mill valley, california. | newspaper journalist. editor. copy editor and reporter since 1984.
As the j. jane valentine’s series continues, I connect with Vicki Larson, the co-author for the book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics Realists and Rebels. Last week, I had the delightful opportunity to highlight Vicki’s co-author Susan Pease Gadoua. Obviously, I am a big fan of this book. The New I Do offers a realistic overview of marriage in America while attempting to remove, or at the very least cushion the judgement, stigma, and pressure that can go along with wedded bliss and/or a painful divorce. This thoughtful collection of words portrays reality in a gentle and loving way while offering a fresh perspective on relationships in general.
You may be thinking that I have chosen poorly for the first posts in the valentine’s series. Who the hell wants to talk about divorce when cupid is pulling back his hopeful bow? I know – I know, but I am a hopeless romantic laced with realism. Love truly is the greatest emotion of all time, it can lift you up to the moon and stars. Ah … love, sweet love. It can also break you down giving you a glimpse of what hell on earth is like. Ah … love, sweet love. If you are a sophisticated (a kind word for older) reader, you understand that there is more to marriage than just love, sweet love.
Today we get real with author Vicki Larson. Let’s talk career, marriage, and divorce.
How did you choose your career and is the life you lead a conscious decision?
I didn’t start out to be a journalist; I wanted to be an artist and when my parents put the kibosh on that I became passionate about fighting pollution and overpopulation in high school. After attending the first Earth Day event in Central Park, I decided I wanted to save the world as an ecologist. After a year and a half of environmental studies in college, I realized that might be harder than I thought. Discouraged, I dropped out, followed a boyfriend to Colorado and did a number of silly things and worked a lot of crap jobs before I got serious about finishing college in my mid-20s. I had no idea what to study, but I always liked to write, so I entertained the idea of going into PR. My Mass Communications 101 professor, a working journalist, turned me on to journalism; I have him to thank for what I consider the best career, ever.
You are a writer, journalist, editor, and author. What do you do every single day? In other words, what does a typical day look like?
Newspapers have changed a lot since I started; my paper lost two-thirds of its staff in just the past few years, so all of us are doing more with less. Since I am the features editor and writer, I’m really lucky; rarely is my day influenced by spot news—an accident, a murder, a contentious city council meeting. My job is more about covering interesting people doing interesting things in my community—artists, filmmakers, authors, activists, advocates, and people behind the scenes who have stories to tell. I am responsible for all the content in the features section, in print and online, seven days a week. A good chunk of my time is spent planning my sections, editing stories from my freelancers and wire, gathering photos to illustrate the stories, writing headlines and cutlines, and proofing pages. I also write feature stories, which I love, but that gets harder to squeeze in as so much of my time is taken up by planning and editing. And, because of my newspaper’s online push, I have to be active on social media—which I have a love/hate thing with—and connect with my community.
I really enjoy your blog, The OMG Chronicles. Do you find it challenging to come up with fresh subject matter?
Thank you! As a twice married and divorced middle-aged woman and mother who has been dating and in a few long-term relationships, trust me, I have never run out of things to write about! I am fascinated by people, and I love to explore why we do what we do (often irrationally). And I love delving into the numerous relationships we juggle—as spouses, lovers, friends, parents, children, employees/employers, and siblings. I have become slightly obsessed with finding studies that speak to all of that.
As the co-author of the New I Do, can you share the story behind the book? What inspired you ladies to write such literature?
The book was really Susan’s idea, based on her experience working with divorcing clients and their sense of failure, as well as her own experience as the child of divorce and a late marrier. I always fantasized about writing a book, but I imagined it to be along the lines of the Great American Novel (in fact, that was a I promise I made to my parents to get out of working one summer to save up money for college so I could instead join my friends on a three-month cross-country adventure). When Susan told me about her idea for a book, it really resonated; I was already then twice-married and divorced, and had lots of thoughts about marriage, love, divorce, life. We realized the topic was bigger than just our experiences.
After all your research on love, sex, and marriage, what surprised you the most while creating an outline for the “New I Do”?
I was most surprised at how many times marriage has been put under the microscope by people in the past, brave souls who desperately tried to make it be a better fit for who they were instead of cramming themselves into a one-size-fits-all model. Five-year marital contracts in ancient Japan? Three levels of marriage in ancient Rome? Questioning monogamy and the whole institution of marriage in the early 1900s? Renewable three-year marital contracts in the 1970s? I was surprised and energized by how many intellectual minds understood that there were cracks in the marital façade and were boldly trying to forge new paths. Society just wasn’t ready for it then, but we sure are now.
Why do you feel it is so important for people to reevaluate the definition of marriage?
Marriage is no longer essential; we don’t need marriage to have sex, children or financial security, or live with someone. So for the first time in history, marriage has real competition. Yet, marriage still means something to most of us, not to mention that the government gives married couples more than 1,000 perks. Still, the only measure of a successful marriage so far has been longevity — “until death do us part.” But four out of 10 newlyweds have been married before, so clearly many of us are not having “successful” marriages by that definition. Why not help couples have successful marriages by their definition of success? Our No. 1 reason for marrying nowadays is love, followed by commitment, companionship, having kids and financial security. Why can’t financial security or having kids be No. 1? If a couple wants a child and they raise that child until age 18 and then consciously uncouple, they’ve had a successful marriage. If a couple mutually agrees that their partnership is based on trading homemaking or caregiving for financial security, they’ll have a successful marriage. People really are free to create the marriage contract they want. Our book is geared to helping couples realize that and supporting them in their choices.
A friend of mine is an aspiring editor, what is your best advice on how to break into this career field?
If you asked me that 20-years ago, I would know exactly what to tell your friend. Today, I have no idea. Traditional media—newspapers and magazines—have changed so much and have such an uncertain future that I would want to tell anyone considering becoming a journalist, not a “content provider,” that it’s all a big unknown. That said, there will always be a need for people who fight for the underdog, who speak truth to power, who have a nose for news, who care about what’s happening in their communities and the world at large, who will mentor aspiring writers, who have a love of the English language and who feel called to journalism because that’s who they are. I guess my advice would be to write, observe, question, read, connect, and never give up. We need people like your friend.
What has been your greatest obstacle in life and how do/did you navigate it?
Like anyone else, I’ve had my share of obstacles, thankfully nothing life-threatening. The biggest and hardest thing I had to overcome was my second divorce. My kids were 9 and 12 at the time, I was only working part time and I was scared. I had no idea how I was going to support myself and my kids, and I worried how the divorce was going to impact them. While my former husband and I didn’t quite consciously uncouple, we mediated and had 50-50 shared physical custody. Because of that, there wasn’t much conflict, anger or bitterness. It was tough in the beginning, and even though I got a full-time job quickly I didn’t make much money. But somehow we pulled through. I never forgot that my first responsibility was to my kids, and as long as I kept their best interests front and center given our new situation, I knew we’d be OK.
Holidays and celebrations of love (Valentine’s Day) can bring crushing heartache to those who are freshly divorced. Knowing you have experienced two marriages that ended in divorce, do you have any words of wisdom that may help with the healing process?
I don’t think any of us would feel bad about being alone on Valentine’s Day if we weren’t bombarded with advice on how to “survive” it (and by “we” I mean women; I don’t think too many men, if any, are tweaked if they’re solo on V-Day). Yet for a lot of couples, the day often leads to feeling unhappy and unloved, or not loved enough—exactly the opposite! Honestly, I’d much rather be divorced than be in a marriage so fragile that it could create anger, resentment, or frustration depending on how my hubby treated me one day of the year. Being aware of that helped me feel better about being solo on holidays, fabricated ones like Valentine’s or not. While I may not have had romantic love at the time, I had a lot of other kinds of love—my kids, my friends, my dog, my family —and I was working on self-love. I also remained hopeful that romantic love would be back in my life one day. And it was, many times. It will be for you, too. It’s OK to be in that sad, dark, lonely place, even on a holiday; that’s where the most growth occurs. We need to grieve. So be kind to yourself and maybe do something you didn’t have in your marriage and wished you had. Or you can just ignore it.
What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?
Wow, I love this question, choosing “graceful” over so many other adjectives—“good” or “happy”—that are essentially meaningless. A graceful life to me means being grateful for what I have, have a sense of humor about things (especially one’s self) and accepting that there’s a lot in life that’s out of my control. I never cared all that much about money; I have always valued relationships and community, and I am incredibly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life whom I care about and who care about me (despite my flaws). I know it sounds cliché to say, well, that’s all that matters, especially when so many people are struggling so hard to get by with practically nothing. I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who not only lost her home, friends, education and anything that could be considered a normal life at a formative time — ages 12 to 16 — but who also lost her parents. Yet my mom was determined to fill her life with beauty, and she did. She taught me to seek and create beauty. But I don’t feel qualified to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do. I think we all have to find our own path to grace.
j. jane side note:
The photographer behind Vicki’s fantastic photograph is Dieter Zander.