military installations all over the island. As for statehood—people feared this would bring property taxes to Puerto Rico and they'd no longer be able to afford homes they'd built with their own hands. There was a nod toward the groom's grandfather.

There was a time when I believed it was possible to do justice to a place you'd never been to before in your life by flying in, talking to a few key people—the first being the taxi driver taking you to your hotel, the second being the young woman working in the gift shop—reading one or two local papers, and going on your way. If not definitive, your piece would be evocative, and elegant verbal brocading would conceal any large holes. And this would be true even if the correspondent was not lucky enough to attend a local wedding, which of course provides one epiphany after another.

Out of old habit, I was organizing my thoughts on Puerto Rico along these lines. It was disconcerting to ask Carmen the name of a bird and be told it's a frog, because this meant that I wasn't simply nailing down a detail—I'd made an assumption that was completely wrong. Then I asked her about the property tax situation. She didn't know what I was talking about. We have property taxes, she said.

At breakfast, I asked Felix, my server, to weigh in. Yes, he said, Puerto Rico has a property tax. So now I had the stepfather of the groom, who lives in Boston, and the groom, who lives in Miami, with one view of Puerto Rico's property tax situation, and two agreeable waiters with another. It was at this point that I thought twice, and recognized that my fact-finding was rooted in trivial presuppositions and my "facts" were the attempts of friendly people to oblige them. Like Don Draper in season two, Puerto Rico remained strange and mysterious. What I'd actually learned about the island by the time our plane lifted off for Chicago Monday you could put in a thimble.

I confess that I shamelessly chatted up Carmen. Her parents had moved back to Puerto Rico when she was 15, and she hadn't missed Chicago for one minute. My wife once taught in a college with a Carmen from Puerto Rico, I said to her, hoping to impress this Carmen with a story that had a little excitement to it. She and her friends were arrested in Evanston with a van full of guns, and she was convicted of being a Puerto Rican terrorist. The Carmen of the wedding said she had no interest in politics and never voted.

If I'd come home thinking I had a story to tell about Puerto Rico, my wife's old colleague would have been part of that mix. But what was she, really, but a long-past brush (once removed) with genuine gravity and commitment? By googling Carmen Valentin once I got home, I nailed down some details: she'd been arrested in 1980, the charge being sedition and the sentence 90 years; she'd accepted clemency from President Clinton in 1999; and she'd lived in San Juan since. She remained dedicated to liberation, but life was different now. One of her pleasures was jogging with friends along the lagoon by our hotel.

We might have run into her! If that had happened, I’d have something to tell you about Puerto Rico today that's worth repeating. But we didn't.

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