Disabling the Exasperation Filter

Whenever I decide to call in sick, my brain immediately turns on what I call the Exasperation Filter.  This filter colors every email, text message, and Facebook chat from my boss or coworkers with a tint of irritation on their part, stemming from and reinforcing my assumption that I have horribly inconvenienced everyone and therefore everyone must be annoyed with me for not sucking it up and coming in anyway.

Some of this probably comes from the classic Impostor Syndrome, which gives me the sense that I am the only person to ever call in sick without being in the hospital, clinging to life.  Never mind that I know that’s not true.  Never mind that logically I know my workplace is more caring than that.  Never mind that catching whatever has left me unable to do my job would probably inconvenience everyone far more than covering for me for one day.  No, the Exasperation Filter adds a layer of guilt and nervousness to every piece of communication on a sick day, which just makes everything worse when I’m already fuzzy-headed and exhausted.

When I caught The Death going around campus (that’s what we all call the annual virus that makes the rounds at the beginning of spring semester) immediately after getting back to work from Christmas break, I tried to push through it.  I tried to read students’ papers and direct small group workshops and ask my coworkers how their holidays had been.  But pretty soon it was clear I needed rest.  So (with the Engineer sitting supportively beside me) I sent out the dreaded sub request.  It was a Monday, one of my longest days, so I worried that not all of my hours would get covered and they would be understaffed and the Writing Center would go up in a ball of flame.  (The Exasperation Filter comes packaged with the Worst Case Scenario Upgrade.)

Instead, my boss, B., sent me a nice email with a smiley face saying not to worry and to feel better, that they would manage without me.  The next day that I did drag myself into work, B. heard me coughing and asked, “How many hours do you have after this?”  I told her.  “Any classes today?”  Yes, I was facilitating one small group.  “Go home when you’re done with that,” she said.  “You need to get better.  We’ll be fine.”

I started to protest, but she said she needed me at 100% when she would be out of the office later that week.

Her genuine concern for my wellbeing made me squirmy, especially knowing I was about to miss quite a bit of work to tour grad schools with the Engineer.  My work has always been a wonderfully affirmative place, particularly when I first started after my super-stressful and toxic internship sophomore year.  But I worried that as I started preparing to leave, the Writing Center would have no reason to keep being nice to me.  I didn’t want to damage any relationships in my last remaining months.  So I pointed out that I’d be gone a lot in the next month already, so I didn’t want to miss any more work.

B. tilted her head and looked at me.  “All the more reason you should go home and rest.  You absolutely need to go with your boyfriend and you should try to get well by then.  Those visits are important too.”

Turns out that was the phrase I needed to disable the Exasperation Filter.  Now I manually replace it with the B. Filter, forcing myself to read her emails in her actual tone of voice, not the false accusatory tone I’ve never actually heard her use, and reminding myself that she and the rest of the Writing Center actually do want the best for me.

It’s a much more pleasant way to read my emails.

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

Adulting: Why Not Celebrate Small Victories?

Two friends of mine are getting married next weekend.  Though I’m not in the wedding, they asked me to lector, so I’m driving 3 hours to the rehearsal dinner the day prior to the actual ceremony.  Since I didn’t want to drive another 6 hours round-trip between the rehearsal and the actual wedding, I booked a hotel room.  As soon as I received the confirmation email, I took to Facebook:

Just made my own hotel reservation for the wedding of two friends.  Am I adulting?

Normally I cringe at words like “adulting.”  Innocent nouns should not be pressed into service as verbs unless absolutely necessary.  But the verb form of “adult” is one I will allow for the simple reason that it is the most expressive word for the situation at hand.  “To adult,” according to Urban Dictionary, means “to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.”  Frequently appearing as a hashtag on social media, it can be used ironically (“Goldfish crackers and prosecco count as dinner, right? #adulting”) or seriously (“Checkbook balanced, apartment cleaned, laundry done, and dinner in the oven. I’m adulting well today!”).

The term has come under fire for its celebration of everyday chores.  Some who are already proficient at adulting (or like to pretend they are) say that everyone has to do these things.  You’re not special for cooking a real meal or running a vacuum.  A recent Cosmopolitan article argued that emphasizing the basics of grown-up life undermines real accomplishments like career growth, adding that this probably stems from Millennials’ “extended adolescence” because “growing up may feel optional” nowadays.

While many young people do benefit from still living at home and the perks of having their parents do most of the grocery shopping, this actually makes adulthood more scary, not less.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who insisted I learn to cook some basic meals and keep a bathroom sanitary before I went off to college.  They gave me a larger allowance in high school with the understanding that I would use it to purchase my own clothing, coffee, etc. so I could learn to manage income and savings on a small scale.  Though I’m sure I rolled my eyes at these lessons (sorry, Mom and Dad), I’m grateful for them now.  But no parent can teach their kids everything, at least not specifically (“Today I’m going to show you how to call the insurance company for a quote and where to find your policy number on that stupid little card”).

Many of us also grew up hearing that we could do anything, be anything we wanted, follow our dreams, etc.  And those are wonderful things to hear when you’re a kid.  They are also very broad, sweeping encouragements, with little to say concerning the nitty gritty of how to support yourself while chasing those be-anything dreams.  Again, I was lucky; both my parents were happy to help me pursue my love of writing, and at the same time they made sure I would be qualified and capable of holding a day job until that passion could become a sustainable career.

But guess what?  Adulthood is still really freaking scary.  Yes, the big career moves are nerve-wracking, but it’s also the little things that no one tells you about, like having to put towels down when it’s too late in the evening to call maintenance.  Even when you have a potential safety net at home, couldn’t you feel a certain amount of pride when you stop being complacent with letting your parents do everything?  If I lived at home, I would be proud when I made dinner for the family.  And now that I don’t live at home, I still like to send my mom pictures of the flowers I potted or the art I finally hung up on the walls.  These are small accomplishments, yes, but they’re still symbols of independence I am still learning to claim.

Perhaps this is nothing new.  Perhaps every generation up to this point has felt the same way as they’re thrown into the deep end of Grown Up Life.  But we have social media now, and ways to connect internationally with other people who are experiencing the same thing.  The only difference between us and the young adults of the past is that we can be much more public with our anxiety, and we can cheer each other on through the victories, big and small.

So I will keep on adulting, thank you very much.

 

Sifting Through

Tidy as I have always believed myself to be, sorting through my belongings at my parents’ houses as I prepare to move to my Small College Town full-time has resembled an archaeological dig.  Each layer of stuff reveals a piece of someone I used to be.

There are the comics, only four panels long, because I didn’t realize how much longer drawing took than writing and it turns out I can’t really draw anyway and the jokes really weren’t that funny.  Bird laughs at one Cast of Characters list, where I have drawn passable cats and labeled them with their names: Ringo, Fluffy, Sophistikitty…and Tracey.  Which she thinks is hilarious.

There is the blue dolphin lamp on its springy stand.  It probably came from Limited Too, where all the cool kids shopped among the clashing neon colors and dyed fake fur.  In middle school, dolphins were cool.  I remember the texture of its almost sparkly, rubber skin under my fingers and I can picture the room I wished I could build around this one piece of décor, one that would have bead curtains and one of those bowl chairs.  It would have been the epitome of coolness.

There are the meticulously labeled sketches and stories in fits and starts that never got fleshed out because I lost them until this moment.  One is about elk with bizarre sounding names.  According to the date, I was 11 years old when I wrote this double-spaced paragraph.  My keysmash phase for coming up with names, where my strategy was to pick something cool-sounding out of gibberish.

There is the pass to the front section of the football game where the Engineer saved me a seat freshman year, before we were dating.  I forgot I had saved it, but I remember now, how I tucked it away before he ever asked me out, just to savor the giddy feeling of having a cute guy sit next to me at a football game.  (Bird says I have to keep this forever and starts making a pile of Engineer-related memorabilia.)

There is an absurd amount of fuzzy slipper-socks stuffed in a drawer, ones I’m not certain I ever wore.  I set these aside to keep my feet warm in the Small College Town winters, which are unforgiving on that side of the state.  And there are the t-shirts from my Jesuit high school homecomings and special events.  Bird holds up the one from our Candyland-themed dance, the one with “Welcome to the Candyshop” across the chest.  “I still can’t believe they let you guys make this,” she says.

There are the letters I wrote, filled with too much angst to fit in my normal journal, speckled with capital letters and places where I wrote so heavily the pen made holes in the paper.  Skimming some of these, I want to go back in time and give my past self a hug.  She had no idea how things were going to turn out.

I don’t keep all of it.  I remember, looking through all of it, how big everything felt.  Yet, “You don’t necessarily need to feel those emotions again,” Bird points out.  I won’t try to gloss over the unpleasant stages of becoming who I am now – but I won’t get bogged down in them either.

I’ve quoted William Morris before: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  At this point, as I start to build my own life beyond school, I get to choose to keep only the things that are useful in reminding me how far I’ve come, and beautiful in showing me that some part of myself has always been good.

Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where my storytelling strategy largely consisted of taking a set of ridiculous characters, throwing them together in an absurd situation, and seeing what happened.  (This may have been triggered by my first reading of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which I mostly focused on the Improbability Drive and the falling whale it generated.  Also the depressed robot.) Since this was middle school, the dialogue was primarily one-liners and bad puns, and most of these plots ran out of steam after a few pages.  I was a novice writer who hadn’t yet discovered the process or genres that worked for me, so these bits and pieces of stories just sort of haunt my Documents folder and provide occasional hilarity when I rediscover them.  (My personal favorite is ambitiously entitled, “The Story of a Forwarded Letter, a Post Office Worker, and a Mailbox.”  The mailbox decides to break as many laws of physics as it can.  It’s a gem.)

Though my own attempts at this sort of thing have (mercifully) fallen by the wayside, I still have a special place in my heart for books that truly test the limits of fiction with style and absurdity, like the masterful Hitchhiker’s Guide.  In this vein, Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is one of the most recent additions to my library, and a phenomenal read.  It’s not quite magical realism or fantasy, because it doesn’t contain anything that couldn’t physically happen in our world, but definitely includes plot points that set it apart from mere contemporary fiction (I mean, how many other books about South Africa’s nuclear arms development include the king of Sweden being kidnapped in the back of a potato truck with a bomb and a twin, neither of which officially exist?).  But I could believe every word of it, because it was the sort of book where I wanted the delightful characters (and even the irritating ones) to be real.

The eponymous girl, Nombeko, is definitely going on my list of Heroines I Want To Be When I Grow Up.  She reads everything she can get her hands on and actively seeks out knowledge about anything and everything.  This intelligence serves her well, whether it’s letting a bumbling engineer think he’s running things or negotiating a nuclear arms exchange with two agents who want to kill her.  In confrontations, she behaves exactly as I always pretended I would: shrugs and pours the bad guy some tea, thoroughly discomfiting him.  Nombeko is also snarky, compassionate, and hardworking.  She’s not perfect, of course, but her distrust of happiness is not only understandable, it made me relate to her more.  She is unwilling to make plans for the future, no matter how much she and her companions want them, until their current problem (the itty bitty matter of the bomb in the potato truck) is solved; Nombeko does not skip ahead.

Though I obviously took its representation of historical events with a grain of salt, I also enjoyed the way the book expanded my cultural horizons.  Nombeko is born in a slum in South Africa, a country I know almost nothing about.  Her adventures bring her (and the reader) into contact with such people as the prime minister, an ambassador from China, and engineers in charge of building nuclear bombs for South Africa.  The book spans some thirty years, touching on events I’ve heard of but never really learned about, and describing international relationships I had never considered before.  Recently I’ve realized how Eurocentric my reading tends to be (especially given my penchant for old English novels and the depths of academic English literature), which has left me with a disproportionate understanding of world cultures, so fiction like this might be a good way to start learning more.

I gasped, laughed, and mumbled, “Nonononono” – causing the Engineer a little concern.  An excellent book, from style to character development to plot.

5/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read this?  Share your thoughts!  Or go read it and tell me what you think!

Don’t Steal My Spot

They say you don’t have assigned seats in college, but everyone knows that’s a lie.  After the second or third class of the semester, no one wants to move.  The class has shifted around briefly and is now settled into a comfortable arrangement of friend groups and varying degrees of attentiveness.  Why mess with it?

But she did.  One day, midway through the semester, I walked into my global lit class to discover that some girl was in my seat.

I didn’t even know she was in the class, meaning she’d been in the back up until that day.  She glanced up to meet my glare, then quickly looked back down at her phone.  My friends had all moved down one seat in the row so there was still space for me, but as I slid into place, J. leaned over and hissed, “I don’t like this.”

“This angle is throwing me off,” A. agreed, nodding at the whiteboard.  Even the subtle shift of a few inches to the right had thrown off our entire groove for the class.

groove
Sadly, not an option.

Now, I realize this sounds somewhat petty.  We are, after all, voting adults.  Can we not just take Elsa’s advice and let it go?  It’s just a chair.

Well, I got to the next class ridiculously early to reclaim my rightful place, so I sat in my normal spot.  When Miss Seat Stealer waltzed in, she did a double take, glared at me, then slid into the seat next to mine with a stage whispered, “I guess I’ll just have to take Charlotte’s seat,” to her friend, who shrugged and sat down without complaint.

So I’m not the only childish one in this tale.

I’m a creature of habit.  The uncertain hovering on the edge of a classroom, wondering which row to sit in and which friends will be within reach for in-class discussion, should be reserved for the first, maybe the second, week of classes.  We’re all outsiders for those first couple of days, until the class gels.  After that, it’s a domino effect: if one person moves, the person whose seat was stolen must now occupy someone else’s seat, displacing yet another person to someone else’s chosen spot, and so on until the whole class feels as awkward and uncomfortable as the first day they walked in.  Each person temporarily becomes an outsider again as they wonder where on earth to sit.  And we are too far into the semester to justify that feeling!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to class a little early.  That seat is mine.

my spot

 

 

“They John Boy-ed Him!”

Because my mom enjoyed The Waltons, Bird and I occasionally ended up watching her DVDs of the eponymous family and their neighbors on Walton’s Mountain.  Usually it was just the early years, the ones before Ma got sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis (because the actress quit) and Mary Ellen got married.  The later episodes just weren’t as good, according to Mom, for multiple reasons.  But one day we found The Waltons on TV and decided to watch it.  Other than the actors all looking a bit older and dealing with somewhat more dramatic issues, it seemed pretty normal.  There was a stranger living with the Waltons now, but we figured he was a cousin or something.

Except everyone kept calling him John Boy.  The narrator.

“That’s not John Boy!” we exclaimed.  Mom laughed.  Apparently the role had been recast between seasons at some point.

We couldn’t believe it.  They were just asking us to believe that this was John Boy, the aspiring writer through whose eyes we saw everything on Walton’s Mountain?  It was clearly a completely different person.

“Yeah,” said Mom, “one season he went off to fight in the War and when he came back, it was this guy!”

“Wow,” said Bird.  “War really changed him.”

Once we recovered from our laughter and agreed never to watch those later seasons again, this experience gave rise to a new phrase in our household. “John Boy” became a verb, meaning “to recast a character without warning or transition and simply ask the audience to go along with it.”

I was home on a break from school one day when Mom and Bird wanted to catch up on the season finale of a show we were currently watching.  Bird, who was texting a friend who had already seen the episode, suddenly burst out laughing at her phone.

“They replaced the brother!” she gasped.  “Oh my gosh, they John Boy-ed him!”

Sure enough, toward the end of the episode, the family entered their home to find a strange boy leaning against the kitchen table.  Gasping, they all embraced him, addressing him by the brother character’s name.  Apparently he had been at boarding school (because the old actor was in rehab or something).

“Well,” Bird deadpanned, “John Boy’s home from the War.”

Don’t Scare Me Like That, or Why I Hate Halloween

I hate Halloween.  I hate the stress of trying to figure out a suitably clever (and appropriate – why is it impossible to find a female costume consisting of more than a square yard of fabric?) costume for the church party, and I hate the creepy hunchbacked butlers with shriveled green skin that spring up at the ends of Safeway aisles, and I hate the sheer number of decorations with motion sensors cackling every time someone walks past, and I hate people trying to get me to go to haunted houses, and I hate that there’s an entire holiday centered around scaring other people because it’s “fun.” It is not fun.  Not to me.

Okay, I don’t really hate Halloween that much.  But living on a college campus means my general indifference gradually hardens into spite over the course of October as I come up against invitations to haunted houses and scary movie marathons, not to mention the fact that everything I buy suddenly has to be black and orange in honor of All Hallows’ Eve.  (How many of the scare enthusiasts and costume shoppers even know that’s where Halloween came from?)  It’s just such an aggressive holiday, from the costumes to the ABC Family marathons to the people who think it’s okay to practice their scares on random passersby.

I’ve never liked being scared.  I don’t think it’s fun, and I don’t understand how, exactly, it is supposed to change my mind on this score to go into scary places and “see that it’s not that bad.” I have been scared before, in fun and in earnest, and I do not enjoy the feeling.  The rest of you can go creep through darkened rooms while employees in creepy masks lurk to jump out at you.  As I keep pointing out to my friends, if I’m not having fun, you won’t have fun.  No one will enjoy having to physically carry me back to the car as I sob because I barely made it two steps into the creepy house before I decided it was too much.

Sidebar: I also dislike rollercoasters.  Once, when my friends and I went to Wild Waves, they got me all the way up to where you get into the seats – and then they let go of my arm and I ran down the wheelchair ramp.

And then there’s the fact, as my mother has points out, that this is the one day of the year when we actually encourage children to take candy from strangers.  Who decided that was a good idea?  I prefer to buy my own candy and consume it at home, on the couch, watching something cute and not at all scary, without having to put on some kind of costume.

But then again, it was after the church Halloween party freshman year, watching drunken bumblebees and sexy nurses and a few vampires stumble by, that the Engineer and I started dating.  And it was a friend’s Halloween party the next night that became our first activity as a couple.  (I, nerd that I am, was Schrodinger’s cat in a sparkly black dress and mask.  We arrived separately and grinned like idiots at each other all evening until he walked me home and put his arm around me.)

So maybe there are a few good things about Halloween.

After all, all the dark chocolate goes on super sale the first day of November!

Things I Used to Imagine at Night

On the nights I couldn’t seem to fall asleep, I used to employ my favorite “Imaginings.”

I used to pretend that the walls to my bedroom expanded out and out and out into a vast dormitory with rows and rows of old fashioned hospital beds, the kind with metal bars and headboards like the backs of folding chairs.  In this dormitory lived a hundred other girls, all the cliques one would expect from high school, and we were in the charge of at least one surly matron and occasionally her kinder, younger helper.  I would whisper to the other girls in the beds surrounding me until we had to hush because the matron was walking by.  The circumstances surrounding the dormitory changed.  Sometimes it was a camp for training us to be servants to the upper classes.  Sometimes it was an orphanage.  (It really depended what books I’d been reading lately.)  But that didn’t matter so much, because I only played this game at night, so I only imagined the dormitory itself.

I used to pretend that the ground below my bedroom window dropped away to a moat far below my tower, because I was a queen tucked up in her castle.  Except I was no orthodox queen – I had privateers with whom I could only meet at night for fear of tipping my hand to the sleazy ambassadors at my court.  I imagined a trusted maidservant showing the fierce pirates up to my sitting room, where we pored over battle plans until the wee hours of the night.  Sometimes I even held audiences with thieves from all over the provinces, gleaning evidence of treason by sending them to steal from my nobles.

I used to pretend that mine was the nicest room the boardinghouse had to offer, a respite from my long, secretive journey.  But I couldn’t rest just yet.  I had to listen for suspicious murmurs from the hostess downstairs, who looked at me sidelong when I paid for the room (a girl traveling alone?) and who might this very moment be disclosing my whereabouts to my pursuers – for a pretty penny, of course.

I used to pretend I was a favored servant in the palace of a sultan (particularly after I discovered the Arabian Nights), keeping tabs on court intrigue from my strategically placed room at the center of the harem.  My true loyalties shifted from night to night – sometimes I would pass on information to the sultan, and sometimes I would bide my time.

On the nights I couldn’t seem to fall asleep, I used to pretend a lot of things.  And even though I always woke up as myself again, I think the Imaginings – especially the ones I revisited over and over and over – left their mark.