If only they were all this easy.

May 9, 2011 § 8 Comments

When I was sixteen years old, I marched into Michael’s Arts and Crafts after a particularly huge fight with my mom.

I don’t have to study, Mom! School’s so easy! I yelled at her, full of snot and annoyance.
Amanda, she began slowly. I knew better than to push her further when she spoke this slowly. It was the warning sign that my supposedly unfair life was about to become exponentially worse. I want you to take school seriously. You’ll be applying for college before you know it, and I want you to be able to have your choice of school.
I rolled my eyes. Even over a decade later, I am sure I rolled my eyes at her. That always set her off.
Fine. If you don’t want to study, then you have to do something else productive. I don’t want you wasting your time in front of the computer anymore. She wasn’t joking. I had a choice now: I could choose to cave in to my mother’s keen observations, or I could fight her and get a job.

So, there I was, marching into Michael’s Arts and Crafts, on my way to apply for what would end up becoming my first job.

“Hey…are y’all, uhm…hiring…?” I asked, feeling suddenly shy and depleted of my earlier piss and vinegar that motivated me to snatch the car keys from my mom’s purse and squeal out of the driveway.

“Yeah!” the girl behind the register said cheerfully. It was obvious that I was her only source of entertainment that morning. “And actually, the manager who does the hiring is here now. I’ll go get him. You fill this out.” She handed me a notepad of preprinted applications. I had never done one of these before, and I was nervous. Who do I list as a reference? I had no choice but to call my mom, even though I wanted to give her the silent treatment. She spoke to me as though I hadn’t erupted at her only moments ago. And advised I list a few of our longtime neighbors. I don’t think either of us thought that I would actually get this job.

The cashier returned with the manager who shook my hand, took my application from me, and invited me back to his office. It was then my heart started to race. I felt like I was in an audition. I hated auditions. I gave myself a mental pep talk as we worked our way through the store, through the warehouse in the back, to his messy and cramped office tucked away in a back corner. Something tiny and meek cried out a warning of “stranger danger” to me, but I ignored her childish fear. This was a grown-up, and I was a grown-up now too, doing grown-up things like getting a shitty hourly job.

He invited me to sit down in a tattered, brown vinyl and cloth chair. It creaked beneath my small frame–I was embarrassed and nervous by the unexpected noise. He read my application silently before turning to me with a big smile and asked me a series of questions. My answers were simple to most of them: I had never worked before, so I had absolutely no frame of reference. In spite of my lack of experience (or perhaps because of it), he said, “Amanda, I’d like to offer you the job of cashier. Now, you would be responsible for answering the PA when you hear your name called or a general call for cashiers. You’ll man a specific register until the crowd dissipates or you’re released for break. When you’re not on a register, you’ll handle small jobs throughout the store which can range from answering customer questions to unpacking boxes from warehouses to cleaning up messes in the aisles. Your starting wages will be $5 an hour.”

Of course, I accepted. That was more than my allowance had ever been. I suddenly had visions of Disc-Mans and nail polish. I would be rich!

I hated my job at Michael’s, but I stayed as long as I could without seeming like a total wimp. I was even promoted to head cashier (who mans the customer service register) about two months before I quit. My second job was as a kennel worker at our cats’ veterinarian hospital. I hated that job, too. It wasn’t all about walking and playing with dogs. It was all about poop. And blood. And being bitten. And noise. And wet dogs and cats. And horrible staff managers who had impossible land-speed dog-walking goals for her laborers. I rarely saw the veterinarian who hired me, the man I admired so much. I stayed there for about a year. My third job was at Galyan’s (now Dick’s in most places) as a sales associate in the men’s casual wear section. I folded clothes, sided with wives who wanted their husbands just to try the damn shorts on, and sucked ass at earning commission. I wasn’t as pushy as other associates. If a customer didn’t find the exact style he was looking for, I wouldn’t push a different style on him. I’d just let him walk out the door. My fourth and fifth jobs were at my undergraduate–as a Writing Center peer tutor and a member of our newspaper staff, respectively. I loved those jobs. My sixth job was as a graduate teaching assistant for the English department at my graduate school. I just gave that job up in favor of my secret seventh job: writing a dissertation.

All six of my paying jobs have one thing in common: I worked very little at actually getting the job. For Michael’s and the vet, I walked in and had an interview and job offer in the same trip. For Galyan’s, my granddaddy pulled strings and got me an interview (he worked in the hunting and fishing department). My composition teacher asked me specifically to apply for the position at the Writing Center. As an English major (who had many friends on staff), I was practically a shoo-in for the newspaper job. The GTA-ship essentially went along with the acceptance into graduate school. (Although I did have to practically beg for that in the very beginning…that was as much effort as I put into getting the job.)

But, although I was encouraged by my dissertation chair to apply for this job, her encouragement stops there–she has no say in whether or not I get the job I so badly want. I have taken the steps: I met the director ahead of time, and I submitted my application almost a month ago.

And now I have come to learn that the waiting is the worst part. I’ve never had to wait more than a day before.

This is an entirely different animal. I have stopped logging into the website obsessively. It’s been over a week now since she started reviewing the application materials. I know this because I received a phone call from a representative in HR on April 29th requesting me to resubmit my application materials. “We can’t get them to open, and the department you applied to can’t open them either.” I could only stammer that they were saved as PDFs and should be easily opened. “Well,” he said, “we were able to open everybody else’s applications, but yours was the only one that caused us trouble.” That doesn’t help me. What do I care if they were able to open everyone else’s but mine? I try not to obsess over the phrase “everybody else’s”…how many “everybody elses” are there? It’s a useless question to ask and only causes me gastric discomfort.

No, they can’t all be as easy as walking in on a Saturday morning and walking out with a job.

Would it even be worth it if it were?

When you’re in the shit

March 29, 2011 § 4 Comments

My mom has this saying. “When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

I’ll admit, it’s a little funny to hear my mom say words like “ass” and “shit.” “Shit” is her favorite curse word; at least, it’s her favorite one to say. She says it like it’s poisonous, like you can die from hearing it, like you can really curse someone by saying it.

It’s the “t” that does it. She pronounces that “t” with a spitting sound. It tastes bad in her mouth, and she wants it to sting your ear.

When Mom says, “shit,” she means it.

The first time I heard my mom say “shit” was when I was in ninth grade. I was a violinist in my high school orchestra. And not even the good orchestra. The average one. The one that you got into when you failed your audition in eighth grade to get into the elite orchestra in ninth grade. I was first-chair first violinist. I wasn’t even first-chair first in middle school, but I was in the honors orchestra in middle school. My director, a potential pedophile with a drinking problem (he always got just a little too touchy-feely, although he never touched my “bikini zone”…I just didn’t like my shoulders being rubbed by him when he passed by), told me on the first day of high school in this average orchestra, “Amanda, I want you to be first-chair first because you’re the most skilled one in here.” Why didn’t I get into the honors orchestra, then? I asked, utterly bewildered by my separation from my best friends who would have third period orchestra instead of first. “Because,” he softened, “I need you in here. In honors orchestra” (he said it like it was an insult, with a sneer) “you would have easily been in third chair first-violin or even second-chair second-violin. But in here? In here, you’re our leader.”

We had this conversation in front of my classmates. They hated me. I hated him.

After our first recital of the semester, a Christmas medley sometime between Thanksgiving break and Christmas vacation, my mom was visibly shaking. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed. I found my dad and sister in the auditorium. Mom had already stormed the stage. I begged my dad to explain to me how could it have been that bad? It was Christmas music! I’ve played all those pieces before! Every year! He smiled at me and gave me a hug and squeezed my shoulder. (I didn’t mind when my dad squeezed my shoulder. It didn’t feel creepy.) Mom returned from the stage, took my violin and music from me, and marched her family to the car. We didn’t speak until we got home.

“That was horrible! I can’t believe he would let those kids play such shit!” It hurt my ear. It literally hurt my ear. I cringed. My mom was angry. Not at me. Not at my sister. Not at my father. She was angry at my music director. Because we played so terribly. “I didn’t even recognize half those songs! Did you?” It wasn’t a question. She kept going. “I even had to look at the program just to see what songs they were playing!”

They’re pieces, I murmured under my breath. She couldn’t hear me. I didn’t want her to. But they really are called “pieces” in orchestra. “Songs” have words and are sung. My second orchestra director, from seventh to eighth grade, drilled that tidbit into my head pretty well.

“I can’t believe he had the audacity to tell me that that shit wasn’t shit!” She had said it three times now. She was really mad.

We sat down in the living room, the four of us, and Mom explained why she was so angry and why she was choosing to vent her anger in the form of this vile word. “Amanda, I want you to understand that I am not angry with you. This is not your fault. This is the fault of a man who is very very little, who takes his own frustrations at being denied tenure at your high school out on his students. Your director embarrassed himself, you, and all of your classmates.” (I didn’t even know you could have been denied tenure in high school. There was something wrong with this man. We would come to find out later that the school board generally wanted him fired, but he was best friends with the superintendent and that wasn’t going to happen. He directed orchestras at my high school as well as at our rival high school. My second cousin attended my rival high school three years earlier, and she was in his orchestra. She loved him. They won competitions. She learned how to play well. He chose that school over ours. It was obvious, especially on Spirit Day–he wore their colors instead of ours.)

The next day in orchestra, we didn’t play. We sat around and talked. We sat around and talked a lot in that class. My director was hungover. I had never seen a hangover enacted in person before, but I knew what it was immediately. He wouldn’t let us talk too loudly, and he turned the lights down low. He said he had migraines. He invited questions and comments about the previous night’s recital. I raised my hand, bubbling over with the anger my mother had felt the night before. I don’t understand what happened last night. We are all really embarrassed. Recitals are supposed to be a chance for the kids to show their parents what they’ve learned! He cut me off at the beginning of my diatribe. “That’s not what recitals are for, Amanda. They’re just a requirement for the school calendar.” I didn’t understand. Of course recitals are to display the collective talents of the group after a semester of work. What on Earth else could they have been for?

That was the first time Mom said the word “shit” within my earshot. Since then, she whips it out only for special occasions. It’s much more powerful that way. I love my mom and her deliberate word choice.

“When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

As you may have noticed, friends, my head is way up my own ass. Shit is all around me. My interactions with authority figures are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with students are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with that reflection in the mirror are tinged with negativity. Shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

The worst part is spewing this shit upon you all, my poor, unwitting friends. Except, utterly undeservedly, you guys have been the most amazing support for me. And I want you to know that even though my world is shit right now, I do notice the relief from that shit that you all offer me. And I deeply appreciate it.

In the meantime, I am going to try to surgically extract my head from my ass and focus my energies on seeing through the shit.

Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics

February 27, 2011 § 9 Comments

Even though I can carry a tune, I was never the girl who fought hard for the solo in elementary school chorus.

Even though I know I could have tuned the rest of the orchestra with my awesome “A,” I never challenged another violinist for the prime spot in first chair.

Even though my grades had always supported my claim that I can write, I never voluntarily entered into an essay contest.

Even though I loved dancing and practiced at all hours, I never auditioned for better stage placement.

I am not competitive. I never played competitive sports. I never earned any accolades that come from nominating myself. I never luxuriated in the thrill of being called “the best.”

In fact, all achievement certificates I earned found their places buried deep in my school folders, forgotten almost immediately and rarely mentioned to my parents (who would have been so proud). No blue ribbons or gold medals from mandatory orchestral all-state competitions decorated my walls. No plaques declaring me the absolute best literature student in college hung above my desk. Oh yes, I had these things. I still have them…somewhere. I’ve always shied away from pride and boasting, even when it’s actually just celebrating. My own birthday actually brushes against my comfort boundary for self-celebration (much to Robert’s eternal chagrin). The only reason my Master’s degree adorns my home office wall is because Robert encouraged me to hang it there…and because my granddaddy framed it. If those two points of fact had not been true, I would have been happy enough to leave it rolled up somewhere in a tube. My Bachelor’s degree, although framed, is not hanging–it still waits for its moment of glory in the framer’s box, stuffed behind my dresser at my parents’ home.

Why am I so wary of competition and even more weary of celebrating my victories?

Because they seem wasteful and petty.

I don’t relish another person’s loss or failure. In fact, when a classmate of mine recently challenged me in regards to our dissertation completion dates, boasting that she would finish in four years and not in the five and a half that I took, I could merely smile at her and wish her well. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to say to her, “How sad that you think your academic progress has anything to do at all with my academic progress. I will forget about you in a couple of years, and your cruelty will mean absolutely nothing to me.” How is her progress going these days? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year, and I frankly don’t care about her progress. Her progress or lack of progress has nothing to do with me or my progress.

But now…now all of a sudden, I’m meant to care about everyone else’s progress. Because there’s a substantial fellowship up for grabs now. Being awarded this fellowship means competing against my colleagues (and even my best dissertation writing buddy, V! Sob! But…really…if she gets it, I will be super-duper thrilled because she totally deserves it!). Receiving the fellowship also means the freedom to write, write, write absolutely uninterrupted for the entire summer semester–no teaching!! Recipients of the fellowship are funded so that tuition is not painful, so that they do not miss paying bills because they are not teaching.

I am going to apply for this fellowship more out of necessity than the desire for prestige.

This could very well be my final semester teaching because my department may choose not to offer me a teaching assistantship for the summer semester. Typically, our department funds doctoral candidates through their fifth year. Summer will mark my fifth year and a half. My department may choose not to fund me, but I will still require one last credit hour to be considered a student in order to graduate in summer–and the tuition is not cheap.

If I don’t get the teaching assistantship, it will be okay. If I don’t get the fellowship, it will hurt…but it will be okay. It will be okay because my husband is taking on so many extra courses this summer, and we will miraculously make it. (Well, no…not miraculously. We will make it because Robert is a hard-worker and an excellent provider.)

But despite knowing that we will be okay, I still want the fellowship. And my nerves hit me square in the gut when, on Friday morning, I received an e-mail from our graduate studies coordinator who sent the message along to all advanced PhD students (from my best calculations, people who are at least in their fourth year) and announced the details for applying. I was nervous when I saw the sheer number of names on that e-mail. I felt sick to my stomach when I read the requirements for qualifying. I need a letter of support from my dissertation director. I need to be able to show that I am making progress on the dissertation. I need to be able to say that I will defend and graduate within the term of receiving the fellowship.

I believe in my plan. I believe I will defend and graduate in the summer.

My fear, the only thing that would actually deter me from applying in the first place, centers entirely on the one reality: because I have never cared a whit about my colleagues’ academic progress, I don’t know where my competition is. I don’t know my likelihood for receiving the fellowship. V came up with some really good, educated guesses, and I do feel better now about our chances than I had felt initially. But, despite all of V’s wonderful uplifting words, my nerves still grip my heart…and my stomach.

In what might be my last moment in academia, I face near-mandatory competition. I wonder if I have it in me.

I don’t know about teaching, but I’m pretty good at being bossy

February 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

One of the traits I was always qualified as having when I was a young girl (ah, who am I kidding? This is a quality I’ve been described with even into my adulthood) is bossiness. When I was quite small, my parents thought perhaps I would be a lawyer or a teacher, the way I commanded my sister and our friends in play. Of course, I was often a bit mean about it…so I don’t know why teacher crossed their minds, but there you have it.

At any rate, I am still quite bossy, even today. Even as an adult, I like to tell people what to do and am satisfied when they go off to do what I so wisely commanded of them. So, here I am a teacher. And I tell people what to do, and they do it.

And I don’t enjoy it.

(Turns out that teaching isn’t just all telling people what to do. Who knew?)

Tonight Robert and I went up to his community college and saw their production of Tartuffe. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a religious hypocrite (Tartuffe) who swindles a guy out of house and home by his charming, smooth-talking ways. The students did an admirable job at the play, but it was severely cut (curtain rose at 7 p.m. and fell at 8 p.m.), and there were moments where I thought to myself:

Gee…if only they knew that that bit they just said was funny, they might have delivered it this way.

So, I’m left wondering this. If I don’t want to be a director and I don’t want to be a theater teacher, do you think I could have a job as the bossiest person in the auditorium, just telling people how to deliver their lines and why the jokes are funny?

What’s that job called?

(P.S. You might have noticed that this is an extremely late, extremely short post. I spent the entire day working on a draft of my introduction that I am e-mailing to my director tomorrow morning after a couple more edits. It’s crunch time; I’ll explain more later.)

Childhood memories in a glass bottle

February 20, 2011 § 18 Comments

Apple juice. Such a simple, common American drink; a favorite among so many children. And a favorite among so many parents and teachers–apple juice doesn’t stain like grape juice or soda! (I learned this lesson myself when I taught four-year-old Catholic Sunday school. Apple juice and white grape juice were total winners.)

When I drink apple juice, I experience two kinds of joy. The first is the usual joy one receives from a palate that is utterly pleased. I do not have a complicated, adventurous palate. Salt is typically enough seasoning for me. I believe I could qualify as someone who is a supertaster; I have no trouble tasting a food simply by smelling it. Often, the “taste” lingers on my tongue as though I actually experienced it by the mouth rather than by olfaction. Particularly displeasurable to my palate are most spices (as Gollum says so perfectly, “It burns us!”) and carbonation (more burning!). (More on carbonation in a moment.) I have been mocked by foodie friends with more adventurous palates; I have gagged on raw pineapple; my tongue breaks out into firey hives when I drink orange juice. To me, apple juice is divine.

The second joy I experience when I drink apple juice, and a particular apple juice especially, runs even deeper. My favorite apple juice in the entire world is Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Juice:

Oh, can you hear the angels singing?

You see, when I was a little girl, my grandmother stocked her refrigerator with Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Juice. (The funny thing about my palate and carbonation is that Martinelli’s was never offensive to me. I don’t know the mechanics of it, but it seems less fizzy than, say, a soda or even a carbonated alcoholic beverage; at least, my tongue wasn’t on fire when I would drink it.) I always believed that Martinelli’s was a special apple juice not only because I normally only drank it at my grandmother’s house but also because it was in a glass bottle. Not a paper package with a little dinky straw. Not even in a break-proof plastic bottle. No, this big girl was entrusted with drinking the liquid gold from a perfectly breakable glass bottle. It was a real treat.

This afternoon I decided to treat myself with a Martinelli’s from Earth Fare while Robert indulged with a Mexican Coca-Cola (no high-fructose corn syrup, you know). The minute I touched lips to glass rim, my heart and head filled with joy. Immediately, I was five years old, perched atop a wooden stool behind my grandparents’ bar-top kitchen island. The glass bottle fit better in one hand at the age of 29 than it did when I was five. And the juice ran out a great deal faster than when I was five.

But the experience…the experience was exactly the same.

Photo courtesy The Dr Soda Company

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