A mosh pit full of fist pumps

So much has happened since I last wrote.

Let’s see. I quit my job. I moved back to Richmond. Which means I left New York and all its wonderful wonderfulness — something that still hasn’t quite sunk in. It is possible any moment now I will wake up in my too-small room with its too-big desk, the light barely peeking in from behind the too-long curtain just above the too-loud air conditioner.

Which might be entirely plausible were it not for photographic evidence that I somehow packed up my New York existence in this many boxes and that many trash bags.

But wait, you say. Didn’t you promise us getting started things a mere eight or so weeks ago, just before you unceremoniously implemented radio silence? How utterly, utterly rude of you.

Well, observant reader. Like I’ve said many times before, given my tendency to disappear without warning (I mean, who plans disappearances anyway? Would a kidnappee leave a note to say, “Hey guys. Don’t expect me home today. I gots evil things waiting for me”? Would my left sock tickle my sole ever so softly, knowing full well it would soon take up permanent residence in the crevices between the washer and dryer?), I am never truly gone. For there is Twitter. And Tumblr. And, to a lesser extent, Instagram. I am everpresent. And omniscient. And totally full of crap.

But there was good reason. The very next day after I posted my last entry, this happened.

This, after months of reading and preparing (That epic novel? Grad school application.) and contemplating my existence and purpose and non-purpose in life, was the day I got accepted to this place.

This place can only be best described as one part ad agency, one part rogue M.B.A. program, and one part laboratory for experiments in 21st-century branding.

If you’re patting me on the back for that lovely description, don’t. I didn’t write it. This guy did.

So, there I was, sitting back down at my desk about to write me some legal copy after a run-of-the-mill trip to the bathroom, when I got the email. I’d been waiting for this thing for months. My reaction, of course, was nothing short of extreme euphoria masked as a perfectly composed journalist with Really Important Things To Write. Inside, however, was an all out mosh pit full of fist pumps as I fully accepted my transition to the dark side.

But wait, you say. Advertising? Wasn’t journalism what you’d been working toward since you started writing when you were, like, 8?

This is true, curious reader. It had been my dream to be a journalist in New York City — a dream only solidified by the Muppet Babies’ foray into investigative deeds using an old school typewriter. All I can tell you, without diving into a diatribe about the failings of modern journalism, my preference for big picture analyses over knee-jerk regurgitations, and my conflicting impulses to express myself creatively without defying journalistic objectivity, is that, well, I was ready for something else.

So, in five weeks, I left everything. And in those five weeks, my brain was unable, and is actually just now finally able to string together coherent sentences, to process the sheer absurdity, suddenness, awesomeness, sadness, gravity, and excitement of it all. I could not even read on the fucking train. And aren’t you happy I can say fucking now? All those years I was holding back because I wanted to be absolutely professional, given the reserved confines of education and law, when sometimes all I really wanted to use in place of a multisyllabic word was a four-letter one.

All in all, I just felt that striving for objectivity ended up suppressing a great part of what makes a writer a writer — at least the kind of writer I’ve always wanted to be.

While I can write about this now semi-succinctly, I can tell you it was not easy. It was actually kind of painful. It took months and months of reconciling with the fact that I was leaving a big part of myself so I could move forward. There’s so much more to tell, of course. There were many players and layers, many, many agonizing internal monologues. I can’t quite divulge everything right here in this instant, because I’m still getting used to this paradoxical writerly existence. That is, that writers, often among the most introverted, cannot truly write without revealing their innermost selves. It is at once terrifying and liberating.

Maybe it will all end up in a book. Maybe it will become an essay. Or maybe it will become the narrative to a really melodramatic commercial. For now, though, this is me. It’s probably a different me from the one you thought you’d come to know. Maybe it’s someone you really, truly like or no longer like or like right now but ultimately will dislike.

Whatever it is, this is me. And admitting that is a great first step to whichever direction I’m headed.

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Writing & Drawing from Life Abroad

The months leading up to graduating from college are kind of terrifying.

I, ever the wise one, decided to do it in a different country.

In January 2007, I threw my stuff into a suitcase (in 30 minutes, I kid you not), said goodbye to my weeping parents and spent my last semester of college abroad.

I skipped the rituals that typically go along with the end of something: the final look at my surroundings right before it all gets quiet, and I leave with my husband and children only to return upon remembering to take down the family portrait above the mantle and, with a bite of my lip, turn on my heels and close the door[1].

I missed a lot of things that spring, including my graduation. But I didn’t care. For the first time, I was going to be away from home for a long time (I lived at home in college), and it didn’t involve toiling away in rural Virginia.

There’s an abundance of romanticism that goes along with living abroad. Some hope it will involve a tall, dark, dashing Spaniard (or the –ish –ench –an equivalent of whatever appropriate country) ready to whisk them away from their mundane existence. Some think it will involve lots of booze, lots of dancing the night away, lots of beaching and the incredible mastery of a language they formerly only knew in relation to where the bathroom was or how much something cost.

There can be that, yes, but – and this is the part revisionists neglect to disclose – there’s quite a bit of loneliness, too.

There’s the alienation of being somewhere that doesn’t eat, speak, celebrate or dream in the only way you know how. There’s the lack of people who get you in a way that doesn’t need explanation or polish or fakery. There’s the rude awakening of getting to know a version of yourself you never knew existed and, now that you do, don’t like.

And, if you’re me, there’s the culture shock of being around people who are used to money, spending it, and are in pursuit of travel not so they could learn the culture of the country they’re in, but to be able to say they’ve been there.

I, for the most part, didn’t fit in.

There weren’t too many people like me in that group. When I say that, I mean people who were born and spent much of their childhood in a third world country, moved to the Bronx and at some point lived in a studio with the family, and got into college probably because of the special your-siblings-go-here-so-I-guess-you-can-too loophole.

To put it simply, it was quite a leap. The disparity dawned on me pretty quickly within my first days there.

On one of our guided tours, a few of us headed over to an ATM  before eating at a restaurant somewhere. I checked my balance: $1,000.

That should last me a while, I thought, totally relieved.

“Don’t you hate that feeling…” said a guy from our group, who apparently had been hovering over me, “… when your balance is low?”

I think I uttered a sheepish response of agreement and withheld my bewilderment.

The next few months were going to be interesting.

In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the experience really changed my life. I ended up making friends with people within the program who did get me, friends outside the program from around the world, and sometimes even scrounged up enough money to venture elsewhere. I eventually learned that that guy and the others were actually good people who just happened to exist in an entirely different world from mine.

And ultimately, wasn’t that the kind of out-of-comfort-zone experience I was looking for?

Afterward, I felt like I could do anything. It’s partly why moving to New York was never as daunting as it could have been. It’s also why I recommend that kind of discomfort-oriented introspection for anyone in search of something more.

Below, I’ve posted snippets of entries I made in my paper journal during that semester.

Inspired by this book (the source of the image above), I even drew a little. I had no sense of scale or proportion, shape, shading or realism, and I never did learn how to draw a straight line.

Don’t laugh.

***

February 11 | Barcelona
Waiters here are so rude sometimes. I’m sitting in a cafe on Las Ramblas — the hub of touristy things. The menu is only in Catalan (no Spanish), so I had no idea what’s on the menu. I went only for the pictures, and they didn’t even have that.

“Solo jamon!”
“Solo jamon!”

The tables nearby gawked at me, and I could feel them silently thinking they were glad they weren’t me.

March 13 | Villa Olimpica
I realized I was silently critical; I always find fault in others, possibly to deflect criticism from myself. So, as I sit on the beach marinating in the sun, soaking up this beautiful environment, I’m debating whether to be silently critical on paper. Or maybe I should just acknowledge my flaws and accept people for what they are. But that’s not what journals are for, are they?

March 14 | Arc de Triomf
My trip is already halfway over, and I can’t believe it. I still have so much to see of Barcelona; I want to see more of Spain. If only I had money, I would stay here the whole summer. Perhaps I’ll take a creative sabbatical and live in a foreign country for a few months. Who says I can’t, right?

March 26 | Sants (my neighborhood)
The hair salon is off Sants on a tiny street. It’s an interesting culture. My senora brought us just before it opened, and we were the first ones here. Soon enough, a legion of women came in. Old ladies kiss the hairdressers upon entering. They all seem to know each other.

April 1 | La Clandestina
Life’s nothing if you can’t share it with anyone who matters. That’s something I’ve learned while I’m here.

April 5 | Plaza de Espana, Seville
What I love about traveling is the people I meet along the way. In one night, we met someone who has hitchhiked through Spain, someone who won “Jeopardy” and someone who encountered Iraqi expatriates in Sweden and Scotland.

Boys have an easier time traveling. They can go anywhere and do anything with minimal fear of being abducted or raped. I’m sure that stuff happens to guys, but they’re not quite as vulnerable as girls. As I was sitting last night listening to everyone’s stories, I wished I had equally crazy ones of my own. Unfortunately, theirs involved traveling on foot at night in the middle of nowhere, asking strangers for rides and sleeping in random houses.

If I were to do that, well, let’s just say this would be an very short entry incomplete journal. This part would be quoted and deemed ironic: “Life imitates art!” But really, everyone thinks about it, so it’s not so ironic. It’s just that not everyone writes it down.

April 8 | On a bus from Seville to Barcelona
My trip ends with less than 10 euros in cash. I spent some last night at booths on the boardwalk and got two scarves, two necklaces, earrings, two bracelets for less than 30 euros. Not bad. They should be presents for friends, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to give them up[2]. I’m so glad I did Semana Santa my way. Just aimless routes, random encounters and many laughs. Best of all, void of guided tours and forced conversation.

April 11 | Barcelona
Last night, [my senora’s husband] said I was getting fat. His exact sentence I can’t remember, but it contained the phrases (in Spanish):

“She’s getting fat.”
“Turning into a square.”
“She should go on a diet.”

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to sit across from him at dinner. His words turned into a Peanuts-like adult drawl. After some forced conversation and sitting through his rants about the value of the euro and the dollar, I excused myself from the table.

My roommate had to deal with him.

April 23 | Amsterdam
Amsterdam is such a neat place to live in. Bikes populate the city more than people. There’s a vibrant nightlife and a wealth of culture.

April 25 | Barcelona
The program ends in about two weeks. This experience has allowed me to grow up, think about myself and what I have to change about it. I’m a more experienced traveler now. I’ve grown increasingly independent from my parents, whom I still rely on financially (but I hope that will change soon). And I’ve learned to put it all in perspective. Everyone changes, but at a much faster rate when overseas and around 20 potential friends. High school never ends. And a little bit of positivity goes a long way.

I get home at the end of May and will have almost a month to get acclimated to the US, unpack, repack, move to Fredericksburg and get back into journalism.

I’ve missed the writing, the pace, the newsroom.

May 23 | Valencia
Locals tell me I speak Spanish well — the cab driver in Barcelona, the waiter in Valencia. Just imagine how much better I’d be in a year.

FOOTNOTES
[1] Relevant
[2] I wasn’t

The plight of the central air-challenged

New York is the land of the haves and the have-nots: Those who have central air conditioning, and those who don’t.

The divide is stark. On the subway, there stand impeccably coiffed commuters while I struggle to hide the puddle of sweat pooling under my feet.

What heat? They seem to scoff. I still have goose bumps from my overactive centrally air-conditioned high rise on the corner of You Can’t Believe How Much I Pay for It and Just Because I Can.

The central air-challenged can dare face the wrath of the humid, heat island-laden New York summer, as long as they don’t mind lying in bed, hot air blowing across their sweaty limbs from an open window and two fans, one of which rattles loud enough for the person on the other end of the line to ask, “What is that?”

I did just that last week amid a heat wave.

Some nights it was cooler outside than it was in, the temperature in my apartment building rising the higher up I ventured. For the top-floor dweller, which would be me of course, it was gradual torture.

It didn’t help that my small room absorbs heat like a black sweater in the desert. Or that my window can only open as far as a block of wood can take it, given its absolute lack of ability to hold itself up.

“UGH,” I heard my roommate say not too far from where I sat.

He lay in bed with the lights off, his feet touching the floor.

“Are you… depressed?” I asked.

He’d had a rough day, worsened only by an arguably even rougher time installing our window units in our respective rooms. What initially seemed like our answer to the oppressive heat became nothing short of a tease.

Minutes after turning on our air conditioners, one of us fist-pumping in the noticeably cooler room, the power died.

Three times this happened, and each time the circuit breaker was unappeased by a change of outlet, an unplugged this or that, a lower setting. Three times we were doomed.

The first two instances I emerged from my room, laughing it off. “Must be a fluke,” I said. But by the third time it was clear it was a fruitless mission, the building far too old to simultaneously power two window units.

We talked to each other from our own rooms, too defeated for niceties.

“Are you sure it’s not unfair?” he said.

I’d just told him he should have his on for the night. I’d had an easy day and, despite it all, was in a great mood.

I paused.

“It’s fine.”

So there I was, wide awake at 4 a.m. unable to fall back asleep.

I’d say I tossed and turned, but that would have required too much energy. The sweat glands in parts of my body that I didn’t even know had sweat glands were working the night shift.

Memories of outages from simultaneous hair-drying with the former roommate resurfaced. If the circuit breaker couldn’t even take that, what made me think it could withstand two air conditioners?

My mind eventually wandered elsewhere.

I had delusions of camping out in the office. Of riding the air-conditioned subway ad infinitum. Of proposing to someone so long as he (or she) ensured we’d have properly insulated and cooled apartments in sickness and in health, and that we would move in together in that instant. Of mermaid transmogrification. Of cohabiting with my penguin brethren of the north (in the Bronx Zoo, that is).

When it’s hot, everything else is usurped by this predicament. Tossed aside are paying bills and cleaning the room you’ve neglected for months due to working too much and being out too much when you do find the time.

Googling the best places to position your fans and achieving sufficient airflow takes precedence. Which is what I did for hours, before and after my insomnia.

I was a barely functioning zombie for the rest of the day, though I somehow managed to churn out a story. I then decided to stay out that night long enough to render my body too tired to care about anything else but sleep when I returned.

It was an effective but costly endeavor. I’m still tired from it all.

Before you praise me for being an awesome roommate (which I am) and a lovely humanitarian (guilty, again), trust that my deed will not go unnoticed.

Just know the next time I have a crap day, and it’s ridiculously, sweltering hot out, my roommate better come bearing an inflatable pool, a bucket of rocky road ice cream, and an amazingly choreographed rain dance complete with artificial, strawberry-scented droplets.

He just doesn’t know it yet.

Edit: This entry made it to WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed: “The best of 375,963 bloggers,404,641 new posts, 414,724 comments, & 98,932,991 words posted today on WordPress.com.”

Thank you for all the great comments! 

E.B. White’s New York


Before moving to the city, I obsessively read about it.

Throughout my research, people often referenced E.B. White’s essay, “Here is New York.” I didn’t get a chance to read it until after I’d already moved, and perhaps it was better that way. Much of what he says can only be understood by experiencing it.

A former New Yorker, White wrote the essay on a visit in the summer of 1948. He recalled arriving in the city as a young writer, bolstered by his proximity to the giants of his field.  He had been living in Maine for quite some time by the time he wrote it, but his memories of the city remained vivid. Many of his observations are as true now as they were 60 years ago.

“To a New Yorker,” White writes, “the city is both changeless and changing.”

Seven other observations:

the gift of loneliness & the gift of privacy
“The strangers of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending on a good deal of luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

there are three new yorks:
the new york of commuters, of natives & of settlers.

“Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”

it is a work of art, a mystery.
“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniments of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

it’s for the ambitious.
“The city is always full of young worshipful beginners — young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers — each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants.”

it’s not for the weak.
“The city is uncomfortable and inconvenient; but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did they would live elsewhere.”

it’s a microcosm of the world.
“The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of the world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.”

it’s destructible.
“A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York.”

(About the image: Greenwich Village, 2007)

Edit: This post made it to WordPress’s Freshly Pressed for Oct. 7. Thanks, WordPress, and thanks to the wonderful comments!


Brief Encounters Sans Manolos

I’d spent much of the day wandering the villages.

As I walked from the West Village to Union Square to catch the NRQ, I chatted with Phil on the phone, bypassing plenty of promising visuals — a neat building here, a charming cafe there. My pictures from the day had been disappointing, and I didn’t have the energy to attempt further.

Then, there she was.

Looking up to cross the street, I’d spotted a petite woman to my left walking toward me. “That looks like…” I thought, staring just a second too long.

Fake celebrity sightings are wondrous for that second before reality hits. Before the person gives you a proper view of his nameless face; before she speaks in an accent reserved for much too distant lands; before he insists, “No, I’m not Justin fucking Timberlake. Now, give me back my shirt.”

In this case, there was no mistaking the stranger. Sure, instead of Manolos, she wore sneakers. And instead of a Patricia Fields concoction, she had on an ensemble so regular I can’t remember whether she wore jeans or gray capris. What gave her away, though, was her hair — blond and frizzy free — and that strut, a strut recognizable only to the legions of avid worshipers of a now-defunct show seriously marred by ill-conceived movies. Digressions aside, that suddenly didn’t matter. After all, I was crossing paths with Carrie Bradshaw herself.

New Yorkers are known for being aloof in situations that otherwise would be cause for concern. Homeless man bleeding to death on the street? Mugging in broad daylight? An impromptu a capella performance on the train? All just another ho-hum day in the city, and being in the presence of celebrities is no different.

I’ve often wondered how many I pass on a daily basis, as I’m usually too engrossed in my own inconsequential goings-on to pay attention. Unlike New Yorkers, however, I am unable to brush off such encounters when I do have them. There was that time I ran into Artie from “Glee” on a busy SoHo sidewalk. “Hey!” I said to him, my arm outstretched as if serving a platter. “Hey!” he said, smiling. Instant homies. Then there was the time outside a restaurant on the Lower East Side, where Phil and I saw that Joey Fatone lookalike from “Project Runway” whose name we couldn’t remember and dared not ask, especially because he was yelling obscenities about something or other. We resorted to shameless gawking.

Perhaps the gravest transgression I committed of the Stay Cool Around Celebrities Rule involved Katie Holmes. Let me preface this by saying it occurred before I moved to the city, so it shouldn’t be held against me. In fact, I was in town looking at my future apartment, so I was very much Tourist Girl Unaware of Unspoken Rule (TGUUR in subsequent references).

It was an alcohol-fueled night on the LES, and a few friends and I were on our last legs, standing around  trying to figure out where to go next. We watched two vehicles — a truck pulling a car — stop just in front of us at a red light. On the passenger side of the second vehicle sat Mrs. Cruise, her bob largely hidden by a hat. A cameraman hovered just above her. A typical New Yorker, observing the SCAC rule, would continue on her way, frustrated by the obstruction Katie Holmes’ brigade was causing in hailing a cab home. But I, a TGUUR, could not control my impulses.

“Katie Holmes!” I said. “It’s Katie Holmes!”

I ran to the middle of the street wielding my point-and-shoot and, inches from her face, gleefully snapped away. “Your flash is ruining our shot,” said the cameraman. “Please stop.” A few defiant snaps later, I walked back to the sidewalk, extremely proud of my brief foray into paparazzi-dom — the epitome of embarrassing TGUURs everywhere.

This time, within an arm’s reach of Carrie Bradshaw and without the mystical powers of alcohol to guide me, I engaged in no such tomfoolery. It was just me and her on that island; my heart stopped.

Should I take a picture? I wondered.

Give her a hug?

Sob uncontrollably?

Before I could reconcile my conflicting thoughts (Act cool! Take a picture! Wave awkwardly!), she’d already crossed the street.

“Hello?” I heard Phil say[1].

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

Not quite the cool indifference of a New Yorker, but some progress nonetheless.

FOOTNOTES back to post
[1] He later told me he thought I’d gotten mugged by how abruptly and how long I’d stopped talking.

(About the image: Christopher Street, West Village)