On summer in the city

On a recent Wednesday night, right smack in the heat of that thing called summer in the city, I found myself in Central Park to see some Shakespeare. The play was Troilus and Cressida which, frankly, I didn’t know at all, and it’s based on some weirdly free-wheeling mashup of The Iliad and a Chaucer tale—again, not my area of expertise. When we got to our seats (after wolfing down two glasses of rosé and some tiny canapés, thanks to my new friend in PR) I was already sweating in my long linen dress, a blister forming on my toe. My skin was sticky, many steps past that sought-after “dewy” look. I unbuttoned an extra button.

And then, magic: as the sky deepened and all eyes flicked to the open stage, I was rendered invisible.

The thing about Shakespeare is that you kind of sink into it. Like a foreign language you grew up with, it flickers in and out of conscious translation, but by the second act you’re deep in, feeling that tiny thrill when you get the joke or when you register the double entendre. Troilus and Cressida is about a lot of hot young army guys; the plot wanders; there’s a romance. Critics hate this story and call it one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. And it’s true: it see-saws between comedy and tragedy, young love and dry politics, with very little preamble or signature Shakespearean magic and sense.

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But in the hands of this director, these actors, this summer in the city, it seemed like the perfect show just because of its imperfections; just because it’s so obtuse, aggressive, unfinished. Those hot young army guys—Achilles, Hector, Ajax—were decked out for the show in modern-style rugged fatigues, copious tattoos, dog tags. The romantic lead, Cressida, wears a trendy leather jacket. There are machine guns and cell phones involved. Chaos is never far. Sound familiar?

Here’s what happens: Cressida and Troilus, after playing hard-to-get for a bit, finally admit they like each other. Cute! They spend the night together, profess their undying love. Then Cressida gets swapped over to the opposing army as a prisoner of war—and, naturally, her loyalty to Troilus is put to the test.

But first, here’s a snappy snippet in which she very presciently explains the rationale behind playing hard-to-get:

Yet I hold off. Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is:
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
“Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.”
That though my heart’s contents firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.

— Troilus and Cressida, Act 1 Scene 2, lines 225–234

Very contemporary, no?

But back to the story. Cressida gets gang raped. (She’s a lone woman in a military camp, unfortunately.) When a potential protector/suitor comes forward, she makes the tortured decision to forego her promise to Troilus and flirt with this new guy, to be flirted with. Troilus is hiding in the shadows and sees it all. He’s disgusted by her disloyalty. He disavows her—and after that, we never see or hear from Cressida in the play again. The show goes on.

When I got home and Wiki’ed her, I learned that she is a symbol of whorishness throughout Greek mythology and later literature. I also learned that her story really does end, not just in Shakespeare but in everything; her narrative use to the (male) writers over, she’s forever frozen in time as an icon of infidelity, a caricature of flippant red womanhood. Like a punishment for her supposed weakness, all these men chose to strip her of agency over and over again. 


But what a shame, right? As Shakespeare in the Park presents it, here’s a woman who was smart enough to understand danger. While Troilus wears a bulletproof vest and a machine gun, Cressida gets tossed around by boorish soldiers in a flimsy nightie; she has to be pragmatic about survival, about the use of sexuality as capital. She did not have the luxury of trusting in the flimsy love of poetry. Or maybe we can tell a more modern story. Maybe her loyalties changed; the new soldier was pretty hot in the play. Is it such a crime to change one’s mind? More realistically, we can tell a horrible war story. She was dealing with trauma. She was dealing with life.

So Cressida: Cressida’s cool. In the heat of her moment, she’s more real than the virginal youth of Juliet, more relatable than the ice queen fantasy of Titania, more sane and sturdy than fragile Ophelia. She tells us something about the precarious power of being a woman.

But I didn’t know any of this while I watched the play on that Wednesday night in the park. I only knew that I was hooked on a complex story I’d never heard. I knew that I was looking, eagerly and for a long time, at something that wasn’t a computer—a victory in and of itself. As a humid mist layered itself snugly over us, I forgot, for about four hours as I sweated it out under the invisible stars, about the cockroach that lives in my bathroom and the rent I needed to pay and the sheets I needed to wash. Weird things went down in the play; there was fake blood and fake gunfire and cowardly betrayal. Weird things went down in my head; I was sad and ecstatic and surprised. I let summer, in all its weirdness, happen.

That’s the thing about summer: it stretches and jerks, grows bloated and sweaty. And then it gives us Shakespeare in the Park and there’s a glistening Achilles in front of you, abs flexing as he delivers his lines, hot-blooded and from another world and for a short moment, everything might just, strangely, be fine.

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On The Force Awakens

(A much-delayed review.)

We watched Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI over and over and over again. I was probably 5, or 6, or 8, and it feels like that’s all I ever saw, curled up on the grey couch in our low-ceilinged basement. Outside, suburban Seattle drizzled and traffic lights crawled. In the basement, though, we had adventure: X-wing fighter pilots on the move, snowstorms on Hoth, Princess Leia in her infamous golden bikini. Would I have chosen to watch these movies if my brother hadn’t monopolized the VCR? Probably not. But movies exert a magic, no matter if you intend to like them or not, and these ones became the fabric of my childhood.

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace came out in the year 2000; I was 9. Too young to be bothered either with Hayden Christensen’s relative level of hotness or the horror of Jar Jar Binks (and cringeworthy acting), I was more consumed with the spectacles of femininity I took in from Queen Amidala: her arresting lipstick choice (that stripe!), the stiff pageantry of her costume. I convinced my parents that I MUST be her for Halloween. I hunted down the appropriate costume, I wore a headdress, I painted my lips as best I could. As usual I spent the night sprinting door to door through the steady rain, costume obscured by a raincoat, hair and makeup increasingly disheveled. That summer, I went to space camp.

But although I had a thing for the Princess and the Queen and space travel, it turned out I wasn’t a Star Wars fangirl after all. I missed Episodes II and III. Life went on. I became preoccupied with more earthly endeavors—ballet, books, going to the beach.

Then signs of Episode VII: The Force Awakens began to emerge this fall, and even though I could barely remember the name of Luke’s home planet, I too felt that nostalgic tug to the Force. Preparation for full re-immersion commenced. (I wanted to watch all 6 movies chronologically, but iTunes rental is $20 a pop, so I sprang for Episodes III and Episodes IV—a mix of new and old, the introduction and conclusion of both sets of plot lines.) The re-watching was a bit boring, a bit painful. The old Star Wars turn out to be surface stories: all (simple) plot and no feeling. The highs (destroying the Death Star) are not made real by the lows (Anakin murdering all the Jedi trainees; Luke losing the only family and home he’s known; Vader blowing up Leia’s home planet due to her resistance). Grief and complexity have no place in the Star Wars universe; it’s a world of motion and momentum. That’s why the Episode IV scene of Luke looking out at the double sunset—one of the only moments of quietude in the entire series—stands apart, is so loved.

So on to Episode VII. It’s a more human movie. It’s a mash-up of all the previous character archetypes and plotlines. It’s basically Episode IV with better visuals and slightly better writing.

But when a nameless Stormtrooper smeared a handprint of bright red blood on the pristine white helmet of his comrade, my brother—seated next to me as we watched in the movie theater—whispered, “That’s the first time they’ve ever shown blood in Star Wars.” I felt a little thrill. In adulthood, it is the darkness in a movie that calls to me. Star Wars has never been truly dark, and has never made its own contrived darkness feel anything other than empty. (Whether that was an attempt to stay PG or a reflection of George Lucas’s own tendency to humor over depth is unclear.) Here, though, was a flash of pain that felt probable. So when the same Stormtrooper later removes his helmet in distress, it’s a sign: behind the smooth, hardened exteriors of our notions of good and evil, light and dark, lie consciences that agitate under the strictures of these stark narrative contrasts. Thank God. This iteration of the Force is flexible.

Because movie audiences today are not satisfied with just sharp plot and shocking special effects. No: we want sharp plot and shocking special effects undergirded by a grittiness, enhanced (and not undermined) by the realism of emotional depth. We want to be convinced that danger is real, that love is complex, that pain is present. All too often, our own lives clip along in the smooth, stifled tones of an Instagram filter, a muted routine of nameless gyms and neutral office desks, darkened bars and sterile apartments. Texts and small talk. Takeout and two-night-stands. In our blockbuster entertainment, then, we ask for vivid, messy color. We ask for consequences.

In The Force Awakens, the consequences are clear (perhaps, even, too clear). There are enough familiar faces to keep fans filled with nostalgia, enough shakeups to give us new heroes to admire, laugh with, root for. A new droid whose beeps elicit the kind of emotion I usually save for cute puppies. A new strong female protagonist to inspire the next generation of girls—and this time no golden bikini to bother with. A new baddie to rally against. The beats are the same, just better.

But is “better” good enough? It’s been discussed in critiques and reviews ad nauseum, and as time has softened the hype, consensus is that it will do. Nothing groundbreaking, just part of a science fiction continuum.

Is there even such a thing as an “original” story anymore? It’s hard to know what that would even look like.



On 2015

On Saturday, a friend and I were paused on our skis at the top of a run on Bald Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was late in the afternoon on a bluebird day, temperatures hovering around zero. The snow was perfect, and at the end of this run we’d be drinking beer in the rowdy lodge below. We were on vacation in every way, giddy with it.

“Let’s race,” he challenged me.

I’d done NASTAR races growing up (and ranked nationally in middle school); I’d been on my college ski team; heck, when I was a baby I’d been stuck in my dad’s backpack while he, a former downhill racer, cruised down the slopes. I was confident that I was—am—a good skier. I feel comfortable on skis.

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But last week, at the top of that run, all I felt was fear. “I don’t know,” I said. “You’ll probably win.” He was bigger, faster, and more athletic. More importantly, he had taught himself to be fearless. He was afraid of heights, but had jumped out of planes dozens of times. He had left a good college to join the army. He was kind of a rebel, kind of a hero, didn’t care what anyone would think.

Not like me.

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he said. But I shook my head. “No, let’s do it.” I didn’t want to be that girl who couldn’t live a little on the edge. I was trying to prove I was cool, after all. Trying to prove I could keep up. Plus, he was cute.

The scary thing about going fast is that you lose precision; you lose control; you lose the ability to stop. You just have to let go.

For some people, this comes easily. My mom likes to tell the story of how my older brother and I learned to walk. Well, my brother didn’t walk—he just ran from the start, and would fall and get banged up and keep going, so they stuck a helmet on his head to keep him safe. I, on the other hand, started small: just a few steps at a time, hand always outstretched to a couch or table, slow and dainty and poised. So, yeah, you could say I’ve never been good at letting go or going fast or taking risk or any of that. It’s just not me.

But sometimes, I do it anyway. I’ve ski-raced. I’ve hang-glided. I’ve jumped off cliffs into rivers twenty feet below. I love rollercoasters and pushing past 90 on an empty freeway. I’ve gone to places that aren’t strictly safe. I’ve chosen paths that aren’t strictly smart. I’ve insisted on truths that aren’t strictly popular. Fear checks me, but it also goads me.

We raced. He won—barely. To me, though, it was a kind of victory.

For me, 2015 has been a year of trying—and, often, failing—to overcome fear. Fear of stasis; fear of vulnerability; fear of making the wrong choices; fear of losing something, or losing out on something; fear of things beyond my control; fear of that tick-tock of time. Adulthood, I’ve learned, is in fact just a process of confronting and minimizing these fears, the Sunday scaries that haunt us daily.

As I look back on my 2013 and 2014 year-end posts, the ironic truth is that, in many ways, little has changed for me. While our country (and our world) hopscotches from crisis to crisis, uprooting lives and upending paradigms of power all over the globe, I’ve been cocooned in a personal bubble of safe, privileged sameness. Here I am once again in Santa Barbara, uncertain of what the future holds, angsty and cautious and eager. I went to yoga much more often in 2015, but I’m still crap at handstands. I watched “In the Heart of the Sea” (hello Chris Hemsworth!), but my copy of Moby Dick lies dusty and unfinished since I started it in 2013. I’ve been trying to get to sleep earlier, but my bedtimes still careen between a somewhat respectable midnight and a really nonsensical 3am. And the list of little failures goes on.

In other words: three years on, and I haven’t accomplished much of what I set out to do. Why not? I fume at myself. What have I been doing, if not the important work of progress? 

Then again. If, for me, 2013 and 2014 were about wild transition, then 2015 was about learning to stay put: one job, one apartment, two states, no big trips or big changes. In 2015, I overcame a fear of letting people down to overcome a different fear—that of missing out on pursuing the things I am compelled to pursue. In 2015, I overcame a fear of being overly opinionated by figuring out how to speak up more articulately. In 2015, I overcame (or started to overcome) a fear of being alone by doubling down on friendships and taking more chances with people. I may not be letting go. I may be clinging to control. I’m not my brother running before I can walk, or my friend in Idaho eager for a race. I can only look to their confidence to guide me, to give me something to compete with, to provoke me past my comfort zone.

Sometimes this year has felt like forward motion; other times, like when I decided to start again from square one in my career, it has felt like backtracking. (The job application process does nothing better than planting seeds of destructive self-doubt.) It’s hard to tell. Only time, as they say, has that kind of prescience.

And time is, thankfully, what’s on the calendar. So here’s to a New Year of health and joy, of teaching ourselves to turn fear into fuel. I’ll be trying!

Things I did in 2015: became friends with the guy at my local wash ‘n’ fold; put my dating apps to use; grew up; dealt with various household pests; devoured all four of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and all seven Harry Potters once more; shared my home with friends I’m lucky to have found; learned to love to sweat; discovered the pleasures of Spotify; drank martinis; became a Belieber (yeah, I said it).

Things I’m working on for 2016: finishing Moby Dick, once and for all; writing more (always); cooking more new recipes; arriving on time (work in progress, sorry guys); being there for my family in whatever ways I can be; saving up some money; not letting myself down.

Thank you for sticking around—and cheers! Pop your bottles, now.


On the privilege of ignorance

I remember the DKE chant incident of 2010. It was the beginning of my sophomore year at Yale. The whole thing had gone down less than a block from where I slept, but it felt surreal and separate. Sure, I was appalled by their language (“No means yes, yes means anal”), and I wanted them chastised. But when non-Yale friends asked me about what was going on, I said: we’re fine, it’s all fine, the media is really blowing this out of proportion.

Then the Women’s Center and a group of strong-willed, strong-voiced students came out with an official Title IX complaint and made it an even bigger national issue. They said that Yale was a “hostile sexual environment” and that fraternities were mainly to blame.

I was outraged. I loved my friends in fraternities! I loved that they welcomed me to their houses. I loved that one of them found my phone when it was lost, and that another worked with me on Econ problem sets every week. I loved that they were just like all the guys I’d ever known (but more fun, because #college). They were good and goofy and made bad jokes and some even told me I was hot. “Hostile sexual environment?”

NO, I said.

NOT TO ME, I said.

NOT MY YALE, I said.

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Did I mention I was 19? Did I mention I was white, privileged, and so young—young to life, young to bad things, young to my education as a human and as a humanist?

Ignorance is bliss.

But I couldn’t be ignorant forever. What changed: I took Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes. I read books that expanded my feminist perspective (bell hooks! Betty Friedan! Virginia Woolf!). I had experiences in frat houses and at parties that made me uncomfortable. I heard raw stories from peers who had been hurt. I grew up, and in growing up I realized the incredibly simple fact that “my” Yale was not everyone’s Yale. My luck was not everyone’s luck. My privilege was not everyone’s privilege. It’s obvious in retrospect, but understanding the experience of others is often the hardest—and most human—thing we do. Especially when that experience is at odds with our own. Especially when it casts a dark shadow over something we love and are proud of. We don’t want to know.

But we learn. Just because I was not sexually assaulted or did not feel overt sexual hostility did not mean I could not accept, empathize with, or fight for the cause of creating a safer environment at Yale. It did not mean that I should not fight. And it did not mean that I was exempt from that fight.

Social justice is like this. We cannot all see, feel, or know the experience of other groups, of the subjugated or of the disenfranchised. We are not all in a minority; that’s what makes the fights of the underdogs so hard. We, the majority, are the oblivious upholders of a system that works for us. So it’s our responsibility to try our best to banish that oblivion. It’s our duty to accept full equality as a greater good in every sense, from the emotional to the economic. And it’s our challenge to fail less, work harder, and be more conscious every day. The minority does not “win” these fights. Rather, we all must come together better. The baseline gets adjusted.

– – –

My parents often ask me why college students are no longer activists. “Where are the protests?” they ask. “Why aren’t you marching against what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria?”

They were in college at the height of political activism during the Vietnam War. The threat was real then: fight against it, or you (or your friends) would be sent to a jungle from which you (or your friends) might not return. Mortal peril was in the mix. Everyone was in the mix. Everyone had to have an opinion because it was their world at risk.

2015 is a bit different. Political activism is passé; maybe we’re too removed from personal impact, or just jaded to violence and bad governance. Instead, the new activism riling our country is for social justice. Equality activism. LGBTQ rights, #blacklivesmatter, Lean In and Title IX and equal pay for women.

But the problem with these causes is that, by definition, they don’t affect the majority. And so, by definition, the minority has to work harder—speak more loudly, agitate more aggressively, demand more insistently—just to be heard, just to keep their place at the table. This is how systems of power and oppression work, and they continue to operate in social justice fights just as they work in everyday life.

They are harder to win because implicit bias is hard to acknowledge and harder to strip away.

And this is what’s happening at Yale right now.

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Photo by Philipp Arndt

– – –

The associate master’s email and the SAE Halloween incident are just two straws in an ongoing fight that is finally being brought into the light. That camel has had a damn strong back for many years. None of the fears, pains, concerns, or demands expressed by students right now are new. But now is their moment to make them known.

Yes, the national news media is turning this into a free speech debate. Yes, people are calling for Yale students to “grow up” and not expect to be coddled. The real world is hard, they say. Safe spaces don’t exist. Be less sensitive.

They’re right: the real world is hard. It is doubly hard for anyone who is a member of a minority group, who has faced—and will always face—discrimination on any number of levels.

But campuses are always where the movement starts; they’re built for progress, especially the liberal arts ones. No one is saying that Yale is that much worse than anywhere else. No one is saying that students at the University of Missouri, for instance, have it better. But the Yale students are saying: let’s start this at Yale. Let’s use our access to the national stage to make a strong, clear, and unambiguous point. Let’s set an example that will bring the country up with us. Let’s start at home, because that’s where change starts, and Yale is our home.

I am not on campus anymore. I can’t speak to the mood of the place, to the lived experience of students there right now. But I can say that I am proud to see productive, positive protest taking place. I am interested to see the demands drafted. I want to see activism and administrative action at work.

More than anything, as I’ve had urgent, thoughtful, and conflicted conversations with fellow alumni and current students, I want us—especially those of us who, in this case, are in the majority and have the privilege of ignorance—to do our best to deconstruct that ignorance.

Change does not come from the top alone. Structure and agency are both at play here: we can only ask the college administration to do so much to break down preconceived biases and systems of conversation and social structure. (Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in Tablet is a worthwhile investigation into the limits of this approach). Yes, Yale should create appropriate channels for submitting complaints; for educating everyone about cultural sensitivity; for improving diversity in faculty and in hiring.

But also, yes, every student and alum who wants to do better SHOULD do better, SHOULD be an agent of change. This is an open ask to people of color and others who want to participate: tell us how. Lead us there. Share with us the things that make you uncomfortable, that we have said or done that are not right. Teach us how to be better allies, so we can do our part to spread this change. Tell us what to read and what to watch. We will all shape our own opinions from this conversation, and not everyone will be on board. The debate will be real, and it will be healthy.

We’ve been ignoring it for too long and we’ve got to get started. It’s hard work. For many, myself included, it is often uncomfortable.

Let’s begin.

– – –

Further reading:

The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale | The Atlantic

The Yale Student Protests Are the Campus PC Wars at Their Best| Slate

Here’s What’s Really Going on at Yale | Medium

What We Want & Need: Black Student Demands for the Administration | DOWN at Yale

Student Activism Is Serious Business | The New Republic

Open Letter from Yale Alums

On speaking to strangers

It’s every girl’s dream*: the meet-cute in the park with a handsome stranger. He becomes inexplicably smitten and whisks her into a world of glamour and chic cocktail parties and weekends in St. Bart’s. The modern fairy tale, brought to you by Gossip Girl and unrealistic millennial aspirations, n’est pas?

But how does she know, at first, that he is who claims to be? What proof do we ever have of identity?

*Not actually every girl. Only basics like me.

Strangers are everywhere, of course. We operate on either side of a thin line: ignoring those we don’t know, or taking the leap of making a connection. Usually, that thin line is a threshold—literally. Step inside a restaurant or bar, and boom—everyone in the room is on-limits for conversation. Step back onto the sidewalk, and New Yorkers avoid dreaded eye contact at all costs. Place denotes identity in our society. In the city’s whirlwind of anonymity and dense humanity, location is all we have to cling to when we’re trying to figure out the people around us. That’s why we ask the rote questions: where do you live? Where do you go to eat, to drink, to work out? We relax only when we’ve pinned someone down on our mental maps. There’s a story to tell here, and it’s about class and money and how much we’ve tied social identity to access. It’s about how much that access comforts us, makes us feel kinship, lets us trust.

So when encounters occur outside of transactional spaces like bars or cafes, outside of the borders that contextualize a stranger’s presence and allow us to craft the rudimentary outlines of their narrative, it’s a jolt. In public spaces, we are anyone and everyone. There’s no way to tell where we’re from, where we belong. Stories are malleable; encounters are fate.

A few weeks ago, I found myself locked out of my apartment. It was one of those sticky, golden early fall evenings and my roommate would be home soon, so I trotted off to Washington Square Park to waste some time people-watching. I stretched my legs on a bench, observed some squirrels, checked my Instagram.

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Not Washington Square Park, but same sunset vibe.

“Excuse me, do you know where NYU is?” a stranger asked. I glanced up. He was a bit scruffy: baggy pants, scuffed sneakers, beginnings of a beard. He carried a Whole Foods shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in another. I half-registered his question and replied offhand that it was “pretty much all around.”

“Are you a student?”


“But you live around here?”


“Do you like this neighborhood?”


“And what do you do around here?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood to chat.”

Usually, that’s a line that works. I went back to my phone.

But not so fast. A switch flipped in him; he began to yell.

“… and here I am, just trying to make conversation, be nice, I thought maybe you were homeless, I was going to give you some money, but no, you are just going to write me off like this?!”

The performance of his anger was expansive, almost laughable in the drowsy evening. On the light-dappled lawn behind me, a woman in a lawn chair went on reading her book. Across from me, a couple of tourists licked their ice cream cones, nonplussed. He was acting out a different script, disrupting the scene the rest of us were playing so placidly. Whatever, I thought, I was here first—and I had nowhere else to go. Better to smooth it over, let him move on.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Do you even know who I am?!” he shouted, gesturing broadly, as though the whole park should know, did know. The light was seeping out of the day. A rat scurried through the bushes next to me. I shook my head, trying to keep my face blank. This is absurd, I thought. My poker face must not have been enough, because he paused for a moment in his rant—and sat himself down on the adjacent bench.

I blinked. There was no getting out of this one now.

“Let me start over. We got off on the wrong foot, is that how you say? My name is Giovanni. Giovanni Gabbana.” He waited for my reaction. “You know Gabbana?”

“Like Dolce, the Italian brand?”

He was excited now. “Yes, exactly! I am Gabbana’s nephew. I am the heir to the brand.”

Look, I know how this all sounds. But when a foreign stranger comes up to you in a park on an otherwise nondescript day and professes to be an heir to a famed Italian luxury fashion brand, your interest is piqued. You begin to hope. Maybe this is the right stranger. Maybe this time…

He was a talker, Giovanni, and he talked for the better part of an hour. Unceasing eye contact. Classic Italian intensity, hand gestures, superlatives. I kept my responses to the minimum; where I was from, the industry I worked in. He said he was a Harvard grad, went to Columbia Business School, had been an early funder of Snapchat, founded a tech company called CyberWise. He was a socialite and a Tribeca resident; he told me his address on North Moore St, mentioned his favorite local restaurants, and said I should swing by. He had been at a fashion show with Jessica Chastain last week. He vacationed in Ibiza. He grew up between London and Milan. Would I like to join him for coffee next week? He could introduce me to some people who might help me with my career…

At 8:30pm, an alarm on his phone went off. “Ah, yes,” he said, “that’s to remind me to go home. I used to stay out very late. I was a party boy, some people maybe they think I’m a dick because of it, but I’m getting better now, I’m staying in,” and he kept going on. He gave me his email and his phone number (“…and this is not my publicist’s number, which I usually give, but my private phone, OK?”) and said that it was up to me, he knew it was crazy to meet in a park, but it was fate, I intrigued him, I was not what he expected, I was different, no Prada handbag, no pretension. I said nothing but “thank you.” Eventually, finally, he left. I blinked and looked around: night had fallen.

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Washington Square Park, shining bright.

When I got home, I Googled him. I needed to pin him down, verify his claims. If we had met in a bar, I would never have doubted. But it was the park… it was a public space.

His LinkedIn corroborated his story. I’m a former investigative reporter, though, and one source is never enough. So I dug deeper, looking for a paparazzi photo, a mention—but what I found was both terrifying and sad. He was a fraud. He had been arrested for grand larceny and locked up in 2009 for credit card fraud, accused of scamming his so-called “friends” out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on partying at nightclubs and living in luxury at the Waldorf. Since his release, however, his behavior hadn’t much changed; he was spotted spinning his story in Washington Square Park to a young woman back in 2010, too.

I did not send him the email I had promised.

Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe in the West Village, listening to soft French jazz as cigarette smoke drifts in through the open windows. It’s 4:30pm on a weekday afternoon, and people are thinking about a glass of red wine.  

But I’m thinking about the threshold, the thin line, between the sidewalk and the cafe, and how I always believed in its ability to connote identity, and how maybe that trust is misplaced. I’m thinking about the difference between Giovanni and the man sitting next to me in his navy cashmere sweater, MacBook out. I’m thinking about how we make strangers familiar by association with places and things.

I’m also thinking about how Giovanni tricked me; about how careful we have to be about trust; about how the stories people tell are not necessarily true, even if they say the right things. The article written about Giovanni shows he was savvy to this fact. He knew he would receive access only if he pretended to have it already. He knew I would speak with him only once he signified that he was worthy of being spoken with. He could no longer pay for tables at a nightclub, but he could still convince me that he belonged there, with a glass of Dom Perignon in hand.

There is a difference between the stories we tell and the truth as it is. In a conversation with strangers, we surrender our ability to discern that difference. We accept that fantasy and reality might coexist. It doesn’t really matter if we are in a restaurant or on the street, after all. The restaurant just requires that we pay for the illusion of safety, of belonging, of trust. And what is money but an illusion of its own?

So if the man in the navy sweater said hello, I’d say hello back. And I’d have that chat with Giovanni again. Speaking to strangers is half the fun of this city. It’s how I learn my responses to the unknown; it’s how I step outside of my comfort zone. The only barrier is my own sense of superiority. The only fear is that the stranger will be crazy. And if he is, like Giovanni? The story speaks for itself. There is no fairy tale without risking an adventure.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 3.39.40 PM

Strangers all around.

On the fall blues

There’s a slice of time every year in adult life—after Labor Day and before Halloween, when that back-to-school spirit has waned and the reality of the continued grind digs deep under the skin—that you get the blues.

Yes, you shop for denim. (TIP: seventies-inspired lighter washes are in!)

But this time, I mean a deeper, darker wash. You feel it in the sigh that settles in, cozy as a scarf in the crisp fall, and then slowly, sweetly, starts to strangle while you sip your pumpkin spice whatever. It’s a sense of something ending, of bright summer nights all played out, of sameness making itself at home in your small apartment. I’m no stranger to these blues; they sneak up on me every season, like clockwork. I dread the coming hibernation of winter. In an attempt to recapture some magic, I re-read Harry Potter and buy books of poetry. I think maybe copious amounts of hot yoga and hot water with lemon will flush out the toxic feeling. (They don’t.)

Nothing seems all that fresh. Fall fashion is recycled, a simple repeat of suede and old silhouettes. The news is in turns tragicomic… and just tragic. Pop culture feels circular, self-indulgent and self-referential to a point of near-collapse (and the NYT agrees; say hello to the “year we obsessed over identity”). The passage of time hits hard, bringing with it the truths of the smallness of our trajectories, the limits of our personal legends.

statue of liberty in blue copy

Just me? I don’t think so. Maybe I’m more prone to the blues than most; maybe I’m more sensitive to these frustrations that bubble up each fall. But we all get hit with something, right about now. A twinge at the chill of twilight. A lump in the throat before bed. Where are we going? Why are we running so hard and so fast? And how did we get on this treadmill, anyway?

It’s a sharply Millennial thing, of course: from the unsettled feeling itself (so entitled!) to the fact that I’m indulging it in a blog post (so self-centered!). I know. I’m—we’re—not to be pitied. I’m—we’re—not supposed to be happy. We’re young, and if we aren’t hungry and scared then we’re wasting our youths binging at feasts we can’t really enjoy and don’t really deserve.

But I’m a Taurus, and I like the feast; call me a hedonist, sue me, it’s written in my stars. And my blues? My blues remind me that pumpkin juice and pork chops do not appear, magically, on a sparkling golden plate. That’s the work of house elves in Harry Potter, but I don’t have one in my fourth-floor walk-up. (Nor, I might add, would I collude in the practice of enslaving house elves, were I to live in our Hogwartsian parallel universe.) My blues nudge me to seek something that looks like purpose, to take a second look at the shape of my life and apply some tough-love corrections. The feast, I remind myself, will have to wait.

Soon I’ll snap out of it. Go apple-picking, be grateful, enjoy that PSL in all its basic, beautiful glory. But in this middle-time, just for a moment, I’ll recognize this feeling for what it is: an acknowledgement of time ticking, of growing and aching and letting go. There’s a pain in all that. The body—and the soul—have to be taught to stretch. They have to be taught to fit contentedly into the boxes we’ve built for ourselves—for now!—whether we meant to or not.

More yoga, I guess.

On Magic Mike XXL & the myth of male objectification

On one hand, it makes no sense that Magic Mike XXL was written, directed, and produced by men.

On the other hand, it makes complete sense.

Let me back up: this movie is meant as pure, unadulterated eye candy. At least, that’s how it comes across. Two hours of giving the women what they want. Tatum Channing gyrating with his carpentry tools, enjoying himself way too much? Yep. Joe Manganiello stripping to “I Want It That Way” and dousing himself with water? Yes please. A dance segment involving both a faux-wedding AND a sex swing? Naturally.

What’s shocking about Magic Mike XXL isn’t the male strippers and gratuitous toned, oiled, tanned flesh on display. What’s shocking is that everyone looks like they’re having so much fun, in what we would usually think of as a world inhabited by the down-and-out. Adult entertainment isn’t supposed to be glamorous—at least, not for the those who perform within it. (In most movies, female strippers move sinuously in cages at sleazy clubs while wealthy men of the world conduct their business, ignorant of the bodies in their midst. See: Oceans 11.) And yet: in this Magic Mike XXL parallel universe, the entertainers seem to be having just as much fun—if not more—than the entertained. Jada Pinkett Smith preens in her power, calling the women who flock to the club she owns “queens”, giving them the visually and experientially rich nights out they crave. Donald Glover seems in awe of his own ability to make women happy, just by being there to listen and to perform for them. Matt Bomer sees himself as a healer—by sharing his talents. Joe Manganiello is damn proud to call himself a male entertainer; it’s his profession! There’s none of the gritty dark side to the adult entertainment business here. Sure, the guys are on a last-ditch road trip, facing the end of their careers (and their age of appeal). They’re uncertain about how they’ll make it in a post-stripping era. But they leave that angst behind to embrace the fact that their present hedonism is beautifully harmless. This is a sugar-coated approach to the sex industry. It’s all frosting. And as pure entertainment, it’s gloriously sweet.


So what’s wrong with that? I’ll be the first to say that I left the theater elated, giggly, and feeling pretty #blessed that people like Tatum and Manganiello exist to exhibit their bodies for our ogling. Did I love this movie? Yes. Should everyone go see it? Absolutely. I felt similarly after seeing the Entourage movie, but Magic Mike XXL left a better taste in my mouth—because I can’t defend Entourage as a feminist film (it’s disgraceful on that count, although good fun to watch), whereas popular discourse accepts Magic Mike XXL as a feminist’s dream.

But hold on. First off, this is a unicorn of a movie. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only wide-release film—at least amongst the non-pornographic kind—that exist for this kind of open female pleasure and complicit male objectification. Its singularity feels wrong, but it’s also expected. And yet: flip the genders, and the unicorn nature is still intact. Are there any sex-positive male-audience-oriented movies in which, despite heavy female objectification, the women maintain considerable agency?

The equivalent might be something like Coyote Ugly. But that one tallies more closely with the original Magic Mike, which was moodier and slower and filmed entirely (and annoyingly) in the Valencia filter. Coyote Ugly isn’t exactly sex-positive, though, despite the scantily clad dance routines. Of course, a movie about empowered female strippers who proudly claim they love being entertainers sounds ridiculous. Critics and (hopefully) audiences would disdain the positive angle. We would want grit and truth. We would dare a filmmaker to ignore the dangerous realities that plague adult entertainment, and we’d sign petitions to boycott his works for their damagingly unrealistic approach to a serious issue.

So should we be uncomfortable with the double standard we apply to Magic Mike XXL? Is male objectification inherently more palatable because it’s more rare? Or is male objectification just more palatable because the men never really seem all that negatively objectified?

That’s why, despite it’s pro-female-sexuality stance, despite the way it panders to women’s desires in a way that no other movie has ever done quite so explicitly (which is a good thing!), it’s still obvious that this was a movie constructed by men. (Add in the strict heteronormativity and elevation of machismo, and it becomes even clearer.) Straight men still have the power here—women, too, but the men are not subjugated by a gaze or a structure. They’re liberated by it, buoyant with it. This fact doesn’t make the movie any less enjoyable. It doesn’t make it any less of a celebration of the male figure (as art, as object, as athlete, as sex machine) and of the women who take pleasure in seeing and touching it. It simply begs the question: can we ever truly subvert machismo in sexuality—or is that a gender binary that will persist?

And, even more unsettling: can we even imagine a world in which (heterosexual) men do not revel in their own (heteronormative) physicality? And isn’t that pleasure-in-self—that supreme male confidence—a source of biological attraction for (heteronormative) women? In other words: is the ideal of sexual equality an oxymoron?


In 2015, we’re working hard to level the playing fields of class, race, and sexuality. We’re winning small victories consistently. People are calling out Magic Mike XXL as one of those small victories: the recognition that heterosexual women are an audience worth creating for, and their desires worth catering to. I celebrate this step forward unequivocally, just like I celebrate Charlize Theron’s turn in Mad Max: Fury Road; Alicia Vikander’s performance in Ex-Machina; the Marvel universe’s development of Ms. Marvel; Amy Schumer’s unapologetic Trainwreck. These things are fun to watch, and this is a fun time to be alive to watch it all unfold.

But leveling the playing field, for all its positive connotations, should not and cannot be the goal. Just like “leaning in” is important, but doesn’t ultimately change the game—it asks women to play nice with the boys. Just like female action stars are just men with breasts. The real heroes of Mad Max: Fury Road are the harem of sex slaves who retain their femininity in a masculine world. The real change happens when we shift structures, not just behaviors. And the structures of power that define fields of sexuality are especially fraught. Rightfully so, too. They are not things we level; they are things we shape, and re-shape, and mold to fit identities and specific relationships. Which is for the best: in sex, balance—true equality—is boring.

Magic Mike XXL succeeds as a Hollywood movie because it doesn’t subvert any power structure. It is not uncomfortable. It is not a threat to the current order. It is sugar—addictive, a kind of drug, and all the more delicious because women are having fun in it, too. But when we come off the high, let’s not forget that it feels so good because it’s not asking us to participate in a revolution. It’s not asking us to eat our greens. It’s smirking at us, with Channing Tatum’s irresistible charm, to enjoy the status quo. To let him guide and fulfill our sexual fantasies. To be his complicit object. To drink his sweet, sweet Kool-Aid.

So enjoy. Just don’t overindulge.


On the Law of Attraction

When I finished high school, my ballet teacher—and spiritual guide of sorts—gave me a graduation present: a deck of cards called the “Law of Attraction.” Each card, beautifully illustrated with abstract designs in bright colors, held a statement about positive visualization. The deck was one of the only sentimental items I brought with me across the country to college. Every Monday, I’d select a new card from the deck and pin it on my freshman-year bulletin board: a constant reminder to think boldly and optimistically. After all, a positive mantra never hurt anyone.


But over time the tradition faded. And so, too, did the Law of Attraction in my life. It was enough to muddle through college in fits and starts, succeeding and failing in equal measure, learning strengths and flaws along the way. Who needed the Law of Attraction when opportunities seemed to fall comfortably into our laps, gilded with potential? And after college, things can snowball faster than you expect; one day you’re sitting at home, fixing up your resume; the next you’re sweating in your nicest blazer as you prepare for the pivotal interview handshake; and suddenly you find yourself adding another line to that old resume, and this time it doesn’t read “intern.”

There’s a fun saying that goes “We accept the love we think we deserve.” It’s the Law of Attraction in action: we receive what we expect, what we visualize, what we aspire for. We’re treated the way we think we should be treated; we control the persona we project and the expectations that are imbued in it. This is, of course, a wildly utopian concept. Dreams do not turn into realities just by willing them that way. We’re jaded enough to know that where there’s a will, there really isn’t always a way. One glance at the news will show just how deeply the structural challenges to change are carved.

But it’s a guiding tenet nonetheless, so bear with me as I carry out this thought.

As an exercise, we can expand the saying a bit, unpack it, and flip it around. Perhaps: we accept the self-worth we think we deserve. Or: we deserve the self-projection that we accept. Or: the self we project is the one others will accept as true.

A few months ago, I read Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, an NYT bestseller about a group of self-proclaimed “talented” kids who grow up in the New York of the 1980s and fall short, to different levels, of their outsized, youthful dreams. It’s a book that hits home in a lot of ways—if you’re at all like me, you see yourself easily (and uncomfortably) in these so-called gifted children, brimming with ideals—but it also left me bitter because of the smallness of the dreams; of the limitations that each character places on him/herself. Maybe I just don’t want to accept adult reality and its finiteness, its endless smallness. The book riled me up. I wanted to slap the main character into some semblance of self-confidence, or just self-projection of confidence. As I finished it, I itched to distance myself from her story arc. There was no drama, no cathartic ending. There was only the slow fade.

At 23—well, 24 on Sunday—I am allergic to the slow fade on what feels like a fundamental level. I can only believe in the cosmic rise. Which brings me back to the Law of Attraction. It’s easy—scarily easy—to let one thing become another. To allow our fates and our work and our paths to plod ceaselessly in the direction that we start out with, because inertia is as real a force in the psychological world as it is in the physical one. That’s why we live in this modern phenomenon of “extended adolescence” that the talking heads drone on about; that’s why we fall into ruts.

The conscious choices to project a self and project a future are not easy, and they’re not comfortable. Setting stakes in the ground—“I will be this person; I will not be that person” or “I will accomplish x by x age; I will discard that other dream forever”—all of these seem so final, like closing a door when you don’t have the key. But that’s the point, isn’t it? In order to visualize what we want, the image has to be specific, which by necessity excludes other outcomes; the would-you-rather is real. Mountains or beach? The only rule is you can’t pick both.

So what does that mean for us? For me, it means I have to buckle down and actively, finally define the big bad “goal.” And it also means I have to put in place a series of incremental visions to support the attempt; baby steps. “Adulthood” is a thing that happens when you act the part each day, every day, shaping yourself into the person you’d like to become. It is not some far-off tropical destination you lust over, lazily adding photos to a Pinterest board, yet never booking the ticket. It is the daily mundane decisions: the things you buy, the people you spend time with, the stories you read, the self you create. It’s hard, and I’m terrible at it, but it’s worth a shot.

I’ve always believed in image as a proxy for reality. We perform our own truths. It’s the Law.

Let’s abide by it.