dana cass

the anti-lifestyle blog

ain’t nothin’ but a number

When I was seventeen, the sleepy-eyed 26-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Peggy in 42nd Street fell hard for me. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he’d start, his thumbs pressing the tape into the back of my neck for far longer than he needed to, “but—you’re beautiful.” I’d giggle and look away, not sure what to do, unused to being told I was beautiful and uncomfortable that it was coming from someone older than my sister. (That’s always been my barrier. Are they older than my sister? Then they’re old. Sorry, sissy.)

The night before we opened, he was gone. I think it had more to do with him showing up strung out every night than with him preying on the underaged star, but I was left with the keen sense that I was swimming in deeper waters than I could handle. I was seventeen and a young seventeen at that, and I had read enough Cosmopolitan to be terrified by the prospect of… well… you know.

Time passed, and to my great relief, I discovered that Cosmo had exaggerated the number of alternate purposes I would find for my scrunchies in the real world. (Tangentially, I sometimes wonder what would happen if women were as pushy about the ideas they read in Cosmo (http://jezebel.com/5919206/cosmos-44-most-ridiculous-sex-tips) as men are about porn. Would our nation’s emergency rooms suddenly be filled with men suffering from unspeakable chafing injuries?)

(When I was 21, conversely, I fell hard for the sleepy-eyed eighteen-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Nadine in The Wild Party. It started as a means to check a certain box off my senior year bucket list, but before I even had a chance to remind myself that I was a wild and unfettered senior and not a cradle-robber, I was smitten. Time and geography eventually separated us and now when I stalk him on Facebook I sort of feel like his older sister, which is something Freudian that I don’t want to think about too much.)

I am so aware at every moment of how old and how young I am, of the precise spot I occupy on the space-time continuum. It’s a spot that seems to shift depending on who’s looking at me. “You’re so young,” my coworkers say to me every once in a while when I make a reference to being born in 1989 or admit that I’ve only seen “Saved by the Bell” in syndication.

But that doesn’t happen as often as it used to a few years, during my first year at the company when I was 23. Now I gleefully join in teasing the new generation of 23-year-olds—I work at a software company where there is always a new batch of 23-year-olds, wunderkinds who write software code that solves the most existential problems of CEOs on the Fortune 500, then wake up the next morning to realize that they left their laptop at the bar. “Infants,” I tell them, “you’re all infants,” mostly because they are infants but also because I need to say something to make me stop worrying about the fact that I am no longer a wunderkind myself. (Mostly, though, I take great pleasure in being just older enough that I seem wise without being totally irrelevant yet.)

I feel lately like I’ve been in an extended renegotiation process with my feelings about my age. I had just turned 24 two and a half years ago when I started dating a 33-year-old, which made me feel more special and precocious than anything, even more than working at a company where people regularly marveled at my youth. “I thought you were older,” he said at first, which felt like bullshit given that we’d known each other for a year and that I look so young that, as an adult, I have not once but twice been asked by TSA agents if I’m under twelve. (If you’re under twelve, you don’t have to go through the backscatter X-ray. If a TSA agent thinks you’re under twelve, even though you’re carrying a branded corporate laptop bag and you have a fully grown set of adult breasts, he will actually turn off the machine and ask you your age.)

My next boyfriend was 36. I guess you could call it my older man phase, though I think the second relationship was something of an attempt to make up for the first one, which ended disastrously when it became apparent that I was actually 24 and that even smart 24-year-olds who don’t like brunch are still basically children. That breakup left me reeling. I had just turned 25 and I was watching the new generation of infant geniuses take up the wunderkind mantle at work and my ex-boyfriend had just written me a screed informing me that our breakup was my fault for being immature. (“Imagine one’s girlfriend, nine years one’s junior,” it began, as though I had performed some kind of Catfish-style bait-and-switch instead of just being a pretty girl of ambiguous age with a deceptively robust vocabulary.) So I found a new thirtysomething to prove that I was still special, and then I realized that I’m actually 26 and that even smart 26-year-olds who don’t like brunch are just barely not children and not remotely qualified to get married or have them.

I am dealing now with the repercussions of my older man phase and, at the same time, with the first stirrings of the notion that I’m no longer the freshest thing on the shelf. It was so disorienting to be introduced to my older boyfriends’ family and friends and to sense that they were wondering quietly—or not so quietly, in some cases—what role I was supposed to be playing. I recall a dinner with that first boyfriend’s college roommate and his wife where I was suddenly, keenly aware of how young I was compared to all of them, that two nights later I would be taking Fireball shots at the bar for my friend’s 25th birthday, that I didn’t use eye cream.

(As an aside, last summer I went on a series of terrible dates with men—let’s call them boys—closer to my age. One of them texted me five minutes before our second date to tell me that he hadn’t left his office yet; another smoked three cigarettes in my face and told me that he thought Uber was evil. They had roommates and plans to go to grad school in a couple years, maybe, and I felt old all over again, with my wristwatch and my career and my burgeoning awareness that occasionally, I understand where fiscal conservatives are coming from. It was a mindful attempt to not date people who are older than me just because they also don’t like brunch that taught me that perhaps I should just not date anybody because everyone is terrible in their own unique way.)

I rely so much on my age to tell me what I mean at a given moment. I am younger than you, I am precious or irritating; I am older than you, I’m worldly or maybe I’m pathetic. At 26, fast approaching my late twenties, it occurs to me that from now until many years from now my age will be mostly irrelevant. There are only a few things you can do after 25 or so to be impressive beyond your years and since I’m not about to found a company or publish something literary, I’m pretty sure I’m about to embark on several years of being decidedly average for my age. In ten years or so it will become weird that I’m not married; in fifteen, that I’m not a parent. (And then eventually I think I’ll become one of the kind of old lady who people describe as a “firecracker,” whacking manspreaders on the subway with my cane. Or maybe I’ll just get a cane now and start whacking manspreaders with it.)

Much of growing older makes me sad. The notion of putting away childish things: that I no longer find the joy I once did in novels written for teenagers, that I can’t make the time to perform in community theatre musicals. That I’m never quite as joyful as I was as a child or even as a teenager, that I’ll never be as excited as I was on the first date I ever went on, when I was fifteen (and he, of course, was seventeen). And I’m not naive enough to think that I am anything approaching old, no matter how often I tell my 23-year-old coworkers that they make me feel like a grandmother. I am well aware of how much is left in the world for me to discover.

But for most of my life I’ve built my identity on being little, precocious, special, and that’s really the childish thing that I’m putting away. When I was seven the principal of my elementary school pulled me out of class and made me read out loud from a novel to some visiting official from the school district. I felt validated—whatever that means to a seven-year-old with giant glasses and no friends—in the same way that seventeen years later, I felt validated because an older man that I thought was sophisticated told me that he loved me. It’s been kind of disturbing to realize that such a pillar of my identity is so perishable.

And at the same time it’s invigorating, to realize that my Finnish ancestors all lived until they were about a hundred and ten so I’m only a quarter of the way done, and I have three-quarters of a life left to remake myself into something that doesn’t rely on other people perceiving me in a certain way for me to feel validated or like there’s a reason for me to be here. Like, hey, I’m a person in my own right, and I’m special because I’m special, not because I know more words than the other kids or because I don’t watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. That means that I have to supply another reason why I’m special, of course, which is scary, but it also imbues me with a sense of purpose. Every time I write another chapter of my novel (once every twelve weeks or so, which doesn’t bode well for ever finishing), or get a thank-you email from a coworker, I feel a little closer to finding who I am irrespective of my age and what I am or am not doing with it. I feel more confident that I am doing it right by being alone. I feel wise, almost.

dana got run over by a reindeer

This holiday season, I fell into a funk, captured for posterity in a series of journal entries where I asked myself some variation of “what’s wrong with me?”

I blame Christmas, when the answer to this question is obvious: I don’t have access to a baby or a purse dog or a mini-SUV that I can dress in antlers. It’s all I can do to decorate my apartment past the point of it looking like a prison cell, let alone put up a tree. Although I own an impressive wardrobe of sweaters, I look weird in knit hats. I’ve still never seen either Miracle on 34th Street or Die Hard.

In a nutshell—roasting over an open fire—Christmas is the time of year when being a normal, functional adult is both the most attractive and the most elusive.

For most of my life, I’ve unabashedly loved Christmas. Every year, I have a ritual first listening of Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Until I was probably way older than I should admit on the Internet, I used to close out Christmas whispering to myself in bed, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” I love Christmas so much that when I go to Christmas with my family, I magically transform into my eight-year-old self, and not in the cute way, either. In the “I want to sit on the couch and read Harry Potter! Don’t make me empty the dishwasher!” way.

As I grow older, the holidays serve as a progressively harsher reminder of all of the ways that I’ve failed at adulthood. For instance, eating: what was once a normal activity regulated by my brain stem and aided by my ready access to grocery stores that stock hundreds of different kinds of cereal is now an emotional undertaking that requires yoga breathing and me giving myself inspirational talks in the mirror. Fifteen years ago I was eleven and eating a Chocolate Orange and waffles and maybe part of my sister’s Chocolate Orange. Two years ago I was 24 and I stuck my finger down my throat after Thanksgiving leftovers. How do you reconcile that? What went wrong during those thirteen years? Is there any part of me that is, like Sandra Cisneros, still eleven, and if there is can I find it and cling to it and let it rocket me back into the past like the flux capacitor?

I want desperately to turn back the clock, to be eleven and twelve and thirteen and flop my body along the armchair that once sat in the corner of our living room and now sits in the corner of my studio apartment. I want to read the third Harry Potter for the first time like I did on Christmas in 2001 or so and I want it to be okay that I’m doing that instead of emptying the dishwasher.

In short, on Christmas, the troll inside me that usually only emerges when the N/Q is delayed or one of my coworkers tries to correct my grammar overcomes me.

My trollishness is exacerbated by the fact that everyone else seems to be having a great time. Especially now that everyone has an ugly baby to put in a Christmas onesie, while here I am fifth-wheeling with my family for the 26th year running except for that one awkward year when I brought home a Jewish vegetarian I had been dating for like five minutes and everyone kept offering him bacon. I mostly just want to lock myself in my room, write slam poetry in my journal, and listen to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on repeat, and everyone keeps trying to get me to do things like play Settlers of Catan.

I find a happy medium in the corner with my Kindle, where I drink a beer and glare at everyone. It’s much like the Christmases of my youth, plus alcohol, which means that at some point I’ll stop pouting and start giggling, if we’re lucky, or antagonizing everybody, if we’re not. Then later in the evening—around 8:30, if we’re feeling wild and we stay up late—I retreat to my room and think about what a pill I’ve been for the past twelve hours and wonder if I’d be happier if I had a baby to dress up in a Christmas onesie.

This is the question I ask constantly during the holidays, when I look at Facebook and the family sitting in the row in front of me on my flight out of JFK and the Christmas cards with family photos on them: are you happy? Are you happier than me? Will I ever be as happy as you? How? How do you find happiness when you can’t be eleven anymore and stomp your foot and stamp out of the room and read in your bedroom while the rest of the world goes on around you? How did you grow up and why am I finding it so hard to?

I was happy on Christmas when I was eleven and all I needed to be happy was a Chocolate Orange and the new Harry Potter. I was happy on Christmas when I was nineteen and I was at home with my parents for the first time in five months. I was happy on Christmas when I was 24 and I was finally not the fifth wheel of the Cass family station wagon. I was happy last year, reading books for the first time since I gave up on the anorexia thing and talking with my grandmother for what turned out to be the last time before she passed away a month later.

This year, it felt like the weight of the past 26 years came crashing down on my shoulders: the knowledge that I am no longer eleven so I can’t act like a troll at family gatherings, that I’m bad at relationships and that means I might die alone with cats eating my face, that I’m a recovering anorexic and that means that I can’t eat a cinnamon roll without poking and prodding at my stomach for the next twelve hours.

The transition to adulthood is less of a precipice than an interminably long catwalk, where I’ve been perched for several years now, inching incrementally closer toward being a mature and selfless human and constantly, dramatically, flinging myself backward. It occurred to me this Christmas that the magic secret that everyone else seems to have discovered is something relating to not being a complete jackass all of the time. It’s contrary to my nature as a selfish troll (“spoiled brat,” as my ex-boyfriend once said, memorably) but seems like a necessary final step to getting my grown-up card.

I anticipate that once I make it through a holiday without dropping the F-bomb in public I will receive this card in the mail, followed shortly by my AARP card. Officially, my New Year’s resolution is to have more fun—because you don’t have a lot of fun when you’re too busy starving yourself to drink beers with your friends!—but I think perhaps it’s time for me to focus also on being less of a troll and more of a grown-up.

If I can spend less time Tweeting to the MTA when my train is delayed, less time grousing about the fact that I don’t have my own desk at work, less time making fun of my Facebook friends who hashtag their baby names (just kidding, I’m never going to stop doing that, your baby name hashtag is obnoxious), will I learn to love Christmas again? Is this the modern equivalent of the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes? Is this how you become an adult? Given the amount of tears I shed this holiday season over finally realizing that I don’t get to be eleven anymore, I’m willing to do a lot to find out.

So I guess my New Year’s resolutions are to have more fun and be less of a self-absorbed troll. The easiest path to achieving both of these outcomes seems to be to drink more and volunteer more and go to SoulCycle more often (although SoulCycle is arguably a bad way to not be a self-absorbed troll, since it’s basically paying three times as much as I used to make in an hour to listen to someone tell me that I’m a warrior because I can ride a bicycle that is LITERALLY GOING NOWHERE).

This is getting dangerously close to a schmaltzy NEW YEAR NEW YOU think piece, which is not at all what I intended, but halfway through it was starting to read like something Narcissus might write after a bad day standing in front of the mirror. I promise I won’t start blogging about chia seeds or gratitude, and I’m not going to steal a baby to put it in a Christmas onesie, and if you want to know the worst baby name hashtags on my Facebook feed, I have an opinion on the matter that I’m happy to share.

And frankly, I’ll probably still rage-Tweet at the MTA because COME ON I PAID A WHOPPING $2.75 FOR THIS RIDE CAN’T THE TRAIN MAGICALLY APPEAR THE SECOND I REACH THE PLATFORM? But other than that, I’m totally going to start acting like a grown-up soon. Otherwise I might not get any presents next year, and then I’ll really be mad.

up in the air

“You got Big Green?” my dad used to ask me every time I’d come home for a stretch—first those monthlong winter breaks in college, later a week’s vacation from the office. I’d nod yes, sheepishly, well aware that I didn’t need to bring a suitcase large enough to stash a body in for a weeklong vacation. (Especially given my utter lack of fashion sense. What was I packing, anyway?)

Big Green was a gift from my mother, handed down when I left for college: the largest in a set of pea-green suitcases with lovely quilted paneling that the designer surely chose without considering the indignity of baggage handling. I lugged Big Green back and forth from Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie for four years and when I started hopscotching around the world on business travel a few years later, it came along.

I flew many times before I left for college and was always quite indifferent to it. Flying was the way I got to Grandma’s house, or to Astro Camp, and sometimes I got stuck facing backwards in the lounge seats on Southwest but other than that it wasn’t much of an ordeal. I was going somewhere and I’d be back soon and in the meantime, I’d get to build a bottle rocket.

I packed Big Green for our first trip to Poughkeepsie with confidence. I was going to be the glamorous girl from the West Coast who took Vassar by storm. “Just don’t let me die in a plane crash before I lose my virginity,” I thought to myself as the plane rumbled over the Midwest, Big Green below me in cargo carrying my most precious earthly possessions (ballet slippers, my diary, and a bunch of low-cut tank tops I wouldn’t have dared wear out of the house until I left it).

I returned home several weeks later, unsure of who I was in the way that only an eighteen-year-old can be and wishing that I’d said, perhaps, “Don’t let me die in a plane crash before I get elected senator.” I made my grand entrance into college life with a resounding thump, sweating indelicately on strangers at parties and failing psychology quizzes and tripping all over myself in ballet class.

I trundled back home, Big Green in tow, feeling stupid, untalented, and sweaty. On the return flight, I stared out the window and cried noisily and probably a little more dramatically than was necessary.

Nobody noticed. I decided, then, that the airplane was the only place where I could be my true self. (It was hard, being eighteen.)

The act of travel was stressful. For one, the trek was one that I probably wouldn’t have signed up for if I’d realized what it entailed: a ride in an unmetered, cigar-smelling cab, an hour and a half on the Metro-North to Grand Central, a rattling bus from Grand Central to JFK, a flight to Philadelphia, and then at last to Las Vegas (never does the sound of slot machines sound as comforting as to the prodigal daughter returning home to McCarran Airport). There were always several flights of stairs to drag the suitcase up and down and a gate agent looking down their nose at my 51-pound suitcase (“Can you fit that hairdryer in your purse, miss?”).

More stressful, though, was the knowledge of what lay ahead. At home, there were unspoken questions about my grades, my career plans, my love life. At school, there were my grades, my career plans, my love life. But on the plane, there were pretzels and free soda, and for twelve solid hours I could exist in a space where nobody would look at me or think about me or, if I was lucky, talk to me.

In Las Vegas, I was one girl; at Vassar, I was another. In between, I was an unoccupied vessel. Unoccupied but for pretzels and free soda and “Three Days in Guadalajara” in the United in-flight magazine.

It was blissful to be alone. To be a student at Vassar today—probably, to be a student anywhere today—is to be constantly scrutinized. I felt powerless to throw off the identity that had been assigned to me when I arrived in Poughkeepsie. (The contents of my suitcase, it seemed, were not enough to keep me me.) On the plane, nobody knew who I kissed last weekend or what play I didn’t get cast in. They didn’t ask me what I was planning to do with that English degree or what classes I’d take next year.

I began to wonder whether I could engineer a situation for myself like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” only with meal vouchers and a 24-hour Hudson News nearby. I envisioned myself aging into oblivion in one of the Adirondack chairs in the Philadelphia airport, eating peach rings and reading Entertainment Weekly with my earbuds in.

Reentry, of course, was never quite so unpleasant as I’d worry. In Las Vegas, my father would greet me with outstretched arms and a groan at the sight of my overstuffed suitcase. In Poughkeepsie, I’d drag Big Green up four flights of stairs to my dorm room and wake the next morning, arms sore, reacquainting myself with the radiator’s alien rattle.

(I convinced myself repeatedly over ten years that Big Green was smaller than it actually was. Once, memorably, I brought Big Green home with me from Poughkeepsie via Washington, D.C. for my sister’s graduation from law school, down four flights of stairs out of my dorm and down to more to the train in Poughkeepsie and up one at Penn Station and then, lost in the rabbit warren of Penn Station, up and down again, then, finally, to Union Station, where bless the good people of Washington, D.C., there are escalators.)

Big Green grew up with me as I moved to New York City for the first time, when I booked my one-way flight for New Year’s Eve as both a symbolic gesture and an excuse to avoid my second-least favorite holiday, and then again four months later when I absconded to California.

Today, I fly many times a year for work. Business travel is delicious in a whole new way: I fly from New York to San Francisco or Los Angeles, toting my laptop and feeling chic for about five minutes until I realize that nobody on the plane is peeing as often as I am. (This is true on the ground, as well, but it’s more obvious when you’re all waiting for the same closet in the same metal tube.)

I spend most of my time in the air flailing around with my neck pillow and my Kindle and my laptop and my several bottles of water—hence the peeing—and the blankets and pillows that United hands out, pointedly avoiding thinking about their provenance. (Are they washed between uses? Are they disposable? What’s better, getting Ebola from an airplane blanket or being single-handedly responsible for climate change?)

We talk at work about “protecting” our time. “Do you think you’ll be able to protect your winter break?” my manager asks me, like I’m the Olympic flame and time off is the guy sitting next to it looking bored at three in the morning. My favorite way to protect my time is to fly, where even if the plane does have WiFi I can say it was broken and spend a blissful six hours reading something trashy on my Kindle instead. (If anyone who pays me is reading this, don’t worry. I’m just protecting my time.)

I no longer feel that I’m flying back and forth between selves. Instead, I feel that I’ve strewn bits of identity around the world and through time: here, on a kitchen countertop in San Francisco where I sat, giggling, while my boyfriend fed slices of pear into my open mouth; there, in a café on rue de Gambetta in Toulouse where I watched two policemen in bulletproof vests trade air kisses. In a puddle-jumper over the Palouse where the woman next to me put her hand on mine to stop it shaking; on a Dreamliner over the Pacific where I curled up on the open seat next to mine and woke up with my head practically in the lap of the teenager two seats away.

I bought a new suitcase recently. Big Green was falling apart and besides, a business traveler like myself needs suitcases as chic as her image. (Note for posterity that on my new suitcase’s second trip, the TSA agent manning the body scanner dove in the machine to tell me that if I’m under twelve, I’m not allowed in there.)

I put Big Green out on the curb next to the trash cans and was struck by way more nostalgia than anyone should feel for a suitcase, like I had packed up all my past selves and sent them out to pasture instead of just a suitcase with a giant hole in the side. It’s only appropriate, since I’m no longer the kid coming home from college with an enormous suitcase and an inferiority complex. I’m letting go of my baggage (you see what I did there?!) and traveling lighter. I don’t need to pack myself anymore, I guess—I’ll decide who I am when I get there.

the empress’s new clothes

A red tank top emblazoned with the word DANCE in rainbow glitter. Baby-blue track pants from the Limited Too that snap up the side. Pastel yellow sneakers for skateboarders, doodled all over with ballpoint-pen stars and hearts and Avril Lavigne lyrics.

Beige corduroy bellbottoms. A tiered skirt that falls to mid-calf and soars when you spin. Birkenstocks. A camisole, worn under a long-sleeved henley, that rides up my belly until there’s a roll sitting just below my bra line that I can’t adjust without reaching up under my shirt in the middle of trigonometry in front of everyone. Low-rise jeans.

Jazz pants. Yoga pants. Leggings. Sweatpants rolled up to reveal the tights underneath so you know I’m a dancer. Last year’s dance company T-shirt with the neckline cut away like Flashdance. A hoodie under a puffy coat under a scarf under earmuffs. The Forever 21 version of a Herve Leger bandage dress… with flats. Under a puffy coat.

Fashion bewilders me. It always has. Why didn’t the Abercrombie jeans I begged my mom to buy when I was thirteen make me look as effortlessly perfect as the popular girls at Becker Middle School? Why did I think that beige corduroy bellbottoms were a reasonable alternative? Was I born without the color-matching chromosome? Why did I buy shoes for skateboarders? (Etnies. They were called Etnies, and in my defense, I was only copying everyone else, and they weren’t skateboarders either.)

These are the questions that haunt me.

“Haunt” is a strong word, really. I cared about fashion intermittently, when I’d notice that the girls two lunch tables over looked like Teen Vogue and I looked like Mallory from The Babysitters’ Club (you know, the tragic one. Who got sent to boarding school in the later books. Not that I read those, since they were released sometime after I graduated from high school, and obviously I was busy reading things like Proust and Infinite Jest).

I pick up on trends selectively and without context. Everyone was wearing tiered skirts that soared when we spun, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to wear with my tiered skirt, which was where the Birkenstocks came in. (I was deeply in touch with my inner artist at this point in my life. Me and my Birkenstocks were like Patti Smith and her Capezios.) I begged my mom for the pants from the Limited Too, but by the time I got the matching T-shirt, everyone else had started shopping at Abercrombie.

Or I dressed like the flat-assed girls with their boyish figures, oblivious to how poorly suited my hourglass figure was to, say, anything manufactured by Hollister. There was a point when the girls were wearing belts that they slung sort of uselessly around their hips without threading them through the loops of their skinny jeans. On my hourglass figure, the belt I slung around my hips made its way to my waist and hovered sort of awkwardly on top of my ass. I’d have been better off with a fanny pack or a tool belt.

I was never quite so unfashionable that I could wear it like a badge of pride: I’m too smart, too talented, too busy for something this frivolous. No, instead I packed my closet with an impressively incoherent wardrobe: ill-fitting steals from the sale rack, bright colors that matched nothing found in nature or Nordstrom, flimsy Forever 21 dresses that fell apart after one night in the college dance club. Sometimes I looked childish, sometimes I looked trashy; more often than not I just looked average.

I was okay with average. I knew it wasn’t my thing: there were girls at Vassar who were regular fashion plates, not just the rich girls in actual designer clothes but the thrift-shop hipsters who must have had closets bursting at the seams with patterned skirts and slouchy socks and grandpa sweaters and Coke-bottle glasses without lenses. Most of them, I noticed too, were thin; like the girls whose belts lay flat across their hips while mine rode up stubbornly to my waist, they were gifted in a way that I wasn’t.

Fashion is for skinny girls and runway models. The rest of us just need to keep our nipples covered up and our underwear clean and hope for the best. I just couldn’t be fashionable, I decided, so I gave up, stopped letting it bother me, bought clothes I liked in the fitting room and shrugged when they didn’t match anything else I owned. I focused on things I could control, like taking showers regularly and abiding by social norms. I drew my confidence from other sources: my wit, my intellect, my reliably good hair.

Then I got sick.

Anorexia isn’t fun, but—problematically—being skinny was a blast. I rented a Badgley Mischka dress for my company holiday party and I felt like a movie star or a fashion model or one of those flat-chested girls who could sling a belt around their hips without it getting stuck underneath their boobs.

It was the first time I’ve ever felt glamorous. It was also the first time that I’ve ever been unable to sit down and read a novel because I was starving my brain of the ability to focus, and the first time that I understood what cardiac arrest might feel like, and yada yada yada and so on until it occurred to me that I was engaging in something of a Faustian bargain that probably wasn’t worth it.

So I gave up. I put my sweatpants back on.

As I began to regain the weight, one block of cheese at a time, I grew desperate for a way to feel beautiful. My hair was growing back—and so were my boobs!—but I longed still for a new source of satisfaction. Even cheese was an insufficient drug to get me as high as being skinny did. What could I possibly do to get myself to tolerate, maybe even enjoy, looking in the mirror? How could I find happiness again?

Spoiler alert: I bought it.

My new wardrobe grew organically at first. I couldn’t stand the sight of my body, so I bought swoopy, drapey shirts in neutral colors and paired them with leggings and eventually, when I could stand the buttons jamming into my belly, jeans. I quit buying colors or patterns, anything that would garner too much attention. Everything was black, gray, brown, white, fade-into-the-scenery colors so unlike what I used to buy to beg the world to pay attention to me.

It turns out that limiting myself to four colors and a single aesthetic gave me what I’d been looking for all along: a foolproof wardrobe. Everything I own matches everything else. It’s all boring enough that I could wear the same thing two days in a row and nobody would look twice. I could be pregnant with twins or smuggling arms under my blouses and you’d never know, which wasn’t really a fashion goal but has proven quite useful when I’m feeling particularly self-conscious about the size of my stomach after I do something sinful like eat a burrito.

I feel mysterious in my new wardrobe. I feel grown up beyond belief. I am an adult woman with a closetful of clothes that all match! I look so much like a New Yorker that tourists are constantly stopping to ask me for directions! I feel—dare I say it, I who felt this only when I was starving myself into a state of near-oblivion—fashionable.

I’ve always loved to dress in costume. I grew up in dance and theatre in tutus and Cleopatra wigs and once, memorably, a “napkin” costume with a can-can skirt. I put up with the indignity of tie-dye velour unitards and long underwear meant to convey, abstractly, the notion of a “red-tailed hawk.” I own a suit jacket that I’ve worn twice in my life: once to a high school debate forum and once in a college production of Rent.

Being a recovering anorexic with a credit card is like being an actor let loose in the costume shop. I bought myself a new costume: goodbye movie star, hello… elementary school art teacher, or wallflower New Yorker, or whatever it is I am today, draped in layers of blouse and sweater and wrapped in leggings, whatever I can find that doesn’t remind me constantly that I gave up my chance to be a movie star or a girl who sits two lunch tables over.

I never quite believed that I was an Egyptian princess or a piece of tableware. I don’t quite believe who I am today, either; it still doesn’t come easily to me, and I can still only buy clothing in four colors. (And God help me when tunics go out of fashion.) I get a thrill every morning out of playing dress-up, though, a thrill I never quite knew before I got sick and a thrill that’s only grown sweeter since I’ve gotten better.

I wonder if this is what it’s like for Jennifer Lawrence or Tilda Swinton or the girls at the popular lunch table, if they wake up every morning and climb into a disguise to trick themselves into believing they’re something they aren’t quite yet. I expect it’s not, that like everything else in my life I’m faking it until it becomes habit, like writing technology proposals or being a good girlfriend or cleaning my toilet.

Hey, listen—I’ll fake it indefinitely if it means I never accidentally buy another Forever 21 dress that makes me look like a sparkly potato.

the summer of my discontent

Throughout the northern hemisphere, the school buses are gassing up. Twentysomethings are putting away their cutoff shorts and Indian headdresses until next year’s Coachella. Bartenders are replacing their summer shandies with pumpkin beer and the Gap is stocking their shelves with another season’s worth of infinity scarves that will last all of four months until your cat eats one and you leave the other on the subway. Summer—the calendar and the thermostat aside—is over.

And I, for one, am celebrating.

Have I turned into a parody of myself yet? I hate hugging and chocolate ice cream and puppies and cartoons. And I hate summer.

I write this from my un-air-conditioned corporate apartment in Palo Alto, where instead of enjoying the drama and suspense of this episode of “Flip or Flop,” I am sweating from behind my knees. What kind of sadist builds an apartment complex in a city where it reaches 100 degrees without air conditioning? The same kind of sadist who builds a subway system that for several months out of the year is better described as the ninth circle of hell. Chlorofluorocarbons be damned, I want my air chilled and the backs of my knees dry.

“But it’s summer,” everyone says. “It’s light until nine o’clock! There are music festivals to attend! You can brunch on the patio! Wear shorts! Tan!”

Here are a few more things I hate: sunlight. Crowds. Day-drinking. Clothing that isn’t a muumuu. Did I mention sunlight?

Summer is the season when I feel even less dignified and cool than usual. (I do crossword puzzles for fun and I recently sent several important people at work a document that said “asses” instead of “assess,” so this is an achievement. On the scale from Urkel to Angelina Jolie, I hover somewhere near Katy Perry at the beginning of the “Last Friday Night” video.)

Nothing ruins my day like breaking into a sweat on my way to the train. Here is what happens every single day in summer: I break into a sweat on my way to the train. For the first six minutes of my walk, I think to myself how great it is that I’m not going to sweat today. It’s pleasant out this early! And then a minute before I reach the staircase, a single bead of sweat starts to drip down my back. At this point, I begin to consider turning around and going home. Who needs a job, anyway? Who needs basic human contact? But I work in an office with free food, so I climb the stairs and make my way to the platform, where as I stand in the sun the sweat that was one a single bead becomes a flowing stream. If California could harness the sweat of a million New Yorkers waiting on the subway platform for a train with a mind of its own, there would be no drought. Which is important, given that we’re in a state where they don’t give you air conditioning even though it’s a hundred degrees outside.

On the bright side, sweat is the great equalizer. Everyone looks ridiculous during summer. The only person who wins is the guy on the train who gave up and brought a sweat rag with him. You judge him until you realize that his mascara isn’t running because his bangs are dripping into his eyeballs.

What really does it for me is that summer makes me feel like a big loser. I can trace this back to the summer of 2002, the year that my best friend found new best friends and I spent the whole summer chasing after them on my bicycle while they made up inside jokes without me. The feeling of sunlight on my back PTSDs me back to age thirteen and all the sudden I’m struck by the burning desire for summer to just end so I can go back to algebra and ballet class and a ten o’clock bedtime instead of staying up until all hours waiting for someone, anyone to look at my BuddyProfile on AIM even though I know they won’t because they’re all having a sleepover without me. You know what doesn’t happen when it’s not summer? Sleepovers on a Tuesday.

It’s slightly less dire these days, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching everyone go on weekend trips to the Hamptons and Outside Lands didn’t tug that “everyone is having a sleepover without me” heartstring. Never mind that the idea of a weekend trip in the Hamptons gives me a migraine or that the number of people going to Outside Lands is significantly higher than the number of people that I’m comfortable being in a single location with. Also, I get mosquito bites if I go near an open window. Spending more than ten minutes exposed to the air pretty much guarantees that I’ll wake up the next morning with my ankles swollen to twice their size. I have basically bought stock in Benadryl.

This is why I like winter. In winter, you’re supposed to spend the whole day indoors, curled up on your couch with your own personal pot of coffee and a pile of novels. Radiator doesn’t work? Put on another pair of socks! You can’t get naked on the subway, but you can dress like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. This also means that nobody can tell whether you have a beer belly or you’re just wearing a sweater made from the fur of several alpacas. Who needs a bikini body when you can just wear five layers? Winter is also a great time of year to set new fashion trends, like sub-pants. Pants under your pants. See again: you can’t sweat off a layer of your skin, but if you buy your jeans big enough, you can fit a whole extra pair of thermal leggings underneath them.

In winter, I feel free to let my curmudgeon flag fly. Nobody is trying to get me to wait three hours for mimosa brunch on the patio with every other twentysomething in the West Village. Nobody is trying to convince me that waterskiing is something that would end in a scenario other than me face down in the water with my dignity trailing somewhere far behind me. “Going out” means piling into someone’s apartment with enough Chinese takeout for a small army and watching Mean Girls for the eighteenth time. My favorite theatrical event, the Super Bowl halftime show, takes place during winter, and so does my favorite holiday, the day Jesus was born so I would still have an excuse to ask my mother to buy me new underwear.

Every year, no day is sweeter than the day when I can finally stash my sunscreen and dig out my scarf collection. My coffee cart man will no longer give me the side-eye when I ask for large-black-no-sugar-HOT-NOT-ICED. With boots instead of sandals, I no longer have to fear contracting hookworm on the subway! (Ebola remains a threat. I have been on the L train recently, after all.) I can snuggle into the arms of whatever is most willing to receive me, my couch or the latest stranger I picked up from the Internet.

Happy Labor Day, readers. Let’s go buy ourselves some long johns and spike our hot chocolate. It’s time to hibernate.

fievel goes east

“I’m getting cockles,” I say.

My dad looks at me like I just said I was ordering the insect protein. To his credit, he doesn’t recommend that maybe I ought to stick with the same buttered pasta I’ve been eating since I started in on solid foods fifteen years earlier. “Nice!” he says.

I’m sixteen and we’re in New York City, at an Italian restaurant in an English basement somewhere in Little Italy. The tables are covered in red checkered cloths and “Famous Blue Raincoat” is playing in the background. (“The last time I saw you, you looked so much older/your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder…”)

I decided then that I had to move to New York.

I was born and raised in the desert. My family was never meant to stay in the Southwest for as long as we did. It was one of those modern accidents where you—as my father did—apply to a law school in a state you’ve never seen and all of the sudden it’s twenty years later and you live in Las Vegas with a wife and two kids and a swimming pool.

I’m not sure any of us ever felt we belonged there. It’s little wonder, then, that I grew up hell-bent on leaving. The West is a wild and alien place that both swallows and rejects you. You can drive 45 minutes across town on wide-open six-lane freeways and still feel caged in by the tall and dark and impassable mountains. You can drive to the edge of town and look at the houses sitting at the foot of the mountains and wonder how long it would take for the sun to bore a hole through their roofs.

You can spend an entire day in Las Vegas where the only natural air you breathe is the air in the parking lot. It’s a city where if you’re not careful, Mother Nature will fry you to a crisp and the air conditioning will cryogenically freeze you and you might wake up one day with fake boobs and a Willy Wonka tan. I ate beige foods, listened to bland music; I didn’t like loud noises or bad smells and I steadfastly avoided anything that made me nervous. A suburban city where you don’t have to go outside was just the place for me to grow up without leaving any kind of a footprint on the universe.

We took a vacation to San Francisco when I was eleven or twelve—my first big city—and I was enthralled. For the next several months, I filled my notebooks with stories about seventh-graders who lived in apartments where you could hear someone playing steel drums down the block. They were all more popular, ballsier versions of myself who drew their sophistication and fearlessness from the cities where they lived. They rode to school on the streetcar, not in a minivan.

I wanted to be one of them. Four years later, eating a food that was not only not beige but came from the sea, listening to my dad’s weird growly gravelly music and enjoying it, I thought for the first time that perhaps I could.

Several twists, turns, and poorly advised moves later, here I am at last, 26 years old, living in Queens in a studio apartment with one window and an oven that I can’t turn on.

For a born-and-bred Southwestern, living in New York is like playing a really complicated video game. At every turn, there are cat-calling construction workers and terrible smells and water falling from mysterious places and your goal is to—well, you can’t avoid it, so your goal is to survive relatively unscathed. (To this end, I have considered wearing a poncho. Whatever liquid is falling onto my head from inside the C train can’t possibly be good for my health.)

On summer mornings, by the time I arrive on the train platform, a single bead of sweat is dripping continuously down my back. By the time the train arrives, the sweat begins to leak from my temples. My foundation will drip down my face until the air conditioning kicks on in my train car, several stops in, at which point I will freeze. This is familiar—in Las Vegas, you don’t see a movie in summer without your winter coat—but less familiar is the humidity. I understand now, for the first time, why the word “sweltering” was invented. Summer in the desert might be like living in a hairdryer, but summer in New York is like living in a sauna, only instead of lounging around naked you have to wear pants and walk faster than the person next to you.

The process of commuting really encapsulates the differences between the Southwest and the urban Northeast. Here is what a commute looks like in Las Vegas: Get in your car. Lock the doors. Turn in 94.1 and listen to “Mark and Mercedes in the Morning.” Drive for several minutes. Pass several shopping centers that are indistinguishable from one another. Pass Mr. Happy dancing on the corner of Sahara and Fort Apache. Pass a jackknifed semi truck on the opposite side of the freeway. Swear at the rubberneckers who are slowing down your side of the freeway. Rubberneck. Pass two more shopping centers before you arrive at your destination. At no point are you to interact with another human, save the rubberneckers at whom you swear from behind closed windows.

Here’s what a commute looks like in New York: Leave the office. Accidentally inhale while passing the bodega trash pile. Curse your poor breathing technique. Pass a grown man attaching his backpack to his Razor scooter so he can hold onto his hockey stick while he rides. Pass two models whose stomachs are as wide as your thigh. Avoid making eye contact with the aggressive woman who stands outside the Italian restaurant on 14th between 6th and 7th shoving menus at everyone who passes. Avoid stepping in vomit. Avoid stepping in dog shit. Contemplate stopping in to purchase an Insomnia Cookie ice cream sandwich. Contemplate stopping to purchase bao buns. Accidentally inhale while passing another bodega trash pile. Breathe through your mouth. Wonder whether the cab turning onto 5th is planning to run you over. Wonder whether the cyclist turning onto 5th is trying to get run over. Weave through the dancing Hare Krishnas and the chess players and the drum circle and descend into the fourth circle of hell, the Union Square subway station in the middle of August. Turn circles while you wait to generate your own personal breeze. Look down the tunnel for the telltale glowing lights of the train around the corner. Hallucinate that the lights of the train are around the corner. Board the train. Sit. Pull out your notepad and start scribbling because you are a writer and New York is an inspiration. Write furiously. Notice a shadow. Realize that a six-foot-tall woman who hasn’t showered in months is about to sit on you. Panic. Fly out of your seat and across the train along with the rest of your bench. Wonder what scene from Bright Lights, Big City you’re going to relive next.

I come home every day exhausted. It’s like living in a foreign country where you have learn again how to talk and walk. I know now to order my coffee black-no-sugar-in-a-bag and to cross unless the opposite light has already turned green. I can power through the Times Square subway station like Frogger and stand on my toes so I can clutch the bar on the roof of the train with the tips of my fingers. Realizing that I know which car to board at Broadway so I can get on the L before the hipsters run me over at Union Square was about as exciting as getting my driver’s license (and I didn’t even have to parallel park!).

It’s an uphill battle for a girl from Vegas who grew up with the In-n-Out drive-thru and a washer/dryer downstairs. For a city where you can order a bagel to your front door, New York is the place where convenience goes to die. To order something that will be delivered to your house requires that you either become a bazillionaire who lives in a doorman building or perform an act of coordination that involves working from home and not being in the shower at the one moment between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM that UPS chooses to deliver your rug. Doing your laundry means spending half your Saturday sitting in plastic chairs outside the laundromat with all of the old ladies on your block waiting until their loads of two towels apiece are finished occupying the jumbo-sized dryer. It’s probably karmic retribution for whining about bringing my laundry downstairs when I was a kid. Now I have to schlep it across the street to a laundromat with no air conditioning and at least three dryers out of service on any given weekend.

I live in a shoebox with one window where until I asked my landlord to take it down, there was a big red EXIT sign above my front door. I store my clothing in the same room where I watch Jeopardy! and sleep and work and read the New York Times and break up with my boyfriends. In Las Vegas, we had a living room and a family room and a den. Here, I have a closet with a bed and a television. I like to think of it as cozy, but sometimes I wish I couldn’t smell my pad thai container rotting in the garbage while I’m trying to fall asleep. My friends just moved into a new place in Williamsburg with a gorgeous backyard that you can only access by climbing through the kitchen window. I know people who pay more than I do to live in sixth-floor walk-ups. Your standards are low in a city where it’s considered fiscally responsible to drop an entire paycheck on someone whose only responsibility is to find you an apartment that hasn’t been condemned.

Here’s another thing: you can’t get clean in New York. Las Vegas is spotless. Las Vegas is shiny and silent and there’s trash on one street in the city. Here, I’ve never felt so grateful to wash my hands as I do every time I get off the subway. I feel a layer of grime grow thick on my face over the course of the day and I come home and put on my seven-dollar Neutrogena face mask and it feels like a spa facial. I came home last week from a business trip to discover that if I leave my air conditioner off for a week during a heat wave, my toilet will grow mold. Sometimes I look at my legs after spending the day in a dress and they’re covered in weird black marks. I don’t like to think too hard about what they are. In Las Vegas, you can shellack your hair and paint on your face at eight in the morning and it will still be there at eight at night.

In spite of the grease and the grime, it strikes me often that I’m living the life I dreamed I would live the night my dad and I listened to Leonard Cohen on the East Side.

I felt trapped and terrified by the prospect of living out my life in Las Vegas. I felt like an impostor in a place that should belong to the Earth. I feel freer, somehow, in a place where my ability to get around depends on a big creaky train that runs on Scotch tape and bubblegum. I feel less claustrophobic in my little one-window shoebox than I did in the middle of a vast desert.

And I like how in New York you can go about your business and look at people but you don’t have to talk to them. It’s more my speed than Las Vegas, where God help you if you don’t carry on a ten-minute conversation with the woman working the register at the grocery store. (Let the record stand that when I was a woman in Las Vegas working the register at a store, I also trapped my customers in conversation before I would ring up their socks. You go long enough without seeing another face, you need to know everything that’s behind it.)

Really, New York is an introvert’s paradise. I can spend an entire day without having a conversation with anyone who isn’t the grocery store cashier or my hairdresser and I still feel like I’ve been exposed to most of humanity. I like the sensation of drowning in a sea of faces. It made me anxious, at home in Las Vegas, to go hours and hours without seeing another person.

I could have lived my life in comfortable isolation in Las Vegas. It was easy for me there to avoid what scares me, so I mostly stayed inside. I think if I had stayed inside much longer I would have rotted in my own house.

Here, I feel powerful, living on my own in the city where I ate shellfish for the first time. Maybe it’s just that the simplest things are such a monumental pain in the ass here that the act of doing laundry makes me feel triumphant. Maybe it’s that New York is a city that promises you the world for keeps instead of the world for a weekend. Maybe it’s just that I know definitively that at any given moment, there’s someone weirder than me right around the corner, tying their backpack to their scooter and getting ready to take on the world the only way they know how.

interpreter of melodies

Over the past several months, I’ve caught myself—multiple times—on the verge of tweeting song lyrics like I’m a seventeen-year-old writing on MySpace. I think it’s probably because the last time I had my heart broken like I did a year or so ago, I was seventeen, and it was easier to wear your heart on your sleeve then. Rather, it was easier to wear your heart on your away message, so you could be both in the shower and assuring your love interest who might or might not come online while you’re gone that you are “standing on the bridge, waiting in the dark.”

I miss that.

Some part of me still believes, childish as it is, that music was written just for me. I listen to music like I’m building the soundtrack to my biopic. I keep my ears open for songs that speak to me, that I listen to obsessively on loop because I can’t believe that somebody, somewhere, has peered into the recesses of my brain to write down what I couldn’t explain myself. (Carly Simon was right.)

There was a moment in my early twenties when my emotions became easier to handle but too complex to name. As a teenager, I felt emotions singularly, as points on the spectrum of disdain to despair, interrupted by spikes of joy and rage. And as a teenager in the early 2000s, it was easy to take whatever I’d just heard on 101.9 KISS FM or downloaded on KaZaA, distill it to a single line, and share it with the universe as my new mantra.

When I was sixteen or so, I fell unsalvageably in love with a diehard Queen fan. And so I, too, became a Queen fan, digging in my dad’s record collection and listening to A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. (This after many years of yelling at my dad to “turn it OFF” every time he tried to play classic rock on family road trips. I regret that I now associate Queen not with my dad, but with a teenage boy who wrote on the front cover of my yearbook that “Finland is the home of turds and ugly prostitutes.” In my defense, my taste in men has improved marginally in the years since.)

He rejected me in favor of a girl who was basically my doppelganger, except funnier and with better fashion sense. I logged onto MySpace and renamed myself “So you think you can love me and leave me to DIE??!!” Therapy was cheaper back then. (Identities were also more fluid. You can’t even use your drag name on Facebook, let alone rename yourself with a Freddie Mercury lyric.)

It’s not so easy anymore. Ask me what I feel about my most recent breakup, some three weeks ago, and I would need a whole mood chart so I could point at all the little faces that say GUILTY and SAD and REGRETFUL and RESIGNED. I might ask for a special mood chart where the little face has hidden itself under a blanket with a flashlight, a novel, and a bag of white cheddar popcorn.

As I grow older, I feel more and more that I’m observing myself from afar. I think part of it is that I am, in many ways, what I dreamed I would be: click-clacking down a hallway at work with a sheaf of papers in hand, pushing my way onto a commuter train, holding gloved hands with a boyfriend in the winter. And so present me considers myself the way past me used to imagine future me, only past me wasn’t accounting for all of these unfamiliar emotions, which makes present me want to dissociate a little bit.

Anyway, a good soundtrack does wonders for reattaching my head to my body. (Like Bulgakov’s Woland.)

I think that since that traumatizing breakup last year, I’ve listened to Joan Baez’s cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” probably hundreds of times. I have also serenaded my neighbors with my version, which I hope they appreciate as the artistic and vocal masterpiece that it is. I listened to “Habits” (Tove Lo: “Spend my days locked in a haze trying to forget you, babe, I come back down”) on loop, then I listened to Rumours for a few weeks, then I accidentally listened to the Hedwig and the Angry Inch soundtrack in public and started crying in front of everyone riding the Silver Line back to D.C. (“And I swear by your expression that the pain down in your soul was the same as the one down in mine…”)

I like music because you can project yourself onto it. I read to escape, and I listen to feel.

It’s as satisfying now to feel that a song speaks to me as it was when I was seventeen. It’s less satisfying that I can’t, say, print it on a T-shirt so that everyone around me understands that, in the words of Delta Rae, “if I loved you, life would be easy.” Also, to not stop thinking about tomorrow. (If I’ve learned anything about my adult self, it’s how to apply Rumours to any breakup. It’s a useful skill.)

When I was a teenager, I wanted to plaster song lyrics all over my digital presence so that everybody would know what I was feeling, especially the boys would would always be my Konstantine and the girls who were… well, Jolene. (They never listened. They ALWAYS took my man.) Nowadays, I think I’m just so excited that somebody has crystallized what I’m feeling into verse that I want to share that with the world. There is so much to choose from at any given moment—regret and exhaustion and optimism and frisson and malaise—that to focus for a few minutes on one feeling is the equivalent of my therapist looking at me and telling me what I’m feeling.

It’s enough, now, just to sit back and feel comforted by the fact that somebody else has been there and survived. And it makes me want to live a life like my favorite songwriters lived—to get off my computer and go down to the Village and find some sad-eyed guitarist who will write a song about how they know that I’m half crazy so I can know, definitively, that a song was written for me.

rules of engagement

“Well, he said you’re cute, but kind of… weird,” she tells me, sheepish. “Like, he said he looks over in class sometimes and you’re, like… giggling to yourself?”

I’m offended, briefly, before I think about myself in Developmental Psychology. It’s more about babies than I had really bargained for, and either I’m bored and my mind drifts or I’m freaking out how much I’m going to freak out if I have a baby and it has subpar gross motor skills, so I have to think about something else. Basically, I’m usually thinking about other things, and sometimes those things are funny, and I do giggle to myself. It’s perfectly… no, well, I guess it’s not.

“Yeah, well,” I say. “I just think of a lot of funny things?”

She squints at me. “You’re so weird.”


I spent most of my formative years wondering how everyone around me already knew how to interact with the world. My instincts were always so off: announcing to the class how to properly pronounce the word that another kid had just butchered was wrong. Picking my nose while I waited for everyone else to finish their spelling tests was wrong. Bringing a book to read during a slumber party was wrong.

I was like a baby cultural anthropologist studying a foreign tribe. I wrote long journal entries cataloguing the behavior of the popular girls, puzzled and frustrated at the language they spoke that I didn’t. “M_______ and L______ are always laughing at things during class,” I would write, “and I DON’T GET WHY.” Or I’d wonder how everyone else could play four-square or dodgeball without suffering the strokes of rage that tended to cripple me at inopportune moments: the ball is mine, I throw it wildly and it lands somewhere out-of-bounds or worse, on our side of the court, and everyone is yelling at me, and when M_______ or L______ would laugh and then everyone would laugh with them, I’m sniveling and now everyone’s uncomfortable.

By high school, I had mostly gotten past this, in large part because I surrounded myself with people who were as socially awkward as I was. I realized a few years in, though, that there was a new social stratum where I was destined never to belong: the Student of the Month.

Month in and month out, I looked at my grades and I looked at the Student of the Month list, utterly blind to what I could possibly have missed out on doing to not be the Student of the Month at least one time in one subject. Eventually, a pattern emerged: it was the kids who, in fourth grade, laughed at things during class that I DIDN’T GET. They had come back to haunt me and they were speaking a new language: brown-nosing.

Okay, that’s a little unfair. But I was bewildered: what could these kids possibly be talking about with the teachers every day after class, during lunch, in the halls? I could have walked up to a teacher after class and opened my mouth and nothing would have come out. (“Hey, Mrs. J______! Um… I… liked the homework.”) And here’s everyone else, all the Students of the Month, making inside jokes with the drama teachers and suddenly they’re the lead in the musical. It was like dodgeball all over again.

Even in college, interacting with professors outside of class was beyond me. I thought that office hours were for when you didn’t understand the reading, and I understood the reading, so I didn’t go. (More honest: I didn’t do the reading, but if I had, I would have understood it. Being an English major wasn’t that hard. If you were going to office hours, it was because you were trying to butter up the professor to write you a rec for law school.) It occurred to me recently that if I ever want to go to grad school, I have to wait long enough until it wouldn’t make sense for me to get recommendation letters from my undergraduate professors, anyway. I don’t think any of them would remember who I am.

(Unless they noticed me giggling to myself in the corner of their class, which probably wouldn’t make for a good recommendation.)

At 26, I follow a set of rules I’ve laid out for myself: when you meet someone important at work, say hello the next time you see them so they remember you, even if it makes you feel awkward. Don’t play games like cornhole or beer pong where, inevitably, you’re going to lose the game for everyone. Don’t correct the yoga teacher when she cues the wrong side. Even if she says things like “put your chest on your torso.” (A few of these are specific to New York: don’t beeline for the only open seat on the train because you will definitely look up and realize you ran down Grandma on the way there and now everyone is going to hate you for the next twelve stops. Don’t poop in anyone else’s toilet but your own because, invariably, it won’t flush.)

I’ve mostly given up on sanding down my rough edges. I can’t carry on a casual conversation with anything resembling social aptitude. Picture me with a coworker: “So, what are you working on these days?”

“Oh, um, well, this thing, like, I’m overhauling our, um, stuff.” This to communicate something that I announced totally cohesively to my team not three hours before. (I prepare for meetings by outlining everything I plan to say in advance. If someone asks me a question I didn’t anticipate, I suddenly turn into Miss South Carolina talking about the Iraq. It’s not pretty.)

“That sounds cool.” My coworkers are nothing if not unflaggingly pleasant.

“Yeah. Okay, bye!” The practice of ending a conversation gracefully eludes me. The barest hint of awkward silence and I’m off like a shot, which means that even if I’m saying hello to someone important, they’re remembering me as that weird girl who tries to pull off an Irish goodbye to escape a conversation between two people.

(Speaking of goodbyes, there are few things I hate more than hugging. Is it a millennial thing to hug everyone you know every time you see them, even if it’s the same bar you go to every Friday and you just saw them at the same trivia you go to every Monday? Can I call it basic and reject it on those grounds?)

And on occasion, I’m the polar opposite. God help the first person to sit down next to me after I’ve finished my morning coffee. I’m a morning person and often by the time anyone else arrives at the office, I’ve had twelve ounces of whatever lighter fuel they serve at the cart on the corner of 14th and 8th and I have two hours’ worth of racing thoughts that I plan to share, verbally, in the space of ten minutes.

Around people I know well enough that small talk doesn’t count as small talk, I often feel the urge to share everything that drifts through my mind over the course of the day. (Twitter was a godsend for me. And for everyone around me who values silence.) Sometimes, if everyone who sits around me at the office is traveling, I just mouth things to myself. And then I giggle.

Social structures larger than conversation are even more of a mystery. It took me two big-girl relationships to figure out how, precisely, one is supposed to act with a boyfriend. (Pro tip: that childhood rule about not bringing books to a slumber party applies here too.) It’s only now that I’m beginning to learn not to keep my friends and loved ones at arm’s length, which I’ve done for years in large part because I never knew any better. Often, this means I have to let them hug me, which I suppose is a small price to pay for having someone listen to me complain about how having a boyfriend is really cutting in on my pre-bed reading time.

I learn quickly about everything except for how to engage, but the older I get the less important that seems. I feel like I’ve built up my own versions of social structures with the people I love: structures predicated on the knowledge that if I don’t hug you, it’s not because I don’t like you, and if I leave a party abruptly, it’s because after 26 years I still haven’t learned to do otherwise. (I can tell when I’m about to cease being good company. I like to get ahead of it.)

The best people—the ones worth keeping—are the ones who will tell me gently if what I’m doing is not okay because it hurts their feelings. For the most part, they take me with a grain of salt. And they don’t make me play dodgeball.

american idiot

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“Um, I’m sorry, what?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I’m–um–sorry, one more time?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I… no. No, thanks.”


I am in London, in a cafe on Charlotte Street, where I learn in short order that drip coffee is an American thing, and there is something else that I could have on my avocado toast, but I don’t know what it is and I’m not going to say yes on the off-chance it’s Marmite. That seems like the kind of stunt they might pull in a country where coffee is served in cups that look like doll furniture. Nobody’s awake enough to know better.

It’s the first time I’ve left America in nearly a decade. I live in a world where this is rare: as an employee of a multinational corporation, and also a white person who went to liberal arts college, my unmarked passport is a curiosity. (“Is she on the Do Not Fly list?” “Is she afraid of Canadians?” “Was she banned from crossing the border after trying to bring an agricultural product through Customs?”) The State Department sent it to me in an envelope the December before last and I’m fidgety with excitement when it finally makes sense to fly to Europe for this project I’ve been working on for months.

The last time I flew to Europe, I was seventeen, on a school tour. We took photos of ourselves posing in a circle around a Beefeater at the Tower of London and walking the crosswalk at Abbey Road. This time, I’m 25 and I spend the flight pounding out the script for a marketing video on my laptop. I feel wildly sophisticated until I remember that I’m sitting in a middle seat in economy wearing leggings that I bought on sale at Nordstrom Rack.

I feel nervous walking through Customs. People in uniform terrify me. I am even impressed by the TSA employees at security in the U.S. who hold up the iPads and stare at you to see if you do, indeed, follow the arrow to the left. (As an aside, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal to the point of socialism and I think you should be paying for my tampons, but even I think this is a bizarre place for the government to be spending money. Why not buy the TSA agents more impressive uniforms?) I know all I have to say is I’m traveling for business, here’s when I’m returning, I work in software, but I open my mouth and suddenly I’m waving my arms around telling a Customs agent in my most sophisticated vocabulary (read: lots of syllables) about how I’m here to work on presentations and I’m staying in Soho and I used to have a passport but it expired and now I have this new shiny one and–and then he stamps it, compliments my handwriting, and tells me my presentation skills are very un-American.

I take this as a compliment and glide into the London night, where I am immediately alarmed at the sight of my driver climbing into the passenger seat. Unfortunately, this is a harbinger of things to come; in spite of the trust the Customs agent has placed in me, I am as American as flannel and Michelob Light.

I’ve spent most of my life living in tourist traps–from Las Vegas to D.C. and now in New York–and as a result I’ve developed a healthy distaste for tourists and their fanny packs and their standing on the left on the goddamn Metro escalator, I swear to Jesus I don’t care if you’re from Podunk, Nofreakingwhere and you’ve never seen an escalator before, I WILL SHOVE YOU BODILY DOWN IT IF YOU DON’T MOVE TO THE RIGHT. I take great pride in being mistaken for a local and have possibly given bad directions because I’m so excited that someone asked me for them that I didn’t have the heart to say “No, I’m not actually from here, I don’t know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge.” Instead, I draw on my street cred and tell them to go left.

I have no such street cred in London. I am suddenly and painfully aware not only of how American, but how Californian I sound. I picture the girl at the cafe after I take my avocado toast out into the rain turning to the customers in the shop and mimicking my hyper-American chatter: “Do you have coffee? I mean, I know you have–like, just a–I’m sorry, can I just get that thing? That thing that that guy just got? I’m so sorry. Also, avocado toast? Um, I’m sorry, what?” I consider learning key phrases like “Can I please have avocado toast?” in sign language and communicating exclusively through gesture for the rest of the trip.

It’s the coffee that gets me more than anything. When I moved to New York, I made the mistake of ordering my coffee “regular” and was horrified to discover upon my first sip that the man at the bodega had given me what you would give a five-year-old to introduce them to coffee. (It was two ice cubes and a trip through the blender from being a Frappucino. I won’t touch cigarettes and I don’t like spicy food, but God help the barista who serves me coffee that looks like anything but tar.) I wonder if there is a magic word in London like in New York, where now I order my coffee every day from the cart on the corner: “Large coffee black in a bag” and the man hands it to me and says, “No sugar because you’re sweet enough without it!” and then I spill it down my front.

In London, there is no magic word. There are only Americanos.

I overcome the indignity of being served espresso water and continue down the street toward Soho Square. This street has changed names at least twice since I’ve started out from my apartment–my flat, which sounds so posh when you say it in a British accent and so dimwitted when I say it (same goes for “posh,” for the record). This is just one of the several challenges I encounter as an American walking down the street in London. Half the time I can’t find the street sign at all–why is it plastered up on the building? In America, we paint our street signs green and stick them in middle of the sidewalk so we can watch people who are texting-while-walking walk face-first into a street sign!

I also find it quite hard to locate the Walk/Don’t Walk sign, which is ridiculously small and should be enlarged for my tiny American brain which is so accustomed to large things, like Big Gulps and the Mall of America. This is of secondary importance to the fact that I am apparently so constitutionally incapable of overcoming my instinct to look to the left for oncoming cars that it’s a wonder I’m not plastered on someone’s undercarriage. This all bodes ill for my dreams of becoming an international jetsetter or even a functional human. Apparently, I have mastered street signs in one country and there shall be no more. If I value my health and safety, I should probably take my next trip to somewhere less exotic, like Vancouver or maybe Pittsburgh.

I want more than anything to go to Japan, though. I think this is mostly because I’ve been tearing through Haruki Murakami’s ouevre and I love the idea of getting to be a manic pixie dream girl without having to do a bunch of drugs. I have this fantasy where I show up and somehow my kind of grungy elementary art school teacher wardrobe is replaced with a bunch of dresses from the Japanese version of Ann Taylor and I deliver messages to a mild-mannered salaryman who needs to have sex with me to, you know, self-actualize. I don’t know how this is ever going to happen if I can’t even cross the street in a country where everything is in English.

This trip is a well-timed reminder that I’m just as much of a buffoon as the tourists who wait for the Walk sign to change before they cross the street in the Meatpacking District. I like to pretend I’m worldly and cosmopolitan because I’ve lived in cities all my life, but my passport–now with one stamp and a sticker on the back!–is proof that I’m as provincial as everyone in the line for Georgetown Cupcakes on M Street. (Maybe not as provincial as them. I know at least to go to Baked and Wired.)

I will try to remember this sensation–the flush in my cheeks as I pull coins out of my wallet one by one and hand them to the counter girl until I’ve given her enough to pay for what I’m hoping is oatmeal, because when I was a kid I always assumed “porridge” was something like an edible form of glue–the next time I’m frustrated by some brigade of West Virginians wearing matching neon T-shirts climbing the marble at the World War II Memorial and hanging all over the left side of the escalator on the Metro. I’ll remind myself that I’ve been a fish out of water, too, and I’ll take a deep breath.


a field guide to functional insanity

Do you suffer from crippling self-doubt with little to no basis in reality? Does “no basis in reality” describe most of what your brain explores on a given day? Have you ever stopped to contemplate your purpose in life only to realize that when you think about it too much, you don’t have one, and neither does anyone else? Does the prospect of arriving at home only to discover that your bagel wasn’t toasted strike as much terror into your heart as the prospect of global warming?

I understand. But it’s time to lock it up.

Medication is one thing. It got me out of the well and back into the real world. It slows the ticker tape that runs constantly through the back of the unsound mind, flashing any one of the following messages: “BAGELS MAKE YOU FAT!” “SQUIRRELS ARE VICIOUS!” “YOUR COWORKERS ALL THINK YOU’RE A WEIRDO!” “A PLANE CRASH WOULD BE A TERRIBLE WAY TO DIE!” But it doesn’t turn it off altogether and if you want to make it through the day unscathed–or at all–you need tools.

This is my toolkit.

I think I’m a pretty high-functioning nut. I hold a respectable job and I live in my own apartment, an apartment that’s only kind of a disaster. I think most people wouldn’t know that I’m a nut if it weren’t for the fact that I write about it on the Internet.

I’ve known since I was a little girl that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it’s supposed to, so I’ve always gotten by otherwise: with trickery, storytelling, strategy, and logic. Here’s how.

  1. Talk yourself out of bed in the morning

Every morning when I wake up, I think about staying there. I spent much of my sophomore year of college in bed. This was ultimately a bad idea, because my professors kept emailing me to ask why I wasn’t in class. Also, my friends kept asking me why I wasn’t in class. And my roommates kept wondering why I wasn’t leaving the apartment.

All of this leads me to my solution: every morning when you wake up, think of all the people who will negatively judge you if you don’t get out of bed. What if your landlord stops by to fix your faulty shower drain? He’s definitely going to remember you as the weird tenant who was in bed at two in the afternoon. And even if he doesn’t, he’s probably going to wonder what’s up with that job that you told him about that pays you enough to cover the rent check every month. On a related note, your boss will negatively judge you. More specifically, your boss will fire you, and then you’re fast-tracking on the road to being a non-functional human. Don’t get fired. And if you do, at least make it because you left on the emergency jetway or something.

I’m allowed to work from home, which means that sometimes I have to trick myself into getting out of bed. This is especially useful when there’s nothing on my calendar and the prospect of delighting my officemates with the dulcet tones of me narrating my innermost thoughts for hours on end. If I sign up for SoulCycle, not getting out of bed means flushing a ridiculous amount of money (that no rational person should spend on an exercise class but we all do so whatever, I’m not even counting that as crazy) down the toilet. Sometimes instead, I promise myself frozen yogurt in the evening, or sushi, or new underwear.

Sometimes you have to stay in bed. Only stay in bed if it’s the weekend and you’ve been a good and sociable and normal human for several days on end. Don’t stay in bed if it’s not the weekend unless you have a head cold and staying in bed is the reasonable thing to do. Don’t make it a habit. Make it a treat.

  1. Prepare for the inevitable event of social interaction

An effective way to address social anxiety is to stay inside. On balance, though, this methodology is not worth the tradeoffs (dying alone, possibly with cats). Instead, you need to steel yourself for the prospect of small talk with people who think you’re a weirdo.

Staying up to date on the topics that your peers like to discuss is a great way to handle social interaction. When you find yourself trapped in an elevator or early to a meeting–and you will be early to the meeting, because you know you’re nothing if not punctual!–talking about topics of general interest is a great way to pass the time. (Note that the weather is not a topic of general interest, no matter how fiercely you believe it should be.)

I deal with small talk by ensuring that there is not a single moment of silence. I babble until I’ve made up at least a few words and possibly several facts, which is most effective if you’re dealing with somebody who is less well-read than you are. This strategy often backfires and I generally don’t recommend it, but if the alternative is staring blankly at your conversational partner, then making a run for it, you should probably stick with blabber. Bonus points if you can convince someone that the jackalope is real.

  1. Respond to emotions like a normal person

It’s hard to react appropriately when you experience emotions at a level that is comparatively more intense than the normal population. In particular, when you have the kind of mood swings that have been diagnosed as clinical, you might be inclined to react in kind.

Maybe don’t. I mean, do—like any good therapist will tell you, feeling your feelings is critical to being a functional human—but maybe try to feel them at appropriate times, like alone in your bedroom.

Learning to postpone your emotions is a useful skill. I have a comically bad poker face, so I like to be armed with a prop at all times. I don’t go to meetings without my laptop or paper and pen and when I feel myself lapsing into what I like to call a “rage stroke,” I distract myself by recreating my favorite high school doodles. When I receive emails that make me angry, I draft responses, then delete them, then do something else, then draft new responses. Rinse and repeat until you’re left with only what needs to be said plus any bitchy rejoinders that can be masked as politeness. When my face really thinks it’s time to cry but my body thinks it’s time to continue sitting through this meeting/dinner party/doctor’s appointment, I breathe through the back of my throat like I’m in yoga and think about ordinal sequences or the lyrics to “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies.

If all else fails, find the best place to freak out quietly without attracting attention in whatever position suits you best. I like to find a nice clean bathroom where I can curl up on the floor and feel my feelings. Public places are also surprisingly well-suited for really unsubtle displays of emotion. Last month I had to go to my company conference—four solid days with 1500 people and no privacy—and the prospect of it had me in tears for days. (1500 people! All of them using words like “synergy” and “de facto” and “optimize” as if they’re normal things to say in conversation! Nowhere to hide!) So I sat in my economy seat and cried from takeoff until halfway over Kansas and nobody said a word to me. I was sitting next to a girl who didn’t speak English and an old woman who I think may have been a corpse buckled into a seat, but still.

Oh, and always have sunglasses. ALWAYS. Put them on. Cry it out.

  1. Reduce your panic to a manageable level

Does the sight of a squirrel bring you to your knees? Nope? Just me? Well, it should. That aside, panic is no joke. Sometimes I work myself into such a panic that I blank out for a second and when I come back, I’ve forgotten entirely what I was worrying about. I worry sometimes that during that blank-out, I’m also carrying out art heists or screaming expletives in public.

I deal with my panic by developing game plans. On my way to the train every morning, I worry that I won’t have enough room to read my Kindle and that I’ll have to run for the train and my back will get sweaty. So I power-walk down to the front of the platform and stand where I can choose between the first and second cars, and I choose books that are engaging enough to distract me from my sweaty back. Then I worry that I’m going to spill my coffee on myself, so I only drink my coffee sitting down and hunching so that if it drips, it drips on my desk. (This has the added benefit of dissuading any of my many single male coworkers from hitting on me, because I look like a hunchback.)

I distract myself. My coworkers think I’m incredibly productive. I volunteer for projects that have me waking up at three in the morning to put together PowerPoint decks for people in Europe to ignore during a call five hours later. Sometimes we measure whether something is possible by whether I can do it and then again by whether anyone else can do it.

The truth? While I read faster than most people I know can, I’m actually just trying to distract myself from things like the purposelessness of human life and my inner anorexic reminding me that bagels make you fat. I need to be told what to think about.

I’ve liked to be busy since I was old enough to decide that on my own and now that I don’t have many hobbies anymore—I quit dance and theatre because giving your inner anorexic an audience is a really good way to turn it into your outer anorexic, plus rehearsals are kind of a drain on my couch time—I work. I volunteer for projects that let me travel. I’m flying to London tomorrow because sixteen hours in flight is worth seven days of newness.

It’s worse at night. The daytime offers enough distraction to keep the demons at bay, but it’s hard to quiet them at night. That’s when the real stuff comes out to play: you’re hopelessly incompetent and someday soon they’re going to find out and fire you, and then you won’t be able to afford your rent and you’ll have to go back to working in retail and living in an illegal four-bedroom and eating hummus and you’re going to die alone because nobody wants to marry somebody whose ideal vacation is alone and what if you have a baby and you hate it?

I use my favorite cliché here. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Then I pick myself up off of the couch and find something else to do. This is why I read so many books.

That said, I’m writing this watching “Selena” on VH1 and there are only sixteen minutes left in the broadcast and she still hasn’t gotten shot so I’m basically about twelve seconds away from a meltdown. (Movies are actually really hard for me. I’m particularly conscious of this when my boyfriend and I are watching movies on the couch and I have really obvious physical responses to anything remotely suspenseful. Long shot of an empty hallway? Tense up! Gunshot? Full-body spasm! Torture scene? Forget it. I’m burying my face in your armpit. Wake up me when it’s time for “30 Rock.”)

  1. Make your world a tolerable place to be and make yourself a tolerable person to be around

There are tradeoffs. I always wanted to act in musical theatre. I couldn’t handle the stress that comes with not having a reliable paycheck. I got a full-time job instead.

Living in a quiet city was like giving my inner demons a microphone. I moved back to New York, where the very act of living in the world requires enough concentration to quiet my mind. I moved to an apartment 45 minutes away from my office because I think riding the subway is like a less boring version of meditation.

Make fun of yourself. Let other people make fun of you. (It’s ridiculous to be afraid of squirrels. Everyone is well within their right to laugh at you when you dodge one. Laugh with them from your position safely out of the squirrel’s path.) Don’t let them be cruel to you. I had a boyfriend once who, by the end of our relationship, took great pleasure in pushing me to my limits like I was an anthropological experiment. I had an important train to catch once and I planned to take the subway, grab breakfast at Grand Central so I’d be sure to make the Metro-North to Poughkeepsie, and he dragged me to a diner, sat me down, told me he’d pay for my cab, and watched me eat my breakfast—and this was back when I was deep in my eating disorder, and to be the only one eating at a table of two was a nightmare in itself, never mind that I was sure I was going to miss my train. I sat there and chewed slowly because eating fast wasn’t allowed and felt like I was going to either squirm out of my own skin or cry or both. He laughed. At the time, I thought I was being taught a valuable but painful lesson in not being neurotic. In retrospect, that was, in a word, rude.

You’re not an animal at the circus. Don’t let anyone treat you like you are.

That doesn’t mean that anyone is required to go out of their way to accommodate your crazy. Feed the neuroses that don’t harm you or anyone else. Fix the rest. I let myself arrive two hours early to the airport every time I travel. I don’t let myself not eat. I try not to make any one person listen to my litany of complaints for too long. When I do, I buy them a drink. I keep a journal. I write a blog. I pay a therapist.

I try to keep my temper and often fail. This one isn’t cute or quirky or excusable. It is also, in a word, rude. I also don’t think it can be chalked up to being half-crazy, but as long as we’re on the subject of personality flaws…

  1. Don’t go back to bed

Make plans. Don’t flake on them. I am a notorious flake because social interaction is an unknown and my bed is a known and nobody can hurt me in my bed. I got out of it this morning, but I want nothing more than to go back to it now.

The world is a better place to be than your bed is. The other week, I had planned on a quiet Saturday at home and my friend L__ asked if I wanted to go to a friend’s concert with her. I said yes because I’m in one of my phases where I pledge that I’m going to flake less, try more. It was lovely. (The artist’s name was Lindsay Dunphy. I really want her to become famous and release a bunch of records. Go listen to her EP on Spotify.)

Good things happen when you don’t go back to bed. I nearly canceled my first date with my boyfriend because it was cold and I was tired. Five months later, it occurs to me that I would have traded a few warm hours in my apartment for the new world that he’s opened up for me. It’s smaller than that, though; once L__ and I went to karaoke and we met a group of boys in black turtlenecks who were on their annual post-graduate scavenger hunt. I sang Queen and someone called me Beyonce. Once I went to a birthday party at a bar in Meatpacking and watched a friend of a friend get kicked out for vomiting on the bathroom floor. Once we met two Australians at a nightclub in Las Vegas. Once I called an Uber for a nineteen-year-old whose friends had left her to pass out on the E train. Once we saw a man dressed as Oscar the Grouch, with trash can, at a bar on Fremont Street—in December.

Talk yourself into it. Bribe yourself the way you bribed yourself to get out of bed: if you go out into the world tonight, you can stay home tomorrow, and the night after. Go! The world is waiting. You’re weird. You’re special. You’re allowed to be here.


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