Con Pointers

trains

I’m on a train from Boston to New York after spending the weekend at Readercon, a sci-fi and fantasy literature convention. On this leg, I’m spread out at one of the cafe car’s diner booth tables and I’ve decided this is actually more romantic than the side-by-side seats.

Cons are weird. They are little suspended worlds of textured beige wallpaper and malnutrition where time works differently. Even if you travel across the country to go to one, you end up spending so much time in hotel lobbies and ballrooms, cut off from sunlight, free from rules about when it’s appropriate to drink. This was entirely book-centric and even the small dealer’s room was strictly selling the written word. It tempered the bizarre con effect, but not entirely. I’ve been to Anime Expo and SDCC and D*Con – those are truly flash cities. Unsurprising trivia: I’m a person who is uselessly upset that I wasn’t alive for a World’s Fair.

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Not Pictured

Fire Escape

Yesterday was, as swarms of optimistically half-dressed people trying to find space at porch and rooftop bars can confirm, like real spring. It was a similar day two years ago that I moved into a 4th-floor walk up in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 2-bedroom with exposed brick and blessed with in-unit laundry was above a nail salon, down the block from a 24-hour diner, and across the street from the bus stop I would take every day to Manhattan. Some days I didn’t like it; didn’t like the fellow commuters in their 20s who seemed both younger and more put together, didn’t like the yuppie families who never moved their strollers out of the way on the sidewalk. Sometimes I just resented not living in the city, worried my co-workers were thinking less of me as the only non New York State resident or annoyed at myself for falling short of my dream of a cooler Lower East Side life. But it was home. I hesitated to call it that, especially when the relationship that made it home was destabilized, but it was. Though I haven’t lived there in any real way since November, I had to leave it for good yesterday.

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Thoughts and Plans

Becoming a member of the church I spent roughly ages 11-18 going to involved, among other and more bureaucratically complicated things, choosing a “life verse.” I never made it to membership, which turned out to be dodging a bullet, but had come down to two choices for a life verse. My new testament pick was Philippians 1:6 – For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. It had been the focal point of a lesson at my evangelical middle school and I kind of liked it. Over time I cooled on this verse in line with my diminishing confidence that anything, let alone a “good work,” had indeed begun. My alternate choice stuck with me.

Jeremiah 29:11 goes “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. I like the New American Standard translation here. I think it’s the drama of the word calamity. Some versions go with “not for evil” but that’s much less of a mood. The past few years have meant throwing out most of my preconceived notions about how my life would go and what kinds of experiences would be viable for me. There are times when words like calamity don’t seem too far off. Jeremiah 29:11 is appealing on a visceral level because the thought that something, somewhere knows my plan is superstitiously calming. Jeremiah’s “I know” is more reassuring, more solid than Phillippians’ “confident in this.” It’s a verse that is at once soothing and stern, in the way being told to snap out of it can sometimes be a balm.

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Family Matters (so do other things)

I do not like the word family held up as the highest title you can bestow on a friend or a romantic partner. This can be on its own or in the phrases “found family” or “chosen family.” Maybe this is largely on account of my privilege as a person who has a supportive immediate family. The way I love my family, particularly my parents, is rougher and more complicated than the way I love anyone else. It involves brokenness, waxing and waning trust, and rebuilding that I most likely wouldn’t be willing to go through with a romantic partner. The concept of unconditional love has always seemed like an excuse to not work harder to be good to each other, but my actual family is the only structure in which anything close to it exists. It is a unique dynamic, but does it make it more sacred than friendship and romantic love? No, I don’t think so.

The assumption that friendship and romance as their own paradigms don’t hold enough weight seems wrong to me. While I can see the comfort in the idea of found family – particularly if your own blood has been a litany of disappointments and failures to connect – it’s just not a barrier I want to cross. I used to want it so badly it caused me incredible grief. In the interest of being a more reliable narrator, my distaste is probably in part just an attempt to forge that grief into something more dignified. But like an indignant child, I am here to tell you that I also buy where I’ve landed, really, I do.

I think the idea that some of our most important relationships are held together by nothing more than choice can be terrifying. We can understand the positives and power of it – wow, they have no reason to be here beyond their own belief in my place in their life – and still desperately want to construct a buffer. And what better safety net than to compare someone to the one relationship you had no choice in – that you can singe off through estrangement but never truly erase? The people who do make that break face oppressive stigma. Even abused children are often told “she’ll always be your mother!” I can’t help but see the need to declare our self-made bonds familial as a sort of stake in the ground; a salt circle in which relationships that are as fragile as any become fortified.

My parents are, of course, family. Were their previous marriages families before children were involved? That’s an interesting question to me. When pressed, I think most people would say that marriages in and of themselves are family units, but you still hardly ever hear the phrase “childless family” vs. “childless couple.” I’m biased, because my own experience with marriage is a facet of my problem with the word family. I fear marriage because it stands in bureaucratic defiance to my belief that people should be able to leave relationships at any time for any reason. Before and during my divorce, I bristled at my husband referring to us – two people increasingly incomprehensible to each other – as a family. I’m comfortable saying I belong to my family; that I am a member of it. I’m not comfortable saying that about anyone else. Just as I am cynical about the prospect of ever getting married again, it’s hard to imagine calling or wanting to be called family by a romantic partner.

It’s not that I don’t take obligations and responsibilities to our friends and partners seriously. I do, probably more now than I ever have. But the nature of those commitments is so different than what I feel toward my family. I know if my friends and I had gone through some of the rough patches my siblings and I have, we would no longer be friends. Romantic love in particular is delicate and conditional. The work is messy. When it involves terribly contentious things like fidelity and boredom and sex it becomes a different beast than any other type of relationship. The difficulties of romance can be very lonely and it’s not pleasant to realize how tenuous and easy to lose it is. I think it’s tempting to want to call it family, to override the potential for pain, to believe we have a reason for being together beyond wanting to, and still wanting to the day after.

I know that when most people call their friends family, they only say it as the highest compliment. I don’t mean to disregard their personal sorting systems and the places in which they hold their loved ones. You could (rightly, probably) accuse me of having the darkest possible take on these words. But I do aggressively believe in being good to the people we love, and that it’s difficult, and that part of that difficulty involves being honest about what things are. Or maybe I’m just envious.

Dream Dress I

Your green babydoll shift dress has proven to be one of the safest things you own. It’s old, cheap, and you got it on vacation in a foreign country so nobody else has it. It communicates enough personal style without demanding attention – a surprisingly impenetrable armor not of swagger, but of quiet girlishness. At your best, this dress makes you feel like you could make everyone fall in love with you in a nonthreatening, asexual way. But you’re not at your best, and the trusty green babydoll also makes you a little shinier than you actually are. It is the most reliable path through the angst of seeing your natural enemy. 

A warm hello doesn’t make it past your throat. She waves. It’s not a friendly wave and it reaches you as a sort of sardonic “we’re on this shitty boat together for an evening, I guess.” You wave back and smile in your mind, but you can’t remember if you actually carried it out. You hope the green babydoll is softening your sad bastard pout into something sweeter and more demure. It strikes you that you want her to despise you but also to think of you as a small animal undeserving of her scorn.

You need another drink. You think about buying her a drink. You don’t. At the bar, she’s waiting to pay her tab. You both miscalculated the timing and are annoyed at being stuck in each other’s line of sight. You are trying to work up the courage to pay her tab, for reasons not entirely clear even to you. You are trying to condense every emotion you’ve ever felt – hatred, jealousy, respect, longing, a mutant strain of fondness, guilt – into one facial expression. It comes out as a thousand-yard stare.

You try to zap your daydream that you have only just become aware of directly into her brain through sheer force of will. In this dream it’s a boozy party still on the holiday side of winter and the clothes are more glamorous. This dress is a dark jewel tone silk – deep pine or midnight blue (it catches the light so beautifully that nobody can be sure). What it lacks in flash it makes up for in elegance, with a skirt that flutters when your boyfriend spins you and catches you in a perfectly executed hip lift – because this is a dancing event and you can do that now. Your mother’s diamond and ruby estate bracelet is on loan for the night. It’s late enough that cheeks are flushed and hair is out of place (half up, tendrils). You tend to dream in diaphanous pastels that blur at the edges but in this dream, you and your clothes are solidly rooted in the boundaries and sweat of real bodies. In the glow of alcohol and celebration you smack straight into her and don’t have time to wipe the unguarded, dance-crazed grin off your face so you take the risk of leaving it there. This gambit not only manages to neutralize everything that has come before, but her heart is utterly captivated by how charming and actually nice when you get to know her you seem to be. You laugh loudly and sincerely and dance together with the joy only two drunk people could. Some time later you see a photo a friend snapped without either of you noticing. Your smile is real and crooked in a way that only shows up when you don’t feel watched. Your arms look very skinny. You never go on to become close friends, but you are always genuinely glad to see each other. You both treasure the candid photo and count it among the most flattering pictures ever taken of you, respectively and collectively.

She pays her tab and your window is gone.

Skincare Revisited

Everyone online is talking about skincare! Actually they already were, but last week a skincare-critical article in The Outline brought it to the forefront and also led outlets who already publish stories about skincare on a daily basis to exclaim “everyone is into skincare?!”

Like most of my millennial skincare enthusiast peers, I wasn’t a fan of the Outline piece. I didn’t appreciate the assumption that those of us who choose to be passionate about skincare are somehow being duped or fooled. It got some things right, mainly “Within the current paradigm, a blemish seems like a referendum on who you are as a person.” Skincare-as-moral coding is something I’ve long read into the marketing of certain brands like Glossier (still buy their makeup) and many “clean beauty” lines. About my own skin anxiety I wrote, “My face is something I can’t hide, and if I can’t present something close to perfect to the world, then I’ve failed at self-management.” Skincare can be exhausting. It can bring on a new wave of stress when I’m struggling with self-harm and the chasm between the now and the ideal seems wider than ever. And because skincare is a huge industry like any other, it can be hard not to cave to the pressure to try every new trend and wonder if the routine you’ve locked down is good enough, expensive enough, or Holy Grail enough.

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Sometimes I’m Just Mad

In the second to last episode of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, a small moment – just a single sentence spoken by Miyokichi in the middle of an already emotionally rich episode – struck me on a bone-deep level. Miyokichi wasn’t my favorite character. That wasn’t my favorite scene, or my favorite episode. It might be my favorite line. In just a few words, Miyokichi articulated something that I think most women have long known, a problem many of us grapple with our entire lives.

“Role” seems to come up a lot in relation to a woman’s life: the role of mother, the role of daughter, the role of a career woman, and the list goes on. I don’t think we talk about the “role of man” as much because at some point we just collectively agreed on what men are in a more cohesive way than women. The conversation of what roles a woman chooses to play are often phrased in terms of trade-offs or sacrifices. If a woman can’t “have it all,” she must give up something, usually family or a career. But people rarely talk about the foundation of all of this: the role of being a woman itself. No, I don’t mean the purpose of women.

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