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?