Is divorce contagious?

Recent studies show that “more and more celebrities, politicians and couples next door are getting divorced…divorce is becoming more pervasive, even contagious.” According to the research, if an immediate friend or colleague gets a divorce, the chance that you will get a divorce jumps by 75 percent.

In other words, avoid divorced people like the plague! If your colleague never ever mentions his spouse and neglects to bring her to a company party, this intimates marital woes. Quit your job immediately (two weeks notice is too risky). If your friend confides in you that she’s having an affair and is probably going to leave her husband, defriend her asap (on Facebook too). If you see a woman in clogs and sweat pants in the frozen food aisle, eyes swollen from crying and loading up her cart with pints of Ben and Jerry’s, drop your cute little fruit-filled basket and run for the hills!

It’s everywhere, people. It’s the next summer tentpole disaster movie, although instead of the working title “Untitled Divorce movie” it’s now called “Eat Pray Love.”

This isn’t that surprising, is it? Similar things happen to similar people at specific stages in their lives. Part of it also has to with the “she’s doing it so maybe I should too” mentality. I felt the pressure, as I’m sure many of you did, when most of my friends got married, or started a family. Researchers call this pack mentality “clustering.” Although when it comes to divorce, it’s more like cluster fucking. Which I realize kinda sounds like fun, but that’s not what I meant. But I digress.

In all seriousness (because divorce is serious, even though it could be hilarious as a comedy starring Paul Rudd. Oh wait, it’s called “Knocked Up.” Or was that “Role Models”?), I do believe that when one person in a social group dares to question their marriage and abandon it, others look over in awe, and start to sniff around themselves. Perhaps it emboldens them. If not to leave, then to take a hard look at the realities of their own situation. But hopefully it doesn’t over-encourage them. Some issues are probably better left unexcavated. I think if you’re a certain kind of person with the need to dig, you’ll always uncover something. And if your friend is leaving their spouse for seemingly the same reason, you might dare to do it too. Ever since my husband and I separated and began moving towards divorce, it seemed to set off a chain reaction. Of course, this was just my own perception, magnified exponentially once my bliss blinders came off. Granted, I was living in Hollywood at the time, where marital woes and break ups were as prevalent as the tabloids that announced them, but it seemed to me that there was a sudden uptick in relationships failing.

And then in the past few weeks, just when these studies came out, other couples I’ve known for a while shocked me with announcements that they were splitting up too. I shouldn’t have been shocked; I saw it coming. As it happens, because of my unfortunate experience with divorce, people tend to tell me things. Maybe it makes them feel better to know that I’ve gone through it; that I won’t judge them, but moreover, that I’m doing okay. That I seem happy, and free. (This is an illusion of course, but who really wants to be around a miserable cynic?). People say to me, “You did it, Cougel, and look at you now!” There is usually a long awkward silence that follows this observation.

So I’d like to reframe this study. It’s not that divorce is contagious, change is. Change is tempting. The promise of the new, of adventure, of the grass is greener, is what causes people to migrate towards this topic and towards people that have gone through it. Divorce isn’t a disease, it only feels like one because of its flu like symptoms: exhaustion, nausea, headaches, and weight loss (not worth it ladies! You gain it all back once you’re healed and in love again). Divorce is just a more prevalent option than it used to be. It’s become unstigmatized, demystified, even romanticized in the tabloids.

But behind closed doors, in our private lives, nurturing a relationship and committing to making it work, is just as difficult as it was ten or twenty years ago, before divorce became the “fad” it appears to be today. And no matter who you might come into contact with who’s contracted this so called “disease,” I don’t believe that it could actually infect your relationship. Whatever illness has befallen your marriage has nothing to do with anyone else. And finding the tools you need to help you avoid divorce is for you and your partner to do together. While I realize that it’s much easier to blame it on your friends, or the media, in the end, your friends and acquaintances – like fads – will come and go.

Scent of a (divorced) woman: "Eat Pray Love" - now selling perfume?

When Elizabeth Gilbert’s, “Eat Pray Love” first came out, I felt as if it had been written for me. I had just entered into my own Gilbertian phase post marriage, and I believed that I had found this book, and that it had found me. Reading about the author’s grief and depression in the aftermath of a brutal separation from her husband made me feel like I wasn’t the alien I thought I was. There was another woman out there who felt hopelessly out of her mind too. I was not alone.

One of my best friends was also divorced, and we quoted that book as if it were our bible. Soon after, the book caught on like wildfire, and everyone was talking about it. I had already begun to embark on my own little healing journey, and, like Gilbert, I had started writing my own kind of marriage in crisis novel, “The Virgin Wife” (except mine is fiction…insert air quotes here). But unlike Gilbert, my healing travels stretched from my apartment to the local bar, then back to my apartment to iChat my girlfriend, then back out to meet up with friends who tolerated my woe is me prattling (thanks again guys!). I had begun to become disenchanted with Gilbert’s tale, and the fact that because she was already a published author, she had been able to pre-sell her soul searching to Penguin Books, and use those earnings to travel and write some more. I wondered, how would she have coped if she had not been able to escape abroad? If she was forced to stay put, hold down a job, and risk running into her exes at the grocery, as I suspect the majority of women post divorce must do. I, for one, had no appetite for food or money for travel, and scowled at women with yoga mats. I was more in the “Can’t Eat, Won’t Pray, and Who the Fuck Needs Love” camp. I started to feel like an alien all over again.

When I completed the first draft of my novel, it dawned on me that each of us requires a different balm to heal our individual wounds. For me, the salve was writing a novel about a woman’s marriage before divorce, and for Gilbert, it was telling of its aftermath. For some women, maybe it’s poetry, or therapy, or road tripping, or.. tripping, or quickly remarrying, or meditation, or moving to another city and starting over. Or all of the above. I guess we all have to find “our thing.”

The movie is coming out on August 13, and I was waiting until then to blog on this subject and my thoughts on the book. But then today, after a visit to the farmer’s market, I walked by the perfume store “Fresh,” and stopped in my tracks when I learned that they’re doing a merchandising tie in with the book. What a strange partnership, I thought. Scents that smell like what, linguine? Unshowered ashram dwellers? Or, a depressed divorced woman? Ew! Hasn’t this whole Eat Pray phenomenon gone too far?

I was holding a gorgeous bouquet of flowers I had just bought (I’m not sure what they’re called, I just liked that they were purple), and paused for some reason to look at them again. It struck me that this flower and vase-buying pastime was new for me. I had started doing it recently; it brightened up my apartment and my day. Back when I was in a difficult place emotionally, I believed it wasteful to spend money on something that I knew was going to die in a just a few days. But now, I can enjoy their beauty and scent for as long as they last, until they fade. Because that works for me. Maybe that’s the purpose of the “Eat Pray Love” scents. Isn’t it true that perfume, when mixed with an individual’s skin, takes on a distinctly unique smell? Every scent smells different on everyone.

So I guess when it comes to scents – as with healing – the moral of this story is, to each his own.

Mommunication: The way my mom communicates.

Mom left me a voicemail this morning and when I went to listen to it, I was with my co-workers, so I listened to the message like they would. Meaning, like people who don’t speak Hebrew. So the message sounded like this:

Chhchhh chhhh rrrrrrr chh rrr..em…rr chchchch chhh COSTCO chchchhchh cccchhhhhh CLIPPINGS….cchhhchchchch chchhchchchchchchcccccchh rrrrr cchchchcch (throat clear) cchhhhhh…lav you mees you, Ema (Thankfully she said it was her or else I wouldn’t know).

If you believe that I understood the message, you’d be wrong. It was staticky and I was on my way to the subway and it was no different than the messages I get every morning, which ask how I’m feeling, if my stomach hurts, while Mom’s en route to Costco.

I noticed that she delivers a different kind of message in the evening. Instead of signing off with “love you”, or even, “goodbye”, she says “Uch! go eat something!” And hangs up.

I wonder if I’m going to be the same with my kids (minus the phlegm).

Oh, you might’ve recognized the one other English word in the above string, “clippings.”

Clippings (news articles “clipped out” by Mom) are another form of Mommunication. Every few weeks, Mom brings me a stack of them cut out from the Jewish News, The Wall Street J, or The Morris County Jewish Something, that she believes are pertinent or helpful to me. Sometimes she will give them to my dad to mail, in which case there are post-it notes stuck on there, with the following written in urgency:”Send to cougel!!”

The articles fall into three categories (Health, Books, and Health), and Mom highlights the newsworthy bits with a yellow highlighter, like (newsflash!): “Did you know the sun causes cancer?” The book reviews are usually for books whose subjects are Israel or the Holocaust. Except when I’m single, in which case she’d include a review for books like, “How to Marry a Mensch.” At least she didn’t send me the review for “Goy Crazy.” Although that one I would have read (and the book too).

When I was young (and stupid), this stuff would annoy me. But now? It makes my day. Because it makes my day start with a surge of love, and whether she means to be funny or not, a huge laugh. And when I bother to stop laughing in order to listen, or read, I actually learn something. 

Twenties boot camp. It's not too late to sign up!

When I moved into my new apartment a few months ago, I had no clue that I moved four doors down from an NYU dorm.  Nor did I recognize the irony. I didn’t know how I’d feel on nights like tonight, when I had nothing to do, and was feeling lonely, and decided to take my dog for a long walk. I didn’t know how I’d feel walking by said dorm and seeing 18 to 21 year olds exiting the double doors in packs. The guys in baseball hats and T-shirts, and the gals in jean shorts and sunglasses (even though the sun had set), laughing, their faces open with the possibility of what their night, and their future, had in store.
It makes me think about my ex-husband. Not the years of marriage, but the early years. In college, where we met; when we would visit each other in our dorms. He wore a baseball cap too, and had the same shining face as those NYU guys going out on the town with their girlfriends, or on their way to a bar, hook-up bound.  It makes me think about the light years. Yes, it feels like light years ago, but I mean the unencumbered years.  When falling in love, and thinking about your future, didn’t conjure up the same expectations (or fears) as it does when you’re in your thirties.  Back then, the repercussions of our choices was not a consideration- it wasn’t even a reality yet.
As a Cougel, someone whose branded herself as being drawn to people in their twenties, you could say that I’m probably fixated on that time and age in general. I write about it, I joke about it, so I’m not going to sit here and adamantly refute the notion. It’s possible – given my history – that I have a fascination with that time, since it was, in a way, lost to me.  I met my ex-husband when I was very young,  and we stayed together through our twenties and into our thirties. Some of my friends say that I was frozen in time. That I leap-frogged over the experiences most “normal twenty-somethings” get to enjoy, endure… and learn from.
What was my reaction to all this? Twenties boot camp! Divorced at 34, I made up for lost time in an accelerated fashion. I tried to cram in a decade’s worth of missed experiences into two years.  One night stands, backpacking in Europe (although at 35, that means paying for a hotel with your salary from your full time job), and in retrospect unbelievably stupid things like going home with a non-English speaking Parisian and then getting locked in the stairwell of his building at 4am (Mom, if you’ve read this far, I will explain later. Which means, I will tell you this blog is part fiction).  If I had indeed been 22 at the time, which is how I felt (it’s all your fault vodka) such behavior would’ve made perfect sense.  But at 34, it’s legitimate cause for concern.  My friends were worried about me. They feared this “acting out” phase of mine would never end. That I was headed down a destructive path. People who met me for the first time during this period, probably thought I was wild and immature. They wouldn’t be wrong.
Thankfully, it was indeed just a phase. Or, not so thankfully. Because boy oh boy, was it fun. It was especially fun because I was allowed. I had an excuse. I was single for the first time in my life. I had missed out on my twenties. If I had children, I wouldn’t have been able to act out at all. I wouldn’t have been able to cram in some important lessons that most people get to learn in their twenties.
What are those lessons, you ask? I couldn’t tell you. I actually don’t think lessons crystallize until they’re called into effect, when you’re faced with a dilemma that requires an emergency visit with your gut. And your gut can only be shaped by past experiences. So I guess for me, the lesson so far is that if I hadn’t had the opportunity to enroll in twenties boot camp, I might be floundering just a little bit more. I might be spending a lot of time wondering what it feels like to be 22 and unattached, and ponder (and regret) the things I could have experienced – and learned from. So in a way, I’m glad I took the crash course. I think it was enough. In fact, it was plenty.
If anything, now I can look at the NYU students hanging out outside their dorm on a summer night, and be excited for them. I might feel pangs of nostalgia, but it’s far better than pangs of regret.

Step away from the iPhone. Daydream instead.

The Atlantic magazine has a bunch of interesting ideas in this month’s “Ideas of the Year” issue (go figure).  Walter Kirn (Author of Up in the Air) writes about how boredom – a condition we detest and run from – has become extinct. Thanks to technology (the iPad, the iPhone, Twitter etc), we are offered up distractions that save us from ever having to be bored again. But perhaps it has robbed us of daydreaming, and in turn, creativity. I’ll bet that when writers, musicians, artists, think back on where and when they came up with their favorite chapter or lyric, it was when they were bored. Or when their phone died or had no signal. They had nothing to do. Nothing to distract them, but the thoughts in their head.  Which is why almost every author will tell you that they generate most of their ideas in the shower. Or while driving. Or in the subway (which incidentally, is where I came up with the idea for this blog).
I don’t have an iPhone, an iPad, or any “I’s” that allow me to over-indulge my impulses (an iPod doesn’t count). My Blackberry (texting and bbm), is distracting enough (although I am guilty of an i-chat addiction). I don’t really watch TV, and now I realize why.  It’s because it tempts my thoughts away from co-mingling with one another. They’re better off staying where they are: in a mixed up daydreaming stew.
This reminds me of how my teachers (oh I dreaded my report card) complained that I was a “daydreamer.” To their chagrin, my notebooks, rather than containing transcriptions of that day’s lessons, were littered with “doodles.” Intricate graphic illustrations of connecting lines and shapes. I didn’t draw these deliberately. A whole hour would go by before the bell would ring and I’d lift my head up to see pages filled with these designs. Looking back, I think these doodles were my daydreams, mapped out on paper. To decode them would be impossible, but all I know is that I’d be doing myself a disservice stemming their flow.  I stopped doodling and daydreaming for over a decade in my twenties, and the creative repercussions of that lost time are evident to me.  I wonder, are kids today scolded for daydreaming? For not paying attention? Is commanding your mind to train on one thing, although it has its advantages (learning, sharpening the mind etc), have its disadvantages too? Does it take over the space we have set aside to daydream and to create?
I wonder if one day we will look back on this day and age and discover that we we’ve lost a certain kind of artist. I’m not saying that new and amazing things aren’t being born out of technology. They certainly are. But it’s up to the individual artist now to actively choose that space to write in – free of distractions, free of wi-fi. Whether it means choosing an internet-free café to write in (no matter how tempting the couches and Facebook are in the internet café next door), or choosing to ride the subway all day. Or running up your water bill by taking ten showers instead of two. 
That is, until they create waterproof iPads you can take into the shower with you. And then we’ll have to go somewhere else in pursuit of that inspiring condition we call boredom.