Episode notes:Visit Meghan’s website. Click here to read her "Music is My Bag" article. Read her other novels, My Misspent Youth, and My Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. Use our search link on the homepage to buy them from Amazon.
Paul: Welcome to Episode 43 with my guest Meghan Daum. I’m Paul Gilmartin; this is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, an hour of, oh what the fuck is it an hour of? An hour of honesty, that’s it about all the battles in our heads from medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive negative thinking, uh, feelings of dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy and that vague sinking feeling that the world is passing you by, passing us by, passing everyone by…You give us an hour and we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky. This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it’s not a doctor’s office; it’s more like a waiting room that hopefully doesn’t suck. The website for this show is mentalpod.com, please visit it. There’s all kinds of stuff there, there’s surveys you can take, there’s the forum…um, you can donate to this show if you’d like you can shop through Amazon there and we get a couple of nickels. Um, what do I want to say?
Um, let’s kick things off with a survey respondent, this is from the Shame and Secrets survey that people have been taking and the respondent’s name is Lisa, she’s straight, she’s in her 20’s, she was raised in a stable and safe environment, but clouded by depression, um, wasn’t the victim of sexual abuse but some stuff happened that she doesn’t know if it counts as sexual abuse, we get a lot of people picking that as the answer from the multiple choice thing. I think a lot of people some stuff kinda’ happened in between that can be kind of confusing.
Deepest darkest thoughts:
‘The only reason I keep my eating disorder in check is that I can’t put my mother through any more pain. When she dies, no one will care or matter enough to inspire me to keep trying.’
Oh that bums me out to hear that, but I get it.
What are your deepest darkest secrets?
‘I have at times used my depression, disordered eating and narcolepsy to reflect responsibility and make others feel guilty for “abandoning” me. I’ve repeatedly had confusing dreams about being inappropriately touched by a family member who I have no reason to believe did these things.’
What kind of thoughts and feelings do these generate? She writes
‘I’m disgusted by my desperate, underlying desire to be cared for in a dependent, childlike manner and feel nauseated that my mind has tried to make me believe that the above referenced family member is a monster.’
I just find that- I don’t know, fascinating, and I don’t judge anybody on this show, anybody that fills these forms out, I think we all have demons in our head, and from our past, and shit we have trouble reconciling and thoughts that pop into our head that we have no control over, but it sounds like you’re being really hard on yourself and I hope that you can mellow out and a little nicer to yourself. We constantly compare ourselves to other people, and we use that as a barometer of our success, but would you do that to a friend of yours, would you say you’re really not as successful as you think you are, look at this person that has done more than you. That would be an abusive relationship, but why do we do it to ourselves, and I’m one of the worst offenders and I don’t know why that is and every day is a struggle to get better with that. And to the question is there anything you would do to make the pod cast better? Lisa writes:
I think you’ve been letting your guard down fighting the need to eradicate silence with humor. Thank you. I know it’s not easy.
Thank you Lisa
Paul: I’m here with Meghan Daum and I might not even be pronouncing that correctly. We were talking about that before we started rolling and I asked her the pronunciation of her last name and you said let’s talk about it while we’re rolling. Has it always been a little bit of a sticky point about the way that people pronounce your name?
Meghan: Well, I love the how you just pronounced it cause you put an oh-ahh in it. You actually combined—
Paul: I spoke a little German in college…
Meghan: You combined both versions, so there’s, yeah, well—
Paul: Really? What are the two versions?
Meghan: So, I grew up with Daum. Meghan Daum. It’s D.A.U. M. So, on one hand you might think Baum as balm and not Bomb but everyone always sorta said Daum as a default and I was always having to correct everybody and my parents corrected everybody and you know, then I got older and I realized my cousins and things that I really had no relationship with, I mean my parents distanced themselves from their families, um, just for all sorts of neurotic, snobbish, aspirational reasons—
Paul: Ooh let’s get into those…
Meghan: We’ll just jump right in, but it all revolves around the name pronunciation, so I noticed my relatives said DAUM and my parents were always saying Daum and it turned out that when they were first married you know they had grown up in real provincial settings in southern Illinois, now I know you’re from the Midwest—
Paul: I’m from Chicago, yeah—
Meghan: And many, many miles south there is another land—
Paul: It is, if you go just 15 miles south of the suburb of Chicago that I grew up in, it’s the boonies. It’s like—
Meghan: And this is like, near the sort of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, this is like the south…
Paul: I know exactly where you’re talking about.
Meghan: Um, so my parents escaped this setting and—
Paul: They both grew up in the same hometown?
Meghan: Yeah, they grew up… My father grew up in Centralia. Do you know where that is?
Meghan: And my mother grew up in Carbondale, where SIU is—
Paul: Where SIU is, yeah…
Meghan: So they went there. And then through these academic channels, they escaped and they ended up in University settings and they actually ended up at Stanford where I was born, um, so I guess somewhere along the way they ran into like a German professor and he said its DAUM its DAUM, that’s how you pronounce your name. And they were like mortified that they had been such hillbillies in saying Daum all this time—
Paul: And they’d been saying DAUM? Okay?
Meghan: And so um, my brother and I were raised saying Daum and that’s what we always said and it’s like, just literally like a year or two ago I said its Daum I’m going to say Daum. At first, it was like I just stopped correcting people, like that was kind of the first step and I just said this is ridiculous, if the only way I can emancipate myself from my parents is just to you know, mispronounce the mispronounced name…
Paul: Right. Isn’t it, isn’t it, you know the way your parents were pronouncing their name though— should it matter what a professor thinks how it should be pronounced?
Meghan: Absolutely it matters! No, I mean, so I mean, we were one of those…
Paul: Are you saying that tongue in cheek?
Meghan: NO! No, we were one of those families that, uh, Academia was everything. My father he’s a musician and uh, and he was teaching music in various places, uh, in universities and he would like, and you know, he’s like not a very political person so he would like not get tenure and stuff but you know, my mother all she ever wanted to be was an academic wife and there was, it was like an aesthetic thing. She wanted the house with the Oriental rug and the built in bookcases and the copper pots hanging from it, like you have a little, bit, well, they’re not copper, well maybe they are, but you are on the right track—
Paul: They’re anodized aluminum, close enough?
Meghan: Yeah, close enough…
Paul: So do you think your mother kind of felt like there would be a certain safety in that picture, if that picture could be fulfilled that you’d be sophisticated and cultured and there would be a sense of financial security? I mean it sounds good to me, I mean I’ve always looked at university professors and—
Paul: Think what a great life that’s ‘gotta be, I mean you’ve got job security, you’ve got culture because all college campuses have some degree of culture, um—
Meghan: Even SIU, although my parents would never admit that, you know…
Paul: Right, You’ve got intellectual stimulation wherever you want it, that, that kind of makes sense to me, but as you write so eloquently, Meghan by the way, is a freelance writer, but she’s written a couple of books and she has a column in the L.A. Times, and I read a couple of her articles, and you write so eloquently about the creation of fantasy and when reality comes in and disrupts that fantasy, that’s one of the reasons I why wanted you on the pod cast, and I saw you that you were a listener to the show—
Paul: And you had tweeted something and I so I looked up who you were—
Meghan: So you’re looking up who tweets about you, aren’t you?
Paul: Well, sometimes, if they’ve say something that sounds interesting, or –
Meghan: We all do it, it’s a horrible function on twitter, that you can see what people are saying about you—
Paul: oh yeah, oh yeah and I look at internet comments, I’m as needy and shallow as they get, and um, I saw that you had a title of a book called My Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. And I said that is the perfect kind of guest for this show because that is its own particular type of…Sickness is too strong a word, but—
Meghan: it’s a kind of pathology…
Paul: A pathology; that’s perfect—
Meghan: A worldview gone awry…
Paul: And I think everybody is kind of a slave to that to some degree or another, we just may not be willing to admit it, but can you talk about the seeds of it in your family?
Meghan: Yeah, you know, my mother, first of all she was really talented at creating a beautiful space, she had a real eye and even when we didn’t have any money we always lived in a very appealing looking house, even if it was kind of a like a dumb, dinky house. But there were a couple of different threads going on, I mean, we never made any money, my father he’s kind of a savant, he’s this brilliant musical arranger and he’s a composer …but he’s really like an arranger and an orchestrater, so um—
Paul: Is he a people person? (Meghan Laughs) Or is he more comfortable with notes and numbers? Because my dad was a mathematician…
Meghan: A little Asperbergy?
Paul: borderline Aspbergers kind of..
Meghan: There is some of that. He’s very, as he would say gregarious. So, he likes to talk to people, but he likes to talk about the things he knows. He will lecture you, he will talk about this minutia when it comes to music, and really obscure details and highly, highly, highly critical. My parents were like, the original commenters. Before there was Internet commenting, that is what we did in my house all day.
Paul: Your piece about Music is My Bag, we’ll put a link to this up on our website too to some of this stuff you wrote and obviously to your home page where all your L.A. Times articles are up—
Meghan: I’d better update it—
Paul: Specifically the one you wrote about coming from a musical family and the pressure to be, to excel at music is so, is such a great article. It paints this incredible picture. I felt like I was in your living room watching your parents—
Meghan: Oh no, I’m sorry…
Paul: Watching your parents give you feedback and criticism as you played the Oboe.
Meghan: That is the punch line there. I had to play the Oboe. I was an Oboist. And part of it was that they wanted me to win, they wanted me to win the competitions; and get in the all state orchestra and this and that, so…
Paul: …which you did.
Meghan: Yeah, but, I mean the funny thing is that they didn’t put it together that if I had played the violin, I probably would have been as good and still gotten into the orchestra. Just because a lot of people play the violin, doesn’t mean a lot of people are good enough to get, to win the competitions, so they thought…
Paul: Ooh? Was the Oboe—
Meghan: They thought it was more of a shoe in. They didn’t want me to be deprived of the experience of being in like, the North Jersey Regional Band or something…
Paul: Right, like the guy in the rock band who plays bass, he knows he can get in, cause you always need a bass player because very few people set out to play bass because it’s not inherently, a compelling instrument
Meghan: Well it’s not front and center and all that. It’s funny because I was listening to an interview with Rainn Wilson from The Office and he revealed that he was a Bassoonist and I thought ooh perfect, that’s perfect—
Paul: That explains a lot.
Meghan: He’s exactly the guy that would be a bassoonist and one of the indignities, one of the many indignities of being an Oboist is that people often confuse it with the Bassoon, and so, the words have a similar sort of shape to them, just coming out of your mouth, like so they would say, oh, the oboe, isn’t that that big thing, and you know, it’s not it’s small –
Paul: The Bassoon is that even a reed instrument?
Meghan: Yes, it is. It’s a double reed instrument—
Paul: What’s a double reed instrument?
Meghan: Meaning like, you know, the clarinet has just a single piece of wood that you attach to the mouthpiece of the instrument. So, the Oboe, the reed is made of two pieces and it’s actually bound together with string and cork and you stick it in there and part of being an Oboist and a Bassoonist too I guess, is that at some point, you’re expected to make your own reeds. You literally— All Oboists, serious ones, professional ones have a whole workshop and they have tools and shavers and wood and all this sorts of thing and they have to make them. It’s like some sort of 19th Century exercise where you need an apprentice and I just never learn how to make the reed, I just couldn’t get it, so even if I had been the like most dedicated, you know, serious Oboist, I would have been hindered by my total lack of fine motor skills.
Paul: Is the Oboe closely related to the Clarinet, or is that an insulting question?
Meghan: My Oboe teacher, in fact, once said: “the Clarinet is not an instrument; it’s not an instrument.” The thing about the Oboe is the reason that it plays the A that tunes the orchestra is that it doesn’t… It’s the hardest instrument to tune, so the rest of the orchestra has to literally tune to the Oboe because it’s hard to adjust and that’s just the perfect metaphor for all Oboists, I mean, they will not change, stubborn, they won’t change, they’re not going to sway to anybody—
Paul: Do you think it’s a little bit, “I’m going to claim my place in life that I can defend, I’m going to set up my fort that is off the beaten path so I don’t have to compare myself to other people and then I can say my thing is unique and singular and nobody can really offer up a good compelling argument because nobody else does it.
Meghan: Or nobody else knows what it is, or knows about it—
Meghan: Well that is probably true but none of that appealed to me, I was not into being a misfit or anything like that in high school. I mean, the name of the game for me was fitting in, affiliation, you know…
Paul: Which do you think was stronger? Your desire to fit in with your peers or your desire to please your parents? Were they both strong? You okay?
Meghan: Yeah, what happens if I cough are you going to edit that out?
Paul: No, no…
Meghan: Oh, it’s so real. What was stronger? My desire? Well… that is a good question, I mean part of it, you know, my parents wanted me to— you know it’s that horrible catch 22, it’s funny I always say my parents are like the whitest Asians you ever met. You know, you see this in a lot of Asian parents, like they want the kid to succeed, but they don’t want them to be social. Like they want them to popular, but they don’t want them to do any of the things that’s necessary to be popular, and I know I’m making a huge generalization, and I know I’m going to get, like I’m being really racist, and I don’t mean it that way at all—
Paul: I don’t think you’re being racist—
Meghan: It’s a thing you see that you see in high achieving, often first generation immigration parents and my parents were none of those things, I mean they were high achieving in the most particular way, I mean, they didn’t care if I basically failed half my classes if I was playing the Oboe well, if I was practicing, they didn’t care and I did fail Math, quite often, but, to answer your question, I think they wanted me to be, to be well adjusted and to represent them well in the world, but they didn’t like me acting like a kid, and certainly not like a teenager.
Paul: What do you think they wanted you to act like? A prodigy? A well-behaved musical prodigy?
Meghan: …or just like an adult…
Paul: Cause you were kind of a prodigy, you didn’t practice that much and you made the all state band and you made first chair—
Meghan: There weren’t that many Oboe players.
Paul: I think you’re being self deprecating the fact that you made first chair in your college orchestra and you didn’t practice—
Meghan: No, I didn’t practice, I mean, I had a huge aptitude, my brother and I both have, uh… My brother actually pursued music, and went on and does it now, but not in like a way, you know, we never learned theory and all that kind of stuff I mean obviously, we read music, but no, I think I had enough of, I had inherited enough aptitude from my parents, especially my father, and I had my father standing over me beating a pencil against the music stand every night for hours, and crying and screaming, I mean you know, all that and—
Paul: You crying and screaming?
Meghan: Of course—
Paul: Or him crying and screaming?
Meghan: No, me…
Paul: Describe a typical day, a typical practice session…
Meghan: Well, he would be, up in his studio working, he worked at home. He worked in the attic. We lived in New Jersey by the way, most of this is taking place in New Jersey and he had his studio up in the attic and he would be working and I would come home from school and you know had to practice for a certain amount of time and I would get it out and I would start practicing and he would come running down, he would interrupt his work and come running down and it would just, a few pointers would turn into this hours long coaching session and there would be screaming and tears and I would be stomping off and you know what’s so funny about that about that, that piece, Music is my Bag, it ran in Harper’s Magazine a long time ago, like more than ten years ago, and uh my father hated it, he hated the piece, he was really insulted, he was very embarrassed, um and he was angry with me. I mean this has been a pattern with my parents, they’ve really, they’ve not been fans of my work. I mean, they’re supportive and all that, but the actual content, again it’s like we want you to be successful but we don’t want you to do or say the things that are necessary for you to be like successful in an authentic way…
Meghan: And he was upset about the piece for all kinds of reasons and I would talk to friends about it and they said ‘Really? I would think the only thing that would be upsetting to a parent about that piece is your description of the practicing, and the screaming and the crying, and and my father actually said, ‘Oh no, that didn’t bother me at all, that? No, why what’s wrong with that? That’s like an example of—
Paul: What bothered him?
Meghan: Oh, just sort of…
Paul: Cause I assume that’s what would’ve bothered him that he came across as controlling…
Meghan: No, oh-no, he was proud of that, he was proud of that. That was not an issue for him at all… oh it was things like just sort of mocking, sending up, the culture of the like marching band and the band culture, I mean the piece is called Music is My Bag because, I don’t know if you’ve ever…Do they still—
Paul: Oh my god…
Meghan: Do these things still exist, the tote bags? Like from NPR that you know you would get in the pledge drive and they said, “Music is my Bag”
Paul: I think so. I was not a, um, though I played music, it was more my friends and I would get together, smoke weed and play Led Zeppelin, so you—
Meghan: So you played like guitar or something?
Paul: Yeah, not officially like in bands, bad, I mean mediocre, the definition of mediocre. Um, we did it to entertain ourselves, but I knew your group of people because you hung out at a certain table in the lunchroom and you nail it so well in your article…
Meghan: But here’s the thing, I didn’t eat at that table. I refused to eat at that table.
Paul: Who did you hang with?
Meghan: Oh, well I sort of, I couldn’t commit to any group. I mean this has always been my problem. Like, I can’t, I don’t really want… I think everyone is fake; like this is really, sort of my root, my root problem, I think is that I can’t quite believe anyone is for real, so like if it would be…Well for one thing there’s a big distinction between the band geeks and the orchestra geeks, so if I had to choose I’d be in the orchestra—
Paul: Please, please highlight that difference for me…
Meghan: Well, the band, well, the band people were like, they were really taking this seriously as a social outlet, it was like, this is where, this was like geek love, you could get yourself laid by another geek if you were in the band and you would take this really seriously. Orchestra people were too, uh…they, they were real, and they were sorta like better students and more serious. Again, like more Asians, right, because you had more strings and everything. The band was not as serious about music as the orchestra.
Paul: The band was wearing it as a badge of this is part of my personality whereas the orchestra people were more it was a love of music and achievement?
Meghan: Yeah, I mean don’t get me wrong, there were some people in the orchestra you know, the rock stops here, right, the rock stop is the thing that cellists put on the bottom of –
Paul: And the scarf with the piano keys…
Meghan: Oh the piano keys scarf. You saw those in the band too. But you know the band it was like you didn’t necessarily have to be good. The band had like a kind of a science fiction vibe to it.
Paul: Almost like a Star Wars convention with instruments.
Meghan: Kind of, kind of, kind of…
Meghan: So, I, no I didn’t want to hang out with the band and I didn’t really want to hang out with the orchestra and then it was like, I was on the speech team also, and I liked that, but…
Paul: What moved you at that age? What did you love?
Meghan: You know… what did I love? I loved the idea of escaping. And um by, I guess, I mean, we had moved to this affluent, very white bread suburb in northern New Jersey when I was about nine and before that we had lived in Austin, Texas and I mean can you imagine being taken away from Austin and, and
Paul: And being plopped down in…
Meghan: In New Jersey. And so there was always this kind of cognitive dissonance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. There was something too starchy about this town and too, uh…
Paul: Describe what you did in the article about where you were living in New Jersey and the fact that it was this affluent neighborhood where people moved there because the school system was good and so really weren’t people there who weren’t parents or kids. Can you talk about that dynamic, about that culture?
Meghan: These places exist. This is like
Paul: I grew up in one.
Meghan: Okay, you did? In Chicago? Outside of Chicago?
Paul: In the suburbs of Chicago.
Meghan: What suburb are you from?
Paul: I’m from Homewood, but we shared a high school with the wealthy suburb called Flossmore and so, um, when I went to high school and I saw suddenly, oh, these are the children of millionaires…
Paul: Oh, these are the kids that take A.P. classes and do this. You know, I came from kind of a more of a, I wouldn’t say blue collar but definitely not that, not from millionaires and these people were loaded. The people who lived in Flossmore and their kids were driven really, really hard. And all of a sudden I went from feeling like ‘Oh I’m a person of average intelligence’ to like ‘Holy Shit there are a lot of smart people and a lot of driven people out there in the world and I all of a sudden I was like, well fuck—
Meghan: So you were smoking pot out on the—
Paul: I can compete with these people; I’m just gonna hang out in the middle of the pack and get C’s…
Meghan: But that’s kind of liberating—
Paul: Uh, I suppose so, but when it’s under a cloud of weed and you’re four foot ten and weigh eighty-five pounds and you have glasses, nothing about that feels, feels good, except getting high, but I wanna go back to talking about your—
Meghan: So…yeah, my town, it, you know, we, I don’t think there were, I’m sure there were a few millionaires, but no, it wasn’t like a millionaire town. It was a town where a lot of the dad’s worked on Wall Street, you know, they would take the train. 9-11, this town got hit really hard, 9-11 a lot of cars in the, you know train station parking lot, kinda thing. I mean, this was a town, very Catholic, very um, sort of Protestants and Catholics, but it had a real sort of Roman Catholic feel to it.
Paul: How far from Manhattan?
Meghan: (laughs) Well, as the crow flies, about 20-25 miles, but nobody ever went into the city, it was like unheard of. And you know I think my parents had moved to the New York area, I mean, I think they thought we just basically sort of lived in New York, or they thought that’s they were getting into and then when we got there, like our neighbors hadn’t been to the city in 12 years or something. So you get these towns where the public schools are good and people move there solely for their kids and so what you have is a population where it’s like there’s a bunch of kids and often they can’t afford to really move there until they get a little more established and so the kids aren’t really, there’s not a lot of 5 year olds even. They start around nine, ten, you know. So you have a lot of people between nine and eighteen and you have a lot of parents between like, I don’t know, 35 and 55 and then there’s no one else—
Paul: Yes, yes…
Meghan: I mean, I didn’t know what a graduate student was, like. I knew what a college student was, sort of, cause they would come back and they would put the sticker on the car. That was the big thing. But no, there was like nobody else. You were like a kid or a parent.
Paul: Right, so you described in the article, how, what your cultural choices were as a kid that didn’t have exposure to anything other than your parents and other kids, and you talked about the music you would listen to and the way you guys would dress and I was like Oh My God, you’re like you’re describing exactly where I grew up. I mean we wore button down shirts. We wore polo shirts. We didn’t—
Meghan: Yeah, this is funny, you’re conflating, there’s two articles, no…
Paul: Oh? Two different articles? Cause I did read two different—
Meghan: No, no, but it’s great cause they come together, you’re going back and forth and there’s one where I talk, where I think I talk about the button down shirts and that was in this piece called My Misspent Youth
Meghan: which was in the New Yorker, originally, I think in 99, and it’s the title piece to my essay collection from many years ago, but okay, so that I was talking about, you know the Risky Business aesthetic, you know, the pink oxford—
Meghan: -And the kids their idea of kind of a wild time was to go to somebody’s house and put on the Big Chill Soundtrack—
Meghan: Remember that? It was like yeah! Jeremiah was a bullfrog! Woooo! You know, like that. They were imitating some kind of nostalgia of their parents, like they were imitating, it was like this fifties thing.
Paul: Yeah, when I started going to this high school where we merged with the rich kids all of a sudden people cared what kind of beer you were getting loaded on and were snobby about stereo systems and it was like this whole world where all of a sudden every body was so much more materialistic and I could recognize it and it saddened me in a certain way but you know it’s like you throw your lot in with a certain group of people and you’re in with that lot and you kind of go with the flow and you become a little more materialistic but the way you described it, when you went to college at Vassar, can you talk about, um, starting with when you decided you wanted to go to college and creating that, actually start with telling the story of when you went into that apartment into New York and creating that fantasy.
Meghan: Yes, seminal moment. So when I was a senior in high school I guess it was the summer before my senior year in high school my father, uh, you know, like I said he does a lot of, he was an orchestrator so he had to go to the apartment of a music copyist to pick up some parts or drop them off or something and so we drove, I was learning, I had just gotten my license, I was learning how to drive a stick shift and so we drove in our little Plymouth Horizon from New Jersey into Manhattan and this guy’s apartment was on the upper west side, um you know, in like one of those kinda funky, but beautiful grand buildings—
Paul: Pre-war gargoyle…
Meghan: Pre-war with the elevator that has the gate that closes and kind of rattles up…
Paul: Scatman Crothers working the buttons…
Meghan: No, No, not even that…you know like it has that, everything smells a little bit like urine, you know but also like musty, it’s that old, it’s a sense of authenticity… that’s a word I really overuse and I always have, but, it was that feeling, and I went into this apartment and it was pretty modest and it was, you know, they had the oriental rugs but they weren’t trying too hard, it was that very solid kind of, you know, stone architecture and the wood floors and everything and I said to myself this is the life I want and this was probably on like 101st Street and West End Ave, something like that, and from that moment on I became, (I don’t know what’s wrong with me) From that moment on I became totally devoted to the cause of getting into this kind of life and it affected what kind of college I was going to go to and—
Paul: Specifically New York you mean? You wanted to live in that type of –
Meghan: Oh yes, I wanted to live on104th and West End Ave. Like, this is my problem, I’ve always, I’m like very specific, I can’t let go, it’s like I. I can’t just say this is generally what I want, like I fixate on something, so yeah, I wanted to do this and I kind of thought I was going to be a writer, I mean I certainly wasn’t going to be an oboist so I had this kind of system for choosing what kind of college I was gonna go to and part of it came from reading the wedding announcements in the New York Times and seeing where these people went to college and what kind of jobs they had and also where I was gonna get in. I mean, the thing is, I was like one of these people; I was a horrible student in math and science, like I would fail. I would be like in the most advanced English class and you know, brilliant oboist…
Paul: How did you get passing Math and Science, and—
Meghan: Well see this is one of my, when we do the fear-off I will tell you I am afraid that Vassar is going to realize I never even got in in the first place, so can you graduate from a school that you actually didn’t get in to? Like, that’s, I mean I was so obsessed with, my big fear was that I was going to end up like going to Rutgers or something and not that Rutgers is a bad school but that my social milieu would not change…
Paul: It wouldn’t have the cache…
Meghan: I would be stuck with the Benetton sweaters and the Big Chill soundtrack, you know if I was lucky for the rest of my life because I was failing math, I mean that’s what’s horrible about being in high school especially in this kinda school, like you get to the point where you’re thinking and it’s kinda true that if I don’t pass this class or get an A or whatever, my life will literally not line up the way that it should, so it was really intense…
Paul: Where do you think that comes from? Do you think it comes the brain that that kid has that there’s that negativity and creativity that extrapolates their life out to the nth degree or do you think that’s pounded into you by your environment?
Meghan: I think it’s pounded into you in that there’s no, there’s only sort of one trajectory, I mean, you know, I could have, what I realize now is I probably, I could have gone to like a big state school somewhere in the Midwest for instance and found a niche for myself, and found interesting people and found some version of the oriental rugs and the hardwood floor and it would have taken a little longer but I did not have the imagination at that time or something. I was so terrified of not kind of getting to where I felt I needed to be. It was like one of these things, I felt like I was a good writer and I that I was fairly interesting but that I had enough handicaps that if I didn’t like really nail it, if I didn’t really get to where I needed to be; I was never going to make it. And it was ironic cause then I went to Vassar and I hated it. I spent the whole time like I just need to graduate and be able to say I went to Vassar…
Paul: And what made you choose Vassar cause when you looked at these social pages of the New York Times you saw a lot of people had graduated from Vassar and you thought well that will get me into that pre-war building that I love?
Meghan: Yeah, that was my logic and that’s what it says in the brochure about Vassar, it says if you go here, you will get to live on 104th street and Broadway if you go to this school. No it was like, it’s like an annex to New York City, you know, the places I could have gone with my grades, I mean obviously if I could have gone to Yale that would have been better but there was no way in hell I was going to Yale so, uh, I managed to get in there, I mean, I pitched myself as an oboist, I said you need an oboist in your orchestra, I made a tape, I sent it to them. I flung myself at them. Uh…
Paul: Vassar you’re talking about?
Meghan: Yeah, yeah and so—
Paul: Did you apply to Yale?
Meghan: No! I mean my guidance counselor wouldn’t even let me apply. This is the other thing about these towns. They don’t want to have kids not getting into schools on their record. They don’t want to have rejections, so they don’t let you apply to the places that would be a stretch. I don’t think my guidance counselor wanted me to apply to Vassar even.
Paul: Describe what that was like when it sunk in when you got to Vassar and you realized this was a whole new world for you? What did that feel like? What were you thinking?
Meghan: I realized that there were people from these wealthy private schools who literally dropped acid every day and still had gotten into Vassar. It was like I had had to just, I had to do everything possible, you know, everything in my toolbox, I had to get it out and really make a case for myself and these people… L.S.D. every day of high school and they got in!
Paul: And were they succeeding at Vassar?
Meghan: Well they succeeded enough to get in. I mean you can’t really flunk out of a school like that…
Paul: You can’t?
Meghan: No, no, it’s hard. It’s hard. They want your money—
Paul: And a lot of junkies too in Ivy League schools, surprising number of heroin addicts…
Meghan: You mean like heroin?
Paul: Oh yeah
Paul: Oh yeah, from what I’ve heard um there are, um I mean it’s not like it’s littered with junkies—
Meghan: there are syringes all over the Vassar campus
Paul: I’ve heard more than a few stories about you know the kids at Harvard that shoot heroin on the weekend or snort heroin on the weekends—
Meghan: I had heard of a few people snorting heroin, but i hadn’t, but I wasn’t aware of anybody being an addict…um, no, so yeah, I mean it was just—
Paul: I like to expand things in my mind. I flesh it out. I’m punching it up—
Meghan: There’s no reason we shouldn’t believe it.
Paul: I like to punch it up in my brain.
Meghan: Yeah, I, I just, again…
Paul: Did you feel like it was a mistake at a certain point in your freshman year where you were like, Oh My God this is, this is a group that I can’t compete with or this is a group I don’t even want to compete with?
Meghan: No, cause I was determined to make it work. The thing with me is that the way I am wired I was unable to see that there were like a whole lot of people there who were on scholarships and who were not these private school people, and I was just not interested in hanging around with them. I wanted to sort of be, in the cool group and then I didn’t really like the cool group and again it goes back to like I don’t eat at the band table. I could never find a group that that I wanted to be a part of. I felt like everyone was faking it. I joined the newspaper for a while and then I quit. I quit because I couldn’t stand sitting around there like on deadline and they’d be like ‘Get on the Horn!’ They were like imitating people in a newsroom and I just thought I just can’t bear it
Paul: And if you could’ve created that you would’ve felt comfortable with at your school, how would you describe them? What would they have been like?
Meghan: I really don’t know. I think that there’s something wrong with me. This is just something that I do..
Paul: Is it that Grocho Marx thing where you can’t respect anyone who would wanna hang out with you?
Meghan: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. Um, yeah and then it’s just that I can’t…I think I’m so obsessed with what is real and what is fake and if someone is acting fake or if they’re…my mother had this transformation when she was about 50 where she became like this theater person, this is a whole other story, she was like…
Paul: kind of affected?
Meghan: She went from being miserable, slightly frumpy really frustrated housewife basically to becoming this diva and very affected and it really it just, I couldn’t take it, I mean I was like allergic to it. I just think I’ve been allergic to these things generally all my life. I still do it. I have friends. I have a circle of friends. I am more comfortable now than I ever have been with my world and the people I know and I certainly don’t like, I’m never going to have a clique, I mean that I just don’t understand—
Paul: It sounds to me as I listen to you talk: criticism never takes a break in your head.
Meghan: Never, no. It’s like, it’s really the default setting and it’s hard because it’s one of those things, on some level it serves me well. I’ve made my career out of it; I’m an opinion columnist. I’m a cultural critic. Um, but, you can’t, no, it never, no, it never stops.
Paul: Outside of writing, talk about what that voice in your head does.
Meghan: Well, I mean…
Paul: How dark does it get in your head? In your emotions?
Meghan: I criticize myself, oh constantly…
Paul: Have you ever thought about suicide or is that too dark?
Meghan: No, I have had moments where I can understand how somebody would get to this point, I can understand because I you know, it’s like, I think this is probably true of a lot of people, you’re growing up and you’re in your twenties and you’re struggling and you’re even in your thirties and you think like I’m kinda depressed, I’m kinda down, but it’s situational it’s because I don’t want to be in this, like you know, I want something better and I’m not happy with…And then you get to a point where it’s like you have what you want, I’m married, I have a beautiful house, my career is okay you know it could be better, but it could be a helluvalot worse and it’s like wow, you still feel this way, this ringing is still in your ears and that, that is scary
Paul: That is scary and I can tell you somebody who has lived that and wanted to commit suicide and with all the stuff on paper that society tells you you need to have to be happy and that is a scary fucking crossroad to be at but in many ways it can be the most liberating thing in your life because it forces you to really look deeply within yourself at what it is that you hold important and what it is that your obsessing about and what it is that you’re worrying about because if it’s going to kill you, you pretty much have to let it kill you or jettison it or otherwise it’s kind of like this— Maybe I should just speak for myself but it’s this kind of day to day thing um, and it doesn’t go away forever, it’s funny, just yesterday I was thinking to myself “shut up” that voice in my head that keeps telling me… it keeps offering up something that has to be wrong, it’s not possible that everything is okay. And—
Meghan: At least you say shut up to that. I say shut up to myself in daily life, like you know I’ll go to the dry cleaners, ‘shut up!’
Paul: So you always believe that the critical voice is correct.
Meghan: Yes! All critical voices are correct, otherwise its sentimentality, how can you believe it?
Paul: That’s such a lie, that’s such a lie.
Meghan: I’m saying this intellectually. Yes, I know this is a lie.
Paul: But how do you get there emotionally; that’s different. You can know that intellectually you’re beating yourself up but still not be able to stop it, and I think at the core is this lie that tells us that self criticism is the path to being a better person and
Meghan: Right, right…
Paul: At a certain point it served us but then it begins to destroy us and how do you know when to turn that critical voice on and off.
Paul: And I was thinking about this yesterday and I think it’s recognizing the difference between your conscience and what is your critical voice and your conscience, I think is a good thing to have, that’s when you’re able to reflect and look at yourself and that benefits not only yourself, but society. And I think for me, I know a thought is coming from my conscience when it is about what is the right thing to do. It’s my self-critical voice when it’s “will this enable me to survive?”
Meghan: Hmm, but do you find also that there’s something self-soothing about the critical voice?
Paul: It used to be…
Meghan: Oh see, you’re ahead of me…
Paul: No, I just had to hit the depths to find another way to live.
Meghan: It almost feels like an OCD thing. It’s like cutting. I’m not a cutter I wasn’t a cutter. But like that, oh I’m going to beat myself up now. Like it feels good, it feels—
Paul: It feels familiar.
Meghan: Yeah, yeah…
Paul: And I’ve said this before on the pod cast, uh, often times, the painful known feels like a better choice then the supposedly promised comfortable unknown because the unknown is often scarier than anything.
Meghan: And it really ties into what we were emailing about the internet comments and all that stuff because if you are somebody with a penchant for criticism and self criticism reading stuff people write on the internet, that’s like porn, reading the vitriole and people going off on other people, its like totally addictive.
Paul: Do you think the reason that is not necessarily that it makes us feel bad about ourselves? But it allows us to keep thinking about ourselves.
Meghan: Well its narcissism, yes, um, yeah, I mean, I think for me, I had to stop reading my own comments
Paul: What do you mean your own comments?
Meghan: Sorry, on the Internet. One of the things about being a newspaper columnist is that the thing is up on the web and invariably every week there are pages and pages of people telling me that I need to be fired and that I’m an idiot and it’s like sometimes its really personal and you can read it and I think you sort of keep reading because you’re waiting for someone to come along and defend you and it just goes on and on and I made myself stop reading my own comments but what happened is now I read everyone else’s comments like I cannot read an article on line without looking at the comments and I see some idiot saying something and I just keep going until somebody else bashes that person and it’s like watching these little fights, um, its created this whole little world, this subculture of hate…
Paul: Its like 21st century soap opera, but it’s real
Meghan: Yeah, but it’s so ha… It’s so interesting to me, this is something I’ve been writing about lately, this idea of hate, you’re a hater and there’s all these iterations of hate. If you read like the cool blogs of the twenty something’s, they talk about hate-er-aide and hate-itude…
Paul: Right, you know who I hate? People who spell it “h” and the number “8”
Meghan: Oh, I know. I don’t care like, with twitter and all that, if I can’t spell out a word, with all letters it’s really, I don’t need to say that, I don’t need to tweet that…
Paul: What do you think? The classical way to look at this, is these are people who hate themselves so they go on the Internet because it’s easier to hate somebody else than to really look inwardly at what you don’t like about yourself. Do you think there’s anything beyond that?
Meghan: A lot of them hate themselves, but it’s funny, I met somebody the other day at a party, this lovely woman, I was talking to her and it turned out she’s a commenter, she’s an internet commenter. It doesn’t mean she’s one of those awful ones, but she spends a lot of time commenting, and I’m thinking is this providing some outlet that people didn’t use to have? Is there a lack of face time, like is there some, maybe people don’t, the argument discourse has changed… we’re less in a culture where intelligent debate is easily accessible and it just becomes either this screaming on cable TV or this like subverted anonymous, mean commenting…
Paul: Well it doesn’t surprise me, because our culture prizes winning above everything. Everything is made into a list, what is number one . Did you win? Did you lose? So why wouldn’t opinions also fall into that category? It’s just natural progression. Our country is so uncomfortable with the idea of being number two…
Meghan: Yeah, we like rankings and—
Paul: Right, so for something to be valid it often has to be did you win, were you the best? And that is its own particular sickness that I, I think, is one of the most destructive forces that you can plant in children’s minds is that if they aren’t the best, if they aren’t number one then somehow they have failed—
Meghan: So did you feel like you had to be number one growing up? Even with—
Paul: At certain things—
Meghan: Even with these kids from the other town who we dominating you?
Paul: I remember feeling like I had to be the funniest person in the room, starting probably around high school, my ego began to become attached to… because I was small, I had glasses, I had nothing going on and the only thing I felt I could compete with other people with was my sense of humor. I took great pride in that, but if I was in a room and someone said to somebody else, ‘you’re the funniest person I ever met’ that would just crush me. Because I would think how can I ever become a professional comedian if I’m not even the funniest person in the room of non-comedians.
Meghan: That’s such a no-win because nothing is more subjective than humor. You can’t possibly rank that.
Paul: Tell that to a four-foot narcissist who’s high with Zeppelin playing in the background…
Meghan: When people think, when you think about how long the family circus has been in print, that’s all you need to think—
Paul: How does criticism not work it’s way over to the comic strip Nancy
Meghan: Nancy? Do you mean Cathy?
Paul: No, Nancy was pre-Cathy…
Meghan: I don’t know what Nancy is
Paul: I would look at that comic strip every day as a kid and go who likes this?
Meghan: Yeah, there are those people though.
Paul: How is this still.. I didn’t even understand where the joke was in it?
Meghan: Yeah and it’s terrifying-
Paul: At least Family Circus, I could at least see what they were attempting to make you laugh
Meghan: Really? Yeah, as a creative person that kind of thing is so terrifying it’s like wow they really aren’t gonna get it. Like, enough people have no interest in what I’m doing I shouldn’t bother. But that’s what this kind of thing- this time of with like pod casts and this, it’s very niche, like niche is rising…
Paul: Yeah, it really is, and you put yourself on the Internet and you read enough comments and you realize you are somebody’s Nancy, you know, as much as you hate to admit it.
Meghan: I just want to be Cathy and you know eat a whole Hagen Das as my answer for everything, eh, I ate a whole Hagen Das
Paul: One of the things that you wrote about I found really interesting was when you talked about going to graduate school and taking out these school loans because you still had this fantasy of living in this prewar building and being a writer and can you kind of talk about how that began to unravel and the stress, the mental stress of that? This piece you had written was in 1999 and I hadn’t read anything since then. So when you showed up at my door I had no idea you’d dug yourself out of this debt, so I would like to hear your perspective, starting from graduate school and the fantasy, to where you are today.
Meghan: This is so great. This is great. This means I am 29 to you. I might as well be 29, which I was in 1999. Um, yeah, so I graduated from college and I moved to New York, I got an apartment on 100th st between Riverside and West End
Paul: A successful woman would’ve gotten an apartment on 104th…
Meghan: Well, successful in my terms, obviously… I got a job at Conde Nast, I got a job at a beauty magazine, uh, Allure, I worked at Allure, it’s a magazine about skin and it’s a lot of exfoliation…
Paul: An were you happy?
Meghan: No, No, I did not want this job. I wanted to, I thought I could get a job at Esquire. I considered myself like a literary person but, you know jobs, this sounds horrible to say, now, compared to what these graduates are going through, but it was 1992, it was a bit of a recession, it was really hard to get a job, so I was lucky at Conde Nast, big famous company…
Paul: So did you think it was a stepping-stone to where you would eventually want to work?
Meghan: Yes, which it was, it was. And I worked there, it was kind of great in a lot of ways. I had a boss so insane and she basically couldn’t read and I just got to do her job, I mean she was one of these people that knew enough to let her assistant really do the job.
So, I did a lot , I was very miserable in the culture of Conde Nast, I mean, the Devil wears Prada that is like the perfect description of that world
Paul: Give me some slices of, of this—
Meghan: Oh, throwing up in the bathroom, I mean there’s a lot of anorexics—
Paul: You were then?—
Meghan: No, no, I could never get it together enough to be like anorexic or anything. You know, that’s another failure. Like I can’t even….you know—
Paul: Well you’re kidding of course…
Meghan: No, I, well, I know that’s a terrible to say… No, but it’s like I can’t, this is why I love what.. I know Theresa was on your show, I know this is where I heard her, I was so moved by what she was saying, because its like you can hate your body but part of it is that you can’t, you hate the fact that you can’t even be anorexic, its like your sort of a failed, I was constantly thinking I’m fat , I’m a failed anorexic, I can’t even get to the, I’m not even in the real stuff. I didn’t have enough money, I dressed horribly these are these are girls who would like, their parents were paying for their own apartment on Fifth Avenue and they would have time shares in the Hamptons , um I was like schlepping down from 100th st which I wanted to be, I mean my sensibilities was this more intellectual, literary, I was not into fashion, I was not into society..
Paul: Was that area considered intellectually hip because Columbia was near there? It’s closer to Harlem…
Meghan: Yeah, it’s just always been, I mean now it’s gentrified… well, its just, its not, its was always sort of this socialist, kind of literary academic neighborhood, I mean it’s so gentrified now, that I think these distinctions are probably moot, but at the time it was above 96th street, it was like “oh, you live above 96th street..”
Paul: So it was a little bohemian…
Meghan: It was little sketchy, it was a little bohemian and so, I hated this world of Conde Nast and again I felt I was back in high school like how am I going to get out of this? I’m succeeding at this job, I’m pretty good at this, I could continue to get promoted and continue to work at magazines and continue to be surrounded by these people and it’s not what I wanted, I wanted to be a writer
Paul: And you’re struggling to make ends meet…
Meghan: I was making 18,000 dollars a year. yeah, I had roommates…
Paul: And you’re living in Manhattan
Meghan: Well, back then I had two roommates and we had this rent stabilized apartment
the rent was, I’ll never forget this… the rent was 1776.76
Meghan: So just about 1800 dollars, uh, 76 cents is on the end of that so I was paying like around five something and it was okay, but I, I finally said the only thing that’s going to make me happy, because at one point, I got really depressed, I remember I came out of a , I went to a movie at Lincoln Center and I came out of the movie, I was still working at Allure at this point, it was like this fall day and there were all these great looking people with their great looking scarves and their cool looking glasses and things and I came out of the movie and I saw the line of people standing, waiting to go into the next show and I thought they just have no idea how bad this movie is, I know something that don’t and its how bad this movie is and it was also I’m never going to be like them there’s a yawning gulf between this world I am inhabiting at this magazine about skin and exfoliants and this world of like people who are engaged in the arts and have cool scarves and glasses and I can’t get there, and the only, it was actually, I became profoundly depressed, it was a scary, not profoundly, but depressed to the point um, I started going to therapy, it was for the first time, and I finally figured out that the only way I could save myself was to go to an MFA program which is not something that most psychiatrists would recommend…
Paul: Right, for those that don’t know, an MFA is a Masters In Fine Arts
Meghan: Masters of Fine Arts, a totally useless degree, for creative writing, I was going to be a fiction writer. Um, I was writing short stories.
Paul: And what had you majored in? English?
Meghan: English, of course. Yeah, I wrote a creative thesis, basically, in college I majored in smoking cigarettes and staring at the wall, I really did, I did very little work, I was really; I’m really ashamed of it… We have the shame thing coming up later, right? This is one of the things I’m really ashamed of my college performance. I did not take advantage of the education; I just kind of had like, fucked up relationships and ya know, all that kind of stuff…
Paul: But isn’t that part of…
Meghan: Which is part of…yes, yeah,yeah
Paul: Isn’t that part of being at college, you’re finding out who you are at the same time as you’re trying to forge your path economically in the world and it’s so, there’s so much anxiety behind that I don’t think anybody does it without, I don ‘t think anybody does it flawlessly and with comfort.
Meghan: No, no, I think we all sort of wish we could go back although I certainly do not want to go back, um, but, uh…
Paul: And there’s a lot of people that would’ve killed just to have gotten a college degree.
Meghan: Of course, of course… Yes—
Paul: Especially at an IVY League school—
Meghan: Yes, Vassar is not an Ivy League school, but it
Paul: It’s not?
Meghan: No, it’s a 7 sisters school. It was all women until 1970 and now its women and gay men—
Paul: The p