Putting Herself Up for Renewal

Washingtonian contributor Cathy Alter and her husband, Karl Feldman, were married at the Artists Inn Residence in Dupont Circle.

What woman hasn’t grazed the magazine racks at Borders, spied a glossy cover of Cosmo adorned with a gorgeous, airbrushed celebrity, and wondered if, in exchange for forking over a few bucks, she really could rid herself of underarm jiggle and make men melt at her feet? Is anyone reading this raising her hand right now? I didn’t think so. We all wonder if those captivating cover lines can really work. Washingtonian contributor Cathy Alter spent a year finding out—and along the way, found and married the man of her dreams.

At 37, Alter’s list of accomplishments included a failed marriage, a taboo office romance, a less-than-thrilling writing career, and more cigarettes and alcohol than a convenience store stocks. Her wakeup call came when a close friend told her she was too destructive to be around anymore. So Alter sat down and wrote a wish list of what her life would look like in a perfect world. And when she did, the list bore a stunning resemblance to all the things Allure and Glamour offered—to be loved and successful, to stay looking young, to save money.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cathy writes in Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over, the book she wrote chronicling 12 months spent trying to better her life by following the advice of lifestyle magazines. “You’re thinking the same thing I was thinking. Who would be dumb enough to believe that a bunch of magazines, women’s magazines, would have the power to transform her life?”

Fast forward to today—Cathy, now 42, is living the life she was dreaming of. In September 2006, she married Karl Feldman at the Artists Inn Residence, a bed-and-breakfast in Dupont Circle, with 70 friends and family members. “My main goal was for things to be simple and easy and joyous,” she says about the wedding. They held the reception at Cabana’s in Georgetown, where they danced their first dance to an Elvis Costello song that their friend—and the lead singer of the band they’d hired—had learned just for the occasion. The party was topped off with a Krispy Kreme doughnut cake, which the groom and his best friend had built the morning of the wedding. “It was the hit of the party,” says Alter, who has written for the Washington Post, McSweeny’s, Fitness, Prevention, and Self. Her Washingtonian stories include a feature on Georgetown antiques dealers and a profile of the owners of the Inn at Little Washington. She also wrote the First Person in this month’s issue of the magazine (July).

Up for Renewal hits bookstores today. We caught up with Alter, who lives in Georgetown, to find out more about her magazine experiment and what truly changed her life.

Why did you decide to embark on a year of bettering yourself through women’s magazines?

I couldn’t afford to move to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year. So I decided to do something more manageable. I saw these magazines as being full of promise, not lessons in inadequacy. They are there to show you what a perfect life can look like. So I figured I’d take them up on their offer.

What magazines did you subscribe to?

Elle, Jane, Lucky, InStyle, O, Real Simple, Allure, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Self, and Cosmopolitan. Some months, when the magazines hit all at once, I could barely get my hand inside the mailbox.

What were your top three goals going into the experiment?

I wanted to be loved and to love someone who I also wanted to have sex with every day for the rest of my life. I wanted to not feel guilty for saying no. As in “No, I don’t want to call you back, see that movie, be your friend.” And I wanted to stop eating my lunch out of the vending machine and operate more than one burner at a time without breaking into a cold sweat.

You spent each month of the year focusing on a different area of your life. What was the most exhilarating?

For me, cooking month was the best. I’ve never liked cooking. At all. I didn’t grow up with a mother who cooked. So I was really prepared for failure. During this month, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with what he thought was pancreatic cancer. At the end of the month, I decided to have him over for dinner. Sitting around the table with my friend and my boyfriend, all of us together, laughing and having fun, I realized this is why people love to cook. It’s really a gesture—of love and friendship. The eating is secondary.

What was the worst piece of advice you got?

There was an article about keeping secrets from a significant other—that all couples have secrets they don’t share. I used that article as an excuse not to tell my boyfriend something pretty important. I finally came clean before our wedding, and I’m glad I did. A marriage that begins in a lie is a lie.

The most life-altering?

I used an article in Real Simple—a list of questions aimed at getting to know your family better—to have a genuine conversation with my mother, something I hadn’t done in a long time. I mean, I had talked to her but never really felt like she and I engaged in conversation. When I asked her if there was anything about herself she’d like to change, her answer really surprised—and touched—me.

What’s the verdict—can you better yourself based on a magazine?

You can better yourself by reading the cover of a soup can! Magazines were just a vehicle for me—in the way that cooking from the Julia Child cookbook, reading the encyclopedia, or having sex every day for a year were vehicles for other writers. It’s about an internal transformation, which only started to occur when I began the external one.

Looking back, what are the three most important lessons you learned?

I learned that in order to truly change your life, you have to take an active role in changing it. I also learned to develop a better filter. We get advice from everyone—mothers, friends, shrinks, and women’s magazines—but it’s what we do with that advice, heed it or ignore it, that is key. I also learned that if you don’t have a scouring pad, you could use a piece of crumpled up tin foil instead.

What did your then-boyfriend, now-husband, Karl think of your project?

He found it amusing. He actually didn’t realize the major role he played until I completed the manuscript and let him read a bit of it. He was surprised to read his dialogue, stuff he remembered saying months back, and I think he suddenly had the realization that nothing he said was sacred as long as I was working! He really is the hero of the story, which he recognized, so he felt pretty good. The only magazine he really despised was O magazine. To this day, I don’t understand why he hates Oprah so much.

Which magazines do you still subscribe to?

I get Self because I still write for them. And Harper’s Bazaar and Elle because I’d really like to write for them. And Cosmopolitan because you never can read enough about the 7 Triggers for His Pleasure Zones.

If you could pass along one lesson from your journey, what would it be?

If you are unhappy with your life, you need to take an active role in changing it. Do something about it. Whether it’s reading magazines, driving cross-country, or saying yes to every offer that comes your way. And this is corny, but what I really learned is that life—my life—is a work in progress. I’m never going to be perfect, have Jessica Alba’s body and flawless skin, but it is possible to change your life little by little. Because in the aggregate, big things do happen. 

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