After a morning of exertion in my walk-in humidor (Mother Riche’s illustrious collection of the hand-mirrors of silver screen legends do not archive themselves), I like to begin the day with a hearty breakfast; namely, a raisin floating in a snifter of Grey Goose. I do not as a rule enjoy the sensation of physical effort, but I find that there are certain tasks which must be personally undertaken—especially those of a more delicate nature. (Joan Crawford’s mirror grew legs the last time I trusted my collection to a corrupt concierge.)
Yes, I have learnt my lesson well. Employ a single unsavory professional to dust and organize your jars of urine, and the scandalous unauthorized biographies practically write and publish themselves. As a side note, the unethical leaders of Butler University should be charged with criminal conduct for their school’s completely deceptive and misleading moniker.
It is thoughts such as these that leave me wistful for the simple, carefree days of my youth. My adopted Micronesian sibling and I summered with our Uncle Donald on West Egg for several weeks every August. Roughing it, good-naturedly, we fed ourselves by hand, slept in the same room on beds with only one sleep number, and showered under a single massaging jet.
Uncle Donald (or ‘Baron’, as he preferred to be called) was a roughneck tradesman who had a share in a modest sixty-acre alpaca ranch, a bootstrapping upstart business that was the first to corner the market on the alpaca wool nappies that have long enjoyed popularity on Park Avenue bottoms in cathedral-ceiling Park Avenue nurseries. Alpaca wool is said to have both soothing and odor-absorbing properties— after all, when was the last time you smelled an alpaca? There could have been one sitting right next to you on the Friday afternoon jet to Montenegro, reading an advance copy of the Times Sunday Book Review, and you, on the phone scheduling an emergency hot stone massage, would have thought to yourself, “Why, Diane Keaton is looking better than ever these days,” as it ordered a wheatgrass martini.
I was surprised by my reaction to spending a weekend deep in the woods of Vermont. I’ll admit that I’m a city girl who finds Central Park’s foliage more intimidating than its performance artists. But while I admired the extraordinary beauty of the endless woods surrounding the small wooden cabin where we stayed, I was not accustomed to my subsequent feelings of isolation. Even in the most secluded depths of Central Park you can still buy a hot dog. It’s difficult to find an area in the woods of Bard’s campus that has not been previously discovered and marked by territorial beer cans.
These woods did not kid around. They began to get dark around 4 p.m., which meant that for the last six hours or so of my day, my body was gently insisting that it was time for me to go to sleep. It was the same feeling I used to have during an afternoon of double biology in high school, except with more miles of birch trees and darkness and fewer DNA strand models made out of gum drops. (I wish more teachers tried to generate interest in class material by presenting their students with candy analogies or candy-related subject matter. I would be much more interested in doing my philosophy readings if the main arguments of the text were spelled out with mini-marshmallows.)
I’m glad I made this trip with someone I know and trust, because there’s something about the knowledge that the nearest telephone is a winding ten-minute drive away that can really bring out the creepy side of innocuous statements like, “Good, here’s an axe! For chopping firewood.”
Being in a cabin in the woods gave me a lot of time to think about being in a cabin in the woods. It seems I achieve the same level of philosophical introspection observing a beautiful sunset that I do watching the Home Shopping Network. Living deep in the woods and surrounding myself with the natural world would, I believe, waste the time of all involved, plants and wildlife included. Rather than recording thoughtful observations about life and nature, I would record thoughtful observations about the TV shows I was missing. I would spend my time checking to see if my pants were actually wet from sitting on the muddy ground, or if they just felt cold. I’d rather leave the solemn examination of man’s relationship with nature to those whose prior experience with woodland creatures is not limited to Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons: dedicated individuals who can distinguish between an animal and a Pokemon.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a good time this weekend. What I wouldn’t enjoy doing for a long winter was fun for a couple of days. I discovered fire. I chopped wood, vicariously. And most importantly, I came back alive to share my story so that I might someday, somehow, profit from it.
I was born and raised in the city—note the oblivious ease with which I refer to it as “the city”—and the overwhelming fear and sadness I have been experiencing since that infamous Tuesday are difficult for me to express in words, through poetry, or with magazine and newspaper-photo collages. I have been deeply affected in ways I never could have imagined, one of which involves the fact that I am living in a single this year.
The idea of having a single used to make me giddy to the point of public embarrassment. My little sister and I have always shared a room, and I found the concept of living in a room, and not on a ‘side’ both strange and wonderful. I refused to believe that my friends who lived in singles at school really and truly had them all to themselves. Surely there was a sibling or a roommate stashed in the closet or under the desk.
All summer I feverishly anticipated the move into a room of my own. I plotted and re-plotted ways in which I would organize the furniture (the bed by the window? The bed not by the window?) and spent hours at K-Mart pricing throw pillows. In late August I drove to my single on gossamer wings.
Sure, it was wonderful at first. My room was my castle, my playground, an homage to half-assed interior decoration. But I began to realize that I hadn’t properly valued the hidden advantages of having a roommate. A roommate gives you someone to say “goodnight” to who won’t borrow your toothbrush, take up the bed, or be huffy if you don’t want to eat breakfast with them in the morning. A roommate is someone you get to sleep later than because they scheduled two nine a.m. classes and you never have to get up before noon. In addition, a roommate is a barometer of normalcy, a reminder that there is a world outside your little room, a world filled with other people, some of whom probably don’t like to hear Rubber Soul played back to back five or six times every afternoon. (This is unless you are unfortunate enough to have been matched with someone who is weirder than you in every significant way, which, in my school, is not that unlikely.)
When the two of you get along, talking to your roommate when you should be doing work is one of the most enjoyable methods of procrastination out there. When the two of you don’t get along, complaining to your friends about your stupid roommate is one of the most enjoyable methods of procrastination out there. But no matter how you feel about them, your roommate is a fairly consistent presence in your life at school. I didn’t realize how much I missed that constant human contact until September 11th when all I wanted to do was sit in my room and cry over The New York Times.
It’s a lot harder to leave your room when you live alone and you’re unhappy. No one drags you from your bed because they think you need to get out more; no drives you from the room with their boyfriend who throws his jacket on your bed and informs you that your little sister is hot after seeing family photos on your wall. Unless your friends are checking in on you constantly, no one observes you alphabetizing your cds, picking the price stickers off of your used books or watching the paint dry on your walls (for those of you who live in the newer dorms on campus).
I’m not sure when I began to realize that my habit of spending extended periods of time alone in my single was not doing me any good. I think it was when a friend stopped by to visit and found me sitting in my room with the door closed, talking back to the people who were giggling in my hallway. “What are you doing? They can’t hear you,” she said, to which I muttered darkly “Oh, they can hear me all right.”
Eventually I began emerging more and more frequently from my room and forcing myself to seek out the company of others. Unsurprisingly, it made me feel better. And while I was disappointed to discover that living alone wasn’t as great as I had imagined, especially during difficult times such as these, my concept of a dream-single was probably too fantastic for the reality to have ever come close anyway. With the possible exception of a single in one of the Village Dorms, which have temperature control to the degree. Can you even imagine?
When I mention the fact that I went to a girls’ school for high school, I get a full range of responses, varying from an “Oh, really?” that means, “So that explains it” to an “Oh, really?” that means, “I pity you.” While I was still young and inexperienced, these responses bothered me. I would hide in my room, rock in my chair and cry to my cats. But my high school soon taught me to stand proud. Now when someone implies that there’s anything wrong with single-sex education, I shout “NO!” at the person loudly and forcefully, knee them in the groin, then crush his or her instep with my heel and run away. Nobody can tell me my four years at an all-girls’ school didn’t fully prepare me to deal with the real world.
It isn’t as though I spent four years looking around and wondering, “Where are the boys?” (Although I did that at the prom.) On the contrary, I liked the fact that I could sit at a table full of girlfriends at lunch every day and not be afraid to say what was on my mind for fear that I would be mocked, ignored, or asked on a date. I could walk the halls without fear of having my looks or figure judged; just my clothes and shoes.
It’s a magical experience when a teenage girl realizes that she, along with a pack of malicious, giggling friends, can make life a living hell for a young, nervous, twenty-three year old male graduate student who is trying to teach them history. Looking back, Mr. Capazzola, I feel your pain. Sitting in a small, dark, enclosed space with a class of fourteen-year-old girls who are watching a documentary film on the Vietnam War and hooting at the shirtless soldiers, is enough to bring out the fight-or-flight response in anyone. The things we did to our teachers may have been obnoxious and cruel, but they were always subtle, which made them worse. It is one thing to turn all the chairs in the classroom to face the wrong way, but it is quite another to say to a teacher in the middle of class, “What are those little patterns on your socks supposed to be?”
It wasn’t always fun and games, though. I would read Seventeen magazine articles that advised cozying up to “that hottie who sits next to you in English class,” and sigh mournfully. Worse still were the “Is He Right for you?” quizzes which I took dutifully despite my utter ineligibility, chewing my pencil thoughtfully and making up a composite boyfriend.
What I disliked the most about the entire experience were the opportunities to mingle with the opposite sex that were forced upon us by the administration once or twice a year. These happened on designated “Special Days”, in which half the population of our ‘brother’ school came to my school, and half the population of our school went to theirs for an afternoon of mixed classes, fun and unspeakable awkwardness. I can’t imagine what kind of incestuous values our school was promoting by calling the boys’ school across town our ‘brother’ school-since the relations between students at the two schools were often much more than familial.
I didn’t find it a difficult transition from high school to college. It only took me a few weeks to stop pointing and giggling. I’m truly grateful for those boy-free four years that allowed me to devote myself to my studies and to put my education first. And now that I’m in college, I can put all of that learning stuff behind me and focus on what really matters in life: catching a man.
I drag myself from my bed at one-thirty in the afternoon and crawl to the computer. “Must…work on…English paper.” Exhausted from the effort, I loll in my chair and soon fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. When I awake it is twilight. Feebly, I scoot across the room and into the kitchen in my rolley-chair. I consume half my body-weight in anything I come across that’s in either a Chinese take-out carton or a box with a Nutrition Facts label on the side. With my last remaining strength, I propel myself back to the living room in my rolley-chair by kicking off of sturdy pieces of furniture. How I adore thee, rolley-chair. Although the one in my house is large and awkward, when I’m in it I roll it every place I can to avoid getting out and walking somewhere with my boring legs. By now I have honed my rolling craft. Onlookers are dazzled by my range and dexterity. Several have remarked that it is as if the chair is an extension of my own body.
In case you’re wondering, No, I didn’t do anything much over vacation.
I only went home. However, home was enough. For some reason I always feel very vulnerable whenever I come home after having been at Bard for an extended period of time. Little things, like the traffic noise outside my window and Mtv, leave me feeling overwhelmed and frightened. The many blank walls in my apartment unnerve me. Where are the flyers advertising bands and selling used cars? How am I supposed to know where and when the next Roving Poetry Reading is taking place? Gradually, I grow accustomed to life at home. I stop camping out in front of the television for hours before my favorite show is on so I don’t have to dispute my right to pick the channel. When I take a bag of chips from the kitchen, I no longer hide it under my jacket.
Spring break: A time that for many means traveling with three or four wild, attractive friends to someplace warm where there are sandy beaches and camera crews to stick your studded-tongues out at and to take your tops off in front of. Or so I have gathered from watching Cable. But for me, Spring Break is a time for reflection. A time to sit back and ask myself where I am at this point in my life, and what are my plans for the future, and how long have I been wearing these pajamas? It is a time to realize while watching Conan O’Brien that I haven’t left the apartment that day. It’s a time to eat ice cream out of the carton and wonder if certain events happened recently, or if you just dreamed them. It is the sort of vacation that you figure is either really good for you, or really bad for you.
In high school, my friend Karen, who now goes to Yale (which may or may not be relevant), once told me as we approached the subway station that they had raised the price of a token from $2 to $2.50 “I’ll buy your token,” she said, as I spluttered with the indignant outrage appropriate to an occasion when the price of standard transportation has been raised by fifty cents in a single day with no warning. I gave her the money, she bought my token, and as we stood waiting for the train, she gave me my fifty cents back in disgust. She said she couldn’t keep the money because it reminded her that she was friends with someone like me.
My prank-prone friends quickly learn that they have no need to concoct elaborate schemes in order to fool me into believing ridiculous lies. Why go to the trouble of enlisting others to help persuade me that you have an identical twin when you can fool me just as easily by pointing to a photo of yourself and saying, “And that’s Lisa”?
It seems my extreme gullibility dates back to not-so-early childhood, when I believed in the Tooth Fairy, possibly the least interesting and most blatantly phoned-in of all childhood myths. Even my parents’ obvious lack of enthusiasm in discussing the Tooth Fairy’s sordid and slightly creepy pursuits failed to dampen my spirits. Possibly, on a certain level, they were disappointed in me for believing their story, and I can’t blame them. I, however, gleefully counted the rest of my baby teeth, pondering the profits they would bring in one day and considering my mouth to be a sort of trust fund. I decided that a fairy who gave money for teeth would be a valuable ally to have on my side, and went about befriending her in the only way I could think of. My next lost tooth went under my pillow with a note that said: “Tooth Fairy, do you want to be my friend? Check one box for yes or no.” At the bottom were the two corresponding boxes. The chance that this note still exists curtails the possibility of my ever going into public office. To add insult to idiocy, the tooth fairy did not check either box. Perhaps this is a large part of why, even now, I suffer from a crippling fear of rejection.
I would like to think that being gullible is not something to be ashamed of. It suggests a kind of innocence that not everyone is proud to admit to. A willingness to take others at their word, to trust them when they tell you that ‘lite’ beer is called so because it has less alcohol, or that there’s a salad bar in the basement of the public library. I’m hoping it has raw spinach.
I never really experienced fall until I came to Bard. As a child growing up in New York City, I noted the changing seasons in unique ways. In spring the pansies in the small flower beds surrounding the trees on my block were in magnificent bloom. As summer arrived, subway cars became air conditioned, the sidewalks began to smell of baked garbage, and the dreadlocked man outside the Job Lot on Broadway would once again be wearing cowboy boots with spurs and red hot pants. I could always tell winter was approaching because it would be nearly dark when I came up out of the subway station on my way home from school. And in fall the air seemed crisper, sweeter, laden with the scent of store employees rushing around with skeleton decorations and orange crepe paper. But I never really noticed the leaves changing until I got to Bard, when they were all I could look at, until they were gone. And then they were all I could jump on, until I found a boyfriend. After four years on cross-country, I also began to equate fall with pain, running, more pain and getting up early on Saturday mornings. But all in all, I enjoyed spending it at school in the Hudson Valley.
I am having a little trouble figuring out what to think of fall now that I am a college graduate. Last spring I worried that I was going to have a hard time adjusting to life after college. Then, over the summer, I naively congratulated myself on a separation well done. “I don’t miss school one bit,” I thought, well-adjustedly. “Look at me. I’m doing great. Ha, ha, wee!” Of course, nobody else was in school either at that point, but that somehow didn’t seem important. And then, around mid-August, I began noticing store posters showing children with gleaming teeth and striped shirts reminding me it was almost time to go “Back to School.” I couldn’t walk through a drug store without staring wistfully down aisles crammed with three-ring-binders and shiny folders decorated with anonymous, unaffiliated robot action heroes and candy-colored unicorns. I stood in line, wishing I was buying a new Trapper Keeper, and flipped through teen magazines with headlines that read, “Seven hot new back-to-school outfits that will make everyone forget how no one liked you last year.” And then, come September, everyone went back to school, and I…went back to work, at my summer job, which had suddenly turned into a fall job, also known as a job.
I promise this column isn’t going to turn into a forum in which I whine about how I miss college. At least, not until I run out of money, at which point this may become a forum for me to whine about how hungry I am. But for now at least, I’m trying to give life-after-college a chance. After all, the last time I wasn’t enrolled in any sort of school system, I was two feet tall and thought the Pillsbury Dough Boy lived under my parents’ bed. Now I’m 5’4”, and think there might be money in publishing.