If I must be sad, I will be sad in Paris

Content note: I talk about depression and past suicidal thoughts in this one. If those aren’t safe subjects for you, it’s a great time to close the tab or try something else.

Early in my trip to Paris and Barcelona, I took the Metro from Montmartre to the center of the city. I sat by myself, watching the texture of the tunnel racing by and feeling how deeply sad I was. Unlike other depressed trips, trips I’d taken hoping for distraction and even managing it sometimes, it felt like different environments only made it purer, this distilled sadness washing over me, cold and astringent.

I laughed at myself a little, at the absurdity of being on an amazing trip I’d looked forward to for months and feeling like refried shit. It’s useful to be able to do this without thinking the harder feelings aren’t legitimate and real, but I’ve learned to, and I did that day. Sitting on the train, looking around at all the lovely people and their beautiful winter coats, heading between one place I loved and another, I knew that the weather in my brain was utterly absurd and utterly true.

It was then that I found my frequent mantra of the trip: if I’m going to be sad, I’d rather be sad in Paris. I could be sad on my couch, but instead I’m sad somewhere I adore where all my senses get fed. I have a less-glamorous version of it for home: if I’m going to be sad, I can do it while wearing clothes I don’t hate, while enjoying takeout from my local Thai place, while my hair is clean, while reading something good, while the floors are swept, while feeling a little soothed and seen. It still sucks, but it can suck marginally less with some effort, when I can spare it.

The Louis Vuitton store in Paris with a large sunburst decoration spanning one entire side of the building

At the moment, I assume that everyone is massively emotionally wounded in some way, and I have since roughly June 2020. I think people were largely doing not great, thanks in the beforetimes too, but after almost two entire goddamned years of downs and ups and downs, things opening and closing, good guidance and terrible, dreams deferred and altered and abandoned and resuscitated and held close and shoved away, no one’s ok. The depth of the wounds varies wildly, of course. Mine right now have to do with my scant handful of emotional outlets (dancing, readings, seeing art, trying to make more friends) suddenly being unavailable again after I’d become accustomed to some small liberties, to say nothing of the unaddressed damage of the last pandemic length of time.

And these things do not disappear simply because you choose to travel.

Like my time in New York this summer, this trip slipped into a tiny gap of space and possibility that I chanced into through stupid luck. This one landed neatly between “everybody get boosters” and “oh fuck, a new variant.” We left on November 25th; if it had been three or four weeks later, I think I would’ve canceled all of it. Instead, it was merely complicated. Instead, it was a few days into the trip, out of North America for the first time since my fairly disastrous 2019 trip, that I read that a new variant was rising, that the US was already issuing racist travel restrictions, that things were happening and the larger meaning and the effect on us remained unclear.

Running home didn’t seem wise. Instead, there was only to dive ahead with precautions.

A closeup of a small part of a Monet waterlilies painting with streaks of purple, brown, and green

But yes, as the prophet Adam Sandler explains in the video linked above, being in Paris and Barcelona didn’t change who I was and how I felt. I went to Europe and remained the same sad me who’s been circling the drain since March 2020, when the pandemic started and my cat died and other personal things went absolutely off the rails, when I wraithed around my apartment asking my partner over and over if this was the end of the fucking world.

He told me, with confidence I still do not share, that it was not.

In the months that followed, I became accustomed to everything being painful most of the time. First I lost my interest in cooking; later, I lost a lot of my interest in eating, a deeply surreal state. It didn’t mean I needed to eat less, but I lacked the energy to put any real force or interest behind it. Strangely, traveling did not entirely resuscitate this. I delighted at these fish-covered flatbreads in Barcelona we had for several meals; I bit into a ball of goat cheese like a creamy apple on the Île Saint-Louis; I remembered my love of those one-euro waffles you can get on Metro platforms in Paris and crunched my way across the city. Gratins and soupe l’oignon and pintxos and infinite croissants. I experienced brief moments of joy that were heavily enabled by old memories, and I considered that a victory.

I’ve been reluctant to talk or write much about this, since lots of people don’t have the cash for this kind of trip (as inexpensively as I try to travel and as much as we lucked out with relatively cheap direct flights) and my luck at slipping out just before another wave in 2021 was extraordinary. But the thing is: if you’re depressed at home, you’ll be depressed there too. And that’s ok! It’s still worth trying things and reminding yourself, however briefly, that being alive can be pretty fucking good.

In 2007, I embarked on what I called the Depression World Tour. It’s the last time I was what I think of as chemically depressed, though I’ve been situationally depressed a couple times since, including now. Working with a psychiatrist and trying to trick my brain into wanting to be alive via a series of medications, I decided the best thing I could do was hit the road for six weeks, my laptop and remote job in tow. It was actually a national tour, not a world tour: I saw friends in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York before visiting my family in Florida and New Orleans.

Sometimes I even kind of forgot that I’d spent the previous several months having visions of laying down in the grass and staying still for long enough that the rain would dissolve me. Or that I had to remind myself to wear a seat belt in cars because a part of me welcomed the risk. Friends and new places jostled my brain away from routine enough that the background noise of this living shit’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it got crowded out.

It worked until the flight home. I had a window seat and stared across the wing at the setting sun, and the feelings settled onto me like a wet wool blanket: heavy and total and like a dark hug. Ah yes, I thought. Here I am.

I got home, found the right antidepressant, and stayed on it for a year. The thoughts vanished. Better living through chemistry.

The interior of a Barcelona restaurant, with a hanging sculpture of a voluptuous woman dancing through the air

In this era, the feelings seem to stem from having survived via learned helplessness. I’m not an essential worker, so often my best contributions to things not being more terrible were donating money, tipping heavily, and staying the fuck home. I did this for long enough that I’ve lost some of my old skill for pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on, even in this era of laying low. I got some of that temporary agoraphobia that I know lots of people have experienced. Outside is bad. Inside is good. Ergo: stay inside, where it’s all predictable and safe. No room to thrash, no room to dream. Just put another episode of the show du jour on.

My entire adult life has been predicated on wanting more, and suddenly it was actually dangerous to do so. It’s had effects on me that I’ll be unraveling for a long time.

And, of course, it makes travel difficult because travel is only about uncertainty and trusting that you’ll be ok. Pushing back against a language you don’t know to find an understood shared space, pushing back against the unfamiliar to go boldly forward and experience wonderful new things, pushing back against homesickness with the confidence to believe that worthwhile living is on the other side.

For the last two years, that hasn’t been true. We’ve all been wading through life that’s tepid at best, a horror at worst, assuring ourselves that continuing to be alive is worthwhile and all this living shit actually is worth it.

It took me two weeks, but I think I came to believe it again.

We spent five nights in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then another three in Paris before our flight out. At the end of the first Paris segment, I sat in the bed of the adorable Montmartre Airbnb, crying and feeling a weight on my chest because I was doing this wrong.

Quick aside: you can’t do this wrong. It’s not possible. You can have a bad vacation; I certainly have. Still, the only real risk is being a shitty guest somewhere you’re visiting. You can’t do vacation wrong.

But I sat there in the adorable bed nook beneath a robin’s-egg-blue duvet that matched the cabinets and curtains, and I knew that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had managed a thing or two per day – this museum, that meal, trying to see and do things without asking too much of myself – but it wasn’t enough. Paris is my favorite place in the world, and I was trudging. I knew I was trudging. Everything hurt, and I was just passing through, like a pale visitor in my own life.

When I get these big feelings that I want to turn on myself like a weapon, I try to make the feelings into specifics. What did I think I should be doing, since apparently I wasn’t doing it? I made myself list all the things I hadn’t done that suddenly weighed on me: a street art walk through Montmartre, another walking tour, Sainte-Chapelle, a proper fromagerie visit, more vin chaud, Pere LaChaise, one of those zoo lights things that are everywhere now, walking along the Seine, the thumb at La Défense. A lot for two days! But I promised myself I’d come back and do everything I wanted until it stopped being fun.

Tall stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with part of the altar in the foreground

Part of the problem was that I’d lacked the ability to plan properly before we left. All I’d managed to do were the obvious time-sensitive bookings: the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Sagrada Familia. All these top-billed things, but none of the stuff that I usually ended up thinking about after a trip, the small random joys I linger on as I ease back into my life. And without a plan and something to work toward, I felt like I was squandering this thing I’d longed for.

And I spent two joyful, madcap days in Paris when I got back. One day I walked more than 15 miles. I zoomed back and forth across the city in a way I’d never recommend to anyone else but which felt like freedom. I saw centuries-old stained glass and said hello to Oscar Wilde. Illuminated, articulated tardigrades. Wheat pastes decorating apartment building walls and bulletholes from the liberation of Paris. Finally, just in time for all the panic of getting home, I remembered how to feel open and safe – at least for an hour or two at a time.

I’ve tried to keep it with me as I return to my life, but it’s been hard. Going out dancing (vaccines and masks required, bless San Francisco) had become a regular catharsis, but less than a week after I got home, that began to feel unsafe too. Masks required but not entirely enforced inside; rising omicron rates; the ongoing threat of long covid; the fear of possibly giving it to one of the scant handful of people I see in person. I’ve shuttered myself inside again.

An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a figure with arms, legs, a large mouse head with red eyes, and a little horn-shaped musical instrument

It’s better than the terrible 2020 months of the pandemic era because I am mostly alone, because I know these steps, because I know how to get regular exercise without the safe option of a gym, because I know where the armor starts to buckle and how to address it when it comes up (and it will again). And because I have more recent memories of eating a galette along the Seine and watching people walk and bike by, of dancing on a goth boat in Paris (yes), of seeing 400-year-old costume sketches at the Louvre and being totally enchanted by this cartoonist of yore, of lighted creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, of good meals, of the winding streets in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, of laughing like a stupid child at caganers, of seeing the Mediterranean beneath our plane, of deciphering the constantly evolving graffiti in Gràcia, of long train rides and easy Metro connections, of other ways to be. Of life sparkling again, just for a little while, and of that sparkle happening because I made it happen.

They’re distant again, but they aren’t gone. I’m contained again, but I’m not dead, and I don’t want to be.

Usually.

Large illuminated lanterns in the shape of jellyfish and other sea creatures

Travel, like other big experiences, gets enjoyed in stages. There’s planning, which I largely missed this trip. There’s the relatively brief period of actually experiencing it. And, after that, the memory, the longest stage, and the one worth optimizing for, if I have to choose one. I knew, sitting on that train and feeling my heavy, lonely heart, that when I thought of the trip later, I’d feel happy. “If you’re going to be depressed, kid, you’ve picked a great place for it,” I thought. I laughed, wrote in my journal some, and set off into the future, where those memories are sustaining me now that I’m an indoor cat again.

The trip was never going to be anything but a mindfuck, and it delivered. But it delivered on everything else too, so even though I cried, even though I wrestled with deep and difficult feelings, even though everything was twice as hard as I remember it being for the intrepid traveler I used to be, it was worth it.

The thing for me to remember: it is almost always incredibly worth it. And when that falters? It’s still pretty good.

Getting from France to the US in December 2021 Covid Times

I knew, from the time I planned this trip, that I was making a Choice. I hadn’t done a good and proper trip since February 2019, when I went to Amsterdam and a terrible cold fucked up my back. In the way of our species’ collective fantasizing from March 2020 on, I’d longed to have a do-over across lockdown. Fall didn’t offer a window amidst the walls of horribleness in the way we had in the early summer, when vaccines were offering such hope and the shitty roar of antivax horseshit had yet to really arise. But it felt safe enough for my own threat model and fears, so we moved ahead: to France and Spain we would go. (To Berlin we would not because of the rough covid rates and impending threat of lockdown.)

I researched and acknowledged the hurdles: I would have to get a French pass sanitaire by paying a pharmacy 36 euros to convert my paper CDC vaccination record – sure, that sounds great. I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t checking vaccinations at the door anyway, and I didn’t care to go anywhere that wasn’t at least as careful as the Bay Area. I would also have to get a covid test 72 hours before flying back and have an electronic or paper copy of the test to provide to the airline and, presumably, US border control or a similar entity. Very well! I researched testing options in Paris, sketched out a rough schedule in my head, and felt pretty ok about what was to come.

Then, on the Tuesday morning before a Friday morning flight, I got an email from Air France: the covid test now had to be done within 24 hours of departure, which meant late morning the day before. To be clear: this was an initial misinterpretation of the requirement, which actually states, as of this week, that the test has to be done on the calendar day before you leave. But that wasn’t Air France’s initial interpretation, so I got a little bonus freaking out due to that.

I’ve had to get covid tests twice during the pandemic, once after working at an election site and once after my trip to New York this summer. Both times, I had results within 24 hours, but that felt like a fluke: never promised, always incidental.

This new requirement, of course, changed things. Here’s how I got home.

Covid testing in Paris

Before the testing window shortened, I asked my host for the last leg of my trip what she knew about covid testing and timing in Paris. She told me that most pharmacies test (something that seemed very true; most of them had little tents by their front doors on the sidewalk just for that). With the 72-hour window, that would’ve been great; we were within a ten-minute walk of at least three pharmacies. Easy! What I couldn’t find was a solid, specific statement saying that those test results would be ready in 24 hours – or, ideally, in less than twelve. This led me to Biogroup, which I found through the official French site that directs people to covid testing sites. There are a lot; it seems like a ton of dentists have gotten in on this, which is pretty great.

Biogroup was the only one I found that offered:

  • Lots of locations
  • A promise of results in 12 hours
  • A clear description of how results would be provided via PDF, securely downloaded
  • The promise that walk-ins were available
  • A list of which services provided by each clinic
  • Promises of English speakers. I can speak good-enough terrible French for things like getting tickets or food. For navigating something that straddled medical and international travel spheres, I wanted someone who could talk to me in my own language.

This is how I ended up walking to 20 rue de Pont Neuf just before the 8:15 am sunrise the day before I was due to fly home. I ended up in a line of maybe 20 people, primarily English speakers, working with Google Translate to figure out the best way to say I needed a pre-travel covid test please. We were finished by 9:30 am. Was it extremely well organized? Not quite, which is fine – I have a sense of how French bureaucracy seems to work, and I knew they were trying pretty hard to make this weird thing work. They were kind to confused people and got me what I needed, and sometimes that’s all I can ask from a situation.

Here’s how it went:

  • They let us in one or two people at a time; usually couples were allowed in together. Other people showed up for appointments during all this, standing in a separate, shorter line. Good for them. I wished I’d worn another layer but generally do ok in the cold, so I wasn’t desperately unhappy.
  • Once we got in the door, they took our passports and had us complete a form to consent to the test and get our results. It looked like it was about eight generations off of the original copy. We just had to confirm the test we wanted, write and sign our names, and provide our email addresses.
  • We paid 44 euros each for the pleasure. Card was fine.
  • We were each taken into a private room and got the brain swab. Remember the big-ass q-tip people talked about nervously in the beginning of the pandemic? The one they pushed in so far that you figured they had to be brushing your brain stem? That’s what was still going on there. The site also offered saliva and blood tests at certain labs, but my French and anxiety were bad enough that I just went with the version of things I knew would work in the tight timeline and requirements I had.
  • Everyone who dealt with the confused tourist line spoke enough English that things worked pretty smoothly.
  • They confirmed they’d transcribed the email addresses correctly from the handwritten version on the form. Bless.
  • They gave us a slip of paper with a pre-generated password to retrieve the results later. This wasn’t necessary but was a great touch.

That was it. It sucked, but the people were kind. We had our results emails by 4 pm: blessedly négatif.

They sent two emails. One takes you to a portal where you enter some PII to generate an email containing a temporary password for said portal, where you can download the PDF you need. The other had a password-protected PDF attachment that could be opened with the password they provided. You’ll want the one from the portal because things like the Air France document void and the ToutAntiCovid mobile app will not have any idea of how to handle a password-protected PDF. (Still, cheers to Biogroup for trying.)

Uploading everything everywhere

I uploaded the PDF to the ToutAntiCovid app, which created a new record that contained its own QR code, the negative result, and a dynamic field that showed how old the test was. This was enough proof for everyone who asked for it at Charles de Gaulle – much easier than asking people to squint at the tiny version of an 8.5×11-inch test result file on my phone. I uploaded the PDF plus some other paperwork (vax records for both countries) to Air France, which promised that doing so would avoid hassle at the airport.

A couple things exacerbated all this: the first was the CDC reclassifying France’s covid risk, and the other was a general sense of elevated risk within Paris or possibly all of France. Those last few days, I saw military types with automatic weapons in a lot of different places, including the airport, La Defense, and by the Palace of Justice. That general !!! sense probably did not help with things like allowing airlines to accurately interpret extremely fresh, imperfectly worded international health directives. I would assume this was the case with all airlines flying from the US from other countries right now, particularly ones like France that were recently put on double secret probation by the CDC.

The night before we left, I received an email saying all those uploaded documents were approved… and then they were reviewed again in total before we were allowed to check bags. For this, we were rewarded with a sticker on the backs of our passports, a label with a handwritten set of initials on it, indicating we were ready to go. My boarding pass already had a READY TO FLY designation on it from the document upload approval, but I saw no indication that any of this actually expedited anything for us on the day of.

SECURITY.

And other administrivia

I also received multiple Air France emails about A FORM that we had to print, fill out, and bring to the airport. I regret to inform you that it’s a stupid and duplicative form that my government clearly foisted on other international agencies without a lot of explanation. (Kind of like the change in the acceptable window for covid tests; the first Air France email said “within 24 hours of departure” and the other stated correctly that it needed to be done in the calendar day before your departure, so a 12:30 am test on Thursday would be valid for a flight at 11:30 pm Friday night. The CDC says that this is to try to give flexibility to travelers, but as an anxious person crossing time zones, I gently suggest to them that they are not helping in the way they claim to be.) The first version was a docx file; the replacement form was a swanky PDF. I got to go to a copy place in the Marais the night before we left to get this shit printed only to find that the airline had a giant stack of them available at the check-in desk at CDG. COOL.

It just says that you either have submitted a covid test or have a damned good reason not to have done so, plus a signature. It isn’t tied to a passport or booking number or anything else solid and traceable, and it did not appear to be recorded electronically in any way, judging by the messy pile of them being collected at the gate. COOL.

We were asked about it more than once at bag drop, and then a third-party security guard type came around the gate area, checked passports, and collected them from people who happened to be sitting around the gate 45 minutes before boarding, including me. He pointed at the sticker put on the back of my passport earlier and said, “If you talk to another one of my coworkers, they will see this and know you’re good to go.” “Cool,” I said.

I will note here that I have seldom encountered a situation where the addition of third-party security guard types makes the situation better.

My partner came back from getting food, and I said, “You should probably give your form to that guy. They seem to be trying to get this done.” This was a mistake. He did as I suggested and was told to stand somewhere else for boarding (we were not boarding), handed the form over anyway, and came back, figuring he’d done what he could.

Cut to 45 minutes later when we actually were boarding, and he was accused of not having a form. “I gave it to you earlier,” he said. The security guard said he did not. “He did,” I said. Finally, it became clear that filling out an additional copy of the brief and pointless form was the path of least resistance. He did so while I started my own battle. “You didn’t fill out the form,” the guy told me. “I did,” I said, and recited our entire conversation, finishing by pointing at the sticker. Apparently my performance was more convincing. We were finally allowed to board the plane.

And, finally, home

That was the last of the covid test result presentation dance. We have Global Entry, so our return interview consisted of getting little print-outs with grainy pictures of our tired selves, a recitation of things we bought and brought home (“a couple of bottles of champagne, a lot of gummy candy, and some inexpensive earrings”), and then walking out into SFO, back to being ordinary people. We plan to test ourselves again early next week just to be very sure we made it through this ok, but I’m not worried.

It’s nice to stop being worried. I haven’t really had that for the last five-odd days.

My suggestions for you

If I’d known this shit was going to go into such upheaval so soon before we left, we would have brought a couple of those proctored self-tests. Prior to this week, I didn’t know those existed and resulted in a legally helpful test result; it would have made a lot of things much easier, both generally and because I do not do well with vague directives for things as specific as paperwork for international travel. So if you’re going abroad in this era, I strongly suggest doing that.

I would also suggest not flying to the US from France or other level-four-omg countries right now. I didn’t really have the opportunity to consider this, as the levels didn’t change until the trip was well underway. If you have the choice, though, depart from an easier country. If we’d flown out of Spain, a lot of things would have been simpler.

However, I’m pretty grateful we flew into France. I haven’t seen a CDC card conversion scheme for other countries as of this writing (and preliminarily googling it again so soon after all my pre-trip research frankly makes my head hurt right now; there are countries that work easily with it, but the US is not among them). Starting our trip in France meant getting an EU covid vax certification QR code shortly after arriving from the airport using a fairly straightforward process that costs 36 euros. There, it’s generally referred to as the pass sanitaire, a phrase which I can blissfully usually pick out of rapidfire French directives. (Getting the pass sanitaire was step one; buying cheese was step two. Falling asleep for five hours followed shortly after.) This pass, which initially seemed France specific when I was first researching it, is what allowed us to fly into Spain, to go to certain events there, and to just generally have a proper vacation. I feel like there have to be ways around this in other countries, but I don’t know what they are. I have it on good authority, though, that most people at the door in Europe are not going to be interested in deciphering your weird paper CDC card.

The pass checking wasn’t always consistent but happened often enough that I felt more comfortable with moving around in the world. France: thanks for checking the pass even for patio dining. Spain: your whole QR code locator form process for new arrivals was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the efforts are clearly working, so thank you. We were rarely asked for an ID to compare to the name on the pass, but best to keep one on hand anyway, in the way of these things.

I hope you like forms, because this requires a lot of them.

At the moment, certain kinds of travel mean taking up government documentation and admin interpretation as a new and time-consuming hobby. I’m a process dork by nature so take to this stuff pretty well, and I still had several not-ok moments during all this.

I had a small panic event the night before we left because I found a now-inaccurate Air France page from a month or two prior that still stated that visitors to France needed a compelling reason and a covid test for entry. I called my partner into my kitchen and said, “I think I ruined our trip and I’m sorry.” I had not ruined the trip, as it turned out. But this is what lackadaisical documentation governance in a complicated time can do to a person!

I even had a dress rehearsal of sorts when I helped a friend with the lighter version of this stuff required for going to Hawaii from the continental US, and I still felt overwhelmed more than once in this heavier international version. I say again: I like figuring out difficult bureaucratic stuff, and this shit almost broke me a couple of times.

The regulations and requirements change often enough right now that there’s a lot of outdated stuff out there. Right now, if you read guidance that isn’t dated within the last week, question whether it still applies.

It’s a good idea to think very carefully about traveling internationally right now at all, of course. I only wanted to go to places that had a similar model of safety to the Bay Area; a lot of places remain fundamentally off limits to me, including large parts of my own country. I urge you to be very careful and weigh things similarly. And once you’ve figured out that perhaps there’s a place in the world you feel ethically ok with visiting, really consider what your trip might look like if you have to spend parts of two or more days being stressed about meeting requirements to get on your plane home. If this had been a week-long trip, I think I would’ve been pretty upset to have spent so much time on this stuff. Instead, it was a two-week trip, and the hard parts got diluted – but it still had an effect. I also brought a laptop; navigating this stuff without one would’ve been really, really hard. We didn’t stay at hotels, so business centers were not an option. Copy shops would have been possible, but pretty inconvenient.

In addition to taking a frankly perverse joy in unpicking complicated systems, I also have enough money to deal with large, expensive changes of plan and reason to believe I wouldn’t lose my job if I suddenly had to be away for an extra two weeks. It’s a bet I can afford to make. Be sure you can too before doing something like this in this era. For instance, this was the plan B I formulated in case our tests came back positive: I was going to quarantine somewhere less expensive in the Paris suburbs and enjoy what I had named the Plague Ship Writing Residency. This plan fell apart somewhere around “but French takeout delivery apps don’t seem to accept American credit cards,” but that was future plague rat me’s problem to figure out.

I’ll write soon about the fun parts of all of this, and I promise you there were many. But everything I just wrote was part of the cost of every excellent meal, every minute spent gawping at centuries-old stained glass, every ramble through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. In the meantime, while it’s still fresh and technically accurate, here’s the harder part. I hope it helps. Good travel is possible; just know that it’s still very different than it once was.

Coming Alive Again in 2012 and 2021

In June 2012, I was coming to the end of the worst two-year span of my life outside of junior high and high school. I was slowly recovering from being broke, close to paying off more than $6,000 in medical debt (thx, endometriosis), starting to see a therapist who’d change my life, and a few months from freeing myself from a deeply shitty social existence. But I wasn’t at any of these things yet and didn’t know how close I was. On top of all of that, a couple weeks earlier, there’d been a mass murder in a cafe I spent a lot of time in. I didn’t know the people who died well, but I admired a couple of them very much and had seen them perform many times. They meant something. So it was broad horror and specific horror, and it’s the only time I’m aware of that I played the role of “crying girl hugging friend outside crime scene” on local news b-roll.

In July 2021, I was coming to the end of one of the worst years I’ve been alive (probably number three or four on the list, all told). Unlike June 2012, I wasn’t broke and had a fair amount of agency derived both from finances and from that good therapeutic work. However, also unlike June 2012… well, you know how 2020 into 2021 went. It was very, very bad. I found some beautiful things in all of it, but mostly I spent a lot of time figuring out what part of myself was compartmentalized into stasis this week. I had long periods of time where it felt like half my abdominal cavity was just this static, dense mass, unmoving where all the feelings used to swirl. I’m not typically given to numbness, but that and escaping into my imagination were the two ways I found to survive.

Fresh with so many layers of grief, which piled heavily on top of stinging disbelief around how I’d allowed my life to get to the state it was in, I agreed to go to Honkfest West. My general feeling about music is that I like just about anything live, and I especially like a big band with brass instruments (one of the reasons I’ve loved ska since high school). It was inexpensive and within city limits. Everyone I knew felt basically destroyed; why not be destroyed and listen to some music?

In the possession of a little more morally allowable movement and of money and a break between jobs, I went to New York for two weeks. I tried to figure out some extracurriculars ahead of time. I’d been wanting to go dancing at home and managed it once before delta variant feelings made us all need to reconsider our definition of freedom. So I knew I wouldn’t want a large club (I’m mostly too old and sober for that anyway), but I wanted some culture. I wanted to go out and feel the physical force of sound in my body. I wanted something bigger and broader than the sound from my beautiful shitty headphones. I found that a brass band I’d listened to online played in Brooklyn every week. Sold.

I’d gone to Honkfest before. Bands in Gasworks Park, bands in associated clubs, bands upon bands. I took the buffet approach: I knew I’d like enough of it so didn’t need to do much research. I’d show up, probably like what I heard, and be content. Good enough.

I look up the show again a few days out and find that the regular Tuesday night entertainment is canceled, and instead, a selection of bands through Honk! NYC is playing. You know what? Sure, that’ll do too.

I go to a venue in Georgetown. I’m wearing, in a way that feels incomprehensible in later, warmer times, a sweater dress with a thick cowl collar. I get a Large Can of Rainier, the drink of both happy times and sad, broke-as-fuck ones. I enter the performance space and get no further than the door, because it’s crammed.

I find my way to the bar from the subway. I show the bartender a picture of my vax card. I show the guy at the door in the back of the bar a picture of my vax card. I stand and listen to the DJ and drink my pilsner, texting with people back west. A couple people come in with drums. Then a couple more. Soon the number of people with drums outnumbers the spectators still filling in at the back of this small room. The drums are not small drums. The program promised samba-influenced drums as the second act. Excellent.

The band playing when I walk in, large can in hand, is a samba-influenced drum troupe. I have felt like something left in the sun lately, like all the softness has gone hard and all the flexible things crystalline in a hideous, sharp way. Everything feels vulnerable and terrible. Anything can happen anywhere, and it’ll probably be bad. Everything tastes like salt, even the sweet things. I stand there for a little while, a largely inert thing, drinking generously from my beer. I finish it and go get another. And when I come back, I feel something that’s taken its leave of me for a while: an urge to move.

After a bit, the audience finally outnumbers the band, but the band commands the space. One song blends into another, enough that they have to prompt us to applaud sometimes, too busy are we being mesmerized, being absorbed. I see stiff-spined white boys who I suspect aren’t all about dancing at shows start to move at the hips. I did immediately. It felt so good to feel percussion in my body again, to feel it at all angles and across frequencies, not a flat recording of something. It’s large, and I feel part of it. It’s so good to feel a part of anything with other people again.

After a bit, I end up with my half-full beer shoved into the top of my dress, cold against my sweaty skin, and I just move. I’m there with some similarly traumatized friends, and we all begin to dance, first like badly tended marionettes, then like people who might feel something good again someday. We get a little bit of it that night, that feeling of oh yes, I still have a heart, I’m still connected to something around me. I’m still alive and might even be glad of it again someday.

I find myself teary at odd moments. The synchronized movements of the drummers. The solos of the band that follows, the culmination of an untold amount of practice. All this effort just to make something transient and lovely. I missed that the most. I have plenty of days of being kinda over humanity, but all along, all throughout our shared isolation, I so badly missed the things we do when we come together: theater and music and that particular feeling of people coming out for a similar purpose. Dancing and conferences and all these gatherings toward a single goal. We do such fine things together, and I missed them terribly.

Life doesn’t get fixed on that night in 2012, but it was the first time in a long time that I felt like there might be something bigger and better yet to come, that putting effort into unfucking my life might yield something wonderful. That some things ended, sometimes terribly, but I wasn’t done yet. I was still capable of being surprised, and the world was still capable of surprising me with wonderful things.

And in late July 2021, we are still in the shit. In the 24 hours before this night in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of the bars in San Francisco switch to the model I see fairly often in New York, the “must be this vaxxed to ride” rule, and it gives me hope: both for going out and for incentive for people avoiding vaccinations for anything other than very specific medical reasons to reconsider. I just want us to have this together again: the call of brass, the impact of drums, and a bunch of happy nerds dancing in rooms again. I can hang in there for this. I feel something blossom again within me: to do things, to know that doing things is worthwhile, to know that taking this trip was the right thing for me.

And in the meantime? All we can do is keep dancing.

How to vacation during a pandemic: week two

Previously.

Day eight

The day of action. I get up, pack my hotel room sprawl, and leave my bags with the front desk. From there, I head across town to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve been here once before, back in 2008 or so, but that day I came straight from a red-eye flight, needing to kill time before my friend was off work and could take me and my stuff back to her apartment. So I dragged ass for a couple of hours, and I remember little except for looking longingly at empty corners, thinking I could sleep there.

Today was better. If my phone and feelings are right, I walked more than three miles inside the museum; their app is good and helped me see just about everything, but it led me back and forth so many times, through the gift shops one way and then another. I stared up at a Titanosaur, gazed at so many skeletons, felt strangely moved by the blue whale (and the covid vax clinic still happening by it), and learned that there’s such a thing as an effusive volcano eruption. I stayed there for more than four hours before beginning the biggest trek: to the hotel for my stuff and then to Brooklyn for my second location for this trip. I took a car across the bridge because, despite my well-earned reputation, I do take it easier on myself sometimes than I could. Sometimes.

I picked up my keys from the neighboring deli and checked in. After flopping on the bed for 20 minutes, I set out for the comedy show I’d bought a ticket for a couple of weeks ago, a local place with Janeane Garofalo headlining. I get there too early and circle the block for a while, talking to Sean and taking in the sights. I immediately feel more at ease than I did in the Lower East Side. I fit in the continuum of people here. The houses are beautiful, and so are the residents.

The comedy show is mainly local folks, which was what I wanted. I am one of maybe 17 people in the audience, which meant a lot of crowd work. I sit separately, hidden in a shadowy corner to stage right, drinking palomas to meet my two-drink minimum. I avoid the crowd work and am pretty much the only person who does. Not present in the evening: Janeane Garofalo, who had a scheduling conflict. Hey, ok. I saw comics I wouldn’t have otherwise, I laughed, and I got out. It’ll do.

a stencil of Robin Williams and patterned tile on a wall

Day nine

The day of friends. I wake up to drop laundry off for fluff and fold, and then I get a veggie-cheese wrap from the bodega and take it to Fort Greene Park to read, think, and eat. I watch people play tennis and am amazed that people make the same sort of quasi-sex grunts that they do with weightlifting. I had no idea. After, I head to Greenpoint to meet a friend for lunch. We have Mexican food in the restaurant’s robin’s-egg-blue outdoor structure. It’s wildly good to see her. We used to work together and still have tales; I think that, every time we talk, we both learn something new and weird about our shared experiences.

After, I walk an ambling path toward the water, through neighborhoods and past so many cafes. It’s overcast, the clouds thick and low, and the wind whips around me. I love this; I feel so alive in this kind of weather in a way I never do in the eternal-72-degree tepidness of northern California. I find a bench under a building’s overhang and write in my journal as I stare out at the grey-tinged water, waiting to see if the rain will come. It doesn’t until I walk to the subway, and I pull out the umbrella I brought mostly for sun and use it to dodge mist instead.

That night, I head to Crown Heights to meet another friend. (I am very fortunate in people.) Our intended lobster roll shop is closed for renovations, so we end up at a seafood soul food shop run by a man who’s a pure ray of sunshine (and the grilled seafood platter’s pretty great too). We go back to her apartment to eat our riches, including perfect tins of peach cobbler, and we just… catch up. It’s always felt like a miracle, connection and finding people I like so well, but after the worst lockdowns, renewing that connection feels like its own compounded miracle. How did I ever get this lucky? I stay late, talking about everything and nothing, and take a late train home. It’s gone cool and gentle out, and the considerable sweaty murk I build up waiting almost 20 minutes for my train begins to recede. I’m tired but happy.

A stone on a wall with the caption "vulva or hoofprint engraved on limestone"

Day ten

The day of ordinary living. I sleep in (after the last two days, I badly needed it) and wake up by eating a leftover quesadilla in bed along with a pint of blueberries. I find I do this every couple of days, this making a meal out of the odds and ends I’ve collected along the way. Around two, I head to the subway and go north to meet friends to climb. I got into a short routine of climbing again back in May, keeping at it for more than a month, but scheduling stuff put a pause on it for the last six-odd weeks. I don’t have to remember how not to be afraid of heights and falling the way I did back in May, but I’m shaky. My borrowed shoes are too big and make me feel unsteady, so I have to swap them out after the first climb. The harness is an unfamiliar model with a single loop. They use a different belay device than I’m used to. The holds aren’t what I’m used to, the route setters have different mental models of things, it’s actually air conditioned: it’s just a lot of change for my brain to chew on. But my friends are good climbing companions, and I climb until the skin of my hands hurts. Perfect.

After, we meet friends of theirs for late lunch, and I have genuinely excellent vegetable pho and a jar full of bubble tea. It feels good to just sit and talk to new people and remember how to trust myself to relate to other humans as a fellow human, to remember what it is to actively find other people fascinating while also having useful stuff to contribute to the conversation. By the time we’re done, it’s past six, and I realize I might be done for the day. I leave the option open to take myself out to dinner, but I find I’m content to write in bed, catch up with friends online, think for a little while, and talk to no one. It’s been a wonderful day and a half of catching up with people I adore, but like my forearms, my socializing muscles are out of shape. Best to go easy as I learn to use them again and trust the strength will return.

a tree-lined piece of land meets the water, the cityscape behind it

Day eleven

The day of uncharted territory. I get up and have an excellent brunch, sitting outside and watching Brooklyn walk by as I write postcards. Fortunately, plenty of restaurants here define “brunch” the way I do: anytime until dinner. After I’m full of eggs Benedict with salmon, I head into the city and seek out the PATH train. I have story research to do, and that means… Hoboken.

Which is like any other second- or third-tier city I’ve ever been to: pretty, with nice restaurants and the kind of old buildings I like a lot. It reminds of me St. Louis or Tacoma or Albany, any of these places that would be known as a nice place to go if they weren’t overshadowed by another major city in the vicinity. I walk along the waterfront until the path runs out and then turn back, and then I roam through downtown. I verify some of the things I made up and figure out which ones need to be adjusted. I walk through the old train station, which also serves ferries. My dinner plans fall through, so instead I go back to Manhattan, where I swing by Stonewall to take pictures for a young friend. I get a cup of Big Gay Ice Cream and wander around while I eat it.

After that, I return to Brooklyn for the important writing I punted until the end of the day. It’s the last day of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and I’m going to finish a first draft of a fantasy novel. I write a bit over 1,600 words, and then I’m done. I intend to celebrate by going out to dinner, but I realize that a pre-pandemic weakness of mine has only gotten worse: I cannot tell when restaurant kitchens close. It’s not when the restaurant closes. Is it 30 minutes before? An hour? Something else? I inquire at a couple of places that the internet told me would still be open, but they are not. Instead, I go to the bodega by where I’m staying, and miraculously their deli is still open. The guy in front of me turns to me when he finishes his own order. “Sister, you’d better order fast. They’re almost closed,” he tells me. I thank him and then do exactly that. I celebrate finishing a novel with a Nantucket Nectars orange-mango juice (an old favorite from college), a falafel wrap, and a pre-packaged chocolate-dipped waffle. Very well, then.

a mosaic on a sidewalk reads "I ain't no goddamned son of a bitch"

Day twelve

The day of the depths of Brooklyn. I wake up a little early and head out for my 12:45 reservation at the City Reliquary, a suggestion from a friend who lives here, whose mom loves weird little museums. This is an excellent one: all ephemera, the pointillist approach to museuming. A wall of Jackie Robinson, cases of World’s Fair souvenirs, handles from many eras of subways, pieces of rubble from demolished buildings of note. There’s just so much packed into one room, all staffed by a volunteer. I am utterly charmed.

glass domes cover rock samples; the one in the foreground has a card that reads "Flatiron Bldg."

After, I grab a very heavy slice with large blobs of ricotta on it. I’ll need it; it’s going to be an active day. I stop at Quimby’s (but not Desert Island; they won’t be open again until Wednesday, too late for me). Among other things, I buy a fanzine for The Cure that was published in 2020. Bless. I also buy a copy of We’ll Never Have Paris, which includes an essay from the owner of Quimby’s NYC that explains, among other things, how he came to open this one after the original Chicago location. As I had no idea there was a second one until I walked by it, this is pleasingly full circle.

I take the subway to Park Slope and, instead of transferring to another train for the last 15 blocks, I just walk and see what things look like. I stop at a bodega for a water and ask the cashier how he’s doing. “Not great,” he says. “People today.” I ask him if he thinks the problem is him or everyone. “Everyone,” he sighs. “A lady started yelling at me for not wearing a mask while I’m unvaccinated.”

I thank him and vacate the bodega quickly, just short of levitating backwards out the door.

After, appropriately enough, I go to Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s been on my New York to-do list forever, but when you have three days or five or seven in New York, it’s really easy to focus on Manhattan. Two weeks gave me the chance to finally get down here, and it’s wonderful. California cemeteries are intriguingly weird to visually parse because things don’t age the same way they do elsewhere; graves from 80 years ago look like they could’ve been put in place last year. Not so here; there are graves going back to the early 1800s, and all manner of extensive aging. They’re beautiful and sometimes strange.

I have a rough plan to walk across the cemetery to emerge and point myself toward Prospect Park, but the combination of following my bliss and Google Maps being like “I dunno” when I check my location means that, after two hours of walking, I see the same entrance I came in. Dang it. I reposition myself and try again; 30 minutes later, I’ve looped around yet again. The next time, I stick strictly to specific streets, following a deliberate route, and I finally get to the other entrance.

I walk through Park Slope and get to Prospect Park, where I begin another wander, past elaborate barbecue setups and volleyball games, flocks of joggers and cyclists. I end up at an outdoor concert, where I hear an opera singer and catch a Marina Franklin set. I move at one point to avoid being hit with a piece of wood as a consequence of a certain whimsical style of parenting. Ah, Park Slope. I may have moved out of Berkeley in 2019, but it’s a bit like Hotel California: you can check out, but you’ll never really leave.

molded copper gone green in the form of pine branches and roses

As I start walking out of the park to catch my 8 pm dinner reservation, I end up on a path and stop short as I understand what’s happening in front of me: they have lightning bugs in New York. I didn’t know that. The last time I saw them was probably 20 years ago at my grandparents’ house in southern Illinois. The population steadily diminished as I grew up. I try and fail and try and fail to take a long exposure that captures them, despite not having a tripod or a cable release, and so instead I end up staring into the woods, utterly entranced.

a dimly lit scene of the woods
Note the tiny yellow swirl in the middle bottom. Lo: a lightning bug in the best of a meh set of pictures.

But I do have to get going. I make it in time for dinner, and I have the celebratory meal I didn’t manage yesterday, as I made an actual reservation at an Italian restaurant. I eat a brick of polenta with creamy mushroom sauce, black spaghetti with kale and shrimp, and panna cotta with a cherry sauce. I’m stuffed but very happy.

I’ve walked ten miles, so I come back to my Airbnb and promptly flop onto my side for an hour, waiting to get the energy to shower. It comes eventually. It usually does.

Day thirteen

The day of low motivation. I peel myself out of bed just before two and go to a restaurant the friend who pointed me to Fort Greene recommended. I tried to go on day eleven but came by just as their kitchen had closed. Blessed art platters of cold hummus and chickpea salad on a hot day. After, I read in Fort Greene Park for a little while, watching people go by, listening to tennis players grunt again.

I have generally tried (but often failed) to keep from becoming a giant sweatball while on this trip, but today has a special need for it: I am going shopping. I’ve had a goal to go to Trash and Vaudeville this entire trip, but between energy, sweatball status, and not wanting to accumulate more stuff before my mid-trip location change, I waited. And mentally, today doesn’t feel like a great day for it. Shopping for clothes requires a certain force of will, which I’d say I have about half the time. It requires the mindset that something not working is the fault of the clothes, not the wearer. And today’s just been without that force. If I hadn’t bought a ticket for a 6 pm museum slot, I might not have left the house at all.

But it turns out it’s… great. They’re playing Peter Murphy when I walk in, which I appreciate. I talk to one employee about shared California backgrounds, about changing mask mandates, about how cute my hair is. (Telling me my hair is great is a wonderful way to get off on the right foot with me.) And then I try on things and they’re… really good. A couple things will be good for work, once that’s a thing again and I once again get the chance to be the resident Office Character, but the silver vinyl zip-up top and the black one with boning and a couple dozen hooks and eyes will probably be only and exclusively worn out dancing. (Probably.) I am reasonably sure I’ve never deliberately bought clothes specifically for clubbing before. It took me a while, but here I am. When I check out, I have a fun conversation with the other person working there – about hair dye being discontinued, about what you can and can’t depend on. I walk out with a bag of fancy new things and a smile.

I go hang out in Tompkins Square Park for a little while to kill some time, just listening to people and reading. When it’s time, I head north to Fotografiska NYC, a New York location of a photography museum in Stockholm that I loved. This one’s great too – they’re trying to straddle Serious Museum with “you can get a drink from the bar and take it with you” (which is what I was told when I walked in). I see Tom of Finland’s photographs, some with the sketches they inspired. I see wild, bright, surreal, and rather wonderful photos from Miles Aldridge, which I love, but alas, his books are expensive – the one I pick up is $420. (I put it down quickly and carefully.) Stunning photos from a famous Houston strip club by Adrienne Raquel, beautiful explorations of a relationship and gender roles from Pixy Liao, and an inquisitive look at the collision of international fashion from Hassan Hajjaj. I loved it, and it was worth leaving the house for.

I hang around Madison Square Park for a while after, on the phone, watching people eat Shake Shack. After, I walk to the Peter McManus Cafe, a suggestion from my friend who used to live near it. Not McSorley’s, he said – go for the real thing. Since I’m only eating outside, “real” is relative, so I order my cider and veggie burger at the bar and get them at the al fresco dining shack across the sidewalk. But I see it, and I like it, and I learn it was the bar in Highlander. The bartender has that serious air about him that I like in people who do his job; he genuinely just wants everything to work well. He’s very earnest when he asks me if everything was ok. And it was.

After, I walk back north, intending to finally get that shake… but Shake Shack closed early tonight for building work. Oh well. I go home instead, still carrying my bag of new clothes, via a trek that includes four wrong subway entrances before I find the single correct one and then get on a train that goes only one stop before going out of service. But I get back to Fort Greene eventually, and I get a cookies-and-cream ice cream bar at the bodega on the corner before I go back to my Airbnb.

Tomorrow is my last full day. It came fast and also took a beautiful forever to get here. I’ve already decided I’m coming back here for a couple weeks in the spring. I think I decided that on about day two, really, wordlessly and deep inside of me, once the initial OMG PEOPLE terror began to wane, and dormant parts of me started to come back to life.

trees wrapped in red cloth with white polka dots

Day fourteen

The day of public transit and infinite pumpkins. I put today’s outing so late in the trip because I wanted to build up to long journeys across public transit and also because it was the first day the infinite mirror room was available. Today, I went from Brooklyn to the Bronx to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s not the worst trek, but it’s a long ride on the 5 and then a bus, and if today is any indication, buses in the Bronx are a whole thing I’m not excited to do again.

The exhibits, however, are just right. All joy and sparkle and brightness and color and whimsy and untethered imagination. Setting them in the garden worked perfectly. The way they managed access and crowds worked perfectly. I don’t think I could’ve picked a better finale for this trip.

On the way back, I sit next to a gentleman in a beautiful war bonnet, all black and teal feathers. Sharing a bench on the train, I felt like we could’ve been another “this is the future liberals want” picture. I love New York.

That night, I go to one last brass night at Barbés, a last hurrah before I go home and quarantine until I get a clear covid test. On the way home, I order an omelet online from the one-block-further bodega, the one open 24 hours. When I walk in, I join two cops, a guy talking fast about how the cigarettes weren’t for him, and another guy just loitering in the way people sometimes do when it’s one am and you’re in a convenience store. “Hello, lady!!!” the cashier greets me. He has my omelet. I speed home. Late dinner or early breakfast? Or maybe just both.

Day fifteen

The day of endings. My flight isn’t until seven, so I have some time to go do things. My hosts are kind enough to let me leave my stuff at their apartment, so I fly untethered. First I go to the Museum of Chinese in America, which I didn’t make it to last week. It’s good and dense, and a friend gave me a couple things to look for that figure into her family history, which added a lovely dimension to things. I walk around reading for an hour and emerge to a protest, which I learn is scheduled twice weekly, that has to do with management and funding. More dimensions. From there, I wander around a little before taking the subway north to Madison Square Park, because I really want that shake. Alas, the line is predictably long, and it’s not to be. (This is not wildly upsetting; Oakland has a Shake Shack now too, and this is more reason to make myself go there.) Instead, I walk across the street to Eataly and get a pizza, which I eat back in the park as I write some last postcards.

I am aware (and have it confirmed later) that I could stay another hour there, but I also know how I feel on travel days; going to a museum and having lunch out without feeling out of my mind is enough achievement. So I get back on the subway, go collect my stuff, and take the LIRR to JFK. I considered taking a car, trying to be nice to myself again, but the price would have been over a hundred dollars – no thank you. Instead, I end up on the train, listening to three guys who have a look of construction or maybe electrician to them talk. Deep New York accents, jokes about cramming themselves into Priuses when they get rides between jobs. I’m travel jittery, but they’re a joy to listen to.

JFK is kind of my least-favorite airport, largely because of a really terrible international connection there in 2013, but it’s… fine. I get incredibly dodgy pad Thai for late lunch. I try to mentally prepare myself to go home but realize I kinda can’t, and that’s ok. Mostly, I just wait.

After the flight, I encounter a bunch of weird SFO problems in trying to just get to BART and then have the single worst BART ride of my life on the way home. It’s a hell of a thing to spend a couple of weeks feeling very independent and steady (though that’s mostly just money; I have money, therefore New York is of a manageable scale to me) and then to reenter the familiar and find myself terrified of one shitty dude. But I make it home, and I wonder what it’ll be to reacclimate. Remind myself that I don’t actually believe in signs. Remind myself that I’ll probably be just fine. I most always am.

But I wonder, once again, where home is now and what that means in this era. To be determined.

a yellow sign reading "END" in front of a waterfront, with the New York skyline beyond it

How to vacation during a pandemic: week one

There are extremely valid reasons to not do this kind of travel in this era. Here’s why I did.

  1. I booked it when things were a little calmer, before infections rose again and we had Delta Variant feelings. So it goes. I also paid extra for direct flights in the interest of less exposure (and potential exposing).
  2. I was particularly cautious about what I did in the two weeks before I left. None of this stuff – only necessary errands, carried out in exactly the same way I did in, say, October 2020 and other similarly dire pre-vax periods. I wanted so badly to go out dancing, but I couldn’t justify it when I knew I’d be crossing the country soon, when other people would be in proximity to me without the ability to consent to the risks I’ve opted into.
  3. I was going from the Bay Area to New York, which have similar vaccination rates. This was very important to me both for my own safety and for people I’d encounter.
  4. Even so, I was, if anything, even more zealous with masks while I was there. Sometimes, especially late evenings in the Lower East Side, I was the only person wearing one. I reasoned that the biggest benefit of a mask is specifically to protect people from my California cooties. I don’t mind looking paranoid if it keeps other people safer. I’ve been the dork in a room before and will be again.
  5. A lot of my activities and all of my meals were outside.
  6. I gravitated toward Official Tourist Activities where masks and vaccinations were required. These let me relax. Bless you, Tenement Museum.
  7. If I didn’t do something other than existing in north Oakland for another several months, I was absolutely going to lose my entire fucking shit.

I’m a security engineer and believe in harm reduction over goals of perfection we’ll never live up to. I took the trip.

a painting of a Dala horse on a building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day one

I arrive at JFK in the early evening, just in time for a sudden rainfall to reduce the west coast smoke that preceded me here. I had hoped this trip might help me duck some of the fire and smoke back in Oakland, so seeing those hazy pictures ahead of my arrival was a disappointment. But when I arrive, the air is wet and fresh and heavy. Alive.

I’ve only slept for 4.5 hours, so my subway ride into the city is a little surreal, my rumpled self draped immobile and sweaty around my bags as my brain begins what will be a constant practice during this trip: seizing on all the small details of the people around me. I’ve always done this, and in fact love it, but after so many months of not being able to immerse myself in other people, my brain starves for this in a way that makes it not an entirely voluntary activity.

I promised myself I didn’t have to go out on my first night unless I really wanted to, and that was before I realized how little sleep I’d get on my travel day. I summon Chinese food to my hotel room, eat most of it, and pass out for nine hours.

feet in sandals below a blue-and-white-dress next to a social distancing floor sticker

Day two

Since I’m still getting used to this “no longer in my living room” thing, I kept my plans modest for my first full day. I do well when I tell myself things like, “Do this one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” This applies for activities like preparing for job interviews, but it also applies to fun that I know could stress me out.

I order a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters to pick up, which I eat in bed. An everything bagel with lots of poppy seeds is, I will say, an interesting choice of bed food, but here we are. I eat it while I start my work during London Writers’ Hour. After, I take a walk around the neighborhood, get a coffee, and go on a Tenement Museum tour. I chose Finding Home, which takes us into a recreation of two eras of a tenement apartment, one from when a Jewish family moved into it just after World War II, and the other from a later era when a Puerto Rican family moves in. Everything feels connected to my awakening brain, so an hour-plus of a super-informed guide augmented by tales from several older Jewish New Yorkers on the tour just makes the synapses sparkle. I feel so lucky.

I go back to the hotel to decompress a little and realize that my occasional travel problem of sorting out food in a timely way is extremely likely to be an issue on this trip. I make myself go out and get a veg burger, which I even eat outside, before going back to the hotel for my online appointment with my therapist. I stay in bed and think and write and read until I realize, again, the food thing is an issue, and I dress up a little and shove myself outside. What I didn’t anticipate was that Thursday in the Lower East Side is basically Friday. Almost all the outdoor tables at restaurants are full, and the sidewalks are crammed with the young and drunk.

This is a lot for me right now.

I wander around for more than 25 minutes, coming up empty-handed, vowing to make more reservations if I’m so hellbent on going out to eat in the future. Finally I spot a couple empty tables at an Italian restaurant with a stunning indoor bar, all twinkle lights along the ceiling, just a glittering golden oasis of possible inebriation that I cannot go into right now. I stuff myself with burrata and cheese-filled shells. I listen to the table next to me having a fairly ruthless and joyless political argument, a European lecturing an American and being what I think is correct but also pretty exhausting about it. I see people ten-odd years younger than me thrilling to their own hot vaxxed summers, coming within six inches of my sidewalk table.

I resolve that I do not need to go out for dinner tomorrow if I don’t want to.

Day three

I set an alarm and head for my time slot at MOMA. I have a Clif bar for technical breakfast and then, after saying hello to “Starry Night” and some other lovely things, I eat macaroni and cheese at their Terrace Cafe. It’s overcast and soft when I go outside, but the sky laser turns up to 11 approximately 30 seconds after I order. Like any common vampire, I cover myself in the large light scarf I usually have on me, and thus I survive to see the rest of the museum.

After, I walk north into Central Park, meaning to amble toward Bethesda Terrace in a roundabout way. I see dogs and read bench plaques. I see bike rickshaws, so many bike rickshaws, plus those tourist carriages and dozens of aggressive cyclists. And it’s wonderful. I dressed light, so I’m not dying from the humidity. I’m kind of wondering what my hair looks like, but I’m not uncomfortable. I get to my destination and sit on the cool stone ledge inside to write, listening to a guy playing the duxianqin, mixing the more traditional stuff you hear from one of those with things like the theme to The Godfather. I watch people selfie (the true theme of the day; MOMA was constant shit for the ‘gram, in a way I found more melancholy than annoying), I watch a guy making giant bubbles with one of those rope wands, I watch people living out their Real New York City Experiences, and I feel fairly content. I get up after a while and walk further through the park. A bit later, it begins to rain.

I haven’t felt soft summer rain in a long time. California doesn’t really have that: rain the same temperature as your skin, that feels like it grows things, like encouragement. My bag is full of moisture-averse things like my journal and the museum postcards I bought, so I can’t exactly luxuriate in it. I end up walking down Fifth Avenue, hopping from the shelter of one tree to another, until I end up under a Bergdorf Goodman awning and realize I’m close to the train back to my hotel. I wrap that sun-shielding scarf around my head, draping it over my bag, and make my way there, getting to the platform just as my train pulls up.

True to my word to myself, I get home and hang out for a while before getting crepes from the little shop across the street from my hotel. It stays open until two, and the crepes are exactly what I want. I do my daily writing. I do my first batch of sink laundry. And after I stayed outside for seven whole hours without having a pandemic agoraphobia-induced panic attack, I start to make more plans.

It feels safe to make more plans.

a mural of the Notorious B.I.G. on the Brooklyn Love building

Day four

I keep staying up later than I mean to. It’d be easy to blame this on time zones, but the reality is that I have a Kindle full of excellent library books and zero ability to cut myself off of anything joyful at this point, even if I know it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow. Last night, I stayed up past three finishing The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which was described to me as a warm hug, and it delivered. This meant, however, that getting up with my 11:30 alarm was… pushing it. I finally lumbered out of my hotel room around 12:45 (after washing my hair, because I’m rediscovering how curly hair works in humidity) and walked to Tompkins Square Bagels to grab breakfast and lunch, which I took to Battery Park to meet friends. “Meet us by the Seaglass Carousel” were the magical instructions, and I found a shady bench and devoured my nova lox bagel like any common large sea mammal. I came here to try to see what it’s like to live, and sitting in a park with friends, watching Zelda the dog roll ecstatically in the grass and try to eat mango, then walking back to my hotel with one of said friends, weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood, stopping to buy fruit at a sidewalk table, seeing layers of city give way to each other… it’s good. It’s very good. This could be your life, my soul whispers to me. I know, I whisper back.

I collapse back at the hotel, diminished after hours of sweating, before resurrecting myself to go out to dinner. It’s month-long restaurant week here (ok!), and I found a place around the corner with a prix fixe menu that includes both shrimp risotto and panna cotta (I fucking love panna cotta; a useful thing to know about me, because now you know to keep your hands away from my mouth and dessert when it’s on the table). It takes a good 15 minutes for someone to take my order, which is five minutes less than my limit for waiting on that kind of thing. The Lower East Side, it turns out, makes me feel very on the outside. I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way, having been a weird kid for many many years now, but I’m not accustomed to being among people again yet, so it’s a little difficult. I sit alone at a four-top with another excellent book, content enough, but feeling outside, as I’m surrounded by friend groups fueling up for a night out (with both food and, in the case of some table neighbors, rounds of tequila shots). I have no problem eating alone, but eating alone at a place that’s all about large groups is a slightly different situation. I order champagne, because yay me, but am informed they only have rosé champagne that night. Oh no, not that. I say that’s fine, but the waiter brings me regular champagne and then a bonus on-the-house glass of the rosé, with a wink of that particular kind that comes from a career waiter. It feels like extra oxygen in the room to be visible and judged worthy of a little kindness and delight. The panna cotta is excellent too.

He comps me another glass of champagne with my check. I tip well and happily. I am very happy to be seen as that woman who dines alone and warrants champagne.

mural of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day five

I stayed up late last night, waiting for the champagne to work its way out of me, and then decided at 2:30 am that it was definitely time to do a first revision/editing pass on that printed-out short story I brought with me, and so I give myself the gift of sleeping as late as I damn well please. I emerge from my hotel just before three and walk back to my favorite East Village bagel shop. The ice melts in my coffee before I get to Tompkins Square Park to eat them, but fortunately, the coffee is mostly gone by then too. I am relieved that travel’s magical transmuting quality on coffee still works for me. At home, it’d give me an elevated heart rate and a sense of vague danger; elsewhere, it provides more of that awake/alive/ready feeling that seems normal for a lot of people.

I find a place on the lawn to eat, drink my lemonade, and write in my journal a little. A cover band plays mostly Beatles songs, and excellently, with one single deviation with an Eagles song, for which I can forgive them. I smell weed and watch dogs try to chase squirrels and see everyone in their shared yard in public. I realize I’m too warm to eat more, so I stop at half a nova lox bagel. It will be the last thing I eat for more than six hours, well into the evening.

I need to get to the Upper West Side, and I screw the directions up a little, somehow missing the stop on Houston I sought. Instead, I end up walking a long, warm mile and a half, mostly avoiding the sun for all the good it did me, arriving at the next station approximately seven hours later (meaning probably 30 minutes) and certainly down a pint of the humors I need to keep me alive. Seriously, I become a freaking lawn sprinkler as I wait on the platform. I know it’s gross when my shins are sweating. The train I needed pulled away as I stepped onto the platform, so I have the longest wait possible, 13 minutes to stand in the shared sauna, breathing deeply and reminding myself that suffering is as transient as joy. The AC of the train is a balm, is an absolution, is a reminder that maybe I’ll live to see another day.

I get to my destination at least 30 minutes later than I’d intended, just long enough to talk to my boyfriend and spot a minivan with the license plate 1-HOTMOM parked outside. I’m there for a performance of Twelfth Night at a community garden on 89th Street.

“I, uh, didn’t know you liked Shakespeare,” Sean says as I talk to him before going through the gate to find a seat. “You’ve never seemed especially interested when I’ve proposed it.”

“I’m not when there are more options,” I tell him. “But I like seeing theater when I come to New York, so I like it just fine when it’s one of the few outdoor performances happening.”

It’s a lot of fun to watch. My attention span remains spotty and unpredictable after all that time in my apartment, and I watch some and drift away in my mind some, going back and forth, but enjoying the performances. I like a whimsical interpretation of a Shakespearean comedy. They do a nice job, and I’m glad I stumbled onto it online. The president of the garden sits next to me sometimes, on the edge of a planter, and we both have hand fans in motion most of the time.

After, I go get dinner at the Mermaid Inn, where I drink almost two liters of ice water. I eat a giant pile of kale, because one of my weekly goals is to try to get more salad. (My last few days were more bagel-based than is ideal.) They bring me a little surprise chocolate pot to finish things up, and I feel blessed by waiters again.

After, I wander down Amsterdam and into some of the more residential blocks. I have to figure out where a character of mine lives, and I take pictures of front doors of likely looking places. It’s interesting roaming around an area I kind of know but who someone I’ve invented knows very well. May I recommend writing a novel set somewhere else and then going there? It’s a new kind of orientation, the imagination overlaying the half-familiar.

I walk down to 60th, frown at the people taking stupid selfies in front of the shitty former president’s shitty hotel (I mean, seriously, still?), and duck onto the subway. Some deeply odious bros are being exactly as you’d expect, and I put my headphones on for the first time since the plane here. Lots of things are easier with an application of Nine Inch Nails.

I arrive home and discover new blisters on my left foot in places I generally don’t get them. It’s good; it means I’ve been walking a ton, one of my primary goals for this trip. But it also means that tomorrow’s a great day to try to take it a little easier physically.

Day six

In fact, I take the day off.

I get up before 11 to do London Writers’ Hour while eating a bagel from yesterday. After I get my words done, I realize I’m still zonked, so I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, having those shallow, vivid dreams that pop up sometimes with out-of-band, uncertain sleep. Between my feet being kind of fucked and the fact that it’s somehow warmer out today than yesterday, I realize that the best, most honest approximation of living here today is… staying the hell inside. I eat longan for the first time, piercing their shells with my incisors before shelling them and spitting the dark seeds into my crepe bag from several nights ago. I write and catch up on neglected emails and responses on Slack and Twitter. I wash my hair after all the sweaty hours of yesterday and get to let it dry before I go outside. I do the next London Writers’ Hour and work on some editing.

If this were a week-long vacation, it would feel like such a massive squandering of time, but I’m realizing that this is the luxury of a longer trip: I can just veg sometimes and be a person who gets tired and needs a moment. If I’d gone outside today, I might’ve forced myself through a couple hours at the Met or some other museum that I probably would have liked well enough but which didn’t really sing to me today. Anyway, it’s Monday, and lots of cultural things are closed. Instead, I’m letting my body rest a little, limiting the push of sharp, sharp summer on soft, pale limbs that really aren’t into marching around in 90-degree heat and sweltering sun. I’m starting to understand what it would be like for me to live in New York in the summer: I’d do less some days, like you always do if you’re just home. It’d be easier if I could just go see a movie or luxuriate in restaurant AC, but I’m not doing either of those things right now, so my options for climate control are my hotel room, the subway, and museums. Instead, I stay inside, and it’s just right.

In the evening, I take two trains over to Fort Greene to meet online friends for German beer, and it’s nice to just sit and talk and exist with people who have at least a little context of who I am. I love this version of traveling: a couple of days to wander and feel only barely tethered to the world, then getting to see friends and be a person in the context of the rest of my life for a little while. We talk hacking things and security conferences and mutual friends. (It’s security; there are always mutual friends.) When I go home, I’m able to make the return trip without consulting my phone. Not the most complicated route, but it’s just such a joy to be able to figure things out again for fun reasons. A memory of letters and colors, understanding what the endpoints on the trains mean, and getting to be just another blase person on the subway platform.

I realized during dinner that I seem to have walked off the unhelpful portion of my “I am among people, oh shit!!!” anxiety, leaving only the useful stuff (masks inside, a general disinterest in unsafe indoor things and people). I book a ticket for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and am surprised at how excited I am. This kind of unadulterated looking forward to stuff has been largely out of reach for the last pandemic length of time. Always, some part of myself had to be left on the shelf in order to emotionally survive things. What a gift it is to look at even one thing without that weight sitting across my shoulders.

I learn during dinner that the place I’m staying in the Lower East Side sits neatly within what’s called Hell Square.

This explains some things.

Day seven

For my last full day staying in Manhattan, I go to… Staten Island.

I’ve meant to take the ferry for my last several visits to the city, but do you know, it’s really easy to just keep not doing that. Not until a friend mentioned the Alice Austen House did I have the double-barreled reason to actually go. I book a 1 pm tour, set an alarm, and spend the last hour of the morning making my way to the ferry. On the other side, I get a bus down Bay Street to the museum.

It overlooks the water, and it’s fitting to learn about Austen’s work there, because she documented so much local stuff: street life in Manhattan in the late 1800s, quarantine islands in the same era, and her robust social life, which seemed to be full of sardonic nerds. I like them immediately.

Lobster Newburg recipe typed on a card
Alice and Gertrude bribed the chef at Delmonico’s $75 for this recipe and never really recouped the money. You can enjoy it for free.

When I get back to the hotel, I give myself the gift of a couple hours in the AC before I go out, eating an egg salad sandwich from Pret-a-Manger in bed to tide me over before fancy dinner.

My new favorite kind of bar is the kind that wants to see my vax card. It doesn’t fix everything, as we know, but it’s harm reduction, which will do. The room at the back of the bar in Brooklyn is small, probably the size of my living room and bedroom put together. Mambembe is a ten-person ensemble (that night, anyway) that takes up between half and two-thirds of the space. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel the strike of a drum in my bones, going resonant through my ribcage. Turns out it’s everything. New Heights Brass Band is all women, and their solos, I just… I get FEELINGS much more easily right now than I usually do, and I found myself on the edge of tears at a guitar solo during an arrangement of “Genie in a Bottle”, to say nothing of all the other actual brass solos.

I am not the same as I was, and in some ways, that’s pretty ok.

I dance and I dance and I dance, and I drink pulque that even the bartender didn’t realize was on their bottle list, and the bar staff is extremely kind, and everyone’s so glad to be there. Including me.

a lightbulb sticks out of a Supremes record

I take the subway back for my last night in my hotel, and I’m struck again at how simple it is: how frequent the trains are, how clear everything is, how stuff just works. I’ve been here enough to know that’s not always the case, but I am pretty sure it often is, and for someone who has gone through elaborate thinking to figure out how to get from Rockridge to Ashby via BART without wanting to tear things apart or wait a pointless 28 minutes for a transfer, that is everything.

Tomorrow brings trip part two: the Brooklyn-based days. I cannot wait.

This… MEANS Something (to me, anyway)

It turns out that if you spend the vast majority of an entire sixteen-month span of your life in the same three rooms, moving yourself very far from that context absolutely floods the brain.

And it turns out that, if you’re in the state of being where “I saw a person” still feels like a riveting story, putting yourself in a place with roughly eight million people means that every one-hour span feels like an entire thick-ass anthology of flash fiction.

Including…

The skinny young guy, mask below his nose, on the phone, sticker still on his snapback hat, who got up from sitting on the subway by lifting himself just enough to put his hand on the rail above him to pull himself to standing using only his arm strength.

Another young guy, this one sitting next to me on the train, clad in brilliantly teal scrubs, who told his friend on the phone about his series of upcoming night shifts. He collapsed slightly onto the rail next to him as he awaited his stop during our long trip on the J. I’d had 4.5 hours of sleep before approximately eleven hours of travel, so I felt a quiet kinship with him.

The lanky 14-year-old on my Tenement Museum tour who, when we were all told to stand somewhere so we could see the subtitles on the TV showing the video interview of the apartment’s former tenant, walked into the middle of the room of twelve other people on the tour, blocking the view of at least two-thirds of us. When I tapped him on the shoulder and made a hand gesture that meant, roughly, “Other people exist, young squire,” he scurried to the side in understanding. Thanks, my guy. You’ll get there.

The trio of older New Yorkers on the tour, city accents gloriously deep and rich, all of whom had stories to add about the Jewish and Puerto Rican families’ experiences we were discussing. One was using WhatsApp in Hebrew in breaks between the guide’s stories. Another was involved in developing the first ESL curriculum in local schools in the early 60s.

Every counter person or cashier I’ve dealt with, all of whom have exuded east coast kindness (in contrast to west coast nice). I think this is my favorite thing about the east coast and what I miss the most, though the west coast version usually gets me by, just without this particular spectrum of heartwarming feelings. Give me brusque and actually concerned when I’m in need any day.

The man in painters’ whites, sitting on a literal pile of metal ladders on the sidewalk, looking fully at ease as he chats on the phone in a gently reclined position, despite being on something barely more comfortable than a stack of loose Legos or perhaps an actual cactus.

The bench dedicated to Kamari the dog on the west side of Central Park, next to which crouched the single fluffiest, best-groomed, freshly blown-out Golden Retriever I will ever see in my life.

The woman who stopped to ask me, as I sat next to the lake in Central Park, if I was from there. “Alas, no.” I said. “Why?” She turned to look over her shoulder. “We want to know what that is.” She pointed to a tall building that stretched above the trees, its corners each graced with elaborate enough toppers that they could each be a monument. “Well,” I told her, “now I want to know what it is too.” I looked it up later and found out that it’s The Beresford, which has just as many notable residents (Diana Ross, Meyer Lansky, and Helen Gurley Brown???) as its fabulous exterior deserves.

The people I huddled next to under a Bergdorf Goodman awning as we waited to see if the soft summer rain would let up or turn into a proper downpour. One of them was a cop, and I tried to spy on the beat report he was writing, but I was too distracted with figuring out how to get my cloth bag full of my journal and postcards safely indoors to concentrate.

Remembering how you can end up in a cohort of sorts of other museum visitors, which can be delightful or deeply, deeply irritating. Particularly as none of us seem to remember how to maneuver through crowds anymore. If ever we did.

The gothest horse and carriage along Central Park, all purple-and-black ostrich feathers and studded black leather tack.

The middle-aged guy with long curly hair and a beard – Sammy Hagar type, let’s say – riding a city bike around the Seaglass Carousel at Battery Park. “Woooooow,” I hear him say as he circles it. On the next rotation: “It’s so pretty.” I don’t see him again, but I hope so hard that he got to ride it, because it was indeed so pretty, because we’re guaranteed nothing in this life, and exchanging a few bucks for such guaranteed joy is an excellent investment. Grown-ass people can ride carousels too. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t. (Answer: I hadn’t had breakfast yet and had a bagel with nova lox waiting for me in my bag.)

The buff man in a surgical mask who stands, arms crossed, in front of the bar entrance next to the restaurant I have dinner at. He deals with group after group of young women in tiny dresses, in airy dresses, in sparkling sandals, in brand-new eight-eyelet Docs, checking IDs, letting them through, and being a traffic controller in a night that’s sure to need a lot of it.

The member of the acting troupe who stepped in at the last minute after one of the troupe tested positive for covid, despite being vaccinated, who had to occasionally consult the copy of Twelfth Night he held, but often didn’t. Everyone coming together to put on a play in a garden in the Upper West Side. All of us sitting and beholding the product of collaboration. Also the people who occasionally were clearly just taking a shortcut through the garden, slowing their walk for a moment to figure out exactly what the hell was going on.

And the always-at-least-slightly-sweaty tourist in the black shirt and rust-colored backpack, eyes wide, taking all of it in while she can, because the return flight comes a little bit closer every day.

Post-Pandemic Vacation Planning, Actual Leisure, and Threat Modeling

What does it even mean to plan a vacation for pleasure after more than a year where we felt like being outside your home was the most dangerous thing?

I’ve planned two-week trips before. I’ve planned many trips to New York. I’ve planned solo trips, unstructured trips full of wandering, and trips meant to answer some kind of built-up longing.

My upcoming trip is all of these things, and yet this is new.

What is it to just be starting to leave the house again, to retrain my brain to not think that BART cars and other enclosed spaces are shared incubators of guaranteed death, only to immediately go to one of the most populated cities in the world?

Difficult, I’d say. And also as necessary as anything has been for the last year.

*

For this trip, I wanted to try existing in New York in an ordinary, “I live here, actually” kind of way. During my last longer stay there, I split an apartment in the Upper West Side for a week with my friend who lived in Astoria for many years, who was always a commuter train ride away even once she had to leave the city. I’ve never been there without that backup. I have other friends there, but the focus won’t be the same.

This time, I’m going to spend a week in the Lower East Side and then a week in Fort Greene, at the advice of another friend who used to live there. I think highly of Astoria, but my visits to New York were based there for more than a decade. A fact-finding mission needed to be based elsewhere.

For the second week, I’m pretty sure I’ll have relaxed enough to stay in a bedroom in someone’s apartment – or I certainly hope so, because that is what I’m doing. After a week bouncing around the city, I will have gotten used to some things. But upon arrival, after hours and hours in airports and a sky tube and all this proximity, I assume that I’ll be essentially broken. I did manage to find one of the only flights from SFO to JFK that didn’t leave at either 7 am or 11 pm, so I’m not destroying myself (AGAIN) with a red-eye flight or one that’s so early it might as well be. But after six hours in a plane following 15 months in my apartment and almost only in my apartment (with a handful of exceptions), I’ll be wrecked. And heading from that into a stranger’s apartment is too much. My first week will be in a modest li’l hotel, and that is fine.

I realized that the following things will be especially important on this early voyage back into the world:

  1. A door that closes and that no one will come through. A ton of Manhattan Airbnbs had a single bathroom accessed either through the guest’s room or host’s room, and while I understand what’s up with this, I also know that my tolerance for risk and weirdness will be bottomed out upon arrival and likely won’t replenish fast enough to make this something I can deal with.
  2. A reasonably predictable situation, which sleeping in someone’s living room, rules for where snacks may and may not be eaten, a living room full of forbidden exercise equipment but no furniture, or sleeping behind a curtain do not permit. Yes, these are all real examples of options I (briefly) considered.
  3. A place to stay where, if it does take me until 4 pm the day after I arrive to reemerge into the world – not unheard of for me on first days of trips – it won’t be observed, keep anyone from having a pee, or otherwise affect anyone except me.

I’ve always tried to minimize strife when planning trips, working to balance that with budget concerns so I can do more for less. Rarely, though, has the definition of strife included “I want to do everything I can to ensure I don’t end up hiding under a blanket, wishing I was back home.”

*

A central part of my job is threat modeling, which means considering a system (either built or just planned) and figuring out where risk lies and what those possible risks might be. With something like a website, some of the risk comes from anything that takes in text or other parameters. You can mess with the servers behind them by putting in input that does weird stuff to databases, or you can compromise other users by sending them links with parameters that make things misbehave. You can overwhelm an unprotected server with traffic, taking it offline. What systems does it connect to? What data does it present or allow users to update? These are all things to consider.

I like threat modeling, and it’s been an interesting era to have cultivated this skill. Now I threat model myself. What happens with my own vulnerable system once I go somewhere new, full of new inputs and uncertain motivations?

I can address some: I’m still being cautious, but my antibodies should have reached full strength more than a month ago, so my caution is mostly for the benefit of other people as we scramble to figure out exactly what the risk of transmission is with new variants as a vaccinated person among people with compromised immune systems or other risks. I’ve been figuring out how I want to work within those risks and trying to err on the side of being conservative. I decided to not go out for the two weeks leading up to this trip because the chance of dragging some California variant across the country to an unsuspecting city felt like an unforgivable risk.

And then there are the others.

The brain-breaking people fear, old social anxiety amped up by a lack of practice and so many months of stranger danger, all this aquarium living. How I know handling necessary things, like feeding myself in an unfamiliar place, gets more complicated when I’m freaked out. And then the ever-present curiosity of whether I’ll return to not trusting said vaccination, which has nothing to do with the vax itself and everything to do with this being the first time I’ve had a vaccination for a current and newly arisen concern rather than a piece of distant-to-me history, a new kind of trust fall.

As with websites and servers and networks, there are mitigations. I’m getting out among people a bit before taking the big plunge. I’ll bring snacks with me, and I’ll plan at least a couple of meals for my first full day there, so my decisions will be fewer as I adjust. And the last?

No system can be perfectly secured. Eventually, you just have to go live and plan to respond to any incidents that come up.

With travel in other years, I depended on my reliable love for leaping into the unknown. Things would be awkward sometimes, because I would need to learn things as I went, but in the end, they’d all be good stories. This was, I learned in 2020, the difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a thing to vanquish, to push against and congratulate yourself on your bravery.

Fear is different. I understand that better now. It reminds me of this amazing article about Airbnb trying to make headway into Japan, only to discover that different cultures weigh risk and uncertainty differently. I used to have an American risk tolerance, all acceptance of failure and encouragement to try again and again, but I find myself feeling more like many of the Japanese people in that article now. I assume that’ll diminish, but I can’t guess when.

I used to consider myself brave in what turned out to be a fairly flimsy definition of the word—harmless, generally, but not something that stood up well in the most recent era. And my ability to rely on that quality has taken a beating in the samey-same last year-plus of living, this cheap cartoon repeating background version of life, this phase where “I saw a person” becomes an anecdote worth relaying, this era where donating blood is fascinating enough that it fuels more than an hour of excited conversation.

What else is there to do, really, but fling myself into one of the biggest cities in the world? I can be mindful of what I know, understand that the problems I can’t predict can probably either be dealt with by throwing money at it or running away to regroup, and trust that my old instincts are somewhere in there.

And if not, and you happen to see a story about a pink-haired NYC tourist who absolutely lost her shit in a newsworthy way? Spare a little kindness before you keep scrolling.

Tentative Hibernation Emergence: a Selection of Recent Social Encounters

I am at my first indoor social event since March 2020. My date/quarantine buddy goes to the toilets. I stand next to the bleachers in this space in Westfield Center that’s done up like a pretend gym hosting a pretend prom, watching people dance and figuring out how I feel being by myself in a place that isn’t my apartment. I decide I’m content, alone among strangers.

A woman in a pink wig turns to me. “I have too many jello shots,” she tells me, raising her voice over Boy George. “Would you like one?” It’s not that I’ve spoken to zero strangers in the last year-plus, but it’s been rare, and I was never exceptionally good at this even when things were ok. I say yes to the jello shot. “It’s really stuck in there,” she tells me. “You need to loosen it up with your tongue or a finger.”

This is a lot of information for me. I run a finger around the edge of the jello shot, trying and failing to remember what that finger might have touched in the previous 30-odd minutes, and then tip the entire thing into my mouth. While I chew it, my brain starts to try to figure everything out. Is this the start of a conversation? Are we talking? What is the expectation? What do I actually want?

My body decides my exit, because I am now holding an object that needs to be disposed of. I’ve spent so long in my apartment, where there are no surprise objects of uncertainty, so obviously the best thing is to go throw it away right now. I cross the space to the recycling bins, deposit the plastic cup and its lid, and stop. Holy shit, the compulsion I had to deal with this stray object. It feels like an irresistible force, so much that it overrode the “what do I even do here” social anxiety. I come back to myself by the trash cans, empty-handed, wondering exactly how abrupt I was without meaning to be.

*

I walk down Telegraph in Temescal here in Oakland, heading to BART. I am not wearing a mask, which is safe but still feels so novel. A man walks toward me. He’s ten-odd years older than I am and has that casual feeling of belonging about him that always makes me think people were born here. He gives me a nod and a small smile. I nod back at him – I like the nod – and to my surprise, I break out into a really big smile. It surprises him too, and he grins back.

It’s been so long since all of my face was visible in public on the regular. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to give that small, easy, “Hey, hope your day’s good” kind of expression at people I don’t know. I’m visibly female in public, so smiling, particularly at men I don’t know, isn’t a simple order of operations. But this felt good, like a ray of sun emerging through clouds. I think we made each other’s day better, and I like that so much.

*

The same afternoon, I wait for BART at MacArthur. I left a little early to walk to the station that’s a bit further from me so I can get to the Richmond train without a transfer, and there’s a train delay, so I have almost 20 minutes to wait. I write in my journal and enjoy the breeze from the highway. Warm; silty; nice only because I like cities and density.

A man sits next to me, another one of us in a row, all of us at least four feet apart. He waves at me, and I reluctantly take off my headphones. “I like your toenail color,” he says. He’s right to: it’s really good, a glittery magenta I bought from an Instagram ad. “Thanks so much,” I reply. He’s managed to comment on something fairly intimate without making it weird. Not all men (hashtag) have this skill. I leave my headphones off one ear for a minute to see if this is going anywhere, hoping it doesn’t. He gets up for his train a couple minutes later, and it’s clear that will be that.

It’s very strange being visible in public again. Everything was a private matter for so long, in the way of wealthy Georgian ladies and the gowns worn only in the house. Now there are public clothes again, and I’m not sure how to manage that yet. This is a reminder: I do reflect light, I am composed of solid matter, I do leave the house, and I will have to budget energy to deal with interactions I can’t predict.

The train arrives and overshoots the platform by an entire car. We all look at each other, quizzical eyebrows over striped masks, Raiders masks, solid-colored masks, surgical masks, wondering what tf is going on, what’s with this conductor, is the train going to back up or nah? It’s a moment of togetherness after so much being apart, united by irritation and disapproval. It feels like home.

*

Another day, I’m taking BART toward downtown to meet a friend for patio dinner. I get into the first car and see that no one else is there. Private transportation. I take a couple dorky selfies to commemorate it. When we stop at the next station, the conductor comes out from behind his door to wake someone up. I wasn’t alone after all; a woman was slouched across one of the bench seats, and he’s come out to tell her this is her stop. She groggily collects her stuff and walks off the train.

We pause to do a transfer, long enough that she walks onto the other train, stays there for a minute, walks back out and across the platform to my train to get something she left, and then emerges onto the platform again only to watch the train on the other side pull out.

I’d forgotten these little moments of triumph and despair. The bus you didn’t catch, the train leaving in front of you, the joys and sorrows of parking, lines for restaurants. We used to see each other so much more.

*

I get my hair cut for the first time in seventeen months. I have curly hair and am not extremely particular, so this could’ve been a great era for punky, choppy bobs and the like, the best of home haircuts and nothing to lose, but I opted for the inverse of something a messageboard I once belonged to would say whenever anyone was going through a hard breakup: notice your hair. Your hair is growing, and you are healing. You don’t notice it daily, but one day your bangs will be in your eyes, or some layer will be where it’s not supposed to be. And that day, remind yourself: time is passing, and you’re healing.

I used my quarantine hair as a reminder that I was justified in feeling so awful. It brushed my shoulders at the start of things; it nearly reached the bottom of my shoulder blades by the end (or “end,” let’s be real here). Why does it feel like my brain’s on fire? Why do I feel like some desperate captive thing? Ah right, my hair is six inches longer than the last time I really felt good. Of course. I used the length to remember exactly what was going on; I used my gradually expanding undercut to reclaim a little bit of control.

It’s really good to see my stylist (Brittany at Pirate Salon, highly recommended). She’s smart and kind and funny, and she interprets my vague directions (“less? more curly? to roughly this length? I don’t know?”) into real things that grow out really well. We frantically catch up on almost a year and a half of living: where’d you go, how’d you do, how are your primary relationships, what are your resolutions now that we know a somewhat different way of being?

What is it to condense more than a year of lovely quarterly interactions into an hour? We did it, and it was good. It’s intense. And welcome. And feels like healing. We stand before each other when we’re done, both reading for hug-friendly cues. “I don’t mind if you don’t–” I start. “It’s fine if–” she says. And we hug, and it’s just fucking fabulous.

*

After, since I’m already in the Mission, I decide to treat myself to fancy lady food. There aren’t any free tables at Tartine Manufactory, so instead I get it to go and wander to a nearby park. I try for one gate at first; it’s locked, and as I double back to try the other side, I pass the man who had been yelling into his cell phone as I approached. He’s in his 60s and gives a vibe of having been here for a while, which I love. As we pass each other, he says, still irritated at the world, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go that way either.” He proceeds to go the way I came from.

As I settle in on my bench, figuring out how exactly one eats soup and bread with butter on a bench during a moderate breeze, he comes in with a couple similarly aged friends, and they shoot the shit in the gazebo behind me. My favorite is when one of them says that he’s having neighbor problems with someone upstairs. “The other meth heads I know are all mellow, but not this guy,” he says. Another older guy with a beer in a paper bag sits one bench down from me. I’m drinking root beer from a brown bottle and hope I don’t attract attention that could be inconvenient for him.

It all feels very exposed, me with my fancy bread, drinking cold corn soup from a plastic container, wrangling an elaborate banana tart topped with chocolate shavings, entranced by people around me yet hoping I don’t have any surprise conversations because I’m just not ready for that. I prefer not to be weird at strangers. A lot of them don’t deserve it.

*

I go to Death Guild. I had never gone before; it’s easy to mean to go to something for years but never make it because it happens on a Monday, because it’s in the city, because I’m tired, because because because. This quarantine has given me so many months to marinate in all these rationalizations that can take over your life if you let them. You can rationalize yourself straight to your fucking grave leaving all these things undone. I don’t believe in silver linings, but I am choosing to make use of the perspective that came from more than a year of one big because that eliminated all possibilities. I vowed to go to a goth night almost as soon as I could. I waited a couple of weeks just to see how the world would work once we did things again, but shortly after that? OUT.

Everyone is startlingly beautiful. I sort of remember how to talk to bartenders and not be a nuisance. I work to remember how to watch people without staring. There are incredibly involved ensembles, corsets and long coats and headpieces, often worn by people I immediately name queen/lord of the underworld or other honorary titles, but there are also people in denim jackets and fairly ordinary clothes. There are people who have clearly been pining for this in a way I understand across the last year and are emerging with LOOKS, and they are FANTASTIC. And also people trying something new and behaving themselves.

I dance until my left knee hurts. I dance on top of a go-go platform. I dance on stage. I dance upstairs and downstairs. I remember how bodies can work. I’m grateful for my lighter hair, this thing that actually moves again rather than being a thick, long fall tethering me to this timeline.

A couple times, while moving between rooms or sipping a beer and watching people (people!), I think that rare thought: I am happy in a thorough and uncomplicated way right now. This is what that feels like. That thing I don’t feel very often, where my brain is neither in the past nor the future, but only holding tight to the present, and the present is excellent. I spent many nights in quarantine dancing in my living room, including to the online version of Death Guild, my lights off and my galaxy projector going, dodging cats as I tried to inhabit my whole body and not just the part that participates in a Zoom call. It was good and important, and it got me by sometimes.

This is better – as good as I hoped it would be, in fact. How often do we get to long for something and then get precisely what we hoped for?

I dance until the last song is done and then emerge onto the street, grateful for the night air on my sweaty neck. We get a car home, pulling up in front of my apartment building after three. I think “this is what it’s like to be young,” but really, I wasn’t often young in quite this way. I think I’m going to be older in this way instead. Next time, I could stay out for two fewer hours, have two fewer drinks, and generally not borrow happiness and energy from tomorrow in order to have a good night. But for a first outing after all this confinement?

Perfection.

The next day, I sip water, find a couple mystery bruises, and have zero regrets.

*

I am at the optometrist, another medical or medical-adjacent thing where half my face is covered. The tech adds a piece of tape to the nosepiece of my mask so I don’t fog up the peripheral vision test machine. The optometrist looks at my retinal scans and finds my old friend: the little grey dot of histoplasmosis that exists in my right eye, a forever souvenir of growing up in the midwest. If it were in the lung (as happened to a friend of mine), it’d be Ohio Valley Disease. Instead, it lives next to my optic nerve, and it’s called presumed ocular histoplasmosis.

“We call it presumed now,” Dr. Kim says, “because we can’t really diagnose it conclusively.”

“Without an autopsy,” I say.

“Yep.”

I kinda love talking to optometrists.

“There’s a local version called Valley Fever,” he says as he scrolls around the newest portraits of the inside of my eyes, looking for other shadows and spots. “It’s caused by coccidioides, though, but it can cause a similar thing in the eye. It’s normal if you train in California, but if you do a rotation in another part of the country and get a chance to recognize it, you look like a genius because people from other places don’t know about it.”

I think about my childhood training in hypervigilance and the finer points of reading other people’s passive aggression and the strange, unwanted skillset it gives me in my work as a software engineer, but that’s too much to explain through a mask to someone I’ve just met.

After, I walk around the glasses showroom, putting likely pairs into a box so they can be sterilized after I try them on. The woman who runs that part of the shop is my favorite kind of person for this work: sharply opinionated and precise. “No,” she says immediately after I try the first two pairs on. “Too old. Too serious.” We agree on the one truly acceptable pair. She has me take my mask off to actually see myself, which would have been unnerving if I hadn’t been trying this out a little elsewhere. “See?” she says. “Those are the ones.”

I stare at myself in the purple-and-red frames I’ll be adding to my collection, my suddenly exposed face in someone else’s space, and appreciate the small risk she took in order to do the work well.

*

I sift through CDC bulletins and news from the Bay Area and the world. I read about variants and possible future booster shots. I consider the risks to myself (fairly insignificant) and the risks I pose to others (controllable if I keep on with my current habits of mask-wearing and caution in enclosed spaces). I ask myself what I get from reentering the world and try to balance being a person again with functioning in a way I consider moral.

I begin to tentatively make plans.

The Pendulum and the Rest of the World

When I started seeing a therapist in 2012, she told me that changes in behavior I made wouldn’t be graceful at first. “You’ll be trying something new,” she said. “And usually, when people do something against how they were raised or learned to be, that first try at something new and different results in a clang. Like when a pendulum was in the middle, and you pull it to one side and let go.”

My Seattle therapist has a way with metaphors. It’s one of the reason we did such good work together; my brain works that way too. I think about her pendulum a lot lately, because mine is moving.

When the June 15th changeover for California Covid practices was first announced, I said a bunch of faux-chill stuff that sounded responsible to me. “I probably won’t change anything immediately,” I said to my small cat. “I’m just going to wait and see how things go for a couple weeks first,” I told my boyfriend. “I’m sure it’s based on data, but I don’t need to do anything new right away,” I said to my empty apartment.

All of this felt true. And yet, as some paths have reopened, allowing possibilities that have felt forbidden for a very long fifteen months, a storm grew behind all of my responsible utterances. The storm yelled.

“WE COULD GO TO PARIS TOMORROW,” it said. “QUIT YOUR JOB, PUT YOUR PASSPORT AND A COUPLE PAIRS OF UNDERWEAR IN A TOTE, WE’RE GOING TO SFO. YOU SHOULD GO TO DEATH GUILD IMMEDIATELY AND EVERY WEEK FROM NOW ON. WHO’S TOURING, HOW MANY SHOWS CAN WE GO TO.”

Clang.

The storm yells despite us both being aware that this pandemic and everything going on during it has been hell on my energy. That a couple weeks ago, I walked around SoMa for errands, completely safely, but felt exhausted to the point of wordlessness after two hours. That my lower back has some stuff to say about this “long nights of dancing” and “let’s go stand at concerts for hours” shit and has for the last several years. The storm yells, and I howl like a dog singing along to an old country record. Awooooooooo. I wish for things. I long. I’m so tired.

I’m starting to let myself think about travel, beyond the part where my thwarted longing shrieks in my brain. Oh, a deal to Ireland, how interesting. Why, I could get into Iceland again? That’s lovely. I think I’ve realized that my first long trip after all this probably shouldn’t be to somewhere I don’t speak the language, because honestly, English hasn’t been super reliable when I’ve spoken to people outside of my house over the last fifteen months. Once I realized I was freaked out, I got a somewhat better handle on it, but I’m still likely to have an “Enjoy your coffee!”/”You too! Oh god, just kill me” kind of exchange with people.

In the meantime, I’m considering things I never would have before. I looked at a sales page for a writing instruction cruise today. A couple of months ago, I began to more viscerally understand what appeals to people about all-inclusive resorts. I get them – I used to write lengthy and loving descriptions of the properties and their amenities for work – but the idea of an itinerary and such bounded geography didn’t appeal. But now I’m like, “Fewer choices? For days? And they feed me? Let me think about this.” I don’t think I will, but I’m trying to keep the fact that the soft animal of my body needs a vet in mind. Boldly striding out of a hotel on day one has been hard when I’ve had much more substantial emotional reserves than I do right now. When everything’s been uncertain and often vaguely humiliating for so long, the once-delightful moments of awkwardly figuring things out in unknown lands doesn’t sound fun, it just sounds like a spicier version of a dish I’m already sick of.

I’ve learned over the last year-plus what travel once did for me. I used it to bring contrast into my life; without it, I have gotten thoroughly sick of my aggressively attractive Oakland neighborhood. I used it to learn more about people; without that distraction, I just went ahead and created my own fictional world that covers like 25 years of imaginary people’s lives. I used it for a break; without being pulled away from my day to day, it’s a lot harder to disconnect. I can rock a staycation, but physical and mental distance turned out to be really important. I’m great at shoving my work phone and laptop into a drawer, but there’s also value to not endlessly trucking the recycling out to the same bin or still getting the same stupid mail. I need to see other lives. I need to know how other versions of me act and feel. In their absence, I ask larger questions: maybe I should live somewhere else? What are other jobs that a person like me could do?* I’ve scrutinized all the aspects of my everyday life at this point, and – unsurprisingly – they all come up wanting in this era. Because most things, as a default, kinda really fucking sucked.

It’s the kind of mood that results in me saying, honestly, “I only like writing.” Because everything else hurts at least some. Because everything else hurts.

So I dream lightly of Ireland. Of a cabin in Montana by a lake (but with wifi, for god’s sake). A van on the road with a cat in the passenger seat, a flight to Hawaii. Far but not the farthest. A training-wheels trip, designed to make me happy with the least effort. Not an all-inclusive resort with all its problematic shit, but a gentler version of what felt restorative in the past.

Lots of us are going back to the gym right now. I started climbing again a couple of weeks ago and have felt old functions come back to me. First, I remembered how not to be afraid of heights when I’m on a sturdy rope. Then my wrists and forearms remembered how not to be exhausted so fast. Most recently, I saw my first visible climbing callus on my left hand; others followed shortly after. It’s just going to be like that with everything. The body and heart remember. You’ll still love what you loved before. You’ll remember how to travel further, be embraced by the unknown, be a part of a wider world that has so much to show you.

It’s just going to take a bit. The pendulum will swing wildly before settling into the new normal. It’ll be messy, but I believe we’ll find a good middle ground eventually. I’ll see you there.

*Answer: nothing as well paid or as consistently interesting as what I’m already doing.

I miss drinking

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

I wrote this last May and never published it. I guess I was a little busy completely falling apart or something. Here, enjoy a time capsule.

It’s a luxury, I guess, to mostly back off alcohol for physical reasons and not for staring-at-the-precipice-and-backing-away or “Oh fuck I’m in the crevasse and need to climb out oh god oh god” reasons. It’s a better reason, if one must have one. I’ve held for some years that if you say things like “Perhaps I should quit drinking” or “Perhaps I should quit Facebook” or “Perhaps I should get a therapist,” you probably should at least give it a try, if resources allow. Last fall, I found myself considering giving up the sauce for a while, and I realized I should probably heed my own advice.

My advice is solid but annoying.

There was one bad hangover involved in finally making this decision, but it was a catalyst and not a cause. Instead of fearfully thinking, “I am doing myself damage with this and ought to stop,” I felt a familiar feeling: deep irritation for wasting my own time on what was more broadly a stupid night out anyway. I traded everything and got nothing.

I had recently realized I’d been feeling that hangover irritation after, say, a glass or two of wine with dinner. Or a beer that I wanted, to try to make an anticipated event even more luminous to experience. I’d have a very modest amount of alcohol and later – often even before bed – be deeply annoyed at myself for using my limited amount of energy on something that sapped me so badly. That slowed my brain, that made my newly sensitive stomach quail, that wasted my fucking limited time on this earth.

Oh.

The physical shift was dramatic enough that I scheduled a physical. It’s an interesting thing to look at a doctor and say “Drinking treats me a little differently than I’m used to,” seeing them switch into, “Whuh-oh, we maybe have a problem drinker,” only to see them back off that concern after hearing that the “problem” happens after a single drink.

Alas, my liver count (and all the other blood tests) came out fine. “Age!” said my friends, my contemporaries, when I mentioned this. So maybe it’s age! Ok! But I thought I’d make it past 40 before another great metabolism shift. My last one was when I was 27, when suddenly three beers was not so much the recipe for a good buzz but the recipe for a hastened end of the night. But I could still have wine with dinner, a tall Tecate at wrestling, or a mimosa with lunch, if I felt so inclined. I didn’t always, but I appreciated the option.

In stepping back from booze, that’s mostly what I feel I’ve lost: the option to commune with my fellow adults. I love bars, I love sitting at the bar, I love asking the bartender what they’re excited to make (if they’re open to conversational noodling with some random). I loved turning 21, I loved learning to like beer when I moved to Seattle shortly after that birthday. I loved inexpensive wine in Paris, feeling just a little bit warmer and more in step with the people around me. I love learning more about a place when I taste its beers. I often feel so separate of people, and it’s meant a lot to me to be able to be one with so much of humanity in something.

It’s been a loss to have that opportunity mostly squelched.

Now that I’ve learned that my new limit is the booze equivalent of a night at the penny slots, I’ve adapted some. If I line my stomach a bit first, I can have a beer or two with dinner without being furious at myself for squandering time and energy. If I stay up late enough to drink a ton of water and have a snack after, I can have a wrestling beer without much regret. It’s a lot of thinking, though, to make possible something that so many people take for granted.

Usually I end up wondering if all this bargaining is worth it. I’ve thought, for a long time, in the way I knew when I was younger that I’d eventually return to a version of vegetarianism, that I would most likely have a point where I backed off the sauce for a while, maybe for good.

To be honest, though, I thought that was more likely to happen when I saw some of my family’s unacknowledged alcoholism rise in me like an unbidden tide. I have watched people I’m related to lean on it more and more until it was less a crutch than a part of them, and I wondered when it would be my turn. When did their drinking change from recreation to necessity? Did they notice it right away or at all? Would I notice it if it happened to me?

I watched for that moment on the occasions when I would have the calm but deeply unsettling feeling, a couple of drinks in, when my anxiety would unclench, and my body would say, “Hey buddy, it could always feel this way. This gliding, easy feeling could be all the time,” and I’d shudder with unwanted understanding of how some of my friends and relatives used booze. Joining the Inebriati comes at a price, after all.

Instead, the turning point was a newly sensitive gut and a suddenly decreased tolerance – for both alcohol and wasted time.

I know our perception of time changes when we age. I think a lot lately about how, as we grow older, we sometimes exchange youthful energy and ingenuity for the mastery that can come with age, for the ruthless prioritization that comes with less energy and a diminishing balance of time on this earth. I just didn’t expect it to be at least half of the reason that beers now sit in my refrigerator for months. I thought I’d have to stare my family’s least-acknowledged genetic legacy in a blaze of fury and self-love and declare I SHALL DRINK NO MORE, FOR THIS SHALL NOT BE MY WAY, FOR I HAVE SEEN THAT PATH, AND IT ONLY LEADS TO A BLOATED FACE BLOVIATING AT PASSERSBY.

But no.

Now, it feels like an event. I’m going to have a beer with dinner tonight. Better add a side of bread, better bookend it with pints of water, better ensure dinner isn’t too late so I can cycle it out of me before I sleep. More mindfulness than I ever wanted, more care than I ever wanted to require. Is it a problem to think this much about drinking? Is it any different than the thinking I do about getting away from my family’s legacy of passive-aggression while still having relationships with other people? That’s a lot of thinking too, and both help me make better use of time.

When I travel, I often rely more on caffeine than I do at home, and I’ve used booze to make it easier for me to limp through the local language without being completely halted by self-consciousness. I’ve been leery of caffeine for a long time, because its utility comes with the risk of punching my anxiety button, making my heart race and my brain unable to fix on anything for more than a second or two, because somewhere in there it’s convinced there’s a predator afoot, and I become a jittery rabbit of a person. But I process it differently when I’m nine hours off of my home time zone. Will it be like that with wine too? Is there an exception when I’m on another continent? I’ll find out someday. Maybe not in 2020 [ed: lol], and I’m not making any set plans for 2021 either. It’ll just be one more aspect of a strange new world.

One of the regular jokes of quarantine times is how much more everyone is drinking – or, as I can attest, most everyone. Cocktails are available to go, beautiful concoctions in clever mason jars, and I’ve partaken of none of so little of it. (Exceptions: a beautiful smoky paloma from Marica here in Oakland; a jar of what’s basically alcoholic Hawaiian Punch from DNA in the city – AKA “Oops, I bought a $33 jar of hooch, oh well” night.) When we get oysters from our local sea-SA, we pair it with sparkling wine. When we make risotto, I have a little of the two-buck Chuck we use for cooking wine, but it’s all ritual, undertaken with caution. I may be the soberest American adult in the quarantine, or at least the soberest one without a specific religious or physical reason. So it’s a new kind of outsider life, here inside my apartment. I’m delighted at all the bars offering to-go service, a flat of tall PBR cans here, a box of rice and flat of toilet paper there, and I’m mostly a spectator in this interesting evolution. Sigh.

Alcohol is a drink, and alcohol is a tool. To make the lights brighter, to make the communing easier, to help get through situations that can only be solved by endurance. And the price has largely gotten too high for me to pay.

So instead, there are memories.

The bilingual trivia contest in Paris in 2013, where I quickly drank a liter of mediocre French beer in order to speak French better (which worked, by god).

Mulled wine in Montmartre, like the universe welcoming me home.

Craft beer in a hipster rooftop bar in Guadalajara, surrounded by cornhole boards as if we hadn’t left the Bay Area at all.

Pulque at a much different bar that same trip, its soothing and slippery effect as my friend and I drank into the night from big clay mugs, surrounded by locals, feeling so happy we’d found something innate to where we were.

Molsons upon Molsons in Canada, slipping into the stream of life around me.

The 0.5% sour beers I was able to guzzle freely in Stockholm, one of my favorite inventions ever, and one I’m still trying to find anywhere near home.

Cantillon at a Belgian beer bar in Sweden, next to a kilo (a kilo) of mussels, and only stopping because I knew I had to safely get myself home on a long walk around the waterfront.

Drinking a Westvleteren 12 in Amsterdam on American Thanksgiving in 2014, after mentioning it in passing to a friend, only to have the bartender light up and then go into a tiny cellar to pull out a couple of bottles.

Passing a bottle of cheap, perfect French wine back and forth on bleachers in front of Notre Dame in 2013, put up to allow people to celebrate the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, on a deeply flawed trip full of sharp awareness of these small, perfect moments, little jewels mounted in a setting of confusion and pain.

A pint a day in London, to make sure I saw lots of different pubs.

POG cocktails in Honolulu.

An unfiltered blond in Bruge, a bright spot in a grueling day.

Scorpion bowls at the tiki bars of the Bay Area, gazing at friends as we both sipped through long straws.

Limoncello on the Amalfi Coast, and too much of it… but, also kind of just enough (if I skip the part where I puked on a ferry to Capri the next morning).

I find it hard to talk about things like this, booze-centered memories, without wondering if a recounting like this will be read as a problem. These are a lot of memories, but they’re also across a lot of years years. Bars are like coffee shops, laundromats, and grocery stores: one of the ways I like to see how people live in new places. How do you order, how do you tip? Does the waitstaff want to talk to you at all? Is wine priced as a luxury or as an assumed part of the meal? Are people obsessive about cocktails or happy with meh beer that flows freely? It’s a lot to feel on the outside of.

It felt stranger when it wasn’t paired with so many other deprivations: no BART, no office, no friend gatherings, no movies or plays, no sense of general ease while being within 15 feet of strangers. It’s just one more shift off of ordinary, and so my separation from the world has been unexpectedly virtuous, at least physically.

I suppose I’ll just have to learn to be celebratory in bars with soft mixed drinks and to take delight I don’t usually feel in unusual sodas or whatever fancy mixers bars around here have to offer. Kind of like life in quarantine itself: the contents that are left are fine. There’s just something that’s missing, but there’s no choice but to learn to deal. I go outside, but usually it’s more stressful than is worth it. So I go strategically and with precautions, and I have learned how to have it feel like something like enough. Life as a short glass of Sprite with a wedge of lime – enough to get by, but with the hope that there’ll be something more again someday.

Also, P.S., this sounds like bullshit, but I swear this method has been really helpful. I’m still pretty light on the drinking as of when I published this, but if I combine it with what I now call booze vitamins, I get by pretty painlessly. I look forward to trying it out with a wrestling beer later this year.