Ten Things

“This time of year most of us are busy feeling like shit because a whole year is almost over,” the great Delia Cai wrote on our group wall. “We’re supposed to plan exactly how much better we’ll be the next 365 days, which seems to discount all the amazing things we accomplished in the past 12 months.”

This was back in December when, indeed, I was feeling like garbage for exactly the reasons she’d proffered. Sure, I’d accomplished some of my goals, but others still seemed distant. A whole year had gone by, and I still wasn’t editor in chief of the New Yorker or something. What had I been doing for 12 months? But, because she is a magical form of fairy godmother, here was Delia giving me a chance for redemption:

“The prompt is: List 10 things from this year that you’re proud of. There have to be at least 10 because you guys are impressive no matter what you say.”

Three of those things are NSFW, but here are seven things I did in 2015 that I’m proud of. (And if you’re feeling similarly dejected about your achievements this past year, I recommend writing to this prompt; you’ll impress yourself with your own greatness.)

I kept my cat alive. I own a tiny, furry creature that depends completely upon me for survival. If I don’t come home, she doesn’t eat. If she gets sick, I take her to the vet and subsequently shove little tiny pills down her little tiny throat. There’s no safety net; I’m solely responsible for her happiness and her well-being.

I figured out what networking is. My dad (a businessman) used to nag me about networking. He’d tell me to play the system—to spin things in my favor as much as possible. I’d push back: “What’s wrong with just submitting an application and letting it go? That’s what everyone else does; I’m just following the rules.” But I wasn’t—I was making things harder for myself. I’ve come to understand that networking isn’t leeching off other people or being manipulative; it’s asking for small favors and connections and always always offering something in return.

I accepted my own face. For so long I carried around a false image of myself that most closely resembled Twiggy. Then, when I glimpsed myself in some reflective surface like a spoon or a dark window, I’d be profoundly disappointed. This year I took a hard look at my actual face: big nose, thin lips, big eyes, butt chin. I came to terms with what I actually look like, so much so that I also chopped all my hair off. This is my final form. If you don’t like it, leave.

I wrote a lot, and I wrote long. This year I wrote two 3,000-word features, one for Vulture and one for Slate. Both were about pop culture, both took months of reporting and re-structuring, and both were widely shared. I’m proud of that kind of work. I’m also proud of the sheer number of stories I’ve produced this year—not just few-paragraph write-ups but actual worthwhile pieces with analysis and insight.

I went to Israel. One day in mid-November I got a text from my sister that read, “Come to Israel with me!” My immediate response was, “That sounds like a terrible idea.” “It’s free,” she replied, which swayed me a little, but I still though it was too dangerous and too last-minute, not to mention I’d be hanging out with a bunch of college kids for 10 days in a foreign country. But she called and begged and I paid the deposit and boarded the plane. The “bunch of college kids” (albeit the older ones) ended up being some of my closest friends. I fell almost as much in love with Israel as I am with New York. I saw dozens of Israeli cities and landmarks, slept in a tent, rode a camel, floated Buddha-style in the Dead Sea, climbed some mountains, drank cheap wine, and did not sleep. I miss it already. (More to come on the trip itself.) Going was completely out of character for me and also one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I cooked. These past few months were some of the busiest of my life, which made it difficult to resist buying lunch every day or eating out all the time. Nevertheless I can honestly say that I consistently brought lunch to work and dinner to my night classes. I’m not saying I cooked a wide variety of things (my repertoire consists of things like lentil soup, chili, hard-boiled eggs, banana bread, a few casseroles, and spinach salad), but I did cook consistently and consume my creations, however inadvisable.

I finished graduate school. With good grades even, although let’s face it: no one cares about your grades in grad school. I also realized that I’ve been working full-time this semester while taking two of the most difficult courses of my graduate career (yes, there are only two, but they’re both four hours long). I’m proud of myself for dragging my exhausted, battered corpse over the finish line.

 

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Ten Things

Lessons from Eve

If I had my priorities in order I would write something profound about what a beautiful, emotional Pride weekend it’s been, particularly due to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. Instead, I’m going to write about my cat because I need a mental holiday and this supplies it. 

Here are some strange things my cat does: Nap in the sink (bathroom or kitchen, either will do), launch brutal, unprovoked vampire attacks on my arms and legs, meow like she’s being tortured for no apparent reason, lick the insides of the chicken packets, plant her ass in my face, vindictively swipe magnets off of my fridge. I like to think that with each trial she’s teaching me a valuable lesson. Here are some things I’ve learned over the course of owning her for almost a year.

1. Scream until someone notices you.

And if they look at you and then look away, scream louder. Scream until they’re staring. Don’t stop, and don’t draw breath.

2. Get in people’s faces.

If screaming alone fails, combine it with this tactic.

3. Sleep whenever possible.

In addition, master the art of staying asleep and/or sleeping in the most inconvenient location possible. On someone’s leg, for example, or on a keyboard.

4. Unless it’s night time.

There are so many things to do at night! Do them all!

5. When it comes to entertainment, innovate.

Who needs the fancy cat toys that litter the floor when you have twisty-ties or bubble wrap or boxes? Who needs a scratching post when you have a whole couch?

6. Stay cryptic. 

Never tell anyone what’s bothering you. If they really love you, they’ll figure it out.

7. Mark your territory.

Excrement and fur balls work equally well.

8. If you see something clean, mess it up.

Clinically tidy spaces are no fun.

9. Take some time each day to stare out the window.

It’s meditative. (For best results, increase the amount of time allotted to this activity each day. Build up to hours.)

10. Look cute all the time.

It’s the one fool-proof method to get away with anything.

Lessons from Eve

On Bags

It’s 10:43 a.m. and I’m late. I’m supposed to meet a friend at the Brooklyn Museum at 11, but my cat was needy this morning, and today’s dour sky doesn’t invite pedestrians.

Nevertheless, I grab a beige shoulder bag from the door hook and make a mental list of what I’ll need: Wallet? Yes. Keys? Yes. Headphones? For sure. Book? I’ll probably get bored on the train. Water bottle? I’m always dehydrated. Comb? Compact? Mini lint roller? Advil? Each item sails into the bag. By the time I’m finished it’s the close cousin of a bowling ball, both in size and shape. I grab a jacket too, just in case. And a granola bar. And an umbrella. And then I leave.

My mid-sized bag, the aforementioned beige one, is meant to limit the amount of stuff I carry with me–for really massive hauls I have the Big Black Tote. Ideally, I’d carry as little around the museum as possible because bags are heavy, and shoulder strain can really distract from the paintings. Intellectually I know this, but some inner compulsion demands that I prepare for every foreseeable circumstance: dehydration, starvation, boredom, lint. I blame myself to some extent, but mostly I blame bags.

It’s rare to see a woman without a bag. Especially in New York, The Bag is as much fashion accessory as it is utilitarian carry-all. The perfect bag cherry-tops the perfect outfit; ideally, it coordinates with your shoes. (“Goes with” is the term What Not to Wear‘s Stacy London prefers, never “matches.”) Entire design houses–Coach, Birkin, Burberry, Louis Vuitton–became household names thanks to handbags and still rely on handbag sales as revenue cornerstones. (Prada just released the Inside Bag, retailing at $39,760, in hopes it will reverse declining leather goods sales.)

It’s difficult to pinpoint why bags irritate me the way they do. Perhaps it’s because I’m always cramming too much into mine. Perhaps it’s because they seem inherently sexist–a frivolous accessory designed to make up for the lack of substantial pocket space in women’s jeans. (Sure, plenty of dudes carry briefcases to work, but when they’re not packing laptops and paperwork their keys, chapstick, and phones fit fine into their roomy pockets. Even though handbag sales for men are reportedly on the rise, the fact remains that bags for men are seen as extraneous, while bags for women are akin to an extra limb.)

Perhaps it’s because of the sheer weight, both physical and psychological, that handbags impose on their carriers. A stuffed bag is a restriction. When I’m carrying a heavy shoulder bag, I tire easily. I sweat more. I can’t accomplish side tasks; it’s straight to my destination and straight home lest I keel over from the effort of keeping my heavy bag aloft.

My bag holds me responsible. If someone near me needs Advil or a comb or toothpaste or lotion or dental floss or a nail file or deodorant or gum (but no moochers) or contact solution or a tampon or powder or lipstick or an umbrella, I’m their go-to gal. (Note: That’s not even the full list of things I regularly carry with me.) I am a mature, responsible adult, therefore I carry supplies. If I’m caught without any of these items, it’s my fault. I have been careless. I have failed.

My bag makes me vulnerable, not only to the accusatory voices inside my head, but also to flesh-and-blood people. It’s easy to grab a purse or cut its strap or nick a trinket from the yawning mouth of a tote. Carrying too many things screams abundance, and flashy hardware is austentatious. An expensive bag is a status symbol. Heavy bags make running difficult.

For a while I simply tried to pack less, but that never worked. So I went drastic. Yesterday I left my apartment around noon to buy eggs at the corner deli. I slung a jean jacket (pocket level: 4) on over my summer dress and grabbed my phone, keys, and $10. And then I left.

Bag-less, I descended the stairs in minor crisis mode. What if my lips felt chapped? What if it started to rain? What if I wanted to listen to music? My over-preparedness instincts screamed at me to about-face, to pack at least a few extras, just in case. I ignored them. My arms hung loosely by my sides.

On Bags

Live from the ER

I wrote this essay a while back and, because lately I only have time for half-formed thoughts when it comes to blogging, am posting it here in lieu of actually coming up with new content. Please forgive me for taking the easy way out, and enjoy.

***

My mother’s first serious surgical operation was two months ago. Appendicitis isn’t cancer or heart failure or a stroke—about 7 percent of the world’s population (roughly 50 million people) will develop appendicitis over the course of their lives—but when my sister and I received a group text that read, “Going to the ER with excruciating abdominal pain,” we freaked.

Strangely, she didn’t.

“Is anyone going with you?” my sister asked.

Mom: “Soloing.”

Me: “How are you driving?”

Mom: “Carefully.”

A later progress report from mom read, “Blood drawn, IV in, urine out. Had CAT scan with IV injection of dye to photo guts. Overnight stay.”

Sister: “Should we come home?”

We’re both far from our native Texas—she in Colorado and I in New York.

Mom: “Nah, I should be home tomorrow.”

Two months later, staring up at an ugly tile ceiling in a gown patterned with blue paisley, I marveled at her blasé hospital texts. That night a thin, flexible tube was maneuvered into her abdomen. One of her organs was carved into teeny slivers and sucked out of the cavity of her torso, string by string, like jack-o-lantern goop.

Now, I lay awaiting a verdict on whether my ovarian cyst (“That’s a big one!” the ultrasound nurse had exclaimed) would need a similar procedure.

Just thinking about the process—the tube, the scalpel, the slivers of tissue extracted like parasitic worms—was enough to sink a cold lead ball into the pit of my stomach. I started hyperventilating. I called my mom. “One second,” I said when she answered. “I’m lying down and there are tears flowing into my ear. They’re getting my phone wet.” A pause to wipe them away. Then, “I’m scared,” I said.

“I know,” she replied. “I was, too.”

Her only other surgery had been the extraction of her wisdom teeth. She’d had them yanked in her 40s when I was just ten. To me and my sister, mom’s bed rest was free entertainment. We knotted the waist of a pair of panty hose, filled both legs with ice (to reduce swelling), tied the toes around her head, fashioned a construction paper top hat and called her Abe Lincoln.

I’d been too young then to understand the gravitas of surgery—to realize that the slight tremor in her voice pre-op meant she was on edge. She hid her fear 12 years ago as she did two months ago, to keep her footing as indelible matriarch.

Granted she didn’t want to worry her two far-flung children—didn’t want to inconvenience us by suggesting we travel to be with her—but she also played the hospital visit off to her co-workers and students. “I’m fine,” was her constant refrain, and she was back at work the next week. Minus a few sympathy bouquets, her absent appendix was soon forgotten.

To be ill is to admit, shamefacedly, to weakness. If we do fall ill, some ingrained vein of stoicism keeps us from admitting to what extent the fever, the cough, the vomiting, the surgery, the tests, shake us.

When a friend of mine got the flu in January, she refused all deliveries of soup and offers to accompany her to a nearby clinic. “I’m fine,” she insisted, citing the 40-minute ride from Manhattan to Williamsburg to encourage me to stay home. It didn’t matter that her body was rebelling against her in every way, returning her to a state of childlike dependence and even to a childlike diet (broth and soft foods only).

Worse, our gut reaction is to apologize to others for our illnesses. “I’m so sorry if I cough at you,” an interview subject told me recently. “I’m just getting over a bug.” Last week, one of my professors did the same as she took her seat at the head of class, “I’m so sorry, but I seem to have gotten another cold.”

We do our best to cancel out the burdenhood of illness with stoicism, and if that doesn’t work we fall back on a constant flow of apologies. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I found myself repeating to the ER nurse as she drew blood from my arm. I was crying, and I was embarrassed. No one says of the sobbing 22-year-old, “she was such a good patient.” That label is reserved for the jovial happy-go-lucky types who don’t put up a fuss.

Feverish, sweating under piles of blankets next to our overcrowded nightstands (somehow they always fill up when we’re sick: thermometer, tissue box, magazine, half-drained lukewarm vat of Emergen-C), we nonetheless perch laptops on our knees to answer emails and G-chats. Somehow the struggle justifies staying home. Such dedication! Such vigor! Dear co-workers, you are not abandoned!

But your undertakings are more for you than for them. “I was in the ER all day today, so I might be in late tomorrow,” I emailed my supervisor, never dreaming she’d reply with, “Stay at home! Rest!” In other words, we’ll be fine without you.

Whether grave or glancing, illness forces us high overhead until we’re looking down at the puzzle that is our life, and the piece we occupy in it. When we’re sick, who notices our absence? Who looks worried? Will someone feed the cat? How will the life we’ve built around ourselves continue while we’re sidelined? Quite simply, it will continue. And that’s scary.

My convalescence only lasted a day during which I caught up on emails, called worried family members, wrapped up a few assignments, bought cat litter, and swept my apartment. The next day I was back in class, fervently apologizing for sending a pitch in late.

Live from the ER

The Girl in the Woman Suit

I’m 22 years old, but I’m 12. I’m 5’4″ and shop at J. Crew, but I’m 4’8″ and the only clothes that fit me are sold at Abercrombie Kids. I cry when I read that ISIS has beheaded another hostage, but I laugh at Adventure Time. Somewhere along the way I grew up, and I’m not sure how.

For the last spring break of my academic career, I went to visit my mom’s parents in St. Louis. I used to drive the two hours (but really the hour-and-a-half because I took the highways at 85) there from Mizzou on weekends when I needed a refuge. I’d spent summers at their house since I was three, and the piney, sweet smell of their walls meant I was safe and happy and there would be a dark chocolate Hershey’s Kiss waiting for me on my pillow. I used their creaky old home as a refuge; spending time there was like floating in an impenetrable bubble 10 feet off the ground. Nothing could touch me.

In a mad dash toward that feeling, I took a plane from Laguardia to Lambert and was relieved to find my grandparents waiting, open-armed and unchanged. The same fragrance filled their old house, the same bed was mine, and the same chocolate awaited me just where I knew I’d find it. Familiarity breeds content, and I’ve never been one for surprises.

I had almost five days there to hide from my commitments in New York. My mom drove up from Texas and was there to greet me too. She took me underwear shopping. Then it was my birthday, and I could have anything I wanted. We went to the restaurant that had been my favorite when I was six, and I ordered the same spaghetti and meatballs I’d ordered every visit since my first, except the recipe for the marinara sauce was different.

Then, disaster: It was going to snow in New York Friday, and my flight that afternoon was canceled. I panicked and called Southwest. Was there any other flight to Laguardia that day? No, but there was one Thursday night. Tonight. In an effort to eek more time out of my last day in St. Louis, I had already packed.

Time was ripped away from me as my mother and I sped in her sequoia–the car I’d crashed at 16 just after I got my licensee and have to heave myself into to this day because we never replaced the running boards–to the airport. The end of the end of breaks had arrived too soon.

Before you’re released into the real world, you have a concrete concept of home. It’s where your parents are, where your bed is still made in the sheets you chose, and your walls are still painted poinsettia red. It’s where your mom lives, and your books, and your aging cat, the one you picked out at age seven and named after a character in a “Boxcar Children” book. But then you’re 22 and home isn’t that anymore. It’s of your own making. It’s the place to which you return, exhausted, after work every evening. It’s where you’ve stored extra food in the freezer just in case, and where your own cat waits, meowing to be fed.

It’s not the cushy respite of your parent’s house, where you’re loved and welcomed and where you can take a break for a bit from the crushing world. It’s where you pay the bills, because this is adulthood or bust.

The Girl in the Woman Suit

The Opportunist

An opportunistic pathogen takes advantage of your body’s weakened state to launch its attack. This type of disease only affects a host with a compromised immune system. If you’re healthy, you’ll be left alone.

Opportunistic infections are egged on by things like fatigue, malnutrition, skin damage and recurrent infections. They spring up at the worst moments to kick us while we’re down. In other words, they’re much like journalists.

Journalists–and writers in general–are opportunists. Or, the good ones are. They know a good story when they hear one, whether it’s a snatch of conversation in a shadowy cocktail bar or a loud altercation on the subway or a bit of gossip passed on by a friend. They’re not opportunistic to the point that they damage the host, but they recognize moments of weakness or novelty and use them to their advantage.

Here’s the trouble: My opportunistic instincts are crap.

When Clay Felker launched New York magazine in 1968, he did it with almost zero support. The main reason he succeeded was because he was his own best reporter. He got himself invited to important high-society events, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend every evening out. At those events and during those evening excursions he found his inspiration; he carried a notepad around with him and scribbled down, even mid-conversation, anything that sounded promising.

He got the hot gossip, the weird scoops, and commissioned people like Tom Wolfe to write madcap things like “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” about Leonard Bernstein hosting a party for the Black Panthers in his home. Seriously, no one else thought to cover these things before Felker rolled around.

Other writers tout the benefits to keeping a notebook all the time. Joan Didion wrote a whole, beautiful essay on the merits of keeping a notebook. It’s called, fittingly, “On Keeping a Notebook.

“See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.”

I do keep a notebook, but it isn’t passage to anywhere. I carry it around and fill it up, sure, with little snatches of limericks that bore into my brain during class or grocery lists or doodles of Onion Girl. “You’re so wrapped up in layers, Onion Girl, you’re afraid of your own feelings,” reads the Shrek-inspired caption, but Onion Girl won’t give me my next pitch. My notebook is a garbage dump for my mental overflow, not a genius-level idea goldmine.

In my longform essay class (because yes I am still in school, much as it doesn’t feel that way sometimes), we are charged with writing a single, 3,500-word essay by the end of term. The subtext of this prompt, at least for me, is that the essay should be the single most glorious and life-affirming thing I have ever written, should be picked up eagerly by the New Yorker, should put my name on the map as a writer, and should perhaps win me a pulitzer, but maybe that’s a stretch we’ll see.

Giving birth to that essay topic was akin to giving birth to a human child. I paced and agonized. I sweated and moaned and strained. I couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t settle to anything, couldn’t feel at ease until the idea had popped fully-formed out of my head. In other words, for a few days I was very unpleasant to be around.

The Idea came eventually, though were I to write it here it would seem anticlimactic. But the whole ordeal was a jarring reminder of Onion Girl, of my pretty, useless notebook full of brain garbage.

This is the part where I tell you about how I’ll improve–how I’ll get a new notebook and record brilliant scenes and tidbits and tips to use later in the production of brilliant work for brilliant magazines. But the truth is, it’ll probably take time. Sure, I can treat myself to my first molskine from the store down the street, but becoming an opportunist is about practice. It’s about honing in on things and remembering them. It’s about knowing, Clay Felker style, what makes a good story.

It’s about recognizing in the moment that something is intriguing, that you want to know more, and that others will, too.

The Opportunist

Eve Tells All

Today is Friday the 13th, and it’s also Eve’s first birthday. When I adopted her in November the vet estimated her age at seven months, meaning she was born mid February. I chose the 13th as her birthday, partly as a distraction from the following day, and partly on the off chance it was ever a Friday. And no, I hadn’t checked this year’s calendar.

Because Eve’s birthday, Friday the 13th, and #FreeWriteFriday coincide this year, I thought I’d give you a day in the life of my cat. Yeah I’m obsessed, but she also dictates my daily operations in a way I didn’t anticipate.

7:15 a.m. – I leap onto human’s stomach. When this fails to illicit a reaction, I meow loudly into her left ear, then her right. I rub my face against hers. Purrr.

7:17 a.m. – I leap away to avoid a right-handed swat.

7:20 a.m. – I redouble my efforts. I lick her nose, bat her chin, and continue to yowl in a manner that suggests the apocalypse. If I don’t get food soon, someone will die.

7:30 a.m. – Human moves. I mew appreciatively and nip at her heels as she plods into the kitchen, mechanically scoops breakfast into my bowl, and starts the coffee maker. I know it is a coffee maker because it makes coffee.

8:00 a.m. – Human turns on warm steam especially for me. I perch on the edge of the smooth white basin and watch her work white foam through her sad tiny hair patch. I stare at her in judgement. Why not use her tongue?

8:15 a.m. – Human steps out of the basin, and I leap in. I lick as many water droplets from the floor of the basin as possible. Delicious.

8:17 a.m. – Human opens the sweater drawer, so I jump in. I nest there until she pulls me out. So rude.

8:30 a.m. – A sizzling sounds comes from too high up for me to see. I leap onto the counter to look. Human looks dumb when she screams and flails her arms like that. It is very warm up here. I poke my nose toward the heat, curious…

8:31 a.m. – On the bed where human has dumped me unceremoniously. I have found a patch of warm yellow light. I close my eyes and soak it in.

8:55 a.m. – What? Huh? Of course I’m awake.

9:05 a.m. – Human is paying attention to something that is not me. I meow very loud until loud she turns her head. That’s better.

9:07 a.m. – The thing that isn’t me is a silver hinge with lots of small squares and a large screen. The screen flashes different colors. I leap at it. Human does the dumb arm-flapping thing again.

9:30 a.m. – Human is in the tile-floor room. I hear water running. Second breakfast. I race into the room and leap up onto the sink just in time to butt human’s head out of the way. I lap up the water stream with my tongue. She spits onto her sweater instead.

9:31 a.m. – Back on the bed. She seems displeased.

9:45 a.m. – Human dons puffy black layer and heads for the door. Nooooooooooo don’t leeeeeeaaavvvvveeeeeeeeeee…

10:00 a.m. – She left. Back to the warm patch of light.

***

3:00 p.m. – The light is gone, and I am cold. I stretch, then spring onto the windowsill. I observe my kingdom with the calm demeanor of a true ruler.

3:15 p.m. – I leap down and run across to the kitchen window. Two friends wait in the window across the way. We twitch tails at each other and meow through the glass. Our daily discussion on the world economy, politics, and global domination has commenced.

4:00 p.m. – Friends retreat from the window, so I follow suit. Time for lunch. Ug, leftovers.

4:05 p.m. – Eating makes me tired.

***

6:10 p.m. – Human is back; woke me up with loud stomping and shuffling. So rude. But maybe she will feed me dinner. I meow at her ankles until she notices, then fills my bowl.

6:15 p.m. – Human is playing with the glowing screen again. I jump onto her lap and shove my head into her armpit. Purrr

6:17 p.m. – Back on the bed.

6:18 p.m. – She will not pay attention to me, so I claw the couch until she does.

6:19 p.m. – I dodge a fountain of water from that awful spray bottle. I take a flying leap and peer down at the human from atop her bookshelf. Her arms are flapping again.

7:00 p.m. – Bored. I discover a small black furry object that escapes my paw as soon as I lunge for it.

7:02 p.m. – Black furry object seems to be attached to my body.

7:03 p.m. – Tail. It is my tail.

***

9:15 p.m. – Human sits on the couch with a book. I climb into her lap. I’m feeling tired again, so I curl onto her thighs and rest my chin on her knee. She scratches me behind the ear.

10:15 p.m. – Human shifts an inch to the left, so I leap down in protest. I run into the tile-floor room then all the way back to the couch as fast as I can. I jump up two shelves, then down to the floor, then up four shelves, then back down, then onto the bed, under the bed, wrestle with suitcase straps, rush out again, scratch my scratching post, then the couch, dodge the water, claw the rug, dodge the water, run to the kitchen, leap into the sink, lick at the faucet, dodge the water, back to the bathroom, tackle the bath mat, sprint through the shower curtains, race back under the bed and wait, holding still.

10:20 p.m. – Human’s foot approaches. Wait for it…

10:21 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:24 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:25 p.m.POUNCE!

10:26 p.m. – Human wails. I run and hide behind the sink.

***

11:10 p.m. – Human is a lump under blankets. It is dark. I jump lightly onto the bed and curl up in the crook of her left knee.

Eve Tells All

Book Review: The Magicians

Take Harry Potter, uproot him from Hogwarts, and drop him in Brooklyn. Add six additional years to his 11, resurrect his parents but make them indifferent, and give him a serious case of teenage angst and depression.

That just about gives you Quentin Coldwater, the sometimes-hero-sometimes-antihero of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” Quentin’s world is the dark, seedy underbelly of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy–Hogwarts with sex, drugs, and a much thinner line between good and evil. The first in Grossman’s trilogy, “The Magicians” complicates magic with startlingly realistic characters who don’t always know what they want and don’t always do the right thing.

The novel’s dark nature is evidenced by its opening scene: Quentin, as yet unaware of the magical world that’s about to consume his life, is on his way to a Princeton interview with his friend James. When they arrive at the interviewer’s house, they find him dead on the floor.

His death serves as a mechanism to transport Quentin to Brakebills, a prestigious magic academy somewhere in upstate New York. He takes a grueling wizard test, passes, and winds up studying magic there for three years. Magic at Brakebills doesn’t involve wands, and its study is intense, all-consuming hard work. Quentin and his classmates memorize foreign languages, incantations, and hand motions. Each spell is cast according to “conditions:” which moon is foremost in the sky that day, which direction they’re facing, which wind is blowing from the south.

In this academic setting, Quentin makes friends, develops an enormous crush on Alice, a gifted spellcaster, and altogether escapes his old life in Brooklyn. At first he’s relieved to be at Brakebills. He’s spent his whole life waiting for something remarkable to happen, and this is finally it. Brakebills is the cure to his longing, his depression, and his disappointment in the world.

At least, until it isn’t. Eventually Quentin becomes disenchanted and begins to crave whatever comes “next.” He’s destined to be a hero, he’s sure of it. But Alice warns him about post-grad life for wizards. There’s no enormous evil to conquer. There’s no grand adventure. They’ll have to devote their lives to some beneficent cause, something like global diplomacy or the hunger crisis. Otherwise, all that awaits them is nothingness.

Grossman weaves in a thread of darkness that persists throughout the novel. At Brakebills students die, disappear, and go insane. Professors aren’t infallible or all-knowing–Some display a cool indifference toward the students that’s alarming. Grossman’s magical world is as cold and cruel as the real one, but its stakes are higher.

The book is divided into three parts; the first is spent at Brakebills, and the second is after graduation. Post-grad life is cruel to Quentin, Alice, and the rest. They move to New York City where, with nothing better to do, they party all night and sleep all day. Alcohol and drugs, the hallmarks of boredom, tie the young wizards inextricably to non-magical life.

But everything changes (again) in the third part, which takes place in a magical land called Fillory. A fellow Brakebills alum seeks out the group to reveal that the “Fillory and Further” books, which they all read as children (a Chronicles-of-Narnia-esque series in which a group of kids travels to Fillory, goes on magical adventures, and then returns to reality), are real. Fillory exists. By way of magic button, off they all go to Fillory in the name of grand adventure.

It turns out that wizardhood doesn’t qualify them for heroics. Fillory is unexpectedly brutal, and its characters are violent and strange. The young wizards are hopelessly outmatched, and flinch at the sight of gore to the point that they seem pathetic. They aren’t heroes, and they bumble their way through an adventure that’s too big for them.

As for Quentin, his longing wasn’t satisfied by Brakebills, wasn’t cured post graduation, and isn’t even squelched by Fillory–the place he’s waited his whole life to see. His disenchantment haunts him, and Alice finally calls him out for being “the asshole who can’t even be happy in Fillory.” Happiness is a choice, she says, not a magical spontaneous occurrence.

Although Quentin’s sense of under appreciation  permeates “The Magicians,” the world Grossman creates is nothing short of awesome. He brings new, complicated layers to a tried-and-tested scenario, and manages to add a healthy dose of personal drama to the mix. Common threads run through greater conflicts, making the magical world believable: Neglectful parents, unrequited love, relationship drama, mental health. Each character has their own demon to deal with, and each wrestles with it in ways that show their flaws.

They’re not perfect, and neither is the magical world they inhabit. Each is real enough to be tangible, to capture the reader’s attention, and to keep it.

Book Review: The Magicians

2015: High Resolution

“That’s the most cliché blog post, like, ever,” was my sister’s response when she heard me say I wanted to write about New Year’s resolutions. Yes, it’s cliché; thousands of people do the same thing every year. But A) this is also a space for me to organize my own thoughts, and B) maybe, just maybe, someone will stumble upon this post, be inspired, and decide to implement some of my resolutions into their own life. It’s 2015; anything can happen.

Here are some ways I’ll attempt to get my life together this year. May you find them entertaining and informative.

Things to do more of:

1. Blogging. Yeah.

2. Reviewing books. Because that’s supposed to be good for my career aspirations or something.

4. Reading great writers. Because you emulate what you absorb.

5. Getting rid of things I don’t use. Does anyone else get a strange high from doing this? As I move to smaller and smaller spaces, I’m increasingly obsessed with reducing my possessions. Hello, Goodwill.

6. Writing letters. I do this now, but not enough. Dead serious: If you want letters, send me your address. And if you haven’t responded to one of mine, I have a great suggestion for your 2015 resolution list…

7. Emoting. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to communicate to the great people in my life how much they mean to me. I love all of you, always. Along with this, I’d like to do a better job staying in touch with people.

Things to do less of:

1. Over-scheduling. I can go a bit iCal crazy, and it’s bad for my sanity. If you see me running harried through the streets, remind me to space out social engagements and interviews, and that managing my time is equivalent to managing my stress.

2. Staring at glowing screens. I do this on the daily for my internship(s). When I’m off, I want to do it less.

3. Mincing words. I’d rather be blunt, bold, and go after exactly what I want.

4. Being body conscious. It’s unproductive and depressing and there’s not much I can do to change who’s in the mirror.

Things to start:

1. A personal newsletter. It’s called “Keynotes,” and in it I gather great writing from the corners of the Internet and deliver it to your inbox every month. You should totally resolve to subscribe.

2. Yoga. City living is stressful, and every once in a while it’s nice to concentrate on nothing but your breath for an hour. Failing this, dance classes will do.

3. Meal planning. As it is, the grab-n-go lifestyle isn’t really working for me. If anyone has any healthy meal planning tips, please share!

4. Responding to emails within 24 hours. This almost never happens. I am the worst.

Full disclosure: This title was inspired by Ann Friedman’s New Year newsletter because she is the greatest at titles. 

2015: High Resolution

Playground Games

When the shout came from behind, it was deafening: “GET HER!”

It was an order, and it was not to be questioned. Spurred on by the taller boy’s screamed encouragement, the shorter came pelting after me. I turned and ran onto the playground.

My kindergarten class got an hour of recess every day which, when it comes to kindergarteners, is pretty inspired. Tire them out so they can’t misbehave in the classroom. Make a mess of the playground instead of the teacher’s desk. Throw soft, spongy dodge balls at each other instead of wooden blocks or dollhouse furniture.

I hated recess. I hated the sweat and the running around and how there was always a line for the swings. I’d race the others to the swing set (just because I hated to run didn’t mean I was slow) and, if someone got there before me, would find a quiet patch in the shade and build fairy houses in the dirt instead.

That day, Preston Sherer and Ben Jones sent me running for a different reason. Preston was the leader; he was tall, popular, and charismatic. The other boys thought he was cool because he made loud, rude farting noises in class and brought in the best toys from home. Ben was shorter, slighter, and needed a belt to cinch his hand-me-down shorts around his waist. He was quieter than Preston, but unquestionably his minion. Both boys had bowl haircuts. After all, this was the 90’s.

Both boys were also fast. Preston was faster, but he wasn’t running. Instead, he watched Ben’s progress and sauntered lazily some yards behind, still shouting. Ben tore after me as I ran like a hunted animal across the woodchips, through the swings, around the tires, up the stairs, and onto the bridge of the jungle gym. I thought I was safe there because if he came up one side, I’d go down the other.

He watched me up there for a minute, catching his breath. I smiled and waved, my courage restored from my vantage point. Then Preston caught up and manned the second set of stairs. I was trapped.

I made a snap decision. Quick as a lynx I bounded down from the bridge and leapt to the ground only inches in front of Ben’s surprised face. The chase was on again. I ran around a soccer field, over a small creek, through a wooded area that was technically off-limits, and across the basketball court before he caught me.

In the dirt yard just in front of the silver double doors that spit us screaming and squealing outside each day, Ben made a grab for my red skirt. I refused to wear pants in those days—only skirts and dresses—and this was my undoing. He caught the hem and brought me tumbling down into the dust. He fell across my extended legs. We were both panting. I’d scraped a knee and could feel the tears behind my eyes welling up, about to spill over.

Preston came ambling up behind us completely at ease. He looked down at our pile of tangled, dusty, bloodied limbs and laughed. At his approach Ben sat up. I struggled away from him but ended up on my back, pinned down by Ben’s knees on my skirt and his hands on my wrists. I looked up, terrified. They’d caught their prey. What would they do with it?

Preston looked at us there in the dirt. Maybe our pose recalled some illicit movie scene he’d watched with his older brother Trevor (another sandbox bully), or maybe he just wanted, childishly, to test forbidden waters for the thrill. Whatever the reason, he gave Ben a simple instruction.

“Kiss her.”

My fate was sealed. My eyes widened. I struggled, but it was no use. For a moment Ben looked uncertain. Kiss me? Here on my back in the dust in broad daylight? Maybe it seemed an odd climax to the chase. But he was six years old, so he did what he was told.

His lips came toward me and I struggled harder, like a washed-up fish flopping on land. I turned my head a fraction of a second too late—his lips found mine. They were hard, puckered, and chapped. He smelled like goldfish and tasted like dust.

In half a second it was over. Ben got up, blushing, and wiped the playground dirt off his too-big shorts. I scampered to my feet, too upset to cry, and fled for the safety of trees. There I crouched, back to a fence, waving a stick in case they should come after me again.

They didn’t. They left me alone, a scared animal in hiding.

The kiss part didn’t seem as threatening to me then as it does now. Sure, it was gross—every six-year-old girl knows about cooties. And anything is unpleasant when it’s done against your will. But Ben was nice enough, and I liked his blonde hair and watery blue eyes. Preston was a pig, but Ben was all right.

But at age six I didn’t understand their motivation. Why had the chase ended in a coerced kiss? Why had Preston chosen that as his ultimate punishment? Even at that age, the two boys felt a surge of confidence from overpowering me. I had no choice, and it thrilled them. They didn’t know why it thrilled them any more than I did—maybe it was imitation, or maybe it was instinct.

Maybe these two little boys were mimicking scenes from their own lives—Dad dominating Mom, older brothers pressuring girlfriends, images from TV, movies, or video games. It’s no secret that women are hyper sexualized in mass media, and that youth culture absorbs the concept almost without realizing it.

Whatever motivated those two boys on that playground on that particularly hot and dusty day, they couldn’t have known the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t have known that, years later, I’d still be that animal with her back against the wall, walking home with my finger on the trigger of my pepper spray, carrying a torch for them all this time.

Playground Games