Wednesday, July 25, 2007
I was driving my family back from one of my sister’s friends’ high school graduation parties, and when we pulled into the garage and everyone got out, my dad paused by the basement door. “Where are the garbage cans?” My heart practically fell over itself. Go inside! my mind screamed. I just had to get him a few feet further into the house and up the steps, and everything would be okay. Instead, he had to go and notice the stupid garbage cans!
I glanced behind me, only to see my sister looking wide-eyed deer-panicky. Think fast. “Someone needed to borrow them,” my mouth said before the thought had even congealed in my mind. “Those two were empty, remember? So we gave them those. Don’t worry, we’ll get them back.” He looked a little puzzled but thankfully didn’t say anything else and went inside. My mom reached the top of our basement steps. She opened the door. “Surprise! Happy Anniversary!”
My parents’ anniversary was actually at the end of May. At that time, I was still in England, and so when my sister suggested that we throw them a party in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary, I was not initially in favor of the idea. “I won’t even be there for it!” I wrote to her. “We should definitely do something special, but it’ll have to be after I get home.” Hence, the idea of a surprise party was born.
We quickly set the date for the middle of July. After all, they couldn’t possibly expect anything two months after their official anniversary. The party couldn’t be the weekend of the 13th, because that was my sister’s birthday and we would be in New York City, and it couldn’t be the weekend of the 25th, because Amy would be leaving for the beach with her boyfriend that Saturday. Thus, we settled on the Saturday in between: July 21st. This ended up being a perfect date, because—much to our delight—our family was invited to attend Brad Glasser’s graduation party that day. Since both Amy and I were scheduled to work, our parents would have to attend the party alone. The Glassers even did us a favor by asking our parents to come early and help them set up for the party, so mom and dad were out of the house by 1:30pm. Unfortunately, my sister was scheduled to work until 1:45pm, and I was scheduled until 3pm, so our window of time was not nearly as large as it might have been.
Although we had them out of the house, Amy and I needed a way to get them back in. We had told everyone in the invitations that our parents would arrive at 6:30pm. Now, it was a matter of making that happen. Amy professed to have no ideas beyond calling our dad on his cell phone and claiming a “disaster” had happened at home. I vetoed that idea, however, because it didn’t guarantee that both parents would come home from the Glassers’ party.
My eleven hours of plane time home from England afforded me the ideal opportunity to brainstorm on this subject. By the time I landed in Pittsburgh, I had a full draft of the “scholarship letter” I intended to mail to my sister. The plan went like this: in the letter, Amy would be informed that she had won a scholarship and was invited to attend a dinner in order to receive it. Her family was invited, as well. The dinner was scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on July 21st. Therefore, our parents would need to come home by 6:30 p.m. in order to change and get ready. Everything worked even more perfectly when my mom suggested that she and dad walk to the Glassers’ party so that Amy and I could take our cars to work. “You can just pick us up at six-thirty,” she told us. Could we ever!
The day of the event did not pass without mishap, however. I arranged to pick up ice on the way home from work, since I would be coming home later than my sister. However, I had no idea how much ice would be needed to fill up a cooler full of beer. I bought two bags. When I arrived home, I discovered—much to my irritation—that it didn’t matter how much ice I had bought; our cooler was nowhere to be found! We called one couple who would be attending the party, and my sister drove over to their house to borrow a cooler. When she returned and we dumped the partially-melted ice in, it barely filled the cooler halfway. Thus, she had to go out and buy three more bags of ice: one for the cooler, one for people’s drinks, and one to refill the cooler later in the party.
The next dilemma was the fault of my mother. Amy and I had arranged things so that she would stay home and take care of the guests arriving, and I would go and pick up our parents. However, because they had chosen to walk, they could not take along Brad’s graduation gift—a big red dorm room chair. Therefore, they wanted me to come at 6 p.m. bearing the chair. This was not a problem. The problem arose ten minutes before I was scheduled to leave to pick them up.
“Ali, mom just called!” Amy burst into my room all in a panic. I turned off my hairdryer. “She’s insisting we both go!”
My mother, being her polite, upstanding, proper self was convinced that because our whole family had been invited to the Glassers’ party, we should all at least make an appearance. Apparently she had called and demanded that we both bring Brad’s gift so that we could socialize for a half hour before leaving. We knew she would be furious, now, if we both did not show up at the party.
Fortunately, our parents have very flexible, capable adults as friends. When we informed the guests milling about the kitchen of our plight, they told us to just go to the graduation party. “We’ll be fine here,” they told us. “Where do you want us to hide?” With much relief, we told them to make sure the unarrived guests parked in the designated “hidden” spots, instructed them to wait in the kitchen and dining room until our parents opened the basement door, asked that the food everyone had brought be laid out on the tables we had arranged on our back patio, and took off for the Glasser’s party.
And of course, then there was the garbage can fiasco. Of all times for my father to decide to be observant! Everything went smoothly once they finally got inside, and everyone declared the party a grand success. I am so pleased. After years of arranging birthdays and Christmases and Easters for me and my sister, my parents really deserved this. After all, they really do still love each other, and how many married couples can say that?
Thursday, July 19, 2007
I had lunch this afternoon with Andy, and I once again cannot help but marvel at what a different person he has become during my six-month absence. Sitting across the table from me, eating Asian food (with chopsticks!) was the introspective, curious boy I remember befriending my senior year. Here in front of me was the Andy who interrupted my late-night homework with online discussions about religion and mortality and who wrote such a thoughtful message in my senior yearbook. Now, we talk about our jobs, our research, the mind (ours as well as others’), motivation, and (as always) purpose in life.
These are the kind of discussions I crave. This is the only way I know how to meaningfully relate to people: to share ideas about what matters to me and influences my life. I have found myself discussing people, particularly people we know in common, with many of my other friends. This is logical, because it provides a safe, easy groundwork for conversation to which both of us can contribute. Yet, it feels empty to just recite what we know about others in order to make conversation. It is just very difficult to begin a conversation about what does matter unless both people are on the same wavelength. Andy and I are on that wavelength again, and I cannot appreciate it enough. I hope I will have the chance to spend a great deal more time with him as the summer progresses, because I don’t know if I will ever have this opportunity again after we graduate.
Meanwhile, in spite of the turmoil that has constituted our recent relationship, Ben and I have also spent a significant chunk of time together in the last several days. On one hand, things with him have not changed a bit since I left for England: he still makes the same promises to “try harder” to repair our friendship, to renew my trust in him, to regain his footing on the life he once led. He’s still trying to get back on track with his parents, his girlfriend, his tennis career, his college education, and his own sense of motivation in general. I am willing to give him what little credit he has earned thus far: he has not irresponsibly cancelled plans without telling me yet, nor has he become defensive against many of the derogatory and reproachful things I have said to him. He understands that I do not trust him, and he seems willing to work and wait for that to change. (For now.) However, these things were supposedly all true six months ago, and then we proceeded to not communicate for half a year. Thus, I’m not getting my hopes up. Instead, I am just enjoying each moment I spend with him in that moment and not looking one second farther into the future.
What has changed in the last six months, though, is Ben’s ability to self-observe. Over our past few encounters, he has verbalized many realizations about himself and his actions that I never thought he would make. He knows which of his choices are wrong, and he knows he needs to plan ahead to avoid future wrong choices. (Sounds obvious to most of us, but Ben has always been rather deficient at decision-making.) He knows he needs to take his life one day at a time, one battle at a time, and one person at a time. He can acknowledge that he has hurt others without becoming defensive for the actions that hurt them, and he knows that he needs to make reparations in spite of not being able to offer an explanation for why he destroyed our friendship in the first place. All of these things are signs of—for lack of a better term—“growing up.” Granted, these are only baby steps, and Ben does an overabundance of backpedaling, but at least he is showing potential for change.
Interestingly, in comparing my interactions with and feelings regarding these two boys, I am discovering that I have more in common with Andy than I do with Ben. I don’t mean to imply that this is because I am more similar to Andy—that has always been true. We are both intellectual, we are both introspective, and we both enjoy variety in our lives (regarding people, activities, sports, food, etc.). Ben and I, on the other hand, are two of the most dissimilar people in the whole world: he wants everyone to like him, whereas I only hang out with people whose company I sincerely enjoy; he likes big social parties while I like small group gatherings; and at a very fundamental level, he watches movies while I read books. Ben hates vegetables; I couldn’t live without them. Nonetheless, none of these similarities or dissimilarities mattered in high school. While Andy and I did develop a close relationship during our senior year, it never grew to the capacity of my relationship with Ben.
I don’t feel closer to Andy right now, but I do feel more distant from Ben. Moreover, I feel that I could become closer to Andy now far more poignantly than that I will ever experience the same closeness Ben and I shared in high school. It’s an odd realization, and it reflects not only on how those two boys have changed, but on how I have changed, as well.
I have felt a good deal “out-of-place” ever since I arrived home. However, I have not felt as out-of-place as when I began riding the Pittsburgh buses.
In England, I didn’t feel uncomfortable riding buses at all. In fact, I felt more normal riding the bus than I would have taking a cab or driving a car. In Brighton, everyone rode buses: old ladies, teenage kids, university students, couples, even people’s dogs rode the bus. Here, it seems, only three classifications of people ride buses (or at least the 67F): sketchy-looking single moms, senior citizens, and black people. I hate to make generalizations like these, but so far, I have been the only white person to ride the bus between the ages of 15 and 40 without scraggly teeth or greasy-looking hair.
Today, for instance, the only other white person riding the bus was a kid who looked to be about 14 years old. He had a wilted blond mohawk that resembled a rattail more than the mohawk I believe he was attempting. Otherwise, everyone else on the bus was black, either overweight or undernourished, and rather hostile-looking. From the looks of the crowd, the only people who ride buses here in Pittsburgh are people who cannot afford anything else. As you can see, I fall into this category. Outside of socio-economics, however, I don’t fit the category at all.
Not only do the passengers on the bus make me feel uncomfortable and out-of-place, but the drivers do, as well. I have ridden the bus seven times now, and every single driver has been black. I don’t note this out of any racist sentiment, but here’s how this appears to me: the white people are driving the cars they bought to places they want to go, and the black people are driving one another around in buses. Seem odd to anyone?
Moreover, these drivers do not want anything to do with their passengers. I boarded the bus one day and inserted $1.75 into the driver’s change machine. He looked at me and then gave me a shake of his head with an incredulous, “are-you-a-moron?” expression. Apparently, I owed $2.25 for boarding at that particular stop, but instead of politely telling me this, he said, in a really irritated voice, “You goin’ to Oakland?” I said yes, and he held out his hand with even more impatience. “Well then….” Of course, not knowing that I owed another fifty cents, I just stood there, holding up the line. Once I determined what I owed and paid it, I asked where the $1.75 zone ended. Instead of answering my question, the driver told me to move out of the way, because, “Otha people tryin’ to get on the bus.”
Today, I boarded the bus at a different stop farther down Ardmore Boulevard, hoping to avoid the extra fifty-cent charge. When I got on, I asked whether $1.75 was the correct amount. At first, I received no response. I wasn’t sure that the driver had heard me, so I repeated my question as I counted out my change. When I still received no answer, I finally looked up. After a minute, the driver nodded ever-so-slightly at me, offering no smile or any other indication that he had heard my question. I paid the fee and, still feeling ignored, sat down. The driver didn’t even give me a ticket stub.
Now, I understand that being a bus driver probably isn’t the most thrilling job in the world. These drivers probably did not go through childhood thinking to themselves, “I can’t wait to grow up and be a bus driver.” Nevertheless, driving a bus is a public service job. Therefore, you are expected to interact with people. This means be friendly—or at least pleasant—while you are doing your job. I know firsthand, working as a lifeguard in the summer and at a coffee shop during the school year. You don’t need to act like the customer’s best friend, but if they have a question, you answer it politely. If someone is confused, you do your best to help them. You certainly don’t scoff at them or—worse—ignore them.
Furthermore, I am back in America, the proverbial land of customer-service. In Spain, I accepted the irritated scowl of my server when I ate dinner. In France, I ignored the fact that my purchasing a blouse apparently ruined the store clerk’s day. However, here in America, I expect better treatment. Even the English bus drivers showed me more respect and (sometimes) joviality than these Pittsburgh workers. I am an adult, so my age certainly can no longer be the reason people think they can brush me off. And I would certainly like to think that these drivers’ lack of respect is not due to my race.
Either way, I will soon get the hang of this bus system. Then, I won’t ever again have to acknowledge these bus drivers, who so rudely scorn their passengers. Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing that we could all just treat each other like fellow human beings.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Every time I have traveled to the Big Apple—including the trip I took with my family this past weekend—I have been a tourist. New York City has been a target vacation spot for at least three summer vacations, and I have enjoyed the trip every time. Yet, after returning from Europe (and all of my travels there), I find myself much less impressed with New York City this time around.
When I was younger (as in 8 or 15), New York City enchanted me. Seeing open-air grocery markets on the streets alongside quaint-looking delis over-towered by gigantic apartment buildings and office complexes, I was mesmerized by the vast array and diversity the city offered. You could buy your groceries at a hole-in-the-wall convenience store, a street-corner fruit stand, an ethnic specialty shop, or (of course) a regular supermarket. You could stand and watch buskers on the street for a fifty-cent donation or sit and watch Broadway performers onstage for upwards of $150. I remember the wonder and awe I felt for all of the people in the city—the various skin colors, languages, hairstyles, and apparel passing me by on the bus, subway, or sidewalk. It was thrilling to take in so much diversity at once.
On this past trip, however, the city did not strike me as nearly so impressive. Certainly, the buildings were taller than any I had seen in Europe. They would have to be, to accommodate all of the people crowding the streets! The advertising was flashier (TV screen billboards, fluorescent-lit signs, blinking lightbulbs), at least on certain avenues, and this time everything was in American English. However, this was the first time I felt that New York city was just another city. For the first time in my life, I was not excited simply to be there, as I had every visit before. Now, buskers are old news. New York street performers aren’t any better than those I had seen in Madrid or Dublin or Paris. Brighton had just as many ethnic grocery stores and restaurants per block as New York City, and the fresh fruit and flowers being sold on the curbside no longer seem particularly special or unusual. Granted, Pittsburgh lacks these commodities, but Europe had them all and more. None of these features—which once seemed so unusual and exotic—seem unique anymore.
Without a doubt, Broadway is spectacular—there’s no denying that. This past weekend’s trip to NYC was my parents’ high school graduation gift to my sister. Amy opted to go to travel to New York to see Broadway shows over having a graduation party. (When I graduated high school, I too opted for a trip over a party. I chose San Francisco.) We saw three shows: Altar Boyz, Hairspray, and A Chorus Line. They were all incredible, in their own unique ways. Altar Boyz consisted of 5 boys (or should I call them men? Late twenties is hard to classify) performing a variety of Christian-themed numbers in order to “save the souls” of audience members. They reminded me of what N’Sync might have been like, had their act had a creative religious theme and been staged on Broadway. Hairspray was a traditional musical in the sense that it had a plot carried along by numerous singing and dancing chorus numbers. It reminded me of Grease or Bye Bye Birdie in terms of its energy and setting (1960s), only I never saw those musicals on Broadway, and therefore could never be as impressed by them as I was by Hairspray. The voices in this show were phenomenal. Our last show, A Chorus Line, was structured around a bunch of performers auditioning for a Broadway show. However, each performer had a story to tell that was unique to his/her character, so the show actually ended up being about the trials and tribulations of Broadway business across ages and cultures. The performers’ voices were a bit disappointing after having been spoiled by those in Hairspray, but I suppose the producers had to sacrifice at least a little something in order to find such incredible dancers as this show required. The dance numbers—particularly the opening series—were fabulous.
Everything considered, I had a good time being a tourist once again in New York. However, I took this trip with a second motive in mind. In less than one calendar year, I will be graduating from the University of Rochester. This is a terrifying thought, because it means that in the next few months, I need to decide what I want to do next in my life. Do I want to go to graduate school? If so, what do I want to study? In order to decide what to study, I need to know what sort of a career I want to pursue. Is a master’s degree even necessary for that career? I have considered going into publishing all of my adolescent life (not counting grade school, because back then I wanted to be an opera singer), and that is still a very viable option. What position within that field I might want to take, however, is still a complete mystery. Meanwhile, although I have always been adamantly against teaching, I am beginning to imagine what it might be like to teach college-level creative writing. I would need a Ph.D. for that, so it would make sense to go to graduate school immediately, if that is my objective. I just don’t know what I want to do!
No matter which path I choose, I realize that I may need to move to a large city to accomplish my goals. New York definitely qualifies as one of these large cities, as it has a lot of publishing opportunities as well as Columbia University (a potential graduate school for writing). During our trip, we visited Columbia just to walk around the campus. I tried to envision myself attending school there. Would I like living in such a large, dirty, crowded, busy, impersonal, expensive city
I was startled to realize that this was my impression of the city. I never thought of New York so negatively before I began considering a future in it. Certainly, there are positive aspects to living in the city—Broadway in my backyard being one. However, New York City no longer seems the “land of opportunity” I once imagined it to be.
I can’t help wondering if there might be equally viable publishing or graduate degree opportunities back in England. By the time I need to decide what to do and where to go, I may not miss England as much as I do now, and I may be ready to relocate to a new, exciting city like New York. Right now, though, I really miss England.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Monday, July 9, 2007
I am currently reading a book left to me by my aunt, who stayed in my room while attending my sister’s high school graduation. It’s called I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away, by Bill Bryson. Bryson is an American who lived in Britain for twenty years, got married to an English woman, and then returned to America to settle in New Hampshire. This book is a collection of columns he wrote for a British newspaper after returning to America, on the topic of America.
Having recently returned to America—after a comparatively puny six months in Britain—I’ve made some observations of my own about America, particularly American suburbia (since this is where I live). For one thing, everything here is spread out. And by spread out, I mean that every place I need to be is inconveniently far away from the next one I need to visit. Having lived here virtually all my life, I never considered the vast place America is. However, after living in the little self-sufficient community of Brighton for the last six months—in which everything, including uni (assuming one is willing and has the time to walk six miles), is within walking distance—I have realized that because we are such a large country, we have taken advantage of our land space and, as a result, let everything sprawl to disproportionate degrees.
In England, for instance, I never considered where people park their cars. There are no parking lots or parking garages, and the streets were almost always lined with parked cars, sans meters. The fact is, though, that few enough people even drive cars, because everyone walks or takes public transit. Here, everything is so far away from everything else that one has to drive between locations, if he/she wants to visit more than one store/job/building in one day. For instance, it takes me a minimum of fifteen minutes to drive to the pool where I practice, in a neighboring community. In Hove, it took me fifteen minutes to walk to the pool, twenty-five minutes if I went to the one farther away. On a regular day, I then drive fifteen minutes back to my house, shower, and then drive twenty minutes to Oakland to my lab job at Pitt. However, I first have to pick up my mother at her job so that she can drop me off at the lab building and then go park the car using her University of Pittsburgh parking permit, since there is nowhere in Oakland I can park for less than $30. Then, when both of us are done working, she picks me up at work, and we drive twenty minutes back home. (If I want to see any of my friends in the evening, even more driving is involved.) And this is only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Talk about a lot of driving.
I used to think I liked driving. I was proud of being able to drive a manual transmission, particularly because I am a girl, and because (not to boast) I am so skilled at it. However, after spending six months utilizing an extremely efficient, clean, and available bus system, I have discovered that I don’t actually like having to drive at all. It takes too much time, I can’t do other work while I am doing it, and it makes me feel guilty not only for injuring the environment, but also for spending so much money (otherwise known as gasoline).
What’s more, I have discovered that driving makes otherwise-even-tempered people impatient. I consider myself a patient person. Never once while riding on a bus that was stopped at a traffic light did I ever think, Come on, come on, let’s go! Turn green! Sitting at a red light in a car, however, is an entirely different story. Driving gives you a sense of control over how fast you get from one place to another, even though this sense of control is entirely inaccurate. You become convinced that if you can just make that green light, just go a little faster over the speed limit, just pass that one pokey car, then you will arrive at your destination sooner. Yet, the time it takes to get from one place to another will always depend upon traffic patterns, speed limits, and (most obviously) distance between locations. This is true no matter how much effort you do or do not put into “getting there faster.” On a bus, you are a passive passenger. In a car, you are literally in the driver’s seat.
I am immensely appreciating Bryson’s book because he makes so many observations that I have not consciously considered. These observations are absolutely spot-on in their unique American-ness. Following are some of my favorite:
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Having worked in this lab at University of Pittsburgh for only two weeks, I am already certain that I do not want to do research for the rest of my life. I had the sneaking suspicion that this would be the case even before I took the internship, particularly because I always dreaded doing labs in my high school science classes. I hated performing the experiments. Writing up the lab, however, was another story. I did not mind explaining what had been done or why it had been done at all. The conceptual part of the assignments did not usually faze me.
Now, at my summer internship, I find myself writing everything out so that I know I understand it. The best parts of my day are when I am explaining something to myself via the computer keyboard and watching the ideas take form on screen. I cannot stand reading the scientific papers (despite this necessity, since I need to know background information on the experiment I am creating), yet I can easily see myself writing them. I already write summaries about them, for crying out loud.
Writing my blog entries comprises my daily break. Either that, or studying for the GREs. I have reached the sentence completion section, and I am finding myself enjoying it. What a dork. Meanwhile, I know math is coming soon, and I am not looking forward to studying that. Nevertheless, it is the section I need the most brush-up on, so I will simply have to persevere.
That is what this entire summer feels like, so far: one big exercise in perseverance. I am persevering through jobs I don’t enjoy very much. I am persevering through being forced to drive everywhere in order to get anything done. I am persevering through this sense of un-belonging, of different-ness, of dissatisfaction with the places and people around me. I only hope something is waiting at the end of the tunnel!
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Nothing has changed. I have returned to Pittsburgh, and everyone and everything is exactly the same as they were when I left.
Ordinarily, this should be a source of comfort. Every time I returned from Rochester over the past three years, I depended upon everything in Pittsburgh remaining the same. However, now that I have experienced so much drastic change and newness in Europe, I am dissatisfied with what I find here. I am frustrated by the lack of change, the lack of development in both people and the city. I am new, and so I no longer fit into this old niche.
I have nothing to say to most of my old friends. This is not because they have become horrible people in my absence or because no significant stories to tell. Rather, my old friends are still focused on the same goals they’ve had since high school. Their mindset is the same. Meanwhile, my way of thinking has changed drastically. I no longer feel willing to put up with just sitting around, smiling with a bunch of twenty-year-olds who are enjoying an evening of drug-induced stupor. I’m not saying that people in Europe didn’t smoke or drink, but they didn’t do it to such a destructive degree, to the point where the activity turns a person from an intelligent, motivated, thinking being into a shapeless, thoughtless form that wants nothing more than to feel good. We have different priorities, now. I want to experience the world, to share and debate opinions on issues, to discover new things (whether they be physical entities or merely ideas). Their priorities are…getting by. Being liked. Feeling secure.
I don’t fit in anymore. I never did “fit in,” in the traditional sense: I always wore different clothing than my peers, always read more, never watched enough TV or movies (and so remained oblivious to popular culture), preferred conversation and card-playing to the typical “party.” Now, my different-ness is even more pronounced. I went away and found out more about myself along with others and the world around me. Coming back to this same place with its same people, I just don’t fit into the mold I used to fill.
From time to time, I have complained about being unable to define where “home” is. After going to college, I knew I didn’t belong in Pittsburgh. However, I didn’t feel that I “belonged” in Rochester, either. Obviously, I also did not belong in Europe (as Americans stand out rather conspicuously). That sense of belonging is now even more foreign. I don’t fit into Pittsburgh. The prospect of returning to Rochester does not offer me hope of finding my “niche.” I don’t know if I will belong on the swim team, anymore, because my competitive drive has been diminished by the past six months of independence and lack of militaristic athletic training. I don’t know if I will belong with my Rochester friends, because—like my Pittsburgh friends—we never had the same priorities, either, and mine are now even different than they once were.
Displacement is frustrating, and it is also lonely. I do not envy children who are moved around the country by their parents throughout their lives. Moving around when I am supposed to is difficult enough.