Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. We're all going through transitions, let's master them together. Every Monday and Thursday we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives.
While I think of myself as not particularly interesting, I do have interesting friends. Deb Copaken is one of those friends. She’s fierce, loyal, unflinching, and wickedly honest about all that she sees. And make no mistake, she is a seer. First, of the world – she began traveling by herself as a teenager. Then, as a war photographer – a life that took her from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe to the USSR, and that she chronicled in her bestselling memoir, Shutterbabe. And most recently of the hypocrisies, joys, and cruelties of being a woman, a mom, and a creator in the war zones of Manhattan and Hollywood. These last experiences she chronicles in her latest, just-published memoir, Ladyparts, a modern parable in the tradition of Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham, and Tina Fey. It will be the talk of book clubs for years.
Knowing her eagle-eyed wisdom, I chose Deb to kick off a new feature on The Nonlinear Life: Ten Questions and a Dad Joke, in which I ask someone to help me understand the words we live by. If you read below, I’m pretty sure you’ll understand why I chose her. Enjoy!
1. What’s your favorite word and why?
Kindness. As cheesy as this sounds, I wish there were more of it in the world. I also like the word recul in French, as it doesn’t really have an English equivalent. Having recul means being able to stand back and look at the situation with a little distance and perspective.
2. What’s your motto or an original saying that you live by?
Tikkun olam (תיקון עולם), which is a Hebrew phrase that means, “Repair the world.” In everything I write, I’m always trying––and obviously sometimes failing––to act from a place of reparation: what needs repairing, how can I start repairing it?
3. What an old-fashioned saying that you wish never went out of style?
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’m as guilty of passing quick judgment on people as another, but if we could all just cut each other some slack and get to know one another, I truly believe that everyone we meet has something to teach us. Yes, even the psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists, insofar as they teach us how not to be. Plus they’re so often wolves in sheep’s clothing, it’s important for us not to misjudge them as being kind and generous when they’re secretly heartless and cruel.
4. What’s a truism that you strongly believe is not true?
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” Excuse my French (another old-timey phrase!), but I call bullshit on this one. See in particular: the fallacy of the bootstrap narrative in America, particularly for BIPOCs and women; Jeff Bezos launches himself into space in a penis rocket while his employees are forced to pee in empty bottles to make their quotas; the utter failures and destruction of Reaganomics.
5. What’s your definition of success?
Doing work that’s both meaningful to me and helpful to others; a letter out of the blue from a stranger, telling me how my writing moved them or made them act or gave them hope; choosing, honoring, and working at love every day; having kids who still want to talk with and have dinner with me on occasion; having a roof over my head and food in the fridge; dinner with friends; finding laughter in the pain.
6. What title would you give your memoir?
7. What would you like your epitaph to be?
8. What phrase or saying would your family say you use too much?
Some version of (while shaking my head), “There’s no hope of equality in America until we have universal healthcare, affordable childcare, public preschool, and paid maternity leave…” Also, they get annoyed when I tell them that eating blueberries and dark chocolate is good for their brains and will keep them from getting Alzheimer’s.
9. What song lyric picks you up when you’re feeling down?
No contest: “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone…”
10. What poem can you recite by memory and why?
Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.” That “even so” is so powerful. The whole poem is, in its utter simplicity. What do we all want? To love and to be loved. Full stop. Even when so many things can and do go wrong, don’t go our way, don’t work out, etc. We want love, even so. We want to be loved, even so. Even when we suck. Even when they suck. Even when the world sucks or bad luck befalls us or everything messes up. Even if we fail and fail and fail again. Those words strike me straight into my core, every time.
11. What’s your worst dad joke?
This one comes courtesy of my partner, Will, who says it’s the only joke he knows, let alone the only dad joke: “A three-legged dog walks into a bar in the old west. The bartender says, ‘Three-legged dog, haven’t seen you in these parts recently, whatcha’ doin’ in town?” The three-legged dog says, ‘Lookin for the man who shot my paw.’”
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