I am a mutual friend at the potluck.

The “potluck” is a concept that has permeated every part of my life as of late.  This is, perhaps, because I am a twentysomething (i.e. poor.), a vast majority of my friends are social workers and/or artists (i.e. poor.), my colleagues are servicing public education and the non-profit sector (i.e. poor.), and we all live in San Francisco (i.e. hella poor, yet in rather significant self-denial.)

The etymology of “potluck” is supposedly 16th Century English, derived from the term “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”  I, of course, operate under the firm belief that that the name was developed by a young urbanite who, upon pouring herself a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes while doning an embarrassing arrangement of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt, decided that she would invite several people to gather in her quaint living space under the condition that they bring a dish of their own (thereby minimizing the cost and allowing an inconceivably delightful spread of seven types of pies), lest she be reminded that it is, indeed, a raucous night for all except she – she who is at home eating a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes and wearing a pair of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt.  Henceforth, the “potluck” became a celebrated holiday affair because “Jen’s typical Thursday night as a single 23-year-old” was rejected by the administrators at Wikipeda.

All kidding aside, for all its financial benefits, the “potluck” is challenging and complicated concept that posits itself to be an apocalyptic social disaster.  The very foundation of the “potluck” counters the core of human nature – you mean you want me to show up on time, bring a dish that is both edible and magically fits in with the balanced composition of the other unknown dishes, and interact with the invited cooks of each dish who are as random as the assortment of foods on this very table?

Moreover, there is an unspoken echelon associated with “potluck” items – a spectrum of dish types (entrée, appetizer, dessert) with assigned qualifiers (made from scratch, semi-homemade, store bought, something I saw on Rachel Ray’s show five years ago) and adjectives (delectable, good, mediocre, food poisoning).  What one chooses to bring is a gateway to the soul, an unconscious association of who you are as a human being.  On one end of the continuum is the immaculate, labor intensive centerpiece turkey, meticulously cooked by those who are time efficient, thoughtful, and worthwhile cooks.  On the other side are the non-alcohol beverages – the cases of Diet Shasta Cola purchased hastily at the nearest Safeway 30 minutes prior to said “potluck” out of absentmindedness by people like, well, me.

(Editor’s Note: I fear that I will never be invited to a social event ever again after writing this entry, but I will make that sacrifice for the truth – as true as true can possibly be if it is what it is).

I write in jest because I actually adore the “potluck” despite scoring appallingly low on what I choose to bring.  They are my favorite form of social gathering – more conducive to conservation than bars and an interesting tapestry of people brought together by the assumption that you, like your food, have a complementary place.  They are a microcosm of socially incestuous major metropolitan areas, incubators of new friendships, bizarre reminders the bonds already forged.  I have met some of my favorite people at potlucks and have mapped the numerous connections to the people that I know.  This evening, I was invited to a gathering with guests that reinforced how weird and wonderful potlucks (and life) can be:

  • The Neighbors: One evening, after a few drinks and encouragement by my roommates, I felt compelled to meet the neighbors in my apartment.  I wandered downstairs, walked into their party, and somehow became the unofficial sitter for their cat, Oscar.  Five blocks down and a few weeks later, in another apartment, they were forwarded the invite of the potluck from a friend who was friends with the host who is friends with me.  They brought lentil soup and we talked about grad school.
  • The Friend of a Friend of a Friend: During my senior year, a girl (now a good friend) took a semester off from school in New York to sublet a room in my apartment in DC.  Today, in San Francisco, I met one of her best friends from high school who also went to high school with the host of the potluck who is friends with me.  She brought pie and we talked about our mutual friend.
  • The “So Do You Know [Insert Long Shot Here]”:  I met a girl who grew up in a Massachusetts town that sent quite a few people to my college – one of whom is my friend.  This girl was familiar with the name of my friend, but also randomly met two guys who went to her very high school, who also graduated the same year that she did.  She brought brownies and we talked about San Francisco.

I brought delicious, store-bought pear and fig tart pie (and brought the self associated with such a purchase) and talked about everything I never get to say in bars, to people I would not have otherwise met, in the kind of event that, despite its peculiarities, should happen far, far, far more often.

I am an adult.

1 year ago, I sat in an airport awaiting a flight to a city I had eagerly left – left with a tinge of bitterness, an insatiable desire to start anew, and a necessity to see something other than a Vietnamese supermarket and, on an exciting weekend, a plate of fried vegetables with a vat of ketchup at Chili’s.  The flight’s trajectory was the District of Columbia, the city in which I came to be, to Houston, the city of my birth that smells eerily similar to a Rainforest-themed restaurant.  Houston would no longer be the final destination as it was merely an extended layover to what was supposedly my final destination: San Francisco, California to become an English teacher extraordinaire.

I was going to teach children the rules of rudimentary, standardized-test friendly writing — writing so inconceivably mind-numbing and boring that, naturally, these children would internalize the rules in an effort to break them.  They were going to be the Orwells of their generation, the Dottys of their time, an army of scholars who uniformly believed with complete and utter conviction that the Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter is a classic – a classic worthy of nothing more than being a paperweight or, to be more kind, a projectile object set into motion amidst a backdrop of profanity.  I was going shape little writing elves in poetry circles and short story workshops.  I was going to create a classroom so inconceivably wonderful that the only appropriate visual equivalent would be a rainbow attached to a smiling, naïve sun with Richard Branson hoarding gold on the other side.  I was going to save this world one writing prompt about dreams, passion, and/or puppies at a time.  I was going to nurture and pat the heads of my queer-identified students and explain, “The details of my personal life, for reasons of legality, cannot be divulged but I support you and that flannel shirt.”  Cue frolicking, prancing deer and orchestra music here.

It has been a year.  A year since I awoke, 3 hours before my flight, surrounded by my unpacked belongings and frantically forced my roommates to stuff as many of my books, underwear, and Georgetown paraphernalia into my bags.  A year since I darted, Home Alone-style, down the terminal of Reagan airport.  A year since I had magically bypassed security and, driven by the guilt and the embarrassment of the previous 12 hours, opened this very laptop and began to write:

Hey Everyone!

Contrary to popular notion, I am not one for long mass e-mails, but as I sit at the airport, Texas bound, wearing the dress that I wore last night and surprised that I might be heading “home” in one piece, two things come to mind.  First, I need to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  Second, that I will miss everyone and everything about DC dearly – and the feeling so overwhelming that I feel compelled to write. 

I never finished the contents of the letter, but I did complete the list of people I had intended to send the message to.  There were 36 people, most of whom I saw less than a week ago upon returning to DC.  To repeat an oft-used phrase, last week was a “full-circle” moment – I had returned to my alma mater to see the very people I had listed only to espouse words eerily similar to what I had wrote.  Only to realize that although circumstances have changed, I, in many ways, have not and that it was time to.

It is a difference of context.  A year ago, I was certain that the teaching profession was my calling – that I was destined to bridge rhetoric and pedagogy in public education, that I was going to inundate every worksheet I made withPearls Before Swine comic strips and poorly conceived, clearly dated pop culture references circa 1999.  Yet, in the last 12 months, I have left an organization (and, in my ways, a profession) that I had differences with, joined the ranks of two more, and found myself grappling with bureaucracy of every shape and size in a city that is far less post-racial American that I had originally imagined.  In many ways, the idealistic teacher-to-be has hardened to the reality of world that will change for only a few things: catastrophe, status, money, sex, and sweet, sweet candy.  I am still hopeful and idealistic, but cautiously so.

The last year has been a test to my disposition and, to be honest, it has a test of rotating-imaginary-shapes-and-calculating-the-area-of-certain-slices-of-said-shapes-on-the-AP-Calculus-BC-exam proportions (in other words, epic proportions).  I have come face to face with my limitations.  I cannot depend on caffeinated drinks, youth, and all-nighters in a full-time working world.  I cannot wait for a summer break to sustain my efforts.  I cannot expect to appease everyone in my life without it taking a toll on myself.  I cannot find all the answers.  I cannot take on the burden of the world (or the community or even my family) and place it on my shoulders.  I cannot drink two glasses of wine after a day of work and not expect to fall asleep, in the fetal position, on my roommates’ bed.  It has been a rewarding, tumultuous, difficult, beautiful, ridiculous 12 months and truth of any kind is still very much elusive.  Perhaps the difference 12 months can make is that this reality no longer bothers me.  So this is adulthood.

The wide-eyed girl who sat in the airport a year ago writing a letter to 36, chatted face to face, one year later, with the intended recipients bearing a look of fatigue and uncertainty.  For a year, I held onto the idea that I could sustain the romantic notions of the world I had built in college in this “real world”.  I don’t think I can save the world, but I no longer believe the world is mine to be saved – or that I have the knowledge or authority to lay claim to the saving.

Yet, the tidbits of advice I have received from older colleagues leave me hopeful and yes, still idealistic.  Find things that are meaningful, foster the relationships you have, travel often, seek adventure, learn, continue working (hard) for worthwhile causes, find time to write pretentious things like this entry (I mean, did I really just write that “truth of any kind if still very much elusive?”  Who the fuck am I, Jewel?).  As decisions in the next week or so determine where I go next (professionally – geographically, I have finally found a city I want to commit to), the context – all the intangible things I mentioned – in which I make my decision will factor in far more than the standards I held by in college (prestige, expectation, obligation, world-saving).

What a (welcomed) difference a year makes.

I am a runner.

By mile 5 of the Oakland Half Marathon, a woman held up a sign that evoked as much truth as a shoddily constructed piece of poster board with faded Sharpie can possibly relay: “Any idiot can run,” the poster board claimed.  “But it takes a special kind of idiot to run a [half] marathon.”

I chuckled because deep laughter from the belly would have surely caused me to yak all over the woman and the sign.  At worst, such a feat would have elicited public embarrassment for both parties – at best, I could stand by my claim that a Sharpie and puke laden sign is a far more credible, legitimate text than anything produced by the State of Texas.

Runners may not be morons, per se, but the activity we choose to dedicate our lives can be construed as counterintuitive.  For example, at mile 5, I was given a substance called “Gu.”  One would suppose, in the state of California, that something called “Gu” would have put me in a mild, psychedelic trance whereby I would feel compelled to pick up a glow stick and contemplate how stupid running 5 miles is.  In fact, “Gu” is universal in any decent long-distance race that cares about your being alive by the time mile 13.1 or 26.2 hits.  It is a 100-calorie, energy goo (Yes, aren’t we clever, marketing department?) wrapped in the same package that astronauts open to suck their food.  Except, rather than heaving a chicken in our respective mouths, runners are forced to digest a substance with the consistency of silly putty.  I know this because I am a moron, once a child, who ate silly putty.  Alas, those days have been replaced with running long distances.

By mile 6, the cups of water cease to be clear and turn into a transparent red.  For decent human beings, it is the color of cherry kool-aid – for recent college graduates who had frugal social lives, it is the hue of a well-mixed jungle juice served in a dilapidated house.  By this time, the body loses so much fluid that water retaining electrolytes, diluted in liquid, become the supposed drink of choice.  In all honesty, I like it because it tastes like cherry kool-aid and not jungle juice served to me by a drunken boy in lobster patterned shorts leaning on a fence that is about to fall over.  This, of course, is personal preference as some individuals attest to necessity of electrolyte ridden sports drinks.

This charade of consuming booger-like gel packets and brah-mixed drinks continues until mile 9.  By this time, legs begin to cramp and the normal word to profanity ratio begins to tip in favor of the latter.  By mile 10, a Korean Bar-B-Que parked on the side of the road, emanating smells of deliciousness becomes the subject of a “FUCK YOU, I AM RUNNING A RACE.”  By mile 11, the entire race ceases to be about the runner ahead of you – it becomes a psychological game based on endurance and distance rather than time or competition.  Every person has an Emilio Estevez in the folds of their psyche – that voice of indeterminate Latino origin wielding a hockey stick who beckons you to continue running for various reasons.  It pervades the mind, deafens the seventh rotation of “Imma Be” by the Black Eyed Peas.  I continued in the heat, dehydration and cramps under the auspice of, I kid you not, my own privilege: “Running this last mile is not hard,” I told myself.  “You know what is hard? Being a refugee. Your parents were fucking refugees.  On a boat.  ON A BOAT.”  Emilio, it is difficult to argue with you.

The question so becomes, why subject the body to incredible pressure, to horrendous music, and to guilt that white people like to burden themselves with?  Why participate in what is supposedly stupid, counterintuitive, and requires an unnatural exertion of the body?  Why partake in an activity that demands an enormous amount of time, energy, and concentration – that necessitates a near daily investment for returns understood by few (even among fellow runners)?

A half-marathon is 13.1 miles – by mile 13, the finish line comes into view.  It is one of the few moments in my life in which I find generic, Arial bold font to be utterly gorgeous.  A crowd lining the sides of last tenth mile roars in raucous noise – in screams, in drums, in horns, in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”  Arms flail from the cluster of spectators, everyone is eager to high five the runners no matter the affiliation or the performance.  Someone screams, “Bob!” and you respond with a yell despite being named not Bob.  An empty stretcher rolls across the path during a gap between runners – it is humorous and ironic at mile 13 rather than onerous, terrifying, and possibly prophetic at mile 8.  To your peripheral vision on your right is a clock – it flashes the marathon time, the time of what could be.  On your left is half marathon split – the time that you had eagerly anticipated in both fear and excitement.  Imagine the euphoria of setting a goal that you perceived to be out of reach to the point of nearly recanting it minutes before start time – I saw a time that bested that goal by nearly 3 clock minutes or 5 chip minutes.

For many, running is not just a form of fitness.  It is not merely about burning calories, about passing time, or about finding a socially acceptable venue to play “Party in the USA.”  On a personal level, it is about trusting that this mind, this body, and these legs will take me the distance that I want to go – that when I say “13.1 miles” I will follow through and complete the 13.1 miles, that when I say “1:55:00,” I can somehow find the reserve of energy for “1:52:01.”  More often than not, I fall short.  I walk a hill.  I find an excuse to stretch.  I fumble with my iPod shuffle because Regina Spektor should be relegated to hipster make out sessions, rather than pacing.  These runs are infuriating and always end with a lament of how old and brittle I have become at 23.

Yet it is the few runs when everything aligns, when the fanciest of equipment and the extra electrolytes become irrelevant and secondary to will power, that reinforce the justification to continue the mileage.  Runners are special idiots that try hard, perhaps, because we are idiots.  At least this idiot is experiencing a wave of “runner’s high,” hinged on finally aligning thought and action – and avoided spewing Gu and electrolytes all over that woman.