Deborah Copaken Kogan describes writing her entry for the real Harvard red book, twenty-five years after graduating – an experience that inspired her gloriously entertaining, wickedly funny and painfully observant novel, The Red Book, published this week. (‘Part Sex and the City, part The Group, The Red Book has just the right mix of tenderness and laugh-out-loud moments. A heady, addictive read which races along at breakneck speed’ Red magazine – Book of the Month)
I wept when I received my acceptance letter to Harvard, knowing, even without really knowing, what it meant: I was finally free to pursue a life and education unconstrained by the restrictive mores of my suburban Maryland upbringing. I would read Nietzsche! Drop acid! Don black, photograph nudes, pursue a hands-on, dedicated field study of every position in the Kama Sutra!
Little did I realize how quickly those four years of exclamatory endeavors would grind to an abrupt semi-colon; or how ill-prepared I was to face the rest of the sentence, life. Finding a Calling; Earning a Living; Meeting a Mate; Navigating a Marriage; Being a Woman; Surviving Assault; Parenting a Teen; Weathering Failure; Withstanding Illness; Writing a Eulogy: where were those classes in the Harvard course catalogue? Because, really, they would have been a lot more useful than The Monuments of Ancient Japan.
Worse, every five years Harvard forces a discomfiting reckoning with one’s commitment toward anything more taxing than dental hygiene—and even then, who amongst us can honestly say we’re 100% faithful to flossing?—when they ask for a short essay summarizing your life, which subsequently gets shared with all 1600 of your classmates in a printed tome called the red book. Oh, sure, you can lie and tell everyone how perfect your life is, how you’ve never wavered from your one true path, how your spouse is the greatest spouse since the dawn of holy matrimony, and your kids compose arias while simultaneously nailing the formula for cold fusion. Or you can simply choose not to write an entry. But your name and contact information appear in the book regardless of whether you write your micro-biography or not, exposing, via its absence, your inability to complete even the most minor of administrative tasks.
With the imminent approach of my twenty-fifth reunion, the Harvard Alumni Affairs office chose to send me the email asking for my submission the same day I’d angrily flipped open my laptop to google “cheap divorce nyc.” What had my husband and I been arguing about? Oh, who knows? I can’t remember the exact details, but it was no doubt the same fight we’ve been having for twenty-two years—the same narrative with different minutiae, the same verbs with different nouns—and we’d reached a point where we weren’t sure it was worth yet another round of revisions, despite a still-ample inkwell of love. I’d also, that same week, lost my uterus to illness, a good friend to cancer, and the security of our home to the vagaries of the market, after a real estate agent pounded a for-sale sign in front of the Harlem brownstone whose top floors we and our three children have been renting since the start of the recession.
Then there was the issue of my career. In fact, if you are the kind of person whose job it is to predict which industries will die, I have a failsafe scheme for you: call me, ask me to name the industry in which I’m currently embroiled, and short it. Seriously, my track record is impeccable. Photojournalism, TV journalism, magazine journalism, publishing, I’ve planted little flags in each just as the bulldozers arrived.
So there I sat, in front of that blank Word file named “Red_Book_essay_2012,” for days, wondering what to report to my former classmates, all of whom had no doubt weathered life with far more aplomb. The specifics of my story felt embarrassing: my marriage was on the rocks; I’m a novelist in a twitter world; I was about to be homeless. Clearly, my spot at Harvard should have gone to a worthier candidate.
I started flipping back through other red books, hoping for inspiration, realizing that the essays to which I was drawn—like all stories to which I’m drawn—were not the ones that painted the prettiest pictures of life, but those that showed its muddy underbelly: the father mourning the loss of his child; the former happy-go-lucky woman who’d hit a wall of depression; the scads of alumni dealing with infertility, infidelity, dreams deferred indefinitely.
Then I chastised myself: so you’re 46 years old and haven’t figured out life yet? So what? Get a grip! Not on life—it’s a slippery fish—but on your inability to grasp it. Have you loved? Have you lost? Have you made? Have you destroyed? Have you witnessed sunsets, revolutions, kindness, cruelty, first steps and last rites? Congratulations. You’ve lived a life. Now stop pining for a less wriggly version, and set that sucker down.
So I spat out my story, sentence by sentence, and copied and pasted it into the proper blank on the Harvard website. I hit send with a sober mix of relief and mortification. There you are, dear friends: my life, in all of its absurd, naked, unpolished glory.
Of course, there’s still a little time left to change it.