readinglife-3

Once I purchased a miniature notepad whose cover is embossed with the words “A List of Things I Will Eventually Do In Specific Order.” It’s a hip-looking organizational tool, yet I have filled only the first page.

Still, despite repeat evidence that I’m not stellar at following through on list-making, in my mind I continue scrawling on those brown post-consumer sheets of paper. Metaphorically, I have covered them with vows of self-discipline, all composed in the prose style of pioneering chick-lit protagonist Bridget Jones. For three books and counting (the most recent, Mad About the Boy appeared this fall), Bridget has dished to her diary about her grand life makeover plans without relying on first person pronouns.

I’m perhaps not the most recognizable counterpart to Bridget. I’m bookish and at least make an attempt to be countercultural, while she has a broad British ladette persona, deliberately relatable. I read big nineteenth century novels for fun; Bridget’s life story is inspired by several (Tom Jones and the novels of Jane Austen) but her entry into literary life peaked when she asked Salman Rushdie where the loo was at a cocktail party. One of the more amusing moments of the new novel occurs when Bridget, during a pitch session for her screenplay-update of Hedda Gabler, is revealed to have persistently misspelled the Ibsen heroine’s name. And actually, this mistake doesn’t even distinguish me from Bridget. I’ve re-read Pride and Prejudice upwards of six times and I still sometimes forget whether the Bennet family has two “Ts” at the end of their name. (Let me just Google that. Just as I thought.)

Truthfully that’s why I have found Miss Jones to be a kindred spirit–we share a good many flaws. These would include our inattention to detail, our big mouths, and our tendency to open them and insert our feet inside, not to mention fill them with grated cheese straight from the bag. We are ebullient types, me and Bridge — we color outside the lines, blurt things out, knock vases over, and remain superficially convinced that if we just tried harder, we could transcend all that, and become like those coiffed and manicured mommies, the ones who never have a hair out of place. In Mad About the Boy, the embodiment of this ideal is named Nicolette, and Bridget never fails to accidentally call her Nicorette.

Throughout Mad About the Boy, Bridget’s self-upgrade wishlist primarily includes: buying new outfits that render their wearer a facsimile of a collected celebrity facing down Paps on the tarmac; reacting coolly to provocation from fellow pre-school moms whose offspring are dubbed Eros and Cosmata; laying off the wine and cheese; mastering  home electronics; and learning how to flirt digitally, without sending desperate online signals — particularly to the titular boy, a twenty-something May to her December, a love interest first encountered in that brave new world: Twitter.

Mad About the Boy caused a ripple when it was revealed that author Helen Fielding had offed Bridget’s crowd-pleasing husband, Mark Darcy, in order to once again put her heroine’s back up against the wall — and her face on various online dating sites. I was sorry to see Darcy’s demise, but I remained much more interested in watching Bridget battle her own demons, to whose number we can now include “excessive drunk-tweeting leading to loss of hard-won followers.”

One of Fielding’s humblest yet most universal tropes has always been this: however bad things are for you, they’re worse for someone else (Nicolette’s circumstances, be assured, are not as enviable as they seem). Later in the novel, stuck up a tree chasing her kids, Bridget literally shows her ass (in a thong, one of the small ways Bridget and Fielding are stuck in the 90s). And yet because this is a chick-lit novel, and because Fielding is a humanist, this moment of extreme humiliation nets her the attention of an age-appropriate suitor battling back his own trauma. While she will never be a Zen goddess, nor will her new outfit look sensible, what both he and we see is not just a thong, but also” Bridget Jones, survivor, coping with immeasurable loss, and managing to have regular snuggles with her children. Bridget as a character feels like more of a revelation in middle age, with true sorrow lurking around the edges of her capers and scrapes, than she ever was as a “singleton.”

So while the dialectic between Bridget’s constant self-improvement lists, the superego of her diary, and the id-ridden reality of her life has stayed the same, she has progressed. She may binge and spill, yet in Darcy’s absence she has become her family bulwark. Her scrawled declarations that she “must purchase outfit with skinny jeans” and “must stop eating grated cheese out of the bag” serve not merely as zany specimens of life as a hot mess, but also as commentary on ways we try to stay afloat. And as I get older I realize that staying afloat is quite a feat, not a bare minimum.

As for me, my most intrinsic bad habits have settled in. I have a sharp tongue and proclivities towards secret-spilling, messiness, overindulgence and melodramatic reactions to the curveballs life throws. And yet compared the girlish me who read the first Bridget Jones during the summer before college, I am a Zen goddess of sorts, because those bad habits accompany a much more complex, difficult, and consequently joyful existence. I pay the rent! I make it to work! I share the household with another person to whom I am legally and socially bound. Life has deepened and become strewn with impediments, an obstacle course. Thank goodness my bad habits provide some consistency.

If I could transcribe my own mental Bridget Jones’ imitation, it would resemble the following:

  • Will wake up when first alarm goes off, and like zen goddess, write for half an hour to tap into subconscious, then do sun salutations.
  • Will brush all layers of hair, not just the top one.
  • Will refrain from subtweeting in manner that makes target of said tweets obvious. Furthermore, when husband correctly guesses target, will not feign innocence and declare Tweet to be a “sort of general statement about life!”
  • Will not hover around office Munchkin box engaging in ritualistic declaration of “I really shouldn’t, oh no, I’m so bad!” as Munchkins successively slide down gullet.
  • Will read edifying novel during downtime instead of lying under blanket on couch, gliding thumb listlessly over smartphone screen, wondering if “anything is happening on the Internet.”
  • When friends reject invitation to hang out because “too busy,” will not respond with link to viral 2012 New York Times, op-ed, “The Busy Trap”: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.”
  • Will not schedule every hour of week in attempt at existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.
  • Will check to make sure phone is NOT in speak-out-loud “drive” mode before important meetings.
  • After having two drinks on empty stomach at happy hour, will not approach communal chips/dip in manner of desperate mother re-encountering small child lost at the zoo.
  • Will be mindful of spaces between seats on trains, in concerts, and in conference rooms, and thereby avoid injuring bystanders in said spaces with accidental hip thrusts and errant swinging of purse.

None of us ever tick all the items off our self-improvement lists.  We don’t change, except for the fact that we do. We learn to look after of ourselves, and then to love and care for others, and maybe even to live without them in the worst circumstances. Our evolution, our most profound alteration, slips in undetected while we’re preoccupied with modifying our diets, trying to make early morning exercise class, revamping our wardrobes and failing, always failing, to modify our drunk-Tweeting habits.

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