Monday, August 25, 2014

I Heart New York

I spent last week in New York City. I loved every minute of it, even though I accidentally got knocked over by naked people wearing body paint in Times Square, had to pay the price of three hot dogs for ONE hot dog, and may or may not have ended up in Coney Island when I was trying to go to the Upper East Side.

I spent four nights there, and I did and saw as many things as I could. The highlight of the week was watching Julia Stiles and James Wirt perform in the excellent off-Broadway play Phoenix. Along with other fans, I waited by the stage door after the show and got their autographs. I kicked myself for being too shy to ask to get my picture taken with Julia, whose work I've admired for fifteen years, ever since I saw her in 10 Things I Hate about You. But I watched her perform live and I got her autograph, so two out of three isn't bad. (She was very nice and gracious to everyone, and gave an autograph to everyone who asked, even the people with several DVDs.)

I spent more than two hours walking around Central Park, though that was partly because it took me more than an hour to figure out how to get OUT of Central Park.

I ate a peanut butter sundae at Serendipity Cafe and didn't feel too guilty eating it, seeing as how I spent hours every day walking around, muttering, "Where AM I?"

I took pictures from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

I bought a black Dean & DeLuca T-shirt and felt just like Felicity from the TV show, minus the beautiful hair and cute boyfriends.

I ate lasagna and gelato in Little Italy and beef chow fun in Chinatown. My hotel was in Chinatown, and in the morning I'd buy a fruit smoothie, go to the park nearby, and watch people do Tai Chi.

I watched people playing chess in Washington Square Park and thought of that scene in When Harry Met Sally where they said goodbye by the Washington arch.

I visited the New York Public Library and the bookstores the Strand, Shakespeare & Co., and Housing Works, and I bought a couple books.

I wrote in a cafe in Greenwich Village (which was my favorite neighborhood), and I window shopped in Soho and on Fifth Avenue.

I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was much bigger than my favorite museum in Chicago, the Art Institute.

I got up early every morning and only came back to my hotel room to shower and sleep. I spent all day walking around and marveling at how much bigger, louder, more crowded, and more colorful everything was in New York than in Chicago. I envied the people who lived there, and I thought of how cool it would be to teach, write, and live in New York City. (I'll probably end up in some small college town, though.)

The best part of the vacation was that for the first time in a long time, I felt happy and relaxed. I'd be standing in a subway car or walking around the East Village or eating dinner in Little Italy, and I'd find myself smiling.

It felt so good to escape my work, my anxieties about my work, my music-blasting, magazine-stealing, let's party like our parents pay our rent because they DO neighbors, the e-mails from students (and their parents) complaining about their grades, the phone calls from relatives asking why I'm not married yet, and my usual days that consisted of work, coffee, exercise, and kicking people who cut in front of me in line. In Chicago I often feel old. In New York I felt ten years younger, like I used to feel when I first moved to Chicago and walked around with the same awe and fascination. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

When my plane landed in O'Hare Airport, I found an e-mail regarding a presentation that I have to make in front of my entire department (where my work will be torn apart by graduate students AND professors), another e-mail regarding a bill that's due, and an e-mail from one of my professors regarding my dissertation. I also found out some deadbeat loser somehow used my phone number, and I started getting daily phone calls from aggressive bill collectors (I had to spend an hour on the phone to get THAT straightened out). The weight dropped back down on my shoulders, and I felt old, tired, and stressed out again.

But at least I still have my memory of that wonderful week in New York, and I've already resolved to visit that city again someday soon. I'm not going to wait another thirteen years before I travel again, and I realized that everyone needs a vacation, even a neurotic workaholic like me.

What about you? What are some of the best parts of the vacations that you've taken? Do you ever wish you could just escape all the everyday problems in your life?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Neurotic Workaholic Takes a Vacation

It's Sunday night. By this time tomorrow I'll be in New York City, on the first vacation that I've ever taken on my own.

I'm excited about seeing New York for the first time. I've only ever seen glimpses of it in movies like When Harry Met Sally and TV shows like Law and Order and Sex and the City. And I've read about it in books, of course. So I'm curious to see what the "real" New York is like.

I bought a New York guidebook with fold-out maps for each neighborhood. I made a list in my journal of the places I'd like to visit and the things I'd like to do. I want to eat a hot dog in Central Park, and I want to eat ice cream in the Serendipity cafe. My hotel is in Chinatown, where I'm going to have dim sum. I already bought a ticket online to visit the Empire State Building. I tried to buy a ticket to the Statue of Liberty, but those tickets sold out very quickly. I also bought an inexpensive ticket to see one of my favorite actresses, Julia Stiles, perform in a play called Phoenix.

My flight arrives in New York on Monday afternoon. I go back to Chicago on Friday. I'll drop off my things at my hotel and immediately go back out and walk around Chinatown. Then I'll go to Times Square so that I can see it all lit up at night. I plan to wake up early every day and explore as many neighborhoods as I can. And of course, I'll be careful; all these years in Chicago taught me how to play it safe.

The thing I'm most nervous about, though, is actually letting myself relax on vacation. Like I said, I've never taken a vacation on my own before, though I always wanted to travel. I spent the last decade working two or three jobs at the same time and the majority of that decade in grad school. Relaxing was not an option for me. I couldn't even watch a TV show without doing something productive at the same time, like folding laundry, dusting furniture, or responding to students' e-mails.

I almost cancelled my trip to New York because I kept thinking of all the things I have to do right now. I'm supposed to be revising chapters of my dissertation. I'm going on the job market this year, and several of my professors were kind enough to agree to write recommendation letters for me. But they want me to show them my application letter, a chapter from my dissertation, and a summary of the dissertation as a whole, as well as my curriculum vitae. I have to send them all that stuff very soon, which means that this week in New York will put me about a week behind in my work.

But for once in my life, I'm going to put my work on the back burner. I put work first for so many years, and I turned into a neurotic workaholic as a result. Maybe this week, I'll actually be able to sleep without thinking of all the things I didn't get done that day or that I need to do the next day.

Relaxing isn't difficult for a lot of people, but it is for me because it felt like I wasn't allowed to relax for so long. When I worked in retail, the managers would get mad at us if they saw us stand around and do nothing for more than a minute at a time (though the managers felt free to stand around and chat with each other or their friends for as long as they wanted). So I grew accustomed to a steady work pace and rarely slowed down.

It made me edgy when I wasn't doing anything. I never even liked sleeping late, because it felt like I was wasting time on sleep that I could spend on my work.

This vacation won't change me from a neurotic workaholic into a laid-back slacker, and I wouldn't want it to anyway. But for this week at least, it'll be a relief to NOT be a neurotic workaholic.

What about you? Is it difficult for you to take time off or to relax? Do you feel guilty when you take a vacation? If so, how do you deal with it?

Side note: I'm not bringing my laptop to New York, so if you leave a comment on my blog this week I won't be able to answer it until I get back this upcoming weekend. But I will answer it; I promise. And I'll comment on your blogs when I get back too.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I Feel Old (and Young)

1. I feel old when I realize that a ten year old knows more about all the apps on a smartphone than I do (especially because I keep accidentally taking pictures of myself with my phone).

2. I feel young when I give up my seat on the train for an elderly woman, and I think about what it'll be like when I'm her age and people give up their seats (I hope) for me.

3. I feel old when I can't understand half of what my students say. For example, it took me a long time to figure out that "totes" meant "totally", "cray-cray" meant "crazy", and IDGAF meant "I don't give a (well, you get the idea)."

4. I feel young when I see the older professors on campus and listen to them talk about their decades of teaching experience.

5. I feel old when I listen to the undergrads talk about their plans for the future, because they haven't yet considered all the roadblocks that life is going to throw in their way.

6. I feel young when I see elderly people walk slowly on the sidewalk, and I feel grateful (though I also feel guilty for feeling grateful) that my legs are still strong enough to get me from one place to another with ease.

7. I feel old when I see children running and shrieking on the playground. They run because they're playing games and having fun. I run in order to burn calories.

8. I feel young when I think about how many years it'll be before I can retire. I used to think I NEVER wanted to retire, but too many frustrating experiences in academia made me rethink that.

9. I feel old when I see people in their twenties hanging out in bars, and I think, "While they're sleeping until noon tomorrow, I'll already have been up for five hours and gotten all my dailies done, like laundry."

10. I feel young when I listen to pop music and sing along and dance to it.

11. I feel old when I look in the mirror and see the lines under my eyes and the white hairs on my head, and I run (counting calories all the way) to the drugstore to buy anti-aging cream.

12. I feel young when I reread my favorite books from my childhood and remember all the reasons that I loved (and still love) them.

13. I feel old when I look at online dating profiles and realize that I'm about ten years too old for all the arrogant, middle-aged creeps who only want twenty-two year old girls, reject all the women who aren't in their twenties, and refuse to accept the fact that THEY'RE getting older (even though most of the girls don't want them BECAUSE those guys are so much older).

What about you? When do you feel old (or young)?

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Dilemma

At most graduate schools, the PhD candidates are given funding each year. Usually they get a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship, which provides them with free tuition and a small monthly stipend. The funding does not last indefinitely; usually grad students only get funding within a specific time frame.

My funding ran out this past year. I was supposed to finish my PhD this year. Several classmates received offers from prestigious colleges or post-doctoral fellowships. I felt envious of them and ashamed that it was going to take me an extra year to finish my dissertation. 

My department generously offered to extend my funding for one more year, but that meant that I would have to teach again. I had already applied for a loan, which would provide me with just enough money to live on so that I could spend the year working on my dissertation and applying for teaching jobs. 

I was tempted to accept the teaching assistantship instead. After all, it was a very expensive decision. If I took the assistantship, I wouldn't have to take that loan and that meant several years I would NOT be in debt. But on the other hand, it meant that it would be like every other year: I would be spending most of my time teaching and struggling to make time for my graduate work. Not to mention I usually worked a second or even a third job in order to avoid credit card debt and loans, unlike most of my classmates (which is why they finished earlier). Either way, it was a decision that would affect me for the next decade at least (in terms of paying off student debt, that is). 

I pictured myself grading dozens of papers every week. I imagined my professors shaking their head with disapproval and disappointment over my dissertation, which they had done before. I thought of the students who missed six classes in a row, turned in all their assignments late, and then threw temper tantrums when they didn't get A's. I remembered the e-mails I'd received from students who were irate that I didn't immediately respond (which made ME irate).

Recently I taught a particularly difficult class. Every time I finished explaining something to the students, at least one or two hands would shoot up and the students would ask me to repeat everything I just said; it was clear they weren't listening. Other students showed up late multiple times for appointments and then expected me to set aside even more time outside of my office hours. Several people gave vague excuses about "family emergencies" and expected me to make exceptions for them on almost every single assignment. It made me want to scream and scream and scream, and it made me realize that I needed a break from teaching. 

So I turned down the assistantship and took the loan instead. It was a very difficult decision, but for the first time in years I am putting my graduate work first. This is my last chance to redeem myself as a graduate student, and I don't want to ruin it. I HAVE to finish my dissertation this year; I've taken too long already. All these years in graduate school made me feel like I was in limbo; everyone else around me was moving on, getting married, having babies, and climbing the corporate ladder, while I was still a student. I just want to move on with my life and figure out what to do next.

This will be the first year in a long time that I won't be teaching. I'll still have my website job, but I'll spend most of my time at home or at the library, writing my dissertation. I feel sad that I won't be teaching, but to be honest I feel a little relieved, too. It's not just because of that one difficult class. It's because too many of my classes have been like that (though not all of them have been like that, and there have been some genuinely good and bright students). 

What about you? What would you have done if you were in my situation? That is, would you have taken the loan, or would you have taken the teaching assistantship?