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.

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.

swallowing the world

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

Where you were when

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for when

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-to-many

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

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

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

try the grey stuff; it’s delicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

someone else’s mom’s minivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

roaring twenties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thirty, hurty, and dying

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

blue period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

queen of the road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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