Category Archives: Writing

things we’re not good at

I realized two days ago that last weekend, in the flurry of diploma-getting and picture-taking and packing-up-everything-I-own, I missed saying goodbye to one of my best friends. This being The Future, I quickly typed distressed messages of apology for my oversight at her on Facebook. But, as it turns out, she said she had actually slipped out on purpose, because it was hard for her to watch so many people leave and seeing them was too much.

“I’m not good with goodbyes,” she said.

scene from my moving-to-college roadtrip four long years ago

I’m not either, I told her. Nobody is! And so we said a kind of fakey-Facebook goodbye, punctuated with emoticons instead of the sobbing through tears that would likely have accompanied the physical act. I didn’t have much time to dwell, because in the short span of three days that I was home I had many glamourous tasks to attend to: unpacking, doing laundry, getting my teeth cleaned, going to the doctor, having blood drawn (ugh), trying not to barf on the nice phlebotomist, going back to the dentist to have my sexy tooth-grinding mouthguard refitted, and putting something in the family fridge that wasn’t pre-shredded cheese or moldy Indian takeout.

And! In my infinite wisdom, I had signed up for banjo classes in Brooklyn that I was Very Excited to take without noticing that the first class was on June 14, also known as Three Full Days Before I Intended To Move to New York. So I took the Boltbus up, for just the night, to learn the very beginnings of the clawhammer style and doodle around in that wonderful city for a bit. (Pro-tip: if you ever want to be regarded with suspicion at your favorite vegan bakery, go there in a stained-button down with a banjo strapped to your back. Hayseed-chic!)

The class, though, was great, and started the usual way any class does, with a go-around-and-say-your-name kind of deal. The teacher was friendly and did his best, but three people in he did a sheepish little palms-up.

“I’m not good with names,” he admitted.

Which made me think. As we were practicing forming our hands into claws and awkwardly strumming out our first attempts at the bum-ditty, I realized that no one ever says they’re good with names. And yet people still point it out, invariably, in situations where there’s a whole roster of new folks to get acquainted with. Same with goodbyes. I’d bet you two vegan donuts that no one relishes the act of parting with their friends any more than they profess their utter confidence at learning what people are called.

So what compels us, as a people, as a species, to qualify something that’s so universal? Why can’t we just come out and admit it? Change is hard. The best part of spending time with people is when you’ve mastered their name but don’t have to say it for the last time. If introductions aren’t queasy and nerve-wracking, then they’re at least a bit of tricky memorization. And goodbyes are just awful. No one wants to wrap their arms around someone knowing they’ll have to release them, and so soon, too soon.

I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it, either, other than try to ride it out. Not to get all “Closing Time” on you, but it is true that beginnings follow endings. There was once a time when you didn’t know your best friend’s name. The people you’ve bid farewell circle back in the strangest ways. So maybe it’s a good exercise to relish these precipitous moments we’re “not good with” and give people healthy dose of consideration–not judgment, just taking-in–when we see them first and last. Who are they, and where will they go with or without us?

And if you really can’t remember names, or can’t handle the burden of keeping in touch, worry not. There’s always Facebook.

how to address 5000 of your closest friends

Hello! Since last we met and talked about talking in front of people, I’ve had a bit of a stage upgrade.

Yes, I spoke on a stage so large and far away from everyone that they threw me up on a JUMBOTRON. Life goal: achieved.

But in all seriousness: I was selected as one of three student speakers to give a brief Convocation address to the University of Chicago College Class of 2012 (also known as my friends). It was a huge, huge honor and not nearly as terrifying as it sounds.

I wanted to make a list here of all the people I have to thank for getting me here, starting with Cecilia who threw my name into the hat and winding all the way back to my first-grade teacher who said I was the best writer she’d ever had, but there are so many of you that I’d inevitably leave someone out. But please know that each and every bit of time with you, my teachers and family and friends, are the cornerstones of my own wonky mosaic.

I’m also not going to talk about the other events of the weekend, the packing and saying goodbyes and feeling so many feelings, because the emotional gears are still turning. Processing is in progress. Hell, I haven’t even unpacked my car yet.

Here’s what I learned, however, about standing up and talking to lots of people. Maybe this is so stupidly obvious as to be unremarkable, but that’s just how the truth works sometimes: you gotta believe in yourself. In writing this speech, in revising and smoothing its manifold metaphors, in practicing its slow-calm-breathe-pause delivery, the advice I got was always the same: be confident. They picked you because you have something to say, so say it.

For someone who once bunched the covers over her head the morning of her turn to deliver the Old Testament reading on Youth Sunday, I felt preternaturally calm clutching my printed-out speech and lining up in my assigned spot for the bagpipes procession. I believed my own hype. I had emerged from the shadows of always wear sunscreen and this is water to craft 3 minutes, one-and-a-half 14-point pages of something I really meant. I looked around at the sweaty faces of all these people around me, all these kids in their cheapo robes and variously-angled mortarboards and knew that I wanted to tell them what I was going to tell them. I had a message and by God I was going to sell it.

At my school, we call our graduation exercises Convocation instead of Commencement because we as an institution believe not in firm beginnings and endings of learning experience, but of a constant ebb and flow, gatherings and dispersals, continuity. I hadn’t even considered this beforehand, but that was all I wanted to say in my speech. You tell people that you love your friends and you remind them that theirs are great, too; that there’s really nothing else to life. You get on a stage, you speak slowly, you don’t throw up on your shoes. And voilà. Three minutes fly by.

Also, in terms of Good Graduation Advice: the sunscreen guy was definitely on it. Especially when your ceremony involves sitting without shade for three-plus hours.

You can listen to my speech, recorded by my loyal father on his Zoom H2, right here. I hope you like it.

5 things i learned from stand-up class (and 1 i didn’t)

On Sunday night, I got up on a tiny stage in the back of a pancake house and told some jokes into a microphone. It was not as awful as it sounds! For the past five weeks I’ve been a student of the awesome Feminine Comique, an all-girl, totally-badass comedy class where I learned the basics of the stand-up genre with some really awesome other ladies and taught by the indefatigably hilarious Kelsie Huff.

Why? Well, for one thing, I wanted some practice in case I was going to speak at Convocation (and that is totally happening, so, check mark!) But also, I wanted a chance to see what writing and performing in a genre that I liked but had never tried was like. Also, I was desperate to get out and meet some non-UChicago people. And, well, Mission Accomplished all around! I told jokes! People laughed! And I also took away some good insights from Kelsie and the other gals that I think extend to plenty of parts of my (creative) life. Behold!

1. The power of the exercise

Some of the first things Kelsie had us do were just simple joke-writing practice. For instance: she’d give us two nouns to fill in the sentence “I like my [blank] like I like my [blank]…” and then complete it. Not the most groundbreaking of joke forms, but it got the wheels a-turnin’. And it wasn’t easy. Having to come up with a logical conclusion to the pair of “lawnmower” and “dental floss” put my brain in knots, but I found a punchline eventually: “I like my lawnmower like I like my dental floss: for begrudging, occasional maintenance.” Not that funny, but! The muscles are now stronger. I have lifted a comedic weight.

2. You can’t go wrong with feelings

Another of the exercises we did was to compare two events or things and tell the best and worst parts of each. “Finding a job is like going to the prom: I’m overdressed and hoping to get lucky.” When stuck for a way to finish this particular prompt, Kelsie would have us fall back on how things made us feel. Not to be fuzzy or sentimental, but to dig at what’s really going on in these situations that can make them funny. Peel everything away and the raw nerve can make you laugh. Or cry.

3. Tighten, tighten, tighten

Once we had our bits in place, we would perform them for the class and get notes. Invariably, there was some version of this advice: cut it down. Stand-up comedy is not reading essays. It’s not even really telling stories. It’s being conversational while still hitting all your funny marks. And that is hard! But it’s a good skill. For those of us who love being verbose (guilty) or obtuse (guilty) or using lots of adjectives that end in -se (see previous two items), it’s a challenge to reduce your artful prose to something talkable. Pro-tip: write it out, perform it with your notes, then put your notes down. Perform it sans reading, preferably into a recording device, listen, and evaluate. The stuff you remember to say is the stuff that you keep.

4. Pace yourself and Let It Land

Probably the second-most common critique was about pacing. The girls and I would just cruuuuuuise on through our routines without pausing for laughs or letting things sink in. But remember, stand-up is a conversation. It’s a dialogue. The audience wants to respond and trust me, you want that energy coming back at you. Example: my joke that I was “tall, or as I like to say: vertically fat” didn’t go well when I flew on to my next bit about the mortal danger of wearing high heels because no one understood what the hell I had said. Let them process. Let them think. Let it land.

5. Find Your Truth

This could pretty much be a cardinal rule all kinds of storytelling, or even all kinds of creative work period. Tell the truth. Tell the funny truth, the uncomfortable truth, the adorable truth, the repulsive truth. It’s not that easy, but it’s also not that hard. You can be yourself in a campy, stage-whisper-y, jab-and-wink kind of way and still be telling your truth. Case in point: despite my bit about being from Pennsylvania, I do not actually hate the Amish. Much. Being honest just means being a little vulnerable.

And what didn’t I learn?

1. How to be funny

This is not a teachable thing. People are funny because they’re funny. But! You can become funny-er if you think through these rules, deconstruct a little, and then take your comedy building blocks and assemble them into a veritable Tower of Mirth (and avoid stupid metaphors such as these). It’s about taking leaps of faith onto that tiny stage, fumbling with that microphone, and trusting that you will not die if you try to tell people about your Junior Prom.

my last hundred(ish) bucks

$100! It is a lot of money, and yet, it is also not a lot of money at all. Where did your last hundred bucks go, Blair Thornburgh? (with apologies to The Billfold)

Memorial Day barbecue, one of many free-ish hot-dog-themed dinners this week

$2.89–Shipping my old copy of Mastronarde’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek to someone in Tempe, AZ and netting me a cool $7.89 on So maybe this doesn’t count?
$43.50–Cap and gown at campus bookstore, which is neither returnable nor rentable, so basically my education has cost me $200,043.50 at this point
$5 plus $1 tip–Double IPA at campus pub, which I bought to kill time and ended up making me semi-drunk for a 10 PM showing of Dazed and Confused
$4.50–Saltines and ginger ale at CVS, for my best friend who mysteriously contracted a stomach bug at a minor-league baseball game and wouldn’t let me into his room because there was puke on the floor so I had to just leave it by his door like he was the Phantom of the Opera or something
$10–Tickets to see Chelsea Peretti do standup at the Lincoln Lodge, which cost $15 but my friend bought them and gave me a discount for the aforementioned CVS purchase. Technically I could try to get in free with the card they gave me as an Official Stand-Up Comedy Trainee but I figured I should pay up.
$20.25–Enough gas to last me the rest of the week. My parents are just going to fill up the tank when we drive back to the East Coast from Chicago, so I’m trying to get juuuuust enough to use up exactly.
$7.75–Laundry. Tried to cram 3 weeks of clothes into the $2.75 machine and had to bail halfway, suck it up, and pay a dollar more. Like usual.
$18.79–Groceries: 4 Jonagold apples and 1 Pink Lady, 1 lb. carrots, parsley, dozen eggs, butter, ¼ pound of kalamata olives with pits (because you save $3 a pound that way!), 2 avocados. Shopping light due to impending moveout and need to eat through pantry reserves. I also had picked up two containers of hummus (2 for $5! A STEAL) but then it turned out I had the wrong size and had to ask the checkout guy to put them back.

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.”

how to talk to other human beings

When I phrase it like that, it seems like something that should come standard in the toolkit for Being A Person (along with How To Breathe and How Not To Spill Water On Yourself While Drinking*). But it’s hard! People are scary, unknown entities. But the fact of the matter is than unless you’re resigning yourself to an unfashionably ascetic lifestyle, you are going to have to talk to people. This is the dread networking that no one wants to think about and everyone has to do.

But it is not that bad! A few strategies and you’re set. Let me, a newly-minted extrovert, give you all the hot tips. Listen up!


  • Find a place. Every night, in every city, people are hanging out somewhere. Go on Reddit. Go on Twitter. Read email list hosts. Grab your city’s alt-weekly. Pick something appealing, pull on your bootstraps and go. Take a friend if you’re nervous.
  • Actually talk. That means stop checking your phone, nursing your drink, hanging back in the corner. Be bold, take the plunge. Stuck for an opener? Try “Hi.” And tack on a question: “Who are you?” “What do you do?” “Why won’t that waiter give me more than one mini-quiche?” etc.
  • Use a name tag. Well, if appropriate for the situation. Read people’s names off their chests and call them by it. Indicate your own. Try not to stare at boobs.
  • Prepare some log lines. You can probably anticipate the kind of questions you’ll get asked (see above), so get your pithy responses ready ahead of time so you don’t have to flail verbally. And be aspirational! I say something like “I’m a writer and journalist who hosts my own podcast” because, well, I am and do. Bring up your student status later (if applicable) and watch people be impressed at your initiative. Get elevator pitches in shape for your novel/screenplay/fusion restaurant concept and then impress.
  • Plant seeds. This is Actual Advice I think I got from “How To Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls” (which does exist, ahem). When you first arrive somewhere, do the proverbial making-of-the-rounds, visit each cluster of people, and give them a little remark to come back to later, like “Bourbon, straight up? Excellent choice” or “I love your TARDIS necklace!” or “Where did you guys get all those mini-quiches?!” Then, if you come back to talk to them later, you can riff on what you first said. It’s a conversational callback! People like those.
  • Dutch courage. I never said I was a role model! But seriously, there is a reason that cocktail parties are the locus of so many socializing events. A sufficient amount of judiciously-applied booze makes talking easier. Don’t fight science (and don’t go overboard, for God’s sake. Eat a snack beforehand!)
  • Ask more questions. People like talking about themselves and what they like doing (a-duh). So ask, nod, listen, ask more. Jump in if you’ve got something really cool to say, but the secret to good conversation is that you don’t do all the work.
  • Promote. If you’ve got a project (like a blog! like a podcast!) and you’re talking to the kind of people who might dig it, by all means TELL THEM. If they don’t want to read/listen, they can ignore you, but if you never tell them in the first place, they will not know about it. I like to say things like “I’ve just started a podcast and I’d love to hear what you think about it,” because 1. flattery of their opinion! and 2. if they do end up listening, they’ll do it with an engaged and critical ear, which is a win-win.
  • Corollary to the above: business cards. I don’t care if you think it’s dumb. It’s the easiest way to get your information to someone. Get fancy pretty ones if you like or just buy the freebies from Vistaprint. Name, email, twitter, website, and a joke for good measure. Boom. And then give them to people. Exhort them to stay in touch.
  • Believe in yourself, ’cause that’s the place to start. And I say hey! But seriously. You’ve gotta muster some self-confidence one way or another because if you, as the person who spends the most time around you, do not think you are interesting and have something to say, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing anyone else.
The end! More or less. Anyone else got some secrets? Or just want to say hi? True story: this blog has comments enabled!**

*Which, okay, not all of us have mastered
**I know you’re out there! I can hear you breathing on Google Analytics!!