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Author lived her life by magazine advice

At 37, Cathy Alter’s life was a disaster. So she turned to a source of consolation: the magazine rack. In "Up for Renewal," she writes about how that decision changed her. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

At 37, Cathy Alter’s life was a disaster. Her career was at a standstill, she was recently divorced, she made self-destructive dating decisions and her diet consisted of vending machine food, cigarettes and alcohol. So she turned to a source of consolation, help and lifestyle advice that women have been consulting for decades: the magazine rack. In "Up for Renewal," she writes about how that decision changed her life. An excerpt.

Do or diet
Taking baby steps into a new life seemed like the most humane way to slap myself in the face. I was not mentally prepared to take on a month of money matters or transform anything with paint. My inaugural challenge should be familiar and manageable. Because personal experience showed that I had more control over what (and not who) I put in my mouth, my first foray into self-improvement was to be food-related.

At five-eleven and a size 6, diet is a noun for me, not a verb. I didn't need to lose weight. I just needed to stop eating the insides of the vending machine for lunch. Plus, an official lunch would provide balance and structure to my routine, elements of a normal life that had been AWOL from mine.

If I didn't have a digestive system more fragile than most tropical fish, I would eat anything put in front of me. Here's a partial list of foods most deadly to me: shrimp, lobster, ice cream, tuna fish, yogurt, cheese, pumpkin seeds, black beans, white wine, Brazil nuts, soybeans, calcium-enriched orange juice, tiramisu, lamb, and anything from Fuddruckers. I also stopped eating red meat when I was poor and living on my own in New York City. Now that I'm more gainfully employed, I'd like to begin incorporating a bit of beef into my diet, but I'm convinced that first hamburger will send my body into seismic shock.

Because I suffered from so many food allergies, I defaulted to bread. And more bread. I kicked off my days with a jumbo cinnamon raisin bagel and often repeated the same breakfast for lunch when I couldn't think of anything else to eat. And if I wasn't eating popcorn for dinner, I was slapping together a peanut butter (protein!) and jelly sandwich or eating a Dunkin' Donuts corn muffin directly out of the bag.

I thought hard about bread and how much I was going to miss a nice crust. I didn't need to open up a single June issue to know that the only acceptable baguettes I'd find would come from Fendi, not France. What I didn't know was what directives were going to come down from the mountain of magazines that were currently piled on my coffee table — and whether their instructions would result in anything suitable for eating. I imagined a month of shelling snow peas and discovering 10 Tricks for Tastier Tofu. I pictured myself the way I envisioned other healthy eaters — clear-eyed and vibrating with sunshine — and realized I was smiling.

Food has always been a vehicle of change for me, and June was always when the drive began. The moment school let out for summer, I was preparing for fall, when I'd reenter school a different person. Tanner, prettier, shorter (I was heads taller than most of the boys in my class), more confident, magically popular, and finally, FINALLY, kissed. Naturally, I thought the last three would happen only if the first three did.

My first attempt at self-improvement took place the summer between seventh and eighth grade, when my mother and I went on the Scarsdale diet. The food, or lack thereof, was practically prison fare: a scoop of cottage cheese, a piece of skinless chicken, cantaloupes ad nauseam. Breakfast, which consisted of a single slice of dry protein toast the size and consistency of a cocktail napkin washed down with a hellish glass of grapefruit juice, was a key hardship.

Sensing the historic significance of a first diet, I documented my regimen with tedious precision; my quilted Holly Hobbie diary soon took on the qualities of an actuarial spreadsheet. When I wasn't suffering through a dressing-free salad or immortalizing it with Dickensonian aplomb, I was breaststroking like crazy in our swimming pool.

I lasted a week, at which point Gail, my best friend since fifth grade, took me to the snack bar at her country club. I became a spectacle of nutritional noncompliance. I happily purchased a bag of Doritos and a cup of hot fudge (for dipping purposes), and we watched a gang of deeply tanned women play mah-jongg with the same gaping interest we normally reserved for the Matt Dillon classic Over the Edge. I had never seen mah-jongg before and assumed that the women, with their coral lips, python-print caftans, and numinous ivory tiles, were gypsies, despite the fact that we were deep in the suburbs of Farmington, Connecticut, at a private club that admitted only Jews.

Not that I should have been on a diet in the first place. I wasn't fat, in spite of my father pinching my "love handles" and nicknaming me Butterball. "Are your thighs still hungry?" he'd ask, whenever I reached for seconds or asked if I could order dessert.

Photos of me at this time show an immature face with full, smooth cheeks, my hipless torso and ribbon legs predicting the shape I would eventually own in adulthood. Yet, at twelve, I had neither the therapy nor the vocabulary to tell my father that he may have been projecting — or getting even with me for every time I poked him in the stomach and asked him to laugh like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

My mother, a six-foot-tall glamazon with a closet pulled from her own clothing boutique, sent the most powerful message to me by way of her dinner plate. I took a nightly inventory of what she ate. "Why don't you want a baked potato?" I'd wonder. "Don't you like the Colonel's special biscuits?"

"I'm on a diet," she'd respond, without fail. To ensure she stuck to it, she'd only stock our cookie jar with Mallomars and our freezer with rainbow sherbet — textures and flavors she found repellent and unworthy.

I grew up accepting the inevitability that once you became a woman, you were always on a diet. Being a woman equaled loss.

As I reached for a bright orange Cosmopolitan with an equally orange (-haired, -skinned, -dressed) Jessica Simpson on the cover, I wondered what was I about to give up — and what I would eventually gain. Flashy and obvious, with page after page of bite-size true confessions about sex in predominantly public places, Cosmo was like diving into a big bag of penny candy. Before I knew it, I was in some sugar-induced euphoria, taking the Cosmo Quiz "Do You Make Men M-E-L-T?"

1. You're checking into a resort with friends when you notice a group of hot guys. You:

a. Pray your pals don't embarrass you

b. Say, "Hey boys, we're in room 508!"

c. Smile. If they start a convo, you'll say "Maybe we'll see you by the pool."

Can you believe that I really took the time to consider these lettered possibilities? Neither could I. But I chose C, the milquetoast of the trio, and moved on.

2. The guy you're casually dating excitedly asks if you've ever kissed a girl. You say:

a. "Wouldn't you like to know."

b. "Gross, never!"

c. "Sure! Wanna see me do it now?"

HILARIOUS! Had this quiz been written in irony? This was funny by design, right? I liked that I was in on the joke and circled A, because seriously, guys love when you toy with your sexuality.

3. You're chilling at the park next to a stud. What do you do to get his attention?

a. Some provocative yoga poses

b. Sunbathe in your bra

c. Pull out your romance novel

I knew a coked-out hairdresser in my neighborhood who would have selected A without a moment's hesitation. I once saw her pull her leg around her head at a dinner party, her crotch aimed directly toward the one straight man in the room.

It didn't take me long to determine the obvious. Cosmo had divided the female quiz-taking population into three groups: Sluts, prudes, and everyone else. Did this prevent me from immensely enjoying the discovery of the apparent? Did this stop me from inserting myself into the rest of the seven scenarios? No, it did not. After I decided the television character I most related to was Elliot from Scrubs and that I'd most likely wear cropped pants and a T-shirt to an outdoor party, I tallied my score and learned that I was a simmering seductress. I "project come-hither vibes that don't scream desperate."

Rather than being dismayed that I had turned to Cosmo to tell me who I really was, I felt oddly validated (as well as highly entertained) and congratulated myself for coming up with this genius idea. In the past, I had to speed-read my way through the latest installments of Glamour or InStyle in the poorly lit waiting room of my dentist's office. Now, I had an actual excuse, a job, a responsibility to read all these magazines every single month for the next year. I could hardly wait for my subscriptions to kick in.

Even though I was supposed to be limiting myself to healthy-eating articles, it was hard not to devour every magazine cover to cover, which took me approximately five hours (not counting the hour I spent online trying to locate the necklace Katie Holmes wore throughout her "Single in the City" photo spread in InStyle magazine).

Spending an afternoon with the ladies, I realized how much voyeuristic, diversionary amusement was available to me, like the article in Marie Claire about a woman who recruits a wingman to help her land a date. It was a different kind of pleasure, this sort of reading, compared to tackling a ten thousand-word profile on Gertrude Stein in the New Yorker, for example. I forgot how much dumb fun regular reading could be. I was both thrilled and horrified by the thought of filling my head with the latest developments in teeth whiteners and wondered what kind of parlor tricks I'd be performing for friends: Look, everyone! Watch how Lucy's jawline softens when I give her a deep side part!

Even if an article was wildly out of sync with my June mission, I tore out whatever I saw as having value for future months. O, The Oprah Magazine, for instance, had devoted the month to "religion," with her Ah, Men! special issue. Inside, there were all sorts of articles with captions like "How to Get Through to a Man," "Bald Is to Male as Fat Is to Female," and the highly educational, "Getting Him to Open Up, or How to Interview a Brick Wall," by Seth Kugel, a New York Times reporter who wrote that getting a man to talk is comparable to cracking a tough subject, like asking Dick Cheney "where the undisclosed location is." And even though David L. Katz's The Way to Eat column was male-oriented, I ripped it out. I figured I could still put it to use the next time I was entertaining my own lab rat, since Katz offered guidance on the healthiest alcohol to serve to a guy who still wanted to pound a few cocktails.

While I built the ultimate reference library, I continued to look for anything food-related. It was pretty slim pickings. Perhaps all the healthy-eating articles appeared in April, with umpteen variations on the "Get Bikini-Ready by Memorial Day" theme plastered across covers. I mostly found articles that offered advice and encouragement for sticking to a diet, not for beginning one. Allure had an ongoing monthly feature called Total Makeover, where a weight-loss specialist had been downsizing three pear-shaped women since January. Next to a full-body shot of each participant (who all got the memo from Marcel Marceau to wear black mime tights on their lower halves) was a chart comparing their current weight, waist, hip, and body fat measurements to their January stats. One of the women, a pretty pale blonde with muscular calves, revealed that she sticks to her diet by rewarding herself with a manicure. Below her profile was a photograph of a cassette tape with words of encouragement recorded by the specialist, who had labeled the tape, "Nothing tastes as great as thin." A little cannibalistic, but the sentiment was well placed. I tore out the page and decided to apply the reward strategy to my own battle with junk food. A manicure would look much better without a fringe of orange Cheetos powder under my fingernails.

Cosmo had a twist on caloric slip-ups, with an "Informer" piece on celebrity binges. I was surprised to learn that Eva Mendes sought solace in tuna sandwiches with "extra onions and Doritos smashed inside." There was even a photo of Eva sitting in a café, shoving something that resembled a Gorton's breaded fish fillet in her mouth. No wonder she was wearing dark sunglasses.

I put off reading Real Simple until the end — mostly because I was tempted by the sheer razzle-dazzle of the other magazines. But it was here, among ample white space, unfussy graphics, and a calm, reassuring tone, that I found my centerpiece for June: four beautifully art-directed pages devoted to covering things in plastic wrap. (This was not to be confused with Cosmo's more faithful interpretation of package wrap. Number 8 in their "Sex Trick Hall of Fame" called for covering a man's testicles with a square of plastic wrap, pressing your lips against the parcel, and humming gently. I made a mental note to file this one away for sex month.)

Besides giving step-by-step pictorials for swathing half an onion and a hearty slice of what looked like frosted lemon cake in plastic, Real Simple had grandly spotlighted a tutorial in sandwich wrapping.

The potential for my personal success was multifold. For one, I would be brown-bagging my lunch, a phenomenon that hadn't occurred since junior high school. Not only was I taking preventive measures against a meal of pretzels and animal crackers, I would be giving my quarters a higher purpose — the washing machine in my building.

I have a thing about cling wrap, aka the kitchen equivalent of a wire hanger. Both menaces share the exact same characteristic — the ability to completely fuck with you. Cling Wrap, wily, born of static, and with a gravitational pull toward its home planet, simply demanded too much work. Maybe I have poor motor control, but I just can't deal with this runaway-train aspect. Aluminum foil is malleable, predictable, and to my aesthetics, so much prettier.

But this project was all about self-improvement. Perhaps learning how to encase a sandwich in plastic would also serve as a meditation on tolerance and acceptance.

Because my kitchen is the approximate size of a welcome mat, with a toaster, microwave, and coffeemaker vying for space on the only counter, I rarely made anything that required a surface area larger than a dinner plate. A sandwich, however, fell within the zoning limit, so I was not feeling any performance anxiety as I set out to prepare my lunch. At 8:30 am, a good twenty minutes before I left for the ten-minute walk to work, I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and set about wrapping it.

Real Simple testers selected Glad's Press'n Seal as the best all-around stick-to-iter (can you imagine what circle of hell the job of analyzing plastic wrap occupies?), but my local supermarket is too low-rent to carry such an advanced piece of technology. I had to slum it with an earlier generation, the classic Cling Wrap.

When I studied the three photos demonstrating the proper wrapping procedure, the first thing that came to mind was jazz hands. Because the only things moving from photo to photo were the hands, which were expressive and dramatic looking. The sandwich maintained the same canted position from one photo to the next. I recalled that scene in The Bird Cage where Robin Williams analogously choreographs his backup dancers. "Now Fosse, Bob Fosse. Martha Graham, Martha Graham!"

I've always been a more verbal interpreter, so maybe the visual cues weren't that important here. I ripped out the sandwich triptych and hung it on the cabinet above my workstation.

Step 1: Tear off a piece of wrap about 14 inches long and put the sandwich in the middle of it.

I took notice of the time as I began: 8:42 am. Acing this first step was critical, and getting the exact size of the plastic would definitely ensure my success. So I took it slow — especially with the tearing of the wrap, my usual point of departure for disasterville.

Remarkably, being vigilant paid off. It was the first time I hadn't either sliced my finger on the box's serrated edge or encased my arm in wrap that had run amok.

Fold the end closest to you up and over the sandwich, pulling it down over the far edge to secure everything firmly.

This assumed that I had positioned everything for a vertical wrap. I had not. My narrow strip of counter runs horizontally. So I had to rearrange the entire operation, which pissed me off in an admittedly disproportionate way. Which further pissed me off.

Step 2: Holding the sandwich by its sides, flip it away from you once, bringing the bottom face-up (make sure you have enough wrap to cover the sandwich entirely after you flip it).

The photo showed a sandwich standing up on its end, with jazz hands on either side, fingers aimed downward, like some bizarre cookery gangsta sign. After reading the instructions another time, I realized that all I had to do was turn the sandwich over, which sealed the open edge. It was the same muscle memory as paying rent, folding a piece of paper around a check to conceal the true contents of the envelope.

Step 3: Press the excess plastic on the right side together and fold it tightly over the top of the sandwich, pulling the flap snug and pressing down gently so it sticks. Do the same on the left side. Flip it over once more; gravity will help the seal stay tight.

Believe me, this was not as complicated as the above instructions may have indicated. The fact that this sort of verbal hijinks appeared in a publication called Real Simple should not be overlooked.

By the time I patted down the left and right sides, despite the exhaustive play-by-play above, the sun had not set, the hens had not come home to roost, and the clock read just 8:44 am. I vowed to get my wrap time down to less than a minute by the end of the week. And of course, the true test would be the sticking factor. When lunchtime rolled around, would the package still be this masterpiece of hermetic engineering?

Whereas I arrived at my cubicle around nine, Bruno usually started his day at eleven, took a two-hour lunch, and multitasked by chitchatting on the telephone, listening to Spanish talk radio, and surfing the Internet. Normally, I would applaud this ability to buck the system and earn a solid paycheck — if I didn't have to work with him. As an art director, he was responsible for taking my words and doing something visually interesting with them — like creating, for instance, a four-color advertisement in a trade journal or a humongous sign to suspend above a conference booth.

While I hung up the picture of Eva Mendes and her Dorito sandwich on the edge of my computer monitor (a visual reminder not to eat anything out of the vending machine), I listened to Bruno on the phone. He was obviously conducting another seduction, emitting scratchy-throated heh-heh-hehs and validating his enamored listener with "Yes, yes, exactly!" After two years of occasionally being on the other end of the phone line, I could tell when he was talking to someone he was fucking.

I used to feel a deep pain in my heart when he'd have phone conversations like this while we were still screwing. It showed a lack of respect on his part that was unfathomable to me. And yet, even though I knew he was courting countless women, I still welcomed him to my cubicle — oftentimes right after he'd hung up the phone with one of his mistresses. I needed to be reassured, and his visits meant (I told myself) that he still desired me, that I still mattered to him in some small way.

For a while, I'd torture myself by listening to Bruno on the phone, hoping I'd finally discover, in my anger, the self-worth I had misplaced since beginning the affair. But the attempts at aversion therapy didn't work. It never got easier for me to hear him sonically caress someone else, but it didn't make a difference to my cravings: I wasn't ready to put the kibosh on our quickies anytime soon.

So I put my head in the sand. I didn't want to hear what I already knew. The split second Bruno's phone rang, I'd reach for my headphones and drown out his greasy seductions by blasting the White Stripes into my brain. Or, I'd play a constant loop of my theme song, L7's "Stuck Here Again." ("Yeah, yeah, I'm stuck here again. I've learned to make bad situations my friend. It starts all over just where it should end. Yeah, yeah, I'm stuck here again.")

As I pulled out that first semi-wrapped sandwich (one side had flopped open like a limp handshake), I toyed with the possibility that Bruno had ruined me. Not in the broken-shell-of-a-woman sort of way, but more subtly, more gradually. Like pushing his thumb in the dirt, Bruno had planted another small dot of disappointment in me, and the delicate new roots, gnarling with older, thicker, and deeper ones, reinvigorated them and spread them everywhere.

What if this was my lot in life, to be internally and eternally infected? Bruno wasn't responsible for all of the damage, but seeing him, hearing him, interacting with him every Monday through Friday was definitely picking at my scabs. And learning how to wrap a sandwich suddenly seemed a futile exercise, like fiddling while Rome burned. Where was an article like "How to Survive an Office Romance" when you really needed one?

I responded to this latest bout of Brunitis by weighing my options. Again. Even while Bruno and I were still, and I use this term loosely, involved, I always had the good sense to go out with other men. A few months earlier I had met a guy on JDate whose profile read like a Jonathan Franzen novella. An economics professor at Georgetown University, Zelly appealed to me immediately, both for his erudite wordplay and his resemblance to my secret fantasy lover, Beck. However, after our first date, it was pretty evident (to me, at least) that we'd just be friends. I stood nearly six inches taller than Zelly, and I just couldn't shake the feeling of giganticness all evening. Zelly, on the other hand, freely admitted to having a tall blond shiksa fantasy, so the fact that I towered over him (and was Jewish to boot) didn't crush his hopes at all. In Zelly I saw the chance to expand my social dance card, and I figured that if I liked Zelly, I'd probably like his friends, so I allowed him to extend the fantasy. And when I learned that Zelly rode a motorcycle, I extended one of my own: the dream of becoming someone's bitch.

I had tried to fulfill this desire through Glen, the guy who loved cowhide and not me. As a marketing tool, he was riding around town on a BMW with a seat reupholstered in brown-and-white-spotted hide. With the hopes of becoming his bitch, I had purchased my own white motorcycle helmet, which began gathering dust in the corner of my apartment as soon as Glen found out about it.

At the end of our first date, Zelly gladly rode me home on the back of his motorcycle. And even though, holding on to his tiny shoulders, I felt like I was riding behind a squirrel, I knew my helmet would finally be seeing some action. When Zelly mentioned he was unhappy with the fit of his riding gloves, I offered to introduce him to Karl, whom I had met when the Washington Post Magazine hired me to cover an event at the ritzy boutique selling Italian high fashion where he worked. That day, while a Hugh Grant look-alike from Milan tried like hell to sell $6,000 made-to-measure suits to the loyal Brooks Brothers population of D.C., Karl and I had talked about his new Harley, which was parked, at a gravity-defying tilt, in the front window of the store.

Image: book cover \"Up For Renewal\"

Karl's boutique was having a huge sale the weekend Zelly and I met, and after hearing a dissertation the previous evening on Hugo Boss, I knew that Zelly was a fanatical shopper (and his small stature made him the perfect candidate for slim-fitting Italian clothing). So I asked Zelly if he'd like to swing by on his motorcycle and accompany me to the sale. Not only would I have another chance to ride on Zelly's motorcycle, I'd be putting two similarly interested guys together and maybe brokering a new friendship — a selfless gesture that canceled out my prime motive for wanting to take Zelly shopping.

It turned out that my matchmaking skills were top-notch, and Zelly and Karl quickly bonded over an equally distributed love of Italian clothing and Japanese motorbikes. Zelly quickly incorporated Karl into his inner circle, and as long as I played the unattainable Jewish WASP, I had a lifetime membership to Zelly's clubhouse. As I tried hard to extricate myself from the fickle grips of Bruno and Glen, I began to rely on Zelly more and more for my social livelihood. Coincidentally, so did Karl, who had up until recently been dating one of Zelly's friends.

After a while, Zelly found a taller, leggier blonde to chase, and he and I slipped comfortably into an easy, uncharged friendship. Karl and I continued to run into each other, mostly late at night, usually on someone else's couch, always with me regaling Karl with yet another story of love, my love, gone wrong. It was on one of those couches, at about 2:00 am, that Karl reached for my hand, told me I deserved more than I was getting, and gave me that sly glimmer of possibility.

"If you're not busy after work, stop by my place for a drink."

Had I been emailing a friend, the above would have taken me around seven seconds to type. However, I was not emailing a friend. The recipient of the invitation was Karl, and I spent over an hour trying to achieve the casual tone and perfect balance of "It's cool, no biggie if you can't, but I am awesome, so why wouldn't you want to hang out?"

I counted to three and pushed send. Then, in a rare display of optimism (not to mention the uncharacteristic pairing of it with a man), I walked to a liquor store near my office and bought a nice bottle of Australian Shiraz and a six-pack of Miller Lite. Oprah had said that the healthiest alcoholic beverage for a man is red wine because, unlike most booze, it has a high concentration of antioxidants called bioflavonoids, which help decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer (although, Karl's smoking might cancel that last benefit right out). Beer supposedly helps protect bone mineral density, and the hops contain some B vitamins.

Back at the office, I bit the bullet and checked my email.

"sure hows 7:30"

There were no capital letters or any attempts at punctuation, but so what? With those sort-of words, I had turned into a breathless girl about to walk into her first boy/girl party. On those banner occasions when I met Glen for happy hour at our neighborhood bar, I had always felt anxious and unsure, like I was his Plan B. And with Bruno, there was always a catch. Like the time he invited me to his place for dinner, reheated some leftovers, and then asked for help with his tax return.

Once home, I walked though my front door and experienced my apartment for the first time, through Karl's eyes. I saw the haphazardly hung art, the butt-laden ashtray, the hideous venetian blinds, and, in the middle of the living room floor, the empty brown grocery bag I had left for my cat Raymond to play in. Welcome, Karl. I am a wacky cat lady with the refinement of a garage sale. Care for a cocktail?

Again, I considered the futility of sandwich month and wished I had started off with something more observable, like sexy hair month. But Karl already knew that I had wavy, dirty blond hair, usually with an errant bobby pin or two. While I waited for him, I killed time with an article in Cosmo that dissected what a man's food cravings (salty, sweet, or spicy) revealed about his personality — both in and out of bed. I had never seen Karl eat anything other than peanut M&Ms, which sort of qualified him for two categories, salty ("He hungers for the company of others so much that he can't stand to sleep alone") and sweet ("A true hedonist, this pleasure pursuer isn't afraid to indulge his deepest desires"). I was tempted to set out a bag of potato chips, a plate of cookies, and a bowl of five-alarm chili to see what he reached for first, but the chance of finding anything like that in my kitchen was, big surprise, zero.

At 7:25, I considered what sort of music Karl might enjoy. Once, when I asked Bruno what kind of music he liked, he mulled it over for a while and then answered, "I like very much what Jay Leno's band plays before the commercials." Not wanting Karl to think I had similarly questionable taste, I thoughtfully scanned my library and selected the Shins' first album, which was neither too fey (Belle and Sebastian), too estro-fest (Sleater-Kinney), or too ironic (Echo & the Bunnymen). Karl showed up just as "New Slang," my favorite song, began to play. As someone who has always believed in the portentousness of music, this was a very good sign.

"Nice hide," Karl said, walking over to the cow-shaped rug in the middle of my living room. "Did you get it from that guy who makes things out of cows?"

"Oh, do you know Glen?" I asked, trying to sound breezy.

"Everybody knows fucking Glen."

Karl's boutique carried some of Glen's handbags, and Karl and I sat down and immediately started ragging on Glen's P. T. Barnum-esque style of self-promotion.

"I've never met anyone so impressed with himself," Karl said, laughing.

"And one so completely unaware of his own bullshit," I continued. There was no way I was coming clean that I once desperately prayed for the attention of this blowhard.

We sat around drinking beer, talking about ourselves in the way you do when you have a completely new audience, and after a while, Karl shook his head slightly and said, "It feels like we're catching up. Like we've known each other our whole lives, but just haven't seen each other in a while."

"I've really missed you," I said.

I still can't believe what happened next (this coming from the same woman who regularly hiked her skirt up during office hours). But this time was different. This time there was no sex in cubicles, no sex on the roof of the Standard Hotel, no sex on South Beach while people practically stepped over us while strolling the shoreline, and no sex on the hood of a rental car in the Detroit airport (oh, Bruno and I got around!); there was no sex at all, actually. It was just that Karl kissed me like he had read my diary, holding my face in his hands, with an intimacy and tenderness that belied our brief history.

"I can't remember the last time anyone kissed me like that," I told him. Of course I realized that I sounded like a Drew Barrymore movie. But the fact was, I really couldn't remember what real kissing felt like.

And because I couldn't think of anything else to say, and because I always looked for trouble when things were going fine, I said, "How old are you?"

I knew Karl's mother was Chinese, and his father was American and Jewish. I knew Karl was born in New York and moved to Virginia as his parents were divorcing. I knew that the part of the Torah he read for his bar mitzvah was about a woman's menstrual cycle. I also knew he was younger than me. I just didn't know how much younger.


If he had asked me my age, I would have told him. But he just continued to kiss me.

After a few weeks of sandwich wrapping, I didn't even have to look at my cheat sheet anymore. Besides packing the PB&J standby, I dabbled in sliced turkey, smoked chicken, and even egg salad. I bought mustard again. And lettuce. I don't think I'd ever bought lettuce. When it wasn't too humid outside, I walked through Georgetown and down to the canal, the same canal I walked along on weekends with Jeanne, and ate my sandwich al fresco. It was relaxing, and I sort of felt like a schoolgirl, carrying my lunch in a Neiman Marcus bag. Sometimes I stopped by Karl's store on the way back to work and said hello or stood outside with him while he smoked a Camel. When I returned from those walks, especially the ones when I visited with Karl, I began to realize the only time I put on my headphones was when my other cubicle mate slurped her coffee. (And when she did, I thought, How can anyone who's been to Italy so many times slurp her coffee?) And, miracle of miracles, perhaps through some divine intervention of sandwich fixing, I no longer felt stung by Bruno's heartlessness. Lunch had gotten me out of more than just the office.

I also realized that in a small way, I'd overcome my resistance to doing something, even something as insignificant as grappling with Saran Wrap. In the aggregate these trivial accomplishments — baby steps really — did add up to quite significant somethings. Maybe that's why these magazines are so popular among women. What's contained inside shows the reader a perfectly imagined future where they won't eat junk food for dinner or become mired under the weight of a cruel and uncaring lover. And that is surely worth the cover price.

As I wrapped up June, I started to get hit with my July issues. It was incredibly hard not to peek, to flip through the upcoming month and get a Christmas Carol-like tour of my future exploits. But that would be cheating. I needed to do the month I was in.

Do the month you're in. It was a good strategy in general — even if it did sound like it was pulled out of a fortune cookie. Or off the cover of a magazine.

Exerpted from "Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over." Copyright © 2008 by Cathy Altar. Reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.