Out of the Bell Jar and into the Mason Jar: Considering a Literary Classic and my Teenage Years

“That’s the most depressing book.”

A tall, swim-suit sporting man shouted at me as he sauntered over to the pool’s towel stand. He clearly cross-fitted. #ThoseAbs. I paused and looked up from the book in question which was Syliva Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

“It is. I clearly have terrible taste in pool-side reads.”

This is one thing I love about California: you don’t need to have a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model body to get attention at the pool (that’s because, thanks to cross-fit, botox, and boob jobs, everyone has a SI swimsuit model body). No, to stand out at the pool, you just need some socially progressive modernist literature.

He winked. Suggested I switch to something like Cosmo, and was off before I had a chance to exchange room numbers (it’s entirely possible that the toddler toddling behind him was, in fact his, but then again, at hotel pools it’s so hard to tell which parent belongs to which child… oh, well.)

My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn't make light reading
My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn’t make light reading

I had committed to reading such heavy literature at the pool side for two simple reasons: 1. I don’t do fluffy chick-lit, and 2. It was research for the gender-identity/femininity exhibition I’m in the process of curating.

For those that haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s one canonical novel, it was to the 1960s what Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to the 1890s. If you’ve never read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and have no idea what I’m talking about, “The Bell Jar” reads a lot like “Catcher in the Rye.” If you’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye,” well, shame on you and your grade school English teacher.

Here’s the mega abbreviated cliff’s notes run down: Esther Greenwood is a successful and attractive 19 year old college girl who lands a great summer internship at a mega lady’s magazine in New York City. But just when the future looks bright and full of possibilities, Esther hits a wall. She breaks down, crashes, and bottoms out.

The story is dark. The writing, superb.

But as much as I was engrossed in and enjoying such wonderfully, honestly crafted prose, I’m glad I didn’t read it was I was 19. I think it would have felt too familiar… even more familiar than it already does…

Digging around my bedroom this weekend, I found a notebook with the jottings of a frustrated young story writer. Most of the scribbling came from ages 16-20, and they all raged with a kind of loneliness and angst. I think I felt that stories about breakdowns and being misunderstood where what you were supposed to be writing about if you wanted to be considered a good writer. Melodrama seemed to be a prerequisite for the Pulitzer or for making the American English classroom curricula. I don’t think any of what I was writing was reflective of what I felt or of my mental state because I never got very far with them (try like, 3 pages, max.) But then again, I don’t really remember how I felt about life or school at 16. I was just kind of doing rather than feeling. Feeling came in college.

But I did find one piece of writing that was troubling to me, because it was the one piece that wasn’t an attempt at fiction. It was an attempted personal essay and the only thing in the book that was typed, with blue-ink edits.

In it, I rattled off my string of accomplishments, concluding with “I was considered mature and well-round, well cultured and intellectual. Yet something was missing.”

The punchline, of course, because I was 18, was that I needed a boyfriend. Reading it, while I admired her self-awareness and vulnerability, I hated that teenage version of myself for defining happiness in terms of being attached to someone else. I couldn’t go to college without being someone’s girlfriend! I wrote. “The fact I had never been kissed seemed small in comparison.”

Flash to Esther:

“Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.

I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” 

This was how I saw the world — a simple division between lovers and loners. Reading on, I saw that 18 year old me hated me for feeling that way too. What a relief. As I got older, while the idea of a companion was and is always intoxicatingly appealing, there was another feeling I had — a fear of being tied down.

Flash back to Esther:

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored around from a fourth of July rocket. “

There’s a lot of vignettes in the “Bell Jar” I could relate to at 19 and even now. Ones that are in many ways more meaningful to me than the ones about men, about the double standards for the sexes, about marriage. Esther has a moment when she compares her moment in life to standing under a fig tree. Each fig represents a possible path — marriage and a family, Olympics, famous writer, famous editor, and so on. But she can only pick one, and once she does, all the other will fall, spoiled. The tree of possibility can get you down — knowing you have so many options but can’t really have them all. I remember sitting alone on my university quad one cold late autumn night while I was grad student, feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and crying a bit at a fear of achieving non of them, of mucking it all up. But unlike Esther, I didn’t let the fear of failure or indecision win. I learned that with a little cunning, and fast feet, you can grab as many fruit as you can before they all go rotten. Maybe you won’t get them all, but you’ll get enough to make a decent pie… sharing optional.

In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.
In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.
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Writing the Closing Chapter: Why this Blog Was Not Be Ready to Become a Book

Coming off two back-to-back Freshly Pressed posts, I thought I was ready to write a book.

About two years ago, I started exploring the possibility of turning this little blog into a book. I was coming off 2 freshly-pressed posts and a slew of new subscribers. It was both fashionable and marketable to be a single, 20-something, broke female and I was a single, unemployed, 20-something female. The timing seemed right and the iron seemed hot, so I thought, now’s the time to strike.

And thus began the self-pimping.

I tried everything, even stuffing my calling card into Sloane Crosley’s hand at a cocktail party for athletes (she was dating an Olympic speed skater who was friend of a friend at the time, and I was the only person in the room who knew her at sight). I didn’t really expect that to get me anywhere, so I met with a writing coach. I must have sold him, because in an uncharacteristic move, he put me in touch with his editor after our first meeting.

Bam! Was this really happening? Was I officially on my way to being the next blog-to-book phenom?

I quickly beefed up a few of my better posts and started to throw together a pitch. But as I sat there working out the plot-line that would drive my collection of essays, I hit a road block: what was my ending? I had  a premise, but what was going to be the punchline of “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband?”

Should I end with a relationship? With a rich man? With a poor, struggling academic? With the next Damien Hirst? But, I wasn’t dating anyone… like, I couldn’t even use artistic license.

I was ready to write a manuscript, but did my collection of essays have a point?

Since I so often talked about the difficulty of finding a job in the contemporary art market, does it have to end with my finding a job? Maybe starting my own gallery? And that perfect piece of real estate? And free health insurance? I was still several months away from getting hired.

Or could it end with me as I was — still in limbo?

If that was my ending, what was going to be the moral of my story?

This is the challenge a lot of  bloggers who want to become professional writers forget — a book, even a collection of essays, moves in some direction towards some kind of conclusion. Blogs are amorphous, moving in any direction we want them to go. Thematic, yes, but endless. Now, a book’s conclusion can be relatively inconclusive, but still, there still should be some kind of moral.

This is what I thought of my original “ending” for TTM2FaRH

At the time I decided my moral would be: it’s okay if you don’t meet the world’s expectations for you, because times are rough, your 20s are uncertain, and eventually, you’ll hit your stride.

And then I decided that was lame.

So I shelved the manuscript and decided I needed to gather more material.

Luckily, a lot of life happens in a short period of time. Last week, as I toasted and thanked my staff, my friends, my family, and my boyfriend at my gallery’s opening, I felt it might just be time to revive They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband, the book. Somewhere in all the hullabaloo of the last two years, I had found the topic for my concluding essay.

But don’t worry. I’m no Disney princess. I’ll keep it real.

If My Nightstand Could Talk…

It's a great lamp to read by... now, if only I was as good a reader

If my nightstand could talk it would tell you I’m a schizophrenic reader (I bet you thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you?).

My nightstand is an inherited piece made from Canadian Maple. It doesn’t produce syrup, but it is home to a Limoges porcelain lamp adorned with two very Fragonard-esque lovers. The lamp is likeable for both its campness and its luminescence — it’s a great lamp to read under.

That being said, I’m a notoriously bad reader. I’m slow. It takes me ages to get through an entire book. And since I like owning books so much, I tend to impulsively buy something I want to read, start reading it, only to put it down after another impulsive purchase. My gallery is on the same block as a bookstore. It’s like a heroin addict living on the same block as a clean-needle clinic. I walk the other way.

With all that in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are currently 4 books on my night stand, all in various stages of being read.

At the bottom is W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon & Sixpence.”

I’ve actually already read this one, but I’m re-reading it. Maugham’s insights into the feminine character provide endless source material. When I’m too tired to read much or write anything, I take a quick scan through the pages I’ve dog-eared and salivate over his talent — it’s just written so damn well.

Next is “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” by Paul Greenberg.

I’m not entirely sure how much of “Four Fish” I’ve actually consumed (ha! ha!). I bought it in part to help me with research for an exhibition…that’s right… an exhibition about fish… and in part because I’m a foodie who wants to better justify why I’ll only eat wild fish. I spot read this based on what I plan to have for dinner the next night…

One layer above that is “When You’re Engulfed in Flames,” by David Sedaris.

My bookmark indicates that I’m about half way through. I love everything Sedaris writes.

At the top of the pile is Megan Marshall’s Pulitzer Finalist book “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism.”

The 400-page biographic tome has barely been scratched. I’m proud to say this one is a loan from a friend who read  my blog and thought “The Peabody Sisters” would be right up my alley. That’s right, someone read “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband” and the first thing that came to mind was the story of three 19th century women who helped shape America’s greatest literary movement.

I guess I must be doing something right.

When You’re Having a Bad Dating Week Just Don’t Read “He’s Just Not that into You”

Jack Berger was my favorite S&TC boyfriend... even if he was insecure and emotionally handicapped

I’ll never forget the first time I saw that episode of Sex & the City where Jack Berger (incidentally, my favorite of Carrie’s emotionally inadequate boyfriends) bursts Miranda’s bubble with the simple phrase “He’s just not that into you.” The scene struck a chord as I had recently tired to tell a good girlfriend exactly the same thing:

“Listen, Jess, he took the evil red-headed stick figure actress to his office party. And the book signing. And dinner. He’s not dating you. He just d0esn’t, ya know, like you.”

Albeit, my phrasing was perhaps a big meaner. But frankly, we had consumed so many bottles of sake that she didn’t pay much attention to my solo shake-up in a chorus of “He’s totally waiting for the right moment to tell you he loves you.”

Gag me with a spoon.

Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy claims: A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.” I’ve never been one of those girls. But that doesn’t mean that once in a rare, rare while, I haven’t found myself face-to-face with a man who ignites daydreams of the possible. Once in a rare, rare while, this pragmatic romantic loses the pragmatic and becomes a full-fledged romantic.

I think the post-it notes say it all...

And it was one of these rare, rare moments that sent me running to the book that came out of that Sex & the City episode, that book “He’s Just Not That Into You.” I had bought it to give to my aforementioned friend. I kept it instead. She clearly had no intentions to read it anyway.

The writers confirmed my intuitions — his lack of follow-up to our enjoyable early dates were sign that he wasn’t interested enough. The reasons were irrelevant, all that mattered was he didn’t like me as much as I had liked him. Ouch.

The book may have been right on some points, but it was wrong to tell me not to chase a little. Years later, when he was on to someone else, he confessed:

“I didn’t think you were that interested. If you had called, I absolutely would have seen you again.”

Some women are barracudas -- flashy fighters worthy of a trophy mount

New York is a man’s world when it comes to dating — this was a conclusion a male friend and I came to not so long ago over coffee. In NYC, an accomplished man with taste and half-way decent looks is the fisherman that doesn’t have to drop a line into the water to catch a fish. The fish just jump into the boat.

In a sea full of well-educated, well-dressed, good-looking fish, a man has options. Some of those women are barracuda — flashy fighters worthy of a wall mount. Which means sometimes, if you don’t want to lose out on a happily ever after, you have to get in the game and hop into that boat.

Easily Transitions from Asolos to Manolos

A book bought to spot-read for inspiration

Sitting next to my computer is a book called “Not Quite What I was Planning: 6 Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers.” I bought it to spot read at will — the 6-word memoirs would be lessons in wit and brevity. Indeed, the minimalist writings inspired me to conjure my own 6-word autobiographies…

  • Always makes it work… usually.
  • Frequently found herself lost abroad.
  • Played hard, earned many bruises.
  • Saved old girlfriends, discarded new boyfriends.
  • Easily transitions from Asolos to Manolos.

Of the above, the last is probably the best distillation of Kathleen anyone could ever write — if I have a gravestone, I wouldn’t object to that becoming my epitaph. Easily transitions from Asolos to Manolos, from clunky hiking boots to dainty stilettos, from rough n’ tumble outdoors-woman to uptown girl…

I was probably running late, but there’s always time to take one last look in the mirror. The reflection was of the girl people are used to seeing — thoughtfully made-up and sharply dressed in clothes culled from Saks 5th Avenue and trips overseas. This was the Kathleen my date was going to get, and had he, or anyone else, seen me an hour earlier, they would have thought my transformation to be the stuff of fairytale musicals.

Me in summary: Easily transitions from Asolo hiking boots to designer heels.

An hour before the eyeliner and gardenia lipstick, before the tamed curls and gold earrings, before the Diane Von Furstenberg dress and red patent high heels, I was make-up-less, except for the spf 15 and the smudge of dirt on my chin. The old t-shirt and Nike spandex I sported were covered in wood-shavings and top soil, and tufts of sod hung from the soles of my ankle-high Asolo hiking boots. Thorn pricks left bloody splotches on my calves and sweat clung to my forearms. I had spent the day hauling and laying down 25 fifty-pound bags of woodchips and boy, did I look it.

I never really think of myself as beautiful, but caked in mud, muscles toned from exertion of countless treks uphill with 100-lb loads, hair tousled underneath a dingy Yankees cap, I felt gorgeous. There was no one to judge me and no bell-curve of tall, busty blonds to grade me against. There was no need to be self-consciousness. The flush in my cheeks, the rose in my lips, and the light in my eyes were put there by the fresh air and physical exertion — not by a brush and a pancake of pressed powder. I was fit, invigorated, living, breathing, unmediated Me. What could be more beautiful than that?

I might have looked a lot like pigpen, but I felt beautiful. Lucky for my date, I clean up okay too.

When I met my date for dinner, he gave me a kiss on my cheek and told me I looked “lovely.”

“Thanks. I clean-up well.”

He repeated it back to me under his breath and it took a minute to process before he laughed and helped me with my coat. Little did he know…

Rewriting “Life’s Little Instruction Book” from the Cusp of a Quarter Life Crisis

In the 8th grade, "Life's Little Instruction Book" was required reading. our teachers felt learning secularized parables would be more beneficial for our intellectual growth

Rather than learn the art of well-crafted sentences through a standard curriculum of books like The Jungle Book, the English department of my sleepy suburban school handed out copies of Life’s Little Instruction Book and Chicken Soup for the Soul to my 8th grade class. The thought must have been that learning secularized parables would be more beneficial for our intellectual growth.

Eventually, we were charged with the assignment of creating our own Life’s Little Instruction Book. We knew nothing of the real world and yet we were going to act as authorities on “how to live a happy and rewarding life.”

I recently found my flamboyantly illustrated attempt and was amused. “Don’t worry if you’re not the prettiest rose. We’re all beautiful in our own light” — my teacher found this little stroke of transcendental wisdom endearing. If I had to rewrite my 8th grade book of advice today, I might include that same instruction, though perhaps rewritten with less sentimentality, and add a few other insights I’ve picked up in the 13 years I’ve traveled since…

Invest in at least 1 Ina Garten cookbook. The orange scones in this one are an ace.

1. Invest in at least one Ina Garten cookbook

2. (Re)read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”

3. Learn how to make your favorite cocktail

4. Plant an herb garden

5. Always have a go-to outfit

6. When you’re a broke grad student, never refuse his offer to pay for dinner

7. Become a member of at least one museum and visit often.

8. Keep in touch with your old study groups

9. Get a good tailor

10. Get lost in Italy

11. Have a pet

12. Don’t forget to thank you parents

Find your red lipstick and wear it often. Mine is Laura Mercier's Sexy Lips

13. Find a shade of red lipstick that suits you and wear it often

14. Print calling cards and never leave home without them

15. Learn all the words to “American Pie”

16. Drink lots of green tea

17. Buy a really good yoga mat

18. Write postcards when on vacation and send one to yourself

19. Print out your digital photos

20. Start a blog… and don’t look back.

Happiness is a warm puppy who loves you.