Monday, May 30, 2011

A Salesgirl's Requests

Recently, there was a big fuss over a list of "diva demands" that the singer Katy Perry made. When she performed in a concert at Australia, she had very specific instructions for her dressing room: "a dressing room draped in cream or soft pink, with two comfortable egg chairs, a 'perspex modern style' coffee table and two 'french ornate style floor lamps." She also had a very specific driver's policy: "chauffeurs must not start a conversation with Katy, stare at her through the rear view mirror, or ask for autographs or pictures, especially while driving."

I've heard of other "diva demands" that celebrities make. For example, I read an article that said that Van Halen demands "a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed" and Cher demands "a separate room for her wigs". Whenever I hear these types of stories about celebrities,  I'm more amused than anything else. They're famous, they're rich, and they let their "power" go to their heads a little (or a lot).

But it made me think of what it would be like if "ordinary" workers like me could make demands of their employers. For example, I recently started a new part-time job selling overpriced souvenirs at the Tourist Trap. It made me reflect on all the retail jobs that I've had over the past several years. I wouldn't dare to actually present my retail employers with a list of demands, because I would definitely get in trouble and possibly lose my job. (Either that or I'd be given a list of b.s. reasons why the employers can't or won't fulfill those demands.) But I thought of a few "requests" that I wish I could make.

1. Give me a uniform that actually fits. All the retail jobs that I've had set up very strict dress codes for their employees: no tattoos, no dyed hair, no "inappropriate piercings", no T-shirts that say "This store SUCKS and everyone who shops here is a SUCKER." Dress codes don't bother me, especially because I wore a uniform for twelve years of Catholic school.

But if you're going to make me wear a uniform with the store's logo printed all over it, do you think you could give me a uniform that isn't two or three sizes too big? And also? If you're going to schedule me to work three days in a row, do you think you could give me more than one uniform? That way I won't have to hand wash my uniform every night (I'm not getting paid enough to use the coin-operated laundry machine more than once a week) or make the choice to not wash my uniform and then worry about customers backing away from me and wrinkling their noses, saying, "What's that smell?"

2. Ease up on the pressure about the "add-ons". When you go shopping, do you ever feel slightly annoyed because the cashier or the salesperson tries to get you to "add on" to the purchase by suggesting additional items that you could buy? Or does the cashier ever try to pressure you to sign up for the store credit card?

It used to annoy me too, until I had to do the same thing at all my retail jobs. FYI, most salespeople don't really want to pressure you to buy something that you don't really need. We also don't like reciting the same sales pitch a hundred (or more) times a day. But we also have supervisors and managers breathing down our necks (this is literally true; sometimes they'll stand there and watch us interact with customers, and then when the customers leave the managers will tell us everything we did wrong) to make sure that we get customers to "add on" to their purchases.

Doing these things helps the store make money. The salespeople are given sales quotas to fulfill each day, and if we don't make our quotas, then one of several things could happen: 1) one of the managers will take us aside and counsel us on how to do our jobs more effectively; 2) we won't get as many shifts as the people who do make their quotas; 3) we won't get chosen as Employee of the Month, and then we won't get the extra few bucks added to our paychecks or the gift card to a restaurant that we couldn't afford to get into otherwise on our paltry wages.

3. If you're not going to let me earn a commission, at least let me keep the tips that customers try to give me. Occasionally a nice customer will have a few cents in change but will tell me to keep it. What the customer doesn't know, however, is that I'm not allowed to keep it. Baristas at coffeehouses are allowed to get tips, but cashiers at retailers are not.

Don't get me wrong. Since I work in retail and not food service, I don't expect tips. It's not like I'm going to set out a "Tips" cup by the cash register. But if a customer offers me a tip, I'd like to keep it, especially since it usually only adds up to a dollar or two a day. And seeing as how the store makes more money in one day than I do in a year, would it really be losing any money if I were to keep those tips? I don't keep them, but it'd be nice if I could. It's not like I'm taking money out of the register, and I would never do that either.

4. Positive reinforcement doesn't mean as much as a salary that I could actually live on. At one of my retail jobs, we were given stickers if we made our sales quota for the day. Getting stickers for good work made me happy when I was ten. But now that I'm thirty and I have expenses that don't include bubble gum and Sweet Valley Twins books, a sticker isn't going to mean much to me. Or my landlord.

I admit that it is nice when my employers praise me for a job well done. But you know what else would be nice? Not having to worry about how I'm going to pay my rent when the store cuts my hours because it's providing paid training to a new group of employees or because it's not making enough money.

5. Please stop micro-managing me. The thing about working in retail is that there are always at least half a dozen supervisors and managers who are watching my every move. I can understand why they want to make sure that every employee is doing his or her job, because one of their main concerns is the bottom line. It is a business after all, and they need to make sure that the store is making money.

But please don't make me refold a whole stack of sweaters that I've been folding for the past ten minutes just because all the size stickers don't perfectly line up, especially since the next group of customers is going to undo the whole stack in five seconds. Please don't reprimand me because I didn't greet that one customer because I was busy refolding those sweaters. Please don't remind me six times in one shift to get as many customers to "add on" to their purchases as possible. Please don't lecture the staff about communication issues if I can't get a straight answer from you about why I didn't get a significant raise (or any raise at all) after working for the store for one year or more. It can be really frustrating to have half a dozen people telling me what to do, and it can be even more frustrating when they keep telling me the same thing over and over and over again, especially if I'm not even making any mistakes. (It's like they're the Energizer Bunnies of retail.)

6. Give me a more reasonable amount of time for breaks. It's not unusual to only get one ten minute break in a five hour shift, or to only get one half-hour lunch break in a six hour shift. On my last shift, I got to sit down for exactly five minutes. That's because it took me more than twenty minutes to navigate the crowd of tourists at the food court, get the free soda that all the employees were raving about as one of our "perks" for working at the store, and find my way back to the breakroom. From now on, I'm just going to bring my lunch, but it's hard to figure out what to bring because there's no refrigerator where I can store it.

I did say that I am grateful to have part-time jobs that can help me pay the bills while I am in graduate school. When I took this job at Tourist Trap, I thought about holding on to it even after the summer ended. It would mean extra money that I could definitely use. But I already have my hands full during the school year with my dissertation, teaching, and my website job; I'm not sure if I could take on another job. I don't think I want to, especially because after my last shift, I came home so tired that I immediately went to bed and slept for four hours. I woke up at ten P.M. and was too tired to eat dinner, so I went back to sleep again and slept through the night. I haven't been that exhausted since I was an adjunct with three jobs, working seven days a week. So it's in situations like these that I don't feel grateful so much as just worn out, angry, and bitter because I can't do anything to change the way retail employees are treated. And I feel even more worn out when I think about how I can't just quit, because I need this job.

Now that I think about it, it does bother me when divas like Katy Perry (though I do love her music) make outrageous demands, especially since "commoners" like me aren't in a position to make demands of our employers. If I were to present any of my retail employers with these requests, I'm fairly certain that there would be at least a dozen people waiting to take my job if I were to "act out" too much.

If you could present your employer with a list of "demands", what would they be? (I'm not suggesting you actually do this.) But if you could do it, what kinds of things would you ask for?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not My Real Job

Recently, I had a dream about chemistry bachelor #4. I dreamed that we were having drinks at the place where we first met in person, except there was no one else there but us. Well, there was one other customer there: a clown who looked like one of those evil clowns from a scary movie who seem nice and unassuming at first, right before they snap and start chasing people around with knives. Geraldo Rivera was serving us drinks. (Side note: I wish I could say I was making this up. But I'm not. I just have really weird dreams.)

I'm not sure what the dream meant; obviously, I doubt that it meant that bachelor #4 and I are meant to be together. I also kind of have this phobia about clowns, which may explain why the evil clown in my dream kept grinning at me in a sinister way while making balloon animals. (Even in my sleep I'm neurotic.) But I thought that maybe I should face my fears of rejection and go ahead and contact chemistry bachelor #4 rather than wait for him to call me.

I left him a message saying that if he ever wanted to hang out again, he could call me. But he didn't.

It was disappointing, but to be honest, I was more disappointed when NBC cancelled Law and Order (I curse you, NBC! A plague on all your reality shows!). I didn't really feel that strongly about this guy, but I was willing to meet up with him again to see if anything more could develop. Obviously, he didn't feel the same way. But on the other hand, I'm trying to view rejection in dating in a similar way that I view rejection when it comes to writing: I'd rather be able to say that I put myself out there than to say that I was too afraid to try at all.

Anyway, my membership recently expired, and I'm actually kind of relieved. It's nice to be taking a break from online dating, though I think I'm only going to take a break for a few weeks. Once it gets to be fall, I'll be extra busy with teaching again, and I won't have as much time for dating. So I figure I'll try again in June or July. But next time, I'm going to rejoin okcupid (I was a member two years ago) because it's a free dating site, and I can't afford to renew my chemistry membership right now.

In the meantime, I'm going to focus on my work. This summer I'll be working on my dissertation as well as projects for my website job, and I'm going to be tutoring the daughter of one of my parents' friends, since she's taking summer classes. I'm also going to be working yet another retail job; this time it's at a place that I will refer to in this blog as the Tourist Trap.

I didn't really want to work in retail again. I had hoped to get a job as a barista at one of the coffeehouses that I frequent, because then I could get free coffee. I also thought it'd be nice to get a job in an office, because at least then I could sit down rather than stand for eight hours a day. I didn't want to work as a waitress, even though I've heard that the servers at upscale restaurants make a lot of money. I can hardly walk without tripping over myself (again, I wish I could say I was making this up), and so I'm pretty sure that most (if not all) of the customers would end up wearing their food rather than eating it by the end of my first shift. 

But the retail employers were the ones who quickly responded with job offers, since I have years of retail experience as a bookseller and as a clothing store employee. And it's not like I could say to them, "I'm actually waiting to hear back from the employers that I'd rather work for. Could I call you back if they don't hire me?"

When you work in retail, you have to be willing to work nights and weekends, and you have to be willing to work on holidays. That means that if your family lives in a different state like mine does, you have to accept the fact that you can't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with them, at least not until January. You also have to stand for several hours at a time and smile at every single customer, even if on the inside you're thinking, I think my lips are going to fall off my face if I keep smiling.

Working in retail generally means working for low wages, even if the products that you're selling are worth more than what you would earn in a day. Some places offer "competitive wages", but I've steered clear of jobs that pay on commission; I'd still have to work eight or nine hour shifts with no guarantee of making a lot of money. As Barbara Ehrenreich did an excellent job of proving in her book Nickel and Dimed, it's not possible to support yourself on one minimum-wage job; you have to have at least two. The retail employers try to make up for the low wages with "benefits" like employee discounts and "gifts" like free water bottles and the occasional pizza or doughnuts at store meetings. I think it's because ultimately those things cost employers less money than it would to pay their employees higher wages. I'd rather just get paid more. But I digress.

When I first started working in retail, I was also working as an adjunct instructor. I always thought that once I started teaching, I wouldn't have to work minimum-wage jobs anymore. When I was an undergrad, I thought that all I had to do was earn good grades, work hard, and gain experience in my chosen field; I thought that that would be enough to enable me to succeed.  But despite the fact that I was teaching at more than one school, I was barely earning enough to make ends meet. Also, I couldn't get health insurance or benefits as an untenured college instructor, but I could get those things as a part-time retail associate. So I started working in a bookstore; I'd usually teach in the mornings and sell books at night and on the weekends.

At first I was embarrassed to be working a minimum-wage job. I thought that I should only be doing work that my education had geared me for. I also thought it would be embarrassing to be several years older than most of my coworkers and even some of my supervisors.

I was also afraid of what my students would think if they saw me shelving books or operating a cash register. I thought that one of my former high school or college classmates, now rich and successful, would stride into the store in a business suit, take one look at me, and exclaim, "I can't believe you work here!" And then that classmate would laugh and tell all our other former classmates. When I did run into people I knew, I felt like I had to explain to them that this retail job wasn't my real job; I was also working as a teacher.

But as I got to know my coworkers, I started thinking a lot more about the lives and stories of low-wage workers and why they had these jobs. A lot of them were college students who were working their way through school. Others were retired high school teachers or laid-off corporate employees. There were also aspiring novelists, poets, musicians, and actors. Others were like me: people who had liberal arts degrees (and in some cases, advanced degrees) but couldn't find enough (or any) work in their fields that would pay the bills, so they had to moonlight in retail.  What we all had in common was that even though we didn't like the long hours on our feet, the repetitive work, or the low wages, we were still willing to work hard and do what we had to do in order to survive. (Side note: I also learned that it is not unusual for adjunct instructors to work multiple jobs. Most of the adjuncts I knew worked at least two or three jobs.) 

It's definitely humbling to be earning minimum wage at age thirty when other people my age or younger are making millions. But I know that deep down I shouldn't feel embarrassed about working in retail, because it's honest work and I'm doing what I can to support myself. So are all the other people working alongside me.

Side note: Check out this article on people who are "overqualified and underemployed"; it refers to part-time jobs as "survival jobs", which is a term that I really like and that is definitely accurate.

Working these types of jobs makes me appreciate teaching and my graduate work even more. It motivates me to do everything I can to succeed in my field, even though it is difficult to find time to balance multiple jobs and my graduate work. Although teachers don't earn a lot of money either, at least teaching is a job that I am truly passionate about and that I hope to do until I retire, which for me will probably be when I'm no longer physically able to work or when I'm 90, whichever comes first.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation where you were underemployed and underpaid?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Loneliness is Good for the Writer's Soul

I first started writing stories when my third grade teacher showed us how as part of a creative writing assignment. I wrote stories (complete with illustrations) about a girl my age who lived in the woods. I wish I'd kept them.

I started reading a lot when I was in the third grade too. I read through almost all the books in my teacher's classroom library and earned several of those Book-It Pizza Hut gift certificates (remember those?). I especially enjoyed Beverly Cleary's books, because she seemed to understand just how little girls my age viewed the world.

I kept reading all the books I could get my hands on, and I kept writing stories and jotting down my ideas and feelings in journals too. One reason I read and wrote so much was because I didn't have any close friends in grade school. I grew up in a very small Midwestern town and went to an even smaller Catholic school; the cliques formed in the first grade and more or less stayed intact through senior year of high school.

I always hated recess, because I used to stand on the sidelines and watch the girls play tag or other games. I'd call out tentatively and hopefully, "Can I play?" Once in a while they'd say yes, and I'd run with them, happy that I got to be included. More often than not they'd say, "Sure, but after we finish this game," and I'd watch them keep playing until the bell rang and we had to go back inside.

I dreaded class field trips because of the bus rides. I usually didn't have anyone to sit with, so I was stuck sitting next to a teacher or by one of the "couples", who were never very happy to have me invade their "couple" time (yeah, like I was ecstatic about it).

I was one of the "smart" kids, so I wasn't completely ostracized. The other kids were usually nice to me when they needed help with their homework. And if one of the kids had a birthday party where the whole class was invited, then I would get invited too.

When I got to junior high and high school, though, kids started throwing parties where only the ones playing on sports teams or who were on the cheerleading squad were invited. In my hometown, sports was the main form of recreation, so if you weren't athletic, then you were "out".

So I played along for a while and joined several teams and even became a cheerleader for a while, even though I am one of the most physically uncoordinated people you will ever meet.

First of all, I almost always get hit by the ball, even when I'm watching a game; that was why I often would run away from the ball when it came at me, which really wasn't the best idea when I was playing in a game. Second of all, when it came to cheerleading, I couldn't do the splits, because I had this slightly irrational fear that I might rip my entire body in half if I did them. I also couldn't do cartwheels, because I was afraid I might land on my face and then the crowd in the bleachers would shrink back in horror at the sight of all the blood and think that they had stepped into a scary movie titled Klutzy Cheerleader Gone MAD.

The fact that I wasn't good at sports didn't help me make friends and only made even more people make fun of me. In both grade school and high school I was often the butt of other people's jokes. They'd laugh and say, "It's just a joke. Can't you take a joke?" I wasn't even allowed to feel bad about the fact that they didn't realize how much they hurt my feelings. Looking back now, I realize that I was overly sensitive sometimes, and I did take some things way too seriously. But sometimes, the other kids were just being jerks.

Since I didn't have any close friends to talk to when I was a kid, I wrote down a lot of what I was thinking and feeling in my journals. Being one of the "quiet" kids made me a lot more observant of the world around me.

For example, once I was walking around outside with a group of girls from my class; I think we were doing some kind of outdoor class project. I pointed at a bird hopping towards a tree and said to one of the girls, "Look at the way that bird is moving." She laughed and said, "I can't believe you even noticed that!" She told the other girls, who thought it was hilarious too. After that I kept most of my observations to myself, and wrote them down instead. I wrote down a description of the bird I'd seen, and I wrote down how I felt when the other girls laughed at me.

It wasn't until high school, when a few new students arrived, that I finally started making friends. I became a "drama geek", even though I was neither a good actor nor a good singer. That would probably be why I always ended up with the small roles, where I'd show up on stage and say three or four lines and then try not to trip as I made my exit. But even so, I finally made friends and was happy.

The only time I really felt left out in high school was when my friends started dating. My parents were very strict and said that I should focus on getting into a good college, not on getting a boyfriend. I was, however, allowed to go on "dates" to dances.

I don't really think of those nights out as real dates, though. I think of them more as "Let's all get dressed up in uncomfortable, expensive clothes that we will never wear again, and then let's all stand in a circle and show off the five dance moves that we know while we dance to interminably long songs like 'American Pie' and think to ourselves, For the love of God, does this song NEVER END? And then let's all start line-dancing (hey, this was the Midwest) or do the Macarena (hey, it was the 90s, and we all thought it was fun; it wasn't until later that we realized how stupid it looked). Then when the slow songs start up, let's all pair off and sway back and forth and try not to sweat on each other."

Because I didn't really date in high school, I stayed home on the nights that my friends and classmates went out with their boyfriends. I wrote stories about unrequited crushes, teenage bookworms like me, and I wrote down my dreams of escaping my hometown, even though I loved it because it was familiar and the only home that I knew at the time.

When I went to college in a bigger city, I felt freer to step outside of my shell because it was the first time in my life that I was living in a place where everyone didn't know me and every single embarrassing thing I'd ever done. It was easier to meet people during freshman year in particular, because everyone was new and eager to make friends. I went around with a group of girls and guys, but by sophomore year the big circle of friends became smaller; I stayed friends with the people I had more in common with.

At my college, a lot of people went off-campus on the weekends, usually because they went home to visit their families or boyfriends or girlfriends. I stayed on-campus, because my family lived in a different state. I started walking around the city and soaking up as much of it as I could.

A lot of the other college kids I knew were more interested in partying and going to bars. I went with them a few times. Once I went to a bar with a group of people. A few of the girls jumped up on top of the bar and started dancing. They beckoned to me to join them. I am not a very good dancer, and I didn't really want to advertise that fact to all the people watching. I also thought I might fall on top of the people watching and then there'd be all this beer and blood everywhere, and then I'd get thrown out of the bar. I remember looking around at all the people standing around drinking and checking each other out without talking to each other, and I remember how lonely and bored I felt. I made up an excuse and left early, and I wrote down a description of the scene for a story.

Now that I'm older, it's more difficult to meet new people and make friends. After college, most of the people I knew moved away to different cities for jobs or grad school. Now that I'm thirty, most of the people my age are married and have children now; they're busy with their families. Other people I know have full-time jobs and work long hours; they have little time for socializing. I don't get to go out a lot either, because I'm busy with school during the week. My retail jobs often require me to work on weekends when everyone else goes out.

But I do still have a small circle of friends from high school and college. We see each other once or twice a month. But to this day I am still a loner. I actually enjoy doing a lot of things on my own, like watch movies, explore interesting neighborhoods, go to museums on free admission days, watch plays at tiny theaters that sell inexpensive tickets, or eat lunch in cheap but good restaurants. I don't feel the need to always be with other people in order to do things that interest me. In college, I had this friend who would always ask me, "Who'd you go with?" whenever I told him about how I went to a concert or a new bookstore. He could never understand why I liked going on my own.

I read somewhere that solitude can be good for writers, because it makes us more observant of things that we might not have noticed if we were with other people. I think that that's true. And when you grow up feeling lonely a lot of the time, you can either spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself, or you can put that loneliness to good use. I don't think it's good to completely isolate yourself, and I don't do that anyway. But I think that the fact that I grew up feeling lonely a lot of the time fueled my writing. I don't think you can't be a good writer if you were/are popular, because you can still generate good material from the memories you make with your friends. Either way, I think it all depends on how you utilize your personality, childhood, and relationships with other people when you sit down to write.

What about you? What motivated you to start writing?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Now that summer is coming up, several people I know are making vacation plans. One person I know is spending several weeks in Europe; another person went to the Bahamas. Other people I know are planning cross-country road trips.

What will I be doing? Working, of course!

One reason that I work so much is that I can't afford not to. Several of the other grad students rely on student loans or help from spouses with full-time jobs; I don't have either. I have a teaching assistantship that provides me with a monthly stipend, but it isn't enough to live on.

I can't work a regular full-time job because the classes I teach are often in the middle of the day, and the class schedule changes every few months. So I "moonlight" by working additional part-time jobs to help make ends meet. I currently work part-time for a website.

I've worked as an adjunct instructor at different schools around the city, but I'm not working as an adjunct as often anymore because a) the adjunct positions are difficult to get since instructors are hired on an as-needed basis; b) the pay is extremely low, because apparently untenured faculty members don't need to have enough money for luxuries like rent and groceries; c) it can be very tiring to grade up to a hundred or more papers every week, especially when I also have my own graduate work to do.

College teaching jobs are difficult to come by in the summer. I was offered an adjunct position for a summer session at one school, but it paid less than what I would have earned working in retail for the same amount of time. I was lucky last summer in that I had a well-paying teaching job, but this summer I'm looking for at least one more part-time job to supplement the income from my website job.

So lately I've been scanning the Craiglist job ads for openings; I've also filled out online applications on the websites of different companies and stores that I'm interested in working for. I applied to a couple of temp agencies; one of them responded and said that I didn't have enough administrative experience (I haven't worked in an office since I did internships in college) but suggested that I apply to a different temp agency that offered warehouse positions.

(Side note: I read somewhere that people with graduate degrees are both overqualified and underqualified for many jobs outside of academia. I have heard of people with master's degrees and Ph.D.s succeeding outside of the academic world, but most people I know are working towards careers in teaching and research, as am I.)

I applied for other "assistant" positions at various offices, since they pay more than retail jobs, but it is true that they require a lot of skills that I don't have.

For example, I'm not familiar with several computer programs; although I can do my website job effectively, it's very likely that if I were given responsibility for most work involving a computer, at least two things could happen: a) the computer could break down, and then I, subsequently, would break down too, shrieking, "I don't know what happened! I just turned on the computer and it suddenly malfunctioned out of terror or revenge, or possibly both! I think it HATES me!" or b) I would lose a bunch of important files, and then the corporate employees would start talking to me like I'm eight years old in order to get me to understand how to work the darn thing, although eight year olds could probably operate computers better than I can, considering how technologically savvy kids are these days.

The one field outside of academia that I do have the most experience in is retail, so a lot of the jobs I've been applying for are in retail. Recently I went in for an interview for a "retail associate" position. When the interviewer told me how much the wages were, I swallowed hard but managed to keep a straight face, acting like it didn't bother me that I would have to work several hours to earn enough money to buy just one product from that store.

Even though I'm a workaholic, I wish that I had the time and money to go on my own vacation to some place I haven't been to before, like New York, Boston, or even a foreign country, like Italy. I don't get to do a lot of traveling; twice a year I visit my parents, who live in another state, for  a couple weeks each time. But during the rest of the year, I am working.

Someday, when I complete my Ph.D., I hope to find a full-time teaching job. It's okay if it's not a tenured position (though that is the ultimate goal of most Ph.D. candidates), because those are extremely difficult to get. But for me, being able to teach at a good school and earn enough money to live on without having to work additional jobs would be more than enough.

The fact that I don't earn a lot of money makes me a lot more careful about how I manage the money that I do earn. That's why I read blogs about saving money, like the one that Donna Freedman writes. Her blog is called Surviving and Thriving and is filled with great advice. She also writes a column for MSN Money's Smart Spending. She and I have exchanged several e-mails, and she was kind and generous enough to give me coupons for a free movie pass and a free soda at the theater, as well as a coupon for a free frozen dinner. It thrilled me to be able to watch a movie for free, especially since I only watch movies two or three times a year. It also thrilled me that the soda they gave me at the theater was HUGE, because I love Coca-Cola, even though a couple of my brain cells probably die every time I drink it.

Incidentally, I recently won the grand prize in Donna's annual giveaway on her blog: a $100 gift card! Thank you, Donna! I was really hoping for the gift card, because my dissertation committee has assigned me a very long reading list that includes many books that aren't available in the library. A few months ago, I also won a prize in one of Donna's weekly giveaways (she hosts one every Friday on her blog); I won several different kinds of Godiva chocolate.

Winning prizes like that makes me think of those rare good weather days in Chicago; because the weather is so extreme the rest of the year, everyone always takes advantage of the mild weather on those days and goes outside. (Then again, for us Chicagoans, anything above thirty degrees or even anything in the double digits is considered a good day.) So winning a gift card and chocolate, saving money through coupons, and being careful about how much I spend and where I spend it have taught me to value my money. I've also learned to be grateful that I have the opportunity to work part-time jobs; even though the paychecks are smaller than I'd like, they're better than no paychecks at all.

It also makes me a lot more aware of the people who have less money or no money at all. So I try to help them in small ways. I can't write a big check to charities, but I usually say yes (unless I'm really hard up for cash) when the cashiers at grocery stores ask me if I'd like to donate a few bucks to whatever charity they're sponsoring that week. I also set aside a few dollars to buy Streetwise papers each week, which is the newspaper that homeless people sell on street corners; I think they get to keep $1.25 out of every $2. Sometimes I give sandwiches or bags of chips to other homeless people. I gave away bags of clothes and shoes that were still in good condition to the Salvation Army.

Donna also says that people should set aside a few bucks every week for a "cash cache", or an emergency fund. That's what I've been doing too. Recently I found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk when I was running errands. I put it into my "cash cache". Although it's technically my emergency fund, I've secretly named it my "vacation fund" as well. Someday, when I have enough money, I'd like to take my own vacation, escape from all of my work, and have a chance to breathe, for the first time in years.

What about you? Have you ever done any moonlighting? What kinds of part-time jobs/day jobs have you had, and what did you like best/least about them?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Like at First Sight

Recently I went on a date with chemistry bachelor #4. We'd been e-mailing each other and talking on the phone for a while, so we finally set up a time to meet in person.

We had the usual first date conversation, where we asked each other questions about our work and what we did for fun. There were a few instances where I thought, Wait, did I tell him this story already the last time we talked on the phone? Or did I tell this story to one of my other first dates?

Then I started thinking that a) I've been on so many first dates that they've started to blur together; b) I should really come up with something else to talk about on first dates; maybe I should come up with a list of topics to talk about beforehand, except then I might forget what was on the list and I don't want to have to check it during the date. Then he'll think I'm so neurotic/nervous that I had to come up with a crib sheet before the date and he'll pretend that he has just come down with a life-threatening illness, right before he runs in the opposite direction; c) why is it I can always remember the time I started shrieking and jumping up and down like a monkey at the sight of a spider crawling on a student's shoulder when I was teaching a class, but I can't remember whether I told a guy the same story more than once?

It kind of seemed from his body language like he wasn't that interested in me. It seemed like he was ready to leave before the date was over. Also, he didn't look me in the eye a lot, similar to how chemistry bachelor #3 kept looking around the room when we went out. I don't expect a guy to look me in the eye the whole time. If he did, then I'd feel uncomfortable, like maybe he was trying to hypnotize me into giving him the phone number of one of my female friends or at least into paying for the drinks. But on the other hand, it's kind of hard to have a conversation with a guy when I find myself talking to his ear or his chin half the time.

With this guy, it wasn't "like at first sight," but it wasn't "dislike at first sight" either. It's one of those situations where I'm not sure what I feel about him just yet; I'd probably have to go out with him at least one or two more times before I figure it out.

But I'm not sure if I'll hear from him again, let alone go out with him again. Would I say yes if he asked me for a second date? Sure. He's a nice guy; he's attractive, smart, and we have a lot in common. But it's often hard to tell if you're really into someone on the first date, although I have been out with other guys where I knew right away that it was NEVER going to happen. That was usually because they a) didn't look like the pictures in their profiles, usually because the pictures were taken ten or fifteen years ago; b) said something insulting or offensive; c) touched my arm or my back so many times that I wished that I had worn body armor.

I'm going out of town soon, and he told me to call him when I come back. But he didn't say anything about calling me. Based on my past experience, if a guy wants to see me again, he will be the one to contact me first, and he doesn't wait very long before he does it. I'm not one of those people who thinks that the girl should never make the first move, but I'm not sure if I should with this guy. If I like a guy, I usually contact him within the first couple days after the date. But with this guy, I'm not sure if I should wait until I am back in town (which isn't going to be for several more days), or if I should call/text him sooner, or if I should just wait for him to call me.

As I came home from the date, I felt a little sad because this is the sixth guy I've gone out with in the past year; I went out with four guys from, and I went out with two guys I met on eharmony last summer. (But on the other hand, I suppose it's better than joining two online dating sites in one year and ending up with no dates at all.) It makes me wonder how many dates I'm going to have to keep going on before I make a real connection with someone. How many more times am I going to have to make small talk with someone before we can have a real conversation? How many more dates am I going to come home from feeling sad before I finally go on a date that makes me feel happy?

How many more times am I going to have to block e-mails from guys who a) are apparently allergic to dictionaries, or at least the spell check on their computers; (I don't expect their writing to be perfect, but if it's difficult to read it because there are errors in every sentence or even every word, then that's kind of a turn-off.) b) post fake pictures of famous actors or musicians in their profiles (I mean, seriously?); c) list all the reasons that they broke up with their ex-girlfriends in their profiles? (You know how they say you shouldn't talk about an ex on the first date? Don't talk about the ex in your online dating profile, either.)

I suppose going on dates with six guys in one year isn't a lot compared to the number of dates that other people go on, but I've been out with several more than six guys since I first started dating. I kind of wish that guys came with labels that are invisible to them but are visible to me. The labels would say stuff like, "He will NEVER call you again", or "He cheated on all of his ex-wives", or "His personality would scare Donald Trump", or "He is a great guy who you will be happy with". If guys came with labels, it would make being single so much easier. (Side note: If girls came with labels, that would make it easier on guys too. My label would hopefully read "likable neurotic" or "If you criticize her work habits, your dinner will end up on your shirt.")

Even though I'm a workaholic, I always thought that dating would be the one thing that didn't feel like work. I don't expect it to be like it is in the movies or even like in one of those online dating commercials. I  just thought that dating would give me the chance to feel something real for someone special and to just have fun with that person. But it's been a while since it has felt like anything but work for me.

Some people might tell me just to relax and not take it so seriously. But telling a neurotic workaholic to relax is like telling a fish to stop swimming. On the other hand, the reason that dating has felt like work lately is because it is a lot of work to read through a bunch of profiles, send and receive e-mails, and to go on dates and be interesting without being fake or saying the wrong thing. And frankly, at this point, I'm ready for a vacation.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Any Resemblance to Real People is (Not So) Coincidental

I like watching crime dramas, especially the ones that are part of the Law and Order franchise. One thing I've noticed about these types of shows in particular are their "ripped from the headlines" storylines. That is, their episodes are often based on people in real life, like the White House gate crashers, the high school girls who made the so-called pregnancy pact, and even Madonna (it was an episode about her adoption of the child from Africa).

I think that these shows are able to get away (for the most part) with portraying real-life situations because of how they change the details. It makes me wonder if fiction writers can get away with doing the same thing. Sometimes writers will admit to basing their characters on real people, but others claim that their characters are completely fictional. I think it'd be harder to create a character who bears no resemblance to anyone you've ever met or heard of.

But on the other hand, what if you were to base one of your characters on someone you actually know? What if that person you know reads your story and doesn't like the way that he or she is portrayed? What if he or she were to sue you? What if he or she were to make a voodoo doll with a picture of you stapled to it and somehow make you write nothing but cliches for the rest of your life? What if that person were to walk up to you in public and slap you in the face with your book before challenging you to a duel?

There are a lot of people I've known who have made me want to write about them. For example, when I was in junior high I was bullied by a group of boys. They called me names, knocked my books out of my hands, threw volleyballs at my face in gym class, and ridiculed me every chance they got.

One day I couldn't take it anymore. I went up to the ringleader of the bullies when the teacher was out of the classroom. Somehow I managed to knock him down, and he didn't get back up for a moment. I've never done anything like that before. I definitely don't advocate school violence, because we all know what could happen. But on that day I was just so hurt and angry that I decided to fight back. I'd like to say that what I did made him and all the rest of those jerks leave me alone. It didn't.

If I were to write about him exactly as I remember him, he'd probably deny it. (Do you ever notice how the mean kids never seem to remember what they did? I think it's because their cruel treatment of other kids doesn't matter to them. But it matters to the kids who were bullied. It matters to me.) If I wanted to write about him without getting in trouble, I suppose there are ways.

I could write a fictional story about his troubled childhood, and I could write about the way that he was bullied by stronger kids; I'd describe the way he took out his anger on other kids rather than fight back against the ones who were mean to him. Or I could characterize him as someone who was so desperate for attention that he decided to single out kids and get laughs at their expense. I could create all these new details about him and make him (almost) unrecognizable.

There are other people I've considered writing about. Once I had a coughing fit during Mass, and a woman sitting behind me was kind enough to give me a cough drop. The second time I coughed during Mass, another woman refused to shake my hand when everyone exchanged the Sign of Peace. She just gave me this look as if to say, "Get thee away from me, HEATHEN!" I thought for a moment that she was going to start flinging gobs of hand sanitizer at me.

If I were to write about her, I could portray her as a germaphobe who spends more money on hand sanitizer than she does on food. Or I could describe her as being cold and unsympathetic, the type of person who would walk around someone who fell down rather than offer that person a helping hand to get back up. I could characterize her as someone who really is nice but often gets in trouble because she reacts before she thinks.

I'm not sure how people would describe me if any of them were to write about me. It's no secret that I'm a workaholic, but people have different views of what it means to be addicted to work. Would they describe me as someone who is so wrapped up in her work that she always disregards her personal relationships? Would they describe my life as empty because I spend most of my time working? (FYI: I don't disregard my personal relationships, but I admit that I sometimes stay in to complete my work rather than go out with my friends. That's not always by choice, though. And even though I do work a lot, I don't consider my life to be empty; it always bothers me when people try to make me feel bad for being a workaholic.) Or would they portray me as someone who finds joy and satisfaction in her work because it gives her a sense of purpose and allows her to help other people?

I don't know. It's one thing if I create a character that's based on myself, because I can control how that character is depicted in the story. I don't like the idea of someone taking details from my life and my personality and putting it into his or her fiction. It almost feels like it'd be plagiarism. I remember seeing something like that happen in the movie The Jane Austen Book Club; one of the characters found out that her girlfriend had written stories about the things that she'd told her in confidence. And as someone who knows what it's like to have her writing plagiarized by other people, I know I'd be even angrier if someone plagiarized my life.

I might even challenge that plagiarist to a duel. (Would throwing water balloons count?)

How would you feel if a writer you knew based one of his or her characters on you? If you base your characters on real people, how do you portray them so that the characters become different people with their own unique personalities?

Monday, May 2, 2011

What I've Learned from Online Dating

I first decided to try online dating two years ago. I figured that waiting around for the right guy to show up wasn't going to work, and I didn't want to date anyone I worked with. I'd already tried speed dating, and I had participated in activities that my church sponsored, particularly the activities that were for other young people like me. I spent time doing the things that interested me, like visit museums on the free admission days, go to free outdoor concerts in Grant Park, take fiction writing classes, and work out at the gym. But I still couldn't find the right guy. So I thought that online dating would help me find him; at the very least I thought I'd get to meet new people and go on dates.

Four online dating memberships later, I've learned a few things.

1. Play it safe. I originally did not want to join an online dating site. I'd heard about cases where women and men were deceived and manipulated by people they met online, and they ended up being physically attacked or robbed of thousands of dollars. I was afraid that the same things might happen to me.

I'm not blaming the victims. There are some situations where things go beyond people's control, even if they do everything they can to protect themselves. But on the other hand, these situations show us how important it is to play it safe.

My general rule is to exchange at least three or four e-mails with a guy before we exchange phone numbers. Then we talk on the phone a couple times, and then we set up a time and a place to meet in person. I always make arrangements to meet him in a public place where there will be a lot of people around, and I let one of my friends know where I'm going to be, just in case. I also don't let the guy drive/walk me home on the first date. I don't want to end up being another horror story in the news.

If I do end up in the news someday, I want it to be because I did something like make a citizen's arrest of one of those celebrity reporters who think it is necessary to inform the public about every single thing that celebrities do (seriously, do we really need to know when celebrities change their hair color? Are all the details of their personal relationships really our business? Are we going to have to keep reading stories and watching documentaries about Kate and William for the rest of our lives, because if so I might just swear off technology forever and move to the North Pole, which would suck because they probably don't sell M&Ms and soda up there?).

2. "No" does not mean "Yes, please, keep e-mailing me!" When I was on and okcupid, there were several guys who e-mailed me multiple times, including one 40-something divorced guy who wrote that he was "looking for a mother for my three children". When I didn't respond the first time, they would wait a few weeks before e-mailing me again. I'm not sure if they forgot that they had already contacted me, or if they hoped that I had forgotten that they had contacted me. I'm not sure if that's sad or just creepy. Either way, their persistence didn't make me want to date them.

3. Love is priceless, but dating is not. There are free online dating sites like okcupid and plentyoffish, but the other ones that I tried (eharmony, match, and chemistry) all cost money. That was why I often had to wait several months between memberships, because I had to save up enough money to pay for a membership. I read a recent post on the official blog about the cost of dating, and I could relate to a lot of the issues it discussed about how much money people spend.

But even more importantly, I've found that online dating takes up a lot of time. You know how they say that time is money? When you work two jobs and go to graduate school, time is something that you don't want to waste. And I spent a lot of time reading through profiles, sending and receiving e-mails, and going on dates. At the end of the day, I just kept thinking about all the work I could have gotten done instead. It's not just because I'm a workaholic. It's because when you spend all that time searching for someone and end up with nothing but the wrong guys, then you start wishing that you had spent your time on something more productive.

4. Not all dating sites are alike. Based on the profiles that I read on eharmony and, I found that most of the guys were looking for women they could have serious relationships with; several of them would state this in their profiles. Fellow blogger gem wrote an amusing post about how she learned this fact when she tried Eharmony and matched me with guys that fit my preferences. I tend to be attracted to "the guy next door", the kind of guy who plays sports or goes to games with his friends on the weekends and works hard at his job during the week. I generally like guys who have old school manners, as in they pull my chair out for me at restaurants and open doors for me. In terms of looks, I like the kind of guy who looks like he could pose for a GAP ad, as in very clean-cut and conservative.

On okcupid, on the other hand, you are more likely to find guys who not only would never shop at the GAP, they are very likely to have a) staged a protest against it; b) composed and performed a song with their band about the reasons that GAP and all the people who shop there all work for THE MAN and are therefore EVIL; c) written poetry about how major corporations like the GAP are contributing to the world's inevitable demise; d) written a novel about how the "guy next door" who looked like he could be in a GAP ad stole his girlfriend.

There are clean-cut, conservative guys on okcupid who are looking for relationships. (I know because I dated some of them.) But there are also guys (and girls) on the site who are looking for "casual encounters" and "activity partners". I was also contacted by guys who wrote in their profiles that they were already in relationships but were "looking to meet new people". I don't have anything personal against people who are in open relationships, although I have to admit that I would not be willing to share my partner in that way.

5. Lies and cliches will work against you. I recently received an e-mail from a guy who claimed to be 31. He looked like he was at least 50. I know that some people look older than they actually are, but I don't know a lot of people who look nearly twenty years older.

Here are a few examples of the cliches that I've seen in guys' profiles:

"I'm tired of the bar scene, because it's just not the right place to meet women." - What they could be saying: I'm tired of going to bars, because all the women keep ignoring me, rejecting me, or throwing drinks at me.

"I'm looking for a girl who is physically active and enjoys working out." - What they could be saying: I'm looking for a girl who looks like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and who won't mind the fact that I don't go into gyms unless I follow pretty girls in there.

"It's really hard to describe myself in a short profile, so if you want to know anything about me, just ask." - What they could be saying: I couldn't think of something original to say, so I figure that the pictures of my dogs and my car will be enough to attract women.

"I'm looking for a girl who doesn't play games." - What they could be saying: I'm looking for a girl who will actually return my phone calls.

I don't regret joining any of the sites, because I feel like I learned something from all of them. Even if none of the guys I went on dates with turned out to be the right guy, I did learn a lot more about what I want and what I don't want.

I'm not ready to give up searching for true love, at least not yet. But I am starting to wonder if I'll actually meet the right guy online, or at all. I like to believe that there's someone out there for me, but what if there isn't? What if it's not true that every person has a soul mate? What if it's true that only some people get to meet and be with their soul mates, and other people never find them? If there is such a thing as destiny, what if I'm not meant to find Mr. Right? And if that's the case, then what is meant for me instead?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I've been exchanging e-mails with a new guy on, and we talked on the phone for more than an hour recently. We talked about the possibility of going on a date next week. I'm not sure what's going to happen. I hope that he won't turn out to be like all the others. But even more I hope that I won't get so fed up with dating that I give up altogether.