20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

Month: January, 2014

Minding the Gap: Why Long-Distance Sucks and I’m Grateful for It

This summer, while I was crying about a boy, figuratively of course, my flatmate said, “Koh, you should write a book about relationships.” I laughed, because I’m pretty sure nobody who watches American romantic comedies or who thinks Valentine’s Day is a valid holiday would want my relationship musings. (And isn’t that the main relationships-blog readership?) But with the big buy-me-things-for-love posters going up in the flower shop, I’ve gotta join the masses of relationship bloggers, because flowers make a terrible Band-Aid, you might as well know now. There’s always a new blog post out by someone in the gaga-glitter-rainbows phase of a new relationship, telling readers (i.e. their grandma and new significant other; demographics are a bitch) all the wow-shiny-new things they’re learning about being in a relationship now that they’re actually in one. It’s earth-shattering stuff. And I’m like, yeah, no duh, Sherlock. You just figured out “people are complex” and “nobody’s perfect”? Name five flaws you can actually perceive about your significant other. Right now. Just five. Five. Well, this is another blog post like that. Kinda. Sorta. There are fewer emoticons, and more cussing. (Here’s my disclaimer. I hate it when people try to tell me all relationships are the same, so please, I invite you to consume this with salt.)

I for one have learned a lot about relationships by not being in them, or by being in and out of very short ones, or by having poorly defined casual ones, or by watching other people’s fall apart. And I am sheepishly humbled to the finish on this hardwood cafe floor to say that yes, I too, am already learning about relationships by being in this–specifically long-distance–relationship. (Seriously, sheepish. It took me thirty minutes to write that intro.) I was just joking with friends, that because my significant other and I live in different states, he probably doesn’t exist. And I just go to Powell’s and buy myself books, saying “This one is mine. This one is from ‘Boyfriend.’ Hehehe.” While sometimes I do envy friends whose significant others live nearby, I’m learning a few things about relationships in general that proximity blurred in the past. Get ready. My first “chapter” in the Koh’s Book about Relationships (a.k.a. WTF Am I Doing? and Other Questions You Ask about Love).


Open communication is everything. I mean open OPEN communication. Especially when you live far away, words are all you have, so use them and be careful with them. I don’t mean you are entitled to know everything your partner does. That’s just weird, guys. So are surprise interrogations, like, “You were out with attractive people last night? Tell me all about it, but if you admit that they are attractive, I will interrogate further. P.S. No attractive friends for you, Glenn Coco.” I do mean I’ve learned that if something doesn’t work, it’s best to say, “This doesn’t work for me,” or “I have anxiety about this.” And if something does work, affirmation lets a good thing you’ve got going keep going. This requires creating a space where honesty is a safe thing. I know that’s probably a common sense area, but it’s hard, friends, especially in a culture of mistrust and jealousy. I told a friend the other day that I was hit on pretty unabashedly by an older man on my lunch break. She said, “Your boyfriend probably won’t want to hear all those stories. Keep that one to yourself.” Too late, I thought, already told him. And I told him about the cute barista who totally flirted with me in McMinnville last week, so there. It’s scary to tell people things they might not want to hear and maybe more scary to be openly affectionate. It’s also scary to be on the listening end. But we don’t get to edit our partners. Nope. In my case–a pairing of writers–we already have editors: writing groups, colleagues, our own inner-critic. It’s too late to edit our life stories. And what would be the point of that? The truth always finds its way out, whether or not that’s in words.  When you say, “You made out with three people at one party? What’s the story here?” you better be ready for the story. ‘Cause it’s a good one.

We don’t own anybody. I’ll say it again: we don’t own anybody. “My man” isn’t really “my man,” unless we want to reinstate slavery or something. Which would be disgusting, so let’s not. (And please don’t call him that.) In any relationship, people do things for each other and are accountable to each other, so it’s super easy to assume that someone is putty in your hands and therefore yours to command. What a dumb idea. I have to stop myself from expecting certain “girlfriend privileges,” because–come closer; I have a secret–those privileges are not actually mine to expect, nor do I have any right to demand them. Clearly stated boundaries are important, but those are catered to us and what we need to feel secure and well loved. The kindnesses and loyalties, I think, hold more power when they are given in a space of freedom rather than obligation, just like cat hugs. (You guys, I miss my cat, okay?)


I like doing my own thing. Even when I have free evenings, I don’t have free evenings. I make stuff, like dresses and brownies, or dinner with the bffs. And my days off often look like today: errands, coffee, writing time, and phone/skype dates with my friends. The geographical space in a long-distance relationship imposes the metaphysical space it’s all too easy to omit in local relationships–really important space I need to grow and develop with the particular skills and opportunities I have right here, right now. And I like it. I like it a lot.

Time is precious. Doing my own thing sometimes includes getting to spend time with that cool guy I like. On the phone or in the same state. And when I do, that time is precious, just like having my solo time is precious. And this is protected time, much like the time I set aside with my other friends. I admit that I have trivialized time or been bad at protecting it in the past. A person I was dating could, like, just show up. That time became unintentional, sometimes smothering and overwhelming. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Don’t neglect your other friends. Seriously, that is the dumbest, douchiest move ever. Ever. Ever. Your friends love you. They’re the ones who let you talk for hours, ad nauseam, about how you weren’t sure if you’re ready for a relationship, but this one’s really special, blah blah blah. They will encourage you and cheer you on with your special someone, because, get this, your friends want you to be happy. They are also there for you in everyday situations, like doing your taxes or cleaning out your garage. They have invested time into your life, and only an asshole would turn their back on that, even temporarily, for a good lay (or the love of your life). Anyone who thinks they get to smoosh your friendships can say hello to the curb. Was that harsh? Good.

I’m learning we don’t and shouldn’t get to take anything for granted, is what I’m saying. Even when we live nearby, we don’t have an on-demand hug dispensary. We can’t expect one person to fulfill or singlehandedly change us into a better, more complete person. We can’t expect them to know us, to anticipate our issues, if we don’t communicate them. Being consumed or owned by a relationship doesn’t close the cracks, physical or metaphysical; it only pretends to pull the pieces together. The truth is, those spaces and silences matter. The sometimes-seemlingly-daunting gaps between us matter.

The Things You Won’t See on Facebook


My activity on Facebook could be described as prolific. I update my status at least once a day with anecdotes about my life, I post pictures of places I’ve been and weird sights I’ve seen, and I share 50% of George Takei’s memes. I have a few things categorized as my “favorites,” and the abridged version of my CV. When I’m approaching a design or writing deadline, everybody knows it, and when my roommate and I exchange witty banter, everybody knows it. I admit it at parties with old friends, shrugging sheepishly with eyes averted: “Yes, I am very prolific on Facebook.” For a long time, I refused to write about my relationship with Facebook, because it seems like such a petty thing, right? And god forbid I should write about Facebook on WordPress; it’s like putting milk in your gin.

When I was a first-year college student, it was a huge deal when Facebook finally had a network for my alma mater. A huge deal. My roommate signed me up, and then used her access to my account to create a secret gag album called “Boys that Make My Butter Melt,” a delicious geek fest of Star Trek characters and ancient philosophers with supersexycaptions. It’s still in cyberspace somewhere. In the year that followed, I started dating a guy and as soon as we were official, the relationship status update went live. And by the next morning, a young woman who I thought was my friend had blocked me on the Facebooks. It was so painfully obvious that this had something to do with my new relationship.

After several months of the silent treatment from my former friend, and observing her flirt with my then-boyfriend in social settings, I finally sent her a card asking if I had hurt her, telling her I was sorry if there was some way she felt I had betrayed her, asking to talk. Two nights later she approached me in the school cafeteria with a big hug and asked me to get coffee with her. I still remember exactly watching her steep her rooibos tea, and walking through slushy January snow with her back to campus afterward. In short, I learned that night that Facebook is kind of a big deal. Sure, social scientists observe astutely that it is indeed a facet–and a big one at that–of our discourse. It is both mode and content of much of our communication. It seemed so simple and abstract to make that relationship official on Facebook: click a couple buttons, hit confirm, and I had a boyfriend. Super. We argued later about taking down the relationship status, letting the relationship exist and grow outside of cyberspace, but it remained. But that abstract declaration had feelings attached, more feelings than even then-boyfriend and I had anticipated. It had our feelings for each other, the friend’s feelings for then-boyfriend, and my feelings for a lost friendship. It was, in fact, something to protect, as Cara Joyner recently wrote on Relevant. Joyner says,

When my son crawls into my lap, he doesn’t want me to take his picture and shoot it across Facebook. He doesn’t care who else thinks I have a cute kid. He just wants me to hold him and see him. To feel his soft, chunky arms and to focus on the way his eyelashes move when he blinks. . . 

Not every great moment needs to be shared. In fact, some of the best times are most enjoyed privately. If we suspend the present in an attempt to capture its beauty in 140 characters or less, we sacrifice our experience of the moment itself. We also rob each other of something that has been lost in our digital age—keeping a handful of memories between us and those we are closest to, or even just between us and God.

Looking back to my early days with Facebook and the ways that coincided with my college dating life, I realize I did a terrible job protecting what was special, most of us did. We would flirt, and ask people out, we would beg our baby to take us back, declare undying love, post pictures of making out or going out or coming out. But it’s true, not all moments need to be shared on the interwebs, as great as they are. Once we share them in a public forum, we lose control of them. I gifted my mum and dad a poem I had presented at a literary conference a few years back. I gave them the final draft that some day I might get my act together and submit for publication. She asked to record me reading it. I told her, “You can’t post this on Facebook or e-mail it to your friends. It’s a final draft, and if it’s published the journal should have First American Rights. It can’t already have been publicly accessible.” That was my pragmatist way of saying, this is special, Mom. This is my gift to you. Only you. And nobody else gets to click the “share” button. Only me.

But haven’t we developed the culturally pervasive fear that if there is no “share” or “comment” or “like” button, then that area of our life doesn’t exist within a social context? If we don’t post our weekly pregnancy picture, the baby’s growth stalls? If no one “likes” my New Boyfriend! announcement, they disapprove and it’s about to get all Romeo+Juliet up in here? If I don’t tell people I’m eating at Applebee’s, I can’t possibly be eating at Applebees. Sure, not everything needs to be shared, but does not sharing them online imply that they aren’t worth sharing? Hell no. Some moments need to be shared, intimately, quietly, privately. They don’t need to be kept a secret, but they also don’t need to be reincarnated in pixels and glowing lights. Like Joyner watching her child drift to sleep in her lap, like me playing mermaid-pirates with my nieces, or talking with my boyfriend, reading a poem for my parents, or comforting a friend. These happen. Look, I admitted all of them in this blog. And the world can know that I have these relationships. I might even tell people about some of these special moments. But these moments are mine, mine and theirs. They have feelings attached, and histories, and commitments that no one else gets to take part in. And you know what, these moments are the most worth sharing, the most “likeable,” and most real. So you won’t see them here.

Baby Got Back: Thoughts on a Year

Last night I killed a 16 oz. coffee at the table by the window in one of my old haunts with a new but dear friend. We realized together that, despite a few false starts and intermediate life lessons, we’re doing exactly what our childhood selves wanted for us. He’s a teacher and writer, married to an artist who always dreamed of being an artist, and I’m stepping back in to the design world and writing again. A year ago last night I bet I was sitting in that same coffee shop, scared of the future and the fact that I chose just 24 hours before not to be an academic—not to pursue the dream for which my 18-year-old self committed to working her ass off. As I turn twenty-seven, I have the nagging feeling 18-year-old Koh would write me a nasty letter, probably in verse, about how disappointed she is in me for giving up the dream. She has no idea.

My year at twenty-five was a period of slow losing. By the time I reached twenty-six, I didn’t feel like I had much left to give or to be taken from me. It certainly wasn’t all bad. I lost things that made me better for the losing. I was a walking Elizabeth Bishop poem. It seemed like Twenty-Six would be a continuation of those losses. And for a while it was. I lost a lot of trust in friends. I lost the last bit of hope I had in relationships and people’s ability to build healthy ones. But because of the preceding year, I also lost that last layer of inhibitions that had told me for the past twenty-six years, “Don’t do that.” “Don’t say that.” “Don’t risk it.” So, I step in to Twenty-Seven open to new things and to getting things back. Because sometimes, though we don’t deserve it, we do get things back: dreams, energy, ideas, people, and the fortitude to try. So instead of my usual list of new experiences I resolve to have in the coming year, here are twenty-six things—small and tall—that I got back this year.

  1. Clothing and costume design. I got to design one of my favorite period productions with some old friends (who in that way I also got back).
  2. A sewing machine.
  3. College friends who are now my post-college friends.
  4. The experience of writing for pleasure.
  5. The experience of writing for money.
  6. Hope for Veronica Mars. You guys, the movie comes out March 14.
  7. The last bit of hope I had in relationships and people’s ability to build healthy ones.
  8. A sense of place, though I won’t be here forever.
  9. Gardening!
  10.  Time to cook.
  11. Creative evenings.
  12. A sense of direction.
  13. People to bake for.
  14. Venues for wearing pretty dresses.
  15. Sleepovers with my BFFs.
  16. Someone Special.
  17. San Diego.
  18. A coffee press.
  19. Quiet mornings.
  20. Daily hugs.
  21. Laughter.
  22. An orchid plant.
  23. Sunshine. On many days.
  24. Sleeping soundly through the night.
  25. An unshakable feeling that I am enough.
  26. Feeling loved for exactly who and what I am.