31

I thought this morning about the past year and God help me but the first thing that came to mind — from a year when I got engaged, moved to London, and survived at least the first wave of a global pandemic — was being pitched by a San Francisco ad agency. They took us up to their penthouse into what they called the “Mack Daddy” conference room, a phrase that’s never been said aloud to me before and probably won’t be again, at least not unironically, by a man a foot taller than me with one too many buttons undone. It was unseasonably hot for any time, let alone October, and I had packed for autumn. My coworkers would have been more fashionably dressed than me anyway, but at least I had that excuse. They gave us sandwiches. I eat sloppily and so there I was, dripping hummus onto a turtleneck that I always pack on business trips only to remember when it’s the last clean thing I have left that it really doesn’t fit that well, next to my coworker with the perfect dewy skin who showed up with a chic little backpack she found on the RealReal. I mean, it had fringe, and I was still carting around the dumb Fjällräven I bought when I thought I could pull off the VSCO look.

I will have been 30 the last time that my girlfriends and I gathered around A_____’s Upper East Side coffee table over Chinese food and the cider that S____ had at her wedding that they sell at the Whole Foods on 86th. Is that the right grammar? “I will have been”? I was supposed to go to New York again in March; now one of the girls is pregnant and who knows if A_____ will return to the apartment after she rides out the pandemic in the outer boroughs. Who knows, too, when I’ll be in New York again. I haven’t been on a plane since February. It’s maybe the longest I’ve gone without flying since I left Las Vegas for Vassar in 2007. In December I was listening to “The Daily” while I stomped through Broadgate on my way to the Central Line at Liverpool Street. It was just after that Chinese ophthalmologist died and I was thinking, as I tend to about terrible things that obviously won’t happen to me, “There but for the grace of God.” Well, so much for that.

I’m 31 today and I’ve been getting my eyes checked for some 26 years now — since my kindergarten teacher called my mother to gently suggest that there might be a medical reason that I kept crashing into walls — and I still can’t spell ophthalmologist on the first try. I was a spelling bee champion, too. What have I been doing with my life?

Who needs free birthday spin class when you have a Peloton?

I was a mess on my 25th birthday. I always refer obliquely to this time in my life, the illness, the bad boyfriend, the professional stress, but specifically what was happening was that I had been seeing a man 9 years older than me for about a year, long distance. For the first several months he’d laid it on real thick, carting me to the hometown he detested to meet his family, telling me how special I was, writing me love letters, concocting reasons to come visit me, and then in March or so I guess he realized I was basically a child but instead of breaking it off he kind of tried to ghost me. By June I had also starved myself down to some fifteen pounds less than I weigh now. (For those of you who know me personally, grimacing is the proper reaction.) On my birthday the bad boyfriend sent me this massive, noxious bouquet of flowers with a card I think he’d signed “Love,” though it would have been like him not to. He was the kind of person who, if you were wondering whether he was intentionally fucking with you or just clueless, was always intentionally fucking with you. I got the bouquet while I was at the office, and later at the office we got the massive request for proposals we’d been waiting to “drop” for a contract we’d been told was strategically vital. That launched a month of frantic work during which I grew increasingly religious about my diet and exercise regimen and vacillated between panicking that my boyfriend had maybe dumped me without letting me know and looking back at the photo I’d taken of the flowers for reassurance. I was so tired, but he’s turning 40 next month, which is funny. I wonder if I should send him flowers. He’d probably have me offed.

What have I been doing with my life? This morning my fiancé had laid out presents with cards signed by my favorite stuffed animal that I like to anthropomorphize and the squirrel that has taken up residence on our balcony. For breakfast we ate granola that I made yesterday in between dealing with my latest so-called “fire drill,” a term I hope I never hear again outside of a functional context once I finally get over my Stockholm syndrome and extricate myself from Silicon Valley. I’m still getting the annual barrage of emails from every boutique fitness studio I visited over the past decade offering a free class if I drop in today, even though I’m pretty sure they’re all closed. I almost took my birthday off of my Facebook last night because I’m going to ignore all of the notifications like I do every year, but I’m only human. I want to see that some people who I haven’t seen in years, when reminded of my existence, reach out instead of unfriending me.

I’m almost done with the first draft of my novel. I keep rewriting it. I’m not sure I actually have a plot. One of the museums in Copenhagen has a big block of marble on display next to all of the sculptures and it was the first time I’d thought about how sculpting from marble means chipping away at something that already exists. I have adopted this as my metaphor for writing. “Where’s Waldo” might be more appropriate. Where’s plotline?!

So: 30. The year I sat in a Mack Daddy conference room shoveling a sandwich in my fuddy-duddy face while two modern-day Mad Men tried to sell me millions of dollars worth of… something. Brand? (Eight years ago I was paid eleven dollars an hour to sell shoes.) The year I shared my last soup dumplings with J_______ before a child walks this Earth that will one day call her Mom. The year I learned that surviving a pandemic requires a lot less hustling around a grassed-over cityscape with a backpack than the movies had promised. (To be fair, I do hustle around the cityscape with a backpack more often than I did pre-pandemic, but that’s because I’d rather carry a kilo of flour on my back than on my shoulders and not because I’m armed with anti-zombie kit.) The year I almost finished my novel. Or, if you prefer, the year I didn’t finish my novel. A year in which I didn’t finish my novel. A year in which I didn’t travel to Tasmania or dye my hair purple or starve myself or get a weird bouquet from a fake boyfriend. A year in which I more likely than not avoided covid, although there but for the grace of God and we all know how well that one went for me the last time I said it. I’m begrudgingly celebrating my birthday today because I feel genuinely anxious for the first time about aging — how have I still not finished my novel — but death is everywhere right now, even more everywhere than it usually is, you’ve seen the scary chart floating around this week where covid zooms up past terrorism and heart attacks and even malaria. And the news.

On that uplifting note, I have a fire drill to attend to and a birthday gift from Nutso the squirrel to open. I hope it’s a donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

some thoughts on cooking

On April 2, 2019, I poached an egg, a feat I haven’t managed since. I don’t know where I’m going wrong. The water temperature? The size of the pan? What the fuck is a saucepan? I grew up thinking that a “pan” was shallow and a “pot” was deep. Do other people actually know how large their skillets are? Should I get a tape measure out the next time I go to make a frittata and if I do, do I measure from rim to rim or just the flat part? Was there a point at which a pan became a skillet and a small pot became a saucepan, or was a pan always a small pot and I just never learned because I studied bell hooks but never home ec? Cooking blogs imply no skillet is larger than 12 inches, but am I really only five skillets tall? That’s humbling.

I find it very hard to slice things. I know I’m supposed to be doing something special with my fingers so that I don’t cut them off, but I can’t hold the thing I’m slicing down if I’m curling my fingers into nubs. The Meryl Streep onion-slicing montage in “Julie & Julia,” a movie I watched once eleven years ago, haunts me.

The first time I used a corkscrew, I was 22 and trying to cook chicken cacciatore and I had to call my dad for advice while the peppers seared onto the pan. I guess that’s what you get for spending your college days drinking bottom-shelf vodka from a plastic bottle. Nowadays, I can usually get the cork at least half out before it falls in.

Grocery shopping is hard when you are the cart. Every couple of weeks I trudge home with half a liter of olive oil and four cans of beans in the Dagny Dover backpack I bought to look chic at the airport, dreaming of Costco and a car with a trunk.

I feel the same way about cooking that I do about Skee-Ball in that it brings me tremendous joy and accomplishment when it works out, but I could really live without other people watching me flail until I get the ball in the hole, manage to flip the pancake, etc. It’s inconvenient that you can’t very well ask your live-in partner to turn around while you fumble at dicing a squash, much like you can’t expect everyone else waiting for Friday night karaoke at the Alligator Lounge to turn around while you fling a Skee-Ball off the track. (A quick nod to everyone who’s going to Slack me after they read this to tell me they had no idea I had such strong feelings about Skee-Ball. I contain multitudes!)

Are Alison Roman’s recipes actually good, or have we all just groupthinked ourselves into believing they are?

(I understand there was a recent Twitter controversy that had something to do with Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, who I thought was married to the CEO of T-Mobile until I realized that John Legend hadn’t made a career pivot. I don’t have the wherewithal to keep up with Woke Twitter, so this is a hot take based purely on my opinion that her recipes are oily and unbalanced.)

I’m afraid to buy a mandoline.

What’s the over/under on whether I’m actually washing my dishes properly? (Related: Last weekend I Googled “how to mop.”)

By the time I went to stock up on pantry staples, Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk was out of quinoa and barley, so I went for a kilogram of amaranth. Turns out that’s a lot of amaranth! Also turns out that amaranth is not something you want to put in your bougie lunchtime salad! I think also that my amaranth might be regenerating itself in the bin. I take a cup out to make a sort of paste-y spiritual cousin to oatmeal and I swear the next time I check in there’s as much amaranth as there was before. I’ll never be done with it. Anyway, I found a recipe for amaranth with caramelized bananas that called for so much oil that before I knew it I was shallow-frying, which I’d avoided because I’m afraid of spitting oil. (As a reminder, I’m afraid of everything.) It was the most accomplished I’ve felt in years.

Related: Smoke alarms! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em!

I come from a family of ambitious cooks. My mother makes multi-course meals for ten when we kids come to visit. My dad likes nothing better than to get up at two to start a brisket on his Big Green Egg, bonus points if it’s below freezing. My sister and her husband roast a whole pig in their backyard during the non-pandemic years. The other week my sister put my brother-in-law making a Negroni on Instagram Live — he also had some bones to pick with Stanley Tucci’s version — and I tried to convince them to do the Bo Ssam next. They thought I was joking, but I’m making up for a childhood of refusing to let my mother teach me to do anything.

I once had a boyfriend who sent me a treatise on how to buy “proper” olive oil. (Very Ina.) I toast him every time I buy the £3.50 liter at Tesco. I have gotten prissy about grating my own cheese, though.

Cooking blogs: Mostly a scam? Discuss.

insult and quarantinjury

The other week I read some WSJ puff piece about how locked-down Americans doing burpees for the first time keep spraining their ankles. I rolled my eyes at all the bumbling idiots, like I’m not someone who once tweaked my neck so badly shampooing my hair that I couldn’t turn my head for a week, and then promptly burned my arm dumping a loaf of bread from an oven-hot pan, sliced my finger open with serrated knife, and stress-fractured my foot trying to jog for the first time in months.

All the while I have my hackles up for any sign of the creeping crud. I’ve Googled “covid or allergies” one zillion times (it’s always allergies) since March. More recently I’ve gotten into antibodies, and the other day I spent more than zero minutes trying to remember whether I’d had a cold in January or February. I didn’t — at least not according to my WhatsApps with my mother, where I register all of my complaints about my physical health and flight delays for unconditional sympathy (thanks, Mom) — but I did have a nasty bout of food poisoning. Did I Google “covid or food poisoning”? Yes. Did we have covid that January night when my fiancé and I woke up at 2 A.M. and then vomited for the next sixteen hours straight? No. Not only do I not have antibodies, but it’s still my fault for not washing the spinach properly before I stirred it into the curry.

Twelve years of ballet taught me to listen to my body well. I was always kind of a wet noodle of a dancer, which was good and bad; I was fluid and sinuous, but I never could get my weight out of my heels. And I always had a pulled groin, shin splints, mysterious hip pain, a bad foot, whatever. I learned to tell when something was about to go wrong so I could baby it. I did a whole Nutcracker season one year with my shins wrapped in Ace bandages. Now when my problem-child hamstring — the one I pulled a few years back walking wrong (wet noodle!) — acts up I listen to my Internet yoga teacher telling me to “put away my ego” and bend my knees in my forward fold.

(From my bent-knee forward fold, I think mournfully back on when I took ballet six days a week and had a perfect arabesque. Now I am Old Mother Hubbard.)

I know also when I’m about to be ill. Maybe my head feels an ounce heavier or I can feel a telltale pinch at the back of my nose. When I was still a performer and the cold inevitably began to creep on the week before the show, this was when I’d panic and start chugging a lot of water. (I maintain that Emergen-C is a scam.)

Lately I’ve felt similarly frantic when I feel the stirrings of illness. London is in full and verdant bloom, and every time I leave the house I return with a little sniffle. Then it subsides and I feel briefly sad that I didn’t get the virus, because in all likelihood if I got it I’d get better. I fantasize about being impervious and boarding a plane home to see my family, and then I feel irresponsible for daring to want to catch it, like I’m one of those mothers you hear about throwing chicken-pox parties.

I like that I have so much knowledge of and control over my body. Obviously, that was where the whole anorexia thing came from a few years back, but it’s not always so insidious. It’s helpful that I know (okay, knew, whatever, in my head I’m still a prima ballerina) to Ace-bandage my legs before I hop around on a poorly sprung stage six nights a week for a month. Even if I couldn’t stave off a cold, I knew how it would progress and how to hot-water-and-lemon it until I could sing passably.

I’m unaccustomed to a threat that I can’t steps one-two-and-three into submission, and one that has implications beyond my own body. A mask isn’t a knee brace, and my sprained ankles weren’t contagious. Lately I feel more like a time bomb, and with a world shrunk to the size of an apartment, it’s hard to see outside of what I can feel. (Especially when what I feel is searing pain because I bounced a loaf pan fresh from a 450-degree oven off of my bare arm!)

i love the passing of time

Captain’s Log: I finished a 30-day yoga challenge and I’m about to finish an 8-week indoor cycling challenge, but somehow it’s only been 50 days since I visited a restaurant but a solid 18 months since I last saw a dentist. I keep throwing out bargains like “Let the pandemic recede and I’ll never wait three years to get a Pap smear again,” but the universe hasn’t bitten yet.

Herein follows some disjointed thoughts on time, written on a day when I’m at least two days over my maximum days-without-shampooing:

There’s only one Punxsutawney Phil

My least favorite meme of the current moment is people constantly referencing “Groundhog Day.” Not because we hardly need to be reminded that it’s still preposterous that even a younger Bill Murray could have landed Andie MacDowell (let alone Scarlett Johansson, but I’ll save “Lost in Translation” for when I’m ready to interrogate my feelings about manic pixie dream girls), but because people keep referring to it as “Groundhogs Day.” It’s unclear whether they think there’s more than one groundhog or that the day belongs to the groundhog, but either way, it grinds my gears like seeing an ampersand in the middle of a sentence. (Do you people call it “Martin Luther King’s Day”? “Christ’smas”?)

Saganaki > sagacity

Last year, I went to Greece, and I also got really into Ted Chiang. I’ve never been especially into either classics or sci-fi. I made a horrifying bust of Athena in 1998 — I vaguely remember using straight pins to attach yarn to a head-shaped Styrofoam wig stand — and then I forgot about antiquity for two decades.

In Greece I paid more attention to the cheese than the history, but somewhere on the label for an ancient shard of pottery or something I saw a reference to the notion of “kairos,” one of those untranslatables that roughly equates to “the proper time for action.” Kairos contrasts with “chronos,” or linear time. It resonated and then I promptly forgot what it actually meant and decided it meant time as an amorphous blob sans relativity, in which things happen irrespective of what other things happen.

Ted Chiang is a science-fiction author and if you haven’t read him yet, you’re missing out. He’s published two collections of short stories, including the one on which the movie “Arrival” was based. Every one of his stories is like “Arrival”: You think you’re in for a smart science caper and for a few winking pages he indulges you, and then suddenly you’re weeping and reconsidering your place in the universe. That, over and over again, for three hundred pages. It’s brutal.

Several of his stories touch on time and on the idea of time as something that doesn’t proceed as we perceive it. Kind of an erudite “Jeremy Bearimy” (if you know, you know). The point is less to pull time-travel gotchas — nobody swoops in on a hippogriff to rescue a wrongly accused wizard outlaw, etc. — and more to ask what you do when fate is the devil you know.

I feel ambivalent about speculative fiction. I mostly find it futile to read about other people’s preposterous ideas of the future, although it feels silly to say that from here in the middle of a pandemic during which we entertain ourselves by beaming our faces into one another’s homes. I have trouble psyching myself up to read about the multiverse when for every Ted Chiang there are ten godforsaken versions of Helen Schulman’s Come With Me, a book I hated so much that I read it, put it out of my mind, read it again, and only realized when I went to rage-rate it one star on Goodreads that I’d wasted not, say, four but eight solid hours of my life on it. (Was that Groundhog Day? The elusive “i” in the Bearimy?)

I usually walk away from speculative fiction wondering what the point is. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time — because I’ve been thinking a lot about death, and about routine — and in doing so keep drifting back to the other versions of time that I’ve encountered in my reading and travels. I mentioned a few weeks back that I keep finding myself looking for a deus ex machina and I think that might be part of it: I’m trying to gird myself for the possibility of a loved one’s death by thinking of how death matters less if you don’t experience time linearly. Which seems, as I said, pointless, since the only humans who don’t experience time linearly are the ones who exist only in speculative fiction, both “speculative” and “fiction” being operative words. Except that here we are in a pandemic during which we entertain ourselves by beaming our faces into one another’s homes.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22

Yesterday I went jogging for the first time in about a century and passed through a garden that lies on my commute if I walk in that’s bloomed riotously since the last time I did so, some 60 days ago. Unlike everyone kvetching about “Groundhogs” Day, I’ve been kind of basking in how time has flattened. I like going to the grocery store on a Tuesday morning and lying in on Thursday.

I don’t think “kairos” is intended to mean “saying fuck-it to the lunch bell and eating your big kale salad at a quarter to noon or two P.M. because that’s when you’re hungry,” but there’s something refreshingly primal about getting off the hamster wheel of commuting and lunch at noon. A decade ago when I was staring down the barrel of having to pick a career I felt deep, existential dread at the idea of an office job. I worked retail during my first year out of college and I loved to run errands on weekday mornings. I felt like a lady of leisure.

Lately I feel like I’ve looped back onto my early-twentysomething self. Video calls with college classmates and reply-all threads with community theatre casts, grocery shopping on weekday mornings, and a consuming focus on the present because the future is opaque. That sounds more zen than it feels. I can’t plan, so I’m not trying; I can’t progress, but time marches on. Allegedly.

the name is the thing

Like every other once-idealistic liberal arts college graduate who took a post-recession detour into the tech industry, I recently cringed my way through Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley at breakneck speed. (I didn’t react as strongly to it as my colleagues have. Mostly, I was just smug all over again that I never lived in San Francisco.)

My most lingering takeaway has been the book’s hallmark stylistic choice: Winkingly precise descriptions in place of proper nouns. Anna Wiener’s employers Oyster and Mixpanel become “the e-book startup” and “the data-analytics startup”; Amazon becomes “the online superstore.” My colleagues and I have traded the same hypotheses that reviewers have over whether she was gunning for timelessness or just skirting the Valley’s notoriously watertight NDAs, but it occurred to me this week that maybe she’s as allergic as I am to true names.

Writing in my journal these past weeks, I’ve caught myself studiously avoiding the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” preferring instead the more cinematic “the virus.” I wince a little every time I read in a newspaper about who is and isn’t “practicing ‘social distancing,'” the scare quotes omnipresent around “social distancing” but not, mysteriously, “practicing,” which is jargon if I ever heard it; I dare you to tell me the last time you “practiced” something instead of just doing it. (You didn’t.)

I never was comfortable with argot. I chalk it up to a childhood spent studiously memorizing the mannerisms of an in-crowd I was outside of. I knew early what I could and couldn’t pull off and most nicknames, in-jokes, baby-talk, everything that was popular on the four-square court, were out of my league. They could smell on me my discomfort with anything that wasn’t of me or at least anything I hadn’t encountered in the dictionary that they insisted I read in my spare time.

(I recognize that in the grand pantheon of bullying, being said to read the dictionary in one’s spare time doesn’t count for much, but God, did it rankle me. I didn’t read the dictionary! It’s only now that I always keep a browser tab open to Thesaurus.com!)

Proof.

I only trusted language I acquired on my own. Anything else was a landmine. I remember once on the bus back from a field trip when one of the popular boys turned around to me with that glint in his eye and asked if I knew what a “cunt” was. I didn’t, but we were in middle school by then and I knew better than to take language cues from anyone with more mastery over hair gel than pre-algebra, so I just shrugged and returned to staring out the window.

(That bus ride was the first time I heard “The Remedy” and in seventeen years of hearing that song at dentists’ offices I haven’t been able to shake the association with B______ with the hair gel turning toward me with the look of someone who knew he was about to fuck a nerd over. Apropos of nothing, a few years after that I heard that he contracted a near-fatal case of necrotizing fasciitis after a wrestling match.)

So here I am in 2020 feeling like a fraud for calling the creeping crud COVID-19 when I hardly passed high school chemistry. Thus: “the virus.”

I am reminded of a time years ago following a gnarly breakup when I found myself incapable of referring to my ex-boyfriend by name in my journal. I referred to him as him, in italics, as if by abstracting him away on paper I could in real life too, or maybe I was just trying like the characters in Harry Potter not to invoke something I didn’t want around. Pronoun as amulet.

That time has also been on my mind lately as I try to compare right now — i.e., life under the shadow of death — to other trying times in my past. None reasonably compare to an invisible virus lurking on the chard at the grocery store. Logically, I know that. But every morning, five or ten seconds after I wake up, the oppressive weight of another day settles onto my chest like I’m twenty-five and newly single again and not thirty and living in a petri dish.

(“Time and distance,” a dear friend said to me back then when I was wallowing hard. Still relevant, K__!)

Now, at least, I’m affianced. The Thursday before last was the four-year anniversary of my first date with my now-fiancé. Our celebratory road trip around Romania has obviously been postponed until either after the pandemic or the afterlife. I can’t complain much about a celebration that involves lounge pants and a “Tiger King” marathon — let it be known that this is the first time since the second season of “American Idol” that I’ve participated in a cultural moment; I look forward to the next one in 2037 or, again, the afterlife — but I could do without the shadow of death circling ever closer.

The first several months of our relationship were blissful-ish. I got annoyed by things like a stubborn case of pink eye; a six-hour delay at SFO; a gargantuan cockroach that disappeared in my shoebox of an apartment, never to be seen again. The 2016 election took place the night before we were due to fly to Tokyo on a vacation I’d been planning since before we started dating, my Murakami fangirl dream trip.

We all know how that one played out. It played out like my gnarly breakup had a couple years prior; I startled awake in the middle of the night disappointed that it wasn’t a bad dream and then in the morning I would lay in bed for a minute or two adjusting, again, perpetually. In my journal I referred to “the ‘president,'” scare quotes and all.

Maybe it’s magical thinking: If I don’t name it, it can’t be. (It’s a backwards Ursula K. LeGuin.) It’s the writer’s delusion that if I can imagine it far enough from me I can keep it there, too; and the reader’s, that if I can find the experience I desire I can manifest it as my own. I know that my hand sanitizer can only do so much and so I’m turning for the first time to talismans. Can you blame me?

P.S. I wrote several years ago that “it makes me nervous to hear my own name.” I couldn’t figure out where to work that in here, but armchair psychologists are welcome to speculate.

a girl can dream

I tend to have vivid, emotionally draining dreams that ratchet up in intensity until, just before I wake up, I realize with tremendous relief that I’m dreaming. So yes, that’s what I’m waiting for here: the end of the dream, or the deus ex machina, or whatever it is that doesn’t involve me sitting in these filthy sweatpants in a foreign country for eighteen more months.

The other night I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers and this morning I found myself idly wondering how the conspiracy theorists are faring right now — they must be out of their damn minds, I thought — and before long I was starting to conspiracy-theorize myself. A grand plan by the deep state to reset capitalism and the social contract that takes advantage of our faith in science and the media, the timing of flu and cold season, and our having been primed to expect this by arts and entertainment? The next phase of Jeff Bezos’s plot to take over the world? Something something bioweapon something?

Yeah, they are out of their damn minds. But it’s nice to imagine that this is a movie plot, right? Since this is certainly right about when the hero is meant to show up?

Come on, Tris!

I find myself waiting for that. I’m in London for the foreseeable future. I was going to be anyway, since I live here, but it’s bizarre to know that it’s for an indeterminately long haul. I’m vacillating between the pettiest and most existential concerns: I’m going to forget how to put on makeup. (I had already forgotten how to put on makeup.) I’m never going to see my friends and family again. I’m not going to get to travel Europe this year. Someone I know is going to die. I’m going to have to eat something that isn’t a frittata tomorrow morning because none of the five grocery stores within a five-block radius of my apartment have any eggs. I’m going to die. I’m going to get fat. I’m going to get fat!!! (She wails, to the tune of a fatal virus sweeping humanity outside her window.)

Half the time I’m imagining myself into all of the books I’ve ever read set in the London home front during World War II, as if instead of hanging out in a flat that’s larger than the illegally converted four-bedroom I split with three Craiglist strangers in New York a decade ago making some harissa-heavy Alison Roman recipe I’m… in the line of sight of the Luftwaffe. (My fiancé and I watched “Dunkirk” the other night and felt duly chastened for having nodded at anything that compares our current circumstances to wartime.) The other half of the time I’m working myself into a lather what-iffing that this quarantine had happened when I split an illegally converted four-bedroom with three Craigslist strangers in New York.

I often think when reading history about how hindsight serves to heighten or assuage the tension of plot. I bite my nails at someone drinking a cup of tea in an English garden in 1938 and exhale as the calendar flips closer to May 1945. It occurs to me every so often to remember that nobody living during World War II knew to count down to V-E Day. (Pardon me for my fixation on World War II; I got a Molly doll for Christmas the year I learned to read and we had the same glasses and I’ve been imagining myself into life on the home front ever since.)

I can’t complain. That doesn’t mean I’m not still staring down the barrel. Time is passing intolerably slowly. I’ll be 31 soon — one hopes — and I’d been trying to break the habit of waiting for things to get better before I start to enjoy them.

That was an easier commitment when I was trumpeting about enjoying life even when [my job/my weight/the selection of books available on Kindle/the weather/the speed of my Internet] got me down. I can bake as much bread as I want — actually, I can’t; every one of the five grocery stores around me has been out of flour for weeks, but let’s speak metaphorically here — and I’m still going to be living, along with the rest of the world, under the shadow of death. Cool!!!

So I wait. Wait for the deus ex machina to drop, for the spunky heroine to show up, for the dream to end, for the flour shelf to be refilled, for my nose to run and my lungs to give way, for a phone call I won’t want to answer, for Last Week Tonight to return, for pubs to reopen, for a flight home, for the sun to set so I can go to bed and wait for tomorrow morning’s headlines.

no pomp due to circumstance

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To the second-semester senior who has been unceremoniously dispatched home by the coronavirus, just when you were about to depart on your victory lap:

I often think back fondly on the final weeks of my time at Vassar as the only time in my life when I both truly gave no fucks and was old enough to say “fuck.” I was done with auditions and done with room draw and done with fooling anybody — including myself — into thinking that I was chill. I had made peace with my B average. I’d started eating again after months of mostly not. It was an enchanted and rowdy six weeks during which I made precious, wild memories, did a lot of stupid things expressly so that I’d never regret not having done them, and played at being someone I’d never been before and would never be again.

In retrospect, it was only semantics that made me feel free; things would quickly become just as consequential as they’d been and I sank back into my natural state of being (neurotic and pathologically rule-abiding).

I was very hungover and absolutely not wearing that hood properly.

I hope all of you who have been unexpectedly put adrift can find that sense of freedom within yourselves even without the Senior Week booze cruise and nearly garroting yourself trying to put on your graduation hood. Here are a few things that you might keep in mind, especially as the unexpected time alone (perhaps in a place that you always thought of yourself as escaping) might be sending you into a tailspin:

  1. When great isn’t in reach, good enough will do. This isn’t to say you’re perfect as you are — you absolutely need to be washing your bedsheets more often than you do — but rather that you don’t need to regret having failed to peak during college. I never found my footing in college and by the end of senior year had made peace with my B average and haphazard curriculum. This period of quietude may be a good time to think about what it is that you actually like so you can look for it as you build your career. (I liked writing and persuasion. I started out selling shoes and freelance SEO blogging and later landed a job as a proposal writer. The people hiring me cared that I could write, not about my thesis or whether the classes I took added up to a coherent curriculum.)
  2. The operative phrase is “good enough.” Don’t totally check out (I say, having taught myself to bake bread yesterday while I was nominally working from home). A B average doesn’t maintain itself. Perhaps it will be easier to be productive from your childhood bedroom, where nobody is stopping by to offer you homemade Skittles-infused vodka (an offer you should always decline, as long as I’m imparting my most valuable lessons learned during undergrad). Consider limiting your use of social media to after nine P.M., like I did with Facebook after I graduated so I could force myself through the grind of applying for jobs that didn’t involve touching children’s feet for a living. (Yes, Facebook. Yes, during my spare time I also enjoyed calculations on the abacus and milling flour by hand.)
  3. You aren’t written in stone. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t do it now. Just because you do something now doesn’t mean you ever have to do it again. As it turns out, this has always been true and will always be true; it’s just easier to see when you give no fucks. (Oh, and just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you have to do it now, either. I repeat: Decline the offer of Skittles-infused vodka.) There may be few opportunities to try on a new identity while you’re social-distancing, but idk, don’t millennials mostly live online now, anyone? Post a SoundCloud or whatever. A tock-tock. And when the global pandemic subsides, go kiss somebody unsuitable.
  4. One phase of your friendships is ending, but an even better one is beginning. During the weeks leading up to graduation, I gave myself heartburn trying to commemorate and lock down my friendships before I returned to my hometown on the other side of the country from where everyone else was settling. This wasn’t the only reason I staged an awards night for my friends that I called Phi Beta Krappa where we presented one another with awards that were decidedly un-academic, but it was part of it (mostly I was just obnoxiously declaring my lack of fucks given over not making actual Phi Beta Kappa). On the other end of the spectrum, one of my four best friends with whom I lived during our senior year Irish-exited campus during our post-ceremony party while everyone’s families were eating sandwiches on the lawn and I didn’t see her again until the following February, and we’re all still friends. In fact, I just messaged our WhatsApp group to see whether anyone remembered their Phi Beta Krappa award (that’s a no. Some things are too precious to last). Nobody forgot anyone else. We remember one another so well, in fact, that it’s something of a liability at weddings when we’ve had too much champagne and want to regale one another’s loved ones with our favorite stories from undergrad. We’ve now been out of school for longer than we were there, and the memories we’ve made since are even more indelible (mostly because we actually remember them), from the terrible bars of our early twenties to the terrible dates of our mid-twenties to the terrible jobs of our late twenties and now into our thirties, which were going great until… now. There are friends you’re stuck with and that’s foreordained. No early dismissal from campus can get in the way of the awful and embarrassing toast that they’re going to give at your wedding a decade from now.

Above all — know that a polyester gown and a few bad speeches were never going to give you the closure you needed. This transition was always going to be brutal, and I feel deeply for everyone for whom it’s infinitely worse than it was meant to be.

I can’t pretend that I felt as lost and disoriented as the 21-year-olds around the world who just got drop-kicked out of senior year, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was done, ready, prepared, equipped, or complete in any way that I expected to be when I left school. I felt like a failure, like I’d squandered my college experience, and deeply lonely without friends living on the other side of my bedroom wall, and I can only imagine what it’s like to feel all of that and to be battling suburban hoarders for the last of the toilet paper to boot.

So, if it helps at all, here’s a spoiler: You’re not a failure, you didn’t squander your college experience, and it’s actually more fun to be friends with people when you don’t share a bathroom. Graduation ceremonies are boring, booze cruises are overrated, and you already have within you the power to give no fucks. Channel it, and be grateful that you don’t have to embarrass yourself trying to put on that godforsaken graduation hood in front of every boy you imprudently made out with between freshman year and now.

P.S. For many students, campus closing is more than an emotional burden — it’s a significant and possibly insurmountable financial one as well. Fellow Vassar alumni with the means to support students in need can donate to the Vassar Student Support Fund, and I encourage alumni from other colleges to see whether their alma maters are doing something similar.

creeping crud

I used to joke that I would regret all of the postapocalyptic novels I read in my twenties and here I am, regretting all of the postapocalyptic novels I read in my twenties.

Mostly Station Eleven. Imagine me last week handing my passport to a gate agent in a surgical mask at SFO to board a twelve-hour flight to London, thinking about nothing except the scene in that book where a plane parks on the tarmac, forever hermetically sealing its flu-ridden passengers off from the world so their last act isn’t to infect it. If you haven’t read it, now isn’t a great time to do so, though maybe you’re a less anxious creature than me.

If so, good on you. I’m losing my mind. I want to go back to that time when I saw the first fifteen minutes of “I Am Legend” at the gym and change the channel back to CNN where it belongs. I want to un-read Susan Beth Pfeiffer’s Life As We Knew It quartet, and not only because the last book took a weird turn from climate-change survival thriller/teen romance to men’s-rights defense (complete with teen-on-teen rape scene. Aren’t you glad I read it so you don’t have to?).

Between that and Severance, I know full well what happens to New York City during the apocalypse: Seamless stops delivering, and everyone dies. I feel grateful to live in London now instead of New York. Here, I have enough space in my kitchen for twelve cans of beans.

Truthfully, though, my fear isn’t the apocalypse itself; it’s surviving it. I am slow, weak, and lazy; I have a face made for dying first in a horror movie. I bought the tenth-to-last 16-pack of toilet paper at Waitrose last Tuesday and it practically left me sweating. (And only to be chastised by my favorite Instagram doctor!)

Me while reading this: *strokes chin, picks nose, thinks gloatingly of all the toilet paper sitting in my utility closet*

I’m joking, but I spent this past week feeling pretty freaked. It didn’t help that I returned from the US early, while my fiancé was still in India, leaving me alone in a foreign country with nothing to do except read Tweets about better options for hand-washing songs and vote for Elizabeth Warren. In other words, at no point this week did I feel that I had a sense of agency.

I’m excitable. The other day my mind wandered to imagining myself on my coronavirus deathbed attached to a ventilator, reflecting on whether I’d lived my life properly. (Before I had time to negotiate properly with my response to that question, I set to thinking about how to make sure that someone capable gets a hold of my half-completed novels and essays upon my death so I can get famous posthumously. Hashtag priorities.) Yesterday I overheard a British woman with one of those really exhaustingly posh accents moaning about how everyone was making too big a fuss about the coronavirus and we just needed to practice “basic hygiene” and it was all I could do not to turn around and virtue-signal about helpless nursing home residents and also question whether she really soaped for 20 seconds every time she washed her hands before last week, because I refuse to believe anyone did or surely we’d all be walking around with our skin flaking off like mine currently is, singing Toto.

I don’t have anything of substance to contribute to the discourse. I’m just trying to be good. It’s not clear whether that means hunkering down to avoid becoming a vector or going out and propping up the collapsing economy and being performatively antiracist, so I’m splitting the difference, which conveniently means avoiding the Tube during rush hour and going out for Neapolitan pizza. For now, I’m living my life as I usually do (i.e., one day at a time, without much furthering the greater good), only sometimes I remember to wipe the weights down with antibacterial wipes before I start lifting at the gym and instead of reading people’s text messages over their shoulders on the Tube, I judge them for biting their nails. What more can I do than that?

all-day dining at the homesick restaurant

(With gratitude and apologies to the inimitable Anne Tyler.)

I was in Palo Alto this past week for work. Now that I live in Europe, my once- or twice-yearly visits to the California office are a jet-lagged flurry of hugging people I thought had been fired long ago.

(To be fair, they obviously think the same of me, if the question “So… what are you working on these days?” is anything to go by. Translation: “I used to regularly catch sight of you grinding your teeth in the corner of one high-stress, high-value event or another and now you just pop up and like a Slack message every couple of weeks or so. How did you get that gig and is your team hiring?”)

This time, everyone was asking me how I find London, and because I am pathologically candid I kept repeating that I was homesick (instead of the correct answer to a polite conversational question, i.e., “fine”).

Most of my California coworkers have known me since I started my job in that office nearly eight years ago — yeah, I sprouted a gray hair just saying that — which means that they’ve known me for most of my peripatetic adulthood. So more than one of them asked me: “Homesick for where?”

I didn’t have a proper answer. It’s not that I miss Las Vegas, where I grew up; it’s not that I’m jonesing to dodge rats and hot garbage on the sidewalks of New York, where I most recently lived. It’s that if I catch either city, or any city, from the right angle, I feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Case in point: I had watched “The Goldfinch” on the flight to SFO, even though the critics had, to a man, called it awful (it was). I liked the book in no small part because now, when I tell people I grew up in Vegas, they ask me if I’ve read it instead of asking me if my parents were blackjack dealers. Then I tell them I had a friend who’d snapped up a foreclosed house on the city’s raw edge and that it was as weird as it sounded for a cookie-cutter stucco neighborhood to bump up against alien desert. (Then they ask me if the friend was a blackjack dealer.)

The Vegas section of “The Goldfinch” opens with a drone shot panning a neighborhood of foreclosed-on cookie-cutter stucco houses bumping up against desert, all of them painted that kind of sad-sack neutered shade of terra cotta that doesn’t exist outside of the American Southwest, and I felt such a surge of homesickness that I thought about parachuting out over Nevada.

I’m not homesick for a place. I’m homesick for the ugly beigey-pink of every house in Las Vegas built after 1996. I’m homesick for the blast of cold air when your train finally arrives at the platform during a New York summer. (I’m homesick for air conditioning.) I’m homesick for American accents and American “aw, shucks”-ness. And American benzos. I’m homesick for waiting for my friends to show up at the bar even though I know better than to arrive earlier than ten minutes late.

I’m homesick for the familiar, I guess. I’ve started to latch onto the oddest things as symbols of what makes me feel at home; note the aforementioned rats and hot garbage and also that I get a little kick out of how CNN is always playing at the hotel gym.

I can blame it on a decade of hopping from one city to another, but like everyone else in the world who’s been deluged by other people’s lives since the invention of social media I’m just casting about for what I know. When I catch sight of something I recognize in the endless scroll of novelty, I want to grab it. I kid myself that it would be less exhausting to be somewhere I know like the back of my hand, as if I didn’t spend my final six months in Las Vegas sleepless underneath the “Moulin Rouge” poster I hung above my bed when I was thirteen (nothing captured the spirit of my teenage angst like a French prostitute dying of tuberculosis), wallowing in my inability to do something with my life. I am less homesick, perhaps, and more basking in a delusion of returning to New York, where all the pieces will fall into place or be ferried there by rats that emerge from the hot garbage to do my bidding. I’m peripatetic because I’ve had the means to search widely for meaning and now I wonder if I’m looking for an excuse to retrace my steps, as if I left my calling in the elevator of the building where I lived in 2013.

All of this is a very long answer to the question of how I’m finding London. I should also have mentioned that I like the pies and how frequently the Tube runs.

P.S. The critics were right. “The Goldfinch” is a very bad movie. I just can’t take Ansel Elgort seriously as an adult, for one, due to his apparently having stopped aging at sixteen, and I was personally offended by the part where all of Theo’s classmates in Las Vegas were brainless capitalists. Also, in Las Vegas in the two-thousands, we took “Government,” not “Civics,” and thus the plot didn’t hold any water. (It would have, if not for that detail.)

i’ll scratch your back…

As I start thinking about how to eventually market myself as an author, I’ve set myself to actually participating in social media. In case you’re wondering how that’s going for me, a misanthrope, here is an actual excerpt from my diary this morning:

“It’s nice to see how engaging on social media begets engagement on my own content, though even as I write that I’m filled with anxiety about being sucked into a miasmic echo chamber in which no art can be produced because all artists are preoccupied by the endless cycle of quipping and liking and being liked and at the end of the day, all we’re left with is, effectively, a circle jerk.

Is this basically the same thing as the patronage system of yore [Ed.: Yes, I did use the word ‘yore’ in my diary], though? Is it better, since artists have more agency over who they engage with, or worse, since it’s not as if most of us (“us”) are on Twitter at the behest of someone who’s paying us, only on the strength of the collective delusion that this is the only way to eventually get published? (And because it’s a good way, speaking of delusions, to feel productive without having to actually produce anything?)

Anyway, I haven’t had to shower yet today, and it’s fun to have a famous author acknowledge your existence / feel like you’re on the same plane, so let me just truck along with these endorphins and I’ll be copacetic.”

And in case you were further wondering how my manuscript is going, rest assured that I’m far too busy thrilling over having been followed by the NYT bestselling author I @ mentioned yesterday to do anything as pedestrian as actually write. (I did remove all of the quotation marks from my novel-in-progress to see if it would make it seem more literary. It did, but it also made it incomprehensible, and made me look like a dick, so then I put them all back. #crushingit)

As an aside, participating in Twitter as an aspiring author kind of feels like getting in line for the slaughter. Is it time to get canceled yet?

(Related: I’ve been combing and organizing this blog’s archives and have been genuinely alarmed by some of the language I casually threw around in my very early twenties, in 2011. Yikes, past self! I always suspected that this blog would be one of many reasons I can never run for elected office, but boy howdy, did I traffic in some tired tropes not long enough ago for it to be cute. Woof. Is this what the rest of my life as a white lady is going to be like? One cringe-inducing trip down memory lane after another?)