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Sunday, December 30, 2007

From Prom Dresses to Business Suits: four short years

I felt like I was back in high school, getting ready for a homecoming dance. We trooped between every major department store in the mall, during which time I spent most of my energy struggling into and out of countless ill-fitted garments. Putting things back onto their hangers was almost as difficult as putting them onto my body. Sizing proved to be just as illogical as it ever has been (I fit into everything from a 4 to a 12, depending on designer), and, of course, the outfit was not complete without shoes. The only major differences between dress-shopping and suit-shopping were 1) the “we” trooping between stores consisted of me and my parents (not me and my friends), 2) the purchases were all made in the women’s department (rather than the junior’s or formal wear departments), and 3) the price: I never spent more than $100 total for any complete homecoming or prom getup (including makeup, hair, jewelry, shoes, etc.). The business suite alone—minus the blouse to go underneath and high-heeled shoes that will prevent the pants from mopping the floor—cost almost $180. Why is becoming a Real Adult so expensive?

Not to mention stressful. I am now spending the days of my Christmas Break—which were once filled with relaxed, homework- and study-free sleep and pleasure reading—researching different publishing houses and brainstorming responses to questions I may be asked at my Random House interview. My pleasure reading now alternates between Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue—which I checked out of Rush Rhees library in order to read for fun over break—and How to Interview like an MBA—which a near-and-dear friend gave me as a Christmas present, and which I am steadily plowing through as if it were a textbook, taking copious notes and sticky-tabbing every relevant page.

Meanwhile, I am trying to establish all the places I want/need to go while I am actually in New York City (my original destinations of NBC and the CIC career fair as well as Columbia University Press and perhaps Oxford University Press), as well as all of the people I am going to try to see (my cousin, a former UR writing instructor, the director of my one-act play from when it was performed at UR my freshman year). I need to find myself a map, compile all of my directions, find my plane tickets, print out copies of my resume, and fit all of these things into a briefcase I do not yet have.

Growing up is too much work.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Warm Fuzzies #2: Being a critic

For my Brain and Cognitive Science (BCS) Senior Seminar class this past semester, one of our assignments was to critically review a paper written by another student. We did this by writing our own "response/critique" paper in APA style, pointing out what was good about the paper as well as suggesting what the author may have done better and noting any grammatical/typological errors. Then, we sent this paper to our professor, who graded our critique and then passed it on to the student-author, who would then use it to make revisions to their own paper.

Needless to say, I have quite a bit of practice doing this sort of assignment, since it is more-or-less what I do as a Writing Fellow and is especially akin to what I do for Write-on, the e-mail response-based portion of Writing Fellows. Thus, I was sufficiently confident in my ability to critically review another student's BCS paper. Needless to say, I could not have anticipated this comment, which my professor wrote at the bottom of my critique, above the grade:

[Expletive!] I need your advice on my own papers! Superbly done.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An unusually pleasant mishap

Everyone knows that oh-my-god-what-have-I-done feeling of waking up late. I would wager that it’s a universal adrenaline rush to wake up, glance at your clock, and realize it is one hour after you were supposed to be at work. Now, take that feeling and amplify it by the kind of rush-y, loopy feeling that comes with the fatigue of having only managed to sleep for four hours in the last twenty-four, and you’ll have what my morning this morning felt like.

For some godforsaken reason, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to work my morning shift at Hillside café yesterday (6:15-11:30a.m., which would normally have been 7-11:30a.m., except that some considerate member of the upper UR Dining echelon decided that students like to eat breakfast earlier during finals week, so I had to have the shop open by 7:30a.m. rather than the normal 8a.m. opening time), then return at 7:30p.m., work until closing at 2:30a.m., and then return (later) this morning at 6:15a.m. to re-open and work my regularly scheduled shift (until 12p.m.). Brilliant, I know. I was just so relieved to be finished with schoolwork, I figured making money would be a good way to fill up the extra time I had until I got back to Pittsburgh. And, to be fair, my friend/former coworker-now-turned-manager asked me to work that closing shift. She knew people would not show up—they never do during finals week—which she knew would make things miserable, and she offered to pay me double. In light of all of those factors, how could I refuse?

Needless to say, I ended up staying awake until about 5a.m. this morning, at which point I was afraid I would fall asleep accidentally (I had determined at that point to try and stay awake all the way through), so I set my alarm clock just to be safe. Unfortunately, I apparently set my actual clock rather than the alarm. Thus, around 7:20a.m. I developed a suspicious feeling—while I was asleep, no less—that I was oversleeping and woke myself up. Sure enough, exactly two minutes later, the manager from Danforth (the next guy higher up on the food services totem pole) called me wanting to know where I was. I apologized profusely while trying to pull on my shoes with one hand and pull my hair into some semblance of a ponytail with the other. I have never run through the snow and slush so fast in my life.

When I got there, the Danforth manager and Darlene, the woman who cooks omelets and pizza for Hillside, were making coffee and putting out bagels (two of my morning responsibilities for opening). This particular morning, I was supposed to open alone, so I thanked them again and ran around trying to finish up everything else. However, much to my amazement and pleasant surprise, because I had closed the coffee shop the night before, everything was already pretty much in place and ready to go. All of the tasks that usually take an hour to complete, I finished up in ten minutes!

I served my first customer at 7:40a.m. How about that for an unexpected source of pride?

Bonus quote: Apparently I say some pretty bizarre things when I am deliriously tired. Here is one such quote that I can actually remember saying this morning. In regards to putting out the bagels:

“Raisin and blueberry go together. Not like raisin and poppy seed. They’re not berries.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Warm Fuzzies #1: Those Little Compliments

You know those little compliments that just kind of make your day? Well I want to start listing them. I have a few stockpiled that I have recieved via e-mail, so I am going to start with one that I received a few weeks ago from a friend. Ironically, the compliment actually came from his sister. Here is an abbreviated version of what he wrote:

i was briefly hangin out wit my lil sis. i started to show her pics of girls,"who i may know". my lil sis could be super cool at times. most of girls, she was like," dusty hoes". i did show her a couple of your pics. she said, " America's next top model"... jokingly.

Hey, jokingly or not, I'll take the compliment. Tyra Banks, watch out!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eat Up

My views on campus dining, as published in the Campus Times.
  • UR meal plans take a bite out of frugal spending 10/18/07
  • Meal plans club students 1/27/05
  • Letter to the Editor a responst to "Meal plans club students", 2/10/05
  • Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    Obsessing

    The mind is a strange matter. The more pressing deadlines I have, the more important my projects are, and the more involved I am in them, the more I simultaneously obsess over tangential matters.

    Case in point: I am currently working on two huge final projects for the end of the semester: 1) a lab report and group presentation involving a semester-long study of preschooler’s memories and 2) a research paper analyzing how the language and grammar of science conceals and therefore subconsciously furthers cultural values and biases.

    Meanwhile, I am obsessing over the following matters (in no particular order): how dusty my room is; what I need to buy at home over break and bring back to Rochester; who I need to see over break and when I will have the time to see them; how to eat all of my vegetables before they spoil without making the same thing for dinner every night; letters to which I have not yet responded; how I feel about a certain guy in Pittsburgh; how I feel about a certain guy in Rochester; whether or not I should put my Newsweek magazines out in the lounge because they are taking up space on my desk but I have not yet finished reading them and they may disappear if I put them out for general enjoyment before I am done with them; when I’m going to have time to do laundry; how I am going to have energy to go to the gym tomorrow at 9 p.m. without napping during the day; whether or not I can renew my library books for a third time; whether or not I owe library fines for the interlibrary loan books that were due at the beginning of last month; when I am going to find time to watch Girl, Interrupted which I borrowed from a classmate; what hours I scheduled myself at Hillside next semester; what hours I should schedule for Writing Fellows next semester; whether or not my chopping knife is missing (the one I bought in Brighton no less!); and whether or not the gifts I ordered from Amazon will arrive on time.

    Just to name a few.

    Thursday, December 6, 2007

    Why there is no sleep at the end of the semester


    Add another several dozen book--opened to various pages and with various papers sticking out of them--surrounding that guy, and you'll have an accurate picture of life right now. Yay deadlines.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2007

    Analysis of the characters in the TV show House


    "We’re supposed to like Thirteen. That’s why she’s not called Cutthroat Bitch."
    --quoteth my suitemate Hayley

    Friday, November 30, 2007

    Words of Induction

    Tonight I attended the Induction Ceremony for New Members of the Golden Key International Honour Society (of which I am now one). The event proceeded as these sorts of events usually do: with all of the “important people” in the society introducing each other and the prestigious college members whom they invited to praise and the inductees, everyone reading speeches in stilted, falsely inflected voices punctuated by very obviously staged eye-contact, and of course, lots of catered food at the end. (I want to attend just one formal function where all of the food is home-cooked by the society leaders. That would show some real honor of the new members.) However, in league with all of the other “honorable functions” I have attended, this has certainly not been one of the worst. I managed to stay awake and attentive throughout the whole thing, even so much so that I jotted a few notes on my program concerning what the speakers had to say.

    One of the honorary speakers at this ceremony was Dr. Terry Platt, a UR Biochemistry and Biology professor whom I seem to see at all notable functions on campus (i.e. he must be a very important guy). His speech, while “read,” was surprisingly engaging. His was a speech of compliment to us as inductees, as he addressed the differences between achievers and nonachievers and what qualities we possess that have gotten us to where we are today. One comment he made that I wrote down (which was actually him quoting someone else) was, “Successful people fail more often than unsuccessful people.” I almost wish he would not have gone on to explain why this was so, because I enjoyed the immediate challenge of reasoning out the paradoxes of that statement. Successful people take more risks. Successful people try more things and therefore have more failures in order to have more successes. It is an interesting conundrum and one to keep in mind as I embark upon my Big Scary Career Search.

    During his speech, Dr. Platt told the story of a psychology experiment involving a bell and a marshmallow. Four-year-olds were left in a room with these two objects with the instructions that if they rang the bell, the experimenter would come back into the room and they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited until the experimenter returned without ringing the bell, they would receive two marshmallows. Obviously some children ate the marshmallow immediately, while others were able to “hold out” for fifteen minutes or longer. (Squirming, fidgeting, and hands-over-eyes were involved.) Platt concluded his story by saying that the results of the experiment itself did not reveal much, but that those children who participated in it then grew up, and their life results are known. Unsurprisingly, the children who could exercise self-control grew up to be accomplished, successful individuals; the ones who rang the bell immediately tended more toward lives riddled with drug use, gambling, and other forms of immediate satisfaction. He then made a statement that bothered me deeply: “Self-control is desirable, if not essential, for success. You are all here today for exercising this self-control.”

    Obviously—as he made clear in his following statements—Dr. Platt meant that we, the Accomplished Ones, were able to sit through boring classes (and speakers—ha ha) because that is what was necessary in order to succeed. However, I cannot help but feel that this outright praise of self-control reflects our society’s unhealthy fixation on the trait. Yes, self-control may make you successful, but what about ambition? What about innovation? What about self-motivation? Self-control seems to have a much more negative connotation to me; if you don’t have self-control, you are weak, you are pathetic, you are basically an inferior human being. That is why we despise fat people: if they just had some self-control, they’d get skinny. That’s why we feel contempt for drug addicts: if they weren’t so lazy and self-indulgent and got a little self-control, they could fix their problems. This portion of Dr. Platt’s speech just hit a discordant note with me.

    The other honorary speaker was Dean Matthew Burns, UR’s Acting Dean of Students, otherwise known as the college disciplinarian. I found him an interesting choice of speakers—the chapter leaders invited these individuals to speak at the ceremony—and even more so once he commenced speaking. He made an interesting observation—particularly interesting to me, anyway, because I am so fascinated by words and their meanings. He claimed that the word “responsibility” means “the ability to respond.” I have never considered the “root meanings” of the word (response + ability), but when I think of it this way, it brings a whole new aspect to its usage. While many different words insinuate potential responses, “responsibility” is very different from others such as “obligation” or “option.” “Obligation” demands a response, regardless of whether one is able or not, and “option” does not necessarily imply a response/action. I thought this was a very insightful comment, and one I took much more to heart than his final charge of, “You are separated from the community by your achievements but also expected to become part of it by your involvement with this society. So congratulations, but get busy.” Thanks, but I am busy. And so, I would imagine, is everyone else who paid the $70 fee to join this society.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007

    Adults Yet? A Thanksgiving Thought

    Vicky’s potluck was declared a success. Around twenty people attended, the food and drink were plentiful, and all had a good time socializing and “catching up” with each others’ lives. Really, we were all proud of ourselves for being so grown up. Kelly brought three separate courses: steak and chicken kebobs, pirogues, and brownies. Emily brought her new boyfriend, Jake. Mike and Gabby played the perfect long-term couple, having jointly prepared two types of pesto pasta. Ben provided garlic potatoes which his mother undoubtedly helped with, and who knows what Dee brought, because he was dressed in the snazziest shirt of anyone at the party (black button-down, with pink and blue pinstripes, or something to that effect). Brooke not only made spinach-artichoke dip in a bread bowl, but also broccoli balls, which she served to us hot from a hot platter straight out of the kitchen. Meanwhile, Vicky was busy playing hostess, making sure everyone had enough to drink and that each course was being eaten “on time.” (We couldn’t start the main courses until Ryan arrived, and he was running late because he was busy making a casserole that required “a pound of cheese.”)

    Everyone was terribly impressed that “even the boys dressed up and even cooked.” As we started with drinks and appetizers, I learned from Kelly that she had a superb job prospect in Texas and from DayG that he was the current squatter in Vicky and Brooke’s house. I watched Dee put on his coat and go out the back door, come inside, drink and beer and go upstairs, return downstairs, don his jacket, go back outside, come back inside with another beer, and repeat the process until dinnertime. I chatted with Jake while Emily socialized with others at the party, filling him in on who everyone was. I told Ben about the WIPIAL playoff game I had seen the night before, where Central beat Gateway. Eventually more people arrived (Amy, Jason, Becky) and there were hugs all around. Finally Ryan arrived, and we commenced eating.

    It was such a communal atmosphere, spooning helpings of mutually prepared food onto paper plates and sitting beside one another on steps, couches, floors. It did not seem to matter whether we were old high school buddies—as many of us were—or complete newcomers such as DayG or Jake. It was like a 21-year-old modernized Thanksgiving feast.

    Eventually, around dessert time, things segued into the more stereotypical 21-year-old “feast” of beer and brownies: the Thanksgiving buffet was converted into a beer pong table, many cooks stepped outside for their evening smoke, and the remaining guests began to say their goodbyes. Several friends with whom I had not really gotten to converse seemed genuinely disappointed to see me go, including Andy and Brooke. Unfortunately, I knew that the longer the night got, the less conversation I would be likely to have with them, even if I did choose to stay. Dee also seemed in favor of my staying, but I doubt he intended to converse with me much.

    Emily, Jake, and I said our “Good-bye, see-you-at-Christmas’s” and left. Back at Emily’s house, we played Boggle and talked for the rest of the night.

    Is this really what Adulthood is all about? When half of the “men” and “women” decide to make their houses open bars and the other half leave to play board games and go to bed? Or is there a less simplistic answer?

    Either way, it was a Happy Thanksgiving.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Trash to Treasure


    Don’t be wasteful!
    Innovative ideas for your “trash” before you pitch it (all of which I currently employ or have employed in the past):

    Cereal boxes:
  • Cut out 3.5” x 5” squares, and vio-la! You have a set of unique postcards
  • Cut off the narrow side panels. Long skinny cardboard rectangles = pretty recycled bookmarks

    Fuze beverage bottles:
  • Remove the wrapper from the glass bottle. Wash glass bottle. Add some water and fresh-cut flowers, place on table or windowsill, and you have produced a very efficient vase. (And, moreover, a much more attractive one than the plastic Coke or milk pint bottles I have seen in some dorm rooms.)

    Page-a-day calendar pages:
  • Instead of throwing out each page when the day is done, turn it over and start a pile on your desk. Instant memos!

    Plastic shopping bags:
  • Wad up as packing material/padding around items shipped in mail parcels
  • Line smaller garbage cans (no reason to buy Hefty brand when these bags come free and equipped with handles!)
  • Use as rain-resistant covering for important materials (books, etc.) when carrying items out-of-doors in inclement weather
  • Sunday, November 11, 2007

    Where are all the women?

    Ever since I started taking ENG 380: Problems of Western Civilization, my feminist eyes (which I didn’t even know I had) have been progressively opened. Example: a simple outing to the Regent Movie Theatre yesterday was an eye-opening one.

    I was on the bus, coming back from having had battery replaced at the mall—can you believe I survived half a week without a watch?—when I ran into a member of Film Interest Floor (a double suite in which I have several friends). He told me that a bunch of them were going to see American Gangster and invited me to come along. As this is one movie for which I have actually happened to see previews (I must admit, this has been one benefit to watching House every week), I decided that it looked intriguing enough. Also, a social outing to a movie would be at least marginally more productive than spending my afternoon brooding over the fact that I was not in upper state NY with the rest of the swim team. Thus, I went to see the 4:15pm showing of American Gangster.

    For those of you not familiar with this movie, the basic plot is this: Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, the lacky for one of NYC’s big crime bosses. Early in the movie, his boss dies, and Frank takes his place, expanding and improving his heroin operation with the introduction of an extremely pure strain called “Blue Magic.” Meanwhile, Richie Roberts—played by a somewhat stoutly Russell Crowe—is an ex-cop, booted from his position on the force for honestly turning in upwards of $900,000. Ever the “good guy,” he takes on NYC’s drug war, pursuing—inevitably—Frank and his family in the face of social and political opposition. (And yes, I did write that extremely catchy plot summary myself; can people make careers out of these sorts of things?)

    Needless to say, before the movie even started, my “anti-woman radar” went on high alert. Movies nowadays seem intent upon barraging their audiences with images and sound from the moment you walk into the theatre. I honestly thought we were missing previews when we entered the screening room, there was so much noise and commotion going on on-screen. However, big flashy movie-esque advertisements are now the norm before movies; no more idle chatter while waiting for previews to begin. (If you want to talk, you’ll have to shout into the ear of the person sitting next to you, never mind trying to communicate with someone a few seats away.)

    After a sexualized car ad and a rather repetitive Fandango ad (I suppose they work, though, because I did remember that brand name), a music video began to play. It was a new song by 3 Doors Down called “Citizen Soldier.” This video is apparently a simultaneous advertisement for the National Guard, which is a very interesting ploy on the part of both the entertainment industry as well as the department of defense, but that is not what I want to point out regarding this ad. As shocking as this entertainment/military combination may have seemed, what shocked me even more was the absence of women from the video.

    I saw two women in the entire video. One was receiving a medal of some sort from an obviously higher-ranking man. The other was running to retrieve her child from a man who had obviously rescued him. There were no women combatants, not even in the scenes from current day wartime situations (as contrasted with those from revolutionary times, where I would not have expected to see any women). And yet, the lyrics say the following (the bolding is mine):
    On that day, when you need your brothers and sisters to care.
    I'll be right here.
    Citizen soldiers.
    Holding the light for the ones that we guide from the dark of despair.
    Standing on guard for the ones that we've sheltered.
    We'll always be ready because we will always be there.

    By excluding women from the video, the producers (or the band? or the National Guard?) are making the implicit claim not only that women are not involved with war, but that we are in fact not citizens. If soldier-ship is equated with citizenship, and women are not soldiers, then women are obviously not citizens, either. And we thought we had achieved equality!

    Now, this was all before the movie even began. I will allow that American Gangster was a period piece and, therefore, I am willing to accept many of the roles that women played as their “places” in that particular society. (For instance, I doubt there were many women cops serving as part of the NYPD in the 1970s.) However, women were not only treated as completely secondary characters in this movie, they were treated as stereotypically weak and cardboard figures, as well. Frank’s wife, Eva (played by Lymari Nadal) is chosen by him and follows along with his every whim. She plays the typical money-bulldozed wife of any rich man, who suffers silently and even when she does attempt to take a stand, ends up acquiescing and retreating back into silent assent. Most of the other women who appear in the movie are the heroin choppers: they are black, nude, and (literally) voiceless. (The only one with a line is the “head” of the operation, and even she only gets two lines, neither which were of any significance.)

    The only woman who shows any strength at all throughout the movie is Frank’s mother—she threatens to leave him if he kills a cop. Yet, the strength of this influence is still questionable, because before Frank even has the opportunity to kill the cop, his drug operation is destroyed and Richie takes him into custody. Would he have killed the man, anyway? Would his mother’s having left him even mattered? Is that all the influence women have: the threat of disappearing?

    According to “Citizen Soldier,” we weren’t even visible to begin with.

    Friday, November 9, 2007

    Managed by a peer


    I’ve worked with her since Day One when we were both neophytes learning how to make smoothies at Common Ground. We rose in knowledge and power together there, gradually taking on more shifts, learning to stock inventory, becoming nighttime student managers. Then, she started working mornings at Hillside Café. I took a few “emergency shifts” over there from time to time and did the late-night extravaganza at the Java Cart during reading and finals week at the end of each semester, but otherwise, my progression was lateral; I took a second job as a Writing Fellow and then a third as a copyeditor for Deb.

    Then, this semester, Starbucks replaced Common Ground and Cathleen convinced me to move over to Hillside rather than train to work for Starbucks. This way, I could stay working with all of my friends, continue doing familiar work (since many of the drinks and operations were the same to how we ran things at Common Ground), remain a student manager, keep favorable hours, and—best of all—receive a raise. Once I began working at Hillside, I realized that Cathleen nearly ran the place as much as Blythe (the official “adult” manager) did. She was there constantly, knew how almost everything worked, and took it upon herself to chastise us for even the smallest infraction (e.g. I always forget to put the plastic flaps down over the grab-n-go cooler, and apparently this is one of her biggest pet peeves).

    Initially, I felt a little taken aback at being “ordered around” by someone I considered my equal. Maybe I hadn’t worked at Hillside nearly as long as she had, but we had worked at Common Ground together for three years, and I was a student manager, too! However, about a week ago, Cathleen informed us (me and a few of my coworkers/fellow student managers) that she was applying to replace Blythe, who would be overseeing the new café opening inside the library. I will admit, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Someone my age who I had worked with side-by-side for an equal amount of time eclipsing me in ranking? Granted, this sounds silly, talking about coffee shop “prestige.” Furthermore, Cathleen wants to be a businesswoman: she intends to own real estate on the other side of the Genesee and rent it out to college students. I, on the other hand, intend to move to a city and edit books. Why should I care if she will be my boss for six months?

    As it turns out, she will. She got the job, and her position starts after Thanksgiving. In many respects, I am very glad that she will have the position. It’s about time that someone who has done the “grunt work” does the higher end managing, because maybe now things will finally be run the way they should be, with someone on the managerial staff understanding what practically needs to be done/ordered/provided in order for us to do our jobs efficiently. Moreover, Cathleen will understand—having been a worker herself—that if she wants me to work “emergency” shifts, she had better make it worth my while monetarily, not just give me a little smile and a pat on the back. And maybe—just maybe—she will finally have enough spine to fire the workers who don’t show up for their shifts. That would be nice. I have yet to meet a manger who is willing to do that.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how I am going to feel about being ordered around by someone I consider my peer. I know I do my job well, and the few liberties I take, I feel I deserve. Having worked with her directly, I know that she knows how I work and what liberties I take. If, now that she is my boss, she tries to micro-manage my work, I do not doubt that I will resent this. However, perhaps I am being too hasty. Perhaps having a friend in higher places will prove to be everything it can and should be.

    Either way, I am bound to find out.

    Monday, November 5, 2007

    Quote of the day:

    "Get out the marshmallows ... 'cause my game's on fire!"
    (compliments of Peggy's teddy bear)

    UR Raving...mad

    Guess I needed a reminder why I don't attend college parties....



    Friday, November 2, 2007

    Sniff this

    Bad habits and personal quirks can be annoying, but sometimes things that people don’t do are even more irksome than the things that they do. When my suitemates don’t wash their dishes, for example, it bothers me to no end. (Don’t cups of stagnant, gnat-breeding water and sauce-encrusted knives and forks sicken everyone?) If I pass a swimmer on the way to class and he/she doesn’t return my “hello,” I get a little peeved. (Am I that invisible? Are they that superior?)

    Recently, I have been bothered by a lack of deodorant. This is not a widespread phenomenon, but I do know one person who, whenever I am within five feet of him, I want to grab and shake. “Maybe you can’t smell yourself,” I want to tell him, “but for god’s sake, have a little consideration for the rest of us. I can barely breathe!”

    He probably does not smell himself, or if he does, that smell does not bother him. Nor must it bother his girlfriend, as they have been dating for quite a long time without any detectable change in his scent. Yet the smell bothers me, and I am bothered by that very feeling.

    Why should I consider natural human smell unpleasant? Was I trained to think (…smell) this way? Practically from birth, we are made to keep ourselves not only looking unnatural but smelling unnatural. We pluck, shave, and brush our natural hairiness into submission, not to mention painting, puncturing, and tattooing many of our natural physical features. Why should we not use flower-scented soaps, herb-scented shampoos, and chemical-scented perfumes to make ourselves smell as unnatural as we look?

    Yet, what bothers me is the fact that I have come to interpret these appearances and smells as pleasant and normal to the point of being insignificant and to interpret what is actually natural and human as abnormal and repulsive. Nevertheless, whenever I see (or, rather, smell) this boy, I feel the intense desire to hand him a bar of deodorant and ask him to please, at least for my sake, use it.

    Sunday, October 28, 2007

    Addict

    I am one of the most addictive people I know. This is not to say that people become addicted to me. On the contrary, I mean to say that I am extremely prone to developing addictions.

    I work at Hillside, a coffee shop located in the basement of the all-freshman dorm on campus, three mornings a week. As a perk for working there, employees are allowed to take free food and beverage during their shifts. I work from 7:30a.m. until 11:30 or 12, so I usually eat breakfast and sometimes take food with me for lunch, but I always, always take a drink. Most of the time, I take bottled water or Fuze (a fruity vitamin-ish drink), but for a certain period of time, I started to take bottles of pop (or “soda,” if you insist upon being anti-Pittsburgh-ese). Sometimes I would take Sprite Zero, and then I began taking Diet Dr. Pepper (regular is too cloying). I also drink a lot of liquid during my shifts—if I can help it—and I started drinking tea around this time without discriminating between green, black, or herbal tea.

    Needless to say, I got hooked on the caffeine. How did I determine this? The next week, I decided that the pop probably wasn’t doing my system any good, since I kept getting thirsty all the time, so I went back to drinking water. That week (and even a few days into the week after), I suffered from chronic fatigue. Chronic. And it wasn’t just the can’t-get-started fatigue, either; it was all-day-long, don’t-feel-like-doing-anything, ever fatigue that makes you want to bury your head under a stack of pillows somewhere in a far away dessert and sleep for a century or two.

    I also get addicted to people. And sports. I was told that I must have a “workout addiction” for wanting to go running on a Sunday while I was on the theatre trip in Canada. I told my accuser that I wished I were addicted to working out—then it would not be so difficult to stay motivated.

    Even knowing this about herself, what’s a girl to do? All I can say is, thank goodness coffee and alcohol taste so bad.

    Tis the Season

    I found this on PostSecret.com.

    It's so true. Guys look goofy or gross. Girls look...the way they are subliminally (and not-so-subliminally) told by media and men that they should want to look. If you've ever seen the movie Mean Girls, you'll know what I mean: “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

    Well guess what; I just said something!

    Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    Loving Writing

    Can you say you love doing something if it’s only the end result that you actually love?

    Take swimming: if I only loved winning races, I could never say that I love swimming, because the truth of the matter is that during my high school and college swimming careers, I have rarely (if ever) won any races. However, I do love swimming; I love the act of swimming, of being in the water, of training for races, of competing against other swimmers.

    Take singing. My sister says she loves to sing. However, I doubt she could really say she love to sing if she only loved to perform arias in front of huge audiences and despised practicing scales and choral work. Fortunately, she says that singing anything “perfectly” makes her feel so alive, so wonderful that she would rather be doing that than anything else. Hence, why she hopes to pursue a career in opera.

    Now, take writing. I say I love to write. However, what I really love is having others read and appreciate my writing. I cannot honestly say that I love the act of writing. In fact, if I am honest, the act of writing is really quite horrid. It is a struggle requiring dogged tenacity, infinite self-patience, and more ways of dealing with frustration than I am capable of creating. Most of the time, when I am writing an assignment, I feel like beating my head through a brick wall rather than try to type one more word. However, once I have finished revising my story/article/research paper/essay for the seventy-third-and-a-half time, finally turn it in, and receive feedback like “Superb work, Allison! I can find nothing to criticize,” or “The way things are presented without directly telling us is brilliant,” (on two different assignments, no less) makes me wonder why I ever questioned my own purpose.

    I cannot get satisfaction from that kind of praise for anything else that I do. If I play a pretty song on the piano or make a good play at a volleyball match, those compliments are great, but they are nothing compared to being complimented on my writing. The closest thing to someone enjoying my writing is someone enjoying my cooking, and even that is not nearly comparable, probably because food doesn’t last. Food cannot be shared in a timeless way, between scores of people. It can be ruined in an instant (which I know all-too-well) and must appeal to the aesthetic senses as well as the gustatory. Writing is permanent, and changes that are made last. Writing can be shared over time, across space, and between people. The pleasure people get out of reading something creative or witty is a completely different kind of pleasure than anything I have ever seen or experienced, and being able to create that in others is a power that exhilarates me.

    However, I still don’t know if this qualifies me to say that “I love writing.” Can I say, “I love having written”?

    Thursday, October 18, 2007

    More irritation from Hillside


    A New Rule From George Carlin’s New Rules for 2007 that made me smile:

    "New Rule #6: The more complicated the Starbucks order, the bigger the asshole. If you walk into a Starbucks and order a "decaf Grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one sweet-n'-Low, and one NutraSweet," ooh, you're a huge asshole."

    This goes for any coffee shop. And if you complain about the “fresh squeezed orange juice” coming from a Tropicana container, please also kindly remember that you’re eating at a University of Rochester dining facility, not a spa-sponsored café. If you want your smoothie/latte/mocha in the next five minutes (which is probably all you have between the time you woke up and when you have to be at class), you really don’t want me back here squeezing oranges for some kid’s cup of juice. Let Tropicana do the squeezing.

    And remember to order your cappuccino small and plain. Maybe I’ll smile when I hand it over.

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    Go Yellowjackets!


    My suitemate, Tom Brown, is decked out for the first football game of the season.

    This is, by far, the most athletic-related school spirit you will ever see on the UR campus.

    *We lost that first game to Carnegie Mellon, 10-33. Go Pittsburgh.

    Friday, October 12, 2007

    Cute vs. Creepy

    Pretend you are a 21-year-old female who receives the following message from a gentleman of similar age: "i was in class tonight thinking about u."

    Coming from literally any other boy who has ever liked me, that statement would totally and utterly creep me out. However, coming from this boy, I actually didn’t mind hearing (reading?) it.

    Now, I won’t say that that little comment made me all gushy inside, because that's not true, either. I simply welcomed it as a compliment—nothing more, nothing les. What seems unfair is the realization that if it came from some other guy, this comment would creep me out.

    Is this tremendously unreasonable of me? It seems unreasonable, yet I cannot seem to help feeling this way. Are the boys who have previously pursued me actually stalkers, or do I just perceive them as such because I am uninterested in them?

    This is starting to sound like the “chicken or the egg” question. Why can’t we all just be like Snow White and fall in love with the first guy who kisses us? Of course, then again, who ever said she was in love….

    Thursday, October 4, 2007

    Degraded

    I was working at the Hillside (a campus coffee shop) this morning. Around lunchtime, we clean/restock the shop area, and today I was relegated to garbage duty. There are four garbage cans total: two large hinged “Thank you” style ones and two smaller ones located beneath holes in a little condiments island/counter. Because they are more hazardous, I tackled the larger cans first, wrestling out the mountainous garbage bags and knotting them shut. Leaving them on the floor beside the condiments island, I removed the two smaller cans from under the island. Students—being the slobs they are—had jam-packed these cans so full that they were overflowing inside the island, so, being the conscientious worker I am, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled partially inside in order to remove some of the excess trash.

    Suddenly, I felt a stiff poke at the back of my neck. Some wetness rand down beside my ear. As I backed out from under the island, a brown plastic stirrer fell down in front of me. I looked up to see a girl walking away with her nicely stirred cup of coffee. That girl had just thrown her trash on me!

    My immediate reaction was to snatch up that stirrer—along with the oozing ketchup packets, dented cream cheese cartons, and crinkled napkins on the floor beside it—and throw it back in her face. There! See how you like it! Instead, I calmly picked up the stirrer—and ketchup packets, cream cheese cartons, and napkins—and put them in the trash bag beside me. Then, I knotted it, hefted it over my shoulder, and carried it to the dumpster. The boy walking in front of me down the hallway didn’t even bother to hold the door. Why should he? I’m just a coffee shop worker.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007

    Losing Identity

    From the start, I knew I would miss swimming. I enjoy physical activity of almost any sort, and I have spent the last four years of my life fine-tuning this particular sport. I also find it much more inspiring to engage in sports competitively, along with others pursuing the same training goal; hence, I love being on sports teams. I love the camaraderie of teams, I love the structure, I love the discipline. The time commitment was always difficult to handle—not to mention the physical demands—but the payoff was always worthwhile.

    What I did not realize was the sense of identity I gained from being a “college athlete.” I played sports in high school, but I was better known for being an “academic,” so this was not so much a part of my identity. Plus, I had always played sports, ever since grade school, so I never felt any absence in that area of my life. College sports proved to be different, though. I have always admired college athletes, and by swimming on the UR team, I felt as though I was a part of something admirable and important. I loved to be able to say I was a Swimmer in the larger, more official sense of the noun. It made me feel worthy of respect that not every college student was able to earn. I was part of an exclusive club of hard workers, and my own sweat and determination had elevated me to that status.

    Now, when people ask me what I do, what am I to say? Everyone in college has a major or two. I work at a coffee shop and as a writing fellow, but these jobs simply do not seem as impressive, as important. They do not constitute a team, and there is little if any sense of fellowship among those involved. When I am asked if I am a swimmer, I always revert to the “I swam for two years” statement. It’s almost like a plea. I did swim. I was that worthy of your admiration and respect.

    Now, when I go to the cafeteria, I see the teams sitting at dinner together and sigh with longing. The athletes are part of a clique I want to belong to. I walk around campus, and I can no longer have the self-confident “I am important to the identity of this school” swagger.

    Now, I am back at stage one, freshman year, trying to forge a new identity. Yet, as a senior, it seems to late. I will be moving on soon, anyway, into an “adult” life of no teams. Then I will have to define a new standard for gaining admiration and respect.

    Niagara Falls


    Now, who exactly is going to be lighting up in the "Hurricane Zone?"

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    True Laughter

    I miss peeing my pants.

    Yes, it was awkward and disgusting and humiliating, but I did it because I was laughing so hard, I could not help myself. Helpless laughter. Uncontrollable, unbridled, unfeigned job. That is what I miss.

    I cannot remember the last time I laughed because I literally could not stop myself from doing so. This is not to say I don’t laugh now; I do laugh. I laugh because it is appropriate. I laugh to put others at ease, to avoid the awkwardness that would result from a lack of response. I laugh to signal acceptance of whatever has been said or done.

    When did this transition take place? Was it gradual, did it sneak up on me unannounced? Was it learned by observation and imitation? Or is it the result of truly having less to laugh about?

    What did I used to laugh about, as a child? What was so funny that it made my stomach sore and my bladder weak? Those things could not have changed; only I could have changed.

    Have others undergone the same change? Is their laughter now merely a social lubricant, or do they actually still feel that uncensored, childish joy?

    I want that joy back. Yet, the more I force myself to laugh, the more I feel that pure feeling of joy receding into my past, becoming a memory like strawberry popsicles at Disneyland and mud pies in the backyard.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Clothing Comfort

    The following quote from Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres catapulted me back to my anti-jean, childhood days of stretch pants and high ponytails:


    “…another thing I distinctly remember about being a child is that awareness of oneself inside one’s clothes. Pinching shoes, a prickling slip, a dress that is tight across the shoulders or around the wrists, ankle socks bunching in the heels of my shoes. Mommy and Daddy never complained of their clothes, but mine seemed a constant torment.” (page 278)

    I remember abhorring tights, because they itched. Forty minutes-a-week for dance class was almost more than I could bear. When I would stand out at the bus stop in the dead of winter, my neighbors’ grandmother would poke her head out of their front door and holler, “Aren’t your legs cold?” I always answered, “No,” even if I was shivering. Being cold for ten minutes was far preferable to wearing clingy, itchy tights under my jumper all day long.

    I did not start wearing jeans until at least fourth grade. Before then, I generally had not had to worry about what others thought of my fashion sense, since I attended Catholic gradeschools. However, fourth grade is about the time when kids start having their birthday parties at public places. Public places mean being Seen in Public, and so everyone begins to regard their own appearance critically. When kids start being self-critical, they start criticizing others—how else can they come out on top? In effect, I knew I had to conform or else be rejected from society as I knew it. So I wore the jeans.

    The same can be said today: conform or face rejection. Throughout high school, I continued to prize comfort over what most people would consider “fashion,” substituting sweatpants for the skintight jeans or dangerously short skirts that seemed to be required of every girl who was anyone. If you wanted to be looked at, you dressed nicely. Period.

    I could claim that I simply didn’t want to be looked at, but I don’t think this is true. I didn’t find the payoff worth the cost, that’s all. Sure, I wanted boys to be interested in me. I just didn’t want them to be interested in hooking up with me. I felt confident that if they were truly interested in me for Me, then they wouldn’t care what I was wearing. I successfully found one guy who fit that description; we became very good friends.

    I have always upheld the opinion that as people get to know one another better and grow to like each other more, they become more attractive to one another. This is not to say that they physically change, but their subjective opinions of one another’s appearance become more positive in spite of any initial aesthetic perceptions. My “close high school friend” Ben completely disagreed with me. Four years after knowing me, he revised his opinion. Now, he will only admit to one exception to his rule that if you’re not initially attracted to someone, you never will be. One is enough for me.


    Ben liked me in my sweatpants. And while no one else has, I’m certain someone else eventually will. In the meantime, I’ll dress “appropriately,” when I must, to appease the masses. Otherwise, look for the sweatpants.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2007

    Confinement

    There is something so small, so manufactured, so unreal about my life here in Rochester. I never felt it before I went abroad, but living on my own—or at least as “on my own” as I ever have—in England, living away from campus, in the community, has made me feel much more confined now that I am back living on Rochester’s self-contained campus.

    Without knowledge to the contrary, a student might think that this existence—going to class, going to the gym, perhaps going to an on-campus job—is all there is to Real Life. In reality, though, living in a prepaid cocoon that is cleaned for you once-a-week (also known as a dorm), working for managers who are desperate for student-workers and will therefore rarely fire anyone, frequenting a “free” gym at my leisure, and having everything within walking distance is really quite absurd. What is even more absurd is the way that all of the buildings fit together uniformly as if they are all part of one jigsaw puzzle in which you, as a student, are trapped. If you don’t own a car and need to go shopping, you are “permitted” to go off campus only as often as the “bus” will take you—that is, three times a week (Wed., Sat., or Sun.) at the designated Rochester Shuttle pick-up/drop-off times.

    However, so long as no disasters occur, everything you should ever need is available on campus: prepared food, canned food, sweatshirts, pens, batteries, cough drops. In fact, now that there is a little corner store in Sue B. Anthony (the freshman residence hall), a student could literally stay inside his/her dorm all semester if he/she wanted. There would be plenty of food (with all-you-can-eat at Danforth Dining Center, the Hillside coffee shop, and the mini-Corner Store all in its basement), the obviously necessary dorm room for sleeping, functional bathrooms right down the hall, and—of course—perpetual Internet access. What more could a student want? Next thing you know, the campus post office will move into that building, and everyone can have their books shipped directly to their dorm rooms; no library or bookstore necessary. (Although, if someone really and truly wanted to hibernate, he/she could get a friend to pick up his/her mail. Just give hand over the CPU box key and offer a little incentive, like a quarter of the required meal plan that no average freshman will ever finish.)

    I find myself wandering around the same places day-in and day-out: specific classrooms, the gym, the library, my dorm room. After a while, it is hard to think outside of this routine. Get up. Dress in Java City attire. Go to work at Hillside. Change in the Danforth bathroom. Eat in the library. Go to class. Change. Go to the gym. Shower. Eat in the dorm. Read. Sleep. Repeat. It becomes difficult to realize that anything outside of this routine does or can exist. I see the same people, some of whom I recognize and yet do not actually know at all. I see the same places, sometimes dirtier, sometimes cleaner, yet very much the same.

    I suppose this sameness and familiarity is true no matter where you live; it is the consequence of settling into any kind of community. Yet, everything feels so much more compressed, so much more isolated on a college campus. We really are living in our own little bubble here, with an occasional foray out into the rest of Rochester. How odd that I originally desired this. Living At College made me feel like I had finally entered the Real World and was succeeding On My Own, when I had just entered a new part of the world, and a self-contained one, at that. College life offers a new, different sort of safety and security that seems wild and free when we first embark upon it. Now, it just feels like an artificial community. I am in Real World Training, and the training wheels are about to come-off.

    Sunday, September 9, 2007

    UR Darkness

    What happens when campus-wide power goes out at 6 p.m.?

    1. Fire Marshall rules are blatantly flouted. Those who have candles have power. And college students discover the necessity of flashlights. It feels like camping!

    2. The campus choir suddenly finds hundreds of recruits. Without their internet, video games, televisions, or even reading lamps, what else can college students do but exercise their operetta voices? Again, reminiscent of camping.

    3. The beer flows, more heavily than before. Welcome to the Shit Show: “We have nothing else to do…. And campus security won’t even be able to see us!”

    Saturday, September 8, 2007

    Saturday Morning at the Public Market


    There is something so real about farmers’ markets. Real people in regular clothing selling raw produce outdoors—the whole atmosphere seems so awake. Fruits and vegetables in wicker baskets and wooden bins. Smooth, firm, touchable skins. Nothing is dyed or sealed with wax and encased in plastic. Green peppers turning a bit yellow in spots; dirt-covered carrots with green exploding from their tops; misshapen eggplants; plum-sized apples; potatoes with “warts.” Real food. Food with deformities. Yet, it is all still perfectly edible.

    Handwritten signs are propped up amongst the rainbow array: market scrawls on rectangles of cardboard. A pound of sno peas, $1. A basket of peaches, $2. Fresh cheese. Homemade pies. An Amish bakery. An organic herb stand.

    Farmers’ markets have a rawness to them that is hard to find anymore, in any part of life. The food is transferred straight from grower to eater; there is no processing, no packaging, no politics in between. This, it seems to me, is how a market ought to be. And, in a way, how people ought to be: raw, real, unprocessed, unpackaged. Touchable. So what if we’re all a little dirty, a little discolored, a little deformed. Put us out under the sunlight, someone’s going to want us.

    Thursday, September 6, 2007

    Change of scenery

    What is it about scenery that has such power to affect out mood?

    In order to relax before classes started, my suitemates and I planned to take a trip up to Lake Keuka and spend a day at a cabin of one of their grandparents. Being my usual don’t-deal-well-with-change self, I was curled up in bed that morning, reflecting on the fact that it was my third day back in Rochester, and I already didn’t want to be here. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to be here or where I would rather be, but I knew that being here made me not want to get out of bed. Needless to say, Ben (Rochester Ben, not Pittsburgh Ben) proceeded to be his usual pushy self and barged right into my room the moment he realized I was awake. In the end, there was no choice but to go along as planned unless I wanted to make a scene, so I packed up my bathing suit and flip flops, stuck a book in my bag, and piled into the backseat of Tom’s car with Hayley. Ben jumped into the passenger seat, and just like that, we were off.

    I have always had an immense appreciation for lakes, particularly because they make me nostalgic. My family and a few other families dear to us used to spend a weekend every year camping at Keystone State Park—a park arranged around a central lake. The scene reflects the beauty of the varying seasons; nothing but a tree-covered, shivery-watered landscape can give me such a feeling of serenity and appreciation for nature. I love the crispy, bitter smell of trees in the summer and the earthy smell of leaves in the fall.

    The weather on our day at the lake was perfect. Not one cloud could be seen in the sky—it was literally a blank canvas of blue. The lake was massive: at least a mile across and twenty or so miles long if you could straighten out its bends and jetties. On the hills surrounding the lake, the trees were so close together that their tops, all in varying shades of green, resembled moss a giant might tread upon. At the very crest of the hilltops, the sky turned a pale yellowish, whitish-blue that gradually melded into a turquoise blue the higher it climbed. The sun was brilliant, reflecting off of the water; the top of the lake resembled aluminum foil, sparkling the way it would if you crinkled it up. It was literally picture-perfect.

    We spent the morning jetting around the lake on a speedboat, tubing, and swimming. Around two in the afternoon, Eric’s grandmother served us corn on the cob, potato salad, and baked beans. Tom grilled the burgers and teriyaki chicken breasts she had prepared. We sat at a wooden picnic table to eat, sipping ice-cold cans of lemonade, waving away bumble bees. Afterward, we swam some more and then tried jet-skiing. Hayley kayaked down the lake, and when she did not return right away, we met her with the speedboat and I kayaked back.

    Despite the rigorous activities of the day, I returned to Rochester significantly more relaxed than I had left it. I truly believe it was the much-needed infusion of nature that I needed to revive my spirit. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of the beauty of simplicity and those things we cannot control. I did not have to do anything to create that day or that scenery, and that is exactly what I needed.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007

    Packing

    I feel as though the past three years have been one exercise in packing after another: how to fit lamps, tables, books, and clothes into one van; how to make a list of everything I use in my daily life; how to discriminate between things I regularly use and things I own that just give me options. As if I didn’t already have enough decision-making to do in my life, I now have to sort through a lifetime of possessions in order to decide what I intend to use for the next nine months.

    That skirt is cute, but will I have any reason to wear it? Maybe I should take another T-shirt, instead. I’d love to read that book, but will I have the time? Class readings need to take precedent, and if I take that book along, it might tempt me to neglect my work. How much stationary should I pack? I could always just use plain paper, but I really like writing letters on stationary. Will it get cold before Thanksgiving? Should I take a coat and forego the third pair of flip flops?

    The stress of packing is the fear of forgetting that One Last Thing. You know you’ll be in the car, having already driven an hour or two from home, and suddenly realize that in order to swim every Thursday like you had planned, you are going to need a bathing suit. Or if you wear contacts, and you are about to pull out of the driveway when you suddenly realize that you probably cannot last for three months (until Thanksgiving) without your glasses, so your dad screeches to a halt and you go charging into the garage and up the stairs for that One Last Thing.

    I am trying to pack my One Last Thing. But too much other stuff is getting in the way.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Nick naming

    This summer, I played in a recreational volleyball league with a group of friends from high school. Every Thursday, Andy, Ryan, Jared, Mark, Bri (not from WH—Ryan met her at Pitt), and I met at a gym on Polish Hill and competed other volleyball teams in the league. Last year, we didn’t do very well, but this year our team made the second-seed ranking. Therefore, we made it to playoffs, which took place last night.

    I was the first to arrive for the game, so I played with one of the random basketballs lying around the gym for a while and then started stretching. Gradually, everyone began to trickle in, marked by various degrees of excitement. Bri looked a little frazzled, having just come from moving into a new apartment. Jared strutted in with his usual, slightly-arrogant, easy-going confidence, followed by Mark, who was hunched forward in his purposeful loping style, game-ready, with his hair pulled back into a ponytail and strapped down by a sweatband, already looking overly intense. Last to arrive were Andy and Ryan. Andy was brimming with energy and being very much his “team captain” self: high-fiving everyone and asking if we were ready “to do this shit.” Ryan, on the other hand, had competing priorities in mind. He had brought along a spectator.

    I got up from stretching, and he introduced me.

    “Hey, Ali. This is Kat.”

    The girl was of moderate height, with an athletic build. (My initial impression was that she might have been a soccer player.) She had straight yellowy-blond hair that fell to her shoulders and a lot of freckles, yet her skin was almost as tan as mine. Her smile was easy and kind-looking; she reminded me a lot of my childhood friend Leslie. I took her extended hand.

    “Hi. Nice to meet you, Kat.”

    “Hi . . . Ali?”

    Ryan and I both began stuttering.

    “Allison—” he started.

    “It’s Allison,” I echoed, “but some of my friends call me Ali.”

    “Oh, okay. Allison.”

    “Ali, Allison; it doesn’t matter.”

    It’s odd; I have never been introduced as “Ali” before. Granted, Ryan didn’t exactly introduce me as that; he just spoke without thinking. The fact that he did spontaneously call me “Ali” (and not “Allison”), however, and the fact that I did not even notice until someone else pointed it out made me consider who else calls me by that nickname.

    My sister Amy, Ben, Emily, Andy, and Vicky are the ones who immediately come to mind when I try to envision (or “enhear”?) people saying my nickname, but Ryan obviously calls me “Ali,” too, and I would not have thought of him, had someone else not noticed. Just as odd is considering all of the people who do not call me “Ali”: both Kellys, Jared, Mark, my parents.

    Nicknames are often considered terms of endearment, but if that were true, then shouldn’t my parents should have been the first to call me “Ali”? Moreover, if nicknames indicate some sort of emotional intimacy, someone such as Ryan—who, although we are friends, I doubt considers me near and dear to his heart—would not call me by that nickname. I have certainly never told anyone to call me “Ali.” Why, then, do certain people call me “Ali,” while others do not?

    A certain level of friendly familiarity is definitely necessary to call someone by a nickname. My boss at Pitt, for example, would never call me “Ali.” She, however, explicitly told me to call her “Corrie” (her name is “Corrine”). Honestly, I still struggle with using that nickname when I address her. The first-name basis is not a problem, but writing “Dear Corrie,” in the line of an e-mail just feels too casual, too familiar, too much like writing “Dear Emmy” or “Dear Vicky.”

    Being called by a nickname also has a lot to do with the person doing the naming, too. Ben and Emily and even my sister Amy are all affectionate, easy-going kinds of people. It goes well with their natures to use nicknames. Alternatively, Mark—as I mentioned before—is a rather intense kind of individual. It would actually strike me as bizarre if he were to call me anything other than my full name.

    As I grow older, I wonder if my nickname will persevere. My guess is that it will only stay around as long as those who already call me by it are around. After all, say I meet the man of my dreams within the next ten years and get married at twenty-eight or thirty. Would I really want my husband to call me “Ali?”

    Or wouldn’t I even notice?

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    The urge to write


    It’s like a knot in your back: you twist and stretch and knead those parts that you can reach, but the ache persists.

    It’s like feeling aimlessly hungry. “There’s nothing to eat,” you declare, staring at your full cupboards and stuffed refrigerator.

    It’s a restlessness of the mind, an urge to create.

    I was walking to work this morning through the streets of Oakland. The sky was whitish-gray, hovering just above the building tops. It smelled like rain. I instantly wanted to write about how fresh and thick that smell was, how it reminded me of damp leaves and the exhaust that comes out of a laundry room. I arrived at work and sat down at my computer, but now I cannot write.

    The other day, I was at Vicky’s house with a whole host of friends. I did my part to socialize, but mostly I was watching everyone else interact. Amy would curl up to Dee or Ben the way a cat winds its way through your legs; she has that same soft, deliberate touch. Vicky competed at Trouble like an eight-year-old, convinced that ones are the hardest numbers to roll, punching the air with excitement whenever one of her red pegs sent someone “home.” Everyone smoked their cigarettes differently. Andy was the most professional-looking, jutting out his lower lip so that the smoke streamed up in a vertical column beside his head and made a sort of “thought halo” above him. Brooke would turn her head to exhale, pursing her lips to that side so that the smoke ended up nearly behind her. Ben blew his smoke out sloppily, engulfing his conversation partner in a big amorphous cloud. I wanted to write about all of these observations, to link them together and imbue them with meaning. But by the time I arrived home, my purpose was gone. All I had were a lot of mental snapshots and a dull pencil.

    I have so much to write about and yet so little to say.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Love: a metamorphosis through literary quotations

  • Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. Ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?—Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • ‘Love’ is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.—Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
  • And why am I so necessary to you, my friend? What good have I done you? I am only devoted to you with my whole soul, I love you warmly, intensely, with my whole heart.—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk
  • I keep thinking about this river somewhere with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, to drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.—Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • “Do you think that people can just come into our lives for a moment and love us, and we love them back, and they change our whole lives, and then they just disappear?”
    “That’s all that ever happens.”—Nancy Whiteley, “Orbiting Izzy”
  • Monday, August 20, 2007

    Impatience: more from the Family Weekend

    “Are you really going to drink that?” My sister stared at the full mug of tea in my hands.

    “Um, yeah.” I squeezed out a teaspoonful of honey and started stirring it into the tea.

    “Al-ieeee.” She widened her eyes meaningfully. The look was half-pleading, half-annoyed.

    “Chill out.” I looked across the table. “Look, mom isn’t even done with her cereal yet.”

    We were talking under our breaths, sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table. My mom, grandma, and grandpa sat around the other side. My dad was in the bathroom, “readying” himself for the five-hour drive home. With enough “preparation,” we would hopefully not have to stop for more than one bathroom break.

    Meanwhile, it was taking all of Amy’s self-control not to run out the door, jump into the car, and drive away without the rest of us.

    I had to give my sister credit—she had been awfully patient all weekend. We had arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time to help my aunt and uncle clean out my grandparents’ garage, make lunch, dissemble furniture, cook dinner, and wrestle mattresses into our various sleeping arrangements. (Amy and I slept on the living room floor, my parents slept in the guest room on the mattress left over from a disassembled bed, and my aunt slept on some chair cushions on the kitchen floor.)

    The next day, Friday, was Moving Day: we all woke up at seven o’clock, ate breakfast, and started moving things onto the auctioneer’s truck. I was suffering from a massively sore throat, so my morning mood was petulant, at best. My sister had to bear the brunt of my groanings, since we were doing most of the household activities (i.e. dish duty, cleaning out the attic, etc.) in order to avoid the rest of our testy family. Moving alone is stressful enough; moving involving your extended family is enough to make a person crazy.

    Friday night, I came down with a fever. It was bad enough that Amy and I had been consigned to sleeping in the stuffy attic—my grandmother and mother both agreed that the air conditioner in the living room had contributed to my sore throat and, therefore, I should no longer sleep there—but I was so disoriented by the fever that every time I woke up and tried to go downstairs to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, I stumbled about, knocking over furniture and boxes (what little was left up there), and frankly making quite a racket, thanks to the attic’s hardwood floors. Amy was tremendously considerate that night, offering to find me Aspirin downstairs, getting me a blanket from my parents’ room, not complaining at all every time I woke her up. Still, the next morning I woke up feeling like death.

    Saturday was our family reunion. Considering the night I had just had, I didn’t know whether I wanted to try to attend at all. However, I knew I was expected to be there and that my mother—in particular—would be extremely disappointed if I didn’t go. She, Amy, and I were supposed to play a flute trio, so I agreed to come late, after I took a nap. This meant that poor Amy had to go to the reunion and contend with our crazy extended family all by herself for the first two hours of the picnic—as if her patience hadn’t already been exercised enough.

    Everything considered—my illness, our crazy stressed-out family (including my often-overbearing aunt, persnickety grandfather, depressed grandmother, and frustrated cousin)—Amy had dealt with the weekend awfully well. However, every good thing comes to an end, and Sunday morning at 9:05 a.m., she had reached the end of her patience. We were supposed to have left by 9 a.m.

    “Come on, Ali,” she muttered as I sipped my tea. “Mom’s done.”
    “She still has to go to the bathroom, blow her nose, clear her dishes, all that stuff. Calm down. Fifteen extra minutes is not going to kill you.”

    I knew she knew this, and yet it didn’t make her any less frustrated. The funny part was, I knew exactly how she was feeling. It makes me feel old to say “when I was her age,” but I remember being eighteen and stuck somewhere with our family while absolutely itching to be somewhere else. As each minute passed, you become more and more desperate to leave. I could see Amy’s desperation increasing exponentially with every passing minute. The faster we could get home, the faster Amy could go see Dan.

    Obviously, a fifteen-minute delay would not kill her. In fact, those fifteen minutes would probably be spent doing nothing more significant than just sitting there at Dan’s house, maybe watching TV. And yet, when you are eighteen, every minute you are not getting closer to your destination, you seem to be getting farther away.

    I dumped out the rest of my tea.

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    Lifeguarding Woes

    I found a rat in the pool filter this morning. There were so many leaves in the filter, filling it with so many grays and browns, I almost grabbed the rat right into my hand. I haven’t shrieked like that in a long time.

    It was almost as bad as the day that a six-year-old little brat pooped in the pool. Her entire family left, and I didn’t even know it had happened until another elderly lady came up and told me that her granddaughter had seen this girl pooping in the deep end. In the deep end! Now, every time I see her and her family approaching the pool, I smile “hello” and mutter something evil under my breath to whomever happens to be sitting nearby. I shouldn’t bother, since it doesn’t do any good, but I just feel so justified.

    To Successfully Remove a Rat From a Filter: 1) Put on at least one latex glove (for the hand performing the operation). 2) Remove tweezers from the first aid kit. 3) Maneuver the rat with the tweezers until you can grasp its tail firmly between the tweezers (because the rat will not fully fit between the tweezer prongs). 4) Sling the rat onto the filter cover. 5) Carry the filter cover to the trash and dump carefully.

    To Successfully Remove a Child’s Poop from the Deep End of the Pool: 1) Make said child swim back down there and scoop it out.

    Just kidding. That method would probably make it disintegrate, and then you’d really have a mess on your hands. Patience and a good dose of humor are the only remedies for this situation. And, of course, the pool vacuum and a good deal of soda ash.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Eating food


    The food formula is simple: you eat food, it gives you energy. On the most basic level, food equals survival. In some climates, you eat more food to stay warm and, thus, survive. Athletes eat certain kinds of food to help their bodies perform certain kinds of functions more efficiently. What goes in comes out. Period.

    However, food—and particularly eating—has become significantly more complicated. We, as social and emotional human beings, have made it this way. Take the example of social etiquette: Every time two or more people gather, there is almost always food and/or drink involved. This is true even when the activity being performed has absolutely no relation to food or drink. You go to church to worship God; yet, there is always a coffee hour after every Sunday service. You go to amusement parks to ride rides and play carnival games. Yet, there are probably as many concession stands as there are games and rides combined. You can buy beer and French fries at a bowling alley. You eat popcorn while watching movies. Even just getting together to play cards with friends requires you (the host) to provide—at the very least—beverages, probably also snacks, and all of your attendees will more than likely feel compelled to bring wine or some sort of baked item to show goodwill toward their host. Arriving empty-handed is a social taboo, so we fill our hands with food.

    Literally filling our hands with food on these eating occasions is another way to be socially accepted. If you are Italian, Greek, or Jewish, you will inherently know this. Eat a lot around these families, and everyone will love you. Be stingy with your portion sizes, and they will be offended. Even in the high school cafeteria, if you are a normal-sized individual and eat a lot, people usually stand in awe of you. “How can you eat so much? That’s amazing.” It’s like they express jealousy, only it’s friendlier. No one understands joining someone for lunch if you don’t want to eat with them. “What? You’re not having anything? Here, have some of this.” People don’t like eating alone.

    Unless, of course, they are recovering from some sort of emotional trauma. Then, eating alone is comforting, and food becomes the panacea. “My boyfriend just broke up with me, and I feel like shit. I will never feel good again. Although five slices of chocolate cake might fix this temporarily, maybe with a few scoops of ice cream on top.” “I had a bad day at work. There’s no way I’m cooking. Anyone know the number for Domino’s?”

    We even use food as a reward when our decision to eat counteracts what we are rewarding ourselves for. “I just ran two miles; I deserve another cookie for dessert.” Or watch the football team after they get out of practice. Eighty percent don’t go home and eat a sandwich. “God, practice was hard. Let’s go to Burger King.”

    Really, food and eating are ingrained in nearly every facet of our lives. It is a pleasant activity, and doing it makes other activities more pleasant (because when you are socially accepted, you are having a better time). Therefore, it should be no surprise that we make other activities resemble eating. After all, if eating is pleasurable, it would therefore be logical for other activities resembling eating to be pleasurable. One such eating-type activity is making out.

    Now, by making out, I don’t mean simply kissing. Kissing someone requires involves puckering your lips and smushing them against another person’s cheek/lips. In no way does this resemble eating. Making out, involves opening one’s mouth. Pay attention the next time you watch a movie. It literally looks as if two people who are making out are trying to consume one another. Try to imagine (or remember) how it feels to make out. Don’t you feel like you’re trying to eat your partner? The more you can get of them inside your mouth, the better. Moreover, there are other adventurous mouth-moves that can accompany making out such as licking and biting—all things we do when we eat.

    Coincidence? You decide.

    Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    A Weekend With Family

    We always play cards at my grandparents’ house: either pinochle, canasta, or hand-and-foot. Pinochle is everyone’s favorite, so ever since my sister and I were old enough to understand the game, pinochle has been the game of choice.

    As with most card games, everyone has their own variation on the rules. My grandparents grew up playing the high-scoring, card-passing version of pinochle referred to as “airplane.” This version relies a bit more on luck-of-the-draw and melding (getting certain card combinations worth points before the hand is played) than on counting cards and playing one’s hand strategically. Consequently, my dad—a notorious card-counter, who is bored by any game that relies on luck—hates this version of the game. However, because my grandparents refuse to learn to play any other way, he grudgingly acquiesces every time we sit down to play in Allentown.

    “Can we play at least one game of cards tonight?”

    That would be my sister. We—comprised of Amy, my mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather (my mom’s parents), my aunt, and me—are all sitting at a little round table in my grandparents’ cozy kitchen, finishing dessert. A small round fan buzzes on the floor, and spoons clink against ceramic mugs as we scoop out the last of our Oreo ice cream. It has been a long day of disassembling antique sewing machines, dismantling headboards from bedframes, and maneuvering furniture down narrow stairways. The house is in organized disarray, everything ready to be loaded onto the auctioneer’s truck tomorrow.

    “Of course,” my grandmother replies. “Just after we clean up these dishes.” We will most likely be me and my sister. They don’t have a dishwasher, so I immediately look for the dishrag. This will be my fourth set of dirty dishes, today.

    “Nana,” my aunt begins in her I’ve-been-patient-all-day-but-you’re-wearing-me-thin voice, “I think we need to finish going through things in the basement tonight, first.”

    “Why?” my mom chimes in. “The auctioneer isn’t taking that stuff.”

    “Yes, but we’re moving it out in two weeks,” my aunt argues. It needs to be packed. Two weeks isn’t a very long time.”

    They argued, my aunt won out, and while my sister and I washed and dried dishes, my grandmother was trooped down to the basement to sort through phone books, cookie cutters, old photographs, canning jars, and who knows what other odds-and-ends. Before the things were packed away into empty liquor boxes, my sister and I were each given a pie plate. (My grandmother had seven of them.)

    Finally, at ten o’clock, we returned to the kitchen table to play cards (minus my aunt, who decided to take a shower, instead). Dad dealt, and once everyone had organized their cards, my grandfather spoke up.

    “What’s trump?”

    “Popop, nobody bid yet.” The winner of the bid (which is basically betting on a minimum amount of points your team will score) decides which suit is trump. I’m still determining how many point’s worth of meld I have. “Trump wasn’t called.”

    “I’ll say seventy-five.” My mother starts the bidding. My grandmother wins and calls spades trump. She, my mother, and my sister all pass to one another (they’re on the same team). Now, we can lay down our meld.

    “What’s trump?” My grandfather is carefully laying down his marriage in diamonds.

    “Spades.” My dad’s in a bad mood because he thinks making double marriages worth thirty points is cheating. In “regular” pinochle, they’re only worth four. “Those are the rules, though,” my grandmother claims as she puts her double marriage back into her hand. This is why my dad doesn’t like airplane.

    Since my grandmother won the bid, she plays the first card. According to airplane rules, the first card played must be an ace of trump. She leads the next two tricks with two more aces of spades.

    “Is that trump?” My grandfather fishes a king of spades out of his hand to follow suit. (In pinochle, if you have the suit that is “asked” by the first card of the trick, you must play it.) I can feel my dad roll his eyes without even looking at him.

    “Yes, Popop.”

    A few tricks later, the lead is mine. I choose to play diamonds. Amy is out of diamonds, but since she doesn’t have any spades, she plays a heart.

    “Is hearts trump?”

    “Spades, Popop.” I collect the trick and lead with another diamond.

    Finally, no one has any trump left except for my grandmother, so she collects everyone’s remaining cards. We count up the points from the hand, shuffle the cards, and start dealing again. My mom keeps score in her neat handwriting on a small gray tablet.

    “Three-sixty-four to one-eighty-eight,” she announces.

    “Wow, we really cleaned up, didn’t we?” My grandmother glows with pleasure.

    “If I had called hearts, what would you have passed me?” my dad asks me. He always wants to discuss the could’ve/would’ve/should’ve of hands, once they are over. I tell him what hearts I had.

    “Man, I should’ve kept going.” He means he should have bid higher in order to call trump. “That would’ve given me a double book” (i.e. meld worth 150 points).

    Everyone seems to have their cards in order. It’s Amy’s turn to bid, and she passes.

    “Something out of the ordinary,” my dad remarks. Amy starts fuming. When she was little, she never bid. We called her a coward for it, and still do today.

    “Excuse me, I do bid,” she snaps back.

    “Yes, Amy does bid, now,” my mom offers in support, ever the peacemaker.

    “Let’s go, let’s go.” My grandmother is used to playing fast.

    I open the bid. “Seventy-five.”

    My grandfather looks at his cards.

    “What’s trump?”

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    Days Off

    I have come to develop an immense appreciation for days off.

    The last day off I had was actually fairly recently. On Sunday, I was supposed to lifeguard but it rained all day. Thus, instead of working, I virtually “vegged out” all day long. I hung out at Ben’s house listening to music on his computer, watching The Fugitive (hence, my recent review of the movie), and eating food, mostly while lying on a bed/couch/etc. Talk about lazy.

    Today, I actually took off of work at the LRDC lab, because I was supposed to go to the WARP tour concert with Ben*. However, as things usually result with him, plans fell through, and we didn’t go. Staying home turned out for the best, though, because I have been more productive today than I have probably been all summer long.

    Shockingly, I woke up sans-alarm clock at 8 a.m. Once I ate and woke up completly, I walked down to Turtle Creek to retrieve my dad's car from where he parks it at the Post Office. Upon my return, I vacuumed the entire house (because my room needed it badly, and I had to drag the vacuum cleaner through the entire house, anyway, so I figured I’d do my family a favor). Then, after reorganizing things on my bedroom floor (and clearing some of them out of the room entirely), I scrubbed down the bathroom my sister and I share. Next, I made chocolate Rice Crispy Treats for this coming weekend’s family reunion. I intended to go swimming after that, and even made it all the way to the pool. However, fifteen laps after I got in, it started thundering. So much for today’s exercise. When I got home, I organized some material online (pictures, etc.) and signed up for the GREs (now, if only I would start studying for them…). Lastly, I began planning a final summer get-together for my Pittsburgh friends—an event which needs to be planned way in advance so that any of them will come. And I still have a third of the day left!

    I feel like I’m already an adult, using my day off to “take care of” things that would otherwise go undone. Logically, I should be able to do any or all of these activities in the hours after I get home from work. However, just like I’ve always seen my parents do, when I get home from work, all I want to do is take a shower, eat, read or watch a movie, or maybe see friends. If I’m really motivated, I’ll go out and exercise. What I do not want to do, however, is housework. As a child, I never understood why parents would use the weekends to do so much busywork. Why did they have to cut the lawn or weed the garden or dust the bedrooms when there was so much fun to be had? I now understand. Is this a sign of getting old or getting wise?

    Excuse me; I need to go clean the four-week pile of mail off my desk.

    *Despite my frequent mention of him in this blog entry, Ben and I actually do not see one another all that often.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    From Fugitives to Freakenomics

    It is about time I wrote a “media review,” considering I just saw a phenomenal movie and have also recently finished reading a number of books. I will begin with the movie.

    Because I am a Reader and not a Television Watcher, I have seen significantly fewer movies than most of my media-savvy peers. For example, I only just saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie a few months ago, during my stay in England. (My American friend/housemate Carl showed it in his room in honor of the new Turtles movie that had just come out. He and several other people were about to go see it in theaters, but he wanted to see the first and second “originals,” first.) Apparently, Turtles was a “classic” for everyone my age while we grew up—the original Turtles movie came out in 1990—and, subsequently, one I missed. Needless to say, I have “missed” a good number of movies throughout my life, and various people have taken a personal interest in seeing that these gaps in my media-awareness are sufficiently filled. One such person is my friend Ben.

    One evening two summers ago, the two of us were discussing movies after having finished watching Cruel Intentions—apparently another “adolescent classic” that I had missed during junior high school. Actually, we were playing one of our more frequent games: “what-movies-has-Allison-not-seen.” Obviously, I was losing. Finally, we pulled out a movie guide my dad had bought several years ago and started flipping through, with Ben pointing out “great movies” that I “had to see.” Determinedly, he wrote down a list of 5 to “get me started:” L.A. Confidential (which I have yet to see); Terms of Endearment; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Platoon; and the one I finally saw last night, The Fugitive.

    I’m ordinarily not a big action-movie fan. I tend to like movies that are more “brainteasers,” dramas, or comedies. (Some examples of what I’d consider a “brainteaser” movie are Unusual Suspects, Momento, and The Butterfly Effect.) However, The Fugitive might have just qualified as my favorite action movie.

    Essentially, the plotline is not very complicated and very action-oriented: Harrison Ford—playing Dr. Richard Kimble—is unjustly convicted of murdering his wife. On the way to prison, the armored truck containing Dr. Kimble and other convicts crashes, and Kimble is set free. He goes on the run, with Tommy Lee Jones (who gives an outstanding performance as the chief investigator Marshal Gerard) intent upon hunting him down.

    What I really like about this movie is the fact that it is not only an action movie, but also somewhat of a “brainteaser” or “mystery movie” as well. It is a “smart” action movie. A substantial part of the plot involves Richard Kimble trying to figure out who murdered his wife and why. However, Kimble not only solves this mystery, he also leads the authorities to the evidence he discovers and culprits he catches without being caught, himself. The setup and execution of this complicated plot involves a good bit of genius on the parts of the screenwriters. Thus, since I named the primary actors in this film (Ford and Jones), I must also name these worthy screenwriters: Roy Huggins, David Twohy, Jeb Stuart, and David Twohy.

    I am always on the look-out for intelligent writers, and recently I have been reading a plethora of work from one such writer, Chuck Palahniuk. If you have read any single book by Palahniuk, it was probably Fight Club, and if you haven’t read the book, you have probably seen or at least heard of the movie. I never read that particular book, but about a year ago, a friend from Rochester mentioned to me that Palahniuk was one of his favorite writers and that I should try reading his novel Invisible Monsters. That summer, I did check out Monsters from the local library. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, but I did not pursue reading any more of his work until recently, when I came across another person—a friend of my sister’s, in fact—who named Palahniuk as one of her favorite writers. She suggested a few titles to me, and I ordered them from the library.

    Palahniuk has a very unique style. His writing tends to mix horror with satire, yielding books that are as intriguing as they are bizarre. He almost always writes in the first person, with arresting, often disturbed protagonists telling the story. In Lullaby, my first Palahniuk novel of the summer, the narrator is a newspaper reporter covering sudden infant death syndrome. During his investigations, he discovers that it is caused by a culling song—a magical incantation that has been written into children’s poetry books—and can be used to kill virtually anyone to whom the song is read. However, a real estate agent who sells haunted houses (without telling the buyers that they are haunted, of course, so that she can quickly resell them) also knows about this culling song and uses it to her advantage. Thus, a battle ensues, both internally and externally: how should the song be used? Should it be used? Who should have the right and responsibility to use it?

    Lullaby examines the ideas that knowledge is power and with power comes responsibility. It pits social responsibility against humans’ addictive desire for power and control over one another—in this case, the power over life and death. Meanwhile, amongst all of these philosophical question, Palahniuk mixes in a variety of wacky characters (aside from the narrator and the real estate agent, who are bizarre enough) including a necrophiliac, a witchcraft-practicing secretary, and a hippie animal rights activist.

    My next Palahniuk book of the summer was entitled Choke. Again, this novel grapples with the idea of power, particularly power over life and death. The narrator/protagonist of the story is a medical school dropout who fakes choking to death in multiple restaurants every night in order to enlist monetary support from his rescuers—who do this to uphold their moral self-images, he claims—so that he can keep his mother alive in a nursing home. However, he refuses to invest in a feeding tube to help her health improve, because he resents her for wielding power over his childhood. (This resentment is developed by a series of flashbacks in which he is a foster child and his mother randomly appears and kidnaps him from his foster parents.) Meanwhile, the narrator attempts—but fails—to achieve sexual gratification by coupling with members of sex addiction support groups. Thus, throughout the novel, the reader is never quite sure whether the narrator is a sex addict himself, or whether he is just futilely searching for a sense of fulfillment in the absolutely wrong places.

    As a reader, I was also never quite sure what the “main” purpose of the novel was. That is, I was never quite sure what “overall storyline” I should be following. While the title of the novel implies that its premise centers on the narrator’s nightly choking escapades, surprisingly little time is dedicated to this aspect of the story. Most of the narration deals with the narrator’s mother (both in the hospital and within flashbacks), the narrator’s friend and roommate (a prior sex addict who obsessively collects rocks in lieu of indulging his sexual addictions), and the narrator’s various sexual encounters. Also—and this may sound impossible, but it is how I felt reading the book—the narrator seems impassive and frantic at the same time, as if he is paranoid while also being emotionally numb. How Palahniuk achieved this combination is a mystery to me, and although I didn’t care for this novel as much as Monsters and Lullaby, I was still impressed by it.

    My final Palahniuk novel of this summer was called Survivor. This story is told by the alleged “sole survivor” of a religious cult. It sets up the story with the narrator explaining that he is on an airplane destined to crash and is telling his life story to the plane’s “black box” (the indestructible part of the plane that records all activity up until the point of impact). The rest of the story culminates to this moment in the narrator’s life. Again, as with most of his novels, Survivor grapples with concepts of power over others and power over life/death. The narrator sets up a false suicide hotline so that people contemplating suicide or even just having a bad day call him. Then, he encourages them to kill themselves. Meanwhile, he is expected to kill himself, because the colony of the cult to which he belonged all killed themselves, and so every member of this colony existing in the “outside world” are expected to kill themselves, too. Eventually, he is believed to be the last survivor of this cult, a position which elevates him to celebrity status until his surviving brother and Fertility, the sister of a boy whom the narrator encouraged to commit suicide early in the novel, arrive to “save him from himself.” What I found most interesting in this novel is the way it explores the many ways in which humans can slowly kill themselves without acknowledging or even necessarily intending self-destruction. Is there really a difference between blowing your brains out, asking your brother to bash your face in with a rock, or taking steroids while starving your body, undergoing ultraviolet tanning, and shooting your face full of Botox to fulfill an “ideal image”?

    The latest book I finished (yesterday, in fact) is called Freakenomics by Levitt and Derber. Let me begin by saying that I have never taken an economics class, nor have I ever been remotely intrigued by the field. However, this book was recommended to me by a variety of people relatively recently, so I figured I should check it out. It is the least economic-y economics book I have ever read. Honestly, I think (without being able to directly reference the book) that the entire thing was written without citing one single numerical statistic. Basically, the book shows that by using concrete data (i.e. numbers generated by real-world circumstances), you can find an answer to even the most bizarre questions. Take the title of a few chapters as examples: “Why do Drug Dealers still live with their Mothers?” “What do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?” “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” My personal favorite had the least interesting-sounding name: “Where have all the criminals gone?” (The answer is, they were never born. Crime went down not because of an improving economy or improved police forces, but because abortion was legalized in the famous case Roe vs. Wade. Fifteen years later, all of the babies who would have been born into circumstances that would have led them to lives of criminality were…nonexistent. Or, as pro-life activists would claim, dead.)

    I’ve never been much of a nonfiction buff, but if there is a nonfiction book worth investing time in, this one is it. It almost makes me want to study economics. Almost.