Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What I've Learned from the Jersey Shore

If your underwear is showing, then your dress is too short.

If you insist on wearing a short dress, then make sure that you wear underwear.

Fighting strangers in public just because they threw a drink at you/pulled your weave/looked at you in the wrong way does not make you look like a man (or a woman). It makes you look violent and stupid.

Orange is not a good look for anyone. It's also a sign that you've spent too much time in the tanning booth.

If you wear your hair so high that you start to resemble Frankenstein's monster or the monster's bride (Pauly and Snooki, I'm talking to you), then the villagers just might come after you with flaming torches and pitchforks.

Referring to yourself in the third person does not make you sound smarter (and who gives himself a lame nickname like "The Situation", anyway?).

It's okay to swim in the ocean. It's not actually full of whale sperm.

When your boyfriend/girlfriend screams at you on a regular basis, destroys your belongings, freaks out if you talk to someone of the opposite sex, and/or shoves you around, it's time to break up and cut that person out of your life for good. It doesn't mean you should take that person back again and again just because he/she is so "awesome".

Even if you pull the blanket over your heads, everyone still knows what you and your date are doing.

If you are lucky enough to get a free trip to Italy, don't spend the whole trip partying with tourists. Looking at art, eating Italian food, interacting with the locals, exploring the different cities, and experiencing all the other things that Italy has to offer should not be an afterthought that is saved for the last couple days of your trip. 

It's good to exercise and lift weights on a regular basis. It's also good to lift a book and actually read it every now and then.

Spraying your hair with a bunch of hairspray is not the same as shampooing it. And spraying yourself from head to toe with cologne (which is so strong it makes other people hold their breath and back away quickly from you) is not the same thing as taking a shower.

When your fifteen minutes of fame are up, at least you'll have a career to fall back on selling T-shirts in the Shore Store.

When I first started watching Jersey Shore, I did it because I was bored and nothing else was on. I hadn't even really watched reality TV (except for the occasional episode of Millionaire Matchmaker) since I stopped watching The Real World almost a decade ago. I'd gotten irritated with that show because it had gone way downhill since the show first aired. Now every show centered on drunken catfights, hot tub orgies, and pretty, spoiled brats whining about how hard life was for them even though they didn't have to work and got to live rent-free in fancy penthouses.

And yet, I later found myself tuning in to watch Jersey Shore, which is full of drunken catfights and hot tub orgies, except the cast of this show is a lot more orange and have turned partying into a career. I could never live or act the way that they do (nor would I ever want to), and yet I couldn't help watching them. (On the other hand, I haven't been watching the show as often as I used to, because the episodes started getting repetitive three seasons ago. For example, it gets boring to watch Snooki and the Situation get thrown out of clubs again and again.)

One reason I watched the show was because they're so stupid it's funny. They say and do the stupidest things sometimes, and they don't even realize how stupid they look. I guess it's bad for me to say this, but I actually feel better about myself when I watch them. I think, Well, at least I've never done anything THAT dumb. 

I know I'm not the only one who indulges in reality television. Millions of people take pleasure in being voyeurs to other people's lives; they say it's "reality", but it's anything but. The episodes are edited by the show's "writers" and producers, and certain events and emotions are magnified to make them seem much more dramatic than they actually are. Some of the people on these shows are so greedy for fame and money that they let the shows bring out the worst in them without considering the long-term consequences. We watch people get engaged to people they've only known for a few weeks, only to break up a few months later. We watch women who see nothing wrong with marrying for money so that they can have luxurious lifestyles, and we watch men treat women like sex objects.

We also watch teen moms who spend more time obsessing over their abusive boyfriends than their own babies. That's one reason I'm seriously considering not watching Teen Mom anymore, because the show has become so disturbing. What kind of mother would rather scream at her mother and drive off to smoke weed than stay home with her son? What kind of mother would slap her emotionally abusive boyfriend around in front of her child? What kind of mother prevents her ex-boyfriend from spending any time with their son just to punish him? Several of the girls on Teen Mom, that's who. Yes, there are older women who act like this too, but the behavior of some of the girls on this show in particular makes me worry about the example that several (though not all) of the girls on that show are setting for other teenagers.

We watch teenagers and twentysomethings on other reality shows get drunk, take their clothes off, and do the kinds of wild things that make us wonder how they'll ever get hired for real jobs when they finally come to their senses, because employers who are not Joe Francis (of the Girls Gone Wild notoriety) will probably not want to hire young adults who do those things on national television. (That might explain why some of them continue doing reality TV well into their thirties and forties.)

And even though we may be frustrated, repulsed, or horrified by their behavior, we continue to watch because it's "entertainment". It's also very easy for us to judge these people, seeing as how we only get the edited version of their lives. I've read the online message boards for some of these shows, and many of the people post extremely hateful, nasty, and ignorant  comments on those boards that bash the people on those shows.

But on the other hand, I think that we can actually learn something from reality television. For one thing, we can learn about how we shouldn't act, and we can learn that all that fame and money can't really make up for the fact that the people on those shows have no privacy and have made themselves vulnerable to millions of viewers' criticism. Reality TV also teaches us that loving, lasting, and genuine relationships are nothing like the ones that we see on TV.

What about you? Do you watch reality TV? If not, why not? If you do, which shows do you watch and why?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What I Wish I Could Say to the People at My Gym

Those sinks in the bathroom aren't decorations. They're for washing your hands.

When you grunt really loudly like that, is it because you're in pain from lifting those heavy weights, or is it because you want everyone to know that you're lifting those heavy weights?

Stop hogging that machine. Just because it has a good view of the girls on the exercise balls, that doesn't give you the right to monopolize the machine when other people like me are waiting to use it. Besides, none of those girls have even looked at you, and I need to work on my glutes.

Leaving your towel draped over the machine doesn't mean you own it, especially because you're using the machine right next to it. If you keep hogging both machines like that, I'm going to grab your towel, swing it around my head like a lasso, and bellow, "There's only room for ONE of us in this gym..."

Do you wonder why there's nobody on the machines on either side of you, even though the gym is really crowded today? It's because it's time for you to take a shower.

The janitors work really hard. Don't make their jobs harder by leaving your towels all over the floor of the locker room. Seeing as how you kept bending over to stretch in front of the guys lifting weights, that means you're perfectly capable of bending over to pick up your own towels. And also? The same goes for leaving your underwear all over the place. I really don't need to know what kind of thong you wear.

Yes, the aerobics classes really are crowded, and you have to show up early if you want to get a good spot. However, that doesn't give you the right to refuse to wait for the previous class to leave, push people out of the way, make rude comments about the people who dare to get in the room before you, and rush to the front of the room just so you can show off how good of a dancer you are and flirt with the male instructor. Besides, didn't you see him flirting with that guy right before class started? 

Just because I left the room for a few seconds to go to the water fountain, that doesn't mean you can steal my spot in the dance class. So why don't you go shake your booty back to where you were before?

You know how it's really annoying when people insist on squeezing onto the train even though it's clear that it's already too crowded? It's also really annoying when people insist on crowding into the dance class, even though we might as well dance cheek to cheek at this point, just so there will be more room.

I don't really care if you want to gab to everyone on your list of contacts, even though the gym has a strict rule about not using cell phones in the locker room. But do you think you could put your clothes on before you talk on the phone for half an hour? Or at least put a towel on the bench before you sit down?

If you want to spend twenty minutes applying five layers of makeup, whatever. But could you not scatter your stuff all over the counter so that there's no room for me to blow dry my hair? I really don't want to have to blow dry your face just to get you to move. But I will if I have to.

That sleeveless shirt really shows off your muscular arms. You look very strong and manly. You know what else would look good on you? Shorts. I mean, why cover up your muscular legs with those baggy workout pants?

You know what this gym needs? A juice bar. Preferably one that employs muscular guys in sleeveless shirts and shorts.

Thank you for being a gentleman and opening the door for me. That made my day. That almost made up for all the other times the other cute guys at the gym took one look at me and then immediately looked around for one of the girls on the exercise balls.

Do you belong to a gym? What do you wish you could say to the people who work out there?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Literary Alter Ego Is an Honors Student

I've read interviews where published authors say that they never base their characters on themselves or people they know; they claim that their characters are completely original and come from their imagination, not their daily lives. I find that a little hard to believe, because I think that the people in our lives inspire us to write.

On the other hand, the characters in my fiction aren't carbon copies of the people in my life. I wouldn't want to get sued, for one thing. I also wouldn't want people to come up to me and say, "That character is nothing like me! I'm a much better friend than that! Is it really so bad that I always tell you about how much fun I have with my other friends without ever inviting you to come with us? And so what if I always call you at the last minute? Why wouldn't you want to drop everything and hang out with me?"

In one of the stories I'm writing, my main character is a lot like me. I like the idea of having a literary alter ego, because this person gets to do and say all the things that I don't get to do or say in real life. I also like the idea of having a literary alter ego who is tougher and more honest than I am. In my story, this person isn't afraid to stand up to all the people who are mean to her; these people are the disguised literary alter egos of the people who treat me like crap in real life.

For example, yesterday I was walking around the lobby of my building, and I saw a woman standing at the front door. I didn't open the door for her because I didn't know her, and I'd really rather not let strangers into my building. But she banged on the door after I walked by. She was on the phone, and apparently she didn't want to interrupt her conversation, or maybe she didn't have the strength to use her bony fingers (which reminded me of the fingers that I saw on the Witch in the most recent episode of Once Upon a Time) to open the door herself. Or maybe she was just lazy. Either way, when I opened the door for her, she glared at me and was extremely sarcastic and rude with me for not opening the door for her.

I just mumbled something at her and walked away. But my literary alter ego would be a lot braver than that. She'd yell back, "Why are you just standing there? What, do you think you're in an episode of Downton Abbey? I am NOT your butler and you are NOT a 'lady'; you're a LOSER!" or "You do realize that when you're extremely rude like that, I will have no choice but to trip you on the way to the elevator, right?" or "I'd whap that cell phone right out of your hand with my bag of M&Ms if there wasn't the risk that the bag would break and then I wouldn't get to eat the M&Ms. Of course, there's always the possibility that you could slip and fall on them, and then I could stand there and laugh maniacally at you."

There's a really cute, muscular guy at my gym who works out at the same times that I do. I always see him running on the treadmill while I'm working out on the elliptical. Sometimes I keep exercising just so I can stare at his, um...pants a little bit longer. But I've never mustered enough courage to say anything to him. I'm too shy to even jog on the treadmill next to him, because I'm afraid that I might do that thing where I slip and fall on the treadmill before sliding off of it face-down.

But my literary alter ego would have the guts to walk up to him and talk to him. And in my story, he would turn out to be a nice guy who liked her back, not a guy who'd be more likely to dismiss her in favor of one of the girls who always does sit-ups in a tight sports bra in front of the guys who lift weights.

I applied to teach a class this summer, but I didn't get the job. It bothers me that I will have to work ANOTHER awful summer job that makes me so stressed out I start hallucinating and think that bugs are crawling up my arms. I definitely can't just work another retail job, though, because most retail jobs don't pay enough and I've gone into debt because of that fact. So I have to look around for something better.

My literary alter ego, though, wouldn't have to work a crappy summer job. She'd do something that I've always wanted to do, like take a cross-country road trip by herself. AND she'd be a much better driver than I am, seeing as how I can't even park a car without gritting my teeth and shrieking, "Don't hit anything, don't hit anything, don't hit anything, EEEEEEPS!!!" until the car is safely in place. Or she'd have the money to travel to Europe and try new foods and learn the languages; she'd take a bunch of pictures and write about everything that she saw and experienced.

She wouldn't have to spend the summer saying stuff like, "Would you like to sign up for the store's credit card?" while thinking, "Oh, don't even bother. You could get the same stuff that you just bought at a discount store for half the price, but I can't tell you that because it's bad for business. I also don't want to tell you that, seeing as how you just yelled at me for not accepting your expired coupons and because you tried on twenty different items of clothing and only bought one. So what do I care if you just spent more money than I'll earn in an entire shift? Not that I'm BITTER or anything."

I do take things from my real life and put them in my fiction; for example, I write about online dating, teaching, those moments of loneliness, confusion, disillusionment, frustration, and fear that all thirtysomethings and twentysomethings feel at some point, life in Chicago, etc., etc. Writing helps me analyze what happened to me, and in many cases I get to write about what I would have liked to have happened instead. And having a literary alter ego makes it even better, because even if I can't do everything that I want to do in real life, she can. But it doesn't always come without consequences for her, though. I figure that if problems do come up, then a plot will develop as well. And that makes the story even more interesting.

What about you? Do you have a literary alter ego in your fiction? What is she/he like?

(Side note: I was an honors student when I was younger. So that's at least one reason I'm not envious of my literary alter ego.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who and Where I Don't Want to Be in Five Years

The new year has made me think a lot more about my future, as well as mistakes that I've made in the past. (For example, the time I thought owning a wardrobe made up almost entirely of flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and "skorts" was a mistake.) 

Interviewers often ask job candidates, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" If I were really honest, I'd say, "I don't know." But I have thought a lot about where and who I don't want to be. Here are a few examples:

1. I don't want to be the type of person who keeps making excuses. One thing that bothers me about some undergrads (though not all of them are like this) is their refusal to take responsibility for their own actions. If they get a bad grade, they blame everyone else (particularly me) but themselves. They'll say stuff like, "I know I missed ten classes, but I think it's unfair that you expect us to show up every day." (I wish I could be there to hear them say stuff like that to their future employers.) Or they might say something like, "I can't afford to buy all the books for this class because I just got a new iPhone. And besides, I can just read Cliffsnotes."

It bothers me that some students won't admit that they didn't do what they were supposed to do, or that they didn't produce the best work that they could have produced. They blame me or make a bunch of excuses instead.

But then I realized that I sometimes made excuses too. I blamed the fact that I wasn't making as much progress on my dissertation as I should have on the fact that teaching and my website job took up so much time. It was true that I didn't have as much free time as I would have liked, but I also procrastinated a lot. Mindless Internet surfing is my worst habit.

More than once I'll find myself staring at my laptop for hours at a time, watching Youtube videos of dogs dancing on their hind legs or reading weird news articles, like the one about the athlete who injured himself while eating breakfast. I also have a bad habit of watching TV shows that I've already watched several times. I even watched shows that I don't even like, including one of the Kardashian spinoffs. (I couldn't sit through a whole episode, though; watching it made me want to start banging my head against the wall because I figured that would be less painful.)

Because of that, I am now behind on my dissertation. I have to face the fact that I might not complete my Ph.D. next year like I originally planned. And I feel awful that I haven't accomplished as much as my classmates have. I thought about why I kept procrastinating, and I realized that it was because I was scared that I wouldn't write something good, and sometimes it was because I didn't know what to say at all. I found myself unable to write anything when I sat down in front of my laptop. It was so much easier to watch another rerun of Friends instead.

But I don't want to be like that anymore. Now I am taking responsibility for my actions, and I need to stop making excuses all the time. I resolve to devote more time to my dissertation. Even if it does take me longer to finish my Ph.D., the important thing is that I finish it.

2. I don't want to be living in an overpriced, substandard apartment that I hate with neighbors I hate even more. Today I saw that one of my neighbors apparently coughed up an enormous loogie and wiped it on the wall of the elevator. I touched it out of curiosity before I realized what it was, because I'm a dodo head like that. And that is reason #487 why my neighbors drive me nuts.

I want to live in a nicer apartment with a landlord who doesn't believe that running water that doesn't turn brown and washing machines and dryers that actually work are unnecessary luxuries. I want to live in a place where my neighbors are quiet and considerate, and not the type of people who have loud parties almost every night and fall down drunk outside my apartment at 2 A.M. while squealing, "WHOOPSIE! I think I just fell down, hahahaha!"

3. I don't want to be the kind of person who never goes anywhere or never lets herself have fun. When I first moved to Chicago, I soaked up the city as much as I could. I went to concerts, plays, readings, museums, interesting neighborhoods, etc., etc. But now I hardly do anything fun. I could blame my work schedule and tiny checking account on that fact. (Side note: My life has become so humdrum that I actually had a dream the other night about doing laundry.)

But on the other hand, the fact that I rarely take advantage of what this city has to offer has made me focus more on the bad things about living here, like the inconsiderate drivers who come close to running me over because they're talking on their cell phones. That makes me want to scream, "Why don't you go someplace where you and your cell phone can be alone, JERK!"

I actually used to yell at bad drivers, because I got so mad at their carelessness and rudeness. I stopped when I realized that a) it was dangerous, because they just might come back with their cars, and b) screaming at them made me look even worse than they did. I realized that I was taking out my frustration on them because I was working too hard. (But drivers who care more about their cell phones than about making sure they don't run anyone down still bother me.)

So now when things get a little too much and I feel like screaming again, I try to set aside time to do something that's just for me, like work on my novel in a coffeehouse or go to the Art Institute on one of its free admission days. Even though it means sacrificing time that could be spent on my work, I always end up feeling better as a result. And I think that makes me do better at my jobs, too.

What about you? Who or where do you not want to be in the next five years?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Characters I (Don't) Want to Be Friends with

I've been reading a lot of chick lit lately, because a) I like it; b) since most of the stuff I write is chick lit, I think of reading chick lit novels by published authors as research; c) due to the fact that I'm thirty years old and still single, it helps to read stories about women who are just as confused about dating as I am but still get their happy endings. (It especially helps after reading way too many online dating profiles that say stuff like, "I'm convinced that there's a woman who looks just like Natalie Portman out there for me, and I'm not willing to settle for less," and "I have a girlfriend, but I'm still open to meeting new people.")

Some of the chick lit novels I've been reading are really good, the kind of books that I want to reread as soon as I finish reading them. Some of them, however, are not so good. One major problem I have with a few chick lit novels are the characters. If I don't like the main character in particular, it's really difficult for me to enjoy the book. I mean, if I'm going to be reading 300 pages about someone's life, I want it to be about someone who's funny, interesting, and a good person, not someone who makes me want to take her by the shoulders and yell, "For God's sake, get a grip, woman!"

I like reading chick lit books about characters that I want to be friends with, the kind of women who would be fun to hang out with and have dinner with, not the kind of friends who make me frantically come up with excuses like, "I can't hang out tonight because I have to organize all of my M&Ms by color and Google myself to make sure that nobody's writing mean stuff about me and posting it online."

I read a book called See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit, by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs. It included a list of descriptions of characters who should not show up in chick lit novels. I agreed with their list. I've included my own list below, with my own additions/modifications.

1. There's more to life than having a boyfriend. Have you ever had a friend who was totally obsessed with her boyfriend? The kind of girl who spent every weekend with him, and only hung out with you when he wasn't available? The girl who would spend half the time texting him when she wasn't with him? And it isn't just girls who are like this. I was once friends with a guy who would mention his girlfriend every ten minutes, literally. His girlfriend was nice, but I didn't really want to hear every single thing about her ALL THE LIVELONG DAY.

In some of the chick lit novels I've been reading, getting or keeping a boyfriend is not only the protagonist's main concern; it's her only concern. I will admit that finding true love is important to me too, but there are other things that matter, things like friends, writing, teaching, life in Chicago, whether or not I'll ever be able to kick my Jersey Shore addiction (I know they're stupid and are probably sucking my soul every time I watch their show, and yet I can't stop watching!), etc., etc. 

I don't want to read a story about a twenty-first century Stepford Girlfriend whose only focus in life is finding and pleasing her man. I want to read a love story, yes, but I also want to read about the other stuff in her life. Just look at Pride and Prejudice. It is a story that focuses on women's pursuit of love, but it's also about other good stuff, like Elizabeth Bennet's frustration and love for her embarrassing family, and the fact that people like Lady Catherine just can't get over the fact that Elizabeth doesn't have the same wealth and social status as Lady Catherine does.

2. Real life is not a soap opera. When I was in college, I was addicted to soap operas. I actually scheduled my classes so that I wouldn't miss any episodes of All My Children. But then I got caught up with school, friends, and college clubs; I ended up missing several episodes. When I started watching again, it was a lot easier to recognize how melodramatic and unrealistic soap operas are (although if you think about it, it's pretty much required and expected that soap operas be melodramatic and unrealistic).

I thought, "Hey! Real life and relationships aren't like this! Real people don't have evil twins (at least I hope they don't) who are plotting to destroy everyone that gets in their way. Most people don't become so obsessed with the object of their affection that they a) kidnap other people's babies and replace them with other babies; b) keep deal-breaking secrets like secret pregnancies, the fact that they didn't really divorce their eighth husband, the fact that they're secretly cheating on the object of their affection with the other object of their affection, or the fact that they are the evil twin; c) keep doing that dramatic pause thing where they stare off into the distance and do a monologue where they say stuff like, "I will make him love me! I don't care that he's married to my sister who seems to be invincible because she keeps mysteriously coming back from the dead no matter how many deathly traps I set for her! I mean, seriously, who is able to survive a gunshot wound, a house fire, and a drowning, all in one week?"

Monologues in chick lit novels are okay if they're used sparingly, but I don't want to feel like I'm reading a play by Shakespeare. He was able to use monologues pretty effectively, but in chick lit novels, too many long speeches where characters describe their feelings for each other or list all the things that they've learned or all the reasons they find fault with other characters just don't ring true for me. Too many long speeches from the characters also make me feel like I'm being preached at.

I want to read conversations with stuff that people would actually say in real life. I also want to read a story about situations that I can actually relate to, not the kind of stuff that soap operas are made of. 

3. A chick lit novel should not resemble an episode of Jackass or Ridiculousness. I've never understood why people like those shows. What's so entertaining about guys who light their pants on fire or hurl themselves from rooftops without any protective gear or jab sharp objects at their faces? Self-destructive behavior just isn't fun for me.

By a similar token, Mlynowski and Jacobs wrote in their book that the main character shouldn't be the type of person who keeps making stupid choices without learning anything from them. I was reading a chick lit novel recently, where the protagonist kept doing one dumb thing after another. Even though her choices didn't lead to anything good, she just kept going. She didn't even try to change her behavior until she'd run out of other options. I just kept shaking my head and saying, "Oh, come on!" That made it really hard to like her as a character, and that made it even harder to like the story as a whole.

That's why it's really important to me to be able to like the character, not to be constantly annoyed by her. There are enough people like that in real life; I don't want them to invade my favorite books too. Fortunately, a lot of chick lit authors I've read know how to tell their stories and describe their characters without making me want to fling the books across the room. They're the kind of authors that I can learn from and enjoy. They're also the kind of authors that I would want to be friends with.

What about you? What kinds of things do you like or dislike about fictional characters in your favorite novels?

Happy New Year, everyone!