Monday, April 23, 2012

Friends and Frenemies

In the story that I'm working on right now, two women who have been friends for many years start to realize that their differences, which they'd pretended to overlook all that time, are driving them apart. It's made me think about the differences between friends and frenemies. 

A few years ago, I started socializing with a group of people that I'd recently met. One night we went out to dinner, and most of the others said they weren't hungry and just ordered drinks for themselves. I, on the other hand, had thought that "going out to eat" meant that we actually would eat, so I ordered an appetizer for myself. Maybe I shouldn't have thought that eating food in front of other people who weren't eating was a good idea, but I don't think I deserved what happened next. When the food arrived, everyone helped themselves to my food without even asking me if they could have some.

It bothered me that they did that, especially since I was paying for that food, I had specifically stated that I was ordering it for myself, and I literally only got two bites of it. (They didn't offer to help pay for it either, and it wasn't cheap.) They were all "young professionals" and had salaries that dwarfed the paltry wages I earned from working as an adjunct and from my job at the Expensive Clothing Store, where I managed not to strangle my retail supervisors with scarves when they made me refold clothes until they were perfect. I hardly ever got to eat in restaurants, because I couldn't afford to go. I should have said something to them, but they immediately started eating my dinner before I could stop them.

I suddenly wanted to transform into Ms. Pac-Man, so that my mouth would suddenly become huge and I could eat all of my food really quickly before anyone else got to it, or perhaps those cheap moochers would become so frightened of my enormous mouth that they would run away from me and pay for their own food next time.

It also made me come to this conclusion: frenemies mooch off of you. Friends do not take advantage of each other. I continued to socialize with those people after that incident, but I didn't tell them that it bothered me.

In college, I was friends with two girls who told me about a homeless man they'd seen on the train; the man was begging for money. They suddenly started imitating the way he was begging, and they mocked his voice. They laughed about it, as if it was hilarious that a man would become so desperate that he would ask complete strangers for money. Their "joke" made me see them for what they really were, and I didn't want to be friends with them after that. I am ashamed to say that I didn't call them on their insensitive, disgusting behavior. I wish I had said something like, "You should pack some sunscreen with you, because you're going to need it in hell."

In college I was also friends with a girl who came with me to the oral surgeon when I was getting my wisdom teeth taken out. I was so scared that it was going to hurt, and she came with me so that I wouldn't have to be alone. It helped to have her there, even though the oral surgeon told me that I shouldn't flail my arms around so much because I might accidentally smack him in the face. (I tend to thrash around when I get emotional.)

I've also been thinking of other things that make some people your friends and other people your frenemies. Friends make an effort to stay in touch with each other. Frenemies only call you when their other friends aren't available. Friends are able to tell you the truth without hurting you. Frenemies will pretend they're not insulting you even though that is exactly what they are doing. Friends are people you can order dessert in front of without worrying that they're going to judge you because they claim that their salads made them too full to eat dessert. Frenemies pretend that they're not hungry but will eat all of your food and expect you to pay for it.

Here's another video by my favorite vlogger, Kevjumba, who has his own take on what it means to be a true friend.

What about you? What do you think makes someone a friend? What makes someone a frenemy?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What I Wish I'd Said to Studs Terkel

Several years ago, I went to a concert to watch one of my favorite bands perform. Before the concert started, I saw that the drummer of the band was standing near the front door, chatting with fans and signing autographs. I mustered up enough courage to go up to him and ask him to sign my ticket stub. 

I didn't say much to him, though on the inside I was thinking, I think you're totally cute and I kind of want to make out with you right now, except I don't like kissing guys in front of other people because I'm afraid that they'll start judging us and say, "That was the worst kiss EVER! What, are you trying to re-enact that scene from Dumb and Dumber where Jim Carrey looks like he's trying to climb into Lauren Holly's mouth when he kisses her?" I also kind of want to get a picture taken of us holding hands so that I can send it to all my friends, but I can't say any of this to you because then you'll think I'm some kind of delusional stalker and I'm really NOT one, REALLY!

But I didn't say any of this to him, of course. All I could say was, "Thank you," after he handed my ticket stub back to me.

Once I met Amy Tan at a book signing, and I managed to tell her, "You don't know how much it means to me to finally meet you." She gave me this big smile and said, "Why, thank you!" I can honestly say that that was one of the greatest moments in my life, to actually have Amy Tan, a writer whose work I'd admired for years, acknowledge my presence.

A few years later, I went to a book signing with a friend, and we saw Jen Lancaster there with her husband. It wasn't Jen's signing; she was there to support an author friend of hers. There were a couple empty seats next to Jen, and my friend wanted to sit next to them. But I was too shy to approach them, so after the signing I watched as my friend went up to Jen and talked to her for several minutes.

There were several things that I wish I'd been brave enough to say to Jen. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her books. I wanted to tell her about how people had always made me feel like I was a freak because I was so obsessive and neurotic, but she was the first person who made me feel like there wasn't something totally wrong with me. She was able to write about her obsessions with a sense of humor, which made me think that I could do something similar in my own writing.

I've always been very shy around authors, even though there's so much I want to say to them and so much that I want to ask them about writing. But whenever I encounter one of them at a book signing or another literary event, I can't think of anything intelligent to say, except stuff like, "Do you think Snooki's baby is fist-pumping in her belly right now?" or "I totally feel like hiding in a cave until people stop talking about Hunger Games. Do you?" They're people too, but they're people whose work I admire and who have inspired me and many other people with their ideas and the ways that they express themselves. 

Once I went to a literary event where several authors, including Studs Terkel and Stuart Dybek, were participating in a panel. I'd always liked Stuart Dybek's story "Pet Milk", but I wanted to ask him exactly where the couple in his story hooked up on the El train, because I couldn't figure out where on the train he was referring to. But I didn't ask him that because I thought he and everyone else might think I was planning my own hookup. (And can I just say that I don't even like to sneeze in front of other people, so you know I would never plan a public hookup. GROSS!)

I was also excited to see Studs Terkel, because he had published the ultimate book for workaholics: Working. He went around talking to people in all kinds of professions, including a garbage man, a nurse, a piano tuner, a prostitute, a fireman, and a bus driver. It was refreshing to read a book about people who thought about work as much as I did, whose work also meant more to them than just a paycheck. He sat with them and let them talk to him about their jobs. When I first read it, I wondered why all these people would be so willing to open up about their lives to a perfect stranger.

But when I saw Studs Terkel, I understood why. Even at ninety-plus years, he was more alive and animated than people who were decades younger than him. Even though he could have spent his last years relaxing, he chose to continue working and writing just because he loved it so much. And I thought, When I'm in my nineties, I want to be like that.

I wanted to tell him that I noticed that several of the people in his book said stuff like, "They don't care about us." "They" meaning their employers, corporate CEOs, customers, rich people, etc. I knew what that felt like. I wanted to tell Studs about how unfair it was that retail employees only got paid a fraction of what people in the corporate offices that controlled the employees' stores got paid. These corporate employees got huge bonuses but denied the employees raises and wages that we could actually live on, yet they tried to make us feel like we were lucky just to be working.

I wanted to tell Studs about how I'd been bullied by other students all throughout grade school and high school. I thought I wouldn't get bullied anymore when I became a teacher, but I was wrong. During my first year of teaching in particular, I made the mistake of letting myself get intimidated far too easily, and I didn't stand up to some of my students as often as I should have. It wasn't like one of those inspirational teacher movies where the students come around eventually and like their teachers so much that they form a singing group with them. It was a totally different world, where politicians and other people were quick to blame teachers for students' behavior, but they didn't blame the students at all. I felt like if I told Studs all of this, he would understand.

His book made me realize that there are workaholics everywhere, people who are also strongly affected by their work. The people in Working described the ways that their jobs defined their lives and who they were, and it made me feel like I wasn't alone. 

But I didn't say any of this to him. There were hundreds of people waiting to get his autograph, so all I could say was "Thank you," when he handed his book back to me.  But I really did mean it when I thanked him, because his writing helped me in more ways than one.

What about you? Who are your favorite authors? If you could sit down and talk with one of them, what would you say?

Monday, April 9, 2012

How I'll Spend My Summer Vacation

Even though the school year is not over yet, I'm already thinking about what I'm going to do this summer. 

If I were to lay out in the sun and just relax, I'd a) start worrying that if I lay out for too long I'll end up looking like one of the Jersey Shore cast members (only not drunk); b) only be able to relax for a few minutes before I start thinking of all the things that I have to get done that day, like go grocery shopping, do laundry, and make extra large signs to hang in my windows that say, "Won't you be my ex-neighbor? Seriously, just MOVE OUT already!" for all my loud, annoying neighbors to see; c) feel self-conscious about being in a bathing suit and cover myself up with a beach towel (or three), because I do not have the body of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model (but God, I wish I did).

I've spent almost every summer working since I was sixteen, when I got my first job as a checker at a supermarket. But the truth is, I would love to be able to take a vacation. I'd love to be able to spend the whole summer enjoying Chicago like a tourist would, by going to neighborhood festivals, museums, and outdoor concerts. Even being able to spend every day writing fiction for as long as I wanted without feeling guilty about all the other work that I have to do would be wonderful. And even though I usually work two or three jobs, what's key is that they are part-time jobs, which means I don't get a full-time salary or a paid vacation. But I still have to pay rent, buy groceries, and pay other bills during the summer, so I have to work.

I've been trying to think of places where I could work this summer, but there are a few jobs that I had to rule out.

I could never work in a bar, because a) I don't have any experience or training as a bartender, let alone a shot girl; b) at many of the bars in Chicago, you have to "audition" to work at a bar, meaning you have to go down there and let the employers determine if you look "hot" enough to sell drinks. Other places require applicants to send in photos along with their applications. And again, while I don't think that the sight of me would make any man scream or turn to stone (at least, it hasn't happened yet), I do not look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; c) I don't like alcohol, and I don't like it when people get really drunk. So instead of trying to sell shots, I'd probably just be judgmental and disapproving every time someone took a drink, and then I just might not be able to stop myself from saying stuff like, "Do you really want to be hungover tomorrow? Because you will be if you drink another shot," or "That's such a nice shirt you're wearing! You don't want to ruin it by throwing up on it later, do you? Didn't think so."

I would like to work as a dogwalker, because I love dogs. I had my own dog when I was growing up (she died of old age), and I walk my parents' dogs, Jane Dog and Neurotic Jr., whenever I visit them. But most of the places that are hiring dogwalkers and pet-sitters require the applicants to have their own cars. I've relied on public transportation ever since I moved to the city, so I don't have my own car.

I did apply for summer jobs that are in my own field (education), of course. There was one summer program that was willing to hire me, but I didn't accept the job; let's just say that I didn't agree with their grading practices for the students. I found out that two of the educational jobs that I applied for were given to people who had way less experience and fewer qualifications than I do but also happened to be friends with the people who were doing the hiring, which made me really mad.

The one field outside of academia that I have the most experience in is retail, because I've worked in a bookstore, a clothing store, and a souvenir store. So I know that it would not be that hard to get a job at yet another store. But I don't want to work in retail, and that's another post in itself.

I actually already have one job for the summer, which is my website job that I also do during the school year. But it's only part-time, which is why I was thinking of getting another job. However, I've finally faced the fact that I can't keep working full-time if I ever want to finish my dissertation and just be DONE with graduate school already.

So I'm going to try just working part-time this summer. I've been saving money for months so that I won't have to rely on my credit cards too much. And maybe this summer, I'll actually have time to relax. (Except by "relax", I don't mean just lay out in the sun and do nothing. Because I really can't do that for too long without thinking about all the work that I could be doing instead. What? When I say that I'm a neurotic workaholic, I'm not exaggerating. It's not like my screenname is Easygoing Slacker.)

What about you? What kinds of summer jobs have you had? What was your first summer job like? Have you started making plans for this summer?

Monday, April 2, 2012

What a Difference a Decade Makes

This past Sunday, April Fool's Day, was my birthday. I am now thirty-one years old.

Excuse me while I go check my reflection in the mirror to see if I look any older.

Damn. Now excuse me again so that I can do a Google search for "anti-aging cream".

Just kidding. Sort of.

Anyway, I was cleaning out my closet recently when I came across a stack of old journals; I've been writing in journals since the fourth grade, and I've kept every one. I can't bring myself to throw them away, because reading them reminds me of what it was like to be ten, sixteen, twenty-two, etc.. (One thing I learned from reading my youthful, obsessive rants that were scrawled in Magic Marker is that I had a Type A personality even when I was in grade school, so I guess some things never change.)

One journal in particular held my interest. It was the one that I kept when I was a twenty-one-year-old college student. Here are a couple lines that stood out to me:

I'm not sure that I ever want to have children. I can't see myself as a mother. 

Granted, I was only twenty-one at the time, and I wasn't even done with college yet. I wasn't ready to put someone else's needs before my own. I viewed motherhood as a burden, such as the time that I was on a flight and a baby screamed (not cried, but SCREAMED) the entire time. It was worse than the times I used to ride home from ball games with my classmates back when I was in high school. Many of them liked country music and played it nonstop in their cars or trucks. At first I couldn't stand the twang of country music, until I finally succumbed to it and thought, Hmm. Banjos and fiddles actually ARE cool. Bring on the bluegrass! (On the other hand, maybe that's how it feels when people get brainwashed. Maybe I should do a Google search on that too.)

But I couldn't picture ever getting used to the constant sound of a baby crying, especially when I watched the flustered parents try in vain to quiet down their child. All I could think was (and I admit that I was kind of selfish to think this), Wow. I'm glad I'm not in their shoes.

But ever since I turned thirty last year, I can almost hear my biological clock ticking louder and louder. I know that there are many women who have children in their late thirties or even forties. I also know that it becomes more and more difficult to get pregnant as you get older, and deep down I don't want to wake up one day and realize that it's too late for me to have a child. I'd also like to live long enough to see my own child or children raise their own kids, because I'd like to hold my first grandchild in my arms before I die.

Now when I see women my age or younger pushing strollers or leading small children by the hand, I don't feel glad that I'm not them. I just feel...wistful. Now I know that I want to have a family of my own. It's not just because my biological clock is ticking. It's because I know that mothers do have a lot of burdens to carry, but having a child is a blessing, too. (I know that I sound like I just threw up a bunch of Hallmark cards, but I really am being sincere.)

I've been thinking about this more and more over the past year, and I've finally decided that if I'm not married by the time I turn forty, I'm going to try adoption or in vitro (I may even try earlier than that, once I finally finish grad school and find a good job.). I know that neither will guarantee that I will end up as a mother, and I know that being a single mother would be difficult. But that wistfulness I've been feeling just won't go away, and I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon. I think that I was afraid that being a mom would make it more difficult for me to do the things I wanted to do, like travel, write, and teach.

I was also afraid that I wouldn't even be any good at parenting, and I'm still afraid. I'm afraid I might end up with a kid who grows up to be a cast member on one of those reality dating shows, and then she might end up being the shrew who all the other cast members just HATE and cry fake tears over, or I might end up with a kid who grows up to have such a huge ego that he embarrasses Taylor Swift at an awards show.

But from what I've observed about parenting, it's an ongoing process; it seems like people learn how to raise kids as the kids grow up, because I don't think that anyone starts out automatically knowing what to do or how to be a parent.

Ideally, of course, I'd like to be married before I start having children, because I know that it is good for children to grow up with two parents. Single parents have their own struggles, because it's tough to raise a child alone. But being a single parent wouldn't necessarily mean that I would be a bad parent, because there are many excellent single parents out there as well as other "nontraditional" families that make it work. I know that I still have time before I have to make that final decision, and who knows, maybe I will find the right guy and get married. In the meantime, I need to focus on finishing graduate school and establishing myself in my career so that I will be able to support my family.

Either way, I feel like I've grown up a lot in the past ten years, and my attitude towards what I thought I wanted (and didn't want) has changed.

What about you? What are things that you thought you wanted/didn't want when you were younger, and how did your feelings change as you grew older? For those of you who have kids, how did you feel about becoming a parent before your kids were born?