The College Story

See, I'm not the only one.

I wish I could spin you the story everyone wants to hear.

That story has a whole cast of predictable characters, and many trunks’ worth of familiar props. The friends, the neat dorm rooms, the beer, the photo collages, the inside jokes, the cute frat guys, the walks by the lake, the hot chocolate, the study sessions, the mentoring professors, the sorority mixers, the coffee dates, the giggly all-nighters, the risque one-night-stands and the whispered confessions to friends in class the next day.

Sound familiar? That’s the College Story. You’ve seen it in every glossy brochure, TV show, Seventeen magazine article, and back-to-school commercial.

But that’s not my story. It never will be. Because the kind of person I am doesn’t get to live that story.

Halfway through my college career, it’s time to admit this to myself.

My story? Sure, it has some bright moments in it. Most stories do, and mine hasn’t been that awful. But then there’s all the stuff nobody wants me to talk about–the weather, the loneliness, the way guys at Northwestern treat me (to be precise, like a thing), the rich, preppy students that I’ll never resemble, the hours spent laboring over essays that professors barely even read (and then unceremoniously slap a B on without further explanation), the expectation to be a walking, talking, drinking/fucking/studying machine, the not-so-subtle bragging NU teaches us to perform, the bottles of anti-depressants lined up on my shelf, the many nights I spent considering transferring, asking for a quarter off, dropping out of college, or dropping out of life.

I played with my little sister today. I do that every day when I’m home, but today it was different because I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m leaving again in five days. I hugged her and my heart broke all over again. I hate that I’m not here to see her and my brother grow up. I hate that nobody at Northwestern loves me the way these two do. I hate that my little brother took one of my blankets to sleep with because he misses me while I’m at school. It all feels so wrong to me.

I’ll feel better once I’m actually there, I know that. Despite what it may look like, making the best of things is a skill of mine. Once I’m there, it’ll be easier to make myself forget the loving family I’ve left back in Ohio and to pretend that home isn’t where I’d always rather be. Sometimes I’m even able to get myself to believe that I somehow matter at this huge institution of higher learning and that it, or at the very least, the lives of some of the other people in it, would be noticeably different if I had never existed.

The truth is that I’m paying $200,000 and a lot of my own sanity for a stupid piece of paper saying that I’m qualified to go get a PhD and actually learn something relevant to my life, because all I’ve learned these past two years is how to act smarter, richer, and more well-adjusted than I actually am. Call me an idealist, but I hoped that college would be more than this.

I’m compelled to apologize for this. To apologize for hating college, because it goes against everything our culture dictates that I do. I’m supposed to love it.

Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I do.

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How Depression Feels

I feel like there’s a disease in my head. I want to excise the brain parts that it lives in, the parts responsible for loneliness, worthlessness, apathy, cynicism, seriousness, sensitivity, and all the other ways in which I could be described.

I feel like a book lying open on the grass. The wind blows the pages around and one can’t help but read them. Nothing that’s written can ever be forgotten.

I feel like I’ve wound up my body’s pocket watch all wrong. It doesn’t go at the same pace as everyone else’s. Sometimes it ticks when it shouldn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t when it should. Where is that damn watchmaker?

I feel like a sinking ship. All of my most beautiful parts are underwater now, my framework waterlogged and rotting. Up on the tilting deck, an orchestra plays for anyone who dares to listen.

I feel like there’s a darkness following me wherever I go. Some call it a black dog, others call it a raincloud, others call it the noonday demon. Sometimes we sit on a bench next to each other, just gazing out into the world through our foggy, listless eyes. When it’s with me, I see in black and white.

I feel like a piece of driftwood on a beach. Why am I here, and not there? Is this sandy spot any better than that one?

I feel like there’s another spirit inside me and it’s more compassionate and optimistic and hopeful than I’ve ever been able to be.

I feel like there’s a flood slamming against the levee walls of my brain.

I feel like there’s a screeching phoenix beating in my heart, trying to burn a hole in the scarred tissue and escape.

I feel like I’m moments, or days, or years away from coming alive. It’ll happen, someday.

Dancing With Myself

[This is a piece I wrote in response to a prompt at Open Salon and just thought I’d repost it here.]

You aren’t really a daughter of Russian parents unless they make you do ballet.

Mine did, though I started later than most–when I was five years old. I continued until I was  fifteen. Over those ten years, I perfected splits, fouettes, and grand jetes, danced in several professional ballets, and starred as Clara in the Nutcracker. I was thin and graceful, and my parents never demurred when asked to produce photos and videos of their talented daughter.I often danced for friends and relatives who came to visit, or who we went to visit ourselves.

But ballet took a toll on me, and not necessarily in the ways you would expect. Since I was prepubescent for most of that time, I didn’t need to worry about staying skinny; it was easy for me as a child. Dancing en pointe hurt my feet and gave me terrible blisters, but it really wasn’t that that did me in.

No, what led me to quit was the atmosphere that characterizes the world of ballet. The other girls were awful, catty, nasty people. The ballet teachers pit us against each other ruthlessly, calling one of us a favorite one day and choosing another the next.

We were talked down to, humiliated, and shamed. I recall one day when we were taking a break to stretch in the middle of class, and I politely asked my teacher if I may be excused to use the restroom. She nodded but pursed her lips and whispered, “Never again.

If you came late to a class, as I often did because I lived far away and my parents, believe it or not, had other responsibilities in addition to driving me around, you were required to wait meekly by the door until the class completed its current exercise, wait until the teacher acknowledged you, apologize for your tardiness, and ask permission to join the class. You would walk to a spot at the barre with thirty pairs of eyes glaring at you.

As a shy and bookish girl, this destroyed me.

I remember how my teacher would insist to my parents that my hair must be in a bun that doesn’t fall apart–not exactly a small thing to ask from a mane of hair that reached past my derriere. Inevitably my bun would fall apart and I would be unable to fix it and I could feel those same thirty pairs of eyes narrowing, thirty mouths sneering and snickering at me.

I quit ballet, inevitably, when I was in high school. I joined the marching band instead. I delighted in wearing a uniform that hid my developing and no longer skinny body, in meeting people who didn’t judge me, in being able to simply run to my place in the warmup circle when I was late rather than performing the humiliating ritual required by my ballet teachers.

I’m not skinny anymore. Not at all. I’m not so flexible. I can only do three or four fouettes before I start losing my balance.

But I still carry myself well, chin up, back straight. I still love to dance, though I prefer to dance to the Black Eyed Peas instead of Tchaikovsky.

Sometimes I regret quitting ballet because I’d invested so much into it. But I’m thankful every day that ritualized humiliation and catty competition are no longer a part of my daily life. I’m grateful that I didn’t stay long enough to have a chance to succumb to some of the  more well-known pressures that a ballet dancer’s life brings.

The beat of the music still plays in my head, but now I dance to it in my own way.

I ♥ NY

Consider this a love letter to my favorite city.

Looking down 5th Avenue towards southern tip of Manhattan, from the top of the Empire State Building

New York City was the first bit of America that I ever saw, fourteen years ago when my family immigrated from Israel. I can only imagine how my parents felt. They had escaped from social and religious oppression when they’d left Russia, and now, two casualties of Israel’s faltering economy, they looked to America for help. New York welcomed them with open arms.

And now, it welcomes me. Growing up wedged between four cultures, I never learned to speak the language of just one. I’m always some combination of Russian, Jewish, American, and Israeli. I’ve never felt at home anywhere. Except New York.

I don’t have to identify myself here, perhaps because there are plenty of people here just like me, who grew up in one culture, speaking the language of another, observing the religion of a third, and finally settling into a fourth. Here I don’t have to get into a car and drive far away to find the food I grew up with or a place to practice my religion. I don’t feel awkward when I pick up the phone to talk to my parents and a dozen sets of eyes immediately turn to stare at me. (You’d have to try pretty damn hard to get people to look at you in New York, and speaking Russian–there are 300,000 Russians there–definitely won’t do it.)

I’ve lived in six cities on three continents, and New York is the only one in which I’ve felt comfortable and accepted. I feel like it speaks my language.

Abandoned lot near Rockaway Beach, in Queens

It seems that achieving the American Dream means living in a way that you can forget your fellow dreamers even exist. My parents’ house in Ohio is located in one of the best neighborhoods in town. Backyards sprawl around their houses; often they’re larger than the house itself. They are usually surrounded by a fence,

You don’t really see many people out and about. You don’t have to; you have your own backyard to hide in. My mom and I are instantly recognized by many residents of our neighborhood because we take lots of walks. On the rare occasion that I actually talk to someone, they often point this out.

Interaction with people is minimized in many parts of the U.S., and that’s considered the ideal. There’s no super to pay the rent to, no neighbors to stomp on the ceiling above you, no musicians on the street corners or on the subway cars (since there aren’t any subways), no bus stops full of people, no beggars asking you for change. People move to the suburbs and count their blessings that they no longer have to deal with all these pesky people.

I don’t like it that way. I like it the New York way.

There’s nothing worse for me than silence and aloneness. In New York, you are never alone. Look down the street at night and you see hundreds of glowing windows peering back at you. People sit on porches, stoops, benches, balconies, and railings. They lean on buildings, cars, and fences. They eat, smoke, talk, read, play chess, embrace, make music, or do nothing.

When you’re feeling lonely, which is most of the time for me, there’s nothing more powerful than this reminder that you’re never really alone. Even if it feels that way.

The Manhattan Municipal Building

So yeah, I’ve done all the tourist stuff. I’ve been to the Met, the MoMA, the Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Natural History. I’ve walked all the way through Central Park and been to the Bronx Zoo. I’ve been to the top of the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers, when they were still standing. After they weren’t, I went to Ground Zero. I’ve been to Wall Street and seen every inch of Broadway from Battery Park to Columbus Circle. I’ve been in Times Square, Washington Square, Madison Square, Union Square, and probably a lot of other important squares. I’ve been to both the Strand and Macy’s, Columbia and NYU, Chinatown and Greenwich Village, Brighton Beach and the Upper East Side. And I know I’m still not even close to being done.

But my favorite thing to do in New York is just to walk. You can lose yourself in the streets of Manhattan without ever really being lost, because getting lost in Manhattan would require not knowing how to count. It’s easy–the avenues go up and down the length of the island, and the number of the avenue increases as you go from east to west. The streets go perpendicular to the avenues, counting upwards as you go north. Below Houston Street things get a bit tricky, but you still can’t really get lost.

The reason I can’t do this anywhere but New York is because no other city has such a vast amount of walkable territory. In Chicago, you can find the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever seen, but walk a mere ten blocks in any direction and you’ll start to see housing projects.

Anything that chocolate, music, and sex can’t heal, walking can. New Yorkers know this, which might be why they’ve built a city that makes walking so easy.

L'orange Bleue, a French restaurant in SoHo

My parents have a friend who works two blocks away from my aunt’s apartment, where I stayed for the past five weeks. When I told her that I’m planning to become a psychologist, she said, “Come to New York! There’s no better place to be a psychologist.” She said that elsewhere, people still believe that psychotherapy is something for crazy people to do. In New York, however, people understand that it can be a valuable tool for attaining self-knowledge and becoming happier. My impromptu adviser proudly pointed out that she herself has an excellent therapist.

Of course, psychology isn’t the only subject on which New Yorkers, generally speaking, have progressive views. In New York, it’s legal for a woman to go topless in public. Chain restaurants were required to provide calorie counts for all of their menu items even before Obama’s healthcare bill made that mandatory nationwide, and trans fats are illegal in restaurants. Homeless people don’t sleep on the streets anymore now that the city has a network of homeless shelters. Smoking is illegal not only in restaurants and bars, but also in parks, public squares (i.e. Times Square),  sports stadiums, and beaches. Cars are almost entirely unnecessary thanks to the constantly-improving public transit system. Gay marriage is legal.

When I hear about all the things that New York has and Chicago (let alone Dayton, Ohio) do not, I feel like this is a city that takes care of its people. It’s one more reason to feel welcome there.

Underneath a bridge in Central Park

Leaving New York sucked. On my last evening there, after I came down from the Empire State Building, I kept hanging around in Herald Square because I didn’t want to get on the subway and go home. That would put a note of finality into it.

On the plane the next day, I kept thinking about all the people I’d interacted with in New York. Not just my friends and family, but the nameless people–the Russian lady who asked me for help in CVS on my first night there, the stewardess I talked to while I was in line to buy snacks at the airport, the Spanish-speaking woman who offered to take my picture on top of the Empire State Building, the Bukharian Jew working for the Russian car service I used to get to the airport (we talked about family and the places we’ve lived), the giggly 40-year-old woman who approached me in Barnes & Noble in Union Square to ask me for help loading music onto her new laptop, the 16-year-old high school student from Florida who started talking to me about books in the Strand, the U of Iowa student I talked to about football in Washington Square, the street cart owner who chatted me up while making my chicken and rice on my first day out in the city, the gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a really nice suit who talked to me as we looked at male sex toys in the Museum of Sex.

I was so worried when I first set off for New York that I would be terribly lonely there. Everyone warned me that people are cold, that they ignore you, so I wasn’t at all prepared for the incredible variety of interesting and complex people I would meet there. And, despite having been in New York before, I had no idea of how the loneliness melts away when you find yourself actually walking through those streets.

Now I do, and now, more than anything, I just want to be back in those streets again.

Midtown and the Empire State Building, from the top of the Rockefeller Center