Monthly Archives: May 2012

how to meet the love of your life

The love of your life is a person. Don’t take this for granted. Because here’s the thing: the love of your life doesn’t think of him- or herself as the love of your life. They don’t actually think about themselves in relation to you at all. Like everyone else, they’re the protagonists of their own story. They are a whole subject, stripped of the genitive modifier that defines them in your mind, another disparite ego out there in the world. When you imagine them as the love of your life, you’re bounding them. You’re saddling them with a duty and reducing them to one segment of the experience of being alive: loving you. And that’s unfair.

Wanting an abstract, faceless person to show up and ooze into all the cracks in your psyche sells both of you short. There will never be a woman in a red dress or a tall dark stranger who appears from the corner of the room to charm you unbidden. What there will be are these: your friends. Your acquaintances. Your unexpected introductions at a party. Someone who will co-generate a spark with you. And there will be a push-and-pull, a back-and-forth, a banter. There will be a meeting of minds before the heart even gets introduced. There will be gradual increases from either side, tenacious, then audacious, until that leap of faith where the gap closes.

Look. If you try to divvy up the world’s population into Romantic Possibilites and Everyone Else, you’re compartmentalizing in a way that chokes off some of the fluid, wonderful pleasure that defines being a social creature. The real things in life don’t fall into neat, check-list-able categories of go to school, eat a meal, make friends, fall in love. Think of dinner parties where you laugh more than eat or classes where you learn just as much about your fellow students as you do about Marxist economic theory or differential equations. The desire to stick a romantic relationship onto an already-constructed life like it’s another Lego block is akin to driving to the gym to run on the treadmill. It’s joyless. It’s idiotic. It’s refusing the incredible alchemy of ebb and flow that is letting your life be a harmonious entirety of a project.  You don’t need solving. You don’t need saving. You are not a puzzle piece. You just need to get your life out of the oblique case and put it first and foremost. The secret truth is that the love of your life is just your life.

So many of the friends I have are Romantics. I see it in the male and female and straight and/or gay: all this waiting, hoping, planning, dreaming, despairing. Don’t, please. Or at least don’t waste away doing it. Because if you do find human partnership that satisfies you, it is not going to be a transcendent paradigm shift, but rather a resonance, a deepening of something you’ve already found to be true in yourself.

But then, I am no expert. I am just a person.

regarding the hunt

I came to the University of Chicago for three reasons: 1. it is in a city, 2. it offers a Medieval Studies major, and 3. it holds a gigantic, incredible scavenger hunt every May (and, okay, I wasn’t accepted anywhere else. Details). The list is over 300 items long and includes items that range from the hard-to-find (“A pen that has signed a bill into law [18 points]”) to the creative (“A pitch pipet [8 points]”) to the performative (“Up at the Law School they work all day. Out in the sun they slave away. Couldn’t they use the distraction of mermaids in their fountain? [8 points]”) to the genuine-miracle-of-engineering (“Play me a drink, Sam, for old times’ sake. . . on your piano that dispenses a beverage component with every keystroke. Changing the melody should change the mixology. Instruments and their compositions will be judged both on the quality of the cocktails and the musicality of their recipes. [250 points, 25 extra points if your keyboard can play a different melody to create a different drink]”).

There are items obtainable only by road trip, a series of Olympic-like competitions, and a giant party. There are teams with t-shirts, captains, lieutenants, and names like Rasputin and the All-Tsars (represent!) or Political Action Committee for More America Now. There are mandatory costumes, literal hundreds of things to make, do, and find, and only four days to get them done. Weird, but also kind of awesome.

Usually people have one of two reactions upon hearing about Scav (as it is affectionately known for short): they question why anyone would bother doing something like this, or they read the list, laugh to themselves, and go on with their day. But I don’t do either. For Scav, I will give up four days of my life to paint, nail, draw, film, sew, and staple-gun. I will forgo sleep, burn myself on strings of hot glue, survive for days on handfuls of refined carbohydrates, and perform the Hamster Dance in the style of Renaissance Polyphony. I will crash high-school proms and drive to South Dakota dressed like Marge Gunderson.

It seems crazy, or like a waste of time, or (probably) a little of both, to spend all this time and energy and money on something that’s ultimately meaningless and inherently ephemeral. But I do it, loyally, zealously, eagerly, with no shame or regrets. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but then, people do a lot of ridiculous things in college. People join fraternities, for Christ’s sake.

I think my answer to the inevitable question of “why do it?” makes more sense framed as a response to its converse: why not just observe? The explanation cuts right to the core of my belief in the primacy of activity. Projects. Because for me, it’s not enough just to read this list and envision things theoretically. I need to craft. I need to execute. I need to scav (yes, also a verb). I throw myself into it in a literal body-and-soul way because planning and shaping and presenting these strange little objects affirms in a concrete way all the parts of my absurd and whimsical view of the universe. Scav and its strange, quirky, occasionally obscene sense of the world matches and feeds the exact flavor of my creative nature so well that making these things becomes almost transcendent. I want to live on a planet that not only allows me to attend an Under-the-Sea Prom dressed as a Clownfish, but encourages it.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, sleep deprivation plays a large role. How else could I explain my team-captain-cum-roommate weeping over the loss of her Cap’n Crunch mustache or the five minutes of hysterical laughing that ensued after snapping this webcam shot at 5:30 Sunday morning? But–and this is the part that’s the most important–it’s about more than the summer-camp atmosphere and the things that we make. Yes. The event that involves squishing together a “Bleu Cheese Man Group” and stringing up googly eyes on campus buildings possesses real value because, in the end, it’s about people.

Every minute passed in Scav Hunt is a minute spent in the company of people, people who are talented and imaginative and funny in ways you never would have otherwise realized, people capable of wonderful and beautiful things that make you laugh and cry and that move something in you that you didn’t know was there. The sense of community and friendship, of appreciation and awe for your fellow man, is something I am hard-pressed, even incapable, of finding elsewhere. It’s team effort, it’s unbridled optimism, it’s collective effervescence par excellence. It’s awesome.

Somewhere between the the first-year-student who volunteers to get her appendix taken out and the mom who hastily FedEx-es boxes of sequential Goosebumps novels to HQ and the published eschatologist happy to appear at judgment there emerges an incredible, generous, devoted section of humanity. These are people there to brew you tea and make sure you sleep after assembling a pushpin mosaic for six hours and hold you while you shake in exhaustion and emotional overflow at the closing ceremonies.

The projects themselves carry no real consequence or meaning–no one will hold on to the homebrew vending machine or attempt a second stroll across the balsa-wood bridge. Every list item, like all things in life, will be deconstructed, thrown out, and forgotten, no matter how beautiful or amazing it was momentarily. It’s the people who make them who make them matter. It’s the people who make them that I’m both privileged and humbled to know, people who take our team motto to heart in every last action: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”

So, yeah, this is a thing that I do. The world’s a fucked up place a lot of the time, and you’ve got to wrangle meaning out of it however you can. Some people run ultramarathons, some people find Jesus, some people snort drugs. I scav.

in defense of prom

Hello there, intelligent teenage girl! You might have noticed that it’s Prom Season. Actually, you have definitely noticed, because literally every form of media targeted at your slice of the demographic pie chart is imploring you to do Prom-related things like bleach your teeth! get a spray-tan! and rent a stretch Hummer limousine! Not that I’m implying that you’re paging through the glossy Seventeens and Teen Vogues that I did once upon a time at Borders (RIP), but the little jabs from the Prom Industrial Complex have probably still wormed their way into your Facebook sidebar or Gmail inbox. 

It’s as exhausting and annoying as it is spangly and expensive. I’m so with you. It’s really fucking stupid.

But you should still go to your Prom.

First off, you need to take the pressure completely off. Extricate yourself. The people who espouse this “most magical night of your life” bullshit are the people who, perversely, engage in Prom as a commercial transaction. They’re either selling shit (Jovani, Claire’s, the shady beauty salon down the street) or buying it up (most of your high school class). The fantasy of The Most Magical Night Of Your Life is either an advertising tactic to get lots of money or an excuse and justification for spending it. So good news: you’re too smart for that. No sweat, no worries.

But just because it’s not going to be The Most Magical Night Of Your Life doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun and worthwhile. Strip Prom of its mani-pedis and dyed-to-match shoes and what is it? A huge party with all of your friends. Those are great, right? And this one’s even better because you can get super dressed up! And sometimes there are also snacks!

Not that you have to dress up, of course (though let’s face it: 17-year-olds don’t get many opportunities to wear ballgowns). You can go in sneakers, or wear a suit, pay for a fancy updo or just sleep with your hair in foam rollers. Buy some gloves. Get a headband. Sew your own dress (I did this senior year; it helps to have a talented aunt as a backup seamstress). Use a dramatic shade of lipliner. Do not feel for a second like you are obligated to purchase something sequined and taffeta’d unless that’s how you want to roll. My junior prom dress cost only $50 and came from a costume shop with a tag that read “Daisy’s High School Graduation Dress–1928.” I felt like I was giving that dress its soul back by taking it out for another spin on a youthful body 79 years later.

The author, age 17, (left) with foam-roller curls, antique dress, and BFF

Limos are wholly optional. Transportation is not the point of the night, anyway. Senior year we drove in a minivan. Junior year we took the train, and a whole host of strangers watched us giggle and float away in our finery. I’d take that over a shiny leather interior any day.

About dates. Have one, or don’t. I had a date junior year and no date senior year and, retrospectively, had way more fun flying solo. You will get another chance to lose your virginity, don’t you worry. Go with a girl friend, or a boy friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend. Go with lots of friends. Take yourself as your date and buy yourself a corsage or a nosegay or a bunch of tiny flowers to wind into your hair.

And then? It’s a party. Don’t overthink it. You’re smart, and you will want to break it down and analyze, but try to turn your brain off just for a bit. It doesn’t hurt. Dance, take pictures, drink punch and eat cookies. Complain about the DJ. Pout. Grin. Smirk. Then go home and scribble in your diary, or go to a party with your friends, stay up late, and make waffles the next morning. Whatever you do, be vibrant and be safe.

You are not going to be seventeen forever. You are probably not even going to be seventeen for another six months. You may never have another party like this, a party for no reason but to have a party and celebrate the confusion and mystery and upheaval of being a young person.

So go to Prom to defy everyone’s expectations or go to Prom because you want to wear a dress. Go to Prom to kick the cliché of teenage cynicism in the teeth. Go to Prom and hope.

on this may 8th

If you listened to Episode 3 of Pithetic (which, hello?! You totally should have!) you will recall that my sister has what a certain back-of-the-bus drunk referred to as “beat-the-fuck-up” legs. What I didn’t mention in that little anecdote is that a lot of the bruises and scars that didn’t come from mosquitos or puppy scratches came from me.

I am not going to say I’m a bad sister. I am definitely getting better, but that does mean that once upon a time, I was worse. Ever since that fateful morning a few days after May 8, 1992 when my young parents brought home a tiny pink someone to be my rival, I was Not Feeling It. (The home video for this occasion is awesome: picture me in a Yakult Swallows t-shirt and covered in Raisin Bran dregs with a scowl on my puffy little face as my mother tries to insist that this barely sentient new human loves me very much). I picked on her, I wouldn’t share, I even once bit her face in multiple places in a now-legendary fit of rage. When we were older, I told her fantastic lies, concocted plans to spy on her with my friends, and picked physical fights. I would scream if she borrowed my shoes yet think nothing of stealing her mini-macramé backpack to go buy Frappuccinos with my fellow, mature 11-year-olds. In short, I sucked.

But this is not supposed to be about me. I’m just trying to set the stage for how incredible this mini-person ended up being, give a present with the only thing I can do, little-drummer-boy style, and I think the best way to do it is to tell the story of her hair.

Alice spent her earliest days telling herself stories with tiny plastic characters plugged into her fists, with giant brown eyes and a Kewpie-like spike on her head. She endured a few years of being mistaken for a boy under a home bowl cut as she learned to wriggle-swim in the smaller of two matching floral bathing suits, and eventually graduated to a long, enviably thick crop of hair that meant tear-filled mornings of detangling and wrangling into French braids. We had to switch from L’Oréal Kids to bottom-shelf Suave just to be able to afford to keep the knots out of her mane.

On the precipice of high school, she cropped it to her chin and dyed it red, à la Josie, after the first PG-13 movie we’d been allowed to see (together, even though she was 2.5 years younger and thus enjoying a patently unfair precosity). While I was half-assedly writing, having meltdowns, and going years without altering my dishwater-brown ponytail, she was drawing a storm of sketches, creating entire worlds in her computer, and spiking, faux-hawking, and tinting her head colors that would never be found in nature.

You can tell which of us is the cool sister in a single take. Even though her hair is a little bit back to normal now, she’s still massively, unfathomably productive at creating people–in drawings, in writings, even in all the addictive video games she plays. And now she’s another year older, and even though I can’t make up for all the visible and invisible scars I have laid on her, I want to present her to you independent of anything I’ve done–just as this insanely gifted, wonderful, whimsical, intelligent person. But I still can’t help bragging that I am, that I get to be related to her. She’s my friend, my playmate, my Sims-co-pilot and WoW guildie, my fellow dog-walker, the soprano voice that far outstrips her alto duet partner, my reliable confidante and occasional lifesaver, my little squish with her crazy-ass hair and her beat-the-fuck-up legs.

Happy Birthday, dear Alice. Let’s be sisters forever.

a little help

My friend Eli used to (or maybe still does) have a great quote from Robert Anton Wilson on his Facebook page: “You should view the world as a conspiracy run by a very closely-knit group of nearly omnipotent people, and you should think of those people as yourself and your friends.”

I don’t read Robert Anton Wilson, which means I’m basically one of those douchebags who mines the vast opus of a talented author for choice quotes for her tumblr, but I do like this line. The first time I read it, I thought it meant that you should act as if Actual Powerful People were your besties, which I suppose involves doing things like name-dropping Michelle Obama online in the hopes of an RT and constantly telling bouncers “I’m with the band.” But then I realized the idea isn’t to make the influential people your friends, it’s to see your friends as the ones with influence.

The key to this, obviously, is having really great friends, friends that are great not just in the way of normal friend-type support (shoulder-cries, spotting cash, destruction of incriminating evidence) but who are interesting people, people who are active producers of the things you like to make. I have a bundle of these types in my life: magazine writers and musicians and home cooks and dancers and poets. Hell, I’m blood-related to two incredibly talented artists. I love this because it enlivens every bit of my life, because I have the kind of friends who invite me over to make a spontaneous banana crepe cake or for a dinner of homemade pho or record a podcast with me or have matching articles with me online and help me edit my convocation speech. They make me want to pay attention to the finesse that goes into every crafted thing that I use and they are there to motivate me to make things.

I suspect that some people are hesitant to befriend others who are engaged in the same kind of creative labor that they do because of worries that petty envy will creep in. Which it might! But a little (not a lot) of jealousy can be healthy, a little jab to keep you on your game, as long as it doesn’t consume you. And then? Once you all keep contributing and weaving your works together, you can become a force majeure and take over the cultural world!

Or, okay, probably not. But many groups that produced awesome things–everyone from the Algonquin Round Table to the Monty Python Boys–are, in essence, just groups of friends doin’ their proverbial thang. You don’t have to shoot for greatness, even; just put stuff out there. As Garrison Keillor said of A Prairie Home Companion, “We only did it because we knew it would be fun to do. It was a dumb idea. I wish I knew how to be that dumb again.”