Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Do people outgrow vulnerability to heartbreak?

So, here's a question for you: do people outgrow their vulnerability to romantic heartbreak? Can it strike at any time in one's life, or is it something that experience and shifting priorities defangs?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question, which is why I'm posing it.

Many psychologists who study "social pain" -- social rejection -- think that it exists to teach us lessons. The pain itself shares the same neurological pathways as physical pain, probably because both force us to focus on the situation and defend ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: for our ancestors, exclusion, rejection, or being alone could mean certain death on the savannah where saber-toothed tigers lurked in the brush. Any kind of pain alerts us to the dangers of being alone. Indeed, any pain, whether it is the crushing sensation in one's chest over the loss of someone you love or the sting of a paper cut alerts to the fact that in the end, we die alone. (And yes, I know that's dramatic...)

But if we unpack the line of thinking that pain teaches us important lessons, we arrive at two very different places:

1) that the lessons we need to learn are infinite, and we are forever vulnerable to the lessons we've not yet learned; or

2) that each of us has our own, private, and limited catalog of tailor-made lessons that reflects who we are as individuals;

If the lessons we need to learn are infinite, then in theory we are always vulnerable to heartbreak, and each romantic liaison potentially offers us a new risk of pain, a new lesson to be learned. But if each of us has our own set of lessons, then in theory once we master them, we're forever stronger.

Or is it simpler than that, and we simply reach a point in our lives where, as one song writer put it, we "haven't got time for the pain"? Fine enough to wallow in the pain of heartbreak when you're twenty-something, or thirty-something, and hanging out in your plaid pj's and listening to Aimee Mann and OD'ing on Haagen Daz and chardonnay doesn't really effect anyone else, but it's a different kettle of fish when you have kids to feed, entertain, and quite simply be healthy for? In a strange way, do our children armor us against romantic heartbreak? Are are our priorities so dramatically shifted by having children that our brains are rewired so that we don't collapse from the pain of romantic heartbreak?

This is not to say that someone who, say, goes through a devastating divorce and has children experiences heartbreak -- they do. I'm just wondering if it's a slightly different brand of heartbreak from the kind one experiences earlier in life.  

Or is it that you go through it enough times and it becomes such familiar turf that you don't have to spend so much time and energy on it? Yeah, you might feel like shit for a few days, but it's not the all-encompassing devastation of say, getting dumped by the love of your life when you're 25. Put another way, maybe heartbreak gets maxed out: everyone gets 3 to 5 heartbreaks, and after that, wearing your broken heart on your sleeve is just plain undignified. What kind of 50-year-old who just got dumped licks their wounds for months on end?

Please feel free to comment or email me privately if you have thoughts on this. I could really use some other brains on this...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Andy Whitfield and My Primacy Effect

Today, the bit of entertainment news that I've been dreading for a year: Andy Whitfield, star of the series Spartacus, died yesterday. He was 39, he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and damn, he was one of the few men on screen to really light my fire.

Sure, as Spartacus he was not just chiseled but principled; but I now know that for me, what really got me going was that Andy Whitfield -- specifically the two-and-a-half to three inches of his face including and framing his ever-so-slightly hooded, wideset grey blue eyes, his unmanscaped brows -- triggered in me was what's known among social psychologists as "the primacy effect." Just that slice of Andy Whitfield's face reminded me of the first man I ever loved and was loved by, of the first time in my life where passion and safety co-existed.

When I see an image of Andy Whitfield, I see someone else, I am somewhere else: on Ocean Beach together at dusk marveling over the miracle of falling in love, waiting for him to roll up his sleeve as he did every time he held my hand, the way he carefully wiped his shoes on the doormat. Time travel in the face of a stranger, if for an instant.

Thank the primacy effect for how vividly you remember your first kiss, your first heartbreak, your first sighting of your college roommate's shoes, your first taste of beer. First experiences sear our brains unlike any subsequent ones -- the intensity of the emotion and the novelty form "flashbulb memories" that will light our way until our deathbeds.

Strangely, I had a dream about this man from my past last night, probably just hours after Andy Whitfield -- let's face it, a stranger -- died, but many hours before I read that he had died. And it was a sad dream -- one in which I felt helpless, worried, and nostalgic.

I'm no mystic, but I wonder what to do with that sliver of coincidence, if one can even call it that. It's as if a perfect stranger, on his way to the great beyond, stopped by to say, "This is the last dream." This particular primacy effect of mine, the trigger linking one face to another's, a TV screen to some of the most meaningful moments of my life -- will now forever be overlaid with sadness that such a talented stranger, who by all accounts was a lovely person as well, died too young.

Goodbye, Andy Whitfield.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hot nun poem

I put your letter under my left breast -- 
They say that's nearest the heart
At last, weary, I tried to get to sleep
But love that has been wakened knows no night...
I lay asleep -- no, sleepless -- because the page you wrote 
Though lying on my breast, has set my womb on fire.

-- Constance of Angers (a nun) to Baudri of Borgueil (a monk who some theorize was gay)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting myself to a nunnery...or at least into a few books about nunneries

Among the many things I don't understand (grits, polenta, heavy metal, hominy, the allure of Sarah Palin, rottweilers) are nuns. I always feel a little squirmy when I see one. My internal dialogue goes something like this:

Respectful me: "What a nice thing to devote yourself to making the world a better place."
Feminist me: "Of all the things a woman can be now, you chose being a fucking NUN?"
Agnostic me: "Bride of Christ?"
Fashion me: "I'd shoot myself if I had to wear those shoes."
Nymphomaniac me: "It must suck to really need to get laid and then remember, oops, you're a nun."
Cynical me: "How many  school children have you beaten? Bitch."
Guilty me: "I hate myself." 

But seriously, the little I know about nuns is shrouded in...Julie Andrews. In my limited experience, nuns are either young and just waiting for their Captain (whom I bet likes nothing better than a good spanking behind closed doors), or old but still good for belting out Climb Every Mountain. And the only nun I ever knew personally left the nunnery for the love of her life, who, it turned out, wasn't so much Jesus as the woman who lived down the street from us when I was a kid.

So here I am, in the name of heartbreak, immersing myself in nunnery history. We know women got banished to nunneries for behaving badly (meaning shagging men they weren't supposed to shag, sometimes also referred to as falling in love), but how often did that happen? Like was there one whore of Babylon at every nunnery, so they were evenly distributed, or were there nunneries that specialized in imprisoning women who fell under dopamine's spell?

A stack of academic books on nun history, including one published by the University of Chicago Press titled Nuns Behaving Badly, is sitting on my coffee table now, along with an amber ale.

Got a question about nuns? Then I suddenly appear to be your girl. (But not your bride of Christ).

Monday, August 15, 2011

On camel toes and muffin tops

Body metaphors are among the many things I'm exploring in The Little Book of Heartbreak. I'd never stopped to think about it, but while I've never met a metaphor I didn't like, those that play on the body are typically my favorites. What's not to love about "brain fart", "muffin top" and "camel toe," I ask you?

Part of why I love about them is remembering the very first time I heard each one. A co-worker once used the word "brain fart" in a meeting with our humorless boss; my friend Kelly -- always the arbiter of hip -- taught me "muffin top," and while I'm not certain I first read "camel toe" in a blog reference to Paris Hilton, in my mind the term means Paris Hilton.

Turns out that "heartbreak" is a little different than camel toe or brain fart, or even brown nose. It's what's called a primary metaphor -- it's rooted in a bodily sensation associated with emotion, and pretty much no matter what the language, it will translate more or less the same way. In short, ask a native speaker of Berber what "camel toe" means on a metaphorical level, and even though he might be deeply familiar with camels and their toes, he'll have no idea what you're talking about (and not just because north African nomadic women aren't known for wearing bikinis or vinyl hot pants). But ask him how "heart" + "break" translates and he'll know exactly what you're talking about.

Apologies here to linguists who specialize in metaphor, because I know I'm vastly oversimplifying your professional life, but "heartbreak" is, I think, similar to other metaphors that are more or less universal: anger is hot (often a hot, overflowing liquid, in fact), fear is cold, happy is up, sad is down.

And now my challenge, dear reader: pair your favorite body metaphor with another metaphor and see what you come up with.

Try this one on for size: "brain fart" + "pillow talk."

Monday, August 8, 2011

The lowdown on my book about heartbreak (FAQs)

For those of you who want the skinny on what my book, The Little Book of Heartbreak (LBH), is about and why I'm writing it, here are the FAQs, real and imagined:

What is LBH about?

LBH is about the notion and experience of romantic heartbreak: about why getting dumped feels as bad as it does, about the universality of not just the experience but also the term "heartbreak", about wallowing, about what music, literature, history, science, and popular culture can tell us about love gone wrong. LBH will touch on subjects ranging from neurobiology to medieval history to the genius of Nick Cave.

Why are you writing LBH?

I'm a firm believer in bibliotherapy. Books can heal, and I don't mean in a new agey, pop psych kind of way -- I mean that by engaging with our pain on an intellectual level and feeding the beast with knowledge, we can get to a higher level of understanding about it AND distract ourselves from the immediacy of the daggers in our chests.

I owe my life to both nonfiction and fiction titles that explore depression and heartbreak, like The Noonday Demon: The Atlas of Depression, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, but whenever I was in the throes of heartbreak, I found myself craving a book that didn't yet exist: a tome that explained why I was acting like such a nutter, engaged me intellectually, gave me perspective, and looked at what I was experiencing through different lenses. A book that helped me to recover but wasn't self-helpy, trite, or just plain stupid.

So I set out to write that book. 

How did you come up with the idea for LBH?

When I was in graduate school in journalism at Berkeley, I did a radio piece on love gone wrong that specifically covered what exactly the pain of heartbreak feels like and why social psychologists think it exists. I was struck by how engaged people were with the story -- everyone who I interviewed and I knew listened to it had something to share. It struck me perhaps nothing is more universal in the human experience -- we don't all become parents, we don't all get cancer, we don't all chuck it all and join a commune -- but nearly every one of us has his or her heartbroken.

Why you?

I'm a recovering expert. Although I'm happily married now, before I met my husband, it's fair to say I got dumped as often and predictably as it rains in Seattle. Okay, so I exaggerate, but according to my scrap paper tally, I was dumped at least a dozen times, about half of which resulted in medium heartbreak (the kind that makes you cry, qualifies as profound disappointment, but you can concede after awhile wasn't so bad because the guy wasn't "the one" and/or had red flags sprouting around him like hair on an old lady's chin), and a quarter of which resulted in extreme heartbreak (the kind that makes you wish you were a lemming because hurling yourself off a cliff sounds like a great idea because he really did seem to be "the one").

I've been ditched after moving across the country to be with someone, via email and over instant messenger, in a Honda Civic, in my own kitchen, and on my birthday.

I'm also fairly certain I've broken the hearts of three or perhaps six individuals, several of whom barely spoke English, and one of whom I almost regretted dumping because he introduced me to the band Hem

So, yeah, I think I have a fair amount to say on the subject. 

Who is your audience? 

Let's be real: men who will read a book about heartbreak are likely few and far between. My guess is that women will dig this book -- women like me who read broadly (medieval history! pop reference! best sellers! Mary Roach! Madame Bovary! obscure books about the history of dirt in London!), have been known to overindulge in Two Buck Chuck, are left cold by self-help books, and are confounded by the perils of the modern dating paradigm (did I sleep with him to soon? what does that cryptic email mean? what do you mean I shouldn't text him until he texts me? should I not have done a bong hit in front of him? was it the ratty red thong or the fact that I identified a little too much with Bridesmaids?)

When is the book coming out? 

LBH will be published in February 2013, which means that my manuscript is due in, uh, six months.

Are you scared? 

Do bears shit in the woods? Totally. But I'm also happy like a Mai Tai on the beach.

So you think you can write a book without becoming an asshole?

It's now official: of the many things I'm bad at (math, swimming and diving, cooking dinner without making a mess, being a lesbian), writing a book cannot be one of them.

Last week Plume and I agreed to hop in the proverbial sack together. The word sack, the outline sack, the deadline sack, the scary sack. "I want to write a book" has transmogrified to "I am writing a book," and scary has never felt better. For the first time in my life I'm neither deluding myself nor bullshitting someone else when I say, "I'm a writer."

I have to write 40,000 words by February 2012. I sat down and did the math (because even I know how to divide, if barely and only with a calculator), that comes to about 2,000 words or four single-spaced pages of non-drivel a week. That means that my son will watch a lot more Jonny Quest, eat a lot more Trader Joe's mac 'n' cheese from the box, and spend a hell of a lot of time banished to Sodor; my husband will even more regularly ask me if he has any clean boxers; and our cats frequently alert me to the state of the litter box by shitting elsewhere.

Forty thousand words in six months is no minor challenge, but in some ways to me the larger issue is: How do I write a book and not become insufferable to my friends and acquaintances? Let's face it -- one of the most obnoxious sentences in the English language is, "I'm writing a book," while "my book" and "my agent" compete for the most obnoxious possessive + noun combination (though if one lives in Hollywood and/or is rich, I expect one could include "my screenplay," "my stylist", or "my Louboutins"). 

I have one friend who shall remain nameless who has written a book and become an asshole. To be fair, he was trending toward asshole before he wrote the book, but the book really sealed the deal. (No, Doug M., I'm not talking about you...) I'm sure this is not an uncommon pattern, and I promise to do my best not to follow it.

You'll tell me as soon as I have a tinge of asshole, right?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes for twenty-somethings

In keeping with the previous post, here is my list of coulda-shoulda-woulda's, aka youth is wasted on the young:

1. That guy who you hooked up with that you dug who then acted like a psycho? Forget him. He'll still be a psycho -- and not as cute -- in 20 years.
2. Take pictures of your boobs -- just for yourself, not for sexting, people! -- before you get pregnant or breastfeed. While it would be impolitic to say they'll never be as good again, they'll definitely never be the same again. Plus, maybe by the time you're 40, boob jobs recreate what you were rather than...Barbie.
3. Travel and/or live overseas as soon as you possibly can, for as long as you possibly can.
4. Get up close and personal with poverty that is far worse than your own at least once by the time you're 25.
5. The gym is your friend. Really. It's boring and horrid but once stuff sags, it sags for good.
6. Use sunscreen. Lots and lots of it. Every day. Even if you work in a cave. When you're 40, nothing will be as gratifying as people thinking you're a lot younger.
7. Avoid credit card debt like the fucking plague. Even if her smile gives you the willies, read and follow Suze Orman.
8. Keep a list of everyone you've ever kissed. And keep that list hidden.
9. Tidy your purse once a week. Then aspire to make the rest of your life like your purse.
10. Let me think on this some more....

A letter to the Frenemy to read today

My dear Frenemy,

Did you know that I'm probably twice your age, have never met you, and have a girl crush on you? For you, I coin the term, "grush" (girl crush) -- which sounds like something vaginal and unpleasant, but under the circumstances, perhaps that is appropriate.  I hope you don't find this creepy (even if I do).

So. Here we are. Do you watch TV? I thought of you this weekend when I was on the Stairmaster and I saw a commercial for a feminine wash, the gist of which was, "Someone told me I stank down there, which let me tell you, is really learning a lesson the hard way." I thought, damn, I'm sure I can't find that ad online and comment accordingly, but I bet the Frenemy can. And then I thought some more, my thighs surely growing ever more taut with every step, how if I were 20 years younger and lived in Brooklyn or wherever the hell you live, surely we'd be friends, and then reminded myself that oh, no, we wouldn't be because I'd be so upset that you were so much better at being me than I was. You are the best me EVER. You are the me that never was.

Can I tell you how unhappy I am that blogging didn't exist when I was twenty-something? Think about that. I was perhaps my most ripe for blogging in 1992, when the Internet (and you) barely existed. But I digress.

Sometimes I think about what I would tell you: For the Frenemy: Lessons I Have Learned. Some are deadly important: (Don't dismiss finding a rich guy; and for that you must keep a tidy purse); some are less so, such as: be prepared, if it hasn't started already, for the urban garden of wiry hairs that will arrive out of nowhere on your upper lip and chin -- they'll be like weeds on the sidewalk. You'll wonder if your friends notice that you have a habit of running your forefinger over the right corner of your upper lip, and you'll hope that they think you're just being thoughtful, but really, you're thinking, Jesus, get me to a bathroom so I can get the tweezers and I really fucking hope I can pull this one out at the root and if I really had it together and were the type who kept a tidy purse I'd also be the type who would get those spiky strays lasered.

But now I have to go because I have to go pick up my son, who is two and I am trying to teach not to pick his nose, much as that is sort of hypocritical of me because more than once I've caught myself picking my nose when I write. Like my subconscious thinks that boogers harbor great ideas.

More soon, I promise.

P.S. Call your mother.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the broken heart of Henry VIII

The Brokenhearted King?
Watching the last season of the Tudors was like eating cold oatmeal with a side of collard greens, but it did make me revisit my thoughts about Henry VIII, about whom I'm read an embarrassingly large amount. Sure, he was vain, arrogant, cruel, gullible, mercurial, dastardly, possibly brain damaged, and later in his life, fat, stinky, in chronic pain, and likely impotent, but you have to remember: he must also have been simply brokenhearted by the flock of disappointments that descended on his not-at-all-private life.

Sure, we all know the stories of the six wives, but when you really stop to think about the stack of losses, betrayals, and assumed betrayals were, it's awful to think about the impact on his interior life.

Historians think that Catherine of Aragon, good wife that she was, had a total of six to nine pregnancies, only one of which resulted in a healthy child (a girl, later Queen Mary) -- the rest were either stillbirths or miscarriages, and one son, also named Henry, who lived 52 days. Can you imagine? The thought of those disappointments alone chill me.

Then we move on to Anne Boleyn, clearly the great passionate love of his life -- she successfully produced an heir (albeit also girl, Elizabeth), and thereafter had, many historians believe, multiple miscarriages. Stress could have been at play, or just the vagaries of pregnancy in all eras before the 20th century, but one theory I find intriguing is that Anne might have been Rhesus negative (Rh-). If Henry was Rh+, then after her first pregnancy (Elizabeth), her body would reject any Rh+ babies thereafter. Now, of course, your OB will run tests and give you an antibody shot if there is potential Rh problem, but then, there would be no explanation aside from God hates you. And not just a little: at this point, Henry was up to, oh, maybe 8-15 failed pregnancies and two wives who "failed" at the one thing that was required of them.

Let's move on to Jane Seymour -- probably the best long term "fit" for Henry -- they probably could have been happily married for years. She produced a son (Edward) about a year and a half after they married, but then she pegged out immediately, probably from puerperal fever (which killed his mother as well). Yet another terrible loss, and the only explanation, yet again, would have been that God hates you, when really it was likely more that there were a lot of unsanitized hands messing around in the royal birth canal. So now on top of two failed marriages, and multiple miscarriages/stillbirths/early childhood deaths, Henry's wife has died just trying to produce a child.

At this point, the equation looks remarkably like Henry pays, quite literally, for children with the lives of his wives. And that God has it out for him particularly, above all others.

We'll skip Anne of Cleves -- much as that situation was a bummer, grief and heartbreak don't seem to have played a role, though from her perspective it must have sucked to think you're marrying the hot king of England and instead you wind up with a foul-tempered fatty who has the audacity to tell the world that YOU smell bad (and that your boobs sag).

Moving on: Catherine Howard, aka the ninny. By this time, Henry was 50, fat, grumpy, and stinky, and surely delighted to be bonking a hot 17-year-old. Still, no children (maybe because wives made him so nervous he couldn't get it up), and then, because she wasn't just young but also STUPID, she had a liaison with his favorite courtier (not to mention plenty of previous unqueenly dalliances that at best people of my mother's generation would call "heavy petting.") Can you imagine how he felt? You're the King of England, god dammit, you've had a shitty time at family life, and your hot young dumb wife has the audacity to CHEAT ON YOU? He was probably off his rocker with rage and heartbreak at that point; no wonder he said off with her head. (Not that I'm in favor of that. Or burning heretics. Or drawing and quartering. But you get my drift.)

Then we have Catherine Parr, to whom he was married for about three years, until he died at 56. No kids, presumably because he was impotent by that time since she did have one child later, at age 35 and with Thomas Seymour. She died 6 days later -- likely because of dirty hands in the birth canal, yet again.

Sure, at the time, many families lost many children, and women spent most of their fecund lives either pregnant or nursing. But Henry's situation -- the drama of it, the stakes, the mystery of it, the sheer relentlessness and bad luck -- deserves, I think, a small helping of a more sympathetic look. 

How many times must have his chest felt like it might collapse from crushing despair?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Depression, Depression!

So, when I'm a bit depressed (like now), I tend to mutter the "Tradition" song from Fiddler on the Roof under my breath, replacing the refrain of "Tradition!" with "Depression!" As in, "Depression! Depression! [insert 15 na-nas] accompanied by mournful, slightly violent violin.

Try it. Especially if the drudgery of family life is part of your problem.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Maybe I was wrong, Jen

What am I going to do with you, Jen? I just don't know what to think. Maybe you're not the agent of heartbreak, or maybe your spin doctors are so fantastic you and Justin might as well be in a blender. A luv blender.  In which case, as I imagine it, your blonde locks topple out of the top of the blender as you go round round baby right round. Which is funny because didn't you promise Brad in your vows that you'd always make him banana milkshakes?

Don't ask me why I'm so obsessed with your love life, but let it be known that I've also been known to wonder what Brad and Angie actually talk about and what she's thrown at him, because you know she's thrown things at him, while I'm sure the only thing you ever threw at him were your black lace thong while he was doing an Adonis recline on your Dux bed with 600 kabillion thread count sheets.

BTW, nice touch on the black and white photos. Classy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Glass houses, Aniston, glass houses

So, word is that Jennifer Aniston has taken her wrecking balls (eh hem) to the noble house of Bivens-Theroux (no, no reason to know it, but now you will). This delights me. Not because I've ever been solidly allied with either Team A or Team J, but because I think it heralds some badly needed growth and perspective on her part (at least on her public part). Dishing out heartbreak is part of the great equation -- a bit of time on the giving end rather than the receiving end can do wonders for the complexity and overall empathic capacity of a person.

Not that I've ever met any of the individuals involved (or watched many of their movies, for that matter), and not that I'm about to say anything earthshaking here, but I think if I really had to choose teams, I would have been on Team J -- she might well be a nutter (or not), but I suspect Aniston is sweet, super funny, and, in the end, because she's probably always sweet and funny, a bit boring. (I also faintly wonder about her intelligence. Of all things to shill, she chooses BOTTLED WATER? Called "Smart Water", no less?

Hon, I'm sure I'm not the first one to break it to you, but when you're up against a woman who rescues children from a life of flies in their eyes, doing your best to maximize further contributions to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't really furthering your cause as a) smart; or b) anything but tasty suite of terrific boobs, gorgeous hair, and really lovey eyes. (BTW, have you ever noticed how Brad goes for not just the super famous ones, but also the super famous ones with the truly spectacular racks? Gwyneth...Jen...Angie...If he'd been willing to stoop lower (or older) to the likes of Teri Hatcher or Christina Applegate or Liz Hurley, imagine how different our world would be. (A guy friend had to point it out to me years ago that Applegate made her career on her knockers. And I won't say anything about her breast cancer because that would be construed as truly mean, and I like her. I mean, I think I would if I knew her.)

But back to the matter at hand: Aniston, homewrecker. I like to imagine the conversation she and Theroux had as they decided to "turn the corner," as it were.

Theroux: C'mon, baby, it's no big thang.
Aniston: But it is! Think of my brand! I'm sweet and clear as water!
Theroux: But everyone knows you need to shake it up a bit, sugar mouse. The world is bored by you.
Aniston:  Oh, you're right. Maybe I should give Heidi some tips. Remember when I burned all of the lingerie Brad ever gave me? That was good one.
Theroux: Or the time you fooled everyone into thinking you were getting over it by decorating your beach house with a million Buddhas, like you were Jen the Zen?
Aniston: Wait, all this time, Zen has been Buddhist? I thought it was, like, Hindu or something. That's what Liz Hurley told me.
Theroux: Just cuddle up here, honey, everything will be all right.
Aniston: Too bad I can't go on Oprah anymore.
Theroux: Yeah. I'm great at couch-jumping.
Aniston: Aw, I love you, you're so edgy!

Meanwhile, Heidi Bivens is speed-dialing Isabella Boyston.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Notes on journalism for a young girl

"So you want to be a journalist?"
I'm honest with the kids from my alma mater who contact me, mistakenly thinking I actually go to work somewhere everyday as journalist: I tell them that the alumni database isn't up to date (my own fault), I haven't worked steadily since I was laid off over two years ago, and that it is a tough field. I am circumspect.

But last week a note from a nice young woman arrived in my email box, asking all the usual questions, "What's your career path been? Should I go to journalism school?", and the circumspection shattered. I told her what I really think, what my life is really like, and how my friends who still cling to journalism as their bread and butter suffer for their art.

Below isn't exactly what I said to this young woman -- this version is far more spiked with vitriol and personal details -- but it's close.  

Sure, I'd be happy to tell you about my path (such as it's been). It might even be therapeutic.

I was an English major in college but drifted for a long time before I decided to go to grad school in journalism. Went to Berkeley's j-school, won awards there for my magazine work, then worked as a web producer in public broadcasting for several different shows, projects, etc. because god knows most of us mortals can't make a living writing magazine pieces. (Case in point: I worked for several years on one piece (albeit on and off, but still), and it was hugely successful when it was published and spawned a host of documentaries, including one by The National Geographic.  I was paid $500 for it, which barely covered my out-of-pocket costs for reporting it.)

In retrospect, in 2005 when I graduated, the writing was on the wall that journalism was a dying field, but for me between the market and just plain bad luck, it's been an extra rough run. Stupidly (in one of those moments that now causes me to lie awake at night), I passed up a great job opportunity when I was still in grad school because, I said, I really needed to finish my degree. (Little did I know that I would never have a better offer and that the degree means next to nothing.)

Still, I managed to keep it together with a string of good jobs until I was laid off  in 2009, when I had a four-month-old baby (n.b. that I was one of 30 employees laid off at my company then, 27 of whom were women). If we're talking salary, the "height of my career" was a year or so after grad school, when I made $80K, but that was for a start-up that rested on a terrific idea that never saw the light of day. Now, especially since I've been out of work for two years, I'm not even competitive for jobs that pay $40-50 K and expect 60 hour work weeks. I make ends meet by taking little jobs as they come: writing scripts for corporate videos, producing on-off projects, doing research, feeding my son a lot of rice and beans. Whenever I sent out a pitch, unless I have a particularly strong and personal relationship with an editor, I hear nothing back. Even when I follow up, and follow up, and follow up.
Once in awhile people I know get a gig that pays relatively well, say $70-80K, doing business reporting for, say, Bloomberg, but that's rare. And those jobs aren't jobs where you'll ever make significantly more – you’ll be lucky if you get cost-of-living increases and never get laid off. A friend of mine from grad school is a kick-ass producer for a media outlet I won’t name. The week her work won a prestigious national journalism award, she had $100 in her bank account. To this day, she struggles to pay her rent. Another friend is a stringer for a major national newspaper that I also won’t name; he’s a phenomenally talented writer and reporter, and he told me that he makes more money per minute driving car down the road and getting mileage reimbursement than he does on the few hundred dollars he gets per story. (Not only that, but his editors have been known to praise his pitches and then assign them to staff reporters –which is the journalistic equivalent of a swift kick in the nuts.) Another friend won a Pulitzer while in journalism school for an investigative story, and he got so disgusted with the field that he quit to go to nursing school. My husband also went to Berkeley's J-school, and he chucked journalism to become a private investigator (which believe me, is not as fun as it sounds). 

The good news is that I'm writing a book, as are several of my other friends from grad school, and we agree that at this point it feels easier to sell a book than it is to sell an article. Magazine and newspaper editors are often rude, dismissive, and unimaginative, whereas if you can find a good agent to represent you, as I have, it can be the start of a great partnership that in the end will be less stressful and even if the book doesn't do that well, more lucrative and less humiliating than begging editors at magazines and newspapers to pay attention to you. But then, when I was your age, I didn't yet have a book in me.

If I had it to do differently, I would have spent a few years in journalism in my early twenties (which would have been in the pre-dawn of the Internet) and then, if I still liked the field and felt like I could contribute to it in a meaningful way, I would have applied to j-school. Then, I would have time to either become very well-established in the field or chuck it and change courses. As it was, in journalism school I didn't focus enough on my technical skills -- I should have gotten completely fluent in FinalCut, ProTools, etc. I'm sure you've heard this before, but you have to be a one man band now: you have to write, shoot, edit (not just print, but video and audio), produce, Tweet, and wipe their editors' asses, which in my frank opinion is contortionism. Rare is the person who can do all of that and really be on their game.

So, my advice should you choose to go into this field is as follows:

- If you apply to journalism school make sure you get very clear figures on how many of the program's recent graduates are employed in journalism, and where. J-schools fudge those figures all the time, and you need to be very persistent to get an accurate picture of what is really happening with their alums. Even though the field has collapsed, Berkeley's program still accepts classes of 60 students, which I think is unconscionable. Why accept so many? Because the school still has to keep tenured faculty employed. How many of those students will ever get good jobs isn’t in the calculus.

- Forget wordsmithing and focus on technical skills. You might have those already since you're of a different generation than me, but still, be comfortable with everything and a wiz at least one thing. Also, if need be you can use those as a back up in another field (producing corporate videos, for example).

-Don't be romantic and think you're going to publish long magazine articles, or be a foreign correspondent, or win a Pulitzer. The chances of that are very, very slim, even if you're the most wonderful writer or sensitive journalist in the world, and most jobs won't give you the leeway to follow your passion.

-If you go to grad school in journalism, be realistic about your debt load. I’m $27K in student loans for Berkeley, and with every small monthly payment I make against that, I think of it as my “family tax” – the best outcome thus far of that debt is that I got to start the family I always wanted because I met my husband through grad school.

- If you're not comfortable with it already, become very adept and excited about rabid self-promotion. That's a massive part of the game now, and to be honest, it's the part I'm worst at (next to politely begging editors to get their heads out of their asses).

- If you move forward with this, in order to be successful, you're going to have to being unswervingly dedicated to your field, your conviction that you were meant to be a journalist and the notion that you are, without a doubt, hot shit.

I'm not sure I would have cornered myself by writing to make my living. When I was twenty-something, I had no idea how limiting that could be in the long run. Now, it doesn’t mean diddly squat if I’m a talented writer (which I’ve been told);  that I’m a fantastic, if exacting editor (which I’ve also been told); or even if I’m a nice person (which someone might have told me once or twice). 

In short: If you’re okay with being broke at 40, utterly dependent on your spouse’s income, unable to afford a down payment on a house or send your child to a good school, and a slave to anti-depressants to get through your days and Ambien to get through your nights because you can’t believe what a shithole your career is, by all means, go for it.



*I removed any identifying details and really let it fly in this public version. Rest assured that even I would never be this crass to some sweet kid.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A few thoughts on trying to understand WWII

Reading In the Garden of Beasts, a book about the Dodds, an American family in Berlin during the 1930s, is like watching a cruise ship capsize when the ship’s passengers have no idea that they’re sinking, much less how far below the bottom is (or so I imagine it). It’s also a haunting parade of “what if?” moments – one of the most maddening of which is, of course, what if Americans (and specifically the American government) had actually listened to Ambassador William Dodd's warnings, rather than ridiculing and dismissing him as “Ambassador Dudd.”

Beasts is of course riveting (read the NYTimes review of it here), but this post isn’t so much about  the book itself as my own musings on how anyone who wasn’t part of the “greatest generation” can wrap their minds around World War II and the Holocaust.  

My uncle’s niece

I’m not sure there was ever a time I didn’t know about Hitler and World War II. My father had a vast collection of World War II histories, to the point where he had to hide the volumes when a house guest who spotted a swastika-spined book (probably the classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, recognized as one of the most important books of history of all time), assumed he was a Nazi. (Right. My dad the skinhead…).

I think in another life my dad could have been a historian, but his fascination with WWII, while he’s never expressly said it, must originate with his beloved brother’s death in the Battle for Brest after D-Day. I think that for most of his life, my dad has been trying to make sense of his brother’s death through reading, as if understanding the historical backdrop – why and how Hitler came to power and stayed there – will explain the most unnatural loss of his life.

The Battle for Brest, where my uncle was killed in combat.
My father was 14 in 1944, and his brother was 19, maybe 20, when he was drafted while at Cornell. I have never had the heart to ask my father to recount how his family found out that their oldest son was dead, but I find one family photo from the summer of ’44 particularly poignant: my mother and father (childhood friends), stand poolside; my mother smiles shyly at the camera, and her new hips peek from her wool bathing suit; my father, with his corrugated farm boy abs, beams. Judging by the undiluted joy on my father’s face, that photo must have been snapped early that summer, weeks or even days before his brother was killed in action.

But back to Hitler in my household. Like my father, my older brother was obsessed with WWII, and in the same way that I adopted his revulsion to baked beans and zucchini, I adopted the fascination in my own way, mainly by poring over books that had huge gory illustrations of battles. (I also remember asking my brother, when I was about six, which war was his “favorite”: World War I, World War II, or World War III? Needless to say, I got an earful about how World War III hadn’t even happened yet, dummy…). 

An education

But while I knew roughly about Hitler and World War II, it wasn’t until I was about eight that my brother enlightened me about the Holocaust with a paperback history that featured photographs of stacked cords of bodies, skeletal living humans on bunkers, sunken eyes and tattered prison garb, ovens. Then I remember my parents preparing us for some family friends who were going to visit: Don’t ask about the numbers on his arm (which meant, of course, that I spent the duration of the visit staring at his arm). In our household, “childlike fascination” wasn’t so much about bugs or trains or volcanoes, but rather how the horrors of war, and those of European arena of WWII in particular, happened.

Now, I’ve often wondered Auschwitz and Dachau were things I really needed to know about at eight years old, but I think it was okay: it accustomed me to the notion that history as simultaneously vital and scary; it forced me to wonder at an early age about whether or not I thought “evil” existed, and if it did, what form it took; and it made me at least somewhat conscious of how power in the hands of one person – just one!– could unleash completely disproportionate horror. 

Those of us who have never experienced war are prisoners of abstraction – we can never fully “get it.” And while “greatest generation” talk puts my feathers in faint disarray, I do fuss that as time passes, the capacity to even remotely “get it” recedes, hazier and hazier. Massive tragedy is confined to black and white text, black and white photographs. I hope when I explain to my son the back story to the image of his grandparents by the pool in 1944 he can absorb the magnitude of what he can never fully understand. That he will at least know what he will (one hopes) never know.

A few years ago, I was helping a high school senior with a college admissions essay. Imagine my consternation when I read, “Hitler was a selfish man who didn’t take advice from the people around him. He would only do things he felt was right regardless of what others said to him. His poor decision-making led Germany to lose the war and ultimately his own death. Hitler’s faults in life helped me to better understand how to handle things in my own life.”
Needless to say, I never heard back from this particular fellow after I returned to him his draft, complete with my marginal rants, but his version of Hitler stuck with me. How on earth could anyone wind up with that as their “takeaway” about Hitler and World War II? Did his parents have that light an attitude about it? His teachers? Was this sloppy and frankly offensive interpretation of World War II and the Third Reich typical of today’s teenager?

As a teenager, I remember reading the Keats line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all ye know on eart, and all ye need to know," immediately thinking of the Holocaust, and then deciding Keats was full of shit. As for the existence of "evil", I'm agnostic, but I try to not use the term casually.

It’s not like I have anything particularly new or insightful to share in this post – this bit of turf has been ploughed endlessly (and should be). But I did need to get my thoughts on it out, if just for a moment. Even if it's in black and white.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On true love at two

My son might be only two-and-a-half, but he seems to be in love. While he’s always been a lady’s man, the most enduring object of Henry’s affections is his best friend, Dede, whom he’s known since he was a baby. Henry and Dede have a regular play date every Friday, but still, she’s often on his mind.

I open up my laptop? “See pictures Dede!” (He has been known to kiss and even lick printed pictures of his lady love.)

I tell him when we’re in the car that someday he’ll drive a car, too? “See Dede!”

We watch two horses gallop through Elysian fields in the ‘94 film “Black Beauty”? “Henry and Dede!”

I ask him to name his favorite color? "Dede!"

Henry and Dede hold hands, take baby dolls for walks in toy strollers together, feed each other tofu and noodles, and insist that if one has something (like a sip of a particularly yummy drink), the other one gets one too. They gambol like lambs across the grass and have been known to nearly spoon while napping.

Hen’s affection for Dede warms the cockles of my heart for a bunch of reasons. First of all, when I was his age, I didn’t really have friends, at least not ones who I saw regularly or who could be trusted to not make me, say, climb in the bath tub with a pair of ducks. There are three possible explanations for my early friendlessness:
  1. Even at that age, I was a bit peculiar.
  2. We did live in an isolated place, in rural Delaware, no less.
  3. My parents’ generation didn’t quite get it that no matter how young a child is, friends are really crucial to a kid’s development and mental health, not to mention appreciation of joy.
    Not that I’ve read anything on this, but I like to think that thanks to early love for someone other than a family member, his little neurons are making connections that will serve him for the rest of his life. Love is a cat’s cradle in neurobiological terms; better that his brain learn how to play it – and take joy in it -- sooner rather than later.

    That Hen’s best little friend is a girl, and that they dote on each other so much, makes me hopeful for his future relationships with women. When I was pregnant and first found out I was expecting a boy, I was horrified. Not just by the fact that I had a penis inside me for nine months straight, but more by the challenge of raising a boy to be kind, thoughtful, and respectful to women. Sure, my father and my husband are both wonderful men, but I worried that somehow their example and my influence could be overridden by other factors: some unaccountable Tucker Max-esque personality trait (not that you should click on that), society’s misogyny in general, or Sarah Palin as president.

    But even though he’s only a few years old and, I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track. Thanks, Dede! (And thanks to your mom, too, who agreed to let me blog about how fabulous you are.)
    Henry and Dede.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    A few notes on Kindle, color, and collecting

    A few years ago, I discovered the joy of arranging my books by color. While many bookish sorts are horrified by this notion, I love the garish chaos: Joyce Carol Oates’ hot pink Blonde cuddles with a magenta Joy of Pregnancy, and tangerine Guns, Germs and Steel is flanked by day-glow Midnight’s Children and Chinese red The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Sort your books by color and patterns emerge that you never noticed before: books about travel are often blue; histories often some combination of red, orange, and yellow; green books are rare. 

    I love what the disorderly palimpsest of dated favorites and recent acquisitions says about how my tastes have changed over the years:  Nicholson Baker’s now quaint black dust-covered Vox (1993) bunks with navy Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010). In my twenties, I consumed contemporary American fiction almost exclusively, but the older I get, the more I prefer to read about eras and places I can never experience firsthand. Why read it when I live it? Still, each spine is a breadcrumb indicating where my brain has been.
    See? Arranging your books by color is cool!

    Our bookshelves chart our intellectual histories, and I’m vain about mine. When my husband and I first moved in together several years ago, it was a hard pill to swallow – I didn’t particularly like pollutant titles like The Firm and zombie anthologies mingling with my literary fiction, and truth be told I thought about asking if our books could keep separate quarters. But I had to concede that his dictionary collection was worthy. I will be the first to admit that our bookshelves – yes, his and mine -- are tantamount to cerebral exhibitionism: Look how smart we are, they call, uttering the unspeakable. We might not have found fame and fortune, but damn, we have read a lot.

    But this past Christmas, I got a Kindle, joining the estimated 5 million others who trumpet taps for the codex. It’s was a matter of practicality at that point, I told myself: often when I was in the thick of research and a certain book was just what I needed, I didn’t have the patience or the time to go to the library or the bookstore. My brain is trained by Wikipedia; I want knowledge in an instant.  Then there was the space problem. Our bookshelves overflow, and stacks of books lurk under tables and in corners. Sometime last fall I cleared 30 books out from under my bed, where they had migrated, seemingly of their own accord, from my bedside table. 

    Kindle vs. iPad

    When it came to the Kindle versus iPad debate, I rewarded Amazon for what Kindle has done for my father. When he was in his forties, my father, a voracious reader of smart thrillers and history, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes blurred vision and can lead to blindness. Books suddenly vanished from his bedside table and television colonized evenings. My father, the man who had read each volume of Churchill’s history of World War II, was reduced to filling 7:30 to 11 with fuzzy impressions of Miami Vice. Hazy versions of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! were weekly godsends. 

    After surgery that restored at least some of his eyesight, my father could struggle through large-print editions from the local library, a few pages at a time, but the library only carried lowbrow in large print. My father read The DaVinci Code and its ilk out of desperation -- for more than 30 years. And because the reflective glare of most computer screens is too hard on his eyes, the Internet Age passed him by. Still, even though reading it himself was a struggle, every Sunday morning he went into town to buy the Sunday Times.

    But then a year and a half ago my husband suggested that we spurge and buy my father a Kindle DX – the big kind, large as a hardback. We held our breath as my father opened the package – a device that could restore reading to my father was too much to hope for. 

    The Kindle waved a magic wand over my father: because he could adjust the print size and the screen didn’t reflect, he instantly became the reader he was supposed to be. He ploughed through more books in a year than he had in the past 30, among them Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy, the Soviet-era serial killer thriller Child 44, David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. The Kindle restored my father to his rightful place among readers, and it improved his quality of life by a thousand fold. 

    Perhaps I also wanted to reward Kindle for the incendiary brilliance of the product name. Were the marketing gurus who christened it fully aware of Kindle’s many complex subtexts? Sure, books light fires in all of us and warm our souls, but think of the countless unknowns who were burned at the stake for reading, for allowing what they read to transform their beliefs, or of the thousands of books that have gone up in flames, either in deliberate book burnings, torching of monasteries in Tudor England, or the firestorm that destroyed the Alexandrian library in 48 BC. How fitting that a device called the Kindle is laying siege to the tradition of the codex. 

    But still I fussed. What would happen to swapping books, the intimate joy of turning the very same pages that a friend has savored? And down the line, what would happen at parties, if there weren’t any bookshelves where shy people like me, who don’t like washing dishes, can discreetly take refuge?

    I’ve some time on the elegiac site Bookshelf Porn, a photoblog of bookshelf photos. It feels faintly like looking at pictures of graveyards – graveyards of the soon-to-be-dead. Before I got my Kindle, I thought about taking photographs of my bookshelves, just for myself, to mark when the parade of colors would grind to a halt: December 2010.

    Six months later…

    Last winter, my Kindle felt like one of most significant purchases I’ve ever made – imbued with far more meaning than any car or pair of fabulous boots, up there with, say, buying my son’s crib.

    But it turns out it’s not really that big of a deal – I only read SOME books on my Kindle. Print books still find their way into my life in all sorts of ways, like the “rescue” my husband and I did a few months ago of about 50 books that my in-laws planned on taking to a used book store, or books people give me, or books I simply decide I would rather have in print. Even for research, it’s often better I find to have print the better to scribble notes in and dog ear. If I think I need to go back and reread something or reference it, better not to have my Kindle. 

    To me, e-books are not the other way to read – they are just another way to read. The bloom of my bookshelves might be minorly stunted by my Kindle, but I’m not worried.