In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe - some thoughts, some love

Apparently Katie Roiphe is a pretty controversial figure in the social critique world these days, which I guess shouldn't surprise me when I think about the general reaction to outspoken feminist women who have opinions, and yet it still does because this book was so shockingly on point.

I'm always the first person to jump on a book of essays, because they are few and far between in what's being published now. Alas that does not mean that they are all good. So I always pick up a new one with a mixture of excitement and fear that it will bore me / make me angry that someone stupid managed to get their thoughts in hardcover form. Luckily that was not the case with this gem that I picked up from the library a month or two ago, although it is unlucky that it was from the library so I cannot steal it for my own. Katie Roiphe's essays in this volume range from critique on the media to critique on modern parenting and schooling, to literature and social fads and of course the perennial topic of the modern essayist, Facebook.

A few of the essays revolve around Roiphe's position as an unconventional single mother. She is unapologetic about her lifestyle and parenting choices, and even though I usually find myself tiring quickly of reading anything about parenting, I was actually engaged and defensive of Roiphe in these essays. She describes how people judge her eclectic parenting style and refusal to conform to the hyper safety standards of modern parenting, as well as the language people use when describing single parenthood. In one instance, she describes an acquaintance expressing judgment for her staying out late at parties when she has young children, and says 'She points out furthermore that I have a small child, a fact that I have not, in all of the hullabaloo, forgotten.' This tone of sarcastic indifference to the judgments of the judgmental characterizes her writing and my identification with it. She furthers this with another observation that I love, that of the obsession with people who are married (or in any other socially accepted institution) to cast aspersions on people who are not, and to believe that they, the unmarried, must be unhappy - “One does have to wonder about the prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does this imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse.”

What I love here is how Roiphe manages to critique the attitude of certain married people without condemning married people as a whole. It's something that I struggle to express constantly in my dealings with anyone I know who is in anything 'real' – a real relationship, a real job, any life situation that society has labeled more 'real' than my status of footloose and fancy free – it's not that I have a problem with couples, or professional jobs, or anything of the sort. I just don't want to watch people roll their eyes when I mention any of my escapades with boys or Ihop.

Roiphe fearlessly reports on sex in a variety of forms, beginning with “The Naked and the Conflicted” in which she questions the sex scenes written by the modern male author, picking out incredibly accurate examples to illustrate her hypothesis that the new guard of male writers write sex as innocence and virgin like rather than with the over the top gusto of the previous generation. This generations writing about sex is characterized by guilt and a lack of desire, Roiphe puts forth. Before one can ask why this matters, Roiphe answers: “But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen's description of one of his female characters in The Corrections: 'Denise at 32 was still beautiful.' To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our Great Male Novelists would write in the feminist utopia.”

*Committed readers of Schuh will note that I am a big ole Franzen proponent. Ah well, multiple lenses are important.

The issue Roiphe points out is pervasive not just in literary sex scenes but everywhere in the politically correct white liberal world: they're so afraid not to be offensive that they are timid, but they can't embrace anything so feminist that they will actually surpass the problem entirely. What I'd like to see in this instance is not a male protagonist by a male writer who is afraid of sex, but one who is excited by the idea that his partner is just as capable of sexual desire as he is. A true feminist point for a male writer to take isn't to make his characters inoffensive, it's to take them away from the traditional fear and aversion that men show to a sexually aggressive female.

The essay which inspired the title of the book is the first in the third section, The Way We Live Now. The essay, “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives,” takes a look at the American fascination with the television show Mad Men. She purports that the show has met such great success because the yoga, juicing, and fidelity obsessed humans of today find a thrill in watching characters drink every day, extramaritally cavort, and generally make a mess of what's going on.

I will insert here that I read this essay from an interesting perspective, because although I do now occasionally go to the gym and have eaten more green things in the past month than probably ever, the rest of my life reflects not the staid demographic that Roiphe is critiquing but the messy life that she is if not outwardly lauding, at least forcing us to reexamine. Thus I have felt both the perverse fascination of people with more organized lives than mine and the intense obsession with 'stable' and 'healthy' lives that pervades society to a point that feels almost regressive. In other words, I'm not even Roiphe's target demographic, I'm alongside her in observations.

I'll get back to that in a minute. Anyway, Roiphe goes from pointing out the fascination with drinking instead of going to therapy to solve our problems and then goes on to directly question it: “But can we be sure our own preferred forms of malaise and alienation are better or more fruitful than theirs? Are we happier than Don and Betty Draper, or are we just doing yoga or Pilates or getting overly involved in our children's homework or 'working' on our relationships?”

Later on in the essay, Roiphe confronts another phenomenon of the modern world, the obsession with productivity. “Of course, people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end, toward the dubious and fragile illusion of 'healthy.'” I find even myself falling into this trap. When I spend my tips on fancy beer or think about my waitressing job, I find myself phrasing it as how 'it will all do good for me in the long run' or that I'm 'getting it out of my system now.' Both of these ideas share the commonality that it's all for the greater good, rather than the truth, which is that most of the time I'm just doing what I want.

Throughout the essay, it seems that Roiphe is posing random questions that may or may not fall to a cohesive conclusion. Even if that were the case, the essay would still be great, but what really ties her questions together is her final page, when she declares the point that is summed up by these sentences:

[in response to the inevitable question, how did anyone get work done when drinking at lunch / having multiple affairs / living dangerously] “But maybe that's the wrong question, or maybe [work] is not the highest and holiest standard to which we can hold the quality of human life.”

“Can these messy lives tell us something? Is there some adventure out there that we are not having, some vividness, some wild pleasure, that we are not experiencing in our responsible, productive days?”

“We are bequeathed on earth one very short life, and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure that we are living it.”

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, it was refreshing for me to read this essay, because it was a reminder that I'm not the only person out there who is still living a messy life. With my own chaos as a standalone project, I'm happy nearly every day – I love the excitement of my life, the sense that I've cut a few corners and arrived at an adult playground, working less than 30 hours a week and still affording living in a house in one of the nicest cities in America, going out every weekend and sometimes during the week, buying clothes and books and fancy cheese and still putting away money for future adventures. Most days I love being tied only to myself and my own desires, love the ability to call these my selfish years and not having to pay for kids or cats or scheduling my life around a boyfriend. But part of me thought that I wouldn't be so alone in this grand experiment. I thought that your twenties were the time to be footloose and fancy free, not just my time. And yet a startling number of lives that I look at resemble not the casual mess that I thought was the norm, but rather an intense craving for traditional success and stability. Just as I'm beginning and laughing at the absurdity of modern dating, it seems that everyone else has skipped it and passed go, gone straight to commitment. Same with the 'professional' world – I thought it was normal to waste away in a restaurant for a few years, but I'm faced constantly with facebook statuses parading grad school, adult jobs and adult promotions. I understand the allure of this – in many ways, dating and waitressing both suck – but I'm just surprised that it so often feels like I'm the only one who's living through what I thought was a rite of passage rather than an optional detour.

Another interesting note about all this is my own personal fear that someone I know will read this and immediately get angry at me for judging the settled life. To that I'll only say: if someone offered me a bath and then eating in bed, I'd really take it. I'd at least try it out. But I think that this fear has more to say than that. I think that this particular fear of mine shares roots with Roiphe's essays: are we each so sensitive to the outward perception of our lives that we strive for perfection to avoid observation, just in case that observation is judgment?

One of the truest joys of this book of essays is similar to reading a great edition of Best American Essays. (see: 2012) The selections are never one note, rather they explore many of the parts of our social and intellectual lives that we didn't even remember needed exploring. See this selection from “Love Child,” a critique on all of the terms used to describe a child had out of wedlock: “The words we use actually shape the way we think, and not just the other way around. In these casual phrases and headlines we are spreading our attitudes, as ambivalent, confused, and inconsistent as they are; we are propagating our mixed messages, our prurient judgments, our puritan fantasies.” Here Roiphe explores a fundamental idea in the guise of a specific instance: language, and just how important it is how we use and abuse it.

In one of my many diatribes against society, I decided that I don't like how we ask kids to talk about careers they want so early on in life. I'm all for following your dreams, but I'm also for paying attention to reality, and the reality is that for every astronaut, there will be thousands of people working in sales. For every firefighter, there will be hundreds of people punching numbers into a computer behind a desk at a job so mundane that I haven't even heard of it and can't give it a name. Is it really a great idea to tell kids that they'll all become scientists when in reality it's more likely that they'll work for a manufacturer of test tubes? Obviously the idealistic answer here is that we need to make more stimulating jobs, but that doesn't seem to be entirely likely to happen anytime soon.

Roiphe encounters this idea too, in her essay “The Perfect Parent.”

“Someone I know tells me that in the mornings, while making breakfast, packing lunches, and laying out clothes, she organizes an art project for her children. An art project! This sounds impossibly idyllic – imaginative, engaged, laudable. And yet, is it just the slightest bit mad as well? Will the world, with its long lines in the passport office and traffic jams, be able to live up to quite this standard of exquisite stimulation? And can you force or program your child to be creative?”

If it sounds from this like Roiphe is arguing against creativity for children, she isn't, and one gets the sense that her children will be leading more creative and well adjusted lives than the children of most Americans. She is simply pointing out that it's counterproductive for every child in a class to want to be an artist when they grow up, rather than realistically teaching them about how to live as a thinker in the at times stifling world in which we live.

I've talked for a long time now, and I would write an enthusiastic conclusion, but I think every enthusiasm I have has either already been stated or I've erased it to come a bit closer to brevity and it is now hidden as a new gem in the book itself. So, if you like what she has to say, read it. If you hate it, then definitely read it so we can argue. Sometimes I get bored and arguing with people about my new favorite author would be a more interesting way to pass the time than napping / whining.

Other notes of joy:

  • This quote from “Reclaiming the Shrew,” where Roiphe discusses the interpretations of Ann Hathaway (wife of Shakespeare, not actress of Princess, a distinction I wish I didn't have to make) throughout history. “Her observation that 'when her husband died Ann was 60, and free for the first time in a third of a century' evokes another line from an earlier book, The Change: 'To be unwanted is also to be free.' At times, one suspects that Greer is writing more about an idea of freedom than about any historical woman.”

  • When I read Roiphe's short piece about another writer trying to engage her in a twitter fight about her attitude towards motherhood, and I wonder to myself: “Was it Ayelet Waldman?” Indeed, it was. Good moment for me, or me reading too much about too many authors all the damn time.