I’m Not a Cow

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I love Sundays. Time to reflect on the week ahead, the life ahead. I’ve been reading Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14” about one man’s journey from birth inside a North Korean labor camp to freedom and enlightenment in the outside world (I highly recommend this book!). The protagonist Shin describes his fellow prisoners as he planned his escape, and this line really stuck with me:

“They were like cows, he thought, with a cud-chewing passivity, resigned to their no-exit lives.”

Even in the free world, many of us remain complacent about lives that don’t do us justice. We function in a way that guarantees our short-term sustenance, like a cow filling its belly to sleep well for the night. And the longer we lead these comfortable lives, the harder it is to imagine starving temporarily to feast like kings. It takes persistence to endure the long haul. It takes sacrifice to see a world beyond what we know.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine—we haven’t experienced it yet.

Our inability to envision better days does not, and should not, undermine our will to work toward something greater. Even in its obscurity, it’s a chance to improve life as we know it. Early explorers didn’t think to themselves, “We shouldn’t embark on this voyage until we know exactly what the New World looks like.”

We’re in a great place to be chasing better days because there’s a 99.9% chance our journey won’t cause us to die from dysentery. Let’s count our blessings here.

Stepping back from lollipops and daisies dream-chasing, I get we have bills to pay. We have rent due. The big O they told us about in sex ed actually turned out to be Obligation to pay off student loans. We have foundational needs that make us chew the cud until our jaws ache.

These are aspects of life—not life itself. 

Another poignant part of the book: When Shin is on the brink of making a run for it, he has an “if not now, when?” moment. Then he takes off in a dead sprint.

When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be an inventor or scientist. In junior high, that changed to an interior designer, and in high school, a lawyer. I’m two years out of college, and likely my aspirations, both professional and personal, will change in the coming months. But wherever to my sights are set, my commitment is to hunt with an insatiable hunger. We’re in the age of execution. Less “I want to be…” and more “I’m working toward….”

Our enlightenment won’t be as drastic as that of a labor camp escapee from the reign of a wicked, brown-eyed Pillsbury Doughboy. We have the privilege of scooting along in our lackadaisical ways with no threat of punishment, and also no potential for reward. Windows half-open, stomachs conditioned to be full before dessert, this is comfortable living.

But feed cannot substitute internal fuel—our unquenchable human desire to achieve and create, to help others and stand for something, to be great and remembered.

The fence cannot replace the horizon.

We are not cows. We were not meant to merely survive, but to live and live famously.

 

It’s Okay Not To Be Passionate About Your Job

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I work in the fast-paced, high-demand world of biopharmaceutical recruiting. On a daily basis, I connect professionals to companies where they will discover and develop game-changing medicine and technology. These are the bright minds eradicating diseases that plague strangers to dearly loved ones, the thought leaders curing sicknesses that threaten even their own bodies—somehow, they got stuck talking to me.

On top of being immersed in a compelling industry that has a direct contribution to human welfare, I work for a company with a conscience. Our core values were chosen by popular vote in a company-wide, open forum discussion, which was pretty cool. The leadership is inspirational and I have the privilege of learning directly from my CEO on a weekly, if not daily basis. I’m appropriately recognized, and have been promoted twice within my first year, which is LinkedIn profile gold and every millennial’s professional wet dream.

My direct managers are brilliant mentors who have a personal investment in my success—and it doesn’t hurt they share my weird sense of humor. On a deeper level, I believe my coworkers are people who do the right thing. I actively look forward to seeing them everyday, at the many company-hosted social events and self-planned Sunday brunches.

Honestly, I have it good. I’ve been given second chances, accolades for my progress, and now high-level responsibilities I didn’t think I was prepared to handle. My projects are a source of pride and accomplishment, both as an individual and as a collective. I’m presently challenged and guided on a tangible path for advancement. My job is ultimately to help people lead better lives. Between the hours of 9am and 5pm, I find myself smiling a lot.

Would I say I am passionate about my job? Not at all.

Passion implies a deep and intrinsic enthusiasm for something, a manic obsession and inextricable part of who you are. You think about your passion every day. You dream of it awake. Even when life has taken you in a different direction, you are inclined to your passion like a moth to a flame, even when it doesn’t make any sense.

It is not a choice to have a passion—your passion chooses you. It can be impractical, inconvenient, and downright stupid to love what you love. But all the drawbacks are worth that high feeling, that warm hug of belonging that says, “This is what I was meant to do.”

My job is not my passion.

I don’t know when careers were deemed one size fits all solutions to cloak us with complete life satisfaction. It’s ambitious to expect a job to provide your bread and butter and authentic emotional fulfillment. As much as we would like, happiness is not covered in the standard healthcare plan. When I signed my offer letter, I committed my hard work, not my heart.

We don’t peruse the produce section for a decadent dessert, so why are we disappointed when our workplaces aren’t a bountiful source of paradise’s hottest commodity, Passion with a capital P?

I don’t mean to present passion and profession as mutually exclusive—many have succeeded in making their passions their careers. It’s possible, but not realistic for everyone. More commonly, I think people learn to find passion in their careers, which is an excellent use of synthetic happiness, a feeling you create when you don’t get what you want. Think of it as a cup of joe brewed with equal parts optimism and gratitude.

What I have for my job is not passion, but investment. I tanked my first few months at my company, earning myself what felt like a permanent position at rock bottom. I told my manager I would not leave until I figured it out. No matter how hard I was struggling, no matter how many hours I clocked, no matter how often I left the office after sunset and cried in my car, I would succeed.

Along with support from my colleagues, my investment and my stubborn rejection of failure have earned me a newly positive career outlook. In terms of actual enjoyment, I could love or hate my job—it would have no effect on my work ethic because my need for success outweighs my need for happiness.

Employers should prefer invested employees to passionate ones. My commitment to my company is immune to bad days and personal vendettas. Because what motivates a passionate employee when their enthusiasm wanes? This is the same reason arranged marriages have lower divorce rates than love-based marriages.

Feelings are ephemeral, and leave passionate employees dangerously susceptible to abandonment.

While there are aspects of my job that are rewarding, I’m much happier compartmentalizing my profession as separate from, even opposite of, my passion. Some days, it feels like an elaborate prank that my career relies on my oral communication skills—I’d laugh if the irony weren’t so cruel. Dramatics aside, it’s not a woeful or negative thing to work a passionless job. I perceive it as a neutral.

In the same way you don’t find love with every person you date, you won’t find passion in every job you work. I think the experience is worthwhile because, hopefully, you come out better on the other side. And even if it doesn’t reach the zenith of whatever it is you’re seeking, there are still happy days.

I don’t need passion in my job because I know it exists elsewhere. I know exactly where it lives: in my notebooks, in scribbles on receipts at the bottom of my purse, in drafts in my mind.

I’m not passionate about my job now, but this could change—the way natural love can grow from mere attachment. My current job may be shaping a future interest. It may be a necessary checkpoint or detour to a final destination where I find passion when I least expect it.

Until then, I am content with doing what I need to do. I work 40+ hours a week in a passionless job, and that’s perfectly okay.

On Parisian Tragedy

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On the night of the Paris attacks, I bought a $60 pair of New Balance sneakers and ate a whole tray of frozen lasagna because I didn’t know what else to do. I shouldn’t say “else.” The horrific events rocked every news station and social media outlet, yet even a tragedy of that magnitude didn’t really affect my Friday night. I sat in my pajamas and watched Breaking Bad until midnight, as I would have if Paris had glittered from the lights of The Eiffel Tower instead of ambulances.

It’s no doubt I was disgusted. When extreme acts of cruelty shatter the lives of countless strangers I’ll never have the chance to meet, it offends me. I’m also brought to terms with my own humanity and privileged sense of security. I live a good life and while I’ve felt sad and scared before, I’ve never known true fear and danger.

My upbringing has insulated me from any kind of prolonged distress, so in the wake of chaos I seek solidarity to make things “okay” again: inspirational stories and songs of the heart, a newsfeed filled with French flags, and anecdotes that highlight humanity prevailing. I want to have good intentions and be part of this movement. I want not to feel alone.

At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m just another well-wisher voicing genuine empathy that also happens to clear a moral conscience—as if there is an appropriate amount of sorrow to dole out for the featured natural disaster or man-made catastrophe of the week:

(Lives lost) / (Miles away from location) + (Personal connection to affected community) = Appropriate sadness level

Sad emoji. Angry emoji. Peace sign.

Maybe I grieve publicly to establish myself as an engaged citizen of planet Earth, subscribing to a little voice that says, “If you have a heart, it should ache right now and people should be aware of it.”

I don’t want to exaggerate my feelings. But I am uncomfortable—and not just from the layers of processed cheese and pasta I consumed last night out of boredom and confusion about whether the world is good or bad.

I’ve decided it’s not black and white, but a gradient of gray—contrasting enough to represent the superheroes, the villains, and the faceless civilians the cartoonist didn’t bother to detail. I am a two-dimensional bystander whose actions are independent of the plot, so removed that I couldn’t change the course of the story if I tried. I’m in the background of the scene where the superhero stops a train from speeding off doomed tracks. I’m in the panel where the villain makes a clean getaway, leaving behind a cityscape in flames. In both of these scenarios, I am doing nothing.

Sometimes, I wish I were religious so I could offer a prayer to those suffering. I want to contribute something greater than the isolated thoughts that bounce around my head and seldom materialize. Yesterday, I was desperate for someone—or something—to come forward and protect us from ourselves.

This feeling is what I call Gray Discomfort: the muted heartache and helplessness following a tragedy that doesn’t have an immediate impact on you despite its grave and far-reaching consequences. The feeling is distant and in the room. You don’t want to overstep, yet you’re dying to speak out. And you watch the disaster unfold behind a thick layer of glass that both protects you from harm and prevents you from healing. Paralyzed by isolation, you reach out with clean hands and a heavy heart, never being close enough to touch.

It’s like watching someone cry. I never know if it’s acceptable to ask if they are okay or pat them on the back. No matter the reason for their tears, I always feel extreme guilt. I’m ashamed to have the capacity for happiness when it’s painstakingly apparent they do not. I want to internalize their emotions and share my peace, but I don’t know the first thing about their problems let alone the solution. The standard condolence is “I’m here for you.” But am I, really?

I was a few hours into the 5th season of Breaking Bad when Netflix asked me if I was still watching. I let the words sit on the screen for a bit because I was distracted by my laptop: one tab for updates on the body count in Paris and a few tabs for online shopping.

The two options on the screen were “Continue watching” and “Exit.” When I think about the tragedy in Paris, I want to close my eyes and pretend the events of last night were an episode that never made it to air. That’s not how the storyline goes. Time to revisit the editing room.

Unfortunately, we can’t rewind the past. As a distant supporter of the Parisian community, I can’t offer a shoulder to cry on. However, I can offer my eyes and ears. Tragedy is not easy to face, but that is no excuse to turn a blind eye.

The news tests our faith in humanity and I understand those who believe the world is mostly cruel. But regardless of whether we see the glass as half empty or half full, we need to look at the glass.

When it comes to global crises, I feel helpless the majority of the time. But the very least I can do is stay informed, even if I don’t think I can make a difference now. Complacency is born from ignorance, which is why we cannot look away when things head for the worst—not now, not ever.

In our couch-sitting, lasagna-eating inactivity, we still have an obligation to be in touch with reality as terrible as it may be. There will be times we want to cover our eyes and look for an exit, but for the sake of understanding and progress, we must always continue watching.

 

But I’m a Guy

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“Come on,” he says, coaxing me into a kiss. “Tell me.”

His accent sounds like someone lodged a boiled egg in the back of his throat. He attended boarding school in England and has the fashion sense to prove it. Our fingers are laced in a web of knuckles, white and bulging. He guides my hands back and forth like he’s maneuvering a puppet.

I am straddling him—both of us fully clothed—on his white couch. And because we haven’t broken physical contact for a while, I feel emotionally closer to him than I really am. He must feel the same because now we are guessing each other’s numbers.

“10? 15? Higher or lower?” Without the hard R, the end of his sentence floats up in the air and surrounds us.

We are lounging on his sofa in a post-meal lull, polishing off the bottle of Pinot Grigio left over from dinner. Behind me, the sixth story window lets in a slice of the steely Back Bay skyline. His monthly rent costs more than my small intestine on the black market. His toilet water flushes blue and he has a doorbell that lights up. Comedy Central plays in the background and I hear a shrill female voice criticizing modern sex etiquette. This is dating in the real world, I suppose.

My blazer is draped over a boxy armchair and my nude heels sit by a shoe rack of leather, rubber, and canvas. It is only our second date but my belongings have settled into their surroundings, coloring themselves a shade less vibrant.

Before judging each other’s laundry list of sexual partners, we went grocery shopping at Whole Foods and discussed our family histories.  We debated what it meant to be a patriotic citizen. He doesn’t understand how I can accept a nation that doesn’t fully accept me as an Asian American. Those are his words, not mine. I tell him it’s my home.

We haven’t seen each other naked so the whole getting-to-know-you act still has weight. He’s an investment banker and sees everything as a function. He says the way people perceive actions are a function of whether or not they already like the person. Because I’m already at his place, I think him saying that is deep. He drinks his coffee black and eats his steak rare. This much I know. We run through recycled conversation like loops on a treadmill and keep our clothes on as a courtesy.

We are now in our cool down lap and I’m still on top of him. He nudges me in the waist. “Tell me.”

In flashes, I envision the meaningful sex, the rebounds, the calculated friends with benefits. Instead, I throw out an arbitrary two-digit number higher than my actual one.

He draws back, eyes wide. “Is it really?”

“No,” I confess, but he looks skeptical. “Would you like me less if it was?”

“No,” he says right away, “I’d just be surprised.” Somewhere in the world, a bull is fertilizing the earth.

We play hot or cold until we reveal our actual numbers. I’m a terrible liar. I lean over him, my dark hair curtaining our intimate conversation.

“So that means you’re twice the slut I am.” I smile. His eyes challenge mine and he squeezes my thigh. “But I’m a guy.”

It doesn’t make me mad, just mildly annoyed because what he says holds truth. We kiss anyway and he holds me like I’m already his.

As a woman, I am allotted a few free passes—long-term relationships and one or two rebounds—before I am labeled “easy.” Even if I feel the same hormones and urges as my male counterparts, it is my obligation to hold back because of the notion that my numbers are to be rationed and used judiciously. I should know better because my number reflects me as a person. A man’s number is just a number.

As I make out in a semi-stranger’s apartment, suburban mothers tell their teenage daughters to be smart about their bodies when they climb into Jeeps with older guys all named Ethan. I have a false sense of security about this one because that’s not his name.

He flips me over so he is on top and blows a raspberry into my belly button. His playfulness is only attractive because I know he’s brilliant. He traces the exposed skin where my shirt rides up. Physically it’s nice, but I know he suffers from the special snowflake syndrome of wanting the girl who usually doesn’t do this. I weigh his satisfaction against the shame that will be dealt by the next guy.

He pulls on my shirt collar and kisses my shoulder blade. It’s hard to reason when I’d rather be doing other things. There’s pressure between our bodies, but I can’t tell if I’m pulling him closer or pushing him away.

“I want to take things slow,” I say into his hair. I speak softly because part of me doesn’t want him to hear. He breathes a trail up my neck and I regret saying anything at all.

“I’m serious.” I laugh, but I am.

He brings his head to level with mine. “If that’s what you want,” he kisses me on cheek.  “I respect that.” I’m disappointed when he stops.

There hadn’t been true silence until now. It’s like that disorientation you feel when a television episode ends and you are back in real life. It’s uncomfortable, but you shuffle around and eventually figure out something to do.

“I’m meeting a friend for drinks later,” he says, though he never mentioned it earlier.

“Guy or girl?”

“Guy.” I still feel jealous.

“I should get ready,” he says. He pushes himself off the couch and walks to the middle of the room before turning around to face me. “Come shower with me.” He smiles and nods toward the bathroom. Relentless.

“Yeah,” I laugh. “I’m okay.” It feels like turning down the last slice of pizza, watching somebody else eat it, and feeling hungrier.

“You smell terrible actually, you should come shower.” He’s damn cute about it, but he looks at me like I should be grateful for the offer.

I walk over to him and we hug in a deescalated way.

“I should get going,” I say and we make our lips touch again in a way foreign to kissing. The front door is feet away from where he stands, but he doesn’t walk over with me. He stays right there. I slip on my heels and linger at the door, not sure what I’m waiting for.

“Well, have fun with your friend.”

“Thanks,” he says and I’m surprised I can hear it because we feel far apart. We mumble our goodbyes. I am seconds from leaving, but he is already on his way to the bathroom, all before the door shuts. I am entirely outside his apartment now and do an instant replay of his turned back in my head, though there was nothing special about it. I walk down the hallway of lit doorbells like a stewardess on an evening flight. I want somebody to instruct me to be seated because it’s nice to feel safe and thought of. The isolated space is quiet and compressed, so I feel relief when the elevator takes me away.

The doors part to reveal a warm and yellow lobby. A doorman shuffles from behind his desk toward the exit. With a gloved hand, he pushes open the glass door before me. I hate how diligently he performs this unnecessary job.

“Have a good evening, miss.” He sees me out the building and treats me like an absolute lady because as far as he knows, I am one.

The Equation for Grief

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I am not good at math. Math has made me cry on many occasions, but three particular instances come to mind.

  1. Waiting for office hours outside my algebra classroom in junior high, realizing it was the first step in my journey of “Letters and Numbers I Don’t Understand.” I’m too young to feel this conflicted.
  1. Walking back to my dorm in college after the final class of my last math gen ed, officially freeing myself from equations and theorems forever. Tears of joy ARE a real thing.
  1. Eating a breakfast sandwich in my apartment, a full year after the end of my formal education, and finding out my high school math teacher died.

It was a text message from a classmate who endured trigonometry and pre-calculus with me. “Miss Gross passed away.”

Even five years after high school graduation, my friends and I still refer to her as Miss Gross, never Dora. She had a motherly persona that would make a first name basis feel disrespectful. And calling her by last name alone—basketball coach style—was out of the question.

“That’s not very nice!” she would object with a smile.

In a way, she was the math mother of the town. She taught all of our older siblings and even some of our parents. She decorated her classroom like a whimsical cottage, with every kind of butterfly you could imagine—holographic butterflies, 3-D tissue butterflies, a butterfly trim for her marker board, and clipart butterflies on her presentation slides. Despite teaching what I consider the most merciless subject, Miss Gross created a forgiving environment.

After every test, she gave us the option of correcting our work to earn additional points. At the time, I was grateful for any chance of increasing my score. Looking back, I am grateful for a teacher who cared more about my learning than the grade distribution.

Everyone knew when Miss Gross arrived at school because the first parking spot was reserved for her—by mandate or by courtesy I don’t know, but no student or teacher ever parked there. She veered around our halls on a mobility scooter, so you always heard Miss Gross before you saw her.

She attended our school plays and bought overpriced candles and chocolates from a slick catalog to support the band. When our sports teams performed well in playoffs, Miss Gross attached a small Bulldog flag to the back of her scooter and stole the show at pep rallies.

The thing about educators passing away is it makes you think about the most important things they taught you. Sure, I learned a lot about proofs and functions, but teaching math was her job—teaching more was optional.

I remember one semester Miss Gross recorded one of my test scores incorrectly online, giving me an 87 instead of the red 78 written on the top of my paper. I struggled with math tests (and quizzes and assignments and everything math related) so the nine points would have been a great cushion for my overall grade. I knew she wouldn’t discover the discrepancy because the tests were ours to keep. She had a physical grade book where she documented our scores, but no way would she have the time to go back and double check. She had hundreds of assignments to grade on any given week!

As much as I wanted to enjoy this advantage, there’s a reason for the saying, “nice guys finish last.” I couldn’t accept the unearned inflation, especially knowing how much my classmates and I struggled for the points we did earn. Reluctantly, I told Miss Gross about her error before class one day. I sat through the rest of that lesson feeling relieved for being honest, but also feeling nine points further from the grade I wanted.

After Miss Gross projected our assigned problem sets on the board (with the accompanying butterfly clipart), she asked me to stay after class.

When the bell rang and the classroom cleared out, I walked to her desk. Fanciful trinkets and marked up papers littered her workspace. From a file cabinet by the window, she pulled out her green gradebook to show me the misrepresentative 87. It was wrong there, too.

“I never would have caught the mistake myself,” she said. “So I’m going to leave the grade as is.” She nodded, sure as a sunset.

Miss Gross, you are an absolute saint, I thought.

“That was a very honorable of you, Connie. That is rare and I hope that sticks with you in life in everything you do when you leave this classroom. Don’t ever lose that.”

That was my gold star. Even when I failed miserably at understanding the hodgepodge of numbers and symbols that is the language of logic, I had that. I felt lost and confused many times in Miss Gross’s classroom, but that day I felt very sure.

 

 ***

 

Miss Gross,

Did you know a newly emerged butterfly can’t fly? When it’s developing inside the chrysalis, its wings are all shriveled up against its body. That doesn’t make for a very good butterfly. Probably not a great mathematician either.

But when it breaks free, the butterfly pumps fluid to the veins in its wings and like visual fanfare, it expands. Its tiny transparent scales catch the sun and reflect light in a rainbow of colors, a gem in the sky. You wouldn’t think a puny caterpillar could turn into something so beautiful, but it happens. It happens everyday when the sun rises and even on dark, rainy days like today.

I want to say thank you, Miss Gross. For looking at the caterpillar and seeing the butterfly.

You will be missed,

Connie

 

Intellectual Fuck

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I had my first kiss when I was 16. My first thought was “wow, I’m kissing” and my second was “I’m surprised I’m not grossed out by his tongue touching mine/is this what human tastes like?”

There’s a tension that builds up to every first kiss. And while it makes your chest swell and your ears hot, it goes away the moment your lips touch. Your bodies are familiar now. Sure it will continue to feel good, but never again will you experience that same sense of wonder and longing. No matter how much I like a guy, I am always disappointed when the first kiss is over. I’ve planted my flag in the territory. Level unlocked. Come claim your prize. It’s fair to think some people only want to win the lottery because they haven’t won it yet.

I’m a chaser when it comes to the love stuff. I find satisfaction in never being satisfied. When I find out someone likes me back, it makes me like them a little less. My backward thinking has royally screwed me in many cases, but I am thankful it makes me bored of superficial relationships.

If you ask me, a guy can only look so good naked. Big biceps, defined abs, yada yada. When your fingers have grazed all the tanned and toned parts of his anatomy, the most unattainable thing remains between your hands when you cup his face. Because you can access every square inch of a hot guy’s body—you only ever nick the surface of a beautiful man’s mind.

***

My first intellectual crush was in high school. His name was Cody* and he had bleach blonde hair that swept over his eyebrows. We attended different schools two hours apart and met at a debate tournament. He had a solemn and mysterious presence, like his soul had aged a decade faster than his body. We spoke outside the confines of a classroom but I still looked forward to every competition we attended, especially ones where teams were power-matched—the better you performed, the tougher the opponent you faced. Cody was a great public speaker and I usually did well enough to see him in final rounds.

During his speeches, I mindlessly flipped through evidence against the rise of the Russian economy, distracted by his eloquence and effortless way of incorporating the word “ramification” into any rebuttal—it was an ongoing inside joke and the closest to foreplay we would ever see. He was easy on the eyes and heaven on the ears. He spoke with a calm discipline that could convince me that the sky was falling. And even if it was, I would die happy listening to him orate with that precious mouth of his.

I took notes on his arguments while fantasizing about a cross examination that went something like this:

Me: “On a scale of 1 to notorious prime ministers, how badly do you want me right now?”

Him: “Vladimir Putin.”

Cody would then push a pile of loose-leaf evidence and yellow legal pads off his desk and we would fraternize like our body heat was Russia’s leading export. The judge would clap politely and hold up a perfect 10 scorecard.

You could say I have a weakness for boys in suits who can talk pretty.

Living two hours away from each other, Cody and I only saw each other at tournaments and relied on technology to keep in touch. On many nights, I sat in bed with my phone on the nightstand, anticipating the buzz of his text. It was new territory for me to have meaningful conversation with a person I was romantically interested in. Because when you played MASH, when did you ever pick the smart guys? Beyond his conversational skills, I loved how I could never predict or place him. He didn’t like me, he preferred me. And his reserved interest only made me want him more.

I fell hard for Cody, so like any short-sighted and hormonally-driven teenager, I offered to send him some friendly pictures. Keep in mind Snapchat was not a thing when I was in high school, so sexting then was even dumber than it is now. But risk does little to deter the reckless.

Cody and I had never so much as held hands, so this was a pretty juicy offer. But just as I thought we would cement our long distance romance with some legally questionable visuals, Cody told me: “No, thank you.”

No, thank you. Like I had asked if he wanted a second helping of mashed potatoes.

Before I could mend my self-esteem or come to terms with a teenage boy rejecting personalized porn, Cody dropped a life-changing bomb that affects the way I date today.

He told me, “You don’t have to do this for me to find you attractive.”

In that instant, he unwound the exclusive ties between physical and sexual interest I believed to motivate all romantic relationships. Intellect was no longer a quality reserved for friendships—it was finally a contender in the playing field of love. It took me 16 years and a brooding blonde enigma for me to realize my most attractive attributes were not seen, but heard.

I deeply admired his quick wit and, in my infatuation, didn’t realize he valued similar qualities in me. He didn’t just call me beautiful—he praised my complexity and thoughtfully entertained my musings. He believed I was bright, and not in the way people tack on adjectives like “smart and funny” to describe people they find attractive to feel less superficial. Cody got to know me with no ulterior motives.

***

Sometimes when I meet a cute guy now, I deliberately say dull and unoriginal things to see if he sticks around. If he does, I know he’s interested for the wrong reasons. And if he doesn’t? Then I’ve discovered innocence by burning the witch, but I never claimed to be good at dating. I know the conversation I’m capable of, and I’ll be damned if I settle for someone who sees my brain as an accessory to my appearance. I am not a pretty face who happens to be smart. I’m a smart person someone may happen to find attractive.

I have Cody to thank for my intellectual dating standards. It prepped me for dating at my alma mater, which often gets a bad rap for having good odds (~60% male population) and odd goods (nerds galore). But with depth as a weeding factor, I met plenty of great catches. I remember in my first month of college, I invited a guy to my dorm to “do homework.” To my disappointment and pleasant surprise, we ended up talking about my philosophy readings.

Now that I’m out of college, I can’t use homework as a segue into impromptu analyses of Plato’s work so I look for other indicators of intrigue. For example, it is such a turn-on when a guy has a good education. And a guy who loves to read? Absolute panty dropper.

I won’t lie and say physical chemistry is unimportant. Good looks may open the door, but I want fire and passion inside and out. When it all boils down, external attraction alone is fleeting and the chase is short-lived. You take off all your clothes and there you are. But to fully undress someone’s mind—that can take a lifetime.

A few years removed from our glory days in high school debate, Cody told me he loved the idea of me. He’s a realist and I love how he didn’t romanticize our powerful but limited connection, even if I did.

I like to believe our intellectual chemistry was mutually enlightening. I think fondly of the way Cody made me feel. It has certainly raised the bar for those to come. My physical desirability was validated by a smooch at 16, but that was the lesser of milestones to celebrate. Not everyone is so lucky to be reassured in deeper ways, especially at such a vulnerable age.

We swap first kiss stories like trading cards, but rarely do we ask about the Codys. The ones who wake you up when you didn’t know you were sleeping. The ones who instill a sense of worth in you that lasts long beyond your teen years. Mine was a unicorn of a boy who holds a dear place in the timeline of People Who Have Changed Me.

I am single, for the time being. Many friends have told me my standards are just “too high.” Unrealistic, even. But I’ve met plenty of people with qualities I like—it’s just a matter of finding it all in one person. I have no idea how long it will be before I’m in a relationship again, but I do know this: Tall, dark, and handsome is not enough.  So long as I have my sanity, I will continue to chase after the one that keeps me running. And when that day comes, you can bet that he will be an ace in the bedroom and an even better intellectual fuck.

 

 

*Names have been changed to prevent Facebook stalking and an inbox of love letters/nudes.

On Failed New Year’s Resolutions

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We gathered like chickens and craned our necks to catch an ounce of the flashy ball’s light. December left us all quite dark. We told ourselves this was the year things would finally change, as we clucked around for a drunk midnight kiss to forget the love we lost along the way. The kiss was sour, but our tongues were already accustomed to the taste.

The new year celebrates a slate wiped clean, so we always hit the ground running. We floor it because we need only enough gas to last until June. June understands that we grow tired — it understands we are only human. Our resolutions to be skinnier, smarter, healthier, and happier are all but realistic. As the gym goers dwindle and the 9-to-5s repopulate the road, we stare at our calendars wondering where the first three weeks went. We revisit a complacency that looks and feels an awful lot like last year. The bathroom light casts the same glow on our reflections that show how much work we have left to do. February waits and laughs.

We are identical on the magical side of eve, yet we estrange our current lives from our past ones — the versions of us who couldn’t get it together by December’s end. It’s easier to resent someone when you are safely detached, so we abandon our past selves at the stroke of midnight. We tell those failures to walk the plank that is “the past.” With no guilt, we look forward and say, “this is the new year, this is the new me,” as if our greedy past selves had robbed us of precious time.

We sit high and mighty until another 365 days pass and we realize we need to recycle our promises once more. Why are we so persistent with new year’s resolutions when our history shows we don’t follow through? Why do we put ourselves through this torture?

We are bent, crushed, beaten, and demolished, yet we pick ourselves up again only to have a higher distance from which to fall. Is it because we are addicted to the idea of playing the victim? Or are we so doe-eyed that we lose all rationality? From the outside, it appears so. But in reality, before every climb to a probable plummet, something wonderful happens in our minds: We believe that, this time, we will fly.

Because no matter how many times we come in second or third or don’t place at all, we have a vision that we will rise to the top. In our attempts to prove someone wrong, we believe we own the strength to push ourselves beyond the limitations placed upon us.

We know the journey is hard. It seems impossible at times. It may actually be impossible at times. But we’re all hapless fools for dreams, so we convince ourselves that we stand a chance. And while it’s cruel and discouraging to enter a battle against the odds, it’s also beautiful because it’s what makes us human.

We are broken, inadequate, and imperfect, but above all else, we are resilient. And as long as there is a new year, we will be counting down like we don’t know heartbreak, like we don’t know failure. The fireworks will cut up the sky and — in honor of new beginnings — we will pay more attention to the sparks than the smoke left behind.

(Originally published at Hercampus.com)

On Spending Thanksgiving Alone

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There’s a timeline that dictates the average, well-adjusted person’s life—earn a diploma by this year, meet your significant other by this birthday, have children by this age. While society has become more flexible with these larger milestones, there’s been little reform for socially acceptable activities on certain days of the year, namely Thanksgiving. We are to spend this holiday feasting on home-cooked family dinners or testing our own culinary skills at a Friendsgiving. It is sad if you do not participate in these pumpkin-filled festivities.

It is Thanksgiving and I am eating alone at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ. Families and couples squish together in the booths like they are posing for this year’s Christmas card. They have itineraries and places to be: Mom’s for dinner, Aunt’s for a second dinner, and Grandpa’s for dessert. My agenda is a plate of mashed potatoes and an endless supply of charred meat on a stick. All day.

It is not a big deal for me to be alone on Thanksgiving because my friends and family exist. I am alone in this restaurant on this day, but not in life. It is odd how our concern for others’ loneliness is exclusive to national holidays, even more odd that we believe the physical presence of someone else, anyone, is a surefire cure to that loneliness.

I am sitting by myself, but I do not feel alone. I have this weird thing I do where I think of myself as a separate person. It has made me very appreciative of all I do, even if it is not much. I cook for myself, I clean up after myself, I discipline myself at work and in the gym, and I treat myself to chocolate chip cookies and Grey’s Anatomy marathons. A mental coach and emotional cheerleader, I’m like my own perfect girlfriend who wants sex at all the right times.

I don’t mean to sound vain or diminish the support of my friends and family. I owe a great many things to the people in my life. Without them, I would be a new definition of gloomy. But while others like my parents or scholarship funds have generously provided for me, no other person has lived my life. No other person has lived yours.

I’ve stayed in bed with myself on my sickest days, poured myself coffee to endure countless all-nighters, wiped my own tears after heartbreak, and accompanied myself on a reckless and liberating semester-long adventure in Europe.

I am the only one who has experienced all my triumphs and failures, carried my guilt and regret, heard my raw and unfiltered thoughts, and loved me in spite of it all. The dreams I forget the moment I wake up, the ambitions I’m too embarrassed to admit, the times I give up inside and smile anyway—only I know. I have many flaws, but I am glad I understand.

Friends think I’m weird when I laugh to myself with no stimulus—no phone lighting up in my palm and no headphones over my ears. But I’m just responding to Connie’s thoughts. She’s not the funniest person I know, but we share the same sense of humor. And she’s only half the comedian she is the mentor. She struggles, but she does her best. When she reaches the limits of her guidance, she encourages me to write and work through my own problems (because sometimes, neither of us knows what the hell is going on with my life). Most importantly, she reminds me that there are dozens who love me, but there is no love that can replace my own self-esteem.

We dedicate this day to gratitude, and while it is imperative to thank those around us, it’s not wrong to thank and love ourselves.

I am spending my first Thanksgiving alone and I am immensely grateful for the company.

Sit with Me

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“I think you’re cute,” I said. We were lying on the grass, gazing up at a black and yellow sky. It was his suggestion—the lying down, not the stargazing. He wanted me to sober up and I wanted to make a moment out of nothing.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” he said. A cop-out answer. An automated response. Command not recognized. They say the worst thing that can happen when you put yourself out there is rejection, but that’s untrue. A rejection is an answer. People can move on after answers.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I said, and he listened to me. Not a chirp out of him. And so we waited there, shadows in the grass, absent and heavy. We talked about things he did know what to say to and I brought up other people to take the edge off the conversation.

It is an ugly limbo, uncertainty. You think you know someone, what they want and what they are about, but then they give you these looks that make you question who they are. Those are the times you really know a person.

I was hyperaware of the distance between him and me. Lying next to someone does that to you. It’s that much harder to gauge how close they are without turning your head, and you don’t want to do that because then you could be looking right at them, very close to you.

I needed yes or no. I needed him to tell me he only liked me as a friend or that he treated all girls this way. I needed him to tell me I was out of line because he had a girlfriend he loved. Tell me I was too early, too late, or just right because he felt the same way. Tell me I was delusional to think something could happen between us. Tell me I was crazy to think something could not.

We talked back and forth, never again mentioning how I felt about him or how he felt about me. He was the kind who wanted to sit a moment with me, an eternity with someone else.

I sat up and the scenery shifted back to a practical landscape. Plenty of people could make fools of the night—it didn’t have to be me.

“Let’s go,” I said.

I counted the sidewalk cracks as we moved together toward separate homes. In 300 feet, he would turn left and I would stay on the cement tracks all the way to Margaret Morrison Street. It’s where the buses loaded and dropped off kids. The drivers always honked because the kids crossed right when the light turned green. But can you blame them really? It was red when they looked.

200 feet. We passed two girls who eyed us like they knew what we were going to do. People talk, so in a way, I lived my fantasy in someone else’s assumption.

50 feet. I don’t often use words like yearn or hope or wish, but the sidewalk should have been longer. Construction crews are a merciless breed.

We reached the corner. Wind blew. Feet shuffled. Now I didn’t know what to say. The traffic light beside us glowed green, but no cars were there to go forward.

You know when you lean in to hear someone better, but it’s only a gesture and doesn’t really help? It was like that, except we leaned away from each other in a social segue way to an unspoken goodbye. We were peeling our bodies away from the situation. But while our bodies wanted one thing, he gave me that look again. The one that had the answer I wanted—he just had to say it.

But like Newton’s cradle, we swung back in with a force beyond our control and hugged instead. I say “we” because it wasn’t him that hugged me or me that hugged him. I don’t know that either of us wanted it—the kind of want you have in hunger and in love—but it was necessary to deliver and receive, something like a fax. It should have been intimate, me in his arms, his hold warm against the white bath of streetlights. But it wasn’t. His hug was not an embrace but a consolation.

I did not smell him. I did not close my eyes. There was nothing emotional about touching him this time. Maybe we don’t hug to feel closer to someone. Maybe we hug so we can feel ourselves let go.

Sometimes it’s too hard to give an answer, so the other end just has to wait. The most painful part of waiting is the moment you realize you had your answer the whole time. In his silent hug, there was, “I’m sorry I can’t give you what you want.” In moonlit footsteps, down Margaret Morrison and up the stairs to my room, there was, “I’m sorry I want.”

Falling Out of Love

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I overheard an acquaintance mourning the end of her long-term relationship. She thought things were going well. They even used the L word.

“I just want an explanation,” she told me.

To what? His disinterest in working things out? You know what kind of people don’t try to work things out? People who don’t want things to work out.  Blindside breakups are not complicated to figure out, just uncomfortable — someone who once thought the world of you no longer feels the same. It’s a hard truth to swallow, but Behrendt and Tuccillo said it best: “He’s just not that into you.”

It sounds harsh but love ends the way it begins — gradually, without rhyme or reason. In the same way it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we fall in love, it is painful to recall when exactly we checked out. While the two are similar, it’s funny how we don’t demand a reason for the former.

That said, he simply stopped loving her. He doesn’t owe her an explanation because there is no explanation. That’s like asking why you like certain colors over others. You just do.

If that’s an unsatisfying answer, then falling out of love can be compared to growing tired of new clothes. You have your eye on a classic merino wool cardigan for ages, so it’s all the sweeter when you can finally call it yours. In the beginning, you wear it all the time. It becomes a staple — a piece that is so “you” it begins to define you. You live in that cardigan until it pills and runs and you learn to love it with all its beautiful flaws. You learn its smell. Your tastes have changed since when you first bought it, but you quite like the worn-in look. It flatters you.

But as February closes and seasons change, your sense of style is no longer compatible with that thick, winter cardigan. It feels clingy on your spring-ready skin. You’re not sure those buttons always looked that way. These are “reasons,” but only because they justify a feeling you can’t otherwise explain: you just don’t like the cardigan anymore. It has no place in your current life. You wear it because you own it, not because you want to. And knowing now that you are fine without it, you hate to think you never really needed the cardigan in the first place — maybe you were just cold.

Rom-com’s religious following says, “Wait—don’t give up when the honeymoon phase is over!” But it doesn’t matter what phase it is because you can’t make someone stay in love with you. You can’t make someone think you are worth it. Most of all, you can’t question faltering affection because the answer would sneer crueler than the reality that love doesn’t always last.

“It doesn’t make sense,” my heartbroken acquaintance said, as if the matters of love were suppose to divide nicely like a math equation.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That is so strange.”