author photo 2015, chair, b&wThe blurbs say your book is funny, and yet it explores that era just after the feminist movement. Feminism is serious, necessary. How did this turn out to be funny?

It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.

I’m not supposed to be here.

I don’t mean “here”— standing in an unmoving line in the middle of Madison Square Park waiting for a cheeseburger I don’t want on a hot June day.

I mean that I’m not supposed to be the thirty-something with the two cats, one toolset I don’t know how to use and zero prospects on the horizon.

I’m not.

And yet I am.

How in God’s name has it taken me so long to see this?

 

“Hey,” he said as he sauntered over to where I was on my phone in the corner of a room. We were at a party in an L.A. warehouse and I was checking my voicemail. Thrown by his directness, by the way he walked right up to me even though I was busy, and then by how he looked at me—again, so directly — I hung up the phone even though I was in the middle of listening to a message I’d been waiting for. “You look stressed,” he said. He appeared bemused.

This guy wasn’t gorgeous; his brown hair was starting to gray, his face was a little pinched, he wore glasses and was neither rugged nor slim. But for some reason, I shook as I smiled at him. “And you look amused by that,” I responded.

He laughed — a loud, guttural guffaw. “You were very focused on what you were doing,” he said. “It made me want to see if I could break your focus.” I noticed that stubble decorated his cheeks and chin.

“Mission accomplished,” I said. Under normal circumstances, I would have been annoyed— being accosted by a stranger doesn’t tend to bring out my good-natured cheer. But nothing about what was happening felt normal: the air was suddenly charged with energy from some otherworldly place.

We introduced ourselves. When he told me his name was Will, I suddenly realized he was the painter my friend had been telling me earlier was going to be at this party. Since my knowledge about art was somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, I’d only half listened when she’d talked about how he was a hero of sorts in the art world, credited with creating some new medium that enraged purists but was celebrated by modernists, and how his work sold for millions of dollars. But I didn’t tell him that I’d just figured out who he was; by this point, I was focused on his eyes which, now that he’d removed his glasses and tucked them into the front pocket of his white button-down shirt, I could see were swimming-pool blue. I could see vestiges of pain in the irises but they also looked simultaneously delighted and seemed to be pleading with me to stare back at them, a request that felt so overwhelming I had to look away. And when I glanced down, I noticed the wedding ring. Of course, I thought. The first man to captivate me at first sight couldn’t be single.

We continued talking. I didn’t understand what was happening — I’m a realist, practical and pragmatic, someone who believes in the right timing and compatibility and not soul mates and Cupid’s arrows. But I couldn’t deny the fact that this stranger was eliciting something in me that I hadn’t ever experienced instantaneously —a feeling that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, like a song I used to love but had long since forgotten the words to. Our communication, I soon discovered, was just as unusual: words began coming out of my mouth as sentences before I had the chance to experience them as thoughts, and I had no desire to try to impress him or make him laugh or showcase my intelligence. Somehow, he — or the combination of the two of us —rendered my omnipresent self-consciousness obsolete. Time both slowed down and sped up. I wanted to crawl inside his eyes and take a swim. I wanted everything else to disappear. Within three minutes of being introduced to this man, I felt like he was the only thing in the world that mattered.

I tried to act normal. He was married—and, he told me, had two kids—and I wasn’t going to go there. We made small talk, jokes. I pretended I wasn’t having trouble breathing. But when I went to the bathroom, I realized that there was only so much I could deny. My panties were soaked all the way through.

 

The Shake Shack line continues not to move and tears stream down my face—something so common these days that it takes me at least a minute to even notice. They’re certainly not my first tears of the day. Before I ventured out to get this burger, I’d actually been curled up in the fetal position sobbing for a good week straight, one sentence making an endless loop in my brain:

I’m going to be alone forever.

Then that thought elicited an endless stream of far more disturbing ones.

I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off.

I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off because there’s something terribly wrong with me.

I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off because there’s something terribly wrong with me that’s obvious to everyone but me. 

Occasionally I’d switch to beating myself up for feeling this way while giving relationship advice on TV. It was shameful for someone who’d written hundreds of articles on sex and dating, someone who’d been the relationship expert on a cable show, someone who regularly shared her thoughts on romance on major networks, to be in this state.

As I inch closer to the Shake Shack counter, I rationalize that it’s okay that I offer relationship advice but can’t find and maintain one in my own life. How, I remind myself, could someone who easily found and married the man of her dreams help the lovelorn, the struggling, the confused and broken-hearted? I can understand people’s mistakes because I’ve made them myself. The fact that I’ve fallen in love with a married man and am now falling apart as a result will give me the experience and knowledge to be able to counsel someone else in the same situation.

But that still doesn’t mean I’m supposed to be here.

 

Before my trip to L.A., I’d managed to keep depressing thoughts about my single status at a simmer whenever they bubbled to the surface. Through a combination of optimism, denial, and a collection of other single friends whose lives appeared to be exciting and glamorous, I walked with relative ease through every form that asked for my husband’s employment information, every singles table at a wedding, every conversation about marriage. The “Have you met anyone special?” queries from my mom and other curious parties had, essentially, eased up, and I didn’t ask myself if this was because everyone had given up on me or was just assuming I was gay and in the closet. In therapy, where I dissected my relationships, the conversations tended to focus on the particular guy I was involved with — the micro, not the macro — so I usually avoided seeing the big picture. Whenever a romance fizzled, an I’m-going-to-be-alone forever mindset would set in and I’d agonizingly flip through people’s happy family Facebook photos and wonder why I couldn’t seem to do something that everyone — even the girl from my high school with the unplaceable body odor — had seemingly pulled off effortlessly. But those bouts tended to be ephemeral.

Of course, by the time I hit my thirties, I’d begun having impossible-to-ignore reactions to pregnant bellies and women or couples with children. I’d always smiled at, talked to and played with children but these activities took on a more panicked intensity once I started to pass through my prime childbearing years; a sensation that I’d better wave, smile, and coo at these kids since I might not ever have my own. I’d be struck with the feeling that the mothers of these children were much happier and better adjusted than I, no matter their circumstances. Since none of my good friends had kids yet, I didn’t experience this all that often and whenever I did, I never let the thoughts fester or cling to me: instead, I’d turn back to the manuscript I was working on or keep walking to the gym or check to see if a stranger had written something nice about me on my blog, and the fear that I might not have a husband or be a mother would be replaced by whatever thought I’d slid in there.

Most of the time, I convinced myself that I’d be fertile well into my forties, that I was simply someone who would not settle, and that when I did eventually commit to a man — a man whom I would of course feel had been well worth waiting for—our future children would never utter words like “dysfunctional family” or “I hate my mother” because I’d have worked out all of my issues during those long single years before I brought them into the world. Phrases to explain my situation poured out of me almost subconsciously whenever necessary. I’m happy being alone. Or: I haven’t met the right guy. Or my favorite, for when I was feeling particularly sanctimonious in the face of what I perceived to be smugness: People think they need a relationship in order to be complete but I don’t.

And I really didn’t think I did — until now. But interacting with Will had unearthed something so primal and overwhelming in me that not having a deep romantic connection suddenly feels unbearable. It’s like a dam inside of me has tumbled down and I’m mourning all the years I’ve felt this way without ever allowing myself to know I felt this way. I’m in my thirties, in other words, and just finding myself in the state most girls enter when they’re in their teens. I’ve never had a 10-year-plan or a must-be-married-by age and never worried about either of these things. Now it all feels like it’s too late – like while I was off screwing around and then taking advantage of the career opportunities available to women today, the men I’d want to partner off with went and married younger girls who were ready to forgo all the advantages of modern womanhood, who were happy to put their work lives second or possibly not even have them at all. It’s like coming out of a blackout and discovering that you’re in the process of losing a game of musical chairs – one you didn’t even know you wanted to play.

When someone asks you what you do for a living, do you begin your answer with, “I am…”? As in, “I am a lawyer,” or, “I am a sandwich artist?” Most of us do, even though I think we can all agree that as complex creatures we can’t be defined by a single, occupation-based label. A plumber is a person, as is a politician and a poet and a physician (except Dr. Teeth, who is made of fabric, and Dr. Phil, who is made of mistakes).

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I do, what I’ve done and how it relates to who I am. I’ve had over 35 jobs in the past two decades, starting at age 14 when I worked at an ice cream parlor in Palm Springs. (Sonny Bono came in once, and when I asked, “Mr. Bono, could I get your–” he obliged me with an autograph. I didn’t have the heart to finish my question: “–order?”)

In high school I babysat several children who miraculously escaped the gruesome murders I daydreamed for them during their Time-Outs. At 16, I worked at a pizza place until my 40+ boss decided it would be funny to withhold my paycheck until I agreed to go out with him. I spent my 18th summer at a telemarketing company, encouraging smokers to speak out against tax hikes. I didn’t even smoke.

Throughout college I worked at a mall, three truck stops, a bakery, a grocery store and a UPS warehouse. I spent a month working as a production assistant on an almost-porno directed by one of my professors. I volunteered to teach children how to read, which I was terrible at (not because of an aversion to reading, but because of an aversion to children) and then switched to teaching college students about safe sex (something I have no aversion to at all). I was a receptionist at an HIV testing clinic, where for two years I let the phlebotomist practice taking blood from me every week (if there was an award for Most Confidently Free From STDs, I would win it, hands down).

Since graduating, I’ve worked at a sports photo agency, produced feature films, sold underpants and written blog posts for a cable network. I’ve chauffeured friends’ bands on tour (which paid only in opportunities to meet rock heroes) and I filed papers in the back room of a bank (which paid in beer money and suicide fantasies). There was six months of selling concert tickets, two months watching NIKE videos and three days editing corporate films about airplanes for a really mean Chinese guy.

Taking all of this into consideration, you could conclude that I am versatile, or you might think that I am easily bored. It’s hard to know if this is the career history of a polymath, a drifter or a mental patient.

So I must continue this self-examination by determining which jobs I could never do. I mean, I know as a feminist and an optimist I’m supposed to believe anything’s possible, but even as an atheist, I’d pray for the poor soul of anyone who needed me to be his surgeon or contractor. And even though I’d like a career as a Certified Badass, I keep failing the test. Two for flinching, every time.

I think animals are cool, but I bet being a Zookeeper is actually depressing, and Park Rangering requires a lot of wandering around outside, which interferes with my love of staying pale and being lazy. (Also, I hate searching for pic-a-nic baskets–if you can’t hold onto your sandwiches, you don’t deserve to have sandwiches.)

I couldn’t be a call girl, either. I just don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to pretend to be someone else all the time, or to Scotchgard my fancy dresses, or to wear/own fancy dresses. I also don’t have the required drug addiction or an elastic asshole. I am grossly underqualified. But I would consider being a madam. I would drive a Ford Escort (because of irony) with a vanity plate that read HNKFHRNY.

So no power tools, no wandering outdoors. No kids, no animals, and no fucking by appointment (especially kids or animals). In fact, the less human interaction, the better. Forced socializing makes me ill. I’m the person who always uses the unmanned checkout lane at the grocery store — anything to avoid casual chit chat with strangers.

So what does that make me, a soulless machine?

I suppose it’s no coincidence that I currently work in advertising. If you want to draw some parallels between my character and my current profession, I would say that, like me, my job can be easy (like selling candy to a baby!) and fun (“thinkin’ up stuff” is one of my job responsibilities). And, like me, it can also be manipulative and a little sneaky. Also, it’s impossible to know whether professional me or personal me has worked harder at convincing people to eat hot dogs.

I might be a terrible person.

No. I think you can only know the real me by examining the job I would do, if given the opportunity. My dream job: President of Movies. As POM I will leverage my years of education, experience and undeniable kickassitude to improve Hollywood’s chief exports. The world will finally know true joy as I prove myself infallible in the selection of buddy cop duos. When I ask, “Who have we cast as the buddy cops?” and the response begins with either “Clancy Brown” or “a monkey”, I will hold up one hand to silence the room and make out a check for “the sky’s the limit!” THAT is the dream I make possible by my very existence!

That is who I am.

And I can live with that. I’m okay being that person. I hope to meet others like me — those who will support me in my quest to rid all films of talking babies and talking chihuahuas and Andie MacDowells. If you’re out there, please say hello.

Conversely, if you’re not ready to embrace a cinematic Clancy Brown/monkey police officer, please hand over your badge and gun.

The first time I threw up I was very young. You know what I’m talking about, barfing, blowing chunks, etc. I don’t remember what happened exactly, probably I ate something. It happens to us all. Vomiting in those circumstances is very unpleasant–head in the toilet bowl, sweating, retching, your entire body heaving, trying to expel whatever it didn’t like. That stomach acidy stuff gets up into your nose, whatever. Sucks. Afterward you still feel bad, pushing back the nausea so it won’t happen again.

I was about fifteen. Kind of innocent. Just beginning to discover some things. I had gone over to a friend’s house. His parents were gone and we’d gotten our hands on some booze, vodka or whisky, I can’t recall. We got smashed, threw up and lay around moaning about Charlie’s Angels. Some time later with that same friend we got our hands on some Bacardi 151 rum. Here’s a tip. Do not eat cashews before drinking rum. Rum/cashew puke is pretty bad. I haven’t been a big fan of either ever since. In fact, the strange old bus driver in the town I lived in used to offer me cashews when I boarded the bus. “Cashews?” she would say, holding out a bag. “No…urrmph,” I said, trying to hold back the queasiness.

When I was sixteen I went to a big house party. I had always been a very quiet and shy boy, very much a loner in high school, and I saw this as maybe a chance to meet some girls. I hadn’t been kissed since the fifth grade and all of my friends had lost their virginities except me. Here’s another tip. If you want to get in with the popular kids at school and maybe hook up, don’t get smashed on booze and pot and throw up on one of the school’s cheerleaders. That was the end of my love life until I met Punk Rock chicks a couple of years later. Thank God for Punk Rock chicks, and then later, strippers and hairdressers. But I digress.

Puking was always very unpleasant for me, and usually followed by a shitty hangover. Not very fun. That’s how my vomiting career went until I discovered Opiates. They made throwing up kind of cool. I would drink a bunch of beer, smoke some pot, take twelve Percodans, some girl would be talking to me outside a punk show, I would lift my finger to indicate they should hold on a sec, turn my head, “Hwhaaugh!” throw up into the bushes, turn back and continue chatting her up. Opiates made throwing up no more unpleasant than spitting, or pissing, or taking a dump. I didn’t feel bad after and could keep doing whatever it was I was doing.

And then I graduated from Percodans to heroin and suddenly stopped throwing up at all, ever. And that was the end of my barfing career, and the beginning of another career, but I already wrote a whole book about that.

The End

April, 1996

I was in a hotel room in Ohio.  I think it was Cleveland.  I’m pretty sure it was not Cincinnati, but to this day, I’m not one hundred percent on that.  I had been up for two days, so just getting Ohio correct is worthy of scientific notice.


You always hear that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” But sometimes, he’s really fucking obvious.

Two years ago, I completed graduate school and continued working on a book that I drafted during my MFA program. I worked part-time at the University of New Hampshire, where I got my degree, and took on freelance writing gigs to pay my bills.

But when my “writing life” laxed and became my “cleaning the house and hanging out with grad school friends” life, my wife gave me a not-so-subtle nudge:

Get a job.

So I started searching—half-heartedly at first. My wife had a steady paycheck, and I was a writer and a teacher, so I was used to having a meager income. My motivation was low. There was no job-fire burning at my feet.

But one day I went to pay my month’s bills, and the checkbook cookie jar was empty.

The flames began licking. Something had ignited my search.

I plunged in and began a serious job quest then, networking with current and former colleagues, posting my resume on Monster, checking the newspaper, and clicking my way through online job sites like Craigslist, WhisperJobs, Boston.com, Mediabistro, and awpwriter.org.

Over the course of more months than I care to confess, I landed multiple interviews—three of which led me to the coveted second interview. After all three second interviews, I was convinced: They loved me! This job is mine! My boss at the time even told me that he had gotten a reference call from one potential workplace, and from the way they raved about me, he was certain they’d be calling shortly to offer me the post.

One by one, though, the HR specialists called me (or, in one case, only sent an email) to inform me that it was such a pleasure meeting me, but they had decided to offer the position to another candidate.

Strike out.

In the first double-interview strike-out, I was one of four final candidates. In the second, I was one of three finalists. And in the third: You guessed it. One of two. Only one other person stood between me and an income, and that other person beat me to it.

I was shattered. Why was I always falling short? What was it about me that made a company, upon closer inspection, turn their noses up and say, “Nah. Throw this one back. She’s not what we were looking for.”

Traditional job searching was a bust. Plain old praying (which I did a lot of) had gotten me nowhere. So I turned to witchcraft, consulting what I now refer to as the “voodoo witch mat” to divine my future.

The voodoo witch mat was a purchase I made at a Wicca shop in Salem during Halloween. This black velvet mat, roughly 8” x 8”, promised to answer my questions with responses like, “Yes,” “No,” and “Ask Again” when I concentrated on a question and swung a pendulum over the mat. In the end, the pendulum would settle on a single answer. It’s like a witch’s Magic 8 Ball. (However, after I brought this talisman into the house, a mirror in an unoccupied room mysteriously shattered, and objects began propelling themselves from shelves, which is where the “voodoo” part of the name comes in.)

When I focused my energy and asked the voodoo witch mat about my career status, it assured me that by Christmas 2008, I would have a full-time job.

Like a magical-thinking fool, I believed it. Because the witch mat said so. And because I was desperate.

December: Christmas comes and goes. No job.

January: I plunge into despair, spending my days sunk down inside my bathtub beneath a frothy white mountain of bubbles, wondering if I’ll ever be able to crawl out of my accumulating debt. The pages of multiple books become rippled from the heat of the tub: stories that I grip with damp hands, my skin turning pruney as I cling to the hope of escape through fiction.

February: I realize that January sucked. I was a moping mess. And that was not fun. So I decide to start doing healthy things for myself, and to begin checking off some of the To-Do boxes that have blinked blankly at me for eons.

One of those things: go to church. With the exception of occasional holidays with my parents and in-laws, I hadn’t been to church in almost five years. My soul was hungry. I had been feeling selfish and lost, absorbed in being sorry for myself over not having full-time work. I thought that perhaps church would help me find my center again.

(My other option, if church didn’t work out, was yoga. However, I’m not flexible, and in a hot room where I’d be bending over and twisting an out-of-shape body in all manner of unflattering positions, the possibilities for making an ass of myself seemed to outweigh any perceived benefits.)

So I found myself a little gay-friendly house of worship—the First Universalist Church of Salem—and I went to church. After the service, a lovely woman named Sally greeted me and ushered me towards tables of cookies, fresh fruit, and coffee. Sally introduced me to other parishioners (do non-Catholics use that term?) and discovered that I was job searching.

Without me even asking, Sally became my new job networker. After each service, Sally told my story to the people she introduced me to during coffee hour: This is Laura. She lives in Salem and she’s a writer, and she’s looking for a job. Do you know of anyone looking for a writer?

On the third Sunday, a woman at my coffee-and-cookie table mentioned that the U.S. Census Bureau was hiring census takers in Salem and Beverly. It was only a temporary position, and it wasn’t at all in my career field, but it supposedly paid well.

That was all I needed to hear.

On the designated day, I went to the YMCA in Salem and took a pre-qualification test for the job. During the testing session, the census representative told us that there were also management jobs posted online. As soon as I got home, I checked out the website, 2010censusjobs.gov, and lo and behold, I found two jobs for which I knew I was qualified. “Partnership Specialist” was the title of one.

I applied for the position. Three hours after my interview, and after my fourth “They loved me! I totally have the job!” engagement, I was finally offered a job.

When I heard the news, I did a dance in my sister’s architecture office. I called my wife. I called my mom. I texted my friends. The debt-vice that had been gripping my chest was loosened.

On my train ride home from Boston, I was mentally ripping up all of my other job applications and cover letters, and telling everyone who hadn’t hired me to suck it.

And then I was struck by how I got the job in the first place:

I heard about the position only because I went to church.

Some people believe that all things happen for a reason. They think that we are given obstacles to teach us lessons that we might not otherwise learn, and thus, any suffering we encounter along the way is both valuable and essential for our growth.

As I pay down my debt with the salary from my new job, I sometimes console myself with that notion that this all happened for a reason: That I searched for a job for two years because the right one was waiting for me. That I met now-close friends at UNH who would’ve never come into my life, had I left my part-time university job sooner. That I gained a deep appreciation for structured work time and an understanding that spending every day in one’s pajamas is NOT an ideal way to live one’s life.

On my self-disparaging days, I simply believe that I was lazy, and that I didn’t search hard enough.

But my Evangelical mother would simply say, “You should’ve gone to church sooner.”

Just in case Mom’s right: If you’re one of the tens of millions of people looking for a job during the worst economy in recent history, maybe it’s time you paid a visit to one of your local houses of worship.

Even if you don’t get a job out of it, at the very least, they usually have good snacks.