Thanks for reading,
As we enter into week…4?…5?…eleventybillion? of Covid-19 stay-at-home life, I’m definitely looking for ways to keep my monkey mind occupied and my cooped up body from permanently assuming the shape of the kitchen chair where I currently spend my workdays.
I’m a former theatre kid, was a legit drama major in college, started my career at Manhattan Theatre Club, and have a tendency to burst into song during meetings. And so it is not an exaggeration to say I shrieked out loud when I learned that Debbie Allen – YES, THAT DEBBIE ALLEN — is offering dance class via her Instagram.
It has been my dream to have Debbie Allen yell at me in dance class since I was 13. And so, I put on my leggings, t-shirt and sneakers (all the while wishing they were leotards, tights and Capezios, which I no longer own, but which used to comprise 50% of my wardrobe – the other 50% being sweatshirts with the neck cut to look like Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance”), moved all the furniture out of my living room (I live in 900 square feet with two other people, so you can imagine how this was received by my husband and daughter as they did parkour over the coffee table to gain access to the bathroom), and got ready to START PAYING IN SWEAT.
I was terrible. Comically terrible. You’ve seen videos of a newborn giraffe standing up for the first time? It was like that, but not cute. It was as if I had just discovered there are feet attached to my legs which are also connected to my body and those legs can be used for something other than holding up my torso in my kitchen chair. Eventually, I just lay down on the floor and watched Debbie, and then I put on the episode of “Fame” where Jesse is in a coma and Mrs. Berg reveals she’s a medium. (This is an actual plot of an episode of “Fame.”)
I don’t know there’s a lesson to learn from this, except to say it was reassuring and comforting to remember that once, not so long ago and also a lifetime ago, I was a kid who loved dance class and theatre school, and had big dreams. And while those particular dreams didn’t come to fruition in precisely the way I imagined they might, they were sweet and sustaining during a chunk of my life when I was scared and sad a lot of the time, and terribly vulnerable – and they remain so. Because even though I am mostly made of kitchen chair now, it’s still fun to dance around the living room. I’m glad I remembered that.
If you pay attention to such things, you’ll note it has been quite a long time since I wrote here. Blame it on the booze, got you feeling loose. Blame it on ‘tron, got you in the zone. Blame it on the P P P P P P Prozac.
No seriously, blame it on the Prozac. I hardly drink anymore and I don’t know what ‘tron is.
I started taking a little blue pill with my morning coffee more than two years ago, and it has been a cure in all the ways I hoped and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I was amazed by how much pain I was in, which I didn’t even recognize as pain until it went away, because I’d been living with it for so long. It’s been “a journey,” as they say, although mostly I sat on my couch and thought about things while looking out the window. I am nearly used to myself, now, this properly medicated version of myself, this (according to my latest performance review at work) energetic, kind, calm, generous, courageous, forgiving, resilient, resourceful, curious, friendly, self-preserving rather than self-destructive person who sleeps at night.
So now what?
Part of this “journey” (which I took on my couch) has been facing and doing things that have previously terrified me. Terrified me in the way being told to brace while your plane goes down, or seeing a shark fin in the water while you’re swimming far from shore, or waking up in a dark hotel room and realizing there’s a stranger standing at the foot of your bed would. No casual nervousness for this girl. No, I’m talking, “I’m gonna die, aren’t I?” levels of fear.
What were these harrowing tasks and incidents? Let’s review:
My favorite writer got mad at me, blocked me on social media, and wrote a mean comment on this blog. Back in November of 2016 I wrote a post about how a story in author Jennifer Weiner’s collection, Hungry Heart, hurt my feelings (it’s here if you want to read it). Make no mistake, I LOVED JENNIFER WEINER and MY LOVE FOR HER is why the little story she told (in which she characterized my profession, advertising, as a place where shills go to sell crap to vulnerable citizens) gave me the spiritual ouchies. She could have done any number of things. For example, nothing. She could have done nothing. She could have written to me and thanked me for being a fan who BOUGHT HER BOOKS IN MULTIPLE FORMATS AND ALSO MULTIPLE COPIES THAT I GAVE TO FRIENDS and, I don’t know, said she was sorry my feelings were hurt? Instead, she blocked me on all social media (Sure. Fine. Whatever.) and sent me a note about my butt being hurt via a comment on this blog (which is below this post, if you want to read it). I was hotly embarrassed by this, and low-key devastated, because I honestly LOVED HER BOOKS AND DEEPLY RELATED TO THEM, and I had always dreamed Jennifer Weiner might blurb a book I’d write some day. I was also disappointed, because I kind of did think if Jennifer Weiner and I ever met we’d be friends. And I enjoyed her Twitter, and miss it. But I did not die.
I applied for a writing residency and was rejected. The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts introduced a new residency this year, designed especially for New York State working parents with a dependent child at home. I have always wanted to attend a writers’ residency, and Saltonstall is a beautiful colony located in Ithaca, NY, home to Cornell, gorges, waterfalls, and many adorable little shops. So I prepared my packet and included my writing sample — 20 pages from the novel I have been “working on” since 2013 — and in return was sent a polite letter (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) letting me know I didn’t make the cut. I was disappointed by this, and frustrated. I cried about it. But I did not die.
I stopped dieting and decided to live a full, rich life in the body I have. Hey, so, I’m fat. I’ve been thinner than I am now and fatter than I am now, but I’m fat and have been fat since I was…uh, always? I’m also Type 2 diabetic since 2005, when my gestational diabetes decided to take up permanent residency in my body even after my daughter was born. Fat is an adjective that describes a body, like tall does. And diabetes is a chronic illness attributable to genetics, environment, and other factors. Neither is a reflection of how good a person I am, my value in the world, or how much love and respect I do or do not deserve. I know this, because I spent an excruciating 6 months working with Isabel Foxen Duke, powerful force for good and lodestar of food and body sanity, learning about the science of diets, diet culture, body respect, intuitive eating, and getting off the crazy train of misery I’d been riding since I was 11 and put on Weight Watchers for the first time. Through my work with Isabel, I have found a kind of peace and self-respect I never thought was available to me. I Marie Kondoed the hell out of my closet, got rid of all the clothes that pissed me off, and bought fabulous new clothes that fit. I started exercising regularly, because it feels good to move around. I started eating exactly what I want (which is sometimes fried chicken and sometimes salad and sometimes fried chicken ON a salad), and monitoring my blood sugar carefully to make sure I stay within healthy ranges. I cut off all my hair and now rock a pixie inspired by a French model. I travelled to Europe, to Vienna, Austria, a place I have always wanted to go, because my family is Austrian and Billy Joel has been telling me Vienna waits for me since I was a child. I have stopped waiting for my real life, the life in which I am finally thin enough, to begin. This process has been rife with grief. It has been painful. It has been unaccountably frightening. I hated a lot of it. But I did not die.
I stopped writing the novel I’ve been “working on” since 2013. The book I’ve been thinking about and puttering with for six years is called Rom-Com Rehab, and it’s the story of two best friends, one of whom saves the other from a rock-bottom self-destructive depression by designing a rehab program based on tropes from romantic comedies. There’s a lot of material about mythology and how modern female characters are avatars for ancient goddesses. Some funny scenes about working in television. A bakery/bookstore. And a bit with a dog. It’s a big, sprawling thing, heavily influenced by Wally Lamb, who I idolize and who has never said anything mean about my butt (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) But honestly, that book as it currently stands is a wail of desperation and rage tinged with vengeance, filled with coded messages to people I don’t want to talk to anymore. So I’ve officially abandoned it, by which I mean I no longer angrily berate myself about being a loser and a quitter and a coward who can’t finish anything for not writing it, and instead lovingly encourage myself to think about other things I might write. Maybe I’ll go back to it someday, with new eyes, a different approach, an untangled heart. With the right intentions. But for now, I’m letting it go. And I didn’t die.
I’m turning 50 in April. It’s a birthday, like any other, but it feels like a waypoint. A moment for deciding what’s next. And for me, what’s next is knowing I am moving in the right direction, amongst friends I can trust, including myself. Realizing the things I fear are far less powerful than my ability to face them. Understanding cake is not the enemy. Acknowledging Jennifer Weiner is fighting her own battles that have nothing to do with me (and if I ever do write a book, I’m definitely including, “SO BUTT HURT! -Jennifer Weiner” as a blurb). And believing even if I lose ground, make a mistake, don’t get what I want, or someone is a jerk to me, I will not die from shame or rejection.
There’s always another writer to love, another residency to apply for, another self-limiting belief to dissolve, and another story to tell. And so, what’s next is new stories. Told honestly. Without regret. A place in the world I don’t have to ask permission for, but instead can inhabit wholeheartedly, sure I will fail sometimes, and equally sure I will survive it.
Like any Gen-X girl who donned an ankle bracelet and twirled around at a Grateful Dead show during the summer of Touch of Grey, I have enjoyed my fair share of recreational drugs. It was never all that big a deal for me — I preferred the comforts of plain cigarettes and Diet Coke to the highs of more potent product. But drugs were a regular part of my life for a long time, so much so that I can make a bong out of nearly anything (including an apple), and yes I WOULD like one of the Percocet you have left over from your dental surgery.
The point is, I just said yes, and have never been one of these, “I won’t even take a Tylenol when I have a headache” kind of purists. Give to me your muscle relaxants, your pain killers, your antibiotics and anesthesia! But there is one class of drug I have steadily avoided, despite every good reason to give them a try.
Depression is such a slithering monster. All tentacles, always reaching for you, always trying to pull you under into the dark. I’ve been fighting it, denying it, trying to find a way to live with it, trying to outrun it, since I was 11. And even that, admitting I was depressed even before I got my period, is so fraught with all of depression’s greatest hits: fear, shame, the immediate need to explain that yes, it’s true, and yes, a doctor even said so. Two doctors said so. Actually three, three doctors, OK, to be technical, one therapist, one psychoanalyst and one psychiatrist (walk into a bar! Ha ha!) all agree that my history of depression started when I was 11 (triggered, in part, by a traumatic event that involved getting abandoned at a bus stop in Manhattan by my father, but that’s a story for another day), and that the times in my life when I considered myself “depressed” were actually heightened times of anxiety or crisis, and when these periods ended I retuned to a baseline of depression.
Baseline of Depression, by the way, is my fantasy band name.
About a year ago, I was in the deep end of one of these “periods of crisis.” This one showed up as an acidic, foaming rage that turned me into a scary, unpredictable, gimlet-eyed insomniac who cried all the time. And if that sounds terrible, consider the fact that my trusted therapist, Joe, who had seen me through more than a decade of my life — a decade that included changing careers, meeting and marrying Jonathan, getting pregnant and giving birth to Emerson, my father’s death, and my mother and stepfather moving away — had retired a year before.
I’m friends with quite a number of genuinely wonderful depressed and anxious people, and so I asked the most talented of my depressed and anxious friends, a stunning writer and photojournalist whom I had been a legit fangirl of before we became friends in real life, if she would give me the name of her therapist. And that is how I ended up seeing Mean Steve, a brilliant psychoanalyst who treats some of New York’s most accomplished and famous artists. So famous is Mean Steve’s clientele that he has a series of doors and waiting rooms you use to get in and out of his office, so you never see who has the appointment before or after you. (I should mention that he is not actually mean. I call him Mean Steve because I hate fucking going to fucking therapy because I should be done with fucking therapy by now I’ve been in fucking therapy for my entire adult life and fuck him and his stupid fucking mystery office I hate therapy. Fuck fuck fuck.)
The details of someone else’s therapy are uniquely boring, and this is not actually a story about Mean Steve and all the crying and yelling I do in his office. It is a story about Dr. Tapas (not his actual name).
About four months into my therapy with Mean Steve, I asked if he could prescribe drugs. This was at Jonathan’s urging, because I had a habit of nibbling at his Klonopin. (This is not a sex thing.) Jon also wrestles with the many-armed monster that is depression and anxiety, and has actual prescriptions for drugs that help him, which he takes as prescribed, because he is brave and good and also smart. I, on the other hand, seek out the dreamy, warm-blanket oblivion of benzodiazepine the way one might enjoy a good Scotch, so I was “borrowing” Jon’s pills, which annoyed him to no end, because those are HIS drugs and go get your own drugs, lady.
Mean Steve does not prescribe meds, because he is not that kind of doctor, but he did offer to send me to his “guy” — the psychiatrist he partners with for patients who need medications to support talk therapy. I was not gracious about this offer. In fact, I believe my exact words were, “Fuck that. I don’t need fucking drugs. Fuck off, Mean Steve.” And if you are observing the fact that I was TAKING drugs while claiming I didn’t NEED drugs, then you are correct.
I was 25 when Prozac Nation was published. I am now 48, and drugs have come a long way, baby. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication have been suggested to me before, by every doctor I have ever seen, including my dermatologist, who during an annual skin exam noted my ragged, bloody bitten nails and asked about my state of mind. I have refused even the idea of anti-depressants time and again, because I was scared.
I was scared that my depression was the key to my talent. That without it I’d lose the dark and twisty thing inside of me that sends up the words, that tells the stories, that holds the memories.
I was scared I’d become boring.
I was scared that without depression, I’d have to deal with all the things that made me depressed in the first place, instead of living from crisis to crisis.
I was scared that “troubled former drama major with a passionate temper” was who I was, and that I wouldn’t know who to be or how to be if I medicated away the thing that defined me.
And also, I secretly suspected that I wasn’t depressed, but just kind of an asshole, and they don’t make a pill for that. And if I took anti-depressants I’d not only have confirmation of this, but I’d still be an asshole, just maybe a calmer one.
But I had also just had a performance review at work that boiled down to, “Who exactly does this bitch think she is?” and I was tired. Tired of hearing I was scary, and angry. Tired of hearing I was unpredictable. Tired of staying up all night watching TV I didn’t like and eating food I didn’t even want. Tired of not trusting myself.
And so I took myself to Dr. Tapas, so named because he is Spanish, and handsome, and reminds me of Javier Bardem, but not scary No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem. I fully expected to recite my life history with my usual detachment, because I have told this story so many times, to so many doctors and men in bars, the kind of men who want to hear all about how broken you are on a first date, but instead I surprised myself and ugly cried for 90 minutes.
If it is possible to listen warmly and with charisma, that is how Dr. Tapas listened, and when I was done vomiting up my lonely childhood and frightening father and broken dreams and terrible relationships and self-destructiveness and everything I’ve done to try and fix myself, the doctors and Buddhism and meditation and exercise and eating more fiber and dry brushing my skin and all the books Oprah said to read and hypnosis and yoga and nutritionists and psychics (yes, even psychics) he said this (with a Spanish accent):
“Stefanie. You have worked so hard, and we are all so proud of you. You have done everything a person can do to try and be well. And now, you have earned, you deserve…Prozac.”
Well. Ok then.
I took the first one the next morning.
That day, the first day, I was thirsty and had a headache, and kept texting Jon to tell him all the nuances of exactly how I was thirsty and had a headache. He assured me I was doing great. The next day, I felt a little dizzy. And then on the third day I woke up and it was quiet.
It was quiet. In my head.
I have lived my entire life with a din of voices in my head, telling me all sorts of awful things about myself. That I am lazy. Ugly. Unworthy. A fraud. Untrustworthy. And on and on, from the time I was small, a discord of fear and rage and disgust, so omnipresent that I’d simply come to accept the cacophony as normal. And now it was quiet.
I explained it to Mean Steve this way: It was like my head was the Overlook Hotel, a haunted house, and I could never be sure what was around any corner. I could never be sure what might terrify me, or enrage me, or jump on me and try to kill me. And now all the ghosts were down the hall in one room, having a party. And I couldn’t hear what they were saying and it didn’t matter, because I didn’t need to go to that party. Not ever. And it was safe in my head, to rest, to look around.
It has been quiet for months now. And I am learning how to be a person.
I spent, no joke, all of my free time during the first couple of Prozac months lying on my couch looking out the window. Not reading, not writing, not watching TV. I just watched the sky change. And listened to the silence.
Lately, I have been trying to figure out what I like. Not what will make me smarter or more acceptable, what I ought to pretend to be to be interesting, to be worthy, but what I actually like.
I like succulent plants, apparently. But only tiny ones.
And making quesadillas.
I like the beach. More than the mountains.
I do not like the Grateful Dead, it turns out, but I do have an abiding affection for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Yoga is not my thing, but I am a beast at pilates.
I will never be the kind of person who wants to go on a bike ride with you, but we could go on a hike.
I want to learn how to play the guitar.
And it turns out I am startlingly laid back. ‘A‘ole pilikia levels of laid back. Maholo.
It is so strange, meeting yourself at 48. But I am learning. I am learning the shape of my own desires. That I am more than my history, my ghosts, the ragged edges of my grief and fear. That redemption is possible. That it’s ok to accept the help I need. That depression is a monster but fighting it doesn’t have to be the only thing I do. That I am a work in progress, but progressing. That there is a party going on down the hall that I never have to go to.
I am learning how to live well in all these quiet days.
Not so long ago, I wrote about how one of my favorite authors inadvertently hurt my feelings by dismissing a career in advertising as the lowest form of hackism.
Yesterday, my gallant friend and advertising colleague Ryan forwarded me this letter, which was originally sent to a fan from Kurt Vonnegut.
Given a choice between being Jennifer Weiner’s shiller of crap and someone Vonnegut might consider witty and well read, I’ll choose Vonnegut every time.
I have loved Jennifer Weiner since her first book, Good in Bed, was released in 2001. That book, and the ones that followed (13 and counting) resonated with me so deeply it was as if they had secret messages encoded in them. And not just because, like Jen, I’m a chubby Jewish girl with hair that has less volume than I’d like, but because from the first I could read between the lines of her comedy, which felt so much like my own joking exterior, and recognize the particular shape of her pain:
The abusive father she estranged herself from, not because she wanted to but because she had to. The complicated childhood. The devastating breakup. The never-ending battle with her body. The particular humiliation and bravado that comes from being a smart, funny, talented, ambitious, hyper-verbal, sometimes mean, sexually precocious, attractive but not necessarily beautiful, fat girl.
Fat girl. Saying those words out loud isn’t scary anymore, because while I’m still fatter than I want to be, I’m also now happily married and a mother and successful in my career and loved and healthy. I know how my story turns out. But I was 32 when Good in Bed landed in my hands, still devastated by the end of my first marriage, caught in a self-destructive swirl, and so plagued by self-loathing I avoided looking at myself at all costs, refusing to meet my own eyes in the mirror, avoiding my image in store windows, ignoring my grief, the hollow center of myself.
I had never read anything like Good in Bed. Here was a character that felt so familiar she made me cry, someone who got her happy ending without having to lose half her body weight, someone who got to stay fat and still have a life worth envying. It was nothing short of a revelation.
And Jen kept the stories coming, usually just in time for summer, books featuring women characters with longings and insecurities, thighs that rubbed together and authentic problems, always delivered with heart and humor, with a blistering insight into a secret hurt that felt personal.
In a lot of ways, I grew up — the real kind of growing up, the kind you do as an adult, when there’s nothing left but to die or change — with a Jennifer Weiner book in my hands.
I identified with her, probably over-identified with her. I’ve never met her in person, but we’re connected on social media, and I once posted on Facebook that she was my imaginary back-up best friend, in the event something happens to my actual real-life best friend, and she responded to me saying we had a deal, she’d be there for me if I needed her. I was so excited by this that I printed the post out and hung it over my desk at work.
I’ve bought everything she’s published, sometimes in multiple formats, sometimes to give away as gifts. So of course I bought her new book of essays, Hungry Heart, in which she exposes her personal life and shares stories I had already guessed at about her childhood, her father, the end of her first marriage, her writing life. I stopped reading during an early chapter about her being socially ostracized in elementary school to tweet that there would always be a seat for her at my lunch table (and then refreshed Twitter over and over to see if she’d reply, which she didn’t, but she did like my tweet).
And then, in a chapter about her early career, she hit me with this:
I needed to find a J-O-B, one where I’d be paid to write, where I was, per Professor McPhee’s advice, writing every day. The two fields that came to mind were advertising and journalism. I rejected advertising immediately. No way was I going to be a shill in corporate America, using my talent to sell debt-ridden citizens useless crap! Besides, I was convinced, for absolutely no reason rooted in reality, that I’d end up working on the tampon campaign, and that my professional life would be spent finding synonyms for the word “absorbent.”
I’ve worked in advertising since 2007. I’m a creative director, which is a significant achievement for anyone in my industry, but particularly for women (though we’re working to change that). I didn’t study advertising in school, or go to portfolio school — everything I’ve accomplished in the past 9 years is the result of hard work, significant mentorship, the help of generous, excellent bosses and colleagues, and my own steely determination to succeed. I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve worked on, and there’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I am an enthusiastic supporter of young women (and dudes) in adland, and have mentored several of them up the ladder — frequently from being assistants to becoming copywriters (remember to hire me when I’m old, you guys). It’s not perfect, and I don’t romanticize it, but advertising has provided me with innumerable creative challenges, the opportunity to meet and work with some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere, and a fascinating look at how business works. It’s taught me discipline, time management, empathy. It’s made me a better thinker, a better writer, more resilient. And the money is great.
So I’d like to tell you that my immediate response was, “Fuck you, Jennifer Weiner. You couldn’t hack my job for a single day. And also, maybe you’ve heard of Always’s #LikeAGirl. Or Dove Real Beauty. Or seen the Expedia spot in which a father travels to his daughter’s wedding and welcomes her new wife into the family. Or the Secret commercial featuring a queer actress portraying a trans woman, speaking truth to power that there is no wrong way to be a woman. Or encountered the countless other purpose-driven campaigns that have influenced culture and captured people’s imaginations. And how dare you judge the way anyone makes a living.”
But the truth is, I set the book down and cried. Because I trusted her. I trusted her with my ugly truths and the things I feared. And she shamed me, for being the wrong kind of writer. For squandering my talent. For being a shill and a sell-out.
This is a voice I’m used to hearing.
It’s my father, telling me I’d be gorgeous if only I lost 10, 15, 20 pounds.
It’s my mother, telling me how proud she is of me but still asking why I blog instead of publishing in magazines.
It’s my ex-husband, telling me I’ve got talent but I’m no Norah Ephron.
It’s my ex-boyfriend, the one I let break my heart three times (because I never learn, until I do), telling me he always thought I’d be a college professor, and it’s so surprising I ended up in advertising because he honestly thought I was destined for great things.
It’s the former friend who declared all I ever had to do to get anything I wanted was bat my big brown eyes and smile.
It’s the voice that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not good enough and never will be. That I’m weak. Untrustworthy. Sneaky. Lazy. Craven. That I’m ugly. That I’m fat.
There was a time in my life when having Jennifer Weiner tell me I suck was the sort of thing that would send me falling straight to the bottom of what I call The Hole — that dark, dangerous, lonely place where the worst of my depression plays out — and I would cope by hurting myself. By sleeping with a stranger. By running a sharp blade over the soft inside of my thighs, not hard enough to cut, but enough to leave a mark. By Googling the ex-boyfriend who expected me to be the most popular Literature professor at a picturesque liberal arts college and torturing myself with a fantasy about how well his life was going. By stuffing myself until I felt sick. By refusing to sleep, obsessively watching TV as the small hours of the night became morning. By smoking like it was a job I’d been assigned.
In the years since Good in Bed was published, I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time learning how to avoid The Hole, with therapists and psychiatrists, with personal trainers and nutritionists, with writing teachers and meditation teachers and the Dharma. I’ve learned how to talk back to that hateful voice, how to ignore it, how to silence it. I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.
And because sometimes life is kind, because sometimes we get what we want and it turns out to be exactly what we need, I also have have someone to catch me when I slip, someone who will slide down and sit with me in the muck, and climb back up with me when I’m ready.
I wiped my eyes, got off the couch, and went to find my husband, who was reading in the bedroom.
“Jennifer Weiner hurt my feelings,” I squeaked. Jonathan looked up from his book, pushed his Clark Kent glasses up on his nose, and with complete seriousness said, “That bitch.” I chuckled, still trembly, and crawled into the space he made for me on the bed. He listened as I explained the sucker punch of being called out as a hack, how it felt personal somehow, how it was the unexpected judgement and cruelty that had caught me so unguarded in a place where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable. He listened, and when I was done we lay there in silence for a while.
“Well, she can’t sit at YOUR lunch table anymore,” he said eventually. “But do you think she was talking to you, or to Jonathan Franzen?”
It’s a funny thing, empathy. The way it seeps into the cracks and restores you. Because of course, Jen’s longstanding feud with Franzen is bitterly insulting. Her ongoing defense of genre fiction by women as deserving of respect has earned her support, but also criticism. She was clearly devastated when Oprah didn’t choose Hungry Heart for her book club, and instead selected Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir Love Warrior; and when Jen confessed that this rejection set off a “small, sad voice” in her head that had her comparing herself to Glennon — who is skinny and blonde and adorable — and finding herself lacking, I understood on the most fundamental level. I know what that voice sounds like, the one who calls you fat and tells you that the prizes are reserved for the cheerleaders, the popular girls, that no matter how hard you work, how hard you strive, you will always come up as less than. And maybe when Jen hears that voice she defends herself, in part, by contemptuously retorting, “Hey, at least I don’t work in ADVERTISING.”
And if that is the case, I get it. I do. But I also know there’s a way to shut that voice down without hurting anyone else. Without hurting yourself. That no matter how much you relate, in the end, no one is writing your story but you.
I did pick up Hungry Heart again, after a few days. I enjoyed it, although the spell is broken, and I read it the way I read anything else — with curiosity and interest, but not looking for clues to my own heart. And when I got to the part where Jen dissed Brooklyn (seriously, what is her problem with Brooklyn?) all I could do was roll my eyes, sip the coffee I’d just bought at Mazzola, admire the Halloween decorations all along Union Street, and laugh.
My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.
My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).
And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.
I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.
I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:
Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister. What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.
When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).
Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)
On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).
I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!
But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?
“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.
I look for what’s missing.
My daughter sees what’s there.
I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.
And Emmy needs me.
And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.
Next week, Working Girl.
Humble brag/disclaimer: I was sent an advance reader’s copy of Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs’s publicist. I received no payment for this post, but I am now so cool I won’t even hang out with me anymore.
I’ve been emotionally shadowing Augusten Burroughs since Running with Scissors was published in 2002. A chronicle of Burroughs’s harrowing, chaotic childhood, Running with Scissors made my formative years seem positively normal by comparrison. I may have had a secret grandpa, an absent narcissistic father, an emotionally inscrutable mother, a compulsion to peel the skin off my hands and feet, and the habit of telling elaborate lies — but no one ever sent me to live with a lunatic psychiatrist in a squalid house or told me being molested by a pedophile was good therapy. Sure, I was deeply insecure, lonely as hell, and scared all the time, but I was for sure less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!
Dry, released in 2003, is a chronicle of Burroughs’s twentysomething years, which he spent working in advertising, drinking himself near to death, going to rehab, trying to figure out how to live sober while dating a crack addict, and watching his former lover and best friend die of AIDS. I spent my 20s marrying the wrong man, getting divorced from him, screwing a long line of one-night stands, visiting an alarming number of psychics, and reading a lot in the bathtub. I was a soaking wet hot mess, make no mistake, but still less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!
With Lust & Wonder, Burroughs has come back into my life at a gentler time. For one thing, I no longer feel the need to judge myself on a continuum of fucked upedness on which I am way more fucked up than Anna Quindlen, far less fucked up than Kathryn Harrison, and equally fucked up as Cheryl Strayed. I’m a good man’s wife. Mother to a gentle, generous, funny girl. The daughter of retired Florida condo dwellers. I am what I guess you’d call content and settled, a state of grace that once seemed utterly unattainable. It seems remarkable to me sometimes, the love and goodness that have become my everyday life.
Love is the territory Burroughs charts in Lust & Wonder, chronicling his adult romantic relationships with the keenly observed humor and brutal intimacy that makes him such a rich pleasure to read, even as he’s showing you horrors. There’s Mitch, the “deeply odd” published author. George (the “Pighead” character from Dry), whose death sends Burroughs into a drunken spiral. “Normal and stable” Dennis, with whom Burroughs has a long-term relationship that’s perfect on paper and broken in reality. And finally, there is Christopher, who is all wrong — he’s short, HIV positive, and just happens to be Burroughs’s literary agent. They’re friends for 10 years before Burroughs finally admits his feelings. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous.
Reader, he married him.
It seems the stuff of rom-coms, of fairy tales, the lost child turned self-destructive adult transformed by love and granted entry into the dreamed of “normal life.” But I feel the heft of the mythological at work here. The years on a stormy sea, the conquests, the challenges to be faced and monsters to slay, and the final return home where you are welcomed and known, loved not in spite of your damage and your secrets but because of them, because they are part of you and in this safe harbor there is nothing to be ashamed of at last.
About six months ago, I started a new job. This is my 5th new job in a decade (not including freelance gigs), and my 5th career since graduating college (including my stint as a dog trainer). I imagine there are people who organize their work lives in a much more orderly fashion, who choose a ladder and then climb it. But for me, “career planning” has always amounted to running towards the next glittery thing in the distance while cheerfully hollering, “Hey, that looks interesting!”
For the past several years, I’ve made my living as a copywriter and creative director in advertising agencies. Agency life suited me incredibly well, I think in part because my first love – and career – was the theatre. I felt right at home with advertising’s lack of boundaries, intense emotions, freewheeling creativity, grueling hours, and sexual energy. But in the summer of 2015, a new opportunity presented itself: challenging, complex, well-organized, and, not to put too fine a point on it, highly compensated.
My new job is very different from my old job, from the way the company is structured to the kind of work I do. I’m out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, and one change that’s rocked my world significantly is the way women dress. There’s no formal dress code, but there is an unspoken expectation that your shit will be TIGHT around here, and that means knowing how to walk in heels, statement necklaces, actual outfits and, in most cases, a Cartier tank watch.
My shit, to put it bluntly, is not tight. I am the sort of person who used to dress herself out of the costume shop at school. I never learned how to walk in heels, unless you count a Dansko clog as a heel, which, let’s be honest, no. At the last ad agency where I worked, I once wore a bathing suit cover-up as a dress. It was navy blue cotton and I paired it with brown flip flops and a wooden bead bracelet. I sort of felt this made it “a look.”
It’s not just the clothes, of course. The women I work with now were once the sort of girls who wouldn’t have sat with me at lunch in high school. We would not have lived together in college, or even gone to the same parties. If advertising is populated with a vast number of former theatre majors (or people who were theatre major-adjacent), my new industry is where sorority sisters and marketing majors come to work after b-school or a stint as a speech writer in Washington. They are gorgeous. They speak multiple languages. They are so brilliant it makes my head hurt. I spent my first month at this job terrified of them, but now I am simply in awe of their talent and generosity. And I won’t lie, inside of me there will always live a nerdy girl wearing a CATS t-shirt who knows all the words to Evita, and she is amazed and thrilled to be included among this flock of swans.
So I’ve been working on getting my shit, if not tight, then tighter, which in the warmer weather translated into a rotation of sheath dresses, all purchased from Lands’ End (thank you Lands’ End, for your easy-to-parse Wear to Work collection) paired with Tieks in a variety of colors. I inserted the diamond stud earrings my mother gave me for my 18th birthday, re-learned how to apply eyeliner, and bought a very fancy handbag (ok, it’s a backpack, but it’s a TUMI, damn it).
When the weather grew colder, I found myself with exactly zero things to wear. Apparently, my winter wardrobe for the past several years has included jeans, drapey scarves, furry moon boots, and long sleeved t-shirts. (Before I cleaned out my closet I had, no exaggeration, 17 long-sleeved black t-shirts plus one grey one. I guess I was feeling adventurous the day I purchased the grey one.) In a single very expensive afternoon I traded my sleeveless sheaths for a collection of wooly sack-like dresses and tunics from Eileen Fisher. They’re all pretty much shaped the same, except the dresses hit at calf length, while the tunics graze the tops of my thighs. I love them, because they feel like I’m wearing a woobie but look expensive and grown-up.
And so one recent morning I was off to call on clients in an adjacent state. The meeting was at 10am, the car was coming to fetch me at 7:30. I enjoy mornings like this, rising early to shower and fuss around a little, getting the phone call that my driver has arrived, climbing into the back of the black town car and checking my email. It feels like I am starring in a movie about a sophisticated business lady who is doing business. On this particular morning, I was wearing black stockings, black boots, and a navy blue Eileen Fisher sack dress, and I was feeling quite fine as I kissed my husband and daughter goodbye and sassed myself down to the lobby.
My meeting was at a sprawling corporate campus, and at 9:50 on the dot my driver pulled up in front of the appropriate building. I left my coat in the car, grabbed my laptop, and climbed out of the backseat, where I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate-glass doors of the lobby and realized, with icy cold horror, that I was not in fact wearing the navy blue sack dress, but instead had grabbed the navy blue sack tunic.
I was standing on the corporate campus of one of the world’s most conservative companies, about to pitch a piece of business worth millions of dollars, and I had forgotten to put on pants.
The first rule of crisis management, as I understand it, is to assess just how big a problem you have on your hands. I could see in the plate-glass window that my actual crotch wasn’t showing, so this was a plus. I carefully turned around to look at my bottom, which was also covered. Sort of. Not by a lot, but there was no discernible cheek showing.
My natural instinct was to climb right back in the car, tell the driver to floor it, and email everyone to tell them there was an accident on the highway and I was stuck in traffic and I’d dial in and do my presentation from the car. But I also recognized that this is not what the women I work with would do. The women I work with, with their shiny hair and unflappable poise, wouldn’t let a little thing like lack of pants get in their way. Pants or no pants, they’d look at their tank watch and know it’s go time.
To paraphrase Dirty Harry, this is the kind of moment where you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Is my shit tight?”
I walked in with my head held high and my ass blowing in the breeze. I presented the hell out of that pitch. My shit has never been so tight, and I also should mention that I don’t wear panties under stockings because I hate how bulky they feel, so when I say my ass was on the line I am being completely serious.
This is how we grow, I guess. This is how we change. We dance like nobody is watching. We love like we’ve never been hurt before. We sing like no one is listening. And we pitch like we have pants on.
It is, somehow, autumn again, that season of sharp pencils, cozy sweaters, and mornings punctuated by the noise of a certain screechy bird that makes me achingly lonely. The quiet endings and erotic leaves of fall once made it my favorite time of year, but as I get older I find myself drawn to spring, abounding with fluffy baby animals, bright green shoots pushing up through the dirt, and honeyed light.
I am getting sentimental in my Demeter years.
I had a long list of books I meant to read, most of which I did not. In particular I did not read Jennifer Weiner’s new novel, Who Do You Love, because the story of a man and a woman who meet as children and keep losing and finding each other through the years hits me in a place I’d rather not be touched, generous and warmhearted as I’m sure it is. I also didn’t read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because while your books, Mr. Rushdie, are also very good, reading the book description on Amazon tuckered me right out.
We had custom closets built in our bedroom and they make me so happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to live at Shutters on the Beach, and so late at night I put everything away in its own little cubby, light a scented candle, and pretend the sound of traffic on the BQE is the ocean.
Seabirds honk, right?
Jonathan and I spent a week at Kripalu, eating vegetarian food and farting our way through yoga class. I bought a fancy yoga mat and flip flops that have separators between all the toes. I also bought a book about Tantra, which I meant to read but didn’t.
All three of us, Jonathan, Emmy and me, spent a week in Phoenicia, NY, which is Brooklyn with more trees and a very long drive to get coffee. We attended the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s charming son, in Woodstock, at a temple where the Rabbi accompanied herself on guitar and they hand you a maraca at the door. This is the kind of Judaism I can get with.
I quit one job and started another. It was a good move, made for the right reasons. In the past, leaving a job always felt like a breakup, but this was more of a graduation. I’m an MRY alumna for life.
We have begun the process of getting Emerson into middle school, which is as terrible as everyone says it is. I recall my college application process as being significantly less stressful than this, but then again, I chose a college by evaluating which campus had the best sunset and was the shortest driving distance to my boyfriend.
I ended up transferring after a year and the boyfriend and I broke up, but there are worse ways to make a decision, I think. Those were some knock out sunsets.