Monday, August 29, 2011

On Joan Didion and self-respect and friends with benefits

I've been reading a lot of Joan Didion lately. Making my way slowly through her essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which are as sharp and relevant as ever. At the moment, I've got an essay on the Botox phenonmenon in the works, and am half assedly working on another one about dating, and feel like such a silly person when I read old Joan. The woman really slices to the heart of things.  

Here's a passage from her essay "On Self-Respect" that blew me away:

"People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character - the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life - is the source from which all self-respect springs."

Damn. I think a lot about how important it is to live honestly, and to be honest about your shortcomings. For one, it's less exhausting than pretending to be someone you're not, but then also it sets a good example for other people. It's refreshing to hear about people you admire, or who seem to really have it together, being utter fuck ups in their private lives. It reminds you you're not alone, and to not judge others too harshly. I need these kind of reminders. I'm too hard on myself, too often comparing myself with others and finding I don't measure up. Which is obviously a short route to misery. (Ahem, comparing oneself to Joan effing Didion being a case in point.)

But I've never really thought about honesty being a key factor in self-respect in such concrete terms. It's true, of course. Taking responsibility for your life is imperative. But one often thinks of it in the more constructive ways - choosing to commit to a job or a marriage or a family or whatever. It's interesting to think of it in terms of the destructive ways too. So you drink too much? Own it. So you still smoke? Own that too. You're overweight because you just can't get it together to be vigilant about your diet? Just own it. Everyone makes tradeoffs. 

This is relevant to the dating essay I'm working on, but which I haven't yet gotten to the heart of. My single friends and I often talk about settling. We're in our mid-thirties and are at the point where we don't want to settle - there's no point, we've seen it play out too miserably in other friends' relationships, marriages and divorces - but we also don't want to live like nuns. I'm talking about sex, obviously. And whether to have it with someone you're dating casually, or maybe not dating at all. You can argue that if you find someone to have sex with casually but who you know isn't a candidate for a longterm relationship you're distracting yourself from finding someone who is, but that's risky too. That can lead to long periods of not having sex, which is neither natural nor healthy. So I guess where I'm landing on this is go for it. Have a friend with benefits (that has become such a dreadful, dreadful phrase), be careful, protect yourself and just own it. If executed properly, it builds your character. And your self-respect. 


Posted via email from Jane Donuts is Starting Over

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What to Expect When You're Expecting (a Personal Essay to Hit)

So, last Saturday afternoon while I was hiking somewhere around 12,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, my first ever published piece went live on

My poor sister Caity sprained her ankle on our way down the trail, so I ran down ahead of her to get the car and drive it to the upper trailhead to pick her up, and when I got back into service range, I checked my email and discovered I had dozens of new followers on Twitter. And that was how I found out it was up.

I'd had no idea it would go live that day, so it was a total surprise. After going six or seven miles in insanely high altitude I was running on fumes, so I was running on adrenaline and panic, but then a few minutes after I picked her up I realized I was a published author, and the rest of the day passed in kind of a blur. Yes, we went to the ER, and yes, Caity will be limping for a couple of weeks, but it was one of the best days I've ever had. And I'm so glad my sister was there to share it with me. 

I'd been so worried. Not so much about exposing myself, but about exposing my family. My mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles. So when the comments started rolling in, I didn't even care that some of them were pretty harsh. They were the least of my worries. But they were all over the map - from brutal and derisive to supportive and tremendously insightful. It was overwhelming but in a good way. (And highly entertaining.) I was genuinely touched by some of the comments and emails that came in. It felt good to know I'm not alone, and that some of us tolerate the demands of the corporate world better than others. Some people don't have a choice but to gut it out due to their financial and familial obligations, which fortunately is not a factor for me, but many sent me their best wishes for me to be able continue to make it work. And that's generous and cool, and it warmed my heart. 

But the real moments of truth were in the reactions from my family. I'd shown the piece to a few of my siblings, and each one had warned me that my parents might be upset that I had put so much out there about the family. But they were amazing. They loved it. It did, as my mom put it, "sting" at first, but mostly they were excited and proud.

But I knew blowback would come from somewhere, and it did. From my mom's sister, who was (is?) apparently deeply hurt by the way I characterized their family. I think mainly what she took exception to was being described as "round." To which my mother said:

"It takes all kinds of us to make the world go round, round ones are the group I fit into and she does too. Nothing wrong at owning that. We round ones seem to balance out the edgy ones like [my dad]." Damn straight!

My dad also threw in:

"Truth in literary circles is the capturing of what is often thought, but never so well expressed, however piercing it is to those involved. Those on that periphery read at their own peril."

So, crisis averted. I think my aunt will come around eventually, or at least I hope she will. I'm lucky, is all I can say. My family is cool. 



Posted via email from Jane Donuts is Starting Over