BLAME IT ON THE MOVIES
My twenties were one big walkabout. There is, on television, a series called Girls about young women floundering in their twenties. It is written, directed, and acted by Lena Dunham, who is not on a walkabout. Nevertheless, she captures the very special misery of being in your twenties. Of being clueless, desperate, lost. Looking for love, settling for crazy. Grabbing at solutions because they are solutions, just not to your problem. Being in your twenties has changed a lot since I was in my twenties, but it is still a time when everything awful that happens is awful in a romantic way, even if you don't admit it (and you can't admit it because then you would be less important in the tragedy you're starring in, your own life) . . . because in your twenties you know, even if you don't admit this, either, even if this is buried deep in your subconscious, that you can waste an entire decade and still have a life.
College did not prepare me for anything. At Barnard I majored in European history because my roommate, brilliant at history, always accurately guessed the exam essay questions. That is really the only reason. It was the easy way out. As I write this, I am struck by how shallow I was. A truly empty-headed thing. I was quick with a comeback, but a comeback is most emphatically not knowledge. Also when I was at Barnard, a European history major, unlike a political science or English major, was not required to take comprehensives, a general examination in your major at the end of your senior year. I knew I would flunk comprehensives. I retained nothing.
Recently I found a paper I wrote in college. "The Causes of the Franco-Prussian War." I got a B on it. I wondered if I pulled an all-nighter writing it. If I took NoDoz. If Susan, my roommate, told me the causes and I parroted her. Today all I know about this war is who fought it, and that is only because of the war's name. I wasn't interested in European history. It didn't cross my mind—this is so basic, it's embarrassing—that I was supposed to major in something I was interested in.
This is probably my mother's fault. Isn't everything your mother's fault in some way? At this point in life I forgive her everything and besides am deeply grateful to her, but she picked all my high school classes: two years of Latin, three of French, four of English and history, journalism as an elective. No science except what was absolutely required. Or art. She was raising writers. She had stern notions of what constituted an education for her daughters.
However, no one ever asked me—no parent, no teacher, no high school or college counselor—"What are you interested in studying?" I didn't connect interest with school. Or passion with school. In high school, the only class I liked was journalism. Not because I was writing. Because, for some reason, at Beverly Hills High School—a privileged place if ever there was, with its very own oil well polluting the environment and a basketball court whose floor parted in the center (if someone pushed a button or pulled a crank or lever) and retracted under bleachers to reveal a swimming pool—at this very fancy public school there was a linotype machine.
We're talking pre–computer age here—whenever you read a book, a newspaper, a magazine, it was because the words were set with actual lead type. The linotype man would type my stories. The machine would convert my words to metal type, slugs of which, as I recall, came sliding down a shoot. Lead type is heavy. If you carried a lot of type in your shoulder bag—not that you would—it would break your shoulder. How wonderful that it was heavy, that I could hold words in my hand and they had weight. I was the front-page editor, and Thursday nights I would go to the typesetting building next to the gym, collect my type, and arrange the page as I had designed it. After tightening the frame to hold the type in position, I would ink the whole shebang, place paper on top, and roll a heavy roller over it to get an impression. Then I would proofread my page, replace typos with new type, and take a final proof. It was the most fun in the world. It was craft satisfaction. Craft satisfaction comes from actually making something with your hands. It terms of education, it is practically obsolete.
In college the only thing that interested me was dating. Being in love. In the library I had a reward system: ten minutes of studying, ten of daydreaming. Mostly about whatever boy I was obsessed with, reliving the last weekend, planning the next. I have to say college completely cooperated here. Classes provided no competition for my yearnings. I took a course in plays, a foray out of history. We had to read a play a night. Strindberg, Ibsen, O'Casey, O'Neill, Wilder, went whizzing by. It's hard to read a play. Seriously hard to understand what is happening, what the playwright intends. Reading one a night was ludicrous. I still have trouble reading them, still have trouble now and then figuring out what the hell is going on. The final exam was a slew of multiple-choice questions. There was one about pork chops, which went something like this: "In which of these plays did pork chops figure?" All I knew about pork chops was, at my house, they came breaded with applesauce on the side. I had no idea what play featured pork chops. I still don't, but I remember the question. It was ridiculous. I retained ridiculous.
Modern Poetry was similar. Wednesday Wallace Stevens, Friday Ezra Pound. A person could spend a lifetime trying to understand Stevens, and Pound is mind-bendingly obtuse. In Medieval History, there was so much required reading, all in books the professor had written, that no one could accomplish it, especially someone like me who had required daydreaming. I did love Art History. I have never met anyone who didn't. I still remember the rush I got from correctly identifying a geometric shape at the bottom right corner of a Picasso as a cornucopia.
I hope kids are smarter about college now and colleges are smarter about educating them. I am longing to believe it (especially given how much college costs). When I was there, the sheer volume of homework made learning or getting excited about learning a steep uphill climb. My husband insists, even though I don't admit it, that I was learning—to think better, research, organize information, meet the demands of a deadline. At Connecticut College, where I spent two years before Barnard in small classes, that might have been true. But still I was wasting my parents' money. Wasting it big-time. It was, in retrospect, the life of a spoiled girl.
Getting married was a big part of my fantasy life. There was a card game called Old Maid that we played as kids. Each card had a partner card except one. The loser would be stuck with a card depicting a funny-looking gray-haired woman with glasses and a hat. The hat was especially sad—sort of a pillbox with a fake flower in it. Old Maid the card game struck terror in me. I was a superstitious kid, and getting left with that card seemed prophetic. There was also a song that freaked me out: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Ella Fitzgerald sang it (quite inappropriately, in my opinion) on a record of Christmas songs. When the record (what we now call vinyl, and why do we, it's so pretentious) got to that song, I would pick up the needle, very carefully so as not to scratch the record, and skip it to the next song. I couldn't bear to listen to it if I didn't have a date. Not having a date on New Year's Eve was like being an old maid. It was being an old maid every year.
This absurd hysteria about New Year's Eve stayed with me for much longer than I'd like to admit. Whenever I read about how people in their twenties don't date anymore, they travel in hoards, it makes me happy. Maybe this group thing has taken the sting out of New Year's Eve.
So, on the one hand, my mother was drilling me daily from the time I could hold a spoon: "You will have a career like me. You will work. You will be a writer. You will leave Los Angeles. You will go to New York City. You will work. Career, career, career." On the other hand—driving me as powerfully with no help from her—was simply wanting love.
I blame this on the movies. I blame it on one movie in particular: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
There were lots of messages keeping women domestic then, every message actually—lack of opportunity, advertising, the women's magazines likeMcCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, Seventeen, which glorified the stay-at-home wife and which I devoured each month when they arrived at our house. But really the thing counteracting my mother's teaching, trumping it, was a singing and dancing 1950s romantic comedy starring pert blond Jane Powell.
In Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Jane Powell is the cook at a roadhouse in a wild west town when Howard Keel, big and handsome, rides in, shaves while he sings, samples her stew, and proposes. This is my favorite line: When he asks for catsup, she replies, "My stew can stand on its own feet." She agrees to marry him—it's love at first sight for her—and he takes her to his ranch in the backwoods, where she discovers he has six uncivilized (but sweet) brothers. It turns out she was looking for love, but he was looking for a servant. Boy, did I want to be that servant. Lucky Jane. She gets to rise at dawn, make flapjacks, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and coffee for eight (including her), wash their filthy clothes, and teach them to dance. Once cleaned up, they are gorgeous, and then— excuse me for telling the plot of this movie I love as much as I love my dog—she takes them to a barn raising where they meet other town girls and fall in love. Those girls, however, are promised to less attractive town boys who wear stiff suits with dorky stitching on the lapels, while the brothers wear britches with wide leather belts and cool blousy shirts. The barn-raising musical number, choreographed by Michael Kidd, a dance-off between the townies and the brothers, is the greatest dance sequence in a movie ever. In my opinion.
The brothers return to the backwoods heartsick, so heartsick they can barely lift a pitchfork of straw. At Howard Keel's urging—stirring them to action as only a song can—they return one night and kidnap the women. A cute kidnapping, if you consider putting a bag over the head of someone you love cute. My favorite kidnap-cute from the film is not the bag-over-the-head, but this: When one young woman sets a hot pie on the windowsill to cool, she is whisked right out the window. I don't want to tell you the end of this movie in case you haven't seen it, although given the title, you can probably guess.
The movie came out when I was ten, and by the time I was twenty, I had seen it sixteen times. The last viewing was in Madrid. There were no subtitles, but it didn't matter because I knew it by heart.
It is the only movie of which I have counted my viewings. All sixteen were in one movie theater or another. I can't emphasize how important this is. Watching a movie in a theater is to enter a dream state. InThe Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen perfectly captures the transporting power of film. When Mia Farrow goes to the movies and is captivated by the glamorous world so different from the dismal small life she is living, her yearning is so great that the hero on-screen is pulled right out of his cinematic reality into her prosaic one.
I was young and vulnerable and innocent when I first saw Seven Brides. I took my heart into that theater and lost it.
Loving a movie is not about logic. If a movie "gets" me, I forgive it anything. If it doesn't, I sit there cold, critical, poking holes. I'm amazed that many sane people claim that violent movies don't make people more violent. This seems the delusional, self-serving justification of people who make violent movies. If violence excites you, a violent movie will nurture that. It must. Movies invite you to dream, change your dreams, become your dreams. Recently I was reading in theNew York Times about Aton Edwards, a leader of the prepper movement. Preppers are people who spend a lot of time preparing to survive a catastrophe, natural or terrorist, that results in an all systems failure (banks, phones, food, transportation, breathing, whatever). Mr. Edwards said he went to see the movie Deliverance when he was ten years old . . . went in, according to the article, a fairly regular kid and emerged a Prepper.
"Ten" did pop out at me. I was ten when Seven Brides overwhelmed, seduced, and altered my life. He was ten when he sawDeliverance. I asked a developmental psychologist about ten. A big year, it turns out, when children first begin to think for themselves, entertaining ideas different from what their parents tell them. Budding sexuality, too. First feelings.Deliverance has a male rape in it—no wonder Edwards emerged a Prepper. I'm surprised more men didn't, but then it had an R rating. Ten-year-old Aton Edwards never should have been in that theater.
I do wonder if you spend your life preparing for disaster if you are disappointed if a disaster doesn't happen. If you are hoping for a disaster so you haven't wasted your time or can prove you're right or can finally have the adventure you crave or get to watch everyone else go down while you inflate your raft, load it up with gas masks and cans of tuna fish, and sail off Manhattan island (row actually—row across the Hudson to New Jersey, are they kidding?).
The impact of Seven Brides was undoubtedly greater because I saw it in a theater as opposed to on a DVD, as opposed to lying on a bed where I can say to whomever I'm watching with, "Would you please pause it? I want to get an apple."
As for romantic films being denigrated as chick flicks, consider this. My adolescent yearnings aside, when you're looking for love, aspiring to love, hoping for love, dreaming of love, movies are where it seems possible. When you're past the "falling" phase and in the calmer yet more complicated "being in love" (assuming you're committed to it), the only place you ever fall in love again is at the movies.
That is no small thing.
I blame my entire twenties walkabout on Seven Brides. On hoping some man was going to whisk me out a window and in the spring we would be singing with little baby lambs on our laps. (That happens, too, inSeven Brides. Oh God, I really do hope I haven't ruined the movie for you. I haven't even mentioned the fantastic sequence when the lonely brothers in the dead of winter sing "I'm a lonesome polecat." There, I've mentioned it. Although there is no ruining this movie. Trust a woman who has now seen it thirty times or more. I did eventually stop counting.)
When Howard Keel didn't show up, I pretended he did. I married the first man who asked me and began living someone else's life. Not Jane Powell's, but sort of. Marrying this man for misguided reasons wasn't the nicest thing to do to him, but, like Howard Keel, he had ulterior motives. Not wanting to be alone, I think. Besides, as you will soon see, while I wasted six years of his life, he wanted to wreck mine completely.
He was a professor at Brown University. Given how little I liked college, this was even weirder—I was a faculty wife living in a pretty but precious neighborhood around the university in Providence, Rhode Island.
While I had had no passion for Barnard, I had fallen head over heels for New York City. If New York is for you, nothing else will do. The beauty, the excitement, the friction. The thrill of mastery—not simply navigating the subway system, for instance, but knowing exactly where to get on a train so that, when you reach your destination and get off, you are exactly opposite the exit. I can't tell you how good that always makes me feel, that I know something that no one else knows except another New Yorker. Mostly, however, loving New York is personal: the validation of identity. New Yorkers are born all over the country and then they come to the city and it strikes them, "Oh, this is who I am."
At that time, I didn't have a clue who I was except that I was a New Yorker.
So there was this problem in my first marriage along with many others. I was actually in love with a city, not a person. No movie prepared me for city love. If one had, I suspect it still would have been no match forSeven Brides.
My life in Providence was essentially false. I was pretending to be a helpmate (pretending that helpmate was a valid destiny, which for others it may be, but for me it wasn't). I was terrible at cleaning house. There is a saying: "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well." It's not true. House cleaning is only worth doing to the point that the place is clean enough that no one notices it's not.
I got a job as a Girl Friday.
A Girl Friday was a secretary with a BA. The term, which died sometime during the 1970s thanks to the Women's Liberation Movement, is worth discussing because it's so insulting. In the classic, perhaps racist classic,Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (published in 1719), Friday was Robinson Crusoe's servant. Crusoe, shipwrecked and alone on an island, rescues a "savage" from death when a few cannibals canoe over to picnic on him. Crusoe names him Friday (after the day he saves him), thereby anticipating the creative baby-naming of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Crusoe's name, he tells Friday, is Master. After that is settled and Friday has cleaned up the bones and flesh the other cannibals have left behind, Master teaches him other words like yes and no. Thus the origin of Girl Friday, a title intended to make a college-educated woman feel better about her menial job—better, that is, than another woman, a secretary.
I had this job at the Research and Design Institute.
In retrospect, I'm not sure what this company actually did. The guys who ran it claimed to design interior spaces, but they were not architects or designers. They were, they believed, better than that. More enlightened. It was a drink-the-Kool-Aid kind of place, and as for their designs, what I remember most was a lot of library shelving. The important thing was that my boss was mean. He lived to make underlings feel like shit. Picking on them, criticizing their work, causing them to anguish about whether they were about to be fired. Usually they were. This man was never mean to me, but here's what I learned and I pass on: A mean boss is eventually mean to everyone. One day he started ragging on me, something to do with the job he claimed I wasn't doing. It went on for a few weeks, and after one unpleasant attack, I picked up my purse and, as I passed him and some library shelving on the way to the exit, I said, "I quit." And he said, "You're flat-chested."
This is, in retrospect, one of my favorite things that has ever happened to me. Because I love, love, love to tell it.
Only it is also one of those things . . . well, as I said, I was quick with a comeback, but in this case, to my lifelong regret, I said nothing.
In any event, as a result, I was, at approximately twenty-seven years of age, unemployed and flat-chested.
What was I to do?
I went into the crochet business. This may not seem the obvious next move, although inSeven Brides for Seven Brothers Jane Powell knits. Knitting is harder than crocheting. My friend Lorrie taught me. We formed a business crocheting purses and belts for New York department stores. We landed a big order from Bendel. I had a week to crochet fifty purses. I was crocheting in my sleep. Two months after beginning, we flamed out.
Shortly thereafter, however, I was at a cocktail party in my beloved New York City, which I tried to escape to as much as possible, and met an editor from Simon & Schuster. I said to him, "I know you'd never be interested in this, but would you like a book about crocheting?"
He said, "Yes."
To my astonishment.
He must have been impressed by how confidently I presented myself.
That is how I got a contract for my first book, The Adventurous Crocheter. My friend illustrated it and I wrote it. Well, "writing" is an overstatement for what I was doing, mostly instructions for how to make purses, belts, and sweaters. At this point it was dawning on me that I have one life—dawning not in an abstract way, which was the way I'd always understood it, but like a brick falling on my head. There wasn't an actual brick— by that I mean there was no eureka. It didn't happen on a birthday. I didn't see someone on the street who I didn't want to be in ten years or someone that I did. Partly you can fake being someone you're not for only so long, although it's easier if you don't know who you are to begin with. Partly thirty coming at me made this impossible to ignore: I had one life and I was fucking it up. (A caveat: I didn't think I was fucking it up, even though that's what I was doing, because we didn't use the word fuck in the seventies the way we do now every thirty seconds.) I had one life and I was screwing it up. That realization didn't make me brave, but brave enough to take some baby steps.
While I was writing a second book, Gladrags, again mainly instructions, this time about remaking clothes—still mining the pioneer woman fantasy—a bigger dream was surfacing that had to do with the real me. I said to my husband—my first husband, that's important here—I said to him, "You know, I really think I'd like to try to be a writer."
And he said, "I don't want you to be a writer."
And I said, "Why?"
And he said, "I don't want you to be famous. Suppose you become famous?"
And I said, "I promise I won't be famous."
I wonder to this day, because I am a faithful sort of person, if I did keep that promise. But obviously if your husband wants to crush your tender dream with his big fat foot (even if you're Jane Powell), you have to leave him. So I did.
We sold our house and made a modest profit. If I lived cheaply, I figured that I had two years to become a writer.
(It is only now that I realize that this ambition/drive/ bravery to become a writer surfaced after I had written one book and was in the middle of a second. I suppose I didn't consider my craft writing "writing." I still don't. But I am very attached toThe Adventurous Crocheter. I know some of it by heart. "There is no wrong way to crochet. There are easier ways and harder ways, but any way is right as long as the work looks and acts like crocheting." The reason I remember these lines is that, while my husband was telling me he didn't want me to become a writer, I recited them to myself silently like a mantra blocking his voice.)
So, my plan—two years. In two years I had to become a self-supporting writer. Otherwise I'd have to find something else to do. It's important to have a plan when one is creating that much upheaval. Nevertheless, I was terrified. My marriage hadn't been nurturing or even supportive, but it was secure. Now I was flying blind. Fortunately I was moving back to New York City and the loving care of my girlfriends.
My friend Lorrie met me at Penn Station. We went up to my friend Susan's, where Lorrie made me dinner—she always made amazing food, had actually baked my three-tiered wedding cake, and now was making me a divorce salad, as I recall with shrimp. Susan, who had been my college roommate, was happy to have me camp forever on her pull-out couch, but she was of such a generous nature that soon there were three more living there (I was the only one getting divorced or it would have been a television series). The building took offense and we had to move out.
I then moved up to my friend Jean's large apartment on the Upper West Side. Jean had replaced her couches with hammocks that swung from the living room ceiling. That wasn't a problem, although it was strange visually and meant if you shared a hammock with someone, you were practically having sex. Her ex-husband had built the dining room chairs, which didn't have legs but triangle bases. If you shifted even slightly in your seat while eating, you crashed to the floor. That wasn't the problem, either. The problem was she didn't believe in killing roaches with poison. She sprinkled around herbal things. For roaches, this stuff was testosterone.
While I wasn't going back to Rhode Island, I was having trouble moving forward. The feeling I remember most from that time was displacement: Wherever I was, was wrong. I would be visiting someone and think, I have to leave. I have to get out of here. I'd get somewhere else and feel the same. Something was missing—home. Living with friends prolonged that feeling. Kept me in limbo, which was exactly right. Not wanting to go backward, unable to move forward. At the same time I was exhilarated. At least I was no longer spending all day every day deciding whether or not to leave. There was so much more room in my brain.
I spent most of the summer like this—in a dazed, mostly happy paralysis—and then in the fall found a place of my own and settled in.
There is something fantastic about getting divorced. Everyone should do it to experience the extraordinary sense of freedom after being in marriage jail. I take that back. (Sometimes I write something and all I can think about is how many people on Twitter are going to dump on me for it.) Divorce is a catastrophe under many circumstances, like if you have children. Or if you don't want it. Or have no money. Just to name a very few. But if you do want it and you're (still) young: adventure, passion awaits. One simply radiates heat, and that, along with a reckless, uninhibited joy, lasts at least three months, sometimes six.
When I was down to my last $300, which would have been $500 except I fell in love with an orange coat, I was sitting at home one night eating chocolate pudding. It was the kind of pudding you cook—the kind that has skin on the top. I was eating it the way I always had: making a little hole in the skin, scooping the soft pudding out from underneath, saving the skin for last. I was eating like a child. I wrote about it—five hundred words about how children eat food. It was in the form of instructions. I was good at instructions. I sold "How to Eat Like a Child" to the New York Times. It appeared on the back page of the Sunday magazine, and magically, unimaginably, on Monday I was offered a book contract. Officially, I was a writer. I was launched.
Sort of. I don't want to gloss over this. There was the little problem of having no work habits. No one can become anything without discipline, that's the truth. I had a shrink at the time, which will come as no surprise and was the other reason I was down to my last $300. He said, and I pass this on to any aspiring writers, that I had to sit down at my desk every day from ten to twelve. I didn't have to write, but I couldn't get up, feed my plants, make tea, phone a friend. I had to keep my butt in the seat. Then I had to do the same thing from two to four. It works. You write. And it takes the question "Will I write?" out of your day. It turns writing into habit.
And then, just before my book (How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-up) was published, my life changed, thanks to the movies.
In the late 1970s, which it was now, some movies were more realistic when it came to women's lives and were not something a girl could blame an entire lost decade on.An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh, was about a thirtysomething New York City woman and her life after divorce. In other words, it was about me. I didn't identify with Jill Clayburgh's character, however, and not because she jogged in the movie and I could never identify with anyone who jogs. I was over movie heroines. I was figuring out who I was. No more screen fantasies. I had learned my lesson. I was done.
My girlfriend Amy and her friend—a guy I had never met—went to see this movie, but it was sold out. The theater was in my neighborhood. Amy said—this is the way Jerry tells it—she said to him, "I have this friend you will absolutely love."
Which turned out to be true.
They stopped by, and I peered down over the banister as they came up the stairs to my very adorable third floor walk-up—the sort of place a romantic comedy heroine would live, above a Burger Heaven and a beauty salon. I took one look at Jerry and lost my heart.
There was no wild west, no stew, and no brothers, but it was just like Jane. Instantaneous.