Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I made the opposite choices from Elizabeth Wurtzel--and I still understand what she's getting at

As insufferable as Elizabeth Wurtzel is, and she is, just the same way she's always been--I see what she's saying in this article, "Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night-Stand of a Life."

The article is about being 44 and having essentially the same unmoored life she had at 24 and instead of feeling energized by it all, she's sad and tired and even scared. It's about how she was successful starting at a very young age doing something very glamorous and fun in New York City, and just never traded in the lifestyle that came along with that for a more settled, less chaotic existence because she's never been willing to compromise. And now she feels this feeling of "enough." She writes, of dating, "I don’t think I really want to be going to the new P. T. Anderson movie and Mission Chinese with someone new when I’m 85." She never chose to "settle down" the way the majority of people do between 24 and 44. She is unmarried, has no kids, rents rather than owns, and lives in cold hard Manhattan, rather than the kinder, gentler boroughs. (I was closer to 30 than 40 when I stopped wanting to go out in Manhattan, much less live there, and started wanting to stick to Brooklyn and Queens.)

I see what she's saying because I know that feeling of "enough." That was in large part what drove me to choose as settled-down a life as I have. I don't know if I have the stomach for as much shit as Wurtzel has been through. Her article is structured around a traumatic incident that happened to her last year--the woman she was subletting from broke into her apartment repeatedly, threatened and harassed and stole from her, and the police refused to help her, taking the other woman's side. She had to leave her own home for safety. In the course of telling us this, she reveals that a friend of hers had already had the same problem with this woman. My thought was, and she still chose to live there, knowing that? Forget whether this makes her stupid. My point is, I would never enter into a relationship with a stranger if I already knew that about them, no matter how amazing the apartment was. Some people would, because the amazingness of the apartment is more important to them than a feeling of general safety. So I know how she is feeling now, needing safety all of a sudden. Because I have always needed it.

As romantic as it might be to always choose swooning love-at-first-sight passion over comfort and safety, I have always felt there is a limit to the romance of that life. Too often, it feels cold and empty. If there is no permanence to anything, it's just you out there, trying to get the attention of people who don't care about you, trying to forge connections in impersonal places, making yourself vulnerable to liars and thieves, numbing yourself with alcohol and drugs.

The other thing is everyone wonders about the road not taken, especially around this time of life when you feel so ensconced in whatever place you're in that it starts to be alarming how far away you are from any other options, even if you're happy. I settled down and had a baby, and of course I've wondered at times (more so a decade ago than today) what would have happened if I had stayed single through my 20s, and maybe 30s, and instead thrown myself wholly into the same sort of hard-partying literary career, full of one-night-stands and drugs and flirtations that flame out spectacularly, that Wurtzel had. New lovers all the time, but also breakups all the time, because staying with anyone less than perfect is "settling." So when she wonders "what if" about having chosen a life like mine, she's really doing the same thing. None of us can really know, can we? But we chose the way we chose because we are who we are.

So when Elizabeth Wurtzel says she is unhappily resigned to living out her days as a wild-eyed, uncompromising thrill-seeker, though now she realizes her unwillingness to compromise is "about feeling trapped when I am doing something I don’t like, and...probably more childish than anything else," I get it. Because that's who she is. Just like I know that I need some measure of stability and comfort in my life, or else I will feel absolutely debilitated and unable to create great works of art or enjoy intoxicating encounters with strangers at parties or whatever. That's my limitation. As I stare down my 40th birthday, I know that, and I've taken steps along the way to accommodate myself to that, just like Elizabeth knows her limitation and has tried to live within it, bearing whatever sacrifices she had to make along the way.

Because, as it turns out, you always have to make sacrifices. Even if you never compromise, you sacrifice the things you would have had if you had chosen the other path. All compromises are in the interest of getting something you want. We take imperfect jobs for the money, we keep going back to a guy who mistreats us because he's sexually thrilling. We wouldn't compromise if we didn't get something out of it. If you don't compromise, you lose those things.

For a while I've been of the belief that most people just make do as best they can with the resources available to them, and Elizabeth Wurtzel is no different from the rest of us in that regard, she just had different resources available to her. For instance, she had a successful writing career at a young age, something many of us strive for and never get, with much greater and longer-term effort than she ever had to expend. So, that plus a propensity for living life on the edge and never compromising = living alone in a romantic but disconnected and vulnerable way in a New York City sublet at age 44.

Sure, it's annoying that she seems so unaware of how her circumstances have shaped her point of view. Like, she doesn't think things would have turned out any different for her even if, say, she had met with some failure, some resistance, when she first tried to have a writing career based on spilling her deeply personal and emotional life onto the page, the way most people who try that end up doing. But the fact remains, early success is what happened to her, and other stuff didn't. She could stand to be less myopic about it, but what she did was really pretty universal: She took what life handed her and went with it. You could say the same thing about me, in a way.

I met my now-husband when I was only 24, an age that's considered extremely young in New York-ish circles. I've been with him, monogamously, for more than 15 years. You could say I "chose" monogamy, but what if I'd never met him? Maybe I'd still be dating now. Maybe I'd be the one living in that illegal Chelsea sub-basement. And Elizabeth Wurtzel says she's primally driven to bleed her truth onto the page as a way of life, but what if that way of life hadn't proven lucrative for her? Maybe she'd have some nice-girl publishing job that entails more of a suppression of self than a baring-all, just to pay her rent. Maybe she'd have gone to law school sooner and had a job making binders.

It's the same old stupid fatuous post-9/11 Elizabeth Wurtzel (who famously called the sight of people jumping from the World Trade Center "the most amazing sight") here who calls women who are supported by their husbands "prostitutes," so this declaration didn't really get anything more than an eyeroll from me, especially since she says in the same breath that it would "feel imprisoning" to "get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes"--when someone who didn't publish Prozac Nation at age 26, and yet refused to be supported by her husband, would probably be forced to do just that. It reminds me a lot of Amy Sohn's narrow-minded rejection of stay-at-home moms, in which she ignored the reality that most working women do not have access to a career that is lucrative, flexible, or interesting, so for those women, staying at home may be the better choice. It is my belief that when women become mothers, their choice to stay home or work depends mostly on that same thing I mentioned before--the specific circumstances of their life, and what makes the most sense at the time. What if Elizabeth Wurtzel had struggled for years to get one lousy personal essay published in some amateur zine, but met a wonderful guy she loved who had enough money to support them both? Would she have taken a job that involved staring at spreadsheets through glassy eyes just to avoid being a "prostitute"?

At the same time, calling them "prostitutes" just shows how little Wurtzel knows about relationships. A prostitute is a woman who a man pays to have sex with him, and maybe to pretend to like him. That isn't really the way marriage works, unless it's a very dysfunctional marriage. I would never want to be married to a man who saw me only as someone to have sex with, even if he supported me financially. I also would never marry a man I only pretended to like. That's a compromise I'd never make, while we're on the subject of compromise. But, based on this essay, it seems like Elizabeth would never "settle" for any romantic relationship that wasn't at least 75% about sex, so you have to consider that context.

But it is nice to finally know how she got that job as "music critic" at the New Yorker all those years ago. Toward the beginning of the time that I knew of Wurtzel--my first exposure to her was when I picked up a copy of Prozac Nation from a table at Barnes and Noble during my first summer out of college, 1995--I read that she had simply called up the New Yorker and asked them for that job and they gave it to her. It seemed inexplicable, when all she had was a college degree and a college journalism award. A lot of people have that stuff, and no one gets to write for the New Yorker just like that. But in this article, at long last, she reveals: During college, she had an internship at New York Magazine. Then, after college, she wrote about music for that magazine, an opportunity she likely had because of contacts she made during her internship. Only after that did she get to write about music for the New Yorker--and that makes a whole hell of a lot more sense.

Perhaps it is the perspective of middle age that has finally helped Wurtzel feel magnanimous enough to share that information--or maybe now is the first time she's realized it was relevant, that in the past she was indeed so naive as to believe that just cold-calling the New Yorker is the same thing as what really happened. I suppose if you leapfrog straight from New York intern to New York columnist to New Yorker columnist to the bestselling author of Prozac Nation, that level of naivete is possible.

But just like everyone, her lot in life is a combination of psychological tendencies, strategy, and luck. She made choices with certain goals in mind, and sometimes they turned out well (career-making book deal) and sometimes not so well (crazy landlady). The choices she made are ones that a minority of people would make, and that minority does not include me, but I think we all wonder what would have happened if we'd gone the other way. If we'd had different psychological tendencies, maybe, that led different choices to seem attractive. If we were a different person.

Which is exactly what she's saying. "Maybe I should have been wiser. But the only way I could have was to have been a completely different person," she writes. I feel the opposite but same way about my life: The commitments I made when I was younger are serving me very well now, but I didn't make them because of how well they would serve me in the future, I made them because I couldn't stand not to. If I had chosen the other thing--a studio apartment in the far East Village and maybe a coke habit and staying out every night and really devoting myself wholly and entirely to the edgy downtown writer thing--maybe my writing career would have progressed more than it did, but how could I have gotten there, when that kind of cold urban loneliness makes me cry? I've always known that it made me cry.

It's only just now making Elizabeth Wurtzel cry. It happens to people more easily the older they get. Maybe she'll change. I know I've changed. When I was 24, I would have loved nothing more than to publish a raw and revealing memoir along the lines of Prozac Nation. If I were 24 now, I might just do that on a Tumblr. But I don't want to anymore. I'm happy with my husband and kid and warm little house. Sure, having that kind of life sometimes means there are things I can't do, that I'd like to do. Just finding time to write this blog post was a major effort. I never get to see movies on opening night anymore. These things sometimes bug me, but overall, I think the sacrifices are worth it.

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