michigan seems like a dream to me now

Not the kind of view you grow up on in America

Two years ago today I boarded a plane with three suitcases and a one-way ticket to a city I’d never visited to share a home I’d never seen with a man I’d never lived with. (That sentence would have a lot more verve if it ended with “a man I’d never met,” wouldn’t it? Sorry to disappoint.)

There was a lot of well-intentioned hand-wringing over my up-and-leaving, and many quiet offers of assistance should it go sideways, should I arrive in Denmark and realize that I can’t stomach rye bread. (At least I assume that was my loved ones’ only concern.) I was abstractly grateful for the kindness, but I’d entered something of a fugue state when I decided to move to Copenhagen with my now-fiancé, and was strangely unconcerned by the whole thing. I’d decided to let it happen, so it was happening, and that was that.

I wasn’t leaving to make a post-2016 political statement; rather, an opportunity arose and I took it. I was excited, though, to leave the omnipresent CNN news ticker behind, and to view America through a different lens. In 2015, I spent two weeks in New Zealand for work, and one of my Kiwi colleagues described Americans as “precocious.” I didn’t get it then, but I think about it constantly now. It was a generous interpretation of a stereotype that’s as true now as it was in 1945 or 1963, the American popping up like a gopher to state opinion as fact, loudly, swinging their shirtsleeve-clad arm, boundlessly confident in their goodness and originality.

When a Londoner ends a conversation with “cheers” and I respond, instinctively, “Have a good one,” I feel like I might as well have a piece of hay sticking out the side of my mouth. It’s the consummate American phrase. The world is on fire, literally and figuratively, following centuries of colonialist intervention and industrialization and the profligate prescribing of antibiotics, but hey, the sun is shining, or at least it will be when the acid rain cloud clears, which surely it will if we yell loudly enough to drown out the thoughts and prayers that impede meaningful action, and in the meantime — you go out and enjoy yourself, because I’m going to too!

The funny thing is that I love America. I get that that’s kind of an anachronism, and I probably have to return my woke millennial card now, but if anything, living abroad has only reinforced my love for America. I miss it every day. Not just my friends or the ubiquity of air conditioning, but the pervasive gumption, willful obliviousness to futility, the collective delusion that tomorrow will be better than today (despite the ubiquity of air conditioning).

I could write a solemn thesis about how my travels are shaping my view of my homeland, but my worst nightmare is accidentally becoming a sanctimonious travel blogger, so instead let me leave you with a brief list of probably-awful American things that I miss in spite of knowing better.

In no particular order:

  1. TV commercials for personal injury lawyers: I grew up on “Enough said, call Ed.” (I haven’t lived in Las Vegas since 2011 and I can still recite his commercial!) Europe’s strict regulations governing marketing are meant to combat the indignity of America’s uniquely litigious culture… but IMO it’s pretty clear that the way Europeans engage with their regulators is just a different avenue for expressing the same instinctive yen for retribution. We sue; you complain!
  2. Costco and other large things: To be fair, big-box stores exist in Europe, but nothing feels more American than being able to buy a pallet of Mountain Dew for your very own home.
  3. Benzodiazepines: You can’t get a European GP to prescribe you Xanax for love or money. I’ve been portioning out the last of my Xanax from my American doctor like it’s gold. Once it’s gone, I won’t be able to fly on dinky 60-seat planes again until I return to America, where the pharmaceutical-industrial complex encourages a virtuous circle among patients, doctors, and Big Pharma (everyone either gets paid or gets tranquillized — it’s a win-win-win!).
  4. Target: There is no single store you can visit in Europe that will sell you a lint roller, contact lens solution, cough syrup, tinfoil, and hangers, let alone dollar tchotchkes and a sundress that you’ll feel compelled to buy yet never wear.
  5. Obsequious customer service: I disagree with everyone who makes fun of waitstaff who ask “Are you still working on that?” or compliments your menu choice, etc. I never feel better than after a conversation in which both parties are simpering. It’s like when you tell the woman next to you in the elevator how much you love her lipstick and she tells you how much she loves your boots and neither of you could care less if the other walked into traffic tomorrow, but until the fourteenth floor you’re besties. This is how you achieve collective delusion.

When I return to the States eventually I’ll write up a list of what I miss from Europe: living confidently with the knowledge that if I contract a terminal illness, I won’t have to open a GoFundMe to not die; very old buildings; not wondering if I’m going to get E. coli from grocery store chicken thighs; government investment in transit infrastructure. Regulation, mostly, I guess. And being an easyJet flight away from Neapolitan pizza. Anyway, the past two years have been a trip and a half and though I’m always half-desperate to return home, I look forward to seeing what the next two have in store.

P.S. Speaking of the UK, and of America: I really enjoyed Thursday’s episode of The Daily on Megxit. It was a cogent synthesis of several issues that have more interplay than they seem to on the surface. (I’m firmly on Team Sussex, probably because I have that American sensibility whereby instead of keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of bullshit you take matters into your own hands. And I love the mental image of Megan strolling down a Canadian sidewalk in her Ugg boots like a walking middle finger to the House of Windsor’s dress code. As a UK taxpayer, I feel entitled to this hot take!)

an office of one’s own

I was sour all this week. Logically, I knew it was because it’s January and there’s nothing good about January, especially not in this year of our lord 2020 when the next ten months are going to be an even more arduous slog toward inevitable disappointment than usual. Emotionally, I decided to blame it on “hot-desking,” a lesser-known scourge of work in the age of lifehacking wherein one isn’t assigned a desk but is instead invited to share a “pod” with their teammates. To me, this is a nightmare on par with weddings without seating charts, and I yearn for my past life as a dancer when barre spots weren’t assigned, per se, de jure, but God help you if you stood at the spot furthest from the mirrors on the barre nearest the courtyard because everyone knew that was my spot.

I was also sour because I’ve been trying to read more twentieth-century classics and so I’m gnashing my teeth through Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. It’s a sendup of postwar England in which the hapless protagonist suffers, among other indignities, the hysterics of his would-be ex-girlfriend upon trying to dump her. Actual hysterics. Screaming, sobbing, frothing at the mouth until someone slaps her in the face. I’m too humorless and militant a misandrist to abide tired stereotypes, even in the context of satire.

To be fair, I was predisposed to dislike Kingsley Amis, the second husband of Elizabeth Jane Howard, my favorite literary discovery in 2019. She wrote the popular Cazalet Chronicles, five volumes of family saga that span pre- to postwar England, among other well-reviewed novels, but during her marriage to Kingsley her career took a backseat to his because that’s what was done then, and so I hate him out of allegiance to “Jane.” Sorry, Kingsley. (Besides, who the fuck names their kid Kingsley? Honestly. Brits.)

At the beginning of 2016 I decided to spend the year reading only books by authors who weren’t straight white men. It was a terrific experiment that took on unexpected poignance that November (I watched the election returns in front of a literal shrine to women leaders in history that my friend built for us to celebrate in front of, in case you were somehow confused about where my loyalties lay) and one that’s stuck with me, in terms of both the books I select now and my view on books I’ve read in the past. In my early twenties I read a lot of Philip Roth and John Updike and I couldn’t figure out why I felt so dejected every time I finished an American Pastoral or Rabbit, Run.

I obviously appreciate erudite writing that captures a time and place indelibly, and I love to read about socially unacceptable human foibles, but it’s only been in recent years — after immersing myself in voices from the margins, and in the era of #MeToo — that I’ve realized that I just don’t really like misogyny as a literary technique. God help me if I have to wade through another gratuitous description of the hysterical wife of a put-upon man chafing at the bonds of corporate servitude and his milquetoast children. Give me Eileen and her constipation any day.

I didn’t have the energy to deal with hot-desking this week, so instead of a desk I sat at a countertop between the video games and the pool table (recall that I work in Silicon Valley, where employment contracts are Faustian bargains, though it turns out the eternal youth gets old once you hit thirty). Fortunately, I joined the London location of The Wing in November, where I can leave behind the animal screams of post-adolescent coders taking breaks from “deep work” to hear women dressed in the millennial British uniform of that Zara dress over Chelsea boots under a boxy pastel car coat use the phrase “side hustle” in a sentence.

I felt especially grateful for The Wing during a week that felt spectacularly male with Kingsley Amis prattling on about the unbearable lightness of women who don’t follow recommendations on what lipstick to pair with your pallid skin tone and the only Bernie bro I know tweeting prolifically. It feels extravagant to pay for a coworking space when I already have a home and an office, but I have to spend the rest of 2020 and also, probably, my life catching up on the great misogynists of twentieth-century literature and being governed by the great misogynists of twenty-first-century politics and riding the Tube to work underneath male armpits. If shelling out an arm and a leg to sit underneath an oil portrait of Phoebe Waller-Bridge gets me through paying taxes to two governments led by men who have single-handedly inspired white women to rage-knit more performatively than ever, then it’s money well spent.

try the grey stuff; it’s delicious

I lived with four of my best friends when we were seniors in college. Our chore strategy was that we lived in filth until someone got fed up and rage-cleaned, and then they got to passive-aggressively sulk everyone else for the rest of the week as a reward. Once we decided to clean up the kitchen together, which was great until one of us (not me) opened one of the drawers in the refrigerator to find that the celery one of us (me) had left in there weeks — months? — ago had turned black and liquified. Science, right?!

I think about that every time I find celery in one of the drawers in my refrigerator, which happens days — weeks? (months?!) — after every time I buy celery, because there are no recipes that call for more than a couple stalks of celery, and no grocery stores that sell celery by the stalk. It’s a scam.

I always think, oh, yeah, I’ll eat some celery with peanut butter, finish it off, but honestly, that feels like the kind of weird snack I would have passed off as a treat when I was anorexic, practically high off the fat in the peanut butter while I zealously picked celery strings out of my teeth. In the objectionable corners of the Internet where teenagers trade tips on how to starve yourself, celery is one of those vaunted foods that’s fabled to have net-zero calories because it’s so hard to eat. (Nota bene: These forums are not hotbeds of scientific insight.)

Anyway, there’s celery in my fridge that I need to attend to, but a few days ago I gave my fiancé and myself both food poisoning, and the experience of scraping the offending lentil curry into the garbage disposal a mere day after having spent several hours vomiting it and my stomach lining up was so traumatic that I’m not sure I can open the fridge again yet. Or maybe ever. (Who has two thumbs and is washing the spinach twice next time?! Not this guy, because I’m only ordering takeout for the rest of time!)

Much like emerging from the fog of migraine to discover that you still have arms and feet, there’s something refreshing about the end of a bout of food poisoning. Except when you, say, eat a bunch of grapes in your office kitchen and it’s all you can do to not double over in front of a bunch of hairy boy-children talking about, I don’t know, databases, because the gremlin that’s still living in your stomach does not want grapes, it only wants buttered toast.

Speaking of grapes, and anorexia snacks, I was tickled to read the New York Times’s latest militant screed about sugar. Among the gems were instructions to avoid grapes and bananas, and to replace your morning orange juice with — wait for it! — ice water, but with an orange slice in it. Also, at one point I think they suggested that instead of eating a bowl of oatmeal, you could “savor a whole orange”? It was unclear to me what you should do if you don’t like oranges. Could a person gain the same keen sense of dissatisfaction with their very existence by replacing their morning apple juice with a glass of ice water with a slice of apple in it?

The lady at the New York Times who hates grapes and oatmeal and orange juice would definitely have been one of those ladies who eyeballed me in my building elevator and asked me what I was doing to stay so svelte. Nothing burns calories like berating yourself for not climbing up thirteen flights of stairs, ladies!

All of this is to say that part of me wants to see how long I can let that celery sit in the refrigerator drawer until someone else deals with it, but part of me recognizes that having given my only cohabitant food poisoning recently, I should probably do him a solid and throw that celery out myself if I still want him to marry me.

P.S. I was about to hit Publish when my fiancé walked in and started taking out the trash, and I said “Hey, could you take that celery out of the fridge, too?” I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE; I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL!

someone else’s mom’s minivan

I’m on winter holiday break from work until Monday, so yesterday I went to look at dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum with an old friend who also lives in London. I realized as early as the Tube ride there that it was a mistake; the Piccadilly line was crawling with children and I spent the eight stops between Kings Cross/St Pancras and South Kensington watching a toddler in a princess dress, flannel leggings, and Keds methodically unwrap and eat every one of a tin of foil-wrapped chocolates. It was wild.

My friend and I waded through a waist-high sea of humanity to see the blue whale and the animatronic T-rex and then we made a beeline for the V&A to look at the Cast Courts — which you think is a room of famous sculpture until you realize it’s a room of plaster models of famous sculptures — and what must be every piece of silver service manufactured in the seventeenth century.

I had been to the V&A once before, when I saw an exhibit about underwear (I like history best through an extremely specific lens, and old bras are so weird!), but this was the first time I saw the breadth of its collection. As my friend described it, the V&A just has… a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. The plaster models and the silver services, yes, but also entire rooms devoted to miniature portraits and gilded boxes and blingy tiaras from lesser royals.

We got to talking about field trips. I think occasionally about how I miss them. I can’t place why, since there’s nothing especially precious about riding in the back of someone else’s mom’s minivan or eating lunch at Port of Subs. I always wound up sick, anyway, either from the excitement or the warmed-over mayonnaise.

My friend posited that it’s that it was nice to have something fun and exciting to do that you didn’t have to plan yourself. That’s it, and as I think about it that’s mostly what I miss from childhood itself — the fact of not having to plan anything yourself.

I don’t think about childhood often, and I rarely wax nostalgic for it, but the turn of the year always brings me back to that little burst of pleasure I felt preparing the year’s first sheet of college-rule notebook paper, after I wrote my name in the upper right-hand corner (Cass-comma-Dana, last name first to make sorting easier for the overworked teachers of the Clark County School District), when I wrote the new year for the first time. 1/10/00, and in six months I’ll be done with the fifth grade and on the fast track to adulthood; 1/6/03, and in five months I’ll be free from the horrors of middle school; and so on.

As I approached the end of high school — 1/8/07; in eight months I’ll be able to go out drinking whenever I want — it occurred to me that I was beginning to run out of milestones. The year after the year I graduated college was the first year that I had nothing on my calendar. No “finish sixth grade” or “graduate college”; just “trudge inexorably toward oblivion.” I wrote “2012” for the first time, in the logbook at the store where I sold shoes for a dollar above minimum wage, and even though I was buying my own groceries and setting my own bedtime, I didn’t eat ice cream for dinner or sleep until noon. Six- and sixteen-year-old me would have been just horrified if they had been there. 

At thirty I’m in that awkward phase professionally where I have autonomy, but lack the latitude (or maybe the spine) to make decisions. I’m responsible for what I do but hamstrung in terms of doing it any better, so I mostly just walk around feeling guilty for everything that goes wrong and trying to figure out whether to theatrically proclaim it as a failure that I can trot out to demonstrate how reflective I am or pretend nothing happened (or Plan C, throw someone else under the bus).

It have been nice, when I wrote 2020 in my journal on Wednesday for the first time, if I could have followed it with a countdown: Five months until I can sign off on my own budget, three semesters until I can ignore your opinions, by this time in 2024 the Internet will have imploded and I won’t have to monitor Twitter anymore. But it’s another year of the inexorable march.

On the bright side, I got to leave the Natural History Museum of my own volition when I was tired of children flat-tiring my shoes, and I never have to take a math test again.

P.S. In light of the recent news from Iran, may I recommend one of the most insightful and thought-provoking books I’ve read in recent years: the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First, about the Israeli government’s use of targeted assassinations. It’s a clear-eyed history of the practice that presents the strategic, moral, and psychological risks and benefits even-handedly. If you’re interested in understanding precedent for this practice and its ramifications in this region in particular, I highly recommend it — definitely a tome but it’s a page-turner. I even gave my dad a copy for Christmas last year. Is that weird?

 

cleaning up bottles with you on new year’s day

It’s New Year’s and so I’ve been faffing around — we all agree that “faffing around” is the best British-ism, yes? — with New Year’s resolutions. I like to set a resolution or two but inevitably I forget them within weeks, which is fine, since it’s usually something like “Accept more social invitations” that is just not going to happen short of a brain transplant. It’s possible that my New Year’s resolution every year of my adult life has been “Accept more social invitations.”

I was thinking this year that my resolution should be something like “Be more present,” but that’s pretty easy, since I know that if I set my phone to black-and-white mode I magically stop wanting to watch Instagram Stories from my college classmates who are on Broadway now and/or Smitten Kitchen. Voila! Presence. I look forward to a more fulfilling future spent watching my friends and loved ones watch their Instagram Stories.

One could also argue that my resolution should be “Plan a wedding,” but I’m digging this concept my fiancé and I came up with (still funny that I have a fiancé; feels like the kind of thing I should say through a cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth, wearing shoulder pads) where we rent out an Applebee’s and everyone wears sweatpants. Voila! Wedding. (Just kidding, Mom!)

Anyway, the more important thing is that they say that how you spend New Year’s Day is how you spend the year to come, and it’s nine P.M. and I haven’t left the house, so I think it’s gonna be a good one.

So. New Year’s resolutions. I’ve been feeling conflicted lately about my writing. I’ve had this blog for several years now and the essays I publish have gotten some attention here and there, but I’m beginning to realize that self-publishing on WordPress isn’t the best way to channel my creative energy. I haven’t been especially proud of anything I’ve published in the past couple of years, because I spend weeks to months noodling on genuinely good ideas and then vomit them out in the course of a weekend in a rush to publish to a relatively small audience. I feel stressed when I don’t write and inadequate when I do, with no editor to challenge and improve me and, of course, no remuneration. (Except the one zillion likes I get whenever I mention my eating disorder on Instagram, because everyone loves trauma!)

This is a solvable problem. People get paid for their writing all the time. Even bad writing! I’ve been paid for my writing! (I also had a stint as an SEO blogger for the cottage industry that’s sprung up to sue on behalf of people who had bad run-ins with vaginal mesh, but that’s not really what I’m looking for in a career as a writer.) It’s not as easy as pressing Publish on WordPress, and I’m pathologically lazy, but I’ve made exceptions in the past — twelve years of ballet come to mind — and I think I can figure it out.

At the same time, I love the instant gratification of blogging and social media, and my mission is a writer is to make people feel less alone in what they experience. This blog, and my Instagram, make great tools to achieve that mission, used in parallel as I grind out the novel that I’m finally gaining steam on and develop and pitch essays to real outlets.

I’m not saying my New Year’s resolution is to get paid for my writing, but I like an obvious inflection point, and there’s no time like today to shift this blog’s focus from sporadic, standalone, occasionally saccharine essays to more regular (and maybe more incisive?) meditations on daily life and culture. 

I guess this is a public commitment to leaning into my identity as a writer. I hope that I’ll be posting here more regularly and that eventually, you’ll see the fruits what I’m laboring on in the background in a more refined format. 

This is still the anti-lifestyle blog. Subscribers need not worry that I’ll start pummeling you with details of my workout regimen or photos of me wearing hats on pastel staircases in foreign countries, and friends and loved ones need not worry that I’ll air out their laundry for all the world to see. (Exes should continue to cower in fear.) I’m just excited to practice the art of writing, and to make obvious references to B-sides from lesser Taylor Swift albums, on a more regular basis. 

I hope you like it.