my own private dave coulier

I caught Covid last December. Around the same time I sank into a profound depression. The depression was easier to source; it was dark in London every day before four, I hadn’t seen a friend in person in months, and the thrill had long gone out of changing your Zoom background to the most salacious “Tiger King” still. The Covid remains a mystery. In London we were in the twelfth or so of our infinity lockdowns, and I can only guess that I was aerosoled by one of the maskless mouth-breathers perusing the sandwich aisle at my local Tesco. I certainly didn’t come within a six-foot radius of anyone else in that time (see “depression,” above).

It’s worn on me, not knowing how I got Covid. My case was mild, but it’s one thing to have a cold and it’s another thing to have a cold that might turn out to kill you and no one knows why.

A year on I’m mostly fine. For a while I had to sit quietly on the couch for a while after every social engagement, but I’m not sure if that was long Covid or what happens when when you sit inside for fifteen months and forget what it’s like to make small talk or run up two flights of stairs to make the 7 at Court Square. Anyway, I called it long Covid. It made me feel a little more righteous in my anger toward those people who insist on baring their noses in public. (How obscene does a nose seem these days? Is this what fundamentalists feel like when they see ankles?)

I read with interest a recent New Yorker article about long Covid (as an aside: I know AP says “COVID-19” or “coronavirus,” but don’t both of those have a bit of the “How do you do, fellow kids” about them?). The article drew a spate of outraged letters to the editor from people who objected to the implication that long Covid is psychosomatic.

I, conversely, found myself wondering if I’d lapsed into a habit that I’ve so far avoided interrogating too deeply. It’s something of a cultural tendency, I think, at least among my demographic, women who are a little too ironic to actually buy an “In This House” lawn sign and enjoy the effect of mentioning that they’ve taken antidepressants or Plan B in polite conversation. Like, selectively well-read, chip on the shoulder, took an abnormal psych class twelve years ago and have been raised on a steady diet of repudiating perfectionism ever since. If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best, our MySpace profiles said, and we are certain that our exes have Borderline Personality Disorder. Us too, you know?

I like to be diagnosed, and to accuse. As the diaries I’ve kept since I was old enough to write can attest, I’ve been a teeth-grinding, skin-picking freak since I developed fine motor skills. Still, when a doctor told me the summer after my unimpressive freshman year of college that I had anxiety, I felt like I was putting on glasses for the first time.

Never mind that the antidepressants he prescribed me mostly just made me tired and I gave them up after a few months; it was enough to know that my myriad shortcomings were because of chemicals. In my brain. And now I can decline social invitations high-handedly.

Several years later, nursing a breakup that I swear was Taylor Swift’s real source material for “All Too Well,” I paid actual money for a self-help book called “Surviving the Narcissist.” It was helpful inasmuch as blaming my need for couch marathons on my local Tesco is helpful, i.e., there’s no therapy like demonization, and nothing is my fault. I’m not lazy; I have long Covid. I’m not flaky; I have social anxiety. I’m not frigid, childish, selfish; he’s a narcissist.

Call it a unified theory of the millennial tendency to settle scores. Taylor Swift is the apotheosis, or at least she was until we all got old enough to realize that it’s classier to be Alanis, still refusing to name Dave Coulier after all these years. Is it more nourishing to embarrass Jake Gyllenhaal or to give Jake Gyllenhaal the side-eye at every party you both attend so he knows that you could embarrass him if you so chose? I like to imagine Dave Coulier ducking out the back door at every gathering of Canadian ’90s icons (I like to imagine… gatherings of Canadian ’90s icons) for fear that tonight is the night Alanis is going to throw back one too many and out him as wanting to be gone down on in a theater.

What does it matter, ultimately, if my ex-boyfriend was a narcissist? I can’t call the bad boyfriend police on him. I’ll never know who gave me Covid. (Sarah Schulman convinced me that a world in which you can cast this kind of blame might well be a dystopia.) I’ll either beat the record I set on my Peloton before I got sick or I won’t, and that’s because I got Covid, or maybe it’s because I finally left the house again, found things to do that aren’t hamster wheels of recriminating someone beyond my reach. I like to be right, but rightness is satisfying in much the same way that scrolling through Instagram is satisfying. Cause is ephemeral; effect lingers. Secrets and mysteries keep life interesting.

pandora’s storage unit

Which, I think, is why I pulled the rope ladder out of the well and put the cover on with you down inside there that time, kind of like sealing you off. That way, there would be no more Mr. Wind-Up Bird around, and I wouldn’t have to be bothered by those thoughts for a while.

Haruki Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”

I recently came back into possession of the contents of a storage unit that I packed three and a half years ago when I moved abroad. Some of my belongings were broken and others that I swore I’d packed were mysteriously missing, but the things that mattered were there: my Himalayan salt lamp, a pair of bookends shaped like elephants, every T-shirt that my former employer gifted me to make up for the lack of work/life balance, my first pair of pointe shoes.

There were stacks of books that have become more relevant since I first read them in my coursework at Vassar a decade ago: a massive tome on the history of welfare, and the books I read for my critical race theory seminar, a class in which we once, memorably, divided ourselves into fives to drive to some off-campus landmark only to realize that the white students had self-selected into one car and the Black students into another. There were copies of Gone with the Wind and The BFG, and the works of William Faulkner, packed in alongside James Baldwin and Austerlitz.

There was also, ominously, the journal that I kept from 2015 until I packed three suitcases and boarded a one-way flight to Copenhagen, and more ominously, a book whose inscription I’ve thought of occasionally since I was gifted it for Christmas eight years ago by someone to whom I guess I no longer speak, and most ominously, my high school yearbooks.

My husband had a storage unit too and between the two of us we paid an arm and a leg to store, among other things, both a toaster and a toaster oven and duplicate copies of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bonfire of the Vanities, and a history of al-Qaeda that wasn’t written by Tom Wolfe (if only!). Then we paid an arm and a leg to get rid of the duplicates that don’t fit on our spacious new countertops, mostly furniture, mostly mine, since my husband is older than me by a crucial few years that mean he was onto West Elm while I was still living on Allen-wrenched Overstock knock-offs.

What was left after were the milemarkers of how I got from there to here, and I had to choose what to junk and what to squirrel away in the back of a closet that also belongs to someone else, and I still don’t know what happened to all of my coffee mugs. Good thing I love a metaphor.

A while before I moved, I shipped a few boxes of mementos to my parents’ house. It was more to free up room in my “cozy” West Village studio (read: shoes in the oven) than to put distance between me and any handwritten letters I once received in the mail or, my God, programs from Cal Shakes, or anything else that, should I stumble on it while also listening to “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” might give me an aneurysm, but it was nice not to step onto a land mine when all I was doing was looking for the Playbill from when John Cameron Mitchell tore a ligament reprising Hedwig two decades on.

Having safely stashed the relics of the years I spent getting, alternately, heartbroken and sunburned, I was surprised that my storage unit hit me so hard. I’d forgotten that it wasn’t preordained, back in the spring of 2016 when we were circling around each other warily, that my husband would become my husband. I’d forgotten what it’s like to escape from a crowd of sweating, salivating strangers into the photo booth at a kitschy Brooklyn bar after midnight. But pry apart the pages of a journal or pull a glossy strip out from a pile of Playbills and there I am, a fossil.

Of course I’m under no obligation to keep, for example, the yearbook from my sophomore year of high school, in which I failed to open my eyes for my school photo. Other people throw out old things. I couldn’t possibly. I like — and maybe I’m a masochist — the rush of remembering something I’d forgotten about myself. Things have a half-life that my iPhone camera roll, omnipresent in my hand, can’t approximate.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to urge New Yorkers in need of storage to avoid the company MakeSpace like the plague, unless you actually want your stuff broken or lost. Which, listen, if you don’t want to actively throw away your high school yearbooks but you would also prefer to forget that you didn’t open your eyes in your sophomore school photo, might well be a good strategy/

i finally got something right

9 years ago I had a degree in English and a job selling ballet shoes for barely above minimum wage. I had left Vassar the year before assuming that a job would make its way to me in the way jobs did in the books I grew up reading, in which smart people made livings that were rarely germane to the plot itself. Vassar had a Career Development Office but my vague sense was that it was for people with callings, and I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor (blood!) or a lawyer (paperwork!).

Nor did I bother with unpaid internships in publishing or media; I wanted to be a writer, maybe, but not enough to fetch coffee, and the inequity of being able to afford that made me feel a little grimy. I felt guilty enough that I didn’t owe student loans, and anyway, I liked the dignity of selling shoes. I had liked spending my summers back home at the dancewear store in Las Vegas that hired me when I was sixteen — a dream job for a ballerina who needed gas money — earning an honest living getting my fingers trampled by toddlers in tap shoes.

It was easy to move back home after graduation and get my head on straight before I went back out to seek my fortune. I thought, too, that the people handing out the jobs would be impressed by how my store had given me a set of keys to the place and trusted me to ferry cash to the bank. Surely that was more qualifying than coffee-fetching (someday someone will need to tell me what one actually does at a magazine internship if it’s not coffee-fetching).

Not so much. In 2011, I’d have been better off reading the news than novels set in eras not characterized by global financial collapse. I moved to New York with the money I’d saved and transferred to the dancewear store’s location on the Upper West Side, where the cocktail waitresses who paid for fishnets in stacks of ones gave way to old women with enormous dogs that they brought into the store to wait while they tried on slippers for their adult beginner jazz classes at Steps. I was just one of the army of humanities majors emailing resumes into the void, most better suited than mine for working under a fluorescent light.

I applied for every job under the sun and one after another, they rejected me. Nobody seemed to believe that their job was what I really wanted to do; I remember the woman interviewing me to write copy for an online catalogue of machine parts who asked me if I really thought this was going to be interesting (no, but who would? And Kafka worked at the post office!).

The heavens opened when my sister’s husband mentioned that his company might hire me to write proposals. I knew that at his previous company he’d gotten to fly on some executive’s private jet, so this new one seemed like kind of a step down, but it was Silicon Valley. (That was still a good thing in 2012.)

I was surprised to be hired, and maybe more surprised that I liked it so much that it took me 9 years to leave. 9 years! What happens in 9 years? Six apartments, three boyfriends, one husband. Three presidents. A heartbreak, an eating disorder, an IPO, a pandemic. I learned how to write proposals and run a social media account; I learned strategy and spin. I made some money. I got airline status.

In the photo on my employee badge you can see the faint traces of a sunburn from the hike my dad and I took up Mount Charleston a few weeks before. It had been as humid as it gets in Palo Alto on my first day, and I’d ridden some wretched Peninsula bus to the office. My bangs had puffed up like an American Girl doll and the sleek braid at the back had frayed wildly. Every day for 8 years — until 2020, when no badge was required for me to commute from the side of the kitchen table where I ate breakfast to the side of the kitchen table where I conducted business — I stared at that godforsaken photo and marveled that anybody had thought it prudent to take me seriously.

After months of being rejected as an answerer of phones or an enterer of data, I could hardly imagine that I’d been hired for anything other than my connection to my brother-in-law, never mind the gauntlet I’d been put through. (This was the golden age of Silicon Valley “gotcha” interviews and while nobody asked me how many baseballs fit in a 747, I was told to write, longhand and without reference materials, an essay about one of the company’s products. After, I was sent to lunch with the interviewer, who brought along his hardcover copy of Ulysses. We later became good friends, but that was one indelible first impression.)

I’ve always felt like a bit of a dilettante. I picked up ballet late and was only kind of good at it. I was usually the second string — the understudy — and I often felt that I had been cast because a choreographer who needed a body liked my tenacity or my wit and could choreograph around my inability to do, I don’t know, cartwheels on the left, to name an example from 17 years ago that I remember like it was last week. I was used to accommodations being made for me, and I didn’t see why the job I’d coattailed my way into was any different.

I never quite shook that. Even as my multibillion-dollar, now-public company was handing me things like the Twitter password and managerial responsibility, I was still looking over my shoulder, sure I was one misstep away from being fired. (Deep down I’m still my 22-year-old self; it’s no wonder I still carry my 22-year-old’s insecurities.)

I think it’s still en vogue to call that “impostor syndrome,” but it was reasonable for me to work like I needed to prove myself. I know now that any hire is a bet, especially a kid with raw talent and a strong personality, and it could easily have gone the other way. And I don’t want to be a vest-wearing Silicon Valley wunderbro whose undying faith in himself is religious in fervor.

Two weeks ago I got to perform the rite I’ve long dreamed of: sending my goodbye email. (I don’t know whether this is as storied a tradition elsewhere as it was at my former employer, but I started noodling over subject lines years before I started interviewing for new jobs. I spent a full hour hand-picking recipients for the bcc line.)

It was a real Sally Field moment for me when the responses started rolling in: My first boss called me “an institution.” Not one but two of my teammates did full-body recoils when I told them I was out — though more likely because they knew exactly who was picking up the slack upon my departure. Our COO, whom I have harangued for years with emails about everything I think he should make our company do differently, told me he was grateful for me.

It didn’t jibe with this picture I still have of myself as the sunburned 22-year-old with the Molly-doll bangs, ostentatiously copyediting everything I could get my hands on to prove I had some unique value. I think I thought everyone was tolerating me until they could install someone who actually knew what they were doing in, as if they were my college choreographers settling for a second-tier body and not capitalists with the no-fault ability to fish for something better in a teeming labor pool. I had braced for the nostalgia but not the late-breaking discovery that 9 years ago, I tripped into my calling.

For a moment I backpedaled. These people like me (they really like me!); what am I doing? But I felt like I did at the end of senior year at Vassar: like I was going out on top, and from there, I could see back down to the bottom. My star had begun to fade. My company was the kind of place where you had to constantly reinvent yourself to stay relevant and I did, I lived 9 lives in the 9 years I was there (you should have heard me trying to explain my resume to recruiters when I was locking down my next act), but you can only carve so many matryoshka. I wanted a fresh start in which my baseline was not me, age 22, ruinously insecure yet blithely confident in my own capabilities, a muckety-muck’s kid sister-in-law.

My new baseline has crows’ feet and gravitas. I turned down offers to accept this one and I hardly remember anymore what it was like to sit under the fluorescent lights of an office in Westchester and admit that I couldn’t use Excel. I can nod knowingly back to everything I did these past 9 years, the proposals, the IPO, putting lipstick on this and that boondoggle by calling it a “strategy” and dressing up the failures I performatively take the blame for. I can sort of use Excel.

I’m as nervous to dive into my next job — at a company a tenth the size of my previous one where I’ll be the only person doing what I’m doing — as I was nine years ago. The only difference is that now I know I can fake it ’til I make it, or, more precisely, that I can fake it, indefinitely, just like everyone around me is doing, because all of us were once 22-year-olds who forgot their sunscreen and grew up in a world that wasn’t the one we were promised in books.

if i could only make me better

In the spring of 2010, not long before my college dance company’s annual gala at the local opera house, I borked something deep in my hip. The gala took place each year in the dead of upstate New York winter, which meant that there was always a spate of injuries right before, mostly slip-and-falls down the steps outside the dining hall (or outside someone’s party) and, as in my case, overenthusiastic stretching on a frigid January morning.

My hip injury was a real bitch. I limped through the gala and got dye shot into my hip from a hypodermic needle. They told me it wasn’t a tear, which meant that I didn’t need surgery but also that nobody knew quite what was wrong. I spent a few months in physical therapy, until it hurt little enough when I lifted my leg above my waist that I could live with it, and that’s about where I’ve been since.

Not that there’s much call for me to lift my leg above my waist these days, but on the rare occasion that I do, my hip clicks and I’m twenty again, back beneath the MRI, blaming the demise of my dance career (I was never going to have a dance career) on my modern dance teacher for demands that were unreasonable on so frigid a January morning.

It’s more satisfying to pin injuries and illnesses onto bodies we could call into court to stand accused. I got this cold (remember colds?) from that mucusy SOB in the window seat on the flight from San Francisco, and so on. I carped at my modern dance teacher for, I don’t know, calling on us to be agile during a Hudson Valley deep freeze; I’ve been carping lately at the construction workers who wander maskless through the aisles of the Tesco where I swear I picked up covid back in December.

Especially when you have a reputation for drama, being injured doesn’t much endear you to anyone but the understudy who gets to take your place. In dance, failures of the body easily become metaphors for failures of gumption. (Analogue: Thinness is next to godliness.) And of course it’s practical to cover yourself in layers of tatty knit and pants that look like garbage bags while you swing your legs back and forth and roll them over tennis balls for forty minutes before class, but isn’t it a little performative? (A la certain Park Slope Co-op-shopping New Yorkers double-masking to signal their moral superiority over the one-ply masses?)

The trouble is that if you can’t blame your weaknesses on yourself or your perpetually sneezing coworker, then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to being impotent in the face of life’s vicissitudes. In my tatty knitted armor and too many masks to breathe through I’ll live forever. Crush some vitamins into my leafy greens so I can comment on every New York Times article that every Covid death would still be alive today had they just shopped along the grocery store perimeter.

I want to believe that I can ward off wayward cars and cancer. That impulse is fine and good as long as it ends at vitamins, but vitamins are really just a gateway drug to wellness, and wellness is just a gateway drug to that Silicon Valley scourge, lifehacking, the idea that you could live forever or thereabouts if you can learn to tolerate Soylent. You think it’s just a bottle of Vitamin D and before you know it you’re putting butter in your coffee. Jade eggs, and all that.

This year of ritual hand-washing and altogether too much time for meditation has blurred the lines between self-preservation, performativity, and pathology. I felt betrayed when I contracted covid — didn’t the great diseasemonger in the sky know that I eat whole grains? That I journal in the mornings and practice yoga in the evenings? What am I doing all of this for if not to live without a lung full of gremlins?

The disturbance that persists in my chest didn’t show up on the ECG. I expect it will linger, amorphous, like what I borked in my hip a decade ago still does, and I can blame it in perpetuity for all of my failures to measure up. (There goes that marathon I was definitely going to run. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault.)

And every time it flares up I’ll wonder briefly whether, if only I had done my hip bridges or worn a second mask or taken my Vitamin B-12, I would be bulletproof, a lady boss, a Broadway star, or at least the kind of person who could hack it as a first year at Goldman.

heaven is other people

Sometimes I am boggled by the gallery of souls I’ve known. By the lore. The wild history, unsung. People crowd in and talk to me in dreams. People who died or disappeared or whose connection to my own life makes no logical sense, but exists, as strong as ever, in a past that seeps and stains instead of fading.

Rachel Kushner

My first thought upon reading this was of a middle school classmate of mine, the child of a champion poker player, who died of a heroin overdose. He was an object of affection traded among the blondes, and I found it unfair that he was in honors algebra, too. I thought at the time that he was a bit of a bully, but I think now that I just didn’t expect a pretty boy like him to want to banter with me and my Coke-bottle glasses. Then I stopped thinking of him for several years, until his death was mourned by one of the blondes with whom I was friends on Facebook, though surely we’d never been friends in life.

I thought then of another classmate of mine who died young several years after the last time I saw him. He had become a valet at one of the casinos on the Strip — we all grew up in Las Vegas — but what I remembered of him was that it was rumored that his family had an elevator in their house, and that his father had died in a private plane crash when we were in the third grade.

I wonder if I thought of the valet and the poker player’s son because they’re people I knew from Las Vegas who could only have been from Las Vegas. That quote is from one of those extremely New Yorker essays about pre-Patagonia vests San Francisco, where everyone had blue hair and moonlighted as a sex worker. I’ve known a lot of people but most of them aren’t metonyms for where they’re from. Most of the people I know are a little boring, like me, though if you pick out the right details anyone’s a character. (My college roommate liked to introduce me to people as “the dancer from Las Vegas.”)

I can’t remember if I used to dream about people I haven’t seen in years as often as I do these days. It’s been seven months since I last saw a friend in person. Bleak, yeah? There’s no proof my friends still have legs. Maybe it’s just me and the people who also shop at my local Waitrose who still have legs, and everyone else is just a head and a bit of torso floating up into the Zoom window.

After the Capital riots I stopped checking Instagram. I can only take so much moralizing into the void, and I had already begun to feel that two-dimensional people were empty calories, but now my other Chrome tabs are a yoga video on YouTube and the Wikipedia entry for “Nihilism.”

There’s not much left to learn from Instagram anymore, anyway. I’ve watched all the bloggers frost cakes, and I know that every boy from the Becker Middle School class of 2003 who isn’t dead went to college in Reno and became a financial advisor. (The girls are cosmetologists. One or two of them dropped out of ASU.)

Yesterday I told my best friend — who I haven’t seen in thirteen months — that I’ve been fantasizing about landing at Newark. Newark! Newark is a metaphor for fantasizing about seeing my loved ones in three dimensions again, but it’s easier to picture handing my passport to an American customs officer for the first time in a year than it is to picture reuniting with people who I suspect might not have legs anymore.

My ten-year college reunion was canceled. Or, rather, moved online, but come on. I don’t need to start wondering if all of those people are legless now, too.

I turned over this week’s Economist because I can’t stand to look at another photo of Trump, and on the back was that ad they keep running from some godforsaken cybersecurity company — another cybersecurity company, they’re a dime a dozen and yet the Russians have still read more of my last year’s tax return than I ever did — with two photos of young hotties captioned “One of these people doesn’t exist.”

Ya burnt!

The problem with Instagram is that you shouldn’t get to open Schrödinger’s box. Let the gallery of souls talk to me only in dreams; don’t let me learn that one of these people doesn’t exist and the other works for Merrill Lynch in Reno. I think it would be nice to be surprised, in a season or a year or a decade when we can sneeze on each other again, to learn that someone has had a baby or moved to Los Angeles or had another baby or moved back to Los Angeles, and I can feel sorry for them instead of resenting their having traveled home for Christmas in 2020.

The problem without Instagram is that I’m really not sure anyone still exists. If I swiped my hand at the people in front of me in line at the grocery checkout, would it pass through like Moaning Myrtle? Is it Malicious AI texting me back? These are convenient excuses for me to put away the books and return to watching Deb Perelman slice garlic in hyperlapse. But if no one exists, then why do I keep responding to work emails? (I’ve been trying to use this excuse to quit washing my hair, too, but I can only make it five days before the grease does me in.)

I couldn’t make it through the Wikipedia entry on nihilism, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche never took a position on the aesthetic utility of half-assed movies about the pandemic we’re currently in, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. Anyway, it seems like Anne Hathaway still has legs, so there’s that.

2020 in books

I thought this might be the year I beat my 2015 reading record: 89 books, 32,379 pages (thanks, Goodreads). Even a pandemic is no match for commuting from Astoria to the Meatpacking District, I guess.

I came close this year with 79 books, 31,284 pages. That mismatch between books and pages relative to 2015 is because my biggest reading accomplishment this year was the combined doorstops of Robert Caro: The Power Broker and the first three volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. (The fourth volume just arrived on my doorstep. Yes, I feel unworthy for knowing I can’t finish it in the next 13 hours.)

Reading Robert Caro makes me feel much as I did after I read Moby-Dick my sophomore year of college: like a nether layer of the world has revealed itself to me as a playground where obsessions are to be conquered. Only when I read Moby-Dick I thought it was a playground where everyone conquered their obsessions aside one other, and it turns out that the playground is for megalomaniacs. The rest of us are just equipment.

My other great lesson this year, upon reviewing what I read, is that most of my three-star reviews on Goodreads are really two stars, and most of my reviews on Goodreads are three stars, only I feel guilty rating something two stars or fewer unless it’s bad enough to make me angry.

Anyway, here is a selection of my favorite and least favorite reads this year.

Books I enjoyed not by white ladies

  • Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Pitchaya Sudbanthad): I visited Chiang Mai after a business trip to Bangkok in 2018 and signed up for what I thought was a hiking tour of a nature reserve outside the city. It turned out to be a visit to this mountainside village where we were meant to take photos of the residents, and I watched this pasty British girl find a puppy that she carried around until her tour group left, like it was a purse. I felt dirty. I’ve also read a lot this year, mostly from the New York Times’ Hannah Beech (of the infamous exotic fruit beat), on the political situation in Thailand. It’s weird to realize that you waltzed into and out of a country without noticing that it was a repressive graveyard for human rights. This book is entertaining in its own right, and beyond that, enlightening on Thailand’s past, present, and likely future.
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors (Kawai Strong Washburn): This book was written by a former colleague, a quiet guy whose office was down the hall from mine for a couple years in 2013-14. Who knew he had this whole rich world percolating in his head?!
  • Trick Mirror (Jia Tolentino): I would be lying if I said I haven’t fantasized about meeting Jia Tolentino at some publishing industry event one day when I become a bestselling author and we hit it off and become besties.
  • The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett): Forgive me for hyping something that’s already super buzzy, but I actually really liked this one (more so than The Mothers, which I was lukewarm on).
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson): As it turns out, everyone who’s been recommending this book for the past decade was right! Check back in 2030 for my timely review of Caste.
  • We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (Samantha Irby): I had ignored Samantha Irby for years because I thought that she was a Sloane Crosley type (see “Books that made me resent the publishing industry,” below). What a mistake! She is a goddess!

Books I enjoyed by white ladies

  • The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel): It’s not quite as good as Station Eleven, but will anyone ever be emotionally stable enough to read that again, anyway?
  • How Should a Person Be (Sheila Heti): There are about two people in the world to whom I would recommend Sheila Heti and one of them recommended her to me, so I’m mostly just yeeting this recommendation into the void, but there it is.
  • The Witch Elm (Tana French): Tana French continues to do no wrong.

Zoom background books that were actually good

  • Age of Ambition (Evan Osnos): I read this New Yorker-style review of modern China — i.e., close-ups on characters whose lives exemplify themes — in April against a backdrop of chaos spiraling out from Wuhan. It was timely.
  • The Man Without a Face (Masha Gessen): Russia! Yikes!
  • MBS (Ben Hubbard): Saudi Arabia! Yikes!
  • Our Man (George Packer): Further fodder for the “Ban Men” cannon, told in juicy detail.
  • The Power Broker (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, I actually read The Power Broker! If you’ve ever ground your teeth in an endless wait for a) the G train to arrive, b) the G train to move between 21st Street and Court Square, or c) the Van Wyck to not be a parking lot, well, get ready to grind your teeth again.
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vols. 1-3 (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, not only did I read The Power Broker, but THREE other Robert Caro books! This one is great for anyone who wants to feel more erudite in their rage when reading about Mitch McConnell’s Senate maneuvers.

Books I’m ashamed to have liked as much as I did

  • Apartment (Teddy Wayne): A book by a white male MFA grad about white male MFA students? I mean, on principle, I should have set it on fire, but I’m glad I didn’t.
  • Dear Edward (Ann Napolitano): God, I love reading about plane crashes.
  • The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani): The perfect page-turner, and it’s French, which means it’s automatically not trashy, right?
  • Utopia Avenue (David Mitchell): And here I thought I hated plot contrivances and deuses ex machina! I guess as long as it’s a fable about musicians in the swinging ’60s, I can forgive anything.

Books that hit extremely close to home

  • The Groom Will Keep His Name (Matt Ortile): Never did I ever think that the Burger King down the street from my high school would be immortalized in literature, then my old friend and classmate got a book deal. (This elegant book is about more than eating French fries in the back of someone else’s minivan. Read it!)
  • My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell): Okay, dating someone a decade older than you when you’re a fully grown adult is hardly comparable to a high school teacher dating their student, but wow, it’s weird to see a character in a book say almost verbatim things that were said to you in your salad days!
  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): I was lukewarm on this book about an English major who tripped into the technology industry in 2012 because I tend to roll my eyes at all the English majors pontificating about the evils of Silicon Valley, and then a couple months after I finished it I realized I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since and began to notice all of the evils she called out that I’ve been ignoring for the past 8 years since I myself tripped into the technology industry in 2012, a year after completing my English degree. Yikes!

Books that were almost, but not quite

  • In Our Mad and Furious City (Guy Gunaratne): I truly would have had no idea what this book was about were it not for the back-cover blurb (“…after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city”). Not because I couldn’t follow the vernacular, either.
  • In Pursuit of Disobedient Women (Dionne Searcey): I feel like a memoir of your time as the New York Times West Africa correspondent, published in the year of our Lord 2020, rings a little hollow if you don’t even try to grapple with the fact that you’re white.
  • The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern): I decided to finish out this year by rereading The Night Circus in hopes of washing the taste of this one from my mouth, though I was afraid I might discover upon revisiting Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel that I had romanticized it. It holds up, though I can see how fine the line between stylized and twee is now, having seen her cross it.
  • Transcription (Kate Atkinson): You know how the magic of Kate Atkinson is how she finds the humor in bleak situations? Well, I guess she can’t always find the humor. (I did also read her debut this year, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which was a five-star gem. She remains a goddess, albeit a flawed one.)

Books other people liked more than I did

  • The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (N.K. Jemisin) series: Every so often I think I might like fantasy, but I can’t help it if people going on endless journeys or stabbing each other with obelisks for a thousand pages just bores the shit out of me.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson): Like, it was cute, but also… kind of offensive?
  • Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie): I’m not smart enough for literature. Sorry.
  • Normal People (Sally Rooney): I liked it, but everyone who says it’s better than Conversations With Friends is wrong.
  • Three Women (Lisa Taddeo): This book was VERY SERIOUS!!!!!

Books that made me resent the publishing industry

(You could also call this category the “Sloane Crosley Award for Talentless Hacks With Connections.”)

  • Brother & Sister (Diane Keaton): Diane Keaton did not miss her calling.
  • The Burning House (Ann Beattie): Does anyone actually like short stories? Would I feel differently if I were in the ’80s doing a lot of coke?
  • The Recovering (Leslie Jamison): Imagine if you wrote a book, and then you went back through it and wrote every sentence two more times in increasingly ornate language, and then someone let you publish that.

a very covid christmas

I’m a bad but cowardly driver. It’s a useful combination — I’ve never merged so confidently into someone’s blind spot that I can’t swerve back at the last minute — but it means I’ve felt my heart stop more often than I’d prefer. Once in high school, en route to a party hosted by the crush who told me he liked to talk to his girlfriend about fun things and to me about serious things, I was jamming to “Creep” (Radiohead, not TLC. I’m the serious one!) and in my agony started to exit straight into another grey Honda. Its driver blasted me out of my communion with Thom Yorke and I had to pull in the shoulder for a minute to recover.

God knows why that’s the dodged bullet that’s come to mind this week as I recover from the coronavirus.

Yes, reader, I caught the creeping crud. My case is mild. I had a sore throat for a day or two, then what felt like the kind of sinus infection I always had during finals at Vassar that makes you cough when you lie down. It seemed likelier that it was the highly contagious illness infecting millions worldwide than a cold, so though I didn’t have the most common symptoms, I sent in for a test.

The NHS mailed me a shrink-wrapped Q-tip, and following this handsome doctor’s instructions, I stuck it into my brain. Two days later, they told me that I had it. I told a kind Scottish contact tracer about all the grocery stores I visited before I took ill and added another bottle of cough syrup to my Sainsbury’s delivery.

I’ve wondered a few times this winter whether I had died without noticing. Every morning I wake up and then I click buttons and talk into a pile of metals extracted from someone else’s backyard until it’s time to go to bed again. One of my best friends gestated and birthed a baby between the last time I saw her and now. I don’t know if there’s any gray left in my father’s hair or if it’s all gone white.

I got my results the Friday afternoon before our office “shut” for the holidays. It felt sinful to skip out for a mere cold, so I’d canceled only one meeting in the days prior and muted myself while I coughed during the other ones.

I don’t have the stomach for the hardcore self-sacrifice you need to document on LinkedIn to really make it in Silicon Valley, but I do dabble in performative masochism. I took a flight once with pink eye in both eyes. I’ve bought numbing sprays and cough syrups with labels I can’t read in a few foreign countries so I could show up to align the boxes on a PowerPoint that the speaker would forget to click forward on anyway. The rhetoric of “self-care” grates on me as much as calling someone out for “beating” their illness, as if not dying is anything but random or, if you prefer, divine, or as if I have a legitimate claim to skip out on clicking buttons on my computer because my throat’s a little sore. I’d be sitting either way.

Is illness next to godliness? I felt holy the last time I recovered from an illness that other people die from, too. That’s vile, but no more so than wallowing in my air-conditioned apartment because I don’t like Webex. I don’t feel guilty for not being dead. I feel lucky, and seen. I’ve dodged plenty of bullets in my incautious lifetime and as grimy as it feels to admit it, I like the praise. If I don’t get a gold star for getting out of bed in the morning, I’ll take one for getting over my mild cough.

The thing about covid that reminds me of not combusting on the side of the 215 highway near Henderson is that I can tell, viscerally, how much worse it could have been. I can feel in my lungs where the death rattle could form. Maybe I’d have noticed the same during my sinus infections if I hadn’t been busy crafting a harebrained argument from reading I only skimmed. Maybe it’s more natural to contemplate death the less life there is to distract you from it.

That sounds bleak. I don’t mean for it to. Having not died, I’m eager to get on not dying as I have since I first came on the scene of dying-or-not some three decades ago.

I keep telling people that I’m looking forward to looking back on this. I like to think about telling my friend’s daughter one day about the year we tried to keep scallions alive in glasses of water on the windowsill, because there’s no use in trying to land the weight of caprice on someone until they feel it themselves, sitting shaken in the driver’s seat on the highway shoulder or learning the news of a death — or a birth — in the tiny screen. Things happen or they don’t and yes, I still resent those people in charge who won’t make the decisions they’re supposed to and those people not in charge foaming at the mouth over something that Ben Franklin of the key and the kite probably wouldn’t have worried about. I’ve done what I can to hedge against all that. Now, I wait.

any other name

I don’t remember when my name changed. They all called me “Dana” in elementary school. (Well, for a while they called me “Franklin.” I couldn’t decide between righteous indignation and props where props were due.)

By high school I found myself answering occasionally to “Cass.” Upon arriving at Vassar I was assigned an ID number, a mailbox, and an email address composed of the first two letters of my first name prepended to my last name, just like everyone else, except for the unfortunate Smiths and Wongs who had stray letters and even numbers tacked onto theirs and were constantly receiving one another’s email or nothing at all. Those of us with mellifluous emails found ourselves with new nicknames to boot, and thus I became “DaCass,” a name to which I still respond. Sometimes I was “DANACASS,” spoken, or more often hollered, always in one breath without a space in between. Later I got a job and a new email address and now I am “DCass.” Not always, but often. (Thankfully, I shook “Franklin.”)

Last weekend on my walk I came across a Cassland Road here in East London. I was thrilled until I learned that it was named for a financier whose fortune was made in the slave trade. No relation; apocryphally, I know my family name to have originated during World War II when my grandfather, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, lopped it off of the original Italian name. Phew! But doth the Karen protest too much? My mother’s family changed their name — again, apocryphally; I tend to remember stories rather than facts — from something Finnish with too many consonants to “Wilson,” as in Woodrow.

When I was younger I thought I might one day take my family’s original name. I transposed my teenage resentment of my hometown of Las Vegas onto the foreshortened version. I had a chip on my shoulder back then, a souvenir from visits to centuries-old cities, about having grown up somewhere with a history you could recite in a sentence. (Some years after the Mormons opened a mission to sell the Native Americans on the merits of magic underwear, gambling was legalized. The end.) My name, like my hometown, was manufactured, thus inferior.

Then they started calling me “Cass.” By the time I became “DCass” I was working in Silicon Valley, where in the absence of real hierarchies (“meritocracy”), alternative currencies reign supreme and a nickname or the judicious use of others’ is a clever way to signal your standing. I’m not important enough to be nicknamed by anyone but my closest colleagues, but after eight years in my role I know where enough bodies are buried that every once in a while someone a few degrees removed from me asks if we can talk, because they’ve been told over and over that they have to meet “Dana Cass.” Or I get a “You’re Dana Cass!” after a few minutes of conversation with someone. I startle. Where there wasn’t a history, only one and a half lives of men, I’ve made one.

Last month — please forgive me for having buried the lede here — I got married. It’s a tremendous relief to stop using the word “fiancé,” as I don’t own enough Vineyard Vines to have pulled that off for much longer. Beyond that, not much else has changed, though we did receive several gift boxes and now have a lot of chutney.

I like optionality. I make and unmake decisions rashly; I’ve abandoned several hobbies in my lifetime. Once I inured myself to the idea of sharing my life with someone else, it occurred to me to worry about the person with whom I would share my life. The problem with my first few adult relationships was that I didn’t like any of the people I was dating enough to actually want them around. I liked them on paper, or I liked their apartments, but I never stopped feeling like I was being intruded upon.

I had stopped thinking about my name much by the time I met my now-husband, in 2015. That’s part of the charm of making it to your late twenties: you wear a coat when it’s cold, you find things to do other than fret about having grown up in the shadow of Bob Stupak’s Freudian eyesore. I had other things to worry about, like being a 26-year-old who couldn’t poach an egg.

One thing led seamlessly to another in our relationship. I wanted nothing more to spend time with him. Marriage seemed obvious. I’m an iconoclast, but I’m also a sucker for ceremony, and after four years I felt confident that I had assuaged my primary concern with marriage: Could I be myself, even permanently attached to someone else?

At 31, with my faculties and most of my dignity intact, I’m hard-won. People know me and know of me. “You’re Dana Cass!” they’ve said to me, because they’ve heard that Dana Cass knows where the bodies are buried. I’m sure they’d be able to find me if I changed my name. And wouldn’t that choice, one made with agency, be the feminist one, even if I were just dropping my patronymic for someone else’s?

I no longer have my own bed or my own Amazon Prime account. I’ve acquired my husband’s taste for expensive coffee. I use Reddit. What do I have left that’s mine? Shelves full of diaries. A drawer of unflattering sweatpants that I can’t stop wearing. (Especially not now.) My name, and the party trick of mentioning that I grew up in Las Vegas, a city that’s made and remade itself. So have I.

I’m keeping the diaries, obviously, and I’m keeping the sweatpants. I’m keeping my history, and so I might as well keep my name.

nuance, but nuanced

I lapsed briefly the other day, while reading about Eleanor Roosevelt’s course at an English boarding school, into cursing anew my subpar secondary education. I’m tired of the Internet right now, the barrage of too-pat memes that flatten every systemic failure into a hot take with a solution simple enough to fit into a hashtag, and spending 90 minutes every afternoon on a single thought to be discussed later, at tea, appeals.

But: At the turn of the 20th century, a young Eleanor Roosevelt, on a field trip to the tenements, is horrified to see young children handmaking tchotchkes in their airless homes until they collapsed. Those in and adjacent to power were mostly oblivious (willfully or not) to the plights of the vulnerable, a privilege that smartphone and body cameras have all but done away with.

Social media amplifies and accelerates social movements to great effect, but have I read Beowulf? (And what else are cameras recording?) The consequence of a world in which the many plights of the many vulnerable can be made immediate is… TikTok. We can’t have both firsthand insight into every variant of the human experience and be expected to select one for 90 minutes’ contemplation. Complexity costs simplicity.

Speaking of, let’s return to modern discourse. From up here on my high horse, I enjoy staring down my nose at the naïveté of those who would summarize a policy objective in an Instagram story you don’t even need to hold your thumb on long enough to read. I roll my eyes and mumble “something something nuance.” I like the “nuance” meme because it’s very useful for me to gasbag away all the questionable choices I’ve made in my adult life rather than having to summarize them honestly! (“For the money.”)

I think that the rightest thing, morally speaking, is that which can be expressed simply. You shouldn’t need ten paragraphs to explain your value system.

But many right things can be true at once, and the challenge of governance is to build Frankensystems that serve as many of those right things as possible without collapsing. This is the blessing and curse of “hashtivism” (I hate simplicity but I love a portmanteau!) and technology: the speed, breadth, and concision of a given cause leave little room to jostle it into the Jenga tower of all the worthy ones.

Justice requires that all demands are satisfied. Power gets away with catering to a few. Case in point: our fractured Democratic party that pleases no one. (It’s unclear to me why the Democrats are communicating any message other than “A rising tide lifts all boats,” but I suspect they have some overeager digital strategists who have forgotten that there’s life outside their @ mentions.) Case in point: every corrupt government everywhere and every attempt to stem corruption that lapses into either dictatorship or just more corruption.

I like the old saw about the arc of moral history bending toward justice. I believe in the idea that we can build incrementally toward systems of governance that serve more people justly. (Or we could all just move to Denmark.) I think perhaps it’s impossible to do that without muddying each objective. Is that unimaginative? Lazy? An excuse to uphold a system that serves me well? Realistic?

Does it matter? I don’t plan on going into politics — performative all-nighters aren’t my thing — or even living in a swing state. I can see enough of the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page through the hands over my eyes to know what I see as pragmatic and incremental is viewed by many as radical. (They are so mad about middle schoolers learning about slavery!) And I only need to spend five minutes thumbing through my Instagram feed to know that most of my friends would think I’m one sensible Ann Taylor necklace away from writing an op-ed for the Journal myself. My politics please no one, and secretly I think that’s the best kind of politics to have.

It’s possible that I spent 90 minutes thinking about this one thing this afternoon. I guess I can say I went to English finishing school now, too.

P.S. Part of me feels like I should apologize for writing about politics, but I’m only going to apologize is if I start documenting my workouts or hawking spiralizers. (Which, to be clear, might happen if I don’t get out of my house again soon. Now that I have mostly learned to cook, it’s only my piss-poor photography skills stopping me from becoming a wellness blogger, and with enough time on my hands I might become Ansel Adams!!!!!)

writers: they’re just like us!

I recently read two books written by people I know. (It’s cool. I’m fine! I love the choices I’ve made and that I expend my creative energy tweeting on behalf of a corporation.)

The first, a collection of essays, was by a friend with whom I share not one but two alma maters: our performing arts high school in Las Vegas and Vassar College, three thousand miles away in upstate New York. During the year we overlapped at Vassar — my final year; his first — we acted and danced together in several productions and squealed occasionally over gossip about our Vegas mutuals, but never got to know each other well beyond that. The second was by a colleague who sat down the hall from me in our bleak Tysons Corner office tower. We didn’t interact much; I only learned about his novel when I stumbled across a glowing review in the Sunday Times and recognized his name.

I look at writers as another species. I write, but I’ve never been able to imagine myself as a writer. I just started Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering” — in which she interrogates her own alcoholism and that of other Iowa-trained writers — and it reminded me that the whole idea of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop makes my skin crawl. (What self-respecting hermit wants anything but comments on a Google Doc? I took an Iowa-style creative writing course at Vassar and stewed so much about having to sit there while a bunch of hipsters lobbed their showiest criticism at me that I hardly had the energy to write my essay in the first place. Even now, whenever a colleague proposes we “live-edit” a document together, I have to decide whether I rank far enough above them to demand comments instead.) Nor can I envision myself wading into “Book Twitter” or keeping up on all of the online literary magazines. It seems that becoming a writer requires submitting to at least one of these indignities and so instead I scroll through @ mentions about Pizzagate all day (I dunno, it’s starting to seem pretty legit!).

Both of these books I just read are about place. Matt’s memoir travels alongside him from the Philippines to Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie to New York, and Kawai’s novel takes place mostly in Hawai’i, with detours to the mainland. I marveled at how differently Matt and I experienced teen and young adult years that we spent in mostly the same places doing mostly the same things (ballet class; drinking; embarrassing ourselves in front of boys). I read an interview where Kawai shared that he had been working on his book for a decade, and was struck to realize that as he was sitting down the hall from me in Tysons, doing whatever a software engineer does (reads xkcd and button-mashes?), he was simultaneously crafting a book that’s both fantastical and deeply rooted in its environment.

We three were all on the same mortal plane, yet they’ve transcended it. I, meanwhile, have dissociated from it.

I was fascinated by the idea of “place” when I was studying English at Vassar. I was surprised by how much I missed Las Vegas when I left, and by realizing how much of my identity was rooted in coming of age in a simulacrum surrounded by mountains in an inhospitable desert. (And I loved the double take when I told people where I grew up.)

The other week I finally read Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing,” which is not actually about how to do nothing (much to the chagrin of many Goodreads reviewers!) but rather about how to live properly in the world. It’s a wide-ranging book that imparts several lessons. My favorite, put briefly, is this: You can’t responsibly detach from the world to avoid it, nor must you to change it. (In layman’s terms: You can have a Facebook account without being a zombie. You can speak to your Republican cousin without going home and flagellating yourself to make up for it.) She grounds this argument in an exhortation to reconnect with the physical environments we inhabit and to understand how we have reshaped them, mostly for the worse, over time.

This argument lingered in the back of my mind while I read my former colleague Kawai’s novel. He invokes ancient myths to tell the story of characters who find salvation in a landscape that is still a modern one, with cell phones and airplanes and binge-drinking. It’s not explicitly environmentalist, but it underscores Jenny Odell’s argument for rerooting yourself on the mortal plane to find greater meaning in the astral one. (The subtweet is “Shut down DAPL!”)

I’ve been working halfheartedly on a novel set in Las Vegas for almost as long as I’ve been away. In the intervening years I’ve lived in five cities in three countries and visited many more. It’s been a nice way to avoid picking a more permanent home, but — and? — I find myself feeling as rootless as I ever did as a college freshman. I love public transit and hate migraines too much to return to Las Vegas, but it feels high time to find a place that I know intimately enough to want to write something that depends on it.

It feels high time, too, to figure out how to become a writer. I thought I would resent my friends’ success, but in reading their books that are redolent of their lives and experiences, I find myself taking heart in seeing how lives that ran briefly along my path diverge from mine. I’ve never been one to take the obvious route (see above in re: I was a Las Vegan at Vassar and now I am a Vassar graduate in Silicon Valley, and also I’m afraid of flying but I live on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean). I don’t think I need to worry that I’m going to end up critiquing poetry in an Iowa bar. I think maybe I just need to finish my book.