21st Century Woman

A Brief History of Before

It’s 7:30 AM and I have an 8:00 AM class across campus. I trudge to the bus stop, rubbing my eyes. Last night had been long—I’d counseled a homesick student late into the evening.

As I’m standing at the stop, I look past all the other tired bodies and notice one of my residents, also waiting. He has on giant over-the-ear headphones and is lightly nodding his head to some unknown beat. I try to recall his name, but nothing comes to me.

Please don’t talk to me. I can’t be your RA right now. Please.

As if I’d said it out loud, he turned his head slightly to look at me. We share a glance of recognition, shared sympathy even, and then we both look away.

I’m grateful.

“You know, you should really talk to my friend David Allen. He’s a writer, like you.”

“David Allen? He has two names?”

“No, that’s just what everyone calls him.”

A few nights later, I find myself in his residence hall. I nervously walk to his room, the door is open.

“Hi, I’m Ashley.”

“Yeah, I know. You were my RA.”

“Oh, sure. Right.” (I don’t recognize him)

“Chris said we should meet—that we have a lot in common.”

“Oh yeah, he mentioned that.”

“Okay, well, um, let’s keep in touch. Maybe send me some of your writing?”

“Yeah, okay, cool.”

We’ve been talking a lot over AIM. He read my plays. I read his poetry. But I have a boyfriend and so we’re just friends.

Even so, he invites me to his residence hall on Valentine’s Day. He makes the sweeping romantic gestures my boyfriend had not proffered—tries to be the salve to my tear-stained day. There is cookie dough spelled out in my name, lovingly baked in the communal kitchen. There is Donnie Darko. There is a bean bag pillow.

I know he means it to be romantic, but I’m already in a roller coaster of a college romance. I have nothing left to offer him. I fall asleep in the middle of his beautifully planned date.

And then suddenly he has a girlfriend, and she doesn’t like how often we talk. He disappears from my AIM list and we awkwardly ignore each other at the dining hall.

The loss is immediate.

The next year, he has been selected to be an RA in the building next door.

During orientation, I play a pregnant student in need of advice as he uncomfortably shifts in his wooden standard issue seat, struggling to find the right words.

I’m aware of the kindly way he listens, knowing the right moments to insert advice or offer support. I dig in, stretch my dramatic muscle, and yet he persists so evenly I’m forced to concede to his response.

After that, we see each other one more time. He comes to visit me in my new apartment. I leave the door open so there can be no suspicion. We commit nervously to small talk, and then he’s gone.

There will be another year of awkward glances in the parking lot before I graduate without ever having said goodbye.

Another year passes. I’m in my second year of grad school in South Carolina. I hate it there. I’m struggling with my thesis. My college boyfriend and I break up. My student dies suddenly. I feel the deepest and most intense loneliness.

It’s Christmas break, and it will be days before my roommates return. I discover that my hometown feels foreign to me—I am an island, after all—so I’ve returned to grad school early.

It’s late and the silence of our apartment is deafening.

I scroll through my AIM list, but not many people are online. Then suddenly, I see a name I haven’t seen in awhile. It’s him.

His away message says, “I wish it would snow.”

My hands go to the keys and pause.

I type, “Me too.”

I hit enter.

We spend hours on the phone. We blow through phone plans. We watch movies together hundreds of miles away. There are mixed CDs and giggly wake up calls.

His assurances bring me confidence. I’m not lonely anymore. His voice is always in my head.

And then there comes a visit. The sudden suspension of distance has made things very real. Our timing is all wrong.

We push off in separate directions, again.

Somehow we end up in the same city, without planning to, without meaning to.

We are shy at first, conscious of all that came before.

Yet, there is no going back, there is only the thing that must be done.

Soon, we no longer remember “before.”

Looking back, there was no reason for us to find each other again, but the universe continued to insist on our collision, so we collided and collided until there was nothing else to do but open our eyes and see it for ourselves.

My best friend

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21st Century Woman, Sunday Sessions

Sunday Routines: How Ashley Lusk, sometimes writer, spends her Sundays

BRIGHT AND EARLY We’re early birds so I’m usually up around seven on the weekends. David is almost always up before me, immersed in his “digital meditation,” which is usually a video game, or time spent scrolling through Twitter on his phone. Meanwhile, I stumble into the kitchen and start the electric kettle.

COFFEE SNOB I’m thoughtful about coffee, and prefer to use a French press at home. I’ve spent this year rotating between different local bean purveyors. Right now I’m into Blanchard’s Columbia El Obreje, a roaster in nearby Richmond, Virginia.

READ AND RELAX Our Sunday routine is seasonal. We’re in late winter right now, so we’ll probably stay close to home. He may go to Starbucks for an hour or so to read the digital edition of the New York Times or catch up on more Twitter. I’ll stay home wrapped in blankets reading the Washington Post and scrolling through recipe blogs. My favorites are Joy the Baker, Smitten Kitchen, and Naturally Ella.

A SEASONAL MENU Brunch is probably our favorite meal of the week. Lately we’ll drive over to Ted’s Bulletin, which shows old movies and has a fun 40s diner vibe. They recently dropped several of my favorite brunch items, so we may have to reevaluate our “regular” status. If it was summer, we’d be first in line at the wood-fired oven pizza stand at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market begging them for a tomato, basil and mozzarella piadini. After picking up our produce for the week, we might stop by Kramer’s Books and browse.

WELL-PACKED BAGS Next we’ll walk a few blocks over to The Wydown and I’ll pick up a cappuccino. We’ll then go next door to the Trader Joe’s and fight our way through the crowds to do our grocery shopping for the week. I love watching the TJ’s staff pack the bags. My dad was a grocer, so I appreciate when it’s done without crushing the soft or delicate items.

CAT NAP We’ll head home, unpack the groceries, and then take a half hour nap. Sometimes it’s my best sleep all week. By mid-afternoon, we’ll head to the gym for an hour or so. David will hop on a bike or an elliptical. I’ll do some light free weights and then take a turn on the elliptical. Sometimes we’ll skip the gym and I’ll bake something instead.

WRITING TIME David’s incredibly disciplined—towards early evening, he’ll get his clothes and his work bag ready for the week. For me there is mostly the panic of realizing I should have worked all day instead of relaxing. If I’m especially avoiding a project, I might sit down and write a blog post for my site, or maybe a letter to a friend.

QUIET EVENING AT HOME I used to watch a lot of TV, but I’m trying to pull back on that a bit. On Sunday nights, we’ll probably have a simple dinner and listen to 60 Minutes or a favorite podcast while we prepare it. We mostly keep the TV off for the rest of the evening, unless there is a new PBS series or Game of Thrones. The more likely scenario is that we’re both in bed by 10.

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21st Century Woman

The List

2016 List

I ended 2015 feeling…off.

A few months ago, someone had asked me a simple question about my hobbies. I thought for a moment and struggled for an answer. I didn’t have hobbies anymore. I had work. I had television. I had sleep. It felt like my whole world had been condensed to this inane cycle of daily events.

I walked away feeling flummoxed. Okay, I have work, I have a job I like a lot, but what did I have outside of that? Sometimes I did yoga. Okay…but not with regularity. Ah, I read! A lot actually! But then I didn’t really spend much time meditating on what I what I learned or what it meant.

No, I realized I no longer had something that made my soul grow.

I considered a long list of things that I sort of did, maybe randomly, on an afternoon, or once out of a whole year. I sought out coffee shops, I occasionally cooked, I enjoyed exploring new restaurants, I had been traveling to new places, I often went to movies alone. But each of these things felt like they were on the fringes of my daily life—they were not endeavors that I dedicated myself to with any regularity.

I found myself envying friends with such clear dedication. Those who woke up every morning to write in a journal. Or run races. Or embrace new knitting projects. I didn’t have a single regular activity in my life, and it left me feeling a little empty.

Last week, without a motivation or a reason, I opened a Google doc and began typing. At first, it was a list of books that I hoped to pick up from the library that week. Then, I added a recipe I wanted to try the following day. And then the name of a wine I had enjoyed.

Slowly, the list has begun to fill out: a new restaurant we visited, a coffee that spoke to me, a television show I marathoned and had thoughts about.

Something about the list feels good. There are no bullets—I’m not trying to push through anything—but the list notes the substance of my days. It reminds me to revisit things that brought me joy, to leave behind the things that caused me worry.

And really, that’s the very best I can hope for in 2016.

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21st Century Woman, Intention

The (Gun Control) Problem

This is one of the things I’m afraid of.  The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away.  But what will follow?  Just this apathy, this dead flatness?  Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal?  Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea? – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’ve heard it said that Hemingway (and many other writers, for that matter), sat down, without fail, to write every single day. Most weeks, it feels like a lot to just sit down on Sunday and offer something to this blog.

Last weekend, I simply couldn’t. I had watched something horrific unfold, and it shook me to my depths. I walked through that day, that week, in a haze. On Sunday, I thought that I should write something, but I sat in front of my computer and just felt sadness and fear and rage.

I woke up every day that week, trying to understand how I should feel next and what I should do. Some part of me thought I should quiet my reaction—time has taught me to see reactionaries as ignorant, uncouth, ridiculous. Other moments, I chastised myself for not being reactionary enough. Where was the petition I could sign? The think-piece I could hold up as some articulate declaration for change? No matter how many I read, I was not soothed, they did not correctly confirm my rage.

And so I was left to sit with myself.

I turned off the TV.

I closed my Twitter feed.

I seethed.

Then I mourned.

Then I realized this tiny piece of me would not be quieted. Ever.

I don’t have the answer to what happens next. There are motivated people and organizations who have been chipping away at this problem for a long time. For now, I’m just trying to find my own way to chip away at the problem too.

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21st Century Woman, Intention

This is 31.

I don’t know what I imagined 31, or 41, or 51 would look like. When you’re young—really young—you just imagine that you will always be exactly as you are then. Or at least I did. And maybe that’s why I’m not surprised by 31. I really had no expectations about what it would, or could, be.

Probably around 23, I began to understand what aging meant. That my metabolism would slow to a crawl. That sleep would become more crucial. That one day I would inevitably take on the characteristics of the other women in my family. This is the same moment when you start to realize they didn’t always look like they do now—and that soon I wouldn’t either. Little wrinkles have begun to emerge.

31, in many ways, is miraculous. To feel accomplished and productive. To have carved out a place for myself. To have built a home on my own time and with my own rules.

I’m better at spotting inauthenticity. I’m wary of people and projects that wear me down without filling me up. I’m cautious, but not jaded. I still want to do the most good.

I don’t know what 31 was supposed to look like, but from where I sit, 31 feels just fine.

Bae Day

#BaeDay

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21st Century Woman

Overexposed

Do you ever have those days where you just feel completely raw? Where a slight or a wrong look leave you feeling sensitive and exposed? That was today. Hell, that was this week. 

So, I did what any good person would do and I retreated. I downloaded the Medium and This. apps and spent some quality time reading. I cleaned out whole sections of my Feedly account. I scanned Twitter as myself, not as one of my clients. I finished off this book, and made my way further into this and this.

In the midst of my great hibernation, I came across some very good things.

I like literary magazines, especially when they’re digital. Say hello to The OffingSpeaking of literary magazines, my beloved Esquire has been home to some of our generation’s most prolific writers. That’s why I’m absolutely giddy to see that they’ve re-released their classics all.in.one.place.

It was painfully recognizable to hear Lena Dunham describe the pressures she felt to just get the proposal. Despite feeling pretty certain I would never play into soul-crushing traditions, I still found myself sucked into the wedding industrial complex. I’m licking my wounds by reading about Wonder Woman and utopian feminism. Also, laughing because this dude only ate food marketed to women for two weeks, and guess what? He was still hungry. Like, all of the time.

This NYT article about urban aging is a fucking gut punch. It’s time to get to know my neighbors.

My 31st birthday is next week and I generally prefer experiences over tactile gifts. Still, everyone enjoys shredding a little wrapping paper now and then. Hint, hint.

I’m giving myself some time to mentally prepare for next week, by listening to this guided meditation on repeat: “Those bitches can’t get under your skin. Breathe in strength, breathe out bullshit.”

 

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21st Century Woman

That Time I Re-watched Felicity

Felicity

Image Courtesy of Tumblr

For a little while, I’ve felt a bit out of the grasp of those sneaky marketers. I haven’t been part of the MTV generation for awhile. I’m not quite AARP-status.

I knew something was changing, however, what with the Honda mini-van commercials using Weezer to remind me I was quickly approaching a new demographic.

But then they had to go and do it, friends. Nick-at-Night, once home to shows my parents loved, now plays reruns of TGIF shows—shows of my youth. Even Hulu now features Seinfeld, Ally McBeal and Clarissa Explains It All.

It’s painful, this knowledge. As painful as seeing those tiny crows-feet appear out of nowhere.

I’ve long had a rule that it’s not a good idea to revisit things you’ve loved as a child—they almost never hold up to whatever pedestal you put them on once upon a time (see: Neverending Story).

Still, the nostalgia crept in—hard.

Before I knew it, I found myself watching the pilot episode of Clarissa, then Ally. I stopped both before I reached the end. It just wasn’t right.

Then I clicked “play” on the first episode of Felicity.

Friends, in so many ways Felicity is a product of a by-gone era. It’s a reflection of those terrible years when grunge and prep had battled it out, and something much more bland and baggy took its place.

I was in middle school and high school during its broadcast, a hopeless romantic thriving on some unknown element of teenage hormones. I was ardently #TeamNoel—his only competition being Dawson. I fell deep and hard for nerds, and romantic nerds at that, and he came to represent so much of the “nice guy” I wanted in a boyfriend.

I didn’t have my own television, so I watched the show in our living room with my mom, making my teenage longings for the boy on the TV squishy and uncomfortable. I dreamed of college, of attending a school like NYU, of studying literature and having sophisticated, complicated friends.

Watching Felicity as an adult has been interesting. It’s directed and co-created by J.J. Abrams, who would later gain fame as the co-creator of Lost (among many other things). The show’s portrayal of relationships and friendships is sweet, but rife with unnecessary drama. It’s depiction of college is largely unrealistic—including the massive dorm rooms with full-size beds—though they get a lot of credit for having hard conversations about money, credit cards and loans. At least three of the characters have jobs to help pay for college. It lacks any real diversity beyond a token black character, from a feminist lens, the show hardly passes the Bechdel test.

My issue with Felicity is the central relationships between Ben, Noel and Felicity. As David points out, Noel exists to whine, his neediness is unbearable. Ben’s insecurities and blatant stupidity make him uninteresting; he doesn’t fall into these problems so much as dive in, head first.

And Felicity? Well, I have to admit I find her rather vanilla.

Yet, in the end there is something I still find comforting in their stories. When I was 13, the idea of college was as foreign as a place called Northern Virginia. I was a girl growing up in a world that felt all wrong for my aspirations, and Felicity was a window to the future, a future where I could be as quietly ambitious as its main character.

As I finish out the first season, I’m grateful for this little window back in time. To remember what it felt like to be a young girl, hopelessly optimistic about the future, untethered by heartbreak, expectant that with hard work and enough luck, my world could look like theirs one day. And to be an adult who would learn that all of those things were true.

I never saw the last season of Felicity, and I don’t plan to watch it now, either. I remember at some point the story fell flat and I lost interest, replacing it with whatever new show was on the CW that week. I never learned if she went for Ben or Noel; teenage me would have surely hoped for the latter. But adult me? Adult me hopes that maybe, instead, she found that being with herself was exactly enough.

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21st Century Woman

White Girl Disease

The Cure for White Girl Disease

The Cure for White Girl Disease

I haven’t been feeling well lately. I’ve been dizzy, light-headed, sluggish. Walking up stairs makes me out of breath. Sometimes it seemed like my heart was about to leap out of my chest.

I thought it might be dehydration—I’ve hated drinking water since I was a kid and I’ve often flirted with some unknown hydration tipping point. Knowing this, no alternative drink has gone untested: I’ve become a regular savant at trying out flavored water, bubbly water, coconut water and tea of every kind. Still, after another particularly rough day, I decided to go to the doctor.

“It’s white-girl-in-the-city disease,” she told me. Stress, working too much, drinking too much coffee instead of water. Slight anemia. Low blood pressure. She cavalierly suggested some Poweraid, a daily dose of salty chips and some sleep.

I reveled in seeing through my treatment plan, but despite the sports drinks and potato chips, I haven’t been able to tip the balance back to zero. It seems this time I had really emptied out the reserves.

I needed a vacation.

We needed a vacation. We both love our jobs. We both work long hours. It isn’t easy committing to time off for either of us. Yet one night, I found myself shouting desperately at David to pick a date on the calendar.

So this week we’re off Vermont to spend some time doing nothing. I have bottles of Pedialyte that are traveling with me in the hope that electrolytes and fresh air will help me combat this “white girl disease.” We’re taking the train, a 12-hour ride that promises to be the antidote to my usual flight-induced terror. I’m sorry to say I already have hours of work lined up during our trip. I’m trying to think about my decision to allow this work to infiltrate my vacation and why I made it and what it means.

But more than anything I hope that this trip is the reset button I need to get back to good. That and Pedialyte.

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21st Century Woman, Digitalista

On Aging, Digitally

Today I was sitting beside a young woman who was managing social media for the conference I was attending. I looked at her for a bit, furiously typing away, hitting the keys so hard they echoed off our galley seats. She rapidly clicked between windows, her brow furrowed, looking for the next retweet.

For years, I was this girl—live-tweeting with a secret self-importance, oozing with purpose: I am the voice of [brand/org/God] at this event; I control the little hits of dopamine folks will get when their phone pings with a favorite, reply or retweet.

The girl was young—perhaps in college—and I wondered what they had taught her about social media. Was it anything like the meticulous directions I received on writing press releases?

I was there when Facebook became a thing. I remember every single second of creating my account on that hot summer day in 2004. I remember telling my friend, in 2008, that I wasn’t sure I understood Twitter, that as a blogger these micro-messages seemed awfully sparse. I would later loudly declare that, in my opinion, Twitter was the greatest invention of our generation, a virtual town square where my ability to connect with people of note is never more than a few clicks away.

I had—still have, I hope—a valuable skill.  I was a millennial (eep). I was an early adopter. I knew and understood what digital marketing could look like. I had recognized, early, how the landscape had shifted in a way that would come to define my career. At the time, my bosses and managers couldn’t understand why anyone would share so much about themselves. They couldn’t understand why someone would want to be “friends” with a brand. They handed over the keys to their organizational profiles and believed that I would care for them in good faith. I certainly hope I did.

My work became about evangelizing these new mediums. Setting up the first social accounts for organizations. Giving them voices. Translating and identifying customer service opportunities. Discovering meaningful metrics. Listening. Capturing. Training others to do the same. I loved it then and still do now, even though most of what I do daily has changed significantly.

On Wednesday, I sat beside an incredibly hip, impeccably dressed Middle Eastern student. He told me he was on vacation to San Diego. Did I know much about the weather there, he asked. It’s warm and lovely, I told him.

We eventually settled into silence, him scrolling through Snapchats, me realizing it was another platform I had tried and failed to initially find meaning in. This time, however, my ambivalence felt different. I realized that in many ways, I was no longer the audience for this product—but that didn’t matter. It was one of those moments—like signing up for this Facebook thing and knowing it’s about to change the way we connect—when you know that everything after it is different.

I’m still constantly thinking about the landscape and patterns of the future: what happens if we suddenly value privacy again? Will written words begin to matter less as we translate more ideas into videos and photos? What happens to all of our digital detritus?

I love having the opportunity to write posts and plan campaigns—for me, there is something so naturally reflexive in this task—but more and more my interests are shifting from platforms to people.

At the conference, I watched the young social media manager pull out an extension cord; she held it up high like a winning trophy, as I had done so many times before. Folks around me began rushing to plug into it. As I leaned over to plug in as well she looked at me and snipped, “This is for people who do social media.”

I paused, gave her a sweet smile, then pushed my plug the rest of the way in. “I know.”

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