DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2015 by Ed

As a teenager I was really into lifting weights for a while. Part of it was believing that exercise would be good for me physically and mentally, and of course part of it was the overwhelming insecurity that leads people to spend an inordinate amount of time in the gym. This was in the mid-to-late 90s before the Internet was as valuable of a resource as it is today, so to keep from getting bored with exercise I would get things out of fitness magazines. You know, the ones with the shiny, freakish musclemen on the covers. "Muscle and Fitness" and "Modern Douchebag" or whatever.

Believe it or not, those magazines had (no idea whether this changed in the last fifteen years) pretty useful instructions and workout plans in them. I learned a lot about how to eat healthy from those stupid magazines after a childhood of frozen dinners and typical Midwestern fat people food. The strange thing was that working out did improve my physical condition and hell, maybe it even made me feel a little better too. But no matter what I did, I didn't look like the people in the pictures that accompanied the articles. I followed the diets to the letter, threw weights around like a champion, and generally led a physically healthy lifestyle. But I still looked like a normal person, probably because I am one.

As I got a bit older (and the internet pulled back the curtain) I figured out that, yes, someone who looks like a bodybuilder does eat healthy and lift weights a lot. That's not why they look that way, though. That's the metric buttload of steroids they're all on. The magazines conveniently forget to note that. Kind of an important piece of information. Of course none of the "athletes" if they can be so labeled will admit that. When asked, their superhuman physical condition is a result of Hard Work and clean living. Eat your vegetables, kids!

In a rare example of perfect timing on the heels of Monday's post, Salon ran a piece about the dirty little secret of the publishing industry and journalism: a lot of people are only able to succeed at it because they have someone (living or dead) supporting them financially. And in all but the rarest cases, they absolutely refuse to admit it. They do that thing Americans excel at – attributing their failures to others but claiming full credit for their successes. I found this example useful:

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

You wonder if the author actually believes that her success wasn't virtually handed to her or if she realizes it and simply thinks it would be gauche to admit it. Or maybe, as the writer of the Salon piece suggests, nobody wants to admit that because to do so would be to destroy the myth that published Authors are better than everyone else who writes. The difference between the award-winning author in this anecdote and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.

The reality is that writing – literary or as a journalist – pays so poorly these days and is so often expected to be done for "exposure" rather than money that only people who don't need a paycheck can afford (pun intended) to do it. The effect on the kind of books and news stories we see is obvious; call it Lena Dunham Syndrome, a self contained world of writing by trust fund kids for other trust fund kids. The number of "voices" to be heard in the literary world is limited by the fact that the voices that actually need to work for a living tend not to write nearly as many books.

VALEDICTION

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2015 by Ed

I assume that most of the like, seven people who read this thing are similar to me demographically: plowing through their 30s or 40s in the wasteland of the economy we thought we would live in as children. On the very off chance that anyone who sees this is young enough that his or her course through life has not yet been cast in stone, here is the sum of what I've learned in life. I wish someone had told me this when I was a teenager. Maybe it will be useful to you.

As a young person – and by that I mean, when I was in high school and college – adults told me that if I tried really hard at the correct things I would be successful in life. Be smart, work hard, and don't succumb to the temptations of idleness and fun. Accordingly I never did anything fun. You are reading the word "never" and thinking it is an example of a writer using poetic license. But I am quite serious. I had no friends in college or high school. Never went to a party. Never got drunk. Never dated (not that it was an option). Never blew off a class. Never went out. I just studied and studied more and kicked the ass of every course or standardized test I came across. And all along I was assured that this would lead to great success eventually.

Here is the thing. None of that is true. I was lied to. And by the time I figured that out it was far too late. Let me tell you a secret about this country: it's not all that different than medieval England in terms of its social classes. Either you were born into money and your life will turn out fine no matter what you do or you were born without it and your life will pretty much be mediocre or shitty no matter how hard you fight it. Oh, you'll be comfortable. You'll make enough to live indoors and drive a functioning car. You'll just never be happy because you will be dependent on a paycheck and whatever you have to do in order to get it will probably be miserable. The only people who get to be happy are the ones who have enough money that they don't have to do things they know they will despise in order to get paid.

So as much as it irritates me to deal with students who refuse to put the slightest bit of effort into their educations, in reality they are all far smarter than I was. Either they are wealthy and no matter how badly they fuck up they will make five times what I ever will and will live great lives or they are plebeians who might as well get in all the fun they can in college before they begin their forty years of soul-crushing drudgery.

That's the great American myth: that working hard gets you anywhere. It doesn't. Working hard makes someone else a lot of money off of your effort. You just end up tired and frustrated. The kids you knew in college with the trust funds and the summer homes in Aspen run the world no matter how hard you work. They make money by exploiting you and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it because you don't have a giant pile of money that allows you to walk away from things you find repugnant.

People used to tell me I was smart. Since I didn't figure any of this out until I was in my 30s, I guess they were wrong. Don't make the same mistake. You'll end up waking up one morning to realize the depths of your personal and professional failures, and that it's too late to do anything about them. I promise you'll kick yourself for not having at least the memory of good times to remind you that even if everything is drudgery now, you had fun when the opportunities arose.

Out of the thousands of things I've learned, this is the only one that I think anyone else might benefit from hearing. Regrets are the worst things, and once your life is pretty much over they will pile up at a rate you can scarcely imagine when you are young and full of optimism.