"Thirty-seven-year-old female singer-songwriters are the friends I'm looking for. That's the target demographic I'm really trying to break into," I joked to my friend Megan as we stood in the GA crowd of Ingrid Michaelson's Tenth Annual Holiday Hop earlier this month.
Megan has heard me gush many times before about my dream of becoming best friends with Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, who fit this demographic perfectly. My persistent fangirl heart imagines us laughing over glasses of red wine somewhere in New York City, discussing the importance of piano-driven ballads, and speaking in the kind of sarcastic banter and elegant profanity I have come to expect from them during their shows.
My yearning for the friendship of two women I have never met is based on my admiration of them from afar—I am inspired by their writing, their talent, their senses of humor, their outward displays of kindness. And while I certainly would not turn down an invitation to a wine night with either singer-songwriter, I am also acutely aware that this idea of a perfect demographic of friends can be only a fantasy.
The fantasies we construct in our heads have the power to sugarcoat situations, conversations, and even other human beings so much that we inevitably are disappointed by reality. Because real life isn’t usually sweet. It’s messy and complicated and—I know this isn’t a word but I say it a lot and I think it should be because it describes so much so simply—it’s hurty. It is easy to idolize celebrities from afar. It is much harder to love your friends and family unconditionally on the good and the bad days.
I remember being in high school and believing I was destined to meet my “true” friends later in life. Surely, I thought, I’d go to college and meet people who were perfect and would never let me down. It sounds simple in retrospect, but I hadn’t yet learned the importance of accepting that every one of us is flawed. Your friends are going to hurt you more than once. They are going to say things in passing that sting you somewhere so deep down inside that you carry the memory of that moment with you for the rest of your life. And you are going to do the same to them.
The same week as Ingrid Michaelson’s concert, I met Lena Dunham after she gave a four-hour interview at my school. Despite her many insensitive public comments in the past, I respect Lena Dunham as a writer and director, and I think Girls is a great (albeit imperfect, just like every single piece of media ever made) show. Dunham’s mistakes are as infamous as her writing, and she said something absolutely shortsided and problematic in a recent episode of her podcast, Women of the Hour. Public criticism followed immediately, as it always does for women in media (and not) who identify as feminists, and I would never, ever want to defend the remark she made. But I will say that after listening to the podcast episode in its entirety (and not just the short clip that was blasted around Twitter and news outlets), I was disappointed that the entire episode was dismissed because of one bad sentence. It was an hour-long episode about women’s reproductive rights. It featured the stories of women who decided to have multiple children, no children, and abortions. Lena Dunham used her celebrity platform to create an entire podcast about women’s stories and to champion for the rights of women to have control over if and when they have children. In my humble, feminist opinion, this is a pretty incredible way for a celebrity to use her voice. And she shouldn’t have said what she did—again, I won’t argue with anyone on that point, and I know it is important to criticize for the sake of progress—but because of her single problematic comment, the importance of this podcast as a whole went unrecognized (by misogynists and feminists alike).
I also know that saying the completely wrong thing sometimes is a part of being human. I would be lying if I claimed to say the perfect thing all the time, especially when dicussing something as hurty as the stigma surrounding abortion. I remember making a selfish and inappropriate joke to a friend when she came out to me a few years ago, despite my being a proud ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and to this day I wish I could go back and say the right thing instead. But I apologized shortly after, we're still friends today, and I know I can't go back. I can only go forward a little more aware of the things I say and the words I write and the effect they might have. And at least Lena Dunham is taking some action for women’s rights. At least she’s sharing women’s stories. At least she’s trying to make a difference, just like the rest of us are. At least she’s saying something.
I use her podcast episode simply as an example of how quick we are to classify things as good or bad, problematic or perfect, even feminist or oppressive. The episode is something valuable with a mistake in it, and its one flaw has gone on to define the entire piece. And right now it is trendy and cool in popular culture to despise Lena Dunham.
I believe the way we talk about and treat celebrities reflects how we treat each other. Our rush to dismiss celebrities entirely as soon as we see their flaws—as soon as we see some side of them that doesn't exist in the wine night fantasy—can spill into the way we treat the people we really do know. And dismissing our friends and family members too quickly will leave us lonely in the long run. I have made this mistake before, and I'm hoping that writing this all down will remind me not to do so in the future.
In my own life, I know that sometimes I can be a great friend, daughter, and sister—I like to buy surprise presents for others, put people at ease with a joke, and send long text messages late at night to comfort anyone who’s hurting. I also know I can be totally unbearable to be around—I take things too personally, get frustrated when I’m not in control of my anxiety, and will argue any point to death. I appreciate the people who know both sides of me and stick around anyway, when I’m at my best and when I’m being totally shitty.
On this eve of 2017, I write this as a promise to be more empathetic. To give second and third chances. To let people let me down and then let them back in again. To avoid losing any more valuable people in my life because I expected too much from our relationships. I want to be more patient. I want to accept, enjoy, and appreciate what all of my friends bring to the table and not ask them to be anyone other than who they naturally are. And I want them to do the same for me. I also still really want to drink wine with Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles should the opportunity present itself.
I tweeted this picture to Sara and Ingrid to wish them a happy birthday. They quoted my tweet, acknowledged each other, but didn't respond to me. I am so close yet so far.
Tonight my sister Kellie and I went to the opening of the "Taylor Swift Experience" in the South Street Seaport. It was a museum-like collection of old dresses, guitars, photos, and handwritten lyrics courtesy of Swift herself. I'll be honest—I wasn't dying to go. I had seen photos of most of it online, I figured we'd have to wait forever to get in, and I've been consistently hungry and tired for the past three weeks regardless of how much I eat or sleep (First World problems, I know). I told Kel we were obligated to go. It was only $9 a ticket, it was a fifteen minute walk from my apartment, and I feel forever indebted to this pop star because she once invited me to her apartment and laughed at all my jokes.
So we went.
At the suggestion of my dramatic and needy stomach (just like my personality!), we decided to eat first. We each came from our jobs in our respective New York City boroughs and met at a nearby restaurant with plastic mermaids and swordfish and string lights decorating its mismatched walls.
And we talked. A lot.
We didn't know it when we arrived but we each had a heart full of recent events we needed to share with someone we knew would listen. Of course, there's been the E-word— the election—now said in my social circles the way families refer to simultaneously universal and personal events, like the divorce and the accident. This has left a relentless grey hanging over both of our heads. Our conversation felt like the first time since it all happened that we were privileged enough to be able to acknowledge it cordially but not dwell, after mourning publicly and personally for nearly two weeks. We felt ready to continue standing up for what we know is right whenever an opportunity presented itself. Kel has already been doing this for what seems like her entire life and I have envied her every step of the way. She has specifically been a champion for immigrant rights and education as well as the more general concept of "don't treat other human beings like shit"—a sentiment I'm very fond of. And I have been trying to emulate her for as long as I can remember.
We didn't know it until we walked in, but our lists of stories to share with each other were overflowing. We discussed Kel's students and her ability to handle them with a level of patience and compassion I do not even attempt to achieve (I'm the patron saint of sad teenagers, not 6-year-olds, remember?). We're both excited to meet our new dog-niece Zuzu over Thanksgiving break next week. We both have burgeoning and unrefined feminist ideas we're struggling to articulate to each other and to ourselves and I plan to spend the rest of my senior year trying to figure out if that is harder or easier to do after a few Cowgirl Seahorse margaritas. I have to write a thesis and pass some finals and come to terms with moving on from the first place that ever felt like home outside of our parents' house. We are perplexed by how we feel we've changed so radically yet stayed exactly who we've always been as we've grown up. We can't believe how long we've been listening to Taylor Swift—we note how my middle school fangirl heart has played an essential role in my becoming the person I am today. Neither of us have savings accounts. We're both trying to figure out how much longer we can continue living in New York. We are aware of and take time to examine all the ways in which we are privileged and not. We are both trying to figure out what makes us happy.
After dinner we walked over to the Seaport museum only to be told that it would be closing in fifteen minutes. We laughed at our impulsive decision to eat beforehand but did not regret it. Still feeling fearless to a degree that only Taylor Swift and tequila can spark, we entered a simulation of a recording studio and sang "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" with the same passion we had at our very first Taylor Swift concert in 2009, when we sang karaoke to "Picture to Burn" in the lobby of Madison Square Garden. We put our faces up against the glass cases in the museum the way our mother would warn us not to and poked fun at the costumes that looked significantly less glamorous in person than they had on TV. We danced on a light-up floor while "Shake It Off" played. We took pictures of a teenage boy who was there alone. We made small talk with him as he bought two t-shirts, a keychain, a mug, and a calendar plastered with Taylor's face. I walked out without any merchandise but still feeling full. We split an Uber home.
Kel and I do not know where we'll be in two years. We flirt with the idea of moving to Rhode Island together—we can join our sister and brother-in-law in Providence, Kel will teach in a charter school, I'll go to Brown, our parents can retire to a nearby rural town not too far from the three of us. At one point during dinner, we remind each other that we were raised by parents who know that happiness doesn't come from money or material possessions or crossing radical adventures off of a list. It comes from who you surround yourself with. Though they taught us this as kids, we admit that we each had to learn this lesson on our own—for both of us, it was in fits of homesickness and loneliness during our respective time abroad. We use our conversation as a testament to how right they were all along.
We are working to piece together all of the lessons we've learned so far. Right now, all we know for sure is that sharing margaritas with our sisters and confiding without hesitation, fearlessly, makes us content. Oh, and Taylor Swift. She helps too.
Hi, Kel. I'm sorry I didn't post a pic of the two of us. We look really awkward in the ones that the teenage boy took in front of the pink sign. You wouldn't want them on the Internet. And I would've planned better but I had no idea I'd end up writing about this. I should've known. ("Dear John" reference, anybody?!)