Annabelle Gurwitch and Barbara Ehrenreich in Conversation

Robin A. Rothman on May 14, 2014

Wild GodI See You Made an Effort "I feel so fortunate to have first crossed paths with Barbara Ehrenreich when I was researching my book and documentary, Fired!," actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch tells us. "She's so brilliant, funny, and irreverent in the best way possible."

Gurwitch, whose latest book I See You Made an Effort humorously confronts middle-age, spoke with Ehrenreich, who recently published her memoir Living With a Wild God. Naturally the topics of conversation spanned silly and serious, including sci-fi fandom, heaven, and tacos.

We'll leave it to you to decide where those subjects fall on the spectrum.

Annabelle Gurwitch: Barbara, in your book you mention unearthing a box of love letters you had saved in a box. I have those, too; however, we appear to be heading toward a paperless society. I wondered about the gains and losses of this. I mean, has anyone ever saved a Love Text or Love Tweet?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I don't think I could be profoundly moved by something written in a text or tweet. I wouldn't get on a plane because of a text.

AG: I'm sure someone at Google has this data, but I bet there are fewer impulse-plane-tickets purchased to Paris these days. I also drove across the country once on the strength of great penmanship. Now I get "I luv u" texts from my husband on a good day, but that barely makes me remember to schedule our Date Night.

BE: A few years ago, I broke up with someone by email. That was craven. But there's impermanence with paper. It can burn or can be wrecked by floods…

GurwitchAG: Right. Every important message should be carved into stone or painted onto a cave wall. Those have lasted. I really should carve "I'm running 10 minutes late" into stone because it's the text I send all the time. No wait, I should invent an app that automatically sends a text to every person you've scheduled meetings with -- can you imagine how many times those words are typed into phones every day? If I only knew what an app was.

BE: I did once write an insulting email, menacing really; it was about an editor and I hit send and CC'ed her by mistake.

AG: Who hasn't done that?! What was the fallout?

BE: It probably ruined my life in ways that I have no idea.

AG: Is it better to be ruined in ways you so know about, or in ways you don't?

EhrenreichBE: In ways you don't know.

AG: Yes, then you can conveniently chalk it up to God, luck, or Mercury being in retrograde. But should the next generation become completely untethered to material objects... what will happen to all of those Waterford crystal vases we got as wedding gifts?

BE: Well, I had a justice of the peace wedding, so I never got those things.

AG: I have extras, I'd be happy to send them to you.

BE: Don't! I've always had a difficult and tenuous relationship to things. Objects just refuse to cooperate with me. I look at the pile of books on my floor and think, why are you so passive? Why are you waiting for me to put you on the shelf? Then I try to un-see them.

AG: If you can get that to work you could get a whole new book out of it.

BE: Well, I think books just sitting there going unread is sad. It's like money and wealth -- they should always be in motion. In the aggregate they are useless. I always give books away.

AG: Please tell me we're never going to read about you needing to be dug out of your living room.

BE: There's usually a path at least.

AG: I wondered about the title of your book, and whether you considered what the addition of the word God would do to the book's reception in the world?

BE: I did think if we put God in the title it might be the first time I could have a base in the Christian Right.

AG: Has that happened?

BE: Not that I'm aware of, but I do seem to have attracted new kinds of readers -- I was asked how many tacos I could eat in a sitting on a Reddit AMA.

AG: And I admired you for taking the question seriously. Perhaps the question has implications we can't begin to understand. Speaking of large mysteries: by the end of your new book, I sensed your ambivalence about the idea of a palpable Other or Others. What did you mean by that?

BE: I meant that not in a religious, but science fiction context.

AG: Oh, of course! We share a love of the sci-fi genre. A highlight of my acting career was guest-starring as a scientist on the TV series "Alien Nation." I had hoped to portray an alien, but no dice. Do you think there is something transgressive about saying you are a sci-fi fan, and can you avoid being marginalized into the wacko category if you do?

BE: Definitely for a girl it was when I was younger. In the '50s and '60s science fiction was also amazingly sexist. I tried to turn a blind eye to that.

AG: Yes, me too. In the '70s, when I was growing up, I'd play out scenes from "Star Trek." I was always The Kirk, never The Uhura. I also thought kale would never catch on, because I have a deep suspicion of green food, no doubt brought on from repeated viewings of Soylent Green. So, what's a sci-fi movie you've liked recently?

BE: I loved Prometheus.

AG: Barbara, how can you say that? Wasn't it ridiculous when the sleeping Engineer was woken up, and the movie turned into a Western slug-fest?

BE: Well, I liked the idea of a bad God and also that we were given no glimpse of the God's agenda.

AG: Oh, yes, that's true. It was a good twist.

BE: I'd begun to wonder if I could find any entertainment without zombies where the last human on Earth wasn't eating the second-to-last human, so I was moved when the crew blew themselves up to prevent Earth from being destroyed. It was a selfless act. When the lead scientist goes off into space to find where it all started, I teared up.

AG: Well, I do love a good zombie movie. Try Shaun of the Dead -- there's a lot of humanity in that one. You know, I included the story of how I belonged to an alien cult the 1980s in my book. I was worried about the embarrassment of including that story, but what I hadn't anticipated was that people would want to recount their own experiences in cults to me. Do people come up to you now tell you their stories of mystical experiences?

BE: Yes, I should probably issue a public statement: I don't deal in clairvoyance, telepathy, or hallucinations. The other day someone came up and began telling me the details of how he witnessed a dog having an out-of-body experience. He saw the soul of the dog appear in the corner of a room.

AG: So that story assumes that not only is there a soul separate from the body, but that dogs have them as well.

BE: I was reading in a science journal about reality and quantum physics--it was an article making the argument that are no "things," just patterns and relationships between other patterns. So, the mind is a just pattern. Now does it continue on? I hope not.

AG: Well, I find that line of thinking fascinating, but then I remember that I still need to get the pattern that is caffeine into the pattern that is my blood stream every morning in order to wake up, that I've had to develop a working relationship with mom jeans, and that my cheeks have a much closer relationship with my shoulders than they used to.

BE: Yes, we are still subject to limitations in the physical world. I've lost some height.

AG: Well, my grandmother was the size of a ladybug, so I can see where things are heading for me.

AG: If there was an afterlife, Barbara, set the scene for your ideal Heaven.

BE: Well, to make eternity tolerable there would have to be lots to explore. Vistas, hills to climb, and some skydiving would be nice. I could probably get a good 50,000 years out of that.

AG: My version would probably involve having Glenn Gould playing "The Goldberg Variations" over and over. I have an unhealthy OCD-like obsession with that piece of music. But would Glenn Gould have to agree to be in my heaven or would that just be a construct of my imagination? Also, in this life, I've had to give up bread, so the idea of strolling through fields of brioches for at least a portion of eternity is beginning to hold some appeal for me. You know, I was just thinking that the closest thing to God we might ever experience in a tangible way is Google.

BE: Yes, it's omniscient and its workings are unknowable.

AG: It sees us when we're sleeping and knows when we're awake. No wait, that's Santa Claus not God. I often get them confused.

BE: There's got to be an essay in that.

AG: Maybe. I'll try to work in something about tacos.

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