I’ve been in D.C. for a few days now, for nearly a week. I came because I had to be here for a bat mitzvah & then for a wedding, & I still have an office here & friends here & a million wish-I-coulds here, so I figured I’d turn my visit into an extended, reality-based vacation. Time to myself, time with people I love, time to reacquaint myself with this city I sometimes wish I’d never left.
When I left D.C. in 2010 - nearly three years ago now - it was because that was what was right for me at the time. I’d just taken a job that was all wrong for me, & I didn’t see any other way out, & I thought I was dying for suburbia, for a life where you can leave your gym bag in your car for the day instead of shlepping it with you to work & to happy hour first. City life was weighing on me, sort of literally. It was right of me to go, & I won’t say it wasn’t just because I sometimes (OK, oftentimes) wish I lived here now.
Truly, though, it was never really the city itself that I was done with - it was that I thought I was meant for the Midwest, that suburbia was burning in my blood, that I was destined for elsewhereness. I missed D.C. immediately, but the move didn’t feel like a mistake. I pretty quickly realized that Ohio has lost a bit of its allure, & I changed courses, turned toward elsewheres I hadn’t foreseen. And the longer I spent elsewhere, the more I realized that city life was calling me back.
It still is. We all know that, right? We all know I’m desperate to be here again. But less than a week into my visit, & I’ve come to remember the one thing I always hated about D.C., the one trait that makes this city different from others, the one way the District continues to get me down. I tell myself it’s not real, that I’m imagining things, but then I remember that “of course it is happening inside [my] head...but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
If that is in fact the case, if mental insistence gives birth to reality, then this frustration is very real indeed: D.C. makes me feel stupid.
I spent my whole life being the smart kid. I started full-day kindergarten at age 5 & took all the advanced classes & participated in a winning Odyssey of the Mind team & devoured dozens of books for my library’s summer reading program & graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class. Though I wasn’t as close to the top as I would’ve liked, I balanced it out by being well-rounded & hyper-involved, serving on class executive board & as secretary of the student council, singing in show choir & foregoing study halls to edit the student newspaper & whatever else I thought would look good on a resume. I didn’t go to a particularly reputable or “good” college, but I got an education I was proud of at the time, one I thought prepared me for the real world, & I left with a portfolio of published writing samples that I felt convinced would propel me to journalistic success. I was selected for a prestigious post-collegiate internship, one of the six, chosen out of 60 applicants.
In other words, when I came to D.C., I had never failed. It had never, ever occurred to me to feel anything less than bright & capable. I was infallible, sure of my intelligence, positive that I could compete. And then I met… everyone. I made friends who’d gone to Harvard & Yale, friends who loved learning about the inner workings of the government & who read about politics because they liked it. Friends who watched The West Wing & could complete - heck, could begin - the New York Times crossword puzzles. Friends who thought I talked funny & was adorably clueless about all the things that mattered most to them.
And I was. I couldn’t carry on conversations, couldn’t hold my own, couldn’t provide anything of value aside from humor & the occasional, reliable "different perspective." In my first week of work, when I quietly confessed to my supervisor that I wasn't at all clear on the basics of the legislative process, she handed me a high school government book to catch me up to speed; I spent every day on the train, back & forth from Glenmont to Dupont for a full month, reading that book & trying to figure out what I was doing. Though I learned to fake it well enough to do my job, I was always the weakest link, the one who didn’t understand until someone else explained. I became fond of joking that my boss didn’t think I was smart, but at least he thought I was funny - except secretly, I was sure my friends felt the same way about me. Being funny became my redeeming quality. You have to be smart to be funny, right? And so I tried to convey, through tone & jokes & well-timed sarcasm, that I was on their level, even if I wasn’t always, well, at the same level.
Look, I love my friends, & I know they love me back. I know that if you asked any of my friends, “Who is the biggest idiot you know?” they almost surely wouldn’t give you my name. My friends are pretty nice, too, so they probably wouldn’t give you any name at all, but that’s not the point. The point is not whether they think I’m smart; it’s not even whether my boss thinks I’m smart. The point is that when I’m here, I don’t feel smart. I never have, & when I think about the possibility of moving back here, I fear that maybe I never will, & that alone may be enough to halt any future return.
Please don’t attend this pity party; I swear I never meant to throw one, anyway. I know I’m not the biggest idiot - or any idiot at all, really. I know that comparable to much of the American population, I’m doing just fine, intelligence-wise, & I know that it says something about me, too, that I read that Government 101 book every day for a month. I know that I’m a better communicator than many, a stronger writer than most, & still usually funnier, too. I'm good at being a leader, good at working under pressure, good at connecting with other people, good at telling stories. But in an age when every yuppie wants to believe she’s the most special of all the yuppies, the way that D.C. makes me feel matters. This city doesn’t necessarily value the sort of intelligence that I do possess - which could make me feel like that special, different, rise-above-the-rest yuppie but instead just makes me feel like the stupid one.
It’s all in my head, & it’s all real, & I just don’t know how to reconcile my love for this city with the way it makes me loathe myself sometimes.