Essay

Casting On

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Believe it or not, there was a moment in recent popular culture in which knitting was considered cool, even subversive. It was equal parts punk, DIY, and feminist for a new generation of women to reacquaint themselves with a skill handed down by their foremothers and turn it into a “fuck you” to corporate retailers.

Punk and DIY (and proto-feminism) formed a large part of my adolescence. I was really into making something out of almost nothing. The result wasn’t always beautiful, but it was a creative exercise in non-conformity—during a time in the early aughts when non-conformity was for sale in Hot Topic stores across the country. Armed with dollar-store fabrics, X-acto knives, double-sided tape, and acrylic paint, there was nothing I couldn’t recreate. Vans slip-ons and band tees were too expensive, so I stenciled my own knock-offs. I assembled massive collages from magazines and packing tape. I learned to sew with my mother’s machine. I picked up my father’s guitar. I was deep into this maker phase when I found knitting.

It helped that my parents were also makers. Having lived in America for little more than a decade and already putting my two sisters through college, my parents were disciplined savers and thrifters. Every piece of furniture in our house as I grew up was secondhand. My father would routinely lug home other people’s junk from the side of the road to polish, paint, or strip for parts. One of my favorite places growing up was the Englishtown Auction, a flea market that spanned over forty glorious acres. I would tag along with my father and watch him haggle for rusty tools or old guitars or dated kitchen appliances. One day early on, he bought my mother a sewing machine, with which she made drapes, sewed pillowcases, and mended all our hand-me-down clothes.

My parents’ gifts to me are plentiful, but one of the most important was a healthy skepticism of material things. If I didn’t need it, or if I could make a suitable facsimile, why shell out the money? It helped that we had, somewhere in the house, the tools and materials (or credible substitutes) to work with. And it also helped that they never involved themselves in any of my projects. The best part about what I made was the complete ownership I had over them.

Another favorite place of mine (nerd alert!) was the public library, specifically the non-fiction hobbies section on the second floor. There, I stumbled upon a book called Stitch ’N’ Bitch by Debbie Stoller, the co-founder, co-owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine, BUST. Here was a book that positioned knitting as cool, creative, and contemporary. Scarves with intarsia skulls and woolen hats with little kitten ears. Previously, I had imagined knitting as an ancient mystery made obsolete by the industrial revolution, like breadmaking and movable type. After all, the only other person I knew who knit was my aunt, who is as old-school as they come. She had polio as a child which paralyzed her right leg and made mobility difficult, but her disability is outmatched by the well of creativity inside her. Though she spends almost all her time indoors, she is the most prolific maker I have ever known. She gardens, she cooks, she sews, she quilts, she crochets, and she knits. She knits beautifully and fast. She lived with us for a few years when I was a teenager, and when I brought home Debbie Stoller one day, she gave me my first needles and a leftover skein of blue yarn.

Knitting was a revelation. Did you know there are only two stitches that account for all the knitted garments in the world? All the sweaters, all the hats and scarves, all the t-shirts in existence—they are all fundamentally comprised of two stitches. In fact, it’s really just one stitch and its inverse. It’s a lot like the binary system undergirding all computer data, or the four nucleotides making up the entire human genome. After I knit my first swatch, something inside me clicked. I was a like a von Trapp child learning do, a deer, a female deer—and Debbie Stoller was my Fraulein Maria.

Recently, another knitter asked me what I’m most proud to have made. I was surprised to discover that I don’t have much to show for my knowledge of the craft: a scarf I made in high school for my mother, a simple little hat for myself. But it’s the journey that absorbs me—trying out lace patterns, pleasantly watching the rows accumulate—not the destination. Knitting is a delicate undertaking; you have to pay attention not to drop any tiny stitches from a thin needle, while keeping a close eye on a pattern that can be as confusing as computer code. But I’m not precious about what I make. Nothing is quite as humbling, and strangely empowering, as meticulously following a complicated pattern, then getting bored with it and ripping it apart, back to one long strand of yarn.

Since that day at the library over ten years ago, I’ve graduated from punk nerd to hipster yuppie. Creativity lives on the internet now, can be Googled and liked and friended. But knitting is still a welcome retreat from the noise. When my hands are tied up working a cable pattern—or in the round, or increasing and decreasing, slipping on as if to purl, knitting two together—I’m not refreshing Twitter. I’m not checking my inbox. I’m back on the floor of my childhood bedroom, quietly putting together the pieces of who I am.

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Essay

Me So Pretty

Racist anti-Asian cartoon in the Village Voice, 1992

Racist, sexist anti-Asian cartoon in the Village Voice, 1992

Once, when I was a teenager, after having spent countless hours picking and poking at my face in the mirror, I took to scribbling furiously in my journal. “I hate the way I look,” I wrote, taking inventory of all my unsavory features. “Flat face, puffy lips, buck teeth, huge nostrils, horrible skin, bushy brows.” I compared myself to the typically pretty teen queens at school and on TV, and I obsessed over all the ways I came up short. I knew that being Asian accounted for much of the difference between us, but I understood it as my burden to bear, not as a problem with the white standards of beauty I was internalizing. I was not accustomed to questioning things at that age.

Instead, I was always good at doing what I was told. And society told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be pretty if I wanted any hope of happiness. So I picked up my older sister’s magazines. I started shaving my legs—and even my eyebrows and knuckles, intent on taming my body. At fifteen, I got my first job, as a hostess at a diner during weekend brunch. After the manager handed me the $60 cash after my shift on Sunday, my first purchase was a trendy pair of jeans from Delia*s. This was a symbolic moment. I could have bought some books, or CDs, or a set of watercolors, but instead I invested in my outward appearance.

I quickly learned the art of being pretty. It isn’t hard to pick up, but it is expensive. I accumulated the brushes and palettes and hot tools, collected the creams and powders and accessories, mastered the DIY manicure and the cat eye. I could tell boho from glam, cashmere from a poly blend. By the time I graduated high school, accepting my diploma in wedge heels, with my hair curled and a full face of makeup, I had successfully and very consciously completed the transition from plain, clueless Asian to hot, well-assimilated Asian.

Quite predictably, men started to notice me, particularly white men. For a long time, I basked in the glow of the male gaze. I was so hungry for that kind of attention; I owed it to my pimply-faced younger self to go on all the dates, blush at all the compliments, be the most doting, accommodating girlfriend I could be. After all, being desirable is hard work, and if they could see who I really was underneath the artifice, they might desert me and I’d find myself alone, again.

But there was a dark side to this male attention, and I soon could no longer deny the fact that I was viewed as a fetish object. One ex-boyfriend told me it would be sexy if I spoke with a “broken English accent.” Another guy I used to date once quizzed me on the pronunciation of menu items at a Vietnamese restaurant, on Valentine’s Day. On one occasion, a man swaggered toward me at a bar and loudly proclaimed that I looked just like a North Korean refugee.

These injustices coincided with my own feminist awakening, and I responded with rebellion. I cut my hair off and have sported a pixie for the past five years. I now favor oversize military jackets and eschew high heels. I feel free to paint my puffy lips red and purple and black. Like any art form, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Where I was once delicate and docile, I now prefer to respond to men’s advances with hostility and mockery.

I understand now that there’s a system—an economic system—that has a financial stake in upholding a particular feminine ideal. If I could go back and meet my younger self, frowning at the mirror, I would tell her not to worry. Men will surely notice her regardless of how pretty she thinks she is. In fact, they’ll feed on her insecurities. And then I would tell her to save the $60 and buy some books.

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Essay

Red and Gold

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In Northern Philadelphia, east of the Schuykill River, east of the art museum and the penitentiary, there is a Buddhist temple. My family has been making pilgrimage here for as long as I can remember. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It’s easy to miss even if you are. There is no grand pagoda, no gilded lions or hanging lanterns, no zen garden. It is housed within a modest, industrial building whose color palette matches the surrounding working-class neighborhood: cinder block and concrete. Inside, there is a simple kitchen, and on Sundays some women serve vegetarian food for anyone who comes in the door. All furniture, all kitchen supplies, all food is donated. It is dark and a little cold, and toward the back there are five or six long tables and benches for sipping your soup. But we take our shoes off and climb upstairs, where it is a kaleidoscope of light, color, and glowing incense.

In many ways, the life of the temple mirrors mine. The teacher in residence, Ong Thich Nhu Truyen, moved to the United States in 1990, the same year I was born. In 1992, he purchased the property on Ridge Avenue, at that time a textile factory which traced its lineage to the sails on Dutch colonial vessels. By the time Ong Truyen had acquired the two-story building, cleared out the sewing machines, and replaced them with giant Buddhist sculptures imported from Taiwan, my family was just settling down in New Jersey.

It was my uncle who first learned of the temple, in 1993, around the time my grandmother died from pneumonia after encountering winter in America. Ever since then—that is, for almost all my life—we have made the hour-long drive to Philadelphia roughly once a month, a trip that connects us to the very cornerstones of our Vietnamese heritage: faith, food, and family. It always entails a visit to the temple followed by lunch at the incomparable Pho 75 on Washington Avenue. Then we duck into the colorful, chaotic Hung Vuong Supermarket to stock up on rice paper, bok choy, pork belly, and various Asian pantry staples. Our final stop is a cemetary. Ten years ago, the city of Philadelphia ordered that the urns of the temple community’s deceased relatives be relocated from the building’s basement to another site. So on our way home, we drive to a cemetery in Camden to pay tribute to my mother’s parents, and to my cousin Linh.

My parents strove to instill a sense of rootedness in my sisters and me, despite our American surroundings. We studied English Lit and European History in public schools, we went to the mall and the diner and the roller rink with our friends. But we came home every night to have dinner together over a Vietnamese meal, speaking the Vietnamese language—usually with Jeopardy! on in the background.

Ever since I left my parents’ house for college eight years ago, my world has been fully colonized. The dorm room, the classroom, the office, the group home I shared in Washington, D.C.—they were all marked by whiteness. This is not to say I have felt uninvited or unwelcome. In fact—and here is the irony of a child immigrant’s experience—I feel more comfortable in these white American spaces, which form the spangled backdrop of the great majority of my life, than I do on the dusty streets of Saigon where I feel I’m an outsider. Even in my own apartment, in which the aesthetics are entirely of my choosing, there is no trace of my Vietnamese heritage, save for the photos of my family and some food my parents’ brought me, in the fridge.

The truth is, while I feel at ease in my identity as an Asian American, I am perceived as an outsider wherever I go. The only exceptions are my parents’ home and those particular landmarks during our visits to Philadelphia, which remind me not only of where I belong, but of what belongs to me. The smell of incense. My mother’s voice. A plate of basil and bean sprouts and lime. Soy sauce and fish sauce and Wesson vegetable oil. Bags and bags of rice. My father playing folk songs on his guitar. The patter of mismatched chopsticks. My grandparents’ names etched in stone. A pile of shoes left at the entrance. Red paper and polished gold. Fruit and candles on the altar.

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Essay

Love Field

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During every State of the Union address and every presidential inauguration, there is one person who holds greater importance than even the President. This person, the designated survivor, is whisked to a top-secret location, accompanied by a full security detail and a briefcase containing the codes for nuclear launch. Should catastrophe strike the House Chamber, or the Capitol, this person would likely assume power, tasked with governing a nation recoiling in fear and dismay. Suddenly the honor of holding the most sought-after office in the world becomes a grim duty.

I think of 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on an airport runway in Dallas, barely two hours after JFK was shot dead. He must have been sweating through his suit. In the frenzied haste to get the new president back to DC, they didn’t have time to turn on the air conditioning on Air Force One. Jacqueline Kennedy must have been sweating, too, but I know she refused to remove her blood-soaked pink Chanel jacket. She even said she regretted washing her hands and face. But, come to think of it, she was probably freezing cold, in shock.

At that same moment, in Saigon, it would have been the middle of the night. My mother would have just turned eight years old earlier that month. I can picture her sleeping. Her eight older sisters, two brothers, and my grandparents—also sleeping. They would have all been sleeping in the living room, together, somehow accustomed to the bombs screeching and exploding in the distance. My grandmother didn’t believe in designated survivors; if their home were to be struck, they should all be lost together. Better to all perish than to leave one person to identify the bodies. Better to all go at once than to leave a lonely soul to wonder “What If?”. You see, after Dallas—even in Chanel—Jacqueline Kennedy could no longer be called the envy of the world.

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Essay

Nous consacrons cette performance…

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I am a very fearful spectator, hopelessly sensitive to viewing pain or violence. For my own mental health I refuse to watch horror films or medical dramas. I can’t comprehend the general obsession with Law & Order: SVU—any crime dramas that aren’t produced by Shonda Rhimes are out. And that’s just the fictitious stuff. I am especially wary of certain high-risk sports. Nascar and boxing are no-gos. Watching the X-Games raises my blood pressure. Even figure skating or gymnastics is out of the question. I simply worry too much over the possibility of witnessing someone’s accidental death.

So when my boyfriend got us tickets for Cirque du Soleil during a visit to Orlando, my reaction was lackluster. “Sure,” I said, completely unaware of what was in store, “If we don’t find something else to do that’s cheaper, or better.” What a simpleton. I love to watch dance, especially modern dance, but the cirque aspect, I thought, would veer on the gimmicky side, artless and ostentatious.

And then the bombs went off in Paris. I was in the middle of a Disney World vacation. At that very moment I was probably in France—that is, the Disneyfied representation of France at Epcot. Me, posing for a selfie, smiling dumbly at the beautiful “world” around me. But I didn’t hear about the attacks until hours after they occurred. In my defense, who checks their New York Times app on vacation? When I finally looked up from the manufactured world that Disney made, I found even the headlines were too much.

Selfishly, I turned off the TV, I ignored my phone, and we went out to see Cirque du Soleil.

Pulling into the parking lot, the theater loomed before us, itself a masterpiece reminiscent of the original Big Top—a gorgeous study in suspension, tension, and undulating lines. We took our seats in the very first row, mere feet from the thrust stage. The house lights went dark. Chers mesdames et messieurs, a voice announced with a Québecois accent, nous consacrons cette performance aux victimes des attentats terroristes à Paris. The theater was about half-full but immediately swelled with echoing applause. I had not seen anything yet and was already overcome with emotion. I was expecting an ethereal spectacle to help me escape this world. Instead, it catapulted me headfirst into it.

The show took off, exploding with color and speed, sight and sound. Performers took the stage in waves. First, a pair of manic jump-ropers and a nail-biting high wire act. Then, four young Chinese girls captivating us with their yo-yos before descending below the stage on a lift. Two stunt bicyclists rode out before us, balancing on their front wheels and leaping over a line-up of four clowns, skidding to a stop. I was clutching my seat, sweating through my blouse.

There were trampolines and trapeze, swinging and juggling. I kept needing to remind myself to breathe. There were live musicians and two singers whose voices soared to equally great heights as their fellow performers. In the aerial ballet, an impossibly muscular man glided above the audience on a giant plume of crimson silk, the very picture of strength and grace. Three more sheets cascaded from the ceiling and female dancers tangled and tumbled down the lengths of the fabric, in synchronicity, finally touching down onto the stage.

The whole time, I was shaking, sweating, laughing, in tears. I was awestruck by this celebration of human ability and ambition, the performers pulling at the edges of what I considered to be humanly possible. The joy and optimism—that he’ll catch her, that she’ll land on both feet, that no one will be hurt, that we’ll all have a good time—in clear juxtaposition with the pain and destruction in Paris and beyond. It no longer felt selfish to indulge in this spectacle; it felt necessary, cathartic. Fear bound up in love.

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Essay

Transaction

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It takes two incomes to live in Manhattan. That’s why, for most of this year, I was working a second shift earning extra cash through Taskrabbit, basically a temp agency, but instead of squatting in an office, the “taskers” run errands and complete domestic chores. It was a decent gig, and the extra money helped assuage the guilt that comes with such urban luxuries as fresh flowers, out-of-season produce, and non-rail cocktails.

They were certainly not luxurious jobs, but they landed me in some swanky apartments. I cooked mini-quiches in the Trump Towers for a three-year-old gastronome; catered a Seder in a chi-chi condo on the Upper West Side; hung up coats during a fundraiser featuring Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary. (I handed him his hat and guitar case afterward.)

I didn’t need to do these gigs. I wasn’t starving or at risk of eviction without them. The extra cash was certainly welcome, and the sense of self-sufficiency was a fringe benefit. But the reason I kept at it for so long, and was willing to overlook the 20% commission fee, was the ability to experience firsthand how the other half lives. You really get to know somebody when you cook in their kitchen or organize their closets. The best way to learn about a person, however, is to track their expenses, which is exactly what I was once paid to do. “Organize 3 boxes of receipts,” the task description read, “And if possible, scan them.” Easy enough, I thought, and quickly accepted the gig.

The client lived in a newer building in Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The lobby featured a lot of glass and low-lit sconces. The apartment itself was large and profited from great natural light, but it was cluttered and slightly grimy in the way you would expect from a chronic receipt hoarder. The entrance had several lamps lining the hallway, all unplugged. She and I chatted briefly when I first arrived. Her name was Marianne, she’d moved to the city several years ago, originally from Senegal. We exchanged some French (hers flawless, mine rudimentary), and somehow arrived at an awkward conversation about the colonial history our native countries shared.

She graciously brought me cookies on a chipped plate, and set them on the kitchen table. I hadn’t noticed before, due to the overall unkempt atmosphere, but the table was beset with piles and piles of crinkled receipts, stuffed into and spilling out of shoeboxes and plastic H&M bags. Not quite what I envisioned from her ad.

“So, like,” I gulped, scanning the detritus, “I’ll put them in chronological order, I guess?” I tried to be cool. It was unprofessional to appear overwhelmed. She breezily replied, “Actually, if you could put all the restaurant receipts together, then all the shopping receipts, the groceries, et cetera.” She retreated to her bedroom, oblivious to the vagueness of her instructions. I got to work assessing the situation. After about the fifteenth Dunkin’ Donuts receipt for just a medium coffee (with sugar and no cream), I was able to deduce this was a futile endeavor. But what could I do? The money was good—$25/hour—and the anecdotal fodder priceless. My best option was to continue, collect my due, and observe Marianne’s expenditures from 2010 onward.

I learned she frequented Le Pain Quotidien on a near-daily basis and that, in 2012, she visited both Six Flags Great Adventure and Universal Studios. Receipts from toy stores, Gap Kids, and Chuck E. Cheese’s all point to the presence of a child. Likely a niece or nephew, judging from the decidedly non-family-friendly state of her one-bedroom. It was not only the content of the receipts that revealed this woman’s true nature. It was also the condition in which they were kept, stashed, stuffed away, for years, for no apparent reason. Why keep all this shit? Was she being audited? She didn’t even have a scanner, nor did she want me to total up the numbers (thank God). I only needed to sort and clip the receipts together.

Eventually, Marianne emerged from her bedroom, wearing a full face of make-up (probably from MAC) and a bright orange jumpsuit (probably from Club Monaco). She was late for an appointment, she said, handing me her apartment key. I was to lock up when I was finished and give the key to the doorman. Would leave a total stranger unsupervised in her apartment, I added to the growing mental list of things I knew about Marianne C. in Harlem. After she left, I started wondering whether this was a practical joke.

Finally, four hours after I arrived, I fished out the last receipt from the last shoebox. My eyes were sore from squinting at all the faded numbers. I was relieved to be finished, and went looking for my things. On a chair at the opposite end of the table, I spotted my purse—behind which was yet another bag full of receipts which I had apparently overlooked. Was this a nightmare? I paused, half-expecting more receipts to come raining from the ceiling. Then, without a second thought, I stuffed the whole thing in the garbage, gathered up the trash bag, went out in the hallway, dropped it down the disposal chute, and pressed the button for the elevator. I handed her keys to the doorman in the glass lobby and billed Marianne for my time.

Now, what does all this say about me?

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Essay

If You Want Blood

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When I was twelve years old, my favorite movie was Empire Records. It’s a nineties cult classic about dysfunctional yet lovable teenage employees of a record store. I found the VHS cassette on the coffee table one day—my older, hipper sister must have bought it. It was a box-office flop, and has only a 24% rating on RottenTomatoes.com (which ranks it below Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! and the Entourage movie). It makes no pretense of being a serious film, but still I gleaned from it enduring lessons about love, friendship, and working in retail. Plus it has a killer soundtrack.

The film also contains several spontaneous musical performances. In one memorable scene, the store manager, in a fit of frustration with his numskull employees, hops on the drum kit in the back office and jams along to AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You Got It)”. The workers mic the performance and blast the song throughout the store, dancing and singing along, hair flying. The camera pans across a row of listening booths (do those still exist?) where customers—a headbanger, a house head, a tender couple, a heartbroken Carpenters fan—commune privately with the music of their choice. In the Empire Records universe, music is a compulsive need, fused with personal identity, and always physically present, in the form of a vinyl collection or a 6-disk CD changer or a Band of Susans poster in the background.

“If You Want Blood” is classic AC/DC—blaring power chords and head-bobbing syncopated rhythms. It opens with a stuttering guitar riff and builds, over insistent, rousing drums, toward Bon Scott’s raspy snarl: “It’s criminal / There ought to be a law!” I didn’t know the song or the band when I first saw this scene, but I was immediately brought to my feet, infected by the rhythm and bopping intuitively just like the characters in the movie.

The following September, I met a girl named Sam in French class, and we learned we both loved Empire Records. It was a test of friendship I didn’t know I required. I introduced her to my friend from theater club, Deanna, and the three of us became inseparable despite our apparent differences. Sam was a rebel with red hair, years ahead of the trends, too smart for her own good. Deanna was reserved and shy but loved performing, one of a handful of Black students in our grade. And I wanted desperately to be seen as alternative and unconventional, but could only ever be the token Asian girl in class.

We were misfits who fit only together, and Empire Records was our movie. It spoke to our nascent political sensibilities, about the sacredness of song and the evils of selling out. Friends challenging and protecting one another. Damning The Man and saving the Empire. We knew every word of the script, every note of the soundtrack. At sleepovers, when the AC/DC scene came around, we all got to our feet, three oddball girls, jumping and shouting to the unlikeliest of songs—a rock n’ roll powerhouse about blood and lust in the gutter. We jokingly moshed around, we wailed on our air guitars, we emulated Scott’s idiosyncratic howling: “Ya get nothin’ for nothin’ / tell me, whooo can ya trust? / We got watchu want / and you got the lust!”

At that age we were struggling to find and be ourselves, and singing along to this wild song meant channeling a certain bravado, absorbing and imitating the band’s confidence. It was unapologetic in its sound and tone, a valuable example at a time when we were just learning to speak up for ourselves. Our obsession was not with the song, but the swagger. Whenever we heard it, if only for those few minutes, we wanted blood, too.

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Essay

Dry Cleaning

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I rarely visit the dry cleaner. Maybe once a year I’ll bring in a couple of items. My mother never did it, and she never taught me when or how to do it. I figured it out, of course. They charge you to have your clothes cleaned, per item, with a personal touch and with no risk of damage. The truth is we all intuitively know that throwing our beloved and often hard-won clothes into the swirling barrel of a washing machine does not ensure the best results. It’s also not a very nice way to treat our clothes. It feels good to entrust them to another person, an expert. It feels like leaving our kids with a sitter instead of a surveillance camera.

Like every neurotically organized woman in this country, I, too, read Marie Kondo’s sleeper hit, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I expected it to offer practical advice and perhaps even personal insight (it did), but I was most surprised to read about spirituality— specifically, the animistic spirit that imbues our every possession with life, emotion, and memory. “Have you ever thought about what it would be like to have no fixed address?” Kondo implores, “Our lives would be very uncertain . . . The same is true for our belongings. It is important for them to have that same reassurance that there is a place for them to return to. You can tell the difference. Possessions that have a place where they belong and to which they are returned each day for a rest are more vibrant.” Of course I was an instant KonMari convert.

Which brings me to the only item I’ve brought to a dry cleaner since I moved here over a year ago: my favorite sweater, the one with Breton stripes. It has the perfect shape and a sumptuous knit. I picked it out at a thrift store, in a jumbled heap of late-spring sale items. It was the first thing I packed for my west coast trip: I put it on in Harlem at dawn and it was with me all day until I fell asleep with it still on, in Oakland. On the plane, to great anguish, I left an ink stain on the sleeve, mid-crossword puzzle.

When I returned and began unpacking, I folded it (KonMari style) and set it on the dresser to be brought to the dry cleaner in the morning. The intention was quickly buried under the accumulation of daily distractions. Weeks passed and my sweater was still where I set it. Then one morning in late September—who knows, maybe I was feeling especially task-oriented—I finally thought to bring it downstairs on my way to work. (Did I mention the dry cleaner is literally around the corner on my block?) I asked the man at the counter whether there was any hope of removing the ink stain, which had now spent two months settling into the finely knit cotton. “I’m sorry,” he said ominously, “but I’ll try.” I handed him my delicately folded sweater and left the place with tempered hope.

Two weeks passed before I could pick it up, but when we were finally reunited, I wore it immediately the next morning. The ink stain was gone, like a bad dream. I was so relieved to see my sweater again, and I could sense it was relieved just the same.

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Essay

Animal Instinct

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There is a real bipartisan conflict threatening our country, both sides ruled by deep and unwavering loyalties. It won’t be resolved any time soon. It is the age-old war between cat people and dog people.

Admit it; which side are you on? It is a contentious issue on which identities are staked. I once asked a coworker if she was a cat person and, judging from the look of horror on her face, it was as if I accused her of being a Nazi sympathizer. That may seem an overstatement, but many devoted dog people suspect cats of being, at the very least, dangerous sociopaths.

Even cat lovers acknowledge that sinister quality in their feline friends. Earlier in the summer, I had lunch with a thoroughly unapologetic cat person. In the two years that I’ve known her, she has either fostered or adopted seven different cats. We sat on a bench in Washington Square Park, eating tacos and cooing after dogs that walked past. (Most cat people, in my experience, also like dogs. Dog people, on the other hand, can be downright militant in their anti-cat attitude.) My friend mentioned a new study which found a link between cat ownership and the onset of mental illness. I was incredulous. She called up the article and, sure enough, we learned that cats may carry a parasite which may be passed on to humans who may then develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, more likely if they grew up around cats.

This gave me pause (paws?). Our family dog, Mozart the beagle, is the only pet I’ve ever had, so by default I am a dog person. But I have crossed paths with many friends’ felines over the years, and had begun to fancy myself a nascent cat person. Especially in Manhattan in a sixth-floor walk-up, dog ownership is cruel, if not impossible. Adopting a cat would be far easier, quieter, and would require no additional stair climbing. But what about this remote yet evidently real risk of slowly becoming a crazy cat lady? And, more importantly, would this make me a traitor to dogs everywhere? What about my own dog, who would growl at any cat who stepped paw inside the house? Would he be disappointed by my treachery—you know, if he had the capacity to understand human emotion?

Mozart turned thirteen last week, in human years. Every visit home I see he is a little slower and a little fatter, though he still always greets me by rolling to his side to signal belly rub readiness, tail wagging. Several dogs in my extended network have died recently, those of my friends, coworkers, and brother-in-law. With each sad announcement, my thoughts eventually settle on Mozart. I worry about his last days, and whether I’ll make it home in time to be with him.

No matter my future pet-owning plans, seeing his goofy face light up when I open the door has cemented my allegiance to the canine clan. I declare myself a dog person, fur-ever.

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Essay

Ode to the Omnibus

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I find buses to be extremely romantic. Some of my most formative experiences have taken place on buses. The first time a boy asked me out. The first time someone punched me in the face. The first time I got undressed in view of other people. The first time I watched/heard a woman pee into a bottle. (The last three instances all took place on marching band trips; we were not a timid bunch. More on this later.)

In fact, I am writing these very words from a bus. I am traveling from New York to Washington D.C. on a bus with leather seats. At $19 a ticket, it’s the most comfortable and affordable way to travel. (I promise this blog is not sponsored by BoltBus.) I have been looking forward to this trip for days—this trip meaning not only my sister’s wedding, but also the four-hour bus ride leading up to it.

Throughout my youth, buses were the sacred sites in which I developed my inner self. On buses I have contemplated the universe (how does the moon seem to move at our same pace?); absentmindedly drawn smiley faces and song lyrics on foggy windows; whispered intensely to my best friend on late rides home from marching band competitions; listened to CDs all the way through and back again, to learn every note by heart; anxiously anticipated visits to my long-distance boyfriend.

On a bus, all you have to do is nothing. Airplanes, on the other hand, are complicated and unsettling, and the expensive fare forces you to take advantage of every minute of on-board entertainment available. You lose track of time, forced to arrive hours early, only to wait at the security checkpoint, wait at the boarding gate, wait on the plane in the taxi queue. You arrive at your destination exhausted and disoriented. Trains are more down-to-earth, but are still given to pretense, what with their reliable wi-fi, their dining cars, their suit-and-tie passengers.

By contrast, the bus is a mobile zone of zero fucks. By all means, take off your shoes. Feel free to occupy the seat next to you with your duffel bag and your Trader Joe’s groceries, stocked with smelly and messy food items. No one’s judging because everyone paid the same rock-bottom fare, and what’s more American then letting your fellow bus passenger tear into their lamb kebab?

Your mind, instead of bogged down by a steady stream of discomfort (the altitude! the dry air! the infernal drone!), is free. Instead of an endless sea of clouds, the scene outside your window is still full of life. Who needs to pick up a book when there are other drivers in passing cars whose arrival points and destinations can be wondered about? Or houses and lawns and storefronts to observe? Since you’re not behind the wheel, there’s no need to remain alert, or even awake. Your eyes can flit lazily from one earthly treasure to the next. Or, as I’m about to do, they can gently close and rest.  

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