An Ode to List Making, Mood Swinging, and Ladies Who Lit

On Tuesday afternoon, I pranced around Manhattan like an actress who had aced an audition.

I felt, literally, elated–charmed by elements of the New York landscape that, on normal days, turn me enraged: the hordes of over-layered NYU students peeling past on West 4th; the aggressively chatty man in the excruciatingly slow elevator; even my wildly overpriced tea latte, I paid for with a grin.

It was hard to imagine, I told A–meeting her to work at a crowded coffee shop on Mercer (“This place is so claustrophobic!” I beamed)–that less than twenty-four hours earlier, I had been, to not overstate things at all, in despair.

So extensive had my list of grievances been during my Monday therapy appointment that Therapist and I made the simultaneous (silly, but seasonally appropriate) suggestion that we burst into a chorus of “Dayenu:” if only one of these things had been going on, it would have been enough:

  • Leaving town, in four days, for five weeks.
  • Putting pressure on myself, during that time, to write an entire book.
  • Having had a total meltdown the previous night with my parents, in which I had, fourteen-year-old-style, run up a flight of stairs, slammed a door, crumpled, bawling, into a pile of dirty clothes.
  • Not having heard back from Ari in a full day. (Therapist and I narrowed the possibilities down to three: Hit By a Bus, Commitment Freakout, or, as turned out to be the case, Working.)
  • Not sleeping.
  • Having, that morning, as I, apparently, do, when feeling vulnerable, made myself feel more so. (Me: “I do that!” Therapist: “I noticed.” Me: “Why!?” “Therapist: “We need a few more sessions.”)

I tried to recall this list on Tuesday, while also mentally collecting another one–the reasons, I supposed, that, so soon after, I felt Fucking Fabulous.

Some attempts:

  • It was sunny.
  • Therapy had actually (imagine!) helped.
  • Ari was not dead.
  • I had spent much of the day listening to this beautiful thing.
  • I’d been unusually productive, work-wise.
  • For breakfast, I’d eaten a large, spicy coconut curry that tasted as rich and satisfying as any breakfast ever has.
“We have extreme highs and lows,” A said, nodding in recognition after I giddily crammed my body, laptop and assorted tote bags into the tiny space beside her. (“I’m schlepping workout clothes all over New York City that I don’t even have time to use!” I crowed. “And I don’t care!”)
So extreme,” I said.

I was trying to turn the exercise–my mental list-making–into a (self-) Teachable Moment.

“I feel like I’m good at reminding myself to enumerate what’s making me sad when  I feel down,” I explained. “But I don’t always do that when I feel good!”

A nodded. “Right,” she said. “I just try not to give it too much energy.”

A few hours later I careened into an airy Ditmas Park apartment for book club (yes, we call ourselves Ladies Who Lit)–the eager anticipation of which surely factored into my swinging spirits.

(These gals, I must take the chance to say, are as bright, delightful, and easygoing as they come–and it struck me last night that our collective appreciation is not unrelated to the clarity and smallness of our collective expectation: that once, every 4-6 weeks, we will spend a decadent evening drinking, eating, and catching up–and a few minutes discussing some, alternately gendered, work of contemporary fiction. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to enjoy people when all you ask of them is a few occasional hours of fun.)

“I have got to tell you guys,” I gushed, tossing my things on the floor as I unloaded beer and grapes. “Yesterday I was so down, and today I feel so awesome!”

“Ugh,” one replied, shaking her head. “I feel like that happens to me from hour to hour!”

“I know,” another chimed in. “I think most people have really erratic moods.”

“Oh,” I said, tossing my coat into the bedroom. “I guess just not everyone needs to burst into apartments and tell everyone about it.”

(What can I say–some people love math and hockey, I love basketball and dogs and telling everyone everything, all the time.)

But back to my lists: because I do like the idea that–regardless of how common those dramatic internal shifts– I can arm myself with tools, that I can walk around with a set of strategies for turning myself around: listen to Kurt Vile! Be productive! Eat Thai curry!

But I also know that A is right: that largely, our moods are outside our control. Had I run into that guy in the elevator or been swarmed by students on Monday, they would have only soured me further. Too, had I not indulged a complete adolescent meltdown, I probably wouldn’t have been able to feel good later on.

It’s basically the same idea I wrote about earlier this week, and last week too: things shift. We can’t control our emotional tides, we can only sit with them, surrender to them, know they will, soon, pass.

But it’s nice to remember, too, that small things–curry, music, perspective–can be a big help.


The Single Gal Sprint

You do not need to sprint.

It was Friday of a very hectic week (think two jobs, three subways apart) and I was racing down Lexington Avenue for the umpteenth time, and I may or may not have said the above words aloud—in Manhattan, the noise of so much other peoples’ crazy is sometimes wont to muffle your own.

I had reason to rush: it was already seven, and I was meeting friends downtown for drinks at eight and a dinner date at nine and I still had to stop home and change.

But for a second, I tried to assure myself that my arrival (as it turned out: fifteen minutes late to drinks, ten to dinner) would have little to do with the precise pace of my footing at that moment. (It would, as it often does, have everything to do with a delayed six train. You know, Mistakes Were Made.)

I took a breath. I slowed down. As I did, I caught sight of a hustling pedestrian to my right, typing on his blackberry as he overtook me approaching 86th. It was, I realized, the first time that anyone had passed me all week.

For a second I was surprised, and then I was pissed: how dare anyone go faster than me?

“Just keep your head down, and don’t stop running.”

Whenever I complain to Alison about having too much on my plate, feeling over-stimulated or overwhelmed, this is what she tells me. Sometimes adding, “And try not to cry.”

It’s Manhattan, she says, and all of us—all us single, young-ish, minorly ambitious types—don’t have a choice.

It takes a toll.

This week, one of my close friends fainted at work. Another had to visit the dermatologist because stress was wreaking havoc on her skin. I wore myself out so intensely that by Saturday night I was sick and had to skip out on good a friend’s 30th birthday.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? And, more importantly, do we have to?

Well, a little bit, yes. As every New Yorker knows, each time you step outside a minimum of twenty dollars vanishes from your wallet. In a city where a movie and glass of wine edge on fifteen bucks, working a lot isn’t optional.

And then there are girlfriends to keep up with, readings and dinners and openings to attend: things that fall somewhere between frivolous and obligatory, and tend, as a single person in Manhattan, to feel more urgently like the latter.

When you’re married or in a relationship, any given tiring Tuesday has a default plan: going home to someone you (hopefully) want to relax with.

But when you aren’t, you don’t have that: the alternative to running around and keeping busy is being home, alone. Which is fine and necessary and who doesn’t love an occasional date with Maggie Smith, but it’s a love that can feel hard to indulge when you’re surrounded by the shrill sensation that everyone else has bigger plans.

Plus, maybe your husband is at that reading! Just waiting for you at the grimy bar, drinking cheap scotch and ready to set aside his Ashbery as soon as you step in!

Which is always, of course, a little bit, in the back of your mind.

And even if he’s not, better that you should go and be distracted than at home, waiting for some or other prospect to send or respond to a bloody text.

“Keep busy!” is the only cure, it often seems, for the chronic over-thinking that is our persistent female burden.

(Me: “I just don’t want to be thinking about {guy} so much!” My therapist, poker-faced: “Um, I think it’s totally normal.” Me: “Fuck.”)

So you go to the reading. You listen to important contemporary poets and talk to your friend, which are the better reasons you wanted to go. You go the bar. You say yes when a pair of cute boys invite you out for pancakes. And you sleep as much as you have time, which is barely at all, until, suddenly, you don’t have a choice.

And you try, once in a while, to tell yourself that—even if you want to—you don’t have to run.

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.

On Therapy, and Whether (We Have Friends!) We Need It

It seems that every other conversation I have these days is about therapy…so it is so fitting that I have a new blog post up on Psychology Today!

(You like that subtlety there? Good, I’m done.)

Anyhow: periodically, do I feel the need to sit down with an unbiased stranger and cry for no apparent reason while they awe at how much more anxious I am than I appear. (And I quote: “You have so much anxiety, it’s a miracle you ever sleep!”)

At the moment, I’m not actually seeing someone: mainly because, at this point in my life, I’m missing the requisite time and money. Also because, for a while during my first year of grad school–when I got my heart broken by a very tall, very troubled alcoholic and didn’t sleep for three months–I did see someone, at the school’s Student Health Center. He said he would pray for me, and suggested that if I wanted to have a healthier love life, it was probably a bad idea to write about it.

I decided that I would rather endanger my liver (thank you, Nyquil) than the entire scope of my creative ambitions: I moved on.

But therapists are not unlike romantic partners: the intimacy is extreme, the time together intense, and sometimes, there is one who gets away.

For me, it was the woman I saw for about six months before I left Washington: she was an older woman, vaguely Italian/Jewish/Greek, with a solid, warm presence and a vast collection of chunky ethnic necklaces. I loved her.

During our last session, I told her that I had a new essay published about chocolate madeleines. She looked around nervously, as if concerned someone might be listening: “You know,” she whispered, “I like to cook, too!”

There was an illicit feeling to this exchange: as though trading such trivial personal information violated the doctor-patient boundary, as though–even though I would no longer be seeing her–there was inherent danger in revealing too much.

This is the fundamental conceit of therapy, after all: that the person is able to help you because they are absolutely neutral, because they have no stake in your decisions or your relationships. They are there only to listen, and to provide an honest response.

But as one of the friends who I talked with on the subect suggested (one who is, indeed, in therapy), haven’t we gotten to the point in many of our friendships where we can give each other the same?

“I think my friends can be honest with me by now,” she said. “They can tell me things even when they know it’s not what I want to hear.”

I nodded and agreed–and thought about a conversation we’d had minutes prior in which I had not told her, exactly, what I thought was honest: because I didn’t think she’d want to hear it.

There are times when brutal honesty is necessary, and then there are summer evenings when you just want to enjoy a beer and indulge one another’s misguided heartache.

Which is why, in the end, I do think that therapy is important: you and your therapist don’t have those summer evenings. God forbid you should even talk about chocolate for five minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d say that my close friendships–particularly with other women–are a, if not the highlight of my late twenties. Sure, a lot of my friends are in relationships. But by now we’ve known each other a long time: ten years for my college friends, even longer for those I knew growing up. The bonds are strong. And yet most of us aren’t yet consumed by family, career and kids. We’re still able to spend long weekends together, laying in bed and talking about sex and literature and the shortcomings of the male species.

And yeah, most of the time, we are honest with each other. But it’s not our job: our job is to be supportive. To listen. To help the other person figure out what it is that makes them most happy.

For now, I am deeply reliant on that. I hardly brew my coffee, much less text a guy, without calling eight girlfriends for advice. But someday (soon, I hope) when I again have the time and the money to talk to a perfect stranger, I absolutely will.

I have a lot of love and a lot of support in my life, but I still can’t sleep :)


Changing My Luck

Yesterday I heard from a former writing professor: the one who I worked with all of last year, and the one who likes to tell me that he sees himself in me because–according to him–both of us are narcissistic and because–according to life–both of us are incapable of sustaining a man for longer than three weeks.

Both of us, it turns out, are also poor correspondents. So it was a pleasant, if abrupt, surprise when his name appeared in my gchat yesterday morning.

“How are you? How’s the MFA? How are those other creatures S and D?”

“Good!” I wrote back, initially enthusiastic. And then: “You know, same as ever.”

“Oh,” he replied. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

As we all know, the medium of online chatting is such that you can never be exactly sure how someone might have said something were they to speak it out loud. I’d like to think that he would have uttered this line, then, with a strong dose of sarcasm. But, knowing this man as I do, I can imagine that–while we surely would have laughed to leaven the moment–had we been face-to-face, his tone would have been more-or-less sincere.

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Thoughts on The Person vs. The Story, cont.

A couple of months ago, I published an essay on 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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On Monogamy, and Love

The term “serial monogamist” has always bothered me.

I mean, I use it–like everyone else–to describe people who go immediately from one relationship into another.

But I’m not sure what differentiates those people from those of us who go spans of time out of relationships. I often think I’d like to be a serial monogamist, if only I could find people I’d like to be serially monogamous with.

But then, as came up over beers last night with S and A (I realized, by the way, that an odd preponderance of my male friends have names that start with D; this is another one, who I’ll call A instead for differentiation’s sake), there are people who really are not interested in, or perhaps capable of, monogamy.

Each of them described someone they know who is frequently in relationships, but who is always cheating.I don’t think I have any friends who fall into this category. I’m fairly sure, though, that the person I once, for five minutes, was an “other woman” with, does. I think he really cared (and, I’m pretty sure, cares) for his girlfriend. But he simply couldn’t help himself from indulging his wandering eyes. And hands. And various other things that one should not indulge when one is committed. But did (and does) he truly love her?

I’m not sure.

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Why I Write/Adventures in Acceptance

In response to my blogging, I’ve gotten numerous emails from friends telling me how struck they are that I’m comfortable being so open about my personal life. I haven’t known exactly how to respond to these notes: I appreciate the kudos, but I’m not sure how to describe or explain what it is that allows me to feel okay with putting so much of myself in the world.

Today, I may have come closer to an answer.

My friend, colleague and drinking buddy D asked me to be a “visiting writer” in his undergraduate Creative Writing class. This meant giving his students an essay of mine–I sent them the one about my ongoing battle with insomnia, also the one I’d given my best friend to read with the conceit that I exaggerate my insecure, love-obsessed persona–and attending his class today to answer their questions about craft, process and product.

One student observed, from the essay and my rambling comments, that I seem highly concerned with being percieved as a “good writer.”

“Why are you so preoccupied with that?” she asked. “Couldn’t you just tell yourself you’re good enough and not worry what people think?”

I told her if that if I was able to do what she said I would probably be a more well-adjusted person and thus have nothing to write about. Moving on.

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What Comes Before Marriage

I’m pretty sure the second most disconcerting thing my current therapist has said to me–the first, of course, being when he offered his prayers on my behalf–was his off-handed declaration that I should never live with a man to whom I am not married.

“You’ll never do that again, right?” he asked, when I referenced having lived together with my ex.

“Excuse me?” I responded, fairly dumbstruck.

“It’s just a bad idea,” he said, going on to cite data that men and women who live together first are less likely to stay married.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who would marry someone before living with them,” I declared.

“I know,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

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Ironies, and Another Golden Rule

Seriously, I am wondering if I should change the name of this blog to “Happily Single In the Odyssey Years.” Because, I have to tell you, I cannot recall a time when I felt so completely okay with my singledom and disinterested in dating as I have in the last week and a half. I recognize the irony that obsessing about relationships should make me less preoccupied with finding one. I’m sure it will pass. Wait, I think I just felt it pass–just now, as I was writing these words. There it goes: it’s gone. Nevermind.

That thought, though, is what went through my head yesterday as I was walking to my therapy appointment. That, and how pathetic it was that I felt genuinely eager about bragging to him about my new blog and NPR commentary: that, I thought, is why I have a mother. What can I say. Not unlike another writer whose name we shall not mention, I am a sucker for validation.

It had been several weeks since our last meeting: I had a lot to catch him up on. The last time I saw him, I was in the throes of agonizing over The Guy Before My Latest Hiccup (don’t worry, I won’t make it an acronym–I’m not giving up on him yet). And of course I had to fill him in on MLH–about whom I have now been commenting for longer than we were actually seeing each other, which is just embarrassing. Last post, promise.

My therapist was horrified by my stories. This is why I like this therapist: he discourages me from blaming myself (I have my writing teacher for that), and encourages me to find fault with the men I date. Once he said he would pray for me. My friend S couldn’t believe that I didn’t get up immediately: I explained that it’s okay because he makes me feel, well, validated.

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