I have a friend named Sarah, whom I met in college. Sarah is very funny, highly opinionated, and a voracious consumer of pop culture. Her favorite quote (which might have even been in her Facebook profile before she exited the ‘book for good) was the classic High Fidelity line that seems to captivate so many of my peers: It’s what you like, not what you ARE like, that matters.
Spoken in the movie version by the perpetually hangdog John Cusack, it takes on the cadence of wisdom, even followed up by his next statement, “Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.” It does seem to be in many ways the fuckin’ truth these days, especially where social media is concerned. I’m still an avid Facebook user, though my newsfeed is increasingly taken up by the inanities of diet plans and an endless parade of engagement rings and photographs of gooey-faced babies. I share things most often via Facebook, partly because it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with at this point and partly because it usually results in more reactions from my friends. In the ten (!) years since I joined I’ve carefully cultivated an online persona made up of the articles and statuses I share, the comments I respond to, the photographs I post—and, of course, the things I (literally) like.
I’ve looked at many a wedding photograph, and read more than a couple of crushingly dumb but enticingly titled Thought Catalog articles—but not reacting to them means I can keep that part of my “personality” hidden. Enjoying a BuzzFeed roundup of walnuts that look like Chewbacca? Fine. Broadcasting that enjoyment to the world? I’d rather not. It doesn’t really matter what I am like in person when I’m using social media, because the platform allows me to create myself as I want—in my case, generally enthusiastic, moderately snarky, and interested in all things puppy.
The same applies to online dating, to a certain extent. The profile you fill in might ask you how you feel about religion and how strongly, how you describe yourself, and what you’re looking for in a relationship. It also asks you what music you like, what movies and TV shows and books. But it’s all a measure of how you want to seem. What will people think if you put down Gravity’s Rainbow versus 50 Shades of Grey? Game of Thrones or The Bachelor? It’s a conscious creation of yourself that goes way beyond the self-editing everyone does in person-to-person interactions, because there’s so much more lead time. Think hard, the blank questionnaire says, because potential mates will judge your answers just as harshly as you judge theirs. In the absence of presence, when the prickle of chemistry can’t be felt, What do I like? can turn into What do I wish I liked? Perhaps it can make us more honest, or at least more revealing of our inner desires. Or perhaps it all becomes shallow, when a mention of Pynchon stands in for depth like a shorthand with no good translation.
So if I saw a post like this on Facebook, would I hit the like button? Maybe. But not without thinking long and hard about how it would make me seem.
Update: Strangely enough, I wrote this without realizing Facebook’s birthday was today. The site rolled out automatically generated “look back” videos of the content each user has shared since signing up. While I’m sure it involved a vastly complicated algorithm of some kind, the events highlighted were not necessarily the ones I would have chosen. So maybe I now have two social media personalities—the one I craft for myself and the one the platform decides for me. It’s a bit of an odd feeling, I have to say.
I’ve done a few things in my life a fair number of people would consider bold. I moved halfway across the country to attend a college where I knew nobody. I’ve sung solos in choir concerts and danced atop a bar in Cancun. I hit on a hot stranger at a bar by asking the bartender to buy him a drink from me. I’ve approached celebrities to ask the asinine question, “Who are you wearing?” But here’s a confession: I’ve done all this with the knowledge that when it comes down to it, at the root of it all, I am a shy person.
It’s always been that way. As a baby, my mom tells me, I was relatively silent, content to sit in my high chair and observe my gregarious older sister as she chattered and played, gleaning my own lessons from her tumbles and triumphs. Once at family dinner at Pizza Hut—the memory is very vivid—I forgot my childish gravitas for a second and gave myself up to dancing in the aisles between tables as I joyfully chewed my Hawaiian pizza (I know), oblivious for once to the eyes of those around me. When a kindly adult the next table over complimented me on my dance I stopped immediately and ran back to my seat, so paralyzed by embarrassment I barely moved for the rest of the meal.
Now, at 27, I am mostly able to fake an outgoing personality, a skill born of necessity after a move from Canada to Texas left me floundering in the deep end of a new culture and a new set of social rules. Over many painful years I developed a style, a vocabulary, a set of interests, and a sense of humor that lets me relate to and even occasionally befriend people who truly are social creatures, for whom the idea of being the center of attention inspires excitement rather than cold sweat. I envy them their ease, their confidence that what they do and say and put out in the world will be not just accepted but celebrated. “Listen to me,” they say, “because I have something great to offer. How could anyone think otherwise?”
My shyness as a teenager was a sore spot with my mom and me; shuttled to dinner parties and barbecues, I’d sit mutely, trying to smile pleasantly, and afterward my mom would invariably comment angrily that I “looked so bored.” Here’s another confession: Publicly calling out a shy person for being shy is like a slap in the face. You will make them more self-conscious, and they will feel even more awkward, convinced now that everyone can see into the tangles of their thoughts, down deep to the inner place where they are lumbering and ugly and stupid, the least interesting person in the room. Telling a shy person to “just put yourself out there” is akin to someone who’s never picked up a cigarette advising a lifelong nicotine addict to “just stop smoking.”
I thought for a while that I had outgrown my wallflower tendencies (see the opening paragraph of this blog post). Now I happen to be dating one of those people who crave and thrive on social interaction, which for him throws my natural inclinations into sharp relief. “You’re shy,” he’s told me more than once (in private), and the first time I found myself briefly, foolishly surprised—even a little hurt. But it’s a fair assessment of the situation. I’m never going to want to audition for a reality television show or take a job that requires a lot of public speaking (though I did win a ribbon for an impromptu speech at my mom’s Toastmaster meeting once). A massive wedding that would involve me spilling the contents of my heart in front of hundreds of people? My actual nightmare. I am shy, no matter how many bold choices I make.
The desire to fade into the background can be a detriment. I don’t speak up at meetings. I sometimes hesitate to reach out to potential new friends. I often have this sinking feeling that I’m holding myself and my talents back because I’m afraid to really express them, afraid of failing or being rejected. (Is that a symptom of shyness, or a lack of confidence? In my case, likely a combination of the two.)
But it has its benefits too. My parents worried for a while when I didn’t take to speaking as quickly as my sister had—but when I felt ready, from all my observations of the people around me, I had full sentences down in a matter of days. I learned to ride a bike in the span of an afternoon. Even now I watch people around me closely and let their behaviors inform my actions. I abide by the rule that everyone loves to talk about themselves, and I’m happy to let them, using the time to assess their personality and social awareness while giving away little of myself. Being able to shut up and let others speak can be an invaluable and underrated trait, and it’s one I think I’ve gotten pretty good at.
I’ll probably always have to work on having the confidence to speak my mind to others, to stop myself from retreating to the safety of my bedroom whenever I sense a potential awkward social situation in the future. But I’ve come a long way from the silent child that way. And hey, if you ever meet me, chances are you’ll think I’m a really great listener.
For the past couple of years I’ve had the fun task of recapping Scandal for my day job. With the exception of the most recent episode, which I missed because I was in India (more on that to come!), I’ve seen all of it, and watched it grow along the way from a soapy, uneven procedural with ultra-predictable twists to a critical darling and one of the most buzzed-about shows on TV. I’ll confess Shonda Rhimes shows are generally not totally my cup of tea—I gave up on Grey’s Anatomy after the first season—and were I not recapping Scandal, I likely wouldn’t watch it regularly. But the show has sparked some interesting discussions about race and gender roles in Hollywood and politics, and it has a darkly humorous—and often just plain dark—tone that appeals to my cynical side. (Plus how can you not love the vindictive, wounded-animal rage of Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant?)
I’ve started to wonder, though, about Scandal‘s staying power. Todd VanDerWerff noted at the AV Club that Scandal keeps momentum going by raising what were from the beginning very high stakes. You’re talking about the presidency, about the fate of marriages and reputations, even occasionally about life and death. But for me, those stakes have started to lose their power. Those passionate, tortured declarations of love Fitz and Olivia are so fond of making to each other? If they want to be together so badly, Fitz could just give up the presidency, which, by the way, he didn’t actually win anyway. He outed his own affair to the press, then Olivia’s team swiftly covered for her by pinning it on one of the president’s hapless staffers, who retired to a desert island (or something), and he continues to be the president with little to no real damage to his reputation. In any case, we’re talking about just four more years of all these people’s lives before all these issues will cease to be issues, so why not just throw in the towel after one term? Where do you go when in two and a half seasons the president of the United States has impregnated one staffer, who is then murdered by his chief of staff; been outed as an adulterer; smothered a Supreme Court justice to death; and abused his power to let a known criminal who is also the mother of your erstwhile lover and former staff member go free?
Maybe the real stakes are the fate of these people’s souls. Olivia’s team will do anything for her, the more illegal the better, sometimes at great personal cost. Abby lies to her boyfriend; Huck tortures people; Harrison wears pocket squares that don’t exactly match his tie. Olivia will do anything for Fitz—except the one thing she should do, which is let him go. Mellie, for some reason, will do anything to stay in her position, sad and largely powerless as it is. She’s hooked on the drug of future potential success, of one day having in her hands the power she wants so desperately to keep herself adjacent to. Power for these people is god and devil, the thing that gives them life as it simultaneously eats away at them. But as they hurtle toward their destruction in the form of wildly twisting plot lines, it’s hard to see how long that corrosion can be stretched out. Like the late, unlamented Hostages, which I also recapped (until I finally gave up), the concept of a president and his former staffer having an affair that dooms everyone around them to endless lies and machinations seems like one with a limited shelf life. Were any normal person subjected to the emotional (and sometimes physical) torture these characters have already endured, she’d end up catatonic in a mental institution. We’ve already had one episode of Kerry Washington doing that—and beautiful as she is, I’m less than enthused about a whole season of it.
I’m sitting here in Dulles Airport waiting for a plane to arrive to the gate that will take my parents and me halfway across the world to Dubai, and from there to India, the land of their births, the country to which I will always, whether I feel it or not, have an inextricable connection. For me this is a first-time trip; for my parents, it is a return after nearly 30 years to a place that likely looks completely different from the place they picture in their memories.
It’s snowing right now, and our flight is a bit delayed, but that’s the first of the myriad things that have gone wrong already. First my parents lost power in the days before they were due to fly out of Dallas, thanks to a bad ice storm made worse by Texan inability to deal with any weather under 45 degrees. Then they couldn’t get out of Dallas because of canceled flights, throwing our whole tightly plotted three-week trip into a tailspin. The rental car they got at the airport had engine problems. The TV and heat in our hotel room was broken. At dinner the night before we were due to leave, already a day late, the waitress spilled coffee all over my dad and boyfriend. And now this snow—fluffy, pretty canceler of flights. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to a trip.
But once we get on that plane, I hope things will go as planned. I’ve been thinking about this vacation for half a year, ever since my parents decided it was finally going to happen. I have a lot of thoughts, and I’ve said more times than I can count how excited I am, how much I’m looking forward to it. But the truth is I’m nervous, too, maybe even scared. What if more things go wrong? What if I hate all the food, or worse, if one of us gets sick from the water or an errant uncooked vegetable? What if the assault of new sights and sounds and smells is so overwhelming I’m unable to appreciate it?
I feel silly to worry about all this. How lucky am I to not only have this cultural background to explore but to have been born into a family with the means to travel, to see places I have until now only dreamed of? Still, there’s this shadow over the trip even as we prepare to enjoy ourselves and revel in the beauty of a country so removed from our daily lives. There’s the knowledge that we’re booking only three seats instead of four on all these flights, that my sister now comes with us only in our minds and hearts. For every joyful declaration that this is “a trip of a lifetime,” there’s the unspoken echo that follows, that maybe this is the only time we will make this journey as a family. And I can only imagine what my parents are feeling to finally return to the place they used to live, to find it changed—unrecognizable maybe—and to feel the full weight of all the years that have passed since then, all the loved ones they have lost and the choices they have made that led them to this plane journey and a daughter who has no understanding of how they spent the first piece of their lives.
So the thing to do, I suppose, is just to embrace it, to take in everything as fully as I can, to dive in deep with my eyes open wide and make this a trip I will remember for a lifetime. I am going to see wondrous sights and meet family that are strangers to me and in whatever way return home with a new sense of myself and my place in the world.
Provided, of course, that our plane actually takes off this time.
It’s been said a million times, but I’ll say it again: We live in an age of oversharing. There are myriad platforms through which to share your every thought, no matter how banal, constant temptations to express your joy or outrage or fatigue to your own social media world. And despite being a writer, that self-involved breed both naturally inclined and trained to share their views about the world, and to promote those views, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable about communicating certain things. I’ll happily tell you how much I liked (or hated) that episode of Scandal, when it comes to the deeply personal things, I have this feeling that sharing it with the world—writing about it, even talking about it, sometimes—cheapens it somehow.
When my sister died I refused to talk about it for a long time. At first I was too sad, too angry, too crushed to put into words how ineffably my life had changed. Then as time passed, it became a way of holding on. People say talking about it makes it easier, and I didn’t want it to be easy. I wanted to hang on to my pain and my memories, to keep them fresh and raw, because to do otherwise felt like a betrayal. I still feel that way.
I’m thinking about this now because a friend of mine recently had someone very close to him pass away. He’s young; she was young too. He wrote about it today on Facebook—about her, about what he’s going through, and about the same things I’ve struggled with: whether sharing personal memories of her would have made her happy or angry, whether his tribute to her was his selfish way of dealing with the situation or whether it was simply what she deserved. He’s also a journalist, and his note was beautifully written—but I couldn’t get through it. His pain brings back mine just as I wished, in all its raw, bleeding strength, but this time mixed with a new feeling: guilt. I feel guilty that I can’t talk to him about it for my own awful reasons, guilty that going through hell has somehow not made me any less godawful at comforting someone going through the same thing. And guilty, in some way, that I didn’t do the same thing for my sister. Maybe not talking about her more, sharing my memories of all the things I loved and admired and even sometimes hated about her and forcing her back into people’s minds is the ultimate selfish act. Maybe it was just easier for me not to talk about it. And maybe because of me, people forgot sooner.
I know I will never forget Anjali. But when I’m really honest with myself, I’m terrified that I have already forgotten some things, like the way it felt to hug her or the exact cadence of her laugh when she found something particularly hilarious. And the longer I live the further away those things get from me, until one day when I have children of my own I tell them stories of their Aunt Anjali and all that’s left are the wisps of a relationship that was once such a bedrock of my life I took it completely for granted. So maybe writing personal things about someone when they’re gone is selfish, in a way. But it could also be one of the most valuable things you can do.
Lately I’ve been re-reading David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on my Metro rides, and mostly marveling, whether it’s late at night or I’m morning-cranky, at how beautiful and assured his prose is, how sly his wit, how intelligent his humor, how sneaky his emotional gut punches. I just finished the book in its entirety again last night, and on a whim flipped for the first time to the dedication page. It reads, in small italic font on an otherwise blank page: For Hugh. Hugh is Sedaris’s longtime partner, about whom he writes often and without shyness about their relationship and their respective roles in it. And seeing those words on the page, it struck me—how beautiful. How wonderful and bold a declaration that no matter how many squabbles he details within the pages of the book, how many fears he expresses that Hugh will leave him, for good, by the monkey cage at the zoo, here, in naked black and white type for a thousand or a million eyes to see, the declaration of not only his love but of their complicity in each other’s lives. Here I am, putting our private existence on display, shaped by an editor and my creative license as they may be; here I am, in the same breath, absolving and apologizing and pledging my devotion to you with these two words: For Hugh. For you.
This Friday, my purse got stolen. It was stolen from a bar on H Street in the wee hours of the morning, when I put it down for a minute because it was big and heavy and I wanted to dance with my boyfriend. This wasn’t just any purse, either—this was my work bag, which on a regular day contains most of what I need to get through the day and on this evening, because I’d attended an event for work earlier in the evening, had basically my entire life in it. My wallet, with my IDs, credit cards, and cash. My phone. My house keys. A brand-new digital camera containing photos of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx I’d taken at the movie premiere I attended that day. The iPod I got in college and use at the gym. A sweater I loved. A comfy pair of flats. A bag containing extra makeup and perfume. The flash drive holding the most recent version of a book I have been editing for the past two months. Probably a necklace or two.
The staff at the bar didn’t care. The cops, who told me they’d already had to deal with two stabbings and a shooting that day, practically yawned while filling out the report. (And then when my boyfriend yelled at them about it, one threatened to arrest him.) And my stuff? Gone.
So what’d I do? I cried. I laughed hysterically. I drank whiskey. I called my parents. I thought self-pityingly about how people are horrible. And then I realized: It’s just stuff. Expensive stuff, yes—but stuff that is ultimately replaceable. I wasn’t physically harmed, or threatened at gunpoint. I wasn’t alone, or in a foreign country. I could afford to replace the things I lost. I was going to be okay. I chalked it up to a loss and a learning experience and got ready to move on.
And then a few things happened. First, I got to work on Monday morning and the phone rang. On the other end was a woman who said she lived by the bar where my purse was stolen and had found my wallet in her front yard—with my ID and credit cards still in it! Could she have my address so she could mail it back to me? she asked. A day later it landed on my desk. Then my dad reminded me we have an extra iPod at home, and offered to bring it with him when he and my mom visit this week. Then a friend shared that some credit card companies will reimburse you for recent purchases that are lost and stolen. A couple of calls to customer service lines later and I had figured out I can fill out a claim to get my money back for that brand new camera. The next day, Nordstrom Rack read the story I wrote about my stolen purse and tweeted at me that they wanted to come by with a gift card so I could replace it. I had to turn them down because as journalists we’re not allowed to accept gifts—but not five minutes later my boss came by with a gift card and a thank-you note for “doing the right thing.” Add all this to my parents’ tireless desire to help me, my boyfriend’s level-headedness in the face of conflict (and willingness to both foot my bill for the weekend and let me use his cell phone), and even his family’s generous offers to let me have their old phones to use in the interim, and I realize I am an incredibly lucky girl indeed. Getting your stuff sucks, no matter what. And I will certainly be more careful from now on (especially when it comes to putting everything in one bag). But I’m so thankful for those in my life—both strangers and loved ones—who have reminded me that people can be good, and kind, and wonderful.
So go ahead and keep my stuff, thieves. I got something better.