Category Archives: Writing

getting past passive

Today’s my birthday, and I’ll get to that, but first I want to talk about passive verbs.

You remember passive verbs! They’re the ones your English teachers abhorred and your physics labs demanded. Whereas the active verb has the subject doing something (i.e. “I snarfed the Oreos”*), the passive verb has the subject having something done to it (i.e., “The Oreos were snarfed”).

In every language that I’ve studied–which isn’t a huge number, but it’s non-singular–there is one verb that always takes a passive form. In French, it was one of the ones you learn after you’ve got the basics of the passé composé down, and you have to remember to conjugate it with être: je suis née. In Latin, as always, it’s one conveniently compact word with a wealth of information jammed into a few letters of morphological difference, and the reason you’re always chanting hodie Christus natus est around this time of year. In English, well, try this: tell your life story from the very beginning. Just like that, your English teacher recoils instinctively, because the first thing out of your mouth is going to be a passive verb!

I was born!

It sort of goes without saying that, duh, you don’t bear yourself into life. But grammatical voice doesn’t always align with the absolute truth of an action: cf. “this article reads like a novel” (articles are read, but they can’t do it themselves) or “sex sells” (true, but someone else is doing the selling). And I know, I’m supposed to be over metaphors! And this is boring and technical! And no one cares about grammar but me, anyway!

I could excuse myself for being selfish since I’m the Birthday Girl, but that’s just the point: I didn’t do anything to deserve such dispensation. I was–just–born.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no way to talk about the start your life off except to place yourself, grammatically and literally, at the mercy of some greater active force. It could be your mother, or your father, or their mothers and their fathers, or the doctor yanking you out, or forces conspiring against you or the universe going inside out for the only time in your whole life. Whatever it is: it’s cool.

Whatever the greater significance of the passive verb, there’s one thing that’s for sure: an acted-upon subject requires an acting-upon agent. Whatever the circumstances, the subject is not alone. You were squeezed out into this world with inky little feet, and only after that first irresistable action do you get to tramp out a story everywhere you go.

You were not born by yourself, not in any sense. Be made happy.

*Example borrowed from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, of course

it was the best of medieval times, it was the worst of medieval times

Author’s note: in honor of the year anniversary of this story, I present you with a revised-and-expanded director’s cut of the tale, now with more ruminating on the meaning of my degree! So please enjoy, and if not, well…honi soit qui mal y pense.


You know your academic position is terrible when you envy philosophy majors. People may rail against the impracticality of studying philosophy, but at least philosophy is something they’ve heard of. You’ve got to know something exists to disdain it, and philosophy’s notoriety for uselessness makes it identifiable, acknowledged, real.

The field of Medieval Studies should be so lucky. Despite the damning nebulousness of the “studies” suffix that tends to raise red flags relative to its rigor and eyebrows relative to its inclusion on a resume, it’s not, generally speaking, something people know about. It’s not surprising, really: it’s an interdisciplinary field that few schools offer as an undergraduate major, since it can reasonably be subsumed into History, Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, or even Philosophy, depending on the bent of the student in question.

But even with the discovery of its existence, its purpose doesn’t really compute. Despite denoting a sizeable chunk of recorded history, the medieval era—the period roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus’ first voyage—is defined in our collective consciousness as a time of backwardness and ignorance. The customary labels these years bear (Dark Ages, medieval [Latin media aeva, in the middle age]) indicate either ignorance, or, at best, a stopping ground midway to the “rebirth” and “enlightenment” of the epochs to follow. These people lived on a flat earth, ate mud, and genuinely feared dragon attacks like some kind of Ye Olde Rednecks.

And yet, as willing as we are to dismiss the serious scholarly contributions of the medievals, we’re more than happy to ape, mock, and even meticulously recreate their way of life. Our popular imagination is obsessed with a romanticized pageantry of powerful kings and beautiful princesses, blithely gnawing at a turkey leg while watching a recreated joust. The middle ages are for spectacle, for sport, but not really for study.

Depending on whom you ask, Medieval Studies is the epitome of either everything that’s right about college education or everything that’s wrong with it. Because medieval scholars were themselves polymaths trained and productive in many spheres (what we would now call, rather unfairly, Renaissance men), the prescribed courses for a Medieval Studies degree typically involve work in the all-stars of the liberal arts pantheon: literature, history, art history, foreign languages, etc. But unlike other interdisciplinary fields (International Studies, Political Science) that seem to be able to translate a load of reading-and-writing-heavy classes into at least a few practical careers, Medieval Studies is fairly firmly locked in the realm of the theoretical. You just can’t argue that translating Beowulf is going to serve you in the professional world. Maybe you can parlay it into some kind of vaguely-related job doing something like curating museums, but if not, there’s always grad school to flee to and more debt to accrue before a long, publish-or-perish struggle to ascend in academia.

But what if you don’t want to be—if there is such a thing—a career medievalist? What if you genuinely love and believe in the works and writings of people dead almost a millennium, a people whose era has become synonymous with draconian, ignorant, and hopelessly underevolved? What if, like me, you wanted your four years poured into 12th century French romance and biblical exegesis and Gothic architecture to end up as more than a quarter-million-dollar party trick, to make good on their promise to give you the coveted critical thinking skills that were supposed to be part and party to a holistic discipline like this? And what if, despite all this, you found yourself in the pouring rain, wearing a paper crown, and sobbing into your cell phone in the parking lot of the Schaumburg, Illinois, Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament theme restaurant?

Welcome to my education.


You need two things to enjoy the Medieval Times experience: a liberal attitude towards historical accuracy and a willingness to waste money on ridiculous shit. Being both a Medieval Studies major and a congenital dork, I am a prime sucker for their brand of schlock, and I refused to go anywhere else for my birthday. I recruited four friends, and despite varying levels of enthusiasm, our spirits were high as we piled into my ancient Volvo to head for the castle in nearby Schaumburg, IL.

“I went to the New York Medieval Times when I was six,” my friend Briseida was saying. “You eat with your hands. And it was the best fucking chicken I have ever eaten.”

Continue reading

what’s a meta for?

When I was six or seven, my parents and I were watching Wallace and Gromit’s “The Wrong Trousers,” and, at a particularly emotional scene where the bipedal, sentient dog Gromit dons a yellow slicker and leaves his hapless human friend Wallace with his new penguin friend, I asked what seemed like a straightforward question.

“Why is it always raining when it’s sad?”

I did not go on to a lucrative career in film criticism (if such a thing exists), but I did go on to love metaphors. Metaphors are the building blocks of stories, after all! Or maybe they’re the vanishing point of stories, that gives everything depth. Or! Maybe they’re the pulsing mall-music of stories, pitched at exactly the right frequency to make you vibrate, Tacoma-Narrows-style, with a desire to buy buy buy whatever emotional tenor the author has orchestrated therein.

See what I mean? Good, bad, mixed, or mangled, I never met a phor I didn’t like.

When you’re a writer, this is a desirable quality. If you’re dutifully showing, and not telling, you trot out all kinds of masterful, lyrical symbols to climate-control the biodome of your story’s universe. Every character shaves with Occam’s razor and offs themselves with Chekov’s gun. Things are portentious, ominous, foreboding, pregnant (not literally, of course), and zeugmatic. Of course, spilling your story’s guts into this kind of augury can easily tip into overkill, but if you can keep a light hand, I would argue that your metaphors will be the single elevating grace of any work.

When you’re a person, though, a love for metaphor is dangerous. A metaphor is like a lens into or out of something. It’s a way to see what isn’t there in what is–good for art, bad for life. Because if you let the sundry inconveniences and arguments of normal living in a normal life echo out into Grand Significance, you are going to make yourself sad. You are going to make your boyfriend a Shepherd’s Pie and despair when he adds chili powder because it means he thinks you’re boring. You are going to fall out of crow pose and fret about the intrapersonal implications of not being able to literally hold yourself up. You are going to break your banjo strings and think you are impotent and helpless as an artist. You are going to see the brunch place’s shortage of bacon sandwiches as a sign that you can’t connect with your family while they are in town even though everyone is perfectly content to order eggs instead.

Stop. Don’t think so much. Your life may be your art, but you are not the ultimate artist. Just because you’re a writer when creating stories doesn’t mean that you are a thing written when you are living them out. Some things just happen, and most things aren’t showing you anything. Sometimes you need to break down the imagined artifice of everyday life and remind yourself of facts: your boyfriend likes spicy food. Arm muscles take a while to build. Banjo strings are finicky. Bacon sandwiches are understandably popular and that place has good gingerbread lattés anyway. 

So. It’s not raining because it’s sad, it’s raining because there’s a low pressure system coming in. And  when a double rainbow shows up afterwards, you can drag your visiting best friends out onto the porch and admire your sheer, collective luck at being privy to the unknowable and random machinations of nature.

Say “I love you.” Use your words. Tell, don’t show, your life to yourself.

everyone’s gone to the movies

For the last two years of my life, I have seen a movie, in theaters, at least once a week. In the past seven days, I have gone to the movies six times. I am likely to go again today, possibly twice, and then again on Friday.

Yes, I’m still working on all those projects. My second novel-in-progress is chugging pluckily along and the freelance stuff is getting lanced for (mostly) free. I’m also devoting non-zero amounts of time to practicing the banjo, cooking sufficient amounts of food, and learning to hold myself up with my arms at yoga class. I am dealing with crises by thinking positively and constructively. In short, I am still making good use of this time for Personal and Creative Development. And movies are a part of this, no question.

When I was in Paris, I went once or twice a week as a way to practice my language skills without having to talk to anyone, because I’m an introvert and because who knew when else I would get a chance to see Le Princess Movie? When I was in Chicago, I worked in the projection booth at Doc Films and unrolled celluloid strips of everything from avant-garde shorts on 16mm to all 7 (!!) reels of the Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition. In Montreal, there’s a film festival every damn week, Le Cinéclub, and six-dollar-cheapie-Tuesdays at the AMC three blocks from my apartment. I have been racking up points on my Scene card and Cineplex and could probably recite every line of dialogue in the “Silver Linings Playbook” trailer from memory.

I don’t go because I’m a film person. I love popcorny dumb movies and actually get to the theater early to watch the 2wenty* and all the trailers and engage in single-player games of “spot the visual metaphor.” I go because I just like movies. Roger Ebert, who is one of my favorite writers, critic or otherwise, once wrote something about “hunkering down in the womblike security of the theater,” and while I don’t want to get all Freudian nirvana-instinct on you, I’ll hazard at least that it’s a truth universally acknowledged that every moviegoer must be in want of some kind of temporary yet all-encompassing escape.

And yet I have this idea that people think going to the movies alone and frequently is weird. While it may be charming and quaint to have the cheesemonger at the market recognize you and start wrapping up your favorite sharp cheddar as you approach, it’s embarrassing for the ticket girl with the glasses to see you three days in a row and punch another movie out of your carnet étudiant**.

ooh, burn!

But. I saw documentaries on all of the following: a quirky Icelandic grandma-cum-musician, Dominican monks, teenagers in America and teenagers in Quebec, even though the latter group of kids had such thick accents I didn’t understand much. I saw Cloud Atlas and then I read Cloud Atlas. I saw Peaches Do Herself. I was unimpressed with Wreck-It Ralph and incredibly distracted by JGL’s fake eyebrows in Looper. And I didn’t have to coordinate schedules or justify seeing The Perks of Being A Wallflower without reading the book first or avoid French movies because my companion wouldn’t understand without subtitles.

It might be incredibly self-indulgent, but as addictions go, this one is minimally expensive and nominally enriching, so I think it shakes out. If you have yet to go to the movies alone, please do make a date with yourself. And bring your student ID.

*pronounced two-wenty, a-duh
**though I am not technically a student any longer, I am still as poor as one, so I feel that this is morally justifiable

frequently asked quebecstions

Where have you been?!

Montreal, QC, Canada, in a sublet studio apartment on the smallest street in all of downtown. Here is the balcony:

Are you there forever?

No. I’ll finish up my 22nd year and then go back to my natal country.

Why’d you go to Montreal?

 Take your pick: because I couldn’t get a job, because I had nothing better to do, because I’m madly in love with my long-distance boyfriend, because I’m madly in love with the city, because Paris was too expensive and too far, because my antidepressants are cheaper here, because I don’t want either candidate to win the election so I left pre-emptively, because I’ve wanted live here since March 2009 and so I decided it was worth it.

What are you doing there?

Reading Kindle books, eating scrambled eggs on toast, podcasting, and writing. Maybe not blogging as much because I Need To Focus.

I gather that means you do not actually have a job. How are you paying for this?

Remember the last two years of college, when I only got a single beer when we went out and didn’t go to the movies as much as I wanted and didn’t buy any new clothes? That’s how. Also, a graduation present. Also, technically, with Paypal.

There’s a quote from The Enchanted April that I like about situations like this:

Mrs. Wilkins, on the contrary, had no doubts. She was quite certain that it was a most proper thing to have a holiday, and altogether right and beautiful to spend one’s hard-earned savings on being happy.

Aren’t you bored? What do you actually do all day?

No! I write. Plot. Eat apples. Go on runs through Westmount, pine for the houses there, smell other people cooking dinner. Hate my story a little. Get over it. Write more.


I want this to be my job so I’m acting like it’s my job. I’m trying to get 2,800 words a day and finish a novel by the end of this week. It’s sort of hard, but it’s the job I want. I’m my own boss! I have a notebook full of post-it plot points and everything! So I’m working hard right back at it. Fake it up to and including when you make it.

What kind of novels?

YA novels! For and about smart teenagers. It’s what I want to do for real.

Can I read them?!

No! I mean, not yet; unless your name is Alice McKillip My Little Sister Thornburgh, you don’t get first dibs either.

Are you Finding Yourself?

Yeah! If you want to call it that.

Do you speak French?


No, I mean, do you speak it in when you’re in the city?

Yes! And mostly people don’t even switch to English with me! The things that trip me up are numbers above 60, the names of cuts of meat, and the metric system. So I end up buying whole kilograms of sausages and skirting these issues entirely.

How’s the exchange rate.


Is it scary striking out to live on your own in a foreign country?

No. Well, yes. It’s weird how the wrong things become scary to me. I had a panic attack because the tiny electric oven that has no markings on the dials somehow heated up to 500 degrees and some crud burnt to the bottom flared up and the smoke detector went off, and I knewjust knew, that either the Royal Canadian Mounted Fire Department was going to show up and deport me or I was going to crawl into bed and die in my sleep and no one would ever know because I don’t officially live anywhere right now, leaving my body to be discovered half-eaten by wild dogs à la Bridget Jones’s nightmare.

That’s not going to happen.

Thanks, Imaginary Interlocutor!

Did you send in your absentee ballot request?

Yes, Dad.

Does your apartment include a loft bed with a giant poster of Canadian Pop Idol Justin Bieber? 

Why do you like Montreal so much?

I don’t know. It’s neat. The things I like about it are the qualities I want to cultivate personally, to become sophisticated, offbeat, volatile, bilingual, forbiddingly frigid most of the time but downright lovely the rest, neologism-friendly, powered on rotisserie chicken with piripiri sauce and with a big green mountain right in the heart of me.

Have you ever been?

No. Can I come visit?

Only if you can sleep under Justin Bieber’s watchful eye (see above). But yes, please, do. I’m not here for long and there are things I want to show you.

what’s in your purse, neophyte political reporter blair thornburgh?

1. Flip flops, for when Professional Shoes disintegrate in rain

2. Free tampon from the DNC Arena. A tangible counterstrike in the war against the War on Women!

3. Credentials, hayy

4. Notebook and backup notebook

5. Pieces of flair

6. Yelp mints

7. Business cards of people I will forget to email

8. Recorder and spare batteries, always

9. Epi-Pen and 12 doses of children’s Benadryl. The perennial threat of anaphylaxis is made worse by the bags of peanuts being sold in the arena to  delegates who are not tidy with their shells

10. Map of downtown Charlotte, incomprehensible

11. Johnson & Johnson swag bag, inexplicable

12. Rain poncho (unused)

13. Ceramic gnome, which I swiped from my best friend’s apartment (Hey Eli!) before we moved out and wanted to use it for hilarious photo-ops with politicians.  So far I have been too shy

14. Red, white, and blue nail polish to touch up Obamanicure nail art

15. Bliss’s Mint Romney and O(range)bama moisturizers, swag taken from HuffPo Oasis where I have also been known to drink two coconut waters in a sitting

16. Wallet, shitty, from high school

17. Burt’s Bees

18. Kindle (dead weight) and laptop (less so)

19. Patriotic photo booth pic

20. iPhone charger

a few moments

I got E.B. White’s essay “Here is New York” out of the Brooklyn Central Library on Sunday by utter happenstance and read it in fifteen minutes while waiting in line for a falafel truck. I almost don’t want to quote it, because I dislike those people who just mine writers for fortune-cookie-slips to stick on their fridge doors or Tumblrs or whatever, and also because I’d end up typing out the whole thing verbatim because it’s so good.

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No on should come to New York unless he is willing to be lucky.

I drove fourteen hours, twice, back-and-forth to Chicago in a Volvo sedan nearly as old as I am and with plenty more miles. The air conditioner makes this horrible screeching sound like the carburator is falling out and the brakes are failing all at once, but only one window rolls down so what can you do. My boyfriend and I took shifts, ate string cheese, listened to the Beastie Boys. One of our many en route fights that started with my wailing about the future and its lack of promise for me ended in sync with a rainstorm, and we saw an incredible sunset over Indiana that was all bulging and purple-pink like something weird and alive.


I also did that thing where I get bored while driving and start singing snippets of whatever high-school girls’ choir songs stroll into my head–Bist du Bei Mir, the Vivaldi Gloria, Ascendit Deuses and Ave Marias and that stuff. At one point my boyfriend said, without looking up from his iPhone, “Oh, you really can sing. Usually you sound so goofy.”

Four and a half years and I’d never shown him that serious ability. But it didn’t suck when I did, so.

I spent all of last weekend in Prospect Park because I was tired of spending money and wanted to read. I bought some pears at the Farmers’ Market and finished two YA romances in a sitting. I brought my banjo but didn’t play it for three hours because I was shy and didn’t know what the protocol on being a Park Musician was but eventually I just tuned up and plowed through “Soldier’s Joy” and no one cared, even though that song is actually about morphine addiction. Pears, apparently, taste waxy and awful.

Then a bunch of Park Slope kids detached from their parenting pod and starting ripping up handfuls of grass to throw on me.

One of the stay-at-home-dads noticed and chided his spawn: “Sebastian, stay on this side of the tree.”

I’ve always wanted to name my Sims my son Sebastian and now the name is forever sullied by this little shit. Another argument for early banjo exposure in babies.

On the train home yesterday a boy got on with his grandmother at Canal Street holding a plastic bag with a goldfish in it. (Didn’t even know they were still giving those out for prowess in ring toss!) He was telling another little boy nearby about it (how he won it with fourteen tokens, how you have to take care of them, how they can die really easy but not as easy as turtles) but his voice was, I think, loud enough for my benefit, as I was reading Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions on my Kindle a few poles away and still got all the details. I could see he had the greatest eyelashes, the kind of thick line of black fringe that I’m always trying to coax out with sticky mascara and liner.

“You’ve got great eyelashes,” said the other little boy’s mom, like there’d been a train-wide brainwave about it.

“Yup. And I’m never gonna cut ’em!”

“I don’t think you can cut them,” his grandmother said.

“Well, I’m not gonna. Did you know they make fake things to make your eyelashes longer? Not fair!” he crowed.

And they do! It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I loved this kid. I’m never gonna cut my eyelashes either.

you are where you eat

It was a warm night, a pleasant night. I’d just killed an hour slowly sipping a glass of wine in a cafe, looking at the fire escapes of the buildings across the street and listening to people talk as they zipped past on St. Mark’s Place. I half-read a book, I wrote a postcard. I thought about living here and being a real writer with a real fire escape.

We showed up at the restaurant at 9:36. Six minutes late, despite my best attempts at speedwalking in heels, because some sloppy drunk had tossed a cup of warm beer on (at?) my boyfriend in the penultimate blocks of the Second Avenue leg. I’d made a dumb joke about baptism imagery and starting over. I wanted to be chipper. We had gotten a same-day reservation at a tiny 30-person bistro that I’d become starry-eyed over after reading the memoirs of its chef/owner. I’d torn through the first chunk before I’d had it a full two hours from the library, entranced by this raw yet lyrical writing, a book suffused with a badass, salty, did-it-all-myselfedness. A writer and a cook, like I wanted to be. I craved her food before I even knew where to look for it.

But now I live in New York, where everything is, and so was this restaurant. My boyfriend was reluctant.

“It’s called Prune,” he said, making a face. “Will they have food I like?”

“You’ll be fine,” I said. “Prunes are just plums, after all.”

I wanted a Parmesan omelette, radishes with butter, pencil asparagus, and the kitchen’s speciality: bone marrow. We’d eaten it elsewhere before, and the promise of a warm and fatty delicacy spread over sourdough toasts was enough to sell him on the unappealingly chichi idea of a meal in a restaurant. I’d gone in person to get us a table that morning, and I was lucky.

But our table wasn’t ready yet. “Do you want anything to drink?” asked two separate bartenders, their t-shirts the well-fitted pink cotton of American Apparel. I said no, just water. No space for a ten-dollar cocktail in my budgeted meal. My boyfriend waved his hand, said nothing, his eyes on a two-top by our elbows that was unoccupied except by twin table settings.

Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Then forty. I rebuffed more invitations to wine or spirits, sipping the water. My boyfriend was mute, still beer-damp, and in a sour mood not helped by crashing blood sugar. I clenched my jaw, stared at the mason jars of house-pickled onions and olives and told myself it was worth it. This place was founded by a former teenage cokehead, after all, a woman who once slept on a floor and ate cheap bodega eggs-on-a-roll like I did. It was scrappy and punky, like the female bartender with an asymmetrical buzzcut who frowned at the host for us and asked why we couldn’t take the open table.

“That’s…somebody else’s table,” he said, unsuccessfully craning out of our earshot. Oh, I thought. Well. My eyes went hot and shimmery. I felt a sharp stab of shame that I wasn’t worth the seemingly democratic practice of a timely reservation, and then embarrassment for my naïveté.

A large birthday party behind us ordered another round of drinks. I stared at the folds of my dress–Ralph Lauren, secondhand–and felt tears forming.

Eventually the group showed up. Whether they were famous or just rich I still don’t know; a four-person posse, well-heeled and gray-haired with Prada shopping bags and a round of martinis ready when they sat down. My boyfriend looked daggers at them as we were finally seated (10:27) at our table in the corner. An amiable waitress brought us a tiny plate of deviled eggs as an apology. I ate one, cool and creamy and a bit sharp with mustard, and it stuck in my throat.

I scanned the menu, looking for what I’d been waiting for. Roasted marrow bones were supposed to be their signature. I must just be missing it. I asked the waitress.

“Oh, we no longer serve it.”

She was friendly, but I felt gawky and inept for even having asked. Normally I can shrug off snobbishness in the name of a good meal, but now, six weeks into living in a city that made me overstimulated or overtaxed by turns, that muscle in me was spent. I felt foolish and unwelcome. I didn’t belong even in a place that was–or so I thought, anyway–more about craft than clique.

But my discomfort went beyond the shabbiness of my Salvation Army attire and my student Visa card with the comparably paltry credit limit. I suddenly felt sick at the thought of spending thirty dollars–almost half a days’ salary–on spatchcocked poussin. Like a tongue bit mid-chew, it jolted me awake.

Even though I’d tried to shirk destiny and teach myself taste, there was no way to avoid that I am what I’ve eaten. I felt like every bite I’d ever taken of microwaved lasagna had left me with something of its mediocrity even as it gave me halfhearted nourishment, that the cells Stouffers powered were endowed with a nucleus of intractable blandness. There was something in my essence that made me fundamentally, universally unsuited to do what I wanted. Who was I to move here, to eat these things, to try and write? I am possessed of a body as mushy and white as the boxes of instant potatoes that built it, and whatever had once lit the fire in my belly felt soggy and stagnant. I had the vague notion that someone, somewhere, had fed me a lie, and now I was choking.

For the first time in recent memory, I had no appetite.

I managed to get a full two blocks away before I began heaving sobs. In New York, when you’re nobody, since you’re nobody, nobody will notice you wobble and weave as you gasp down the street. My boyfriend threw an arm over my shoulders, and we got to Cooper Square and a strange little park of blocky seats and tables where I bawled, hard, knowing in the mealy center of my bones that I was not going to make it here. People love to say that this city will eat you alive, but that assumes it’ll bother to bite.

“You need to eat something,” he said. So we walked more, stopped twice, forking over four dollars for a pint of ice cream and a buck fifty for shitty pizza. I ate and felt nauseous, but calm, at least, angst dulled by a flood of insulin. If I can’t make art here, I thought, belly up on his dorm-room bed, I can’t make it anywhere.

I awoke the next morning feeling alive but none too vital. I washed my face, dressed, got a cup of coffee. I felt no hunger, but a combination of a maternal sense of duty and a toddler-like ache for something true and sweet saw me to the greenmarket in Union Square. Vegetables and fruits arrayed not for artistry or cleverness but pure advertising appeal. Orange-fingered carrot clusters, three-fifty. A dozen eggs, five dollars. Three boxes of blueberries for ten. All products, all priced.

I picked out some food by color and feel, filling a bag with fruit for a few crumply bills. I sat on the bench and bit into a breakfast, just some raw material to fill and fuel me. Nothing chopped or sliced or peeled or dried but still whole and swollen with juice. After all, just a plum.

unique new york

New York City is not like any other place on Earth. Everybody knows this. What everybody doesn’t know, or at least what didn’t know when I came here the first time to live, are the exact things that make it so different. You can, of course, learn this stuff just by coming here, living for a while, and just figuring it out (I guess that’s something it’s got in common with every city or place ever). But maybe it’s nice to have these things pointed out to you first.

This is not a travel guide or an essay where I lord my urban, dyed-in-the-black-wool-turtleneck savvy over anyone. These are the things that freaked me out, that took me a while, that made no sense, that betray me as the emigrée and hopeless insophisticate that I am. So let’s go!

  • Uptown/downtown. It’s what it sounds like. Don’t go, say, or ask for directions north or south. That’s not a thing here.
  • Corollary: streets go up- and downtown, avenues go laterally.  I got this backwards, and I am dumb. Just goes to show you. Blocks between avenues are super long and blocks between streets whip by. If you desperately need to navigate, put away your iPhone. I swear you can puzzle this one out. Just remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (but I’ll give you a break for GPS if it’s cloudy).
  • If you swipe into a subway station and you stumble to the turnstile without actually going through properly, you can’t just swipe in again unless you have an unlimited-trip card. At least I’m pretty sure. So get it right the first time.
  • “Well drinks”: Maybe this is a term elsewhere? But I never had seen it prior to coming here. Anywho, this means drinks mixed from the bottles from the well underneath the bar, i.e., the cheap stuff. But that is why they cost less. Bonus: they invite all kinds of “might as well/all’s well that ends well” type plays on words that are really only funny after you’ve had a few.
  • On line, not in it. The cashier does not mean that you are connected to the internet, but that you are queueing up. I don’t know. It’s just what people say.
  • Bodega. It’s a corner store. Like a dépanneur? And most of them have not just coffee and cigarettes but also Amy’s burritos and Greek yogurt (but at a steep, steep markup. Naïve, drunk, and hungry: ye be warned)
  • Food carts. The halal ones, I’m told, are pretty good, and cheap for how much food they give you. The coffee and bagel ones have terrible coffee and bagels that are just untoasted, bloated bread enveloping a too-small, unspread square of cream cheese product. Go to a bodega or deli lunch place instead (lots of them have scallion cream cheese, even!) The smoothie ones are probably okay, though.
  • The line at the Union Square Trader Joe’s actually moves fairly quickly considering how many people are in it. And if you just get on line right when you get there, you can pretty much do your shopping without losing your place as it winds around the store.
  • There is a Farmers’ Market near your home or place of business. I practically can guarantee it. Here’s a map. Saturday at Union Square you can get a giant cheddar-scallion scone and a drinkable strawberry yogurt for like four bucks and it is way better than brunch out. Also, buy some goddamned peaches while they’re in season.
  • Brunch. Fucking everywhere has brunch, and they will totally charge you twelve bucks for eggs and toast, which, ew. If you must, at least find a place that has a prix fixe deal with drinks included.
  • Brooklyn. Do not assume, as I did, that if you and someone else both live in Brooklyn that you will be neighbors or easily visitable by subway. Bushwick is not that close to Boerum Hill which is not that close to Crown Heights. It is a geographically large place and you will probably end up going back to Manhattan to transfer lines to get anywhere, so you might as well meet your friends in the East Village and get brunch there (though, see above).
  • You don’t get cell service on the subway. This might be the most “um, doy,” item on this list, but I didn’t know. And I still see people trying to send text messages while whipping from Canal St. to Delancey/Essex! And, also, on that note:
  • Delancey St. and Essex St. are the same subway stop. Again, I don’t know, it just is that way.
  • Times Square really does suck. Really, it does. Don’t go even for the experience. Have you ever gotten punched in the face while watching TRL on a big-screen TV inside a garbage dump? Congrats, you’re experienced.
  • A lot of people will come onto your subway car and ask you for money. Creative variants I have witnessed included a guy with a duffel bag full of free snacks, a singing group who started their act by feigning a request for the time and correcting the tourist who proffered his wrist watch by harmonizing “it’s doo wop time!“, a blind kid in a Sixers jersey with a rippling, pink scar up his arm and a guide dog, a bunch of kids, including one who must have been only seven or eight, doing elaborate backflips and hip-hop moves on a moving A express train, and your garden-variety winos, hobos, and Vietnam vets. Toss them change if they entertain you or move you to do so; it’s good for humanity.
  • Restaurant grades are bullshit. The things you can get away with and still get an ‘A’ are, to my mind, horrifying. But you probably won’t die from eating anywhere.
  • Do not ever pay full price for a hairstylist or yoga class. These things are on Groupon and Livingsocial (or just offering regular ol’ discounts) more often than anything else. You can get such stupidly low discounts on them that more than $4/class or $25 for a shampoo and trim is highway robbery.
  • Get a library card if you can. Because otherwise you will fall prey to the siren song of used bookstores and drain away your savings account three, four, six, and two-for-ten dollars at a time.
  • Despairing. You might. I did. I do. The city is huge and scary; it smells bad and is not always safe. But it’s incredible, too. It’s the only place where you can get the best of anything or the worst of anything twenty-four hours a day. So breathe. You’ll get through it, one shitty cup of bodega coffee and well drink at a time, and you might love it, too.

Bonus addendum: The Skint and r/nyc are good places to find cheap, free, cool, or all of the above type things to do. I have gone to many an outdoor movie and gotten free Colbert Report tix from total strangers just by cruising the internets. You don’t ever have to be without plans! That said, it’s okay to be bored here, too. We all need breaks.

sick daze

Sometimes, even when you feel full of vim and vigor, even when you move to a new city and start a new job and feel really gung-ho about Doing Journalism and Living In New York, and even when you live on couches for a week with basically nothing more than a hobo bindle and a banjo and really did intend to write a blog post here about it, you get sick. Life just decides you need a good ol’ elbow to your Grown-Up stomach. Or throat, as the case may be.

I don’t get sick much, because I’m a jerk like that. But the last time I did get sick was a mysterious, RENT-themed and antibiotic-resistant chest cold acquired at the tail end of my previous New York tenure as an intern. Something about that city makes my antibodies get nervous and hide, like they’re Midwestern tourists in town for a youth group trip. But I figured now that I was really a Real Person, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen, like a college diploma is some kind of mystical inoculation against infectious diseases.

Tuesday night, I went to bed convincing myself that the weird swollen lymph node and headache I was nursing were the result of too much couch-sleep and not enough water. Whatever! I am a Grown-Up now! These things happen! Wednesday morning, I woke with chills, a sweaty forehead, and a teeth-gritted determination to get into the office for an 11 AM interview I had scheduled. Because grown-ups with jobs don’t get sick! And definitely not in the summer!

I thrashed about for a good ten minutes attempting to extricate myself from a sweaty tangle of XL-dorm-sheets before cooler heads (literally) prevailed. My boyfriend pointed out that if I my throat hurt too much to insist I could go to the office, I probably wouldn’t give a very good interview. Fair point, I conceded woozily. Unable to talk past the golf ball in my throat, I emailed in sick, accepted two of his roommate’s Liqui-Gel ibuprofen, and mumbled an apology for infecting suite 902 of the NYU Palladium dorm before losing consciousness in a fevered delirium of almost-sleep.

Upon re-waking, I realized the acute problem of being sick as a Real Person: I had no idea what to do. As a kid, your parents can take you to the pediatrician or hospital or holistic-shaman healer. You don’t have to worry about who pays for it. As a college student, you just have to pull on some crusty sweatpants and drag ass to the student health center, where you might have to wait forever in a room with CNN Health Highlights on loop but, eventually, you will get treated by a distracted nurse-practitioner with triple her usual caseload. And thanks to the Student Life Fee, or whatever, you don’t have to worry about who pays for it. But Real People? There’s no familiar doctor. There’s no student health center. There’s just you and your inflamed throat lining and what suddenly feels like the largest goddamned city in the world.

But I’m lucky. I’m a Real Person, but also a Modern Young Adult, which means I have two good things at my disposal: Yelp and Obamacare. My smartphone located a walk-in clinic with good reviews literally around the corner, in the middle of a drug store. This being New York, the place also sells aisle after aisle of store-brand snacks, a frightening variety of frozen food, and beer, on tap, for take-out, 24 hours a day. My parents’ insurance, which otherwise would have been unavailable to me as of a few weeks ago, covered me for a doctor’s visit, a strep test (positive), and a round of amoxicillin capsules half the size of my thumb. And I could go home, just over two hours away on NJ transit, to lie on a familiar couch and watch cable, to let my parents buy me ice cream, to take my temperature and to take care of me.

The point is, Real People, you don’t have to be sick in a vacuum. You don’t have to do any part of Real Life in a vacuum. You can let the people who love you talk you out of going in to work and buy you probiotic kombucha and you can let your interviewees and coworkers and banjo teachers know you’re too busy burning up to come in and infect them and you can let the government give you a break on co-pays so that you can afford not to die. Get some rest. Watch some Netflix. Chug some Nyquil.

But then you’d better as hell get well, because you are way behind on your blog posts.