My Stupid Brain

I sometimes imagine that this life I’m living now is a reincarnation: a compromise to a dying woman (or man, or cow, or bee, or whatever) who was incredibly lucky in love but had an otherwise shitty life.

“I’d gladly give up my love with Frazlarzimog to see my family alive!” my previous self claimed on their deathbed. “Finding a soulmate was truly glorious, but how could I enjoy it with this wretched health and the persecution of my people?!”

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Frazlarzimog

My miserable luck with love stands in contrast with the rest of my luck. I have a (sometimes overwhelmingly) loving family. My best friend just moved to New York City and she’s a frickin’ easy hour away on the train now. I have excellent health, to the extent that my body forgives me for nights like tonight when, to self-soothe, I devoured three dinners with half a bottle of wine. I’ve been unreasonably lucky career-wise. People have forwarded me job applications, vouched for me, and opened almost every job door I’ve knocked on. I’ve traveled across the globe, working in four countries, mostly as a response to “hey, why don’t you apply for X?” And I do. And I get it. (I recognize how much privilege is involved in this.)

Oh, there are some failures. There are jobs that I haven’t gotten. I’ve auditioned for shows and programs and gigs that didn’t want me. I’ve experienced personal family tragedy. But overall, looking at my life, I’m stupidly lucky and successful for basically being the kind of person who says “but eh, do I really need to be making money?” until my co-worker Kawai says “Jessica, did you apply for that position yet? I’m going to sit here and watch you do it.”

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I’m tired.

As most of you reading this know, I date a bunch. OKCupes and Tinder, mostly, through I’ve also tried other apps. I go on one, two, maybe three dates. Over the past few years, I haven’t made it to four. There’s aren’t feelings involved, other than… obligation? Weariness? For me to develop feelings, maaaaany criteria have to be met.

  • He’s smart
  • He’s funny
  • He’s attractive.
  • He’s not too conventionally attractive (that is, if I meet someone in person. If I meet someone online, why not?)
  • He’s single (fully single)
  • He’s liberal. I don’t want to fight and I don’t want to hear that Trump was “also treated unfairly by the media, don’t you think?”
  • He’s kind and generous

Actually, that’s not so many criteria. There are more. Again, I had three dinners and a bunch of wine tonight. The thing is, when I’m online dating I just don’t usually get to the point where I even figure out if the dude matches these criteria. We’re having these weirdy-weird interview dates and even if it’s a good time, it’s rare for me to get to see a guy in his element. We’re so guarded and secretive, you know? The comedian didn’t want me to come watch his set. The writer didn’t want me to read anything he wrote. I certainly don’t invite any of these guys to come watch me do musical improv. How can these dudes really know anything about me if they haven’t seen me roll around on the Magnet stage singing some idiotic genre-specific song? That’s my art.

That’s why I was so pumped up to go out with *Hawk. I got to know him over the course of a couple months, as I’d met him through a group of friends. I got to see him display his intelligence and sense of humor in an atmosphere that wasn’t performative to me. I got to flirt a little bit and see how he responded and suss him out. I got to develop a little crush. It was fricking nice. It made me realize, to my sadness, despite all the dating I do, that it’s been about three years since I’ve had a crush on anyone.

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“you forgot about me, didn’t you” – romantic feelings, embodied by this cat

I asked Hawk out. We went out. We made out.

We went out again. The date went really long. I spent the night. He made breakfast in the morning, along with a very elaborate coffee ritual.

This is where my stupid fricking brain gets in the way of things. I wish I were a chill person who could just say, “those were two fun dates. Maybe this will lead to something, maybe it won’t.” But I’ve spent eight years doing improv comedy, training my brain to think of every conceivable situation in an instant.

[scene partner walk on the stage and say “your lordship?”]

So many choices! Maybe I respond as a pompous king. Maybe instead I’m a nebbish duke, uncomfortable with my power. Or I’m Satan, Lord of Hell. Or I’m Reggie, manager at Kinko’s, and this damn kid won’t stop kowtowing to me. Of course I could also walk out and be another plaintive soul looking for her lordship, whose been missing long these twelve years. Or I could be an enemy combatant, who has locked up this pathetic knave who is now trying to flatter me into letting them out. X infinitum. Any decent improviser can do this. My mind is like a rolodex, flipping through possible scenarios, landing on the one that feels like the most fun or the most natural or the most necessary in the moment. This is a very useful performance skill.

It’s not so useful in dating. In spite of my efforts to ~be cool~, I found myself fantasizing about the life Hawk and I could have. Oh, we’d start things light. Coney Island, bike trips around Astoria, all those food festivals I never go to that I write about in the events blog I write, hell, all the events I write about in my events blog. Then of course there’d be travel, eventually. There’s so much of the world I still haven’t seen, and Hawk and I speak six languages among ourselves. This wouldn’t be an exercise in vulnerability if I didn’t share that I even imagined how nice it would be to finally not feel the shame of being the only cousin in my family who hadn’t brought a romantic partner to Christmas.

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probably where our fourth date would have been

The third date was coming up. I was starting to feel less confident about everything. Hawk deeply sucks at texting, and he didn’t want to ride bikes. “Sounds tiring.” (Did that mean I had to hide all 7,334 references to cycling displayed in my apartment? Jesus Christ.) I tried to downgrade my brain’s fantasy parade to but the thing wouldn’t listen.

He came to Queens. We went out: Astoria Bier and Cheese, Greek food, drinks, show at QED. He spent the night. I made breakfast in the morning, along with truly terrible coffee.

We held hands and he called things off. Siiiiiigh. Oh well. He was right; the vibes weren’t romantic enough. We were attracted to each other and admired each other in various ways, but it wasn’t right. I cried, mostly because rejection always sucks. I had to chuck out those frantic fantasies my brain had been piling on its shelves. Hawk wasn’t going to make me feel like less of a failure at Family Christmas; he wasn’t even going to go to Astoria Pool with me.

I got an email from Hawk, after the whole thing. He wrote that I inspire him, that me asking him out gave him confidence. He wants to be like me, to take risks and initiatives and hopefully find love as he is sure I will. It was hard for me not to respond with something snarky. “Make sure to include me in your list of thanks at your wedding.”

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I gave him confidence!!!

I didn’t respond, but not out of malice. He’s a nice guy. I’ll see him around; we still have friends in common, after all. And I still have my mostly-awesome life, which I wouldn’t trade for a shitty life in love always appeared easily.

Tell my brain to cool it with the fantasies next time, though, huh? I guess you’ll have the opportunity in oooooh, 2020ish.

*if you’re gonna go fake name, go hard

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Those Scary People Behind the Wall

I left the blue skies and high winds in Cancun before all of this Trump stuff went down. Like many liberals (and even many of his supporters,) I assumed that much of his rhetoric would prove to be hollow and that all of the scary stuff he had promised would at least take some time to roll out.

A happier time

The weeks since Trump’s inauguration have been so horrible. No matter what the conversation or event or situation, the subject inevitably turns back to our horror at the president’s behavior. It’s overwhelming. I am so sickened and anxious whenever I read the news (or, like a masochistic ex, when I read Trump’s tweets) yet I cannot stay away.

I’m glad I got to recharge a little before that.

I loved my time in Mexico. It couldn’t have gone much better. Mexico City was mostly abandoned when I got there, as most of the citizens had left the megapolis to spend the holiday with their families.  That meant I got to watch the city fill up slowly, going from the bizarre but lovely experience of being literally the only person inside museums to walking down a crowded avenida at 6:00 PM, bursting with music and sound and buskers and men promising you write your name in Arabic. Filled-up Mexico City is a carnival, and I got to watch it grow into that from a sleepy little (enormous) village.

I paid 20 pesos for this photo. I would have paid 20 more pesos for a hat that fit. #bigheadproblems

While a lot of what I love about traveling is simply the opportunity to taste new foods, see pyramids and museums, experience exciting and new things, and live every day more fully, I also travel to learn. I always hope that I will walk away from a trip understanding the world a little bit more. I have a different perspective about Muslims from my time in Morocco and Istanbul (turns out: they’re humans.) I have a different perspective about health care from my time living in countries with socialized health care (turns out: our system blows a giant, tetanus-infected trumpet). I have a different perspective about time and history and permanence and impermanence from standing in the dry heat of a museum that mused to be a church that used to be a synagogue, back when the world was different.

Because I love lists, here are

5 Things I Learned This Trip

1. I need to cultivate better gratitude about my ability to travel.

While I was away, someone posted on Facebook about how they don’t understand how people can afford a spontaneous vacation. “I can’t even afford a spontaneous soft pretzel!”

Travel is expensive. This 10-day trip to Mexico cost me around $800, once you add everything up. I choose to spend my money on travel. I rarely go out, currently the only item of clothing I’m wearing that didn’t come from a clothing exchange is my underwear, and my lunch today was  33¢ ramen – but I understand that even frugal people like myself often find travel expenses prohibitive. I’m incredibly fortunate that I had scholarships and financial support for college, so I don’t have loans (I did pay for most of my grad school.) Hell, even the expectation that I would go to college is a luxury many Americans don’t have.

Travel is also expensive in that it takes away days of potential income. I’m both lucky and unlucky in my own work. As an adjunct professor, I have about as much time off as you could ever want- it’s just unpaid time off. Last summer I skipped the opportunity to work a summer semester to travel to Madrid, London, and Norway. I made up for the lost work weeks with task rabbit work and personal assisting. I also have about a million side-hustles, from tutoring to babysitting to paid blog writing. I understand that not everyone has this luxury.

Travel can also be overwhelming. While I was traveling from Cancun to Akumal, I ran into two “Do you speak American?” Americans who had been coming to Cancun for five years but had never seen any Mayan ruins or even a cenote. It’s simply not directly on the tourist route, you know? These people probably would have loved a trip to see some ruins or a cenote of someone helped them with it a bit. Figuring that stuff out isn’t for everyone. Even booking that trip to Cancun might sound exhausting to someone whose 10 days of time off could just as easily be spent resting and spending time with family and friends.

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I did not take this photo. I also did not go to a cenote on this trip.

That woman’s tweet, along with my own awkward feelings of sharing all of my travel pictures with people I know are less able to travel, really struck me on this trip. I have an innate temptation to judge people who’ve never traveled, and I know that’s quite arrogant and unfair. I’m actively trying to transform that feeling into a feeling of gratitude for my own ability to regularly travel.

2. I am not the brave travel warrior I thought I was.

I made some really excellent temporary friends this trip. My first few days were spent with Laura, a little ginger hippy from Westhamshire or some other ridiculous Englishy-sounding name. Together, Laura and I saw the pyramids of Teotihuacan, watched some lucha libre, and visited Frida Khalo’s house. She really was an excellent travel buddy.

 

Just two garfields drinking pulke

As Laura described her post-Cancun trip, I realized how gentle and safe my little Cancun-Mexico City-Puebla-Mexico City-Cancun jaunt was. Laura had no GPS. Laura took the cheapest overnight bus to Oaxaca she could find, figuring she could find a place to stay once she got there. Laura had backpacked through Central and South America- all alone.

I’m not really interested in doing the cheapest, least high-tech possible, most backpacker-y trip in the world. Although I may seem adventurous to my kind, nervous uncle who didn’t want me to go to Mexico at all… really, I’m chicken shit. I didn’t even sleep in a dorm for most of this hostel tour. Princess with her own double room, party of one. You go, Laura. You’re impressive.

3. It’s good to lean into some fear.

I’d never had to independently organize travel within a country whose language I didn’t speak perfectly, and it was pretty scary to me at times. That doesn’t speak to how difficult travel is in Mexico, it speaks to how easy I’d had it before. In Southeast Asia, my friend and travel partner Sonja organized the overnight trains and buses and even flights. In Europe and East Asia, it’s just so stupid easy given how prevalent and simple trains are. In Costa Rica, other friend and travel partner Ryan and I rented a car. That was extremely expensive, but easy to figure out.

Honestly, inter-Mexico travel was pretty simple. Go to the bus depot, ask for a ticket wherever, choose your seat, relax and look at rows and rows of houses.

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Shamelessly stolen from Brad Benson’s instagram (#bradacking) after I realized I hadn’t taken any photos of this experience.

In Cancun, it was trickier. Go to the bus depot, find the dudes yelling “Playa!” Follow them, get off at Playa del Carmen, get onto another bus for Tulum, get off at Akumal. This one tested my Spanish a bit more.I’d have these feelings of “Ooooh, is this worth it? Couldn’t I just stay where I am? Do I really want to see this thing?” It’s rare in my life to feel that particular brand of scared. When I felt that way, I held my hand on my chest, breathed, and accepted the feeling. I’m uncomfortable. I’m a little scared. I know what I’m doing.The end results were good.

 

4. Take the chances to peek into local perspective.

I took Ubers basically wherever I went in Mexico City and elsewhere. For as safe as it’s gotten in recent years, guide books still recommend avoiding Mexican taxis. There’s not a high risk that you’ll get held up at gunpoint by an accomplice (anymore), but what the hell kind of guarantee is that? Uber, please.

I understand that Uber drivers do not represent a cross-section of the Mexican population. These are men (I had no lady drivers) who can afford a car, at the very least. It was a different population from the tourism-influenced group of hostel owners and tour guides I mostly interacted with, though. Boy, did they have things to say about the American election.

Not the things I was expecting, though. Whether in English, Spanish, or Spanglish, in conversation after conversation I found myself hearing the most nuanced, interesting perspectives.

Los hombres controlan a otros usando el miedo. Es lo mismo en Estados Unidos como en México. Cuando una población no tiene educación, ¿qué escuchan? ¿En quién pueden confiar? El miedo es un arma de los poderosos sobre los ignorantes. Men control others using fear. It is the same in the US as in Mexico. When a population has no education, what do they listen to? Whom can they trust? Fear is a weapon of the powerful over the ignorant. Los Estados Unidos está formado por individuos. ¿Cómo puedo asumir lo que un país de individuos piensa basado en una elección? Un país no es una elección. The United States is formed by individuals. How can I know what a country of individuals think, based on an election? A country is not an election.

Holy shit, Uber drivers of Mexico.

Riding an Uber could also be like a damn spy movie. In Cancun, Uber drivers are in a war against licensed taxi drivers. I mean that in a literal sense. According to one Uber driver, if a taxi driver saw an Uber driver operating, they would announce it on their radios and send drivers to purposefully crash into the car or throw rocks. They had the (bribed) police on their side, so they would use police lookouts as well. Uber drivers would call me, say that they would meet me at the corner in front of the Oxxo, and I would get in the front seat. Si me preguntan, eres mi amigo. If they ask, you’re my friend.

Intense.

5. I can get along just fine in Spanish.

Here we see Francesco, Vlad, and Ruoyang, three people who necessitated a lot of Spanish to spend time with. The first two were guides, and the third is a dramatically gay Chinese Frenchman who people apparently thought I was dating.  People in Mexico, who noticed his sparkling mascara, jewelry, and flowingbathing suit coverup, generally addressed him as “señorita” and assumed we were lady friends on a jaunt to the beach. Ça ne me dérange pas du tout! he told me. That doesn’t bother me at all. So French. I translated into French from Spanish for him at meals and I felt amazing.

I have studied Spanish, and I consider myself conversational. That doesn’t mean I don’t get insecure about it. It was really nice to see that my efforts paid off, and I was able to accomplish something. Knowing me, I hope this doesn’t inspire me to give up on improving, knowing I can get by (anyeong, failed attempt to learn fluent Korean.)

You’re a good travel partner, me. Looking forward to hitting the skies with you again soon. ❤


 

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Traveling Single

I’m heading off to Mexico today! I’ll be arriving in la Ciudad de México just in time to avoid New Year’s Eve, part of a suite of holidays created by Satan (or a cruel version of God) to celebrate couplehood and punish the single. My ratio of depressing-to-good New Years Eves is a pretty sad one, even counting the three years I’ve spent in the company of men I’ve been romantically entangled with. It’s just too much pressure, too much money, too much everything. After sobbing in my sister’s colleague’s closet in Chicago two years ago and barfing at midnight outside of a cab door, I decided that I didn’t want any more American-style bullshit. Last year I headed down to Costa Rica; this year it’s Mexico.

Have I brushed up on my Spanish? No, no lo hice. Have I planned anything beyond a vague intention to visit Frida Kahlo’s house and see some Aztec stuff maybe? Definitivamente no. Shit, did I at least find a place to stay? Ugh, of course I did, Mom!

“Who are you goin’ with?” asks everyone when I share my plans. When I tell people that I’m going by myself, the responses range from impressed to worried. Kind Uncle Ron spent all of Christmas begging me not to go and wondering if it would be possible to check a can of mace in my luggage.

Traveling by yourself complicates things. Just considering it’s not how most people travel means that the paradigm isn’t set up for the single traveler. All those amazing (ha) travel deals on Groupon? The fine print reveals that a single traveler would pay half again over the price that a couple pays. This includes when I tell Expedia that I’d be happy sleeping in a broom closet.

I started with finding a place to stay. For the (brief) Cancun leg of my trip, finding a good hostel was rough. The majority of the options were terrible; advertisement photographs showed skinny barely-adults chugging tequila out of each other’s buttholes (perhaps that was simply my perception.) Instead, I’ll be staying in a quiet hostel about a mile away from the party epicenter, near to where the ferry to Isla Mujeres picks up.

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where I have a date with this turtle

Mexico City was tough in a different way. The city is checkered with cheap and beautiful Air B&Bs, which I knew back when I started planning this trip and I thought a friend was coming along. I don’t want to stay in somebody’s apartment by myself, though, no matter how fancy and what a nice pool they have (sigh.) When I solo travel, I always try to find a group of temporary friends to glom onto for excursions and side trips. Even the best Air B&B host isn’t going to want to look at waterfalls with me on a Tuesday.

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where Legolas washes his hair when he visits Mexico

My flight to Mexico City gets me in at around 5:00 PM on the 31st. This means I have this razor’s edge situation of wanting a convivial atmosphere to chase the holiday blues away, but not such a convivial atmosphere that a woman vomiting upon my hair at 3:00 in the morning is a likely scenario. After a great deal of clicking and pondering, I landed on a hostel that seemed to have a good mix of friendly folks, plus a single room where I can go escape if things get nutty.

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I would only be nervous about these bros if I found out they were Australian.

Whew. Accommodations covered.

I first traveled alone in Hawaii. That’s where I had my first, golden experience of temporary friend making. I stayed at a super chill hostel on the island of Kauai. On my first night there, I was getting ready for bed for a planned 6:00 AM hike wakeup time when a group of college students invited me for a beachside party. With a mustering of “yes, and” spirit, I went along with them and made some truly excellent temporary buds. We went snorkeling together, drove around, and kayaked up to a trail to see a waterfall through some truly Neverending Story-like mud.

Since then, I have traveled alone to Porto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, New Mexico, New Orleans, San Antonio, Austin, and Madrid.

I like that I’m a person who can travel alone. As I know from going on roughly nine billion dates per year, many people spend their whole lives thinking about the travel they’ll maybe someday possibly probably do. I’m not going to spend my life waiting for the perfect financial or relationship situation. I want to go to Mexico, so I’m going to Mexico.

Do I wish I had the option of traveling with someone else? Sure. I have a fantasy that I keep tucked in a part of my mind and heart that I try not to dwell on of exploring the world with a lover. It feels impossible for me, but I know it exists. Back when I lived in Korea I saw people find that brand of luck in love. They would post pictures of their trips to Thailand or India. Traveling with a partner would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about finding those temporary friends. On my trip to Spain this past summer, nothing really managed to stick, so I spent the week by myself. Oh, I was perfectly happy exploring the Prado by myself, taking a day trip to Segovia by myself, visiting the Mercado de San Miguel by myself. I probably enjoyed the El Bosco exhibit as much as is humanly possible, taking all the time in the world to stare at the details without worrying about anyone else’s timetable.

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Nothin like some good Earthly Delights

Traveling alone means there’s no one else to catch the shrapnel when shit goes bad. When it turned out the rental car in Costa Rica was going to cost twice what we accounted for, Ryan had me to commiserate with about the ridiculousness of how much more expensive that damn trip turned out to be than we thought it would be. When I lost my iPod with the hotel address on a bullet train to Kyoto, I had Ryan to say “hey, let’s figure this out. There’s an Internet cafe over there.” Then suddenly we were having the strag(ely) wonderful experience of a Japanese Internet cafe and it was part of the whole weird experience, not a nightmare to figure out on my own. When Katie wore ballet flats on the very muddy Namsan Mountain in Gyungju, we had each other to lean on as we tromped down the statue-littered holy site. I’ve been lucky in my travels – missing an airplane back to France from Amsterdam is pretty much the worst thing that has happened to me when solo-traveling- but I don’t count on that always being the case.

It’s nice to have someone to share memories with, too. All my solo travel memories are uniquely mine, and I know what a terrible memory I have. Whereas travel buddies of the past hold key memories I may have forgotten in their hearts (hey, remember the deer that chased us in Nara? Oh Gosh, remember the Rat’s Nest in Charlotte?), all of these moments exist only in my mind. When I travel alone, no one shares those memories. No one else can relate to my particular sensation of looking out over the stunning red and green cliffs of Waimea Canyon- only I can see them. That’s fine and sometimes it’s not fine. It is what it is.

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Trust me, the picture does not do it justice. I was way hotter.

So, I’m off again. I hope I haven’t downplayed the things I love about traveling alone- the things I might even miss if I managed to find my dream travel partner. Hell, maybe I don’t forget as much as I think I do. As I sit here, I remember riding my bike along Coronado Island, dipping off onto a totally empty beach, breathing deep, salty air. I remember the hills of the vineyards of Porto, rolling in waves like a heaving ocean. I remember the weight of my boots on the desert dirt in Tuscon, a red universe of heat and life and the coldest water I’ve ever stuck my toes into after nearly dehydrating my idiot self. I remember the crunch of my first-ever po’ boy, crispy and perfect overlooking Jackson Square as a band played slow songs. I remember tasting my first cannoli in San Diego’s Little Italy, the sun shining on my shoulders, time that belonged only to me stretching across a full, empty, limitless afternoon. Without the distraction of conversation, of trying for someone else, of being for someone else, of planning for someone else, experiences can feel extraordinarily profound.

Mostly, all things considered, I prefer to travel with someone. I can’t spend my whole life waiting for friends to have the same free time as I do, though (hi, adjunct professor-ing). I certainly can’t hold onto my travel dreams until the perfect (or even just OK) guy comes along, passport in hand. We live such short, bright lives. There is so much I want to see, taste, smell, feel. There are so many mistakes I want to make and silences I want to hold to myself, taking in the magnificence of it all. I read a Jezebel piece recently that spoke to me about this idea. I can either see myself as half-finished, always waiting, never complete, or I can see myself as alone, one, whole, passport in hand.

See you soon, Mexico. Show me something I can keep forever, only and completely to myself.