Gay Talese on Marriage

Question: Why did you write a book about your marriage? 

Gay Talese: Well, sometimes we are writing about what we think are the one story we haven’t told that we think we should. When I finished my last book, which was A Writer’s Life, I had written about something of what we’re talking about, about how a writer works and sometimes doesn’t work. And before that book, I wrote, as I mentioned, Unto the Sons, which is about where I come from, describing my mother’s store and all that we’ve discussed. And after these two books were published by Knopf, I have another book I owe them, well then what is my other story? Well, my story that I have not written about and must also tell you I am committed to nonfiction. I don’t want to write a novel. That to me- I’m not saying it’s easy, but I have always believed that you can tell stories using real names, real situations and make them stories, readable stories, dramatic maybe without being exaggerated, scenic without using invention. I thought what’s my one story? Well, my one story it seemed to me is a 50-year history of a single relationship that takes place in one building which is the building that I have lived in with my wife since we got married in 1959 or before that, ’58. We got married in ’59, but we lived there in ’58. So it’s 50 years as I speak to you now. And during that 50-year period, always in New York City where the house is, we’ve had a history of two people, children being born, problems, as any relationship over a long period has many problems, reconciliations, different people entering and exiting in your lives, friendships, acquaintanceships, business partnerships, in my wife’s case, always a writer- I mean she’s always been an editor and I’ve always been a writer. And it’s a story of living in a big city in a single house. I kept records. You know, you can- I haven’t said this on your show, but you would imagine I’m a person that keeps records ‘cause I’m a chronicler. And I also didn’t say this, but I save letters and I date them and I file them. And from 19- well, since I met my wife, Nan, which was initially in 1957, I’ve always kept files of every letter, every note, every hardware bill from buying a hammer in 1950-- I probably saved the receipt-- and travel slips and all that material which at least puts dates and triggers your mind if you look at stuff. I’ve saved and I’m having it- I’ve gone over it again, so this 50 years, I have a record of every month of the 50 years. And now I’m finding storylines. What you do in the kind of work I do is first you gather material, you collect material. The next thing you have to do is organize it. And a lot of people collect material, but when it comes to what do you do with it, I mean it’s a whole warehouse of material. All this stuff is in storage. Then you have to get it out and do a kind of choreography. You have to kind of do a montage. You have to create something out of it. I mean there are great sculptors who can get all the spare parts of lawn mowers and leftover parts from a truck and make it into a great sculpture. Well, as a writer, you can do the same, or we hope you can do the same, I hope I can do the same, but that was the idea of getting from this mass material and all these personalities that are interacting with a married couple. And the married couple from the time they were young and a time they were not so young and a time they thought this marriage was all over and the history of the town and the nation going on during this 50-year period I thought would be a story, like a novel, like a generational novel, but not a novel because it’s a story about two real people. Sometimes you read letters between, you know, TS Elliot and somebody or HG Wells and his girlfriend, but these are always years after the person died and usually by a biographer who didn’t even know them. What about a chronicler who was one of the partners? And my wife, I’m having her being interviewed by a third partner and then she’ll be able to take her- now there is a tape recorder at work. Somebody comes in and talks to her and then she’ll get her third person, but I’m writing in first person as I have in the last book A Writer’s Life. So this book is for Knopf and this is what I’m doing.

Question: What makes a good marriage? 

Gay Talese: Well, what makes a marriage last and what kills a marriage. The key word, it isn’t love, it isn’t sex, it isn’t romance, it’s respect. You either have it or you don’t. I mean if you don’t have respect for your partner, your spouse, nothing will save it. And that’s essential. That’s the most essential word is respect. Now I guess different people have a different interpretation of what that means. I can only tell you what it means to me and without it, nothing else would mean anything to me. So, you know, there are times when young people thinking of getting married or getting married, they think of it in terms of bliss or romance or being happy. Oh, they have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You have to have respect. But don’t expect happiness to be an ongoing, you know, god, if they don’t reach the happiness equation, a high level of happiness, then they get out and they cut their losses, goodbye, they move in. They say, “Oh, I’m moving on,” that awful term, moving on. I don’t think you should do that and don’t have to as long as you respect the person. Now in our relationship of this half century, it has had changes. Your life changes, your age changes you to a degree, your expectations are something different when you’re in your 70s as I am in and my wife is in than we were in our 20s just starting out. The history of experience that you’ve had together, the building together, what you’ve built, I don’t mean in a practical sense of owning a house or the children you’ve produced, though that’s important, but I mean all the stuff that happened to the two of you and the roles you played during these maybe they were crises or maybe they were perceived as crises and they really weren’t in the long view back of things, but all the things that were part of your existence together which you may interpret differently, but whatever it is that the interpretation might represent is still a shared experience. And with all these shared experiences and the maintenance of respect through the thick and thin I think is the strong center or fiber that can keep entwined this thing called a lasting relationship. Parenthetically, I’ve always had a wife who worked, I think that’s really important, had a career. It wasn’t that she’s stuck in some, you know, shopping mall with a job she hated. She’s always been interested in reading from the time she was a schoolgirl so she chose something that was connected to what she liked which was reading and became, you know, an editor, first a junior editor and then a senior editor and now she has her own imprint and she has fine, fine writers from the novelists, you know, and Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood or a historian like Antonia Fraser or Pat Conroy, a great storytelling novelist. She has a variety of people that she edits and has always had close relationships with her authors and with her colleagues in the profession of book publishing. She’s had her own life. It hasn’t been my life. It hasn’t been, “Oh, she is the wife of Gay Talese.” Uh uh. And sometimes I think I am the wife of- the husband of Nan Talese. But I’ve had my life too. And as a researching writer, as you’ve heard already in great length, I go on the road and I meet new people and I have my own sense, my own world that I share with my wife and she shares, but we are not so intertwined that we can’t breathe. There’s not claustrophobia. So many relationships, they close in on one another. Now some of this has to do maybe with circumstances. It might be economic, you know? If you’re unable to get any space and you’re crowded and then the arrival of children and the necessity of babysitters, you become old before your time or you become less free. One thing about our relationship that’s been a real advantage is we’ve always had since we’ve always worked, both of us have worked, our combined income have allowed for live-in help when we had daughters. Oh, that was so important. Our first daughter was born in ’64 and we were then married three years. Our second daughter was born in ’67. We lived then in the same place we own now, although it’s been altered because of the circumstances of our daughters leaving home and getting married, but they live in the New York area, both of them. But we’ve always had- Nan and I have always had space.  That’s really important. And we’ve always had someone living in there taking care of the children when the children were unable to take care of themselves before they were school age. And that meant that my wife and I could still go out if we wanted to, not that we always did, but we had the option. There was always somebody and we could always go out. And my wife has always had her sense of self in addition to being a mother or being a wife, being an editor, being many other things. So I think, you know, that’s pretty important. Now it’s not available to everyone and other people make their adjustments in ways that sometimes- you know that there’s Meryl Streep and her husband or the superstars, they have spouses and they do get along to a degree. Some of them don’t, but some people who work in a hardware store don’t get along either.




A chronicler of the lives of others now chronicles his own.

Global climate strike: Scenes from the #ClimateMarch protests

The week-long global protest, which is calling for an end to the age of fossil fuels, is taking place in more than 160 countries today.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Millions of people around the world are taking to the streets to demand more urgent action on climate change.
  • The protests come just days ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
  • Although it's unclear exactly how many people are participating, it's likely to be the largest climate protest ever.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

Millennials and the rise of tiny homes

Are tiny homes just a trend for wealthy minimalists or an economic necessity for the growing poor?

Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / The Denver Post via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tiny home movement has been popular on social media sites, often portraying an idyllic lifestyle that's cheaper and better for the environment without sacrificing aesthetics.
  • But tiny homes may become the answer to a growing population and growing inequality.
  • As the movement continues to build up steam, one has to wonder whether it's a housing crisis solution with a new coat of paint.

Tiny homes. They're the watchword of the Home & Garden network, at once an Instagrammable, envy-inducing lifestyle and an unfortunate necessity for a generation struck by a recession, historically high inequality, and loans taken out for an ostensibly necessary education that's failed to really net any benefits.

But the question is, which are they? A symbol of a smarter, more environmentally-conscious, humbler generation — or a symbol of one that's had to make do with less than its predecessors? (See: "Millennials buy the things their parents did — but they're much poorer.")

Downsizing housing and hubris

Image source: Mike Morgan / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Will tiny homes look like this in the future -- smaller and more efficient but still beautiful?

In the U.S., things are just bigger, and houses are no exception. The median size of a single-family home in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at 2,467 square feet. Compared to other parts of the world — particularly Europe — this is a massive figure. There's a variety of reasons for this; one, for example, is that Americans began driving early and often, which transformed the design of their cities and suburbs. Developers could build outside of urban centers where the land was cheaper and more plentiful, enabling bigger houses to be bought.

In addition, the idea of having a lot of space seems to be an appealing one to the former European colonies — where Europeans have often lived in more cramped, repurposed older buildings, Australians, Canadians, and Americans had the opportunity to seize land (despite it already being occupied) and build new, sprawling settlements throughout it. The prosperity that the America saw in the 20th century didn't hurt, either; why not build big if you've got the money to spare?

But a considerable amount of this space is wasted. A UCLA study found that the majority of people spend their time in the kitchen or around the television and very rarely use the living room or porch. As a result of these extra, unused spaces, more resources are wasted on construction, and energy consumption is double what a family would need if their house only had the rooms that they actually use.

Smaller, more energy-efficient houses are appealing to a growing population of minimalists and resource-conscious individuals. In 2017 alone, the sales of tiny homes increased by 67 percent. Coming in at under 400 square feet on average, these houses are also understandably cheap — for tiny homes on wheels, the average cost is $46,300, while those with a foundation cost on average $119,000. As a result, 68 percent of tiny homeowners don't even have a mortgage.

Downsizing out of necessity

Tiny homes

Image source: George Rose/Getty Images

A community of tiny homes for homeless people known as "Nickelsville" in Seattle.

On the other hand, the group of people drawn to tiny homes isn't just homogenously composed of wealthy minimalists looking to reduce their consumption while still appearing trendy. In 70 percent of the U.S., the average worker can't afford a home, one-third of adults are a $400 bill away from financial difficulty, and a quarter have no retirement savings whatsoever.

Under these conditions, downsizing may be the only viable method to survive. Consider, for instance, how cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are constructing tiny homes as emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. There are also the many retirees that had their savings wiped out by the Great Recession who now live nomadically in RVs and modified vans. This tiny-living trend also has its Instagram cheerleaders, but the reality of it is less idyllic. Journalist Jessica Bruder and author of Nomadland related an anecdote to MarketWatch illustrating the nature of nomadic tiny living:

"I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald's before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman said 'Give me your name and driver's license and if you write a check, I will wait to cash it.' He waited two whole weeks before he deposited it."

This might become a reality for more people in the future as well. Inequality widens when the rate at which wealth grows — say, your stocks or the price of your house — grows faster than the rate at which wages do. Research suggests that wealth is growing at a breakneck pace, keeping in line with economist Thomas Picketty's prediction of a dramatically inequal future.

Solutions for this will need to be found, and many municipalities or private individuals may find such a solution in constructing tiny homes. Homelessness is a powerful, self-perpetuating force, and having shelter is an obviously necessary step to escape poverty.

Regrettably, if tiny homes are being driven primarily by resource-conscious but fundamentally economically secure individuals, we can expect the trend to remain just that; a trend. In a few years, fewer and fewer tiny houses will be constructed and sold, and eventually there will just be a small contingent of diehard proponents of the lifestyle. If, however, the tiny home trend is being driven primarily by economic inequality, then we can expect it to stick around for a while.