Monday, November 25, 2013

a shot at a silver lining

This week, back in my motherland, it is Thanksgiving. (Or actually, my dad told me today that this year it is being referred to as the hashtag-worthy hybrid holiday "Thanksgivukkah.") Say what you will about the dodgy history and mass commercialism of this holiday: personally, I think at its core, it's quite a nice way to introduce Christmastime. You gather with your family--that magnificent group of people who annoys you until you would rather rip your hair out strand by strand while listening to Justin Bieber on repeat than spend another second with them, but without whom you would not survive life on this planet--and you eat and drink too much, and fight and laugh and watch football and a float parade, and then in the good old days of my youth It's A Wonderful Life would come on television to remind you what life is all about, now replaced by the National Dog Show (which is not without its own bizarre entertainment merits and unexpected life lessons, I must admit).

You get a nice four-day weekend out of it. The biggest and most hellish shopping day of the year occurs the following day; this is apparently to balance out the love and coziness of the previous evening's events with angry, headline-making consumerism so we don't overdose on the goodness. Memories are made on this day: there was the Thanksgiving my grandpa dropped the turkey all over the kitchen floor, which he followed with trying to make us children watch that feel-good holiday classic, Saving Private Ryan. Or the year my dad "surprised" us all by ordering Turducken--literally 15 pounds of chicken stuffed inside of duck stuffed inside of turkey. And the momentous year when I was allowed to sit with the grownups after dinner, listening to my parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents engage in spirited debates about Notre Dame football, right-wing politics, religion, and national health care policies.

I had a bad day today. I love Copenhagen, but there is always a time of year when this happens, almost abruptly: the temperature drops, a few more fifty-shades-of-grey days start to creep into the work week, sunset starts at 3:50pm and ends at 3:57pm. After a few such days, my emotional state and mind go from (borderline) socially-acceptable Jennifer Lawrence levels of manageable kookiness to a dark network of rainclouds and whatever the opposite of a unicorn is. (Maybe an Aye-aye? I--aye--don't know.) I can feel it immediately: one day, I am fine; and the next, I wake up and am actively not fine. This is the day I bust out the Vitamin D pills, but it takes a while before those kick in. And you know what, these days are the worst. Everything just sucks.

Like today, for instance. I had a really good morning class, but I still wasn't satisfied; my costumes didn't fit right; I started thinking about the anemic state of my bank account; I got sad about work and personal stuff; I worried about apartment stuff; I worried about my skin and the galactic bruise on my leg I got falling down the stairs leaving my apartment last Saturday morning; I worried about my future; I worried about hypothetical situations. And eventually I felt very completely sad and had myself a tiny cry, which helped, but then made me worry about looking splotchy in my also-pink costume. At least I was having a good hair day.

Anyway, I got through the day. On the boat ride home, I got an SMS from my dad warning me not to indulge myself in this. I snappily replied that I don't enjoy this, and I resented his comment. But then I thought, maybe in a small way--without me even realizing it--he was right; maybe I was, in fact, indulging a little bit without meaning to. Because I certainly don't enjoy when I feel like this. I don't think it's nice or fun, and it definitely isn't endearing to any other member of the human race. And it got me thinking about feelings, and what we allow ourselves to feel.

Most of us love to see others happy, and we are quick to celebrate the achievements and milestones in the lives of those around us. For me, I thought, why is it so difficult to give myself some of that niceness? I wasn't raised to hate myself, or to judge everything I do or think or say or feel. My parents are lovely people who raised four other very successful, (mostly) normal, wonderful humans I am lucky to call my siblings. Maybe it's a bit like advice: so many of us--myself included--are great at helping others with their things. It's only too bad we can't all listen to ourselves...though I suppose that's what friends are for, to keep the circle going.

There is something about misery that is easier to accept than happiness. It is very easy to find reasons to be sad or miserable; honestly, just open a newspaper, forget looking into your own life for problems. Allowing yourself to be happy, admitting that (despite all the problems in this shitty world, added to whatever problems are decorating your own tiny life in it) you do in fact deserve to feel good about things and that maybe you're just scared of happiness: that, in my opinion, is a far more difficult coat to wear than the depressing alternative.

Which brings me back to Thanksgiving. I have never been very good at tooting my own horn, and I deflect any compliment thrown my way with a self-deprecating remark because I am physically unable to just accept it. I far prefer the humor shield to emotional vulnerability; as a result of certain life experiences--though I feel things easily and can cry at a Kleenex commercial--I've become a bit harder, and not a very trusting person. I can talk a lot, and to anyone, and I can tell the same weird anecdotes until the cows come home, to the point of seemingly oversharing. (I am like the Dexter Morgan of socializing and sharing.) But I will always be waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. There is always a line at which I stop myself from really letting most people in. There are things in this life I have only told one or two people; there are things I have never told anyone, which might sound unbelievable considering the amount of things I say on a daily basis.

This isn't to say I wish to be completely open and totally trusting of everyone I meet. I also don't expect to be happy all of the time. I think sadness is beautiful, and necessary: without all the emotions, how are the best of them to be appreciated and fully enjoyed? It's like when I was younger, I used to say I wished Christmas was every day. Of course I did. It is the best time of year, with eggnog, who doesn't want that every day? But now of course I realize that not only would be that be a ridiculously expensive culture in which to live--and we would all get big cholesterol and heart problems from so much delicious, artery-clogging eggnog--but that all of the things I look forward to so much about Christmas would not be things to look forward to anymore. It wouldn't be special. It would be every day.

What I would like is to stop convincing myself out of happiness. I let myself indulge in positive emotions, but always with a quick expiration date. With the knowledge that everything is constantly changing, and every moment--both positive and negative--must eventually be let go of, the thought of what it will feel like when the good moments go away is scary. I have a tendency, then, to push away the sunny moments and pre-prepare myself for a storm. Better to not enjoy life too much. (Welcome to my brain.)

But this is why I always liked Thanksgiving. It is a designated day for everyone where we can all be openly happy about things; we are expected to be openly happy about things. And you don't have to feel weird about it, or question it: you can just say "I am thankful for" in front of whatever you like in life. Ideally, one day I would like to scratch away some of the scar tissue that's been built up around my messy emotional core and be able to express other emotions as easily as I currently use humor to deflect them, and reach a point where I don't have to wait for the fourth Thursday in November to say what's good in life. I'd also like to stop terminating my happy moments prematurely out of some weird fear of losing them. But for now, Thanksgiving will do. And maybe, unlike Christmas, that's a holiday that could be nice to have a tiny part of every day. Without the food coma and family drama...though one's life can always do with more dog shows, and a float or two.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


At the start of my fifth season with The Royal Danish Ballet, I have two thoughts: Madonna had absolutely no concept of how time really works when she sang Hung Up; and it's funny how unexpectedly a place can go from feeling wildly foreign to becoming your home without you even really noticing it. I have come to love Copenhagen more than I ever thought I would, or even could. I have a track record of getting Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to life in general, of always having a want for some unknown thing or place or situation; of never really allowing myself to feel at home in any one place. (Perhaps this is why I didn't own any furniture up until a year ago, and traveled like a gypsy for seven years.) The Germans have an excellent word for this: fernweh, literally "farsickness" or "an ache for distant places." But I seem to have found my Ritalin in Copenhagen. This cold, tiny slice of planet Earth, with its strange language and open-faced sandwiches and excellent interior design, has become a place I am always eager to return to whenever I have been away. 

It's difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is about this city that I love so much. Like everything in my life that is most important to me, I have a love/hate relationship with Copenhagen. Because there are certainly things about it that I don't like. The endless winters, which inevitably lead to a point--usually around February--when I decide that I must have missed a major news headline because clearly the sun died and will never return, and the sky will be fifty shades of grey forever. The McDonald's that replaced Cafe a Porta makes me a little angry on a daily basis. Banking hours are inconveniently exactly when I work. The general expensive cost of everything also isn't super conducive to me wanting things. There isn't really a solid affordable Mexican or Chinese takeout place, for those days when all I really want is a burrito, or maybe some General Tso's chicken and fried rice that I can then leave in the fridge for a couple days and do a smell test and decide they're probably fine to eat if I keep them cold. While we're on the subject of food: leverpostej, herring, Ga-Jol shots, the deadly Christmas schnapps tradition, whenever I see someone put the baby shrimp things with hard-boiled eggs together on rye bread--I can't. My phone company, 3, isn't really all that helpful, especially to foreigners; although I guess I can say they have a fairly good app for the iPhone, and their employees are impressively stoic and unaffected by crying customers. The lack of respect for the art form that is jaywalking, I find inconceivable. When the gay bar, Cosy, suddenly decides to be "Men Only": I love gay bars, I didn't have a choice in being a female, I just took what the genetic lottery gave me. Dealing with broken beer bottles in the bike lanes on Saturday and Sunday mornings isn't my favorite pasttime, either; I bike poorly enough without added obstacle courses. Danish cafe service occasionally makes me consider running into the establishment's kitchen and just making myself a sandwich and pouring my own damn beer. Also, you have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery than finding affordable housing that isn't next door to Sweden in a short amount of time. The fact that the shops start pushing Christmas on the people in like, October, because there are no filler autumn holidays gives me agita. And this is a city of people who will bike anywhere, for hours, but as soon as a destination takes more than 30 minutes on public transportation or by car, it's deemed "too far." If I'm being honest, the Little Mermaid is a Little Pathetic. Danish rap is something I actively disagree with. Things that I struggle with include the doors in shops everywhere that you have to pull to exit, and I always forget, and then get embarrassed-pissy and make the "What if there was a fire?" argument. The general distaste for and judgment of wearing sweatpants in public means I get a lot of looks at Irma and Netto that I don't appreciate. Seeing Danes who bike while texting, with coffee, holding hands just pisses me off because I can barely handle making the proper signals. And to the Danish Immigration Service: I think I hate you most of all.

But these things, these little annoying things I say I dislike, are far outweighed by everything I really love about this place. I love the funny language, with actual vocabulary like fart and fy for satan. The fact that people will just hang out at the cemeteries, for fun, appeals to something dark inside of me. The bakeries, and their magical products, are worth getting out of bed for; in related news, Danish butter really is superior. The "inbetweens" of Danish architecture, something that's hard to articulate but beautifully seen from the rooftop of, say, The Royal Theatre, give me visual joy every day. Also wonderful: the random holidays that I don't really understand, but many of which are very intelligently placed in the late springtime; the random holidays I do understand, like J-Dag, which is a late November celebration dedicated to the launch of the Christmas Beer. (And on that subject, the beer is excellent.) Lighting design in this country almost makes up for the lack of natural light in winter; I never really paid much attention before moving here, but the Danes know a good lamp. Living in a little-big city means that after a while, you start to run into people you know all the time on the street, and develop relationships with your local kiosk lady where she knows your morning pastry order and that you take your coffee black; these things are comforting. The fact that "small talk", at least in the typical American sense of the word, doesn't really exist here is something I find outstanding. Danes are some of the happiest drunks I have ever met in my life; they might be reserved in working hours, but after a few beers they will be your best friend and illegally drive you around on the back of their bike, and eat late-night shawarma with you. (This isn't to say the language sounds any more graceful, but you will magically be more fluent, so it all evens out.) Biking everywhere: even though I bitch about it, especially in winter, I really do love it; also, bonus, when you bike in the winter, your face kind of freezes, which I'm pretty sure is why Danish people are so good-looking and don't really do the whole Botox culture thing. Every time I take the metro, I get really happy about the fact that it has no driver, and that it runs fairly efficiently. Then there are the amazing, quirky stories (true or not, I don't really care) I've heard about Danish history: narwhal tusks, at the time believed to be unicorn horns, were used in the construction of Danish thrones; the naughty king who had a drunken night on Istedgade and later had to have a resulting tattoo of a girl's name covered up; how my favorite street, Westend, was built for certain chosen women, in Parisian style, with balconies on every apartment and at an angle so that the king at the time could pick a lady to accompany him up to Frederiksberg Slot; en gang til for Prins Knud, ("one more time for Prins Knud") a saying in Danish that many people think originated from the fact that poor Arveprins Knud was a bit dim, but actually comes from this one time he was watching a ballet and because he had crappy eyesight, asked for it to be performed again, so one of his royal assistants was like, "En gang til for Prins Knud" and even though the dancers were probably beat, they did the piece again. Danish summers, though short, are magnificent; as soon as it is nice enough, I virtually move to Islands Brygge to soak up my natural vitamin D for the year. There is no better time of year to fall in love with Copenhagen. The Danish sense of humor is dry and sarcastic and dark, and I like it so much sometimes I think about smiling. Also, apparently skål ("cheers") comes from when the Vikings would drink from the skulls of their victims and this gives me morbid glee every time I hear or say it. There is a widespread approach to fashion here which is very "black goes with everything, especially black," which I am really fine with; it makes putting together an outfit--something I find incredibly stressful, since I'm pretty sure I lack major girly genes--a tiny bit easier. And of course, the whole hygge thing. The combination of coming inside dressed like an onion in a million layers from the depression-inducing weather, to candles and friends and drinks and food and warmth, is something that makes the entire sun-dying phase of the year really okay. It's also impossible to describe the simple niceness of this situation without actually being in it, and the English translation "cozy" doesn't really capture it. 

This isn't close to everything. But it's some of the things. I think it was difficult to admit that I was starting to call somewhere other than my birthplace "home," but maybe I am lucky enough to have found two places that feel like home. And maybe I'm just feeling a bit five-years-sappy or something--I will always love and miss my incomparable New York--but this city has been and continues to be a very bizarre, kind, beautiful host for this neurotic foreigner, in all aspects of life. For that, Copenhagen, I say "tak", and I hope you'll let me stay a while longer. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Drama Queen

Since I can remember, I have had this weird, probably wildly unhealthy obsession with having some sort of major problem just to ensure that I will get attention from at least one person. At first, the issues were simple (#firstworldtoddlerproblems, if you will): the toe lines of my socks or tights weren't lined up perfectly with my anatomy; my bun for ballet class wasn't exactly tight enough to tug at the outer skin of my prematurely neurotic face; my parents had to leave behind an accessory item of clothing when they dropped me off at said ballet class because they were definitely sending me there to abandon me, but if they returned for their accidentally-on-purpose forgotten scarf, then they would also have to take me home with them. (At the tender age of five, I was already prepared for the worst case scenario at all times, even if it took all of my tiny, youthful energy to imagine up the worst case scenario.) I didn't realize yet that I didn't need to waste energy on finding reasons to be a drama queen, that my own innate awkwardness and ability to attract tragic comic situations would do the job for me. My brother hadn't yet poured orange juice over my head at breakfast, apropros of nothing, turning me off orange juice for years. I hadn't yet broken my arm running down a park hill holding hands with my first best friend Charlie Bernstein; I hadn't experienced the ensuing paralyzing fear that gripped every fiber of my being whenever someone asked to sign my cast, which resulted in me being the only six-year-old in the history of broken arms not to have a single signature or heart or doodle of any kind on her plastered broken wing.

I suppose growing up as the oldest child in a family of five kids could explain my need to get attention in the most dramatic ways possible, but if I'm being totally honest with myself, it's far more likely that I was just a born drama queen. I could turn anything into an event. I'd take a frozen bagel and put it into the microwave to defrost, absentmindedly adding a zero to the intended time, and three minutes later would have started a small appliance fire. My mother's request for me to load and unload the dishwasher could easily morph into a task on par with scaling Mt. Everest. I'd breathe heavily and whine about rinsing off the plates the remains of my siblings' downright savage attempts at eating, convinced that my idol Audrey Hepburn would never have deigned to do such disgusting, menial labor. (This was before I read her biography and discovered how great of a human she actually was, during the time when I believed she really was a princess/high class call girl/Eliza Doolittle-post-transformation. Also, I'm fairly certain karma has exacted her bitchy revenge all these years later, considering that since I've moved away from home, none of my apartments has ever had a dishwasher.) Sharing a room with my younger sister, any of her basic bodily functions--breathing, twitching in the early stages of REM, coughing--could simply ruin my evening; I was an aspiring ballerina, I needed sleep and proper rest, didn't anyone understand that I was destined for absolute artistic greatness?! No. Apparently, my sister wasn't doing anything wrong in falling asleep before I did.

As I grew up, I became slightly less of a neurotic freak; or rather, I learned to hide my crazy a little better. I was, however, that annoying, hand-raising, straight-A student who did the extra credit anyway--you know, just because. In 7th grade, I got a 98 on an English exam and disagreed with the two points that had been deducted. I went home for proof, and the next day brought in a copy of Strunk & White to my disbelieving teacher to prove that my score should have actually been a perfect 100. That same year, I had a science teacher who employed a grading system by which everyone could take exams using one page of their own notes, to be written on one's own time. I had perfected the art of miniscule, computer-perfect handwriting, and would spend hours writing down as much information as I could fit on both sides of a large index card. In his class, we all began each test with 100 points: incorrect answers would get partial or full deductions, and exceedingly informative answers or correctly answered bonus questions would get you added points. This is how I was embarrassed in front of my entire 7th grade class when Mr Snowden--a white haired, puffy, red faced man who bore a striking resemblance to an actual snowman--gave back our midterms and I had gotten an unheard of 127%. Even writing about it now, I feel ridiculous. That's not a real grade, I remember thinking. Yet another problem; I turned doing extra-well into a preteen anecdote of extreme embarrassment.

I idolized typically tragic figures in history. There were decades' worth of ballerinas I worshiped, and Audrey Hepburn, of course. Amy Winehouse, already then a flailing mess of a human but embodied with the voice of a soulful fallen angel. Kate Moss, thin and beautiful and perfect, but oh all those wrong men...and remember the cocaine? Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol, those brilliant flashes of a fantasy artsy party era gone by: it was these sorts of celebrities my early teenage self felt I deeply identified with. Me, the privileged hopeful ballerina from the Irish Catholic Republican family, really felt like she identified with Sylvia Plath and Fiona Apple. I remember a particularly pathetic moment in the waiting area of Penn Station with my father, going home to Long Island after he'd been at work all day and I at my after-school ballet classes on the Upper West Side. The subject of eating came up after I walked out of McDonald's holding a large milkshake and several oversized cookies, still clinging onto the last days of prepuberty when I could literally eat like a horse and still look like a young thoroughbred. My father expressed concern not for my weight (I was a leggy, flat-chested 13-year-old after all), but more for my health: he hadn't seen me eat fruit "in a while," and just wanted to remind me that I had been born with high cholesterol and maybe should just think about being a bit healthier for my heart's sake. I took this to mean he was calling me fat, and became extremely indignant in the middle of the rush hour commuter crowd. To the dulcet background tones of a funk street band performing outside Track 21, I clearly recall waving around my large beverage, pretending my plain old winter jacket was an oversized fur, and saying, "Do you want me to end up like Kate Moss? I do BALLET. I know people who can get me COCAINE. IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?" Obviously, this is not what my father wanted. And I didn't actually know anything about procuring cocaine; I had never even seen the stuff in real life at that point. I was more pissed that my father was right about the fruit thing. Distraction, that was key to dramatic living.

Eventually I toned down my melodramatic outbursts and channeled them into an actual problem--when I was 16, I became the cliche ballet dancer with anorexia. This problem was so real and so loud, I didn't have to throw any tantrums or expend any energy being dramatic. You just had to take one look at my protruding collarbones and sunken face, and you got the whole damn story. My years of the explosive Oscar-worthy outbursts were over; I had now moved into the method acting phase of my drama queen life. This one lasted a while--I didn't fully recover until about five years later--and was the closest I actually came to a major, concern-worthy problem. After those years of my siblings calling me Drama Queen, teasing me for being a "princess," mocking how easy it was for me to start crying, I'd found a way for me to just turn it all off. Anorexia was my safe haven: it gave me a superlative, finally ("thinnest"); sapped me of any extra energy for life, at last turning me into the emotionally impenetrable ice queen I'd always found so elusive and admirable in others; and it was mine, and mine alone. Like some sort of fucked up emotionally abusive relationship, I hung onto this channel of my theatrical self for a long time. I'd turned from the public tantrum to the private abyss of an eating disorder; this was far more authentic.

After five years of being hungry, repelling every heterosexual male I encountered with my skeletal frame and lack of lust for anything, and generally depriving myself of some really excellent meals, I moved to Denmark. I got the help I needed in that strange, tiny slice of the planet with the funny drunken language. I started to become a person again. Physically, because I started eating food (and, let's be honest, drinking some damn fine Danish beer); and emotionally, because I had energy to, I don't know, live. I put on weight, and with it, something resembling a personality. I started going out again. I had a couple of boyfriends. I quickly regained use of my hair-trigger tear ducts; four years later, I've become known as "an emotional one" due to the fact that my feelings seem to come pouring out of my eyes. (Recently, I've gotten much better about it, but I'm still famous for crying.) I had a couple of incidents where my inner toddler drama queen resurfaced--most memorably, one of my first drunken nights out with my new friends where I screamed at one of them for breaking a beer bottle on the street; there was also an incident during a lost weekend in Hamburg involving a pub crawl with a group of British servicemen in animal costumes, and me slapping the penguin in the face on a dare--but those sorts of performances have been channelled into other avenues. In fact, I find that after all those years I spent craving some sort of special attention, trying to make any kind of scene just to get noticed, what I want most now is a bit of stability. There are weeks where I crave invisibility, a trait my younger self would have thought horrific. But perhaps it's for the best, really--in true minimalist Scandinavian fashion, I seem to have come to the realization that all I really need (besides, you know, the basic life essentials) are my family; a couple of great close friends; just a hint of this inner peace people seem to talk about; good cheese and beer; maybe a nice man at some point; and a fresh pack of tissues, for those moments when all that inner drama queen now comes flowing out of my eyes.