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.

Middle School (Ish), Then and Now

Recently, I hung out with a sixteen year old girl.

Beforehand, I felt flummoxed. I even texted a mutual male friend for advice. (“Shopping?” he wrote. Done.)

This, even though I’ve known this particular sixteen year old long enough to know that she isn’t like most girls her age; that she’s particularly poised and self-reflective and smart. Still, I feared the typical set of Adolescent Female Issues: body, boys, sex.

I shouldn’t have. As we tried on clothes together in a cramped midtown dressing room, I was the only one who flinched. Sitting down at a coffee shop for warm drinks, it was me (ever calorie conscious!) who opted for tea while she drank hot chocolate. As I frantically checked my phone for incoming boy-texts, she breezily shrugged off the foolishness of her peers when it comes to worrying about guys.

Triumphantly–if a bit clunkily–I managed to impart some love-related Womanly Wisdom. But when she replied with a cheerful, “Good advice!”, I couldn’t help thinking it was more for my benefit than hers.

Her poise thrilled me, but it chilled me a bit, too: by the time we parted that evening, I walked through a windy West Village wondering whether her healthy attitude and striking self-possession might surpass that of many a thirty-something friend.

The thought returned a few days later as I sat with two early teen girls I’ve spent the past few Saturdays tutoring. Neither of them, particularly, need it. Which–along with my nonexistent aptitude for numbers–means that our efforts at social studies worksheets and algebra problem sets often devolve into what can only be described as girl talk. Google-image searches of Bow Wow and a certain set of basketball-playing twins (just because I’m a Knicks fan doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that the Nets have some hunks, with even hunkier twins) may or may not occur.

Anyway. No thanks to me, these girls are also astonishingly mature. They complain about girls they know who go on liquid diets and use terms like “thigh gap” between classes at school, but seem immune to such silliness.

“I really like being friends with boys better,” one of them announced. “But I know how to act girly when I need to.”

“Huh,” the other replied. “I think I’m pretty girly. I mean, I do love to get my nails done.”

That kind of self-awareness really floored me. (In addition to making me pose the question internally: wait, am I girly?)

So, at the gym a couple of hours later, unenthused by the jumbo TVs of Real Housewives and college football, I turned to my perennial fallback–the trusty This American Life iPhone app–and began playing an episode that a friend recently flagged: the one about middle school.

Sure enough, there it was: the talking head (voice, whatever) explaining that we actually do have the most brain cells when we go through puberty. The rest start to fall away soon after, and it’s only those we use that stick around.

In other words, middle school girls are smarter than we are.

The recognition reminded me of a recent, more (nominally) adult interaction. One that rmade me question how little our dating lives have actually changed since those first years.

To illustrate, let’s review a couple of things that I, and likely you, experienced as a young teenager:

  • A boy telling me he wanted to marry me before running down the block. Never to call again.
  • Breaking up with a guy via his best friend’s pager.

And, a couple incidents more recent (technically speaking, within the last week):

  • A guy saying he’d like to marry me before vanishing into the night, never to call again.
  • Cornering a guy into asking me out only after serruptitious emailing with a mutual friend.

Oy.

In the midst of that last incident, the catalyst/friend sent me an email and apologized for his meddling.

“Sorry, I’ll stop,” he wrote.

“Nope,” I replied. “It’s necessary. I think the lack-of-rules in our present dating world makes us revert to middle school. Right?”

“No question about it,” he wrote back right away.

The implication, at first, was negative.

But a few days later, enlightened to the evident superiority of our sooner selves, I take it all back. As traumatic as middle school was, maybe we know less now than we did then.

On Feeling Like A Fraud, And Our East Coast Adventure!

During the New York stop of D’s and my nine-day, four-city Extreme East Coast Adventure, we landed for a couple of nights at my brother,  sister-in-law and niece’s Park Slope brownstone.

The day before, D had met a few of my numerous New York relatives—mother, one grandmother, one brother—but not yet F, my sister-in-law. (I feel obliged to note that, for her, this title seems distinctly weak: I have known F since she was seventeen and I was five: throughout my childhood she took to regularly supervising my backyard birthday parties—from kimonos to tie-dyes, bless her then-teenage heart.)

And that afternoon–considering F’s lifetime of childcare, it was the least I could do–D and I picked up S, my seven-year-old niece, from elementary school–and, by way of a chaotic playground on 7th Avenue and a slightly calmer stop for Italian Icies on 5th (rainbow for the kid, lemon for us), brought her home.

A little while later, D was downstairs starting a load of laundry when F walked in the house, home from an afternoon pedicure up the block.

She looked down to see S and I sprawled on the hardwood living room floor with sharpies and construction paper, books and scissors, glue sticks and stickers–but no D.

“Where is he!?” she stage-whispered, still only partway through the door.

“Huh?” I looked up, reluctant to distract from my intense focus on the startingly Herculean task S had just charged me with: drawing a cat.

“The boyfriend! I haven’t seen him and I don’t believe he exists!”

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What I Learned Watching Cable

For all of the negative effects of watching a lot of television–wretched lack of productivity, indoctrination with evil, unattanable ideals of skinniness and wealth, the inability to move for hours on end because you must find out how Eva wins Season Three of America’s Next Top Model even though you Wikipedia’d the outcome three episodes ago–I have come up with at least one positive.

You see, it’s hard for me not to feel somewhat sheepish when I tell people what my blog is about. (“I’m getting an MFA in Creative Writing.” “Oh, what do you write?” “Well, these days, mostly a blog.” “Oh, what kind of blog?” “Well, um, it’s about dating…relationships…but not really. You know, it’s like, my thoughts on those things.” Befuddled facial expressions and awkward conversational transitions ensue.)

I feel sheepish about making this admission for a few reasons. But basically, I fear that I will come across as someone who a) is not a serious, literary writer and b) is obsessed with relationships. Both of which, of course, are more or less true.

But back to the cable: these hours of bingeing on mainstream television have, if nothing else, served to remind me that I’m not alone. All of us–all of you!–are obsessed with dating, romance, finding love…the whole thing. I don’t care if you want to get married or wear white when you do or you’re still finding yourself, whatever. You’re obsessed. You just don’t write a blog about it.

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Thoughts on The Person vs. The Story, cont.

A couple of months ago, I published an essay on NPR.org about how many of us “fall in love with the story” of a person or relationship, rather than the person themselves. In response, I got a lot of enthusiastic notes from friends and readers who identified with my dilemma.

And then, there was one person–one of my best friends from college, in fact–who wrote to tell me that they could not relate.

Like me, this friend has a tortured romantic soul that is frequently, tragically, getting trampled upon: we understand one another.

But not, evidently, on this.

“I guess you’re more mature than me,” my friend wrote. “The story is still way more important than how I actually get along with someone. That’s stupid, but at least I admit it.”

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Ode to Gchat, or Why Our Lives Make Bad TV

My grandmother–not the one who is 100, but the one with a PhD and a social calender busier than mine and whose age I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you–forwarded me a link the other day. It was from NPR’s arts blog, Monkey See, and she asked if I knew the author.

Before I’d had a chance to fully roll my eyes (bless her news junkie heart, this grandmother loves to forward articles that I don’t always love to read), I saw that the author was, in fact, my friend and writing/life mentor, Sara Sarasohn. Eagerly, I read. The post is about two new network dramas, “Parenthood” and “Modern Family”; being a graduate student, of course, I hadn’t  heard of either. But that didn’t make her post any less interesting, or relevant.

It’s about the fact that, in order for television to realistically portray family relationships, they have to present them as different in one fundamental way: rather than communicating via technology, these fictive relatives actually see one another. In person!

I contemplated the entertainment value of a “Sex and the City” episode in which, rather than spend time with a man she’s dating–or even rather than talking to him on the phone–Carrie communicates the way most people my age do as their romantic liasons begin: over texting, and gchat.

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Sex and Facebook

I swear, I really was planning on taking tonight off from compulsive blogging, but I just saw this NPR story and couldn’t resist.

I couldn’t resist because, for one, Shereen is a former colleague and All Things Considered my former home. But mostly, I couldn’t resist because I think about this basically all the time. This, of course, being Facebook and general internet-stalking. I do it more than I care to admit. I won’t say all the time, but, well, kind of. I simply cannot resist typing the name of a new interest into Google, and suffering the results. And I don’t know what to do about it.

By now, I think we’ve developed something of a dating etiquette: no Facebook friendship for at least a few months (I’m guessing here, because–ironically, and helpfully, I am prone to men with a startling degree of internet aloofness and the last time I actually dated someone with a Facebook page for more than three weeks might have been in 2008). Based on my experience, though, it’s turned into a sort of dance: who will friend who first?? Sadly, Facebook’s egregious privacy settings have almost rendered obsolete that one precious barrier to dooming yourself to far more information than you should every truly have about someone, much less someone you’ve recently met and are contemplating sex with. Continue reading