dana cass

the anti-lifestyle blog

bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.

thicker than water

An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.”

I traveled recently to Finland, the country that my mother’s family left several generations ago. I’ve never been particularly in tune with my cultural heritage, mostly because I’m not just a mutt but a generic, whiter-than-white-bread mutt: “Half Finnish, a quarter Italian, the rest English, Irish, and Scottish,” I would say in elementary school when the topic came up, which it did strangely often given that I went to school in the whitest neighborhood in Las Vegas. (In third grade, we had a potluck where you were supposed to bring a food from your heritage to share with the class. The one Filipino kid brought adobo and the rest of us brought… mostly variations on coleslaw, if I remember rightly.)

Las Vegas—at least the part of Las Vegas where I grew up—isn’t much for rich cultural traditions. It’s more a place for reinvention, somewhere that you land by some accident of circumstance rather than of heritage. We all lived there with our parents but we went to visit our grandparents and cousins out of state during summers, to California and New Jersey and Illinois, in neighborhoods where every kid on the block had a Bar Mitzvah or went for meatballs at Grandma’s house on Sunday. I knew about Bar Mitzvahs from reading Judy Blume, I knew about Kwanzaa from reading The Baby-Sitters Club, but I thought maybe that the authors were taking artistic license because the closest thing I knew to any of that was going to Achievement Days at my Mormon friends’ houses, where we glued cotton balls and googly eyes to empty Cool-Whip containers and stuck cards that read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on top of the whole mess. I had a couple of friends whose grandmothers were “Yiayia,” but it wasn’t until many years later that I connected that with being Greek.

In college I met kids from places that weren’t my white suburban neighborhood in Las Vegas. I was well-read enough by that point that it was hardly mindblowing to learn that there are Americans in the millennial generation who are connected to their cultural heritage. It was more disappointing to realize that having grown up as I did—in a satellite family that had split off from the whole, where the most I had to go off was the occasional story about how it smelled when Grandma Joyce made lutefisk or a bag of pizzelle that my Italian great-aunt sent over from California—I was missing something that other people considered fundamental to their narrative.

This doesn’t really bother me. For one thing, I recognize that in return I get to benefit from centuries of white privilege, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. For another, growing up in Las Vegas is a formative experience that is unique enough to supplant the absence of a longer cultural tradition: my identity is rooted heavily in the bizarre combination of alien desert and gaudy neon and the idea that when you’re done with a building you can blow it up and all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t need stories about how my family celebrates the winter holidays when I have stories about how I used to dance The Nutcracker in the same theatre where Penn and Teller used to perform. I glom onto others’ traditions: I show up at my best friend’s family’s gut-busting Italian Thanksgiving table, I follow along in the Haggadah at my sister’s in-laws’ Seder.

And so in the absence of cultural stereotypes to point to, I have always believed that my family and me are our own special brand of weird. Buttoned-up, introverted, antisocial, uncomfortable in crowds, happiest without sunlight, suspicious of strangers: that’s us, I thought, and nobody else.

Then I went to Finland.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. We are not dyed-in-the-wool Finns, although I’m pretty sure I could have stayed in the sauna for way longer than my boyfriend wanted to. But I have never felt more at home than I did walking down a street where nobody tried to make eye contact with me or, God forbid, small talk. Nobody swore at me—at least not to my face, although I assume that any American blundering her way through a foreign country where the only phrase she knows is “kiss my bellybutton, you pancake-head” (thanks, Grandma Joyce, for that valuable childhood lesson) is getting a few words tossed after her on the street—but it’s a great relief to discover that I can blame my sailor mouth on my heritage, not the fact that I’m too vulgar to be allowed on playgrounds. And it’s socially acceptable there to drink coffee all day long, just like it is in Silicon Valley, only I still didn’t discover some long-dormant genetic trait that lets me drink coffee after noon without finding myself still awake in bed fourteen hours later. (I trust that after enough months with only a few hours of sunlight each day, I would adapt. I may explore this hypothesis one day.)

Before I traveled to Helsinki—which, for the record, is actually kind of boring, although I maintain that I don’t need much more than a beer bar with library shelves and old typewriters and coffee shops on every block, both of which Helsinki has—the only Finnish trope I knew was also my favorite. It’s called sisu: a sort of inborn stoicism that imbues Finns with the wherewithal to keep going in the face of things like months-long winters and Viking invasions.

I’ve taken sort of a WebMD approach to this inner strength: if the Internet tells me that according to the symptoms of my origins I have it, then I have it, even if the quarter-Italian-the-rest-English-Irish-and-Scottish half of me is urging me to give up and eat some pasta. I think it’s probably also supposed to imbue me with the strength I need to do things like actually kill the cockroach in my apartment myself instead of running away for six hours and pretending it was never there, or put on my big-girl pants and board the freaking turboprop, but I use it mostly to help me get through my versions of Viking invasions. I have sisu, I tell myself when I am feeling particularly vulnerable to the image of my weight-restored stomach in the mirror, I will eat this burrito and I will enjoy it. (I think perhaps my Finnish ancestors would roll in their graves to hear that I invoke sisu to get me through the hardship of eating a burrito, but in the absence of Vikings to combat, I have to make do with the dramas I can find.)

“You rejuvenate like Wolverine,” my coworker said to me once, maybe a week or two after my life fell apart at the seams, when I was sitting at my desk and gritting my teeth through some assignment that I probably could have turned down if I had mentioned that my boyfriend dumped me in Palo Alto (PALO ALTO!!!) and also I had been starving myself for several months. I declined. I declined at any point over the course of that year to mention to anyone at work that I was anything less than full speed ahead, ready to roll, not malnourished and miserable and the emotional equivalent of your iPhone when the battery icon turns red. Possibly, that was the Silicon Valley ethos whereby you don’t quit until you’re dead or you’re out of Pellegrino in the kitchenette; I like to argue that it was sisu. I am a Finn, or at least part of me is. I don’t need anybody to yank me back up the canyon. I can claw my way back from the brink.

Finland was serene. Nobody is walking down the streets of Helsinki gritting their teeth or growling at their demons under their breath. Everyone is going silently about their business, speaking when spoken to, drinking their coffee. I like to think it’s because we have to save the mental strength we’d otherwise expend on small talk so that we don’t have to cry uncle when we could otherwise call up our sisu. I found it very comforting to be in a place where everyone spoke at a volume that my ears could handle, where the loudest thing I heard all week was a guy playing Neil Young covers on a guitar in the doorway to a bar on Roobertinkatu. It was the first time that I’ve been to a place where I felt like people operated at the speed and volume that I wanted to, except for when we used to visit Grandma in assisted living. (This was better mostly because there was more beer, although arguably the food was as mushy.) I did not feel compelled to make jokes with the barista about renaming coffee “bean juice,” unlike the last time I went to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, which will probably be the last time I go to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, because it hurt my soul. Nobody dared play their music without headphones on the train, nobody elbowed their way in front of me to board the plane before I did, nobody stuck a clipboard in my face trying to get me to donate to Greenpeace on my way to yoga.

And best of all, everyone is always on time.

freshman disorientation

Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)

I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.

What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.

And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.

So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)

But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.

I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)

The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.

I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.

But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.

It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)

In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.

textually transmitted diseases

When is the appropriate time to make your confessions to a potential partner? During the first date? The second? Before or after you admit that you’ve never seen “Jurassic Park?” Should you let them find out when they add you on Facebook? Should you just put it in your Tinder bio and get it out of the way? Do you have a moral responsibility to tell them before you’ve made an emotional commitment?

“I like you—”

“—I like you, too!”

“—but… I have—”

“It’s fine! I got diagnosed with HPV once too.”

“…”

“…”

“I was going to say, I have a blog.”

“Oh.”

My blog turned into a “thing”—as in, something that people beyond just my mom read and react to—around the first time that I offended a significant other by having one. Actually, I think the offense was a function of my blog becoming a thing. When it was my little hobby, where I wrote mostly for the sake of the navel I was gazing it, it was a non-issue. When I decided to deal with getting dumped in a hotel room in Palo Alto (Palo Alto! I’m over everything but that) by writing a little paean to the fact that I hadn’t yet jumped off my 13th-floor balcony, it was mostly because I didn’t want to call all of my friends individually and tell them that I needed somebody to bring me a box of Kleenex and some horse tranquilizers.

It was only when that little paean got featured on WordPress that it occurred to me that I wasn’t just sending out a holiday newsletter to my friends and third cousins. In short order, I had a couple thousand people subscribing to my little paeans—which, I think, could all be summarized as celebrations of how I haven’t jumped off a balcony—and one very put-out email from the subject of that first essay who pointed out perhaps rightly that, in asking me to drinks one summer evening and throughout all that followed, he had not signed up to be a guest on Oprah.

I have thought often since then about where the boundaries lie between what’s mine and what’s fair for me to talk about and what secrets belong to the people who shape me. I didn’t write that essay to spite him; in fact, I wrote it and rewrote it several times to reorient it around me, but there was only so much I could do. (You know, aside from not writing it at all. Which obviously wasn’t an option, because there aren’t nearly enough think pieces about breakups on the Internet and it was my civic duty to contribute.)

“Please don’t write a blog post about how happy you are to be single,” my last boyfriend said to me when I broke up with him. I wanted to say I can’t believe you’d think that I would but I was in no position to be the offended one, so I said I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. I can’t say I didn’t want to write after we broke up—not precisely that, because “happy” isn’t the right word, but Lord knows I can’t undergo anything resembling a seismic shift without milking it for all its worth—but I didn’t because there was no way to do it in a way where the meanness didn’t outweigh the artistic merit or the catharsis or the attention.

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite authors was Augusten Burroughs, who wrote—writes—incisive memoirs that are mostly about the terrible people who have turned him into who he is. He released a new book recently. I preordered it while I was inhaling the last of a container of hummus at two in the morning a few months ago, then forgot about it until it arrived (and sparked a moral quandary about whether a gay white male author counted as not quite a white male author because I’m swearing off books by white male authors this year. Spoiler alert: I decided it was worth it.)

I felt a little nauseous reading his latest book, hundreds of pages of gory detail about the collapse of his first marriage and how it led to his second. All I could think about was how could anyone stand to read this about themselves, especially the jilted first husband but even the second. I felt a little betrayed on their behalf, and in turn I felt a little sick finally acknowledging that while I don’t have a book deal and readings at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, the Internet is still a public space, and with the great power of speaking to an audience comes the great responsibility of not trying to make everybody in your life agree to be Scott Disick.

I am a different person now than I was when I was a seventeen-year-old reading Running With Scissors. Mostly, it’s because I don’t have to go to AP Calculus at seven in the morning anymore, so I’m a lot better adjusted, but I also understand now what it is for someone to really change the course of your life. Certainly, when I was a teenager, I had been saddened and irritated and humiliated by everyone from my mom to my algebra teacher to the guy who played the candelabra in our high school production of Beauty and the Beast.

At my performing arts high school, we made a lot of self-indulgent art that was mostly about each other. There were a lot of dance solos to “Hands Down” and monologues performed with more eye contact than was really necessary, and God help the poor suckers who had to sit through the Senior Choreography showcase, where every senior dancer got to express their innermost feelings through a piece choreographed on a bunch of freshmen who were practically drooling at the chance to roll around on the floor to From Autumn to Ashes wearing ripped-up black tights. It was all thinly veiled enough that you didn’t need to know someone too well to know just who the target of that impassioned rendition of “Your Eyes” was.

As an adult, though, I am trying to write intentionally about myself and only myself. This is partly because I am the most interesting woman in the world, obviously, and partly because I recognize that other people are my commodity to trade for “likes” on the Internet. I write about the people that drift into and then quickly back out of my life like the one-dimensional characters that they were for me and I try to treat the people who were three full and destructive dimensions just the same.

It’s only through gritted teeth and a couple of drafts of this thing that I’m willing to admit this, but the email I received after that first blog post made me realize a couple of salient facts about being a writer in the self-publishing age:

  1. I am not a professional writer. I am just another schmuck on the Internet writing tell-alls because the only thing more satisfying than keeping a diary is keeping a diary that talks back to you. I’m going to abandon this metaphor before I have to start talking about Horcruxes, but here’s the thing: it’s really, really hard to resist temptation when you know that you’re going to get a bunch of pats on the back and clicks and likes if you do it. This is the truth that I have to confront every time I’m tempted to air another pile of dirty laundry about the terrible date I went on with the guy who kept talking about how he hated Uber or to recount the day-to-day adventures of being a recovering anorexic. (Synopsis: I wake up! I feel mildly anxious about my breakfast! I go about my day! I feel mildly anxious about my lunch! Etc., etc., rinse, repeat.)
  2. That’s not art. It’s not even that interesting, really, to read a bunch of first-draft vitriol that is funny and interesting when you’re telling it to your coworkers over Friday night beers but overplayed and mean-spirited when you’re using it as a mechanism to get attention online. And fundamentally, I know that, and I felt a little sick when I got that email from my ex-boyfriend because as much as I didn’t want to feel bad for him for feeling exposed and embarrassed, I did.
  3. When a person becomes part of your history—especially when you’re a person who thinks relationships are like having a tapeworm—you can’t really abstract them away. And if you treat the people you date like they signed up to be the subject of a New Yorker profile, you’re going to alienate them. They’re going to think they need to ask you not to write about them after you dump them. They’re going to think you’re the kind of person who likes likes better than.. being liked. (I’m done. I’m sorry. I’m firing myself.)

But where is the line? What makes a meaningful contribution to the zeitgeist? When is it worth inciting pain or discomfort in somebody that you liked or loved or at the very least swiped right on for the sake of entertaining your audience? How should I balance my desire to write with my desire to be not totally undateable? Why won’t anybody watch me perform a heartfelt contemporary dance solo to “How to Save a Life”? Is it a sign of my weak moral fiber that I’m more concerned about how being a blogger affects my dating prospects than I am about, like, not being a completely awful person? Should I change my last name to Kardashian?

I’ll know the answers to these questions one day. In the meantime, I’m going to go work on my entirely fictional novel about a young liberal arts college graduate wasting her English degree on a minimum-wage retail job in suburban Las Vegas. Twist: she’s not a ballet dancer! (I told you it was fiction.)

all the old familiar places

We moved from one house to another, not even two miles away, when I was twelve. On the last night in the old house, I wrote a letter that I’ve since misplaced to remind myself of who I had been when I lived in that house. (I’m not sure how I drew up quite as much sentiment as I did, since I was twelve, but I’ve taken myself as seriously as I do now for as long as I can remember so you can bet it was heartfelt. I likely used the words “heartbreak” and “disappointment” as intentionally as I do in this blog. It was hard out there for a four-foot-tall nerd with poor social skills and Coke-bottle glasses.)

My hypothesis was that as soon as we moved into that new house I was going to become a new person, the way I did for a couple weeks every summer when I went to visit my grandma and became, oddly, docile and mostly quiet. It was as if the simple act of flying to Pasco was enough to make me forget that I was a championship whiner, but only until I got home and slept a night in my own bed and woke up the next morning as cranky as I’d ever been. I knew that a letter was no amulet, and that I couldn’t move to a new house and be the same person that I was the day before, but I wanted to remember as best I could.

Place is evocative. When I leave a place, I envision myself leaving behind something like a husk; when I return, it’s as if I step back into that husk involuntarily.

I’m a writer who works less with imagination than with memory. The question that runs through all of my work is who was I then? The answer is elusive. It’s easy to recall a generic description—that ugly shirt you had in two colors that you wore to every party sophomore year, and the Regina Spektor album that you were always listening to on the way to those parties, and how excited you were when S___ from American Literature finally asked you out—but it’s harder to conjure the sense of what it was like to live at the center of the constellation of all of those things.

To step back into a place that you’ve left behind—that’s the closest you can get to slipping back into that husk. Sleeping in your childhood home after you’ve grown up and moved away. Drinking at the bar where you went on your first post-college first date—your first first date, let’s be honest—five years later, only now you drink beer instead of vodka sodas and you know how to leave before the second drink with a little bit of dignity.

I think sometimes about the husks I leave strewn around the many places I visit where I’ll never return: that there was a time when I was a person who sat on her boyfriend’s kitchen countertop in an apartment in San Francisco, legs danging and wine glass in hand, and that there was a time before that when I was seventeen and I was the same person, only the countertop I sat on was in a dressing room in the backstage of a theater and it was very special to be one of the elite dancers who got their own patch of mirror and countertop, not like the underclassmen upstairs who had to share.

I got dumped in Palo Alto a couple of years ago. Of all the places to have my heart broken, Palo Alto was particularly cruel—it’s sunny and everyone is blonde and wears Adidas slides and works like four hours a day, for one thing, and for another, I have to visit some four or five times a year. And for all that I’ve grown and healed and moved on, I can’t help but feel a little raw and disoriented, like the second I step onto University Avenue I remember what it was like to be thrown so harshly off of my equilibrium. (Or maybe I’m just disoriented because it’s February and everyone is wearing shorts, and Palo Alto is full of humanoid freaks who don’t cry on the street like New Yorkers.)

It’s kind of joyful, though, to step back every once in a while to a husk that I’m thankful to have discarded. I remember that constellation viscerally—the sunshine on my back and the sound of chatter around me in the company cafeteria, how the sensation of disappointment settled in my eyelids and my gut—and it’s a great relief to know that that’s not my life anymore, that that’s never going to be my life again, that certainly I’ll have my heart broken again but that it will feel different and look different and smell different. (And I’ll get to say “Well, I feel like shit, but this isn’t nearly as bad as the time I got dumped in Palo Alto and everyone was smiling and drinking boba and wearing shorts and I wanted to punch them all in the face.”)

I finished A God in Ruins last night on a plane and while I’m not sold on Kate Atkinson’s prose or even her plots, there’s no denying that when it comes to structure and conceit she is a master. It’s a book about memory and perspective and she uses a trope where the protagonist, toward the end of his life—but not the end of the novel, which is told out of sequence—goes on a “farewell tour” of the places that figured prominently in his life. It’s a stroke that is of greater genius than it sounds. What better way to describe how a person has grown and changed—or not—than to juxtapose who they were at a moment in a place with how they recall themselves in that moment decades later?

It’s easy to recast memories in a light that better flatters the narrative you’ve crafted for yourself. I’ve caught myself more than once writing an anecdote that didn’t happen in the way I first recalled it: there was a story about being coached to insert a tampon for the first time through the bathroom door at ballet camp, and I wrote it down and a few minutes later remembered that that wasn’t my story, it was my roommate’s. I tried to write a few paragraphs ago that I had been to brunch at the restaurant where I’d cried into a cocktail napkin during my sister’s rehearsal dinner the night before her wedding, then remembered that it was the restaurant where we’d gone to drinks the night before the night before her wedding, which doesn’t flow nearly as well. I remembered these stories in a way that suited me.

Like I said before, place is evocative; being there jars my memory in a way that the simple act of remembering can’t. It’s not that I remember the details more clearly—I could sit at the same patio table where I sat for three hours on my first date with my first serious boyfriend and I still couldn’t conjure up what shoes I was wearing—but I remember the sensation. I used the word “constellation” earlier but perhaps I should say “confluence” instead: to be, physically, somewhere where something happened is to get as close as I can to reliving the experience of being that person in that moment, replicating the sensations that form a memory and retelling the story to fill in the gaps.

But as delicious as it is to step into and back out of a skin that I’m grateful to have shed, it’s even more delicious to know that the nature of my life—spent, so far, in constant motion, in moving trucks and on planes—means that most of my memories are ephemeral. My childhood home is sold and so is the one where we lived after that. My apartments have been relet to strangers, my furniture donated to charity, my high school repainted. I couldn’t go home again if I wanted to and so I have the freedom to paint my memories whatever color I want to; they’re lost to time, and no letter or essay or novel can conjure anything more than a husk.

I think perhaps that’s best. I tell people I write to make other people feel less alone in the world but I think that the old Joan Didion quote, the opening line of “The White Album,” is truer: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I write to mold my memories into the shape I need them to take so that I can live with them. To return to Palo Alto and remember how powerless I was on that day in August is to warp the shape of the story I wrote that forklifted me from that hole. I avoid DC because I don’t want to remember what it was like to be thin and weak and sick; I gallivant around the East Village because I want to recapture what it was to be 22, when nothing was nearly as big a deal as everything seems to be now. But what I like best is to leave footprints in new places that I’ll never see again—an apartment in southwestern France, a coffee shop on New Zealand’s North Island—and to file them away using whatever system I like. I was ambitious here. I was artistic there. I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel and it made me feel wistful. I made eye contact with a stranger and all sorts of this could have happened if I hadn’t looked back at my book. I write in my journal like I wrote myself that letter, so that I might remember who I was in that moment, so I can better understand what it means to be me now because of who I was then—there.

eyes on the prize

I had just a few simple dreams when I was a child: to meet the Spice Girls, to buy an entire wardrobe from the Limited Too, and to will myself into having perfect vision so I could cast off my Coke-bottle glasses once and for all.

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Did you know they make miniature cellos for tiny people who set their sights on being popular and accidentally end up playing the cello instead?

Yeah, that didn’t work out too well for me.

I wasn’t done setting goals, though. I was going to be a cheerleader, and play Brigitta in the spring musical, and seriously if I just thought hard enough I could dream those braces right off of my teeth.

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I wouldn’t have let me be a cheerleader either.

Nope.

I am a poor judge of my own abilities. Today I call it imposter syndrome, because I know logically that I’m not actually terrible at my job, but when I was a kid I was downright delusional. I was as certain that I’d be a cheerleader as I was that I could wake up one day with 20/20 vision, maybe because I didn’t understand how cheerleaders got there. “By dint of hard work” wasn’t the kind of thing I was willing to consider. I was sure that it was effortless and so I grew up lazy, waiting for the elusive triple pirouette to grace me with its presence during ballet class while the other girls practiced their 32 fouettes in the corner until the janitor was sweeping the floor around them as the studio closed.

Things came easy to me when I was a child. I was a champion rote memorizer. I wandered around the house muttering my times tables under my breath so I could walk into school the next day, take a giant gulp of air, and exhale the entire thing faster than anyone else, from “onetimesoneisone” to “twelvetimestwelveisahundredandfortyfour” with my eyes bugging out the whole time from behind those Coke-bottle glasses. I was the queen of state capitals Jeopardy (“Harrisburg!” “Dover!” “Pierre!”).

It was only when rote memorization began to fail me as a tool that I began to fail myself. I tried my mightiest to write out a plan to become popular: my elementary school journals are filled with lists where I impel myself to “be cooler” and then bemoan the lack of tactical guidance on how to be cool. “Stop picking your nose in front of people” was the only advice I could really muster and that wasn’t happening anytime soon. (If we’re being honest, it still hasn’t. Thank God I sit behind a Thunderbolt monitor all day.)

Absent instructions to follow, surrounded by people who had it all figured out, I began to supplant goals with wishes. It was half laziness and half growing up brunette and bespectacled and comically uncoordinated with a bunch of blonde soccer players. Everything seemed so hopelessly out of reach—and it was, really, since I wasn’t about to wake up blonde—that it didn’t occur to me to find something more realistic to set my sights on.

Eventually, I grew up a little, took a ballet class, realized that I could do more pirouettes if I did situps while I watched “The OC,” that I could ditch the glasses if I could learn to stick my finger in my eyeball, that I could get A’s if I studied for my chemistry tests (or if I was nice to J_____ and he let me copy off his paper). It was like next-level times tables and it worked until I discovered that sometimes there are things called extenuating circumstances that get between you and your goals. You can practice as hard as you want but if the girl who would grow up to play Sandy in Grease Live! walks into the audition after you, it doesn’t matter how many pirouettes you just did, everyone has already forgotten that you exist. (This happened. 2005 was a rough year for everyone at the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts who had previously had self-esteem.)

I decided shortly thereafter that setting goals, per se, was just setting myself up to wallow. If something doesn’t happen and you’ve classed it as a “goal,” you experience not only the disappointment of losing out on being Brigitta or a cheerleader or first place in state capitals Jeopardy but the meta-level disappointment of failing yourself. So I reverted to my childhood practice of wishing. “I want to be in the ballet piece next year,” I said to myself, but like hell I was going to set a goal to be in the ballet piece next year, because I had no control over whether a bunch of skinny freshmen were going to show up at dance company auditions and tombe-coupe-jete circles around me. (Spoiler alert: they did, and they all got to wear pink sparkly tutus while I shuddered around the stage in, literally, a bonnet.)

It was a good way to get through the first painful years of young adulthood. Setting goals is especially hard when you don’t know what you want out of life: I didn’t want to go to law school or med school or teach in China or backpack Europe. And when I eventually tripped into a career—because my sister went to a party thirteen years ago where she met a kid who, ten years later, moved my resume to the top of a pile—it occurred to me to be grateful that I hadn’t set some kind of goal for myself. I’ve never been one for planning, anyway; serendipity and luck and privilege are more fun. Doing it for the stories is more fun. These are my excuses, but the fact is that these are the things I worry about:

  1. Failing.
  2. Failing while people are watching.
  3. People watching me.
  4. Plane crashes. (This would be #1 were it not for the fact that I only worry about it when I’m on planes, which occurs less frequently than when people are watching me.)

I can work myself into a panic about nearly everything—squirrels, the prospect of my Kindle running out of battery on a long subway ride, how I’m going to fit an umbrella in the tiny purse I wanted to carry next time we go to the Bell House given that Weather.com is forecasting rain ten days from now—and when I let myself think about the kinds of goals that are as dependent on circumstance as they are on persistence, I am overcome.

How could I possibly vow to publish a novel by the time I’m thirty when sending a query letter is as much a moonshot as auditioning for the non-Equity tour of “The King and I?” How could I do something as audacious as tentatively plan to buy an apartment in five years when I could get fired from my job at any moment? How dare I imagine that I might one day direct a company’s marketing department when the bottom is about to fall out of the entire tech industry anyway? I am terrified to say that I want any of these things because, frankly, I’m terrified that people might laugh at me when they don’t pan out.

In my head, there is a tiny studio audience observing my every move, judging me as harshly when I try to shovel half a salad into my mouth in one bite as when I say I’m going to stop flaking on social invitations. (This studio audience was thrilled when I decided that I was going to lose ten pounds and then, again, when the first eating disorder therapist I saw told me I wasn’t “that far gone” and so I decided to find out what “that far gone” meant. I should replace them with Oprah’s studio audience. Oprah fans would sit me down with the latest Barbara Kingsolver and tell me to quit trying so hard to make a point.)

I’m afraid to take risks because I’m afraid of what this studio audience will do to me when I fall short. I set myself small, digestible goals and I pursue them slavishly and I am disproportionately upset when I fail at them. I decided this year not to read white male authors, and then I accidentally borrowed a book from the resident of the sixth-floor walkup where I found myself unexpectedly a couple months ago late on a Friday night—okay, so it’s hard to find yourself unexpectedly in a sixth-floor walkup, but you get what I’m saying—and now I have this Tom Wolfe book sitting on my nightstand that I can’t read but I don’t borrow a book and then not read it so I can’t not read it and at this point, I might as well just pencil in a deadline for my first publication date on my calendar four years from now and one more a week later to dig my own grave. (The studio audience roars.)

There aren’t many things that I want to do while I’m alive; when people ask, I say “Have fun.” I’m not sold on marriage and children terrify me. I’d like to see more of the world, but I’ve got no checklist of countries to visit. I will never run a marathon or dance on Broadway. I don’t have many flags to plant—fear or not, I would rather amble along, mostly aimlessly, living according to circumstance. But as much as I like serendipity, I think that if I die without having published a novel or purchased a home I will not feel finished.

And that means that I have to use the dirty word and set a couple of goals for myself, goals that I might not accomplish by thirty because I might contract writer’s block or get fired or move again or lose a hand to a squirrel attack or get murdered on the subway. I have to set some ground rules for my studio audience: they’re allowed to heckle me when I spill coffee on my boob the day I’m wearing a white shirt, but they can’t give me shit when I drop eighty bucks on another black sweater instead of putting it in my savings account.

Studio audience, are you listening? The APPLAUSE sign is flashing. Put away that bucket of tomatoes and make yourselves useful.

a deluxe apartment in the sky

After college, I landed in an apartment that my father once, memorably, called “a warehouse for twentysomethings.” Warehouse is generous: it was a converted four-bedroom with a single, decrepit bathroom and no air conditioner. I found my room on Craigslist shortly after arriving in New York where I discovered quickly and to my chagrin that, at the beginning of 2012, there were no jobs to be found for a shiftless 22-year-old with an English degree and that I was living dangerously beyond my means. (“Beyond my means” meant, in this case, one of two bedrooms in an apartment where the heat and hot water worked on occasion and mice eventually drove out the lessee only a few months after I abandoned here. That’s New York, I’m told.)

My three roommates were an actor, a costume designer, and a girl whose claims of being an attorney I deem spurious based on her living in an apartment where the only dishware was four IKEA bowls we shared between the four of us. The actor, whose name was on the lease, played the same lick from the same Bright Eyes song day in and day out for the four months I spent there. The kitchen was a stove, a sink, and a sliver of counter, and I lived mostly on hummus and pita and two-dollar frozen meals from Trader Joe’s that I ate in my bedroom.

I had a boyfriend for a few of those months—no, not a boyfriend; “We’re dating, but we’re not… boyfriend and girlfriend,” that kind of noise I found glamorous when I was 22—who lived alone in an apartment that felt like a palace. There was an air conditioner and very clean sheets and a sofa, which were all things that I probably could have had if I had tried a little harder but seemed, then, out of my reach.

Much was out of my reach then: a job, personal space, cleanliness. A bathroom shared by four people will never be clean. (No place is clean when you can opt out of owning your mess. The year before I lived with my four best friends in what was essentially a double-wide on the outskirts of our college campus. We cleaned out our refrigerator one afternoon and I decided that there was really no point to claiming the celery that had turned to—I’m sorry, but it’s true—black sludge in the back of the crisper. After all, C______ had already picked it up, and would it really have shifted the karmic balance of the universe far enough to justify both of us touching it?)

I wanted space most of all. I find it impossible to feel comfortable when I know that another person is present, even if they’re rooms away; there’s something about someone else breathing my air that disturbs my equilibrium. (I want to know at all times that I can go to the bathroom pantsless. More to the point, I want at all times to be pantsless.) During those months that I lived in New York with three roommates and four bowls and no air conditioner, I grew claustrophobic. New York suffocated me. I squeezed into the middle seat on the R train, waited for my roommate to finish showering, stole the covers in my boyfriend’s bed.

I grew desperate for space. I moved to California and rattled around in a one-bedroom apartment that I couldn’t find enough furniture to fill. I practiced pirouettes on the hardwood floor. Pantless. I moved again to Virginia, where I lived in a thirteenth-floor apartment with plush carpet and a balcony that felt like everything I dreamed of when I was 22 and sleeping on a mattress that I’m fairly sure was made of cardboard. I could sleep in my spacious bedroom and invite a guest to sleep in my spacious living room and if I timed my trip to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom right, I still didn’t have to wear pants. I had a party and invited 20 people and everyone had somewhere to sit.

I loved that apartment. I had a boyfriend then who was abjectly horrified by how much I liked living in a building that he described variously as soulless or utterly lacking in character, but I was too enamored with the carpet and the windows and the central air conditioning to care that every one of the hundreds of apartments in the building looked like mine. It was space and it was mine and I could wash my sheets every week (“could,” which is different than “did,” because all the space in the world couldn’t turn me into someone I’m not, which is a hygienic person).

That apartment swallowed me, ultimately. I spent so many hours alone in that apartment during my monthslong nadir, as my body wasted away and the proportion of human to space shifted troublingly in the favor of space. I lay on the carpet sometimes when I didn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to do anything else and it was soft on my face and I didn’t get hookworm, which I certainly would have if I had pressed my face up against the floor in my apartment where I lived with three strangers or in my college house where the celery shape-shifted in the back of the fridge.

It occurred to me then that it was when I had the least space to myself that I occupied the world in the most satisfying way. I spent the bare minimum of hours in my room in Queens, alighting only to sleep and shower and swap out the book I carried in my purse. I spent the rest of the time rattling around the city on subway cars making eye contact with strangers, drinking cheap margaritas at Blockheads, crying in the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met, getting lost in Brooklyn, begging someone to give me a job so I could move into an apartment where I could walk around barefoot without catching diphtheria.

I moved into a studio last year in Queens, a few minutes away from where I lived in 2012. I pass the old apartment when I go see my therapist and once I saw my guitar-playing roommate through the window at a Starbucks on Broadway. I ride two trains to the office because it felt to me like if I moved any closer, I’d risk being discovered and summarily ejected. Queens felt safe.

I took away from 2012 that Manhattan isn’t a place for girls like me who grew up on cul-de-sacs in the Southwestern suburbs. We can’t pretend away our instinct that a home is only a home if it’s got a backyard. It’s like in “Goodbye to All That” where Joan Didion writes that nobody from the East can “appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.” New York was, for me, something of a metonym for adulthood in general, and that disastrous first month in Chelsea set a bizarre tone for me, like I was trying to attend a party that I hadn’t been invited to.

I wondered if that was what went so wrong in Virginia, too, if with my carpet and my balcony and my elevator I had tried to live beyond my means again, and the universe had said No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, you can either live in an apartment where you have to listen to somebody practicing a musical instrument or you can be heartbroken and miserable. Pick one. “To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu,” wrote Joan Didion of New York, and I extrapolate this to mean, in general, alone, self-sufficient, in an apartment where one can walk to work and fit one’s belongings in a closet without having to store a few pairs of shoes in the oven.

I signed a lease on a studio in the West Village two weeks ago. I feel like Eliza Dolittle at the Ascot Races, like at any moment all of the trappings of this job and this paycheck and this bizarre set of circumstances where people take me seriously are going to fall away and I’ll have to skulk back to Queens, to a room that overlooks a grocery store, to two trains that are both, invariably, delayed. But the apartment has two windows and, mysteriously, a skylight in the bathroom, and I’ve been promised that if I let the exterminator in once a month then the cockroaches won’t bother me. If they do, I’ll buy some Raid, maybe, and I won’t take it as a sign that I’m living beyond my means.

“I had hoped the apartment would go to you,” the previous tenant wrote me in an email last week. He lived there for ten years and I can’t imagine that the place was ever less immaculate than it was on the day he showed me around. He filled the closet with books instead of clothes, a collection that spilled out onto the floor next to a couch that doesn’t face a television. It reminded me a little of the apartment where my ex-boyfriend lived in Haight-Ashbury, spotless but for the piles of books littered in every corner. I wondered what the tenant saw in me that made him think that I’m the kind of girl who should live in a studio apartment in the West Village, but nobody’s told me before that they thought I belonged where I was.

I think perhaps now I’m confident enough to make my own decisions about where I belong, to reject notions like a building having insufficient character to deserve my presence or my presence being unworthy of a city. I don’t need too much space to fill to feel like I’ve successfully carved out a corner in the world. (And I’m responsible for my own rotten celery.)

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.

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