Growing Pains

Dear Millicent,

I am supposed to be writing up some grand paperwork, which means that I am eating peanut brittle and reading Joan Didion.  Every summer I teach the youths, sleep on a dorm bed, and begin my annual affair with Dame Didion.  It usually starts by accident (a common excuse for an affair), and once it’s on, it’s very on.  Today I was looking for something that could work as an example of how to write about place.  I usually rely on Gay Talese’s “New York Is The City Of The Forgotten,” but shocker, I lost some of the pages.  In the twenty minutes left before class, I was flipping through my text, and refound “Goodbye to All That.”  I think it answers some of the questions that have bubbled up in our conversations.  And, it proves that being cranky is not a demerit of virtue, as much as one’s normal reaction when the gloss is off.

She writes of landing in New York and feeling her life change:

I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

Of course, the city is fabulous, she is fabulous, life is meant to be spent talking and drinking and marveling at fire escapes.

I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later– –because I did not belong there, did not come from there– –but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure out that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.  I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.

And then, Didion describes what I offer as her Saturn’s return showing up and kicking her in the ass,

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.

This sounds bleak, mostly I think because Didion leans toward the bleak out of habit.  Does she really regret afternoons of gazpacho and bloody mary’s (quite the tomato lunch, I must add)? But I think it does address that great reckoning that has been looming and is now currently stinging: oh shit, here we are and what have we done and the past is not abstract after all.

I have grown much crankier in the past seven years.  Where I used to consider exuberance my calling card, I now groan aloud more often and lean back in irritation at a variety of things (spandex dresses, neckerchiefs, people’s monologues about how they are going to personalize a wedding and make it different, movies with sloppy logic).  Didion finds that she eventually has no patience for New York. She has to avoid certain neighborhoods because its inhabitants fill her with rage.  I wonder if this is not as sad as it sounds.  Not a closing off and loss of joy, as much as a shedding of a puffier skin that, while protective, keeps one from the truth of the matter.  Perhaps crank and raised bile is actually a reaction to finally losing one’s baby fat.

She ends:

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not young any more.

She was 31 when she wrote the essay.

My assumption is that the thirteen-year-olds will not savor this piece, just like my freshman felt no blow from Gaudy Night.  But, I will let you know.



Crooked Piece of Man. Or, Odd Saint: Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne was born in 1605 in London’s Cheapside. He went to Oxford, became an apprentice-physician, but stayed invested in religion and what it meant to be a religious practitioner of the healing arts. He ponders—often thoughtfully and sanely—his own temptation to follow typically “Catholic” conventions, like kneeling or removing his cap in church, praying for the dead, etc. He believes in witches and has quite lovely things to say about friendship and teaching. I feel I should mention too that his Religio Medici is the book Harriet Vane pulls out of Peter’s pocket and peruses while he sleeps after their day of punting.

I give you a few utterly unfair highlights from the Religio Medici that deal with (among other things) marriage and Saturn’s return.

On Sex:

The whole world was made for man, but the twelfth part of man for woman. Man is the whole world and the breath of God, women the rib and crooked piece of man. I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition. It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there anything that will more deject his cooled imagination when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.

On Marriage:

I was never yet once, and commend their resolution who never marry twice; not that I disallow of second marriage, as neither in all cases of polygamy which, considering some times and the unequal number of both sexes may be also necessary.

On Turning Thirty:

Some divines count Adam thirty years old at his creation because they suppose him created in the perfect age and stature of man.

Earlier: If there be any truth in astrology, I may outlive a jubilee; as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years…

And Finally:

Then shall appear the fertility of Adam and the magic of that sperm that hath dilated into so many millions.

Again, this is admittedly the cruel Bartlett’s version of Browne. I’ll have kinder things to say about him later.



A Co-Scavenging We Go?


I missed you, and want make you drink broth, eat eggs, and retrain your palate to glories of salt! Indulgence and warmth.  Hot Cocoa! Tamales! Dulce de Leche! Or, when all else fails, eclairs and Cheetos (Rich’s eclairs, from the frozen section are highly recommended).  Mochi! I am realizing, as I type, that both my exclamation points and food combinations might be nauseating at the moment.  Strangely enough, apparently today is “Love Your Body Day,” set up by someone somewhere who wants us to say “hey bod, you’re neat.”  I know your skinny isn’t about food, but I am glad for that cheeseburger.

Oh, the wilderness.  I feel very much there, and would even view you as a step closer towards a lighthouse and a village.  But, this goes to show that there are all kinds of jungles, Siberias, wolf-lands  (which I think is part of the rub of the idea that once an answer of purpose arrives, the wilderness is released to the background of one’s daily musings).  I will be 28 in a few months, at the cusp of the possible “Return of Saturn” and I can already smell my crisis (it’s been on a low simmer for years): how to handle what is my life with the version I supposed for myself, how to understand and make peace with a path without acclaim, how to not beat my head against a wall because I drink too much wine, sleep in too late, and watch too much frivolous television and yet can’t find the ‘time’ to sweat as much as I swear I am capable of.  I think I will, as they say, freak the fuck out.  I will probably take up something that involves all of my attention, like raw-foodism, and then calm down because I think I will be helping the world with my juice fasts (when really, we all know, that a juice fasts does nothing for the world, but does make the faster talk incessantly about toxins and the glories of  clearer thinking and purified skin).  And after all this strange clamorous panic, some job will say “hey, future right here, stop thinking so hard,” and all will seem part of an embarrassing, compelling, and fully fledged youth.  Which of course, right now, makes my tummy hurt.  I wish my panic was about how to get more midwives trained in Afghanistan, or how to increase civic engagement, but no, it will be me whining that my kinda special can’t find it’s place in the world, and that I might have to work temp jobs for the rest of my days.

In Lost in Translation, Scarlett is just scared and unsure.  That is her crisis.  I don’t think it can count as a quarterlife crisis.  It was a state of not having enough to do, and of being asked to do nothing.  I don’t want to crap on her angst.  I love the movie, and, probably because it speaks of such a large swathe of emotion and common experience for most privileged folks in their twenties, have identified with it.  But really, it boils down to a scared and unsure person who has nobody expecting anything of her.  In Chinese Medicine, Youth is defined by Joy, Expression, Gratitude, and has a bitter flavor.  Adulthood is defined by Overthinking, Cooperation, and Faith, but its flavor is sweet.

As far as the apes…I wonder.  I have left behind friendships from wildernesses I am less knotted in (my attempts to prove myself feminine, intellectual, popular).  Somehow, things did arrive to calm some of those mysteries (I figured out that mascara was always going to be a rough road for me), and the relationships dissolved from mutual change (but they didn’t dissolve very gracefully, so I really have no idea about any of this). Is it like not buying new music anymore? And, I have to say here again, that Tarzan never waved goodbye to his apes.  He knew they were the best thing he had going for him.

Do you think that there is a part of growing up, or of settling with yourself where you buy in to something to stop some of the racket in your head? Does it happen naturally? Or as I will be mentioning in a future post, according to the films of the sixties, do babies scream so loud that all the racket about what you’re doing with you life has to stop?

Eat something. That’s what I’m gonna go do,

Did I mention I love you? For reals, I’m not sure if your an ape to me, or one of the civilized who really knows how to wear a tuxedo, but either way, I’m keeping you, no matter what happens to the jungle.


Bildungsroman BigFun!

Dear Millicent,

I just finished reading Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and the ending very much reminded me of an old Jezebel post from this summer about the quarter life crisis versus the return of Saturn.  You know, how everybody in their twenties tends to have a moment where their world breaks a bit, and it is often framed as, oh are you 27 or 28, must be your return of Saturn? Or, oh, are you isolated and living in Tokyo, you lucky full-lipped thing?  They did a great job or parsing the subject, pretty much boiling it down to the flummox before we get a sign that our life is going to make sense.  In the Jezebel writer’s case, she got a job, and calmed the fuck down.  This calming does seem to depend on that very important thing (job, plan, opportunity) actually arriving (which I liken to the comet Dimmesdale sees in the sky in The Scarlet Letter).

Lessing’s characters seem to go through a similar process, all self scrutiny and intense panicked thought, until, voila, jobs and marriages are agreed to. Then it is a fast, slap-of-the-hands, end.  Which, brings me to the bildungsroman ending where the young hero, after his or her adventures, has to decide whether to return and join the community through marriage or job taking, or keeps going into the wilderness, decidedly a lone wolf (much like the Amish rumspringa tradition).  Molly and Anna are not immature women, and their decisions arrive in middle age, after children and full histories.  They also need less of each other once their decisions have been made, much like Scarlett leaving Bill Murray and going off to her future, probably publishing her first book through her richie-pants connections and going on to write provocative things about how boring the culture class in America is.  I want to puke on my future version of her, and also be her, wear her clothes, and write her scathing richie-pants words.  But that is not the point.  I wonder if we leave behind the structures of support we find in the wilderness when we agree to go back to the fold, something like Tarzan waving good-bye to the apes as he puts on his tuxedo.  But, isn’t part of why Tarzan is awesome is that he never actually does that? He and the apes keep in touch?

Back to the bildungsoman, there is something in this…is all angst calmed by an acceptance of purpose, with the search being traded in for any answer at all?