teenage dream

Every so often, I give up on pretending that I have sophisticated taste in music and turn on the kind of thing I used to wallow to in high school. It’s a sure ticket to the past, which has been especially welcome lately—nothing like escaping to the good old days when the president was just a war criminal and Chandler’s mom was still a punch line on Friends, am I right?!—and easier than ever now that everything’s on Spotify. (Just remember to turn off sharing, unless you’re proud that it’s 2017 and you’re still listening to Something Corporate. You shouldn’t be, in case that wasn’t obvious.)

So the other day, in between wondering if I should quit my job and counting the number of dystopian novels that I didn’t think to take as cautionary tales, it occurred to me to turn on Jason Mraz. While he’s arguably a better musician than most of his contemporaries on my high school playlists, it’s still difficult to justify the existence of a lyric like “it takes a crane to build a crane,” and let’s not even broach the subject of his newer albums. Like Alanis in the Jagged Little Pill era versus Alanis now, it would be for everybody’s benefit if he’d just get dumped already. Success in love does not a good singer-songwriter make.

To step back into my teenage shoes, though, is to set aside the issue of quality. More precisely, it’s to set aside nuance. On many counts, I was inarguably a better person when I was a teenager. For example, when I was seventeen, I submitted an essay proposing that Congress vote anonymously to authorize military actions overseas to “allow politicians greater freedom to vote the way they feel is correct rather than be pressured by the party line.” This is probably not even the most preposterous thing that I thought was practical when I was a teenager, but it’s the only one I still have in my Dropbox, so it’ll have to do. Later in this essay, I also suggest that the United States would be able to end the genocide in Darfur—it was 2007—“if only we were willing to commit the troops to do so.” (Those troops, of course, would be committed through anonymous vote. Like YikYak, but for war!)

“Better” probably isn’t the right word: I was, if anything, purer. I thought that Congress was made up of good people who were simply at the mercy of their uneducated constituents. I thought that “it takes a crane to build a crane” was a genius observation that had never been articulated better. (I sort of still do. Congress, on the other hand, is obviously a lost cause.) Today, I can argue myself in circles; where I once nearly stormed out of the classroom in a heated debate with my World Affairs teacher over the best way to end the practice of female genital mutilation, I now hear myself using the dreaded phrase “I see where you’re coming from.” And I don’t even follow it up with “…and it proves my hypothesis that you’re a goddamn sociopath who wouldn’t recognize nuance if it punched you in the face.”

I miss the comfort of certainty. Writing cringingly naive social studies essays, blasting something like “Coin-Operated Boy” on my way through the Del Taco drive-through… nowadays it takes me a solid thirty minutes to decide what to order from Seamless, and even then I only pick because I know that if I don’t have something more than stale pretzels in my apartment within the next 45 minutes, I will chew off my own arm. (This is also in part why I don’t cook. I cannot handle grocery stores. I would say it’s an eating disorder thing, but it’s the same reaction I have to the New York Public Library eBooks catalog.) I’m too aware at any given juncture that whatever route I take will inevitably be the wrong one. What I wouldn’t give to be seventeen again and know that I am, without question, right!

Now I’m all too aware of nuance, and it means that I’m incapable of going in anywhere with guns blazing. That’s not entirely true, as just about all of my coworkers and the senior leadership of my company can attest to, but that blaze flames out so quickly, the second I open my eyes and realize that there’s another perspective to be considered. My intractable stubbornness has given way to… waffling. I’ve been catching myself lately vacillating wildly between different positions depending on how well they’re being argued to me. Protests are useless! “But they’re the only way to get the public read onto a cause! Look at how the attorneys mobilized via social media to help out travelers being detained at JFK!” Okay, protests are great! “They’re political theatre!” Those pink hats are still ugly! Okay, I’m done now. That one is an incontrovertible fact.

I guess the tradeoff is that while I might no longer be bullheaded enough to get myself sent to the dean’s office rather than submit myself to standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, I’m also no longer dumb enough to, say, get myself sent to juvenile court with a summons for drinking underage (in full “seventies roller disco regalia.” With tube socks. After trying to hide under a car). Or leave a Burger King soft drink cup full of Dr. Pepper in my cupholder for hours in the Las Vegas sun and not expect the cup to give way, sending Dr. Pepper leaking… everywhere. Or forget to look behind me before I make a U-turn and send my car straight into the path of an automated gate, practically knocking my bumper off (Dad, if you’re reading this, that’s the genesis of that massive scrape on my back bumper. Not a shopping cart. Just in case you happened to have bought that airtight excuse).

That isn’t to say that I’m not still incompetent—have I mentioned yet on the blog the time last year that I managed to miss a transatlantic flight by a full 24 hours?—but that nothing seems as consequential as it did when I had no concept of nuance. The photos of me wearing tube socks haven’t yet sunk my political campaign. I cleaned up the Dr. Pepper. (And United didn’t charge me for that mishap, which is probably because I have already sold them my soul.) It got better, as they say.

But that, too, is why the music I listened to when I was sixteen doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Everything felt so final, or so urgent: I needed Jason Mraz strumming his stupid guitar and singing to me that “it takes a night to make it dawn,” because just as I was sure in my World Affairs essay that using “media infiltration” to “alert the citizens [of the Middle East… no, literally, the whole thing] that a freer world does, in fact, exist” would bring about peace, so, too, was I sure that getting a B on a trigonometry test was to live the rest of my life behind the cash register at Capezio. I live now in a constant state of awareness that everything evens out to… well, mediocrity, I guess, since that’s what you get when you can’t forget that the highs are as temporary as the lows.

It was nice the other day to walk down Seventh Avenue with my headphones on, listening to music that is only sort of good, remembering what it was like to be confident that everything I said was right and everything I knew was true. It’s not a state that I’d return to—for one thing, I’d take going toe-to-toe with my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss any day over my eminent social studies teachers, and Lord help me if I ever see a look on my mother’s face like the night I got caught drinking Smirnoff Ice in tube socks!—but it’s good to remember that I have, in the past, been capable of taking a position, of making a decision. And, for what it’s worth, of listening to a second-tier singer-songwriter because it makes me feel better about the world, without concerning myself with what the world might feel about me.

NB: My final argument in that World Affairs essay was that the U.S. should remove troops from the Middle East “because at this point, all that that is accomplishing is proving the theory that Americans are evil.” While this is unquestionably true, and I congratulate my younger self for having had the foresight to recognize that this would be an issue in the future, I recognize now that at least epistemologically, I was a little confused.

city mouse, suburb mouse

“Master-planned community”: a euphemism for “white people and expensive trees, arranged along streets that are cleverly named so that a typical set of directions sounds like ‘make a right on Timber Rose, then a left on Heirloom Rose, and then another right on Scarlet Rose.’”* This is where I was raised, on a parcel of land in the heart of the Mojave Desert that Howard Hughes bought and named after his grandmother sometime before he started pissing into jars that he kept in his suite at the Desert Inn.

In general, growing up in the suburbs has ruined me for the life I live today. For example, in Summerlin, there was never any danger of being unable to find a last-minute ingredient for a recipe in progress, what with our walk-in pantries. In the event of a true emergency, the supermarket five minutes away was roughly the size of Grand Central Station and stocked like fifty different brands of yogurt. This is less true in New York. For one, I store my pots in my oven and my shoes in my kitchen cabinets, so it’s kind of moot regardless. More to the point, while there are several bodegas within a four-block radius, not one of them sells both flour and eggs. (Let’s be real, though. They know I store my pots in my oven. I don’t actually need them to sell me anything except for hummus.)

For another, living in a newly constructed house meant that we often saw cockroaches inside. You’d think that this would prepare me well for the moment last year when I spotted a cockroach the size of a small animal moseying through my kitchen, but whereas in Summerlin I could escape to any of the palatially sized rooms that made up our house—the kitchen! The dining room! The living room! The den, which is not the same thing as the living room! The bathroom! The other bathroom! The other other bathroom!—my apartment in New York is a single room that is only marginally larger than the other other bathroom in my childhood home. So instead I put on my snow boots, abandoned all of my feminist principles, and texted the guy I’d been casually seeing for a month or so to come save me. Two great mysteries linger from this incident: one, why that guy is still dating me, and two, where that giant cockroach went, because we never did find it.

Cities, as it is often rumored, are noisy. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that I have heard outside my apartment window in the past twelve months:

  • Bargoers screaming for taxis, then screaming for Ubers, which is an ineffective way to achieve either goal but particularly the latter
  • “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” being played on a stereo mounted on the back of a pedicab
  • A man screaming the lyrics to “Beauty and the Beast” along something that vaguely resembled the melody if you squinted at eleven A.M. on a Saturday
  • The dulcet tones of restaurant equipment being pressure-washed, continuously, between the hours of six and seven A.M. on a Monday**
  • The NYPD threatening protesters with arrest over a bullhorn (a great motivation to donate to the ACLU!)
  • Honking. Always honking. (Did you know that traffic moves faster if you honk? No, you didn’t, because it doesn’t.)

By comparison, here is an exhaustive list of things I heard outside my house between the ages of twelve and 22:

  • The next-door neighbors’ children’s garage band practicing the first 30 seconds of “Smoke on the Water” for a solid two hours every Tuesday afternoon

I suspect that children who grow up elsewhere than a neighborhood where debarking is considered not animal abuse but mandatory may be less sensitive to noise than I am. I lost the ability to sleep through the night long ago—tiny bladder, crippling anxiety, yada yada yada—but living on the very block that Jane Jacobs herself characterized as the epitome of an active community is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. The noise, the light that seeps in despite blinds and curtains, the humming and clanking of the gremlins that live in my refrigerator and radiators; they all conspire to wake me. They have no patience for a girl who grew up believing that there was nothing worse than her father grinding coffee beans at five A.M.

In the suburbs, nobody encroaches on your space. There is no opportunity for anyone to do so, not unless you count the Prius behind your Honda getting closer to your precious bumper than you’d prefer. That hardly prepares you for the inevitable straphanger who, when it’s not even rush hour, decides that not only are they going to hold the same pole as you but they’re going to hold it a quarter-inch above where you’re holding it, and they’re not really going to commit to keeping their hand a respectable distance from yours, and before you know it, you have Ebola. This never happens in the suburbs, although I guess not using the divider in the supermarket checkout is an appropriate analogue.

I guess when it comes down to it, all of this really is about space, and whether or not you can learn to live without it. Everything that I dislike about New York has to do with space: how I can’t buy more boots because I don’t have any room left in my kitchen cabinets and storing boots in my oven feels like a line that even I can’t cross, how you can walk up and down Hudson Street on a cold-as-hell Saturday night in February when nobody in their right mind should be out of their apartment and still not be able to find a bar with two open seats, how… cockroaches. Exist. In your apartment.

In Summerlin, no commodity was more infinite than space, except for maybe brands of yogurt at the supermarket. I grew up riding around in minivans and SUVs purchased for families of four on ten-lane roadways past endless strip malls, vast seas of parking lots, megastores selling televisions wider than my kitchen counters. I get a great deal of pleasure out of going to giant suburban Targets and Costcos: I want to run around every aisle and pile my cart high with enough toilet paper to last me a year because you know that goddamn four-pack that’s all I can cram into my closet is going to run out when I’m couchbound with the hangover runs. And I want to put that toilet paper in the trunk of my unnecessarily large car and drive it home, not wrestle it down into the subway only to discover that the 1 is delayed because our trains are actually propelled not by electricity but by a small army of rats, fortified by pizza, whose regular rest periods are characterized by the MTA as “signal malfunctions,” then decide whether to wait it out or clamber back up and try to get a cab whose driver is going to smite you for asking him to drive you ten blocks because your arms are too short to comfortably carry a thirteen-gallon trash can without whacking yourself in the shins every time you take a step. I mean toilet paper. This has never happened to me. I’m a graceful swan.

I don’t need to enumerate the reasons that I prefer city living. They are myriad. I subscribe to the theory that being forced to interact with your fellow humans teaches you to be more empathetic. (The future that liberals want, and all.) I’m not the person to extrapolate on this. Talk to someone who’s studied sociology, who will address this question with the nuance it deserves, and I’ll keep talking about things that aren’t current affairs because we all deserve thirty minutes a day when we don’t actively hope for the apocalypse to just start and end already. In fact, that’s a good segue to what I believe to be the best selling point of a city versus the suburbs… when the nuclear war inevitably begins, I’m pretty sure that those of us in urban centers are going to be the first to go. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read enough dystopian fiction to know that I’m not the kind of delicate flower who discovers her inner strength in the face of a crisis. I’m the kind of delicate flower who gets left behind because she doesn’t know how to feed herself when she can’t buy hummus at the bodega. These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about as I evaluate my living situation here in 2017. (Sorry. I’m in a dark place.)

I don’t begrudge my childhood in the suburbs. This will sound glib, but I don’t intend it to be: growing up in Summerlin imbued me with a desire to get out that has propelled me to take chances through my adult life (not to mention the privilege that allowed me to do so). Thoreau didn’t know it in the nineteenth century, but the suburbs are the best place to go to witness the phenomenon of “lives of quiet desperation.” I wonder sometimes what it’s like to never have left or to never have wanted to leave—to have purchased a starter McMansion at the nadir of the recession, five minutes from your parents’ house, walking your dogs down the concrete “trails” that wend through artfully laid rock gardens with succulent accents and drive your SUV to the supermarket.

It has been a great pleasure to me to watch my family over the past several years now that we’ve all left Summerlin. My dad’s bus commute from their condo in the city where they live now to his office in a skyscraper that overlooks a bustling downtown is a great novelty to him. (I don’t think anyone else was joyfully texting their family that they had to walk home after the traffic jam that snarled roadways last week. See? Spending decades in the suburbs inures you to the indignity of city life!) I, of course, walk every day through the West Village, around construction and packs of dogs on leashes and, worst, children on scooters. We were never suited for the suburbs, I don’t think, incapable of the kind of socializing that life in a master-planned community demands. I was awkward with the children in my neighborhood, my mother was awkward with their mothers, our neighbors were constantly complaining that our cats were in their yard. I feel confident that all of us are better suited for the lives we live now and that we know and appreciate it because we know what else might have been… which is, to say, not debating whether Kleenex or a pile of Just Salad napkins in the cupboard will flush better when going out to get toilet paper isn’t a viable option.

* These were literally the directions to get to my house.

** I called 311. 311 is polite, it turns out, but ineffective.