Friday, April 30, 2010

Street Noise

I live on a one-way street, made narrower by the fact that people park on both sides of it. So if a delivery truck, moving truck, or garbage truck needs to make a stop in front of one of the buildings, the drivers who get stuck behind it typically have to wait until the truck driver moves on. But of course, this being the city, people don't just sit patiently in their cars and wait for for the truck driver to finish his work. No. Despite the fact that my street has nothing but apartment buildings on it, the drivers who pass through apparently believe that no one lives in any of them because they lean on their horns for several minutes at a time.


Meanwhile, I'm sitting at my desk trying to do important work, like completing my projects for the website I work for, doing research for my graduate studies, grading papers, writing out questions for the final exam my students will be taking, revising my manuscripts, or watching Youtube videos that people make of their puppies. It's hard to work when all you hear is


And then

"Get out of the way! (insert ten expletives here) Let's go!" (More honking)

Finally, after about twenty minutes straight of honking, I can't take it anymore.

I throw open my window and yell, "SHUT UUUUUUUUUPPP!!!"

(Three-second silence.)


I start to yell out my window again, but someone from another building has beaten me to it. "HEY! Keep it down!"

Angry driver: "YOU KEEP IT DOWN! WHY DON'T YOU COME DOWN HERE AND (insert ten expletives here) TELL ME TO KEEP IT DOWN!!!"

Angry driver and angrier neighbor then proceed to yell at each other for several minutes, amidst the sounds of more honking. This happens several times a day, every day.


On a side note, the fact that I yell from my window on a regular basis is probably one of the reasons that the two women who live next door to me give me weird looks every time we pass each other in the hall.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Strangers on the Train

I spend anywhere from one to two hours a day commuting by bus and train, depending on which job I'm headed to that day. Normally I bring my iPod to listen to or a book to read, but today I brought my journal with me. I'm planning to enter Lady Glamis' short story contest, which she kindly told me about after I posted a comment to one of her blog entries. (Side note: Also check out the cool birthday contest on Musings of a Palindrome's blog; the deadline for entering that one is May 1st).

So I was bent over my notebook, feeling dubious about the words I was writing because I wasn't sure if they were good enough yet (but I figure I'll write out the first draft and then go back and revise), when I felt someone's hands running through my hair. I whipped my head around, startled, to find a guy sitting behind me. "You have soft hair," he said.

"Don't touch me," I said, before quickly fleeing the train.

Some of my scariest experiences have happened on my daily commute. On the train, everyone is careful not to look at each other, because if you look at the wrong person, he or she will take that as an invitation to freak you out. For example, once I was on a mostly-empty train and I made the mistake of glancing at a guy sitting in the back for more than two seconds. He responded by taking off his pants. I quickly changed trains.

Another time I was getting onto the Orange Line, and I felt someone stroke my arm. That someone was a guy getting off the train at the same time I was boarding it, and he leered at me before walking away. I yelled, "Jerk! Why don't you keep your hands to yourself!" Another guy came on as I was yelling this, and I quickly said to him, "Not you." I then turned around to see a tourist family (complete with wide-eyed small children) with bags from Shedd Aquarium staring at me. I guess they hadn't expected to see that on their tour of the Windy City.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Judging Books (and Men) by Their Covers

No one ever says, "I met my husband at a speed-dating party!"

And yet, two years ago, I did attend a speed-dating party. At the time, I thought it sounded like the perfect place for a workaholic to meet new people. I've always been willing to invest countless hours in my work (hence the phrase "married to the job"), yet I've been much less willing to invest even half that amount of time in finding Mr. Right. At a speed-dating party, I'd get to meet twenty guys in one hour, rather than have to go on a bunch of bad first dates that lasted at least two hours or more only to realize at the end of the date (or maybe within the first five minutes) that I never wanted to see the guy ever again.

I was really nervous and scared before the party. What if I didn't meet anyone I liked? What if all the guys at the party would take one look at me and refuse to sit at my table even when it was their turn, so that I'd spend the entire hour sitting by myself? What if the guy or I decided we didn't like each other within the first three seconds, and then spent the next two minutes and fifty seven seconds just staring at each other?

But I thought there was also the possibility that I might meet someone I liked. And at the very least (and I hope this doesn't make me sound shallow), I thought it might give me something to write about. Even though I've been following a lot of really great YA writer's blogs, my goal is actually to write for an older audience; the stories I write would probably be classified as "chick lit" (although is it still politically correct to say chick lit? Should I say women's fiction? But isn't that phrase too broad? And actually, "chick lit" always makes me think of Chiclets, which makes me think of M&Ms since I don't like Chiclets, which makes me think I should go buy some more since my candy stash is running low. Did I mention I have a short attention span?)

Before the party started, I ordered a Coke from the bartender, who was amused because I was the only one who wasn't drinking alcohol. I rarely drink alcohol because I get even more hyper when I drink it and I figured I wanted to make a good first impression that didn't involve talking too fast or passing out at my table.

I'd like to say that I didn't judge the men at the party by their looks. I'd also like to say that I don't spend several hours a week watching crime dramas, but I'd be lying about that too.

Here's just a few examples of what was going through my head during the party:

Bachelor #5: Hi! How are you?
Me: Umm...hi. Why are all his teeth pointing in different directions?

Bachelor #9: Have you ever done anything like this before?
Me: No... I wonder if I should tell him that his hairpiece is on crooked. But what if that isn't a hairpiece and he just doesn't know how to brush his hair?

Bachelor #13: So if you ordered pizza, what kind of toppings would you get? (I swear I'm not making that question up; that was actually one of the "suggested questions" on the speed dating website)
Me: Anything but pineapple. Are you not going to date me if I say I like pepperoni?

Me: Hi, what's your name?
Bachelor #15: What's my name? My name is the only one you'll have to remember tonight, whoo!
Me: I wonder if this Coke will leave a permanent stain on his shirt if I throw it at the right angle.

I wasn't the only one judging people at first glance; I got a taste of my own medicine when I sat with one cute guy, who obviously wasn't interested in me and not only gave one-word answers to my questions but kept checking out a girl at the next table.

I kept checking "No" over and over again in the "Interested?" section on the sheet we were given, but I realized I should check "Yes" to someone at some point. I did meet a nice guy who talked to me like a real person and not like he was interviewing me. He later sent me an e-mail with his picture suggesting that we meet up for a drink sometime. I e-mailed him my picture and phone number so that he could call and set up the date.

He never called. I never found out why. Maybe he looked at my picture and thought, "Oh, so that's what she looks like when I'm sober? Forget it." Or maybe he went out with one of the other women he got matched with and liked her better. Or maybe he fell into a coma and will call me when he gets out of it.

A speed dating party is a lot like browsing for books at a bookstore. The first thing that usually draws my attention to the book is the cover. If the cover is brightly colored and has a catchy title, then that's going to make me stop and pick up the book. I read the blurb to see what the book's about, but the blurbs always say good stuff; you never see a blurb that reads, "This is the most boring book ever and will make you regret ever buying it." So I peek at the first few pages to see if it'll hold my interest. If it doesn't, I set the book down and move on to another book.

Maybe one of those other guys I quickly dismissed could have turned out to be a really good date, maybe not. But it definitely made me think that first impressions in dating and writing are important. Sometimes all it takes is saying (or writing) one wrong thing that will immediately make the date (or the reader) lose interest.

Even though I didn't meet Mr. Right at the speed dating party, it did give me the courage to move past the work bubble I'd been hiding behind and meet more people. I joined a group at my church, and I tried online dating (which is another blog entry in itself). And it made me realize the same thing with writing, that I can't hide my writing away forever; if I ever want people to read what I've written I have to put my work out there and meet other writers. I'm also thinking that the writing process will be a lot more fun than speed dating.

Here's a link to an episode from a really funny online video series called Speedie Date that originally aired on; it makes fun of speed dating but also highlights a lot of the doubts and expectations people have about it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Kindred Neurotics

I just finished rereading Nora Ephron's collection of essays, I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. I already liked Nora Ephron because of the movies she's written, especially When Harry Met Sally, because I like to think that Harry and Sally fell in love with each other because they were both so neurotic. In fact, my dream guy would have Harry's personality, only instead of looking like Billy Crystal he'd look like Sean Murray (the actor who plays McGee on NCIS), tee hee.

Whenever the fifth person in one day gets that weird expression on his or her face as if trying to figure out how to politely run away from me when I go off on my neurotic spiels (yes, I talk in real life just like I write), or they say stuff like, "You think too much" or "It's really not that big a deal", I not only feel like smoke is going to start coming out of my ears but I also feel like I'm the only one who obsesses over "the little things". I always want to respond to them, "I'd rather think too much than not think at all." I also want to say, "It IS a big deal! (followed by a few choice expletives, because in addition to being neurotic I overreact really easily, in case you haven't noticed from reading my other posts)."

So I loved reading Nora's book even more the second time around because she obsesses over stuff like purses, hair dye, and getting older, yet she does it all with a sense of humor so that you laugh along with her and you love her for being so neurotic and obsessive.

The two other big-name writers I've read who are also "lovable neurotics" are David Sedaris and Jen Lancaster, because reading their work makes me feel like I'm not the only one who "thinks too much" about the "little things". They obsess over stuff that even I never thought about, but the ways they describe how they deal with the stuff going on in their lives don't make me want to run away; they make me want to keep reading. I especially idolize Jen Lancaster for many reasons, one of them being that it's nice to read about someone who also gets mad at her neighbors on a regular basis (though she's a lot braver than me when it comes to dealing with them).

Here's an excerpt from Nora's book that really struck me; it's from her essay "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less":
"I now believe that what my mother meant when she said 'Everything is copy' is this: When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke."

I love that passage. It relates to what my good friend maybeimamazed (also known on the blogosphere as Unprofessional Critic for her blog) said about blogging; she said that it can be cathartic. I think that by keeping this blog and writing stories about some of the stuff that has frustrated, disappointed, or embarrassed me, I no longer feel that upset about it but feel a release in writing about it instead. And I get the last laugh.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Excuses, excuses

"I can't come to class today because I'm auditioning for American Idol."

"I can't come to class today because my friends are in town for only one day and I promised I'd take them to a Cubs game."

"I can't come to class today because I am participating in a medical research study. They're going to inject some kind of new medicine in me and pay me $50. "

"I can't come to class on time because my roommate refuses to wake me up for it."

These are just a few of the excuses that students give me for not showing up to class. The most common excuses are the "family emergency" and "I am sick" ones, because they think that I won't question them since then it gets into the gray area of being too "personal." But after about eight students in the past two weeks told me they were sick and couldn't come to class, I got irritated and suspicious. I would never accuse them of lying, of course. And more often than not, students really are too sick to come to class, because I've had more than one student show me a doctor's note or even a note from the emergency room. But on the other hand, people started missing class, coming in late, or leaving early a lot more often at around the same time the baseball season started and the weather started warming up.

What bothers me most is when students don't show up to class on multiple occasions (some will disappear for weeks or months) and still expect to get full credit for the class; i.e., they still expect to earn B's or even A's. After having spent the past several years teaching, I can honestly say that if I had a dollar for every excuse I've heard from a student, I'd be able to pay for at least two months' worth of junk food - er, I mean, groceries.

But today I started thinking about all the excuses I make for not writing.

"I can't write tonight because I'm too tired from working and studying all day."

"I can't write because I have a stack of papers to grade."

"I can't write because the weather outside is perfect, which only happens about five times a year in Chicago."

"I can't write until after I watch Frasier." (I love Frasier Crane. Yes, the show ended years ago. But I love watching reruns. Frasier is my television alter ego - at least, he would be if I were a middle-aged white guy - because he is so wonderfully neurotic and obsessive.)

I've wanted to be a writer for years, yet I always make excuses for not finishing stories or not working on the manuscript I started more than a year ago. Thinking about all the excuses from students who don't show up but still expect full credit made me realize that I can't keep making excuses. If I don't show up to write more often, I can't expect to finish my manuscript, let alone get published someday.

Starting this blog has been a great way for me to start writing more regularly, but I think it's only the first step. I have to discipline myself to work on my manuscript for more than just a few hours a week, even though I currently work two jobs and am in graduate school, which is a full-time job in itself. I'm not even sure if my first novel is publishable, but I think that just to have completed one would be awesome. And then I could finally start working on the new stories I've been thinking about. (I've tried writing more than one story at a time, but I get too confused and start putting characters for one story into the other one. It's like a literary parallel universe.)

What kind of excuses do you make for not writing, and how do you get past them? I'm always interested in learning.

I'll Never Be a Ballerina

I took a dance class last night. I'm a terrible dancer. I only know about three dance moves, and when I was younger and tried them out at clubs I caught people glancing at me, then quickly averting their eyes with a grimace, as if they couldn't bear to watch me anymore. But everyone always says that dancing is a good workout, and lately the only pounds I've been losing have been due to anxiety (big surprise there).
(Note: My description is going to be in the present tense, even though technically the class already happened. But it's easier for some reason to just use the present tense.)
I show up early and choose a spot in the back. I look in the mirror and realize that with my hair pulled back in a ponytail, I look like a chubby version of the farm wife in that American Gothic painting. The other girls are all wearing fashionable gym clothes and look like fitness models, whereas I am dressed in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, and I look like those women in the Jenny Craig commercials before they start dieting.
The instructor decides to turn off most of the lights, so that it's very dim in the room, like a nightclub. WTF? Is he going to turn on a fog machine next? Is a bartender suddenly going to show up and start pouring drinks? Is there going to be a group of creepy guys sitting around in a semicircle watching the dancers, and then will one of them venture out to the dance floor and throw his arms around me until I dance away as fast as I can?
No. The instructor turns on the music and starts dancing. He demonstrates the moves, and then everyone else copies him. I say everyone else because I keep falling at least two steps behind. When everyone else's arms move out to the left, mine goes out to the right. Everyone dances so fast that I try to keep up but often end up missing moves. At least I'm not being graded on this.
Then the instructor does this thing where he dances across the floor by himself, and then he has us follow him in pairs. He twirls around the room like a ballet dancer, and everyone else follows, their legs and feet pointed perfectly. I, on the other hand, apparently have grown additional bones or something because my moves are much more stiff and awkward. I get this vision of Frankenstein's monster lumbering across the floor, and hope that everyone else doesn't get that same vision when they see me. When I try twirling around and around like everyone else does I stumble and nearly knock over the girl dancing in front of me. And the guy dancing behind me. I say, "Sorry! Hehe!" about seven times. Then he has us improvise our own moves solo across the floor. NOOOOO!!! Everyone else is really good, and I wonder if anyone will notice if I dance discreetly out the door. But I don't. I twirl and jump across the floor, keeping my eyes shut so that I don't have to see anyone watching me.
All in all, though, the dance class was kind of fun. "Dancer" will never be on my resume, but I'm glad that I tried it. And perfectionist that I am, I'm going to go back to the class next week. Maybe eventually I'll be able to dance without falling down or making anyone else fall down. A girl can dream, right?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Where I write

I mostly blog at home because even though I have a laptop, I worry that if I take it out of my apartment it'll get stolen by some thieves who will knock me over the head and run off with it. And then they'll read my writing and possibly steal it and publish it as their own, or maybe hate it so much that they'll post it on some website that showcases bad writing. I also worry about dropping my laptop, because I'm extremely accident prone. Then if that happens and my laptop breaks into a million pieces on the street, a bunch of strangers will see me kneeling over it, weeping and rending my garments in grief because I can't afford to buy a new one. So it's safer just to blog at home or to discreetly blog on the computer in the office I share with a bunch of other people at school.
But when it comes to writing fiction, I like going to coffee houses. There's something about the cafe atmosphere that just relaxes me, even though I'm usually drinking a very large cup of coffee. I'm always interested in where other writers go when they write; which places do you like best and why?
Today as I was walking to Caribou for my weekly coffee break, I was so happy about the thought of writing fiction for an hour that I bought a Streetwise paper (the paper that homeless people sell for $2 each; they're allowed to keep $1.25 of every $2) from a vendor even though I already bought the same copy from a different vendor yesterday. I also put my change that I got from my coffee purchase in the tip jar for the baristas, just because I was feeling so good that I was going to get to work on my manuscript. Also, I've found that if you give the baristas a tip, they're less likely to mind if you hang out at your table for a little longer and they won't keep sweeping around you for nonexistent crumbs every five minutes.
I've been working on the manuscript for my first novel for more than a year now. It's taken me a while to finish it because after I read through the first draft, I realized it needed at least two new characters; once I put them in, they changed the whole flow of the story. I didn't mind, though, because it's fun to start writing and find out what the characters are going to do next. Sometimes they'll say or do things that I hadn't even been thinking about before, and that's how they become real to me. Now that I'm nearing the end of my second draft, I feel reluctant to end the story, because I've grown attached to the characters. Maybe I'll write a sequel, but I guess I should just focus on finishing this first book first.
Here's a link to a Youtube video by Angel Taylor; I love it not just because the dancing in the video is cute (cheesy, but cute) and the song is good, but because at the beginning of the video Angel is writing in a notebook in a cafe, like I do every week. But unlike her and the people in the video, I would never get up and sing or dance in front of everyone. That would probably take a lot more caffeine before I'd be willing to do that. And possibly alcohol.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Day I too Shall Have a Washer and Dryer

I've spent more years than I care to count living in apartment buildings, and so I've always had to share a laundry room with dozens or hundreds of other people. I dream of the day when I'll be rich enough to have a washer and dryer that I don't have to share with anyone else, so that I can leave my clothes in the machines for as long as I want without worrying about clearing them out for other people who need to do laundry. When I can do laundry without needing a handful of quarters, I'll believe that I've truly made it. That's my American Dream :).
But right now my reality is that as someone moving sluggishly through the nine circles of the Inferno(otherwise known as graduate school), I can barely afford that handful of quarters I need to do laundry every week.
One summer in college I lived with three girls who only did laundry about once a month; they just kept buying new clothes when the ones they already owned got dirty. But except for the year that I worked for a clothing store and had a generous employee discount, I typically only buy new clothes when my old ones get holes in them or noticeable stains that are impossible to remove.
I'm glad I don't have to go to a laundromat, because then you're stuck there for two hours and it's more expensive to wash clothes there anyway. Not to mention the one time I did go there was a guy I think of as the Quarter Nazi who wouldn't even let me use the change machine; he insisted on doling out the quarters to me because he was convinced I would take out more quarters than I needed. Jerk.
Anyway, I always have to figure out when to do laundry so that I can get all my clothes done at the same time. I tried doing laundry on Saturday nights, because I figured everyone else would be going out and the machines were more likely to be available. But the laundry room is right by the front door, so I felt like everyone going to and from the bars were exchanging knowing glances at each other when they saw me doing laundry on a Saturday night.
But weekday evenings aren't good either because that's when everyone else is off work, watching TV, and doing laundry during commercial breaks. Then they often forget about their laundry and leave it in the machines for hours because they're so absorbed in the latest episode of Gossip Girl or whatever the hell they're doing that makes them forget about other people in the building who need to clean their clothes. Then I think about just removing their clothes from the washer when the cycle is done, and putting them in the dryer so that I can use the washing machine. But then I always worry that the inconsiderate loser who left clothes in the washer for three hours might come down right at the second I'm pulling their underwear out of the machine, and think I'm stealing their clothes or trying them on or something. It's even worse when my neighbors leave their clothes in the dryers for hours, because then I don't know where to put their clothes after the cycle is done. The laundry room is really small and there isn't a table or anything, and I don't want to put them on the washers because then whoever else needs to use them will have to figure out where to put the clothes. Does anyone else think about this? What would you do in a situation like this? Wait for an indefinite period of time for the people to come down and take their clothes out, then be all passive-aggressive and sigh and look at your watch a lot to let them know that you've been waiting a long time? Tell them to take their clothes out on time? Throw the clothes out on the lawn in front of the building? I don't know. One time I was so irritated from running up and down the stairs because it took me more than three hours to do three separate loads (because of the neighbor issues I described above) that I actually wrote an angry note and taped it to the dryer where someone had left his or her clothes for three hours.
And then I stopped and reread my note. I couldn't believe how angry I sounded, and thought about how the neighbor, someone I'd never even met, would feel when he or she read it. I was stressed out because doing all this laundry was taking time away from my school work, and I transferred a lot of my frustrations onto that note. I took the note back and threw it away. Partly because I didn't want to be a bitch. And also because I thought whoever received the note might somehow find out I wrote it and then throw my clothes out on the lawn.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where can I buy an anvil?

If my life were a cartoon, then I'd be the easily excitable character. In the cartoon you'd see my face turning different colors and smoke coming out of my ears whenever I get angry. Whenever you see cartoon characters get like this, it's often right before they drop anvils on people that bug them.
There are times where I have been tempted to drop anvils or something equally heavy on students' cell phones when they start using them in class. Just to clarify: I would never drop the anvil on the student. I'm pretty sure that doing that would eliminate any chances of getting a full-time teaching job. I would snatch the cell phone away from the student, throw it on the ground, and then drop the anvil on the cell phone so that he or she could never use it again. Or, if an anvil was not available (especially since there aren't any stores nearby that sell anvils), I'd settle for one of those big wooden mallets.
I think that some students must think that they become invisible when they use their cell phones in class, because they think I can't see what they're doing. Texting is really big with the undergrads; it's the twenty-first century version of passing notes in class. I want to say, "Dude, I can see what you're doing, so stop it." But I don't say that, because teachers aren't supposed to say stuff like "dude". And most people don't say "dude" anymore; I think that went out in the nineties. And then I get depressed about getting older because my rhetoric is seemingly outdated...
I just say, "Put your cell phone away. It shouldn't be out right now." I let students leave them on because the university has an emergency alert system where they'll text students if anything important happens. But updating your Twitter page or texting your friend about what happened on American Idol IS NOT AN EMERGENCY. Students complain about the ten-page research paper I assign them, but how many pages would a month's worth of their text messages add up to? Besides, it's not like I take out my cell phone and start texting my friends when my students are participating in the class discussion.
I pay attention to what everyone is doing. If I think someone is drifting off, I make a point of including him or her in the discussion. I try to make each class interesting and engaging so that the students will not only pay attention but actually want to learn what I'm teaching them. I'm sorry if learning how to write a thesis statement or interpreting the symbols in Hamlet isn't always as much fun as using your iPhone or your Blackberry, but part of the students' job is not just to show up but also to give the teacher their undivided attention. Otherwise they will miss something important. So unless you want to see me turn into the angry cartoon character, put the cell phone away. Otherwise, I'll start looking for coupons or sales related to anvils.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Recommendation letters

One of my former students recently asked me to write a recommendation letter for her because she was applying for a scholarship. I wrote the letter for her not just because she had gotten high grades in my class, but also because she gave me enough time to write the letter. The scholarship application deadline was still more than three weeks away.
I often get asked by students to write recommendation letters; they apply for scholarships, graduate schools, study abroad programs, and internships. To be honest, I think that they should ask professors who are full-time or tenured, not a part-time adjunct instructor or a teaching assistant like me, because the word of the tenured professors often carry more weight than mine do. Also, it's better to get a letter from someone who actually works in the field that you want to work in. I teach freshman composition and literature courses, and most of my students aren't English majors. The classes I teach generally fall into the "general education" category; the students are required to take them in order to graduate.
But if the student did well in my class, I'm usually willing to write a recommendation letter for him or her. Usually. I have said no to a few students, however, even if they did get good grades in my class. The number one reason is I often just don't have time. For the past several years I've always worked at least two jobs, sometimes three. And now that I'm working on my Ph.D. in addition to my part-time jobs, my free time is very limited.
Writing a recommendation letter is a lot of work. It's not like I can write the same letter for every person. Well, I could, but that wouldn't help the student very much. The letter is important because it lets the admissions committee know why this student is qualified and what he or she is like to work with. It highlights specific qualities this student has, and describes accomplishments this person did in my class. So it takes a lot of time to come up with a good letter, even if that letter is only one or two pages. I want to write good letters in order to help students get whatever it is they're applying for.
That's why I need to be given enough notice in order to write the letter. I had one student e-mail me a request for a recommendation, but he said that the letter was due the next day so he needed it ASAP. That bothered me to no end, because he just assumed that I would be able to drop everything and work on the letter. But I couldn't. So I told that student that I couldn't write the letter because I was busy with my other work, which was true. Other students try to pressure me or guilt me into writing the letters for them, saying that they've asked other professors who turned them down and that they need enough letters in order to get whatever it is they're applying for. But in those cases, the other professors probably said no because they weren't given enough time to work on the letters.
When I was an undergrad, none of my professors would have even considered writing a letter for me if I hadn't given them at least two weeks' notice; some of them required a month. So I always made sure to give them enough time.
The thing about a recommendation letter is that, in a way, it's a favor that the teacher does for the student. I'm happy to help my students, but I'm not always available to help them with everything at a moment's notice. And even if I did have unlimited free time, I feel it's important to teach students to be responsible and considerate.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coffee break

Everybody needs a way to relax. Some people do retail therapy and go shopping on Michigan Avenue. Some people knit sweaters for their dogs, who often either look really happy to wear them or really annoyed.
Some people go to ball games; lately I've been seeing several Cubs fans filling up the trains as they head for Wrigley Field. Even though I've lived in Chicago for several years, I've only ever been to one Cubs game, and that was before I even moved to the city. I went to a Cubs game in high school, during my senior trip. Maybe it's because I'm not interested in sports, but going to a ball game wasn't that relaxing for me because there were some drunk guys behind me who kept yelling at the players. I've never really understood why people yell insults at the players, especially since the ones with the bats could easily go after them, or perhaps use their excellent pitching skills to knock one of the hecklers out. But on the other hand, I admired the players for ignoring them and just focusing on playing the game.

How do I relax? Once a week I go to a coffeehouse, order a flavored frozen coffee and a cookie, and sit in a comfortable chair. Then I usually spend about an hour writing in my journal. It's always a relief to write something that's not for school or work, because when I write in my journal it's my chance to escape from everything else and just focus on writing my own stories.

Before I go to the coffeehouse, I always think of all the work I still have to do. The sensible thing would be to just stay home and keep working; that way no hour would go wasted. But I don't view my weekly "escape" as a waste of time. I need to have even just one hour a week that's just for me or I wouldn't be able to handle everything else. Even though I am a workaholic, I recognize that it's important to take time off every now and then and do something fun.

I learned my lesson the hard way several years ago. Before iTunes became popular, I used to listen to CDs at Borders in order to learn about new artists and decide whose music I wanted to buy. I remember being at Borders one day and listening to Norah Jones' new CD. I'd never heard of her before but really liked her music. It turned out that she was going to be performing at that Borders and signing copies of her album. I was tempted to go. I was working all the time, as usual, and I thought it'd be fun to take time off, listen to a new artist, and get her autograph. But I was sensible and stayed home instead to get some work done. Soon after that, Norah Jones won a bunch of Grammys for her album and became a superstar. And I wanted to kick myself for giving up the opportunity to see her, because now it would probably cost a lot of money to watch her perform when I could have seen her at Borders for free.

So now I write in coffeehouses every week. Because everybody needs a break, even me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My neighbors are making me sick

A lot of the work I do is done at home. I grade papers, write lesson plans, respond to students' e-mails, and complete my own research for my graduate studies. I also have a part-time job working for a website, and I am able to complete this work on my laptop. I have a desk at school, but I'm only on campus three or four days a week and I do my work every day.

The problem is my neighbors' smoking. They have a right to smoke in their own apartments. But I have a right to breathe freely in my apartment. I also should not have health problems because of my neighbors' habits. Every night the people who live next door come home and smoke for hours. How do I know? Because the smell of their smoke seeps into my apartment. I've tried opening my windows to air out the place, but my apartment happens to be on the second floor, directly above the front door. Several people in the building smoke in the doorway, so whenever my window is open the stink of their cigarette smoke comes into my apartment. It's ironic that they smoke outside so that their own apartments won't smell bad, but in the process they make my own apartment reek. I wish I could post a NO SMOKING sign on my door and on my window. I've also thought about pouring a bucket of freezing water over the smokers' heads, but I guess that would be too extreme.

I've tried using scented candles, air purifiers, Febreze, and potpourri to resolve the problem, but nothing really works. It's not like I can knock on my neighbors' door and ask them to stop smoking. I have considered, though, asking the people who smoke outside to at least step away from the doorway so that their smoke doesn't come directly into my apartment. Or would that be rude? I've also been tempted to slip a package of nicotine gum under my neighbors' door, though I guess that would be rude too. But it's often hard to complete my work when I keep coughing and sneezing from all the cigarette smoke. They say if you can't beat them, join 'em. But cigarettes are really expensive, and I'm too broke to smoke.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not a Public Library

   Do you know how people say that teachers are underpaid? It's painfully true. Ever since I started teaching, I have always had to work at least two or three jobs at the same time in order to support myself. I don't have expensive tastes or anything; my biggest extravagance is buying a mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks once a week. But since one (or even two) part-time college teaching job is not enough to pay the bills, I have to work additional jobs.
   One job I had a few years ago was as a bookseller. In several ways, being a bookseller was okay. I got a decent employee's discount. I got to work with books. I got to help out at booksignings and listen to interesting authors talk about their work. Every once in a while, I'd get to chat with a friendly customer about the books that he or she was reading, and they'd ask me to recommend a book that I liked.
   After I started working there for a while, I was able to recognize the regulars. The thing about a big bookstore chain is that they let people hang out for hours and read books without paying for them (as long as they don't leave the store with the books they haven't paid for, of course). I admit that when I have time off I like hanging out at bookstores too. But more often than not, after poring over a book for a while, I'll save up the money and buy it if I really like it. But from what I observed as a bookseller, many people treated the place more like a public library than a bookstore. Even though booksellers generally don't mind if you read the books without paying for them, at the same time it is important to have some paying customers. The reason is that part-time employees in particular are more likely to get more hours of work each week if more people are buying stuff. And we need those hours.
   One girl used to come to the store almost every day and read books, though I don't remember her ever buying anything. I didn't really mind her, though, because she was quiet and stayed out of the way. And she always put the book she was reading back in the right place. So customers like her were okay. But what bothered me were the customers who would sit on those stools that employees like me needed to use in order to reach the books on the higher shelves. Even after I sometimes asked them politely to move so that I could use the stool, they'd just wait until I was done and then take over the stool again. Or other customers would actually stretch out on the floor as if they were at home or something, and other customers would have to step over them because the ones lying down wouldn't even try to get out of the way. Then they'd scatter the books all over the floor or put them back in the wrong place, so that if a paying customer wanted one of those books, it'd be that much harder for a seller like me to find it. And I'd get blamed for not being able to find it.
    People often complain about rude cashiers, and I will admit that there are rude cashiers out there. None of the employees at the store where I worked, however, were like this. The cashiers there worked hard, and they all went through rigorous training. Not to mention there was always at least one manager around supervising us to make sure that we treated each customer with respect. But some customers who were on power trips thought they had the right to treat us like crap. One guy kept insulting me in order to make his girlfriend laugh, and she did. She thought it was hilarious to see my face turn red when he kept making fun of me. Another guy used to come in the store all the time; he'd pull dozens of books off the shelves and then tell the employees to put them on hold for him, but he'd never buy anything. Then he'd come back the next day and do the same thing. Once when he handed me a stack of books to put on hold, he said, "You know why you're stupid? Because you're slow in the head, that's why." And I hadn't even said anything beyond hello yet. Another guy got mad because I accidentally tore a small edge of the book flap on his book when I was ringing it up; I offered to give him a discount or get him another copy. His response? He started yelling and cursing me, and he kept calling me a jerk in front of the other customers. And it was all I could do not to cry and to keep working.
    Many people would ask me if I knew what time the shoe store or the restaurant down the street opened or closed, and rather than walk for about three minutes and just see for themselves, they'd insist that I ask all the other employees until I found someone who knew the answer. Other customers would get upset because they couldn't find a certain magazine and threatened to shop at another store because The Economist wasn't where it was supposed to be.
     I stayed with this job for months because I needed the money and I needed the health insurance. I was able to get health insurance as a part-time bookseller, but not as an adjunct instructor at any of the colleges where I was teaching. I kept telling myself that it was all part of the learning experience, but there were some times where I wanted to stand up to one of those mean customers, if only just once. On my worst days, I wanted to scream at one of those customers who treated me like I was their own personal tour guide to Chicago; I wanted to say, "Open a freaking map and figure it out for yourself, BITCH. I am NOT the expert on Chicago." But I didn't. I kept working instead.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


    I didn't go to Mass every Sunday this year, largely because of work. I stayed home, grading papers or reading books in preparation for my preliminary exams. I felt guilty for not going, but I was always on a deadline and had to get the work done sooner rather than later.
    I know several Catholics who don't go to Mass at all or only go twice a year, on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. But I think it's important to attend church every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. In college, I did a project on Islam for my theology class. I interviewed several Muslim students. One girl said something which really impressed me: "It's not just a religion; it's a way of life." It made me think of how they incorporated their beliefs into their lives and devoted themselves to those beliefs.
   So I've started going to church regularly again. I went to Mass for Easter, and the church was packed, unlike on regular Sundays.
   When I go to Mass I get fidgety. Suddenly my nose starts running and I keep sniffling. I blow my nose with a Kleenex, but worry that people near me might think my hands are germy now and won't want to shake hands when we say peace to each other. Then I keep feeling the urge to cough, and when I do I worry about my germy hands again. Once I kept coughing and a woman wouldn't shake hands when we said peace to each other. She just gave me a look that was decidely un-Christian. On another occasion, I coughed and a woman gave me a cough drop. Now I bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer with me.
   But I still feel fidgety. I feel like everyone behind me is staring at the wrinkles on my pants because I didn't have time to iron that morning. My side suddenly itches but I don't want to keep scratching myself and look weird as a result. The itching subsides when I feel guilty for thinking too much about how other people see me and not paying enough attention to the Mass itself.
    I look up at the priest giving the homily. I wonder if it bothers him when he looks out at the congregation and sees people sneaking in fifteen, thirty, or even forty minutes late. People are on time for movies and baseball games but not for Mass. I wonder if it bothers him when someone's cell phone starts ringing and keeps ringing for several moments, because apparently the cell phone's owner has gone temporarily deaf.
    Often little kids will break away from their parents and go running up and down the aisles. The parents bring them back to their pews, but a minute later the kids start running off again. I wonder if that bothers the priest too or if he just doesn't get easily irritated like I do.
    I keep thinking about all the work that I have to do. I distract myself by focusing on the prayers and the songs. Sometimes I wish the cantor wouldn't sing all five or six verses of each song. One of my pet peeves is that people will often stand up to go up and receive Communion when there are still several rows of people ahead of them. Then I feel pressured to stand. Maybe they're afraid that there won't be any more Communion hosts left when they get up there. Maybe they just don't want to kneel anymore. Or maybe they're planning to leave early, right after Communion. I know that bothers the priests. I think about how much work they put into organizing each Mass, and how it must affect them when people don't stay the whole time.
    I come back to my pew after receiving Communion and the couple who were sitting next to me have already reached the pew, because they didn't stop to take a sip of the wine. The woman is already kneeling, so I nudge her husband politely to get her to stand up so that I can make my way to my seat. But he just looks at me and shrugs and they both refuse to move. Hmm. I'm not sure that's what Jesus would do. I walk around the pew to get to my seat.
    Mass ends and I walk out with everyone else. Some people hold their church bulletins close to their chests, as if they're letting everyone know that they just went to church. I go home and go back to work, but I resolve to focus more on the Mass than on myself and other people next time. But I'll still bring hand sanitizer, just in case.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Letting Other People Read My Writing

I've kept journals ever since I was in the first grade; I have stacks of notebooks in my closet that I can't bring myself to throw out. I've thought about keeping a blog for a while, but I had my doubts about it at first. Unlike many people in my generation, I don't have a Twitter page, a MySpace page, or a Facebook page. I don't even like texting. And I always thought that a journal was supposed to be private, so that I'd feel more comfortable about expressing my ideas without worrying about other people criticizing my writing.
Even though I've wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid, I've always been shy about showing my work to other people. I took a fiction writing class when I was in college and wrote some really bad short stories that got some not-so-great feedback that was mostly deserved. What bothered me, though, was that one student said that the plot of one of my stories sounded like a recently published novel, though I had definitely NOT plagiarized it. The irony, though, was a few months after the class ended I read a novel by a different writer and realized that a scene in that novel strongly resembled a short story that everyone in my fiction writing class had praised. (Unfortunately, that story wasn't written by the student who criticized my story or I would SO have e-mailed everyone in the class about it because I'm spiteful like that). On a side note, people might accuse me of being hypocritical because the title of my blog, "Obsessions of a Workaholic," is a play off of the title of Sophie Kinsella's novel Confessions of a Shopaholic. But I figured it'd be okay since I've never read that book and I've seen other people create titles that play around with titles that have already been published. For example, Chelsea Handler titled one of her memoirs, Are You There Vodka? It's Me Chelsea. As most people familiar with Judy Blume know, that's a play off her title Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
Also, I was kind of nervous about keeping a blog partly because I'm a writing teacher, and I've heard of some teachers who lost their jobs because of what they wrote in their blogs. But I figure that as long as I write stuff that I wouldn't be embarrassed to show my students or my parents, then it should be okay.
The good thing about the Internet is that it allows people to be anonymous and lets them write things that they might not have the courage to say in person.
The bad thing about the Internet is that it allows people to be anonymous and lets them write things that they might not have the courage to say in person.
Sometimes I read message boards for movies, TV shows, or even news articles, and some people write really nasty comments about the content. It can be disturbing, sad, and also kind of funny sometimes. One of my obsessions is watching music videos on Youtube, and it's amusing to see how some people will not only post mean comments about the videos but will also get into arguments with each other about those comments. Here's a fictionalized example of comments to a Miley Cyrus video (and yes, I do like some of Miley's music, even though I'm more than a decade older than she is. There! I said it!).

Miley4Ever: This song is so amazing Miley's so cool!
JustinBiebersGirl: UR an idiot mileys music isnt half as good as taylor swift though JustinBieber is the Best Iloveyou Justin
TooCoolforPop: I can't believe people listen to this crap
SelfPromotingSinger: My musics much better check out my video where I sing the same song only much better
Miley4Ever: TooCool your crap your not cool at all
TooCoolforPop: You really are an idiot. You can't even spell "you're" correctly. Read a book instead of listening to this crap.

Most of my writing consists of making lesson plans, writing e-mails to students, jotting down comments on students' papers, and writing my own papers. So when I write in my journal, it's always a relief to write something that's just for me. But now, after reading several really interesting blogs on, I finally realized that blogging is a good opportunity to make connections through writing.