Anna David is the executive editor of The Fix, as well as being the author of Party Girl and Bought. Her newest book, Falling For Me, wherein she tries to follow the advice in Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, is due out October 11th. She tells us about some of her adventures in this column, Sex and the Sixties Girl
Helen Gurley Brown perhaps embraces nothing as much as she does self improvement; throughout Sex and the Single Girl, she regales us with examples of those activities we could and should be doing, reminding us that a woman who doesn’t have a family to tend to and care for “has all day Saturday to whip up a silly, wonderful cotton brocade tea coat” and pointing out that we can “read Proust, learn Spanish” and “study Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. “ She mentions her friend Laura, who “tackled Clifton Fadiman’s recommended list of books” and another pal, Betty, who took up oil painting, which “transformed her previously dull weekends into a Gauguin-like fiesta.”
This, I realized when I first started living the Helen way, was an area of my life that I could seriously develop. The truth is, since getting sober and becoming career focused, I’d developed over the years into something of a work machine, Reese Witherspoon in Election minus the number two pencils. I either worked or exercised or read or hung out with friends or a boyfriend, meaning that I only socialized or did things that were achievement-focused.
I’d completely forgotten, in other words, how to engage in activities for no other reason than that I enjoyed them and they nurtured me. While I had no interest in whipping up a silly, wonderful cotton brocade tea coat—or really, what those words put together even actually meant—I decided to sit down and make a list of all of the things that I’d either said over the years I wanted to do or tried and quit. The list went like this: rollerblading, biking, studying French, learning a water sport, and taking an art class.
Because I’d put it down on paper—and because, let’s face it, I was writing a book about all of this so my livelihood, in a sense, depended on my following through—I embraced each and every one of those activities. I was living in New York near the West Side Highway at the time so I faithfully trudged down there every week and bladed alongside the bikers, runners and skaters zooming around, discovering an entirely new aspect of Manhattan—how much closer together everything was than I thought when I only took the subway—and the delightful Hudson Street Park, where I could take off my skates and lounge in the sun while looking out at the river. Another time, I rented a bike and took it up to Harlem, stopping off for a marvelous steak lunch and relishing in the fact that I actually had the freedom to do such a thing in the middle of a workday.
Of course, some of the new activities were less rewarding than others. The pottery class I signed up for was filled with a group of obsessed ceramicists who’d been coming to this dark, depressing studio since, it seemed, the beginning of time. The teacher appeared to find new students—I think I was the first one they’d had in several years—an inconvenient distraction from the vases he was there to create. And while I loved my French teacher at the NYU adult education program—and felt all my high school French come immediately back to me during the first few classes while excitedly discovering vocabulary words that hadn’t been relevant than (there was no such thing as an “ordinateur,” or computer, back in my high school days)—I hit something of a wall midway through the semester. Suddenly we were studying things like le futur proche and I was asking myself why the French language demanded something like 67 different tenses, in the process forgetting entirely how to count to 100 or recite the days of the week. I’d always figured that the reason I had scored a 1 on my French AP exam (which is what I think you get just for writing your name correctly) was that I’d gotten high before all my French literature classes, bought all the books in English, and wrote my papers with a dictionary. But the self-improvement program Helen got me started on introduced me to another potential reason: French was fucking hard. Far more pleasant was the windsurfing lesson I took from an attractive Brit in the Dominican Republic.
Often when people talk to me about this book, they ask me how I liked following Helen Gurley Brown for a year and I have to point out that this isn’t actually one of those “I spent a year doing” books made popular by Julie and Julia—that I didn’t, after 365 days, revert back to the person I was before I ever embarked on the project but in fact continue to incorporate in and improve upon everything I’ve learned. And nowhere is that more clear than in this area. See, through forcing myself to try new things, I discovered that it wasn’t just career obsession that had me not making silly, wonderful tea brocade coats; it was that over the years I’d developed a habit of only doing those things that I had a natural affinity for or already knew how to do. This had kept me from looking stupid or be seen trying and not succeeding but it also, I suddenly saw, kept my life small—smaller than I wanted it to be. Maybe there are people out there who just naturally decide it’s time to train to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or take a cupcake baking class. But most of us, I believe, are more like me: mighty comfortable in their comfort zones and not terribly interested in putting themselves out there and risking potential humiliation.
Recently I stood up on a surfboard for the first time and yesterday I took a tennis class. I went to tennis camp as a kid and hated it—because, I believed, I was horrible at tennis. But, I’ve learned, I’m not horrible; when I was younger, I was scared of the ball and so focused on the kids that were better than me and how I was in the lowest group that I never could think about what I was doing, let alone enjoy the process.
I’m still not great. And I think it’s safe to say I sucked at surfing (there was an instructor on the back of the board holding me up—seriously). But I’m willing to learn. And that, to me, is just as important. Who says being great at something is so great, anyway?