On the Liberal Arts and Parachutes, Part I

Expecting a 17-year old to choose a life path is like asking a third-grader to create a financial portfolio for 2021. Sure, there are the occasional kids who are wired with pragmatism and wisdom beyond their years. But for the most part, these developing minds aren’t any more equipped to predict their future desires than they are to sign a debt-inducing promissory note that will haunt them for years down the road.

But four years of college is the American way for the middle class. Unlike my grandparents, who came to this country after the Holocaust without a penny to their name, I grew up in a house where going to college wasn’t an option; it was the next step after high school. This was a stark contrast from my father’s life, which, as a first-generation American, did not entail such a definitive path. Instead of hitting the books, he worked. Back in the olden days of the 1960s, college wasn’t a necessary or assumed step. So he forewent higher education in search of work – selling shoes, managing restaurants and eventually to owning a small retail business.

It was this business that put me through school in the hopes that I would make a better, easier (presumably white-collar) life for myself. I was lucky. I grew up watching my father leave before the sun came up to commute into the city and arrive home far past my bedtime. Education was supposed to be my ticket to avoiding this.

My parents weren’t thrilled at my choice to get an English degree, or later, a master’s in creative writing that I have come to deem my “master of arts and crafts.” What they fail to tell you as a wide-eyed teenager is that a liberal arts degree, though useful for developing critical thinking skills and expanding one’s mind, does nothing to prepare a student for the Real World. I didn’t know that English was the color of my parachute; but 17-year old me would not be caught dead getting a business degree. I was a writer. I was going to make documentaries and save the world and rawr riot grrrrrl.

English majors are a special breed. The English building at my school was at the South Pole of campus, a solid 35-minute walk from my dorm. I traipsed across the grassy pathways and found myself in front of an entrance that reeked of Marlboro Lights, t-shirts commemorating The Cure and the occasional Renaissance-inspired ensemble. Inside, we discussed worn novels with tiny notes inscribed on the edges and listened to each other wax philosophical on post-modernism and the Southern Gothic. I found solace in the rants of my classmates about why Hemingway was actually a feminist, even when I knew it was nothing more than marijuana-induced, masturbatory, right-brain dribble. We were THINKERS. The world was our oyster, its pages lined with all that we needed to know.

Imagine my surprise when I started working as a corporate proposal writer two weeks after graduation. Oh, the horror of cubicles and phrases like “value-added” and the sad little brown-bag lunches that my coworkers ate at their desks. Learning the cold, hard truth that my ability to excel in British Literature did not matter when it came to “impacting change.” Or that people would cringe when I responded to the obligatory “were you in any clubs in school” with “I produced the Vagina Monologues.” (Corporate America did not like to be reminded that it had genitalia.)

Why did the sales team, comprised mostly of men of a certain age with a fondness for arena rock, think that I could staple copies any better than the rest of them? And for the sake of all things holy, DID NO ONE HERE CARE ABOUT THE EGREGIOUS USE OF THE SEQUENTIAL COMMA?

The answer to all of these questions, I learned, was that I was in the Real World. Where absolutely nothing I had learned in the past four years could be applied to the actual work I was doing. Sure, I could dot I’s and cross T’s. My saving grace was having worked for my school newspaper, where I learned how to “thrive in a deadline-driven environment,” a phrase gleaned directly from my current resume.

My parents were thrilled I had acquired a job so quickly. Even though I hated every second of it. “Stick with it,” they said. “You are one of the lucky ones.”

That’s exactly what I did for the next 7.5 years – I stuck with the idea that I was an English major, and I was supposed to be dotting I’s and crossing T’s. I could always try to make it as a Writer, but that didn’t involve health insurance. And not having health insurance meant that I was asking to get hit by a bus, a fear my Jewish mother instilled in me early on. My string of writing jobs in various capacities did afford me some good times and better friends; my  stint at a small advertising agency was one of my favorite jobs to-date. But eventually I moved away and desk life began to wear on me. Writing for pay in a windowless office on someone else’s schedule was sucking the fun out of…writing for fun. And writing jobs in New York – corporate, university, nonprofit – are a breed of their own. I will happily work as a freelance writer any day – but the thought of going back to full-time desk life is enough to propel me through a drastic career change.

As I sit here on my second-to-last day of desk life, I am pushing away the fear of embarking upon an adventure into the sciences – to what will eventually be nursing. Seeing as how I took one biology class in four years of college, this shift is nothing if not drastic. But it is necessary. Rawr grrrrl power.

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Law and Disorder

Dear citizens of New York City, you can all rest assured tonight knowing that your tax dollars are being put to good use. In order to keep potential evil-doers away from children, the city is now giving court summons to anyone seen in a playground without a child. And instead of letting said offenders pay a fine, they are required to go to court and use the city’s resources for hours on end, only to pay a $25 fine and leave.

I lived in Baltimore for three years, and let me tell you – for a place that inspired “The Wire,” (which, yes, is an accurate depiction*) its Department of Parking is nestled on the efficiency scale between the near-infinite-yet-brisk-line at any NYC Whole Foods and a German-engineered automobile. In other words, a city whose law enforcement can’t control its homicide rate invests a suspicious amount of resources in ensuring your car will be egregiously ticketed and/or towed if you are nine seconds late to feed your meter/move your vehicle.

Such backwards practices manifest themselves differently in New York, where I was issued a court summons at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon for sitting in a playground without a minor present. In New York, there is a difference between a park and a playground, the latter being a location that only welcomes those over 18 when accompanied by those under 18. In other words, if you are looking for a green space to eat your lunch after being trapped in a windowless office, you’re safer loitering outside a business next to a pan-handler. Then again, I’m not a lawyer, so don’t quote me.

I’m all about protecting the children. But the fact that I was accosted in the middle of the afternoon by two police officers who pulled me and a five-foot tall college student who was waiting in the park to meet her client, a nine-year old boy with autism, is not helping anyone. There was a regulation we were not aware of, and while it seems ridiculous, I understand. We were not given a warning, despite being confused as to why we were in trouble – we were simply written up a court summons and told that we had to appear.

Perhaps the two officers had nothing better to do, like catch an actual criminal? I mean, didn’t they realize that I had to use a whole personal day to go to court? GOSH.

The night before my court date, I spent a long time picking out my most Mature and Responsible-Looking Outfit. I pondered such questions as: Can I bring a gym bag to court? Is there a coat check? If I was already going to be downtown, I’d want to get a workout in.

When I got in line, I was appalled to see that out of the thirtysome people waiting outside – including those who failed to put their dogs on leashes, jaywalkers and those in parks after sunset – I was overdressed. Well, me and the Young Republican standing behind me, both of us schvitzing in our suit jackets.

I spent three hours waiting in awful florescent lighting, only to approach the judge’s bench and be told that I could plead guilty and pay a $25 fine.

“What does pleading guilty mean? Will I have a record?” I asked the judge, a dead-ringer for Colonel Sanders.

“Oh of course not,” he replied, laughing (laughing? In court?). “It’s not a criminal offense. You could plead guilty and still run for Senate.”

So, the city needs money and the police officers have to fill their ticket quota. Fine. But why not just give out a ticket, let “offenders’ plead guilty by mail and send in a check? I don’t think the streets are any safer, and I can’t imagine how many resources were wasted on this.

On the plus side, I made a friend – we’ll call him Jim – who asked what I was doing in court. I told him I was in a park without a child. “But you’re a woman,” he said. “I know, right?” I replied, totally getting where he was coming from. (Of all times to be given an equal opportunity, couldn’t the fact that having a vagina makes me less likely to steal a child work for me JUST THIS ONCE?) Jim wore a stained, oversized t-shirt and a pair of pants big enough for a family of four. He was contesting a ticket for possessing an open container – but like me, he was “targeted and set up.” Before we parted ways, I wanted to tell him that maybe it would be in his best interest to remove his backwards baseball hat. Then again, I’m not a lawyer, so I kept it to myself.

*I have never seen “The Wire,” but this lie is much more of a crowd-pleaser.

Happy Three-Year Anniversary, New York

Dear New York,

We’ve had a rough go. Over the course of the last 1,095 days, I have threatened to leave you for temperate climates, cities with symmetry, and nature that wasn’t imported.

You beat me down. I didn’t think I would make it through my first winter. Windy and gray, I trudged through the subway, the bottoms of my pants sagging from the wet ground, collecting all the particles of whoever came before me. It was musty and foggy, a mix of cold bodies seeking refuge in humid train cars. I couldn’t remember what streets the express train skipped. I had no connotations attached to uptown and downtown. I couldn’t carry my groceries.brooklyn

The subway, a maze of lines and colors, gritty and raw like a person born inside-out. You can see all the passageways and arteries bustling with people, hear the bongos and lonely poets begging for change. How many people are below ground at any given moment? We are living half in and half out of daylight.

I moved here with no job, no plans. We couldn’t fit the couches through the door. The cats hated each other. There was no air conditioning. I merged two friends from different phases of my life into a three-bedroom apartment further off the F-train than I would have liked. It was hot. You feel everything more here – distance, weather, weight, because you walk it, you are in it, you carry it.

It was the year of my sad, barely 18 months since my father died. Prior to moving, I was a full-time graduate student, a full-time copywriter, and a prospective law student. I would come home from work, piece together my graduate thesis and study for the LSAT. I didn’t have time to breathe. I didn’t want to.

What ensued was a year and a half of chaos. Isolation. I had been go, go, going for so long, fueled by what lay ahead, entropy, and Lexapro. If I hadn’t kept my gaze affixed on the horizon, I would have drowned. I didn’t need the now. I didn’t tread water. I paddled faster and faster and faster and hoped the shoreline would appear.

They say the first year after someone dies is the hardest. (It’s not.) The first year is raw. People call more often, send cards, ask how you are doing. Talk about it. They are delicate. And then life beats on and the pain becomes an ache beneath your chest. The skin grows back. It looks better. (It’s not.)

The layers of the city seem endless. You can keep going down deeper and deeper into the subway tunnels, the August heat so thick you can see it. Sometimes you are three, four levels down – no one tells you how far, but you find yourself climbing for what seems like hours to emerge. I imagined these were the layers of sadness. I tried to go further to the heart of it, get to the source. There was the “I,” the “you,” the lack of time. Loss was a silhouette next to the shape of missing.

They say life is short, but we only seem to remember when we are happy.

I am water. I am weightless. I am falling.

It is the second year that stings the most. The truth is an anchor. The mail is less frequent, you learn to check the “deceased” box at the doctor, and the questions stop coming. They say “passed,” you say “dead.” Semantics don’t matter. I packed my bags, set the compass north with a brick on the accelerator, and scattered my heart across state lines like ashes. I was reckless with my feelings, with the feelings of my friends. I was angry.

I want to say that New York saved me, but it was me who saved me. I was a displaced person, having never left my home state for two degrees and two big-girl jobs. But it wasn’t home anymore. My limbs had grown too long and heavy for its shelter. I scratched at my sleeves and rolled them up further and my arms got cold.

New York didn’t confine me. It allowed me to fall apart. They say we are a heartless, angst-ridden people. I say we talk louder, walk faster, and need each other more.

You learn how to make a home out of tiny spaces, you keep these things with you. You partake in one of the most juxtaposed class divides in the world. But the difference is, you have made this choice. This is not the easy way. It’s how we want it.

We live next door to artists and millionaires, widows who’ve laid claim to the neighborhood decades before their fingertips yellowed and wrinkled from the Camels. Families just beginning, middle-aged lovers beginning again.

Our lives are nothing like our neighbors’.

We are on the front line. We are ready. We never go home. The city is our structure, its streets are our living rooms. We consolidate. We need things less and people more.

I learned to lean. To say, “I can’t.” To be underemployed and complain about it, to be unemployed and not complain about it. We learn to speak in many tongues, we cannot avoid people unlike ourselves. (We learn that we really aren’t all that different.)

I love this city. I breathe it. I stare at the skyline from my apartment, cluttered with photo frames, mix-matched furniture, massive bookshelves, a TV set presumably older than me that I still don’t understand how to work. There is no such thing as storage, no privacy. We spill out of closets and windows, off balconies and into the small, green spaces.

My friends elsewhere are buying houses and making investments. I am investing in my Tuesday evening. I always carry a pair of sensible shoes and a toothbrush.

I walk home with my keys laced between my fingers.

I am ready to see it. To accept that if I walk around with my fists up, I’ll miss the sun. Suffocate from the synthetic skin of my boxing gloves, only to realize I missed the day waiting in the ring for an opponent.

I love this city, but more importantly, I love how I have come to love it. I stayed because I didn’t know where else to go. Sometimes we must sit with the uncomfortableness until it becomes home. I’ve always planned for the future or dwelled on the past. I want it to be 1998, I want it to be 2003. I miss my first love, I miss my old jeans, I miss the sound of my father’s keys hitting the counter at night.

I have learned to forgive myself, because the city will not. Other people might not. It doesn’t matter. It is noise.

Respectfully yours,

L

She’s crafty: The road to minimalism and budgetry

I am not what you would call “thrifty.” While I love a good bargain as much as the next brokester, I can’t part with free-range eggs, perfume, or herbal teas with positive affirmations and Chinese proverbs.

Even Sarah Palin can't ruin an uplifting tea bag.

After getting laid off in August, I’ve been forced to reevaluate more than just my budget. I’ve never made that much money as a writer, but I did have perks like health insurance, subsidized transportation, and ample vacation time. And when this gets taken away all of a sudden, you have to make choices.

As the cold, Northeast winter plows through the city, I find myself more content to stay inside my apartment and avoid what some people call “the outside world.” This has been a conscious effort to slow down, eat less restaurant food, and learn to enjoy the stillness of being alone. I’m cooking like a fiend, I vowed to use the National Book Award winners from 1964-present as my reading list, and I am learning to cherish solitude more than I had thought. It has helped cut down on my spending, largely unnecessary odds and ends like bottled water, meals on-the-go, and impulsive buys in the checkout line.

I’m getting better at carrying around snacks and not being lured by sale signs and coupons that teach us to spend more. It’s ingrained in our culture to spend. We associate possessions with actual human emotions–which is exactly the excuse I have been using for years.

And then I think of the New York Times article I read last summer that has yet to leave my head. It illustrated the link between (or lack thereof) having possessions and happiness. The piece highlighted a California couple who left their 9-5 jobs, sold most of their worldly goods, and downsized to a Portland, OR studio. In the end, the Mrs. was happier not being bound to Cubicle Land all day and the Mr. could pursue a PhD full-time. The concept that money can’t buy you happiness has become an even stronger mantra in this rugged economy, and I welcome the success stories:

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it…

Having recently downsized to smaller living quarters myself, I admired this exercise in minimalism. I dropped off an embarrassing number of trash bags of clothing and goods to Goodwill. At first the thought of parting with so much baggage–literally–was terrifying to my sentimental soul. I’ll save an unwearable, pit-stained t-shirt from 8th grade if it reminds me of the third time I played mini-golf. But as I piled my goods high, it began to feel liberating. I had to stop myself from purging so much that I’d need to replace essential pieces.

I’m slowly learning that my belongings are just “things.” And “money is only paper,” as my father used to say. It’s sometimes hard to remember this whilst gasping aloud at the electric bill–TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS?!–but it’s important to try.

As a friend recently told me, “you have a roof over your head, food in your fridge, and friends who love you. You’re fine.” Ain’t that the truth.

All of this extra time to think and explore other options–like freelance copy writing and magazine writing–has been an enriching experience. I am happier now carving out my own career path than I was before, tied to a job that paid the bills but didn’t fit me.

There are also some pointers, noted below, that I would like to share with the budget-conscious.

Tiny Changes! Big Differences!

No cheese

No cheddar is better.

Stop buying cheese. And all the vegans exhale a collective “duh.” My brother recently said he will know he made it when he stops looking at the price of a nice chunk of Manchego. As much as I flirt with veganism and tolerate lactose as well as the eyeballs tolerate direct sunlight, dairy is delicious and expensive. (Also, vegans are ruining my baking, and so help me Mother Earth if I ever make a cake with margarine again.)

Samples are your friend. I love Sephora almost as much as I love dogs in Snuggies. And while I used to be liberal about buying make-up as needed, I realized I can just pop into the closest Sephora before a night out. Or to give myself a hair and face tune-up when I’m on the run and my locks are flat. And there’s Sephora, like a oasis of sparkles in a desert of concrete, just waiting for me to come and sample its dry shampoo and lip gloss.

Now that I think about this, I am getting over mono…Investigate.

Sell your stuff on Ebay. It’s hard to break out of the laziness of not caring enough to post it on eBay. But my two dear friends have recently become moguls from selling their abundance of 80s cartoon paraphernalia like the He-Man and She-Ra action figures, et al. I promise you that someone out there wants your Sega Game Gear. I can only hope said person also wants my size 12 boots.

Blow this. A roll of toilet paper at the bodega is way less than a pack of tissues. Your nose will never know the difference. But make sure you bring your messenger bag to house the roll.

Exchange magazines. Get your timely news from the interweb and read your friends’ hand-me-downs for leisure reading. No one will judge you too harshly if you’re a month behind on “Garden and Gun.” Bambi’s mom will thank you.

Memory

I have been here before.

You were just learning how to walk, you wobbled around in the unfinished basement of a model home, glass bottle in hand. Everyone used glass back then. After the fall, Mom switched to plastic, and it wasn’t until years later that we’d learn what seemed softer was more harmful. Then you were crying, the realtor was next to Mom, who was on the floor, there was blood and we were driving and I was sad for you. I didn’t like it when you cried. I remember the waiting room in flashes, I remember I wasn’t scared. Dad was there. Mom was there. Dad gave me M&Ms, you came out with a bandage on your face. They said you would be fine.

Dad was there.

My phone rings. I am at brunch with Debra, we talk about boys and girls, or men and women, I can’t keep track. I feel 12 on some days, 19 on most — it’s my default age. Probably because my mother told me she cried when she turned 20. My creative writing teacher said, “if we really peaked in college, life would be depressing.”

You send a text message to say you’re in the hospital. You are coherent enough to type, you know your name, “I’m just really banged up. Be ready.”

There are no questions. We pay the bill.

I don’t cry when I see your bruised face or your toes hanging off the edge of the hospital bed. Dad had the same problem, and he was a good six inches taller. I don’t cry when you tell me you can’t remember what happened, or when I see dried tears mixed with blood in the outer crevice of your eye, or even when I see how much you look like him lying down. It had been so long.

You aren’t in the pediatric ward.

The florescent lights are so familiar, they make everyone look sterile and anonymous, they even the playing field.

Mom said riding the bike was dangerous, you said millions of people do it every day.

I think about the hazards of being alive, how even the air can hurt us. We have no choice but to inhale, we do this knowingly.

I think about how we bother to love, how we trade an unknown number of years of lovely for an unknown number of years of lonely, how we say we’ll take it all, when it comes with a price. Hearts break like collar bones and facial bones and teeth when they hit pavement. Respirators keep us breathing and promises keep us going if they’re true (but we won’t stop making them either way).

Then there are four of us. Debra, me, Cousin Jordan, who is visiting, and you. Debra finds a nurse to dress your wounds, Jordan makes phone calls. This is what family looks like, I think. This is how it evolves, shifts, we become separated by geography and the tenses in which we exist.

I take a picture of your face, it is fine on one side and battered on the left. “I’m Harvey Dent,” you say. We use my phone to make a video of you as the villain from Batman and Debra is horrified and Jordan is horrified. There are seven police officers in plain view, and we are the only ones laughing. I know it simultaneously hurts your insides and feels good to laugh. “This is what happens when someone dies,” we say, trying to make light of stiff hospital beds and intermittent beeping. “But no one is dying,” they say. And we know it is just for us, we don’t have to explain, it doesn’t matter.

And earlier that day I was with Jordan, we were talking like grown-ups do. We never talked like this, about the things that matter, women dating women and what it means to date to the dismay of the family. He told me how his parents don’t like his sister’s non-Jewish boyfriend and I said, “my mother gave up on religion when gender became an issue.”

And I don’t know what it takes to not care about these things. What it takes to see the weight of our impact, glass shards and potholes, gaps in the places we thought we could love.

In the moment of impact, he saw you heading for the pothole, he reached down and cushioned your fall, gently turned your neck to the side, it was the best he could do. He blew as hard as he could to divert the wind and all the tiny dust in the air pushed itself one way so your left side absorbed the force.

He steered your mind somewhere peaceful so the memory is a five-second flash of sun/officer/ambulance/”I can move my limbs”/hospital.

I start crying on the way home when there is nothing to say, when you realize it is 9:00 p.m. and you haven’t seen the outside since 2:00. It is dark and the day went somewhere, but you aren’t sure where. You exhale a quiet, “thank you” and I remember we are breathing.

The greatest business card known to humankind

In the 80s, they said the business card was the window to the soul. Although times have changed, we still have a vehicle to tell us what someone’s truly all about (the Twitter feed).

Call Me

Seven letters put to good use.

But despite advances in technology, there is something to be said for the tools of yesterday; a lonely TV/VCR combo I recently threw away; the record player that increases my cool-points by 4%; an address book that lives in a drawer, not on a laptop or a smartphone.

The part of me that refuses to buy an e-reader will always appreciate a fine paper good. So I had to share the business card that my brother recently obtained at a show from comedienne Rose Surnow.

Clearly, this is a woman who gets it.

Bed bugs run rampant, fear of furniture rises

Remember being told, “goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite?” It was a popular phrase amongst youngsters donning footie pajamas as their caretakers tucked them in with a lullaby and a kiss.

"Free Couch (bug-free)"

But ever since New York Magazine crowned bed bugs “the new STD,” no one is safe from the critters that seek refuge in warm, soft fabrics, wood surfaces and human flesh.

In a city where old mattresses and other housewares of the plush variety often line the sidewalks, more and more I find myself going to great lengths to avoid being within eight inches of said displays. The intricate zigging and zagging on the streets has become the new dance of local pedestrians. We can’t take the chance that one of those tiny parasites will proceed to leap onto our sweaters and make a meal out of us when we give in to REM sleep.

In order to accommodate eager dumpster divers street shoppers, those looking to free-cycle or unload their most precious possessions have had to get crafty in their marketing.

Take note of the couch that I was tempted to take (pictured above) after I read the fine print, indicating that it was, in fact, bug-free. But let’s weigh our options here: stick with Karlstaad, my trusty, half broken IKEA couch; or invest in this free gem that could require my apartment to be quarantined while my face explodes into a minefield of red bites. Survey says: sub-par Swedish furniture!