swallowing the world

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” — Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Where you were when

When September 11th happened, I was twelve, a couple weeks into seventh grade. The footage on television was terrifying, but my classmates and I had never been to New York, and it felt consequential but not visceral. Our adults kept telling us that we needed to remember where we were that day “when we heard.”

They talked about JFK being assassinated and the Challenger exploding, and I didn’t feel like it mattered much that I, Dana Cass, was plugging in my curling iron in the Las Vegas suburbs when I heard a disarming report on the radio. But here I am nineteen years later, still conjuring the feeling of the bathroom tiles underneath my feet before I ran downstairs to turn on the television.

I’ve had some excellent history teachers who have taught me to properly interpret what I hear, see, and read, and of course now every podcaster whose closet has decent acoustics is out debunking one established symbol of history or another. For a long time, I’ve groused that we flatten history into a series of events that photograph well, and that in doing so we distort our understanding of how we got here and there.

Case in point: I remember Where I Was When Obama was elected for the first time (in a crowd of fellow first-time voters in the student center at Vassar, next to a friend who was weeping into a travel mug spiked with raspberry vodka) and Osama bin Laden was killed (nested amid a pile of books on my last standard-issue twin bed, writing the last mediocre paper of my college career, flipping between Microsoft Word and Safari open to CNN.com, the May breeze blowing through a window whose screen had been ripped open the prior weekend when campus security broke up our party and the attendees fled through my bedroom).

I also remember, bizarrely, applauding a radio broadcast that announced the conviction of Sandy Murphy for the murder of her casino billionaire husband Ted Binion following a trial so lurid it could only have taken place in Las Vegas, from the swimming pool in my best friend’s backyard in 2000, after my mom bought a couple pallets of water from Costco in a perfunctory nod to Y2K but before my next-door neighbor read aloud a poem her parents had been emailed called “How the Gore-inch Stole the Election,” during our morning carpool, and I learned about partisan politics for the first time.

Waiting for when

I don’t remember any one historic moment between November 2008 and spring 2011; I do remember that in 2010, I saw over someone’s shoulder what turned out to be a faux New York Times headline proclaiming “IRAQ WAR ENDS.” I had a brief remember-where-you-are moment before I realized it was fake, though it’s taken until recently for me to understand that the Iraq war wasn’t — isn’t — the kind of conflict that was going to be sewn up with a V-E Day.

(Neither was World War II, but my early education mostly elided over V-J Day and the war beyond Europe more broadly, especially where American moral clarity was in question. If it weren’t for crossword puzzles, I might still not know that Ethiopia was among the theaters in which WWII was fought.)

No soldier would dip a nurse into a symbol of war as something that begins, yes, and is terrible, but reliably ends. Part of me, having been steeped in the American tradition of moral certitude and ham-handed symbolism, is still waiting for that ending.

If it’s not on Twitter, is it even history?

The ubiquity of photography, and the ensuing barrage of images as indelible as the Zapruder film or the billowing orange contrails where the Challenger was supposed to be, has made history even more like a boiled frog that usual. I can’t figure out whether everything is a watershed moment or nothing is.

This isn’t a hot take. Every third person wringing their hands over the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle shares this sentiment.

But I — wait for it; this is about to be a real stretch — recently read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (hence the epigraph) and think there’s something to be said for understanding the subtle gradations that color transitions from one saturated moment (Tahrir Square; a Trump rally) to the next, and how the mundanity of individual memory and experience better captures the zeitgeist as it evolves.

My excellent history teachers imparted to me the value of primary sources, extrapolating a cultural moment from individual lived experiences. We’re swimming in primary sources. History is Zapruder and contrails, but history is also a twelve-year-old plugging in her curling iron and a 21-year-old staring for the first time at the war machine in action.

(A few years later, when I was working as a proposal writer for a defense contractor, someone printed that photo of Obama and company in the Situation Room and taped it to my office door with “WAR ROOM” written on top in ballpoint, so that everyone passing would know that my officemate and I were hard at work chasing a new contract for the war machine itself.)

One-to-many

I remember that period in the ’90s when photomosaics became popular. The other week I saw an installation at the Barbican composed of labeled images from the ImageNet database that has enabled automated image recognition. It’s apt to compare the recognizability of a photomosaic (it’s the Mona Lisa! Made up of everyone who came to see the Mona Lisa this year! Etc.) to the anarchy of one arbitrary slice of the modern Internet.

But it only requires some imagination to extrapolate the implications of, e.g., the series of images of besuited men labeled “venture capitalist,” and similarly you don’t have to work hard to roll your eyes at a twelve-year-old white girl in her suburban bedroom who couldn’t have found Afghanistan on a map squinting her eyes shut to fix the memory of Where I Was When the bad men came to attack American values.

And here I am now, passing the “Prepare for Brexit” signs posted at bus stops on my way to my office, having left the US after the morning when I eavesdropped on a businesswoman opening her conference call with appropriate solemnity (“We’re all a little quiet this morning…”) in the airport lounge en route to Japan, where the friendly Japanese man who led us in entirely the wrong direction off the top of Mount Inari shook his fist and said “Trump!” at us fiercely when we told him we had come from New York. I read about Leonard Cohen’s death a few days later in a coffee shop in Shimokitazawa. Does it matter? Do I matter? Time will tell.

we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

I can’t figure out why YouTube wants me to watch Carpool Karaoke and segments from the Ellen Show so badly. Most days, I watch two videos on YouTube: a yoga video from one of a few channels that I like, and one of two videos with a sequence of exercises for unlocking your lockjaw, both from a movie-handsome chiropractor who wears a wedding ring the size of a cuff scrounged from antiquity.

I know I should relax and learn to love the algorithm, but I don’t get it. I watched the Carpool Karaoke episode where they acted out “The Sound of Music” on the streets of L.A., and obviously I’ve watched every Taylor Swift interview Ellen has conducted, but beyond that, it’s all yoga and that chiropractor teaching me how to massage my suboccipitals, all the time.

(Pause to acknowledge how how precisely on-brand my YouTube tastes are. Second pause to glowingly recommend Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, which you should absolutely catch before it wins Best Picture in a few hours.)

Current working conspiracy theories:

  1. Nobody binge-watches yoga classes or chiropractic instruction videos (though I did unearth what might be a subculture for watching videos of other people having chiropractic adjustments; just leaving that nugget there for you all to chew on so I don’t have to keep doing it alone) and the algorithm is trying to point me to videos that I’m likelier to binge-watch. Counterpoint: The algorithm isn’t pointing me to videos from Tony Awards performances from the ’70s and ’80s, so why is it even bothering?
  2. The chiropractor’s channel is several helpful videos on at-home exercises to alleviate various ailments, from TMJ syndrome (the technical term for “I can’t open my mouth because I grind my teeth so ferociously that I’ve nearly bitten through my night guard”) to tennis elbow, and… a video hawking the benefits of not vaccinating your children. The algorithm, which resents my affinity for woo-woo, is subtly trying to point me back toward science. If only the algorithm could see the look on my disgruntled face right now as I listen to a child cry in my vicinity.
  3. If you seek relief through stress through yoga and movie-handsome chiropractor videos, and also you’ve watched the original Broadway cast of Les Mis perform “One Day More” at the 1987 Tonys more than three times, your innate character is one that wants to watch Carpool Karaoke. Lie back and think of England (James Corden’s accent will help).
  • The problem with #3 is my niggling paranoia that one day the Internet is going to disappear and I won’t be able to do anything anymore. I usually think about this when I’m spinning around in a circle on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the blue dot is telling me to walk, but sometimes I wonder whether I could even choose my own reading material if left to my own devices (or, more precisely, without them).
  • Do I even know what I like anymore? (I guess I’ve been pondering this for a while.) I immediately forget most of what I read. I’d been blaming it on my attention span, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I just hate most of what I read. I slept terribly all last week because I started Tana French’s latest on Monday and I kept staying up long past my bedtime — reading, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, what seemingly insignificant incident from my childhood triggered their presence? Also, are all murder detectives shrewd and pithy calculators who can sniff out human weakness like the tasting notes in a fine wine, or just Irish ones? Also, how do you pronounce Gardai?
  • Anyway, it’s been nice to remember that books can be good. There are also only fifteen or so albums that have been released in the past decade that I actually want to listen to over and over again. (All of them are “1989.” Kidding! Maybe! See footnote [1].) I dutifully listen to my Spotify New Release Radar every Friday, but little speaks to me.
  • I guess the problem is that taste is eclectic. I was going to say that my taste is eclectic, but that seems unfair to everyone else who is more mercurial than predictable about what they like and don’t, which I assume is most people. How do you square that with predictive recommendation algorithms?
  • I read the first four Harry Potter books upwards of 40 times each as a child and then, while I waited for the next three, tried and discarded the canon of derivative books about boy wizards (sorry, Artemis Fowl), then gave up entirely on fantasy as a genre until I read The Night Circus, following which I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to Erin Morgenstern. I love Tana French, yes, and I loved Gone Girl, but every subsequent entry into the unreliable-female-narrator genre is trash and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I am over misogyny as an artistic technique but I can’t stop reading Murakami, except 1Q84, which is a doorstop, not a novel, and I loved Super Sad True Love Story, though I hated Lake Success. I hit peak dystopia after the first Hunger Games and slogged through not only the rest of the trilogy but also the abominable Divergent series, which offended me so badly I swore off anything set in a future; but then the genre went highbrow, and I rolled my eyes but can’t say I wasn’t unmoored by Station Eleven (a book nobody should read until all cruise ships have been released from their coronavirus quarantines. Trust me) and Severance. I’ve already forgotten every novel I read in 2019 except Trust Exercise, even the ones that are also about bad people in positions of power, with and without clever plot devices. I’m a little devastated to admit that I think I’ve outgrown YA, though excited to eventually be ready to read Mrs. Dalloway.
  • TL;DR: My tastes are mercurial. I like books that speak to me. If I were to draw a thread between my favorite books, it’s protagonists that exist at a slight but impassable remove from reality: friendless boy wizards who make friends only to discover that friendlessness hardens into a character quality (cf. Harry Potter but also The Magicians), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition (Sweetbitter), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition even as they flee a global pandemic (Severance). I like books where the slight but impassable remove from reality is incidental, not the plot itself (ergo my dislike of Divergent, although I also prefer my books to read like they were edited at some point).
  • I’m not sure that’s a quality you can write into an algorithm. I like what I like.
  • So — where was I? YouTube’s seemingly baseless recommendations. I completely lost the plot there, didn’t I? How do I sew this back up into something? Conclusion: Art doesn’t need to be a buy-one-get-one situation; anomalies are precious. Half the reason I liked the Carpool Karaoke “Sound of Music” video was its sheer weirdness. No book that sets out trying to be Gone Girl can be as audacious. Dystopias were over before we entered into one. I’ve even developed an affinity for my anti-vax chiropractor and how he stares into my soul while he teaches me how to massage my masseter muscles. I don’t want YouTube to find me another chiropractor; I want YouTube to find me something radical that I can’t unsee. Is there a setting for that?
  • [1] 1989, yes, but also Badlands, 1000 Forms of Fear, Strange Desire, By The Way I Forgive You, Queen of the Clouds, 3 Rounds and a Sound, The Fool, Blue Neighbourhood… I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t think of them now.

woo-woo girls

I’ve always felt like a basic bitch trapped in a dweeb’s body. I don’t understand how I can waste so much time on Instagram and still not know how to buy clothes that fit, roundbrush my hair into beachy waves, interior-decorate, etc. Maybe it’s because I approach anything that’s not, e.g., reading Proust with a keening sense of shame and thus never learn to do it properly. The trouble is that I’ve also never read Proust, either, putting me in this liminal space where I have neither Instagram followers nor highfalutin lit-bro cred.

The other day I listened to a podcast about intuitive eating recommended by a friend and fellow-traveler on the used-to-count-the-calories-in-a-packet-of-baby-carrots journey, an interview with the dietitian Evelyn Tribole. I was walking to work and practically crawling out of my skin with fear that my headphones would fail and the other commuters would find out that I was listening to something so woo-woo.

(It happens. Every train commuter has experienced someone’s headphones getting yanked out of the jack so all the sudden everyone is listening to Papa Roach together before nine in the morning.)

I lean on my intellect like a crutch to make up for my failure to thrive as an artist, and ascribing value to anything that seems like it could have been on Goop feels off-brand. Case in point: A couple years ago a friend gave me his copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a cult favorite workbook for creative artists who feel “blocked.” Julia Cameron is woo-woo embodied. Her method is premised on reviving the creativity you were born with, before your parents and teachers and coaches shamed it out of you, and so there are lots of exercises like writing letters to your childhood self and your shitty dance teacher, and arts and crafts, yada yada.

It took me fully three tries to complete the thing. It worked. Having shelved my ancient grudges with my sophomore year dance teacher and whoever judged the submissions for Vassar’s senior creative writing seminar, I am now a font of creativity. I’ve written probably four novels’ worth of content in the past year (unfortunately it’s the same five chapters of one novel, over and over again…).

Yet I resent feeling like the caricature of a self-involved white woman, hell-bent on rearranging the universe to accommodate myself at the center. Every morning I hunch over my Julia Cameron-prescribed “morning pages,” a three-page, handwritten ramble of whatever’s on my mind (I hate my novel, I love my novel, I hate my job, I love my job, I hate living abroad, I love living abroad, I should learn to garden, don’t forget to buy toilet paper, etc., etc.), afraid that someone’s going to see me engaging in my interior life. I listened to the intuitive eating podcast while I walked to work, blisteringly aware of the irony of being one wealthy woman listening to another wealthy woman telling me how to coddle myself into being able to enjoy the culinary riches on offer in our rarefied world while I swerve to avoid tripping on the rough sleepers who shelter in tents on High Holborn.

Years ago, as a middling dancer at my performing arts high school, I made peace with my mediocrity by reminding myself that I was smarter than the girls who got cast when I didn’t. (It was a real blow to my ego when I went to Vassar and lost out on roles to girls who were blowing my undisciplined ass out of the water academically and artistically.) I’m not a successful artist. I’m still low-key obsessed with the idea of visible abs. I rationalize my failures by positing self-care as lowbrow.

And the only reason that I’m introspective enough to recognize any of this is because I did Julia Cameron three times!

P.S. Honestly, do Julia Cameron. She’s so good. I hate her. But she’s so good.

P.P.S. Now that I’ve finished self-flagellating, another woo-woo thing I’ve been really into lately is yin yoga videos on YouTube. Yin yoga is the kind of yoga where you hold poses for like a hundred years, until you’re so bored you want to claw your own eyes out. I think this is supposed to be good for your chill, or something. On my favorite channel, Yoga With Kassandra, you can even do yin yoga where you repeat “affirmations” to yourself, and when you’re done you feel so chillaxed that you forget that you’re a monumental waste of space.

michigan seems like a dream to me now

Not the kind of view you grow up on in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

In no particular order:

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

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

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

an office of one’s own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

try the grey stuff; it’s delicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

someone else’s mom’s minivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cleaning up bottles with you on new year’s day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you like it.

cybernetics for kinesthetics

This is part 4 of an ongoing series about technology. Previously, I justified my love of Instagram, felt nauseous about search engine optimization, and felt violated by targeted ads. You can stay tuned to this blog for more, or wait a few years for my Silicon Valley tell-all, All My Least Favorite People Went to Stanford.

I was troubled immeasurably by John Seabrook’s article about AI that writes

When I think about unpacking writing to its constituent biological processes, or to the rules of grammar and tone that comprise it, I feel nauseous like I do when I think about what’s outside of the universe, or God, or my most profoundly embarrassing moments. 

At best, my writing is Martha Graham’s quickening translated through me into action. Writing, when I do it well, isn’t something I think about; it’s something that I do with my body, as I did in my past life as a dancer. That writing might be something other than an incalculable force is anathema to the confidence that I’ve developed over the past several years since I first came to realize that there was, in fact, a thing that I was good at. 

Writing this essay was an out-of-body experience. I was 25 and absolutely wretched with despair. I was crawling with feelings and memories. I didn’t know where to put my rage and shame, nor did I know how to ask the world to pity me, and then finally I began to feel something bubbling up at the base of my skull, and I put my hands to the keyboard and then there was my heart, articulated. It was the first time I had felt powerful in months. It was the most powerful that I had felt. It was no biological process or series of instructions that a computer could execute; it was unfathomable. It was transcendent. 

In truth, I know that I, a writer, am a machine. I consume the New York Times Morning Briefing and Reddit threads about the misery of the Tube and I listen to my colleagues tell me all the ways in which they would do my job if they were me and I catch sight of a long-gone lover rock-climbing with his new girlfriend on Instagram and I scroll through movie reviews and restaurant reviews and gadget reviews email after email after email after email. What comes out the other end is one sheet from the multiverse, a dispatch from the version of me who crammed onto this morning’s Central Line to White City underneath the armpit of a man listening to a song that I haven’t heard since the long-gone lover played it for me in, for reasons that escape me, a parking lot. 

In the same way that baking is chemistry, and you can’t eyeball the baking powder, so is artistic expression. What I put on paper is the product of the precise number of hours I spent in the thrall of my A.P. English teacher in 2006 and the precise number of times that I’ve reread the first love letter I received as a semi-grown woman and the precise feeling I get when I forget that I’m brushing up against a stranger’s sweat, jostling for a grip as the train rattles from St Pauls to Bank, and remember instead that I live five thousand miles from where I was born. Had Mrs. Hampton retired five years earlier, I could be writing investigative journalism, not prose poems about the normal things I hate

What I create bears the mark of what I’ve consumed. And does that make me any different from a bot recapping the high school baseball season or a Russian troll farm regurgitating Stormfront in a Facebook ad? 

I like to think of myself as exalted. I’m an artist. You can’t teach an algorithm to feel where the commas go in its bones. I’ve never felt that my talent is explicable or that job, to speak bluntly, is at risk of being automated away. I don’t know where to put commas because I memorized Chicago; I know where to put commas because I feel it in my bones. I’ve made a career of putting commas in such a way that the person on the other end can’t help but feel what I’m feeling or buy what I’m selling. It’s a function of my being one with the commas. It’s innate.

But, then, how did I learn to drive? How did I learn to scale the shelves in the stockroom at the store where I worked in high school to restock a cartonful of shoes in the twenty minutes I had left before they stopped paying me whether or not I was done? Speeding down I-15 outside of Las Vegas, through the alien desert with mountains looming high above, is a task that a robot can do, but a joy that only a human can feel. Once, at the store, I fit a woman with half a foot missing for a pair of shoes; I held her damaged foot in my hand and we looked one another in the eye while she told me what she needed to be comfortable. 

It’s precious of me to imagine that being good at something that’s hard to teach makes me immune to the force of technology. I don’t get paid — yet — for the kind of writing that makes me really tick. And the writing I do get paid for can be such a slog that I might envy the robot that could dispassionately listen to the engineer line-editing my copy on the basis of his having once written for his college paper. (Perhaps we could train the robot to also dispassionately flag every time the engineer suggests language that is a little phallic for a technology marketing document. It, being neither a woman nor sentient, might get better results than I.) 

And yet. I write because I think it’s the best thing I have to offer the world, but I also write because it’s the best thing the world has to offer me. I can live with the idea that I might never drive a car again. I can’t live with the idea that one day holding a pen and scratching it on paper or letting my fingers fly along the keyboard might be quaint, that my naked human prose might not pass muster next to the output of a machine that has read more of Proust than I have. (Which is none, as long as I’m offering up naked human prose.) 

I want desperately to make a career of letting people see themselves in what I write and I’m scared to think that I might be up against not just the army of Buzzfeed listicle writers who have bafflingly landed book deals and an industry that only buys knockoffs of Gone Girl, but… robots. Or, more specifically, the decay of attention devoted to good writing. Machines can get the job of imparting information done. You can call it utilitarian, but what’s to say that writing — mine, or anyone’s — is more than that? 

It’s rich to claim that what I exude when I’m feeling productive is unique or valuable. You could, as Seabrook finds, mix up the same ingredients in another pot, and the consumer might be one the wiser. So who am I to imagine or even wish for a stop to the technology that so inexorably marches over what others hold as dear as I do writing? 

roaring twenties

Ten years is a long time. Given that, it’s really shocking I made it through my twenties without being offered cocaine even once. Granted, I was invited to join several book clubs, and that’s a little more my speed (no pun intended) anyway, but still. Unless I crank (no pun intended) up my nightclub attendance in the three days left before I turn thirty, it seems that that ship has sailed. Pick up a coke habit in your thirties and the next thing you know Jay McInerney is writing your life story. Thanks, but no thanks.

I thought of this in reflecting on all that I accomplished in my twenties. The only things that came to mind were debauchery. Not because I’m especially wild — I wasn’t kidding about the book clubs — but because that’s what I thought my twenties were for. Landed a coveted job? Visited the world’s great cities? Contributed regularly to a retirement account? Sure, but what about the time I walked into the house I grew up in at eight in the morning and puked in the kitchen sink? It was the summer after I graduated from college; I was 22 and sleeping in my childhood bedroom in Las Vegas. I woke up every morning to the Moulin Rouge poster I bought in Paris when I was sixteen looming over me. The teenagers next door had a garage band that only knew “Seven Nation Army” and “Smoke on the Water.” They practiced every afternoon.

It was 2011. I had a degree in English and a part-time job selling shoes and sometimes I’d be invited to the Strip or to one of the old casinos downtown where the other patrons mostly looked like if they didn’t have skin cancer yet it was only because they hadn’t checked. We’d play penny slots and tip dollars on the watered-down vodka sodas the cocktail waitresses brought us and eventually we’d end up in the hotel suite someone’s friend’s friend had been comped or, once, in the living room in one of those chi-chi apartment lofts downtown. It was furnished in bachelor-chic with a record player and a cherry-red metal bookshelf or whatever you buy when you don’t actually like books but there were still meth deals going on in the street outside, so we slept on the couch until the sun rose and it was safe to creep to our cars.

I woke with cotton in my mouth and couldn’t stop myself staring at the man standing outside the parking garage where I’d left my Honda who looked uncannily like Santa Claus, had Santa Claus stopped off in Walter White’s trailer on his way back to the North Pole. Then I drove home and threw up in the kitchen sink before I spent eleven hours at the shoe store where I worked getting my fingers trampled by three-year-olds in tap shoes.

A year later I was making a salary and sipping champagne — okay, it was probably Prosecco, but the point is that it wasn’t Arbor Mist, and I wasn’t chugging — at the company holiday party. Sometimes I feel like I cut myself off too early. I loved being 22 and playing at being wild. I was bookish, had always been bookish, and I wanted not to be. I wanted to be carefree. I wanted to be fun. I wanted someone to offer me cocaine! (I have no real interest in doing cocaine. Last year I drank two cups of Swedish coffee before boarding a plane and I spent the whole flight wondering if I should call for the defibrillator. I just wanted someone to look at me and know that I was fun.)

I think I spent my twenties just as I should have: trying on the costumes of people I thought it might be fun to be. Most weren’t. Being thin meant I was moody and my hair fell out and I couldn’t drink at parties. Dating older men meant being criticized for my immaturity. (If I relate only one pearl of wisdom to my younger sisters, let it be that when your 33-year-old boyfriend tries to shame you, a 24-year-old, for being childish, instead of apologizing, consider suggesting that he not date someone nine years his junior. Honestly!) Auditioning for musicals meant… auditioning for musicals. That one lasted for about ten minutes before I realized that while the normal job hunt might be just as much an affront to my dignity, at least I only had to do it once. Going out drinking meant vomiting in the kitchen sink; going out dancing meant getting other people’s sweat in my hair.

I thought it might be fun to be thin and glamorous and to exist on champagne and air and to sleep in the afternoons and dance in the evenings, or maybe to be gritty and hustling, showing up in the casting room and building out my “book,” living in Astoria and hauling down to the Bell House on the G train (and thin. Every fantasy life I live out begins with being thin).

It turns out what I actually want is to sleep eight hours a night, preferably nine. Pretty much above all else. And what that requires is working a nine-to-five that pays enough to fund the occasional cab home from the Bell House because Lord help me if I’m going to lose out on sleep because I waited thirty minutes for the G train. It requires eating enough that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating out of my chest, which in turn requires that I can live without thigh gap. It requires reading quietly in the evenings, not dancing, and drinking tea, not booze. (It turns out that I was born to be bookish.)

I think I did enough this decade to be okay with this. I crammed a lot in. Mostly just scrolling through Twitter, yeah, but also, I rear-ended a cab driver, walked out on a Tinder date who chain-smoked three cigarettes in my face, played Val in “A Chorus Line,” visited New Zealand, saw the original cast of Hamilton, voted for a woman for president, partied at the Bellagio with Australian tourists, climbed an Alp, got harassed on Twitter, got harassed on the street, sort of learned to cook, rode a bicycle through a hailstorm, and did I mention I saw the original cast of Hamilton? I kept busy.

I don’t regret much. I regret rear-ending that cab driver (it was his second accident that week!). I regret not trying to clean the limescale off my shower floor before the week before we moved out. Sometimes I wish I’d pressed on with trying to be an actress. Mostly I’m excited for everything else I’m yet to do. Can you believe I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon? That I don’t know how to use Microsoft Excel? The list of books I haven’t read alone is enough to keep me occupied until I die, may that be far enough into the future that I don’t ascend to heaven without having read Mrs. Dalloway.

I haven’t made any special plans for my thirties. Keep on keeping on, I guess. Every so often I look up and marvel that I’m still working for the company that hired me when I was 22. Taking that job sent me spinning off my axis. I had always cringed at the idea of a desk job; I got lucky with one that has sent me to the corners of the Earth and taught me to be curious and skeptical. I thought I’d be itinerant for longer than I was and I feel faintly jealous of my friends who still are, but there’s more than one way to be itinerant. I expect to spend my thirties as I spent the back half of my twenties: as impetuously and spontaneously as a hyper-anxious stick-in-the-mud can manage. I’ll move again. I’ll travel more. I’ll forget to text my friends that I’m visiting from overseas until I show up and beg them to cancel their plans that evening so we can have dinner. I might start using eye cream, but it’s probably going to be another limescale-in-the-shower situation. I’ll read more books and maybe I’ll write one. I’ll get better at cooking, and I have this vague idea that I’m going to learn to play the piano. Who knows? I have plenty of time.