2022 in books

I was going to make this an annual thing after doing it in 2020, but then I forgot to do it in 2021, but this year I learned about the Costa Book Award and was reinvigorated! The article where I learned about this prize describes the award as “[pitting] novels, children’s books, biographies, and poetry against one another… controversially for Britain’s more high-minded critics.” The prize’s inventor was inspired by Britain’s Crufts dog show.

I was devastated to learn just now, upon Googling the Costa Book Award — which, yes, is awarded by Costa, the UK’s answer to Starbucks — that it was abruptly killed in 2022. Like just about everything, amirite?

Naturally, this is my jam. So in honor of the late, great Costa Book Award, let me pit a bunch of random books that I read this year against one another by creating some arbitrary categories that are an offensive to the ontological sciences.

Actual favorite books of 2022 but I probably won’t recommend them to most people because I don’t want you to think I’m a weirdo and I’ve been alive long enough at this point to have learned that lesson

  • There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job (Kikuko Tsumura): I just want a career counselor who can get me a job riding a golf cart around a forest, please.
  • To Paradise (Hanya Yanigahara): Okay, so have we all spent the past several years dissecting what it means that we enjoyed A Little Life, which was actually just hundreds of pages of torture porn? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that I just think Hanya Yanigahara is incredibly good at the craft of writing. You know how you say you could listen to someone read the phone book? I would listen to Hanya Yanigahara write the phone book. Which is to say that, yes, this was a tome, but so is a phone book.
  • Geek Love (Katherine Dunn): I described this on Instagram as “The Night Circus on acid” and now I’m worried that everyone I know who liked The Night Circus is going to read it. Guys, don’t read this. You’re not ready.
  • The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing): Okay, I did skim some parts of this, but other parts of it were somehow definitely excerpted from my diary in 2014 even though it was published in 1962???
  • The Copenhagen Trilogy (Tove Ditlevsen): Friends, don’t read this just because I said I liked it and I lived in Copenhagen! It is not a cute trilogy of books about riding your bicycle and eating pastries! It’s about heroin! Nothing good happens!

Favorite “easy listening” books of 2022 (aka books I can recommend without worrying that my loved ones are going to call my therapist)

  • Great Circle (Maggie Shipstead)
  • Sea of Tranquility (Emily St John Mandel)
  • The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai)
  • The Lincoln Highway (Amor Towles)
  • Olga Dies Dreaming (Xochitl Gonzalez)

Favorite show-off non-fiction

  • From The Ruins of Empire (Pankaj Mishra): So I read this book in conjunction with a book that a former colleague of mine published several years ago called The Master Plan about the rise of ISIS (until recently he ran counterterrorism at Facebook, which is a bleak fucking job if you think about it. Really nice guy though!). Super interesting pairing of books, especially against the backdrop of the absolute clusterfuck that was the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Steve Coll): This book is a decade old, but a timely read in light of $5/gallon gas!
  • The Arc of a Covenant (Walter Russell Mead): I finally got to really learn about the Israel/Palestine conflict more deeply this year, including traveling to Israel, and thought this was a great book to read to understand the nature of America’s relationship with Israel. Another timely read as the importance of having a bulwark against Iran in the region becomes more critical, as Russia strengthens its relationship with Iran.
  • We Don’t Know Ourselves (Fintan O’Toole): I’ve been super into learning about Northern Ireland over the past couple years (last year if I had managed to write this up I would have included Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent Say Nothing). This book was kind of a tome, and at times it felt like reading an encyclopedia, but I really enjoyed it, and I’ve also enjoyed noticing since I finished it that Fintan O’Toole is a ubiquitous presence on the Irish literary scene. I feel very “in the know” now.

Is it weird that I enjoyed these books?

  • Crossroads (Jonathan Franzen): Literally, the last time I read a Franzen novel it put me off reading books by men for like four years. And that was nine months before the 2016 election! I just love a big, fat family saga with juicy period details. Like a grimy sheepskin coat that won’t go away.
  • Our Country Friends (Gary Shteyngart): I don’t know why I’m embarrassed by how much I like Gary Shteyngart. I think it’s because I view him as sort of a literary heir to Philip Roth — don’t unpack that — and I obviously have too much pride in myself as a feminist to be a Philip Roth fan, and I’m really embarrassed by my Philip Roth period from high school, and anyway, I usually hate books about rich people being obnoxious, but I just ate this book up.
  • Woke Racism (John McWhorter): I know, Vassar is going to call for my diploma back soon, but it’s just spot on.

DO NOT READ THESE BOOKS

  • Groundskeeping (Lee Cole): I should just stop reading books by people with MFAs.
  • You’ve Changed (Pyae Moe Thet War): Super weird experience reading this book of fun and flirty essays about life in modern Myanmar (Burma). Those with even a cursory knowledge of current affairs will be aware the country is currently ruled by a repressive military junta that has been executing a violent and bloody crackdown. The author, the daughter of a military general, just… doesn’t mention it? I was pretty shocked that Catapult, an imprint that is typically pretty attuned to issues of social justice, would publish such a book, but there you have it.

Goodreads hits that I hated

  • Beautiful World, Where Are You: I think I probably need to just stop reading Sally Rooney at this point. I loved Conversations With Friends and I liked Normal People and I think she is fully entitled to have psychological breakdowns about being torn apart by strangers on the Internet, but at a certain point the lightly fictionalized rendition of that is just very dull to me. I skimmed the last fifty or so pages of this. Also, as a thirtysomething who is less left-wing than and can’t tolerate as much alcohol as most of my friends, and occasionally finds it tedious to be among drunk peers rehashing the same vaguely uninformed rants about progressive politics, yada yada yada, I… don’t really want to spend a lot of time reading about fictional thirtysomethings drinking and whining about Marxism…?
  • The Cherry Robbers (Sarai Walker): It pains me to say this because Dietland is one of my all-time favorites, but I thought this was just terrible. Overlong, humorless, and devoid of life. Where was the editor???
  • The Golden Enclaves (Naomi Novik): Why did I read all three books of this trilogy? I feel like Naomi Novik needs a ghostwriter. Or just a much better editor. Like, killer ideas, but 75% of the time I was totally lost as to what she was trying to communicate to me in prose.
  • Lessons In Chemistry (Bonnie Garmus): I actually gave up on this one about a third of the way in. It seemed like a problem that I actively hated all of the characters, including the semi-anthropomorphic dog, so I decided to put all of us out of our misery.

Goodreads hits that I didn’t hate (okay, there was only one)

  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Taylor Jenkins Reid): I’m sorry, I just love her.

The fact that these aren’t Goodreads hits is offensive to me

  • The Friend (Sigrid Nunez): This book made me want to go out and adopt an arthritic Great Dane.
  • Love in the Big City (Sang Young Park): Okay, I have to be honest, I forget what made me love this book so much, but I was so thrilled that I gave it a rare five-star rating.

Rereads that lived up to my memory of the book

  • The Magicians (Lev Grossman): I just love this book so much! Especially since I can’t bring myself to reread Harry Potter anymore!
  • The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin): I picked this book up off the street (non-New Yorkers, this is a normal thing to do that doesn’t give you bedbugs) and God, does it hold up.
  • The Idiot (Elif Batuman): I read this in preparation for the release of Either/Or. Which was great, but I don’t necessarily think there needed to be another one. (I appreciated the WSJ’s Sam Sacks on “the year’s quantity of sequels from established writers highly disincentivized from attempting anything untested.”)

Bonus advice for finding good books if you are also perennially disappointed by Goodreads

I ran into a friend from college who I hadn’t seen since pre-pandemic at a party a few weeks ago and we ended up just ranting for like a half hour about how mediocre everything with four stars and above on Goodreads is. (Sidebar: It makes me so happy to have these encounters that, for as long as I continue to randomly run into college classmates here and there, reaffirm that I made at least one really stellar choice in my lifetime.) To be fair, she also warned me that the Sally Rooney book was really lame, and I read it anyway, so that one was on me. You tried, M____!

I used to read books that I found on Goodreads, or books that were recommended to me by friends and family, but in recent years I’ve turned into an intolerable snob and I find I prefer stuff that’s a little more esoteric than what most of my loved ones prefer. (Cf. “Actual favorite books that I probably won’t recommend to anyone.”)

These days, I get my book recommendations from The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books.

(The latter is kind of expensive and is so academic in tone that I, not a stupid person, can’t always parse what I’m reading. I personally think that this reflects more poorly on the publication than on me as a reader, because again, I am not a dummy, and if your prose is so dense that I can’t read it, you should pay my high school English teacher a visit, because she did not stand for — as she called it — “fluff.”)

I’ve also accepted that I hate or at least feel disappointed by most of the fiction I read, and that if I immediately forget everything about a book after reading it, it’s not a reflection on my intellectual capacity. A lot of what I do enjoy is often bizarre. I’ve also developed much more of an appetite for dense nonfiction. But also, I have happily devoured every one of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s last few books! And I liked Ted Lasso! So who knows?

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there’s no place like life outside your apartment

The other week I went full Churchill on one of my more Covid-shy friends, trying to talk her down from worrying about catching Covid at a distant cousin’s wedding. You know the drill: We shall not flag or fail, we shall dive maskless onto the dance floor. Life is short, and who knows how many more times we will dance to “Shout”? (One million more times, and I also sort of expect that hell will just be “Shout” playing on a loop for eternity. Sorry!)

It was over text, so maybe it didn’t have quite the same effect as Winston on the radio. Also, it was about getting the sneezes from someone squatting next to you during “Shout.” Anyway, you get what I mean, and I already regret tying myself to this metaphor, so I’m going to move on.

As if I’m some post-pandemic paragon of self-actualization. I keep acting like I’m done processing my pandemic agita only to find myself in some new emotional tumble dryer. Once I was done being scared of getting sick — sometime in February, after enough of my giant Q-tips had come back negative that the worrying seemed like a poor use of energy — I kept getting mad at people who weren’t wearing masks in places where they were supposed to be wearing masks. Not because I was afraid they were going to give me Covid, but because I’m the kind of person who gets mad at people who talk in the quiet car. E.g., I’m full of rage, and I probably should have found work with my hands, but instead I’m a coastal elite who inserts commas for a living, so I have to express my rage through other channels (Twitter).

More recently, I was fulminating over whether I should suck it up and stop wearing a mask because the only reason I was still wearing a mask was because I was worried that I would run into my friends who would judge me for not wearing a mask. I mean, the other night I met a friend for a Broadway show and we both showed up with a mask in our pockets in case the other one wanted to wear one at the show. (If you are not a liberal millennial living in New York City, this is what it’s like to be a liberal millennial in New York City. EXHAUSTING!)

I’m intentionally trivializing the genuinely hard process of letting go of a dogma that we perform — or don’t — in public. After two and a half years of reading the weekly Eeyore report from that dude from The Atlantic, who in their right mind is going to get up and say that they think watching strangers laugh at a Broadway show is worth everyone around you maybe contracting an illness that is still killing thousands of people around the world every day? (Well, geez, when you put it THAT way, Ed Yong…)

I’ll spare you all the tortured debate over the ethics of returning to a normal life. What I’m concerned with is remembering how to be. I mean, small talk. Basic human instincts. The things we learned as children that we’re relearning as adults.

Case in point: When I did stop wearing a mask on the subway, I noticed that behind my KN95, I had started making judgy faces at people doing weird things. It reminded me of one time in college at one of our musical theatre cabaret shows when someone whispered to me that I was openly cringing at the person onstage butchering — you know, I’m not even going to say what song they were butchering, on the off-chance they read this, but it wasn’t my finest moment.

Anyway, I don’t condone openly cringing at anyone with the self-confidence to put themselves out there (although really, know your limits). The salient point is that you can cringe at someone at a cabaret on your college campus in Poughkeepsie, but you can’t make judgy faces at someone on the subway in New York City in 2022. People get stabbed for less these days!

The easy thing for me to do after the pandemic would have been what I have secretly been dreaming of doing since I first read “Success is counted sweetest” when I was eight (in a children’s book by Garrison Keillor. Please, psychoanalyze me!): go full Emily Dickinson. Buy a closet full of white nightgowns and never leave the house again. Nobody gets stabbed. Nobody has to remember how to engage in small talk with the woman next to you on the airplane who has been watching Fox News on her seatback television for the past five hours.

Too bad that I live in the era of Instagram and am thus ruled by FOMO. (Also, I’m married to a normal human man who never harbored a desire to be Emily Dickinson, though he did have a pet hermit crab as kid.)

So instead here I am, ready to return full bore to my normal life. One problem: I’m not sure what normal life I’m supposed to be returning to.

My life prior to the pandemic was an adventure. My husband and I were living abroad and I traveled several weeks out of the year for work, visiting friends I had made in my company’s offices around the world over the nine years I spent working there. I had cultivated a “good at packing my suitcase” persona, which was really sophisticated for a lifelong twerp.

So obviously the pandemic itself was a crash landing, to use the most obvious metaphor possible. Then I quit the job left the city where we had been making friends before Covid hit, and returned to New York, a place where the mass media would have you believe there were more dining sheds than people by the end of the Delta wave.

I’m joking that I’ve forgotten how to get on the subway without giving the side-eye to people with the nail clippers out, but it’s more existential than that. I’ve found myself not so much afraid to leave the house, but more so unsure of where to go, what to do, and, most importantly, with whom.

My tagline on Instagram is “living in a body in the world.” It’s a sort of inside joke with myself that’s mostly about not identifying myself with any particular career or location, but it’s also about the life I was proud to have developed as a world traveler and explorer. You should have seen the kind of by-the-block itineraries I planned myself in the cities I visited. Let’s not kid ourselves; I was not clubbing in Ibiza, but I took some (a lot) (too many) (I pay for extra iCloud storage) sweet photos of houses that looked like gingerbread in Bruges and I always knew where to get the most photogenic oatmeal.

Did I doom myself during the pandemic by finally learning to cook my own oatmeal? No, I remember how to plan itineraries for myself. The problem now is that I do not have friends, I definitely do not have friends. And without friends, what’s the point of leaving the house?

This is an exaggeration. I apologize to my five friends for erasing them in the name of humor. (Also, I just started watching “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — why yes, I am on the cutting edge of culture, as per usual — and I just really needed to work that reference into this post somewhere because the damn song has been stuck in my head for a week.) What I mean is that I had more friends on Zoom than I do in the great city of New York.

One of the rare bright spots of the pandemic was how easy it was to reconnect with all my friends who have dispersed to the four winds, all of us squatting in our dumb little square windows like we were sitting around our precious college kitchen table and no time had passed at all. I forgot, upon returning to New York, that I was not returning to the set of “Friends” or my college campus. (This has not been made easier by the fact that one of my best friends from college recently took a job on our college campus.)

I do have a soul, though, so of course I was desperate to actually see my friends’ faces in person once the world began to reopen and confirm that they still had bodies below the necks. And I was so grateful to see them that during those first few weeks, we were happy to sit out on our balconies in the unseasonably cold April wind, shivering over bowls of takeout ramen, wrapped in every blanket we could find, because we weren’t all vaccinated yet. (Now I’m bitching about the thirty-minute wait at Walgreens and how the latest booster made my armpit hurt. Hey, gift horse, come over! I want to look you in the mouth!)

Now I keep looking at Instagram and seeing all these people out having their hot vax summers with their twelve zillion friends who didn’t forget about them while they were out taking photos of the Tallinn skyline, feeling a little like I did when I was working through my third grade Rolodex trying to get someone to sleep over on a Friday night. The same I age I was, not coincidentally, when I first came across Emily Dickinson and wondered to myself if the white nightgown life would be the life for me.

I guess knowing that at any given time, one of the several dozens of people I follow on social media is out doing something with one of their coterie of friends means that my lizard brain believes that I should, at any given time, be doing something with one of my coterie of friends. (I’m sorry, my five friends. Love you guys!) And I’m sure that social media doesn’t help, but I suppose it’s also just human nature to feel constantly dissatisfied with one’s life. I mean, the Kardashians didn’t invent the name of their television show, you know? (You do know, right?)

A small and very shameful part of me appreciated the pandemic for acting as a sort of social equalizer that made all of my friends into sad little Emily Dickinsons lurking in their bedrooms during primetime. I got to go to bed early every night and nobody gave me shit for Irish goodbying. I didn’t have to do the hard work of being a friend: showing up, reaching out, staying out, being there.

I don’t think I’m the only person who expected to emerge into an idealized version of life. It reminds me a little of showing up to college, thinking I was going to be a completely different person than I’d been for the past eighteen years — and a little of leaving college, thinking that everyone lived on the same superior moral plane where I did now that I had studied Global Feminism and Critical Race Theory (yeah, I took Critical Race Theory in 2010! Who’s the wokest now?!).

So what now? I have the kind of frenetic energy I last had several years ago going through a breakup, when I felt the irrepressible urge to get out of my apartment and do everything available to me. Not the worst thing in the world, though last time I had to draw the line after I ended up watching a prog rock version of the musical “Sweeney Todd.” (Honestly, it was better than it sounds on paper. I swear.)

Now that I have my feet in one place, I’ll be spending less time photographing the Tallinn skyline and more time… well, probably photographing the countdown clock on the G train platform because I’m spitting mad that it’s going to be 24 minutes until the next G train to Church Avenue (the G train, Nermal!). Now is the time to break my terrible habit of failing to take up open-ended social invitations from people I don’t know well because I’m afraid I might bore them by talking about the weather, you know? Might I finally fulfill my fantasy of hosting dinner parties? I expect that in the narrative of my life this will be a time of precipice, one that — as the word implies — precipitates great change in how I live.

I don’t love the visual of a precipice for this moment, though. I prefer the metaphor of a doorway: one that I’m making the choice to open, step out of, and shut behind me, even though I know what protection I could have if I stayed inside, and even though I can’t know what might be outside waiting for me.

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.