Pinpricks

There is a scab on my upper lip. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but one can only assume I cut my lip at some point. I am used to these random, little physical annoyances: scrapes, bruises, aches, rashes. A finicky inner ear, a penchant for brusque movements, and a fussy immune system have made these an inevitable fact of life. Shit happens.

But this past Sunday, I was to have dinner with my parents, so this shit was bothering me more than it did on previous days. I knew my mother would comment on it and take it as evidence that I’m an irresponsible monster who fails in at least three fundamental ways to take proper care of herself. She wouldn’t have anything to ask about my work or say about current events, but she would likely find a couple more things to mention about my appearance when she was done with the scab. This sense of dread clouded over the hours before I headed out to meet them, making me anxious and restless and irritable.

Scab or not, this is pretty much how I feel every time my mother and I make plans. Fortunately, I see her fewer than a dozen times a year.

I have been reading the subreddit /r/raisedbynarcissists and finding it so fascinating. Though I am loath to apply this label to my mother, I can still relate to a lot of the discussions being held there. Children of narcissists internalize a lot of damaging treatment, and don’t realize until they are (sometimes much) older that none of that garbage was normal or acceptable. I feel I had it relatively easy—hence my reluctance to brand my mother as an outright narcissist—but it’s ridiculous how something like a scab can still ruin my entire afternoon before a dinner reservation.

As a kid, whenever I fell ill, my mother would reprimand and blame me. It was my own fault for not eating enough vegetables, not taking enough vitamin supplements, not sleeping enough. When I had menstrual cramps violent enough to induce vomiting, it was my own fault for being so weak and pathetic (and I had better toughen up if I ever wanted a baby, because pregnancy would be ten times worse!). To this day, I still hate letting anyone, especially anyone’s mom, know when I am sick or suffering. When someone asks if I am feeling unwell, I get this jolt of simultaneous fear and touchiness, and a reflexive urge to deny, deny, deny in my congestion-muffled, cough-accented, dead-giveaway voice.

I call these words or events “pinpricks,” moments that dampen your day or fill you with half a second of apprehension due to negative associations. Like PTSD triggers, only not so severe.

Outlook sounds are pinpricks for me, too. Yes, as in Microsoft’s email program. I don’t use it anymore, since my current job has us all on MacBooks and G Suite. However, my husband occasionally uses his work laptop at home, and gets calendar reminders and new emails while doing so. Every time I hear those notification chimes, I freak out for a flash because I feel as though I’m about to step into a meeting with my old manager or read an infuriating message from him. My old manager was a textbook embodiment of professional insecurity, hired for a job he had no idea how to do. He took it out on me constantly. I started staying home most days to avoid him and stopped working hard; I spent my workdays watching Netflix and playing video games, instead. My life became pretty comfortable this way, yet I would cry every Sunday night because of the impending work week. It’s been a year, and those trifling noises still get to me. It’s kind of funny, but mostly weird and unsettling.

I think I would actually deal with the noises better today if I did continue to use Outlook at work. By avoiding them, I’ve kept them frozen in my mind with all their old, sinister overtones. I haven’t had opportunities to override those associations with new, positive ones from my current job. I’m not saying this is the way PTSD victims should deal with their traumas—obviously, I’m no psychologist—but in my personal case, with my pinpricks, facing the music would probably be more conducive to healing.

Which is why I still continue to see my mother whenever she is in the country, despite all the chafing and discomfort. I have been more vocal about her inappropriate behavior and she has surprisingly been getting better about it, slowly but surely. That Sunday dinner, she didn’t wind up saying a word about the scab on my upper lip. We even managed to make some real conversation. If she can get better, then perhaps there is hope for me, too.

Friendship

I am a lousy friend. I don’t often contact others to ask how they are doing or invite them to social activities. When we are together, I don’t know what to talk about. Half the time, I can’t remember what you told me last time—did you get a new job in Flemington or Florham Park? Did you move into a new apartment last month or last year?—and feel stuck in this limbo where we never grow or learn anything new from each other. I try to be a great listener, but my memory doesn’t usually cooperate. If we were in the Sims, our friendship meter would hover perpetually around 65 out of 100, cordial and lukewarm. Sorry, I suck.

I always have ideas for places to go and things to do, but don’t like to invite others along because I don’t know if those plans will be disappointing. I hate taking people to restaurants and hearing them complain or seeing sour expressions on their faces because the food isn’t to their liking. I hate the sinking feeling I get when, despite my thorough research efforts, we travel an hour to find the museum’s hours have changed, the park is closed for maintenance, or the special event was canceled today just because. I hate that whoever originally proposed the outing also tends to be responsible for contingency plans—your idea, your day, and your fault if you don’t come up with something else to save it. This probably sounds like some real passive-aggressive shit, but I assure you, it is 0% about anyone in particular and 100% about my own perpetual insecurities. I have always been paranoid, and I have always hated letting people down.

Once upon a time, I could talk your ear off about anything. I’ve written before about mysteriously losing that ability. Thinking about it further, I think I just can’t relate to most people anymore. I am the only one I know with my kind of job, so I can’t share daily little triumphs with a friend. I am the only classically trained musician serious enough to play paid gigs, but not to make a living off music. I am not the only writer, but I don’t like talking about works in progress, and you can’t really discuss the art itself with a group of largely non-writers. We don’t read the same books. We don’t watch the same movies or listen to the same bands. I don’t follow any sports (beyond the bare minimum for gambles). I no longer play any popular video games. And at the intersection of my gender identity and politics, I feel starkly alone, too. What else is left? Do you want to tell me about your personal projects, fears, regrets, dreams, ambitions? Hard to get to that in social settings. Or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable enough with me to go there.

It’s understandable if you aren’t. I can be fickle. I have no tolerance for any behavior I perceive as fake. I don’t like when people “out” my personal business to others I barely know. I’ve lose respect for, and interest in, people I witness saying contradictory things to different audiences. Even if they aren’t lying—as long as they don’t take the time to explain themselves to me, then I assume they are, and it makes me uncomfortable. I get frustrated by imbalances in offers and exchanges: I always share information with you, but you never tell me anything. We always only go where you want, never where I propose. I don’t even bother to confront anybody about this, because I don’t respect our friendship enough to try to save it. Instead, I try to act chill, but I’m sure it affects my demeanor in subtle ways. Funnily, that probably makes other people think I’m fake.

Because of this, I suppose, I am rarely on people’s short lists to call or text. I am seldom part of the sub-clusters that form within larger social circles. I know plenty of people like me enough, but I am not widely beloved. Sometimes I can’t help but wish I were one of Kerouac’s glowing firecracker people, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” That others shouted my name in joyous chorus when I arrived at the party, scrambled off their seats so I could sit among them and share my latest exploits. That they watched or listened to me in the midst of something incredible and exclaimed to each other, “I love her!” At heart, I know I am too introverted to revel in that degree of attention. I would honestly make for an unnatural life of the party. I just wish—sometimes—I knew how to be different. I wish I could stop being so easily irritated, at least, and simply be carefree.

I once went to an event where participants pitched ideas for a new technology application and then assembled teams to brainstorm how to execute them. At the start of the recruiting free-for-all, I had a dozen attendees crowding around me, clamoring to tell me what they had to offer and why we should work together. I was so excited and wanted to sign them all up. By the end, about fifteen minutes later, I had a team of four. What happened? Where did everyone go? “I thought you were already too popular,” someone admitted afterward, a woman I’d sort of befriended while waiting for the event to begin. I felt slightly betrayed. Though it was my first time attempting any activity like this, it somehow felt familiar, a pattern of my life.

The older and wiser you get, the more capable you become of assessing yourself objectively. You become more aware of your own true strengths and limitations. For me, this has meant realizing I am not nearly as great as I thought I was at a number of things, and likely never will be. I am not the best employee in my company, or even my department. I will never be the best writer or flutist I know. And—to my bewildering heartbreak—I am not the most fascinating person or the warmest friend. Is it too late to change? I know that, if it’s possible, I would need to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone to make it happen. It feels awkward and contrived when I try to be more outgoing or bubbly or laidback, but damn it, I want to be better.

Weddings

I never had a dream wedding planned. I never even thought of it as “the big day.” A profoundly low sense of self had me convinced early on that nobody would ever want to marry me, so what was the point? Many years and a couple long-term relationships later, I did start to see myself getting married someday—but it would undoubtedly mean a lifetime of trifling fights, uneasy compromises, and unfulfilled desires. It still wasn’t anything worth getting excited about. As cheesy as it sounds, being with my current partner has changed everything. Now, it feels surreal to know I’m getting married in three weeks and excited about it.

Since I didn’t start thinking about what I wanted in a wedding until we got engaged last November, my imagination has been stunted by financial pragmatism. Most people probably dream first and check price tags later. When you go the other way, much of the commotion about weddings doesn’t make sense. Why spend thousands of dollars on a dress I’ll only wear once? Why make all these people fly out somewhere when I would normally never vacation with most of them? Why dump thousands more into booking a venue when we could use someone’s big backyard for free? Why pay a band or DJ another several thousand when I already pay $5.33 a month for Spotify Premium? Why invest time and money into a million intricate details with high risk (of breaking, spoiling, being late, being wrong, burning, etc.) and little to no return (fancy photographs and vague recollections)?

This isn’t a knock on anyone who pulled out all the stops for a real wedding. In fact, I really, truly admire your vision and execution. I have had, or likely will have, a lot of fun at your wedding. All that stuff just isn’t for me.

Then, as I was still toying with having a small backyard wedding, my fiancé’s sister and mother planned an engagement surprise. In the middle of a friend’s Christmas party, an enormous congratulatory cake was brought out and speeches were made. And all eyes were on us. The entire time. While our minds reeled from the sudden deluge of attention.

That clinched it. As we sat with forced, uneasy smiles, we realized a wedding would be like this magnified tenfold. We would not be able to handle it. I, who struggled with eye contact until late middle school and continued to struggle with mental health for years after, who didn’t even think I was worthy of a birthday party until I was 26, did not want all those eyes on me. At least not for such a superficial reason. I have no problem being under the spotlight to perform music or read my writing, but being there as a bride—whose entire purpose is to look pretty—would propel my anxiety through the roof. We decided a courthouse ceremony and two family dinners (one with immediate families only, one with extended) would suffice.

Another discomfiting thing about wedding planning is that it has made me reflect on gender way more than ever before. When the topic came up among his family members, they offered one salient piece of advice for the event: “Whatever she wants.” It took a lot of self-control not to roll my eyes every time. I hate this idea that hetero weddings should be all about the bride. It both dismisses the groom’s wants and lets him off the hook from helping with the plans. “Happy wife, happy life” is a garbage mentality, and I can’t stand the knowing, smirking way that mantra is often said from one man to another. Additionally, because I don’t identify as a woman, I get extra uncomfortable when someone assumes I should or would do something relating to a gender stereotype. With wedding talk, those assumptions come up with alarming regularity.

I’ve only spoken about not identifying as a woman to a handful of friends. This tweet was the first time I ever said it online, and my previous post was the first time I ever wrote it somewhere more than four people might see it. A couple folks know I went through a phase in middle school when I had people call me a boy’s name. It was half an inside joke, half an earnest attempt at self-discovery. But I’m not transgender; I simply feel androgynous. If short hair didn’t require so much frequent attention to keep it that way, I might have buzzed it all off long ago. I sometimes like wearing dresses, but it tends to feel like cosplaying unless the dress is essentially a long shirt. Being called “lady” gives me a twinge of either mischievous glee (from successfully passing as one of them) or awkward annoyance, depending on whether it’s coming from a girlfriend or someone else.

I didn’t really think about it, let alone talk, because I didn’t think it was a big deal. It’s not a focal point of my identity. I don’t feel compelled to change my name or pronouns (though she/her never felt completely relevant). But wow, shopping for a wedding outfit—even for a courthouse ceremony—is super tough when you’re androgynous. We may not be having a “real wedding,” but I still want to look festive for the day. I browsed mainstream retailers, independent boutiques, consignment shops, fashion blogs—even eBay. I looked at hundreds of outfits online: mostly dresses, but also suits, jumpsuits, and separates. Everything feels gendered. Jumpsuits are supposed to be the answer for “tomboys,” but they’re still obviously something only women would wear. (Plus, you can’t pee in them! Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to that hassle?) Suits, on the other hand, feel too masculine. For once, I found myself wishing to be feminine, so I could wear one of those beautiful designer gowns without feeling disingenuous.

I wound up commissioning an Etsy shop to produce a custom design for a very reasonable price, and finding another dress online (for the second family dinner) for even less. I bought a new pair of shoes for the occasions. Our courthouse appointment and dinner venues are set. We’ve found a bakery from which to purchase one of our favorite kinds of cake. That’s about it, we figure. And it’s been stressful enough. I can’t imagine spending months agonizing over much more than this. It has been a very interesting learning experience, but I’m glad it’s over and we can look forward to enjoying that weekend.

Gifts

The other weekend, I went to the local thrift store with a large, overflowing cardboard box. I poured its contents—shoes, clothes, handbags, books, toys, even jewelry—into a gigantic bin by the entrance. The Lupus Foundation gained roughly $100 in value. Meanwhile, my apartment gained about three cubic feet of space, free of miscellaneous objects that had been collecting dust. Most had been gifts.

This whole post is probably going to make me sound bratty and ungrateful, but I have never been big on presents. For one thing, I am not a materialistic person. I don’t want or need many objects in my everyday life to feel happy. When playing The Sims, I always got annoyed by the characters’ need to surround themselves with impractical possessions for a positive Room score, because I couldn’t relate. In the financial spreadsheets I have maintained for several years, luxury spending has consistently placed near last. If something serves no utility, then it is likely wasting space.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, my parents had many family friends who would visit. They often came bearing gifts, some of which I actually quite liked. However, I was almost never allowed to keep them. The gifts would be stashed away in a closet, to be given to somebody else later. Knowing which closet it was, I would sometimes open the door to stare longingly up at the shelf of forbidden presents.

This is not to say I had an utterly deprived childhood. I did receive birthday and Christmas presents, but they were never what I requested in my petitions to Santa. They weren’t even as good as the family friends’ gifts, which I never understood. If it was a matter of economics, why couldn’t I keep their presents, and my mother purchase her own presents for the other kids?

The main issue with my mother’s gifts was that they were often very feminine things: sparkly outfits, delicate necklaces, fashionable purses. They tended to hail from popular brands, which didn’t fit the anti-mainstream aesthetic I started cultivating at an early age. More importantly, they made me uncomfortable because I didn’t—and still don’t—feel like a girl. They were constant reminders that my mother didn’t care about the person I was, and that she preferred to keep pushing me to become someone else.

Gift-giving, I soon realized, must be an inherently inefficient process designed to leave both parties less than satisfied. This belief was reinforced by guys I dated. As you could probably guess, this is the only “love language” that does not resonate at all. For some reason, when I tried to tell them I didn’t want to do presents, they didn’t believe me. Every generic necklace and handbag thus said three things: they also wished I were a woman, they still didn’t know me, and they believed in persisting inefficient processes.

Lots of people are lousy gift-givers, even to recipients without gender issues. Half the time, they pick one thing everybody knows you like, and get you something superficial pertaining to it. Posted a few cat pictures on social media? Next Christmas, you’ll be inundated with cat pens, posters, and paperweights. The rest of the time, they get something they would like, without considering whether you share their tastes. It’s not something you ever talked about, and nothing they know about you indicates you would be interested in it—but it appeals to them, so it should appeal to you, too, right?

I like to think I am more thoughtful with my gifts than most, but honestly, I have insufficient data for such a claim. This is the other thing that bothers me: the lack of outcome tracking. As a kid, when I gave my parents handmade arts and crafts or little mall purchases, I either spotted my offerings in the trash afterward or never again. How naïve of me to expect they would have decorated the refrigerator or nightstand with them.

I gave someone an audiobook on a topic with which he was obsessed, and I’m confident he never listened to a word. I gave someone else a necklace; after months of never seeing her wear it, I felt stupid and hypocritical for doing so. I gave someone else a robot vacuum cleaner; over a year later, she asked curiously at a party whether those things really worked, clearly never having tried running one.  For all I know, those presents—and more—were also stashed away in a closet to be re-gifted in the future. I can’t believe more people aren’t disgruntled about spending money on things that evidently never wind up seeing the light of day.

The only times I see it succeed truly and consistently are through crowdsourced efforts. When friends band together, each chipping in feedback and $20 for a substantial gift, it works satisfyingly well. I’ve learned my lesson and made decisions. I won’t be participating in any more holiday gift exchanges. I won’t buy anyone souvenirs anymore unless explicitly asked. If a couple getting married doesn’t have a registry, I’ll stick to giving them cash. But if anyone wants to join forces for a low-risk idea with high expected value, do still count me in.

Small Talk

I was force-fed shyness as a kid. It was ground into imperceptible powder and smuggled into my introductions, peppered on my attempts at conversation. I was slow to speak, so this was the reason and the remedy. Because I took a long time to figure out what I wanted to say to strangers and how to sequence the words, my mother would confess hastily, sheepishly: “Sorry, she is shy.” I did not think I was. I wanted to talk to people and find out what they liked and how they felt—I just couldn’t get the words out right. I was prone to stuttering and skipping entire words, as if they were assorted jellies and some stuck my teeth together while others I swallowed whole.

When you don’t know yet what appeals to your taste buds but everyone else says your mother is a wonderful cook, you eat whatever she puts in front of you. Bloated on these truths, you no longer remember if things were or should have been different. You assume everyone else eats similarly in their respective homes. When your mother seems to know everything about the world and says something about you, you believe it, same as you would in gravity or photosynthesis.

My rebel teenage years were less about drugs and piercings, more about purging these claims that sat heavy and toxic in my body like stones. When my stutter dissolved and my speech slowed enough to smooth out the tangles of sentences, I wanted to be louder than everyone else. I always had a quip, riposte, fun fact, or one-upper: toppings I threw on everywhere, without discrimination or taste. I was talkative and weird and damn proud of it. It let me take up so much space for a change, and it felt good. Better than being shy.

When I went to college, everyone seemed so much smarter in ways I had never conceptualized. My school was full of social activists who asked each other every day if they were doing enough to combat the patriarchy, hegemony, heteronormativity, and neo-colonialism. All such big, important ideas I had never heard of before. I began starving myself of my newfound confidence, partly to make room for listening and learning, and partly because I didn’t believe I deserved it.

I had to re-learn the art of conversation, train myself on a new diet. It helped to work part-time in shops and cafes, where I was forced to make small talk with one stranger after another. Eventually, I felt the most balanced and likable I’d ever been in my life. I kept this up for several years, trying a lot of new experiences and making many new, diverse friends. The key ingredients: curiosity, genuine interest, thoughtfulness, no longer caring how others might judge me, and a generous pour of liquor.

In the past few months, I have felt myself sinking back into reticence. That “new” diet no longer seems to work, and I have been shrinking again to take up minimal space. I can’t be bothered to put myself out there anymore. When I meet new people, I am unable to pique or maintain their interest, much less befriend them. I can’t tell if it is because I have simply gotten older and more straightforward with my wants and interests, or if this is an inexorable return to my original state. Perhaps shyness is in my nature, and the latter half of my life was spent battling futilely against it. Perhaps it’s high time to accept this.

I do not hesitate to approach strangers or lead a group if the situation calls for it. I still like the idea of getting to know people. But if they answer in monosyllables or seem closed-off in any way, I automatically shut down, too. It may sound like a practical selectivity in where and when to invest my energies, but it’s nothing so sophisticated. Even among friends, I’ve been quieter. To my own disappointment, nowadays, I just can’t seem to think of anything to say. Yet still I hunger.

Gunpoint

Two weeks ago, my fiancé and I were mugged at gunpoint. We were walking the three blocks over from his street parking spot to our apartment. Near the end of the second block, two young men were walking together toward us, heading in the opposite direction. I thought nothing of them until they split up just as our paths converged. That’s odd, I thought—half a second before one of them bumped into my partner, told him to hand over all his cash, and pulled out a gun. “I’m not kidding around,” he added, poking it into my partner’s waist.

We didn’t have any cash, so we handed over our smartphones and his wallet. The two then took off running down the street. We scurried home, clutching each other as we fought the urge to race as quickly as our hearts. Once safely indoors, we called the local police department on my fiancé’s work phone.

I have been living in this town for five years. When I first told people about the move, they asked, “Is that where the ____ is? Isn’t that the hood? Is it safe to walk around?” More recently, someone noted, “Didn’t someone get shot and killed there a couple years ago?” I knew more or less what I was getting into, but the location was ideal and the apartment perfect. I loved that there were good restaurants, fun bars, beautiful parks, a gym, and a reasonably priced grocery store all within walking distance. Once we started dating, it didn’t take long for my partner to fall in love with the community, too. We would go for long walks, attend events, and support local businesses. We always felt perfectly safe, and figured the reputation stemmed from upper-middle-class paranoia. We were proud to call this town home, and often encouraged friends and family to visit.

Now, we are afraid to walk outside even in daylight. I sold my car so he could take my allotted resident parking spot and stop parking three blocks away. He gets chills when he looks out our window, where we can almost see the very spot where he was nearly shot in the stomach. We have some clues that the perpetrators were not even from here, that this misfortune could have befallen us anywhere—but logic does little to suppress visceral fear and anxiety. We want nothing more with community activities, nights out on the town, or inviting anyone here.

I hate that one night was all it took to destroy years of happiness and goodwill. I hate that the gun robbed us of any fighting chance—because, had it not been present, we literally would have fought. I hate that we weren’t carrying any cash and had to forfeit possessions worth exponentially more. I hate that the perpetrators were stupid youths who immediately tried to use my fiancé’s (already frozen) credit card on Uber and Nike sneakers; who won’t be able to do anything with an iCloud-locked iPhone, anyway, except cost my fiancé a thousand dollars; who should be getting a fucking education instead of hurting decent people who used to be on their side. I hate that it’s apparently not so easy for Uber just to tell us what device attempted to add this credit card, or for Nike to fetch an IP address from their logs. I hate that some gun lovers think we would have been better off if we had been armed ourselves, as if we could have pulled out our own gun, aimed, and shot faster than he could have pulled the trigger on his. I hate that some naïve progressives believe marginalized groups need to be armed against oppressive police and government forces, because those arms are only getting used against fellow community members like us. I hate the still ongoing regrets and second-guessing: Could we have redirected the gun or knocked it out of his hand? Could I have gotten away with only giving them the 2005 Thinkpad I was carrying in my tote, which was a locked and insured client laptop? What if we had hurried home a mere ten minutes sooner? Why hadn’t I sold my car two days prior, as planned?

Someone told me, “The fact that you are both alive and unharmed means you handled everything in that situation perfectly.” On a logical level, I accept this. I am overwhelmingly relieved that they did not shoot my partner, that we still have each other, that the phones are all they managed to take. But logic does little to suppress the questions and the anger, too.

2017 Year-End Reflections

I kicked off this year with the ambitious goal of writing at least one thing, in any format, per week. A few months in, I realized this was putting too much pressure on myself. I also started to think more seriously about writing a novel, and I wanted to focus on it exclusively.

Two concept pivots later, the novel unfortunately took a backseat to a soul-crushing, five-month job hunt. My discontent with my day job reached a point where I was crying every Sunday night about having to go back to work in the morning, hopelessly pessimistic about my career trajectory, and constantly angry. I submitted over 50 applications, reformatted my resume twice, e-mailed one faceless recruiter after another, had innumerable phone calls, had 10 video or on-site interviews, and received 21 rejections. I learned New York is full of shiny start-ups “disrupting” the way you make financial investments, order food, reserve physical storage space, manage retail inventory, continue education, and get someone to clean your apartment—all online, mostly from your phone. The “Uber” of this, the “Facebook” of that.

In November, shortly after I tendered my resignation without a solid contingency plan—goes to show how unbearably toxic that environment had become for me—I received an official offer of employment. It was from an up-and-coming company that actually seems to be doing something real, has a robust and amazing product, and has tremendous potential for further growth. I accepted immediately, with the most excitement and optimism I’ve ever felt about my career. I am no longer working in the same role as I did for the past five years, which is somewhat scary, but hopefully I won’t ever be turning back.

2017 was an exciting and gratifying year in other ways, too. Friends had birthday parties, got engaged, completed graduate studies, got promotions and new jobs, and launched new initiatives. I had the honor of attending not one, but two vibrant, exuberant Indian weddings. I did my first (and only, for the foreseeable future) short story reading at a Brooklyn bookstore. I joined an amateur orchestra that will be performing at Carnegie Hall next year. I heard amazing musical performances by Yuja Wang and the New York Philharmonic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and Hans Zimmer. I stopped using paper tissues and switched to handkerchiefs. I traveled to Colorado, Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Olympic National Park, Cherry Springs State Park, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico City, and Mumbai. And I got engaged!

I made a more earnest effort than ever to seek out new stories and characters, especially from people of color and other marginalized voices—something I plan to  continue in 2018 and beyond. These were in the form of wondrous, awe-inspiring books:

  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  • Sour Heart: Stories, by Jenny Zhang
  • The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past), by Liu Cixin
  • Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, by Carmen Maria Machado

thought-provoking independent theater productions:

  • In Full Color
  • Blackout
  • Say Something Bunny!

and fascinating exhibits at the:

  • Guggenheim (NYC)
  • National Videogame Museum (Dallas)
  • American Writers Museum (Chicago)
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago)
  • Museum of Broken Relationships (Los Angeles)
  • Future of Storytelling Festival (Staten Island)
  • art museum in Mexico City whose name I’ve sadly forgotten.

Next year, I want to be better and more proactive about maintaining friendships. I want to keep growing and learning, and help others do the same. I need to get back into writing (again). And I want to tick off some not-so-fun items that have been on my to-do list for an embarrassing amount of time, such as deep-cleaning areas of my apartment.

Happy New Year, everyone! Let’s make it a great one.

Identity

When I was twelve, I entered what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” My math wasn’t bad; I was simply convinced I wasn’t going to make it into my fifties. Like most humans on the cusp of teenager-hood, I struggled with questions of identity and purpose. My mother emphasized school above all else, implying that I was either a good student or a waste of life. Teachers, on the other hand, cautioned that we were not our grades, standardized test scores, or audition results. No doubt this was intended to be reassuring—but to me, it was terrifying.

I thought I might be able to define myself with a career, but I never had a firm idea of what I wanted that to be. I toyed with pursuing music, writing, pharmacy, mathematics, law, astrophysics, firefighting, and more. Nothing stuck. People close to me have probably gotten sick of hearing me talk about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree so much, but it always resonated so powerfully with me, and still does. It made twelve-year-old me profoundly nihilistic. What was the point in trudging forward in nebulous blackness, toward more of the same? Wouldn’t it be better just to end it all now? Who would care about this loser who would never amount to anything?

If academic skill didn’t grant me purpose, then I needed some deep introspection to find something that would. Fearfully, I concluded I had nothing else going for me. I wasn’t the cool kid who always came up with fun ideas and got invited to everyone’s parties. I was a condescending asshole to kids who didn’t coast through classes as effortlessly as I did. I wasn’t the nicest or funniest or trendiest, or even the smartest. I had trouble maintaining my own opinions and wants, collapsing instead like an ironing board in the proximity of others’. I also had palpably abysmal self-esteem from believing myself ugly. I didn’t think confidence or lack thereof could be so obvious to others, but when a friend walked up and told me out of the blue one day, “Hey, you’re beautiful; don’t forget that,” I realized with a stab of embarrassment that my eyes told their own pathetic story in large neon letters. I hated being inside this skin, I didn’t talk to my family, and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I was an existential nightmare and waste of life.

It lasted for nearly ten years. And still returns for a periodic haunt.

When I started working full-time, I felt better. I like the feeling of productivity and contributing to a collective. Even if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it, I think it would have at least kept my mind too preoccupied to tip into the darker stuff. But Fight Club and anti-capitalists tell us we are not our jobs, either. We are not our mortgages, furniture, or kitchen appliances. Plus, work has been distressing lately, to the point where I’m questioning everything and feeling broken. So now I have two problems:

  1. I still don’t have a sense of self outside of work.
  2. When work goes poorly, my sense of self begins to dissolve again.

Harry Potter suggests that identity is a choice. You are in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin because that’s what matters to you and that’s what you strive to be. This feels one-dimensional to me, however. I’m a lot more than a character trait. I’m also a lot of things that I don’t care to make into a Big Deal or factor into Who I Am. I can’t even test consistently into one Hogwarts house; it’s always a toss-up between Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Are we to be our experiences, then? I don’t want to be my depression, androgyny, or queerness. I don’t want to wrap my identity around being a former smoker, drug user, alcoholic, and rape victim. But in a weird way, I sort of do. Two of my friends went out for dinner today to talk about mental illness and writing. Hey, I know about those things and would love to talk about them, too, I wanted to say and invite myself. I held back because I didn’t want to issue a “claim.” Tons of people take these sorts of things and are wildly successful at deriving artistic inspiration from them and making names for themselves, but I don’t want the labels. Maybe what I really want is the sense of community around pain and conflict, without having those seep into my individual self. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, too.

I’m not supposed to be my job, but I loved it, and now I don’t know what I am without that love. I do have a stronger personality now: wiser, bolder, kinder, more equitable, more caring and generous, and concerned about what’s best for the big picture and the long term. I am a writer, musician, gamer, exercise enthusiast, and significant other. Most days, that feels like enough. When put to text, it certainly looks like enough! I’m still figuring myself out, though. It’s been a long, arduous journey of healing to get to this point, and I’ve still got a ways to go.

Jobs

I had a hard time understanding work when I was a kid. Not the semantic meaning of the word, but what people actually did when they were “at work.” My father has been a pharmacologist for over twenty-five years, but he didn’t tell me his title until I needed to enter his occupation for college applications. Until then, all I knew was that he worked at a drug company. I jokingly wondered if that meant he was a drug dealer, but knew he was too nerdy and goofy for it to be true. Whatever he did, he seemed to have a lot of free time. He liked looking up NBA statistics and potential universities for me to attend. Since the office was less than twenty minutes away, he frequently came home for lunch and a nap. My one memory of Take Your Daughter to Work Day consisted of a hazy image of a dry-ice freezer and little else.

The jobs I understood reasonably well were doctor, dentist, teacher, firefighter, musician, actor, athlete, chef, and taxi driver. My mother said I was too squeamish around blood to be a doctor, though I didn’t consider myself so. Musical employment was too capricious and therefore out of the question. Instead, her dream was for me to be a lawyer. I didn’t feel particularly enthused about this because I didn’t know what it entailed on a day-to-day basis, and she couldn’t say, either. So I went through high school and even college trying to get through classes just for the sake of getting through them, with no end goal or career trajectory. The concept of life after school confused and terrified me. 

Unsurprisingly, then, my first job out of college was at Starbucks. For a year, I wrote orders on cups; “hand-crafted” lattes and Frappuccinos; and plastered on a smile in the face of complaints, insults, and demands for free stuff. I heard one could make a good salary after a few years of climbing the store ranks or transferring to corporate, and wondered dully if this was going to be it for the rest of my life. One supervisor who was a couple years my senior had already been with the ‘Bux for six years, supporting her disabled mother and sister on this income. A middle-aged woman joined the team when she lost her office job and the recession made it too difficult to find a similar replacement. Another barista had worked there for three years, quit to pursue a dream, and returned a few years later when it didn’t work out. 

These people were hardworking, bright, hilarious, passionate, and team-oriented. Their struggles, and those of other colleagues, inspired yet frightened me. After an insular, middle-class upbringing and expensive liberal arts college education, this was my first time really getting to know folks like this. We were all in this together, dealing with this job that was far from ideal. We just didn’t know how else to pay the bills, get affordable health insurance, and make it to the next month. Survival had never felt so overwhelming. It was eye-opening, to say the least. And though it was embarrassing to have my own naiveté smack me upside the head, I was extremely grateful for the experience. 

I got a massive break when one of my closest friends gave me a life-changing opportunity that set me on a career path I could actually feel excited about. For the first time, I felt a drive to succeed for my own sake, not for the amusement of besting others. I had tangible goals and felt capable of contributing something real to a business. I finally felt worthy of ambition. With this job, I was busy, productive, no longer on my feet all day, and making an annual salary that would have taken multiple barista years combined to match. For this, I will always be grateful to my friend.

The thing about ambition, though, is a tendency to feed on itself. The more I learned and achieved, the more I knew I still had much to learn and achieve. Once adrift at sea with no concept of what land looked like, I soon not only found it, but wanted to leave my personal flag on it and even reshape it. I started experiencing brief spells of discontent, doubt, and obligation regarding my career path every few months. I wondered if this was truly the best application of my talents, if I was truly helping anyone. The scope of responsibilities and accomplishments felt trivial. My employee presence was merely a cog in a colossal machine, a voice shouted into an abyss. The money was never enough. I should have been an engineer. I should have been a doctor. 

Two weeks ago, I attended a Meetup about colonization of digital spaces and structures, hosted by the group Ethical Tech. The panelists led a fascinating discussion about a broad span of topics, and it was one of the best Meetups I’ve attended to date. The gist was that modern technology has been trending white, male, and English-speaking. How many of the rest of us feel empowered and helpful in the industry? How does this affect potential development, innovation, and contributions from others? How does this distort other cultures and worldviews? What can we do about it? Does it really matter? As I walked to Penn Station after the session, my head swam with insights, reflections—and renewed guilt over the nature of my full-time job. 

When did you become such a capitalist drone? admonished my inner social justice warrior. All you’re doing is helping big corporations save some money so they can get even bigger. 

It doesn’t have to be such a bad thing to enjoy this kind of position, another side retorted. People should contribute to the betterment of society however they can. We’re not all cut out to be protesters and rioters. Right now, your job gives you free time to push social messaging through your writing. You’re gaining experience, influence, and wealth to use someday to effect more powerful change.

Not like those social justice groups have been offering to hire you, anyway, a drier voice remarked. 

The existential unease has been harder to shake this time. I guess what it comes down to is: do you work to live, or live to work? I’ve grown to prefer the latter, so it pains me to feel my work isn’t meaningful. One of my patriarchy-smashing, anti-capitalist friends from college would say, “You are not your work. Productivity does not equate to happiness.” Oh, but it does—at least for me. It’s wild, how much of a role jobs can play in people’s self-esteem, happiness, relationships, life goals, and more. When I think back to my aimless days, I’m surprised and pleased by how much I’ve changed. Yet there are still days when I feel aimless in a different way. All I want to do is change the world, you know? 

Pressure

I have a difficult time knowing when I cross the line between self-discipline and being overly tough on myself. I was raised to believe that anything is possible when you try hard enough, and I derive genuine happiness from feeling “productive”—a dangerous recipe for stress, impatience, sleep deprivation, and a frustrating inability to relax. Sylvia Plath’s proverbial fig tree speaks volumes to my perpetually anxious self. So much to do and learn; not nearly enough hours in a day, or days in a lifetime.

Years ago, I wanted a senior position at a start-up company whose imminent IPO would make me a millionaire. On the side, I wanted to be a writer, data scientist, programmer, electronic music producer/DJ, singer-songwriter, celebrity gamer, poker player, photographer, weight lifter, and marathon runner. Preferably all at the same time, with a bustling social life to boot. I also liked cooking and cleaning my apartment frequently. Every day after work, I stood at a crossroads with an overwhelming number of to-do items and only a handful of hours for tackling a single one. I knew it was crazy, but I needed to do everything and embody this overachieving ideal built up in my mind. If other people could juggle multiple major endeavors, so could I.

Last year, I decided to focus on writing. I have still been pursuing other hobbies and interests, but to a lesser degree. I enrolled in a twelve-week writing workshop at the local county college, rebooting the creativity engine. At the beginning of 2017, I vowed to post an essay or short story here each week. Much more reasonable, right? But now I have missed three or four weeks, and I am beating myself up pretty hard for it. Things have been ramping up at work. I have been spending more quality time with my boyfriend and his family. I have been traveling, attending talks, visiting museums, reading, and watching films—all experiences from which I seek storytelling inspiration. Are these positive signs of a more balanced life, or pathetic excuses for slacking off from a simple goal? My answer fluctuates with the time of day and my mood.

I think I am finally ready to start working on a novel, but is that merely another excuse for not writing any more weekly essays? The weekly essays have been a challenging yet satisfying exercise. I would love to keep them up for the rest of the year, and a big part of me feels like a failure for stopping them a third of the way through. However, I am excited about this novel idea and I want to give it an earnest shot. Maybe once I finish it, I can finally ease some pressure off myself.

Regardless of what happens, hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon enough.