Documentary Now!

I visited a friend in her new townhouse in Herndon this week. We befriended one another in an 8th grade science class, bonded over a shared love for garlic and music, and have kept in touch since then, loyal and sporadic.

The townhouse is one of many in a curving sheet that reminded me of a set of impenetrably perfect veneers you might obtain from a plastic surgeon. In V, Thomas Pynchon writes in gruesome detail about the intricacies of a nose job, and I imagine veneers are the same kind of thing. You’d have to shave down the original teeth into scary, jagged posts for the veneers to fix onto. Vampiric fangs covered over by placid perfection, developers’ lust for gobbling new land. The townhouses, uniform and gleaming, shared that disquieting lack of history and imperfection.

The rhythms of our lives have changed significantly since we talked about pores and braces and first dates. I met up with my friend after she got off work, at around 6:00 PM, and by 10:00 I was on the way home while she and her two roommates prepared packed lunches to take to work the next day. We sat at her kitchen table and talked about how bizarre all the change has felt, the way we sometimes wake up feeling like uncertain children and other days wake up with no patience for anything that stands in the way of powering through the day’s work.

Luckily, the timing put me on an empty, highspeed stretch of the toll road in time to catch Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson talk about a collaboration with The National, in which the band played “Sorrow” for six hours straight, on NPR. I heard The National perform the song in Richmond a few years ago, and many many times while falling asleep on overnight buses and trains during the winter I backpacked in eastern Europe. With all of the traffic constantly choking northern Virginia, accelerating to 75 on an clear road is a rare pleasure.

Similarly, it had been a while since I read a quick, satisfying page turner. I burned through Where’d You Go, Bernadette? this week and thought it was lovely and surprising. The story is a series of emails, letters, notes, magazine articles, transcripts of TED talks, and occasional bursts of narration that create a frame for the story. It was unpredictable and wild, but somehow it managed to feel plausible the way Bringing Up Baby or Big Trouble do–you sense that life is generally too mundane to ever produce a series of such fantastic events, but while lost in the story you get excited thinking for a moment that it might be possible. I’ve also rarely read a book that embraces so many timely references to popular culture and technology–it probably won’t age well, but reading it today, it felt uncommonly present.

This week also brought a lovely gift that I’ve been anticipating all summer–Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s IFC collaboration, Documentary Now! The Atlantic‘s review sums up the season and it sounds super promising, with the added bonus of putting all the things I learned in the Documentary Film class I took in college to good use.

I also wrote something new for XO Jane, and I’m afraid of the comment section, so if you happen to take a look, please feel free to relay any non-trolly things people may have said. Over 400 readers have shared it, which is frankly terrifying, but it felt good to push myself to think about ghosting from a contrarian perspective. I’ve got new work coming out in early September through an outlet I’m really excited about and a handful of pitches floating around still, and I’ll post them all here when the time comes.

Maybe it’s a product of largely working from home, but I’ve been getting rid of things like crazy this summer. T-shirts, uncomfortable pajamas, jewelry I’ve pushed out of the way to find the jewelry I actually wear, books I didn’t like (see ya, Anthem), sheets from the extra long twin bed in my first college dorm room–I’m itchy to see it go.

And the getting-rid-of-things spree has been reciprocated in other areas of my life. This week has featured a soundtrack of songs that have punched me in my post-breakup heart. My favorite Rilo Kiley album, this and this and especially this by Grandaddy, and also a lot of Sondre Lerche and The Strokes which never fail to cheer me up. Change is sometimes rough, but at least there’s good music out there, ya know?

Obituary for my boots

Old boots, new boots.

Trusty old boots; new boots yet unlaced.

When I was eighteen, I bought a pair of boots. They had seams and laces and soles that clicked loudly across my high school’s faded linoleum floors.

They were edgier than any shoes I had owned. I let them sit in their white box for a few days, wrapped loosely in tissue paper, before I worked up the nerve to wear them. But soon, pulling on those boots became part of my routine. The stiff leather creased and sagged until it was pliable and soft, folded around my toes and ankles and fraying into a fine hairy fringe near the zipper.

I was sitting under a tree on a warm spring day, talking to my then-boyfriend on the phone, when I noticed the first signs of deterioration: a long, deep fissure between the heel and the sole where the bottom had worn thin. By then, I’d been wearing those boots for two years and in all kinds of weather, from trekking across Grounds in rain, sun, snow, fall leaves, grass, and gravel to stepping in sticky spilled drinks at parties.

The second blow came during the following winter. I had worn those comfortable boots to awkward first dates, UVa’s annual the Lighting of the Lawn, noisy family gatherings, the library. In my wardrobe of plain dresses, band t-shirts, and denim, those boots made my look just a little bit more interesting. But as I sat through a chapter meeting one winter afternoon, I felt something shift and realized that the sole had finally cracked right in half, across the broadest part of my foot just before my arch.

For my twentieth birthday, I begged my parents to have the boots resoled. “I don’t need anything else,” I told them, desperate to regain access to my full wardrobe. My clothes somehow needed those boots; without them, I felt plain and awkward, as if I could somehow slide back to the days when my only shoes were clunky tennis shoes worn with ill-fitting jeans. After a week, I went into the cobbler’s to check on their progress. Like a parent driving through an elementary school’s car-rider loop, I protectively spotted what I had come for. My boots sat sagging on the floor beneath shelves of sewing supplies.

I walked on new soles through a freezing week of Greek activities that January, zipping them up over thick wool socks. Crunchy snow and sheets of ice couldn’t steal my balance. The now-scuffed leather took spring puddles and mud with indifference; it had endured worse before. In a crowded concert hall, I stomped percussion to Jeff Mangum’s acoustic set. He broke a guitar string; I broke the heels a little more.

Summer heat forced me to shelve my boots for a few months, but they were the first item I tucked into my suitcase when I began packing for St. Andrews. I carefully wedged them into a corner of my suitcase where I hoped they wouldn’t be too crushed.

And then, in the stuffy London hotel room where I spent two nights sleeping on the floor, I saw the first sign of unfixable damage: just above the heel of the left boot, the thinnest imaginable slit had secretly started spreading as the leather finally started to pull apart.

My parents visited this past weekend, and along with a bag of candy corn, a Reeses pumpkin, and two packages of dried black beans (they clearly read my blog), they brought a new pair of boots, identical to the old ones. Or at least, I thought they would be identical. Same design, same designer, but three years younger and fresh from the factory. They lack the scars of rain storms and stepped-on toes. They’re stiff and expressionless where they sit under my desk, laces yet to be tied. My old boots slump comfortably together next to my bed, longtime companions worn down by time and traveling.

My old boots are survived by one pair of gray Chuck Taylors, one pair of black wedges, an assortment of sandals, and two pairs of slippers. The new boots have yet-unimaginable miles ahead of them.

What can we publish?

Over the weekend, I experienced an unexpected loss. In between then and now, I’ve wondered what I can say about it on this blog. It feels wrong to publish another ordinary, upbeat post without acknowledging the fact that a big part of my life has suddenly changed. But because I’m not the only one affected by this change, it would be inappropriate to expose any specific details.

We’re all aware of our online presence at all times. To the people who haven’t seen me in years (most of my Facebook friends) and the people who have never met me (most of my WordPress followers), my online presence IS my identity. To the people who know me most intimately, my online presence is only one persona. To me, it’s right that my in-person and my online personas should be separate. The real-world me needs to have something that online me can’t.

But blogging – and writing in general – blurs that line significantly. A writer I spoke to this summer told me that the best writers are the ones who expose themselves. “Keep a journal,” he advised me. “The more you share with readers, the more interested they’ll be.” I don’t want to expose my own pettiness or embarrassing moments any more than you do, but the difference between us is that you’ll be more fascinated by me if you feel like you know something that should be secret.

David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, tackles this subject in many of his essays, most of which are memoirs focused on his family members. In Sedaris’ essay “Repeat After Me,” he says of his sister Lisa:

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing that I’ll only turn around and write about it.

In another essay, “Etiquette Lesson,” Sedaris describes his sister Tiffany’s habit of pretending to open a jar to disguise the fact that she is on the toilet while talking on the phone. (If you don’t catch my meaning, just listen to the essay.) It doesn’t get much worse than that, right?

It’s not like Sedaris’ siblings particularly want this attention, but over the years, they’ve accepted it. If I manage to make a career out of writing, I imagine that people will view me with the same expectation that Sedaris’ siblings carry. Writers harvest stories from life that happens around them; it’s a fact.

But what happens when your own story becomes intertwined with someone else’s? Whose story is it then? And when and where can you tell it? Or maybe you should only tell parts of it – the unobjectionable parts, the parts that are general knowledge.

In an essay that I’ve referenced before, Andrew Bird tackles this problem:

I’m getting the urge to write about something that’s happening right now that’s too personal and painful to discuss in this forum. But then why is it O.K. to put it in a song? Why is the song safe? Is it safe? And I realize that I might be staying away from this subject because of this essay and that makes me want to scrap it. But here it is as it’s beginning to exist. There’s no telling how it will turn out.

What happened last week falls into this category. It’s a story that can’t be told here or now, but it’s one that’s going to continue to shape me, and that will come through in the way I think and write and live. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Bird distinguishes between forms of expression. There’s something about a song’s use of poetic lyrics and evocative instrumental moments that leaves room and admits to not knowing everything. It’s harder to be ambiguous in an essay without losing the reader completely. An essay craves concrete definition, something I can’t give while I come to terms with this event.

I’m working on a research grant application for a project that I hope to pursue next summer. The subject is sensitive and focused on fractured familial relationships between real people, so I’ve been preparing by reviewing the ethical standards that my university uses to gauge the appropriateness of using  human subjects in research. Meanwhile, St. Andrews’ matriculation paperwork defined freedom of speech as a right that “is not absolute.” Factors such as national security and public safety limit free speech: “The interplay between such competing rights creates boundaries and limitations on what can be said and the manner of expression.”

Similarly, sometimes there are stories that can hurt, hinder, expose. We all know some piece of information that, if revealed in the right moment to the wrong people, could injure someone infinitely. Shaping a narrative gives the writer power to include and omit at will. Not everything needs to be put down in black words on white paper; some stories keep living and breathing and changing and growing outside of any page. They can’t be contained. Some stories are meant to be told in whispers or novels or poems or songs or phone calls. Not everything should be a nonfiction essay.

Before this past weekend, I felt that what I had been writing here was somewhat valuable – as a collection of observations or a reflection on my growing awareness of the world or just as practice at writing and being read. It wasn’t until I considered the possibility of writing about something that was actually vitally important to me that I realized how simple and benign my subjects have been. Bigger, more difficult stories loom in my future. But for today, this forum remains wrong for the plot twist I’m unexpectedly living. For now, this is the story about why I’m not telling the story of what I just lost.

The coldest feet


For the past few years, I’ve had one toe that goes numb every winter. It’s the one next to my pinky toe on my right foot – the little piggy that had none, as the English rhyme goes. It’s true that my toe seems to have none – circulation, that is.

Two days ago, I sat on a metal table, dressed in a tent-like cotton gown as I waited for my doctor to complete my pre-Scotland physical. I wiggled my toes, trying to remember which was the numb one so that I could mention it, what shots I needed to ask about, how quickly Costco could fill a prescription, running through the list of questions I had to ask at the bank later that day, on and on, a rambling to do list where every item felt vital and time was running short. A dash of anxiety, a splash of excitement, stirring thoughts that jumble forgetfulness and memory. It’s a recipe I’m familiar with.

But for maybe the first time in my life of Type A high achieving, a strange thought occurred to me.

What if I didn’t go?

Barely suppressed in a corner of my mind, angry thoughts shouted back. Tuition had been paid, plane ticket bought, people were depending on me! But for a fleeting second, I saw myself spending the rest of the week at home, alternately watching Fringe in bed while my dog slept on my feet and diving into the river with Billy, before making the two hour drive to Charlottesville and moving into my sorority house for another normal, routine semester at UVa.

Cold feet aren’t always the result of poor circulation.

What is interesting about this to me is that I don’t remember anything in my disembarkation meetings at UVa last spring so much as mentioned cold feet in the days before a trip. We had to complete a long online lesson about the possible emotional impact of adjusting to a new place and our later reintroduction back into UVa – lessons that seemed rather self-explanatory to me – but nowhere did anyone look me in the eye and, anticipating the moment when I would freeze up and want to turn back, tell me that this moment is to be expected.

Maybe feeling the chill of cold feet is just too obvious to mention, but it’s a curious phenomenon. Why would anyone freeze before a thrilling, wonderful event that has been carefully planned for months, years even? We’ve all seen movie scenes about this – Up in the Air, a favorite of mine, comes to mind:

At risk of making a huge generalization, I think we know what tends to trigger cold feet: dwelling on a big commitment that will directly lead to countless changes in daily life. It’s definitely not a generalization to say that change is really difficult and scary, from the simplest things like switching brands of floss (if you’ve ever used CVS-brand floss, you know what a difference this makes) to much bigger things like a move, a marriage, a new job or the loss of an old one. 

What I’ve come to appreciate the most is that life rarely offers a clear roadmap. I’m a planner who likes to have a clear schedule in mind; anything that deviated used to derail me. But these days, I’m learning how to be more flexible and less stressed. Other than my passport, there’s going to be nothing in my luggage that I can’t easily replace. Keeping this in mind is liberating. Maybe these realizations are trite and obvious, but it’s one thing to know them and another to live them. I know that now.

The adventure really begins tonight when I pick Janet up from the train station, but I wanted to slip a post in before things get too hectic. I’ll be offline for the next week and a half, but as soon as I’m set up with wifi and a few free hours, I’ll be back with stories to tell. By then, I will have accumulated dozens of scribbled pages in my journal and lots of photos from the Highlands, new experiences and perspectives. Cold feet or not, things are about to change.