Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I just spent a weekend at my alma mater. This has been happening once a year lately, when a bunch of alums from my, let's say, vintage converge on the campus and behave as badly as possible. I manage to go through most of life as a responsible and mature woman, meeting my obligations, safe to invite to events. Why is it that I drive five and a half hours, go through the campus gates, get out of my car, and am suddenly an 18 year-old again?

This phenomenon is not unique to my campus or age group. I watch this same thing every June in my hometown, when middle-aged graduates of the local college take over my neighborhood for their alumni weekend. They tailgate, take over the neighborhood bars, march hungover down the street in a parade; they leave the campus as much of a mess as we must have left our campus on Sunday. Homecoming weekend here is even more of a boozefest each fall, when the Lafayette/Lehigh football game leads hundreds of people who should know better to get day drunk.

In my real life I spend my weekends participating in activities that don't feature quantities of alcohol. In my real life, I don't go to a dining hall for a "breakfast" that consists of half a pound of bacon, steam table eggs, grits, and, in order to pretend I'm healthy, one piece of fruit. In my real life I don't follow that up with a lunch that consists of grilled cheese, corn pudding, and dessert, then begin happy hour at 3 PM. In my real life, when I go listen to a band, I don't join the people rushing the stage to dance behind the band, only to repeatedly be chased off said stage by campus security.

I did learn an important lesson this weekend, though: no matter how stupid I may act, there's always someone else about whom I can say, "At least I'm not that girl." At least I'm not that girl who tore apart her banquet centerpiece and threw the boxwoods at the band, soaking the guitarist. At least I'm not that girl who put pieces of her centerpiece in her hair, leaving her looking much like Pocahontas. At least I wasn't having sex with my date and calling it dancing. Yes, true, I didn't have a date, but still, I wasn't that girl. I was not the girl wearing a gown more fit for a beauty pageant and spilling out of it. I was not the girl who attempted to run a lap around the indoor track suspended above the dance floor and who was chased down by security, although that girl was from my group.

I was plenty of things. I was a grown-up behaving like a child. I was having fun. The only thing I wasn't, was that girl.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Away from the Fray

I'm back, after a little over a week spent nearly entirely off-line. I just felt like a break from my computer, and I have to say that staying away wasn't really all that hard. I did answer email because ignoring that would have felt like not picking up the phone, and also because I have to email for work, but for 10 days I didn't blog or read blogs, didn't check on Facebook or Twitter, didn't go to any websites for news or reviews or for anything. I was completely status update free.

I've spent most of my life without the internet; I'm old enough that I didn't even own a computer until well after college. This habit of getting up in the morning and immediately sitting down in front of the keyboard to find out what happened overnight is relatively recent, even if it feels as if I've been reading Slate and Salon forever. I have to say, though, that old media also does the trick. It's still possible to read the newspaper and be caught up. Being informed does not have to equal immediacy. Roman Polanski was just as arrested 12 hours after the fact as he was the second the story broke.

The truly freeing part of the past 10 days, though, has been my freedom from posting anything, anywhere. I write this blog mainly for myself, because I like to write and because writing this helps force me to engage with various topics and helps me to think about things. However, after 20 months, I do go through periods where thinking about new things and then writing about them is a chore. It can be hard to have something to say several days a week, and to remove that pressure for a week felt great. This is precisely why I don't Twitter: I'd drive myself crazy with the pressure to be interesting a day long, and no one is interesting all day long. I'm barely interesting two or three times a week. Taking some time to recharge offline helped me to see that, yes, I do like the time I spend here or on Facebook or wherever, but that I have to see it as leisure and not as work. I have to treat it as leisure and not as work.

The ability to keep up with everything and everyone is an opportunity, but going away once in a while is also an opportunity. Away from the computer I got more book-reading done, spent more time outside my house, spent more time with the living and breathing. I'm back now, recharged, but an offline respite is definitely something I highly recommend.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What to Watch

I'm a huge fan of The Wire, still mourning the fact that the series ended. If, like me, you need a fix of gritty reality, tune in to the Sundance Channel next week for the documentary mini-series Brick City (it airs M-F at 10 PM). It's probably unfair to compare the two, as The Wire was realistic fiction while Brick City is reality without fiction, but the focus on lives large and small and on the ways various people struggle to find meaning in the middle of crushing poverty, racism, and crime, and the ways these same people must function within and against institutions while they carry on this struggle, is the thematic center of both series. If you loved one, you'll love the other.

Brick City presents approximately six months in the life of Newark, NJ. We watch first-term mayor Cory Booker cheerlead, exhort, and politically manipulate. We watch Booker's new Director of Police attempt to reform the department, focus on Comstat in attempting to reduce the murder rate, and battle against the old school Chief of Police for control of the men. We watch Jayda, an ex-Blood, and her boyfriend Creep, an ex-Crip, attempt to make a life together and raise a family despite the odds. We watch the residents of Newark's Central Ward fight to get a new high school opened, and we watch the principal and vice-principal of that school fight to keep their students in the classroom and off the streets.

Because this is reality rather than fiction, small plot arcs structure the individual episodes, while the series begins and ends in medias res. Solutions to the failure of the American city are in short supply, and wouldn't be found in six months at any rate. If the series has a failing, however, it's the fact that it feels truncated; five hours is just enough to make you want to see more. All in all, it's worth watching, and undoubtedly better than whatever else is on weeknights at 10 PM. I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goodbye, Taste Buds

I understand that I'm getting older every day, but so far aging hasn't really been anything I've noticed. Sure, I've got some more gray in my hair and my metabolism has definitely changed, but my health has been good and I don't generally feel differently than I did, say, 20 years ago. With one small exception.

It started with sour mix. One day I was enjoying margaritas with impunity and the next two sips gave me heartburn. There's plenty of other alcoholic beverages in the world, though, so I simply stopped ordering margaritas. Then one day the heartburn after two sips started to apply to those "malt beverages" as well. Goodbye, Smirnoff Ice, farewell, Mike's Hard Lemonade. Not the biggest loss, but a loss nonetheless.

And now, suddenly, I can't eat garlic without being kept up all night chugging water, tasting it on my lips, feeling generally uncomfortable. Garlic powder is still fine, but I just can no longer do fresh garlic. This is a loss, but more important this is an event that makes me fear that I've taken the first step in a descent down the slippery slope that leads to an entirely bland diet. I'm now afraid that I'll wake up one day and will have turned into my grandmother, subsisting on a diet of boiled chicken and dessicated hard candy. Or that I'll wake up one day and after eating boiled chicken and dessicated hard candy will look through my pockets and discover them filled with emery boards, rain bonnets, and travel packs of tissues.

I don't like having to admit that I'm slowly aging, but who does? Yes, I'm still a long way from being restricted to soft food, but still. Garlic-free pesto? Tragic.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11

I'm not sure there's anything more to say about it. It shocked us, it saddened us, it happened. For months after we were all freaked out and scared and so we plastered flags all over the country. Where did all the flags go, I often wonder? I guess the basements of America are now filled with flags. In my basement, I have the commemorative 9/11 box of tissues I purchased at a mini-mart a couple of weeks later. Part of me couldn't believe that the event was being milked to sell tissues, and part of me knew that only in this country could an act of terrorism be turned into a marketing strategy.

How could we know, in the middle of shock and grief, the ways that event would change our world? At the time we couldn't see the wars to follow, one necessary and one useless. We couldn't see the ways a Presidency would be transformed, our government hardened. We couldn't see thousands of our servicepeople killed, thousands more returning home with PTSD, couldn't see that our relationship with a distant part of the world was damaged in ways armed might can't combat and probably still can't see that, even eight years later when war feels perpetual.

We said we'd never forget - the tissue box proclaims that in large type - but then except for this one day a year we did forget. Our President told us to go shopping, so we all took out subprime mortgages and bought houses in exurbs. We all went on with our lives, as survivors do. The world has changed not only because years have passed but because the events of that day helped to change it. It's important to take a minute to remember what happened and those who perished not only to honor them but to see clearly, even if just for a moment, where we are and how we got here.

The 21st century began eight years ago today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

As Always, It's All About Protein

When I look at my dog sleeping happily at my feet I don't wonder why he chooses to live with me rather than in the wild. He wouldn't survive a day in the wild, to be honest. He has absolutely no prey instinct, he refuses to be rained on, he hates cold, and he won't lie even on the floor without a pillow. He was born thoroughly domesticated, as dogs are these days.

The question of how wolves came be dogs has been pondered by researchers over and over again. Where were they domesticated, how, why? I've always figured that a couple of brave and friendly wolves were attracted by a fire and started spending nights sleeping by some of our ancestors, who started feeding them scraps. Then they started hunting together and hanging out 24/7, and before you know it the wolves were sleeping next to rather than near the humans, protecting the humans, helping out by pulling and carrying things for the humans, and a relationship that has lasted thousands of years was born. This is a happy story of codependency, but according to a story in yesterday's NY Times, it's bunk.

Using genetics, dogs have been traced back to one place of origin, a remote province of China. The disturbing thing is that this is one of those Chinese provinces where historically dogs are food, not pets. Thousands of years ago, once man had the ability to build cages and trap, wolves were caught and kept in pens, fattening up for the slaughter. Wolves came to live in proximity to humans not because wolves saw anything fortuitous in the relationship - what's good about being meat, after all - but because humans looked at wolves and saw lunch. Thus wolves began to be raised in captivity.

Travelers passing through this province then saw the wolves in cages, and instead of seeing lunch saw an animal that could be of some use for warmth, protection, hunting, hauling. They traded for these domesticated wolves and carried them off, dispersing them eventually throughout the known world. 10,000 or so years later you have Brody, shedding all over my pillow while he watches me type.

It's somewhat disturbing to rethink the whole human/canine relationship this way, but it also explains why, if wolves wanted to be domesticated, you never hear stories of humans camping and meeting some friendly wolves out in the wild. It also explains why dogs are so willing to be housebroken. It's not because they love us and want to please us, but because they don't want to be fileted.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Working on My Resume

I really should get a job. For a year I've been living on air, freelance work, and savings, and I'm tired of the schedule of no schedule. Of course, in order to get a job one has to look for a job, and in order to look for a job one has to update one's resume. I don't think there's any task more boring, more horrid, than writing a resume. In my last job I had to read plenty of resumes, so I can say with some authority that reading them is no more fun than writing them. Resumes suck.

I've always changed things on the resume around depending on the job to which I am applying, so that whatever aspects of my experience seems most relevant are brought to the foreground. What this means, practically, is hours spent reliving all the ridiculous and often boring tasks I've mastered at one point or another. Budgeting, for example. I was good with my budget in that I spent all of it every year. If you don't spend it all, it gets cut the next year. So every September I ordered office supplies, computer bags, crap I didn't need just to protect that particular budget line. Budget management means I'm good at spending money I don't have to.

"Managing support staff." That one means that I spent a year trying to get my assistant to show up for work one hour late rather than her preferred two hours late. This would work for about a week at a time. She'd arrive promptly at 10, then it would become 10:25, then 10:47, then we'd be back to two hours late, have a talk that would leave her mad at me, and begin the cycle all over again. I wonder if her resume features her experience "Managing Managers."

I was in charge of our company's crisis communications plan and in making sure that all of our offices had crisis communications plans of their own. This was mainly about PR crises, and was mainly about ensuring that only certain staff would talk to the press and controlling what would be said to the press, but the plan also had to include our potential response to various disasters. What would nuclear annihilation mean to our company? What statement do we make in the event of invasion by space aliens? If California drops into the Pacific, who is our spokesperson? I left the company before Katrina and was saddened to see that we somehow didn't make it into any of the press coverage since my planning had included responses to government indifference and incompetence (although I called that situation "acts of God").

Depending on the position my resume could also include planning and leading conference calls. Some days all I did was go from one conference call to another. Usually this was small groups, but sometimes I had to lead calls with 30 or so participants. Being on the phone with 30 people is a skill, believe me, particularly when you consider that 80% of those people were eating their lunch. At least it sounded that way. How do you compete with lunch? You can't, although on your resume you list your experience in "staff motivation."

Of course all work is cyclical. Some days and weeks I'd be incredibly busy, and then there would be days when I really didn't have that much to do. No one can know about any of this down time, however, or else you'll be given more work that you then have to delegate and oversee to completion. "Time management" becomes an essential skill. How do you make surfing the Web look like a work-related task? How many hours of solitaire can you play while pretending to write press releases? Without effective time management, you might end up actually busy all day, every day, and that's just not the desired measurable outcome.

The process of writing this post and thinking about my resume makes me see why I'd rather continue working for myself. If it weren't for paychecks and health insurance, would any of us go to an office five days a week? But the time has come, and I need to manage it. My resume awaits.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Holiday, Celebrate

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Labor Day was originally intended to celebrate the social and economic contributions of the labor movement to American society. So thank you, labor movement, for getting everyone a day off of work. Thank you, labor movement, for a long weekend of back-to-school sales at which underpaid workers with no benefits must labor while the rest of us grill hot dogs. Thanks, labor movement, for either lengthening or shortening summer, depending when the first Monday in September falls. I'm celebrating American labor the best way I know how this weekend: by doing absolutely nothing at all. I'm watching some tennis, I'm reading a book, and I'm bidding summer adieu with the sloth I didn't have time, this summer, to enjoy.

Have a great holiday weekend, and I'll be back Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Let's Hear It for 1987

The time has arrived to break out the shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans, pour some Chardonnay, give your dog a pretentious literary name, and settle in to an evening of thirtysomething. perhaps i should compose this post entirely in the lower-case? I won't do that, but I will express my happiness that at long last the series is being released on DVD. In the late 80s I religiously sat before the TV every Tuesday night at 10 to witness the trials and tribulations of this group of Philly yuppies.

I'm really not sure why this show spoke to me. At the time I was a decade younger than the protagonists, and an important decade at that. I had no youthful 60s idealism to lose, unless that idealism can take the form of a love of the Jackson 5. I was a poor graduate student who couldn't afford even an old Volvo and was years away from even the thought of undertaking a nightmare renovation of an Arts and Crafts home. I wasn't married, trying to be married, or fretting over the choice between raising children and having a career. In short, I had nothing in common with these characters, yet still I loved them. Perhaps there just really wasn't anything else good on TV, or perhaps it's something about Marshall Herskovitz, who 10 years earlier worked on Family, and who would go on, with Ed Zwick, to produce two of my favorite shows of the 90s, My So-Called Life and Once and Again.

What became clear after watching an assortment of the Season One episodes is that the thirtysomething I loved was later season thirtysomething. I loved it when Nancy had cancer, and Michael and Elliot worked for and battled Miles Drentell, and everyone hated Susannah. I loved it when Melissa became a character in her own right and not comic relief. I loved it when the show became more of a high-concept soap and less of a meditation on the horror of turning into one's mother or father. All of the things I loved happened later, so I will patiently await the release of the next three seasons and in the meantime contemplate Michael's obsession with suspenders and the fact that Ellyn is continually attracted to men much less good-looking than herself. Seriously, Woodman? The fug married guy she met at the pool? The comic book guy who was about one day from being fat? Oh, Ellyn.

Last week's release of this set led to all kinds of rumination on the importance of the show, how it ushered in a new era of naval-gazing and a new kind of serialized drama. But did it, really? When it went off the air in 1991, did anything of quality replace it? Those were the years of 90210 and Melrose Place. I'd venture that its greatest impact was on situation comedy rather than drama. By focusing on a group of friends who don't share a home or a workplace, by focusing in many ways on the commonplace and everyday as the stuff of plot, it paved the way for Friends and Seinfeld. The situations were played for laughs rather than bathos, but the concept of a group of urban professionals creating their own family as a shield against the alienation of urban striving, well, that was pure thirtysomething.