Mara Wilson Writes Stuff

Hi. My name is Mara. Sometimes I write stuff.

LOOK! And LISTEN!

I hope everyone who celebrates holidays around this time of year had some good ones! Anyway, enough general greetings, I have two things to share.

First, I was on a podcast! RISK! is one of my favorite podcasts: think of an R-rated Moth or This American Life. It’s very much for an 18+ audience. My story does not have to do with sex or drugs or illegal activities, but the stories on RISK! often do. Some stories are on there simply because they’re personal (case in point.) I suggest you listen to the whole episode, but if you want to find my story, I’m about thirty-three minutes in.

Also, I now have a list of Frequently Asked Questions! Please take a look at it before contacting me! IT WILL ANSWER EVERYTHING AND MAKE ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE! Or at least keep you from staying awake all night wondering about Matilda 2.

Writing Advice from Auntie Mara

This has been an exciting year for me, full of surprises. Perhaps most surprising is that people have started to ask me for advice on writing. It seems a bit like asking a first-time pregnant woman, “What’s it like to raise a toddler?” I’m only in my second trimester when it comes to writing: I have yet to be published in book form and I still mix up the subjunctive “were” and “was”. Besides, there’s not much I can say that George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many others haven’t already said (make writing a habit, cut any unnecessary words or lines, make every character want something, etc.) But I’ll try to share some of the advice and guidelines that have helped me. 1

Don’t put it on the Internet.

At least, don’t immediately put it on the Internet. Learn how to write first, how to make mistakes and fix them, how to write what Anne Lamott rightly calls “shitty first drafts.” You need to learn to write for yourself before you write for others.

I long resisted getting a blog: friends would read my funny Facebook statuses and ask why I wasn’t blogging. My response was always the same: “Because I want to be a writer, not a blogger.” Pretentious as I might have sounded, I stand by what I said, because I believe blogging is different than writing. Blogging is something one does for instant gratification (and I’m not “above” this, look at how often I tweet), while writing is a long, often difficult process that is ultimately more rewarding for you and the person reading it. Your raw, unfiltered status updates might be funny to you and some friends, but the rest of the world won’t like it or care. Coffee grounds and water do not make coffee: it must be filtered.

As I’ve said, I take a lot of time with each post. I always reread and edit several times before I post, and often I’ll run the idea by a friend or family member first. I have some entries I will never post, simply because they’re too personal or just not very well-written. This has saved me an enormous amount of grief and frustration, and I’m sure the people reading it appreciate it more, too. It’s true that putting one’s writing on the internet can get one “noticed,” but my suggestion is to use the internet as a springboard. (Most of my friends who’ve achieved some measure of internet celebrity have done this, going on to write books or make films.) Let it propel you into real life.

So, learn to write first. Then write something. Then re-write it. Then read it. Then re-read it. Then put it online, or don’t.

Read books.

Read the kind of books you want to write, and read books you would never want to read. Read books about growing up in inner-city Detroit if you grew up on a farm in Texas. Read books about ranching in Montana if you live in Paris. Read C.S. Lewis if you’re an atheist and Philip Pullman if you’re a Christian. Read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if your favorite book is Twilight. Read Twilight… well, to know how terrible it really is. You will learn what you like in writing and what you can steal. You will also learn which tropes, cliches, and clams to avoid. And do not write if you do not read!

Read books on writing.

Everyone should have a copy of The Elements of Style. My other suggestions would be Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (which is not specifically about writing, but is still helpful). Read what your favorite authors have said about writing,  so you can know what to do, and read what your least favorite authors have said about writing, so you can know what not to do.

Take a playwriting class.

Even if you don’t like plays, even if you’ve never seen a play, 2 take a class.

1.) It will improve your dialogue. You will develop an ear for what sounds natural, and, more importantly, what sounds unnatural.

2.) It will teach you to be economical. In a good contemporary play, there are no unnecessary characters: every character wants something and tries to go after it. If something can be said in one line instead of three, it will be cut down. I have a suspicion that this economical approach started because theatermakers have limited funds and time; however, it always works to the play’s advantage.

Remember that there is no such thing as straight comedy or straight drama.

Comedy, by its nature, has an element of truth and pain in it: the recipe for humor is often said to be “tragedy plus time.” Likewise, I don’t believe it’s possible to write something dramatic that doesn’t have any kind of “comic relief.” 3 It’s like pumpkin: pureed pumpkin by itself is bland or bitter. Add sugar and spices, though, and suddenly it’s rich and delicious and perfectly balanced.

Be aware that fiction writing can be as revealing as nonfiction.

Perhaps it’s even more revealing, because it’s done inadvertently. Nonfiction writers have control over what they are revealing about themselves, while fiction writers are drawing from their own imagination, their own experiences and dreams and fears. I probably couldn’t tell you what David Sedaris’s wildest dreams are, but I could tell you Stephenie Meyer’s. 4

Learn how to give and receive feedback.

This was perhaps the most useful skill I learned in college. My professors (especially Marleen Pennison, Jeni Mahoney, and Tomi Tsunoda) taught us how to give feedback even before they taught us how to write or direct. 5 “Start with what you see and how it makes you feel,” “Separate the form from the content,” “Do not problem-solve for other people,” and so many other phrases became mantras for me, and they remain so today. Learning how to give constructive feedback will allow you to help others, and learning how to receive feedback will make you more efficient at editing your work. Additionally, you will want people reading your work to critique it constructively: receiving feedback and criticism from one who does not know how to give it can be like standing nude in front of a group of strangers and having them go over every inch of your body with a cheese grater.

As important as this is, I have decided to share with you one of my secret weapons — consider it a Nondenominational Winter Holiday 6 gift. With her permission, I give you Jeni Mahoney’s Guidelines for Feedback.

 

PLAYWRITING

GUIDELINES FOR TALKING ABOUT IT

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots. (Frank A. Clark, writer)

WHEN YOU ARE THE ONE GETTING FEEDBACK…

  • Be careful of responding too quickly, or of explaining yourself. This is not an opportunity to explain what you intended, it is a chance to find out what others understood, felt or were confused about.
  • Any critique that starts with the phrase “you know what would be funny…” or “you know what would be neat” can be ignored – unless the person can tell you why it would be “funny” or “neat” and it fits in with your vision.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone why or how they got something unexpected from your work.
  • If someone tells you what they think should happen, ask why.
  • Even the most bizarre and hurtful critique may contain a grain of truth.
  • Don’t take anything personally. If the other person gets personal, bring it back to the work.
  • Sometimes strange questions or comments expose places where you inadvertently led the audience down a misleading path.
  • You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions.
  • When you’re talking you’re not listening.


WHEN YOU ARE GIVING FEEDBACK:

  • Avoid phrases like “when you said,” or “when you did” when you’re really talking about what the characters said and did.
  • Avoid generalizing: i.e., “someone wouldn’t do…” whatever. The issue is whether this particular character would do or say something.
  • If you feel like you must give a suggestion of what might happen or what a character might do – give three different ones.
  • If you find yourself thinking you didn’t “like” something, ask yourself – why? Was it the dialogue, the situation, the motivation, the story-line? Be as specific as possible.
  • Questions are always better than statements, but don’t expect any answers.
  • IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO FIX THE PLAY!
  • Remember: mention what you like.
  • Remember: the purpose of giving feedback is to help the playwright expand and refine her/his ideas about their work.

EXAMPLES OF COMMON COMMENTS:

“I didn’t like it when you said that the cow was too short to play basketball.”

1. Try not to address the playwright with “you said” – remember, the character was talking, not the playwright.

2. “I didn’t like it” – here is an opportunity to ask yourself a question – why? Why didn’t you like it? Was it that you didn’t believe it, or did the story take a turn that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you didn’t understand why the character was saying what he was saying – and you didn’t like not understanding.

So, how might we say that differently?

“I was confused when the lead character said that the cow was too short to play basketball. I thought the play was about soccer.”

HERE IS ANOTHER:

“Your dialogue was really bad.”

1. Again, we don’t put the character’s words into the playwright’s mouth.

2. Why was it “bad”? What does “bad” mean? Unbelievable? Confusing?

So how might we say it differently?

“I didn’t believe the dialogue between the cat and the moose – I didn’t believe they would know what Pac Man was, and when the moose was cursing I kept having to ask myself if a moose would really use that kind of language so I was distracted.”

AND FINALLY:

“I liked when you made them dance. What did it mean?”

1. Okay, this is a trick example. It’s a fine comment – and bonus points for asking a question, but one might want to refer the play, rather than the playwright…and expand a bit…

How might we say it differently?

“I liked it when the moose and the cat danced, it was touching and funny at the same time, but I wasn’t sure how it advanced the play.”

(Use these wisely. Don’t thank me, thank Jeni Mahoney!)

Notes:

  1. I imagine that this will be something of a series, something like Advice from Auntie Mara (which I also need to update). Thus, this post is not in any way a final list of writing advice: there will be more.
  2. This is possible if you grew up someplace like Los Angeles. I didn’t know the difference between “musicals” and “straight plays” until I was in my teens. Meanwhile, all my college friends who grew up in or around New York City went stage door-hopping every weekend.
  3. And those who try to write something wholly dramatic often find their work slipping into camp.
  4. Though writing skill and lack thereof might have something to do with that…
  5. Though I wouldn’t say they really “taught” us how to write and direct; rather, they guided us. But perhaps I’m getting pretentious again. Where’s my “You’re Being Pretentious” jar?
  6. Or Summer Holiday, for my Southern Hemisphere readers!

Mara’s Kitchen #8: How To Smash a Glass Bottle of Olive Oil all Over Your Kitchen And Spend the Next Three Hours Cleaning It Up!

Welcome back to Mara’s Kitchen! Last time, I showed you How to Toast Bread in a Toaster Oven. (For those who missed it, the trick is to switch the setting from “Bake” to “Toast!”) Today, I was going to show you How to Make Cereal, but I’m switching it up a bit. Here is How To Smash a Nearly-Full Sixteen Ounce Glass Bottle of Olive Oil all Over Your Kitchen and Spend the Next Three Hours Cleaning It Up!

 

1. Open the cabinet and try to get a box of Special K down off the second shelf without your trusty stepladder.

 

2. Realize that a nearly-full sixteen ounce glass bottle of olive oil has been placed either next to, or on top of, the cereal, and watch in horror as it comes crashing down, shattering into pieces and pouring olive oil all over the countertop, floor, and your right leg.

 

3. Yell a swear word of your choice (don’t you love when recipes let you improvise?) at the top of your voice, causing the cat to flee from the room.

 

4. Pick up the bigger shards of glass. Wonder if it was your roommate who put the bottle of olive oil in such a precarious place. Realize it was probably you, and think about the careless things you’ve done in your life. You might take a moment to remember the look on your dad’s face when you broke the screen window trying to get into the house because you were fourteen and locked out and the phone was ringing and you just needed to pick it up because you just knew it was Laurel from Drama Club telling you all about how Tim from Drama Club might like her back, too, and you just had to know the details!

 

5. Run to your room, change out of your oil-soaked pajama shorts, and Google “olive oil spill.”

 

6. Your options, as revealed by the Almighty Google (do not fall under the spell of false prophets, such as Bing), are Kitty Litter and oatmeal. Get the kitty litter and pour it all over your floor.

 

7. Run out of Kitty Litter as soon as you have covered half of the spill.

 

8. Search through the cabinets for oatmeal, being careful not to knock any more glass bottles onto the floor. Realize you only have those tiny instant packets of oatmeal, but open up a few of those anyway. Scatter them around. Enjoy the aroma of maple sugar and apple cinnamon!

 

9. Run out of oatmeal after you have covered an additional quarter of the spill. Worry that the maple sugar and apple cinnamon will attract cockroaches.

 

10. Urawaza has taught you that salt can help pick up spilled egg yolk, so figure it can’t hurt, and go ahead and pour half a bottle of sea salt on the spill, too.

 

11. Try to sweep the congealed clumps off your floor and try not to get agitated when your 99-cent store broom keeps coming undone.

 

12. Get agitated anyway. Put on your “Calm” playlist.

 

13. By now, your broom should be covered in oil, salt, oatmeal, tiny glass pieces, and litter. Throw it away. Switch to using paper towels to pick up the clumps.

 

14. Wet a few paper towels with water and dishwashing liquid and try to wipe up some of the less-clumpy, but still sticky areas. Become frustrated when the “earth friendly” dishwashing liquid does absolutely nothing.

 

15. Run out of paper towels.

 

16. Go to the shower and try to wash off the olive oil. Do not succeed. Take some comfort in the fact that you heard (probably on one of those hippie DIY websites your sister’s always telling you about) that olive oil is good for your skin.

 

17. Go to CVS to buy more Kitty Litter, actual oatmeal, not-so-earth-friendly dishwashing liquid, and an actual broom. Try to pretend you’re not listening to “Somebody’s Crying” by Chris Isaak on your iPod. Get a very limited amount of help from the cashier, who doesn’t understand that carrying a broom nearly your height and a seven-pound bag of Kitty Litter makes self-checkout a bit difficult.

 

18. Walk home, using the broom to pretend you’re Gandalf.

 

19. Slip on the kitchen floor a little. Sprinkle oatmeal all over the floor and counter, then wait a while and sweep it up with your new, functional broom.

 

20. Get a bowl. Pour some milk in your bowl, pour the cereal, get a spoon, and finally eat your goddamn Special K.

 

Alright! You will still be slipping all over your floor for a while, but wear socks or shoes with a lot of friction and be sure to let your roommate know why the floor is so shiny. Thanks for joining us here on Mara’s Kitchen! Be sure to join us next time, when we will discover whether or not putting sour milk back in the fridge makes it taste normal again!

My Enemy

Every day it lurks in the most mundane places. It haunts me, just waiting for me to let my guard down. Then it will strike, and it will rejoice in my reaction, hitting me where I’m weak and becoming larger and more powerful than ever before. It is my enemy, and its name is Nickel.

Some might call me a hypochondriac. I might respond, “Please don’t use an actual diagnosis as hyperbole.” Then, I might add, “But you’re probably right.” As a kid, I had nightmares about Scarlet Fever (damn you, Little House On The Prairie), and as a teenager I stayed awake at night worrying about Toxic Shock Syndrome. I’ve always been a worrier, and I tend to fixate on whatever germ or catastrophe might befall me. When I got to college, my ex-boyfriend — let’s call him “Exy” — showed me Annie Hall, and it was revelatory. “This is who I am!” I told him. “I was that kid who worried about the universe expanding!” A whole culture opened up to me: the world of the self-doubting, self-loathing, secularly Jewish, semi-intellectual, neurotic New Yorker. I didn’t especially want to be the type who thinks “Oh hypothetical god, it’s an aneurysm!” every time she gets a headache, but that’s who I was.

Fortunately, I was relatively healthy. I’m prone to sinus and ear infections and I’ve always had allergies, though I’ve never been sure what I’m allergic to. I know that pollen makes my eyes water, Irish Spring soap makes me break out in hives, and the cleaning products aisle at K-Mart once triggered a three-day-long sneezing fit, but I had never been officially diagnosed with any particular allergy. After all, Irish Spring soap and Fresh Scent Clorox Wipes aren’t on any allergy tests. Aside from those minor problems, for most of my life, I’ve been lucky to have very few medical problems.

Then my junior year of college happened. Suddenly, the burning in my chest when I drank orange juice was diagnosed as Acid Reflux, and a strange, horribly itchy rash kept appearing on my wrist. The sinus infections came regularly, and my immune system seemed compromised. I knew I was in trouble when my friend Ian showed up to our Realism and Naturalism class with a bad case of pinkeye. Poor Ian wasn’t having a very good semester: a few days earlier, he had told me, rather casually, that he had gotten a Staph infection from his gym rat boyfriend. I was shocked. Did he not understand how serious that was? Wasn’t that the flesh-eating bacteria? I told him “I hope you feel better” but moved my desk away from his. Two days after seeing Ian with pinkeye, I woke up with pinkeye, too. I must have gotten it from him. But he also had a Staph infection, and if I got one thing from him, couldn’t I have gotten something else? Was that was caused the rash on my wrist? I tasted something metallic in my mouth. My gums were bleeding. My anxiety and knowledge of The Oregon Trail took over, and I was beyond rationality. I was convinced that not only did I have Pinkeye and a Staph infection, but also scurvy.

Exy stopped by my apartment for lunch and I asked him immediately to examine my back and limbs for any signs of a staph infection. When he said he didn’t see anything that looked like Staph, I brought up the idea of scurvy. He smirked, but to his credit, he did not laugh.

“Mara, what did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“I had some yogurt and some pineapple and –”
“You had pineapple. Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency. You do not have scurvy.”

I went to the NYU Health Center and they told me that the pinkeye would pass in a few days, and just to put a cold compress in paper towels over my eye. I thought a tea bag would help ease some of the itch, but all it did was turn my dark circles darker. I stayed home from classes that day, but I did go out that evening to hear some guy my friends were all talking about named Barack Obama give a speech in Washington Square Park. He was a pretty good speaker, and I remember clapping enthusiastically at a comment about education reform. A bunch of people turned around to see who was so hot for such an unsexy issue, and saw a tiny raccoon-eyed girl holding a stack of shredded paper towels over her face, jumping up and down about the concept of repealing No Child Left Behind.

To quell my obsession with nineteenth century disease, I went to NYU’s allergist/immunologist. The nurse who took my vital signs told me she would have to test my lungs. “Breathe as hard as you can into the tube.” I did. She looked at the levels and said “No, try again. Breathe as hard as you can.” she said. I breathed out until my lungs burned, and the measurement stayed the same. The nurse raised an eyebrow. “You know you’re breathing at fifty percent lung capacity, right?”

I shook my head. “Is that bad?”

“I’m going to try you on an inhaler.” Did she mean I wasn’t supposed to feel like I was wearing an iron band around my lungs all the time? She gave me the inhaler and checked my levels again a few minutes later.

“Eighty percent,” She read. “Well, the bad news is you have asthma.” The good news was it responded well to treatment and that she would be giving me an inhaler of my very own and a prescription for Singulair. She walked off to fetch it and I marveled at her nonchalance. I had gone in for a simple test and was told, even prior to the test, that I had a chronic illness. This didn’t bode well.

The immunologist could have been a minor character in a Woody Allen film: a tall woman with a very Jewish surname and a thick New York dialect, who called me “Mare – uh.” But she was friendly and understanding, pricking my arm with the utmost care. There were no positive results; only the control caused a rash.

“But I’m allergic to something,” I told her. “I’m having a reaction.”
“I know, but it’s none of the most common allergens. You’re not allergic to cats, dogs, cockroaches, nuts, mold, dust mites… You’re going to need a Patch test.”

This, to a neurotic person, is much more frustrating than getting a diagnosis. When you know what the problem is, you can solve it. When you have to wait, your imagination goes wild. And patch tests are not very fun: a patch full of several contact allergens is applied to your back, and you are not allowed to remove it or get it wet for several days. As soon as I got it, my back started to itch. Was it the control that itched, or something else? Though I wasn’t sure which was worse: the constant itch, or not being able to take a shower. Who knew what I was being exposed to that I couldn’t wash off?!

I went back two days later, feeling filthy, and had the doctor gingerly remove the patch.

“Oh, wow,” she said. That couldn’t be good.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’re allergic — really allergic — to Nickel.” Nickel?
“The metal?” I asked. She confirmed that yes, it was possible to be allergic to a metal, and I was.
“It’s in a lot of jewelry and the backs of watches… That’s probably what caused your rash.”

She told me there wasn’t much to do besides avoid jewelry and use topical creams if I had a reaction, then sent me off. But this was not the end for me: I needed to know my enemy. So, like every imaginer of the worst case scenario, I turned to the internet.

What I learned is that Nickel is cheap, Nickel is pliable, and thus, Nickel is everywhere. It was actually named the Allergen of the Year for 2008. I have my own celebrity irritant! (Sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow.)

Nickel sulfate is also green in color and used to dye pool tables. When I read this, my first thought was “Now I’ll never be able to have sex on a pool table.” My second thought was “Wait, why do I care?” I had ever entertained that idea and I don’t think I know anyone who’s done it. 1 I don’t play pool or spend a lot of time with people who do, and frankly it sounded a bit uncomfortable and unsanitary. But it was still sad to think that there was something I couldn’t do. I thought this was America, where I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. 2 What if I had wanted to have sex on a pool table? What then?

Though my symptoms were all external, some sites suggested I consider a low-Nickel diet. This seemed like a good idea until I realized that all my favorite foods are full of Nickel. Canned foods have higher rates of Nickel, and since my cooking skills are at the same level of a Sim who has not yet acquired any Cooking points, I eat a lot of them. Pineapples and raspberries have it. Spinach, kale, broccoli, the few vegetables I actually like, have it. Chocolate and hazelnuts are both rich in it: the thought of giving up either was bad enough, but unbearable when I remembered that by their powers combined, they are Nutella. Like most white city-dwelling Americans, I will only give up Nutella in the face of a complete civilizational collapse. A Nickel-free diet is not going to happen.

The internet and experience have taught me that there’s almost no (inexpensive) jewelry that doesn’t contain a small amount of Nickel. Still, that was not much of a loss: my mother never cared for jewelry, and it appears the Immunity To Shiny Rocks gene is Dominant. However, some people love to give gifts (I know, I’m one of them) and one of the easiest gifts to give a woman is jewelry. There are thousands of tiny stores selling jewelry for under thirty dollars, and that jewelry is always loaded with Nickel. It will be brushed over with gold or silver, but that layer will erode away after time, causing me to itch my neck or wrist every few minutes. Family members and friends (who I thought knew me better) will hand me a box from H&M or some “cute little boutique [they] always walked by, but never went into before,” and inside the box will be some cute but insidious piece of Nickel-tainted jewelry. I will smile and thank them, knowing that I will never be able to wear it.

The biggest problems are belts and jeans. Not a lot of jeans fit me, 3 so I always wear belts, and every belt contains nickel. Before I discovered that there are nickel-free belts, I had a chronic itchy rash on my lower belly. The worst, though, are the back of the jeans buttons. Some fellow Nickel-fighters swear by nail polish. I believed in nail polish once, too, especially since I always had a bottle lying around. 4 But I learned the hard (and itchy) way that nail polish chips off. I switched to using band-aids, but while band-aids stick to skin, they don’t stick very well to metal and cloth. My solution, until jeans companies start making nickel-free buttons and studs, 5 is duct tape. It comes off after a few washes, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve realized that my dependency on duct tape is probably starting to make the people at CVS a little uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one who sees it, if you’re five feet tall and probably couldn’t be a serial killer even if you wanted to, having a roll of duct tape on your bedside table is creepy.

I know I’m fortunate: Nickel allergies usually aren’t as serious as food allergies or medication allergies, they’re mostly just uncomfortable. Additionally, New Yorkers love to discuss their maladies, so it’s become something of a talking point.

“Why don’t you ever wear jewelry?”

“I’m allergic to Nickel.”

“Whoa. Isn’t it in food? So would you, like, die, if you eat something with Nickel?”

“No, it’s just contact dermatitis.”

“So it’s just a problem if it comes into contact with your skin?”

“Yes. Well, actually, the problem is when it comes into contact with the sweat on your skin. The salts combine with the Nickel to create an irritant.”

“So how do you handle Nickels?”

“Nickels are mostly copper.” I have become a sentient Wikipedia article.

And despite the three new diagnoses, I did get through my junior year of college,. Though, a few months after the patch test, I was back at the NYU Health Center for one of my regularly scheduled sinus infections. I went on a Saturday, because I had classes during the week and am a terrible Jew. NYU allowed us to flash our IDs during the week but required us to sign in on Saturdays. 6 I signed my name, then asked the elderly gentleman working as a security guard what time it was. “Twelve thirty-nine,” he said, and scowled. I thanked him and started to walk away, but he wasn’t done talking.

“None of you kids know what time it is. You all have cell phones now, so nobody wears a watch. I tell you, Miss, I went to college, and it was a good college, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” I nodded, because that is indeed a good college. “I learned a lot there, but do you know the most important thing I learned came from my fifth grade teacher, Miss Jackson. She told me always to wear a watch, and I do.” He held out his arm to show me. “Why don’t you wear a watch?”

“Oh. Well, I’m actually allergic to the metal they use in watches. The metal backing of the watches gives me a rash.” He shook his head.

“Miss, I served in two wars, Vietnam and Korea. What’s a rash?”

That was four years ago, but I still think about that man. I have many questions (How could he serve in two wars? Is that even allowed? I suppose it is if it’s voluntary, but he didn’t seem too happy about serving, so could he have been forced?) That man obviously has been through a lot, and I feel grateful not to have his problems. I cannot imagine fighting in a war. In fact, there are people I don’t trust or don’t particularly enjoy spending time with, but I cannot think of anyone I have met that I hate. 7 And I’m lucky. Questions of morality are interesting in Ethics courses and Batman movies, but troubling in real life. If I have to have an enemy, I should be glad it’s a chemical compound, not a person.

Now excuse me while I rage against the jeans-button machine.

Notes:

  1. Though I did once have a roommate who, after getting on her father’s nerves, was told “Oh shut up, you were conceived on a pool table.”
  2. At least as long as I was white and middle class.
  3. The only jeans that fit my body are Calvin Klein Jeans. Incidentally, Calvin, if you’d like to send an otherwise frumpily-dressed former C-list child actor turned would-be writer some free jeans for the endorsement, I’m a 26/27 Petite.
  4. I used to paint my nails to dissuade myself from biting them. Then I chipped a tooth while biting my nails, which turned me off nail biting, and I started working with an organization that required me to get paint on my hands on a regular basis, which made nail polish impractical.
  5. I’ve considered starting a petition on Change.org to get some of the bigger jeans companies to use nickel-free buttons. I know I shouldn’t be using social justice websites for something so frivolous, but I know I’ve seen less important issues on there before.
  6. NYU is generally very good about security, though once I got into a building by flashing Exy’s ID. I put my thumb over his face and the security guard didn’t look too closely to confirm that I did not have a Jewfro.
  7. No, not even Ira Glass. Besides, Mr. Glass and I are cool now!

Wilson v. Glass, Round Two

Last night I went to a midnight screening of Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me. It was hilarious and poignant and I highly recommend it. However, Mike Birbiglia’s good friend and benefactor, Ira Glass, was there to shake hands and thank people for coming. As some of you already know, Mr. Glass and I aren’t on the best terms. When it came time for him to shake my hand, the following exchange happened:

IRA GLASS: Hi, I’m Ira.

ME: Yes, we’ve met before.

IRA GLASS: We have? When?

ME: Last year, at the opening of “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” You were pretty rude to me.

IRA GLASS: Oh, right. And then you wrote about it.

ME (Trying to hide my shock and hoping my heart does not beat its way out of my chest): Yeah, I did.

IRA GLASS: I’m sorry about that, I think I was in a hurry…

ME: Well, still, you should be nice to people who recognize you. I’m nice to the people who recognize me. I still love the show, though. (Exit into the theatre.)

The good news is, Ira Glass knows I exist and apologized to me. The bad news is, I am never, ever going to be on This American Life.

An Essay (About Me) By Jenny Donoghue

A few days ago I turned twenty-five. I’ve been busy with my job (more about that here and here), so I ended up throwing a small, last-minute get-together with a few friends at a bar in Brooklyn, bartended by a very generous friend. It was a lot of fun, though if I’d had more time, I definitely would have done what I did last year: for my twenty-fourth birthday, I rented a stage at a bar and threw a kind of open-mic party. Most of my friends are actors, comedians, or musicians, so I thought it was only fair to let them perform their work. They signed up in advance and I got to see some very funny and interesting work from Emma Koenig, Anna Drezen, Jenny Jaffe, and a bunch of other talented friends.

One of my favorite acts of the night was brought to us by Jenny Donoghue. Jenny is something of a legend among my friends: she seems to have been born in a fairytale land full of whimsy and pink-frosted gingerbread houses. (In reality, she was born in Wales.) My friend Andrew says the first time he met her, she was sleeping at the foot of his bed in a fairy costume. She seems to operate on a completely different time frame than anyone else: apparently she once showed up an hour late for a rehearsal, holding a bag of cookies and saying “Sorry I’m late – but I brought biscuits!” For those fluent in TVTropes.org, she’s a Cloudcuckoolander. But she’s also warm, charming, adorable, hilarious, and a good friend.

A regular feature of our friend Danny Jolles‘ show used to be “Jenny Explains”. She would perform an essay about some aspect of her new American/New York life, like baseball (titled “Is It Really A Sport If They Barely Move For An Hour?”) or Judaism (titled “I Know The Name of That Hat!”) Danny and one of his co-hosts, usually David Sidorov or Nick Packard, would sit behind her and raise their hands every time she said something correct. They were so popular that people requested she write essays about them. So, for my birthday last year, she wrote an essay about me, and she has allowed me to share it here.

Some details have been left out to protect privacy. Most of the essay is at least somewhat factually correct, though it’s nearly all hyperbole. I’ll leave you to figure out what’s right and what’s misconception. All in all, it was a great effort and my heart was warmed.

Childhood Hero, Personhood Friend: The Birth and Existence of Mara Wilson

By Jenny Donoghue

Mara Wilson is two things – a real human person and an idea. Like your mom and the theory of relativity, she combines the best of both.

Like many people, I first met Mara via my TV screen in Wales as a character in films such as Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. Perhaps because she could throw carrots with her mind and I was nine, I always used to think “that girl must be cool, I would like to hang out with her one day. I was right.

In this way, I’ve known Mara the longest of all my American friends. Even though she didn’t know it the time. I mean that in the least creepy and most beautiful universey way.

Today is Mara’s birthday and she would want me to tell you that she evolved from a monkey and was put in her mother’s womb by a penis, not God, because that stuff is very important to her.

Mara is a nice sweet heart wrapped in a shell of science facts and correct grammar. Do not let her fervent atheism make you think she’s one of those “I don’t care” people, for in fact she cares deeply.

Mara is never far from anyone’s mind on a daily basis because of her epic facebook statuses. Her signature move is to post a status then post the first comment herself as an extension of this status. This is a perfect example of the “care a lot” I was talking about. And also something I would probably do more if I had the courage. Mara is a bastion of social networking courage to inspire us all.

As a female human, I am glad that Mara is also a female, because we need more like her.

I imagine the inside of Mara’s head would be a very stimulating place full of explanations for everything and if head visiting technology were a thing and I were to visit I’d know many things.

By day, Mara does something to kids in the Bronx. It’s probably teaching them.

It’s unclear if Mara is an environmental activist or friend to the animals, but it definitely seems like something she’d do.

Mara has a brother or several and possibly also some sisters…

Mara has always been very elusive in the Facebook photo department. We can assume that she’s going for an “international woman of mystery” thing.

With the power of a life alchemist, Mara can make awesome things from sucky experiences. Like her moving show about when her mother died or her open fuck you letter to Ira Glass after he was a sucky dick to her. It’s actually quite badass that she’s in a feud with Ira Glass. Maybe one day they will have a fistfight — with words.

Mara represents hardcore for the modern NYC nerd girl. Also she has a rich creamy womanly voice that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1940s starlet and I don’t think I’ve ever told her that.

Mara is someone who would be compelling on a modern and not annoying version of Sex and the City and/or a legal drama where she plays a sassy no nonsense cop. It may come as a surprise to those of you used to seeing her in modest neutral tones, but Mara is great at playing sassy shiny women in heels… She also wears the hell out of a hat.

Of the two Maras I’ve known–the one in movies and the one in this room–I greatly prefer this one here, because she is not fictional and is my friend. Also she is an awesome person.

Hi, Dad.

Last week, I was talking with my sister (who is quickly becoming something of a favorite character both here and on my Twitter) via Skype, when she handed the computer off to our father. I had not talked to him in the previous few weeks, so we caught up. “I read the Yahoo article,” he said. “The comments all seemed positive. People thought you were smart for escaping something you didn’t really like.” “Oh, but they made me sound terrible!” I moaned. “Well,” He said, “it was just some comments out of context from your blog, right?”

He went on, very positive and reassuring, but throughout the rest of the conversation a voice inside my head was screaming, “He’s read your blog! Oh God, no! He’s read your blog!” I like to think my parents keep a healthy ignorance of my life. It’s not as though I get rather obscene here, but it’s still strange to know that my worlds are colliding. There is a part of me that always has and always will worry, “Oh god, what are they going to think?”

It took me back to the time I was eight years old, on a cruise to Alaska, and wondering what would happen if I mixed tea, coffee, iced tea, cream,  hot chocolate, and just about everything else they had at the cafeteria’s coffee bar together. It wasn’t bad, and I started passing the concoction around: being something of a precocious kid, I had a lot of teenage and grown-up friends, and they either honestly liked it or pretended to like it. Secretly, though, I worried: coffee was a grown-up drink and I was sure I would get in trouble for drinking it. When my friends asked if they could have another of my “Magic Mochas,” I shushed them, thinking my dad would hear. (He claimed to be “a little deaf” in one ear thanks to some time in the Navy, yet he always managed to overhear anything that could get me in trouble.) It was only two months after my mother had died, and she had always been the disciplinarian, so I had no idea what my father would think or how he might punish me.

Fortunately, the topic wasn’t even broached until we were back at home several weeks later. He had come to tuck me in, and there in the dark, with my father, my half-Catholic side kicked in and I felt compelled to confess.

“Sometimes I worry that you won’t… that if I do something wrong… I don’t know what you’ll think or do. I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble and you’ll be mad at me or go away or something. There are things I’m scared to tell you.”

“Like what?” He asked. I think he knew that it couldn’t be anything that serious: I wasn’t yet nine years old, and I was generally a well-behaved kid.

“Like… like on the cruise, I made this drink that had coffee in it…” I went on. He listened to me, patiently, then assured me that he had known all along that there was coffee in it, but that I wasn’t in trouble. I felt so relieved, and so lucky. It was something small, but a parent’s exoneration, especially in circumstances like that, is something powerful.

The day after I graduated from college, fueled by minor disagreements, my approaching quarter-life crisis, and six hours in a car together, my father and I got into an argument. Actually, I started it: I’ve inherited my mother’s tendency to speak her mind despite the consequences rather than my father’s tendency to keep the peace. (These days I’m working on finding a balance.) We argued and the next few days I felt the same familiar fear, that maybe one day something I did or said would drive him away. But when it was time to go back to New York, he stood with me on the train platform, gave me a bear hug, and said “I love you just the way you are.”

My father raised five children on his own while managing my film career and working full time at a job that required him to arrive at four in the morning every day. He may seem a bit tough, but that’s because he’s had to be. He is both a gentle man and a gentleman. After years of working as a maintenance and electronics engineer, his hands were rough from taking apart old machines and hauling equipment, but when he came home, if I asked, he would still hold my hand and tickle my palm. My sister might have put it best: “Underneath his plaid exterior is a heart of solid gold.”

And now I know he will read this.

Thus, in addition to the two pounds of decaffeinated Earl Grey tea I’m sending his way, I would like to offer this as a Father’s Day gift: to the man who gave me my light eyes and my high forehead, from whom I get my taste for tea and distaste for cooking, who I’ve caught dancing to REM with my little sister and laughing at Barry and Levon on The State, who took me camping and stargazing, who taught me why we see color in bubbles and the importance of not being a jerk, who signs his text messages “Love, Dad” and calls himself my “number one fan,” thank you. You’re a man of few words, yet you never seem to run out of ways to tell me I’m loved. I hope you know I love you, too.

The Crush Feedback Loop (And News!)

Obligatory pre-post preamble: While I have been trying to update more frequently, in the next few weeks (and months) I am changing jobs and will likely not have much time to blog. However, if you are in New York, you can see me tell stories live at The Jukebox Show at Union Hall on June 11th, and RISK! at The PIT on June 28th. Both events are very much for the over-18 crowd, and Union Hall might even be 21 or over (it is in a bar). I’ve seen both shows, and they are fantastic, but some of the material can be quite risqué. Mine won’t be (this time around), but I’d still exercise caution. Anyway, on to the post!

 

The Crush Feedback Loop:

An Observational Analysis Compiled from Sixteen Years of Unrequited and Semi-Requited Romance


  • STAGE ONE: I like you. You do not seem to like me.
  • STAGE TWO: I start to flirt with you and send little hints that I like you. You do not seem to be catching on.
  • STAGE THREE: I become hesitant in expressing my affections because you do not seem to like me, and possibly:
  1. Because I do not know you very well,
  2. Because I know you too well,
  3. Because you have recently had your heart broken,
  4. Or because of something else entirely.
  • STAGE FOUR: I stop flirting with you… just as you are catching on to the fact that I like you.
  • STAGE FIVE: I tell myself I do not like you anymore, and try to put some distance between us.
  • STAGE SIX: You start flirting back. I am either confused or unresponsive, due to your lack of response in Stages One through Four and my commitment to getting over you.
  • STAGE SEVEN: Your mutual flirting makes me reconsider. I think things over and come to the conclusion that I do, in fact, still like you.
  • STAGE EIGHT: While I have been thinking things over, you have decided that I must not like you, or else I would have said or done something by now.
  • STAGE NINE: You decide you do not like me anymore, or at least are not going to do anything about it.
  • STAGE TEN: Go back to STAGE ONE and repeat, ad nauseum, and ad sexual frustratum.

 

Ode To A Roommate

Last week, after nearly two years living together, my roommate Jessie moved out. There wasn’t a falling-out: she had just been wanting her own place closer to her jobs for a while now. As is my way, I want to commemorate this life change by telling a story.

In the oh-so-long-ago Summer of 2010, I was living in an apartment on St. Marks Place. It’s one of the busiest streets in the city and has a colorful past, but these days it’s cleaned up a bit. My fellow NYU alum Minq Vaadka (who should open for the Dresden Dolls, if they ever tour again) calls it the “graveyard of punk.” It’s still a strange place, and even when I lived there, I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the twenty-four hour grocery store, the “pay what you can” yoga studio, the amazing food at all hours of the day and night, the close proximity to the subway, the street musicians, the historicity of the neighborhood, the smell of damp wood and beer from every tavern (which I will forever associate with my early twenties), the friendly lady at the cleaners, and even the Hare Krishna parading down the street playing music. I did not love the exorbitant rent, the lack of space, the mice, the people eating pizza and leaving their trash on our stoop, the neighbors who let their dogs urinate in the foyer, people screaming “YOU LOOK UGLY!” and worse at me, the smell of car exhaust mixed with the scent of dollar pizza wafting through my window every morning, and the constant noise all day and night. It was getting tiresome.

When my lease was ending, I had come to realize that, despite my contempt for moving, I couldn’t return for another year on St. Marks. I knew it when I saw an unpunctuated sign outside a grocery store that said “SPECIAL STRAWBERRIES” and thought “How did someone manage to infuse strawberries with THC?”* (Living above a pipe shop had gotten to me.) I knew when I walked up the stairs and saw a clean, but clearly well-loved, sparkly purple sex toy shoved into the stairway window grate. But mostly, I knew it from the profound longing I felt when visiting a friend’s place in someplace like Park Slope or Astoria. They had quiet streets and twenty-four hour grocery stores. By the time my lease on St. Marks was up, I knew I didn’t need a hip neighborhood, I needed a home. In the meantime, though, I was going to need a temporary place to live.

Jessie and I had met in high school when she saw me wearing a Weezer shirt and asked if I’d heard the string tribute to Weezer. I had not, and after further conversation she burned me a copy as well as a copy of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, our shared guilty pleasure. In high school, Jessie was much cooler than I was: she was the kind of girl who didn’t have to try to be stylish, who would scoff “That’s not what it’s like!” while we watched the sex scenes from American Pie in the common room. I was awed. We drifted apart, mostly because we were a grade apart and busy with our different majors, but we always liked each other. When I posted a note on Facebook saying that I needed a temporary place to live, she responded right away. She said that she had just moved from San Francisco and broken up with her boyfriend, so she now needed someone else to split the rent. I met with her briefly to catch up, and decided we could make this work.

My first roommate at Idyllwild and I were incredibly close, which set a precedent. After that, when I wasn’t getting along with a roommate, I was heartbroken. Good roommate relations were something I had taken for granted. Eventually, I learned to separate “roommates” from “people I live with.” The “roommates” were friends so close they were practically siblings, and I’m very close with my siblings. (It’s a relationship I probably could have had with all the people I’ve lived with, but time, space, pet peeves, and respective boyfriends always seemed to get in the way.) Jessie was a roommate: our interests and taste were very different, but we understood each other. We fit into the same clothes and had similar neuroses. People often thought we were a couple. If I’d had the chance, I would have explained that she and I had both gone to an arts high school and to arts colleges in San Francisco and New York: if we had been gay, we would have “out” a long time ago.But I did understand the confusion: we were two girls sharing a one-bedroom railroad apartment in Chelsea, the most historically LGBT-friendly neighborhood in New York, after all. There was nothing but a shelving unit with no backing between our two beds. When my friend Max came to our apartment for the first time, he saw the very permeable barrier between our beds and asked, “Do you guys hold hands through that at night?”

Chelsea is a nice neighborhood, but ours was not a nice building. Back on St. Marks I’d had a friendly and forgiving Superintendent — once I called him because I was locked out and he took time away from a dinner party to help me. At the Chelsea apartment, our Super was curt and condescending, and not at all helpful. I tried to be respectful, but after many uncomfortable meetings I had him saved in my phone as “Not So Super.” When I told Jessie this, she laughed. She told me about her worst experiences with him and punctuated it with “…And that guy downstairs is his brother!”

She was referring to the man who ran the bodega (corner store) next door to our apartment building. He had what popular culture might call “The Crazy Eyes”: a look in the eye that triggers some prehistoric-borne impulse deep inside the observer to run far away, immediately. Jessie went to his bodega once — exactly once, because she was unsettled when she asked for “smokes” and he opened up a drawer full of marijuana. When she came upstairs I explained that “smoke, smoke” is what certain pot dealers (or undercover cops pretending to be dealers) in Washington Square Park say when they’re trying to find buyers. We laughed it off: neither of us smoked pot, but living in San Francisco and the East Village for four years had desensitized us. Like I said, I had lived above a pipe shop. Besides, even if he was selling anything harder, we had already noticed NYPD cars and vans routinely parking on our street.

We often saw him standing outside the bodega, arms folded, following every passerby with his eyes. But one day I came home from work and I noticed, to my relief, that he wasn’t standing outside. “Billie Jean”  was playing from inside the bodega, loudly, but I didn’t mind. It’s “Billie Jean”! It’s a classic! But when I went upstairs, I realized I could still hear it, and that it had just started over.

It played again.

And again.

And again.

I’m used to listening to the same song multiple times. A few months ago I listened to Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” for a week, and for the latter half of seventh grade I listened to nothing but Pinkerton. However, I always used headphones. I didn’t want to be like the one “person I lived with” who played the maudlin Gary Jules cover of “Mad World” all night. After the third “Billie Jean”, I put on my iPod and tried to block it out. But it was playing when I left the next morning, and when I got home that night, and the next morning. It did not stop playing for the next two weeks.

For the first few days, every time Jessie or I came home, we would greet each other by saying “can you believe he’s still playing it?” But the oddest part of oddness is how quickly one can become accustomed to it. A week into constant “Billie Jean” replays, we were still annoyed when we wanted to sleep and could feel the bass line through the floor, but we had become resigned to it. We knew the bodega owner was beyond reason, the Super wouldn’t be any help, and the police were already parking across the street every weekend.  When we did acknowledge it, we were mostly wondering why he was doing it.

“Maybe it’s a code for some drug he’s selling,” I said. At that point in my life I had not yet watched The Wire.

“I think he’s had a psychotic break,” said Jessie. “He’s probably hallucinating hidden meanings in that song.”

We soon found out the truth from our upstairs neighbor. “He’s sending a message. You know that crazy lady who lives on the first floor?” He said. He was talking about a woman I had once passed on the first floor: she seemed disheveled, disoriented, and possibly dangerous, with the same wild look in her eyes. “Well, I saw him leaving her apartment a few weeks ago. He said she was his wife, but she’s obviously not. But I guess they broke up and it was bad. And now she’s pregnant, so… ‘The kid is not my son.'”

Ten days in, one of the tenants who had been in that building since the Stonewall era announced he was going to make a noise complaint. I’m not sure if he made the complaint, but one day “Billie Jean” was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I kept waiting for the familiar drum and bass line to start up again, but it didn’t. It seemed to be too good to be true.

It was. A few nights later I was on my computer, looking up apartments in Park Slope and Astoria when I heard someone yelling something outside. Always the eavesdropper, I paused my music and took off my earbuds. Nothing happened initially, but a few minutes later I heard it again. It was a long, drawn-out scream, the kind that makes the screamer hoarse. For the first time in that apartment, I felt scared for my own safety. It happened again, and this time I heard what he was screaming: “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!”

After a few more repetitions, Jessie came through the front door. “It’s him,” she said. “Yeah, I figured.” I said. “But why?” “He’s yelling at the guys passing by. It’s only the guys, though. I guess we’re safe.” We lived near two nightclubs and, for reasons we did not and knew we would never understand, he had decided he hated the men who went to them. He took to doing this every night the clubs had a lot of business. Once I saw a passerby trying to calm him down. “What’s wrong with you, man? I’m just passing by. What’s with the hate?” In response, the man screamed “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!” in his face. The passerby threw up his hands and moved on. He had realized he was attempting to reason with the unreasonable. Jessie and I soon became used to it, too. “There he goes again,” I would say, and she would laugh. We would do impressions of him and put up statuses about him on Facebook. If I had been living with someone else, I probably would have just been frustrated. If I had been living by myself, I would have been terrified. But with Jessie, I knew I was safe and I knew it was funny.

And she knew it, too. One of my last clear memories of that apartment is a winter night I came home and found Jessie doubled over with laughter. “Did you see it?” she said. I had heard a noise (in addition to the now-familiar “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!”) outside, but I hadn’t seen anything. “Someone from one of the higher floors dumped a bucket of water on his head!” I looked out the window. He was screaming obscenities in two different languages, pacing back and forth, shaking the water off himself like a wet dog. He was completely humiliated: no longer threatening, just pathetic.

“Jessie,” I said, as soon as I’d finished laughing, “If we can share a single room in a place like this, I’m pretty sure we can live together anywhere. Want to move with me?” She said yes.

In the next few weeks, the NYPD finally found a reason to arrest the bodega owner, and Jessie and I looked at apartments. (Incidentally, I went past the bodega a few months ago and it’s a completely different store now.) We laughed when a realtor sent me an e-mail that started with the sentence “It was lovely meeting you and your girlfriend yesterday.” We moved, and she used her design skills to make it a home that fit us both. For two years, we went through everything together, weathering figurative storms–and sometimes literal ones, like when we decided to go dance in the rain during Hurricane Irene. I lost count of how many times I said “My sister–I mean, my roommate…” I will look back on these years as the end of our post-college years–adjusting to work, attempting to pursue our dreams, realizing that our dreams might not have been what we thought they were, and identifying what we wanted out of life–and the beginning of our slow, ongoing ascent into adulthood. We both changed, and for the better. She is now living on her own for the first time in her adult life, and I’m proud of her. I am sure we will stay close, and I can’t wait to see what else happens in the coming years.

But I do know one thing will never change: neither of us will voluntarily listen to “Billie Jean” ever again.

*(For the record, I have never smoked pot. My attitude is similar to my friends who aren’t on Facebook: first they were vehemently opposed, then they were curious but worried they’d like it too much or become paranoid, and eventually it had become such a novelty that they hadn’t used it that they kept it that way. Additionally, all throughout college I had a boyfriend who was allergic to the smoke. The Facebook analogy falls apart there, though it’s probably only a matter of time before the Daily Mail publishes something about a Facebook Allergy.)

A Plea to Potential Parents (Or, “His Name Wasn’t Really David”)

Living in New York has made me shy. It’s possible that I have just become more introverted in recent years, but I think the city is to blame. Being around millions of people who want nothing more than to be left alone so they can carry out their business means learning to hesitate before saying anything. But a few weeks ago I did something I don’t usually do: talked to someone I had never met.

What most drew me to him was that he was reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a beautifully poetic memoir about life, art, love, and friendship in 1960s-70s New York. And yes, he was attractive, but I didn’t expect anything to come of our talk. An awkward adolescence spent at an arts high school and college years studying theater in New York has led me to the belief that a man is “gay until proven straight, taken until proven single, and not interested until he has attempted to put his tongue in my mouth.” Still, I could take a step to overcome my recently-acquired social nervousness.

“Is that Just Kids?” I said. “I love that book.”

“Yeah?” He said, glancing up at me. “Do you think she name-drops a bit too much?”

“I think she’s just being casual about it, which can come off as boasting, but it’s not intentional.” Perhaps I was projecting in this case: I’ve tried to be casual about the weird things I’ve done and people I’ve met, but people have told me that just makes me seem more of a name-dropper. If there’s ever a good way to tell an interesting story about a famous person in a casual manner, I have not yet found it.

He had turned to face me now, big blue-green eyes staring right at me. Eye contact makes me nervous, so I did what I do when I’m nervous: keep talking. “What I like most about is not just that it creates such a true-to-life image of New York in those days, but it has an open, earnest quality. I think that’s lacking in a lot of literature and pop culture today, where cynicism seems to prevail.”

“That’s so true.” His eyes had lit up. He actually seemed interested. “Are you an artist?”

“No, I’m a writer,” I said, though I felt like I was lying, as I always do. (When I get my first check for writing, I will photocopy it and frame it.) But he seemed impressed: “That’s sick!” His slang made me wonder how long it would be before he discovered I was not cool. But I did not have to worry about that: he stood up and gave me a legitimate excuse for having to leave. He had implied that he worked nearby, as did I, so I figured I would see him again. And before he walked off, he turned back and said, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Mara.”

“Nice to meet you, Mara. I’m David.”  And that’s when I knew, even on the off chance he was straight and the even less likely chance he was interested in me, I could not date him.

Not only is “David” the name of a former boyfriend of mine, but it’s also the middle name of one the last guys I went out on a date with, and very close to both an extended family member and a former roommate’s name. And his name wasn’t even “David.” That’s just a substitute I’m using for anonymity. His name was actually much less common than that.

I’ve been through this before. All throughout college I dated the same guy, who happened to share a name with my brother, my step-uncle, my step-cousin (he’s a “junior”) and my brother-in-law. I asked him once why his parents had given him such a common name, and he said that his mother had read a study that said men with common first names tend to have high self-esteem. But surely she (a Jewish mother) would have wanted him to procreate at some point? Why had she no regard for the poor Nice Jewish Girls with memories of brothers and fathers and cousins and Hebrew school buddies with the same name?

I would therefore like to make a request to potential parents (and I suppose I am speaking to mostly white, middle-class Americans who have no cultural naming traditions): please be more creative with naming your sons.