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A male view on ‘chick lit’

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Mitch Traphagen Photo
A view of Mid-town Manhattan from Central Park. Even in a metropolitan area of 22 million people, it is possible to find peace and tranquility.



I don’t remember stepping off the plane, nor do I recall anything in detail about JFK airport. I have only the faintest memory of the taxi ride into Manhattan, and I do not remember meeting the guy who owned the apartment on the Upper West Side in which I would be staying for the next few days. I do, however, distinctly remember wanting him to leave. I wanted peace and solitude. I could figure out for myself where the trash should go.

Finally, he left and I was alone, quite a feat in a metropolitan area of 22 million people. I ambled around the small studio apartment, then walked down the street and watched as a film crew set up for shooting on the upcoming weekend. The film will star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I know him only as the kid from the television show “Third Rock from the Sun.” I would see him occasionally over the weekend, usually from across the street, and I was reminded that time has indeed passed. He’s still a young guy, but he’s no longer a kid.

I turned to walk into Central Park where I found an unbelievable solitude on a weekday afternoon. Yes, there were people there but not many. Everything was green and beautiful and quiet. I was in heaven.

Late in that first day of solitude, I turned on the television in my little apartment. I flipped through the unknown-to-me channels and landed on Julia Roberts. There aren’t many things that can keep me from turning the channel, but Julia Roberts is certainly one of them. She was talking to David Letterman — which meant that at some point she had walked into his studio just a few miles down the road from where I was now watching her on TV. Quite clearly, David Letterman was as struck by her as I was.

She was on his show to promote her new movie, Eat, Pray, Love. It is based on a 2006 bestselling book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert. Until that night, I had never heard of it. I wondered, for a moment, how a book could sell millions of copies and yet I had never heard of it, but didn’t dwell on that, preferring to let Julia tell me the story. Thanks to the compression of modern communication, I learned that she traveled around the world in making the movie and had some good pizza and experiences along the way. Oh, that and it looked like a chick flick. The next day, I decided to get the book to check it out for myself.

I believe that, contrary to conventional wisdom, men experience life in much the same way as women — particularly emotional pain. The difference lies, perhaps, in the analysis, but the pain is felt the same. Men are more apt to say, “Ow, that hurts.” Women say that too, but then go on to describe the pain and the causes and effects and the results and the before and after in detail at which most men soon lose all comprehension. Something hurts or it doesn’t. Gilbert went into detail about her pain beyond my comprehension sometimes, but still I could relate to it. I’ve felt it.

Gilbert experienced an extended and nasty divorce. She didn’t go into detail about the causes but she made it clear that her marriage was making her miserable. Shortly after leaving her husband she began a relationship with another man. When that relationship didn’t work out she was left depressed and ultimately without much in the way of financial resources after the divorce.

She then left for a year of self-discovery. As a younger man, I referred to the same thing as a “vision quest.” I’ve been there, although I could never afford an entire year to do it. It was possible for Gilbert because, as an established author, she sold the concept of Eat, Pray, Love to a publisher and was able to finance her journey with the advance.

She spent four months in each of three different countries. In Italy the months were spent allowing her wounds to heal — and eating a lot of good pizza. She then traveled to India to live in an Ashram to study her relationship with God. In those months, that relationship clearly evolved, she did a masterful job of drawing that evolution for the reader. From there, she went to Bali where she befriended a medicine man of indeterminate age (he might have been 75 or 105 — no one knew). As the year approached its end, it was easy to see in her words just how far she had traveled. She became the person she wanted to be — warts and all.

In turning the pages of her book, I realized that I was in New York City for many of the same reasons she had in making her year-long journey. I arrived in the city alone and feeling beaten down by life. I had only days there, but in those days I found peace and tranquility in that enormous city. So much so that it seeped into my mind and soul, as though they were dry sponges taking in raindrops.

I had absolutely no reason to be in New York. I had no schedule and no to-do list. Being there for no good reason gave me a bit of time — like Gilbert — to allow my mind to slow down. To think about the bigger picture rather than what was next on the schedule. I would love a year to do it but, like most of us, that just wasn’t possible. I gratefully took what I could get.

I am convinced men and women feel pain in the same way. Norms and customs frown upon men crying out in pain. Those norms tell us to “be a man” about things, to suck it up and go on. But that doesn’t make pain hurt less. Perhaps it even makes it worse. I could relate to Eat, Pray, Love — even if some of it was incomprehensible to me. The book isn’t “chick lit” (a phrase used to describe literature written for women), it is for everyone who has had their heart broken. Which means, pretty much anyone could relate to it. With seven million copies of the book sold, and now a movie with Julia Roberts, clearly a lot of people already have.

I was lighter and happier on my return flight to Tampa. A year would have been nice, but it wasn’t necessary. I’m not even sure that New York City was necessary. Maybe next time, I’ll leave my cell phone behind and try the beach or the backyard to slow myself down enough for my mind and my soul to come up for air.

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