Focus

n. a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity

v. to direct one’s attention or efforts

I’ve been feeling very scatterbrained lately.  Even when I’m procrastinating on the things I should be doing, like writing, I can’t seem to pick just one method of procrastination.  I watch Netflix, but I must also simultaneously rearrange my neighborhoods on my Disney Enchanted Tales game on my phone.  I brainstorm a blog post, but I must also toggle between tabs checking that the color coding on my Google calendar is right.
I blamed some of this on my relatively new Netflix habit.  I realized part of my mental restlessness comes from not having anyone to talk to during meals, having grown up with dinner table conversations about such diverse topics as early waves of feminism and ways to annoy people in elevators.  So I started turning on a half-hour episode of something while I ate, because it was easier than holding a book open with one elbow and trying not to spill something on the page.  And then that pesky Auto Play kicked in, and I found myself watching a few hours of TV when I had only meant to occupy my brain while my body refueled.  A few months of this seems to have trained me to multitask no matter what.  Even when I journal at night, I keep flipping back and forth midsentence to reread old entries, rather than writing continuously or even pausing to collect my current thoughts.
Just about the only activity I can focus on is reading.
Books have long been a central point for me, like a magnet to my attention.  I might bring a book to the breakfast table, but I always end up focused on the book, letting my food go cold beside me or scarfing down a few bites at a time when I reach the end of a chapter.  When I pick up a book for just one chapter before bed, it usually ends with me only putting it down because the words are swimming before my eyes at 1 a.m.  Phone calls go unheard, emails go unnoticed, the sun could rise in the west and set in the east, and I would not look up from my book.
So I’m trying to figure out what allows books to act as a conduit for me to direct my attention and thoughts.  I’ve also tried some (admittedly sporadic) meditation to retrain my mind to more easily focus on Just One Thing at a time.  I downloaded a Pomodoro timer app on my phone to use when I’m writing, whether for this blog or for my own personal projects, and I made a list of little rewards for myself for when I reach a word count goal.
These steps are annoying.  My brain prefers constant entertainment (insert accusation about kids these days spending too much time on their smart phones and internet).  But then I remind myself (or I’m lucky enough to actually experience it again) how good it feels when I’m in a Writing Mood, when the words just come and there’s nothing between me and the page.  That’s the kind of focus I’m striving for, even if it means slogging through a lot of distractions.
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Drive

energy, ambition, or initiative

a trip or journey in a driven vehicle

I have trouble slowing down sometimes.  I am an avid multitasker, despite numerous studies that tell me it’s a lie and I would be better off focusing on just one thing at a time.  It makes me feel busier, which is something society approves of.  I reach for words like ambitioushardworkingdriven – they look good on resumes.  I’ve never been one to enjoy drifting aimlessly for more than a week or two.  I start getting restless during summer vacations.  And I always thought this was a good thing.

The Engineer and I went north the past two weekends to visit his family.  It’s only an hour and a half journey, nothing too taxing, through rolling hills and around gentle curves.  We passed windmills, which some people say ruin the view but which remind me of three-armed swimmers practicing their strokes.  I used to be able to read in the car when I was younger, but now it makes me carsick to read more than a quick text, so we talk and sing along to the radio or just sit in comfortable silence, remarking occasionally on a pretty farmhouse or a couple of deer in a field.

I never used to see a point in leisurely drives (nor did I enjoy driving in general – my learner’s permit expired twice and I put off getting my actual license until I was 17), but the Engineer takes us on a back road that winds through picturesque, tiny towns and the fields between them.  I want to stop and explore them, tease out the stories hidden here out of sight of the main highway.

This drive is so different from the definition I usually value.  My drive requires action and decisiveness.  A journey, however, requires only that you eventually reach a destination.  It doesn’t matter whether we take the usual route or explore a new one and get hopelessly lost.  Even the past participles take on different meanings: to be driven as seen on a resume is to be catapulted forward through life by one’s own energy.  It’s grammatically passive, but since the push comes from oneself, driven-ness retains agency.

To be driven in a car, however, is truly passive.  It means trusting the driver and relinquishing a certain amount of control over the journey.

Sitting in the passenger seat, good music on the radio, the sun setting outside, and the Engineer next to me, it occurs to me that perhaps I could stand to make a little more room for that second definition of drive in my life.

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

 

 

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?

Walk Into the Club Like Wait, I Can’t Dance

I didn’t get invited to parties in high school. I don’t say this for sympathy, or to complain; honestly, I didn’t even know there was a party scene at my school because my circle of friends all hung out at the coffee shop at the bottom of the hill and didn’t care much for loud music and mind-altering substances. So it’s not like I ever really felt left out. I had my crowd, and the partiers had theirs. You do you.

Rather, I bring this up because that’s the only social situation I can really think of that might have helped me suppress my introversion to the point that I wouldn’t feel so supremely uncomfortable walking into a room where I don’t know anyone and where I am not completely certain that I’m welcome.

Cartoon from the fabulous Hyperbole and a Half
Cartoon from the fabulous Hyperbole and a Half which you should check out because it’s perfection.

For instance, I signed up for a gym membership on the island where I’ll be living this summer, so as not to negate all the progress the Southern Belle and I had made in Zumba during the school year.  But joining the classes means walking into the gym.  By myself.  Where people, stronger and fitter and taller people, are also working out.  And judging me.  Probably.  I feel like that would happen, anyway.  The employees will probably be perfectly happy to have me there – I did give them my money, after all – but the social situation of trying to improve myself while also being acutely aware that I’m in a group of complete strangers doesn’t exactly put me at ease.

And then tomorrow, my boss invited me to a writing group at the coffee shop on the end of the pier.  Now, I’ve never been part of a writing group before.  And I will know someone there (my boss) and I have been explicitly invited (again, by my boss).  But I can just picture myself walking in, laptop in hand, pulling up a chair to the corner of the table because of course there won’t actually be room for me, so right away I’ll be inconveniencing the people who have probably been coming there forever, and then I’ll have such bad writer’s block that I’l end up just rereading that horrible, horrible mystery story I tried to write in 5th grade and slink out at the end of the meeting, aware of my own utter lack of talent and convinced that everyone else could tell I didn’t deserve to be there.

Yeah, even as I write that it sounds ridiculous and a little paranoid.

The fact is, everyone at the gym will probably be in their own little world, just like me, and some of them might even be encouraging.  And the people at the writing group will probably be perfectly welcoming and eager to hear what I’m writing about and want to motivate everyone in the group to just get writing, no matter how terrible the first draft might be.

But this is how I feel anytime I walk into an unfamiliar place, like a gym or a writing group, on my own.  I can’t seem to shake the idea that I am somehow lacking, that I will be intruding if I ask for guidance or friendship, that I am annoying the one person I do know by sticking so close to them but also will commit some kind of social sin if I try to branch out on my own.  I feel like I stick out like Elle Woods in her bunny costume at her first Harvard party.

I may be faking it pretty well.  I may even be socializing even better than I think I am.

But all I really want to do is go home and read with a cup of coffee.  It’s so much easier to introduce my awkward self to the world through the written word, like this blog.  Socializing is hard, guys.

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.

Dead Time

A week is a weird amount of time. It’s both too long and too short. Too long to feel like it’s okay to take an entire seven days off. Too short to feel like there’s enough time to truly accomplish anything.

At least, that’s how I feel as I try to decide how many t-shirts to unpack in my wispy peach colored bedroom for the next week before I move up to the Engineer’s grandparents’ house to start my internship.

I dislike teetering on the cusp of things. I dislike the buildup to the downward plunge. (As you might guess, I also hate roller coasters.)  I dislike anticipating change for so long that all I can do is sit around making plan after plan.  Don’t get me wrong – I dislike sudden change, too, but at least I can spring into action and deal with it.  It’s far worse in my mind to have to simply, as someone once put it to me, sit with the uncertainty.

So this feels more like spring break than summer, which means I feel like I should have homework and be living out of a suitcase instead of unpacking and catching up on Once Upon A Time.  It seems as though this is simply the waiting room, and I have yet to be ushered into my actual summer.  Any routines I establish this week will be upended on Saturday when I leave again anyway.  And yet, if I get into that vacation mindset, I’m worried I’ll lose my momentum for productivity.

Part of me is simply eager to get started on an amazing new job.  Part of me is impatient to have a routine I can stay comfortably ensconced in for the next three months.  Part of me is frustrated that, like the month and half of last summer spent preparing for the Big Exciting Thing, I am once again simply drifting in a kind of limbo.

Why can’t I just rush through it in a peppy montage and let the music fade as I drive into the town where I’ll be spending the summer?

Of course I love spending time at home with my family.  Of course I love getting to have some time to recharge after a semester of craziness.  Still, it’s difficult for me, as I’ve admitted before, to slow down for too long.  (And I really am excited about this internship.)

Feminism and Texting Family Members

“Take your boyfriend with you.”

I had just texted my dad that the teeny-tiny cracks spidering up the side edge of my phone, which hadn’t been a problem up until now, had left a snowflake of glass in the flesh between my forefinger and my thumb yesterday.  He said that the Phone Store should replace it, no problem.  Then my screen flashed again with a second text.

“Take your boyfriend with you.”

Now why should I have to do that?  Why should I have to drag the Engineer along as a buffer so the Phone Store Employees won’t sneer at me and patronizingly tell me that the only way I get a new phone is with a new contract that will (obviously) cost my father millions?

The Engineer, as much as I love him, is useless when it comes to my phone.  He can’t figure out touchscreens to save his life.  He has a flip phone with a QWERTY keyboard and is quite happy with it.  But the Phone Store Employees will not know that.  They will know only that he is a man, and therefore automatically more knowledgeable of technology and money-handling in general and less likely to be trifled with than me, a woman.

Grr.

I don’t blame my dad for this.  Honestly, I’ve never particularly enjoyed going in to try to get someone to replace or repair something for me without an adult there.  But I’ve also grown up around my mother, who can make a grown man turn pale in the face of her righteous indignation when she is dissatisfied.  Not that she flies into a rage if her soup is tepid, but she also isn’t one to back down if something needs to be made right.  As I tentatively step into adulthood, I’m slowly learning to hold my ground and evenly ask for decent treatment and service, the way my mom has my whole life while my dad was off on trips for the airline.  I may be a daddy’s girl in some cases (if I were at home, I would probably barely look up from my laptop long enough to hand Dad my phone to go get it fixed, but that’s mostly because I’m lazy), but here at school, I do have to run my own errands, fill up my own car, take care of my own apartment, etc.  And why shouldn’t that independence of school life extend to getting a warrantied phone replaced?

Furthermore, it’s a sign of a deeper societal issue that Dad didn’t even have to explain why he thought I should take my knight in shining armor with me.  He wasn’t suggesting it as a date idea – our family has some weird ideas about love, but getting a phone replaced is not exactly a typical couples activity – nor was he saying that the Engineer should tag along to learn the ropes of getting Phone Store Employees to listen to him.  The implied subtext, the only underlying message that makes sense as Society has taught us, is that I needed the Engineer, the man in my life in a protective role, to accompany me the same way my other friend did to the mechanic’s last semester, and for the same reason: that I would not be taken seriously on my own.

ADDENDUM: According to the Commodore, the acceptable reason that you should ever have to have a male accompany you anywhere is just in case you need someone to sacrifice in Trial By Combat.  Obviously, since we are Strong, Independent, 21st Century Women, we could handle such a challenge on our own, but it’s much more convenient bringing someone to sacrifice in our stead.  These things happen.

Making a List and Checking It a Lot

This couldn’t be happening. It was always right here. I put it in my backpack every single morning – how could I possibly have forgotten?

But my beautiful, organized, color-coded, checklist-sporting planner was conspicuously absent from the set of binders and notebooks in my backpack. An empty pocket where my life should be.

This may sound a bit overdramatic, but it wasn’t until I had to spend the day without my planner that I realized how much I use it. It’s not so much the actual planning – I can remember assignments pretty well, and there’s always the syllabus if something slips my mind – but the security blanket part of it. You see, I love to make lists. Lists of chores, lists of assignments, lists of miscellaneous emails that need to be sent, lists of time slots in which to accomplish each of these separate, color-coded sets of things. It has become my habit to rewrite, reorganize, and otherwise revamp any and all of these lists whenever I’m bored, nervous, stressed, or overwhelmed (oh look, there’s two lists in this sentence alone!) or at intervals throughout the day. It’s how I convince myself that I have my life together. My planner gives me the proverbial handle on things. When I flip through and see the scribbled beauty of its check marks and highlights, it both soothes and empowers me, like the montage of Elle Woods buckling down and kicking ass at school while “Watch Me Shine” plays in the background. (I may or may not also watch that montage whenever I need some quick motivation.)

So at first, I felt adrift without my planner there to guide me. I reached for it at all the usual times. When Spanish class got boring, I made do with scribbling funny nicknames on my boyfriend’s practice test, to which he retaliated by adding “Her Majesty” to my own name. When I had to go last for a presentation, I made mental notes and adjustments to my prepared talk and asked a few questions of the two people who had gone before me. Now, as I sit at work waiting for people to walk in (I’m on receptionist duty this hour), I’m working on another post for this poor, neglected blog.

Generally, when life is a bit too much, seeing it all written down and prioritized helps me stave off anxiety and further stress – as I said before, a security blanket. But maybe, just maybe, I need to put the planner down every once in a while. I did survive a whole day without it and I didn’t go too crazy. Besides, what good is there in being organized if I’m not really present?

Selecting a Library For Optimal Productivity

I have learned that I cannot do homework at home.

It’s just too hard to focus in a place that I associate with relaxation and hours of catching up on Hulu Plus. And I don’t want my apartment to become a place that I solely associate with homework, because then the stress and anxiety will just follow me home. So I decided to do the typical student thing and go to the library.

But I don’t like my on-campus library – half the shelves are empty, and the study carrels are carved up with generations of initials and crude drawings of genitals, and someone’s cell phone inevitably goes off and someone else is always laughing and it just doesn’t feel like a library. The other campus library, for engineering and science majors, though not actually exclusive to those areas of study, is little better.

The Honors library, on the other hand, is just quiet enough, with cozy window seats and cushiony armchairs and soft lighting. But it’s also incredibly small, and depending on the number of strangers in there, it can feel a bit like you’ve intruded on someone else’s class, which makes it difficult if you want to study with a friend. We can’t all have study partners like Elle Woods when she’s cramming for her LSATs.

My third and final option, then, was the public library downtown. This required driving, which was just as well since I left my laptop at home and would have had to drive home and back anyway. Off I went, laptop in tow, and I settled into a comfy chair in a back corner of the library surrounded by windows and the pleasantly gray day outside and I read my homework and made my discussion post and worked on my resume and just like that I had done everything I needed to do except go shopping.

Lesson? Libraries are magic.