thirty, hurty, and dying

In two months I’ll turn thirty. On Instagram, my friends are celebrating their own thirtieths with oversized 3-0 balloons and bachelorette-style nights out with sashes, recording lash-batting, foot-popping Boomerangs, with cute hashtags to boot. Meanwhile, I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other in an ergonomic clog.

That’s an exaggeration. I haven’t bought clogs yet. Speaking frankly, though, there are six things very wrong with my life*:

  1. I haven’t been able to move my back properly since January.
  2. I regularly pull a muscle in my butt by walking wrong.
  3. I get a migraine if I so much as look at a third beer.
  4. I get heartburn when I eat anything but raw vegetables…
  5. …but when I eat raw vegetables my jaw gets stuck shut.
  6. There is a Grand Canyon-sized wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.

 

It’s enough to make a girl go full Gwyneth Paltrow. I scoffed for a long time at the concept of wellness, but you only have to stumble through so many days with a low-grade migraine before you’re ready to stuff precious stones wherever GOOP tells you to.

I jest. (Kind of. Has anyone tried the jade egg thing? Because seriously, Excedrin Migraine isn’t doing a thing for me anymore.) But thirty is weird. We decided recently to extend our stint in Europe and I keep catching myself thinking that by the time we return, we’ll have missed all the fun, as if when everyone has turned thirty-three they’ll have retreated into the suburbs with their babies, never to be seen again. Or that I only have so many glasses of wine left to drink before the migraines fully take over, or that my back is going to grow stiffer and stiffer until they have to carry me out of economy class on a stretcher.

Work doesn’t help. My colleagues who haven’t yet attended their five-year college reunions are always tagging me in Slack channels and Quip documents, channels so ephemeral that they might as well be sky-writing. “If you want me to do something for you,” I want to say, “you need to carve it for me on a stone tablet and hang it around the neck of a carrier pigeon.” But no, I just apologize for the delay, busy week, I have to do thirty minutes of yoga every night if I want to get out of bed the next morning and it’s really eating into the time I would otherwise spend learning how to organize my Quip notifications.

Once, the only time I worried about what my hair looked like was in the morning before I left the house, or when I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. (Or when passing a building with reflective windows. Or when I had an especially large spoon. Or any reflective surface at all. Whatever.) Now I spend half my day in meetings saying things like “Not really in sync” or “Can we just table that for now?” or “Can we just table that for now until we’re more in sync?” And although you’d think I couldn’t look myself in the eye when I sound like such a raging douchebag, all I can do in a videoconference is stare at my little self-view in the corner and either admire my dewy visage or gawk in horror at how the gash-like wrinkle in my forehead is increasingly resembling a Harry Potter scar. During particularly contentious meetings, or when someone with a computer science degree starts to correct my grammar, I can literally watch it deepen.

I’m facing down the barrel of living in this body for the rest of my life. When I was nineteen and soft all I needed was a McDonald’s hash brown to buck me up after a night of drinking or twenty minutes with an ice pack to get me back at the barre, pulled muscle and all. I was preoccupied by the immediate concerns of the body: I needed a haircut. I needed to learn to apply foundation properly. My belly didn’t look like the bellies in Women’s Health. My calves were sore. My quads were sore. My clothes were hopeless. Things that I thought, dwelled on, and then immediately forgot; things that resolved themselves or that I resolved myself to. This wrinkle down my forehead? It’s not resolving.

As a dancer I bounced back from one injury after another. A summer of physical therapy here, a Nutcracker season with my shins sheathed in Ace bandages there; it was always traumatic for a day or two (as if a case of shin splints were the only thing that could keep me from a career in ballet) but a month later I’d have forgotten entirely. Now? Stick me in a hotel with a bad mattress for three days and three months later, I still can’t crack my back without a twinge to remind me that the Swiss don’t know how to build a bed properly. I used to think warming up before working out was just for those sad people who can’t touch their toes. That was before I spent eight weeks in physical therapy doing butt lifts! (“Glute bridges.” I’m sorry, Doctor Mike.)

I’ve long awaited the day when I could look back at the body I’ve fought against for so long and think of how grateful I should have been for its agility, its resilience, its lack of Moses-having-parted-the-Red-Sea-down-the-middle-of-my-forehead, blah blah, etc., etc. That day hasn’t come. I have some time yet.

That’s what terrifies me the most. “The rest of my life” is an awfully long time to live with knees that twinge when you jog, with an esophagus that will let you know when you’ve eaten one French fry too many, with blood vessels that slacken and send the alcohol straight to my brain to slosh around and throb for days on end. It’s an awfully long time to live regardless, in a world that’s getting steadily worse or at least whose worseness is getting steadily louder. I can’t say the phrase “self-care” aloud without cringing at myself but I can understand it. I do yoga; I drink tea; I take vitamins.

It’s easier to look at aging as a matter of the body. The body is not ephemeral. The body endures. Its component parts can live on after death; even scientists with scalpels will leave behind something that needs to be incinerated; even ashes need to be scattered. Last week I read a New Yorker article about a paleontologist shaving away silt in North Dakota to discover fish, frozen in amber with its jaws — gills — outstretched, gasping madly, at the moment it and the dinosaurs died:

“The block told the story of the impact in microcosm. ‘It was a very bad day,’ DePalma said. ‘Look at these two fish.’ He showed me where the sturgeon’s scutes—the sharp, bony plates on its back—had been forced into the body of the paddlefish. One fish was impaled on the other. The mouth of the paddlefish was agape, and jammed into its gill rakers were microtektites—sucked in by the fish as it tried to breathe. DePalma said, ‘This fish was likely alive for some time after being caught in the wave, long enough to gasp frenzied mouthfuls of water in a vain attempt to survive.’”

The body endures. That fish probably didn’t anticipate serving as the key to understanding the extinction of the dinosaurs. (That fish probably didn’t anticipate.) I don’t expect my body to be my legacy. I dream of writing novels so popular that the diaries I’ll have released upon my death will be my legacy. The idea that something so crude as my body could be the only thing I leave behind disturbs. But approaching thirty, all that will reliably survive me are my organs, and those only if I start remembering to swap my contact lenses out more often.

The thing about thirty is that I’m not sure whether to be horrified at how much time I’ve wasted or at how much I have yet to endure. For the first three decades of my life it was enough to live. I had only to wake up every day and stagger through it. Now I have to take vitamins and contribute to my 401k; now I have to plug away at the long-suffering draft of my novel. There is only so much time left, and I might spend all of it trying out anti-TMJ facial massage techniques from YouTube.

The noble thing, now that my youth is finally starting to fleet, would be to abandon the burderns of the body and turn fully to the mind. Now is the time to give up SoulCycle and the vain attempts to be a forty-year-old with six-pack abs — yes, this is exactly like how that one time I had shin splints sidelined my whole ballet career — and spend my time writing instead. The cretaceous fish is proof positive that the body will take care of itself. My oeuvre will not. Of course, in putting off trying to think of a conclusion to this piece, I opened the New Yorker and the third sentence I read was this: “I think anyone who spends his life working to become eligible for literary immortality is a fool.”

This was Harold Brodkey, who I had never heard of before but who apparently spent his entire career publishing things that weren’t the book he won his first contract for in 1964. 24 years later he told New York magazine that he “[writes] like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered,” which is a good way to punt worrying about your legacy, if you ask me. I intend to be posthumously discovered; I intend to donate my estate; I intend to be buried in a carbon-neutral fashion; I intend to stagger through the rest of my days assuming my dreams will play out once I’m no longer around to get in their way. Until then, I’ll put on sunscreen every morning and Aquafor at night. I’ll take magnesium and a Tums with my wine. I’ll do my glute bridges before I jog. I’ll endure.

 

*If you caught that reference, I’ll buy you a drink.

blue period

When I was little, growing up in Las Vegas, I liked to name the colors I saw outside. I had the jumbo box of Crayolas, and I reacted almost synesthetically when they named the colors right. Cerulean made me tingle. It was blue like I’d never seen before, blue like they don’t have in the desert or even in the ocean off Mission Beach, and the name was like the fairytale kingdoms that I used to write stories about in my piles of spiral notebooks. Asparagus made me nauseous and so did its eponym (and anyway, jungle green was the only green that mattered). Robin’s-egg blue was pretty but predictable; razzmatazz was cheap and trashy.

When my aunt used to visit from Santa Barbara we’d walk slow through the Red Rock and name every color we saw. It was how I tolerated the Mars-red desert, so beautiful and alien from my fluorescent everyday that I could hardly stand it. This is still how I respond to beauty: I feel it overtake me and then I want to make it mine. Looking isn’t enough. I want to bottle the second act of Giselle and eat the vista of fir trees that blanket the German Alps and stash the gold foil of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in my pocket for later.

I started taking ballet classes because I thought it would make me feel how I felt when I watched the Nevada Ballet dancers in their tutus on the stage at the university. (It did, and once every two years when I take class nowadays it still does, even when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and remember that like Jody Sawyer, I wasn’t born with turnout.) Dance gave me what I lost from music after a prodigiously talented sixth-grader swooped in and stole the first chair from me in the Becker Middle School orchestra. I was all set to be indignant, but then he started to practice Bach’s Cello Suites, and I forgot for a moment what anger even was. I don’t suppose there was much I could do to come back from the shame of being in the middle school orchestra but even so, I was unwilling to risk it by doing something so gauche as actually watching him, so instead I looked at my shoes and flicked my eyes leftward every so often to peek at him hunched over his cello, sawing and swaying like it was part of his body.

I wanted to play like that too and sometimes when I practiced, when no one was home, I would try to sway my body along with “La Cinquantaine.” But it didn’t work for me. The music didn’t live in my bones like it lived in his. I swallowed the desire and stared at my shoes and told my friends stories about “Weird Cello Boy” who moved his body in time with his bow like he was possessed. That was the same year I started ballet in earnest and in time, I began to feel the beauty I craved in my bones.

I see a lot of beautiful things these days. I live in Europe now, and one of my favorite things to do in a new city is to visit its museums. I grew up with a print of “Starry Night” on my bathroom wall, and I was nine when the Bellagio hotel opened in my hometown of Las Vegas and I saw Monets from Steve Wynn’s collection for the first time. Las Vegas is a grim place to learn about beauty, but the Bellagio was a game-changer. I had never seen simple rooms like the ones the Impressionists painted, wood floors and iron bedposts and windows that flung open onto vistas of endless corn.

I drank it in and then puberty hit and I forgot all about visual art, losing myself instead in the sweet release of dance. Then a decade later at Vassar, I steered clear of art history because it was the domain of the lank-haired girls with New York private school pedigrees and coke habits (also, I was afraid I’d fall asleep every day). Today I can’t get enough. Travel can be overwhelming and art compresses it into something I can understand.

I thought a lot about art and how I digest it when I was reading what turned out to be my favorite book from last year, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. The protagonist Selin is a college freshman and the book is mostly about her experiencing sublimity for the first time. Life becomes overwhelming, and art (and semiotics) compresses it into something she can understand.

I remember vividly how the raw emotion of young adulthood, the wringer of heartbreak, betrayal, watching the US bomb the shit out of the Middle East, etc., gave way to realizing other people felt those emotions too, and that art was what they did to make them manifest. I nearly lost my mind several times during AP English my senior year of high school. I tucked a printout of “Good Country People” into the back of a textbook to read during a lecture I found boring, and I was so overcome by the ending that I got up from my desk and walked down the hall to find my English teacher and flap my arms at her until she sent me back to class. This teacher also read us “The Hollow Men” out loud one day and I remember that she looked almost sly during the final lines, as if she knew already what she’d see when she looked up after the end (“not with a bang, but a whimper”). I guess she’d been teaching for long enough to expect twenty slack-jawed seventeen-year-olds looking at her like she’d just elucidated, I don’t know, string theory. It was 2006. We were bombing Iraq and life was very long besides. We were all too aware of the Shadow.

Years later, I learned the word “sublime.” I don’t know philosophy well and maybe I’m perverting the definition, but this is how I think of sublimity, as my urge to shake myself free of what “Good Country People” means about humanity or my fear that the silence following “The Hollow Men” would never end.

I had forgotten about the idea of the sublime until I read The Idiot. There’s a scene where Selin and her friend Svetlana, who are eighteen or nineteen, take up standing in front of paintings for thirty minutes at a stretch. It’s the kind of thing I used to do as a child — I recall distinctly sitting on the toilet for far longer than I needed to stare at that “Starry Night” print on the wall opposite — and the kind of thing I’ve forgotten to do now that I’m an adult, and busy, and living in a time when everything is ephemeral (the algorithmic timeline) but nothing disappears (the LiveJournal whose password I’ve forgotten). I think about my taste more than I act on it, and I’m ashamed by how I’ve gone to some fifteen European museums in the past year and yet all I want to do is beeline to the paintings that look most like Monet.

Last summer I went to a Picasso exhibit at the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, next to the sea at Humlebæk. It was mostly his ceramics, and they were charming and I sent photos to my friend who likes when human faces appear on inanimate objects, but I was more interested in the tiny photos of his blue paintings on the timeline of his life pasted to the wall in one of the side rooms. If I had gone to the Picasso Museum when I visited Paris last year instead of spending 45 minutes in line for a galette across the street at Cafe Breizh, I might already have known about his “Blue Period.” In my defense, it was a really good galette, and I had already been through the emotional wringer of walking through Shakespeare & Co. to the sound of some hipster playing The Killers (the default soundtrack for every Las Vegas whose youth was a) misbegotten and b) in the early 2000s) on one of the bookstore pianos and then leaving only to see Notre Dame rising above the Seine through a strand of Edison-bulb Christmas lights, and I think maybe if I’d seen the Blue Period at that juncture I might have had to Javert myself straight off the Pont-Neuf.

Paris, Notre-Dame from outside Shakespeare & Co.
Not pictured: Me, feeling every feeling I’ve ever felt

The Blue Period paintings remind me of when I traveled to New Zealand for business in 2015. I was in a blue period of my own, and for two weeks I went jogging every morning along the Oriental Bay listening to Halsey and Sia. The water was the cerulean blue I only ever saw in crayons as a child, and that Halsey song “Colors” kept looping on my Spotify (“everything is blue, his pills, his hands, his jeans”). It was synchronistic, and poignant, and I felt grateful to have seen cerulean in real life but in utter disarray nonetheless.

Later I was ashamed to have been so sent by the synchrony between a teenager’s pop song and the ocean, which is probably the most pedestrian natural thing you can find to be moved by. I was ashamed again, in Humlebæk, to be ignoring Picasso’s little-seen, avant-garde ceramics so I could wax emotional over something so literal as blue standing in for sadness. And I’m ashamed every time I try and fail to make eye contact with a Basquiat or one of those wacky Pop Surrealist paintings that give me nightmares.

But lately, I’ve felt inclined to treat myself more generously. I feel so anxious to take in all the culture that Europe has to offer while I live here that I trot through museums staring at paintings that make me ill instead of standing like I want to in front of Woman with a Parasol until I will myself into a field in Argenteuil. Reading about Selin and Svetlana reminded me that I can still access the sublime, and that to do so requires giving myself over to it. There’s no point in giving myself over to something that doesn’t move me and no use in trying to be moved by something for the sake of performing sophistication.

I have also wanted lately to put away my camera and to feel sublimity in my bones again, not through a lens, to listen to what my body tells me about beauty rather than to try to measure it in likes. I put on my ballet slippers for the first time in a few years the other week and eased my way through a barre, and I remembered how it felt to be giving beauty back to the world.

I guess we’re all feeling this these days, in our collective awakening to the destructive forces of technology. I don’t think taking photos to satisfy the hunger that beauty evokes in me is any better or worse than naming the colors I see in the desert. It’s all just one means after another of negotiating my place in the world, and I’d argue that even looking at the world through my cracked iPhone lens I’m still better off than this French art thief who tried to cat burgle his way into taming his hunger for the sublime. Though Lord help me the next time I’m in Paris if I’m feeling as delicate as I was the last time. Give me another dose of acoustic piano, Camembert crepes, Gothic cathedrals, and my favorite Crayola crayon color that also reminds me of being 25 and heartsick and I might just have to grab the “Sleepy Drinker” and run.

queen of the road

Ten minutes into my first solo trip as a licensed driver, I got stuck in a parking lot. I had chosen a spot in the corner that was open only because everyone else knew better than to try it, a fact I discovered when I started to back out and realized that there were cars where mine needed to be. I hyperventilated for a couple minutes and then executed a sort of fifteen-point turn while the other suburbanites who needed to visit the Wells Fargo before it closed at five honked at me. The wind, needless to say, was not in my hair.

It was a rude but ultimately apt introduction to the reality of driving. Parking would prove to be my Achilles’ heel. My ‘98 Honda Accord, a hand-me-down from my father, bore the scars of my unusually bad depth perception. The scrape on my driver’s-side door is from the basement garage in my apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, where I lived — along with an army of GW postgrads in salmon shorts — for two years. I retired from driving shortly after I scraped my car against one of the dozens of poles that, I swear to God, popped up in the garage like Whack-a-Mole. You’d be backing your car out, certain of clearance on every side, when BAM! There goes your paint job.

One of the rites of passage at my urban high school was to sneak off campus for lunch. It was the height of glamour to throw out your Port of Subs wrapper as ostentatiously as possible in front of the suckers on the quad eating a peanut butter sandwich that had been flattened under a history textbook since six A.M. I was, as a rule, one of the suckers, except the one time that I let myself be convinced to drive three of us down Charleston and through the drive-thru at Los Tacos, where my classmate splayed herself across my lap to order for us in Spanish. It was seamless — and the tacos were delicious — until we arrived back at campus and realized the fly in the ointment, which was that the only place to surreptitiously re-park your car midday was on the street at the far edge of campus.

I had passed my driving test only because I was the last candidate of the day and my examiner couldn’t be bothered to get out and check my parallel parking job. To be fair, parallel parking isn’t a skill you really need in Las Vegas, land of the warehouse-sized parking lots, unless you’re trying to pull off basically the only bad thing you’ve done in your high school career without side-swiping the choir teacher’s Honda in the process. We finally resorted to a sort of combination airport tarmac/life coach situation where one of my classmates got out and guided me into a spot while the other one sat in the passenger seat and talked me through it. It was only the woeful underfunding of Clark County School District — and its attendant lack of security around our campus — that saved us. But some twelve years later, I still haven’t successfully parallel parked a car.

And of course there was the gouge on the bumper, from a few years after high school ended, when I drove clear to the other side of town because my high school crush invited me over. I was twenty-one, and I knew better, but seventeen-year-old me couldn’t let the opportunity slide. We played a round of Scrabble and fooled around for a while and then I got in my car and made a U-turn that crossed into the path of an automatic gate’s sensor and then there was a terrible scraping noise and there went my bumper. All at once I realized how many mistakes I’d just made, and I whacked my hands on the steering wheel wondering: What kind of automatic gate opens inward? How sad of a sad sack do you have to be to go running clear across town just to prove, years on, that you could have made it with that guy from sixth period chemistry? Why, but why, did we play Scrabble?

I drove all the way from Henderson feeling like an utter fool, back to my parents’ house in Summerlin, where I made up a story about a shopping cart that went astray and swore that I’d take the whole episode to the grave. Since then, that high school crush has unfriended me on Facebook, had a baby, and gotten married — in that order — so the gouge on my bumper will have to do. (I resold the car to a friend who, had I consulted her, would surely have raised one eyebrow high enough that I’d have thought better, hung the keys back up, and stayed home alone on my couch. But then how would seventeen-year-old me have made her peace?)  

It was a relief to give up driving shortly before I moved to New York. I wasn’t very good at it, and I found owning a car stressful. But I had never felt control like I did after I got my driver’s license. I think often about how as a teenager, with adulthood in plain sight, the mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley began to close in on me. Behind the wheel, I felt for the first time that I had the agency to escape them.

That sensation was never keener than when I sat in traffic on my way home from school. On days when I had too much to feel, I liked to take the surface streets home so I could wallow in the belly of the mountains and imagine what it would be like to drive beyond them. The Postal Service was on rotation in my CD player (“I want so badly to believe / That there is truth and love is real”) and for as long as I could sit in traffic I could sit alone with my feelings, with no one there to judge me or mock me or, God forbid, try to comfort me.

Learning to drive was the freest I’d felt — but it wasn’t the first I’d felt free. That came the summer I turned thirteen, the summer I spent palling around with a group of friends who I didn’t jibe with as well as I wanted to. I was still a mouthy little Poindexter who couldn’t keep it together when there was an opportunity to correct someone’s pronunciation or offer up a fact. None of us were cool but the others had figured out chill while I bumbled, stuck on desperate.

It was a humbling summer. But it was the summer that I began to understand what it was to create a life of my own. I ran out the door at ten and the day was mine, all mine, to buy candy with my allowance or spray myself with strawberry-scented glitter in the Bath and Body Works sample aisle or make a fool of myself in front of a boy. I was home again at eight, sure, but it was enough to glimpse what it would be like to live as I pleased.

It was a summer on wheels. The boys rode skateboards, and I was struck recently by a clear memory of me, on a bicycle, grinding up a hill that felt like a mountain, then sailing back down it like I was unstoppable. (A few years later — the years between thirteen and sixteen, which might as well be a lifetime — I was astonished to realize in my car that the “Great Hill” was barely a grade.)

I half wonder if I’ve conjured this memory. It seems impossible now that we could stand gripping our black rubber-coated handlebars under the August sun, like we didn’t need the skin on our palms. And I was hopelessly clumsy, and my body was just beginning to give way to the softness that I would quickly learn to hate. I can picture myself tripping after the other girls in my gang while they rode their Razor scooters up and down the sidewalks. I knew better than to let myself be seen on one of those. (Those colleagues at the software company where I work who are reading this may note that they have never seen me on one of our ubiquitous Razor scooters. To which I say: It’s enough to get you all to take me seriously once you find out I was an English major. We don’t need to complicate things with a head-over-feet-through-a-glass-conference-room-door situation.)  

I can’t imagine myself, at thirteen, on a bicycle. Nor do I have a photo or even much of a memory, but what I do remember is the hill, how daunting it was on two wheels, and then how simple it felt on four. At thirteen, when it was the indignity of begging a ride from my mother or a walk in the hundred-and-ten degree Vegas heat, my bicycle felt like a pair of wings. At sixteen, when the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley closed in on me like prison walls, the wheel beneath my hands felt like power.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the jarring experience of moving abroad. I felt impotent: Simple tasks like visiting the dentist or buying pants hangers became insurmountable obstacles, and so instead I sat on the couch and wondered if pants hangers would appear in my closet if I wished hard enough. I felt trapped, keenly aware that my residence permit was tied to a job that I vacillated between loving and resenting. I felt, frankly, like a teenager. The world was at my feet but my feet wouldn’t move… until I bought a bicycle.

Buying a bicycle in Copenhagen is like getting a driver’s license in high school. You imagine that you’ll hop on the seat and all the sudden you’ll be willowy and blonde and wearing a maxidress that will flow behind you like a wave while you somehow don’t flash your unglamorous bike shorts at the whole King’s Garden as you pass, and you’ll put flowers in your basket to carry home to your monochrome apartment that isn’t full of dead succulents. I thought, similarly, that once I drove to high school, I’d roll out of my car looking like the girls who flounced down the hall every morning with car keys in one hand and a Frappuccino in the other. I’d know how to tease my hair. I’d pull off smoky eyes. (I have never pulled off smoky eyes.)

So, predictably, there I was on the sidewalk outside the bicycle shop, paddling along like a penguin. The prospect of picking both feet up off the ground and pedaling myself voluntarily into the sea of svelte blondes racing by in their monochrome best was unthinkable. I was flashing back to 1996 and the cul-de-sac where my dad pleaded with me to let him take off the training wheels. To 2005 and the empty parking lot where my dad pleaded with me to pull out into the street. To 2012, the rack of Razor scooters lining the halls of my startup-style office, and the security camera whose operators could be sweet-talked into giving up screenshots of anyone who biffed in front of them.

But what I found when I finally willed myself into the bike lane was a revelation. No, I still can’t tie a scarf around my neck so it will flow behind me in the breeze without it looking like it’s there to keep my head in place, but I can get anywhere. You can reach the hippest places in Copenhagen by bus, sure, if you want to wait for one to show up and then bump along through traffic while the rest of the city sails past på cykel. Or you can climb on your bicycle and sail along with them. In minutes you’re out of the cloying, candy-colored tourist center, laying in the grass outside a converted warehouse with a glass of natural wine in hand, or pulling off your shoes to wade into the sea. I rode up and down the coast and underneath the planes landing at Amager. I clanked along the cobblestones until my teeth rattled. I weaved around tourists and flicked my bell like a truck driver laying on the horn on the highway. I felt that the world was my oyster again.

On wheels I feel like a cyborg. I am myself, but more capable. I can go where I could before but faster, on my own terms, on my own timeline. I am no longer standing shoulder to shoulder with every other twentysomething in Astoria on an N train that stopped halfway to Queensboro Plaza twenty minutes ago, or pondering the physics of air travel in a fiberglass tube that’s hurtling through the sky like a speedboat. I control my own destiny. I’m not carsick or airsick or cursing my mother for setting the cruise control two miles below the speed limit. I’m not stuck behind a tourist taking photos with their iPad. I’m not waiting, perpetually, until the icebergs melt and the mountains erode, for the G train.

At thirteen, at sixteen, and at 29 all I wanted was freedom. A vehicle is not a panacea. I got my driver’s license and I still couldn’t get myself out of a parking lot. I can’t ride my Danish bicycle to Williamsburg to meet my girlfriends for karaoke on Friday night. I could write a letter as lovelorn as this one to the subway, and I could live happily without owning a car again in my lifetime, but it’s the principle of the thing and what it gave me at sixteen when the world was closing in around me. Freedom, to me, is to know that I can get up and go. Wheels are what I need to do it.

 

hej hej to all that

The Italian girls in my Danish class are beside themselves that I’ve left New York. “Jeg kommer fra New York,” I say, hacking up the “fra” like it’s 2003 and I’m in the front row of French I with Madame H________. Better to sound French than to sound American.

“Then why are you here?” asks the girl from Bologna, who twenty minutes into the first class accused me of being a ringer for having shown up already knowing the secret Danish vowels. I suspect we wouldn’t have been friends as children, and that we won’t be friends now, since I’m still the kind of Hermione Granger whose hand shoots up first to show off what I studied before class. (I cringe, because old habits die hard, but it’s not my fault that nobody else thought to look up “how to speak Danish” on YouTube before they showed up today.)

Why am I here? I laugh at this. My New York friends think it’s impossibly exotic that I’ve moved to Europe. I imagine for the Schengen Europeans in my class it’s as humdrum as moving from Los Angeles to New Orleans or Philadelphia to Seattle, enough to trigger some tax mistakes that will be expensive in a decade but not enough to trigger culture shock. Meanwhile, I still don’t know how to pronounce the name of the street I live on. Or schedule a dentist appointment. Or a haircut. Or find travel-size bottles of contact lens solution. Or pants hangers. Or tempeh. Or peanut butter that doesn’t get that weird slick of oil at the top. Or a top sheet. I guess it’s exotic, if your idea of “exotic” is “buying six bottles of travel-size contact lens solution every time you set foot in an American airport.”

During our coffee break, the Italian girls rhapsodize about the machinelike Danish healthcare apparatus. In Italy, they tell me, if you want to see the doctor, you show up at seven A.M. and wait with all the nonnas until the doctor deigns to see you. I shudder. I suppose beyond the miracle of appointment scheduling they find the city drab.

I studied Italian in college, and I imagine Danish must horrify the Italian girls. What I love about Italian is its languor – every consonant gets its due, even when there are two in a row, and syllables are tacked onto words for seemingly no reason other than to make them longer. It’s a full-bodied language with hand gestures to match, so musical that opera seems its natural extension.

Danish, on the other hand, sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball. “Reduction,” the practice of eliding words used in combination, means that several common phrases actually just sound like when you’re trying to talk to the dentist. (“Jeg er amerikaner” – I am American – comes out “Jaaahh amerikaaaaaaahhh.” It’s an apt description of being American in 2018, but undignified nonetheless.)

This doesn’t matter, of course, since every Dane speaks English and probably a few other languages on top of that. In fact, the second lesson in my Danish coursebook teaches languages, nationalities, and numbers through an exercise where you describe the number of languages the book’s characters speak. Marco and Barbara and Helle and King Jones (a real character, who is allegedly from England, and who now works at Novo Nordisk, which feels like subtle Danish commentary on monarchy in the modern era) all of course speak English, but they also speak fransk and spansk and japansk and some of then even speak tysk. I am grateful to have practiced my Danish vowels before I showed up for day one, even if it means that the Italian girls all hate me, because otherwise I might have to slink out in shame on behalf of my people.

In fact, I frequently feel shame on behalf of my people. Every night when I wake up sweating because there are no air conditioners in Northern Europe, I feel shame, and then I roll over and Google “why are there no air conditioners in europe” (answer: because we are one industrializing-nation-gets-access-to-air-conditioning away from The Day After Tomorrow, get a fan, you whiny American piece of shit). Every holiday when I go out to find a coffee shop that will let me pay an exorbitant amount of money for a spoonful of yogurt with two bites of granola and they’re all closed because Europeans like to give everyone a day off, not just people whose parents paid for them to get a useless degree that they parlayed into a 9-5 job only because they know someone who’s four degrees removed from the deep state, I feel shame. Every time I finish my spoonful of yogurt and two bites of granola and start looking around for the bacon, I feel shame. We are fat hedonists who speak no spansk or fransk or dansk, and we are destroying the world with our chlorofluorocarbons. I know that now.

When the Italian girls ask me why I left New York, I want to tell them about the Holland Tunnel, or how walking into my boyfriend’s apartment building meant elbowing through the crowd of tourists lined up for pizza on Bleecker Street. I want to tell them that it’s no longer listening to men complain in little bars near Grand Central, it’s listening to men complain in little cafes in Brooklyn, and it’s not their wives who are unable to cope but their roommates or bandmates or, God forbid, their DJ partners. I want to tell them about how the weekend before I left New York it was below zero and I walked down to the L train platform after midnight, when you might expect to wait twenty minutes for a train, but definitely not THIRTY-FIVE, which is a time I’ve never seen displayed on a transit platform before or since.

It was at that moment that I knew I’d stayed too long at the Fair, or more specifically, at the Alligator Lounge, since maybe if I’d left before midnight I’d have seen an L train again before I perished.

Copenhagen is an exquisite and fantastically functional city. What the Southern Europeans find dismal – the assiduous following of bike lane etiquette, the unforgiving metro doors that are uninterested in letting you hold them open so your slowpoke friends can dive onto the train after you – I find comforting. No, let me be honest; I find it thrilling. I have been telling everyone who will listen that I can get home from the airport in fifteen minutes on a train that runs every six minutes, 24 hours a day. I don’t know how I’ll live with the Holland Tunnel again knowing this exists. Every restaurant takes reservations. The buildings are candy-colored with cupolas the color of the Statue of Liberty on top. I have never elbowed my way into my own home or stepped in someone else’s gum (or, God help me, their vomit). The city sends me email, and you can drink a beer in the park. It’s what I hoped for when we moved: a calmer, more beautiful world, where I can try to enjoy my life instead of ducking my head and battling my way through it.

But.

I feel the loss of America. I miss air conditioning and giant portions, and I also feel like a traitor for leaving America in its time of crisis. We didn’t leave because of the election, though we started talking about leaving because of the election. I would rather have left knowing my country was in the hands of someone capable. (I prefer to leave writing about politics to people with more than an elementary knowledge of politics, but if you really want to hear my feelings, let’s grab a beer someday.) I feel torn between brushing my past as an American off my shoulders and defending my country for its faults. And to be sure, there are many, including but not limited to the election of white nationalists to public office, the Bloomin’ Onion, and Natty Light.

In my six months in Denmark I’ve observed several opportunities for Europeans to take a page out of America’s book. For example, pillows here are terrible. I feel grateful that in addition to most of the condiments from our kitchens, all of my shoes, and an ice cube tray that was probably supposed to stay in his apartment’s freezer, my boyfriend shipped over our American pillows. And don’t get me started on the flies. I’m sure it has something to do with the structure of all these charming double-glazed windows that keep our apartments hyggeligt in the winter, but it seems that the continent has yet to discover that disruptive technology known as the window screen. I woke up last week on a trip to Prague with bug bites on – wait for it – my face. Also, why doesn’t anyone sell travel-size contact lens solution? When I get sick of taking meetings with my California colleagues every night until ten P.M., I’m going to quit and open a store that sells pillows that aren’t terrible and contact lens solution and then I will be a millionaire.

Every week in Danish class, with my classmates who all speak English on top of their native languages and grew up traveling Europe the way I grew up traveling to Kennewick, Washington, I feel like a pasty, precious fish out of water. Why am I leaking sweat onto my plastic chair while everyone else looks like they could sit in this sweatbox of a classroom for another four hours and barely glisten? Why doesn’t anyone else have bug bites on their face? Why are all of our exercises about how everyone in Europe learned to speak German before I even knew how to tie my shoes? Marco speaks five languages. (Marco tale fem sprog.) Well, fuck you, Marco! I have screens on my windows!

I flew home to New York the other week for a wedding. Fifteen minutes out from Newark, just when I’d be stepping off the metro onto the cobbled streets (brosten) for a short walk to my apartment, our Uber inched its way toward the Holland Tunnel. On Canal Street, the honking trucks drowned out the radio and the air conditioner. I looked out at buildings that are grimy with the soot of all these trucks and the cars that we take when the wait for the subway is 35 minutes on a subzero evening in January.

Later, I took the F train into Manhattan to pick up a dress at Rent the Runway and hit CVS for some – you guessed it – travel-size contact lens solution. The platform was dank on a cool, humid summer afternoon, and the train car was too cold. The people around me were too loud, and I glared at them before I turned up the volume on my headphones. Outside, on an avenue that smelled like trash, I walked by the Home Depot and the Lowe’s and the Container Store where you can buy anything you need in any size you can imagine and they’ll bring it to your house for you, walk it up five flights of stairs, take it out of the box so you can put the cardboard in your back alley and wait for it to disappear.

We took an overnight flight back to Copenhagen, and on the way home from the airport the next day I could see buildings that are freshly painted every year and smelled – well, I don’t really know what, but it wasn’t trash. I thought briefly that there was no longer any point in keeping the storage unit I still keep in New York, but three days later I woke up with bug bites on my face. I think it may be some time yet before I stop calling Europe “the Continent.”

putting away childish things

It occurred to me the other week that I’m rapidly running out of time to play the ingenue. This is true, but it’s also irrelevant, given that not only did I never manage to pursue that career in theatre that I’d vaguely dreamed of but that I don’t even do the Waiting for Guffman thing these days, busy as I am selling out. I guess I’d just always harbored the illusion that someday I was going to play Eponine and it was kind of jarring to realize that even though I’m carded on a semi-monthly basis, that doesn’t make me a passable sixteen-year-old street urchin.

I quietly retired from theatre and ballet as I was going through my eating disorder a few years back. Mirrors, as you might expect, were an obvious trigger, as were costumes; simply having my measurements taken is a surefire way to make me skimp on eating. All that aside, I’d also been considering quitting for several months. Ballet class had become increasingly hard to make as I rose the ranks at work and I couldn’t imagine myself existing in some kind of in-between state where I took class as my schedule allowed, feeling less and less capable as the weeks went by. It had to be all or nothing.

For a long time I was content. My decision to give up a time-consuming hobby paid off at work, and I felt at greater peace with my body than if I had had to stare at it in a mirror for hours every week. Eventually, though, I started to dream about dancing. Every so often in my dreams I am wearing ballet slippers or even pointe shoes and sashaying across the floor or spinning like a top. I wake with a start and my legs feel heavy and clumsy, and for a few days I mourn my lost agility.

One of the things I’ve been most disappointed to discover as I grow older is that moving beyond an urgent emotion is not the same thing as getting over it. As it turns out, “getting over” something — closure — is a myth. I always thought that I was simply bad at it. I tend to harbor feelings for far longer than seems acceptable. Old flames will appear in my dreams, or their names will drift into mind at the oddest of moments. I think sometimes about both the men and the roles I’ve lost to other women and I feel bitterness stir within me, as though it hadn’t been twelve years since the time someone else’s name appeared on the cast list where I expected mine to be, as though I can even think of my fling with H____ without cringing at how ill-suited we were for one another. You’re supposed to be past this, I used to think to myself, feeling betrayed by a gut that won’t obey my brain.

In recent years I’ve come to be more forgiving of how I engage with my memories. A few months back, I took my first ballet class in three years. I felt immediately at home again in the studio, where my muscles remembered just how to lift my leg into an elegant developpe. Of course, just because my muscles remember how to do it doesn’t mean they actually can, and I looked in the mirror to discover that I looked like a hunchback since I can’t lift my leg higher than my waist without my back bending in half anymore. (It was rough.) But I was thrilled to discover that even though I kept falling out of my pirouettes, the joy I felt in my dreams was now manifest in real life. I didn’t need to find closure with dance; I could create a differently shaped space than the one that it used to occupy within me, and I wondered whether I might do the same with my other memories.

I thought about this again when I finally got around to reading Turtles All the Way Down the other day, on a plane. I think the Venn diagram of “people who have read Turtles All the Way Down” and “people who read my blog” is basically a circle, but for the uninitiated, it’s John Green’s latest gut-wrencher about teenagers who are just a little too articulate to be real navigating trauma. I am almost over John Green at this point, which is probably for the best as although I still get carded at the airport bar I am borderline elderly. Turtles All the Way Down still got at me, though, partly because I was drunk on a plane and listening to Paul Simon but mostly because John Green articulates universal truths about the human experience downright uncannily.

The funny thing about the plane I was on is that it wasn’t the plane I was supposed to be on. I was supposed to meet my boyfriend at the airport in Denver after he flew in from San Francisco so we could fly together to Spokane for Christmas. It wasn’t the first time I’ve met a boyfriend halfway through a trip so we could fly together on the final leg to a family holiday. Bizarrely, it wasn’t even the first time I’ve done so in the United terminal in Denver (which is a bleak place for an emotionally significant memory. Although there’s a great Mexican food place in the middle of the B concourse if you’re ever stuck there and hungry, which, if you fly United often, you probably will be someday).

For days I, being me, had been expending altogether too much energy contending with the prospect of replacing a memory that I reluctantly hold precious. I wanted to blow it to pieces and create a new one to take its place, knowing that what followed that afternoon in 2013 was a disaster, but I couldn’t fathom relinquishing it. Of course, United, being United, delayed my flight from New York to Denver long enough that I’d miss the flight from Denver to Spokane, and so I was torn from my reverie by the more immediate task of figuring out how to get to Spokane at the same time as my boyfriend — who was traveling from San Francisco — so that he wouldn’t have to meet my parents for the first time without me there. (Are you cringing? I’m cringing. It didn’t even happen and I’m still cringing. Bless Tina at the Premier desk for getting my butt into a seat on an alternate flight.)

And so I was on this flight, from Chicago instead of Denver, having dodged something of a bullet but ashamed to be hung up enough on a four-year-old memory that it was a relief to not have to confront it. It felt ridiculous to me that I could be as thrilled as I was to be bringing someone I love home to meet other people I love and still harbor — regret? Bitterness? It wasn’t even clear to me what emotion I was experiencing, let alone why, but whatever it was, it was exacerbated by the fact that I’ve been struggling to negotiate with the contradictions of that earlier relationship.

Lately, memories long dormant have cropped up again and others have appeared to me in a different light. I can’t say I repressed these memories so much as I filed them away under “something that made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time,” but the zeitgeist is pulling them out of the filing cabinet and into sharp relief. Suddenly, I’m able to articulate what made me uncomfortable seventeen years ago in sixth grade typing class, thirteen years ago in the text messages a friend’s boyfriend kept sending to me unbidden, six years ago in the Downtown Cocktail Room off Fremont Street. Four years ago, in a relationship founded on a power imbalance.

I feel vindicated. I struggle with that word because it evokes celebration. Nothing about these memories is to be celebrated. I think many of us feel vindicated. That was wrong, we can say now, and we can’t do much about it but we can look at the men who wronged us knowingly, and assume that karma will get them someday, or it already has, and refile those memories under “something that made me uncomfortable because someone was reaping the benefits of patriarchy.”

But what of the memories themselves, which are hardly so black and white as to be definitively wrong? There are incidents that I’ve recast in my mind as wild, or flattering, or pleasantly unexpected, events that were as thrilling as they were discomfiting and I don’t know what to do now that I can locate them in the moral grey area. I thought I was past these memories and all that they represent and suddenly I must negotiate with them again, and consider whether they invalidate the precious things that followed.

It feels untoward to conflate my relationship with ballet and theatre or even my memories of being treated poorly or like an object with the horror show coming out in the media and my Facebook feed of late. My stories may not be black and white, but they bothered me, and they changed me, and that’s where I see the thread emerge. I had to acknowledge that the hobbies I loved so innocently as a teenager were destroying me as an adult. I decided to remember each of these incidents as positive in some way, because I didn’t have the vocabulary to say that they weren’t, and being forced to acknowledge the ways in which they were wrong is disorienting.

In everything, I’m learning to rearrange the ways in which I hold my passions and my memories. I brought up Turtles All the Way Down because there was a line that really struck me on a day when I was feeling overwhelmed by a memory that was cropping up when I didn’t want it to of a moment that was part of a pattern I now recognize as damaging. I’m sure you’ll see some version of it tattooed on today’s fifteen-year-olds in three years when they’re old enough to do that, but for now:

“You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in this world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why.”

Love is how you become a person. It’s hardly novel to say that each of us is who we are because of what we’ve experienced, but it feels untoward to acknowledge the role that those experiences — long past — continue to play in our adult lives. But adulthood, I think, is a matter of learning how to hold truths that contradict one another, because each truth was at one point valid. Every truth, in its own time and its own context, is how you become yourself.

I was a dancer and I remember how it felt for my body to be an instrument, how it felt to be beholden to that instrument, how it felt to retire it. I loved someone who damaged me and I remember how it felt, at first, to be treasured. I love someone now who won’t damage me and we can create new memories that don’t obliterate or invalidate the older ones. I can hold old memories sacred and they can coexist with memories that are so, for lack of a better word, fucked that they only come out in those rare moments where I feel raw enough that I can share them. Love is how you become a person but so is ambition, and so is trauma, and so often all three of those are intertwined in ways that only become apparent long after you’ve negotiated with each of them.

I don’t have to get over anything. I only have to tuck it away in the back of my closet where I store my first pair of pointe shoes and my correspondence and my college dance company sweatpants that I cannot bring myself to throw away even though they’re a really heinous shade of purple (sorry, B____ H___). Knowing my catalog of memory by heart doesn’t mean I’m crazy — not being able to have my measurements taken without quitting bread for a week makes me crazy, but still being mildly annoyed that the guy I went on my first date with broke up with me via text message doesn’t! — or obsessive. Allowing memories to retain the significance they once held doesn’t preclude me from ascribing a new layer of significance to them. I’m a storyteller and I know the story of my own life intimately. It doesn’t unfold as neatly as a novel. It’s endless and multifaceted and illogical. I hold it sacred, since it’s how I became a person.

i contain multitudes of data

This is part 3 of an ongoing series about the Internet. Previously, I explored the positive role that social media can play in modern life and bemoaned how e-commerce has bastardized the art of writing. I don’t have future posts planned for this series, but stay tuned several years from now for my Silicon Valley tell-all, working title The Emperor Has No Track Jacket.

A few weeks back Twitter served me a Netflix ad promoting the new season of “Stranger Things.” I wondered briefly, as I often do, whether what feels like algorithmic ad targeting is actually just the result of a chip having been surreptitiously implanted in my eyeball at my last eye appointment. (You know, that thing where they touch your eyeball with a laser? That cannot possibly be medically necessary. It’s obviously The Man.)

How else would Twitter have known that just the night before, I watched “Stranger Things” for the first time? I made my boyfriend turn it off after one episode because I’m afraid of the paranormal and also because now I understand why my best friend keeps telling me to be Eleven for Halloween and I can’t decide whether to be offended or not, but that’s beside the point. We were using his Netflix account, so I couldn’t possibly have left a digital footprint. I don’t even have my own Netflix account, not because I’m an overgrown child who still uses her parents’ credentials but because… well, that’s beside the point.

What does it mean to be so predictable that an algorithm can guess what I was watching last night? As a teenager I struggled a great deal with the notion that I could be reduced to a set of numbers. I felt both unprepared for the promising future that my numbers implied and constrained to the kind of future that could be promised by numbers. (You can only imagine the durm und strang had I gotten an actually good SAT score!) I find it incredibly frustrating today that after finally having broken out of the cycle of numbers that is secondary education, I can somehow once again be described by data. I was under the impression that I contained multitudes. And I do, I suppose, but measured in a metric that translates directly to cash.

Algorithms can, I suppose, know both who I am and what I mean, more so than even I myself do. I trust them to tell me what to watch next — or at least I would if I watched TV, which I still don’t, although I did enjoy the first season of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — and what music I might enjoy. It’s fashionable to wisecrack about how your casual Google searches turn into targeted ads on your Facebook feed and good practice to use an incognito window when you’re trying to figure out if, say, pregnancy tests expire. I’m not usually a nihilist, but I get a kick out of Googling everything from my own profile just to fuck with the ad targeting algorithms. No, I’m not interested in buying a tiny house, Google, I just want to read a bunch of schadenfreude-inducing horror stories about how many people who buy them get divorced within ten months of moving in. Take that!

It’s actually pretty freaky, though, that I can post an Instagram story from a fancy restaurant one day and get an ad for Louis Vuitton the next. It makes me ask myself whether I should be shopping at Louis Vuitton if I’m going to fancy restaurants now, as if I should trust the signals of my behavior that inform how algorithms treat me as guideposts for what I should do next, too. (You’d think Instagram would recognize that my single visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant was an anomaly, given that it was bookended by visits to a dive bar that hands out free pizzas with your beer and evidence of my sad attempts at Blue Apron, but the singularity isn’t here yet.)

I am reminded of learning about symbolism in high school. I was convinced for a while that it was a conspiracy of my high school teachers to find something interesting to say about The Scarlet Letter, that surely Nathaniel Hawthorne was simply describing the Bostonian flora. You can’t possibly claim to know definitively what a dead man meant to say, I would grumble to myself as I dutifully typed out essays that I trusted would get me the As I needed to maintain the perfect GPA that was the hallmark of my presence here on Earth.

It didn’t occur to me to wonder what I was working toward beyond that number and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve realized how much numbers crippled me when I was younger. Since the election I’ve been reading intensely, first as a means of proving myself right and lately as a means of understanding why it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or not. I aced everything in high school, so I believed that I’d learned everything, but the world and its systems are at last revealing themselves to me as too complex to be distilled down to answers on a multiple-choice exam.

Though high school prepared me poorly for critical learning, it prepared me well to navigate today’s Internet, which demands precision. I feel constantly anxious to prove myself with facts, as though my thoughts are worthless without data behind them. It’s the corollary to how I feel when presented with a targeted ad: should I just give up and buy some Allbirds since obviously I’m supposed to be wearing them given how frequently I am in Palo Alto? Does the fact that I think they look like stupid slippers mean nothing if all of my behavior signifies that I’m the kind of person who should buy them?

In essence it’s the same problem I have with content marketing: the notion that all you need to thrive is a playbook. Get the grades, get the degree, get the job, and happiness will follow. Dangle some keywords in front of people, context be damned, and watch them flock to your product. Let formulae tell you what to do and never make a bad choice again.

But the cybernetic approach to everything saps the power of human subjectivity and free will. I used to shop impulsively. I bought clothes because they were soft and books because they were on sale. Now I follow fashion and check out the ebooks that my library recommends to me. I wonder if I’d live more impulsively if I didn’t have a constant ticker of advertisements and my friends’ experiences and fucking sponsored posts following me around. I booked my first real international vacation — Japan — because in 2013 I picked up Kafka on the Shore from my parents’ bookshelf and it transported me to a world that I knew I had to see to believe. (I was disappointed to learn that the talking cats were a fictional device, not a cultural difference.) I don’t feel quite as inspired to follow flights of fancy as I did just a few years ago. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m growing older or because technology is eating away at my human subjectivity.

Data — the systematic recording of facts in forms that can be made useful — is immensely useful. Machine learning is, too. I haven’t worked at a certain “Big Data” “unicorn” for five and a half years because I really like track jackets. Used well, data and technology will improve the way we live. I believe in their power, but I also believe in creativity. I believe the best art is art that responds to context, not trends. I believe in the power of context to make art meaningful and I believe in the power of art to mine meaning from context. I struggle to reconcile my desire to live impulsively with how easy it is to select a book from the curated list that the eBooks app shares with me. I struggle with how violated I feel when an algorithm tells me that it knows what I was watching on the couch with my boyfriend last night.

At the end of the day, I am well aware that connectedness and convenience aren’t free. I love social media, I love the ease of living in a technologically advanced society, and I mostly feel happy to subsidize it with my data, not my money. It’s sort of like the calculus I use to justify buying an extra pair of pants on ASOS to qualify for free shipping even though the pants are ultimately more expensive than the shipping would have been. Only instead of pants, I get a debilitating spiral into questioning whether I am still a human with free will or just a pair of eyes that should be watching “Stranger Things” attached to a body that should be wearing Allbirds powered by a mind that couldn’t possibly have voted for anybody but Hillary* and fueled, probably, by Blue Bottle.

 

* I obviously voted for Hillary. Come on, I’m not watching Infowars.

the medium is the message

This is part 2 of an ongoing* series about the Internet. Last week, I talked about how social media was my conduit to self-actualization (at least once I emerged from underneath the rock where I’d been hiding from Instagram for five years). This week, I counter that thesis by arguing that the Internet is a medium that is destroying our messages, and I’m not just talking about being limited to 140 characters. Next week, I’ll write about the meaning of identity in the machine learning era.

*It was going to be 3 parts and then it was going to be 2 parts but now it’s going to be 3 parts again and in the course of writing those 3 parts I’ve realized that I have A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT THE INTERNET, so why limit myself?

I didn’t expect that trying to learn about search engine optimization would trigger my latest existential crisis, but there you have it. (It’s been that kind of year, hasn’t it? I can’t figure out if it’s the omnipresent threat of nuclear war or if this is just what it’s like to be 28.)

I was trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing if you actually want people to read your blog. This in and of itself wasn’t that eye-opening, because I know perfectly well that there’s a metric fuckton of content on the Internet and you’re supposed to be doing some voodoo magic to make sure that when people Google “Dana Cass” they don’t come up with someone’s Florida mugshot. (Someone else’s. I’ve never been arrested in Florida, although I did consider burning down Harry Potter World when I went there in October, realizing that I had paid the equivalent of three new pairs of shoes to lay waste to my most precious childhood memories. The frozen butterbeer was really good, though.)

So I’m reading about SEO, which already feels like the used car salesman patter of the digital age, and then I came across this saga of how mattress reviews are actually just a proxy for the battle to dominate an oversaturated market. And then I was trying to figure out what to do with my books while I’m living abroad next year, and it turns out you basically can’t find anything unbiased about long-term storage. It’s literally all so-called sponsored content. (Pardon me if I don’t link it here lest I negatively impact my SEO with links to low-quality content. You, too, can Google “long term storage nyc” if you want to dispel the few illusions you had left about the democratization of information being net positive.)

“Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”

“Sponsored” is a euphemism for “paid,” which means that what you’re reading is an advertisement disguised as neutral information. This is not the first time I’ve thought about the elusiveness of truth on the Internet. As it turns out, that’s a hot topic lately. But I’ve felt lately that a number of threads I’ve been tracking are beginning to converge, specifically: there is a metric fuckton of words on the Internet and consequently, the words themselves matter increasingly less.

I was reading some casual media theory a few weeks back. (Quick piece of advice: reconnecting with my academic self has been a great way to navigate the apocalypse without going completely insane. I balance out the New York Times with selections from my college bookshelf.) I didn’t spend much energy in college on anything that happened in the past hundred years. I spent most of my time on the nineteenth century — including a semester where, memorably, I managed to write more than one final term paper on the relatively narrow topic of the Shakers — so last month was the first time that I’d actually read Marshall McLuhan of “the medium is the message” fame.

In the course of my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about data and technology and the impact their use and misuse have on our daily lives. I spend much of my spare time writing. I don’t often think about the connection between the two beyond how I apply my talent as a writer in service of my company, where I was hired in 2012 to write proposals and white papers. I had heard the term “content marketing” and I assumed that that was what I was doing: writing things to get people to buy something. It was only when I started applying to content marketing jobs that I learned that even though I’m a better writer than most people I know, writing is not actually the point.

An entire massive cottage industry has sprung up around “content marketing,” which is not the art of writing well to describe what your company can offer a client but the science of getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible. It’s “the medium is the message” taken to the extreme, where every resource is brought to bear against the medium and the message itself is, if anything, an afterthought. The objective is no longer truth or even precision but rather a sort of association, where if you walk away thinking Manhattan Mini Storage is long-term storage the content marketer has done their job right.

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”

I have always held writing as sort of a pure act, even in the context of my profession. I write to convey truth. I don’t hold sales or marketing as antithetical to the pursuit of truth, at least not in their traditional forms. Content marketing, though, strikes me as a bastardization of my talents as a writer. Nobody has any illusions about the intent of a proposal or a white paper or even an advertisement on the subway. But an advertisement disguising itself as advice on how to improve your work from home experience? No, thank you. Stick with product placement and let the writers pursue their truth. (And when it comes to how the art of writing has been bastardized in service of moneymaking, don’t even get me started on internet journalism.)

Some time after I discovered that I can’t be a content marketer because I didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to optimize my blog content for search engines, I moved to a new role inside of my company. Today, I often help people who aren’t speakers prepare talks for large audiences. Most of this work is therapy — reminding people that “The audience wants to hear you share what you have to say!” in hopes that they will remember that their arms are attached to their bodies and that they might even consider occasionally moving them — but a surprising amount of it is simply trying to get people to just say what they’re trying to get across in plain language.

How does this relate to content marketing? It’s just another symptom of the epidemic of not being able, or no longer caring, to speak meaningfully. I work mostly with engineers who think a lot about data — information — and how to make it usable. They tend to think about speaking in the same way, where the actual thing that they’re trying to say is secondary to the way in which they say it. “So I’m going to talk about x, y, and z,” they tell me. We go into rehearsal a few weeks later, and they talk all around x, y, and z, and they ask me for ways to visualize x, y, and z, and at some point I look at them and say, “Well, why don’t you just say x, y, and z?”

Every time, it’s somehow a revelation to both of us that it can actually be that simple. In a world where we are inundated by content, speaking truth without the trappings of search engine optimization or fancy slides feels as impractical as speaking truth without a microphone. The message doesn’t matter if it’s buried in the medium. (I think I’m abusing McLuhan here, but bear with me.)

That’s upsetting, isn’t it? I’ve been in ongoing conversation with a singer-songwriter friend of mine who recently deleted his Facebook account because he’s sick of how promotion on social media — and, increasingly, success as an artist — depends on your ability and willingness to manipulate the ranking system. He doesn’t feel like tying his success to his being able to fund Facebook ads, nor does he feel like his success should be something that Facebook gets to monetize.

This is even more insidious when you think about the inevitable politicization of the mediums we’ve come to rely on to speak our truths. Maybe it was idealistic to think that art and truth were pure — patronage has always existed; newspapers have always had editors — but today it feels that they are elusive. Before the Internet democratizes information, it bastardizes it. Why are you reading what you’re reading, or listening to what you’re listening to? Who paid for it to reach you? What’s their end goal and how do you, the the content consumer, figure into it? Are you the actor or the audience and who wrote the script, anyway? Do art, truth, and opinion still exist or are they all just a function of who’s paying whom to do what? 

And man! All you wanted to do was buy a new mattress.

pics or it didn’t happen

This post is the first in a two-part series about the Internet. In Part 1, below, I write a pages-long excuse for wasting all of my time on the Internet. In Part 2, I’ll illuminate the inseverable connection between trying to buy a mattress and the declining art of writing. Keep yourselves busy in between posts by contemplating whether Twitter will, indeed, be the downfall of Western democracy.

I got Instagram in June. (Yes, this June. In 2017. I still don’t know what David S. Pumpkins is, and I can’t confidently identify dubstep, but I get millennial pink now. It’s a start.) What converted me, ultimately, was being in Stockholm on the longest day of the year. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the waterfront that I could think of nothing but how best to brag about seeing it.

I avoided Instagram because I have a fraught relationship with my own image. I can think of few photos taken of me over my lifetime that I can stand to look at, fewer if I don’t count the ones where I think I’m cute only because I’m so cringingly awkward, fewer still if I tell myself not to look fondly on the photos from when I was starving myself. I’m not sure if I want to get married in no small part because I so dread the photos. I dread looking at them and I dread what I will do to myself to create photos that I can tolerate looking at.

But I’m a child of the Internet, a geeky, lonely kid who didn’t understand that there were people like me in the world until I found them on the message boards of the early 2000’s. The Internet was the first place where I felt that I could be myself — and the place where I learned how to reinvent myself. (Did I once stage a dramatic departure from a message board I frequented then re-register under a new screen name just to see if I could make strangers believe that I was a different person than the one they already knew? I’m not saying I did, but I’m also not saying that I haven’t known from a young age just how distinctive my voice is.)

When social media took over the message board as my Internet drug of choice, I fell in love with what I saw as a new tool for self-expression. I was about to make a crack about how I mean self-expression, not corporate brand expression, but then I remembered how much I love that I can tweet at United when my flights are delayed, for example by sending them them a prose poem in the style of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 140 characters at a time if they strand me at Heathrow for 29 hours. It was more productive than taking myself on a pub crawl around the four Star Alliance lounges in Terminal 2, which I know because I also did that. And having to acknowledge that fast-food restaurants are now sentient entities that communicate with one another feels like a small price to pay for being able to channel my constant, low-level rage at United to United.

I’m being facetious — as a former customer service professional I don’t make a habit of attacking them — but more to the point, I am who I am as much because of my Internet presence as my physical presence. I dated a man who, on principle, avoided social media, and while that was hardly the only way in which I wasn’t my authentic self in that relationship, it felt more significant than I would have anticipated. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, can you really know my id? (My id, apparently, wants to troll customer service professionals who represent airlines that fly planes from the Soviet era. We all have our vices.) My Twitter self is an abstraction of my physical self that gleefully flouts the rules of grammar, communicates complex sentiments with images instead of trying to unpack them with words, and blurts out shameful thoughts in a way I never would aloud. I see Twitter as a place where I can put this version of myself on display in a sort of ironic light that exists separately from the articulate, measured identity I strive to cultivate in real life.

Much of what I loved about the Internet as a child and young teenager was how I could exist in words but not being. I wasn’t an ugly child, but I was a gawky one, and I felt limited by the body that I lived in. It wasn’t that being on the Internet allowed me to pretend I looked different than I did — I think all of us spending time online in the early 2000s were well aware that none of us were secretly babes, you know? Even better, it was irrelevant. I was my brain and my wit and nothing beyond that mattered, except my sweet avatar.

In 2017 it feels tragically unhip to be enthusiastic about social media. I think I’m supposed to be casting aspersions on people who post frequent status updates on Facebook because #YOLO, and it’s bad to think about what your life looks like to people on the Internet rather than simply live it. It’s like being twelve again. I know that Internet cool isn’t properly cool but frankly, I don’t feel like I can be cool in any way except Internet cool. (And Facebook isn’t even Internet cool anymore. I’m fucked, basically.) Not having Instagram had always been a minor point of pride for me. Like, I was an Internet-obsessed loser, but at least I wasn’t part of this weird cult of disembodied hands holding ice cream cones.

But then I went to Stockholm.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become a frequent traveler. I look at my passport as a symbol of triumph over adversity, and I don’t just mean that I have listened to to four screaming babies in dulcet harmony for eight hours without throwing myself out of the overwing exit. For many years I was so afraid of flying that I couldn’t really do it without medicating myself. And within that period, there was a long time when the idea of putting myself in an unfamiliar environment — i.e., one where I couldn’t rely on my food and exercise routine — was unfathomable. Even after the worst of my eating disorder had passed, travel still felt like something that was beyond me. There’s more than a paragraph’s worth of material to uncover here, so obviously I’m going to save that for the next time I want to write something really clickbaity that gets me on the WordPress Discover page (“How I stopped worrying and learned to love the fact that if you’re in France, there is no breakfast but croissants”).

Travel has become one of my favorite ways to get out of my own head. I’m too disoriented by jet lag and language barriers and the staggering weight of history to worry that I’m not supposed to be eating simple sugars for breakfast. When I look up from the Marienplatz or down at the Tokyo subway map, I’m free from the burden of thinking. I need only react. (Especially because Google Maps is really good with Tokyo subway directions. Otherwise I’d probably still be wandering around Shinjuku, living off corn-soup-in-a-can from the alleyway vending machines.) And I get to look constantly outward, away from myself.

In Stockholm, I wanted to share what I saw when I looked outward. Stockholm is impossibly precious in a way that makes me want to peer around every corner to make sure that I’m not missing some charming little staircase tucked in an alley that in New York would just be another place to store the trash. It’s the kind of place that feels worth getting off your couch to explore. But I have long felt overwhelmed by leaving my house. Inside, in the confines of my routine, I know what I have to do to feel accomplished; outside, the world overwhelms. I lack the rules to navigate it and it refuses to conform to my expectations. Instagram gave me a framework: a means of knowing what I was setting out to do and, ultimately, to do it. “Look,” I could finally say, “I left the house, finally, and it’s scary, and there were screaming babies on the plane, but aren’t you proud of me? I left the house.”

The zeitgeist would have you believe that the keep-up-with-the-Joneses pressure of social media is net negative. Quitting Instagram is the new quitting gluten (probably healthy but mostly an opportunity to show your moral fiber). Looking outward can so easily deteriorate into comparing yourself to the rest of the world and invariably coming up short because you don’t have an eight-pack or a baby or interior decorating skills.

For me, looking outward is what I do to remind myself that the world is there to experience — and now Instagram is what I use to remind myself to experience the world. I recognize the paradox. I leave the house so I can find photos to prove that I left the house. And, critically, I am not in those photos. It’s not like in college, when every weekend meant a new slew of Facebook photos that I could only cringe at and criticize. I feel, like I did in 2002, that the body I live in is irrelevant. It’s only a tool and when I use it as intended, instead of letting it lie fallow or cultivating it beyond practical utility, I can climb a mountain or even visit Hogwarts.

And anyway, I like to people-watch. I like to read fiction and magazine profiles. (It occurred to me recently that if I never achieve notoriety such that someone is tasked with writing a magazine profile about me — or if by the time it happens, magazines no longer exist — I might need to pay a freelancer to write me one before I die. Just to have, you know? I just really want to know how they describe the way I eat my lunch salad and see how far backward they have to bend to depict my home generously.)

Social media is just another lens through which I can observe human behavior. I find it terrifically fun to look at how my friends and family live their lives. I scroll through Instagram and wonder idly whether I, too, would like one day to travel to Hawaii (sure) or have children (nah) and admire how other people manage to hang their curtains straight. I empathize with people I’d otherwise be quick to judge — I can’t stop thinking about @butlikemaybe who has made me realize that maybe liking brunch and being perceptive aren’t mutually exclusive — or whose plights I’d never consider. I have college classmates whose work opens my eyes to how the structures that have elevated me over the course of my life have served to oppress others. And all this on the same platforms that are disrupting Western democracy and forcing me to listen to long-lost high school friends pontificate about healthy eating like they weren’t the ones begging to hit the Del Taco drive-through at 4 A.M. after the club!!!

The Internet has always been the most powerful tool I have to cultivate the image that I want to present to the world, and now it’s the most effective way for me to understand a world beyond the one that I encounter in my daily life. As a child, it was where I discovered that there were people in the world who wanted to listen to me. In college, when a classmate created a Facebook group called “Dana Cass’s Facebook Statuses are the Highlight of My News Feed and My Day,” it occurred to me for the first time that words could be my profession. (S_____, if you’re reading this, I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for that.) Today, the Internet inspires me to cultivate a memorable and, yes, enviable life, and to strive for an offline life that extends beyond the borders I was born knowing. When the call comes in now, I go, whether it’s a work assignment on the other side of the world or just an evening on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Going, I’ve learned, is better than staying. Going means finding a photo to share — and stories to tell.

these changes ain’t changing me

It occurs to me now that this story is wasted on the young. As a child, I found it overwrought. Then again, I was the kind of insufferable pedant who insisted on pointing out that I was ten and a half or turning thirteen next month. To me, the delta between just-turned-twelve and twelve-plus-eleven-months was significant enough to merit pointing out. And that made the idea that you were somehow harboring past and lesser versions of yourself like a parasite preposterous.

These days, I don’t put as much stock in birthdays as I once did. 21 ruins it, I think: the difference between “surreptitiously taking shots by a mailbox on your way to a party” and “drinking a beer while sitting on a legitimate chair in a licensed establishment” is profound enough that nothing else really comes close. I suspect that your twenties are the only time when you don’t fixate on aging, and given that I spent my childhood obsessing over how much better nine would surely be than eight has been, and that from what I understand I’ll spend my thirties wondering whether I should freeze my eggs just in case I wake up one day not trying to figure out a workable solution for flying babies in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin, and then from there it’s just constantly counting my gray hairs and wrinkles, it’s kind of a relief.

Sure, sometimes I look in the mirror and panic because I think I went gray overnight before I realize that I just forgot to comb in my dry shampoo, but those moments are few and far between. More often, I feel like the same person I was six years ago, only with a better wardrobe. (As an aside, I just put my last remaining Forever 21 garment in a bag to take to the thrift shop. It’s a shirt by strict definition, but I definitely wore it as a dress to at least one Vegas club, which tells you all you need to know to agree that throwing it out before I turn 30 is the right choice.)

A coworker of mine, someone quite senior in my company, said to me the other day that what I say carries substantive weight in our organization. “That means a lot,” I said, because it does. I don’t think of myself as having substantive weight. I think of myself still as I was at 23, a little precocious and certainly talented but hardly substantive. I am marginally more jaded than I was four years ago, but most of that has occurred over the past seven months. (I’ve developed an obnoxious habit of repeating “We’re all gonna die” to my boyfriend in conversation. He’s as pedantic as I am, so he can’t argue this point, but it’s not really helping either of us deal very well with our impending dual Russian citizenship.) But it’s hard to conceive of myself as anything like… substantive.

I have a tortured relationship with my youth. I chalk much of this up to the confluence events that made 24 such a disaster, starting with the bizarre relationship that I had with an older man who, over several months, went from fetishizing my youth to demonizing it. At the same time, I was nearing my Silicon Valley expiration date, the point at which you’re no longer the wunderkind and if you don’t start proving your relevance, you’re about to get crowded out by all of the Princeton alumni getting off of the Goldman Sachs elevator with their loud voices and their impenetrable business jargon. And also at the same time, I was starving myself down to what I weighed when I was twelve, and it turns out that you can’t really do that without also starving yourself down to the emotional faculties of a twelve-year-old.

I was at once too old and too young and I’d become completely unmoored from that only reliable marker of age, the body. And frankly, I’d also mostly lost my mind. I was functioning, kind of, but stagnating, even regressing, just as everyone around me was discovering their mid-twenties selves. A few months after I started learning how to eat again, three of my teammates at work—two of whom I’d started within three months of and one of whom I’d helped hire—were promoted. And as much as I appreciate that my friends knew to elbow me at the end of a meal and congratulate me for eating it, it’s a little demoralizing to compare rediscovering your beer belly to being handed a set of responsibilities to own and a fancy title to go with. (Granted, this is Silicon Valley we’re talking about, so the titles are mostly things like “Ninja” or “Droid.” It is not unthinkable that living in an environment where jobs are named after Star Wars creatures and everybody rides around on scooters wearing T-shirts has also contributed to my sense of perpetual immaturity.) Instead of getting to enjoy growing up, I felt trapped in my youth, the thing that had made me special until my ex-boyfriend called it my affliction, like a Dorian Gray bargain gone uniquely sideways.

For so long I identified more with the eleven-year-old on her birthday than I ever did as a child, ever conscious of the 24-year-old fitted inside me like a matryoshka doll. It’s jarring, welcomely so, to be reminded that I’ve grown layers beyond that one. That I’m 28 today and that sometimes I argue with the directors of my company and they listen to me, and that I pay my own rent and I would do my own laundry if it weren’t such a goddamn hassle in New York, and that even if I don’t do my own laundry, I have never run out of underwear, except that time I got stuck in London for an extra day last December and had to wash what seemed like the cleanest pair in the sink of my Heathrow hotel room with hand soap. (These were extenuating circumstances and should serve only to demonstrate what a sophisticated jetsetting individual I am.)

The other day, my coworker asked me if I was planning to buy a beach house soon, and while it turns out that that was mostly because that’s a normal thing for well-to-do adults to do in Sweden because there are “so few Swedes and so much coastline,” I only sort of laughed in her face, because it’s finally occurring to me that I am 28. (And yes, this post was paid for by the Sweden tourism authority.) I’m 28 today, and 27, and 26, and I’ll spare you the rest because I’m pretty sure you know how the story goes. And I’m 24, still, too, but I don’t need to worry about that anymore. It’s buried somewhere underneath all of the beers I drank on Pier A on Saturday surrounded by friends who have been shedding their skins alongside me since we were eighteen, nineteen, 23, 26, below the compliment of being told that I am thoughtful, substantive, that I carry weight. It’s nice to carry weight again.

teenage dream

Every so often, I give up on pretending that I have sophisticated taste in music and turn on the kind of thing I used to wallow to in high school. It’s a sure ticket to the past, which has been especially welcome lately—nothing like escaping to the good old days when the president was just a war criminal and Chandler’s mom was still a punch line on Friends, am I right?!—and easier than ever now that everything’s on Spotify. (Just remember to turn off sharing, unless you’re proud that it’s 2017 and you’re still listening to Something Corporate. You shouldn’t be, in case that wasn’t obvious.)

So the other day, in between wondering if I should quit my job and counting the number of dystopian novels that I didn’t think to take as cautionary tales, it occurred to me to turn on Jason Mraz. While he’s arguably a better musician than most of his contemporaries on my high school playlists, it’s still difficult to justify the existence of a lyric like “it takes a crane to build a crane,” and let’s not even broach the subject of his newer albums. Like Alanis in the Jagged Little Pill era versus Alanis now, it would be for everybody’s benefit if he’d just get dumped already. Success in love does not a good singer-songwriter make.

To step back into my teenage shoes, though, is to set aside the issue of quality. More precisely, it’s to set aside nuance. On many counts, I was inarguably a better person when I was a teenager. For example, when I was seventeen, I submitted an essay proposing that Congress vote anonymously to authorize military actions overseas to “allow politicians greater freedom to vote the way they feel is correct rather than be pressured by the party line.” This is probably not even the most preposterous thing that I thought was practical when I was a teenager, but it’s the only one I still have in my Dropbox, so it’ll have to do. Later in this essay, I also suggest that the United States would be able to end the genocide in Darfur—it was 2007—“if only we were willing to commit the troops to do so.” (Those troops, of course, would be committed through anonymous vote. Like YikYak, but for war!)

“Better” probably isn’t the right word: I was, if anything, purer. I thought that Congress was made up of good people who were simply at the mercy of their uneducated constituents. I thought that “it takes a crane to build a crane” was a genius observation that had never been articulated better. (I sort of still do. Congress, on the other hand, is obviously a lost cause.) Today, I can argue myself in circles; where I once nearly stormed out of the classroom in a heated debate with my World Affairs teacher over the best way to end the practice of female genital mutilation, I now hear myself using the dreaded phrase “I see where you’re coming from.” And I don’t even follow it up with “…and it proves my hypothesis that you’re a goddamn sociopath who wouldn’t recognize nuance if it punched you in the face.”

I miss the comfort of certainty. Writing cringingly naive social studies essays, blasting something like “Coin-Operated Boy” on my way through the Del Taco drive-through… nowadays it takes me a solid thirty minutes to decide what to order from Seamless, and even then I only pick because I know that if I don’t have something more than stale pretzels in my apartment within the next 45 minutes, I will chew off my own arm. (This is also in part why I don’t cook. I cannot handle grocery stores. I would say it’s an eating disorder thing, but it’s the same reaction I have to the New York Public Library eBooks catalog.) I’m too aware at any given juncture that whatever route I take will inevitably be the wrong one. What I wouldn’t give to be seventeen again and know that I am, without question, right!

Now I’m all too aware of nuance, and it means that I’m incapable of going in anywhere with guns blazing. That’s not entirely true, as just about all of my coworkers and the senior leadership of my company can attest to, but that blaze flames out so quickly, the second I open my eyes and realize that there’s another perspective to be considered. My intractable stubbornness has given way to… waffling. I’ve been catching myself lately vacillating wildly between different positions depending on how well they’re being argued to me. Protests are useless! “But they’re the only way to get the public read onto a cause! Look at how the attorneys mobilized via social media to help out travelers being detained at JFK!” Okay, protests are great! “They’re political theatre!” Those pink hats are still ugly! Okay, I’m done now. That one is an incontrovertible fact.

I guess the tradeoff is that while I might no longer be bullheaded enough to get myself sent to the dean’s office rather than submit myself to standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, I’m also no longer dumb enough to, say, get myself sent to juvenile court with a summons for drinking underage (in full “seventies roller disco regalia.” With tube socks. After trying to hide under a car). Or leave a Burger King soft drink cup full of Dr. Pepper in my cupholder for hours in the Las Vegas sun and not expect the cup to give way, sending Dr. Pepper leaking… everywhere. Or forget to look behind me before I make a U-turn and send my car straight into the path of an automated gate, practically knocking my bumper off (Dad, if you’re reading this, that’s the genesis of that massive scrape on my back bumper. Not a shopping cart. Just in case you happened to have bought that airtight excuse).

That isn’t to say that I’m not still incompetent—have I mentioned yet on the blog the time last year that I managed to miss a transatlantic flight by a full 24 hours?—but that nothing seems as consequential as it did when I had no concept of nuance. The photos of me wearing tube socks haven’t yet sunk my political campaign. I cleaned up the Dr. Pepper. (And United didn’t charge me for that mishap, which is probably because I have already sold them my soul.) It got better, as they say.

But that, too, is why the music I listened to when I was sixteen doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Everything felt so final, or so urgent: I needed Jason Mraz strumming his stupid guitar and singing to me that “it takes a night to make it dawn,” because just as I was sure in my World Affairs essay that using “media infiltration” to “alert the citizens [of the Middle East… no, literally, the whole thing] that a freer world does, in fact, exist” would bring about peace, so, too, was I sure that getting a B on a trigonometry test was to live the rest of my life behind the cash register at Capezio. I live now in a constant state of awareness that everything evens out to… well, mediocrity, I guess, since that’s what you get when you can’t forget that the highs are as temporary as the lows.

It was nice the other day to walk down Seventh Avenue with my headphones on, listening to music that is only sort of good, remembering what it was like to be confident that everything I said was right and everything I knew was true. It’s not a state that I’d return to—for one thing, I’d take going toe-to-toe with my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss any day over my eminent social studies teachers, and Lord help me if I ever see a look on my mother’s face like the night I got caught drinking Smirnoff Ice in tube socks!—but it’s good to remember that I have, in the past, been capable of taking a position, of making a decision. And, for what it’s worth, of listening to a second-tier singer-songwriter because it makes me feel better about the world, without concerning myself with what the world might feel about me.

NB: My final argument in that World Affairs essay was that the U.S. should remove troops from the Middle East “because at this point, all that that is accomplishing is proving the theory that Americans are evil.” While this is unquestionably true, and I congratulate my younger self for having had the foresight to recognize that this would be an issue in the future, I recognize now that at least epistemologically, I was a little confused.