dana cass

the anti-lifestyle blog

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.


My parents almost named me Georgia.

I’m convinced that if I had grown up a Georgia instead of a Dana, I would have been infinitely more glamorous. Instead being Dana, five foot two with a Buddha belly, wearing leggings and pink Converse high-tops and one of those T-shirt that might lead well-mannered straphangers to give up their seat for me, I would be Georgia, five foot ten and wearing one of those hats with a swoopy brim and high heels. (Yes, the simple fact of a different name would have overcome genetic science and the fact that I really, really hate wearing heels. “That which we call a rose,” my ass.)

As I remember the story, it was my four-year-old sister who liked “Dana” better, which is ridiculous, because if you had asked four-year-old me what I wanted to name my little sister, she would have been named “Vicky Pat Rice” and the swoopy-brimmed hat store wouldn’t have even looked at her. Anyway, I don’t have a little sister, which is probably for the best, and I’m Dana.

More specifically, I’m “Danacass.” One word, not two; sometimes with the inflection on third syllable alone and sometimes on all three equally. (“DanaCASS!” “DANACASS.”) Or I’m “Dacass,” which, yes, if you say it wrong, sounds like a weird reference to anal sex, but it’s really just a relic of when I went to Vassar and my email was dacass@vassar.edu. Kind of like how in the 40’s, the girls were all Bootsie and Betsy and Bitsy, it was trendy when I was at Vassar to call people by their email names, if you were lucky enough to have one that rolled easily off the tongue (first two letters of your first named followed by your last name, unless you were unlucky enough to have a last name like Wong or Smith, in which case you might have three or four letters appended to the front of your email and you’d never hear about all the trendy events happening that weekend in your dorm).

It makes me nervous to hear my own name. Nobody calls me plain vanilla “Dana” unless something grave and serious is about to happen, like if I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or I was supposed to send someone a PowerPoint but instead I drank three beers and fell asleep with my shoes on. I’m “Dana” when I’m about to be called on to do something I don’t want to do, like get a Pap smear or give a presentation that I’ve invariably forgotten to rehearse.

Nicknames mean that somebody cares enough about you to give you some special call sign that means that they like you more than your boss or your dentist does. When I was thirteen, my best friend found a new best friend and the surest sign was that they had given each other nicknames and I was still just Dana. My sister called me “Monster,” or “Dollface,” if I was being nice, and my dad called me “Buddy,” but my friends called me “Dana” and so I knew that something was wrong. I might as well have been in class, answering math problems, if they were going to call each other special friend names and I was still and always and only Dana.

It was a source of great pleasure for me when I went to college and I finally got a nickname. It felt like the first time that to a few people on the planet, I was more special than everyone else in the universe. My friends and I thrive on stories: our friendship, now that we don’t see one another that often, is built on a foundation of narrative that we are constantly hashing and rehashing. We’re always jumping to explain to an incurious audience why we use the names we do, and our favorite nicknames are the ones that require ten minutes of backstory to explain: “We call me ‘Shmiggs’ because of the time that I was in my room—oh, and I was always in my room, did I mention that? I was a terrible housemate, they’d have been better off with a plant, it would have been more social—but anyway, I was in my room and there was a cheesecake and…” and ten minutes later, no conclusion has been reached and we’ve gone down into that precious rabbit hole that is the time that we actually got to be friends in real life and not just in our memories and every so often at weddings.

We used to give our love interests nicknames, too. Code names, rather, the only way to gossip when you go to a college small enough that your ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s best friend is definitely sitting next to you at the dining hall talking about how you miss him, but you don’t really miss how his “chill and awesome” iTunes playlist that he always insisted on playing when you had sex. We would spend more time crafting up complex and layered code names like we were little kids playing spies and not almost-grown women who could have been in Sex and the City (minus the city and, except occasionally, the sex). And of course, it was college, so within a week’s time a code name might quickly become an expletive, but even that meant that you, Mister Chill and Awesome, had done something to cement yourself a place in my address book.

I work now at a company where everyone who was there in the first four years or so has a nickname. I missed that cutoff by a year or two and so at work I am Dana, and when I hear it, someone’s about to ask me to do something at six o’clock on a Friday night and it isn’t to join them at happy hour. I react like a golden retriever when I hear my name, and I almost wish that people would append it with some assurance that even though they’re calling me Dana and not “DANACASS” or “Shmiggs” or “Dane” or “Monster” or “Dollface” or “Dacass” or “Daney,” it’s not because they’re mad at me. Like how my high school dance teacher used to say “Can you see me after class? You’re not in trouble” so you wouldn’t spend the next hour and a half wondering if you were about to get expelled for going to Port of Subs during fourth period last week.

I still maintain that I would have been a different person if I had been a Georgia. Can you imagine, though? gecass@vassar.edu? That’s not the kind of call sign you can respond to with a disco pose, the way I liked to in college when someone called my name from across the room when I came into a party on a Friday night. I wonder if I would have pictured some spunky alterna-verse Dana, envied that girl across the aisle, cozy in leggings and high-tops and drinking cheap wine and staring at her computer with bug eyes, pounding at her keyboard, hopelessly unfashionable but at least she’s carved out some very small, Buddha-shaped place in the universe.

there and back again

When I think of anorexia, I think of Karen Carpenter. Like every normal teenage girl who came of age in the 1970’s, I idolize Karen Carpenter (I, unfortunately, grew up in the 2000s, which makes the “normal” qualifier irrelevant). But only insofar as I would give my right arm to feather my hair and belt out “Superstar” in front of a screaming crowd. It never occurred to me to want to be thin like Karen Carpenter. I knew that she died of anorexia, which as a little girl, I knew to be some terrible disease where you weren’t allowed to eat cereal or chicken fingers or any of the other beige foods starting with the letter “C” that I was willing to eat.

But her death, years before I was born, was irrelevant to me the way that Janis Joplin’s or Jim Morrison’s deaths are irrelevant to me: tragic, of course, and preventable in hindsight, but a fact of life, a thing that happens to people who aren’t me. It is only when I am 25 years old and staring at a piece of paper that says in clinical numbers—307.1, the diagnostic code for anorexia nervosa—that it occurs to me that I never got the feathered hair or the Asian tour, but I did get that freaky disease where you forget how to feed yourself.

I always assumed that if I were to contract an eating disorder, it would be something like pica, where you eat paint chips or whatever, things you see on “My Weird Addiction” (or read about in your favorite children’s book, the Childhood Medical Guide, if you were a friendless child with bizarre literary interests). Anorexia is awfully basic for a girl like me who prides herself on being original. Anorexia is for cheerleaders and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul contributors. I’m a writer—I’m supposed to be an alcoholic, or bipolar; something sophisticated and higher-brow. I’m too smart to starve myself.

But as ridiculous as it seems—that I, a girl who has always been best described as voluptuous whose favorite sin has long been a tie between sloth and gluttony, could be on the brink of death from self-induced starvation—the omnipresent pain in my chest tells me the truth.

“No, it’s not,” my then-boyfriend said when I mentioned that I thought my chest pain might be a consequence of my alarmingly low weight. I don’t know why—maybe he genuinely believed it, or maybe he was in denial, or maybe he was just sick of the fact that somehow the smart-mouthed, energetic little thing he’d fallen in love with had morphed into a moody, listless, half-cadaverous excuse for a human who would rather exercise than spend the morning in bed with him. I can hardly blame him. Nobody wants to date a sack of bones.

And a sack of bones I am. To clarify: I have always had great boobs. It’s awfully lowbrow of me to say that in such a public forum, but it’s true, and it’s important. They are perfect, and nobody in my family knows where they came from. They are big enough to be noticeable, but not so big that they’re, you know, slutty—because as any woman knows, large breasts are a visual indicator of one’s genetic predisposition not only to heterosexuality but also to wanting to sleep with any and all men, including that guy yelling at you from his car window—and they’ve always been one of the few parts of my body that I am comfortable with.

I looked down one day, though, and instead of my beautiful Raphaelite boobs I had a bra that I could have worn to smuggle drugs. Instead, I had a lucky rib.

“Rib” is probably not the anatomically correct term. I never pretended to be good at science, but to the point, I had a lucky rib—a little nub that protruded from my sternum that I could feel when I poked around at my chest, which I did often when I wanted to make sure that I was still a good and disciplined and virtuous person and not a greedy-sloppy-sluggish pig.

My lucky rib was more fascinating to me even than the base of my spine, which I discovered for the first time some eighteen months ago when the protective layer of fat that coats my bones first began to melt away. It became my talisman. I rubbed it like an underfed Buddha.

I could count, then, every bone from my collar to my waist.

It becomes harder to concentrate. I quit reading books. When I was a kid, I used to get a stack of books from the library, read them all in three days, and beg my mom to take me back. At 25, I am no longer able to read books because they are too much for my shriveling brain.

My hair grows brittle and falls out in clumps. The more I exercise—and oh, boy, do I exercise; even my spin instructors admire my dedication to the classes that I attend every day without fail—the grayer my skin grows. My veins pop out of my arms and legs. My heart pounds out of my chest. Sometimes, when I lose control and eat too much, I stick my finger down my throat and vomit. This is by far the least glamorous part and I try to save it for when I really need it, like when I eat ice cream.

“If you continue like this, you will DIE,” C_______ writes to me in an email.

“I had two heart attacks,” says K__. “You will have a heart attack.”

I dislike these opinions, so I ignore them. I stay home, mostly, or I go to the gym, where people ask me what I do and what I eat and eye me enviously. The gym is a safe place. Restaurants and bars are not safe, so I stop going to them. I go to bed early. C_______ and K__ want me to be healthy, they say, and happy, but it’s unclear to me how I can be happy if I’m not skinny and being skinny is incompatible with going to restaurants and bars and staying out too late to get up and exercise. Plus, I get cranky when I’m hungry, and I’m always hungry because I only eat when I’m ready to chew off my own arm and I stop when I stop shaking and that doesn’t really mean I’m less cranky, just that I’m less faint.

I’m not very much fun to be around. My boyfriend dumps me, eventually, and then I am alone, except for my lucky rib. Like a country song about a lovelorn vegetarian at a barbecue.

I am a sack of bones dangling from a coat hanger.

I used to be a wild animal. I used to go out dancing, take four shots and sweat it out in a pile of bodies and then go pile into a booth at the diner and order chicken fingers or buy a bag of tacos from Del Taco and down them in the back of the car.

Have you ever asked a sack of bones to go out dancing with you?

Nobody loves a sack of bones.

I watch a video of Karen Carpenter a few months before she died, after she had been force-fed 30 pounds’ worth of food in a hospital. She is haggard. She could pass for sixty—and I’m not just saying that because she has the same haircut that my grandma did before she died, which I don’t think you can really blame on anorexia—and her skin is gray like mine. I want to drink away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because alcohol has calories, and I want to read away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because I can’t read, and I want to run away my calories and so I do until my heart is practically popping out of my chest and I hear again—“I had two heart attacks. You will have a heart attack”—and with no love and no wine and not even a book to keep me company, I know that I have lost.

This is rock bottom, I suppose. Sometimes, now, twenty pounds later—and counting, God help me, I’ve already replaced my pants twice and I’m about ready to join a nudist colony—I look at pictures of myself from those months between when my boyfriend dumped me and when I finally called the treatment center and I am abjectly horrified. I want to make inappropriate jokes about the Holocaust and the Bataan Death March because I don’t know how else to explain away the complete irrationality of starving yourself.

Rock bottom is the night at work that we need to pull an all-nighter, and I can’t bring myself to eat so eventually I lose it and start screaming at my coworkers and solidify a reputation for myself as the psycho girl who can’t hack it during an all-nighter. Rock bottom is leaving my best friend’s bachelorette party early because I want to get up early and run the next day. Rock bottom is doing that again at her wedding.

But I felt so glamorous. This is what they don’t tell you about anorexia: you feel like a movie star. “You look great,” I hear, often, from coworkers and strangers and relatives and friends. “What do you do?” I am unused to this attention and this is what is so hard to give up: the idea that I’m finally doing something well. I’m not good at very much: I wasn’t very good at ballet, and I wasn’t very good at being a girlfriend, but for a time, I was good at being skinny and that felt really, really good.

I am smart enough to understand that being good at something that will eventually kill you—“The only good anorexic is a dead anorexic,” C_______ says to me, and I suppose logically, that’s true—is not actually a talent you want. I go to therapy and the dietitian and I learn that I’m slowly killing myself and that my body is eating away at my brain and that if I don’t start feeding myself again, and soon, I’m going to lose my job and then I will have nothing, absolutely nothing, left to live for.

What I also learn is that I have a choice: I can be a glamorous movie star in a tiny dress with jutting elbows and cheekbones and ribs that I can count in a dressing room mirror, or I can be a human being, with a life and friends and love and hobbies.

My therapist gives me a list of the things that happen to you when you starve yourself: not just the hair, or the being cold, but things I never guessed, things that explain why my life has become so intolerably lonely. It turns out that starving yourself is a good way to become an antisocial hermit, only minus the part where you read the works of James Joyce and write your version of Walden, because as I’ve mentioned several times, malnutrition is really bad for being a functional human.

I am given instructions to feed myself. This is ironic: I’m 25 years old, I was the valedictorian of my high school class, I have a degree from an almost-top-10 liberal arts college and I have to pay $160 an hour for a woman to tell me how to eat properly. (Maybe if I’d gotten Phi Beta Kappa, I’d still be able to eat sandwiches without feeling like I’m trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Prove? What do you even do with a theorem? See above re: not being good at things.) It’s demoralizing.

I cry a lot. I cry about the bachelorette party that I missed. I cry about the fact that I went an entire year without eating sushi because it has rice in it. I cry about my relationship, both because my eating disorder destroyed it and because I think that maybe letting myself stay with someone who was so cruel to me was, in a way, tacit permission to let me be cruel to myself. It seems to me that I have lost an entire year of my life to what looks to other people not like a disease but a weakness, and I cry over every night that I could have spent dancing and drinking and eating bags of tacos from the Del Taco drive through but instead I spent on the couch reading a single page of some women’s magazine over and over until I finally digested whatever bullshit they were feeding me about how I should hate my body.

Eating disorder therapy is not all tears and confessing that your high school dance teacher made you keep a food journal (side note: in retrospect, that was really fucked up). It’s kind of fun, trying to regain 20 pounds. It’s fun to say that going out and drinking beer and eating pizza is your therapy. It’s fun to down a whole plate of enchiladas like you’re a fifteen-year-old boy and feel the warm sensation of fullness spreading through your veins in a way that you haven’t felt in months.

It’s not fun to feel yourself seized by a wave of panic induced by a plate of enchiladas. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing to be 25 years old, gainfully employed, ostensibly an independent adult, and to be brought to your knees by a plate of enchiladas. It’s not fun to buy a new pair of jeans every month because you’re blowing up like a hot air balloon. I could probably buy stock in the Gap right now. I would happily join a nudist colony right now if it meant that I never had to put on another pair of jeans and feel the button crushing into my fat belly every minute of every day, reminding me that I am no longer thin and glamorous.

I’ll be 26 in three months. I’ve remembered mostly how to eat on my own again. I am reading voraciously, catching up on all the books I missed while I was underwater. I have a new boyfriend who puts his hand on my belly sometimes like it’s something precious. He looks at me like a girl in a Renaissance painting and I forget for a moment that I’m covered in fat, that my lucky rib is buried again, that I’m not virtuous or special. I go out dancing and I eat pizza and I drink beer, and when I do, I look at everyone in their sweaty, imperfect bodies, girls with mascara running down their cheeks in cheap faux-silk tops from Express and boys who are finally outgrowing their teenage metabolisms and I feel—well, not lucky, yet, but at the very least, at home in the world again. Alive, again, at last.

elf on the shelf


I brace myself. She is coming.

She comes every day at lunchtime, diving on me like a jackal on a rabbit. I hear her battle cry and know that it’s only a matter of seconds until her arms close around me, lifting my defenseless body into the air and breathing her Lunchable breath into my ears.

I run through my options. I know how this works: if I scream, or I kick her in the shins, she’ll claim that she was just being “nice” and somehow I’ll be the one who loses her gold star for the day even though I wasn’t the one running around assaulting my classmates. She is one of those pretty Mormon girls that all the teachers loved, and I am the freaky little kid who I suspect the teachers view as most likely to blow up the school one day, and in short, that means that I will definitely get blamed for it somehow. (You know the Sunday school scene in A Prayer for Own Meany? It’s like that. Minus the nuns.)

So I tense up my entire body and prepare for the assault. She grabs me, spins me around, shrieks in my ears, and drops me. Some days, she pinches my nose or my cheeks, as if she were my grandmother (who at four foot nine would never do me such a grave indignity). “Cutie,” she says over and over again. I am never able to discern her motivation for carrying out this ritual day in and day out. I understand that height-wise, I’m the closest thing our second-grade class has to an infant, and maybe she’s just practicing in case one of her fifteen Mormon babies turns out ugly and she has to force herself to call it cute. (Meanwhile, I’m here wishing I could just eat my peanut butter crackers alone in the corner in peace like I do every other lunch day. Don’t other weird kids get to be home-schooled?)

I am small. I have almost always been small. I combed through my medical records a few years ago and read with mild interest as I fell further and further down the percentile charts that track childhood growth. Nobody has ever been particularly concerned about how small I am—my mother, after all, is all of five feet and for a Wilson girl to surpass that is an achievement—but people often feel compelled to comment on it. More specifically, dudes like to comment on it. Women understand how I can, in fact, be both five foot two and a fully functional human, while men seem to be trying to vet that I’m not lying about being over eighteen.

Sometimes, these comments are a clear and harmless expression of surprise that evolution hasn’t done away with my kind yet. Other times, I get the sense that I’m being politely warned that I am likely to be murdered posthaste.

  • The one who told me that I was “beautiful… like a porcelain doll”: Murderer. Wanted to stuff my body and add it to his Madame Alexander collection.
  • The one who nicknamed me “little girl”: Murderer, inspired by some combination of the Brothers Grimm and Hannibal Lecter. I suspect that upon his death, his journals will reveal detailed plans to chop me up and store me in a mini-fridge.
  • The ones who poke and prod at various parts of my body—my calves, my waist, even my ears—and say, “You’re so tiny”: Not murderers. Just genuinely fascinated with the idea that natural selection hasn’t done away with a nose as small as mine. (“Can you even smell?”)

I can’t say I’m totally averse to this line of conversation. As a former ballet dancer, it’s refreshing to be called small or tiny, considering that I had one teacher who used to come up to us at the barre, poke us in the belly, and ask if we had eaten a watermelon for breakfast. (There’s nothing like the trauma of thirteen years in ballet to make a girl seek self-actualization with questionable life partners!)

Really, for the most part, I like being small. Airplane seats are almost comfortable. I can tunnel through a crowd without making awkward eye contact with any of the people that I bodily shove out of the way. I can always fold myself into that three-quarters of a seat next to the dude on the Metro who is airing out his balls.

But there are myriad indignities associated with being small. I often thank the universe that I was born before they started telling parents to keep their kid in a carseat until they were like four foot eight, because the eighth grade was embarrassing enough as it is. At the airport a few years ago, the guy running the backscatter machine asked me if I was old enough to go through. “How old is old enough?” I asked. “Twelve,” he said.

Like my second-grade classmate, men also like to pick me up. As in, when I run into a dude that I haven’t seen in a while and he greets me with a hug, maybe two times out of ten, he will pick me up. I understand that this is out of both love and a desire to demonstrate your masculinity, but 1) I am a human, not a kettlebell and 2) I weigh like a hundred and ten pounds. Call me back when you can bench-press The Rock.

Clothiers seem to be under the impression that I should have four more inches of skin between my shoulders and my boobs. Consequently, every shirt I buy that isn’t designed explicitly for petite women is inappropriately low-cut. I live in constant fear of nip slips. More specifically, I live in constant fear of realizing halfway through a conversation with one of my many male coworkers that my shirt has slipped far enough that my bra is exposed and of course it’s the leopard-print one.

At the ATM or to punch in a code to get into a garage, I can’t just stick my arm out the window like a normal person. Rather, I have to wrest my body halfway out the window and if even then I can’t reach the keypad, I have to open the door and sort of drape myself across the window while the line backs up behind me and all the normal people wonder why they gave a pygmy a driver’s license. I am waiting for this to appear in a Final Destination plotline where some poor sap has their skin burned off in a tanning accident only to be chopped in half by a rogue power window trying to get cash out at her local Wells Fargo.

I came across my second-grade tormenter recently on Facebook. She has a kid now. I imagine if that thing’s internal organs haven’t been squeezed out of its eyeballs yet, it’s probably dressed up in a lot of ruffles and getting posed next to a chalkboard every morning detailing how many hours old it is. Best of luck, kid. May you make it to five foot three unscathed.


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