There’s an episode in the first season of “Girls” when Hannah Horvath/Lena Dunham goes home to Michigan for a weekend. The ostensive purpose of the trip is to see her parents (if I recall correctly, an anniversary is involved), but our favorite would-be Voice of a Generation manages to squeeze in a date with her mother’s pharmacist (and her former high school classmate), as one does. She’s psyching herself up to go out, tossing hair and swapping 80s sequins for a buttoned-up lace number, and she says to herself in the mirror, “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting, ok?” One more adjustment of the dress, and she’s off to the races (if by races you mean a benefit for another former classmate who disappeared while on spring break, followed by supremely awkward sex).
I’m not a regular watcher of “Girls,” but that quote really stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I prepare to head back to my alma mater this weekend for various commencement festivities. On the show, the mythos of New York is enough to give Hannah a sheen of je ne sais quoi (at least in her mind), a suit of worldly armor to protect her from the inevitable inquiries about her current job (none), relationship (complicated), and life goals (no fuckin’ clue) status. In practice, I’m not sure it has the same effect, particularly since, like me, many of my classmates have also made their way to the Big Apple post-college. Nevertheless I think there’s something to be said for the cachet of New York — at least, the fantasy version of pop culture lore — as a way of polishing up one’s spiel.
The spiel, as I call it, is the 30-second sound bite one recites when asked by an acquaintance one hasn’t seen in a significant period of time, “So, how’s everything going?” Reunions, like visits to one’s hometown, are rife with queries like this. And everybody has that neat answer you can spout on cue, carefully tailored to make your life sound totally awesome, with some semblance of having your shit together. Going back to college (particularly a “name brand’ university like mine, which comes with a whole extra level of Post-Grad Expectations baggage and subjects you to questions like “So, you’re a barista? But didn’t you go to Brown?”) has a way of plunging you back into the academic mindset, one where checkpoints fall along a clear path and there are easily quantifiable measures of whether you are succeeding at meeting your goals — or even excelling, as years of straight A’s and well-rounded extracurriculars have made people (yourself included) believe you should.
So the spiel, especially the college reunion edition of it, is tailored to meet certain perceived societal parameters for where one should be X years out. Certain details are highlighted, others are glossed over, and some areas of your life may be omitted, not being suited to the super successful narrative you’re trying to spin. Me, I’m lucky: I live in New York (automatically cool and interesting), in the hip neighborhood, and I work at the fancy publication that everyone has heard of. My life sounds great on paper. I leave out the fact that at said fancy publication I mostly answer the phone and monitor emails, I fail to mention that my roommate and I have to find new housing by the end of the summer and probably can’t afford to stay in the cool neighborhood, and I omit the “relationship status” and “five year plan” categories from the conversation altogether. So great to see you, let’s grab a drink next time you’re in the city! And scene.
But the problem with the spiel, and with the mindset that shapes it, is that after college success stops being a quantifiable thing. Rather than being on the same track, with the same tests of our abilities and progress, the second we move that tassel to the other side of the cap we start to diverge. Our paths wind and meander, diving off into detours or venturing into dark abysses alone. And so you can’t use the same metrics to define your success any more, to others or to yourself. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and discussing with my fellow young alums. We spend the first two decades of our lives being told that success is measured in numbers and letter grades, being president of the club and captain of the team, going to the good school and graduating with lauds and laurels. And when we enter the real world and leave that academic framework, we’re left unmoored, with no compass telling us which way we’re supposed to be going, no progress report to tell how far we have to go until we get there, wherever there is. So you have to make your own road map: figure out what a successful life is going to mean to you.
So how is everything is going? I live in New York, in the neighborhood with the great iced latte and the apple pancakes at brunch and the laundry lady who always chats with me about the weather. I have an apartment that feels homey, with a roommate who will dance around our kitchen to Taylor Swift and the Four Seasons with me at 1 a.m. I work with smart and talented and kind people, at a place that makes me feel like part of something bigger than myself, and I’m proud of the moments when the machine as a whole succeeds, even though I am just a tiny cog. My work is often unengaging and menial, and my schedule is not ideal, but I think I’m maybe on sort of the right path? I have wonderful friends who send me silly snaps when I’m having a bad day or a slow shift, who stay after the party ends so I don’t have to do the dishes alone. I have an amazing, sassy yet wholesome family who I don’t see often enough, siblings who I want to fly across the country or oceans to visit and parents who told me they were proud of me just as often when I was a starving barista as they do now that I have a big girl job.
And this weekend I’m going to Providence, to dance on the green and sing with my a cappella group and march down the hill with thousands of my comrades. I’m going to go to my favorite cupcake place and coffee shop, and pick up a bag of the tea that got me through every finals period. My life is far from perfect, and there are many days where I feel totally lost and confused, inadequate and behind the curve. But overall, when it comes to the things that really matter, I’m doing ok.