if i could only make me better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

any other name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a girl can dream

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

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

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

Come on, Tris!

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

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

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

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

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

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

no pomp due to circumstance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

creeping crud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all-day dining at the homesick restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

woo-woo girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.