Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Keeping up with the Joneses

For the most part, I don't really keep up with what's popular. For example, I still haven't watched Hunger Games or any of the Twilight movies (except for the first one). I don't plan to be first in line to watch the movie Magic Mike when it comes out (though I definitely wouldn't mind watching Channing Tatum or Alex Pettyfer dance around with their shirts off. Perhaps they could release a DVD with just the dance scenes and no dialogue? Or is that sexist of me to say that? But seriously, does anyone even CARE what that movie's about?)

I also don't really care about most electronic gadgets (except for my iPod, because I need to be able to listen to Britney and Katy on a regular basis. Stop rolling your eyes.). I don't have an iPad or a Kindle. I've heard stories of people who camp out in line for hours (or even days) before the new iPhone goes on sale. I would only camp out in line if my favorite clothing store was giving out free outfits, or if Conan O'Brien was giving out free tickets to his show (I wasn't able to get tickets to any of his Chicago shows, darn it! The HUMANITY of it all!), or if George Clooney was giving out free kisses.

Last year I finally replaced my old cell phone (which didn't even take pictures or get e-mail) for the first time in five years, and that was only because I got a free BlackBerry upgrade by signing a new contract. I still haven't completely figured out how to use all the features on it, though, which is why Smartphones make me feel stupid.)

Last week I got caught in the rain on my way to a doctor's appointment. It was pouring, so I put my cell phone in my bookbag and carried an umbrella. That was not enough to protect it from the rain, apparently, because my cell phone was damaged and wouldn't even turn on.

I happened to be within walking distance of a store owned by my phone company, so I went there to see if the phone could be fixed. They said that it was beyond repair. They also said that I would have to pay full price for a new phone (several hundred dollars), since my one-year warranty expired and I wasn't eligible for a free upgrade yet. And of course, by that point, the rain had already stopped. If my doctor's appointment had been just an hour later, I wouldn't have gotten caught in the rain, and I would have saved a lot of money as well as my cell phone.

This was my reaction:

Okay, so maybe I'm being a little melodramatic. After all, I am a member of the last generation that didn't grow up using cell phones or the Internet, so I can still remember what life was like before the Digital Age. We all managed to survive just fine.

I almost bought a new iPhone for more than two hundred dollars (the sales rep said he could give me one of the older versions for a cheaper price). I started to see why everyone goes crazy for these phones, because you really can do a lot of things with them.

But I couldn't bring myself to buy it. I am a broke grad student after all, and I can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone. I called my phone company and they were nice enough to make an exception for me and replace my Blackberry with a new one for fifty bucks. I couldn't help wishing that I'd been able to buy that fancier iPhone, though. I also couldn't help feeling envious of the people who can afford to buy the fancy iPhones. Even fifty bucks is a lot of money for me, and it's times like these where I feel frustrated for being a broke thirtysomething when people in their twenties are already earning thousands of dollars more.

I can't help wondering if those people who camp out in line for stuff like the newest version of the iPhone or the iPad are doing it because they really want all the fancy features that those gadgets offer, or if it's about status. I could say that I look down on all those people, but one of the reasons I finally upgraded my basic cell phone to a Smartphone was because I wanted to catch up with everyone else. (I suppose I could go off on some riff about consumerism or capitalism, but I have to write about that kind of stuff all the time for school. I'd rather take a break from it in my blog.)

We like to think that those things don't matter, and to a certain extent, they don't. But there's always at least one thing that we're willing to splurge on. I must admit that I write in a coffeehouse at least once a week, even though I could write at home for free.

What about you? Do you keep up with all the digital trends? What (or who) would you camp out in line for? What would you be willing to splurge on?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

When I Was a Kid

When I was a kid, I used to lie on the grass next to my dog and listen to my neighbor mow his lawn or my other neighbors laugh as they ran through the sprinklers.

Now that I am an adult, I lie in my bed at night and listen to police sirens, horns honking, and neighbors screaming from their apartment windows, saying stuff like, "Turn that crap down or I will GET you!" (Sometimes I'm the one screaming that.)

When I was a kid, I was afraid to look under my bed at night, because I thought that I would get pulled into the monsters' world.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm not afraid of monsters under my bed because I know that they're not real. What I am afraid of now are monsters in human form, all of whom are very real: the guys who try to grope me on the street and the ones who yell obscenities at me from their cars, the mobs of thieves who gang up on people and beat them up before stealing everything they have, and the drivers who care more about updating their Twitter feed than watching the road.

When I was a kid, I used to be so excited on Christmas Eve that I couldn't sleep, because I kept trying to listen for the sound of reindeer on the roof.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm excited for Christmas to be over, because then I don't have to watch people arm-wrestle each other for scented candles.

When I was a teenager, one reason I studied hard in school was because I didn't want to still be working minimum wage jobs after I graduated from college.

When I was in my twenties, I graduated from college with honors but continued working minimum-wage jobs where I got bossed around by twenty-two-year-old supervisors on power trips and customers who apparently believed that treating salespeople like dirt will get them into heaven.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed about Prince Charming riding in on a white horse and rescuing me.

Now that I'm in my thirties, I know that Prince Charming doesn't exist, but his wicked stepbrothers, aka Prince Rude, Prince Insincere, Prince Drinks-a-Lot, and Prince Inappropriate-Touching, are everywhere. I know because I dated them.

When I was in my twenties, I wanted to be the kind of teacher who inspired her students to read and write for fun and not just for school.

Now that I'm in my thirties, I want to be the teacher who makes her students pay more attention to her than to their cell phones during class.

When I was younger, I read books because they allowed me to escape into a different world, and they introduced me to characters who understood how I felt, because they felt the same way.

Now that I'm older, I still read books for the same reasons.

I guess some things never change.

What about you? What kinds of things did you do/think when you were younger, and how did those things change when you got older?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Grass Is Always Greener

A few weeks ago, I ran into a classmate that I've always thought of as my Grad School Nemesis. She asked me, "Have you published any articles yet?"

She knew very well that I haven't. In academia, it's very important that you publish articles in academic journals that nobody else but other scholars read. The titles of the articles are stuff like "Daddy Issues in Frankenstein" and "If You Use Enough Academic Jargon, Everyone Will Think You're Smarter than They Are" and "A Marxist (Over) Analysis of the Economic Hierarchy in The Great Gatsby." (Okay. So those aren't the real titles. But they might as well be, if you've ever read the articles.)

I was tempted to respond, "I haven't published any articles yet, but I have learned some very effective moves in my kick-boxing class. Allow me to demonstrate," or "If your head keeps getting bigger, you're going to start scaring people into thinking that you're Godzilla."

Grad School Nemesis went on to brag about the articles that she'd published in academic journals and the prestigious conferences that she'd been to. She knows that I haven't accomplished as much as she has in our field, which I think is one reason why she always makes sure that I know all about how well she's doing.

I've never been a very good scholar. I was always more interested in teaching, partly because it's the one job I've ever had that I'm actually good at. My students drive me up the wall sometimes, but I keep showing up in the classroom every day because that's where I want to be. It makes me think of the movie Tenure. Luke Wilson plays a college professor who is pressured to publish more academic articles and books in order to get tenure, but he's a better teacher than he is a scholar. Watching that movie made me feel better, because it made me feel like I'm not the only person who struggles in academia.

I've been feeling depressed lately because of the fact that it's going to take me an extra year to complete my Ph.D., especially because my graduate funding will run out next year. So it doesn't help when people like my Grad School Nemesis keep bragging about how they're doing better than I am and then make condescending comments about how I've failed to measure up.

It's one thing to feel jealous of people you don't know. I wrote a post a while ago about how I felt jealous of Snooki, because she got a book deal (and now I hear she's got ANOTHER book deal), even though she's not really a writer. She just lets someone else do the writing for her. But it's another thing to feel jealous of people you do know, because it hits close to home. In the back of your mind you keep thinking, "If they can succeed, why can't I?" And that makes it even harder to accept it when you don't get what you want, while they keep getting what they want.

Anne Lamott wrote a very good chapter about jealousy in her book Bird by Bird. She said that it was normal to feel jealous, and it was also okay to not feel happy for the people that you're jealous of. We are only human after all, and everyone has their limits. Reading it made me realize how insensitive people like my Grad School Nemesis are, especially because they know how I've been having a hard time just trying to keep up with everyone else. I might not be able to tape the lips shut of my Grad School Nemesis, but I can limit my interactions with her so that I don't have to listen to her anymore. And that's something, at least.

Are there people in your life who constantly brag about their accomplishments? How do you deal with it when you feel jealous?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I haven't been blogging lately because a) I went to visit my parents, who live in another state, for Memorial Day weekend; b) I've been watching Youtube videos of boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted, even though I'm more than a decade older than the members and they make the same lame hand gestures and soulful looks that the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync made years ago, and yet I can't help myself from hitting "Replay" while trying not to dance along to their music; c) I've been making a list of all the ways to get back at the jerks who cut in front of me in line, including pulling their hair and throwing water balloons at their pants so that other people will point and laugh at them and think they need to wear diapers.

I've also been revising two stories that I wrote. Here's how bad I am about procrastinating: after I finished the first draft of my first novel, I put off revising it so that I could start writing the first draft of my second novel. Now that I've finished writing that draft, I've gone back and started revising both stories.

I just finished rereading Stephen King's On Writing, and he said that an editor who rejected one of his stories gave him some very good advice: "You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%."

That advice definitely rings true as I revise my drafts. One thing I've noticed about both manuscripts is that I have a bad habit of repeating myself. For example, I noticed that the love interest of the main character in one of my stories kept running his hands through his hair, as if he was an actor in a shampoo commercial or a lead in one of those CW teen soaps. I also noticed that the main character and her love interest kept smiling at each other, as if they were actors in a toothpaste commercial or a Hallmark movie.

I also realized that the main characters of both stories are about as obsessive and neurotic as I am, because they kept worrying all the time about everything. To make matters worse, they kept describing what they felt, which broke one of the big rules of fiction writing: show, don't tell. I felt embarrassed about the fact that there was more description than action in some of the scenes.

There was also the fact that setting did not play a big role in either story. Both stories are supposed to be set in Chicago, but you wouldn't know it because there is too much dialogue and not enough details about what was going on around the characters. They might as well have been talking in an empty room.

So I printed out the drafts and have been going through them with a pen, crossing out lines and even entire paragraphs that I don't like. I've also been adding additional lines and entire scenes in the margins and on extra pages. That's why revision can be a good thing. It helps you learn from your mistakes, and it means that you can take out scenes or even characters that don't work in the story. It also means that your story could move in an entirely different direction, and that can be a good thing too.

What about you? What kinds of mistakes do you make in your first draft? What do you think of revision? How many times do you revise your drafts?