It’s almost time for a hiatus.

I say “hiatus” tongue-in-cheek because I haven’t posted on this blog since Oct. 22, so I suppose I was already hiatus-ing when I decided to write it down. I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, actually.

I’ve had this blog for exactly ten years. I’m old enough to have done a lot of things for ten years (or more) — drive, be out of high school, have a Facebook account, buy tampons, own an iPod — but this is the only creative thing I’ve sustained for that long. And yet I’ve only just begun to learn that it’s okay to step away from something when it has become stagnant — or has run its course.

I keep a list of notes in my phone about the books, music, movies and shows I’ve consumed, with the intention of translating those notes onto posts here. That list of notes has grown to an intimidating length over the past few years, so much so that whenever I get around to writing about a particular work, it’s not even timely anymore. Even worse, when I’m experiencing the work itself, I’m so focused on my notes that I don’t actually take it in as art. And so this little blog, which I loved so much and still love, has transformed into an onus. A burden of my own doing. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be joyous.

I started it pretty much in conjunction with when I started writing reviews for my college paper. I figured that whatever I wasn’t reviewing for them should get a review, too. I enjoyed it then because it was a novel concept — I was 20 and excited that someone might want to know what I thought of that Pepper concert or this Al Gore book. My job after college was similar — with a pay grade barely above the kind, pitiful stipend that the paper was able to offer — and it’s where I started to grow weary of the arts and entertainment review as a form of expression, but I insisted upon maintaining it for whatever reason. And now here I am, a decade in, and pretty tired. I’m ready for a break, if only for my brain.

But I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t jot down at least some of the thoughts I’ve had about things I’ve seen and heard this past year, taking up space in my phone and my conscience. Here goes.

Gattaca // I reveled in the design details of this movie — Vincent (Ethan Hawke) and Jerome (Jude Law) had such a meticulous, foolproof system to transfer DNA between them, from the blood on the fingerprints to the concealed urine — but I also wondered how the logic of their universe stood next to, say 1984. There were more social variables in the world of Gattaca — and had there not been, Ethan and Uma (as Irene) might never have had the opportunity to interact and become a real-life couple.

Jackie // Natalie Portman is the centerpiece here, and it took me awhile to “buy” her in the role before I realized I didn’t know much about Jackie O at all, or what was “authentic,” and she reeled me right in. She captured the lonely horror of experiencing a personal trauma in the public eye, and maybe her greatest achievement in the role was never really revealing Jackie O’s personality, because maybe Jackie O never did, either.

Rogue One // Damn it if the ending didn’t make me shed a tear. But damn it if the part right before it didn’t make me scream. I mean, it was a fun romp, but the romance was completely unnecessary. Jyn (Felicity Jones) and Cassian (Diego Luna) had absolutely no chemistry, nor was their relationship meaningful to the plot. This movie was about kicking ass, which both of them did handedly, but they didn’t need to make out in order to do so. Shoutout to Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Wen Jiang) for their significant ass-kickery, too.

La La Land // I didn’t want to like this movie because of Moonlight — and I’m thrilled Moonlight won, duh — but La La Land is a pretty fascinating portrayal of Los Angeles. It lets you fall in and out of love with it simultaneously. Its fantasy sequences — particularly those that bookend the movie — are particularly beautiful, as are the elements of the movie steeped in reality. Emma Stone is not the best singer, and that’s what I loved about her casting. She, way more than Ryan Gosling (as Sebastian), is so full of potential in the perfect way, which is to say that she’s imperfect. She works hard and she feels things and she’s a real person, and that came out in spades as Mia.

Hidden Figures // I’ve never fist-pumped more in a theater than when I saw this movie. (Except maybe for Miracle.) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae were incredibly inspiring, as are the real-life geniuses they portrayed who went through hell to make vital contributions to the space program.

The Nightmare Before Christmas // I saw this 25 years too late. And now I get why Hot Topic was/is filled with Jack Skellington memorabilia. What a beautiful, twisted masterpiece. The movie is even greater than the sum of its brilliant parts, from Jack not having an evil voice to the mayor being two-faced to all the Christmas carols being in minor keys, because it’s got this undeniable, one-of-a-kind feel. There will never be another movie like it.

Dear White People (the movie) // Justin Simien wrote a mesmerizing wake-up call to the unwoke and woke alike. The ensemble, particularly Tessa Thompson and Teyonah Parris, lets you get to know its problems, lets you feel as close as you can to a conflict you can’t even begin to understand and lets you reckon with your discomfort.

Get Out // There is reckoning with your discomfort here, too, but it’s not in satire form — it’s tight, crisp suspense instead, and it’s hilarious when it needs to be and terrifying otherwise. The fact that this movie is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is astounding — we’re just going to get more amazing works of art like this, and we’re lucky. Get this man an Oscar.

Eight is enough for now. More later.

Hi. I’m a Rory.

I’ve been called a Miranda before. I’ve admitted to disliking Hannah the least. I’ve fantasized about growing up to be Ilana. But the truth is, I am a bona fide Rory.

Given the direction of 2016 Rory’s life in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” this admission isn’t exactly something I’m proud of. In talking with friends about the four new Netflix episodes, I found their opinions (and those of the internet) were almost unanimous — the whiny-but-tolerable qualities Rory possessed in the original series (2000-07) have been comically magnified over the past nine years, and she’s mutated into an insufferable adult.

I don’t disagree. 32-year-old Rory claims to be a journalist, but she’s coasting on praise from one New Yorker byline. She takes a stab at a thinkpiece for GQ, but she backs out after missing the point of the piece entirely and fumbling her way into a one-night stand. She asks for a meeting with the eponymous head of Sandee Says (a clickbait media outlet that’s been pursuing her), expecting it to be an ego boost and a sure thing, but she can’t generate a single pitch for the site. Oh, and she’s also stringing along some guy, Paul, who deserves much better than a woman who keeps forgetting to break up with him and is still involved with her engaged, overseas ex. She’s a spoiled brat.

All this after being raised with supportive friends and family and financial privilege, graduating Valedictorian from Chilton, ascending to Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Daily News and reporting on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign trail immediately after college. Rory had so much potential. You’d think she would have made something of herself.

You’d think I would have, too.

Growing up, I made friends that I’m still close to and had parents that put my needs before theirs. I was Valedictorian of my middle school class and attended a prestigious college prep high school. I double-majored in Mass Communications and Linguistics and was the Arts and Entertainment Editor of my college paper. My first job out of college was as a TV critic. There was a path, somehow, and I was following it.

And then, I don’t know … I wasn’t. The recession happened, a layoff happened, a tech job emerged, said tech job with a salary and benefits was taken, and five years later I found myself restless. Or, rather, I had been restless the whole time, but I finally admitted it. I decided to leave the Bay Area and move to New York, hoping the restlessness would morph into productivity.

It’s been two years, and it still hasn’t. I’m 29. The only job I’ve been able to get here is the one I currently have — I’m a copy editor. I earn a very modest hourly wage that forces me to drain my savings in order to live comfortably, I work night and weekend shifts that almost completely negate my social life, and I’ve had to rely on Obamacare because I’m considered a seasonal (read: part-time) employee.

I’m not asking for pity here; I know if I did, my membership card to the Ungrateful Club would arrive yesterday in the mail. I’m grateful to be employed, grateful to live in this absurd metropolis and even more grateful to have the aforementioned savings. I’m not asking for help or advice, either; I’ve received plenty of it, mostly in the form of links to job listings and “informational interviews” that generations ahead of me have insisted upon over the years.

Watching Rory biff it in those meetings hit really close to home. I’ve been in that room, with those people, with that fear and insecurity. I, too, thought I could float along on my intelligence, my conversational charm and my handful of “impressive” Huffington Post bylines. But that shiny teenage cockiness dulls exponentially when you spend your twenties letting your resume gather dust. (Then again, I also spent my twenties being in my twenties. That’s not such a bad thing, considering I hardly spent my teens being a teen.)

I’m a Rory because I, too, marched blindly into the abstract “Plan A” of journalism. Except journalism wasn’t my “Plan A.” I didn’t even have a plan, lowercase, let alone an uppercase one with a letter affixed to it. Entering college, I was told I’d be good at journalism. I ended up being decent at it, but mostly I was just better at it than math or biology or clarinet or grilling meats or snowboarding, and it never occurred to me to just try something completely different. I liked the idea of being good at journalism, and I assumed I’d always be good at it because being good at stuff was what I was good at. “Being good at being good at stuff” isn’t a life skill, though; it’s a way to get A’s in high school.

I gravitated towards Arts writing in college because I liked movies and music more than politics, and those were my choices when I applied for the paper. Arts also allowed me to say what I thought without having to listen to what other people thought, i.e. “interview sources,” i.e. “avoid most phone conversations.” I churned out a couple of reviews that I’m still proud of, but I often felt like a fraud for getting free concert tickets while my fellow writers, editors and photographers were pulling all-nighters to cover City Council meetings and student government elections.

Honestly, I didn’t even think beyond the actual word “journalism.” I definitely had no “Plan B,” because I didn’t think I had to. I still don’t have one. I don’t think Rory did — or does — either. We’re both floating, unmotivated, unable to kick our own asses, unable to find creative fulfillment because we’d have to take a risk and be bad at something in order for the good to emerge. We’re also unqualified for a lot of the jobs that we’re trying to apply for now, because in college, we envisioned careers that don’t really exist anymore. As frustrating as Rory was for most “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” viewers to take in, I felt relieved knowing my true kindred spirit — albeit a fragile fictional one — is out there.

Of course, given that she’s fictional, she also comes with her own convenient plot twist and resolution: an unplanned pregnancy (which, ironically, could have been prevented with “Plan B”) and a book. I’m not in the market for a baby, but I have been mulling over the idea of a book. Maybe I can draw some inspiration from my soulless sister. We’ll see. (Don’t ask me about it.)

You might know a Rory. You might know me. You might feel the urge to give us help or advice because you’re nice and you think we have potential.

Thank you, but don’t. We’ve been hearing that word, potential, our whole lives, and we’re sick of the pressure that comes with it. If we ask for help, that means we trust you, and we will ask.

We need to know that we’re mediocre at most things, and we need to just be mediocre. We need to fuck up. No one has let us fuck up before. Fucking up is perfectly fine. Turns out we’re good at fucking up because we’re good at being good at stuff. How’s that for a plot twist?

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Team Jess ‘til I die.

Between the World and Me

If you think I’m going to provide an in-depth review of that which just won the National Book Award, you’re wrong. This book doesn’t need me, a white girl who doesn’t read the news every day, to chime in. This book does, however, need everyone to read it. So, this post is for the couple of people who may come across my blog without knowing who the Award winners are; had a friend of mine not handed me a copy of the book, I’m embarrassed to say I wouldn’t have known about it. (See: aforementioned poor news-reading habits.)

Between the World and Me is directly intended for Coates’ son, to paint him a very clear, detailed, unabridged picture of the world he’ll inherit as an adult. Perhaps it’s also intended for other young black males. It’s definitely not aimed at me, nor does it aim to sugar-coat, pad or soften anything in today’s world for anyone. It’s eloquent and honest and I’m thankful that it exists.

I’m thankful for the discomfort, shame and hopelessness I felt while reading it, because there are things described in the book that I’m sure I do without intending to. Even the most forward-thinking person in the world is still racist, by virtue of living in modern society, which evolved from however society operated in the past. I’m thankful for my consciousness being deepened and my behavior being scrutinized. I’m thankful that Coates’ call to arms, for lack of a better term, is being heard by so many people.

So, read, dammit. It’s one of the most important pieces of writing ever penned.

State of Wonder

I found out yesterday that a high school classmate of mine passed away last week. We had all been 10-year-reunioning right around that time, too, wondering where she and many others were, and what they were up to, and if they were okay. Turns out “yes” is not always the answer to that innocent question. We had no idea.

I didn’t know Katherine well. My clearest image of her in my head is of her raising her hand a lot in class, striving for academic perfection — and usually reaching it — while the rest of us joked around and/or settled for the A- or B+ that we were destined to get anyway. My high school was filled with overachievers, but she was always a step above. She was an incredible artist, too, I remember that. I believe she went to Princeton.

I’ve been sitting on this review of State of Wonder, a delicious book by Ann Patchett, for some time now, trying to work out an angle in my head. It’s one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time, but even despite that, it was a stressful one, too. One of the main characters, Dr. Swenson, always left me agitated every time I read a scene that contained her. She was too three-dimensional — demanding more from me as a fictional character than most humans do when I interact with them in real life. And then it hit me. Dr. Swenson is a lot like how I remember Katherine. Witty when she wanted to be, but mostly unrelenting. Striving for the best in herself and, as a direct byproduct, causing the rest of us to strive for the best in ourselves. Extremely difficult to impress. I don’t want to speak for the rest of my classmates, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this news has hit me hard. I had been looking forward to seeing her at the reunion to find out what she was up to, to see if she was happy, and to — as weird as this sounds — to get her approval. She had this wisdom about her, even at age 15, that none of us came close to at the time. I can only imagine how it developed over the years. Again, I didn’t know her well. But I’m going to miss her. I hope we’re all making her proud, somehow.

In reviewing this book, it would seem that a lot of people have a similar figure in their lives at one point. Patchett certainly did — her inspiration had to come from someone, right? The Dr. Swenson character is a mentor for the other main character, Marina, but even “mentor” is a strained word. She provides inspiration, but without encouragement. She lives her life without much thought given to the lives of others — not out of ignorance, but out of complete security. She has her priorities in line more than anyone else, and she knows her relative place in the world. The conversations between Marina and Dr. Swenson always felt like video games (at least in my rudimentary understanding of them): If you don’t reach the next level, you plummet down a few and have to start over.

The premise of State of Wonder is very specific: A doctor, Anders, ventures down to Manaus, Brazil, to check up on Dr. Swenson and the status of a fertility drug that she’s been researching for years. Anders dies. Marina, another doctor who worked alongside Anders and once studied under Dr. Swenson, is sent down to Manaus to figure out what the hell just happened. Marina also happens to be in a relationship with the guy overseeing the drug development — the Big Pharma guy.

I’m not sure how Patchett managed to reach this level of specificity and nerdity in her writing, but I’ll take it. It’s a lesson in literature. The more specific you are, the easier it is to suspend the audience’s disbelief in the details. Of course, I’m certain that Patchett did her research, and that at least 90% of the science in the book is correct, but as you can see, I have no intention of fact-checking it all. I believe her. I suppose I was in my own “state of wonder” once I turned to page 2.

The real achievement here, though, is in making something so incredibly specific — the tropical setting, the occupations of the main characters — feel so universal and so exciting! She has a beautiful way with words, both tonally and creatively, and she knows how to upend a plot and take it in a completely unexpected direction. Here are a few passages that stood out to me in their universal depth — passages that she was also able to mine for interesting backstory details, too:

p. 8, on Anders’ widow // “And Marina did not forget her, but what was important between them was so deeply unspoken that there was never the chance to defend herself from that of which she had never been accused and was not guilty. Marina was not the kind of woman who fell in love with another woman’s husband…” Right away, she quashes the reader’s inclination to think that there was an affair happening.

p. 39 // “Things that had happened to Marina, the memories she saw as the logical candidates for nightmares, never entered her sleeping life, and she supposed that for this she should be grateful.”

p. 57 // “She no longer traced the events through the map of her memory, studying the various places where she had been free to make different choices.”

p. 146, on Anders // “She wondered how long it would be that she would think of him every day, and what it would feel like to realize that days had passed and she had forgotten to think of him at all.” Don’t we all think this, when someone dies? It’s heartbreaking.

p. 292, on the prospect of staying in Manaus // “The terror of the jungle was now redefined by the work it could dream up for her.” The longer she stayed in Manaus, the more important her role became.

p. 296, on befriending Easter, a deaf boy // “She had gotten very used to spending her time with someone who said nothing at all.”

There are also moments of quiet, creative, literary humor:

p. 13, on Anders’ widow’s dog // “Pickles leaned up against Marina now and he batted her hand with his head until she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.”

p. 85, on meeting Dr. Swenson’s house-sitters // “She had pictured the Bovenders as being closer to her own age, without any of the drama inherent to so much bony attractiveness…”

p. 224, quoting a fellow researcher in Manaus // “‘I never rely on my memory when I’m drinking,’ was what Nancy Saturn had said.”

There’s not a particular flourish to her writing — Patchett doesn’t feel the need to embellish with fancy adjectives or flowery descriptions. And yet, in each of these sentences, she packs such a wealth of feeling and meaning. There’s such a beauty in that simple elegance. I’ve no doubt that the Marina character, who isn’t the narrator but is definitely the dominating presence in the book, contains a large part of the author herself. And there’s this naive, overly-simplifying, dreamy part of me that thinks that Katherine would have really enjoyed this kind of writing. It encapsulates art and logic perfectly.

I’d rather not get into more specifics of the plot. It’s too much work, yes, and it’s not worth it. The book itself is worth it — be it as an exciting summer read, a preview for visiting rural Brazil, a lesson in assimilation, or a coping mechanism. For me, it was the former initially, and the latter retroactively.

I’ll leave you with this quote, spoken by Dr. Swenson towards the end of the story, on p. 345:

No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait.

Katherine would have said something like that. With a wry smile on her face. I know it.

Rest in peace, K.D.Y.

Modern Romance

Everyone my age, and younger than I am, and older than I am, should read this book.

Everyone should read this book.

Full disclosure here: I’m a little biased. I pre-ordered Modern Romance a few months ago, because I’m on Aziz Ansari’s mailing list, and he advertised a potential meet-and-greet situation to those who pre-ordered. So I pre-ordered. And I won! It wasn’t actually a meet-and-greet, but it was a sit-down with Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who co-wrote it with him, at the Rare Books Room at the Strand, and it was fantastic. The two talked a lot about the different focus groups they held, the places they traveled, the research they did and didn’t do. It gave the book a nice, full context to dive into. And it was pretty darn neat to be in the same room as Tom Haverford. But what really struck me about this sit-down was when Ansari talked about why he did it. That’s what pulled me in. He didn’t want to do what every other comedian did who’d been offered a book deal, because he knew his work was better said out loud than read on a page. I respect that so much. He also took the time to make the book less about himself — though inspired by his own frustrations — and more about the movement, or the shift, or whatever you want to call it, that is happening in the dating world. See, this is where my other bias lies. I’m in that dating world, too, and much of what was described just in the sit-down rang so, so true for me. It was a relief to hear it coming from Ansari, because even though he’s obscenely famous and rich, he’s got a certain appeal about him that makes him feel like a peer. As he spoke about his own experiences and those he had heard about as he compiled the materials for the book, he underscored to all of us that we’re not alone, and we have concrete evidence proving it.

I haven’t dated much. And I’m not going to explain why. But I will tell you that I’ve gone on about as many dates in New York since moving here six months ago as I did in the previous 27 years of my life. I’ll tell you that I’m doing it as a 3/4-assed attempt to establish myself here, to start over. It’s not really working. I miss California a lot. The greatest people I’ve ever met live there. I don’t particularly enjoy dating, and I don’t really want to do it, but I feel like I have to. I’ll also tell you that all except one of the dates I went on in NY originated on OKCupid, whereas only one of the CA dates originated on that site. Of the fellas I’ve gone out with from OKCupid, precisely none of them have been crazy or creepy. They’ve all been perfectly pleasant. I went on a second date with a couple of them. Not a third. And that’s it. I’ve never been on a third date with someone I didn’t already know. With the internet guys, I found something small I didn’t like about them, or I didn’t particularly notice any sort of spark, and I decided not to contact them again because I could always just go out with someone else instead. It hit me not too long ago that that was probably part of the problem — anyone I’ve seriously liked in my life has been someone I’ve interacted with very often, likely every day. Face time is key in developing feelings, good and bad, for another human. Ansari makes this very point in hilarious, blatant terms on p. 247: “In a sense we are all like a Flo Rida song: The more time you spend with us, the more you see how special we are.”

But we in the dating field are, quite simply, not giving each other a chance, because we have the entire internet to browse through and attempt to find someone better. He says on p. 125: “That’s the thing about the Internet: It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose.” I’ve experienced both sides of this. One evening, I went out with a guy from OKCupid and had a great time. The best internet date I’ve been on thus far. We didn’t even get a drink, we just walked and talked and Sorkin’d it up. At the end of the night, he asked me for my number, and then I literally never heard from him again. The next night, I went out with another OKC dude — after considering cancelling, because I’d had such a great time the night before with the other guy — for the sake of keeping my options open. He was really nice and sweet, and I enjoyed talking to him but I just wasn’t attracted to him. So I said goodbye without giving him the chance to ask me for my number, and that was that. Maybe the guy from the first night felt the way about me, the way I felt about the guy from the second night. We’re all just a bunch of shitheads who can’t give each other that glimmer of hope.

That insecurity, that FOMO, that judginess is absolutely rampant in my generation, and it’s only going to get worse. “Younger generations face immense pressure to find the ‘perfect person’ that simply didn’t exist in the past when ‘good enough’ was good enough” (p. 25). We need to hear that. We need to have someone who’s our age tell us that, because it makes us realize that we’re taking it way too seriously. We’re putting perfection on a pedestal when it only exists in fiction. Ansari goes on to quote Dan Savage several times, and this sentiment (p. 232) of Savage’s struck a chord with me, as I realized how misaligned our society is with its own morals: “When a nonmonogamous relationship fails, everyone blames the nonmonogamy; when a closed relationship fails, no one ever blames the closed relationship.”

Along those lines, a good portion of the book is devoted to discussing courtship and marriage across generations and cultures, and it’s a wake-up call. Women in our grandparents’ generation had to get married to get out of the house! Many men in Japan aren’t even interested in sex! We should be thanking our lucky stars that neither of these problems exist anymore, but instead, we’re hopelessly lost in the spiral of internet dating. This is another aspect of the book that Ansari covers well, the spiral, because he includes actual text and OKCupid interactions from real people to prove just how shitty this whole situation is for us, and how we’re perpetuating that shittiness. On p. 240, he proclaims, “Treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen.” You’d think we wouldn’t need that kind of advice, but we do. When an emoting, three-dimensional face isn’t in front of us to add a layer of infinite guilt to the situation, we can — and do — say whatever we want.

Reading this book actually convinced me to reactivate my Facebook account for the sake of giving Tinder a shot. Though I hadn’t been on many OKCupid dates, I was starting to get fed up with the amount of time it was taking up, and hearing those sentiments echoed in print, as well as a decent amount of praise for the Tinder experience, was enough. And Ansari made a great point about the very old-fashioned aspect of Tinder. It’s rooted in proximity, just like romance was when our grandparents were in their teens and twenties. Rarely did they date and marry anyone outside their geographical or social circle. Now, with Tinder, “In a world of infinite possibilities, we’ve cut down our options to people we’re attracted to in our neighborhood” (p. 118). Or so it seems.

I’ve only been on it for a week, so I definitely need to take more time to figure it out, but I’m already frustrated. I thought the point of it was to get offline quickly and meet in person. To waste less time. To not think of the other party as a set of text bubbles. Instead, I’m finding out that Tinder is akin to texting — something I’m terrible at with people I don’t know — whereas OKCupid is like email. I didn’t have the OKC app on my phone, so I treated it as a once-a-day check-in, like email. I’m better at emailing people I don’t know because I like to consider my words, and I like to explain what I mean. When humor hasn’t been established yet, word count is valuable. I’ve messaged with a few guys, and almost met up with one until, I can only assume, he was put off by how “far away” I live. (I don’t live in Brooklyn, the horror!) But mostly, it’s just been an occasional match, followed by zilch. Crickets. The options are so abundant that it’s overwhelming, and it’s almost not worth putting the effort into messaging any of these people, because they’re just faces and they probably won’t respond anyway. I never thought I’d say this, but meeting someone in a bar sounds pretty great right now.

I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, for my own sake. In this incredibly daunting world of internet dating, you have to force yourself to be positive because there really isn’t another option. And knowing that there’s a term for this stage of life — emerging adulthood — because it’s a stage that didn’t exist before. That’s certainly encouraging. On p. 29, he uses a great door-opening metaphor to describe it, which concludes, “Today we want a bunch of doors as options and we are very cautious about which ones we open. The emerging adulthood phase of life is basically a pass society gives you to hang out in the hallway and figure out what door is really right for you.” No one older than our parents got to do that, really. I guess I’ll go thank a few more lucky stars.

I think our parents should read this book so they know what to expect — or not to expect — from us as we age. I think our younger brothers and sisters should read it to gain an understanding of this aspect of Life Before Facebook. And I think people my age should read it because their — our — mistakes are made abundantly clear. Aziz is right. We’re all just Flo Rida songs playing on the radio, waiting for someone not to change the station for awhile.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A few pages into Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was worried I was going to be very annoyed for 400+ pages. My naive thoughts ranged from “What a boasty title!” to “Will he ever shut up?” to “This guy needs an editor with a strong command over punctuation.” And then it hit me: All stream-of-consciousness work since 2000, when AHWOSG was published, including my own without realizing it, can be traced back to this, for lack of a better term, heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s just that. It’s brilliant. And we’re all trying to be Dave Eggers, and most of us are failing miserably.

Is it possible to be in love with a book? If so, I might be. The feeling extends a bit to its author, of course, the brain behind it. But I feel something very strong for this book because, even though I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the incredible, daunting challenges that 22-year-old Eggers had to face—watching both his parents die and assuming the responsibility of raising his much-younger brother—I connected with it on a level I’ve not really reached with a book before. The way he writes just makes sense to me, even though he alternates time periods, pens fake interviews where he’s both the questioner and the answerer, and speaks to himself as the voice of reason he hopes to impart onto his younger brother. Maybe my brain is structured similarly to his. (I can dream, anyway.)

Let me start with one of his jokes. Eggers is hilarious in a very observant, intelligent way. Here’s how he describes President Clinton (p. 288): “He speaks like a president, not always authoritative or anything but he can form sentences, complex sentences with beginnings and ends, subordinate clauses—you can hear his semicolons!”

The book is brimming with lines like that, lines that make you reevaluate your own observational skills. With each of Eggers’ subordinate clauses, he adds a more obscure vocabulary word or a clearer description or a more creative metaphor.

It’s also brimming with one-liner truths so profound that you wonder how you got through life not thinking about them before. (Maybe that’s just me.)

  • On the babble his mother spoke in her dying days :”All words will be considered her last, until they are followed by others.” (p. 43)
  • On the view from his rental in Berkeley: “From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head.” (p. 51)
  • On the types of people with stories worth telling on television: “…my feeling is that if you’re not self-obsessed you’re probably boring.” (p. 201)
  • On the types of people that end up impacting your life: “The only people who get speaking parts are those whose lives are grabbed by chaos…” (p. 424)

Incredible, right? His elegance is so effortless. And so is his verbosity, for that matter. His mind must be constantly cluttered with words, though he clearly has a successful organization method in place. Of course, Eggers is aware of his own tendency to exhaust, verbally, and he anticipates all possible iterations of negative feedback with a section in the (lengthy/100% worth reading) introduction, entitled “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect.” Here’s an excerpt:

While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality… Further, he is fully cognizant, way a head of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

He’s also aware of how self-indulgent he is, particularly with that aforementioned Q&A narrative style. He employs this while describing his interview for The Real World (p. 197).

This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It is.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.

Pardon the contrived, shaky metaphor, but Eggers opened a window on a perfectly sunny day. He wrote something that needed to be written—the audiences and the market were craving something like this, someone who could be brutally honest a voice no one had ever heard before. It’s truly inspirational. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, “Today’s the day I start writing my book.” As an aspiring writer, it’s easy to compare yourself to published authors and feel instantly inadequate. But Eggers doesn’t make you feel that way at all, despite his immense, insurmountable literary talents—he seems just like one of us, except he had the fortitude to motivate himself on the most opportune days—to open that window on that sunny day—and let the light in. The result was a radiant beam, AHWOSG. This passage (p. 269) in particular, where he’s at the hospital dealing with a friend’s overdose, captured that attitude perfectly. He knew he could write something great, but he knew he’d have to be aware of it as it was happening in order to make the finished product truly staggering:

I’ll convey that while I’m living things very similar to things I’ve seen happen before, I will be simultaneously recognizing the value in living through these things, as horrible as they are, because they will make great material later, especially if I take notes, either now, on my hand, with a pen borrowed from the ER receptionist, or when I get home.

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, too. I take those same notes, mostly in my phone, and I constantly question their significance. Are they worth writing about? Will anyone care about my story? Before all of his family tragedy, Eggers was just a guy. He didn’t choose to experience trauma—it overtook him and it changed the course of his life. 22 has come and gone for me, and I’ve experienced light trauma at worst. I’m lucky. I have a choice. But I still haven’t opened that window on the sunny day, because I’ve allowed myself to believe that enough light is shining in without going through the effort of getting up and heaving it open. Eggers is actively inspiring me to write my own story, even if it undoubtedly pales in comparison to his.

Another reason why he inspires me is because he spent his 20s exactly where I spent mine. Roughly the same age range, too. At 22, I was 4 years into my stint in the Bay Area, and ready for a change of scenery from the shitty Berkeley apartments I’d been hopping around. I spent the next 4 in San Francisco, and one after that in Oakland. I didn’t have a little brother in tow, but I did always have some intangible force holding me back from truly enjoying the place. Eggers says something about the landlord for his workspace on p. 169 that I think applies to much of my nine years there: “But it’s not like anyone here, in San Francisco, in this building, is going to tell you you’re wasting your time.”

Pulling that quote out might make me sound ungrateful. I’m not. Without San Francisco, I wouldn’t have any friends, really. Maybe one or two. The Bay Area made the list of people I care about frustratingly long. But it also is, and always will be, the backdrop to a time that I wish I could do over. Dave and Toph [spoiler alert] leave the Bay at the end of the book, and I completely understand why. It’s the same reason why I left, too. As long as you’re surrounded by reminders of your past, you’ll never be able to create a future for yourself. Even though D & T used Berkeley and San Francisco to escape the pain of their parents’ deaths, the Bay was riddled with memories of their adolescence and emerging adulthood. There’s pain there, too.

I’m going back to the Bay for the first time since January in August, and I’m trying to come up with a list of things I want to do. Dave had a similar experience (p. 359) when he returned home to Chicago for a few days, a while after his parents passed:

The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.

So far my list is 0 items long. The list of people, though, is long and possibly unmanageable. And I have no doubt that there will be a multitude of memories dredged up, reminding me why I left, convincing me to stay, implying that I made a mistake moving. But I’m comforted knowing that Eggers voiced his conflicted thoughts about this experience and wrote the best blueprint imaginable for experiencing it, which is to say, there is no blueprint. And, go figure, he ended up back in San Francisco. I’m not saying I will, too, but after reading AHWOSG and after being away from it for 6 months, I sure do miss it. Whatever “it” is.