Saturday, March 28, 2009

City loyalty

Pittsburgh is my hometown, and I am proud of that. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to transfer that loyalty, no matter where in the world I live. When the subject of football comes up, I am the first to identify myself as a Steelers fan. I will always have a special pride in things that are uniquely Pittsburgh, from the Original Hot Dog Shop, to the Carnegie Library, to the Point, to all of our awesome bridges.

Still, I think living anywhere for a significant period of time contributes to my sense of identity and, consequently, creates in me a sense of loyalty to the place. I wouldn’t say I developed a sense of loyalty to Rochester “the city,” since I never really explored the community in any in-depth way, but my identity certainly includes the fact that I am an alumni of the University of Rochester. I am very proud of this aspect of my identity, and I will speak enthusiastically with anyone about how great it was to be a member of the swim team, the wonderful open curriculum, and special U of R traditions like Meliora Weekend and Dandelion Day.

Similarly, if anyone asked me about my time studying abroad in England, one of the first things I would say is how grateful I was to have been forced to live off-campus, in the town of Brighton. Initially I was horrified at the prospect of being excluded from “campus life,” since, I had found this so valuable while living at U of R, but the more time I spent in Brighton, the more I fell in love with it. I’m sure that, had I lived in London, I would have grown equally attached to that city, but because I spent my six months in Brighton (when I wasn’t travelling to other parts of Europe, that is), I emphatically asserted afterwards that I was glad to have lived and studied in that town instead of in the big city of London. It gave me a much more relaxing, town-y, “English” experience.

Now I’m in New York City. I don’t think I will ever be able to say I am from New York City, or at least not for the next twenty years or so (I am constantly being called a “tourist” by my NYC friends), but after having lived here for the last nine months or so, I have again developed a sense of rapport with this city.

My first realization of this newfound loyalty occurred when I went to visit a friend in Boston. I had never been to Boston before and was quite eager to explore a new city. Unfortunately, I did not end up seeing much of the city that weekend, as R___ and I mostly went out to eat, walked around Harvard, and hung out at his apartment. However, I did get a general feel for how Boston differed from NYC. The subway system was one major indication. It was so small! Consider this map:

vs this map

Obviously NYC has infinitely more people to cart around, but Boston must be a significantly smaller city, as well, to have so few lines serving such a limited area. And it was tremendously frustrating to have to wait for a train for twenty minutes on a Monday afternoon just to travel one stop!

Another difference that caused me to realize my partiality to NYC was Boston’s lack of resources or, by comparison, NYC’s abundance of resources. On one evening, R___ and I wanted to go buy cookies to eat while we watched football with him and his roommates. Apparently, there was only one possibility within walking distance: a small convenience store located two blocks away. This arrangement alone wasn’t too shocking—if I had wanted cookies at 9p.m., I would have walked to a convenience store near my apartment, too. Even the singularity of our options—one convenience store—I could understand: outside of NYC, it probably wasn’t normal to have three convenience stores within one block of cityscape. What was shocking was the limited number of choices inside this convenience store. The shelves were nearly empty! I am accustomed to shelves bursting with product: fresh fruit spilling out of bins and bright drinks filling coolers jammed along walls. This convenience store looked like it was about to go out of business the next day. We took the last package of Chips Ahoy, grateful that there were even any cookies available, and R___ tested two lighters before finding one that actually worked. As we left, I absently wondered if this was even a 24-hour convenience store or if, had we arrived one hour later, it would have been closed. How unusual, to have cities with bedtimes!

Which brings me to my next trip: Washington D.C. My bus arrived late, putting me into the city at midnight (instead of 10 p.m., when it had originally been scheduled to arrive). My friend K2 met me at the station in order to take me back to her apartment before setting out again to pick up our other friend, K1, from the Reagan Airport. K2 seemed a bit on edge, and when I asked her about her mood, she said she was worried about what time K1’s flight would arrive. Why? Because the DC metro shuts down at a certain time! My mind immediately jumped to how inconvenient my life would become if the NYC metro ever shut down. And to think that I gripe about alternate weekend schedules and limited services after midnight….

To its credit, DC’s metro is incredibly easy to navigate; the next morning, I was able to hop right on and off without any confusion in order to meet my friend Lexi Devourat L’Enfant Plaza (or, as I prefer to call it, Elephant Plaza). Unfortunately, this ease of navigation is also a limitation, as my resident friend K2 tells me that a car is a near necessity to access certain areas of the city, and that one derailed train will disrupt the entire system. Fifty percent of my reason to live in NYC is in order to avoid owning a car! If one derailed train delayed the every other train in the system, NYC companies would have to do away with start times (which may not be nearly such a bad thing)….

Here is the DC metro map, for comparison:

Finally, one last thing must be said about each of these cities’ metro systems or, actually, about their physical structures. Boston’s cars are quaint and homey-looking. They remind me more of old-fashioned train cars than underground subway cars. The cars’ exteriors resemble trolleys, and the train stations are enormous, cave-like places. DC’s cars are a bit more modern, but much more posh, with bright orange, red, or blue cushioned seats. The floors are even carpeted. Additionally, these cars are built to be “handicapped friendly,” which basically means the centers are wide open spaces where there is nowhere to hold on during rush hour. DC stations, however, are extremely similar to Boston’s stations, with high ceilings and smooth gray stone walls. The primary difference in DC is that every station has more escalators than stairways. A city primed for lazy tourists…? NYC’s cars, compared to the subway cars in these other two cities and have gritty uncarpeted floors, are usually dimly lit (unless you are fortunate enough to catch one of the newer ones with the florescent lighting and automated station announcements). They are designed for one purpose: to squeeze in as many people as possible. Moreover, NYC’s subway cars are ten times more advertisement-plastered than either DC’s or Boston’s cars. Although if you want your product to be seen, I guess you have to advertise in the place where most people will see it. The most crowded city in the world’s transportation system is probably prime for that!

So when all is said and done, I cannot help but find myself partial to NYC’s metro system. Ours is the biggest, the most efficient, but also the most complicated. If you can navigate the metro system in NYC, you can navigate the metro anywhere. (Except perhaps in Greece. Any country where you don’t speak the language—that barrier trumps all. Trust me—been there; done that.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Warm Fuzzies #6: Rainy Day Heroine

There is nothing like a writing-related compliment to brighten up my day. Pair that with a compliment on my athleticism, and you'll really have me grinning. (And if you throw in something about my cooking, you might have my goodwill for life....)

I write the "Daily Running" emails to a group of runners at work, which usually consist of reporting the weather, saying some vaguely motivational thing to inspire people to go out and run, and basically starting the "conversation" for everyone to pair off on their afternoon jaunts. Today, for whatever reason, I was feeling particularly creative. The email went something like this:

Subject: Flaming Friday run

And by flaming, I mean toasty warm (--J___!). 65°F and sunny—we can pretend summer is nearly here!


Sick of all those New Yorkers swarming around you? Desperate to feel ALONE? Your solution is here! Buy RUNNING IN THE RAIN! You can have your very own personalized rainy-day run scheduled for any evening hour, at the low price of $19.99—tax included! Bonus: cold temperatures will be thrown in for free, ensuring that even fewer runners will be out to impede your solidarity. The later the hour, the more alone you can feel! We guarantee you will not pass more than five runners at any one time, and you can go for stretches without seeing anyone (including yourself, if you wear black), which is unheard of in this jam-packed city. Wear earphones, and you can even block out some of that irritating city noise.* Call soon, because the cold dark days are running out fast!


*Music, earphones, and other equipment provided at additional cost. See store for details. If you can find it…

The reaction that made my day was a response email that went like this:

You are my heroine, both for sending the daily call and for running that long, alone and in the rain. You should save a copy of this e-mail and add it to your resume; you definitely have marketing copywriting skills.

Last Night's Real Run

19.88 miles? In 43 degree nighttime rain? That's close enough for me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It better be 20 today....

Today's rainy route is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. in boring old Central Park. Usually I wouldn't do the long run on a weekday, but I really don't have any hope of getting it done this weekend, so it's now or never. Hopefully I won't get dizzy, making so many circles. Luckily for me, I have a baggage man (i.e. superathlete who will first swim and play ping-pong at one gym and then play volleyball at another) to hold my things at the finish line, when I come panting and dripping into Braindeis to pick up my things. (No, they will not magically transport themselves from Chelsea uptown.) I am so grateful to have friends. I can't say I'm nearly as grateful for the impending rain....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Story of Persistence

So if three years ago a guy tells you he’s interested in you, and you kindly but firmly tell him that you don’t feel that way in return, and if he insists that he would rather be friends than nothing at all—even though you offer to extricate yourself from his life, if that would make things easier for him—you would hope that would be the end of the issue once-and-for-all. Even if he repeatedly asks you (“just out of curiosity”) “why you are not interested in him” and “what makes you interested in other guys” and “which guys you are interested in” over the next few years, you hope that he really is just curious, and you try to give him the benefit of the doubt, in spite of your nagging intuition and your even more nagging friends. (“What are you doing? Of course he’s still in love with you! What guy asks those kinds of questions otherwise? Why are you putting up with this? Ditch the leech!”)

But then he comes to visit you, and he doesn’t just stay for a weekend; exactly five days before he is scheduled to arrive, he informs you he’ll be staying for an entire week. Fine. If you paid for a ten-hour bus trip and had the time to spare, maybe you’d want to stay for a week in New York City, too. Of course, you might not be nearly so keen on staying so long if you knew that your host would be at work 80% of that time, but I suppose there is a lot to keep a first-time tourist occupied in the Big Apple, so perhaps this guy figures he can successfully occupy himself for the entire week.

However, if on the third night of his stay, your visitor throws himself facedown on your bed and confesses in an agonized voice that he wants to kiss you, what would be your logical conclusion? Regardless of whether you deem him still hopelessly in love with you or simply overcome by lust for your irresistibly attractive body (because you can’t help but look unbelievably hot in your men’s sweatpants, free Kraft Macaroni and Cheese T-shirt, and glasses), you have to choose some sort of reaction. Some people may demand that he leave, deciding that the awkwardness is too much to bear. You don’t want to be a bitch, though. In a way, you can sympathize with the guy; you’ve been in that sort of position before (although you’ve certainly never told the non-reciprocating object of your affections that you wanted to kiss him, and certainly not while staying with him in his apartment). So you perform a sort of conciliatory pat-on-the-back I’m-sorry-you-feel-that-way speech, complete with apologetic smile and intentional three-inch addition of personal space. And hopefully that’s the end of the situation.

But no, he brings it up the next night, wanting to know what your reaction to his proposition/request/confession was. In irritation, you wonder: wasn’t it clear when I didn’t jump on top of you and start sucking on your face? But instead you reach deep inside for those reserves of patience usually saved for small children and irritating customers and explain to him that he was right in not trying to kiss you, because you have not changed your opinion, that you thought this subject had been resolved three years ago, and that your feelings have not changed. Now, you are positive, the issue is closed.

But no! The next night, when you are reading yourself to sleep, he comes into your bedroom and announces, “I am going to do something really random.” Being your witty self, and knowing how he would probably be watching television at this time of evening were he at home, only he can’t because you don’t own a television, you ask, “What, read a book?” And then suddenly, he’s standing looming over you, zeroing in on your face. Logically, your mind flashes back to the previous nights’ conversations and goes, ”WTF???” and you instinctively duck, burying your head in your arms until, in a hurt voice, he says, “Hey, I was just going to kiss you on the forehead.” Really. On the forehead. Obviously you should have known that, because there was a billboard, “Don’t worry—he’s aiming at your os frontale, not your oral cavity,” flashing overhead the whole time, which you somehow managed to miss.

So now it’s over, right? One would think that this must be enough humiliation for him. It would certainly have been for me. I mean, the first rejection three years ago would have been enough for me to put the brakes on, but then maybe I give up too quickly. (Perhaps this is also why I’m still single. No peanut gallery comments, please.)

As you may predict from the pattern thus far, however, the story has not yet ended. In he comes, ten minutes later, after you’ve shut off the lights and buried under the covers to hide from the world and all that has transpired.

“Are you awake?”

“Yes.” You grudgingly emerge from your safe blanket haven.

“I just wanted to say something about the kiss thing.”

Why? “Okay.”

“I know you’re probably worried I’m trying to date you or whatever, but I’m not. I just . . . I just wanted to see what it would feel like, you know?”

You what?

“I was curious.”

You let the silence build. What are you supposed to say? He was curious? This sounds more like a cop-out than anything that has been said or done thus far. It’s one thing to try to “make a move” on a girl, or to even ask permission to make a move. It’s another to “raise the issue of making a move” and to then try to say you were only interested in “seeing what it would feel like” if you had done it. What does he think this is, Bill Nye the Science Guy? We are not friends with benefits. You don’t kiss a girl because you are interested in what it feels like.

So, the lessons to take from this story are:

  1. If a girl says she’s not interested, she’s not interested. Really.
  2. If a girl says she’ll be your friend, she will be your friend. But don’t push the issue any further. Please.
  3. If you try to kiss someone and fail, don’t make excuses two days later. Just drop the subject. We’ve all experienced this mortification, so we all understand the desire to justify ourselves.
  4. If you think you’re immune from showing up on this blog, think again. The good, the bad, and the ugly—it all has a chance of appearing here. Again, comments are welcome!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Foiled Again!

Once again, I fell short. Luckily, not by nearly the mileage of last week. Maybe I should just forego the West Side Highway, since it is giving me such problems. It's just such a straight shot....

Here's the route. 19.18 miles--so nearly the twenty I intended. When I need 22, I'll have to overshoot the estimation by two miles just to get in the proper amount! On the positive side, I finished in a reasonable amount of time: 2:42:00. That puts me at about an 8.5 min/mile pace, which is better than I was originally hoping to run on race day. I felt like I was about to die by mile 19, but hey, what's willpower for, right?


Friday, March 20, 2009

America's Got Talent...Sometimes

Admittedly, I grew up surrounded by real professional entertainers—almost unwittingly, I suppose. What child, at eight years of age, realizes that only a professionally produced dance recital runs seamlessly between acts, with musical segues keeping one dance routine flowing into the next? For me, that was the norm; it wouldn’t make sense to stop the show after every number and reset the stage—what a waste of time!

By the time I reached high school, the precedent for stage performances was already set. I had tap-danced for ten years at Ken and Jean’s Dance Studio, where we were all expected to match our tights, shoes, and hairstyles as identically as we tried to match our movements on stage. Hair was always tied back in a bun; it looked sloppy and unprofessional if you let it hang in your face. Bangs were pinned back, flyaways sprayed down. When your dance was over, you had the first ten seconds of the next song to exit the stage (in choreographed synchrony, because you were still onstage!) while the next class entered. This was simply how things were supposed to be done—efficiently, effectively, and above all, with a smile.

Therefore, it was not real shock (although perhaps it should have been) to find that my high school musicals were run with the same regimented attention to detail and efficiency. Sets were built to absolute specification. Scene changes were executed flawlessly, without pause, so as not to interrupt the show. Our director hired a professional soundboard operator, paid various musicians to supplement the students in the pit orchestra, rented lighting equipment we didn’t have, and employed a team of volunteer mothers to tailor and even sew-from-scratch costumes to fit the cast. Truly, no detail was too minute. The result was a legacy of outstanding performances. Year after year, from Jesus Christ Superstar to Seussical, the high school produced one award-winning performance after another. It was only when I began to attend some of our rival schools’ musicals did I realize how unusual my school’s program really was. Closing the curtain between scenes? Having stage crew members come on stage to move the set? Anachronistic costumes? These things just seemed unacceptable to me, until what was repeated over and over again to me by my mother sunk in: our high school musicals were produced on a professional level. Other high school musicals were just that—high school musicals.

All of this reflection leads me to an experience I had recently, of being part of a live audience at the filming of the television show America’s Got Talent. Now, understandably, this was no Broadway show. The admission was free—tickets were given out by lottery online and then admission was granted on a first come, first serve basis—presumably in order to generate the largest crowd possible. However, I did have some expectations. After all, these were professionals, filming a show that would be televised on a national network. They were all working people trying to do a job—why wouldn’t they want to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible?

In the beginning, as the “hype man” went around trying to be funny and entertaining, I tried to be positive. Yes, I was willing to concede, a little audience coaching at this point is probably helpful. However, after an hour of pointless, “Right side cheer! Left side cheer! Okay everybody scream! Clap softly. Loudly! Everyone from Brooklyn cheer! From Manhattan! From New Jersey!” I genuinely felt stupider. Sitting through this grade-school type entertainment was flat-out demeaning, never mind boring.

Then, finally, the show started. All right, I thought, second chance. It turned out to be pretty much what I expected—a less impressive knockoff of American Idol featuring people who not only sing, but hula hoop, hang from trapezes, and unicycle while singing. Just like on AI, some acts were impressive, others horrific. I wasn’t so much horrified by the actual quality of the acts, however—because the show obviously screens everyone and intentionally features people who will make complete fools of themselves—as much as I was how long it took the stage crew to change the set between acts. How long does it really take to put a keyboard on stage or to fix two strands David Hasselhoff’s hair? (For those of you who don’t watch the show, Hasselhoff is one of the judges, along with Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne.) The answer, at least according to these guys, is fifteen minutes. Literally every two or three acts, the show would stop for at least fifteen to twenty minutes, during which time the “hype guy” would have to go around saying stupid things, trying to get the audience to stay awake enough to remain in their seats but not impatient enough to walk out the door.

Filming was slated to begin at 6p.m. By 9:15p.m., I had had more than enough. I was thoroughly disgusted by the lack of efficiency by which this show seemed to operate (these were professionals! getting paid!), never mind irritated by the swarms of junior high and high school aged students who seemed to radiate an aura of annoyingness. (Maybe these were my memories of being annoyed by my younger sister resurfacing, or maybe all the screaming over every warbly note uttered onstage had finally gotten to me—Americans are so ignorant!) I had to leave. On my way out, I picked up my cell phone, which the security officers had confiscated at the door. (You would think I might have learned how to hide contraband effectively, having attended high school with this sort of daily security, but to no avail; we never got patted down in high school.) Finally out on the sidewalk, I turned to the friend who had initially invited me, hoping to commiserate. However, one look at her face showed that she did not feel nearly the same level of disgust that I felt. I kept my thoughts to myself. Until now, of course.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Capricious Conversations

For all of my predictive powers as a writer and storyteller, I tend to miss when conversations are inevitably leading astray. Perhaps this is because I am too focused on what I am trying to say instead of what the other person may be wanting to (but not yet able to) express, or perhaps it is simply because I tend to believe that everyone subscribes to my own communicative protocols until proven otherwise. Either way, I have recently engaged in several conversations that have taken decidedly unanticipated and difficult-to-counter turns. Here is one such instance:

I was at the gym swimming laps, as I usually do on many weekdays. One particular Hispanic gentleman—whom I had first met playing volleyball and then continued to see in the pool after I hurt my ankle and began to swim more frequently—arrived and approached lane where I was swimming. (Both of us are relatively fast swimmers, compared with the rest of the swimmers, so we regularly share the designated “Fastest” lane.) I greeted him, and he explained that he couldn’t talk as much as usual today, because he had to go play soccer in half an hour. I told him okay, that I wouldn’t bother him, and to have a good time at his soccer match. He thanked me and complimented the colors of my swimming suit. I resumed my workout; he began his.

About 200 yards later (the average length of warm-up for any decent swimmer), I noticed his legs standing vertically by the shallow wall. When I paused between at the wall, I realized he was chatting to a guy in the other lane. Finding this a fabulous opportunity to tease him—he is forever teasing me about things—I tapped his shoulder and commented, “Well, I thought you didn’t have time to chat today.” He turned toward me and grinned guiltily. Then, he looked down at my suit.

“I really like your suit,” he repeated from before. “You have so many. How many is this?”

I had already begun shaking my head mid-sentence. “No, Only two. I just started wearing this one.” Recently had been wearing my purple and black one nearly every day, so today I had switched to my red-white-and-blue suit. This must have been what made it seem “new.” I waved my arms in the air. “It’s an illusion.”

“You should wear a . . . what is it?” He looked at the guy in the other lane. “A . . . bikini.” He grinned at me expectantly. I stared at him.

“Um, no.”

“Why not?”

There was another shocked pause of silence before I answer.

“Because this is an indoor swimming pool. Maybe to the beach, but not here. How would I swim laps?”

“You see M____. She wear bikini. You could be like her.”

“Um, no.”

“It could make people swim faster!” He and the other guy laughed; he made paddling motions with his arms.

“Yeah, right.” I forced myself to laugh along good-naturedly, trying not to let my disgust seep out. “Well, I’m going to keep swimming. See you.” I submerged and pushed off the wall. Blissful silence. I let the expletives float away in the wake behind me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Today's Run

Here is today's route from Woodside, around the 4-mile abbreviate Central Park loop, and then down West Side Highway and back. Alas, it was 3.5 miles shorter than intended, due to falty planning ahead of time; therefore I'll have to do my real 20-miler next weekend and just make a boring-but-easily-calculable Central Park run.

T-minus 48 days and counting!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Truly the Mother Tongue

I taught my roommate two new words last night.

I was standing in the kitchen, heating up some leftover stir-fry in the microwave, when J___, one of my two roommates, came up to me and held out a small black plastic tube.

“You want this?” she asked me. I took it and squinted at the tiny gold writing on it.

“What is it?”

“It is . . . for your eye . . . .” She made a motion toward her eyes with her finger, and at that moment, I found the product label: mascara.

“Oh! Well sure! You don’t want it?”

“No, no. I have many. I don’t need them.”

“Well thanks. Mine’s pretty old anyway, so this is great.”

At this moment, my other roommate, L___, emerged from her room.

“How do you call that?” She motioned to the tube in my hand.

I held it up. “What, mascara?”

She squeezed her eyes, contorting her face in effort. “Mass-sceeeerrrrr—a.”

“Yeah, mas-CARE-a. Like . . . ,” I stopped to think, “like ‘scare.’ Like the word ‘scare?’ Scarey? Ma-SCARE-a.”

She tried pronouncing it again. “And what is the other one?”

“The other one?” I ran through my limited knowledge of beauty products: eyeliner, eye shadow, blush…. I could see her struggling to spit it out as I tried to think of what she could be imagining.

“It’s when everyone get killed.”

“Oh! You mean ‘massacre.’”

She looked at me a expectantly, so I repeated it.

“Massacre. MASS-a-cer. Like . . . with the word ‘mass.’ You know? Like a weight? Mass? MASS-a-cer.”

“Mass-cer,” she tried repeating it. “And what was the other one?”


“Right. Mascara.” She appeared to be concentrating very deeply. Then she looked up and laughed. “I just don’t want to go to makeup store and ask for . . . for . . . mass-cer.”

“A massacre!” I laughed along with her. “Well, you can remember it . . . I guess if you put too much mascara on, it would look scary. Ma-SCARE-a.”

It was in that moment that I realized: I sounded just like my mother. This was how we had always studied everything, with her offering goofy pneumonics for bits of information I had trouble memorizing. “Mighty mitochondria.” (Their job in the cell was to provide energy.) “Eating too much Pb-and-j would make you leaden.” Such silly ideas, and yet they worked. And here I was offering the exact same sort of thing to my ESL roommate.

Incredible, how much our parents can influence us. And even more incredible, how little instances like this make me wonder if I truly am supposed to be a teacher.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Changing Impressions

People put a great deal of stock in first impressions, and perhaps rightly so. After all, many times, first impressions are all you get. At a job interview, you have only those first few minutes to sell yourself to the employer; the rest of the interview is merely a formality. This is why you wear a business suit instead of a sweat suit—that first glance and initial judgment could mean everything.

Then, there is “love at first sight.” I do not ascribe to this particular belief, but I certainly do believe in attraction at first sight. The minute you see someone, you can almost instantly evaluate whether or not you find that person attractive. This is significantly affected by how they present themselves. Things like clothes and hair and hygiene obviously factor in, but qualities that are often overlooked are posture; the way a person walks; whether they smile frequently; if their smile is genuine and reaches their eyes; their level of confidence; and their eagerness to please.

All of these attributes play a significant role in evaluating a first impression of a person, attractive or not. However, these attributes also contribute to a second impression, as well, The difference is that second impressions are formed from further observation, data collection, and perhaps most importantly, interaction. We can watch people in different contexts and see how they react when we tease them versus when we ask them about their parents. We don’t just “sense” whether they are physical people, but we begin to notice who they touch, if anyone, and who they avoid touching. Our ability to influence their personality helps us to discover who they are and revise our opinion of them.

Rare is the day when we tell someone of our first impression of them. Perhaps even rarer is the day when we receive feedback on others’ first impressions of us. This is logical, because after that first impression, the person either sticks around long enough to form a revised opinion—and therefore has no reason to retain that first impression or ever share it with us—or else we never see them again. Recently, however, I had such an opportunity. Ironically enough, it was afforded to me by this very blog.

Several months back, I began to attend open-court volleyball sessions at a public gym. I wasn’t familiar with the area, I didn’t know anyone at the gym, and the only reason I even went was because I missed organized sports so acutely and the gym was so inexpensive that I really had nothing to lose. Fortunately for me, everyone turned out to be quite accepting, and these are now some of my better friends in the city, but that’s neither here nor there. When I started playing with this group, I definitely felt like an outsider. Not only was I a racial minority—one of the only white people in a sea of ethnic diversity—but everyone else already seemed familiar with at least a few, if not most other people there. Thus, I mostly showed up and kept quiet, hoping to play as much as I’d be allowed and keeping my eyes peeled for any ounce of friendliness that would be extended my way.

Obviously, as I bided my time and observed those around me, I made initial impressions of people. A few of these, I included in a very early blog post, New Yorkers ARE Nice, in which I completely botched the names I tried to remember, never mind the ethnicities I tried to pin down. (I labeled one guy as being Hispanic, who I now know is so obviously Chinese. Talk about embarrassing.) Looking back at what I wrote, it’s funny to realize what I deemed important or notable at the time, plus of course how drastically my impressions of these same people I described have changed since I first wrote about them.

Some Revisions

The Gangster is not really a gangster—not by a long shot. He’s must too genial to be a gangster. He offers his hand to girls when they’re getting out of pools or up off of steps and allows other people to take his turn on the volleyball court, even when it’s an unfair amount of playing time in their favor. He’s also not actually cocky. Confident, yes—and he has a right to be, in many regards, because he is that talented an athlete and works that hard to become one. Cocky, though, is not the correct adjective, because that word implies debasing other people to elevate oneself, and he does not do that. Sure he teases them, but only the people he knows will take the teasing well. He does not insult, and he does not rub shortcoming in his teammates (or opponents’) faces. However, in addition to confidence, he does possess other “gang leader-like” qualities: dedication, perseverance, tenacity, focus, and dare I say it, charisma. Everyone does want him to like them, just as I initially described. So I wasn’t all that far off base from the start—except that he’s not Hispanic.

The Black Guy is no longer the only black guy who plays with us anymore, but he was the first, so I guess that’s still the label I’ll use. Looking back at my initial description, I am amused that I found him so “classy.” It really is a matter of self-conduct that creates these images. This guy doesn’t swagger at all; in fact, he walks a little bit stiffly for all of his athletic prowess, and that I suppose is why I labeled him classy—that and his quieter demeanor. He’s still one of the quieter of the group, although by no means shy, and more of a solitary guy, mostly because there are so many dynamic personalities that dominate the court. However, I also suspect that he feels intimidated by the age factor (he must be one of the younger individuals who attend these open court sessions), although there is no way for me to prove this, and I guarantee he would never admit it.

The Rail-Thin Asian, which is the only way I think I’ll be able to differentiate my third “First Impression” gentleman, is quite a bit different than I first imagined him. I’m not sure how I formed my initial opinion of him, although I did imagine him to be one of the “leaders,” because he was almost always there setting up the net those first few weeks I attended. He is also rather quiet (interesting how the quiet ones are the ones who intrigued me enough to mention in my blog), although this is not to say he does not talk—he merely talks to people more one-on-one rather than shouting about the gym during game-time. I was correct in my non-passive judgment of him—he is quite an energetic player and has a good serve as well—but he’s not what one would call “aggressive” in the violent, hard-hitting manner of other guys out there on the court. If I had to characterize him now, (personality-wise) I’d create of some sort of small, soft-spoken high-pitched Disney cartoon character.

There are certainly others I formed accurate and inaccurate opinions of. With one short, leggings-wearing, curly-haired girl, I was dead-on: she laughed loudly and easily, didn’t seem to hold any opinions back (no matter if she risks offending you or not), and seemed like she’d make a great teammate. She does, and she is.

There was an Asian guy who passed/set/hit with me tirelessly on the sidelines when I first began attending the volleyball sessions. He was a great partner for this, because he was friendly, encouraging, instructional, and, as I mentioned, tireless, so the practice was invaluable for me. Initially, I was really excited to find such an immediate friend and “teammate.” However, as I came to these sessions with more regularity, I gradually realized that he possessed the classic New York mentality: he was looking for the “best opportunity.” If I was the only one willing to pass/set/hit on the sidelines, then he’d do it with me. But if someone else came along who could do it better than I could, then he would avoid passing with me at all costs so that he could not only practice with them, but so that he could play the next game with them on his team. Not that I blamed him. I liked to play with better players, too. My initial “this guy is a coaching type” impression was simply supplanted with a “this guy wants to win” realization.

One of the more interesting realizations, however, was the realization of how someone initially perceived me. Obviously, in a new setting, I am not immediately my boisterous, chatty self. It’s particularly hard to acclimate to a new situation when everyone else seems to already know one another, which was how I found this group of volleyball players to be, accurate or not. Nevertheless, I never thought I would give off a completely opposite self-image as a result. Following, I quote the “first” and “second” impressions one volleyball player—whom I believe I can now claim as a friend—had of me:

when I first met you, I tho you were antisocial cause you didnt really speak to anybody in the gym…come to find out that you are exact the opposite. proof the theory of beyond appearance.

Insomnia (and other reasons to avoid marriage)

Two male coworkers and I are running at lunchtime. Both are over 35 and married with one young female child.

Me: I haven’t been sleeping the past, like, two weeks, and I don’t really know why.

Man 1: That sucks. My wife was really upset about her mother a few nights ago, so I only got about three hours of sleep then. It’s hard going on that.

Me: God that’s awful!

Man 1: (shrugs) She has a lot of problems sleeping.

Man 2: My wife, too. I have this thing now where I snore a little, and she can’t sleep through it. We have these arguments at, like, four in the morning, because she’ll lie there and elbow me awake. I’ll be like, “Wha..? What?” And she’ll be like, “You’re doing it again.” What, am I supposed to remove my fucking trachea?

Man 1: My wife doesn’t let me move. She can’t sleep when there’s movement in the bed, so I have to lie perfectly still. Eventually I’ll feel her roll over, so I’ll grab the chance and turn over too, and then she’ll be like, “M___, why’d you do that?” And I’ll be like, “You were awake! You rolled over!” And she’ll say, “Yeah, but I was almost asleep; I was almost there. Now I’m awake again.”

Man 2: Wow. Man, I thought I had it tough.

Man 1: Sometimes I’m lying there on my side and my bottom leg goes numb because of the weight of my leg on top, but I can’t move it because she’ll wake up. But when I’m away travelling…in those king-sized beds….

(Both men grin.)

Me: (laughing incredulously) Oh my god, I am never getting married.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: No Limits

No Limits: The Will to Succeed No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
My best bet is that this book is only appreciated by hardcore swimmers. Perusing Amazon reader reviews helped to confirm my suspicion. If any non-swimmer is willing to take the plunge (pun intended) and try it out, please let me know how much you understood and appreciated. I for one loved Phelps' accounts of his races--my heart was pounding and I wanted to cheer!--but then again, I know what it means to sprint the last five meters of a race and to have your goggles fill up with water on the dive.

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Snapshot Book Review: Once in a House on Fire

Once in a House on Fire Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This may sound counterintuitive, but because I want to encourage readership, I’m going to write a bad review of a good book. Or, perhaps, a plain, boring review isn’t all bad. Simple words can be good. Especially if they are words of praise.

Being somewhat of a “memoir connoisseur,” as of late, I have come to instantly categorize most memoirs into particular categories. There is the Wrecked Home Life/Horrific Childhood memoir (think A Child Called It or Angela’s Ashes or even A Long Way Gone). There is the Weird Parents memoir (Running With Scissors or The Glass Castle are good examples). There is the Self Abuse/Comeback memoir (Dirty Jersey, Wasted, Lucky, amongst countless others). And of course there are always just the plain old-fashioned story-memoirs like Cherry. Once you’ve read one within a category, it’s hard—the next time you pick up a memoir that seems to fit that category—not to feel like you’ve already read it. Kind of like eating spaghetti the very next night after you had linguini; you know they’re not the same, but they’re so darned similar!

Once In a House On Fire fits into several of these categories. It tells the story of an unstable childhood; of abusive, codependent parents; of a young girl required to grow up long before she should have; and of her conquest over these hardships. This is the formula of every marketable memoir. Yet somehow Andrea Ashworth tells her particular story is with such impeccable candor, with such insight into character psychology, and without being either overly explanatory or impossibly vague, that it remains unique unto itself. (Of course, I may be partial to the special treat of British dialect, as well. However, the language—no matter the dialect—has to be consistent and convincing to impress me, and Ashworth’s words are both of these things and more!)

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Snapshot Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
As this book is written in sections, so this review shall be written in sections.

Book One: Italy or “Say It Like You Eat It” or “36 Tales About the Pursuit of Pleasure” was the most pleasurable section to read. It revealed the most about the author as an individual, in the most story-like manner, and was the most “relatable” section of the three, for me as a reader. I could empathize with her struggles, in spite of never having been divorced myself, since she wrote of her pain as a self-doubting sort. Her pursuit of pleasure is one that I believe we all want, and the way she writes of it is both beautiful and immediate—you feel as though you too have travelled to Italy.

Book Two: India or “Congratulations to Meet You” or 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Devotion” was probably the most frustrating section for me to read. This is primarily because, on a personal level, I could relate so much to the author’s self-descriptions. Her restless mind and the way she describes it are exactly how I would describe my own. Therefore, I was interested to see the ways in which she battled herself. However, she would continually stray from the story at hand to give me religious or historical background that I cared nothing about; to tell me loads of details about the Ashram or about the hierarchy of the town around it. I wanted to hear how she got along with Mr. Richard from Texas and what sort of crazy southern-drawled wisdoms he would force down her throat! So this section felt frequently interrupted to me.

Book Three: Indonesia or “Even in My Underpants, I Feel Different” or 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Balance felt even more interrupted, due mostly to the Gilbert’s constant need to inform the reader of Bali’s cultural history or the reasons for its social norms. Everything in this section of the book felt much more explain-y to me, much less story-oriented than the previous two sections of the book, especially the first one. Chapter 107 was such a blatant recap of the entire book—like a barely veiled conclusion paragraph at the end of a high school essay—that I more or less skipped the entire thing in hopes of an exciting, bombastic ending. No such luck.

Overall: I loved this book most for its celebration of language and the way Gilbert indulges the reader through both her beautiful prose and her intellectual consciousness and documentation of the languages she explores on her journeys. However, this does not prevent me from being disappointed with its shortcomings, of which my overall impression was that this is a book is structured as a hill I gradually slid down. Books are launching pads for thoughts and feelings, and this one left me dead in the water. So read it for linguistic and theological interest, read it for its beautiful language, but don’t expect to feel swept away when you’re done.

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