Playing fast and loose with the word “wisdom”: A listicle.

Wisdom gained after having been in the city 6 months:

One:

Refused to take plastic bag from grocery store this week even though had forgotten to bring own bag. Carrying groceries home in arms like misshapen infant, dropped bottle of Kraft salad dressing. Accidentally kicked bottle halfway down the street. Bottle completely unscathed. Congratulations on your extremely durable salad dressing bottles, Kraft.

Wisdom gained: in apocalypse, build shelter of Kraft bottles. Possible advantage of having a lot of condiments in case of having to eat other survivors.

Two:

It’s hard to make friends. It’s easy to meet a lot of people and be friendly to them. How does an adult make a friend? My first friend and I became friends because she liked to pretend that she was a dog and I liked to pretend that I was a dog owner. I don’t think this would qualify as a basis for adult friendship, and even if it did, I’m not that into dogs.

Wisdom gained: Steer clear of bestial tendencies, even at the price of urban alienation.

Three:

Dating everyone who asks you out on public transit, Tinder, at the bar is an ineffective method of making friends. It might actually make you negative friends, if you count all the people in your current city who have a latent, unfocused dislike for you as minuses.

Wisdom gained: Be nice to men, they’re people too.

Four:

Being a person is hard. As a person who loves fiction, I think it’s easy to have heavy illusions about this particular fact.

Being a character is easy. Someone gives you a unique sense of style, and an apartment with pictures in it, and hobbies, and the ability to discern between different types of wine and cigars, they give you quirks that make you charming and flaws that make you relatable and then they give you other characters to interact with that are fascinating and say fascinating things that allow you to respond in fascinating ways, and then they propel your narrative forward in highly destructive ways that totally mess up the personhood that they have built for you because that is more compelling to the audience and after all you are just this character that they have built and it wasn’t that hard to build you.

If you are not a character but a real human being, you have to find and do all of this stuff by yourself and you have to make it stable, you have to nail those pictures firmly onto the walls because when you inevitably do something to blow it all up you want there to be a few remnants, a few constants to keep your feet on the ground. If all the extras walk out on you, the set will still be there.

Wisdom gained: It’s really difficult to make conscious choices about the kind of person you want to be and then follow through on them. It might even be impossible. It is much easier to throw your hands in the air and accept that you are an unshapeable blob. The glory is in the struggle and I’m so lazy, it’s really hard for me to accept that.

Side thought: Social media is terrible because it gives everyone the ability to be a character, to advertise or fabricate the things that make them fascinating and to sweep all evidence of explosions under the rug and then you’re standing in your metaphorical head-space living room looking at all the little piles of shit on your own rug and wondering why you’re the only one whose apartment is a perpetual disaster. Also where did you pick up that friend that likes to pretend he’s a dog, and how can you get him to stop shitting in your living room?  

Five:

If you’re trying to compile a list, you should stick to a format where each item on the list is of approximately the same size and has an identifiable, repetitive structure. This will not only give your reader an anticipation of what is coming next, providing momentum to continue reading your highly accessible, compelling and fascinating list, but will also mask any bias you feel towards any particular item on the list, thus allowing you to appear logical, stable, and detached. If you lose sight of your list’s structure and, for example, write an entire half-page for a single item, it will be apparent to your reader that you are not actually writing an informative list that people other than yourself should care about. They will know that you are just ranting but with some numbers in the left-hand margin.

Wisdom gained: listicles not viable format for blog posts.

Six:

Fall is the most commercial of seasons. The leaves change colour and all of a sudden I feel compelled to buy pumpkin things and new sweaters. I have tried on so many sweaters in the past two weeks. I have ramped up my job-applying game with the actual motivation of wanting to buy new sweaters. And maybe a pair of really cute short boots. I want to give someone some of my money so that I can do the work of picking produce for myself. I want to spend a perfect autumn afternoon buying coffee after coffee in a cozy coffee shop, preferably wearing an artsy new scarf. I want to pay Justin Vernon for whatever mumbled prophecy he’s birthed recently and then use it as the focal point of a playlist that I will call simply “Fall, <3”. I want to wear so many layers. I need more clothes, just in sheer quantity, to allow for the amount of layers I want to wear.

Wisdom gained: Being poor gives you insight into how much your desires and associations are fuelled by advertising. Having to deny yourself makes you realize that a lot of the things you want are stupid.

Seven:

Fall might also be the most couple-y of seasons. Why is everyone so in love all of a sudden?

Wisdom gained: Am choosing to see the need to be part of a couple as a facet of seasonally associative corporate brainwashing. See above re: nonsensical, easily dismissed desires.

Eight:

Keeping a reading diary is an awesome thing! Everyone should keep a reading diary. I found mine from my formative years and was surprised by how much smarter 14-year-old me was than I remember, which was pleasant, and I decided to revive the habit, although I am just now realizing that it may lead to the unfortunate discovery that I am now dumber than I was as a teenager. In any case, writing down the things you think about the things you read is very rewarding, as it turns out.

Wisdom gained: End list on a positive note with some helpful advice. Hopefully theoretical reader will forget middle, unrelated, unintentionally emotionally revealing section of list.    

Gerald

You’d think that people living in big cities would share something. You’d think that there would be a solidarity borne of common struggle, that people would pass each other in the street with a knowingness in their eyes, a nod if not a smile.

Here we are, in this crazy thing. It’s going, it’s gone, there’s nothing we can do about it now.

Like being strapped into a cart about to go over a cliff, harnessed in at the neck and waist, and reaching over to squeeze the hand of the stranger sitting next to you.

But it wasn’t. The stranger, surprised and affronted by the touch, looked at you with fear in his eyes. That was, unless you happened to be a cute young girl. If you were a cute young girl, the look softened, the hand ceded to the grip.

This was a thought that Gerald often had, in fact a surmise at which many of his thinkings arrived. If you lived in a city, the thing to be was a young woman. Doors were held for you, food and drink appeared in your hands. The world was excitable and open to you.

It’s not as if Gerald had a pair of lacy underwear hiding in a drawer at home. He just thought that if he had to do it all over, given the choice, he would be a cute young girl.

He owned a building in the city. It was a modest building, four stories tall, of a rectangular, unimposing design, but he kept it in perfect condition, clean and always with a fresh coat of pleasant-coloured paint. He had worked hard to have this building as security in his old age, and no one had given him anything and it had not been easy.

Today, he was sitting in a plastic chair just outside the door of his building. It was a sunny day, and he was waiting for a prospective tenant to come see an apartment on the third floor.

A young woman lived on the top floor of the building with her boyfriend. This was not a cute young girl. This was a beautiful girl, of the sort of overwhelming beauty that is seen only rarely over the course of a lifetime. She had light, light blue eyes. She was tall but very fragile, like a long, thin rod of glass.

Today, this woman was screaming at her boyfriend. She was screaming and crying and hiccupping. She had a thick layer of shame in her voice, and a ragged edge of desperation and fury. Gerald hoped that she would stop before the prospective tenant was supposed to arrive, so that he would not have to knock at her door and ask her to be quieter.

He thought of all the things he had done for such girls in his life, all the tricks he had pulled to make young girls pay attention to him. I would not go back, he thought. Provided one must live in the city, provided one has to be a man. It’s better to be old. 

The Ghosts of Summers Past

There’s a field behind the high school near my house that I’ve been taking boys to to make out all summer. No, I’m serious. I know it’s juvenile. It springs not so much from a desire to relive as a desire to rewrite. 

Summer in high school was a time outside of time. It was when anything could happen, when the rigid possibilities of being in high school fell away. When it came to an end – an end like this summer is ending, oh August, Sunday of summers, why must you be so heartbreaking, even as you die – it was an end that sealed in change. You went back to high school, at least for the first day, feeling that things were going to be very different, carrying with you your parcel of changes, all the ways in which you had been marked as plain to you as if you were wearing new skin. 

Fifteen-year-old me would have called this summer a full seizure of possibility. The things I do now with complete flippancy, immune to any kind of personal development they might try to wreak upon me, are things that she considered totally beyond her grasp. 

But it feels empty. It feels like something that was supposed to happen and didn’t. Like I slept through Christmas.

I can’t believe it’s already August. 

 

Fires

Whatever it is, don’t pick at it. The phrase usually refers to skin ailments, but can be easily translated to apply to emotional wounds.

Olivia got home from coffee with Mike to find Jessie lying on the floor of their kitchen. The front door of their apartment opened into the kitchen – illogically, like everything else in the apartment – so that the first thing Olivia saw upon pushing the door open, keys in hand, carrying a small bag from the grocery store, was Jessie’s almost naked body splayed out on the floor. There had been only a few occasions on which Olivia had seen Jessie anything but almost naked; it was her preferred state of dress, the precarious edge of nudity. Today, the form of this that Jessie had decided on was tiny denim shorts and cotton bralet. She was also wearing some kind of moon pendant, the necklace accentuated by her deficiency of clothing.

“What are you doing?” Olivia asked.

“Is it over?” Jessie asked, propping herself up on her elbows. “Did you break up?”

“He broke up with me,” Olivia said. She opened the fridge and put in the few things she’d bought at the supermarket: a new container of hummus, a couple of individual yogurts, a bunch of green onions. A box of rice crackers went into the cupboard.

“Man.” Jessie rolled over onto her stomach and cradled her chin in her hands. “It’s really over?”

Olivia closed the cupboard and turned to face her roommate. She was wearing a black dress with a high collar. “Yep,” she said. She noticed for the first time that there was a more-than-half-empty bottle of white wine on the floor next to Jessie.

“Man,” Jessie said again. “I really thought you guys were perfect together, you know?”

“What are you doing on the floor?” Olivia asked.

“I don’t know. I’m thinking. And the floor is cold. Everything in this apartment is sweating hot. How are you wearing that?”

“Have you been outside?”

“No. Is it not hot outside? What time is it?”

“It’s four, Jessie.”

“Want to go do something?”

“Not really.”

“I’ve been wanting to do something all day.”

“So go. Do something.”

“I don’t know. I’m bored. Or sad, maybe. I can’t think of anything to do that will make me not bored or sad.”

Olivia sighed and walked to her room. She could hear Jessie from the kitchen saying, “Or not sad exactly. I’m melancholy, I think.”

Olivia found a cardboard box in her cupboard and started to pick Mike’s things from among her own. There wasn’t much to pack up; it hadn’t been a long relationship and over the course of it, he had only left necessities in her apartment. There were a couple of pairs of boxer shorts, a toothbrush and a bottle of mouthwash – the stunted travel size – there was an inexpensive watch that seemed to have stopped, a nameless, faceless white t-shirt, a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls that Mike had been sort-of-reading for months, and an electric razor, brought over in a moment of pre-parental-encounter haste about a week ago, which looked like the only thing he might actually want back. Olivia gathered it all and arranged it, item by item, in the box. The entire collection barely reached the rim, and it looked small and insignificant. The summary of a romance. Olivia was contemplating whether to rearrange it when Jessie walked in. She lingered in the door, hanging off the doorframe.

“So…what happened?”

“Nothing. He broke things off.”

“Just out of nowhere? I thought you really liked each other.”

“Well.”

“He had to have some reason.”

“He doesn’t feel like we’re going anywhere, he wants to go travelling, he wants to do it by himself. There were a lot of reasons, but really he just didn’t want to be together anymore.”

“Want to go egg his house?”

“No, Jess!”

“Come on. It would feel so good.”

“Jesus, he lives in a condo building. He rents the place from his parents.”

“We could wait outside and just get him as he walks out.”

“He would see us!”

“No, we could –

“I’m not even discussing this.”

Jessie shrugged. “What are you going to do with his stuff?”

“Send it back to him.” Olivia closed the box, with purpose, and taped it up.

Jessie came into the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You’re allowed to be angry, Liv.”

“I know,” she said. “Thanks, Jessie.”

 

Olivia had to go into work that evening. On the way home, she realized she’d forgotten her keys. She felt a momentary pinch of frustration; it wasn’t like her. She assumed that Jessie wouldn’t have left the apartment, but when she arrived, there was a note taped to the front door in her friend’s loopy handwriting. Come to Rosewood Park.

Alright, Jessie, she thought, too tired to resist. I’ll play.

Rosewood Park was a block from their apartment. It was on the corner of two busy streets; hurried cars paid it no attention. It featured a jarring mix of graffitied surfaces and overgrown wildlife, lush maybe-poisonous urban weeds growing out of its every un-concreted surface. The only people Olivia had ever seen in it were letting their dogs piss on it.

Jessie was standing over something in the middle of this park. Olivia started to get an uneasy, foreboding feeling in her stomach. As she approached, it became clear that the something was a fire.

“Christ, are you allowed to have an open fire in a public park?”

Jessie shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Olivia looked closer and saw that the thing that was on fire was the box she had packed of Mike’s stuff. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, she wanted to hit Jessie.

“Jess, what is that?”

“Oh yeah,” Jessie shrugged again. “It deserves to be burned.”

“Jessie, that’s fucked up! We can’t burn his stuff.”

“No, it isn’t,” Jessie answered. “Let’s get drunk and dance around the fire.”

“It’s not as if he was a bad person.”

“No, sure, he was a decent person. He just didn’t love you.” Jess handed her a bottle of wine, not the same one that had been in the kitchen.

“Not everyone can love you.”

Jessie threw something else into the fire. “And that’s shitty. People who claim to love you should be capable of doing so.”

Olivia let herself drink copiously. Later, as the embers settled, as Mike’s property was burning into nothing, Jessie leaned in and settled her elbows on her knees and said, “But he was a real shit, wasn’t he?”

There was only a very satisfying ash left. “He wasn’t. Honestly. He was good people. That makes it worse, doesn’t it?”

“Let’s not bother thinking about it.”

Jessie flung the last thing into the fire. The white t-shirt. A police car went by, sirens on. “Let’s go get arrested,” she said.

Essentially, an aired diary entry.

A friend and I are both recently unemployed. Today I showed up at her apartment after a morning interview, wearing as business-y an outfit as I could muster under the post-grad circumstances and bearing a bag of cherries I’d picked up at a farmer’s market on the way over.

The girl taking cash at the stall I’d stopped at was everything you want a farmer’s daughter to be – viciously tanned, with dirty fingernails and light eyes and sullen – and I’d gotten her to smile, which felt like a personal victory.

By the time I got to this friend’s apartment, my clothes felt like a full-body latex glove, and my hair felt like steel wool on my head, and I was ready to be naked of everything but my fingernails, as God intended the unemployed to be. Luckily, she is a good friend, so I took my clothes off. Then I lay on her blue sheets in my underwear and ate my cherries. We talked about everything.

We started with men in the least metaphysical sense, because we are twenty-something women and the practical problem of men occupies a pressing, frontal part of our brainspace. Of course, as a post-feminist woman, my concern for the actions of men is consistently accompanied by its best friend, my conviction that I should not let the actions of men concern me, but it is a guilt that has not stopped me yet. We listened to each other and I offered her advice that was probably wrong, because I have never had a successful relationship, but maybe right, because naivety can sometimes hold its own form of wisdom.

After having covered that thoroughly, we moved on to our attitudes toward life, which coincide on a lot of points, and talked about where we want to live/work in the future, typical post-college-girls-braiding-each-other’s-hair type shit. And then we brought out our laptops and delved into the internet.

Being online with ——- is like when I used to go swimming with my mother as a little girl and I would cling to her shoulders as she dived down and surfaced again and again like a dolphin.

——- has a theory on Beyoncé and Jay Z’s (he dropped the hyphen last year, she informs me) marriage that is an actual theory in the scientific sense of the word: a well-substantiated explanation based on all of the data and evidence available. She is passionate about this theory. She knows exactly what happened to Zach and Cody of The Suite Life, she does not even have to Google it, but she will because there is a dick pic and she wants me to see it. Do I know who the rapper Future is? It does not matter, because the interview he gave about his newborn son is hilarious regardless. As is the Kim Kardashian videogame. Somebody already posted the new Jenny Lewis video to her wall, but she wishes that it had been shot after Kristen Stewart’s new haircut.

She is amazing. I, the child who grew up without TV, am enthralled by her.

I spent at least three years of elementary school gleaning all I could from the other kids’ fragmented conversations about Sailor Moon in order to pretend that I had seen the show. This, this riding on ——-’s dolphin shoulders, cannot make up for that, nor would I want it to. The internet is not my world.

But my world is the same.

There’s so much on the internet. That’s the beauty and the horror of it. And ——- is, in some ridiculous way (more ridiculous because it seems to be functioning) collecting all of it, stockpiling, analyzing, making sense of it, keeping track of it, understanding it.

 

My father turned 47 today. I don’t know how I’ll make it to 47. My memories don’t seem to be falling out of my head as I make new ones.

I still remember the exact smell and taste and the feeling of the damp earth of my last high school not-romance, and I remember this moment where I was standing outside in the dew of my mother’s garden thinking about all of the moments I didn’t remember and wondering if that one was one that I would, and the other day I walked past the most faded yellow sign advertising vitamins and the amalgamated memory of trips to a health food store came to me, the smell and taste of Ricola and undyed dried apricots and the fascination with the things that people were trying to put in their bodies, and yes it occurs to me that perhaps everyone’s internal memory operates in this fashion (which is terrifying, how can ALL OF THIS be in ALL OF US) but my problem is that I comb through all this jumble constantly, trying to make sense of it, trying to find connections that in no logical person’s mind exist, trying to write a story of it that inevitably blurs fiction and fact.*

On bad days, I think that this burden of memory will be the cause of my early death because it is too much pain and beauty for one person to bear. (I have my memories, like everyone else, that I don’t like to touch.)

On good days, my feeling is that I’m not deserving. That I’ve already had so much that I don’t understand how I could be given more. This is enough life for me, I am sated.

 

The inside of my head is like the internet. I lost track of that train of thought. Is that a terribly arrogant, or a grossly self-deprecating thing to think? The inside of my head is like the internet if the internet were irrelevant to everyone but me.

We analyzed Tinder, too, this friend and I. We are after all biddies of the 21st century.

 

*This is what I admire about Jack Kerouac, his lack of need to make narrative allowing him to write truly about memories.

Primal Trauma and the City

Image

Cities are traumatic. And I think that’s okay, and that the trauma is part of the reason why creative people gravitate towards cities, but I think that it’s also important to realize that they are traumatic and to acknowledge it and proceed accordingly – get away, read some Wordsworth.

This occurred to me today when I thought that I heard somebody screaming on the subway track of the TTC. All it was, really, was a train coming in the opposite direction – somehow the air trapped between the two trains produced the sound of a human wail – but for a few long seconds, I thought that I was hearing somebody shriek. That’s not the horrifying part.

The people around me were completely unphased, in large part because they were almost all wearing headphones and also probably because they had experienced this before and already knew what they were hearing, but that’s not the horrifying part either. The horrifying part is that I felt no horror. No chills, no concern. I thought that I was hearing a person screaming, and even though I wasn’t, it was still a noise of trauma – and I felt nothing.

The sound of a siren elicits a reaction because it represents disaster, a tear in the fabric of society, but a pure human cry has no symbolic meaning – it is what it is and thus holds no currency in the over-mediation of city life. Trauma is around us, buffets us all the time and we lose the capacity to acknowledge it terribly quickly, stop considering it even to be traumatic.

Think of the colours of the city, dank and dark and shadowy. Think of the constant, life-threatening onslaught of traffic, or the scaffolding overhead (a loose bolt liable to drop down onto you like the wrath of God at any moment). Think of the very notion of living on the twenty-second story of a building like some colossal, unnatural bird, a building that probably has no 13th floor because that would be too scary for us.

And then simply being forced into this level of proximity to so many human beings gives us the need and the ability to shut ourselves down to what’s happening to those other humans, to their traumas. It’s terrifying and depressing. I’d like to think that had that gust of air been a real human scream, I would have reacted differently, that it would have pinged some deep primal nerve and that I would have jumped up to help or at least looked up and thought to do something other than fucking write about it. But don’t I see screams every day?

Don’t I walk past people strung out and alone in sleeping bags on the street with not quite nonchalance but with at least a kind of practised callousness? Don’t I see people who, unable to deal, eat until they can’t function or starve themselves to death? Don’t I walk by the girl outside the bar at 2 a.m. with the guy, all tentacles and alcohol breath, a leech that survived a nuclear accident, asking incessantly for her number and don’t I decide that tonight it’s not my problem, not my battle to fight? Don’t I choose to ignore the screams of humanity repeatedly, every day?

Somewhere, deep in my psyche, isn’t this affecting me like a fucking blitzkrieg?

 

 

Photo: Daniel Lugo on flickr

Entering advertisements, or On not being Lena Dunham

hh

In my bra and underwear, before putting my little business dress on, I examine myself in the mirror and try to convince myself that I don’t look like Lena Dunham.

The magazines that you buy as a teenager – the innocuous pink things whose psychological sledge-hammering you will spend your life trying to undo – will tell you that you fit into one of three categories. You are a pear, you are an hour glass, or you are a tall drink of water. Surely, someone has already pointed out that none of these objects have anything to do with a human body. And yet. If we are going to be imposing fruits and vegetables on our fragile self-images, it must be pointed out that some people are really just apples. Some people, like my high school librarian, or Snooki, are surprising apple-on-stick type deals. Caramel apples. Lena Dunham is fortunate enough to be a pear. She just happens to be an upside-down one.

I am now one of those despicable people who talks about Lena Dunham’s naked body. Except for that I’m not, really. I’m talking about my naked body. Which somehow, in my mind, has become the same thing.

It’s not that I don’t admire what Lena Dunham is doing. I do. I admire it, and I get it. Her up-front nudity is a victorious fuck you to the world. If you’re going to put tits and ass on everything – to the point where parts have become almost arbitrary, any day now food packages are going to start coming with little nipples on them, on the off-chance that this might confuse us into buying the right brand of cookie – if you’re going to put tits and ass on everything, eventually someone is going to come along and insist on putting some real tits and ass on something, to show you that really it’s just boobies and bumbum you’re mooning over. Fat deposits. Lena Dunham is reminding us what naked bodies actually look like, in their raw form, and someone had to do it. Although really, by keeping her pretty actresses clothed, isn’t she sort of perpetuating the mythology? Wouldn’t it ultimately be more scandalous to see the cellulite Jessa is hiding under her billowing onesie? An issue for another time, or another person.

Okay, so it’s not her nakedness that I have a problem with. My beef with Lena Dunham is that since day one, since the pilot episode of that brilliant, critically-acclaimed, discussed-to-death show, people have been comparing me to her.

This is unflattering, since the show is named for its female characters, who inhabit convincingly adult shells but who harbor the collective emotional maturity of a talking Kelly doll, as well as hosts of neuroses most often compared to those of Woody Allen but sometimes reaching dangerous George Costanza territory.

It’s also silly, because I doubtless have little in common with the person Lena Dunham, a wildly successful television and film writer, director, and actress, also occasionally published in The New Yorker, who was raised in Brooklyn by non-struggling artist parents and who likes to cast her family and childhood friends in her (wildly successful) shows and films. What my friends really mean is that I am like Hanna Horvath, the character that Lena Dunham plays on the brilliant, much-discussed show. And as much as I resent this, I must admit that there are some disconcerting points of comparison.

There is, for example, the persistent, cloying need to be liked, the gnawing and implacable insecurity  – paradoxically and disastrously paired with an egotistical edge, driven by a hubristic confidence in her/my own talents and her/my fascination with introspection. (“Seriously, I have never met anyone who thinks their life is so fucking fascinating,” says the sidekick character.)

There is the struggle with the inability to sustain healthy friendships in the long-term. There is the occasional, unfortunate mental breakdown. There is the (always protested by accused comparers – “No, that’s not what I mean!”) overzealous consumption of cupcakes. There is the sometimes awkward, cynical sense of humour – although perhaps I truly do share that with the real Lena rather than the infamous HH. There is the penchant for strange boys and relationships that self-destruct. And sometimes, like right now, the events of my life line up with the events of the show in a rather uncanny fashion.

So today, as I put on my business dress in order to go off on the first day of my quest to eventually hopefully be paid for putting words on paper (at the expense, perhaps, of the words themselves), it becomes urgently, painfully necessary to me that my body be the shape of any inanimate object but an upside-down pear. On my first day in advertising, I must not be Lena Dunham.