michigan seems like a dream to me now

Not the kind of view you grow up on in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

In no particular order:

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

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

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

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.


pics or it didn’t happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then I went to Stockholm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bathrooms of the great midwest

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

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

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

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

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

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

thicker than water

An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.”

I traveled recently to Finland, the country that my mother’s family left several generations ago. I’ve never been particularly in tune with my cultural heritage, mostly because I’m not just a mutt but a generic, whiter-than-white-bread mutt: “Half Finnish, a quarter Italian, the rest English, Irish, and Scottish,” I would say in elementary school when the topic came up, which it did strangely often given that I went to school in the whitest neighborhood in Las Vegas. (In third grade, we had a potluck where you were supposed to bring a food from your heritage to share with the class. The one Filipino kid brought adobo and the rest of us brought… mostly variations on coleslaw, if I remember rightly.)

Las Vegas—at least the part of Las Vegas where I grew up—isn’t much for rich cultural traditions. It’s more a place for reinvention, somewhere that you land by some accident of circumstance rather than of heritage. We all lived there with our parents but we went to visit our grandparents and cousins out of state during summers, to California and New Jersey and Illinois, in neighborhoods where every kid on the block had a Bar Mitzvah or went for meatballs at Grandma’s house on Sunday. I knew about Bar Mitzvahs from reading Judy Blume, I knew about Kwanzaa from reading The Baby-Sitters Club, but I thought maybe that the authors were taking artistic license because the closest thing I knew to any of that was going to Achievement Days at my Mormon friends’ houses, where we glued cotton balls and googly eyes to empty Cool-Whip containers and stuck cards that read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on top of the whole mess. I had a couple of friends whose grandmothers were “Yiayia,” but it wasn’t until many years later that I connected that with being Greek.

In college I met kids from places that weren’t my white suburban neighborhood in Las Vegas. I was well-read enough by that point that it was hardly mindblowing to learn that there are Americans in the millennial generation who are connected to their cultural heritage. It was more disappointing to realize that having grown up as I did—in a satellite family that had split off from the whole, where the most I had to go off was the occasional story about how it smelled when Grandma Joyce made lutefisk or a bag of pizzelle that my Italian great-aunt sent over from California—I was missing something that other people considered fundamental to their narrative.

This doesn’t really bother me. For one thing, I recognize that in return I get to benefit from centuries of white privilege, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. For another, growing up in Las Vegas is a formative experience that is unique enough to supplant the absence of a longer cultural tradition: my identity is rooted heavily in the bizarre combination of alien desert and gaudy neon and the idea that when you’re done with a building you can blow it up and all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t need stories about how my family celebrates the winter holidays when I have stories about how I used to dance The Nutcracker in the same theatre where Penn and Teller used to perform. I glom onto others’ traditions: I show up at my best friend’s family’s gut-busting Italian Thanksgiving table, I follow along in the Haggadah at my sister’s in-laws’ Seder.

And so in the absence of cultural stereotypes to point to, I have always believed that my family and me are our own special brand of weird. Buttoned-up, introverted, antisocial, uncomfortable in crowds, happiest without sunlight, suspicious of strangers: that’s us, I thought, and nobody else.

Then I went to Finland.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. We are not dyed-in-the-wool Finns, although I’m pretty sure I could have stayed in the sauna for way longer than my boyfriend wanted to. But I have never felt more at home than I did walking down a street where nobody tried to make eye contact with me or, God forbid, small talk. Nobody swore at me—at least not to my face, although I assume that any American blundering her way through a foreign country where the only phrase she knows is “kiss my bellybutton, you pancake-head” (thanks, Grandma Joyce, for that valuable childhood lesson) is getting a few words tossed after her on the street—but it’s a great relief to discover that I can blame my sailor mouth on my heritage, not the fact that I’m too vulgar to be allowed on playgrounds. And it’s socially acceptable there to drink coffee all day long, just like it is in Silicon Valley, only I still didn’t discover some long-dormant genetic trait that lets me drink coffee after noon without finding myself still awake in bed fourteen hours later. (I trust that after enough months with only a few hours of sunlight each day, I would adapt. I may explore this hypothesis one day.)

Before I traveled to Helsinki—which, for the record, is actually kind of boring, although I maintain that I don’t need much more than a beer bar with library shelves and old typewriters and coffee shops on every block, both of which Helsinki has—the only Finnish trope I knew was also my favorite. It’s called sisu: a sort of inborn stoicism that imbues Finns with the wherewithal to keep going in the face of things like months-long winters and Viking invasions.

I’ve taken sort of a WebMD approach to this inner strength: if the Internet tells me that according to the symptoms of my origins I have it, then I have it, even if the quarter-Italian-the-rest-English-Irish-and-Scottish half of me is urging me to give up and eat some pasta. I think it’s probably also supposed to imbue me with the strength I need to do things like actually kill the cockroach in my apartment myself instead of running away for six hours and pretending it was never there, or put on my big-girl pants and board the freaking turboprop, but I use it mostly to help me get through my versions of Viking invasions. I have sisu, I tell myself when I am feeling particularly vulnerable to the image of my weight-restored stomach in the mirror, I will eat this burrito and I will enjoy it. (I think perhaps my Finnish ancestors would roll in their graves to hear that I invoke sisu to get me through the hardship of eating a burrito, but in the absence of Vikings to combat, I have to make do with the dramas I can find.)

“You rejuvenate like Wolverine,” my coworker said to me once, maybe a week or two after my life fell apart at the seams, when I was sitting at my desk and gritting my teeth through some assignment that I probably could have turned down if I had mentioned that my boyfriend dumped me in Palo Alto (PALO ALTO!!!) and also I had been starving myself for several months. I declined. I declined at any point over the course of that year to mention to anyone at work that I was anything less than full speed ahead, ready to roll, not malnourished and miserable and the emotional equivalent of your iPhone when the battery icon turns red. Possibly, that was the Silicon Valley ethos whereby you don’t quit until you’re dead or you’re out of Pellegrino in the kitchenette; I like to argue that it was sisu. I am a Finn, or at least part of me is. I don’t need anybody to yank me back up the canyon. I can claw my way back from the brink.

Finland was serene. Nobody is walking down the streets of Helsinki gritting their teeth or growling at their demons under their breath. Everyone is going silently about their business, speaking when spoken to, drinking their coffee. I like to think it’s because we have to save the mental strength we’d otherwise expend on small talk so that we don’t have to cry uncle when we could otherwise call up our sisu. I found it very comforting to be in a place where everyone spoke at a volume that my ears could handle, where the loudest thing I heard all week was a guy playing Neil Young covers on a guitar in the doorway to a bar on Roobertinkatu. It was the first time that I’ve been to a place where I felt like people operated at the speed and volume that I wanted to, except for when we used to visit Grandma in assisted living. (This was better mostly because there was more beer, although arguably the food was as mushy.) I did not feel compelled to make jokes with the barista about renaming coffee “bean juice,” unlike the last time I went to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, which will probably be the last time I go to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, because it hurt my soul. Nobody dared play their music without headphones on the train, nobody elbowed their way in front of me to board the plane before I did, nobody stuck a clipboard in my face trying to get me to donate to Greenpeace on my way to yoga.

And best of all, everyone is always on time.