I’m sitting at JFK, waiting to board an international flight.
Exactly ten years ago, I was in this very same place, having roadtripped from Texas to NYC to hop a flight for a semester in London. I tend to think of this as my Sliding Doors moment.
My family life was in shambles. My best friend accused me of running away from my problems. I was demonstrating the early signs of an alcohol addiction. The guy I was traveling with, my partner in crime, cared so little about me that months later, after we had seen the world together and arrived back in Texas, he would abandon me at the baggage carousel in Houston airport so his family wouldn’t see us leaving the arrivals gate together.
I often think that the decision to get on that plane ten years ago was the point of no return. Up until then, it might have been possible to turn things around. I could have spent more time with my family; I know I was not capable of fixing everything, but I would have equally shared in the suffering. I might have gotten my grades up, maybe taken an internship that would have advanced my career. I would have waited to turn 21 like every other American, instead of jumping the queue by spending a semester in a country with a lower drinking age.
I know, I know: hindsight is 20/20. It’s possible I just had to struggle, regardless of location or which friends were by my side or the relative ease of access to alcohol. I believe I simply had to wander aimlessly for a while.
I think this is where the timelines merge. If we end up where we’re supposed to, no matter our mistakes, then this is where it all starts to make sense. Instead of looking back on this as a moment I regret, I can look back at this as the moment when I finally came into my own.
It’s funny, because I’m looking around at groups of undergrads who are flying away toward semesters abroad and piles of self-discovery. If someone had asked me back then where I thought I would be in ten years, I would have said, “I have no idea.”
If that someone had then told me I would be in this very same airport, heading to Ireland for grad school… I think I would have been okay with that.
In preparation for my big move to Ireland, I have been dismantling the house I have lived in for the past five years. Books were the first order of business.
I’ve sold 50 to Half Price Books, packed 250 away in storage, and have another odd 25 laying around until I decide which are coming with me. This is on top of the 200 or so I sold during a spell of unemployment a few years ago.
There was also another batch of 50 books I had forgotten about: the ones listed on Amazon. Of those listings, I had sold about 20, but the other 30 remained active online. Still, I hadn’t moved any in well over a year, so it was easy to forget.
As I started packing books for the move, Cosmopolis hovered around the “to be sold” pile. Then I thought I might read it before the movie came out, and placed it in the “take to Ireland” pile. The next day, I decided there wasn’t a chance of that happening, so I packed it in storage. Two days later, it sold on Amazon.
This served as a helpful reminder to close my seller account before I leave the country and no longer have access to my books. It was kind of a pain to dig through cardboard boxes – in a storage unit, in Texas, in August – to find the book, and I didn’t quite get around to it within the three-day window I had promised as an Amazon seller.
In the end, I canceled the order, issued a refund, and sent an email to the buyer telling her I was shipping the book anyway at no cost to her. Then I closed all my Amazon listings and started reading Cosmopolis.
Honestly, the thing about Don DeLillo that most sticks out in my mind is that Sandra Bullock mentions him in that terrible movie, The Proposal. (I only saw this movie because of the publishing angle, I swear.)
Sandra Bullock’s character’s reason for violating the terms of her Canandian-in-America visa in order to attend an international book event – thus setting up the immigration impetus for faking a proposal to her American-born assistant so she’s not exiled to the Toronto office – is practically delivered with a yawn:
“I had to go. We were going to lose DeLillo to Viking.”
I didn’t expect to like this book. I’ve owned it for a while, because I knew it was something I was supposed to read. But I drug my feet and never got around to it. I barely paid attention to the trailer the first time I saw it. Upon a second viewing, however, something caught my eye. A familiar face. Her name is Sarah Gadon. Highbrow filmgoers may recognize her as Carl Jung’s wife in another Cronenberg movie, A Dangerous Method, but I know her best as Katie from Being Erica.
Being Erica is one of my top-three favorite TV shows of all time. It’s Canadian. Erica is a 30-something Jewish girl from Toronto who participates in time-travel therapy sessions. In her working life, she cobbles together a publishing career out of sheer willpower and a love of books (and a Master’s degree). I plan to blog extensively about Being Erica in the future.
Katie, or Sarah Gadon, is Erica’s very best frenemy from high school, a columnist in Boston who ends up writing a book that Erica believes will be a surefire bestseller.
Just from watching the Cosmopolistrailer, it was clear that Sarah Gadon played Robert Pattinson’s love interest. After reading the book, I can confirm that the character of Elise Shifrin is the most consistent female presence in the protagonist’s life, a foreign-born poetess who manifests at various times to share meals with the RPattz character and is worth something like $735 million (I can’t look it up; the book is already in the mail).
I don’t feel bad for focusing on the Hitchcock Blonde in this book/film. It’s such a man’s tale that I get the sense that I have intentionally been left out. No girls allowed. DeLillo is even kind enough to have one of the characters – a woman – explain it slowly so my silly lady brain can understand:
“Never mind what women think. We’re too small and real to matter here.”
I fell asleep reading the final pages of Cosmopolis on Saturday night. You know you’ve really connected to a book when you doze off during the climax. To be fair, I had been up late at a screening of that opus of “tragically Canadian sensibilities,” Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I woke on Sunday to find the book still open on the pillow next to me.
I promptly finished, with little-to-no fanfare, then spent the day packing things to move into my storage unit. I chose to focus on clothes, athletic equipment, and home decor.
The final items to go into the home decor tub were the frames from my picture wall. As I took down each frame, I tore pages out of an old issue of Vogue to wrap around the delicate glass. The faces of the Olsen twins, Charlize Theron, and various starving models glared out at me as I ripped.
Then there she was again.
Sarah Gadon, Toronto-born actress, making good with two Cronenberg films at the ripe old age of 24 and profiled in the December 2011 issue of Vogue. I had either skipped over that page the first time I flipped through the magazine or had completely forgotten about the article. In the accompanying photo, she’s wearing Valentino and a fantastic pair of blue Mary Janes. The lede evokes Grace Kelly, there’s mention of ballet lessons, and the interviewer managed to get a quote from Cronenberg that includes the phrase “upper-class elegance.”
Still, I will always remember Sarah Gadon for the scene in Being Erica when Katie and Erica are so absorbed in their bickering at a Toronto movie theatre that they deny their pregnant friend Judith an escape route to the bathroom. When the inevitable finally happens and Judith’s water breaks, Katie stares at the ground, wrinkles her nose, and observes:
“That ain’t pee.”
Vogue, Sarah Gadon, and what’s left of the picture wall.
I used to really care about becoming a classy broad. I honestly think that was my goal in life when I was 16, and while it helped me avoid some rituals of teenage stupidity, it also stunted my development of skills such as forming an opinion or sticking up for myself. I tried to be like Grace Kelly, the superficial image on a movie screen, not a flesh-and-blood human being.
Right around the time I graduated high school, my mom gave me a newspaper clipping that defined class. And that was it. That was my plan. I thought I had my glamorous life all mapped out, and went off to college with what was, in reality, nothing more than a vague expectation that I would get get my MRS.
Then college actually happened. I got an education, saw some of the world, and I came to certain conclusions about the concept of class. You’ll have to excuse my language here, but there really is no more honest way of saying this: I came out of college believing that the phrase “She’s such a classy lady” was really just code for “Shut the f#ck up, b*tch.”
Basically, trying to impress men with your classiness means keeping those pesky opinions to yourself. In aspiring to behave with class, we really just bow to an oppressive patriarchal system with the hopes that someone might buy us some nice jewelry. Ron Burgandy values classiness so much that he cautions an entire city to stay that way in his nightly news sign-off. That’s who wants you to be classy. Men like Ron Burgandy.
My twenties were spent making up for lost time. I worried less about make-up and more about politics; I engaged in behavior that my snotty little teenage self would have considered crass. I grew up, and I thawed out most of the frozen aspects of my former ice princess personality. I am most definitely a better person for it.
One of the annoying things about lifestyle changes is that, inevitably, you leave a vacuum in the social solar system. It honestly felt like there were girls sweeping in behind me, picking up my discarded identity and trying it on. This is a completely egotistic and paranoid way of looking at the world – I realize this. Still, when I hear Kate Middleton’s style praised as classy, I think wistfully back to my old fashion sense.
Then again, Kate Middleton never held a full-time job. Her biggest accomplishment is who she married. That wardrobe for which I am so nostalgic? Bought it with Daddy’s money.
It’s times like this that I struggle to find a foothold. I want to be sophisticated and elegant, but on my own terms, and certainly not at any cost to my independence. I think that the word class is a lot like the word irony – it’s a complicated concept that has been dumbed down so much that we’ve gotten the meaning completely wrong.
I was in full-on hater mode Tuesday night, lurking on Facebook and sneering at comments made by friends of friends. I started out angry about “these morons’ politics,” but by the time I went to bed, I might have been more upset by the fact that they look better in pictures than I do. There’s an entire beauty industry that exploits such insecurities; but sometimes, I just want to be pretty. So this concept of class came floating back to me as I tried to sleep.
It is somewhat ironic – maybe? – that I get very judgmental when I think about the concept of class, because judgmental is the direct opposite of classy. Like right now, I really want to lift a Facebook photo of trashy behavior and post it here, but that would be very unclassy. So instead, let’s watch Sarah Jessica Parker and Maggie Smith conversing about classiness… in Italian.
Yesterday morning, something brilliant happened. I got to work and, thanks to time zones and tape delays and this whole Twitter-versus-NBC Olympics coverage debacle, I wound up listening to a women’s boxing match by streaming Irish radio over the internet. (Boxing on the radio – how very 1920s of me.)
If you don’t know who Katie Taylor is, you will in a few hours. She’s a 26-year-old Irish boxing phenom; she’s the reason we have women’s boxing in the Olympics now. She was fighting in a semi-final bout when I tuned in Wednesday morning. The sound of it was nothing short of glorious; a roaring sea of Irish fans chanting and cheering over the commentators who were trying to tell me about the fight I couldn’t see.
Taylor’s opponent, Mavzuna Chorieva of Tajikistan, apparently began using some dodgy tactics in attempt to draw out Taylor. The expression “throwing shapes” isn’t uniquely Irish – we certainly use it here in the states – but I laughed out loud when I heard it on Wednesday because I had just read that phrase in the work of another Irish wordsmith. In Eoin Colfer’s seventh Artemis Fowl book, The Atlantis Complex, the luchador opponents of Butler and Juliet, aka Crazy Bear and The Jade Princess, “were busy throwing shapes in the far corner of the ring” in a situation not unlike the one I was imagining for Katie Taylor.
Then the commentator dropped another word that we use here in America but seems to take on a more magical meaning when evoked by an Irish person: class. As in “Katie’s all class.” To this listener, the word immediately conveyed the certainty that, amid the screaming crowd and crushing expectations and shape-throwing nonsense, Katie Taylor remained calm, composed, and in control. Then it all came rushing back to me.
The Irish love the word class. They express approval by saying “that’s class” or “pure class” or “it was class.” I knew this. I must have forgotten sometime in the last eight years, but the boxing commentary reminded me.
When I worked at Charlie Byrne’s, I was really into Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor mysteries because the stories are set in Galway, with many a recognizable locale, including Charlie Bryne’s bookshop. Ken Bruen himself would often come into the shop. The manager, Vinny, is a character in the novels, and his speaking parts become more and more frequent as the series goes on.
Vinny is certainly the face of the bookshop; I’ve even heard some people call him Charlie, just assuming that it’s his name on the sign. Charlie himself only appears once in stories, and it’s an accurate portrayal of the dynamic he and Vinny have in the shop. For his part, Ken Bruen was paying attention to Charlie’s behind-the-scenes persona, and I remember gushing about this passage to one of my co-workers:
[Tommy Kennedy is the narrator’s bookish mentor, a librarian who romanticizes the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.]
Charlie Byrne’s comes close to Tommy’s ideal. Some years before, I’d been lurking in the crime section. A student had a beautiful American edition of Walt Whitman. He was peering at the price. Charlie, passing, said,
To me, it seems like the Irish use class mostly as a noun. A lot of the slang dictionaries I’m looking at are saying it’s an adjective, as in “that movie was class” or “top class performance,” but I hear it more as the answer to an unasked question: You want to know how to define class? There. That’s class.
How does Katie Taylor react to someone throwing shapes in the ring? She’s all class. Pure class.
What are you observing about the human condition when you watch a bookstore owner bestowing books on someone seeking knowledge? Class.
When curiosity got the best of me, I googled “advice columnist define class” and immediately came across Ann Landers’s What is Class? Oddly enough, the first link I clicked on was a woman asking the same question that had sent me to the Google machine in the first place: My mother once gave me a clipping about class; where can I find it again?
I guess the question of class is a common factor for many mother-daughter relationships. A major theme in the book Gone with the Wind – much more so than the movie – is how Scarlett O’Hara wants to be classy like her mother, but the high spirit she inherited from her Irish father prevents her from becoming the lady she wishes she could be.
And to be honest, it was the mothers on Facebook who prompted my little hateration spree Tuesday night. I’m 30 years old, and many mothers of the girls I went to high school with are on Facebook. I read their posts (and their politics), and I remember a time when these were the people I wanted to impress. These were the arbiters of taste who passed judgment on me, the ones I wanted to find me classy.
Now they seemed so small and petty, their opinions outdated and their whole lives representative of a time when women had fewer options. I guess I got angry at myself for ever giving them power over me, but I quickly projected that anger on to them.
I passed judgment. I judged them for judging me. I wasn’t being classy in the true sense of the word, and because my opponents were little more than profile pictures on a social media site, they appeared classy in the superficial sense of the word. I was out-classed. So I decided to attack the word class, with jazzy footwork and ineffectual jabs, until Katie Taylor stepped into the ring to defend it.
Scarlett O’Hara’s Irishness might have kept her from becoming a “classy lady,” but I don’t think it stopped her from having class. She delivered babies and cared for the sick – just like her mother – but she also stood up to yankees and carpetbaggers and people who thought a woman couldn’t run a business. If anything, her Irish blood made her a stronger contender in an emerging new society; she faced challenges her mother never had to.
The Ann Landers column deserves another read-through, because we tend to simplify the word class into inaccurate little sound bites or Pinterest photos of classy-looking ladies. In reality, it’s a much more complex idea:
Class never runs scared. It is sure-footed and confident in the knowledge that you can meet life head on and handle whatever comes along.
Jacob had it. Esau didn’t. Symbolically, we can look to Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel. Those who have class have wrestled with their own personal angel and won a victory that marks them thereafter.
Class never makes excuses. It takes its lumps and learns from past mistakes.
Class is considerate of others. It knows that good manners are nothing more than a series of small sacrifices.
Class bespeaks an aristocracy that has nothing to do with ancestors or money. The most affluent blueblood can be totally without class while the descendant of a Welsh miner may ooze class from every pore.
Class never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. Class is already up and need not strive to look better by making others look worse.
Class can “walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch.” Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because he is comfortable with himself.
If you have class you don’t need much of anything else. If you don’t have it, no matter what else you have, it doesn’t make much difference.
At 1:30 this morning, I woke up to the worst migraine of my life. I sat up in bed, and though the room was pitch black, all I could see was a flashing light inside my head. I stumbled to the bathroom, so nauseous I could barely make it down the stairs. As I sat in the bathroom, riding out the waves that never culminated in vomit, I diagnosed myself with digital motion sickness.
I was half-awake and mid-panic attack; my vision filled with Excel spreadsheets. The rows scrolled past at lightening speed, and I kept filtering in a futile attempt to find the record I needed. Filepaths, URLs, e-mail addresses, and other data fields flew by. I was convinced that focusing on one particular record – the right record – would make the migraine stop.
I am a right-brained person with three weeks to go at a left-brained contract job. I knew getting into this that I would be out of my element. I once got sidetracked thinking about all the pretty Indian names of our new offshore associates while I was supposed to be entering requests for their e-mail accounts. The intersection of two types of data on a regular old Excel spreadsheet can drive me to distraction; throw in a pivot table or – heaven forbid – an entire Access database, and we might as well have traveled to a fourth dimension.
I have put up a valiant effort until now. It’s like my brain is shutting down, refusing to consider any more data, let alone metadata. I’m having the hardest time focusing at work. These spreadsheets are literally attacking me; last night was only the second suspected panic attack in my entire life.
I finally did pop some ibuprofen, lie back down, and find the record my brain wanted: it was a woman’s name and mailing address.
Several jobs ago, a (right-brained) co-worker made the very convincing argument that we should get paid for the time we spend dreaming about work. The funny thing is, I thought I would like left-brained work because I would be able to leave it at the office and free up the rest of my mind for more creative pursuits. For ten months, I managed to do just that. Unfortunately, the hidden recesses of my brain were using that creative playtime for a much more sinister purpose.
My copy of George J Mitchell’s Making Peace, which has been printed in reverse. I was so enthralled by this publishing fluke that I made it the topic of my application essay.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to blog about today, until about an hour ago when this news showed up on my Twitter feed:
Briefly, the Department of State has reversed a decision to cease contributions to the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, a postgraduate fellowship program for Americans 18-30. Today they announced that funds will continue for the 2013-2014 academic year, which means the current application process can go forward. This also gives the US-Ireland Alliance more time to raise the endowment that would make State contributions less vital to the program’s existence.
I’ve been keeping this story in my peripheral vision all summer long, not quite knowing how to act. I didn’t sign the petition or write to Congress, and I certainly didn’t donate any money. I just sort of quietly watched it all unfold.
See, I applied for the Mitchell, put a lot of my hopes in the Mitchell, and because I did not receive the Mitchell, part of me got a lot of twisted pleasure out of the possibility that pretty soon, no one would be receiving the Mitchell.
It’s like when the dude who broke your heart in college sends you an email 5 years later saying that he’s just gotten divorced. You feel this brief euphoric rush of “I told you so” mixed with “I hope she cheated on you so you finally know how badly that hurts” and a splash of “you obviously can’t make it work with anybody.” Then, immediately afterward, comes the guilt. The guilt of knowing that this is a real human life dealing with loss, and just because you have been hurt in the past by the very same person does not make it okay to rejoice in their suffering. Inflicting pain on others is something we need to avoid at all costs; it doesn’t make us feel any better, and only serves to push the wheel of hate and anger around for another spin.
I’m probably not going to sign the petition. I won’t be writing to Congress. Those aren’t things I do on a regular basis, so I’m not going out my way to do them now. Still, I hope more underdogs like me apply for the Mitchell. I hope my university learned from my application process and one of these more talented kids will take an interest in the MItchell too. Maybe someone will even read this blog post and decide to apply. If so, here’s another link for you: http://www.us-irelandalliance.org/content/43/en/Scholarship%20Application%20Landing%20Page.html.
On Facebook and Twitter, it looks like he and his wife might be working things out. I can only wish them the best. Maybe someday, when all this is forgotten and we’re facing grand new troubles that can’t help but unite us in our shared humanity, we’ll be able to smile and say hello.
And maybe on another day in that distant dazzling future, when I’m rich and successful and have paid off my student loans from grad school in Ireland, I can look back on this and laugh… then donate some money to the Mitchell Scholarship program.