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Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who's Been Through It
By Karen Duffy
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A New York Times bestselling author shares wryly funny and heartwarming lessons on life, motherhood, and python attacks.
Named one of Oprah Daily’s 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2022
From becoming an iconic MTV VJ to starring in Dumb and Dumber to being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, Karen Duffy has been through a lot. But it was only when she became a mother that she realized she had some pretty solid life lessons to pass down. In her new book, she offers advice on building a friend group that is weasel free, finding the love of your life, and determining how much to tip the waiter (as with everything—be generous!). With dry humor and maternal warmth, she shows how we all can learn from unexpected philosophers, even from Bulgarian dancing bears.
There are times in life when we should turn to the wisdom of great thinkers. And there are times when you need the kind of enlightenment that only a former Coney Island Mermaid Queen can give. Wise Up offers wisecracks—and some profound insights—in a unique book of parental inspiration.
WHY I WRITE YOU LETTERS
I am writing to you from a body that once carried the promise of yours. Now, when I embrace you, it feels like I am hugging a bicycle: all muscle and bone, sinew and angles. The sharp blades of your shoulders, the stony protuberances of your elbows, the xylophone of ribs, and the knots of spine are far from the soft squish of the ten-pound newborn who cannonballed out of the business end of the birth canal.
You are my only son, and your life has been a rush of moments, from meeting you as you inhaled for the first time as an air-breathing mammal, to applauding as you took your first steps as a toddler, then racing behind you as you scooted to preschool, and cheering as you skated toward the Pee Wee hockey team where you found your people and your place in the world. Now you’re expanding from boy to adolescent, to late teen, to early adult. I carried you in my arms and one day you outgrew this and I set you down and never, ever picked you up again.1
The one consolidative experience shared by the entirety of human life is the months-long gestation, folded up like a tiny lawn chair, inside a woman’s body. You existed in me, and at your birth you began your life and I began a new life as well, one in which your well-being is always within the dominion of my consciousness. To parent is to become inextricably snared in the conflict of cheering on your independence and worrying about your self-sovereignty.
Puberty is an origin story. The ability to transform from child to full-grown human is a superpower. Your body is shape-shifting, and every sense is affected. Your taste in food, the music you listen to, and what you read have all evolved. Your ravenous appetite is fueling your growth. You are stronger and hairier, and a human crop sprayer of B.O. You see your peers and your romantic partners through a new lens. You now possess the terrifying power to contribute to the creation of another human being with the cells of your body. Yes, your body is a temple, but after crew practice it is less a house of worship and more like a Coachella festival for bacteria.
I witnessed your growth and transition from baby, to boy, to man. The stages of development progressed with breathless agility. I miss the big, bald, melon-headed Jack the Lad with the gap-tooth smile. Well, you do play hockey, so maybe I’ll see that toothless grin again. How many more times will I remember that when you wanted to be freed from your crib, you would call me “Sweetheart,” “Darling,” or “Beauty,” the names you heard your father call me when he wanted my attention? How many more times will I tell the story about your kindergarten class calendar, when you drew a naked picture of me in the bathtub reading a book? It was mostly a stick figure, but you went anatomically and hirsutely accurate and drew a lady bush that looked like a raccoon was sitting on my lap, taking a bath with me. That calendar page, which was displayed during the longest month of October, earned me the nickname “Crockett” from the wiseass moms at your elementary school. How many more times will I answer to that sobriquet? On reflection, I do hope that part of my life is ended.
As one of my favorite writers, Paul Bowles, wrote in The Sheltering Sky, “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you cannot even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty, yet it all seems limitless.”
There is a built-in obsolescence to the parent-child relationship. Your childhood seemed boundless, but now you are on the precipice of adulthood. To see the gentleman you have grown into is the greatest happiness of my life. I recognize that I am no longer the sun you once revolved around. You have spun off to create your own new life in a new orbit. My job was to raise an independent progeny. Your job is to be independent. We each have done our jobs. Well done, both of us.
When you were younger, I attempted to explain the physiobiology of your maturation. One of the chemicals swimming in your cojones is the hormone testosterone. This powerful secretion kicks in to customize your face with zits and whiskers and grow muscles and hair. It synthesizes the sinister vapors emanating from your gym bag, delivering a roundhouse kick of adolescent man-stink to the olfactory sense. It fuels your ascent from boy to man. This chemical’s job is the evolutionary command that directs you to pass on your genetic material and have offspring. Young males reject their mums in their adolescent years, despite all that these mothers have done for their sons, in order to separate and develop their own identities. Mothers are so incredibly righteous and awesome, nature had to synthesize a powerful chemical to lessen our bond.
The maternal connection is so Herculean that it can be superhuman. “Hysterical strength” is the extreme capacity for physical power a mother draws on when her child is in danger. This untamed display of strength, fueled by adrenaline, gave birth to the Marvel Comics character the Incredible Hulk. Jack Kirby, his creator, was inspired to father the viridescent superhero after he witnessed a woman lift her car to save her baby who was trapped underneath. The word “hysterical,” of course, comes from the Greek word for “womb.”
An underrepresented and unheralded example of another parental superpower is the self-control to shut our pie holes, step back, and allow our kids to learn from their own missteps and failures. Obstacles and mistakes have a negative reputation, but when we are faced with difficulty, we have the opportunity to prove our capabilities. Aristotle wrote, “It is expected that unexpected things should happen.” Or, as my father always says, the problem is that we don’t expect problems. You need failures and resilience to forge your identity as you separate from your parents.
One day at breakfast we were discussing the eighteen-year-long goodbye that serves as a person’s launch pad toward independence. I noted that one random morning, the sound of me taking a bite of toast would repel you. There are many steps in the teenage evolutionary process. Young men need physical and psychological space from their mothers. You need to separate from me so you will not spend your prime breeding years living in my basement. I did love that special evening when you alerted me that the “Toast Bite of Teenage Independence” was finally heard. Except it wasn’t the sound of toast that triggered your disgust; it was the sound of me chomping into a corn cob like Seabiscuit.2
I have to keep reminding myself that you have a juicy, developing teenage brain and I have a desiccated middle-aged brain. Your gray matter is vastly different from mine. The emotions you experience are more powerful because you have more neurons firing now than at any other time in your life. Between the ages of twelve and twenty-four, our brains develop and change in cataclysmically important and dramatic ways. In these dozen years of development, you obtain vital skills such as learning how to form and sustain friendships, how to navigate taking risks, how to become a citizen of sterling integrity, and, most importantly, how to leave home. This inflates my heart and breaks my heart at the same time.
You’re on your way to being a man of the world, and it’s my job to prepare you in the best way I know how. I’ve turned to Stoic philosophers for guidance on what to tell you and also how to tell you. In the years AD 63 to 65, the retired Roman politician Seneca wrote a series of letters to a still-active younger colleague, containing a compendium of observations on subjects both mundane and elevated. Letters from a Stoic is one of the best and best-known texts of Stoic philosophy. The “epistolary form” of writing letters about philosophy was a well-established tradition among the Greeks and Romans. Through his letters, Seneca is attempting to convey and codify his philosophy.
I’ve always enjoyed writing letters to distant friends and family, and it suits me to write to you now. In our family we write letters and tape them to bedroom doors, slip them under pillows and into shoes. I always hide a letter in your father’s travel bag so he can find it when unpacking. Some letters go through the post, some are left under the breakfast plate or in the refrigerator stuck to your orange juice. Sometimes I leave them in your goalie bag folded inside a skate. When I write you, I have time to think, compose my thoughts, and come up with astounding facts and dirty jokes you can use on your friends. You have time to digest it all at your leisure without needing to run away from my repulsive mastication.
I write you letters because I am confident that my words are better conveyed by my left hand than my mouth. I’m a gasbag, but I can edit a letter. I started writing to you before you were born, parenting for your future. I have siblings I can talk to when I need to fill in stories of our childhood. You are an only child, so these letters are a backup plan in case I get sawed in half by an amateur magician. I hope you will continue to read these letters to your kids long after my cremains are launched into the sky in a dazzling postmortem pyrotechnic display.
I am a black sheep who has raised a white sheep,
1 I looked up the saddest things in the world and this was at the top of the list.
2 The irritation that wells up inside certain people when they hear repetitive noises emanating from the mastication of those around them is called “misophonia.” Your dad took a DNA test and besides being a Neanderthal of Greek and Irish origins, his genetic heritage indicates that he is congenitally sensitive to the sound of people chewing.
GET A LIFE PHILOSOPHY
The Romany community of Bulgaria has trained bears to dance for hundreds of years. It is a medieval tradition that lived on as a modern vestige of the Dark Ages. They raised the cubs in their homes and the bears lived in captivity with their owner’s family. These were brown bears, ursus arctos, known in North America as the fierce grizzly bear.1 The trained bears traveled throughout the region, entertaining Bulgarians wherever they went. The bears were taught to imitate celebrities, give massages to humans, and dance to a tambourine. They were plied with booze by their trainers and the bears were often drunk, but they were still able to perform their infamous dances while schnockered.
In 2007, Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union. Part of the price of admission was banning all dancing bear acts; treatment of the bears was rightfully deemed cruel and inhumane. The poor creatures had been captive their entire lives and their spirits had been broken. Some of the bears were alcoholics, addicted to strong spirits that weakened theirs.
Two animal rights organizations, Four Paws and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, created a special refuge for retired dancing bears. The team at the bear sanctuary had a specialized task: they had to teach freedom to bears who had never been free. Their job was to teach bears to be bears.
The animal behavioral specialists retrained the bears, teaching them how to hibernate, how to hunt, how to have bear sexytime. Food was hidden around the sanctuary to reawaken the foraging instinct that had been trained out of them. The Dancing Bear Park became an ursine experiment in freedom. The bears had to relearn their independence one paw at a time.
Freedom was stressful and strenuous. The bears had to figure out how to live without the threat of the stick or the “treat” of a booze bottle. The sanctuary staff has had great success, but there are times when the bears struggle with the chaos of free will. The difficulty of making their own choices causes pain. At these times the bears revert to the behavior that the rehabilitation staff were trying to get them to unlearn: when they see a human, they get up on their hind legs and dance a jig.
Free will is a challenge not just for retired dancing bears, but for all of us. When we’re scared or threatened, we can fall back on bad habits, just like the bears. We don’t sit up on our haunches and twirl, at least most of us don’t, but we make bad choices, go along with ideas and plans we don’t believe in, and close ourselves off to experience. Relying on unhelpful patterned responses lets laziness imprison us.
We all have a key to our own cages. Reading and educating yourself is a way to pick the lock. The only person standing between you and freedom is you. You are the boss of you; there is no one tethering you or muzzling you or making you dance the tarantella. It is up to you to make the most of your time here.
Jack, as a young man you’re experiencing greater and greater freedom. You have the opportunity to take responsibility for yourself. You’ve always been mostly a perfect child, which has been sort of annoying. But I did notice that when we were shut up in quarantine, you went back to your old habit of letting your dirty boxers pile up in the middle of the floor. The good habit of washing your own laundry receded and, under stress, you reverted to being Pig-Pen.
Like the dancing bears of Bulgaria, humans sometimes fall back on bad habits in order to unburden themselves of some of life’s stresses. With greater freedom comes the challenge of greater responsibility. This is why you need a philosophy of life. A life philosophy is not only about the big existential questions such as, How do I live a good life? Why are we here? How can I serve others? and, Who thought it was a good idea to give one-thousand-pound bears booze and make them shake their hind quarters?
A life philosophy is an attitude. It is your vision for your life. It is the direction you want to go, it is what you do with your freedom, it is your purpose. It is a framework to help you make decisions. It is the wisdom you’ll refer to as you navigate the next eight decades.
Your life is a perishable good. Eighty years sounds like a long time, but it’s just four thousand weeks. Squeeze what you can out of every day. Life is magnificent, then just okay, then amazing, then it is hard and it sucks a bit. But in between the awesome and the suck is the daily duty of living. Marvel at the awesome, and don’t give up when it is hard. When it stinks, find a way to laugh. It will help you figure out how to make it suck less. This is your life, challenging, funny, and ordinary. The more it sucks, the more you need to suck in the amazing moments. Inhale, take it in. Honor your forty trillion cells that make you you. You are buzzing with life force, but we all need help in navigating the complexities of being a human.
Your philosophy for life is your operating manual. It will guide you through concrete questions, such as, What should I study in college? Is this the person I want to marry? How do I apologize after I screw up? What can I do to be of service? and How much should I duke the waiter? (At the very least 20 percent. You are descended from a long lineage of good tippers.) Answering these questions will help you answer the bigger ones, like, How can I be a good person? How can I live a meaningful life?
Philosophy in Greek means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the ability to thrive in a complex world and make thoughtful, generous, and insightful decisions. The choices you make in everyday life are guided by your philosophy. Every day that you don’t get up on your hind legs and dance like a Bulgarian bear is a win.
When I was in my late twenties, I joined some amateur archeologists on a dig at a historic Quaker estate at the eastern end of Long Island. These friends were adventurers, speechwriters, journalists, and celebrated documentary filmmakers. I fit right in with this illustrious group—I was an MTV VJ, mid-priced jeans model, and drugstore perfume pitchwoman, after all. We met through a book club and we have stayed close friends for decades. I’m grateful for their inspiration and guidance, and deeply thankful that they invited me to join that day’s dig, excavating the estate’s antique garbage pit.
Before getting down to the business of digging up pottery shards from the seventeenth century, we were given a tour of the manor. In a formal garden with a reflecting pool stood a row of marble heads. I was intrigued by the statuary, and the grand dame of the manor quizzed us on who they were. My friend Mary recognized the curly-headed visage of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Imperial Rome. I was deeply impressed. If Mary could clock the reflection of the Stoic philosopher-king with barely a glance, I knew I better bone up on my classical studies. Stupidity, ignorance, and envy are powerful motivators. The next day, I purchased the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and it ignited my passion and my daily devotion to reading the Stoics.
I have been at it for nearly three decades, and I think I am a slightly better person for it. I don’t get as angry or anxious and I don’t get (or cause) agita as much as before. I’ve become steadier and more confident. A principal Stoic tenet is that we can’t control what happens; we can only control how we respond. If something great happens, I can enjoy it without getting too caught up or attached to it. If what happens is bad, like my chronic ill health and intractable pain, I have strategies for dealing with them. I have learned acceptance and resilience.
I have kicked fear in the teeth, and I am living what I view as a good life. It is majestic and gnarly, and I am game for the next adventure. After living with a degenerative neurological disorder, after all my body has endured—chronic pain, neuropathy, impaired vision, and loss of smell—I am grateful for what I do have and what I can do. I don’t lament what I can no longer do. I play to my strengths. Stoic principles have illuminated my self-confidence. I have inoculated myself from humiliation. In fact, if I ripped a deafening tugboat fart right now, I would excuse myself and carry on. If I have been thoughtless, I will ask for forgiveness and take actions to make it right.
Epictetus, one of the wisest and wittiest teachers who has ever drawn a breath, observed that everyone faces challenges and that a good life is within the grasp of all of us. He was born a slave, was savagely beaten by his master, and endured chronic pain and disability. I feel a deep connection to his wisdom. The simplicity and clarity of his ideology is transcendent: “If your choices are beautiful, so too, will you be.” This is the thesis for my life. If I were the sort of person who writes and draws ideas on my body with needles and permanent ink, that thought would be my tramp stamp. Make good choices and you will make a good life.
There’s a difference between a little-s stoic and capital-S Stoic philosophy. Little-s stoic means enduring hardships without complaining. Capital-S Stoicism isn’t about keeping a stiff upper lip; it is about living a good and moral life. It’s a classical Greek philosophy devised two millennia ago, but it reads as if the ink were still wet.2 Stoic philosophy is a simple, clear road map to living a joyful, expressive life. It’s shooting for the highest virtues, not suffering in silence. Stoicism isn’t just for philosophers in an ivory tower, it’s for everybody.
The three most renowned Stoic philosophers were:
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher whose bust inspired me to learn about Stoicism;
Seneca, who was a powerful politician and a tutor to the Emperor Nero; and
Epictetus, who was born a slave and became one of the most revered scholars of classical Rome. He was maimed by his master, and his image always includes his crutch. His intelligence was so radiant that he was granted his freedom.
The ancient Stoic writers are long gone, but the concepts live on, in part because they were incorporated into Christian thought. There are two central goals that create the backbone of Stoicism: how to be a good person and how to live a good life.
My gateway book to Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, was actually his personal journal. He titled it “For Himself.” I’d also advise you to keep a journal, for yourself, as a tool for self-reflection. It helps you to learn from your experiences, to forgive yourself when you have been a goon, and to prepare for a better day.
A journal is also a way to memorize valuable bits of wisdom. Writing them down helps fix them in your mind, and they will help guide you. “You become what you think about the most.” “Courage is knowing what not to fear.” “Life gives to the giver and takes from the taker.” I don’t draw all my inspiration from dead white guys; that last one is from noted philosopher Reverend Run of Run-DMC.
One piece of wisdom I think about every day is another pearl from Epictetus, who believed that we can’t control what happens, we can only control how we respond. This is known as the “dichotomy of control.” If that rings a bell, it’s because it is the kicker at the end of the Serenity Prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934. It has been recited at the end of every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting since 1935 and may be one of the most verbalized prayers in the world: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Both the Stoics and Rev. Niebuhr agree that serenity is within you. It is a choice. Millions of recovering alcoholics can’t be wrong.
The average person makes about thirty-five thousand choices every day. The ancient Romans used to flip a coin to make decisions. The “heads” side represented the emperor, who was also considered a god. If god came up, your choice was divinely blessed. For the ancients, “gastromancy” was a way of divining the future through stomach noises. “Tyromancy” means looking for omens in cheeses. Generations of humans have spent billions of dollars and countless hours on fortune tellers, horoscopes, tarot cards, Magic 8-Balls, and self-help books, all with the goal of discovering insight about themselves and how to live a good life. It may have been entertaining, but magic doesn’t work, and research shows that self-help books can be tricky. The reward center of your brain lights up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center just for buying the book, not for adapting new habits and making positive changes.
So, what does work? Reading the timeless classics and putting those ideas into action.
Methods of Divination and Fortune Telling
Alectomancy: Divining the future by interpreting the way a rooster pecks at grain.
Armomancy: Divination from the shoulders of animals.
Favomancy: Interpreting the way beans fall on the ground.
Hieromancy: Divination using entrails. Began in Mesopotamia and was used for millennia. In the nineteenth century, girls would fling herring guts at the wall to see the kind of man they would marry. A straight line meant a handsome, upright man and a squiggly shape meant short and ugly.
Moleosophy: Telling a person’s fortune by moles. The mole on Robert DeNiro’s right cheek indicates success and good luck.
Naevitology: Reading liver spots, carbuncles, and scars.
Nephomancy: Telling the future from the shape of clouds.
Nggam: A Cameroonian method of divination that interprets the movement of crabs or spiders.
Onomancy: Predicting the future based on your name.
Onychomancy: Divining by fingernails.
Parrot astrology: Trained parakeets tell your fortune by picking cards from a special deck.
Phrenology: Reading character and personality based on the shape of the skull. This was once classified as a science!
Pyromancy: The diviner observes flames and interprets the shapes to predict the future.
Snail divination: In Ireland, lovestruck girls would rise at dawn to examine snail trails, hoping they would spell the name of their true love. A black snail is unlucky, but a white snail brings good fortune.
Tasseography: Reading tea leaves, coffee grounds, or wine sediment.
For centuries, philosophers have tried to understand how we make decisions. In part it is because of the prior decisions we’ve made. The key is to make good decisions, and if you’ve been making bad decisions, to make better choices a new habit.
Twenty-four centuries later, the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers continues to help us make good decisions. Stoic philosophy is enduring. The art of living in our modern age can be enhanced by reflecting on the classics. The qualities that the study of philosophy offers you are profound; it creates a framework, a backbone of character. If you start to drift, it’s a compass that shows you your direction and sets you back on course.
- —Named a Best New Book by the New York Post
“These profound and inspiring life lessons are delivered as a series of letters to her son, and they are as erudite and as entertaining as the former MTV VJ herself.”
- "Idiosyncratic and highly entertaining."—Air Mail (Staff Pick)
- “Reading Wise Up put a smile on my face. This book will change lives. Duffy writes seriously important books that she doesn’t take too seriously. I guess that’s the secret. Read this book or you will miss it.”—Bill Murray, comedian, actor, and sage of Hollywood
“Wise Up is a modern and hilarious interpretation of Stoic wisdom presented in compulsively readable letters. It is a captivating guide for living a life of purpose and leaves you with the unshakable belief that beautiful choices make a beautiful life.”—Carole Radziwill, New York Times–bestselling author of What Remains and star of Real Housewives of New York
- “I was blown away by Duffy’s prose—it inspired me and resonated in every bit of my soul. I was so immersed in this book that I cried and I laughed and I often had to pause to reflect. The world will be a better place when everyone reads this book.”—Debi Mazar, actress, icon, and author of Extra Virgin
- "What a beautiful gift Karen Duffy has given us, inviting us to peer over her shoulder as she addresses her teenage son. Never before has a life philosophy informed by the ancient Greeks been conveyed with such zany enthusiasm and delight in language. I laughed so hard I didn’t notice how much I was learning. This is a book that should be read by anyone who is a mother, and anyone who came from one."—Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Great with Child
- "Duff has a wonderful knack of putting Stoic wisdom into words. Wise Up is a masterclass in how to make people smile and pay attention while you're imparting lessons worth learning about some of the most important questions in life."—Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Seal Press