What's With America?

I was recently chatting to an English friend about an American acquaintance of mine who was visiting the UK for the first time. Among the items my acquaintance chose to pack: hand soap, shampoo, bandaids and other toiletries that could have been easily found at the nearest Boots (and cheaper than paying the over 50 lb. luggage surcharge).

"Well, I didn't know what to expect," she said defensively when I showed her the drugstore in my neighborhood. "I had no idea what I'd find in England."

While I thought her quaint and sheltered, my English friend loudly interrupted my story to inform me- several times over- that Americans are stupid. My blood pressure immediately shot up. I was trying to form a clever retort along the lines of a nation so stupid that without us she'd be sans iPhone, Hudson jeans, Google and Cheryl Sandberg (though to be fair, the assembly of these items, sans Cheryl Sandberg, is thanks to China) when I decided- stupidly- that pointing out her offensive and idiotic prejudice wasn't worth the argument. So instead of telling her that I've met plenty of stupid people here, at home and everywhere abroad, I diplomatically told her not everyone could afford to travel as often as she did, and then ranted about her in my loud American accent behind her back. In public. With emotion. Everyone listening, including my captive audience, seemed mildly uncomfortable. But that's the plight of being an American abroad; I need to act as an ambassador for my country and often, with all the best intentions, this fails miserably.

One thing I've noticed about England is that people keep themselves to themselves- unless, of course, you want to air your anti-American sentiments. I admire this trait and wish I could emulate it (the keeping oneself to oneself, not the anti-Americanism). I find that, in general, an American is much more wont to warm up to an individual or group quickly and dish all her dirt, whereas I've spent years cultivating my friendships with several English people only to have dinners that are still full of witty banter and little else, unless I'm the one to have an emotional meltdown (which is all the more likely when banter is involved). I often wonder when, between 1776 and the modern day, our two cultures diverged so vastly. I want to talk about my problems with my friends, my cat, my elderly neighbor, the grocery clerk and the homeless guy who hangs out in the parking lot across the street from my house. The preponderance of English people seem to prefer we discuss the weather, the weekend, the children and increased energy prices- all whilst wishing I'd play my personal stuff a little closer to the chest.


Do we Americans have less of an issue airing our laundry- clean and otherwise- for the world to see? I guess so, on a personal and national level, and I personally find this transparency refreshing, at least in some ways. I mean, when its all out in the open you mostly know where things stand (unless you run into a self-appointed ambassador such as myself- then trust nothing). But then again, the worst is always more newsworthy, whether that's something as silly as someone making a sweeping generalization about 365 million people, or something as horrific and unjust as the racially motivated murder of a teenager in a small southern town.

I'm not one to say I'm "proud" of being American. My opinion on nationalism is another story entirely. I will say, however, that there are some things about the States that I love. Love love love. The fact that optimism and exuberance aren't readily dismissed or downplayed. The diversity of languages, people, backgrounds and topography. Our ability to really say something when we talk, instead of falling back on senseless banter. Generally, our friendly and open attitude toward strangers of all background. And, of course, breakfast burritos.

Lately, though, what with the erosion of women's rights, the exponential increase in shootings, unresponsive and polemical political discourse and racially motivated police brutality, I have no justification for getting upset when people here ask me, "What's with America?!"* Well, except for the fact that this kind of stuff goes on everywhere. The events may have different names. Different mechanics may be used (knives instead of guns, for instance). And goodness knows we like to talk about it more. But hatred, ignorance, bigotry and basically all the best of the worst of humanity happens everywhere. There are stupid people everywhere. Americans just seem to like to put it out there for the world to see.

I for one have no problem airing my dirty laundry more or less publically. This is who I am: take or leave me for all the good, the bad, the ugly, etc. But then again, I wonder what would happen if I was more staid and stiff upper-lipped, if I could handle everything with class and composure rather than spilling my guts in my nasally valley girl voice amidst the hushed exchanges of quip and quibble at my local. Would it make things any better, or any worse? Would I get more done with a calm and composed discourse rather than an emotionally charged one-way rant? Would I feel better than I do bitching loudly about wanting to sue the protagonist responsible for my most recent life disaster? One thing I do know: I'd get quite a few less dirty looks and inquiries, "What's with that girl?!"

*Except the fact that America also includes Canada and Mexico, but that too is a geography lesson for another time. Remind me later, because conflating the two is a huge pet peeve of mine!



I have a confession to make.

 I love making lists. Like LOVE.

Being "slightly" neurotic (I know, I know, some of you may take issue with the adjective I used) lists give me a sense of control and calm that keeps impending panic attacks at bay.

 I've touted the power of list-making before elsewhere, and it actually works when it comes to organizing my life, getting me places on time(ish) and meeting deadlines. I.e., all the boring stuff. But what about fun lists? Yes, lists can be fun. And so I make those, too. They're actually kind of therapeutic, and helpful to organize thoughts and even think through preferences. So as a Friday exercise in clearing my head for the weekend, I've put together a few lists of my favorite things- try to sing them to the tune, it kind of works!

My Top 5 Fav Songs

While my tastes vary based on my mood and how long my commute is, these five will forever reign supreme.

Top 5 Fav Books

I'm starting a book club with the lovely LS, so I'll probably make her read these again to so we can have lively debates. I DO reserve my right to change my mind on this list as I read more and more.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Top 5 Fav Places

New Mexico, USA
Jökulsárlón, Iceland
Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Montreal, Canada
London, UK

Top 5 Fav Places to Shop

H&M (particularly the one in St Pauls, it is never busy)
Bon Marche (for the macaroons!)
Whole Foods (where it gets real in the parking lot)

Top 5 Pet Peeves

the words "moist" and "meal"
being self deprecating
talking too much/loudly
people who don't write back to emails

Top 5 Fav People
...wouldn't you like to know? 


Vodka on the Rocks

When high school was over I wanted to get out of Woodbridge as soon as possible. Since I'd spent most Saturday nights eating boxes of Krispy Kremes and searching for Colin Firth's grandmother's contact information online, I figured beach week wouldn't be an ideal fit. Therefore, I talked two of my closest friends, who from hereon in I will call C(1)&C(2), into taking on the U-nited States road trip style.

I would love to say we had a real Jack Kerouac, On the Road-inspired adventure, but all three of us were (er, are?!) about as hip as Carlton Banks and the closest we'd ever been to LSD at that point was the scene in Forest Gump where it looks like Jenny might jump. Our uncoolness seemed to stick to us through most of the trip, too. In Santa Fe we ran into some guys who asked us if we were in to moonshine, to which I replied "Oh, I don't like looking up at the night sky."In LA, we tried to go to an 18+ club only to be turned away at the door by a concerned and motherly drag queen who informed us, "This is not the kind of place you think it is." (I always wished I'd insisted on finding out just what it was, though.) In Seattle, we met up with some boys I had passed notes with on the highway in Arizona at 90mph. (Have you ever written a note and held it to your window and had a stranger write back? It was actually pretty invigorating.) I'm embarrassed to admit I threw up on one of them because I had convinced myself he was a serial killer. Also, he'd never heard of 7/11. Strangely enough, we're still in touch- he didn't turn out to be a killer after all (yet)!

So, as you may be able to tell, we didn't exactly change our stripes and become party girls on our trip around the continent. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel: once we talked ourselves back in across the border from Canada, where we'd mysteriously meandered in without passports only to be treated like common terrorists coming back through to the US, I felt alive, dangerous and ready to rage. I got in touch with the only person I kind of knew who could facilitate such behavior: P, a photographer in NYC that I'd shot with a few times in my younger days. As an adult looking back on this, I can see why my father always insisted on being in the room during my shoots. The only time my Dad didn't accompany me was on a P shoot, during which P gave me and my 14-year old sister a jug of white wine to "loosen me up" and recommended I go on a diet of crackers and lettuce so I could do more editorial work.

Anyway, being green behind the ears (Dr D, that one's for you!) and also jumpy around strangers, I figured I could count on P to show me and my friends a good time once we got to the city. He promised to get us in to a club where his friend worked as a bouncer. I may have floated the idea that we were on a Jack Kerouac-inspired road trip and let the implications of such hang heavy in the air so he thought we were a little more experienced on the party scene than we were. Whatever.

When we got to the city, true to his word, P arranged to have us picked up and brought to the club. We had to arrive super early so we could get in before they started carding, so when we walked in we were literally the only ones there besides him, a bartender and a few people who age and experience now tell me were on a bender.

He ushered us in and started in straightaway about how busy he had been and how excited he was for a night on the town. There was no "How are you?" or "How's your trip been?" He didn't even ask C(1)&C(2) their names. He had been with us no longer than a minute when a group walked in and he held up a finger, interrupting himself. Important people alert. He had to schmooze. Yeah. He was that kind of person.

Since he wasn't around to occupy us, we had to find something to do in the cavernously empty club.

"Shall we go to the bar?" C1 suggested tentatively.

All three of us approached the bar with trepidation, but tried to look nonchalant at the same time, like a guy looks when he's lost but doesn't want to ask for directions. 

"What do you want?" the bartender asked us in the polite and obliging way New Yorkers who are clearly serving the underage and clueless do.

"I will have...an appletini!" C1 said happily, amazed she could order an alcoholic beverage at all.

"I will have a cosmopolitan," C2 said. She read a lot, so she knew what she was doing- kind of. 

I scowled. I did NOT know what I was doing. In fact, those were the only two drinks I knew. I racked my brain for something different to order. My palms started to sweat and I could feel the bartender's icy, incredulous eyes on my baby fat.

"I will have a vodka on the rocks, please," I finally announced.

"What?" The bartender asked, biting her lip as if she were about to spit in my face. "Did you say a maritini?"

"Ummm, yes!" I said quickly, and turned around to grimace at C(1)&C(2), who were laughing harder than I think they had on the whole trip.

Before they recovered themselves, P came back.

"Kelly, I want to speak with you," he said determinedly.

(Did I mention I went by Kelly until I was 18? I really loved Saved by the Bell and no one could say Khaleelah correctly, anyway.)

"OK..." I said, eyeing the bartender as she put an apple in one drink, a cherry in another and an olive in the last.


P grabbed my hand and pulled me off my stool.

"Over there," he pointed to the hallway that led to the toilets.

Navigating our way there wasn't much of a task since the club was empty and well-lit, it being only 9:30pm, and the hallway was completely deserted.

When we were well hidden from all three people in the main room, P flopped against the wall dramatically and took a big breath, as if he had something important to say. 

"What a crazy day," he said.

I stared at him, wondering when he'd ask me about my trip, like most normal human beings who are curious about the world and others around them.

"Listen," he said, looking agitated and blinking fast. "I think you should stay here with me, instead of going home."


My high school boyfriend drove his mother's purple minivan and shared a bunk bed with his younger brother. In other words, I had no idea what this man was asking.

"When your friends leave, I want you to stay here with me."

"I want to be with you," he said, as if we had met more than a handful of times without my father's supervision.

"Ummm...." I finally started to understand what he was asking.

"Look, I want you to marry me," he said impatiently, taking a tube of chap stick out of his pocket.

"Oh!" I said, staring at the chap stick. My mind had finally alighted on something I could actually grasp. "Could I have some?" I held my hand out for the tube.

He stared at me for a second and then grabbed my hand and pulled me toward him, kissing me. I remember thinking about how squishy and gross his chap stick slathered lips were, and that I was definitely not moving to New York if this was how they shared chap stick. In other news, the other shoe had finally dropped and I realized what it was he probably really wanted.

"Oh, yay!" I said in the way that, if you know me, means I am freaking out. "Hold this thought...I will be right back."

I turned on my heel and ran back to the Cs, who were both cooly enjoying their drinks and watching people in the club, which was filling up.

Seeing their faces, I burst out crying.

"I have to go, right now." I grabbed my purse, kicked off my shoes, and then dropped my purse on the floor. When I get really agitated, I apparently like to be encumbered by as few articles of clothing and accessories as possible.

"What?!" C1 was clearly annoyed.

"What happened?" C2 asked.

I, however, wanted to get out of there before having to face P again, so I turned and fled without saying anything more- and without my purse or shoes.

I ran down the stairs, out the door and across Columbus Circle, almost getting hit by approximately 50 yellow cabs, which made me scream through my blubbering.

When I got to the other end of the Circle, near the park, I realized I actually looked like someone from a Kerouac novel- dirty, shoeless and emotionally unstable- and I didn't have my phone, so I couldn't call the Cs, or anyone else, for that matter. This made me cry even harder. I was alone, possibly engaged and shoeless in Central Park. The only thing that could possibly make the evening even better was if I stepped on a Hepatitis-filled heroin needle.

Finally, an unsuspecting tourist from Michigan or somewhere similarly dismal unwisely lent me her cell phone so I could call home. My dad answered the phone on about the 100th ring. Between sobs, I told him the saga. I could see the poor tourist's eyes get wider and wider with every sordid detail of the story. She was clearly regretting her midwestern act of kindness. Finally, my father handed the phone to my mother, who instructed me to get the next cab straight back to the hotel.

I don't know how my mother does it, but she's truly a miracle worker. When I got back to the hotel, a concierge was waiting with hot chocolate (it was NYC in August, but its the thought that counts), hotel slippers and money to pay the cabbie. The Cs were already there, too, with my purse and shoes.

I wiped my snotty nose on the hem of my dress and looked my two friends.

"I could really use a drink," I said, deciding with conviction that if I was old enough to get engaged, I was certainly old enough to seek emotional support from the bottom of a bottle.

"Mini bar?" C1 suggested.

My parents were footing the hotel bill, after all.


S.S. Atlantica

It was one of those perfect London evenings best spent with friends. Lucky me, not only was a great night on the books, it was a night on the river.

I went to the S.S. Atlantica, a 30s-themed boat cruise on the Thames. It was basically a combination of all the things I love in life: history, fancy dress, cruising and a little bit of boozing!

The Silver Sturgeon on the Savoy Pier, our boat for the night

Getting ready I was a little worried that no one would get as in costume and character as I did- but when I arrived I saw that my worries were very silly. Everyone got super into it, dressing up like stars from the silver screen in bygone days. I myself felt just like Daisy Buchanan.

Because the night was so warm and beautiful, I didn't explore as much of the boat as I should have done, sadly. 

Time to disembark!
Instead, we stayed up on the main deck chatting, sipping champagne and admiring everyone's costumes. Like I said, people went all out for the event- and why wouldn't you with such amazing weather and good company?

As the night got darker, we also got some amazing views of the city. I haven't been on a Thames boat tour since I was a kid, and never at night- and certainly never dressed like a star of the silver screen- so basically it was the best way to experience the city EVER.

This was definitely a highlight of my London experience, and something I'll do again! Bottoms up, darlings! 


Book Club

I've never belonged to a book club, but I strongly suspect I'd really love it if I had the time to join one. Alas, I equally suspect that most book clubs would not love me, so I suppose its just as well that I spend my time otherwise occupied by my upgrade paper, work and Netflix.

You see, I have a peculiar taste in literature, and not one you'd expect for someone with advanced degrees in the subject.

Since my literary tastes skew a little more toward Klosterman than Cavafy, I thought I'd share my current favorites here to get people riled up about what I'm missing out on, why I should only start reading things published before 1900 (hey, at least I love Pride and Prejudice!) and why it is a good thing I cancelled my Netflix subscription so I can expand my literary palate.

Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker: I read this book in one sitting, it was so good. It deconstructs the idea of soul mates, family ties and personal connections to people, places and things. I also really wanted to drive through the mountains of California after reading it. Thanks to the WH Smith dude who recommended it!

Disgrace, JM Coetzee: South African novelists are my fav, although I guess Coetzee has immigrated to Aus now. Anyway, this is, IMO, his best book, which navigates family life, race relations, the justice system and aging in post-Apartheid era South Africa. It gets realllllllly heavy, but that just makes the ending that much more cathartic.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood: one of my all-time favorite authors steps outside of the genres she does best to take on the world of science fiction/dystopian future- and nails it. This is part mystery, part horror mixed with just enough humor and romance to keep it out of the depressing Daybreak-like dystopian tropes.

My Education, Susan Choi: I'm not really a fan of "coming of age" stories (Holden Caulfield, you've ruined it for me), but for some reason this book really resonated with me. Its all about first love, finding yourself and the typically atypical American graduate school experience, but there was something so sad and unfinished about it that it still pops into my head at random times and makes me think- the sign of a very good book.

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts: I highly recommend this book for restless souls afflicted with wanderlust like myself. In the book I felt like I was the felon traipsing illicitly around the Indian subcontinent. The first time I read this book I blew through its 800+ pages in just a few days, so don't pick it up if you have an extremely busy week ahead.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway: probably my favorite book of all time, this is EH at his alcohol-infused best. Its a novel about everything disguised as a novel about nothing (and there's bullfighting). The last line of the book always gets me, and is the quote I'll consider tattooing on my body if I get up the courage to go for a third tattoo- so now you'll have to read it to see what it'll be, won't you!

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy: if you liked the movie, you HAVE to read the book, it's 100 times better. While the movie probably moves faster and leaves out some of the scathing social commentary, the prose is just fantastic. I wish I could write like McCarthy!

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck: probably my second favorite book of all time. It's a super quick read, and very easy to dismiss since  its required reading in like 5th grade. But don't discount how much it can be unpacked and analyzed. If you're an overthinker, this here book is brainfood for you!

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: told from the perspective of teenage boys in a Boston suburb watching their five beautiful neighbors kill themselves one by one, this is another rare coming of age story I find not merely palatable but actually cathartic. It reminded me of all the people I've been really intrigued by in my lifetime, and what I'd do if they did something truly inexplicable.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan: this is a non-fiction work by a woman who experienced a rare and potentially fatal disease, and her experiences, memories (or lack thereof) and the challenges of recovery. I used to want to be an epidemiologist, so reading about rare diseases always fascinates me, but even if you've a weak constitution, its an interesting piece of investigative writing and a very enthralling read.

The Awakening, Kate Chopin: don't read this if you need a pick me up, as it has a bit of downer ending. I know I'm world renown for spilling the beans about endings, so I'll jut leave it at that. I will say, though, that this is a great read if you're feeling a quarter life crisis coming on and need a little perspective. Also, all my blooming feministas should give this a read to see how far we've come in the last 100 years.

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea: I've always been of the opinion that Chelsea Handler is rude, lewd and otherwise unacceptable. However, she is absolutely off her rocker and her sense of humor is literally nonsensical, which I obviously dig as a soul sister of all things insane. Also, she has an entire chapter about a visit to London in her early 30s that basically echoes my daily experience on this island. Good to know I'm not alone.

What books am I missing? Please let me know in the comments section below!