September 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Help Me Help Myself: Reading Cathy Alter's Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex and Starting Over

There’s a list of books I’m waiting for at the New York Public Library that might never arrive. In my mind, in my heart, in my gut, these books are going to completely revolutionize my life in surprising ways.

There’s The Best Things to Do in New York: 1001 Ideas by Caitlin Leffel, which will be full of places to get arepas and see Berninis and get free dessert liqueurs and sneak into advanced astronomy lectures and see lion gargoyles that I’ve never considered. It will make me fall in love with my city again, like I do every morning, but more in love. There’s the Wallpaper City Guide to New York, 2008, which might be less wondrous than the Leffel guide, but who knows? Then there’s Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume by Mandy Aftel. It will teach me all about the magical, lost art of artisanal perfume-making, and, the summary promises, I’ll learn about the great perfumers, and “the priests, shamans and apothecaries who were their predecessors.” It will make me feel less guilty about the potion I got at the souk in Oman that makes me want to do things I won’t discuss here, and that I’m secretly worried was made from the innards of some sentient being that has a natural lifespan of eighty years and can communicate using lyrical underwater sounds.

There’s Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin by Mel Gordon, which will be a good counterpart to books I’ve already read (like Maria Tatar’s Lustmord), and help me put my current, idle research on sexual violence and child prostitution into proper perspective. There’s Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, edited by Jennifer O’Connell, which will probably remind me of bad times, so I don’t know why I’m dying to read it. I just am. I actually felt a bit hostile and resentful towards Judy’s protagonists, who wanted breasts and periods but got really old and still couldn’t get them, when I was a freak explosion of pubescence from way too early. There’s Learning to Love You More, by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, which I’m hoping will be full of activities to do -- or maybe, hopefully, instructions, like in Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit -- and nothing is better than reading about activities, even though of course I don’t actually do activities. Also, when Miranda July had a screening at the MoMA, I read some article about her “impressive for thirty” accomplishments, and got jealous (because I was born the same year as Miranda July and I want everyone at the MoMA, or somewhere, to write puff-pieces about me), but then I saw Me and You and Everyone We Know and read No One Belongs Here More Than You, and now I kind of love her.

There’s My Last Supper by Melanie Dunyea, with an introduction by Anthony Bourdain, which asks top chefs to describe what they’d eat for their last meal. I probably don’t need to describe why this one will be so wonderful. And Eccentric Glamour: Creating an Insanely More Fabulous You by Simon Doonan, The Fairy Tales of Herman Hesse, Go Fug Yourself: The Fug Awards by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, The Complete Plays of Sarah Kane and Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher, which I have a kind of idle curiosity about after reading Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. I know even if I don’t like it, it’ll be a fast, absorbing read.

Then there are the books that aren’t even available at the New York Public Library, which I imagine are even better than all of the books there. There’s The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley, which of course describes how all of the great philosophers died, and also points out that, “To be a philosopher is to learn how to die.” Yes. There’s the Le Cool City Guide to New York. And there’s The Blue Strawberry Cookbook by James Haller, whose Vie de France: Sharing Food, Friendship and a Kitchen in the Loire Valley is pure food-porn. It basically just describes what food was available at the market and how he whipped it into a meal for his friends every night, but for some reason, after I read it, I started walking to Ceci-Cela for a croissant and a big bowl of latte every morning, or picking up fresh Amy’s bread, and then at night I would whip up an omelet or some crepes -- which was odd because before reading Haller’s book, I didn’t cook -- and then I got prettier from eating that way instead of trying to have brown rice and tofu, and I started learning French (although, mostly so I can travel easily in Senegal someday), and then some guy on the street came up and asked me if I was French, even though I don’t look remotely French, and he was very obviously gay so it wasn’t just a bad come-on. It was my unmistakable Euro-glamour from all of those omelets. Who knows what The Blue Strawberry Cookbook will do for my life?

I already have a stack of books from the library, many of them thrilling, or at least un-disappointing: an unabridged English-language translation of the Islamic saga The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, which so far has all sorts of exciting occultism, vengeance and forays into karma, although it’s a bit violent against pregnant women and tigers, the beautiful Café Paradiso Cookbook by Denis Cotter, The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London by Eugenia Bell, The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg, Meyer Berger’s New York, The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel, Luisa in Realityland by Claribel Alegria, The Essential Tales of Chekhov, which I picked up because it’s edited and introduced by Richard Ford, Confessions from the Velvet Ropes: the Glamorous, Grueling Life of Thomas Onorato, New York's Top Club Doorman by Glenn Belverio (which shed no light on why anyone would like velvet-rope clubs, but, unlike Anthony Haden-Guest’s The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night, it didn’t take too long to read), Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History to reread, Goat by Brad Land (which I read about in Christine Vachon’s kickass A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond), A Year of Living Your Yoga by Judith Lasater, The Dead of Summer by Camilla Way (a kind of slim, British Law and Order: CI episode) and J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.

You wonder if I have too much time on my hands, but actually, I’m working more than ever, I’m writing more than ever, I have all of these new friends, I have movie reviews due and plays to see and I’ve been walking to midtown all the time for screenings and then writing in the Bryant Park library. I don’t have a reading obsession right now, like I have in the past, when I had a burning urge to read everything ever written about sixties countercultural history or Coleridge and opium or pop astrology or apartheid or the Holocaust or oral history methodology or Russian art.

I read fitfully and unhappily these days, like a light sleeper in an uncomfortable bed. I’m looking, metaphorically, actually, for that good, real, nine-hour night of sleep on the perfect mattress, piled high on white pillows. I’m looking to wake up with sun streaming through the windows, somewhere green with clean air. Every hour of my life, these days, feels decades long, which is a good thing. It means I’m not dying as fast. But maybe I want to learn about death. Certainly, I’m not a philosopher, so maybe my prerogative is less to learn how to die and more to learn how to live. Although, of course I already know how to live and die, flawlessly, beautifully. It happens, to all of us, automatically. Look at me -- I’m doing it right now, and now, and now. Why do we need or crave instructions, any of us? Why do I wait for books that aren’t here, and that might not be what I was waiting for?

When I was eleven or twelve, I used to delve into magazines like Seventeen, Sassy, Glamour and Mademoiselle with delight. I was 100% sure that they would save me, by teaching me to be beautiful and thin and popular and confident. I would learn from them what to wear and how to kiss and who to be. Even then, the articles were too vague and not specific enough. I wanted really precise instructions: “How to get up tomorrow morning and look like Claudia Schiffer and have Jeremy fall in love with you and want to kiss you and take you to the movies, and what to wear, and how not to completely humiliate yourself.” But I had that thrill of hope every month, curling up in bed with a stack of glossies. And at that age, or a few years later, they did help. I know I was cooler and more early-Guess-ad Claudia Schiffer-esque for having read them. Sometimes I miss those magazines so much. I read the grown-up ones sometimes, Elle or Vogue, when I go alone for a tramezzini at ‘Ino, and they leave me empty -- all those airbrushed faces, that bad advice, those surprisingly boring articles.

When I heard about Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex and Starting Over by Cathy Alter, I was intrigued. This woman decided to spend a whole year of her life recreating herself using the tips in Elle, Cosmo, Marie Claire, O, The Oprah Magazine, Allure, Glamour, Real Simple, InStyle and Self. Maybe she was on to something. Maybe the book will tell me how to recapture the sense of pure hope that came with those preteen readings of fashion magazines. Maybe I’ll try the experiment myself, rooting through all the over-perfumed pages to get to the bulleted lists of advice. Maybe when I see the magazines through her eyes, I’ll find something in them again. Also, it will be a juicy read. It will still my restlessness. I can get lost in it, and live for a while in some simpler world.

So, I ordered Up for Renewal in June and it got lost in the mail, and finally came by messenger directly from the publisher today (August 6). I’ve been craving this book for over a month. When I’ve picked up The Adventures of Amir Hamza or The Man Suit, undeniably wonderful books, I’ve had a wish that Up for Renewal was here. But of course, now that I’ve gotten it, I don’t want to open it anymore. I never want to read it. This used to happen, too, with those magazines when I was twelve or thirteen. Once I had them, all shiny, sitting there on the bed, there were moments when they truly had the potential to contain everything that I’d imagined in them. In Amir Hamza, one character encounters an eternally locked book on the shelf of his dead father, but for him, one day, suddenly, it opens. It gives him the power of psychic vision and tells him how to find his dad’s murderer. He never once wishes that it had stayed shut.

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Of course now I’m reading Up for Renewal. I read all the books I look forward to, once I get them, just like I used to read every page of those magazines. In the magazines, I never found what I was looking for, which might be partly why I write my own instructions so often, why I have strange files of ideas and unpublished self-help books that are really poems.

Middle-class American women, as evidenced eloquently by Joan Jacobs Brumberg in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, are born and bred to work on ourselves obsessively, to make ourselves better, better, better. This has two convenient outcomes -- we buy more useless shit, like cellulite creams, and we stay out of trouble, because we’re too busy keeping scrupulous food diaries and worrying about fitting into a size two rather than a size four to have radical political visions or start overdue uprisings. There’s no possibility of permanent change, of suddenly or gradually turning beautiful, accomplished, svelte and happy. Instead, there’s the daily or hourly ritual of self-maintenance, of being not good enough. There are newsstands full of magazines that promise, dazzlingly, to free us, but instead they give us instructions for those daily doses of masochism.

Cathy Alter is a D.C. writer in her late thirties. She’s recently divorced. She works in a cubicle, eats lots of Doritos and Pop Tarts, uses JDate, fucks her arrogant colleague (who thinks that masturbating at his desk and taking out his penis are erotic), and hangs around waiting for the chance to give blow jobs to a cowhide-obsessed man in the next apartment building. She has a prescription for Prozac, which she’s been “scarfing down like Pepperidge Farm goldfish since (her) divorce.” She agonizes about e-mailing the man she’s interested in and buys Shiraz and Miller Light for his visit. She realizes that most of the changes she wants to make in her life are promised on the covers of glossy magazines. She knows they’re sexist and “product kowtowing,” but, she asks, “Why can’t a cerebral, unconventional, authority-questioning woman still believe in the power of the perfect mascara?”

As an almost thirty-four-year-old, newly-single woman, I’m bombarded with media messages about how pathetic I am, even without reading any Hearst or Conde Nast magazines. The media basically thinks that I’m hunched by the TV, admiringly watching Sex and the City while binging on Sara Lee cheesecake and drinking Cosmos, posting profiles on Internet dating sites, desperate to marry some bitter businessman before my eggs dry up. They think that I like to reward myself for sticking to my Lean Cuisine diet by splurging on a pedicure. Even the idea that I’m cerebral, unconventional and authority-questioning is worked into the cliché. When I was sixteen, I was bombarded with media messages too, but they were messages to live up to -- I was supposed to look like Claudia Schiffer, be myself around boys, be seductive, be fashion-forward and be a good friend. Now it’s all about what to live down. The fact that I eat and drink like a man, have naked toenails, don’t feel any particular urgency about marriage and plan never to resort to online dating (or maybe “dating” at all) can’t save me. I still see myself in these images sometimes, if I put on a pair of stilettos and some venom gloss, or get a text message from some way-younger guy, or spend the night with my cat watching Swingtown -- and believe me, it was more fun seeing Guess-era Claudia.

In her “year of magical tinkering,” Alter learns how to use plastic wrap to bring her sandwiches to work. She explores a relationship with a nice friend ten years younger. She buys new makeup and jeans, faces her fear of going camping, does exercises, thinks heavily and intensely about her mother issues, obsesses about getting a marriage proposal on her fortieth birthday, cooks Mexican chicken soup, tries out a couple of those Cosmo sex tips and ends up happily walking down the aisle. These are the positive changes she’s been yearning for, although, she concludes:

Make no mistake. I did not set out with the intention of turning my life over to magazines in order to nab a man (although that part was certainly nice). When I thought about the past year, it wasn’t really about this moment, this wedding. It was about everything that allowed for this moment. If I had learned anything over the year, it was that the only constant thing in life is change. To truly grow is to suffer these transitions… Looking back, I realized that I subscribed to these magazines because I was also subscribing to change.

The part about not setting out to nab a man is a little disingenuous, since item #1 on her “wish list” on page 9 is, “I want to be loved and to love someone that I also want to have sex with for the rest of my life,” instead of, for instance, “I want to start a safe house in Bombay where women fleeing abusive relationships can stay and get an education” or “I want to deepen my scholarship of ancient cultures” or “I want joy.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, own up. And, the happy ending is also disingenuous, a bit -- it smells like the work of a powerful editor, maybe -- because throughout the book, she has interesting insights about the process. She acknowledges that reading these magazines sometimes makes her more neurotic, and yet, “for help, I had no choice but to turn to the same sources that were contributing to my suffering.” She has all of the inevitable moments where she sees the magazines for what they are. The sweet-and-sour ending is just perfect, too perfect, compared to some of the funnier and truer prose within, and the first person she thanks is “Bonita Brindley, who began this book.” Huh? Was it written by committee?

There’s a line I like in a one act play I wrote a couple of years ago, spoken by a failed actress in her early thirties who’s languishing in a bad relationship: “Books are only written by people who write books.” Cathy Alter, as a former advertising type who freelances for Self and has the attention of an important editor, has something major in common with every other woman who has ever published a book like this -- those particular connections. That editor with the “mop of blond curls that shook when she laughed, which was often,” or some different editor, to make sure the project stays light. That heavily-financed promotional team.

It would be interesting to write a book in which four or five different people take on Alter’s experiment. How would Patti Smith fare over a year of following the advice in Cosmo or Marie Claire? How about Christine Vachon, or post-Guess Claudia Schiffer, or Anne Parillaud, or Tilda Swinton, or Cintra Wilson, or Margaret Cho? How about recently-retired astronaut Eileen Collins? How about a swath of the magazines’ average readers, or some Olympians, or a random cross-section of low-tier Burger King employees?

It’s probable that many readers would have the very same revelatory moments that Alter experiences. It’s not rocket science to figure out that pawing incessantly at the area between a man’s hipbones and groin like a kitty-cat or rubbing him down with “Oriental Oil of Love” might thrill him less than a nice, propless blow job, or that Chanel Illuminating Eye Shadow in Riviera is an awful lot like Stila Eye Shadow in Kitten.

When Alter’s boyfriend learns her age and reassures her that he loves everything about her, she realizes:

that I had been reading these magazines hoping for the same kind of tender care. But instead of helping me feel good about myself, the sisterhood had merely provided the nod for what was already in my head, tickling my neuroses by manufacturing problems that weren’t even part of my world -- but would be, if I continued to read the magazines as parables for my own journey. In what should have been the biggest no-shit moment of all time, I was only now just recognizing that just because I read an article about men trading up or making "I need space" faces, that didn’t mean that Karl was, for lack of a better phrase, going to "pull a Jake" on me. At that moment, I realized the very real possibility that instead of helping me get a better life, these magazines might just bring about my downfall.

No shit! This should have been the conclusion of Up for Renewal. But of course, as many people would surely argue, you can’t just blame the magazines. It’s more viral than that, more ubiquitous, this omnipresent idea that grown women need instructions for the most basic, natural things in the world -- intuiting a lover’s feelings, wrapping up a sandwich, getting dressed.

“I was in the peculiar position of mistrusting the advice in magazines while desperately seeking it,” writes Alter. “In a way, I was developing the same relationship with them as I had with my mother. Something was hurting, and I needed help making it stop. And just because my mother often failed with her cheery guidance… didn’t mean I packed up my tears and went elsewhere. I learned it wasn’t about rejecting the advice I was getting -- from the magazines, from my mother, from friends, from Dr. Oskar [her Swedish shrink] -- it was about developing a better filter through which to funnel it.”

Then again, one of the issues that Alter works on with Dr. Oskar is her “repetition compulsion,” or psychologically getting off on repeating a traumatic event over and over, “staying with the pain until you can finally get it right.” And this is a woman whose mother sat her down at age twelve to explain to her that she should never go out without her makeup on, because she was “no Christie Brinkley.” Isn’t it possible that poisonous influences shouldn’t be “filtered,” but rather stopped? In my own experience, the ethic of these magazines, and what’s floating around in the middle-class American water, is that if something makes you miserable and ruins your life -- a poisonous “friend,” a daily grind in a cubicle -- you should find a way to look on the bright side and steel your way through it, talking the edge off with TV or Ambien or some Bacardi.

As they talk about her “big picture” gains over the magazine year, both Alter and her editor acknowledge that “these magazines are designed so that women feel bad about themselves” and “that these magazines’ whole livelihood was based on inadequacy.” But, says Alter, “The fact of the matter was, I did need to be better. And that’s why I had found these magazines so strangely liberating. ‘I realize that you can’t solve life’s mysteries with the right pair of shoes or the perfect shade of lipstick,’ I acknowledged, ‘But at least I tried… A year ago, I truly hated my life -- my poor taste in men, unhealthy diet, whacked out priorities… But all of my miseries were self-inflicted. That was my choice. I knew that if I wanted to fix my life, to change the equation, I had to start somewhere… I’m a work in progress.’”

There are different kinds of change. Women are told that we like to be manipulated by these magazines, by our mothers, by Bruno, our horny Argentinean colleague -- that it’s our choice, it’s our fault. Repetition compulsion. I don’t buy it. Sure, people have complicity in their own suffering sometimes. They internalize hurt and hope that feeling worse is a way to work down deeper toward feeling better. But that doesn’t mean that you should “vote with your dollar” for an industry that uses icons of haunted-eyed fourteen-year-olds to sell thousand-dollar handbags to desperate, miserable thirty-seven-year-old-women with surgically-altered faces, and it doesn’t mean that you should turn to a woman who let you know you weren’t pretty before you hit puberty for advice. Sometimes deciding that you’re complicit, that you’re responsible, that you’re in charge, is just another way to punish yourself.

So it’s August 9, and I finished Up for Renewal yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about the relationship between my book cravings and the meaning of change and my own life. I went to a screening of a Scottish movie about a teenage boy who irons out his kinks and comes of age by finding love. I had a long talk with my mother. I did some editing work. I listened obsessively to the most recent song my ex-boyfriend wrote about me (“She’s a New York girl/ She holds the city in her hand/She races along through time and/Controls everyone with her mind.”) I walked down past Canal Street and went to the premiere of my friend’s fringe festival play. I wrote a chunk of my novel which isn’t really a novel. I learned that Italian beer can actually be quite delicious. I went as press to a play about Martha Graham dancers. I spent a lot of time alone, and the incredible thing is that my life changed, my synapses reconnected, and I thought differently, because I was reading Up for Renewal. These past few days, Up for Renewal followed me -- through the city, through the East Village birthday party, into the movies, through the first nights of fringe, into Fat Sal’s pizza at 1:00 a.m. and into my dreams.

Isn’t that what reading does? Reading changes us, cruelly, sweetly, faster than we are changing on our own. Sometimes the changes are unwitting and unpredictable, but every time we read something, every time we learn something, we become different inside and the language of our lives changes a little.

It’s a sad, sick thing if the writer of a book, the writer of a magazine, some curly-haired, laughing editor, sets out to hurt me on purpose, to tell me that I should mutilate this beautiful body, to make me worry that this exciting man doesn’t want me, to try, on purpose, to leave me hunched over Oprah, inhaling Dove Bars and Dexatrim, slathering my feet with formaldehyde, feeling old and wishing that I was better, better, better -- to make me doubt the miracle of my own unique life. Of course it’s all less conscious, less conscientious and less intentional than all that -- but maybe we should stop treating this phenomenon so generously.

There’s a wonderful moment in Up for Renewal when Cathy Alter confronts her own article in Self and feels a bit nauseated:

I wondered if anyone was ruining their lives by trying out my proffered advice. What if women all over the country were shaking their angry fists in my direction when wall plastering failed to soothe them? Who was I to intrude on someone’s life with my fancy opinions? What did I know? Reading my own words in a magazine had left me feeling like a bit of a fake… It was like that scene in Happiness in which Lara Flynn Boyle, playing a poet, has a meltdown while trying to work out a few stanzas. Throwing herself on her bed, she screams, "I’m no good! I’m no good! I am nothing! Nothing! Zero!" This is exactly what it feels like to be a writer sometimes… I was an interloper.

It’s true that I just spent the past three days with Cathy Alter -- in her bedroom with her then-fiance Karl, walking with her acerbic friend Jeanne, being called “ma’am” at Miss Sixty, sitting in her cubicle as her ex-lover mauled her breasts -- and she didn’t spend any of that time with me. It makes me some kind of stalker or voyeur, or a vampire maybe, ravenous for Cathy Alter’s words or Miranda July’s words or Mandy Aftel’s words or James Haller’s delicious words, or, like a necrophiliac, the ancient words in The Adventures of Amir Hamza. But maybe it’s less one-sided than that. Maybe these writers, these pushy editors, these advertisers, and whoever writes the glossy headlines for the covers of magazines, are seeking me out, too. Maybe they’re the interlopers. Maybe they’re parasites.

Freud saw repetition compulsion as an attempt to master the feeling of loss. Without even the help of Dr. Oskar, Up for Renewal made me consider my book cravings in a new way. We spend days, months, years, lifetimes with books inside our heads. Every book I fantasize about reading represents an impulse toward radical change for myself, for the way I see the world. But now I wonder, more than ever before: Who wrote the book, and why? What is its agenda? Why do I want to fold it into my life, to suck it into the creases of my brain, to make it one of my memories? Should I leave it closed?