never married, over forty, a little bitter

Month: November, 2013

losing the point

My friends will bear testimony that I am very fond of children. But I was bitter because, aged 39, I had no partner, no prospect of a partner and, more significantly, no prospect of motherhood. Maybe the party felt harder to cope with that day because my hopes had just taken a severe knock. I had been told by an unsentimental doctor’s receptionist that I was peri-menopausal (ie approaching the menopause) and the possibility of my bearing children was lodged somewhere between zero and infinitesimal.

The “what is the point?” conversation is the one for friends and family to look out for as a first clue to depression. This is not the “what is the point?” response of a child to doing homework or cleaning a bedroom; it is, rather, “what is the point of my being alive?” For depressives the feeling is often heightened when the reasons for depression are not obvious to themselves or, more importantly, to others. This leads to the cajoling (or worse, hectoring) question: “What have you got to be depressed about – you have a great job/partner/house/body?”

I come from a small, loving, middle-class family. I was not brought up to follow a particular religion, although as a child my grandmothers took me, and my only sister Amanda, to Sunday services at the local church in the Surrey town where we spent all our youth. What my parents did adhere to with near religious fervour was the observation of good manners. A framework of politeness in all situations was my firmest mould. Now, grown up, approaching a milestone of middle age, it was safe to say on paper I had more than most: a well-paid, challenging job in the media, to which I was virtually married, a lovely house without an enormous mortgage, often exciting relationships, great friends and I remained close to my stable family. And yet by August 2000 my predominant talent was for crying.

nap time

The recession has already shifted habits and attitudes and will likely usher in long-term cultural changes about which economists, sociologists and political strategists are churning out predictions as we speak. Here’s mine: The economic crisis will erode women’s interest in “opting out” to care for children, heightening awareness that giving up financial independence — quitting work altogether or even, as I did, going part-time — leaves one frighteningly vulnerable. However emotionally rewarding it may be for all involved, staying home with children exacts a serious, enduring vocational toll that largely explains the lingering pay gap between men and women as well as women’s higher rate of poverty. With the recession having raised the stakes, fewer mothers may be willing to take the risk. If it’s not yet the twilight of the stay-at-home mother, it could be her late afternoon. Certainly it is long past nap time.


I wasn’t worried, frankly, about the long-term economic consequences, partly because nobody else seemed to be. Most articles and books about what came to be called “opting out” focused on the budgeting challenges of dropping to one paycheck — belt-tightening measures shared by both parents — while barely touching on the longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks. The difficulty of reentering the workforce after years away was underreported, the ramifications of divorce, widowhood or a partner’s layoff hardly considered. It was as though at-home mothers could count on being financially supported happily ever after, as though a permanent and fully employed spouse were the new Prince Charming.

I myself witlessly contributed to the misinformation when I wrote an article about opting out for a now-defunct personal-finance magazine. Amid chirpy budgeting tips and tales of middle-class couples cheerfully scraping by, I quoted a financial advisor bluntly outlining the long-term risks. My editor wasn’t pleased. “It’s so … negative,” she said, and over the phone I could almost hear her nose wrinkling. So I, neophyte freelancer eager to accommodate well-paying client, turned in a rewrite with a more positive spin.


I know I’m supposed to tell you this has all been this wonderful learning experience… I’m a better person for the challenge… that I’ve grown and that this was all really good for me.

Instead I’ll tell you it has been terrifying, it has been awful, and it has been heartbreaking.

It’s made me doubt my decision-making ability. It’s made me wonder if I’m in some loop of self-destruction. It’s made me question whether everyone who’s ever told me I have talent, everyone who’s ever said I’m exceptional, everyone who’s ever said they admired what I’ve accomplished… if they were all just, you know, being nice.

the concrete

One thing Enlightened is very smart about is that it knows that internal spiritual struggles are connected to external concrete realities. In Amy’s case: she’s trying to learn to master her emotions, to forgive, to nurture, to give back the world, yada yada yada. (The “yada yada yada” is me, not Enlightened; as I’ve said before, the show’s surprising strength is that it can be tough on Amy, but it doesn’t treat her spiritual questing as if it is inherently comic or ridiculous.) But her spiritual journey is driven and challenged by a concrete reality: she’s broke.

And she’s broke in a way that—as exaggerated as her behavior and some of her circumstances might be—a lot of Americans in this economy could relate to. She’s downwardly mobile: literally, she’s been moved down from her corporate suite into the sub-basement of antisocial software drones. She was once one of the elect, and she was cast out of the Garden.

She feels a lot of things—frustration, bitterness, betrayal—but she also experiences something that David Brooks once referred to as “status-income disequilibrium.” That is: she is the kind of person who has to take the bus when her crappy car breaks down, but she does not see herself as belonging to that class of people. (Side note: Mike White wrote the episode, as he has every episode of the season, but it’s appropriate that this episode was directed by Holofcener, who explored similar kinds of money-soul issues in Please Give and Friends With Money.) Part of Amy’s discomfort, and ours, is that she’s a broke woman trying to practice a luxury-pastime, private-spa version of spiritual peace. (If Hollywood and the upscale-yoga-pants business have taught us anything, it’s that the road to Nirvana is paved with dollar bills.)

Read more: Why You Should Be Watching HBO’s Enlightened – Laura Dern – Mike White |

the crowded street

I’m almost finished with The Odd Women by George Gissing and recommend it highly. It feels amazingly contemporary. I kept checking to see if it was really published in 1893.

Another one I’m enjoying, which I downloaded through a free trial at audible, is this:

restless slumbers

Such waking after brief, broken sleep, when mind and body are beset by weariness, yet cannot rest, when night with its awful hush and its mysterious movements makes a strange, dead habitation for the spirit– such waking is a grim trial of human fortitude. The blood flows sluggishly, yet subject to sudden tremors that chill the veins and for an instant choke the heart. Purpose is idle, the will impure; over the past hangs a shadow of remorse, and life that must yet be lived shows lurid, a steep pathway to the hopeless grave.

— George Gissing, The Odd Women, p. 306

double standards

Yet this isn’t just a show about Amy, either. It’s a scathing corporate satire. It’s a subtle attempt to wake its audience up to the really awful things going on in the world around it. It’s a show about a marriage that fell apart, and a mother and daughter who have never been able to pull their relationship together after a tragedy in their past. It’s a keenly observed relationship drama. It’s a show about how much harder women have to work to make their voices heard. It’s a subtle commentary on privilege, class, and race in modern America, told almost entirely from the point of view of people who are privileged, but not as privileged as some. It’s a story that seems to act almost as a corrective to decades of corporate misrule of the American body politic. Oh, and it’s occasionally a daringly experimental tone poem, bordering almost on an art film.


Central to this has been Jeff, the aforementioned Times reporter, played by Dermot Mulroney. At first, Jeff seems like a weird interloper on the show, taking time from other characters who are remembered fondly from season one (particularly Amy’s mother, Helen, played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd). But as time goes by, it becomes clear that he’s Amy, only slightly more put-together and male. And, what’s more, he’s celebrated for his commitment to the kinds of issues that Amy is written off for. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a TV show about a crusading journalist, writing wrongs and putting things back together again.

But Enlightened isn’t that show, and it’s not interested in being that show. At all times, Jeff is in the background, except when his actions directly impact Amy’s emotional journey or attempts to bring down her company. Jeff starts out representing a way for Amy to get across all of the information she wants to use to bring down Abaddonn, but he very quickly becomes something else entirely, a way for Amy to imagine a different life for herself, or a world where people could take her actions and thoughts seriously, if she could get out of her own way every once in a while. Yet Jeff has trouble getting out of his way, too, but he’s praised for his brash investigative reporting, for his confidence. The show quietly lays out all of the double standards that hold Amy in place, but it never bothers underlining them. Its security in its audience’s ability to pull apart these layers is remarkable.

the devout

I link to all these pieces not to suggest that this is an unusual volume in this day and age of TV coverage — most acclaimed series (and some less-acclaimed ones) get this much coverage or more at the ends of their seasons — but that this is some of the best, most thoughtful writing I’ve seen these people do, and those Mike White interviews are among the smarter and more candid I’ve seen from a show creator. There is something about “Enlightened” that, for the people who love it, inspires a level of passion and creativity that’s rare even among the most devout TV lovers. It’s a special show, and this was a special season.



Loneliness is staking its claim on American prime time.

A horde of loners illustrate the omnipresent theme: Anyone groping for meaning in life, and turning to TV entertainment for clues, will find a dose of existential angst staring back.

Several of today’s best TV dramas display modern Americans as unable to connect, even to those closest to them. The subtext is that we are all inexorably isolated, from ourselves and others.

Read more: Alone together in prime time: TV dramas depict existential angst of loneliness, disconnection – The Denver Post
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This HBO exercise in exquisite portraiture (I still won’t call it a comedy) …is the most hauntingly nuanced and carefully written show currently on TV. Yes, I already know “Enlightened” is not your cup of green tea, because so many of you have already said so: It’s too slow. Nothing happens. It’s depressing.

It is depressing. It is a real downer, and too many viewers have a bias against that sort of thing. We’ll watch countless ­Prohibition-era thugs get shot in the head, or detectives examine rape-kit results, and of course we’ll watch a couple hundred people die violently in the “Homeland” finale, but somehow ­“Enlightened” is too ooky and dark. In its first season, something like 200,000 people tuned in from week to week; even for HBO, where patience is a virtue, that’s the ratings equivalent of a party no one came to.


In addition to its superb cast, “Enlightened’s” real strength lies in White’s and Dern’s commitment to brutal realism. Decades from now (I hope), someone will marvel at the show’s accurate feel for early-21st-century American work culture as well as the way it portrays our daily sense of disconnect and vacuity.