Friday, June 27, 2014

Points of View

Last night someone close to me—and thus very accustomed to (and probably tired of)—hearing me complain about my on-going search for a decent post-grad job suggested I apply for a job in website design.  We were leaning against the bar of a lounge in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood.  I was holding an overpriced cocktail, nostalgically named Strawberry Fields in my hand.  A chandelier hung from the gleaming white ceiling above us and music played live, loud music filled the room.  A cocktail waitress in a tight red dress that squeezed into the crease between her butt and her thighs glided past us.
I laughed.  “I can’t do that!”
“Don’t you know HTML?” he asked.
Working in a marketing office, I had seen the computer engineers at their computers, typing frantically away in a language I didn’t understand.  I’ve studied two romance languages, French and Spanish.  Three, if you count love—which I do.  And I have my own frantic language of beats and rhythms that my fingers tap onto the keyboard when I write.  I like languages that express love, feelings, story... 
“God! What did you learn in college?” he asked.
I think it was rhetorical.  And I’m sure it was one of those things that a person says without realizing that gravity of their words, but for a moment something in me was pulled down.
I have a BA in Fiction Writing and Gender Studies.  I have a certificate in French.  My MFA in Creative Nonfiction was, admittedly, redundant.  In undergrad, I read classic and contemporary literature.  I wrote lyric essays and short stories and learned how to construct a novel.  I wrote research papers on women’s issues.  I thought.  I thought about the world, about myself, and about myself in the world.  And I wrote about it.  That’s what I learned how to do well.  I can read people and situations.  I can form an educated opinion.  I can articulate my thoughts.  I can write a blog in under an hour—following my thoughts through to their origins and back. 
I think about being alive and what it means.  I can’t design a webpage.  I’ve read Bartleby the Scrivener twice, so I have a point of reference for how I feel in my office jobs. I make fun of meetings.  In my head I say, “I’d prefer not to.”   I’ve also read Death of a Salesmen, which is what I referred to in my last job when I met an aging salesman with missing teeth, three children and a shortage of clients who would buy my ten cent licorice ropes from the corner discount store. 
To say that I learned nothing of value in college would be to devalue the human experience.  Even if I go broke because I have no skills with which to land a decent paying job, at least I can adequately reflect upon the state of my life and make something out of the nothingness that may very well be on my professional horizon.  Studying literature, writing, history, art, gender studies, languages...It is all a lesson in how to process the experience of being alive.  In reading about others, we can both learn about ourselves as well as learn empathy for those who are different from us.  History and gender studies teach this lesson as well.  As does studying a foreign language—which also teaches the importance of self-expression, as well as the quiet fact that words do sometimes fall short, feelings don’t always translate, but there are some things that are unspoken and universal.  Art teaches the importance of perception.  It shows how people have looked at the world and asks the viewer of the art to consider how they perceive things.  Art bring a person face to face with the fact that, as Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things are we are.” 
There is value in studying practical pursuits.  And my the three people I like most in the world all have that particular skill set, but I wouldn’t be who I am—or be confident enough to be sure who I’m not—if I hadn’t made the choices to learn what I did.  And I’m happy.  Somehow, outside the fact that I have yet to find a mentally engaging, enjoyable, decent paying job—I am happy.  (I think.)

I’m not sure what great bit of wisdom there is knowing there is value to what I have done with my life thus far.  But I thought about it.  And now I’ve written about it.  And maybe that’s the point.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Present Perfect

Present Perfect (verb tense)
[has/have + been + present participle]
Ex: I have been hoping.

The other day I was talking to someone about an essay I wrote just over a year ago.  I always thought the essay was a contemplation on love but they said it was about time.  Maybe love is about time.  I first had this thought two months ago, when my best friend and her boyfriend of seven years came to visit me in New York.  Sitting across the table from them during dinner, I noticed how each carried the history of the other in themselves.  They were a movable measurement of seven years (and counting) of each other’s lives.  Mapped across my best friend’s memory was every small injustice, every accomplishment, every childhood story of her boyfriend.  In in him, was a record of every hardship she had endured, everything she had built for herself and everything they had built together.  In the two of them, I saw also the absence of time—or, perhaps, the irrelevance of time.  In the beginning, they would have counted dates—first date, second date…  And then months.  And then firsts—first time sleeping together, first Valentine’s day, first vacation together, first anniversary…  And then as they began to count years, the years added up to timelessness.  Because it is all there simultaneously in their memories of each other. 

I think a lot about time.  In job interviews lately, I find myself repeatedly asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”  In five years I will be twenty-eight (almost twenty-nine) years old.  In interviews, I make up an answer.  In conversations with friends, I laugh and say I can’t possibly picture where I’ll be in five years.  That’s a lie too.  I know where I want to be in five years, I just don’t want to say it.  It feels like a wish—if you tell someone what you wish for, it won’t come true.  And yet, in some ways it’s difficult to picture myself a year from now.  In fact, it’s difficult to picture two months from now.  But that is because I know how time moves slowly until suddenly it jumps and starts running until it gets tired.  Time needs to learn to pace itself.  It seems that big changes happen suddenly.  Love happens suddenly.  One day you just realize it’s there, in the picture.  Of course, it also happens over time.  Love is time and timelessness. 

Time is largely about counting.  I can count the time I’ve been in New York.  One year and ten months.  I can count the months I’ve been at the new job that I told myself would only be temporary.  Two months—and that already feels too long.  I can count the time since I last saw my family.  One year.  And then there are other things that I have lost count of.  Dates, days, kisses, small gestures…  Time is about counting.  It’s also about what counts.  Months can go by and yet they only really count in terms of the slow progression of life on a calendar.  And then there are other months, days, minutes, seconds, that feel like they make it all count.  

Recently, I find myself feeling timeless—ageless.  Entirely grown up with a job and a graduate degree and bills and business suits.  And also eternally youthful—screaming on carnival rides and eating candy and laughing and forgetting I have any responsibilities other than my own happiness.  A year ago, when I was writing about love—or time—I felt old and aging.  I felt like time was stretching across my face and the relationship I was in, leaving everything wrinkled and worse for wear.  And I thought life would be like that, slow and disappointing, forever and ever until it was just over. 

I don’t feel that way anymore.  I feel renewed and hopeful and I feel like that counts for something.  And maybe none of this is any sort of great revelation or insight into the human condition, but I am at work with four hours left in the workday and this is my way of killing time—or, maybe, making it count.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Talking to Myself

Don’t listen to Ryan Adams songs because he always makes you sad.  Don’t drink so much that you miss things you know better than to miss.  Don’t be jealous of people who aren’t homesick.  Why are you homesick?  Don’t cry.  God, please just cry—maybe it would make you feel better.  Why can’t you cry anymore?  Are you happy?  Aren’t you happy?  What does happy enough mean?  Is it good enough?  You aren’t good enough, just look at your mindless job.  Look at how easily people leave you.  Stop reliving all the ways you’ve been left.  Be careful going down the path of good enough.  Don’t drink so much that you almost ask him if it was because she’s thinner than you.  And don’t ever think it would be a good idea to write a list of questions that are so awful that you can’t even bare to ask them aloud.  Eat something, if you’re going to drink like that. it will help you to not get so drunk that you confuse bad ideas for good ones.  Eat something even though someone told you you’re prettier now that you’ve lost weight.  Accept that this is real--every smile, every word, every inch of the body on the bed next to yours, every day.  Accept that this doesn’t haven’t to be it---your job, the way you have trouble convincing yourself to get out bed, to get through it.  Cry, god damn it.  It would feel better.  And write about the way you crushed those berries in the cocktail glasses and how it made you think of the scene in The Year of Magical Thinking that first gave you an idea of what you wanted out of love.  Stop trying to imagine their sex.  You never liked fiction writing.  Let it be a fiction that you don’t write into your story.  And if you can’t stop trying to imagine it, don’t drink.   Look at your life.  Look at that memory snapshot you took while dancing in that bar near Astor Place.  Look how god damn lucky you are, all things considered.  Stop worrying about what it means if the truth is that you’ve never been happier.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

You can't reclaim what you didn't lose.

Being a child from the Midwest, I have nostalgia in my bones.  Sad and lovely longing for things that those of us from the country know can never be lost nor owned--the heaviness of the air before a summer storm, the smell of early morning dew on the grass, the pink and orange hues of July evening skies.  And love.  I know better than to try to keep anything that can leave on its own.  But there’s something 1000 miles from those old county roads that I’d like to lay claim to.  You can’t own hope but that doesn’t mean I don’t have it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Still essaying to be happy. ( J'essaie être heuruese.)

"I have two degrees and I don't even know what I want to be when I grow up yet!" I keep hearing myself say that self-aware, self-deprecating, line over and over recently.  I say it in bars while holding an over priced glass of well gin in my hand, I said it walking down the street on my way to a music festival over the weekend, I just keep saying it.  And it's not even entirely true.  I think it wold be easier to fix the vague, but definite problem of my evolving but perhaps also stagnating life if I really didn't know what I want to be when I grow up.  I have a Bachelor's degree in Fiction Writing with a minor in Gender Studies.  I have a certificate in French language.  And I just received my MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing--for which I wrote the better (worse?) half a memoir. I know exactly what I want to be when I grow up.  I want to be a recognizably successful author of a couple memoirs, a novel, an essay collection, and some sort of David-Sheilds-esque post post modern artistic contemplation on the meaning of writing.  I want to be the kind of person who inspires other people to think.  I want to never ever stop thinking.  I want to sit at my very own cluttered writing desk for hours at a time and then take long walks discussing the evolution of plot with someone I love, in the evening when the sky is purple and orange and there are cicadas whirring in the trees and a slight breeze cooling the  moisture that collects the back of our necks.  I want to really care about things like poverty and gender politics and Love.  What I am really saying is that when I grow up, I want to be happy.  

In a way, getting my MFA, was a stubborn, two-year refusal to grow up.  It was like digging my feet into the ground and insisting on staying put in that youthful time of sitting around in humanities courses, doing some serious critical thinking about life, love and third world countries. Now that I have graduated, I get the feeling that my growth has been stunted.  I notice former high school classmates getting married, having babies, living in houses of their very own, and taking vacations to Mexican with their husbands.  Meanwhile, I am here in New York living in a dirty apartment that I share with two girls who are virtually strangers to me, where I have never cooked a meal and where I still keep most of my clothes in suitcases and boxes.  I work a job that pays me less than I made standing on the street raising money and awareness for Planned Parenthood when I was nineteen.  And in past job interviews I was told that I was far too educated.  And I tell myself that it's all fine because this no more a real life than being fourteen and living in a bedroom across the hall from my mother was. 

I know people who have jobs where they work hard and hope to climb up that good old corporate ladder.  I know people who, unlike myself, don't feel like they're playing a part in a school play when they put on a suit for a job interview and say things like, "Being highly organized makes me feel empowered."  But every time I walk through the office I work in, past the rows and rows of twenty-somethings dressed in chic business attire, sitting in their cubicles, I wish I believed in God so I could ask someone to save my soul.  But I don't, so I write instead.  And sometimes I feel a sense of guilt for not taking my job seriously.  I pretend to be writing an email, when really I am writing a blog post.  I copy edit employee handbooks and file stock option letters.  I go through the motions of working but my mind is never present.  Sometimes it traces pretty memories and contemplates the meaning of love. Sometimes it turns off and I float through the day, unconscious, retaining nothing because nothing is worthwhile accept the paycheck I will receive and the friends I will spend it with.  And I wonder if everyone is like me---just floating through their days.  And I wonder if they want to be happy when they grow up.  I wonder if they feel grown up.  And then I worry that everyone else in those cubicles and chic pant suits IS happy.  I wonder if happiness is a word with a meaning that doesn't directly translate from one person to the other.  And that is why I wanted to get an MFA, because I can't stop thinking about these things.  Because I don't want to ever stop thinking about these things.  I don't want to be a writer because I am profoundly interested in telling stories.  I want to be a writer because telling stories requires one to think about life and love and how people interact and that's all that really makes me happy---well, that and having someone in my life who also never wants to stop thinking.

But the truth is that, right now, in my life, I am happy.  And if receiving an MFA can be considered just as much of a cultural milestone representing adulthood as getting married or buying a home, then I'm grown up too.  And I believe I am, sometimes.  I no longer look for myself in relationships with other people.  I am finally able to take people for who they are and either be myself with them or not be with them at all.  I try not to cry about my mindless job too much.  I pay my dental bills and I just got renter's insurance.  I've whitened my teeth and I've used a facial peel to combat the wrinkles that are forming around my eyes.  And I have this sense that everyone I have in my life right now are the kind of people I spent years hoping to meet.  

This weekend, slightly drunk under the hot afternoon sun, dancing in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor music festival, listening to bands my brother and I used to listen to together late at night with the sound of cicadas whirring through the windows of our Wisconsin home, I found myself thinking of all the men I've dated, the jobs I've had, the classes I've taken, the places I've lived, the stories I've written and the many many times I've cried.  And I thought to myself: the rest of my life was practice for this moment, for days like this, for all days that might be like this in the future.  It was all about learning how to be happy. Every mistake I ever made, every risk I took, was so that I would be able to push through this strange time of trying to figure out how to have a job (a career?) while not alienating the good people I have in my life.  And maybe that's it.  Maybe if you can think in your head that rest of your life was practice so you could finally start getting things right, then maybe you're growing up.  Maybe.  Either way, I'm happy.  Now if only I could finish writing my book.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love is a mosaic.

We lay the broken pieces of ourselves upon the table and rearranged them together into something whole, cracked and beautiful. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Writing at the office while not wearing underwear.

Last night I cried myself to sleep while listening to the Annie soundtrack on Spotify.  Little orphan Annie sang "The sun will come out tomorrow," and I assured myself that such a moment of giving into my sadness was entirely deserved.   I hadn't cried in a couple months, in spite of things seeming to fall increasingly downhill in my life.  And while growing up means learning to toughen up, I feel that having learned that lesson affords one the privilege of acknowledging that sometimes it really is that bad.  Sometimes it's perfectly acceptable to be sad.  Sometimes you want to wrap your sadness around you like a blanket.  The trick is to remember that you have to get out from under those covers, get out of bed and get going again in the morning.  I think that's the difference between reasonable sadness and plain old self-pity.   Self-pity can be tempting though. It's a very reliable friend.  It's always there for you.  
I quit my job in December after a certain incident of waking up after the office Christmas party with fingerprint shaped bruises on my hips and thighs and no memory of what had happened.  First I worked from home for a while, then I didn't work at all and just focused on finishing my thesis and graduating with my MFA.  Since then I've been working a mindless, under-paid job at a large marketing company in Midtown.  I spend eight hours a day, five days a week, copy editing employee handbooks and auditing employee stock options.  Unlike my last job, there is no one screaming at me, offering me money to flash them my breasts, or cocking their head to the side to watch me walk across the office---but this new job still isn't right.  Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks, only instead of three bears and bowls of oatmeal, I have jobs and none of them have yet to be just right.
I don't tell most people the real reason I quit my old job because it sparks a lot of questions that I don't want to have to answer.  I've gotten so used to telling the lie about how I just wanted time to focus on my thesis, that sometimes I forget it's a lie and I find myself smiling and thinking of how brave and driven I am.  But then, like yesterday, the truth comes barreling back towards me on that seemingly ever-downhill slide.  I've applied to countless jobs.  I go on several interviews a week.  I now own three suits.  And I've mastered the understated pearl earrings and ponytail professional look.  But it's not due to some sort of ambition or bravery, it's because someone hurt me and I felt I had to change my own life in order to get away from what had happened.    
And the reality of being an adult who is sometimes allowed to be sad and listen to Annie and cry is that you have to realize that there is no reward for going through hard times.  Sometimes there is just more hard times.  Sure, I would like a decent job that is neither entirely soul-crushingly mindless nor something that requires me to bite my lip and accept a certain amount of sexual harassment.  But in the meantime, I have the consolation prize of having learned some life lessons through the clarity that hard work and tears have given me.  I've learned that after everything I've been through, I don't want to have anyone in my life who only wants to be with me when it's convenient.  Life is not convenient.  Caring about people is not convenient.  You don't get what you want by only working for it when you feel like it.  You get it by working for it when all you really feel like doing is laying in bed watching Netflix and eating ice-cream and feeling sorry for yourself.  If I can work hard for the things I want in my life, then I only want to be with someone who wants me enough to work hard for me.   
In the meantime, I have another job interview tomorrow, several hours of work left today, and "It's a hard knock life" stuck in my head.  And even though I'm not wearing underwear under my suit because I didn't have time to wash any, I'll be okay.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I was raped when I was twenty-one, a senior in college in Chicago.  I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to take the course of someone else’s life into my hands—or even just put it in the hands of the law.  This is important and I didn’t realize it until I was reading through #YesAllWomen articles online today.  At twenty-one, in the fresh aftermath of rape, my thinking was that my rape was an irreversible fact.  It was done.  And I wanted to be done with it.  I didn’t believe it would do me any good to report it and, if my rapist were convicted—which I understand, even then, was a very big IF—change the course of his life forever.  I hadn’t known this man until the night he raped me, but that night I had learned he was a successful investment banker who gave generously to charity and volunteered on weekends.  He Skyped regularly with his grandmother and he made frequent trips to his native Kentucky to visit his nephew.  He was what our society considers to be an upstanding citizen—except for the fact that he was a rapist.  But, at twenty-one, I was worried that just because he was a rapist, it didn’t mean he deserved to be labeled as one forever.   I wondered if maybe he couldn’t even be entirely blamed because maybe he didn’t know any better, maybe he had never received any sort of comprehensive sexual education in which he was taught that not only does “no mean no” but too weak to fight back does not mean “yes,” nor does accepting a drink at a bar or even a cab ride home.  I was worried about trying to punish someone for something that they might not have realized was a crime.
            I was worried about how I would live with the repercussions of accusing my rapist and, in doing so, possibly changing his life in a negative way, forever.  But that was before time started to pass and I started to realize that he had changed my life forever.  Rape is not something that happens and then ends when the rapist pulls out and the raped goes home and takes a shower.  Rape is something that happens over and over again, sometimes on a seemingly endless loop of days and nights and flashbacks and hell.  (Yes, hell.)  My rape happens to me all over again whenever I hear someone make a careless joke about date rape or Ruffies.  It happens to me in subway cars late at night when I am one of only a few women in a crowd of men.  It happens to me when I fall in love and have sex and go home and cry because the difference between sex in love and rape breaks my heart and triggers flashbacks and makes me wonder if I will ever truly be okay again.  It happens to me when I fall asleep beside a man I care about and wake up in the middle of the night, needing him to look at me and talk to me so I can remember where I am and who he isn’t.  It happens to me every time I come across a news story about rape or read about politicians debating the legitimizing circumstances of it.  Sometimes it even happens to me when I hear girls at a party say, “Ugh, I’m like so over feminism.”
            My rapist changed my life forever.  Even as I’ve started to find ways to move beyond experiencing regular flashbacks, I cannot return to the person I was.  My rapist, however, remains unchanged.  Raping me was just another day in his upstanding life.  And while I stupidly, sadly worried about taking the course of his life into my hands, I realize now that he was never worried about me.  He felt entitled to me.  He never gave a thought to taking my life into his hands and changing it.  While, after the rape, I tried to humanize him; I was always less than human to him.  That is an important point.  Rape is selfish and ego-driven and innately, indisputably violent—even when it leaves no surface wounds.  Rape is not sex.  It is not intimate.  It is not personal.  It is impersonal and inhuman.
            It is important to acknowledge that my life is changed and my rapist’s life is not.  It is important in the way that it is important to acknowledge the differences between the way men exist in our society versus the way women do.  Not all men are rapists, but all women live in fear of the ones who are—or who will be.  Not all men drug women at bars, but all women have to be wary of the ones who do.  Not all men catcall a woman as she walks down the street, but all women have been catcalled.  Yes, all women.  Old, young, pretty, plain…  Trust me.
            Research shows that rape is about one individual asserting his power over another.  I would agree with that.  My life as someone who has been raped has become very much about power.  I have become conscious of how powerless I was during my rape and how there is nothing much other than never socializing again that could entirely prevent it from happening again.  That is important.  All women have to worry if one night at a bar or a party will change their life.  All women have to worry that their choice to go out drinking will be translated into their rape being their fault.  How many men have to worry if a night out will change their lives in such a way, or incite others to question their character? 
            And now, when I have sex, I am acutely aware of the power of it.  There is power in choice—in choosing who you have sex with.  That, to me, should be a basic human right, as inalienable as such constitutional rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Unfortunately, for all women, their right to choose who they have sex with is not respected by all men.  Now, three years after my rape, every time I have sex with the man I am dating I am asserting my own power to choose.  I choose someone who makes me feel safe and valued and respected and empowered.  All, yes, all women deserve to choose; it’s part of one’s pursuit of happiness.   #YesAllWomen