Escape from Manhattan (How to Have a Good Weekend)

The thing about working “on the Internet” is that it becomes almost impossible to ever STOP working. Signing on to write on this blog entry, I find myself drifting to the social accounts I manage for work – it’s muscle memory at this point to visit the homepage, shift to Facebook, to Twitter, to analytics software – to the same behemoths of data that dominate my paid hours. Before I had even begun to pen this post, I was an hour into working on things for my other job, and I hadn’t even shifted from my position on my bed.

Of course, the alternate side to this is that when you end up in a location that lacks any Internet connection it becomes virtually impossible to do your job. This is the situation I found myself in over the weekend. Faced with a rare four consecutive days off (in honor of Independence day), myself and the cadre of college friends with whom I share New York City packed our bags and headed east. I traded Proust for Fitzgerald this weekend, opting for the Anglo American savoir faire of the Hamptons (which, for the uninitiated, is the bastion of East Coast wealth upon which The Great Gatsby is based).

New York City is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is that it takes so little time and such insignificant geographic distance to move from its unique urban sprawl to a different universe. Two hours north of the city you can find the sleepy towns of the Hudson. Two hours northwest is an impoverished town in the foothill of the Catskill mountains. And two hours east lie gorgeous beaches peppered with landing pads for private jets. So after a brief drive (made even shorter by our shared excitement to be away from our jobs and from the humidity of New York in July), my four friends and I were at our destination. Proust has a choice phrase about the behavior of time in different settings:

“The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.”

We found a cheap motel outside of Southampton (made cheaper by our lie to the owners that we were a party of three, not five) and loaded up the trunk of my friend’s car with the sugary kind of alcohol that should not be consumed away from a beach. We ate out for dinner and I swallowed my panic as my bank account balance shrank every day. I lay in the sun upon the sand for the first time in what I realized was two years – but not before I had paid the price for my forgetfulness with a sunburn that debilitated me for 24 hours of the trip.

It was the shock of my sunburn that jolted me towards the realization that these four days were the first vacation I’d had in months. The last time I had gone this long without working was my family reunion in Vermont, almost exactly a year before. That trip was potent with nostalgia, with the strange sense of deja vu that permeates familial reactions, the awkward comfort of seeing your nose resting on a near-stranger’s face. This trip was in many ways a mirror image of that last urban exodus: a journey east of New York instead of north of Washington; a beach made of sand, not rocks; days spent with the family I’ve found, not the one I was born with.

The trip was not without nostalgia: for past summers at the beach with childhood friends; for the drives at college where my roommate and I wound through cow pastures on our way to nowhere, discussing our anxieties over upcoming tests and the ways in which our hearts had broken and mended. But memories follow us wherever we go (as Proust would be the first to point out). This trip didn’t feel like a visit to the past, rather, it was a serene four days where I truly disconnected and, in taking stock of my life from afar, got the distinct impression that it was moving forward. The four days felt even longer, not from tedium, but from, as Proust puts it, the expansion of my passions that stretched the elastic fabric of time. I came back to New York with peeling skin and sand in my hair, but, upon reconnecting, find that this interlude carried a latent sense of propulsion. Maybe enough momentum to finish these damn books – and write on this blog more than once every five months.

Postscript: Rather than begin this post with my apologies for the long delay in my posting, I decided to begin with a normal Proust Book Club post. I will say here: if you’re still reading, thank you. Thank you Maeve for your gentle reminders and for keeping this domain warm while I sorted out my life and felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being alone with my emotions and my words. Once I have resumed the swing of things, I will explain my absence… or perhaps I’ll just use Proust’s words instead of my own, as they once again seem more apt:

“Had I been less firmly resolved upon settling down definitively to work, I should perhaps have made an effort to begin at once.”

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How to Have a Bad Weekend

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I just had one of those weekends. One of those weekends that started on a high, swan-dived into wretchedness, and ended on confusing.

You may have heard, if you live in New York or check Instagram, that it was snowing on Friday. I was walking toward the train after a spinning class as the snow started to fall down, and I was sweaty but hopped up on endorphins and taken with how beautiful the city looked dusted with snow. I bought some groceries on my way home and didn’t feel guilty about eating brie.

I went out for dinner and drinks with my best friend and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend generously bought all of our dinners, and as we tramped back through the snow towards our homes we got into a spontaneous snowball fight. It’s fair to say I lost the snowball fight, but as I walked home, full of guacamole and margaritas that someone else had bought me, I thought about how much I love my best friend, how happy I was that she and her boyfriend are so in love with each other, how lucky I am to have a home in this city, how when both of us move from our parents apartments in SoHo to our own apartments in Brooklyn we’ll still be neighbors and we’ll find a new local Mexican place that serves relatively cheap food and strong margaritas.

Fast-forward 24 hours. I am standing on a street corner on the Lower East Side, convulsing with sobs and very cold because the bar of which I have just been unceremoniously thrown out is holding my coat hostage. In retrospect, of course, the crying was obviously unnecessary and melodramatic. Though I will say that the coat thing was not my fault. The tears were a direct result of being told that no, I could not have my coat back because no, that wasn’t my ticket, get out of line. Nor do I think you–yes, you, bouncers–should tell a patron to leave your bar just because she is crying, albeit loudly. Everyone has bad days (right?).

We have all been that girl. You have felt misunderstood and mistreated and probably wanted to cry about it. Which is what I did.

I think one of the things I connect to most in Proust is the flexibility and equal weight given to the range of emotions a single person can experience. He gives us pages upon pages of one emotion, and he makes it a unique emotion, one that has never been felt before and will never be felt again. And then, even though pages have elapsed, only a moment of “time” has actually passed, but in that moment enough has changed to give rise to a completely new emotion. And frequently that emotion is one that calls attention to one of our uglier “defects:”

In the human race, the frequency of the virtues that are identical in us all is not more wonderful than the multiplicity of the defects that are peculiar to each one of us.

What makes a good night go bad? Surely it can’t just be when a woman working the coat check refuses to give us back our coat on a brisk winter night. To really inspire waterworks, there has to be something else going on beneath the surface. I’m sure it was a confluence of “things,” but I feel like I’m not doing Proust nor this blog, any favors, by not giving equal weight to all my emotions. He would not, in his blog, write only about the moments that made him happy, the moments that gave him hope. He would not write a sanitized blog that precluded the mention of the fact that he was drunk on a Saturday night because someone he was related to or a potential employer might read it. And while I’m not aspiring to write the blog a 21st century Proust himself would write, I am trying to give an honest portrayal of what it means to be a 21st century 22-year-old reading Proust and resonating with what Proust has to say.

“The weekend” is a kind of Platonic ideal of a passage of time, a refuge to which we look forward, something we romanticize and fetishize the way Proust does the country girls he meets on vacation in Balbec. But sometimes our weekends do manage to live up to what we hope they will be. Sometimes those two days off from work are exactly what we need them to be. Sometimes they’re more.

And sometimes they’re far less. Sometimes they make you yearn for the banality of your work week. Sometimes you are at the place in your life and your search for stability that a middle aged woman telling you to get out of her face and the thought of a walk home without a coat is enough to make you sob. And even when you’re crying, and you know you shouldn’t be, you feel like you might as well give into the enormity of the weeping. Because even if you shouldn’t be crying, you are, and it feels better than it felt before you were crying and better than you will feel after you’re done.

Image via HBO Girls

Proust’s New Year’s Resolutions

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Proust, the anxious protagonist of our literary journey, seems to me like the kind of guy who would have loved new year’s resolutions. He would have been the person who, instead of making one or two manageable resolutions he could probably keep, would instead make dramatic vows of radical change — which he would quickly abandon. Were I to make Proustian New Year’s resolutions, I would probably pledge to make 2013 the year I finish my first novel, or run my first marathon. Since neither of those is likely to happen this year, I am instead making resolutions I can easily keep. The first is, of course, to be a superior blogger and Proust-consumer than I was in 2012.

When Marcel sees a young country girl while passing in his carriage, it is enough of a meeting for our flaky narrator to decide that he is in love with her. But the book mocks Marcel’s naiveté: after all, “Beauty is a sequence of hypotheses which ugliness cuts short when it bars the way that we could already see opening into the unknown” (398). Proust is suggesting here that the future is beautiful by virtue of its unknowability. People, potential lovers, places and things: all of them acquire attractiveness by being free from the burden of history. Even though I recognize that the author is mocking the narrator’s impulse to project his heart onto a stranger, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something to be gained from Marcel’s approach to love–and if I can’t find something in such an approach to apply to this new year.

2013 is not just any new year for me and Maeve: it is the first complete year of our new, post-academic lives. It’s the first year in New York City for my co-blogger, and the first year in New York for me when I don’t rely on my parents for lunch money. 2013 is a great deal unknown, and I have the fewest expectations of it as I have ever had of a single year. I can’t point to any definitive landmarks I know I’ll achieve: there is nothing to graduate from, no classes to earn good grades in, no trips to foreign countries to look forward to. But, lest I come off as pessimistic, what I mean is that 2013 is totally free from the burden of expectation or history. We don’t know what this year holds, and that’s a good thing.

So like Marcel, I’m going to let myself be completely enamored with the unknown. In 2013 I hope to find “even more beautiful a world which thus caused to grow along all the country roads flowers at once rare and common, fleeting treasures of the day, windfalls of the drive, of which the contingent circumstances circumstances that might not, perhaps, recur had alone prevented me from taking advantage, and which gave a new zest to life” (401).

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To Love Without An Ample Income: Christmas for Broke Girls

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Buy! Buy! Buy!

The holiday season is upon us and, as someone who moonlights in retail, I’m overwhelmed daily by the sense of coerced “gift giving” that permeates New York. For every commercial that promises a “December to remember” or assures us that “every kiss begins with Kay,” I tend to miss the attempted sentimentalism and just see companies demanding the hard cold cash I don’t have.

At college for the past four years I think we were immune to some of this guilt and social pressure. Holidays at Hamilton meant fasting through finals and Christmas themed parties (which were the same as other parties, only we had red and green solo cups). When our exams were over we came home, collapsed on our couches and ate and slept like the hungry, happy children we were.

While I’m not claiming that to be more any more an adult today than I was a year ago, I am seeing much more of the adult world. Namely, those four weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year when all you hear is holiday music and everyone is collectively stressed about dealing with their families and end-of-the-year projects. And money. Dear God, the money. Was there ever a time when I thought about anything else? I can’t even make it through a chapter of Proust without checking my bank account and making a budget for the next day, which I proceed to break when I realize just how hopeless my financial situation is.

As a protagonist, Marcel is more anxious than stressed. His life, which consists mainly of vacations and dinners designed around his frail health, doesn’t exactly invite the kind of stress of, I don’t know, facing foreclosure or being fired. However, the novelist makes his reader privy to  Marcel’s perpetual anxiety about love, be it romantic or familial (or some Freudian combination of the two).

And Marcel’s anxieties are perhaps so readable because, as trivial as they may seem on a macroscopic level, at their most basic level they are applicable to our own:

“It is sad,” La Bruyere tells us, “to love without an ample fortune.” There is nothing for it but to try to eradicate little by little our desire for that pleasure.

If I may modernize: It is sad, everyone seems to tell us, to do anything without money in the bank. If you don’t have a disposable income, as in, a light-your-cigarette-with-a-$100-bill income, you’re screwed, give up now, you won’t be able to live like a person, go home. But instead of this novel behaving as an echo chamber for my own financial woes, it instead subverts the expectation of material pleasure. Proust writes:

In my case, however, the material means had been forthcoming, but at the same moment, if not by logical effect, at any rate as a fortuitous consequence of that initial success, my pleasure had been snatched from me. As, for that matter, it seems as thought it must always be… If we succeed in overcoming the force of circumstances, nature at once shifts the battle ground, placing it within ourselves, and effects a gradual change in our hearts until they desire something other than what they are about to possess.

And so on. As Proust explains, “the possession of our happiness is wrested from us, or rather it is that very possession which nature, with diabolical cunning, uses to destroy our happiness.” Again, to modernize, we simply can’t be satisfied with what we possess, and, as far as I’m concerned, this renders possessions ultimately worthless. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? So why should I be stressed about what I don’t have, because my desires right now will only be supplanted by desires for new things. So I’m finishing out 2012 trying to think about valuing the things that can’t be priced. And, as cheesy as all this is, it’s something I desperately need. I guess it means a lot more reading Proust and blogging, huh?

Image courtesy of Anthropologie, quotes from Within a Budding Grove (274)