Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life or Debt

As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know, my graduate funding will run out at the end of this school year. But it will take me another year (at least) to finish my dissertation. I spoke to the placement director in my department, and this person told me that they may be able to give me a few classes to teach next year. But I've been thinking about what my other options are, because at this point, I'm still not sure what I should do.

I work for a website, but it's only part-time. If I want to have enough money to pay rent, buy groceries, and pay for other essentials, I need at least one other job.

I could go back to work in retail. I've worked at a bookstore, a clothing store, and the souvenir store of a major tourist attraction. It would not be difficult to find another job in retail. I'm actually pretty good at convincing people to buy things (even things they don't need). I'm also good at keeping a friendly expression on my face, even though on the inside I may or may not be thinking, How can I help you? How about I help you find the way to the exit, so that you can shop somewhere else?

But working in retail made me very unhappy. The hours are long, the pay is extremely low, and it's very tiring to stand on your feet for eight hours a day. It's also very tiring to listen to  coworkers who think that if you don't fold a stack of sweaters perfectly, the world will end. Also, when the stores I worked for weren't making any money, I wasn't making any money. Everyone's hours were cut more often than not. Therefore, I could never rely on my earnings as a salesgirl.

I could keep teaching at the school where I'm teaching now, if the department offers me more classes next year. Several other grad students who are still working on their dissertations have also continued to teach at the school. I could also go back to working as an adjunct at one of the other schools where I've taught.

But teaching is very time-consuming. After spending hours teaching, grading papers, making lesson plans, and meeting with students to help them with their work and occasionally tell them that they shouldn't write papers like they write text messages, the last thing I want to do is work on my dissertation. What I want to do instead is sleep for several hours, read a good book that doesn't have five hundred footnotes in it, or take a walk around my neighborhood.

I could become a street performer, but I don't really know what I would do. Despite years of piano lessons, the only thing I can remember how to play is "Chopsticks". I can't sing very well without making people cringe and invest in ear plugs. I can't make balloon animals to sell to tourists, because I'm not very good at blowing up balloons. I always end up popping them by accident, which would scare the tourists and then they'd think that all the locals in Chicago are weird.

I've thought about applying for student loans or grants. The good thing about grants is that you don't have to pay anyone back for the money that you get, and it looks good on your resume. But a lot of people apply for those grants, so they're extremely difficult to get. Since I haven't distinguished myself in graduate school, it will be even more difficult to get one. But I'm still going to try.

I talked to people in the financial aid office at my school about applying for a small loan for next year. I also talked to a financial advisor, who gave me some good advice. I was reluctant to consider student loans at first, because in all the years I've been in graduate school, I've never applied for any loans. I have a tuition waiver and a stipend from my teaching assistantship, and I have always worked additional part-time jobs to pay for everything else. I was also raised with the belief that I should never borrow money if I can earn it on my own.

I have a small amount of credit card debt, but I haven't charged anything else and I pay more than the minimum each month. The thought of adding thousands of dollars to the amount of money I currently owe is daunting. Granted, even if I borrow money next year, I won't owe as much as most of my other classmates. They've been living off of student loans since the beginning, and they now have six figure debts. Their choice was not necessarily a bad one, because they were able to devote themselves to their work and succeed as a result. But it will take them decades to pay off those debts, because even though the cast members of reality shows get paid thousands (or millions) of dollars for living by the slogan "Who Needs a Conscience When You Can Be Famous?", educators are lucky if they earn enough money to live on and have a little bit left over to put in the bank.

But even though I am a workaholic, I don't know if I want to keep working so much next year. It's partly because I spent so much time at my other jobs that I haven't done as well in graduate school as I could have; I didn't have as much time to study. And I regret that, but at the same time I really never wanted to have a six figure debt; I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to pay it.

If I applied for a small loan, I wouldn't have to work next year. I could study all day without interruption. I could finally prove to my professors that my work is good enough, and then I would finally feel like I'm good enough. Maybe I wouldn't be so stressed and tired all the time, and maybe I would have time for the other things that are important to me, like fiction writing.

The thought of being in debt for years is scary. But the thought of failing to finish my dissertation and being forced to leave graduate school is even scarier. Even after everything I've been through, I still want to be a college professor.

What about you? How do you feel about student loans and debt in general? If you were in my situation, what would you do?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stuff My Neighbors Say

Neighbor #1: Don't worry, nobody's even listening to us right now.
Me: Nobody wants to listen to you right now, but that doesn't mean we can't HEAR you. And by the way? It's really not necessary to congratulate yourself every time.

Neighbor #2: And I will always love youuuu..... (This neighbor likes to sing at the top of her lungs, because she thinks she's as good as Whitney Houston was.)
Me: You know what you should take? Voice lessons. Then the teacher will tell you that you should learn how to be a mime instead.

Neighbor #3: Can you believe it's already 2:37 in the morning? I can't believe we're still awake right now!
Me: I can't believe I'm still awake either. Do you know what happens when I am sleep-deprived? Why don't you come over and I'll show you. 

Neighbor #4: Yeah! We're number one! We won the game! WOOOO!!
Me: You're number one on my list of people who I'm going to photograph and whose pictures I will post online under the heading, "When Bad Neighbors Happen to Good People."

Neighbor #5: Just leave it. Someone else will take care of it.
Me: The next time I break a jar of spaghetti sauce, I'm not going to leave the mess all over the hallway like you did. I'm going to take the sauce and smear it all over your door with a note that says, "You don't have a maid. Clean up after yourself."

Neighbor #6: I just LOVE this song! Turn it up!
Me: I like that song too. At least, I liked it the first three times you played it. Twenty-five times later, I don't really like it anymore. Thank you for that. 

Neighbor #7: I can't believe you made out with him! I wanted to make out with him!
Me: How about this? The next time you two go to a bar and encounter an anonymous guy who's remotely attractive, you get to call dibs!

The walls in my building are extremely thin. Any time one of my neighbors sneezes, answers the phone, or fights with their boyfriend or girlfriend, I can hear it. My apartment window looks out over the parking lot; it also faces several other apartments, which is why I have to keep my blinds closed all the time. But even if I can't see my neighbors, I can still hear them.

It's one thing when they have their loud parties or music marathons on the weekends. I try not to start throwing things when the guy living in the apartment above me invites all his friends over and they start cheering every time one of the players in the games that they're watching does something spectacular, like move. But when it's a weeknight and I have to wake up at 5:30 A.M. to get ready to teach my morning classes?  That's something else altogether. I don't blast my Nothing But Taylor Swift playlist at 5:30 in the morning, because I know that everyone's sleeping. So I'd appreciate it if people would show me the same consideration at 1:30 A.M. I'd also appreciate it if I didn't have to listen to their nonstop noise EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT.

I'd expect this kind of behavior if my neighbors were college students. But most of them are in their twenties and thirties. At some point, I would have thought they'd have grown up. But apparently, they haven't. Maybe I'm jealous because they have a lot more free time than I do, and they obviously don't have to work as much (or at all) as I do.

Maybe it's true that you can take the girl out of the small town, but you can't take the small town out of the girl. I was accustomed to peace and quiet when I was growing up, so it was a shock to come here to Chicago, where it's rarely peaceful or quiet. 

Maybe I'm suspicious because a lot of them never seem to sleep at night, which makes me wonder if they're all just a bunch of drunk vampires who like to party all the time.

Maybe I'm just tired because my neighbors are why I haven't been sleeping well lately, and I think they're also why my hair is turning white again.

Or maybe I'm just completely fed up by their selfish, inconsiderate behavior. I've had to live with jerks like them for years, and I hate it.

I am truly grateful for the fact that I have a roof over my head, and I am grateful that I earn money to pay my own rent. But I dream of the day that I'll be able to buy my own house someday, not an apartment or a condo, but a house where I don't have to share space with anyone I don't like. Until then, I'm seriously thinking of turning up my pop music playlists at 5:30 in the morning.

What about you? Do you have rude neighbors? How do you deal with people like them?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Home Is...

The small Midwestern town that I grew up in, even though I couldn't wait to leave it when I was a teenager.

The big Midwestern city that I've lived in for years, even though I don't even notice its beauty half the time because I'm so focused on getting to work, to the gym, to my apartment so that I can add to my list of things that annoy me (#47: People who sing along off-key to pop songs at the top of their lungs in the middle of a busy commuter train. Britney Spears' music should not be desecrated in that way.)

My dream house, which has a big front porch with a swing that I could sit on while reading books outside in the summer.

Not the tiny studio apartment that I currently live in.

The peace and quiet of my hometown, where I could close my eyes and actually hear myself think.

Not the car alarms blaring, horns honking, loud music playing, people yelling, and me shrieking at my window, "For the love of God, it's three A.M.! SHUT UP!"

The wide streets in my hometown that I used to ride my bike on to get to the ice cream shop or the playground.

The dirty subway tunnels that I walk through or the crowded trains that I ride to get to work, where some people practically tackle each other in order to get seats.

The classrooms where I teach, where several of my students have written on their course evaluations that I seem really happy when I'm teaching. And I am.

Not the classrooms and lecture halls where I attend graduate lectures that I usually only understand 10% of, and where I find myself thinking, Being trapped in an elevator for two hours with the Kardashians, their boyfriends, and their ex-husbands would be less painful than this.

The Harold Washington Library, where there are several floors of books. The first time I went there, I thought, In heaven, there are books. 

Not the libraries at the schools where I've taught, because many of the undergrads think that "Quiet Study Area" means "Talk, Socialize, Update Your Facebook Page Twenty Times Per Hour, and Play Music on Your iPhone without Headphones Area".

A guy who I could trust completely and who would make me think that maybe true love isn't something that only happens to other people.

Not any of the guys I've dated, especially not the one who criticized me for not "fixing myself up" enough for the date or the one who made up a lame excuse to leave early less than an hour after the date started, which made me think, I wonder if voodoo dolls really work. Maybe I could buy one and name it after him.

The pages of my journal and the files that hold my manuscripts in my laptop, where I can immerse myself in the worlds that I've created.

Not the tabloids that over-analyze celebrities' lives and invade their privacy or the reality shows that make it seem like you have to be drunk, stupid, or mean in order to be famous.

The books by good authors that inspired me to write in the first place.

They say that home is where your heart is. I think that your heart can be in more than one place. I also think that home is made up of all the places and things that make you happy, and that help you survive all the other places that you can't wait to get away from.

What about you? What is home to you?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Happily Ever After...Or Not

Fellow blogger Talli Roland (who also happens to be a great novelist, which is why you should buy her books) recently wrote a post about happy endings, and how romantic comedies usually have happy endings. She's right. This is particularly true of chick lit, where the main character usually a) ends up with Mr. Right; b) realizes that the Unsuitable Suitor isn't so Unsuitable after all and dumps Mr. Safe-But-Boring for him; c) realizes that the Unsuitable Suitor really is a tool and that Mr. Safe-But-Boring isn't so boring after all; or d) thinks to herself, I don't need a man to be happy. I just need my friends and Ben and Jerry. 

I recently read a chick lit book that I HATED. I bought two books by this author because one of my favorite authors highly recommended this person. Then again, many people highly recommend getting face tattoos and multiple piercings in places that really shouldn't be pierced (because really, who's going to look there unless you take all your clothes off? And you really shouldn't do THAT in public.).

I didn't like the first novel that I bought by this author, mainly because all the characters loved each other. There was almost no conflict in the story, because everyone easily forgave each other. I know that chick lit books aren't always realistic, but COME ON. In real life, most people don't easily forgive each other every time. They yell at each other, cry, and pull each other's hair (or is it just me who does the last one?).

But I bought the second book by this author because I thought that maybe I should give this person's writing another chance. It's kind of like going to a restaurant a second time even though you got food poisoning the last time you ate there.

But this book was no better than the last one I read. The characters all loved each other and easily forgave each other, like the last book. Even worse, the main character's love interest was perfect...too perfect. He had absolutely no flaws. Unless she fell in love with a Stepford Boyfriend, it was hard to believe. I liked the Unsuitable Suitor in this book better, because he was demanding, self-centered, immature...and real.

Granted, I wouldn't necessarily want to date a guy who is like that. But no guy is perfect (and based on the guys that I've dated, I KNOW that for a fact). And I think that people's flaws are what make their relationships interesting. I think that loving someone in spite of his or her flaws and accepting him or her for who they are is a sign that you truly are in love. Not to mention the guy and the main character kept declaring their love for each other (I lost count after the hundredth time, and I'm not exaggerating), and I know that even people in love don't do that ALL The time. It made me want to watch an episode of one of the Real Housewives shows, where none of the people say loving things to each other, except maybe when they're admiring themselves in the mirror.

I recently read Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans, and I found myself sighing with relief as I read it. The main character's love interest was flawed in many ways, but he was likable in other ways as well. I found myself becoming  invested in the characters' lives, and I kept thinking about the story even when I wasn't reading it. When I was waiting for the train yesterday, I thought, Oh, I hope she makes the right decision about that guy, as if the main character was a real person. And in a way, the characters had become real to me, because the story was that engaging. And as a reader, reading a good book like that is my idea of a happy ending.

We all have our own definitions of what a happy ending would be. In the stories I write, I do want my characters to have happy endings, as long as they all make mistakes and bad decisions and drive people crazy with their flaws first, because that's what makes them (and their stories) real.

I also have my own idea of what I'd like my happy ending to be. In fact, I have several ideas. One includes myself as a successful writer, who earns enough money that I don't have to work a day job (actually, in my case, it's day jobs) anymore so that I can write full-time. Another includes myself as a respected professor, where I get to teach students who would rather read fine literature than text messages. And another happy ending includes Ryan Gosling in a tank top, but I won't go into too much detail on that one.

What about you? Do you prefer stories with happy endings? Do you like to write happy endings for your stories? What's your idea of a happy ending?