A Guide to Life

While visiting my grandparent’s house when I was growing up, all the cousins, or just my brothers and I, always ended up in my grandfather’s study. It was a cosy room tucked into a bottom corner of their split-level ranch, next to the warmth and soapy smell of the laundry room. The study was a refuge – it made the adults happy because we were out of the way and made us happy because we had our own space. My grandfather kindly retreated to the no-kids-allowed upstairs living room to read his newspapers.The study had a desk, a small TV, a hideabed and a well-worn leather chair and the walls were lined with bookshelves. Prominently displayed on the top shelves were leather-bound copies of my grandfather’s beloved Agatha Christie novels, Time Life books about World Wars I and II and Will Durant’s series The Story of Civilization. On the bottom shelves, partially hidden from view by the chair, were Hans Christian Anderson stories that had belonged to my dad and his sister, which my Nana used to read to us as we cuddled in a row in her big bed. There were also various coffee table books that had been given to my grandparents over the years and a collection of fairy tales with a mesmerizing holographic cover. My cousin Caiti and I, separated by a year, were particularly taken with the Life Magazine books. We spent many afternoons poring over the glamorous black and white photographs of actresses from the 1930s to the 1950s, captivated by the pencil-thin commas of their eyebrows, their smooth white skin and dark grey lips.

One day, when I was about nine-years-old and in this mode, I came across a book that would change my life.

Published in 1981, it was a bestselling humor book, likely a gag gift for my grandmother, a woman known for her love of clothes, glamour and her ability to work a room like nobody’s business. I was utterly captivated and, acting completely out of character and under what my husband and I now call “F-U eyes” from my mother, I begged  Nana to give it to me. Nana, always generous, gave it willingly, seeming almost relieved to be free of it.

It was Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, a book of advice on fashion, exercise, career and romance written by Miss Piggy, as told to Henry Beard. I took to it like scripture, reading it over and over again until the dust jacket was torn and then lost and the spine was broken, causing some of the precious pages to fall to the floor every time I opened the book.  I loved it, but my devotion was not without conflict. Miss Piggy was a problematic guru for me. For one thing, I was still a kid and a lot of the jokes went over my head. I still remember sneaking chocolate chips, eggs and whipped cream into the upstairs bathroom or our house in an attempt to make Miss Piggy’s patented face mask, which was actually a recipe for chocolate mousse.

More significantly, I was simultaneously attracted to and mortified by Miss Piggy herself. As a child, I felt the embarrassment of TV and movie characters so acutely that I would often have to leave the room or hide my face under a blanket. I was of a nature and at an age when being the butt of a joke seemed worse than dying.  Furthermore, as a slightly chubby little girl who already needed a bra, I was also old enough to know that anything fat – especially an actual pig – was not good. I understood that a lot of the joke with Missy Piggy was her exaggerated, aggressive femininity and her unbelievable, but unshakeable, belief in her own allure. It was bad for anyone, particularly a woman, to be so unapologetically sure of themself.

And, yet, she was alluring. The book was filled with glossy photographs of Miss Piggy looking beautiful, dressed  in her “writing outfit” — a pale, pearl grey silk blouse and matching grey wool skirt – or dressed as Bo Derek, Elizabeth Taylor, a geisha. She spent pages extolling the pleasures of dressing for oneself, for the mood or character you wanted to be that day, never bothering to worry whether the look was right for her shape or age, advice that I still follow. I am forever picking a muse from movies, books or paintings and creating looks inspired by them (this is why, despite the fact that there is nothing gamine about me and I’m not pretty enough to carry it off, I have cut my hair into Jean Seberg-like pixies more times than I can count). Miss Piggy was everything I was not — grown-up, glamorous and boldly vulnerable. Her feelings of jealousy, love and excitement were never secret or embarrassing. She owned her feelings the way she owned those long satin gloves and feather boa.

Quite apart from Miss Piggy’s sage fashion advice and inspiring confidence, the book was also my first “Guide to Life,” a genre which has become a permanent fixture in my reading life. These are books that, for whatever reason, have spoken to me and given me tremendous comfort, becoming totems against loneliness and insecurity. Tucked into my stacks of “serious literature” these are books that I’ve read and reread countless times. During my teens, it was Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh, in my early twenties, I turned again and again to When Women Stop Hating their Bodies (a cringe-inducing title that never left my bedroom, but is full of great advice) and Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul. When my son was born, it was The Mother Trip by Ariel Gore, a wise, soulful and funny book that tackles depression and identity in the wake of motherhood. Later, wanting to become a writer, I clung to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which helped my writing a little bit, but mostly helped me confront my crippling perfectionism. In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time with Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and almost everything Sadie Stein writes on Jezebel.

My guides have all shared warm, self-deprecating humor and a confessional sensibility (with the possible exception of Campbell). Many of these books have been written by women, most of them have made me laugh at them and myself and realize that being the butt of a joke can be good for the soul. These writers have been willing to share themselves and the view from their corner of the world in an effort to transcend self-hate, depression, dualism and perfectionism. And, as they’ve come into my life at different points, my guides have helped me find my way.

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