Sunday, February 21, 2010

Never Cease from Exploration

As I am sure some wise person said sometime, the only thing that is almost as common as an abandoned blog is a resurrected one. I’ve just remembered how much I enjoy writing about things not related to non-representative government and Marxist economic theory, as I do here, and I’m pretty sure you like reading about lighter (or maybe just different) things too. So I guess I’m back, as it were, with a new picture in the header and a new goal to make you think and make you smile, in either order. - AES

Despite the many road novels and country songs warbling its merits, young people hate the journey. The smart, ambitious, handsome ones want the destination. Whether it is getting in to the best college, or getting into the best graduate school, or landing the best job, their main goal is results. The whole alphabet is Type-A people, and they are very goal-oriented, probably because that’s what Very Successful People are, according to the books.

The primary motivation for going to college is, especially at a B-list state school like this one, monetary gain. We go to college to make more money. It is not, at least here, to learn how to live, or to learn how to be a citizen of the world, or to learn how to recognize and promote goodness and beauty. Even the foolish liberal arts majors will more than likely end up being dental hygienists who can list “explication of post-modernist poetry” as one of their skills. The object of a class here is the grade. The object of the experience here is the diploma. The object of a diploma is a job.

My classmates and I do try, I think, to learn for the sake of learning, but we’re liberal arts majors. We read Pound and Proust because we love literature (and we like to name-drop), but we are constantly thinking about graduate schools/teaching degrees/that novel that has yet to arrive. Society is organized to reward the practical man who can set aside his passions to knock out a degree in engineering, or something, and pity the poor English major who can’t or won’t.
I realize that this view is limited by my youth, that one’s job is not one’s whole life, and that money is fulfillment enough for some people. But I live inside a system of endemic waste and misguidance every day, wasting taxpayers’ and certainly my parents’ money so I can “learn” of such idiotic things as phonetic keys, or basic grammar structure, or plays that I read and understood passably well in the eighth grade (really – The Importance of Being Earnest). It is a constant struggle to remember that every day is my life, not the day I will be graduated and, hopefully, making a living doing, well, this. Today is my life. Today, a day spent learning more reading Wikipedia during one “general education” class session than in the entirety of the class itself.

Though I have little understanding of economics or life or anything, I know this much: learning is good. Money is cold. Passion is rare. Whether in the classroom or outside of it, young people should learn that life is now, not the indeterminate time sometime in the future when you land the privilege of wearing a suit and tie for the next forty years. I’m probably stupid and I’m certainly arrogant to chose to take four years studying, essentially, how to read, but my story is at least as sad as the person who gets a degree in finance because she thinks it will guarantee her a job.

So here a few more clichés I’ve heard from my more learned (or at least experienced) sensei: enjoy the journey. Your life is not more in the future than it is today.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Separate Not Equal: Right to the Altar Needs Altering

Here is my first attempt at an Opinions Page-style editorial piece. Would love to know what you think! Thanks for reading.

In the controversy swirling around the moral and legal implications of same-sex marriage, activists and government officials across the political spectrum are raising their voices for and against a gay couple’s right to marry. The issue at hand that has both sides up in arms is the right to call the legal agreement into which two people enter when they decide to spend their lives together “marriage.” Those opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the practical adoption, employment, or insurance benefits that are already afforded to gay couples through civil unions: it is the term “marriage,” not the institution, that those opposed are struggling to restrict.

Though he campaigned on a platform to support gay rights, even President Obama is falling victim to this increasingly heated argument. President Obama has said , “gays should not face discrimination but should not marry.” By this double standard, President Obama is letting himself become the classic hypocritical political puppet: denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is discrimination. Mr. President instead supports civil unions, which are separate from marriages but provide gay couples “equal legal rights and privileges as married couples.” This double standard calls to mind the incendiary buzz-phrase of past fights for civil rights: separate but equal. Which begs the question: if marriage and civil unions are truly equal, why must they be separate at all?

When the racist ruling of 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson was overruled sixty years later with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, “separate institutions are inherently unequal.” The privileges provided to black students under Plessy were always separate and never equal to the opportunities and facilities afforded to white students. The very same “separate but equal” paradigm between gay and straight couples will arise if marriage is to remain separate and therefore unequal.

One can also see a parallel between the civil rights battle of a scant fifty years ago for equal rights for Black Americans and this one for the equal rights of gay Americans in anti-miscegenation laws. In the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, the court wrote in its decision, “Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival […] To deny this fundamental freedom […] is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.” While one can be grateful that the fundamental freedom for straight couples to marry whomever they like was finally upheld, one might wonder why some groups of society are still limited by the government in whether they will be honored at the altar. The ruling went on to say, “The freedom of choice to marry [may] not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

It is about time a member of the Supreme Court called the restriction of marriage from gay and lesbian couples an incendiary word even close to “invidious,” an adjective that can mean offensively or unfairly discriminating or injurious but also obsolete. There should never be a constitutional amendment to prevent a freedom to any group of people in this “land of the free;” discrimination of any kind is obviously unconstitutional. Until “homophobe” conjures up the same apologetic fervor as “racist,” logical and empathetic Americans must realize that separate can never be equal, and that the fight for civil rights for all Americans is never really over.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Logging On to the Future

I’m sure it will surprise you all to learn that I spend a lot of my time online. I like a good wi-fi connection the way some people like a pair of shoes – sturdy, dependable, and on all the time. I know it’s not exactly particularly cool, or intellectual, or stylish, but I have a hard time feeling bad about my technophilia. Not only are the Interwebs fun, informative, and nearly free, in all aspects of life: it’s the way of the future.

For example: email is free, whereas the quant-but-antiquated Postal Service is nearly fifty cents for a single page. That doesn’t even cover the monetary cost of all the man-hours involved, or the carbon cost of all the jet fuel, paper, and mail cars that get letters maybe across the world or maybe just down the block – in a matter of days, not seconds. I’m all for a little nostalgia, sending letters and such, but you can’t exactly rationalize riding a horse to work when the rest of the world has moved on past cars to light-rail. Nothing displays just how behind the times the US government is than the hard-copy tax booklets it mails out, or the paperwork it requires be mailed in if a taxpayer won’t pay to use a private company to submit tax information online. Michelle Obama’s White House website is pretty, glossy, and informative, but some of the money from that advertising-driven web design should have gone into updating the less glamorous facets of the government her husband was elected to run. Compare that spiffy layout to the dour, user-unfriendly set-up over at the IRS. Even though some forms are available online, you still have to print them out on paper, fill them out by hand, and snail-mail them for processing. Which is more important: Americans knowing what's growing in the White House veggie garden, or Americans knowing how to correctly navigate the labrynthine tax system? Email and online submissions isn’t disrespectful and informal; email is a greener, faster, cheaper, safer,easier, better way (for the sender, the recipient, and the planet) to communicate and get things done.

I do most of my socializing online. I am usually far away from the people I care about, and web-based services like Facebook and Skype help me keep in touch across the miles. Facebook is a free social-networking site that allows users to share info, pictures, leave messages for friends, and instant-message friends who are online. It eliminates the need for invitations to gatherings with its ‘events’ function, and it tells you when all of your friends’ birthdays are without you even having to enter the dates. Users often complain about the addictive qualities of the site, but there are worse addictions: time spent on Facebook is essentially time spent learning about your friends. It’s true that what you’re learning is what they want you to learn, but it’s better to site alone in your house connected to something and someone than connected to nothing but your own selfish thoughts. Skype is a free international online calling and video-calling service. Not only can you talk to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere around the world for free (usually), you can actually see his or her face. It’s free, it’s easy to use, you don’t have to search for bars around your house, and you can show your friend in Russia what your new cat looks like. These are just two services the Internet provides; others like YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and Blogger offer many opportunities for learning and connection that no one had even dreamed of until less than my young lifetime ago. The importance of the 140-character updates on the Iran election that came to the attention of the world via Twitter display just how powerful these sites – often criticized as dumb fads as quick and trendy as The Backstreet Boys – have real power and world importance.

Dissenters often criticize that the Internet allows a person to change, hide, or alter who they “really are” in real life (called “IRL” by we techno-hermit types). I counter that no one know who anyone “really is” in face-to-face communication, either. The Internet affords you the opportunity to be your best self: you have time to think about your reaction before saying it, in email or even message conversations. There’s no blubbering, no stuttering, fewer awkward silences and social faux pas. I, for example, am infinitely more eloquent in a textual conversation than I could ever be in a verbal one. It is in a different format, these conversations, but it is still my words. The honest person is still honest in cyberspace. The people who want to hide or alter or change how they appear do so, IRL or otherwise. (Anyway, Photoshop for an online appearance is much better for self and society than actual plastic surgery.)

I am by no means suggesting the Internet replace real-life encounters. It will be a while before a computer can measure up to a warm hug from a real-live, present friend. But I’m getting increasingly more surprised and incredulous at the too-lazy-to-be-Luddites who don’t like computers, don’t support Internet communication, who think the Internet is for bespectacled nerds with no friends. The people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to not check email, which is instantaneous, for weeks, yet still walk down the block to check their mailbox for landfill-mucking pamphlets that take an eternity to arrive, and can’t just be deleted but have to be shredded, recycled, or disposed of elsewhere to take up time, space, and money are living far, far in a past that shouldn’t be revived. In a world where even still color photographs, house-bound cordless telephones, and desktop computers seem increasingly obsolete, the future – of entertainment, of advertising, of socialization, of education – lies on the tangled, turgid, ever-changing Web of, yes, some lies, but also of information and friendship and many, many things that are nothing other than good and true and real.

This blog was written at the request of the digitally-inclined Cameron. Thanks for the suggestion, and thanks to all for reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happiness Smells Like Coffee and Paper

I think nirvana must look like an Internet café. Mine does, anyway. It doesn’t look like the earth rising up toward me as I fall from an airplane. It does not look like a field of knee-high golden sunflowers to skip through while holding hands with my One True Love. It does not look like the ticker-tape parade someone would certainly throw for me when my as-yet-unwritten Great American, nay, Great Universe Novel sets records even the lovechild of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code couldn’t break, even with Oprah’s help. Instead of those big dramatic things, my happy place has Morning Glory chai, dark chocolate-hazelnut cookies, local art on the walls, and free Internet. Friends are always telling me to live life more dramatically – “put yourself out there,” they say. “Get your nose out of that book.” “How are you ever going to be truly happy if you spend all your time on that stupid computer?” “You need to go skydiving, or something. Do something every day that scares you! You have to do something BIG if you want to be happy in a big way! Hits on your blog can’t make you Truly Happy!”

It’s a valid point, friends. I do have strong hermetic tendencies. I can see why a person would want to live life in a dramatic way. I like the fantasy of big things that make you happy as much as the next idealistic young college student. But what would a big thing be? You can’t go skydiving every day of your life. You can’t be perfectly, incandescently happy every single day of your life. Even if you did have a very dramatic life in which you woke up, flew to Ibiza, met your one true love, stumbled into a million dollars, and won an Oscar, all before falling asleep on the billion-count sheets in your free penthouse at the Four Seasons, that would be ONE DAY in your whole entire long life. It’s foolish to even want that kind of life: it’s either impossible to ever have, or at the very least, impossible to maintain. I get the feeling that everyone over the age of about 23 already knows this, and knows enough about life to not even really be sad about it. As my mother used to say when I would tell her she is silly to get so thrilled over something such as a comic strip or a cute little gecko on the garden wall, “It’s the little things, Anna.” I scoffed at this, naturally. The only people who need little things to be happy, thought I, in my preteen arrogance, are people who don’t have big things to make them happy. I was going to meet my One True Love and have my Dreams Come True and be Truly Happy and live Happily Ever After. I thought being easily amused was for those of weak constitution, though I now see that quite the opposite is true. I thought then that the people who wanted dramatically were the ones who loved, and lived, and felt dramatically, and that such big and exciting sweeping desires were the only way one ought to live. (Here is where I take a moment to reflect upon my own stupidity, perhaps the only truly dramatic thing about this story.)

When I was maybe eight or nine I had a bit of a breakdown about this while setting the table. I remember my dad asking me what was wrong, and I said, “Are you happy, Daddy?” I remember thinking that my parents lives must be so boring, they must feel so stifled, they must be so disappointed in how their lives have turned out. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Yeah, I’m happy enough.” That response left me blubbering tearfully into the silverware drawer. Happy enough? I remember thinking, that’s so awful! It took me this long to realize the wisdom of his response. (Congrats, Dad, you’ve learned a lot in ten years.)

There is no such thing as being Perfectly Happy. You would have to be blind, dumb, selfish, and calamitously arrogant to ever think it is a remote possibility, or even a possibility you would want. There are still things in life that are sad, or a day won’t go your way, and you can still be happy – happy enough. As far as I can tell, in my recently recalibrated view of the situation, my parents did marry each other’s One True Love (or as close to as possible), and most all of their lasting Dreams did come true. Yes, they have bad days, they have disappointments, and they have frustrations. But they still act happy. They are still absolutely tickled by small, silly things like a good meal, or a good joke, or something funny the dogs did. They genuinely (as far as I can tell) enjoy each others’ company. As boring and dismal as their life seemed to my eight-year-old self, they are happy. Happy enough to not be a burden but a delight to the people around them. Happy enough to still acknowledge that sometimes life is unjust, unfair, and irrational, for other people as well as oneself. * My mother has been telling me this for, gee, let’s see, my entire life, and it took me all eighteen years and seven months to start to understand what she means: attitude is everything. If you act happy, if you let little things like a card from a friend or a phone call from your misguided daughter make you happy, you are for more likely to be happy.

Happiness isn’t a destination, or a location, or a promotion, or a goal. Happiness is a decision. Happiness is a state of mind. So while I have not done anything classically “adventurous” in the last three days, I have been to five coffee shops (gluttony, I know). That’s as dramatic as I need. Now that I understand this about happiness, I am the happiest – in any kind of stable, lasting, or maintainable way – that I can ever remember being. I’m not wanting too hard for anything, but that’s good. Now that I stop to think on it, I am almost afraid of the kind of Klimtian happiness I once vowed to pursue; it can only be achieved through heavy drug use or heavy delusion. Earl Grey and a book from the library make me happy, not almost dying because it will make a good story. Happiness doesn’t shoot through your veins. Happiness grows from a fertile, ready home.

There’s this Buddhist principle that says that all the suffering in the world is created by desire and that nothing you desire will make you as happy as you think it will. Not until you learn to let go of all this desire, some say, will you ever be able to reach nirvana, the purest happiness. The way I understand it, you ought to just not want too hard for anything, and just enjoy things – “the little things” – as they come. By this standard, all the dramatic wanting and the broad sweeping acts and the desire to be literally or metaphorically skydiving will not only not make you happy, but it actually prevents you from being happy. My parents would never say they are Buddhist, and I doubt they even know this wise Eastern mantra exists. And, yet, they have been living this example for my entire life (and much, much longer, I am sure). So thanks, Mom and Dad, for always telling me I could achieve everything I ever wanted. Thank you even more waiting around for me to realize that I all I ever want is to be happy – that is, to be happy enough.

If you read this parental apologia/metaphysical funhouse in the first several hours after I posted it, the prose contained several mis-typings and other mis-takes. For this travesty of my own doing, I apologize to the fullest extent that I am grammatically capable. As we see, that is not a very great extent. Cheers and thank you for reading.

*While I had hopes to also address this epic dilemma in this post, with the word count nearing a thousand, I had more of an epic-length saga on my hands. So I shelved it, to spare you, dearest readers. So: next time. Or the time after that.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Three Cups of Coffee: Causes, Calcutta, and The World's Best Cappuccino

On my Thursday afternoon jaunt into downtown Seattle, I continued my lifelong mission of finding the best mocha latte in the world with a trip to Fran’s Chocolates. It was a truly indulgent experience, from the choice of the percentage of dark chocolates I wanted in my espresso to the salted golden caramel that arrived with my steaming cup. As I settled in to sip my frothy perfection in this confections shop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort, I spent a moment appreciating how incalculably lucky I am before pulling about a book to enjoy with my classed-up cup-o-joe.

As I sat paging and sipping in the sanctuary of sugar and privilege, I began to taste the bitter more than the sweet of the beverage for which I have been scouring the world. As my cup emptied and the page numbers climbed higher, the air-conditioned cool turned to a chill. The paperback book accompanying my cocoa cappuccino? Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. The irony did not escape me. It hardly ever does.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Mortenson’s mission to found and maintain schools for children in the impoverished communities of northern Pakistan and Afganistan. After a harrowing failed climb of K2 in 1993, Mortenson lost his way and wandered into the village of Korphe, tired and emaciated. He was so moved by the hospitality of the people and the sight of Korphe’s children studying alone with no walls, he promised to come back and build them a school. Since then, the schools Mortenson founded with his Central Asia Institute have educated over 28,000 who would otherwise have no education or opportunities at all. Mortenson himself lived on very little while founding the organization, instead saving the money for the people of a country with which the US is at war. As quoted in the New York Times Bestseller, Mortenson says, “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs." When I closed the back cover of the book (which I highly recommend), I was very nearly crying into the remains of my mocha (and my dignity). What a message. What a mission. What a life.

What was I doing? I asked myself, there with my shiny empty mug and my chocolate and my soft, worn paperback? I had to go there! I had to stop this mocha nonsense, and get on a plane to Pakistan! Now! I had to ride my sugar rush out into the world and do something big! Those children needed me! But then I remembered something I’d read Mother Therese had said, that Saint of the Gutters who also makes an appearance in the tome: find your own Calcutta. When volunteers streamed into her Calcutta shelters to offer help to the people no one would touch before she made them famous, the woman turned them away. She spoke often of the fact that there are many people in the world who need help, not just the ones her work had brought into the spotlight. Was the Central Asia Institute really my Calcutta? Mortenson had stumbled into this town, and it became his life. What stumbling had I done? I should not act on the basis of a story I like to direct my life – especially as I was obviously not the only person touched by the #1 Bestseller. This was Mortenson’s Calcutta, not mine. I needed to take a breath. I needed to take the last sip of my mocha. I need to find the cause of my heart, not someone else’s.

I would have loved to leave that chocolate shop and stumble into a homeless shelter, or something. I would have loved to find my Calcutta in a truly novel-worthy metaphor scenario. But all that happened, as I walked out of the air-conditioned hush into the abnormally bright, obligatorily crowded downtown, was that a kid working for the ACLU asked me for money. In between mumbling, shifting his weight, and shaking my hand like his training had taught him, he told me that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could make sure that, “the rights of society's most vulnerable members are not denied.” I was tempted; what is the universe trying to tell me? I thought. But I kept walking: I don’t even agree with much of the ACLU. If I know one thing about stumbling into one’s Calcutta, it is that one will not do so in the passive voice.

In the Pakistan Mortenson so loves, they have a proverb that says, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” I have one, too: “Enjoy your mocha, but stumble onward.” There is no way to rationalize away the gross discrepancy of luck and of wealth between me, a female university student in the US, and the girls in rural Asia that no one would help until Mortenson wandered in. I must see the queasy juxtaposition of my drink of choice and my book of choice. As much as I would like to, I can’t prematurely become a barnacle on someone else’s cause. I must live in the active voice, not the passive; I must be the cause, not the barnacle. Not everyone feels compelled to devote their lives to such a cause, but Greg Mortenson’s was a lucky wrong turn, for both him and for the world. If I never fulfill my lifelong mission to find the world’s best creamy-earthy-frothy magic liquid that fills my heart to brim, I hope that I can at least find a cause that fills my heart like Mortenson’s and Mother Therese’s did theirs.

Someday, maybe, I won’t even need the mocha.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Flight Attendance: Leaving, Living, and a Little Girl

Hello, readers! Apologies for the extended delay, I hope to be posting at least once a week for the summer months. I thank you, as always, for reading, and I ask for your feedback: Are the posts too long? Too short? Too personal? Too general? Too serious? Too conversational? Do you prefer the social commentary, or the introspection? Do you enjoy reading, or do it only because I so forcefully suggest you do so? (I love you guys!) Anything you have to say, I would be thrilled to listen. Please comment! I promise to incorporate and improve by your suggestions. -- Anna

Whenever I see an airplane interlacing its contrails high across the “wild blue yonder,” as my mom calls it, I feel a little tingle of excitement and jealousy. “Wow!” I always think. “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” When I was a little girl I spent hours trying to figure out some way I could know where the tiny white jets were heading, why the people on the plane were going there, whether they were going away or going home. Part of my mind was always on that plane, like it was trying to hitch a ride to whatever exciting destination to which they were flying. I also spent hours trying to figure out a method by which to measure the height of the towering white clouds I almost never saw in Arizona, and I had no progress on that topic, either, except that now I spend hours figuring out what the psychological meaning or impact was of my young self so frequently craning my neck to ponder the cerulean-and-cirrus cosmos.

My recent flight from Arizona to western Washington State, where I am spending the summer, really excited that little girl I guess I still am. In the airport I studied to arrivals and departures boards, thinking, “Wow! There are people going to all those cities!” and, “There are people out there existing, right now, in all those places! Just like I am existing here! Awesome!” I almost missed my boarding group because I was so enthralled by all the exotic possibilities. Even when I was waiting on the tarmac to deplane in Seattle, I watched a plane take off and thought reflexively, “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” It took me a second to realize that I was already on a plane, I was one of those lucky people. Even when I am in my desired destination, my subconscious is jealous of people jetting off elsewhere.

Why is it that I am so drawn to leaving? (Or is it going, or coming, or something else?) I have been talking to my friend Danny about this compulsion to “escape”: when you are going somewhere, you should be sure that you are going for the action of going to your destination and not going for the action of leaving the place which you were previously. You should beware of what it reveals about the place you are most of the time (the place you probably call your home), Danny and I have determined, if you are more eager to leave that place than you are to arrive another place. In this psychology of geography, you’re pretty much okay if you at least want go “home” after a little while of being away. But for me, at least, I always seem to caught up in the act of going, of wishing I was in a plane zipping across the globe. In an old episode of Bones I was watching last night, Agent Booth was talking to Brennan about his upcoming trip to Jamaica, and he summarized the leaving/going paradigm like this: “I always think about not coming back.” I think a lot of people do this, but I am more filled with the wing-footed restlessness of always wanting to be a departure, never a return.

I know all this can be explained by my age, my circumstances, and my head-(literally)-in-the-clouds inclinations. It could be both dangerous and foolish of me to live a life according to these airy desires, and though I don’t think I could quite do life as a homeless vagabond, the idea can be sort of seductive. Like the first three-quarters of Into the Wild, I love idea of leaving the lifeless life that I fear will await me in middle-aged wasteland for an alternate path of taking chances, casting off the constraints of society, and leaving it all behind. This, of course, would be going to leave. While McCandless did some amazing things – kayaking down the Colorado all the way to the Gulf of California, for example – I think he was mostly leaving to leave, not leaving to go. If I can learn something from the story of this man who died too young because of his desire to be gone, it is that the ties that bind, the ones that seem to constrain us, are the ones that tie us down, from floating off into the vast lonely blue unknown.

In my deeply youthful and selfish desire to live a life that is adventurous and exciting, I always wish I were going somewhere new. The sound, like one escaped from the inside of a seashell, of a jet across the sky makes me become that girl with her eyes on her only limit. But as much as my subconscious is excited about my life and my body always being up in the air, I am trying always to learn and enjoy the good in arrival, in coming home, in existing fully where I already am.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Venezia, Con Amore

Just to satisfy my guilt for such a delay and what I know is your clamoring for a new posting, dear readers, here's a piece a wrote a while ago about travel and disillusionment. It's a little different from my usual stuff but it was great fun to write, so I hope you enjoy it. Buon appetito!

Stepping off the water taxi into Piazza San Marco was like stepping into a daydream. I’d seen a thousand pictures of couples kissing in the murky sunset off the lagoon. I’d read a hundred books set in the romantic decay of the timeless floating city. I’d imagined a million times of the lavish jewel on the lip on the Adriatic and the exotic edge of the world to my suburban mind.

Sitting on the gray industrial carpet of the public library in my suburban home, Venice was better than fairy tales. A city with a proud and a sad history, where beauty and heritage were a way of life and not something one had to use the library catalogue to find. I was enchanted by exotic words like major domo and campo and gelato. I couldn’t imagine a better place than a sinking miracle where Shakespeare set his tragedies, Casanova roved the canals, and American expatriate modernists wrote their best work. I had always loved books, and Venice was like the best hardbound gilt-covered monstrosity to me, smelling of salt and fine perfume. Anywhere where elaborate masks were a fashion statement, where the whole city participated in a month-long masquerade, and where a narrow black boat was the transportation of choice was better than the best book, because I could actually visit.

The siren call of the lagoon seemed to answer something inside me. In a new American city, beauty and art seemed like an inconvenience, not a goal. I drowned myself in the stories of long lineages of Doges, that exotic governmental beast so much more refined than a mere king. I read of the fine families, with their own majestic palaces on the Grand Canal, filled with old art and good breeding. I immersed myself in the architecture, longing for the thousand types of exotic marble conquered and pillaged from far off lands to adorn the façade of Basilica San Marco. I grew up with drop ceilings and asphalt, but the Venetians of my imagination would scoff at such ugly practicality. They were a people who lived on thousand-year-old wood pylons, who created the world’s most beautiful glass out of a fiery pit, who built the world’s most famous and elegant bridge for their prisoners. Venetians were a people with the Renaissance in their blood, to whom recent history had not been kind. All I had in my blood was annoying WASPishness. Where I grew up, the only gold decoration is in dashes down the middle of the street. Waters have been lapping at the palaces in my beloved city for a thousand years, before people even inhabited the area where I was born.

Venice seemed to whisper my every answer in a majestic and elegiac language I longed to understand. I imagined the tiny fresh squid and squash blossoms in the open-air markets, or the swish of a long black cape around the corner, or the fierce gaze of a Venetian woman out of a purple velvet mask. I scoffed at the Las Vegas version, with their chlorinated canals and slot machines, of all obscenities. In the real city they gambled with their medieval conquests, their Papal power struggles, their eastern influences, with the foundations of their houses, but never something so unrefined as actual money. I was drunk on the exotic spice of a real city that I had invented.

Finally visiting the corroded emerald on the Adriatic was going to be like going home. I wanted it to be the answer to every question in my heart, a contrast to every annoying and abrasive and juvenile thing about the United States. I wanted thousand-year-old mosaics and my own personal library just about the piano nobile floor in my own majestic palace, named after my well-respected family, which had included maybe two doges and even a pope in the tenth century. I wanted to put on a Carnival mask and lose my boring, unrefined self in the rise and fall of the tides.

Stepping into the Piazza San Marco was not the emotional catharsis I wanted (and half-expected) it to be. In my desire to create a place I wanted, I couldn’t image Venice as a real city in the present day. The romantic place of my creation was a dark cloudy mystery, but it never actually rained there. Even the ride across the lagoon soaked me to my skin. I invented a place where people actually lived in the Doge’s Palace, actually went to church in Basilica San Marco, really lived like the Renaissance conquerors I’d read so much about. I didn’t imagine them as places to wait in line to see, places to tour in ten minutes following a tour guide with a German accent. I imagined finding myself while getting lost in the winding streets of ancient homes where Ezra Pound and Robert Browning had written their love poetry, finding love in the streets that wound in on themselves until opening into the campo of my imagination. I did get lost – but whether it was the negotiable validity of trying to get lost or the map of Venice that existed only in my head or maybe in the early Renaissance, I didn’t find what I thought I was looking for. I didn’t find myself, dancing by the light of tapered candles in a room full of masks and fine tapestries. I didn’t find love, not even the love of the crumbling city of so many stories. I did find Venetians, in their leather and glass shops. But they didn’t whisper me the answers in what I felt to be my native tongue, even if I couldn’t speak more than a few words. They asked, in English, “Can I help you?” All I could say was “No, grazi,” before turning on my sneakered heel back out into the rain. The rain was not more beautiful and exotic there, or perfumed with the smells and wisdom of the ancient merchant city. It was exactly what I’d never been able to imagine it to be – wet. Cold. Real.

I had hoped and willed my imaginings to be real in Venice, the most fantastical place I could have found to incubate my dreamings. It was both beautiful and sad, but it was also crowded and smelling and in precipitous decay. I had foolishly imagined that history would be real there, and it wasn’t until I was already side-stepping the pigeons outside the façade of Basilica San Marco did I realize my fault. Many things are indeed a mystery in Venice, but time is not one of them. And as I let my dreams of a gilded identity I’d imagined for myself dissolve into the murky teal waters of the ancient lagoon, I did find something: perspective. The winged lions welcoming visitors and guarding from foes at the grand entrance to the once-grand city were still beautiful, but I could finally for what they were: corroded, collapsing, and most importantly, a make-believe creation. Those lions could no more fly than I could, but as I stood in the rain in the most famous plaza in the world, I learned that is was probably better that we both stay on the ground.