Archive for April 2012

Memoirs are For the Constipated and Dostoyevsky

The photo I keep using as a “headshot.”

I love to write. In case it isn’t obvious by looking at some of the books to which I’ve attached my name, I will write anything. The simple fact that someone will pay me to write “Have you ever tossed a dwarf?” (The Purity Test, 2008) fills me with the same humble honor as the fat kid that isn’t chosen last on the playground. I can’t believe my luck. I still can’t believe it.

So what is it about this blogging business that I find so difficult? The answer is simple: I do not think I am very interesting. Before you do the, “Oh Jos, sure you are!” chin buck, I should be clear. This does not in any way stop me from dominating any conversation at a dinner party or chatting endlessly with my sister, husband, friends or telemarketers about the minutia of my daily interactions.

But when it comes to writing, I haven’t really been in the memoir game since my teens when I was also very into singing showtunes with jazz hands (see this blog entry for additional information).

I sold another book recently. It came a little bit out of nowhere because my writing partner on Game-Based Marketing, Gabe Zichermann, is truly an incredibly brilliant and well-respected star to whom I have unapologetically hitched my wagon. He was approached by an editor at McGraw Hill to write the quintessential book on gamification. A few weeks and a twenty page book proposal later, the deal was signed.

Getting this book deal is awesome on many levels, the first of which being that it means I can continue to “work from home” which let’s face it, is code for getting to drink on weeknights. But even better than that (no, you’re right, drinking on weeknights = best thing ever) is the fact that it is not memoir. Before this deal came along I was working on a book proposal about the death of my father and the terrifying gene with which he left my sister and I.

Angie Jordan liked my gene story. Or at least, was polite about listening to it.

The story, I’ve been told repeatedly, is an interesting one. People seem to love to hear about it. I feel fairly certain they are not just being polite. The other day when I met Sherri Shepherd with my family after a live taping of The View, the awesome comedian who plays Angie Jordan on 30 Rock stood there asking question after question after my mom casually mentioned the fact that my sister had undergone in vitro to weed out the gene in her amazing twins. (Did I mention that my mother is the best publicist ever?) Sherri Shepherd gave me her email address. Provided it isn’t a fake, I believe this indicates she found it interesting. It may have also been a ploy to wrap up the conversation. Don’t think I haven’t considered this possibility.

But, on a similar note, NPR’s This American Life bought the story two months ago.

And I know it’s compelling. I’m sure it must be. But there remains this internal shrug that weighs me down, this feeling that, “It’s just my life, you know?” You wake up, you get dressed, you eat, you work, you kiss your husband and go to sleep.

I have at various times worn the pain that comprised most of my 20’s like a collection of medals around my neck. I was happy to blurt out at the most festive of Sunday brunches anecdotes about loss, physical and emotional agony, infection, suicide, pain and death.

By 30 I understood better than most the notion that, “And then you die,” and thought it after nearly every major “crisis” I encountered. Ripped dresses, rain storms, lost jobs, and lost loves had a different weight for me than for most of my peers. I knew it. I felt it. There was genius in living a life so entirely present. Because, “And then you die” is the most liberating thing you can imagine. But also the most depressing. Finding meaning takes effort. Hope and belief are fleeting and tough to pin down.

I remember at 22, running late to meet friends from my graduating college class at a bar in Davis Square in Boston. I ran in breathless, took my seat in the booth and blurted out, “Sorry-I’m-late-my-dad-slipped-into-a-coma-can-I-get-a-beer?”

Someone looks like he could use a little time on the crapper, eh, Fyodor?

No one moved. I shrugged. What could I say? It was just my life.

I read once that Dostoyevesky wrote a lot of bad memoir in the years before he was finally able to write the work that would ultimately define his career. In a particularly pretentious discussion likely in a coffee shop in the 1990’s when I wore hoop earrings everyday and thrifted sailor jeans, someone suggested that memoir was a lot like shitting. It cleared you out so that you could try again to fill yourself with something meaningful. It was suggested that the great Russian writer had to write shitty memoir (pardon the pun), get it out, so that he could eventually write The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

So maybe I have to write these blogs, write this book about the gene to make room for my inner The Idiot to pour forth.

Writing about myself isn’t as boring as I imagine the act of reading about me must be — but there is something about the story of my life, my family and our gene that makes me feel like it could get me on The View with Sherri Shepherd. And with or without an inner-The Idiot, that’s enough motivation for me.

Unplug and Go for a Walk

A Prospect Park willow I saw because I wasn’t on my iPhone.

Today I went for a walk with my dog in Prospect Park. I do this a lot, probably two-four times a week. In fact, I often wonder how my friends without dogs survive in Gotham without a daily dose of green in their eyes. I go all year round, in all kinds of weather. I do it because I am a sucker and my dog has those eyes called “puppy dog” for a reason.

But there are really no days I don’t love the park. And in fact rainy ones are my favorites. No one in New York goes to the park during the rain, so I am virtually alone with my dog and the squirrels…and my cell phone. I usually wear several layers to keep out the wet chill, and a hood so I can still chat to anyone available to talk without damaging the fragile Apple technology.

Today, it wasn’t raining. This summer’s inevitable drought not withstanding, it was absolutely gorgeous. The weather was the kind of perfect where the air just sits softly on your skin. It is light and buoyant. It even smells good. There is neither the bite of the cold nor the pressure of heat, leaving only whatever that feeling is that people who enjoy nudist colonies probably experience whenever they are naked and conducting business or naked and playing croquet, or naked and eating a baloney sandwich.

Parks are cool. (That’s all I’ve got for this caption.)

We entered at the 2nd St. entrance near the children’s playground with all the water toys. The dog, already propelling us full steam ahead on her mission to get to the dog pond, didn’t notice or didn’t care that I had started frantically digging around in my pockets for my cell phone. In fact, I checked each pocket multiple times as if my right ass-pocket on my cheap jeans might have somehow regurgitated the iphone from deep inside it’s unlimited soul while I was feeling around in one of the front pockets. It was all as if frantic digging might reveal a “hidden” pocket.

I turned to walk back to the car. But when I got there and fumbled around in every nook and cranny of that suddenly enormous 2001 Jetta, something became abundantly clear: The phone was not with me. I had a very real choice to make. I could either take my whining dog to the dog pond and let her swim, walking the mile there and back in terrifying silence, or I could pack her up, drive home, get the phone and come back.

Against my better judgement, because my dog clearly knows how to break out the Imperious Curse when she has to, we strode back into that suddenly silent, and certainly pathologically boring afternoon, phone-less.

It was tough, but I put one foot in front of the other and marched onward. I reminded myself that I had quit smoking, passed several difficult college exams, and made it through a liver biopsy, totally awake, without anesthesia. If I survived each of those torments, this too would pass.

The trees were at every possible stage of bloom. Some were explosions of pink and white. Others were already confidently green. Still others had willowy branches with the tiniest white puffs of cotton visible at their joints. Oddly, I noticed them all.

I was led (and by led, I mean dragged) down each wooded pathway until it opened up onto the great lawn and curved around a group of mothers doing some uniform exercises with babies in strollers. Normally I would have been engaged in a serious game of Words With Friends, but instead I paused as this row of hipster mom’s hoisted their crying offspring above their heads to the encouraging words of a perfectly toned, childless trainer standing before them rhythmically chanting, “And-three-and-two, and-now-to-the-left, and-right, and-left, and-right.” The dog panted hungrily to get the pond, but I had to watch as a lady in an ironic Metallica t-shirt with a French manicure (which couldn’t be less ironic) nearly gave her loveable baby whiplash on one of the final “and-lefts” before fluidly dropping him into his stroller, releasing the breaks and line-driving it up the hill, and-back, and-up, and-back.

The happiest fish on Earth.

I let the dog free to run the last fifteen feet to her beloved pond.

Impulsively, I did another pocket scan for my magic phone. Then stood there with no way to chat with my sister, or distract myself with a meditative game of Scramble. Instead I threw the tennis ball for Dee Dee, watching her swim to get it and then swim back wheezing with satisfaction. I interacted with the toddler who, with his cute, French speaking stay-at-home dad, tossed the ball for her a few times. I found creative ways to throw the ball, diagonally to the left corner fence so that it gave Dee Dee the maximum swim distance and therefore the best overall swim experience. I listened to the birds, the distant voice of the trainer and her row of mothers, and the ooh-ing and awe-ing of Brooklyn nannies and their charges over my little brown dog diving heroically after each and every ball, unhampered by the distractions of my omnipresent hand-computer.

Then something truly magical happened: Instead of running headlong back home to get back online, reconnect and reach out and touch someone I normally “touched” several times a day, I called my dog out of the water, attached her leash, and went for a walk. It was a long walk, into the back-most recesses of one of the world’s greatest urban parks.

We walked down the path to the willow pond that was designed in 1867 by Olmstead and Vaux after they had completed what is in my biased opinion, the less glorious Central Park across the river. We  moseyed into one of their famed archways through which the scenescape made a photo-perfect image. We strolled together down to the willow pond, noticing again how every path kept the secret of that pond intentionally hidden until you turned the last corner and suddenly there it was, perfect in any season, but in spring profound in its yellow, pink, and white blossoms. We curled back up the stone steps running beneath a tunnel of trees to the three empty fountains, Flatbush Avenue’s greatest secret neighbor, encased by their thick carpets of grass and the surprising and very unBrooklyn-like solitude.

Instead of checking my text messages or looking something up on the internet, I listened to the birds. As my dog and I went for a walk today, there was nothing but the air, sublime on my skin and the smell of spring everywhere.

Tulips as a Metaphor for Self-Pity

          Who you calling self-pity, Chump?

The tulips my husband Aaron planted a few months ago are blooming in our backyard. There is something deeply poetic about our tulips. In order to make it seem like we respect having outdoor space in a city that requires you to either be very very rich or very very lucky to have it (we are the latter), we have sprinkled some wood chips. But other than that little touch, thanks to the rest of the space being encased in a crude cement ground-covering, our backyard is sparse. So to see these colorful flowers impossibly pushing their way out of what has to be some majorly polluted “soil” into our early spring, in a backyard we are technically too poor to have, feels miraculous.

My Brooklyn backyard tulips are also making me think about self-pity. (Please bear with me.) Lately I have been the guest of honor at my own private pity parties. These include performances by the world’s smallest violin, Kate Gosselin and the guy who owned the Titanic who pushed women and children out of the way to get onto the last life boat. My self-pity comes in short but powerful bursts, much like my lactose intolerance. It isn’t general because generally speaking, I have absolutely nothing to complain about, after all there are actually villages in the world where people go number 2 in large communal shit piles.

So my self-pity is rarely long term. But when it gloms onto something like having to wait 20 minutes for a burger at a food court (you know who you are, Johnny Rockets, Fashion Square, Phoenix), it will not go unheeded.

My friend Amy put it well, “Self-pity is really annoying to be around, especially if the person isn’t funny about it.”

When she said it, we were talking about a close family friend from my childhood who has really taken self-pity to a new level. If there was a Nobel Prize for innovation in self-pity, her name would certainly be bandied about by the nominating committee for her work in such areas as showering in fetal position over a bad haircut, listening to the soundtrack of St. Elmo’s Fire while acting out her own version of the Demi Moore-suicide-by-frost-bite scene, and taking up smoking for the first time in her mid-30’s.

The thing was, as I was complaining about this friend’s affinity for self-pity, I was pitying myself for all the times I had listened to her as she unapologetically mourned everything from her credit card debt to a twenty-year old lamentation about not getting to go on a vacation with a family she’d once worked for. My own self-pity over her self-pity had gotten so bad that I finally told this family friend that I was going to have to end our friendship.

Now I bet you are wondering where my backyard tulips come in. Do they symbolize the sweet humanitarian kindness that bubbled up in the ugly backyard of my soul a few hours after I cut off this friend? Are they representative of the follow up phone call where I begged her forgiveness and told her that I loved her unconditionally? That she would live forever in my backyard tulip garden of unconditional friendship?

My shitty – I mean PITY – backyard


I didn’t call the friend back because frankly, I need a break. She’s way too earnest in her self-pity and I’m way too big an asshole to tolerate it. But I was thinking how a burst of self-pity here and there can actually add a little color to an otherwise empty backyard. When I waited 20 minutes for my burger at the food court, it felt good to tell the manager that he needed to run a tighter ship because people like me don’t have time to wait for people like him, even if he is required to wear a red bow tie, suspenders and occasionally perform a line dance to My Boyfriend’s Back. My time had been wasted. My valuable time!

Self-pity, and let me be clear here — self-pity with a sense of humor — is like a tulip in an otherwise sort of shitty Brooklyn backyard. So (breaking down this totally ridiculous metaphor even further) if the backyard is the bad or annoying thing that has happened, the tulip is the venting self-pity provides, colored by a little bit of (humorous) perspective, that while yes, you might have a really huge neck zit for the next few days or your seriously awesome screenplay for The Stoned Family Robinson will never be made because you don’t have the film rights (grrr), at least you are not living near a community poop pile — a-whole-nother metaphor we shall explore in a future blog post.