Personal Bubble Encroachment

Lacking a parking pass, I have to navigate my college town’s public transport system this year, unless I feel like walking for 20 minutes in the smoke.  Interestingly, I’m finding that the bus is becoming the perfect metaphor for my experience of the first few days of school.

For one thing, the bus is packed.  All the time.  Being short, I get to either dangle from the overhead bars or lean awkwardly over another person to grab the upright handles (there’s pretty much never a seat).  So my personal space shrinks to nothingness first thing every morning.  The first week of school is also the most crowded.  It’s when everyone shows up to class to find out if attendance is mandatory.  It’s when it’s impossible to find a parking spot or a free mat at the gym because everyone is trying out the free classes and telling themselves that this semester they’ll work out every day.  It’s when people who are pretty much never on campus for the rest of the year explore every nook and cranny of the buildings they never visit and steal the regular seats of students who actually hang out in on-campus coffee shops (I may be slightly bitter about this part).

My introverted side is having trouble adjusting to this.  Unpredictable behavior from hundreds of other bodies milling around the same spaces as me is preventing me from slipping back into my School Routine as quickly and easily as I would like.  Other people are variables; I like limiting the uncontrolled variables in my life, but for the first few days of school, I can’t do that.  I can’t prevent others from invading my personal physical or mental space.

Then there’s the fact that the bus tends to be so packed that it cannot take on any more passengers, thereby precluding itself from serving its purpose… by serving its purpose.  It’s a weird cycle.  My schedule is starting to take on a similar tinge of cyclical futility.  I’m only taking 12 credits (the minimum required to be considered a full-time student), and I’m only working 10 hours a week (so far), and I’m only working out about an hour in the evenings at the rec, and I’m only doing 2 part-time internships, and I’m only starting the research on my thesis (the real work comes next semester, I keep telling myself).  But all those “onlys” add up to a lot of stuff going on in my life at once, all of it ostensibly necessary, most of it something I really do want to do.  This leaves very little room for error; procrastinating on one assignment would be like putting another bus out of commission and increasing the demand on all the others.

All my work on self care in the past year has taught me that I am most likely to drop the things that are personal first.  It’s much harder for me to bow out of obligations to others that I have agreed to fulfill than it is to tell myself that I don’t have time to work on my manuscript because I have so much homework.  But the manuscript makes me happy.  So, to drag this metaphor past the point of reason, like the bus systems, there are many demands on my time.  Now I just need to figure out a screening process to decide which passengers to allow to get on.

Which would be a lot easier to do if there weren’t so many other people throwing elbows in line for coffee.

First Day of School!

This might be my last first day of school.

Well, sort of.  I realize that I’ve got another semester after this, and technically those will be all new classes, but I only get the true Back To School Sensation when, as Fitzgerald says, “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”  It doesn’t matter if school starts in August or October – on the first day of school, I view everything through a frame of rustling, reddish leaves.  Back To School smells like the spice of crunching foliage underfoot, like the fresh wax of a new box of crayons, like the curlicue wood shavings emptied from a pencil sharpener.  And Back To School has all the potential of a freshly sharpened pencil, smoothing perfectly from school-bus-yellow barrel to graphite spear point.

Never mind that I haven’t actually used crayons for school since 5th grade, or that it’s August and smells more like a campfire than spicy leaves outside (thank you, wildfires).  No matter what year it is, Back To School is a comforting blend of fresh start and familiarity.  Everything is new and clean and open, but I also know already that I’m good at it.

Some of the comfort has departed from this particular First Day of School in that it is no longer one in a reassuringly lengthy series.  For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next year.  Even during other transition years in my academic career, I knew, in broad terms, my plan.  High school, whether B or C (I picked B).  College, whether B, P, or W (I went with W).  Essentially, the plan was always More School.

That’s an option here, too.  I could go to grad school.  I took the GRE in the hopes of keeping that avenue open.  I could choose to stay at my undergrad university or go somewhere else.  I rather like the sound of an advanced degree.

But it’s not a given, like all the other times have been.  The decision is no longer a formality.  And depending on which choice I make, this could be my last first day until my own child dashes off into a kindergarten classroom, backpack full of crayons and safety scissors.

So forgive me, fellow college seniors who are too cool for school, if I ruin our collective jaded image by joining Nemo in excitedly chanting “First day of school!  First day of school!  First day of school!”58303176

Night Owl

I think I stay up late because it feels as though I’m stealing time, sneaking in a little more living, even quiet living, while the rest of the world is asleep.  Never mind that the sun is shining on the other side of the planet, that thousands of other people lie awake staring at screens or at pages or just off into space.  The important thing is that I feel hidden, secret, and therefore powerful.

Sister Car Dancing Level: Pro

19a4839788909bdabb46838c9630e130One of my favorite things to do in traffic is defuse the tension by being that weirdo jamming out in her car, and I blame my sister for that.

My family has always been vehicularly musical; our road trips to visit relatives always involved rotating through tried and true soundtracks.  I knew the words to CamelotGodspellYou’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, etc. before I started first grade.  We still bust out Hairspray and The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  So I sang in the car a lot growing up.

But car dancing didn’t really start until I taught Bird the moves to a dance associated with a particular retreat at my high school.  Although The Dance is and always will be connected to that retreat, the more I chauffeured my sister around, the more it became our thing.  If either of us was having a bad day, we’d put on The Song.  If we were bored driving home, we’d put on The Song.

Now, initially we only tended to do this while moving, so we felt like no one could see us (side note: I always toned down the moves enough to maintain full control of the vehicle at all times).  But one day, when the other drivers at a lengthy stoplight looked particularly irritable, Bird turned to me and said with that little-sister grin, “These people need Jesus.”  Before I realized what she meant, she had cranked up The Song to full volume and rolled down her window.  We were attracting glances from our neighboring cars, but the moves hadn’t started yet.  They thought we were just another couple of teenagers with really loud music.

I sighed and rolled down my window too.

When the lyrics began, we bounced in rhythm to the song and performed the moves in perfect synchronization.  The drivers across the intersection started to stare.  By the time the chorus came around, pretty much everyone was watching us.  The light turned green, and we drove on, still dancing and singing, but I definitely noticed some smiles.  Maybe they just thought we were ridiculous.  We probably looked ridiculous.

But who doesn’t love telling stories about ridiculous stuff?

Our car dance performances are not necessarily restricted to The Song or religious music.  We make up moves to Ariana Grande and Hunter Hayes.  The point is that it’s fun to get weird looks from total strangers and to make their day a bit more interesting.  (We also love to do this when we’re stopped by construction workers.)

car dance gif

And yet, for all our unbridled enthusiasm for car dancing, there has been only one spectator who dared to, as they say, get on our level.

Remember how Bird and I volunteered at VBS?  Well, one year we were given our own class to teach, a group of rambunctious 2nd and 3rd graders.  Like every other class group, our students had to learn a song.  At the concert at the end of the week, each class would perform their song, with the corresponding dance moves, for an audience of parents.

And as the teachers prompting them at the foot of the stage, Bird and I had to learn the moves too.

We were in the car on the way to St. C’s, practicing the moves and lyrics, music at full blast, when we stopped at a red light.  Since the choreography was designed for little kids, the chorus was mostly just waving your arms back and forth.  So that’s what we were doing – when we noticed the guy behind us staring.  And so was the lady next to us.

We bounced all the harder in our seats (restrained by our seatbelts, of course – safety first!) and exaggerated the ridiculous dance moves even more for our audience.  We figured we might as well.

And then, just as the light was about to turn, I glanced in the rearview mirror to see the guy behind us grinning and waving his arms back and forth in time with ours.

Well danced, sir.  Well danced.

Oh, You Don’t Want To

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “And what are your plans after graduation?” I could probably pay for another year of college.

But that’s just kindly curiosity.  People are just being inquisitive, or concerned for my welfare, or even just making small talk.  I get that.  It’s what we ask as humans, isn’t it?  What are you going to be when you grow up?  What college are you going to?  What outcome are you aiming for after this Big Socially Recognized Transition?

What gets me is the number of opinions offered based on my answer, no matter what that answer is.  It’s usually, “I don’t know,” to which they reply, “Oh, you don’t want to decide anything now, you’re so young!”  If I elaborate, “Maybe grad school,” then the op-eds really start flying.

“Oh, you don’t want to get an MFA in creative writing – all you can do with that is teach.”  “Oh, you don’t want to study literature – all you can do with that is teach.”  “Oh, you don’t want to stay at the same school for your Master’s.”  “Oh, you don’t want to lose any momentum by taking a year off.”  “Oh, you don’t want to stay in school forever – work for a few years, then come back and get that degree.”

If I mention a job?

“Oh, you don’t want to stay here, publishing is much bigger in New York.”  “Oh, you don’t want to go into editing, there’s no money.”  “Oh, you don’t want to go too far from home.”  “Oh, you don’t want to get stuck in some office job, you’re much too smart for that.”  “Oh, you don’t want to waste any time, you should start networking now.”

And forget even hinting that the Engineer might come into it.

“Oh, you don’t want to make decisions based on a boyfriend.”  “Oh, you don’t want to do a long distance relationship, so few couples can handle that.”

And on and on it goes.

I’ve been calling these bits of speech opinions rather than advice.  That’s because of the four- or five-word formula at the beginning of each snippet: (oh) you don’t want to.

Don’t I, though?

Don’t I want, in some moments, to study more creative writing because it’s what I love?  Don’t I want, at times, to elbow my way into publishing regardless of the paycheck?  Don’t I want to take the person I’ve been dating for years into account?

How kind of these opinions, sensing my confusion, to tell me what I want.

I’m used to some of these.  I’ve heard them before.  “Don’t worry, lots of people change their majors,” acquaintances would say, trying to give me a way out after I told them I was majoring in creative writing.  Sounds an awful lot like, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.”  But I did, in fact, want to.  It was like Warner thinking Elle Woods couldn’t get into Harvard even after she, um, did. 

like it's hardMy chosen area of study, like Elle’s sudden decision to pursue law, has raised a few eyebrows.  It seems implausible that writing would maintain such a strong hold on me, especially in a society that places so much emphasis on money making.  I get it.  And, following up on those undergraduate doubts, it makes sense that people would make similar assumptions about my choices post-grad.

I know most of these people mean well.  They want to see me succeed, or at least not starve to death or bankrupt my parents within a year of graduation.  They probably believe that their opinions are, in fact, good advice, and I appreciate that intention.

That’s where I run into trouble.  I was raised to respect adults, to seek advice from those with more life experience than me.  So I don’t really want to just start arguing with everyone – “Oh, you don’t want to [insert action here]” “OH YES I DO COME AT ME BRO.”  But I don’t know how to politely disengage when the opinions are irrelevant to me (such as when the information is outdated or based on hearsay, or just has to do with their own worldviews that I don’t necessarily share).

And even if the advice underneath the opinion is sound, I can’t help chafing at that formula. You don’t want to.  Words carry weight in my world, and that particular phrase is like an anvil dropped from a Looney Tunes cliff.  If you know what I do and do not want – why did you ask in the first place?

Reclaiming Blue

I’m something of a pen thief.  If someone hands me a really awesome pen, the kind of pen that rolls smoothly across the page without smearing and seems to suggest beautiful things will come naturally to one’s head when one uses it, I’m liable to slip it into my purse without thinking and only later realize my transgression.

And then keep that pen for five years.

One such pen is a light blue ballpoint that has lasted me since study hall my senior year of high school when I accidentally stole it from Ashleigh H.  (I’ll probably apologize to her at our five year reunion.)  It’s lived in my pencil case ever since, usually employed to note important events in my beloved planner (which, as we’ve established, I love to color code).

Freshman year of college, I designated this blue pen for events pertaining to the Catholic student center where I spent most of my free time.  Dinners, movie nights, youth group, etc. were all recorded in light blue ballpoint, next to the green fountain pen reserved for work and the orange highlighter that means something horrible like a test or a huge paper is about to happen.  Through the beginning of sophomore year, I associated blue with this student center, and because this place was such a huge part of my life, blue showed up a lot in my planners.

Then, midway through sophomore year, a Really Big Conflict arose.  The details are a story for another time, as is the extent of the fallout, but it involved A Certain Person from the student center, and led to me pulling away from some of that involvement.

I fought with a lot of mental murkiness following this Really Big Conflict.  I fought to regain my faith, and I fought to maintain friendships, and I fought to keep the community that had become central to my college life.  Things have gotten better – a lot better – in the year and a half since.

But I realized that I stopped using blue.

The events I still went to at the center were labeled in plain black.  Even my blue highlighter was getting far less use.  Green, which now represented a job I love, made me happy, but when I flipped a page in my planner and found an event I’d written months earlier in blue, I flinched.  I was avoiding a color I’d chosen originally for its calming qualities!

So I’ve made an Executive Decision.  I am reassigning blue.  Blue is now for things that are good for me, things that help me with self care, things that make me happy.  My anniversary with the Engineer, for instance, or my dad’s wedding, or a girls’ weekend with the Southern Belle.  (I might even put some dinners at the Catholic student center in blue again.)

I am reclaiming blue.  And it does feel good to write with that wonderful pen again.

That Time I Almost Punched a Sexist

As a freshman in high school, I was the type of girl who enjoyed stepping menacingly toward my male friends when they said something that offended me, even though we all knew I would never actually lay a finger on them. Besides, I was too short to be scary. (I’m still short, but I sometimes pride myself on the ability to be menacing when necessary.)  Violence was not, in fact, my go-to problem solving strategy.

Still, I knew I would have a hard time not slapping the smirk off P.B.’s face the minute I met him.

calvin and susie bug

We were in English, one of the few classes in which I was not on the honors track because my high school did not have an honors English class for freshmen.  While by junior year I could happily spend 75% of the day away from those students to whom I was merely a nerd who took school too seriously, freshman English required me to rub shoulders with people who still stopped at the end of every line, whether or not there was a period, when reading aloud.  (The teacher also frequently asked my help spelling things on the board, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his pedantic abilities, but I digress.)

I don’t remember how it started – the teacher must have asked us to have a conversation about something in the lesson with a partner nearby – but somehow I found myself talking to P.B., who was twisted around from his seat in front of me and was draping one lanky arm across my open copy of Lord of the Flies.  Glaring, I slid it out from under him so he wouldn’t wrinkle the page.  Whatever we were originally supposed to be discussing, the conversation turned to grades and schedules.  He bragged that he had a B+ in the class, to which I nodded approval.

I was less approving of his shock at the fact that I had a high A.  He began quizzing me on my grades and how many honors classes I was in.  At first I didn’t care, but it quickly grew satisfying to see him attempting to process the idea that I was probably beating him in the GPA department.

“Well, I must have a higher grade than you in math,” he said finally, leaning back against the metal bar connecting his chair to his desk.  (His arm was still across my desk.)

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m in Geometry Honors and you’re in Algebra,” I said, trying to point out that he couldn’t really compare our grades there because we were studying entirely different things.

He smirked patronizingly.  “I’m still probably better than you.”

“Why would you assume that?”

“Because guys are better at it than girls.  You just aren’t smart enough to think that way.”  The most remarkable thing, now that I look back on it, is his tone – there was no malice.  He was simply stating something of which he was utterly convinced.

“That…is..the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, trying to control my tone.

He shrugged.  “It’s true.”

Almost unconsciously, as though independent from my body, my left hand curled into a fist and my elbow drew back as though I was about to fire an arrow from a bow.  I had never punched anyone before, but P.B. was about to be the lucky first.

Until my teacher materialized at my side and asked, “How’s the conversation going here?” a little too brightly, having seen it all unfold from across the room.  I honestly don’t remember the rest of that class, although I do remember that when we next came to English the teacher announced we had new seats and P.B. was diagonally opposite me, literally as far away as the teacher could physically place us.  This was probably a wise move.

This incident, one of my earliest face-to-face encounters with the concept of sexism, sticks with me for several reasons.

One, I had never realized that people could be so certain of something that I found so obviously wrong.  P.B. was jeering at me, but he was just as convinced that females were inferior as I was convinced that the earth is round.  We had discussed discrimination and assumptions about women’s abilities in my family before (see: weirdest dinner conversations ever), but it hadn’t really dawned on me that there were people – people in my day-to-day world, no less – who actually thought of me that way. It was suddenly and newly personal.

Two, because it was one of the first times I had ever come right up against sexism, I had no idea how to react.  I was angry, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to correct him or explain to him why his certainty had no actual support.  (Sometimes I wonder, though, if one good punch would have convinced him much faster that girls are just as good as boys…kidding, kidding!  Mostly.)  And I realized how much I – and all the girls around me – needed to develop that vocabulary.

Everyone Thinks I’m Graduating

“Wait. You’re going to be here next year?”

I had just told one of my coworkers about my plans to apply for a slightly elevated position (think Supervising Student Employee instead of just Student Employee) at our job next semester when utter confusion clouded her face.

“Ye-es…” I said, equally confused.  “I’m a junior.”

“Oh my God!  We all totally thought you were leaving this year!”

My boss had the same reaction when I popped my head into her office to ask when the applications would be out.  I mean, she seemed excited that I’ll be sticking around for another year, but she definitely thought I was leaving in May.

When I asked another coworker, she said, “Yeahh, I thought you were a junior because you’re the same year as the Commodore, but everyone else seemed so sure you were graduating.”

This is all very strange to me.  First off, it’s always weird to find out other people discuss you when you’re not around.  I suppose the fact that I’m well-known at work bodes well for my plan to take on more responsibility there.  And it’s not like they’re all rooting for me to leave.  It’s just strange to think of myself being referred to in the third person in my own absence, a little like realizing that all the people you pass by briefly and think of as extras or one-dimensional characters in your own life in fact have their own three-dimensional lives in which you are merely an extra passing through the background too.

Secondly, this idea of me graduating anytime soon, though terrifying, is quickly becoming a theme in people’s assumptions.  “You’re a senior, right?”  Um, no.  “But you’re graduating early, right?”  Again, no.  “Are you gonna get an internship for next year?”  Maybe I just give off Almost Done With College vibes or something.  Or I just appear incredibly mature for someone who is only in her third year (yeah, right).  Or somehow, because I was always the Smart Girl, finishing school in the traditional time span of four whole years seems too long, too commonplace to people looking in on my life.  But I’m happy here.  I’m good at this.  So yes, I will be here another year, which puts me graduating right on time – for me.


Emphasis: special stress laid upon, or importance attached to, anything

I like to overthink single words sometimes, particularly when one keeps following me around in my everyday life. As the new semester gets underway and I introduce myself over and over in all my new classes, I find myself confronting the word “emphasis.” It crops up as professors describe what we will emphasize this semester in our coursework, in the rules they would like to emphasize most, in my own descriptions of myself as I say I am an English major with an emphasis in creative writing.

I’ve often wondered why there is no Creative Writing major, why it must remain a subset of English. We can’t simply major in English; the university requires us to eventually choose one of four emphases. For all intents and purposes, when choosing classes or giving someone the short answer to what we study, we are in fact Creative Writing, Rhetoric, English Education, or Literary Studies Majors. But the language we use (and of course language is vital to us English Emphases Majors) divides us based on which part of English studies we choose as our focus. The language surrounding these courses of study is actually a bit of a mouthful (just imagine capitalizing all that on my diploma: English With an Emphasis in Creative Writing) but they’ve never bothered to change it.

My professors, for their part, have “just wanted to emphasize” so many stipulations and contexts and phrasings that they undermine the weight they desire to lend those things. Not everything can actually be that important; emphasizing every other thing, particularly when three other professors are doing the same thing in all my other introductory lectures, actually ends up losing meaning.

The word even keeps popping up in conversations with my friends about grad school and all the importance placed on the prestige of what we do after graduation. With all this Capital-Letters-Implied EMPHASIS on Advanced Degrees and Networking and Impressive Job Offers and Financial Success, anything less than that is dramatically disappointing…but the funny thing is, I get the feeling that actually attaining All! The! Things! would simply be meeting expectations. We’re expected to excel. We’re expected to outshine. So when we do, these accomplishments that had so much “emphasis” are suddenly just par for the course. Rather like the word itself, they have lost their original weight.

Like many overused words, then, I suppose I should be more intentional about using emphasis in my own life.  As the definition states, emphasis should be special, particular, discerning – not just tossed about willy-nilly.

On Ordering Books for Next Semester

I despise ordering books.

I have requested that my password for my campus bookstore account be reset no less than five times, but has the email shown up yet? Nope. So here I sit, with a cart full of books that will probably be gone by the time I can finally sign in to pay for them.

Now, I realize that compared to my engineering and accounting friends, I, the English major, have it pretty easy (read, cheap). My textbooks, which tend to run along the lines of writing handbooks, are more like guidelines than actual requirements, not to mention most of the novels I read for class can be found at Half Price Books even cheaper than renting from the campus bookstore.


It never seems to fail that I forget to order books until only a few days before the new semester, and that means that the rental and used book options are more limited, increasing the price and causing me extra stress when something inevitably goes wrong with the website. The whole process is just annoying, and I would so much rather spend money on the books I truly want to read.

How do you cope with ordering required materials, whether for school or work?