On Christmas, Ecstatic Dance and Letting Go

I met one of my closest friends in Minneapolis during a barbecue at the start of summer.

I was holding court: surrounded by a circle of open-mouthed, maxi-dressed women as I described the short-lived love affair that had lurched me into months of longing and compulsive poetry.

When K approached I assumed she was part of this group of women, all of whom had grown up together. I (wrongly) made that assumption because of the assurance in her tone as she ambled over, flicked her hand in a show of nonchalance, and said, perfectly, “Life is long!”

The particular, challenging contours of K’s life that I’ve since learned have only deepened my appreciation of that wisdom. And it’s one I keep returning to. Particularly, as it happened, during my holiday visit home.

As a culture, we tend to emphasize the opposite advice: life is short! Act now! Make sure you have no regrets!

And of course, there’s wisdom there too. We shouldn’t be prone to inertia, we shouldn’t procrastinate decisions and changes too long once we’ve recognized them.

But the more I experience, the more I recognize how little use there is for regret–and how little anyone can (or should) predict.

“A year ago I was getting rejected from Sweaty Betty!”

A and I were drinking elaborately infused vodka martinis at a subterranean East Village bar on Christmas night. (After a day spent ingesting an excess of sugar, sesame noodles and sporadic bursts of Family Tension, I impulse-gifted myself a late night speedwalk down Second Avenue and, bless her compliance, a duo of drinks with a dearest friend.)

Red-lipsticked Russian waitresses slid around the room. The bartender played dissonant pop songs from the early 2000s. And A and I reflected on how much our lives had transformed in the last year: one in which she’s moved, professionally, from a place of searching and insistent frustration to one of stability and promise.

“Where was I last December?” I mused, for a moment unsure. “Oh. Right. Practically married!” I sipped my drink. Shook my head. “Wow, things have changed.”

A nodded. “I mean, it’s crazy to think that we have any idea what we’ll be doing in five years.”

A few nights later I visited a Brooklyn bar with my brother, J. (I swear, I did more in New York this vacation than just drink.) It’s the sister bar to the one where J works, so we’d barely made it through the entrance before he started giving out handshakes and hugs.

Among the people he knew were a married couple with grown kids, a man and woman with that distinctly New York version of openness that pings me with warmth. We sat with them by the bar as they spoke lovingly of their family and 19th century Gowanus home, told us how they’d waited until five in the morning on Christmas to open gifts so that they could be together, just them and their four kids.

It didn’t emerge until later in the conversation that both of them are in fact divorced, that their four kids come from both their first marriages, that they’d met as colleagues and that she had attended his first wedding as a guest.

At this, J and I traded looks of awe.

“I’m practically crying,” he said, in partial jest. (And, predictably, in the same tone: Don’t you think you should write about their family instead of ours?!)

I thought: Life is long.

The following morning I rushed out of bed to subway into the West Village for a 5 Rhythms dance class: a space where the vibes of nightclub and zen center converge. I’d been wanting to go for years, but this was my first time, and I spent the full two hours feeling torn between the impulse to close my eyes and explore the sensual particulars of my soul (as the instructor/DJ implored), and opening them to absorb the erratic movements around me: fifty-plus bodies ranging infinite human types (fat, thin, young, old, black, Asian, white…even one guy with a yarmulke) in varying modes of motion: flow to staccato to chaos and (other things and) back.

Everyone poured sweat. Boundaries melted. Some bodies moved through and around each other, some faces marked recognition, and I could see that for many, this class represents a regular community–a kind of church.

I felt reminded, again, of how little we can trust our assumptions about anyone.

With one or two exceptions, no one in that room was someone that I would pass on the street and expect to find at the Joffery Ballet on a sunday morning doing ecstatic dance. I had to imagine some of them had been doing it for years, and some began more recently. The practice is new enough that few present could have been raised with it. Somehow, somewhere along their way, (likely, as I did, through a friend), they’d happened upon it; likely, the experience had dramatically shifted their lives. In just those two hours, it had, not insignificantly, affected mine.

What am I getting at?

It’s the same point where I keep winding up. It’s the reminder of how little we know. It’s the certainty that nothing is certain. That the marriage we think is solid may break in a day. The friendship that seems improbable may change everything. The dance class we give into trying one Sunday may transform our worldview. I’m saying I may stay in Minneapolis for one year or fifty. That I might never get married, or find three husbands yet.

Hermann Hesse: Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go. 

Letting go: a daily struggle. But at least, we hope, one that starts to come with greater ease.

Letting go, that is, of any illusions that we know what’s coming; of any assurance that we can say what the next day or week or month or year will bring.

I know: there’s a way in which that’s terrifying.

But there’s another in which it can seem the most comforting thing in the world.

Happy 2015 :-)

A (Rare) Resolution for 2015 (and Possibly Life)

“Hallelujah!”

A folded her torso toward the bar. “You have no idea how many years I have been waiting for you to say this.” She lifted her hand for a high five, then motioned to clink her hot toddy glass against mine. “Amen!”

She and D and I were absorbed in the regular ritual my New York visits provoke: a day decadent with long city walks, afternoon drinks and bursts of group therapy. We’d meandered from Union Square to an empty, wood-paneled restaurant on the Western edge of the Village, and after hours discussing how we would do better at steering ourselves toward respective Life Purposes, I had asked permission to re-orient the conversation.

“I feel silly talking about boys after all this Big Talk…” I said, dipping my head and offering an overt wince.

“No, no,” they both replied, quick. “We are done with anything meaningful! Boy talk, go.”

I went on to tell them about a recent shift in attitude about my approach to dating–still hypothetical, but one that I hope will lead to, well, an actual New Approach.

Historically, I have tended to go about romance in the same fashion as I go about most aspects of life–from writing to general health maintenance: somewhat recklessly, without a lot of guidelines or restrictive parameters.

Put another way, in pretty much the opposite fashion from a young man I met recently who, upon hearing that I write a blog about relationships, announced that (before settling down with his current girlfriend) he used to date “very seriously.”

Pressed to explain, he described the vast constellation of rules that organized his ways with women: the two Los Angeles restaurants to which he’d alternately escort first dates, the number of questions with which he’d always come prepared, the drinks and dishes he’d suggest, that he’d never end the night with a kiss, but if he was interested in a second, would always suggest cooking at his place.

This guy was terribly charismatic–which made me find the whole narrative charming, too. But I also found it completely baffling, as I’ve always found anything like a rulebook around romantic relationships.

We know where this attitude gets me: if I don’t feel an immediate spark, I bail. And if I do, I open myself up with such freedom and force that I allow the guy to forget he’s actually not looking for a relationship, or still getting over his divorce, or has a girlfriend…until he remembers–leaving me lurching back atop my net of supportive pals, to whom I moan embarassing things like: “I did it again…” and “I know there’s nothing wrong with me, but what the fuck is wrong with me?”

I never say: “I’m not doing this again.”

Historically, I have dismissed my dangerously open tendencies as just another endearing quirk, no different than my fear of night driving or savvy with salad dressing or inability to whistle. It’s just who I am! I say. I have thick Jewish hair and hate purple and am really shitty at protecting myself! Cheers! 

To this line of defense I add that I appreciate being open: I wouldn’t want to be shut down. That being someone who easily connects means also being someone whose heart is often sore.

I don’t think that’s untrue.

But I also think, after a pair of weeks in which I’ve felt pummeled, grasping for the remnants of what had (for a minute) been feeling like a sturdy base of self-confidence and grit, there’s got to be a balance.

I may not have to protect myself, but at this point, I want to.

(Which is what I told A and D, which is what made A fall forward in relief. Friends, people.)

The question remains, though, of how. It’s not as though I’ve been leaping into bed with every first date (and the problem of intimacy isn’t, of course, only a physical one), but the fact is that, like a lot of my peers, I don’t put off physical intimacy as long as I could. And, think now: should.

Here’s something else. In the last months that I’ve been single, I’ve done some reflecting about past relationships. One thing that keeps coming up is that I want to wind up with someone I value beyond as a romantic partner; I want to fall for someone not only as a lover, but as a person. That’s something that’s easier to know through friendship, before other stuff entangles.

Suggestions have varied: from A (female, straight, southern)’s idea of putting off intimacy for a month, to D (dude, gay)’s concern about going past three dates without “checking out the goods.”

But based on early findings of my Informal Friend Poll, pals are less concerned with how I go about protecting myself than the fact that I, in some way, do. Like most things, it’ll be considerably more difficult in practice than in theory. Physical touch is compelling, especially when it’s cold enough to freeze your fingers and minivan doors. I’m already anxious about how I’ll resist kissing my next crush.

But then again, I’m usually anxious about something. And, for the moment at least, I’m looking forward to being anxiously cautious instead of anxiously reckless.

It’s 2015. I’m thirty-one. Why not?

 

 

Notes, Continued, On Not Living In New York

It often happens, and is thus often remarked, that the wisdom people give you doesn’t resonate until long after it’s given.

So it happened that yesterday, I walked the streets in Park Slope, felt fond feelings toward the brownstone and tree-lined streets (quiet, as they blessedly, rarely were), and remembered something a colleague once said to me about five years ago, as she and I strolled the University of New Mexico campus.

“New York,” she said, “is a great place to visit.”

I (and likely, you) know that my attitudes toward this city have swung and swung like a cheap amusement park ride for the duration of the thirteen (golly!) years since I left for college: consistently, quickly, and not rarely inducing nausea.

So that when she said that to me, my gut reaction was something along the lines of: sure, that’s fine for you, you being a person who did not grow up in New York and therefore can feel adequate without living there. Or, to put it another way, that’s fine for you, you being an inferior person.

Flash forward: today, and all of the last days that I have spent in this city (outside those moments when I have been cursing crowds or humidity and clutching my niece like the world depended on it) I have thought to myself—that woman was right.

Friends, feel free to feel proud. Because I am pretty sure this trip marks the very first time that I have come to New York with zero desire to move back, and zero guilt about that feeling.

Okay. Obviously that’s not totally true. If it were totally true, than I wouldn’t feel compelled to qualify. Which, of course, I do.

So: I still would like to think that there will come a time in the relatively near future when New York will feel, both financially and emotionally, like a plausible and appealing option.

But, among the levels of clarity that have recently, thankfully emerged, one is this: New York is not the place for me right now.

This clarity, honestly, has emerged over time. Driving it along have been a couple of other pearls from writerly types: the editor who, over lunch in the West Village, hurriedly advised that she tells all young writers to get out of the city—until, she said, they become Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. (Moments, I’m sure.) Too much going on, she said, and too easy for the competition to psych you out. And the grad school professor who, over coffee in Albuquerque, nodded his head and cautiously observed that I might have a choice: between being a writer and living in New York.

At the time I let his words sink in about as much as a suntan. I was having fun in New York. Also, I didn’t know where else to go.

*

“I don’t know how people do it.”

I was chatting with an acquaintance this past weekend at a Greenpoint wedding (one that managed to be equal parts rustic, Jewish and awesome): a woman who grew up in Chicago, and as of recently, resides, happily, in Brooklyn.

We were commiserating about the hardship of living in the place you’re from: how you can’t seem to escape the weight of those adolescent insecurities, those unshakeable family roles. She shared how she always makes a point of keeping a bit of cash on her at all times, but when she goes home, it somehow disappears.

I told her how despite being the most reliably punctual person I know, I managed to be late the last time I was dispatched to pick up my niece from school (imagine me + 5th Avenue in Park Slope + running like an escaped wildcat): for both of us, just as we were trying to prove to our relatives that we are not the flakey, incapable youngest children we know they think we are, we managed to mess up.

“Maybe someday we’ll be able to handle it,” I said to her as we took a pause from the dance party and leaned against a wood pillar.

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

It doesn’t matter how our families see us, or the people we went to high school with, or anyone else we associate with these sites of our upbringing. What matters is how yoked we are to the way we think they do—and how deeply it penetrates the way we see ourselves.

It’s a handicap that may, someday, be worth working against. But for now, I am content to accept it. And to enjoy coming to New York, as that grad school colleague suggested, as a great place to visit.

Which, in case you didn’t know, is awesome! (Probably it would be more awesome if I didn’t have to cram in time with twelve close relatives and about as many close friends…) But anyway. Still! There are reasons  reasons I probably don’t need to tell you (Just in case: The energy! The art! The brilliant, ambitious, attractive people!), why people put up with the crowds and the lines and the walkups and the astronomical rents.

Things, I must tell you, that I find much easier to enjoy these days in small doses that I have no (present) intention of making big.

On New Love, New York Pizza, and Saying Farewell For Now

“I know you didn’t get upset about pizza. So, what were you really upset about?”

I furrowed my brow. Thought for a second. And looked up at N.

“Um, pizza?”

As my therapist was quick to note (Therapist: “You look shocked.” Me: “I am! Isn’t it shocking?” Therapist: “Well, kind of.”), there are many things that distinguish my relationship with N from those I’ve had previously.

Perhaps most notably, there is the fact that he really, really likes me. When he visited New York this past weekend, he even brought my parents gifts.

“You really don’t need to do that,” I tried to assure him when he texted a photo of a cheese plate. (Would your mom like this?)

“I want to,” he said. “Besides, I’m sleeping with their daughter. Isn’t it the least I can do?”

“Honey,” I replied, gentle. “I have slept with a lot of other men. Pretty sure none of them felt they owed my mother pottery for the privilege.”

Unmoved, he bought her a scarf.

One of the reasons N and I like each other is that we tend to argue. About issues, I mean: our nightly video chats have involved heated debate over things like an Obesity Tax and Capital punishment; the environmental impact of locavorism and gun laws.

But our most personal fight to date, abetted by whiskey, Fernet Branca, and four consecutive days of meeting Everyone I Love, took place over a single, folded slice of Joe’s Pizza.

Or, rather, the fact that N was not impressed.

How can you not like this pizza?” I pleaded.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” he explained. “I just don’t think it’s that different than other pizza.”

I was beside myself, careening from one desperate, ineffective persuasion attempt to the next: New York pizza is different. It’s the best. This is the most superior slice in the city. How could he not see the difference?

In the morning, I grasped to explain my response.

“I met a ton of friends and family and loved all of them,” he reasoned. “And you’re really upset that I didn’t like a certain food?”

“I know,” I nodded, huddled next to him on a soggy 6 train. “It’s a little crazy.”

Part of it, I explained, was the implication that my Pizza Passion is an outgrowth of New York Elitism: a condition I not only battle against, but find frequent fault with others for buying into. Part of it was that I was overwhelmed. Part of it was that he was leaving. Part of it was that I was drunk.

But, also, really, it was about pizza: when you love someone, you want them to love the same things you do–people and places, books and movies, forms of intellectual debate. And, yes, food items.

Granted, certain of those categories are more important than others. Life with a partner who hates my mother might be a tad more challenging than life with someone who doesn’t, also, require a late-night stop at Joe’s on Fifth. Particularly if, as I’m pretty sure is the case for N, they’re willing to come along, and perhaps hand me a napkin.

But the Pizza Episode also felt symptomatic of one of my life’s present themes: jumping into the Big Things, while fretting, endlessly, over those that seem Incredibly Small.

It took me a matter of weeks, for example, to decide on, yet another, major move. But whether to go to a Zumba class at 12:00 on Lafayette or 1:15 at East 34th Street? I practically lost my shit.

“It makes sense,” Therapist sagely said. “You’ve got to deal with the big stuff some way. So it’s going to come out in the little.”

Allow me one final non-sequitur to inform you of another recent, and rather impulsively made decision: I’ve decided, for now, to stop blogging.

There are a few reasons why. For one, writing about relationships is much more challenging when you’re actually in one. For another, focusing is also hard–and, as you know, for the past year, I’ve been making variously aggressive attempts to focus on a book manuscript. Finally, in solidarity with other Writers Who Ought To Get Paid for What We Do, it seems prudent to at least try placing my essays in venues–unlike this one–where money changes hands.

I don’t want to call it quits forever. I love having this space, I love that you visit it, and the idea of leaving it completely is sad. But I think, for now at least, a Farewell For Now makes sense.

I’ll keep the site up–and post news about other publications as it, hopefully, comes.

Thanks, always, for reading. Be in touch. And see you, somewhere, soon.

On Other Dimensions, Old Friends, Greta and Me

My two oldest friends looked at each other from across the wooden table.

They turned to look at me.

I looked at the restaurant floor. Shrugged. Finally, stammered: “Can you ask more specific questions?”

The three of us were eating dinner at a spacious Greek restaurant on University, sharing plates of hummus and cucumber salad and celebrating their upcoming birthdays and my recent return from Minnesota, where, I had told them, but just barely, that I had met someone, and that, despite my initial certainty that they wouldn’t, things had gotten serious–serious enough for me to be considering, again, a cross-country move.

They wanted to know more.

A moment earlier, I had tried to dodge their inquiry.

“I kind of don’t feel like talking about it,” I said–the comment that had prompted their stunned stares, and all our collective bafflement.

“Never in your life have you not wanted to talk about a boy,” S said. “What’s going on?”

I wasn’t sure. Cooperative, they asked particular questions (“Um, what’s he like?”); apologetic, I did my best.

By the end of the meal, of course, I was eagerly slipping anecdotes into conversation: the time he sweetly over-hyped my love of bacon, how gamely he had come along for brunch with my ex.

And after dinner and gelato and dispatching R to the subway at West 4th, S and I hugged goodbye in Union Square Park.

“Do you think it’s a good or bad thing?” I asked. “That I don’t want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But it’s definitely different.”

The best rationale I could summon was that I feel, rather terminally, like the “girl who cried boy”: so many times have I come to friends bearing certain, over-exuberant, and, often, fast-fleeting affections–how could I expect them to trust me now?

*

There’s a scene in the new movie Frances Ha where Greta Gerwig‘s character, drunk and disoriented at a dinner party far more adult than she feels, delivers a monologue on what she’s looking for in life, or love, she isn’t sure, but, you know: it’s that moment, she says, when you and your partner are out at a party and both of you are engaging with other people and all of a sudden you catch one another’s eye and exchange a knowing glance–not driven by jealousy, or lust, but the simple knowledge that you are there together, and that between you there is a fierce but invisible bond; a “secret world,” she calls it, like one of those dimensions we know exist but can’t percieve.

I share this for a couple of reasons. First, as a vehicle to announce that I am undergoing a period of Greta Gerwig Envy presently exhibiting as a delusion that she and I are essentially the same. Discuss.

And, less narcissistically, second, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utter, impenetrable mystery of what goes on between two people.

*

I have focused much of the past year on investigating a woman who died before I was born. I have searched for her in interviews and letters and transcripts and diaries, but the interviews have been what I’ve liked best. Some have led to new friendships; one in particular, this woman’s closest friend, I’ve grown, even, to love.

We’d known each other before. But in this process we’ve grown closer. A few months ago we sat together on her couch in the Ocean Beach section of San Diego drinking red wine and fumbling to operate an ill-designed slideviewer, and I felt a sudden awareness of the  lively, happy energy between us, the product of shared moments and space. It occurred to me that was something I’d never experience with the woman whose photographs we spent that weekend digging up. But in the moment, I didn’t feel that particular loss so much as a celebratory delight in what else I’d found: a new appreciation for the specialness of human connection.

*

What grows in the space between two people does seem another dimension: a force field of sidelong looks and kinds of touch and accumulated scraps of shared things. And it is impossible to explain. Even to understand it as a participant is challenging–but to express that field, that energy, all that stuff to another person?

I don’t know how.

And as I try to fathom my resistance to describing this new intimacy I’ve found, this lovely, dynamic,  growing thing, I wonder if the answer is as simple as that.

Airplanes And Place And Falling In and Out of Love

Is there any contrast greater than that between New York as seen from street-level, and from the air?

Peering down over Manhattan during descent on my recent flight from MSP to LGA, I thought nothing so profound. I thought, instead: how funny does that single yellow taxi look, crawling down a midtown street? And, I wonder what my parents are making for dinner? And, is this where I want to live?

A few years ago I attended a cocktail party on U Street in Washington; it was the first time I remember so directly confronting people far younger than me with far more power. But that smart paled next to the blithe comment of a male acquaintance with whom I stood in the cramped kitchen, sipping craft beer: “Oh yeah, I used to read your blog,” he said. “But then, it gets kind of repetitive: you know, single girl in the city, blah blah.” He appeared to expect my sympathetic agreement: Oh yeah, my writing bores the heck out of me, too!

As I write this I’m realizing that anecdote itself may be a repetition. Which means I’ll have to  now beg your forgiveness on three counts:

1) For Being Repetitive.

2) For Repeating Myself Whilst Apologizing for Being Repetitive.

3) For Using Said Repetitive Apology to Excuse Yet Another Blog Post About My New York Angst.

Speaking of repeating myself, you have by now now likely gleaned that I spent the five weeks prior to that flight in a small town in Minnesota.

And maybe you suspected that I found myself wondering, as I, indeed, did: is this what I’m cut out for, after all? Small town life?

Probably you know that I have spent the last ten years toggling back and forth on the question of whether to live in New York City. And maybe you didn’t realize–I certainly had not–that this particular option, a small town, hadn’t occurred to me.

Before I left, I had been loving my hyper-social New York life. And I imagined that my retreat in New York Mills would be just that: I pictured myself cloistered in some remote and musky garret, hunched over my laptop, typing away the days in a manic fugue.

This was not to be. Instead, by the end of my first week I had found a handful of friendships I was sure could, if circumstances agreed, become lifelong. I’d been charmed by the Lions Club auction and the donut shop and the peculiar, misplaced use of first person plural (“We’ll see ya!”); by the Thursday Town meeting and wide country roads and the Upper Midwest’s stark, minimal awe.

Among that handful of friendships was the woman I mentioned in my last post, who I referred to as my Doppelganger: also from New York, also a writer, also dark-haired and loosely Semitic. One night she invited me to her spacious farmhouse for a lesson in canning–she and her husband had tapped their trees.

“How did you learn to do this?” I asked.

She pointed to a book splayed open on the dining room table: Canning for Dummies.

A moment later we heard the whooshing sound of hot liquid: the maple syrup had boiled over. Flames rose up from the stove, syrup oozed quick from the saucepan in thick peels.

“Oh shit,” she said. I entertained her with gossip as she folded over the stovetop and scrubbed.

“This is why the two Jewish girls from New York should not can unsupervised!” I said.

It was a joke. In fact, despite the mishap, she seemed utterly at home here: in this sunny rural house with animals and a back deck and an office that gave her room to write. It was more of a stretch for me to picture her navigating the crowded streets of downtown Brooklyn or SoHo on a bright Saturday in spring–what I knew to be her native habitat. I met her in this context, and in it, she seemed to fit.

It struck me, watching her tangle with the stained kitchen surfaces, that people can adapt to anything.

Anyone can learn to can, or ride the subway; all of us learn language, and codes of culture, and sciences and recipes; some of us learn to drive on ice or how to fly planes or tie knots or knit sweaters or bake muffins or climb tall things. People are magnificently capable. We learn to live wherever we do.

“There’s no such thing as the one,” my new friend told me that night—once we’d given up on canning and began discussing our love lives over bars of orange-flavored dark chocolate. “You know what Dan Savage says: it’s the .67 that you round up.”

It’s true, I later thought, for place as well as people: despite her evident comfort in her new rural home, there have been plenty of moments in which my friend feels displaced, out of her element. As with partners, there’s always compromise.

Flying into New York, Manhattan’s neat geometry felt like a cosmic joke: the orderly perfection of it, the illusion of calm, as though the universe were trying to assure me, from many thousand feet, that the city could match the country serenity for which I’d fallen.

You are trying to trick me again, I wanted to plead with someone omniscient; How many times can I fall in and out of love with New York? 

Evidently, a lot of times. That’s one thing I’ve begun to grasp. Another is that the city doesn’t go away, it pulses always, and the challenge of finding my place in it will be there, always, too–If I want it.

 

NYC vs. NYM: A Comparative Glance

If I told you that there was a town in rural, Northwest Minnesota called New York Mills with a population of about 1,200, one liquor store (also a bar), one grocery (open til 8, 6 on weekends) and one diner (closes at 3), I suspect you’d assume that place to share nothing–besides half a name–with New York City.

You would be almost right.

Indeed, after two thirds a lifetime in New York City and five weeks in my new, second home of New York Mills (don’t worry, I’ve, for now, returned), I can attest to significant cultural differences–as well as some unexpected parallels.

Many of the general gaps are obvious–diversity, population, incidence of subways and snow-ploughs. And it is with great affection that I offer a few more specifics:

  1. Minnesota Nice. NYC-ers may or may not be familiar with this phrase: a catch-all for the manner most Minnesotans, especially rural ones, assume–particularly with one another, and, after staring at you as though you have dyed red hair, which you may or may not have, or as though they’ve never seen you before, which they probably haven’t, you as well. This often manifests as a folksy comment distributed while waddling out of a booth at Eagles Cafe, post Rib Special: “Oh ya, don’t study too hard!” (Arm pump). Or, say, if it’s May and blizzard-ing for the third time that week, “Hey, snow enough for ya?”
  2. Purpose of Exercise. After my first NYM Zumba class–taught in the “Facility Room” of the local Elementary School and focused on the study of choreography and town gossip, rather than the object of sweating, I explained to my dancemates how Zumba, and exercise classes in general, tend to be different in NYC: “You see,” I explained. “Unlike here, in New York you have to be skinny.” They nodded, a mix of interest and horror. ”Like, if you can breathe between songs, people get pissed.” We happily shimmied on. A few weeks (and, I must admit, several accumulated pounds of Donut Weight) later I went to another NYM class, this one in the lobby of a Lutheran Church: we did neck rolls and side planks to the faint sounds of piano music; between sets, an assortment of eighty-somethings discussed nominees for Church President. En route to the pews for some leisurely tricep dips, I overheard the instructor: “Geez, I think I’m sweatin,” she said. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
  3. Thoughts on Procreation. Growing up in NYC, I’m not sure I realized that women under thirty-five were biologically capable of bearing children. Still, it was a bit startling to discover that most femaled my age in New York Mills had already birthed at least three. In NYC, the family-size question one most often overhears is whether to have a second baby; in NYM, it’s whether to have a fourth. (The answer, it seems, is most often yes.)
  4. Types of Dudes who Drink PBR. In NYC, we tend to associate the iconic beer can with a certain breed of underfed hipster who rides a fixed gear and rarely bathes. In NYM, it’s more popular among beer-bellied, football-watching Dads who drive oversized trucks and consume a lot of processed meat. Sometimes I like to imagine the two groups convened; patronizing, alternately, a Lions Club meeting in Mills and warehouse band practice in Bushwick.
  5. People Who Speak Finnish. Probably, there’s some remote pocket of Queens with a population larger than all of NYM and its’ surrounding Otter Tail County. Honestly, I could never quite sort out what distinguishes Finns from  similarly blond and hard-drinking Midwestern types of Other Scandinavian descent; then again, perhaps they would feel similarly pressed to sort out the Jews from the Italians from the Otherwise Swarthy in Park Slope.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. And while the differences may be vast, in my estimation Mills and NYC do share more than a couple of common traits; okay, three:

  1. Central Park. NYM’s is about the size of a standard East Village studio, which, considering the spatial surroundings is not without irony–but hey: it’s not a competition.
  2. Greenwood Cemetary. Both got em–kid you not.
  3. A Concentration of Dark-Haired, Under Forty Women Jewish Writers Who Wear Glasses and Write Memoir. Yes, during the five weeks that I was the Visiting Artist at the New York Mills Cutural Center, there were–to my great surprise–two of us. Among my many unexpected discoveries upon arriving in NYM was a voicemail from The Other, a talented singer songwriter named Elisa Korenne who, during her own Cultural Center residency several years ago, got set up (by the same woman who, I must tell you, also had someone for me–stay tuned) with the man who is now her husband. She is currently writing a (beautiful) memoir about the NYC-NYM transition, about which I am mostly thrilled, and minorly disappointed that she got to it first. Okay fine, NYC may lay claim to a few million more of our kind–but again, folks, we’re dealing with Minnesotans: learn from them for one fucking second and Be Nice.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Feeling Cliche

This evening, on a rush hour 4 train, I used the opposite of subtlety as I returned the Arts section of today’s New York Times to my canvas tote and replaced it with the new issue of the New Yorker. And then I looked up–first into the middle distance of the crowd, then in the more focused direction of a nearby finance type with a quiet resemblance to Josh Hartnett, seeking validation: how worldly, how sophisticated, I–briefly–hoped they (mostly he) would judge.

And then I remembered that I now live In New York. I turned to my left and took note of a striking blond with the kind of tousled French braid and daintily upturned nose to which I will never more than aspire, imagined her 9-6 life at some glamorous publisher or glossy, and confronted, yet again, the distinct un-specialness that this city so often makes one feel.

Here’s a thing you may know about me: I’m pretty into other people’s approval. (Read: thinking I’m special.) My parents, my peers, random strangers on the subway. I’ll take it–no, I’ll actively, kinda aggressively, seek it–wherever I can.

And it turns out, living in the desert was kinda good for that. Hell, living in various smaller cities was good for that. You know, places where girls who casually follow current events and present softish Semitic features atop scruffed ankle boots don’t pack the walls of every Brooklyn-bound subway car.

(I will leave to your intuitive faculties whether this feeling did or did not worsen when I arrived at my destination: an NPR event in Gowanus featuring sincere discussion of artisanal pencils. Not joking.)

“We are so cliche.”

This has become a running joke between Alison and Douglas and me: how one of the persistent frustrations of living here is feeling, constantly, like everybody else.

The joke began when D and I were having drinks one recent Thursday night (Manhattans, naturally), and engaging a classic, painfully unoriginal conversation about the ups and downs of living in New York. (So much fun! But so expensive. So many options! But such competition. So exciting! But so bloody exhausting, all the time. Bored yet?)

The next night, out at a different bar with A (don’t judge), she told me about the ickiness of something her hairdresser had said when she’d confided about her latest romance–one that may or may not hew to a familiar pattern. (Girl falls for boy; boy is flakey. Stop me if you’ve heard.).

The hairdresser had said: “I hear that exact same story all the time.”

It made her feel, of course, shitty. The same way I feel shitty when I take a moment to fathom the approximate number of other, probably more talented and certainly more ambitious (though, likely, just as insecure) writers there are within two zip codes trying also trying to write blogs and publish books. Or, the number of kinda cute, semi-bookish single brunettes.

There are few things more painful than feeling like a cliche.

The paradox, though, as that there are few things more comforting than being reminded that we all feel the same things. To me, that’s the whole point of art.

And as an artist, one must constantly reconcile the pursuit of originality with the awareness that it’s all been thought and said before. (See: this brilliant essay.)

In art, cliche is taboo because it’s so vague. And life isn’t much different: my pals’ specific stories about dating and job searching resonate the way a good, descriptive essay or story or painting does, too. But the hazy idea of a strange gal on the 4 train wearing more awesome glasses? Not pleasant.

Sometimes (besides Nets games) its important to remember Jay-Z: as he put it, this is a city of eight million stories. They may or may not be more compelling than mine. But either way, the anxiety is pretty dull.

A Bright Spot of Sandy

“How are we going to keep this up?”

It had been four days since Sandy hit New York, and Alison and I were sitting on a bench in SoHo: nibbling a pair of scones and sipping Earl Gray tea and ogling the slender Euros as they passed.

“Keep what up?” Alison broke off a chunk of Oatmeal Currant.

“I changed my mind, I like the Butter one better,” I announced. “This. This feeling of calm.”

Alison shook her head slowly. “We can’t,” she muttered. “We’re gonna have to wait until the next natural disaster.”

“Ugh,” I replied. “Hurricane Tommy.”

On the spectrum of Affected by Hurricane Sandy, I fared toward the extreme end of Barely At All. While friends–Alison included–went for days without running water and cell phone service and entire neighborhoods, just miles away, were completely destroyed, my surroundings barely blipped: besides a three-second TV glitch on Monday and a brief moment when, walking Bonita around the block near the time of the infamous Surge I thought both of us might get hurled into the East River, I went wildly unscathed.

This luck lurched me, like many similarly fortunate New Yorkers, into panicked spasms of Survivor Guilt: I signed up to help out, trekking across town at odd hours to fill in for volunteers trapped in outer boroughs or dark and ravaged parts of town; I glued myself to the television and scorned anyone consuming unrelated news. (For feeding this insatiable appetite for disaster coverage, I would like to thank the anchors of the Local NBC affiliate–which, so far as I could tell, stayed live with storm coverage for the better part of the entire week.)

But even in the functional parts of the city, life felt completely upended; even now, as often happens with crises, everything seems divided into distinct panes of Before Sandy and After. The ever modulating concerns of After surfaced everywhere: what subways were going to run and when? Would this event or that party get cancelled go on as planned? What should I be doing to help? When would things be back to normal? The entire city felt a question mark.

This, mostly, was terribly hard. But (how to dredge this sentiment out of cliche?), amidst the chaos and tragedy, there was also a wave of much-needed calm.

Most Americans feel a constant sense of I’m So Busy: we work so much and, often, feel as though we should be working more; we constantly check our devices, captivated endlessly by the universe of social media–one that seems to proliferate endlessly; the rare moments we allow ourselves to detach and sit still are often colored by guilt.

This syndrome is amplified–to put it midly–in New York, where a constant ubiquity of Stuff makes it almost impossible not to always feel as though you ought to be doing something else.

For almost a week, with subways down and businesses shut, many New Yorkers couldn’t.

It took three days for me to reach Alison. When I finally did, she came to stay uptown. We went to a movie in the afternoon. We did some shopping. On Friday we made Bloody Mary’s at one in the morning and indulged in epic bouts of intensive co-therapy. It was heaven.

And after power finally returned to lower Manhattan on Saturday morning, we walked together to the Lower East Side, stopping for tea and scones on our way.

“Why don’t we do this every day?” I asked. “Why do we always feel as though we have to be someplace else? Why can’t we just make ourselves relax?”

“It’s Sandy,” Alison replied right away. “She made us slow down. Nobody had a choice.”

It was strange. It was lethal. It was a terrible disaster that disrupted many lives and will continue to for some time.

But it was also, in some slight way, a bit of relief.

 

Four Conversations and, Still, A (Lot of) Question Mark(s)

“I think you have may have two competing ambitions,” he said, taking a sip of black coffee. “One, writing. Two, living in New York.”

I was sitting across from my adviser on my recent (brief) visit to New Mexico, and his comment was about to send me into the most recent in my lifelong series of mental tailspins about where (the fuck–it’s come to that) I’m supposed to live.

Less than a week later I was out at an East Village bar with my two best friends from NPR: between us, three pints of beer, a spiral notebook, and a flow chart of my future.

“We’re mapping this out,” Alison said, reaching into her bag for the requisite supplies.

Before long, after I’d fessed up to a moderately promising job interview the next afternoon, the chart had morphed into a list of bullet points under the heading, Points of Perfection. (These days, it’s a marvel my friends don’t bill me by the hour.)

“We’ll finish this next time,” Alison announced.

Still, between the two of them, they made sure I didn’t board the Q train without a couple of Big Wise Morsels.

For one, they said, it doesn’t, actually, matter where I end up. For another, there’s no such thing as where I ‘should’ go or what I ‘should’ be.

“Trust me, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions,” Douglas said, tapping his fingers against his beer as Alison and I reminded him that they’d just worked to assure me there was no such thing.

“Oh right,” he said.

Alison came to his rescue: “But you learned so much.”

“Right,” he said, nodding dramatically. “So much.”

On my walk home, I called a relative. When she asked what I was doing, I told her I’d just come from planning my life with a couple of friends.

“So, what did you decide?”

I muttered something largely unintelligible about taking things one day at a time, and pursuing some vague future that may or may not involve teaching, may or may not involve journalism, hopefully will include eventual publication, and may or may not take place within one of three U.S. time zones.

“Sounds good,” she said, ever a patient sport. “And…how does meeting a man figure into all this?”

I tell you this not to criticize this relative, who I love dearly, and whose opinion is almost always spot on. I tell you this because, despite the ferocious, entitled anger with which I responded, it was, pretty much exactly what I was, also, thinking.

“I have enough anxiety about this, I don’t need you piling on, too!” I shouted, walking down Avenue M from the subway. “How am I supposed to plan my life around a partner who doesn’t exist?

“I don’t know,” she said, nonplussed.

When D and I broke up, we talked about the fact that people around our age often latch onto relationships just to be latched onto something: we have so many options when it comes to everything else–where to live, what to do–that committing to a partner can remove some anxiety, take away one of the unknowns. Short of anything else to root yourself to, it can be tempting to pin it all on another person.

As misguided and dangerous as I know that can be, it’s also hard not to feel frustrated that it isn’t an option. And as I contemplate my next move, it’s hard, too, not to have that question looming: what about meeting someone? Where should I live so that I can? What should I do?

Short of answers, I spend my days trolling a troika of websites: from JournalismJobs to Craigslist apartment listings to OkCupid.

I know it doesn’t, actually, matter: who’s to say my chances of finding a relationship are in New York versus New Mexico versus Minnesota versus Washington? Not me, not my grandmother, not even my dear, absurdly generous friends.

Maybe I’ll start paying them.