if i could only make me better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

heaven is other people

Sometimes I am boggled by the gallery of souls I’ve known. By the lore. The wild history, unsung. People crowd in and talk to me in dreams. People who died or disappeared or whose connection to my own life makes no logical sense, but exists, as strong as ever, in a past that seeps and stains instead of fading.

Rachel Kushner

My first thought upon reading this was of a middle school classmate of mine, the child of a champion poker player, who died of a heroin overdose. He was an object of affection traded among the blondes, and I found it unfair that he was in honors algebra, too. I thought at the time that he was a bit of a bully, but I think now that I just didn’t expect a pretty boy like him to want to banter with me and my Coke-bottle glasses. Then I stopped thinking of him for several years, until his death was mourned by one of the blondes with whom I was friends on Facebook, though surely we’d never been friends in life.

I thought then of another classmate of mine who died young several years after the last time I saw him. He had become a valet at one of the casinos on the Strip — we all grew up in Las Vegas — but what I remembered of him was that it was rumored that his family had an elevator in their house, and that his father had died in a private plane crash when we were in the third grade.

I wonder if I thought of the valet and the poker player’s son because they’re people I knew from Las Vegas who could only have been from Las Vegas. That quote is from one of those extremely New Yorker essays about pre-Patagonia vests San Francisco, where everyone had blue hair and moonlighted as a sex worker. I’ve known a lot of people but most of them aren’t metonyms for where they’re from. Most of the people I know are a little boring, like me, though if you pick out the right details anyone’s a character. (My college roommate liked to introduce me to people as “the dancer from Las Vegas.”)

I can’t remember if I used to dream about people I haven’t seen in years as often as I do these days. It’s been seven months since I last saw a friend in person. Bleak, yeah? There’s no proof my friends still have legs. Maybe it’s just me and the people who also shop at my local Waitrose who still have legs, and everyone else is just a head and a bit of torso floating up into the Zoom window.

After the Capital riots I stopped checking Instagram. I can only take so much moralizing into the void, and I had already begun to feel that two-dimensional people were empty calories, but now my other Chrome tabs are a yoga video on YouTube and the Wikipedia entry for “Nihilism.”

There’s not much left to learn from Instagram anymore, anyway. I’ve watched all the bloggers frost cakes, and I know that every boy from the Becker Middle School class of 2003 who isn’t dead went to college in Reno and became a financial advisor. (The girls are cosmetologists. One or two of them dropped out of ASU.)

Yesterday I told my best friend — who I haven’t seen in thirteen months — that I’ve been fantasizing about landing at Newark. Newark! Newark is a metaphor for fantasizing about seeing my loved ones in three dimensions again, but it’s easier to picture handing my passport to an American customs officer for the first time in a year than it is to picture reuniting with people who I suspect might not have legs anymore.

My ten-year college reunion was canceled. Or, rather, moved online, but come on. I don’t need to start wondering if all of those people are legless now, too.

I turned over this week’s Economist because I can’t stand to look at another photo of Trump, and on the back was that ad they keep running from some godforsaken cybersecurity company — another cybersecurity company, they’re a dime a dozen and yet the Russians have still read more of my last year’s tax return than I ever did — with two photos of young hotties captioned “One of these people doesn’t exist.”

Ya burnt!

The problem with Instagram is that you shouldn’t get to open Schrödinger’s box. Let the gallery of souls talk to me only in dreams; don’t let me learn that one of these people doesn’t exist and the other works for Merrill Lynch in Reno. I think it would be nice to be surprised, in a season or a year or a decade when we can sneeze on each other again, to learn that someone has had a baby or moved to Los Angeles or had another baby or moved back to Los Angeles, and I can feel sorry for them instead of resenting their having traveled home for Christmas in 2020.

The problem without Instagram is that I’m really not sure anyone still exists. If I swiped my hand at the people in front of me in line at the grocery checkout, would it pass through like Moaning Myrtle? Is it Malicious AI texting me back? These are convenient excuses for me to put away the books and return to watching Deb Perelman slice garlic in hyperlapse. But if no one exists, then why do I keep responding to work emails? (I’ve been trying to use this excuse to quit washing my hair, too, but I can only make it five days before the grease does me in.)

I couldn’t make it through the Wikipedia entry on nihilism, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche never took a position on the aesthetic utility of half-assed movies about the pandemic we’re currently in, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. Anyway, it seems like Anne Hathaway still has legs, so there’s that.

2020 in books

I thought this might be the year I beat my 2015 reading record: 89 books, 32,379 pages (thanks, Goodreads). Even a pandemic is no match for commuting from Astoria to the Meatpacking District, I guess.

I came close this year with 79 books, 31,284 pages. That mismatch between books and pages relative to 2015 is because my biggest reading accomplishment this year was the combined doorstops of Robert Caro: The Power Broker and the first three volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. (The fourth volume just arrived on my doorstep. Yes, I feel unworthy for knowing I can’t finish it in the next 13 hours.)

Reading Robert Caro makes me feel much as I did after I read Moby-Dick my sophomore year of college: like a nether layer of the world has revealed itself to me as a playground where obsessions are to be conquered. Only when I read Moby-Dick I thought it was a playground where everyone conquered their obsessions aside one other, and it turns out that the playground is for megalomaniacs. The rest of us are just equipment.

My other great lesson this year, upon reviewing what I read, is that most of my three-star reviews on Goodreads are really two stars, and most of my reviews on Goodreads are three stars, only I feel guilty rating something two stars or fewer unless it’s bad enough to make me angry.

Anyway, here is a selection of my favorite and least favorite reads this year.

Books I enjoyed not by white ladies

  • Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Pitchaya Sudbanthad): I visited Chiang Mai after a business trip to Bangkok in 2018 and signed up for what I thought was a hiking tour of a nature reserve outside the city. It turned out to be a visit to this mountainside village where we were meant to take photos of the residents, and I watched this pasty British girl find a puppy that she carried around until her tour group left, like it was a purse. I felt dirty. I’ve also read a lot this year, mostly from the New York Times’ Hannah Beech (of the infamous exotic fruit beat), on the political situation in Thailand. It’s weird to realize that you waltzed into and out of a country without noticing that it was a repressive graveyard for human rights. This book is entertaining in its own right, and beyond that, enlightening on Thailand’s past, present, and likely future.
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors (Kawai Strong Washburn): This book was written by a former colleague, a quiet guy whose office was down the hall from mine for a couple years in 2013-14. Who knew he had this whole rich world percolating in his head?!
  • Trick Mirror (Jia Tolentino): I would be lying if I said I haven’t fantasized about meeting Jia Tolentino at some publishing industry event one day when I become a bestselling author and we hit it off and become besties.
  • The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett): Forgive me for hyping something that’s already super buzzy, but I actually really liked this one (more so than The Mothers, which I was lukewarm on).
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson): As it turns out, everyone who’s been recommending this book for the past decade was right! Check back in 2030 for my timely review of Caste.
  • We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (Samantha Irby): I had ignored Samantha Irby for years because I thought that she was a Sloane Crosley type (see “Books that made me resent the publishing industry,” below). What a mistake! She is a goddess!

Books I enjoyed by white ladies

  • The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel): It’s not quite as good as Station Eleven, but will anyone ever be emotionally stable enough to read that again, anyway?
  • How Should a Person Be (Sheila Heti): There are about two people in the world to whom I would recommend Sheila Heti and one of them recommended her to me, so I’m mostly just yeeting this recommendation into the void, but there it is.
  • The Witch Elm (Tana French): Tana French continues to do no wrong.

Zoom background books that were actually good

  • Age of Ambition (Evan Osnos): I read this New Yorker-style review of modern China — i.e., close-ups on characters whose lives exemplify themes — in April against a backdrop of chaos spiraling out from Wuhan. It was timely.
  • The Man Without a Face (Masha Gessen): Russia! Yikes!
  • MBS (Ben Hubbard): Saudi Arabia! Yikes!
  • Our Man (George Packer): Further fodder for the “Ban Men” cannon, told in juicy detail.
  • The Power Broker (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, I actually read The Power Broker! If you’ve ever ground your teeth in an endless wait for a) the G train to arrive, b) the G train to move between 21st Street and Court Square, or c) the Van Wyck to not be a parking lot, well, get ready to grind your teeth again.
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vols. 1-3 (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, not only did I read The Power Broker, but THREE other Robert Caro books! This one is great for anyone who wants to feel more erudite in their rage when reading about Mitch McConnell’s Senate maneuvers.

Books I’m ashamed to have liked as much as I did

  • Apartment (Teddy Wayne): A book by a white male MFA grad about white male MFA students? I mean, on principle, I should have set it on fire, but I’m glad I didn’t.
  • Dear Edward (Ann Napolitano): God, I love reading about plane crashes.
  • The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani): The perfect page-turner, and it’s French, which means it’s automatically not trashy, right?
  • Utopia Avenue (David Mitchell): And here I thought I hated plot contrivances and deuses ex machina! I guess as long as it’s a fable about musicians in the swinging ’60s, I can forgive anything.

Books that hit extremely close to home

  • The Groom Will Keep His Name (Matt Ortile): Never did I ever think that the Burger King down the street from my high school would be immortalized in literature, then my old friend and classmate got a book deal. (This elegant book is about more than eating French fries in the back of someone else’s minivan. Read it!)
  • My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell): Okay, dating someone a decade older than you when you’re a fully grown adult is hardly comparable to a high school teacher dating their student, but wow, it’s weird to see a character in a book say almost verbatim things that were said to you in your salad days!
  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): I was lukewarm on this book about an English major who tripped into the technology industry in 2012 because I tend to roll my eyes at all the English majors pontificating about the evils of Silicon Valley, and then a couple months after I finished it I realized I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since and began to notice all of the evils she called out that I’ve been ignoring for the past 8 years since I myself tripped into the technology industry in 2012, a year after completing my English degree. Yikes!

Books that were almost, but not quite

  • In Our Mad and Furious City (Guy Gunaratne): I truly would have had no idea what this book was about were it not for the back-cover blurb (“…after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city”). Not because I couldn’t follow the vernacular, either.
  • In Pursuit of Disobedient Women (Dionne Searcey): I feel like a memoir of your time as the New York Times West Africa correspondent, published in the year of our Lord 2020, rings a little hollow if you don’t even try to grapple with the fact that you’re white.
  • The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern): I decided to finish out this year by rereading The Night Circus in hopes of washing the taste of this one from my mouth, though I was afraid I might discover upon revisiting Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel that I had romanticized it. It holds up, though I can see how fine the line between stylized and twee is now, having seen her cross it.
  • Transcription (Kate Atkinson): You know how the magic of Kate Atkinson is how she finds the humor in bleak situations? Well, I guess she can’t always find the humor. (I did also read her debut this year, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which was a five-star gem. She remains a goddess, albeit a flawed one.)

Books other people liked more than I did

  • The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (N.K. Jemisin) series: Every so often I think I might like fantasy, but I can’t help it if people going on endless journeys or stabbing each other with obelisks for a thousand pages just bores the shit out of me.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson): Like, it was cute, but also… kind of offensive?
  • Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie): I’m not smart enough for literature. Sorry.
  • Normal People (Sally Rooney): I liked it, but everyone who says it’s better than Conversations With Friends is wrong.
  • Three Women (Lisa Taddeo): This book was VERY SERIOUS!!!!!

Books that made me resent the publishing industry

(You could also call this category the “Sloane Crosley Award for Talentless Hacks With Connections.”)

  • Brother & Sister (Diane Keaton): Diane Keaton did not miss her calling.
  • The Burning House (Ann Beattie): Does anyone actually like short stories? Would I feel differently if I were in the ’80s doing a lot of coke?
  • The Recovering (Leslie Jamison): Imagine if you wrote a book, and then you went back through it and wrote every sentence two more times in increasingly ornate language, and then someone let you publish that.

a very covid christmas

I’m a bad but cowardly driver. It’s a useful combination — I’ve never merged so confidently into someone’s blind spot that I can’t swerve back at the last minute — but it means I’ve felt my heart stop more often than I’d prefer. Once in high school, en route to a party hosted by the crush who told me he liked to talk to his girlfriend about fun things and to me about serious things, I was jamming to “Creep” (Radiohead, not TLC. I’m the serious one!) and in my agony started to exit straight into another grey Honda. Its driver blasted me out of my communion with Thom Yorke and I had to pull in the shoulder for a minute to recover.

God knows why that’s the dodged bullet that’s come to mind this week as I recover from the coronavirus.

Yes, reader, I caught the creeping crud. My case is mild. I had a sore throat for a day or two, then what felt like the kind of sinus infection I always had during finals at Vassar that makes you cough when you lie down. It seemed likelier that it was the highly contagious illness infecting millions worldwide than a cold, so though I didn’t have the most common symptoms, I sent in for a test.

The NHS mailed me a shrink-wrapped Q-tip, and following this handsome doctor’s instructions, I stuck it into my brain. Two days later, they told me that I had it. I told a kind Scottish contact tracer about all the grocery stores I visited before I took ill and added another bottle of cough syrup to my Sainsbury’s delivery.

I’ve wondered a few times this winter whether I had died without noticing. Every morning I wake up and then I click buttons and talk into a pile of metals extracted from someone else’s backyard until it’s time to go to bed again. One of my best friends gestated and birthed a baby between the last time I saw her and now. I don’t know if there’s any gray left in my father’s hair or if it’s all gone white.

I got my results the Friday afternoon before our office “shut” for the holidays. It felt sinful to skip out for a mere cold, so I’d canceled only one meeting in the days prior and muted myself while I coughed during the other ones.

I don’t have the stomach for the hardcore self-sacrifice you need to document on LinkedIn to really make it in Silicon Valley, but I do dabble in performative masochism. I took a flight once with pink eye in both eyes. I’ve bought numbing sprays and cough syrups with labels I can’t read in a few foreign countries so I could show up to align the boxes on a PowerPoint that the speaker would forget to click forward on anyway. The rhetoric of “self-care” grates on me as much as calling someone out for “beating” their illness, as if not dying is anything but random or, if you prefer, divine, or as if I have a legitimate claim to skip out on clicking buttons on my computer because my throat’s a little sore. I’d be sitting either way.

Is illness next to godliness? I felt holy the last time I recovered from an illness that other people die from, too. That’s vile, but no more so than wallowing in my air-conditioned apartment because I don’t like Webex. I don’t feel guilty for not being dead. I feel lucky, and seen. I’ve dodged plenty of bullets in my incautious lifetime and as grimy as it feels to admit it, I like the praise. If I don’t get a gold star for getting out of bed in the morning, I’ll take one for getting over my mild cough.

The thing about covid that reminds me of not combusting on the side of the 215 highway near Henderson is that I can tell, viscerally, how much worse it could have been. I can feel in my lungs where the death rattle could form. Maybe I’d have noticed the same during my sinus infections if I hadn’t been busy crafting a harebrained argument from reading I only skimmed. Maybe it’s more natural to contemplate death the less life there is to distract you from it.

That sounds bleak. I don’t mean for it to. Having not died, I’m eager to get on not dying as I have since I first came on the scene of dying-or-not some three decades ago.

I keep telling people that I’m looking forward to looking back on this. I like to think about telling my friend’s daughter one day about the year we tried to keep scallions alive in glasses of water on the windowsill, because there’s no use in trying to land the weight of caprice on someone until they feel it themselves, sitting shaken in the driver’s seat on the highway shoulder or learning the news of a death — or a birth — in the tiny screen. Things happen or they don’t and yes, I still resent those people in charge who won’t make the decisions they’re supposed to and those people not in charge foaming at the mouth over something that Ben Franklin of the key and the kite probably wouldn’t have worried about. I’ve done what I can to hedge against all that. Now, I wait.

any other name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nuance, but nuanced

I lapsed briefly the other day, while reading about Eleanor Roosevelt’s course at an English boarding school, into cursing anew my subpar secondary education. I’m tired of the Internet right now, the barrage of too-pat memes that flatten every systemic failure into a hot take with a solution simple enough to fit into a hashtag, and spending 90 minutes every afternoon on a single thought to be discussed later, at tea, appeals.

But: At the turn of the 20th century, a young Eleanor Roosevelt, on a field trip to the tenements, is horrified to see young children handmaking tchotchkes in their airless homes until they collapsed. Those in and adjacent to power were mostly oblivious (willfully or not) to the plights of the vulnerable, a privilege that smartphone and body cameras have all but done away with.

Social media amplifies and accelerates social movements to great effect, but have I read Beowulf? (And what else are cameras recording?) The consequence of a world in which the many plights of the many vulnerable can be made immediate is… TikTok. We can’t have both firsthand insight into every variant of the human experience and be expected to select one for 90 minutes’ contemplation. Complexity costs simplicity.

Speaking of, let’s return to modern discourse. From up here on my high horse, I enjoy staring down my nose at the naïveté of those who would summarize a policy objective in an Instagram story you don’t even need to hold your thumb on long enough to read. I roll my eyes and mumble “something something nuance.” I like the “nuance” meme because it’s very useful for me to gasbag away all the questionable choices I’ve made in my adult life rather than having to summarize them honestly! (“For the money.”)

I think that the rightest thing, morally speaking, is that which can be expressed simply. You shouldn’t need ten paragraphs to explain your value system.

But many right things can be true at once, and the challenge of governance is to build Frankensystems that serve as many of those right things as possible without collapsing. This is the blessing and curse of “hashtivism” (I hate simplicity but I love a portmanteau!) and technology: the speed, breadth, and concision of a given cause leave little room to jostle it into the Jenga tower of all the worthy ones.

Justice requires that all demands are satisfied. Power gets away with catering to a few. Case in point: our fractured Democratic party that pleases no one. (It’s unclear to me why the Democrats are communicating any message other than “A rising tide lifts all boats,” but I suspect they have some overeager digital strategists who have forgotten that there’s life outside their @ mentions.) Case in point: every corrupt government everywhere and every attempt to stem corruption that lapses into either dictatorship or just more corruption.

I like the old saw about the arc of moral history bending toward justice. I believe in the idea that we can build incrementally toward systems of governance that serve more people justly. (Or we could all just move to Denmark.) I think perhaps it’s impossible to do that without muddying each objective. Is that unimaginative? Lazy? An excuse to uphold a system that serves me well? Realistic?

Does it matter? I don’t plan on going into politics — performative all-nighters aren’t my thing — or even living in a swing state. I can see enough of the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page through the hands over my eyes to know what I see as pragmatic and incremental is viewed by many as radical. (They are so mad about middle schoolers learning about slavery!) And I only need to spend five minutes thumbing through my Instagram feed to know that most of my friends would think I’m one sensible Ann Taylor necklace away from writing an op-ed for the Journal myself. My politics please no one, and secretly I think that’s the best kind of politics to have.

It’s possible that I spent 90 minutes thinking about this one thing this afternoon. I guess I can say I went to English finishing school now, too.

P.S. Part of me feels like I should apologize for writing about politics, but I’m only going to apologize is if I start documenting my workouts or hawking spiralizers. (Which, to be clear, might happen if I don’t get out of my house again soon. Now that I have mostly learned to cook, it’s only my piss-poor photography skills stopping me from becoming a wellness blogger, and with enough time on my hands I might become Ansel Adams!!!!!)

some thoughts on cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m afraid to buy a mandoline.

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking blogs: Mostly a scam? Discuss.

insult and quarantinjury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i love the passing of time

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

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

There’s only one Punxsutawney Phil

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

Saganaki > sagacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the name is the thing

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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