Never a Debbie, always a Debra
by Debra Weiner
October 11, 2020
“Debbie”—a perfect example of a life characterized by dichotomies.
You were named after a family friend, the actress Debra Paget. Would life have been different if you had been called “Debra” growing up? Would the use of your birth name have subdued the extrovert and strengthened the introvert?
Growing up as an only child in an adult world, populated mainly by entertainers, was fascinating, but had an extraordinary co-pay: the inability to feel comfortable around your peers. Did it ever occur to you that you were not an adult—no matter how many inappropriate films you viewed or how many chapters of Valley of the Dolls you read when no one was watching?
Well, you were not an adult, merely a precocious only child, who, from a very young age, was appointed as the family “maven.” Which of course gave you an inflated sense of your knowledge of the world, as well as an uncomfortable awareness that the people who made the rules often turned to you for counsel. You learned early on to become a “fixer,” which despite it being a very attractive survival skill, will create huge complications later on.
Having a Christian mother and a Jewish father provided exposure to two very different worlds. While Sunday school was fun as a child, it was attending Hebrew School, beginning at nine years old, that would shape your early identity. Being Jewish felt like being in an advanced placement class at school. Everyone just knew you were smarter. Neither parent particularly cared which world you chose. So why not head to where the food was better, the family louder, and boundaries selective at best?
I was going to tell you that you were far too aware of your circumstances and spent too much time thinking and not enough time playing. But after taking a reflective pause, I realize that you did exactly what you needed to do. It is amusing that you showed a somewhat noble sense of self, when in sixth grade, you insisted that your last name was Windsor and not Weiner. You knew where you wanted to go, you were just too young to get there on your own.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it would have been far better if you could have left some of your intensity behind when you hit college. This was the time to be an extrovert, and not sit in your dorm room and brood while listening to Joni Mitchell. Here’s where the advice of your older self would have been most important to impart.
- Don’t be attracted to people who need fixing. It’s only a distraction from focusing on yourself. You did that enough as a child.
- Don’t take sixteen credits your first semester, as it is only a set-up for failure. Settle for twelve solid ones, even if you have to wait two years to take “Literature and Psychology.”
- Get your passport immediately. It will encourage you to get to Europe sooner and perhaps spend a semester abroad. Use those French and Italian language skills now!
- Know that it is perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” when you really don’t know the answer to a question that someone has asked.
- Take jobs more seriously, even if they are boring. Don’t allow your insecurity to morph into arrogance. People notice people who take their jobs seriously, even if they are menial. I remember a young woman who was an intern at Working Woman magazine during my tenure there. Her duties were mainly answering the phone, filing, and making photocopies. But she did them with great attention to detail. I remember feeling a bit ashamed that her work ethic was much more developed than mine, and it stayed with me for a very long time.
- Bring your lunch and eat out less often. It’s healthier and you’ll save a tremendous amount of money by doing so.
- Start your writing life now. Don’t talk about it, just do it. It’s not easy, but unpublished writers who become published writers have an enviable amount of discipline early on.
- Insist on being called “Debra.” You aren’t a “Debbie” and never will be.
- Smile more. It puts people at ease and emits more positive energy into the world.
- Decide now if you would rather be loved than be right.
- Don’t wait until your 40s to start your own company. The belief that other people may know more than you do should never be a reason to not do something remarkable.
Lastly, play Scrabble more often. You might meet and marry your future husband a few decades earlier—and you will have more time to enjoy Berlin.