Training for Failure

Unlike the neighbors, who had expensive wall-to-wall carpet and furniture sets from Seaman’s, we had wood floors and oriental rugs, and I grew up believing that we were superior because of it. Even when I got older and began to run into my financial problems, I never had a conscious desire for a lot of money. I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.

We’ve been talking about media-driven life scripts for a while now here at the Rat-faced Man. The protagonist of today’s episode, Meghan Daum, is an interesting case because, on the one hand, she’s won all kinds of prizes—a Guggenheim, a PEN, even a 2016 NEA fellowship (good timing on that one, Meghan)—and on the other, she’s also survived long, lean years as a broke writer. It’s not the worst outcome possible, of which more in a moment, but it’s not the best either. I consider the arc to be catastrophic early flop followed by slow rebuilding. What’s amazing is how avoidable the former was and how much of a win in the second act it took to settle the debts from the first.

By now, the “caviar ambitions/Wonderbread resources” trap should be familiar, so no need to belabor it. Basically, Ms. Daum fell in love with the lifestyle depicted in Woody Allen movies and decided that she’d rather be Mia Farrow than the wife of a suburban orthodontist. In order to become a hip part of the arts scene, she took poverty jobs (which today would be unpaid internships—the events in this article took place over 15 years ago) and got to enjoy a romantic life of credit card debt and cockroaches until she finally got smart and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Note that “[h]ousing is 84% cheaper in Lincoln.” Her $1,055 apartment in Manhattan would have cost $169 in Lincoln. Imagine what kind of apartment you could get for $169 in Lincoln, then move it 10 roach-infested stories into the air and you’re getting close. Her $59,000 earnings in Manhattan were equivalent to $21,000 in Lincoln, or to put it another way, if you were earning over $10.50 an hour in Lincoln, you were coming out ahead. Store managers in Lincoln were clowning on her almost as bad as NYC garbagemen were.

Ms. Daum was born in 1970 and is thus a mid-period Gen Xer. And:

[I]mportant national and cultural events [helped] delineat[e] the evolution of boomers’ group-hug approach to life, [but] Eddie Bauer shopping bags and Sprite tags provide the anthropologically significant evidence explaining Gen-Xer traits like “materialism” and” competitiveness.” Gee, how’d that happen?

In 1997, I guess it was excusable for a bunch of interns at Wired to make fun of Eddie Bauer and Sprite when talking about consumerism, but the really insidious consumerism is left untouched by this easy mockery. The really insidious consumerism, as we’ve had no choice but to learn in the post-crisis era, is predominantly about education and housing as part of a “lifestyle.” I guess somebody somewhere may perhaps have ruined his life by compulsively buying more Sprite than he could afford, maybe? What about the 40% of people who aren’t paying their student loans? A little perspective is warranted, surely? It’s sobering to think of how much Ms. Daum really paid for those threadbare Persian carpets and creaky oak floors.

But at that, she’s lucky to have escaped a worse fate:

I never thought I’d be living in my car at age 66. When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college…

CeliaSue Hecht’s writing work has been featured in more than 40 local and national newspapers and magazines, on her dog travel blog, in newsletters, and in five romantic travel guides. She has traveled around the world and has written and led seminars and workshops in the US and Europe. Her travels have included about 245 cities.

From the sounds of it, Ms. Hecht’s travels may soon include even more cities! Brunch courtesy of La Poubelle.


3 thoughts on “Training for Failure

  1. People who still try to make money in writing don’t seem to get that almost everything else pays better, including a McJob. There’s a dad down the street from me who used to be an editor for PCWorld Magazine. He hasn’t had a steady job writing since it closed up. He tries to make money “freelancing,” so he mostly does nothing all day. Most writers have historically been poor, and there was a brief period of Prestige Journalism last century where journalists were actually making money.

    Captain Capitalism had trouble figuring out why the college bubble hasn’t burst yet. As you allude to, it’s because “Kollege” is a consumer good also and we can’t help spending.


  2. Glad to see you’re writing again. I stumbled upon your blog last December and really enjoyed reading all your articles. I hope you keep it up.

    I know first hand of at least three girls who went to work as “writers” in NYC after graduation. They mostly write clickbait articles for buzzfeed clones and EliteDaily type rags. Most of them are financed by their parents. Since none of them struck me as the trust-fund kind, and since these places pay minimum wage or the NYC equivalent salary, I imagine the ones that are really fretting about it are their upper middle class families working extra hard to fulfill their girl’s dream of making it in the big city. Outside of marriage, I don’t see an exit strategy that doesn’t involve poverty when it comes to the “woke female writer educating middle america from the heart of NYC” life script .


    1. Agreed. There is no marriage exit strategy for single women in NYC. They get passed-around by alpha males until they’re 30 and vote Hillary thereafter.

      This is the outcome UMC/yuppie parents deserve.


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