feeeeeelings, Life

Personal Best

A belated New Year’s resolution post 

I took the GREs on Monday and they turned out exactly like I expected they would: my verbal score was nearly perfect, my math (excuse me, “quantitative reasoning”) score was absolute rubbish. It told me nothing that I didn’t already know but I was still disappointed.

It did force me to make a belated New Year’s resolution, one that has been rolling around in my brain for awhile but I have only recently been able to put into words. It’s pretty simple but it’s also really hard: stop comparing myself to everyone else. Or, maybe just do less comparing myself to other people, because I’m not sure I can go cold turkey.

I’m naturally competitive, in a way I truly think sometimes I have no control over. Play a board game with me and you will see what I mean. I know it’s a game. I know it doesn’t matter in the least, and if I were being my best self I could relax and enjoy it like a well-adjusted person.  But I want to win, badly, and I really, really hate losing. And I especially hate losing at things that don’t matter.

Case in point: the GRE. You will never convince me that standardized tests mean anything, in a global sense. I will agree with you that they’re meaningless, until you put me in that testing room for four hours and assign me two numbers. Then, of course, they’re My inner anarchist homeschooler-self and my type-A, all-nighter-pulling-self are always battling for dominance, one side whispering this doesn’t even matter let’s go paint something while the other shouts of course it does, how else do you know you’re worth anything?  

Being terrible at math makes me feel really, really stupid. It makes me feel like a freaking loser, actually. And I couldn’t even feel happy about my verbal score, which I don’t mind telling you was excellent, because I was so down about the math. (I should add here that I don’t even have graduate programs picked out, and I might very well end up applying to the sort of programs that could not care less about my quantitative reasoning skills. I was taking the GRE because I was scared of it and I wanted to get over that, and because apparently I like having the fact that I’m in the 28% percentile for math skills thrown in my face by a computer.)

That line, “Comparison is the thief of joy” is the realest thing ever glued to a refrigerator magnet and sold in the checkout at Barnes and Noble. I think about it pretty much every day. Comparing yourself with other people is guaranteed to make you feel like whatever you have isn’t enough, when really, whatever you have is most likely more than enough. Every day I spend walking around, healthy and alive and employed is a goddamn embarrassment of riches and I need to be a lot better about remembering that fact, day to day. The only thing I have to do this year is do better than I did last year. That’s it.

When I find myself taking many great things in my life for granted, it’s usually because I feel dumb or unaccomplished or just stuck: intellectually, professionally, whatever. And my New Years resolution is basically to snap out of it. It’s not about stopping anything, or about slowing down–the opposite, in fact.  It’s just about doing my best with my day and my work and my relationships, and at the end of the day remembering to remind myself that it actually was enough.

(Sorry this got a little Oprah-y for me. But hey, it’s 2015, let’s live all our Best Life ™ )


Do not depend…

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything. – Thomas Merton

Working on it 


How I Changed My Name

We are familiar with it by now, on a first name basis, in fact: “The cancer” “Cam has cancer” “the cancer thing.”  Cam texts me after an appointment and refers to “my cancer”, like it was some sort of pet. A black slimy pet with too many fingers, that doesn’t do anything but sit in the corner and watch us while we eat and sleep. If we’re going to talk about names this is probably the first thing you should know.

Back when the cancer was just a shadow, an irregular mass on a blurry radiology picture, we met with Sarah, the priest who married us this summer. We talked around money, wills, living situations, kids, whether or not we’d take our family to church. We didn’t tell her about the–well, the not-cancer, the lesion, whatever it is. Why worry people, we kept saying to each other, if it’s going to turn out to be nothing anyway?

It was still Not-Cancer, at least to us. In the span of a month it would go from being called a polyp, which sounds almost friendly, some harmless invertebrate sea creature, to a lesion–more sinister, perhaps, but with an overtone of superficiality–to a tumor. A tumor is not fucking around.

Sarah also asked me if I plan on changing my name when Cam and I get married, and I said truthfully that I don’t know. It had never been something I thought about before the question arose in earnest, suddenly many friends and relatives asking me about it as casually as they did about floral arrangements and bridesmaids dresses. I start to dread it, because I simply didn’t know the answer.

My hang-up was not about women’s empowerment—my name is my dad’s name, so not much patriarchy-smashing to be had there, if you ask me—nor about Cam’s last name, which I like. But my name is mine. I’ve been proud of it, seeing it appear in newsprint the first time (and even the hundredth time), on Dean’s Lists, on awards, on offer letters. My hesitation was actually entirely uncomplicated, even though it sounds dumb to me each time I say it aloud to an aunt or a coworker: That’s me.

Cam had his first surgery on Halloween. It was also the week that the Red Sox won the World Series. Sitting alone in the waiting room I wrote: everyone in this city is partying except us.  Everyone, that is, except the other poor fucks in the waiting room with us. Everyone here is old and sick; I wrote. Old, sick people, sitting across from us with their slightly less old, slightly less sick family members. There is a guy sitting across from us who looks like his whole face was burned off, looking like a monster out of Pan’s Labyrinth. Worst of all he looked finished, his skin smooth and restored, all the same color, but all the softness in his face melted away, his eyebrows and eyelashes vaporized. This is the best work that the best doctors at the best hospital in the world can do. I wrote all of this down in a notebook that I bought in the Mass General gift shop because I hadn’t brought anything from home. I thought writing would be the last thing I wanted to do in those waiting rooms but it was the only thing I wanted to do.

It took eight days to get the biopsy results back. For the first few days I was privately sure it wasn’t going to be…that. We tacitly agreed that we would not say that word aloud until it’s a sure thing. His urinalysis did not show even a trace of cancer cells, a fact we both clung to. But it took a long time, longer than they said it would. If it was nothing they would have told him by now, I thought—again, silently. This did not prepare me for when Cam comes home with a firm yes: Cancer, n.; see also: serious as.


Cam and I might have been accused of playing house, once. We moved in together as soon as my college lease was up, and we got engaged the following fall. We live in the Northeast, among people who carefully and chronologically tick off “college, travel, internship, career, graduate school, condo, relationship, dog” before they think about anything so serious as marriage. He is two years older than me; making us 22 and 24, respectively, when we got engaged. That feels like an awful long time ago.

My favorite kinds of books as a kid were ones where kids were in a situation where they had to be–or chose to be—anachronistically grown-up. The Boxcar Children. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Especially a series of books called Gone Away Lake, in which a sister and brother discover a whole abandoned neighborhood, filled with falling-in Victorian lake houses that they fix up. I also have an undying love for “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”, in which teenage Christina Applegate has to lie her way into a job as a personal assistant so she can take care of her siblings while their mother is spending the summer wherever parents go in this kind of story. I’ve wanted to be older than I was for as long as I can remember.

When the cancer first came onto our radar, it felt like we were in a nightmare version of one of these “playing house” stories, except instead of just grownups we are suddenly old. We were two healthy young people in their mid twenties who suddenly have earnest discussions about where in the bedroom we could best hook the catheter bag. We discussed the concentration of blood in Cam’s urine with care and solemnity, questioning whether it was edging from a healthy “peach” into the territory of too much blood, a sign that the site where the tumor was removed is bleeding more than normal.

We’ve been together for five years. We have a stupid joke between us, that whenever one of us says or does something gross, we look at each other and say, with forced merriment, “year five!” Somehow, though, we found ourselves fast-forwarded to year forty-five

When we were in the thick of the uncertainty, all I could think about was babies. I would find myself sitting on the T zoning out and looking like a creep or a child-snatcher, looking at their expressions and gestures and eyes, the way they kick and flail or sometimes just sit still, quiet in their strollers on the crowded train, looking at people’s faces. I say all the time to our moms and aunts that we are in no hurry whatsoever to have kids–but when we were most adrift all I could think about was making a kid with Cam, having a family together. This is partially because the female body is a freakish hormonal death trap that is telling you to get pregnant all the goddamn time, and especially when you’re an emotional wreck. But I know now that it’s also the same impulse that makes me sleep tucked closer to him now, makes us stick closer together physically in almost any context, the one that made me finally make a decision about changing my name. I can’t possibly hold him close enough.

It took me a long time to tell anyone that I have made up my mind about changing my name, because I knew I was not to be trusted. On a daily basis I was seized with these thoughts — babies, for instance, or a brief conviction that we should go to city hall and get married immediately, family and deposits and dresses be damned. The name thing stuck.

My answer came falling out when Cam’s mother asks me about it in the waiting room after Cam is taken into surgery. We were trying to talk about something—anything—else. Yes, I said, without even thinking about it. I wasn’t sure before, but now, yes. Yes.

Three surgeries later, Cam is healthy. Bladder cancer is an old person’s disease, more so even than cancer in general. It’s rare for it to show up in someone younger than 50, the odds shrinking still further for someone under 30. Caught early, it is one of the more treatable cancers. The primary risk factors are smoking and exposure to certain industrial chemicals. Cam is a graduate student; and one of the few people I know who has never so much as touched a cigarette, never even shared one outside a bar. “Exceedingly rare,” were the words of the urologist at Mass General who treated Cam, who shook our hands and told us not to worry, back in the world of friendly polyps.

So this is how things are now: Normal most of the time, with interruptions for appointments and nervous days afterward. I can very effectively whip myself into hysteria this way–thinking about scenarios, all the things we have coming, all the times and places cancer could intrude on our lives again and throw everything out of orbit. But now we live with it.

I know many people my age who shed or amend their last names–if not officially, at least on Facebook–in sync with whichever estranged parent they are speaking to, which parent committed infidelity or an equally painful crime. Some pick up the names of step parents who have become parents in everything but biology; others take their husband’s name without any audible murmur of uncertainty. My name has never felt like something I can shed easily, putting on a new one; not like going off to college and deciding to tell all your new friends your name is Liz rather than Beth.  Were it not for this cosmic wallop to the head, I would still be on the fence. I do know now that for me it’s the right thing; for Cam and I to share the same name.

We have astonishing, exceptional family and friends who were with us through every step of Cam’s illness—but an experience like the one we have just come through makes it clearer than ever: being the husband or the wife means that you’re the one who is left when everyone goes home; the one who falls asleep and wakes up beside this sick person who suddenly needs you in the simplest, human-est way. Not, ‘I need to talk to you,’ or ‘I need you to come pick me up from the mechanic’  but ‘I need you to help me fit this bag of bloody urine through my pant leg’.

On our wedding day with some of the aforementioned astonishing, generous, incredible friends and family.

On our wedding day with some of the aforementioned astonishing and exceptional friends and family.

And I need him in a way that knocks the breath out of me–when he gets up early and dresses in the dark, rousing me from sleep for just a minute to kiss me goodbye, when he puts his arms around me from behind when I’m sitting at the breakfast table or working in the kitchen. Cam feels to me as though he has been made only stronger and wiser from the whole experience and I feel guilty because I feel only more anxious, more brittle. We’re gentler with each other for having been through this, and I try to think that’s enough.

I can’t get a deep breath in my lungs without thinking about it, I wrote in my hospital notebook soon after Cam received the all clear. I was constantly doing the stretches that yoga teachers call heart openers — moves that push your shoulders back and lift the crown of the head, stretching, lengthening the muscles across the breastbone and neck and shoulders. It helped, for a minute. Mostly, I felt out of breath, until one day I realized I just wasn’t anymore. Now we live with it.

Tonight Cam crawled into bed beside me, settling himself against me but not looking at my computer screen because he knows that I hate that.

He said:

“What are you writing about?”

“You,” I said. “You and me. Cancer.”

“You could write a book about it.”

“A short book, I hope.”

Cam’s eyes were closed.

“Or a very short chapter in a long book,” he said, already drifting away to sleep.

W14_0712_02_348(photos by the terrific Pizzuti Photography.)

Products, Reading

Dept. of Endorsements #2

Why do we have blood types? More than a hundred years after the discovery of blood types we still don’t really know why they exist.   – Pacific Standard 
Dr. Cornel West  on Obama’s false progressivism:  “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.”    – Salon 
Avoiding the breast cancer “warrior” trap, or why we should stop talking about kicking cancer’s butt. – New York Magazine
“Short Term 12” –  I barely heard about Short Term 12 when it came out, and I cannot believe I missed it.  It’s genuinely one of my favorite movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Brie Larson plays Grace, a young woman who works at a shelter for kids and teens who are caught somewhere between a dangerous home and foster care. Everybody is waiting on paperwork, on a trial, on a foster placement.  Grace does everything she can for the kids, all while dealing with (or not dealing with) her own past. Short Term 12 goes to some really dark places but manages to be filled with hope and humanity–while sidestepping anything remotely trite. It’s both sadder and funnier than I’m managing to convey. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

“A Most Wanted Man” – Next time we have a rainy weekend afternoon, go see this. It’s a slow, intense spy flick. It’s about old fashioned spy craft and even older fashioned betrayal; nary a car chase or even a firearm for most of the film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is terrific, as usual, and all the more devastating because we’ll never see his “as usual” again. Fair warning, if you’re not feeling great about America in general lately (see also: my first longread pick), this movie is not gonna cheer you up, fictional as it may be. My only complaint is my usual pet peeve, that all the German characters speak to each other in English with a German accent.  (Like, just speak normally, your character wouldn’t really be speaking English anyway!)  Hoffman makes it work, Rachel McAdams occasionally sounds like Daenerys Targaryen. 
I have been having horrible foot issues for a few weeks–stabbing pain in my arch that at one point was so bad I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk on the way to brunch and cried real tears for a sec–and it got bad enough that I bought the first pair of Birkenstocks I have owned since freshman year of college. And oh baby was it money well spent. I got these; they make my feet look stunningly gigantic but I don’t care because my feet are so happy. So far I have not purchased any Eileen Fisher palazzo pants to go with them but will report back. 
Me, Reading, Uncategorized

Dept. of Endorsements #1

#Longreads: Coke adapts to Americans’ realization that Coke is killing us  – Bloomberg BW
The middle class takes a stand at Market Basket – Esquire 
“A database of intentions” An interview with Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp – The Atlantic 
Album: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Haven’t always been the biggest fan of Jenny Lewis’ solo work, although I will put on Rilo Kiley’s “The Execution of All Things” and settle in for a good cry any day. That said, I’ve had “The Voyager” in heavy rotation for a week now and can report that it’s sad and funny and pretty and I like it very much.
Books: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I tore through this once fast on an airplane, and then went back and methodically read the whole thing again. Wolf down the fascinating reporting and personal history, then savor the “damn girl” moments in the prose. The knockout first essay is online here if you are not convinced.
Recipe: This bomb 20-minute gnocchi dish, which has literally four ingredients and is pretty much a perfect summer dish. (I also put in an onion, because I’m not a savage, and dumped in some of the white wine I was drinking, so… six ingredients).
Movie: “Boyhood”. Somehow this is a movie with no major tragedy that manages to make you think about what a series of small tragedies life is–while also being funny and deeply recognizable, and possibly making you feel guilty about what an asshole you were as a teenager. The last scene with Patricia Arquette kind of wrecked me.
Me, Writing

Search Engines Ate My Wedding

Weddings are following me everywhere. On The Atlantic’s website, I get served ads for ModCloth’s wedding page–an assortment of twee T-straps and flower crowns (I clicked). Facebook serves up wedding-specific ads for Crest White Strips and weight-loss products and stationary. I get sponsored GMail ads for something called  a “Mrs. Kit”, which supposedly facilitates changing your name after marriage. David’s Bridal and BHLDN chase me relentlessly though just about every corner of the Internet.

For months now I’ve been getting targeted ads that are running on an algorithm that assumes that if I’ve looked a wedding dress online, I am probably also interested in Crest White Strips. My fiance does not get ads reminding him that he needs a wedding-ready smile.

Of course it’s all just scripts running deep within the Internet, spitting back things on which a person with a particular browsing history is statistically likely to click. It’s nothing personal.  But it can really get a girl down to have every tab in her browser screaming about getting fit for the wedding.
Some of it is outright pre-feminist–ubiquitous “Mrs.” tanktops and bathrobes and nameplate necklaces, the renewed vogue for asking the father’s permission before proposing–but the modern wedding is distinctly post-feminist: I am woman, watch me consume.
The post-feminist wedding has no regard for what you want, it just demands that you rapaciously want anything and everything. That you want jewelry and shoes and chemical peels and spray on tans, that you want lame-ass doll-sized bottles of Veuve Cliquot, that you want a $10,000 Vera Wang gown and maybe another one, you know, for the reception. It’s a tentacled marketing machine that reminds you at every turn that this day, this one magical day of cake pops and “Bride” booty shorts, will be the thing that finally fulfills you.
Consumerism packaged as self-actualization is nothing new. Whatever copywriter came up with “Because we’re worth it” for L’Oreal and ‘You’ve come a long way, baby” for Virginia Slims could tell you that. The post-feminist wedding, though, skips the notion that women have you know, lives, and gets right down to it: here is what you need to purchase to make your wedding perfect.
The post-feminist wedding has a gigantic Google Ads budget.
You will get a softer sell elsewhere: the wedding blogosphere, of course, which gave us demented demands like this, and Pinterest, the capital of poorly managed expectations. But I promise you–start clicking through a few wedding blogs or browsing wedding shoes on Nordstrom, and you will unleash a deluge of targeted ads that just come right out and say it: get skinny, get a tan, get this doohickey that will emboss your initials on the napkins. Remember, you deserve it!
I think weddings are great–I wouldn’t be having one in two weeks if I didn’t think so.  But weddings are increasingly sold as fairy tales, basically a consolation prize for the fact you are not and will never be Kate Middleton (but you can have her dress and her ring). The song of the wedding marketing machine is enticing, of course: you may need to get up in the morning and commute to your shitty job and eat the same droopy salad with grilled chicken every day, but for one day you’re gonna be a princess, goddamnit–and we’re going to remind you of it on every single page of the Internet.