A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mario Vargas Llosa vs. Zac Efron

Although I’m already feeling very loaded down and a little overwhelmed, trying to adjust to the schedule of my (fairly) new full-time job, I’ve done something that is perhaps a bit foolish for someone who wants to have some free time: I’ve taken on a second job.

It’s only for eight weeks, though, and how could I resist when my former thesis adviser and friend asked me to help him teach a class about one of my favorite Latin American authors? I know that this probably doesn’t sound like an irresistible offer to many of you, but I love to teach, I love Mario Vargas Llosa, and I love my thesis adviser… so despite my instinct to duck and cover, then run from any added responsibility, I HAD to take the opportunity to teach Mario Vargas Llosa with Jeff. It’s an online course, so while Jeff and most of the students are signing on each week from the D.C. area, it’s not a problem that I’m signing on from New York, and I’m not the only one geographically displaced from the rest of the class – one girl is signing on all the way from Rome! You’ve got to love how technology is making it easier for me to accept extra responsibilities that will contribute to the high blood pressure problem that I developed during graduate school.

And things keep on piling up. Deadlines to meet at work, things to re-read to keep up with the students, assignments to grade, and a couple of papers that I am supposed to edit for publication, plus my blogs – which obviously aren’t work, but are important to me anyway. Most of these things are trappings of my “former” life as a professor – papers that I had submitted for publication when I was trying to build my resume as an academic extraordinaire, a part-time teaching position that lets me play with the students again. Once I’ve accepted these responsibilities, I shouldn’t complain – I’ve brought it all upon myself.

But then, in the midst of all this work and weekend visitors as well, I get sick. My throat is sore, my head is fuzzy and I can’t breathe through my nose. I can’t focus on the reading I need to do, and I can’t get the grading system to let me log in and write up evaluations on the students’ assignments. It feels a lot like a landslide, with everyone coming down on me at once. So what do I do?

In my misery, I succumbed to a strange whim – I watched High School Musical.

And not just High School Musical, but also High School Musical 2 and High School Musical 3: Senior Year. I laid in bed all day long watching Zac Efron, Vanessa Hughes and that horrible screechy Ashley Tisdale. I had never been one to succumb to the High School Musical fad – I’ve never seen any of it before, even though I was an elementary school teacher when all of the movies came out and my students would skip around the playground performing entire routines and scenes from the movies. Despite some curiosity, I had managed to avoid the feel-good teenage musical sensation of the early twenty-first century up until now, and I’m not exactly sure what has happened to my good judgment today that made me devote the entire afternoon to the movies – I think the fever has started to affect my brain. I guess I figured that if I was going to procrastinate, I should really go all out. But once I began watching the first one, it seemed as though I might as well seal the deal and go for all three.

So while I should have been reading a very serious novel about military cadets in Lima, Peru, I was lying listlessly on the bed, watching a bunch of tweens bop all over their too-large, too-bright, too-clean high school wearing too-large, too-bright smiles.

And what do I have to say for myself?

That Zac Efron is kinda cute.

Or is that the fever talking? I don’t think I’ll be able to tell until I get a good night’s rest.

Meanwhile, maybe the High School Musical “any dream is possible” attitude and the “you don’t have to choose between your dreams, you can have it all” message of the movies will help me believe in my ability to juggle everything on my to-do list for the coming week, which includes not only all my reading, grading, editing, and grant writing, but also includes picking my mother up from the airport and teaching her how to use the subway system in New York City. According to High School Musical, of course I can handle it all, if I just work hard enough and keep reaching for my dreams...

Honestly, though, I think I’m going to have to make some choices about what to prioritize and what to leave by the wayside. I’m sure that I’ll probably have to make a lot of choices and sacrifices over the coming weeks to make sure that I get the work done for my two jobs and unfortunately, this blog is going to be the first to suffer. Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) may be able to win a basketball championship and star in the “spring musicale” at the same time, but I just don’t have the kind of juice that it takes to be playing more than one or two roles at the same time. I’ve picked up the teacher hat again while still trying to be a non-profit superwoman, and so I’m going to have to temporarily hang up the blogger hat.

Never fear, though. I have far too much to say to be gone for very long. Keep checking back with the blog, read my Reading Recommendations Posts on Mario Vargas Llosa, or follow me on Twitter (@SLaurenAlise) – I tweet the URL whenever I post on either one of my blogs.

Alright. I’m going to bed and dealing with the military cadets on my lunch break tomorrow… during which I’ll probably be humming “We’re All in This Together” – God help me.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Yesterday was Mother’s Day – the first Mother’s Day since my grandma passed away, the first Mother’s Day that my own mom had to celebrate without her mother. The first year that we didn’t need to buy a card for grandma, or make an extra phone call. The first year that my mom and I put up memorial photographs as our profile pictures. (Yes, my mom is Facebook-saavy.)

And another grieving milestone: Wednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death. It will have been a year since I sat in (old) apartment in Maryland, numbly staring at the clock on the living room wall and waiting for a phone call from my mother to confirm that my grandpa had actually passed. A year since my husband told my mom to whisper into my grandpa’s ear that he had gotten a job in New York; that my grandpa could rest easy, knowing that Jeremy would always take care of his silly, precious granddaughter (me).

And where I am? Not at home in Michigan with my mother, trying to ease her grief and celebrate how much of a wonderful mother she has been – and she has been a wonderful, very giving mother – to me, my brother, and (more recently) to my husband, her son-in-law. I’m not at my grandfather’s gravesite at White Chapel, leaving flowers and honoring his memory. I’m not even able to go visit the WWII memorial in D.C., another fitting place for me to honor the memory of my grandfather Sargent Henry White.

No, I am in New York, attending seminars on financial database literacy, running to the Human Resources Offices to fill out extra I-9 forms for the Latin American Literature summer course that I am helping to teach, researching and writing up information on high school graduation and drop-out rates in the Bronx and Westchester counties. I am not with my family – I am at work in new York. No matter how much I like my job, it’s difficult not be upset about the fact that I can’t be with my mom, who has lost both of her parents within

the last year, and with my brother, my dad, and my grandpa’s brother Uncle Mike, as they all grieve for the loss of people who were so wonderful, so important.

I wish I could comfort and be comforted by them. I try to be there for my mom and my brother whenever they are upset and want to talk, especially my mom – who stayed close with her parents for her entire life and used to talk to them every day. But it’s just not the same over the phone, especially on the anniversaries, the milestones.

And although I know that my family understands that I live 500 miles away and I have a full-time job – although I know that they don’t expect me to be able to come home for every holiday, anniversary, memorial – I still feel not only sad that I am not with them, but guilty. I used to be the kind of person who would drop everything to comfort a friend in crisis or to support a family member. While earning my Bachelor’s degree, I used to put aside my school work, disregarding a lower grade as an unimportant consequence in comparison to supporting someone who needed help in a crisis. But then, as I was working on my Master’s degree, grades and achievement became a lot more important, and I had to start setting aside people, not papers. In undergraduate school, I used to tell people to call me whenever they needed – even if it was at 3 AM. Now I grumble when the phone rings at 10 o’clock at night. I feel as though I’ve become a very selfish, self-involved career person.

I know it is not all selfishness – I need to keep my job, and so my hands are tied by circumstance and necessity. But I still feel guilty – in the end, the bottom line is that I am not with my family for the big moments and milestones that mark my grandparents’ passing, the loss that has forever changed the dynamic of our family. My father and brother sent me pictures via text message of my grandpa’s recently-installed veteran’s headstone when they went to visit my grandparents’ graves last week (illustrating some of the more odd uses of technology), but obviously that isn’t the same as if I were able to lay the flowers on the headstone myself.

I am 500 miles away in New York, unsure of any way that I can grieve with my family or honor the memories of my grandparents. I have nowhere in particular to lay flowers or whisper a prayer into the wind – and so I write, hoping that it is enough to honor their memories by sharing my thoughts about them with other people. My grandparents were always very supportive of my writing and were convinced that I would publish a book some day – and so perhaps my writing is the best memorial I could give them anyway. Somehow, though, it never feels like enough.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Full Speed Ahead

“You’re like a steamer with excellent speed,” my husband told me the other day, “Except your steering mechanism is faulty.”


“It’s hard to get you to change direction, but once you do, it’s full speed ahead,” he observed.

I thought about it for a minute, and then laughed. “Couldn’t you have compared me to a flirty little sports car with bad steering?” I asked. Then I considered how the crash-and-burn consequences of a car with bad steering are much quicker to descend than the slowly-painful fate of a sluggish steam ship. Remember how long it took the Titanic to sink? Maybe I do want to be the boat, at least as opposed to the car.

This strange metaphor came up in a discussion about my ability to adapt to new circumstances and how I tend to cope with change. I am extremely resistant to change – I dig in my heels, clench my fists, spit on the enemy and kick at their shins. I may not be a particularly skilled warrior, but I am a feisty one. But I had a funny realization about myself as I was talking to my husband – once I decide to make a change or that change is inevitable, I have learned to distance myself from people and even demonize the place that I am leaving. Otherwise, goodbyes become too painful.

Exhibit A: my attitude toward our apartment in College Park/Hyattsville. When we first got married, we lived in graduate student housing, which had the advantage of being directly across the street from the University of Maryland. My husband could catch the bus for a ten-minute ride or easily walk to class, quickly make it on foot to gym on campus, and the grounds were monitored by on-campus security.

The downside: that place was the size of a postage stamp. We didn’t even have room to pace in the 570-foot apartment. The breaking point: when we discovered a full-sized garden of mold growing in first our kitchen, then in the corner of our bedroom. This was a surprise because the apartments were updated, well-maintained and actually quite attractive – but there was some problem with the roofing that allowed water to continually drip down through the walls. Given that I am severely allergic to mold, this explained why I had been getting sick so often while we had been living there.

We found a new place within three days and moved a week and a half later – over Valentine’s Day weekend. This was also unfortunately while my husband was trying to finish up his Master’s Thesis. But despite the absolute hell this put him through, Jeremy says that he has fond memories of our first apartment. I, on the other hand, see it as the place that made me constantly sick – and so I would give it a good raspberry every time I would drive past the apartment complex after we moved out. I was convinced that our second apartment was so much better – Even though it was in the middle of very sketchy neighborhood.

Exhibit B: my attitude toward our apartment in Greenbelt. I was so glad to be out of our very own mold garden that almost anywhere would have seemed like five steps up – but we gained a lot by moving out of the graduate student housing. Our bedroom was much, much bigger (we were able to go out and buy an exercise machine), as was our living room (we bought a bookcase that is about seven feet long) and we gained a whole extra room (“the office”), a dishwasher, and a balcony. While it was true that the neighborhood wasn’t so great, I didn’t have to go on a walk to get some fresh air – I could just sit out on the balcony. I started gardening in pots and was able to do a lot of reading outdoors from April to October.

No wonder I was willing to ignore all the warnings about living in our new apartment complex. Everyone who asked about where we had moved would give us a worried look, pointing out that there were cases of arson and other shenanigans going on around there. But even when the cop pulled me over for a burned-out turn-signal, then refrained from giving me a ticket and instead gave me a warning that I should (as one of two white women living in the whole complex) move out ASAP, even then I disregarded the advice to change addresses. I had decided that I liked all the extra space and there was no way we would be able to afford it anywhere else in the suburbs of Washington D.C. And once we had made a few friends in the D.C.-area, I certainly wasn’t happy about moving to New York. There were a few conversations about Jeremy’s job options that brought me to tears and included a few over-dramatic threats that I would move back home to Michigan to live with my parents before I moved to another new place.

Yet once we moved to Nyack, I began to think a lot about how much I had really disliked living in an unsafe neighborhood. No one ever bothered me personally, yet our car was stolen right from our own parking lot – twice. I was often on edge when anyone approached me in the parking lot, and we had to call the cops on our neighbors a couple of times. So, the apartment that I once extolled as my salvation from the mold garden became another object of my derision. It seems I can’t just leave something behind – I apparently have to develop a deep-seated dislike for the place that I am leaving behind in order to detach.

Exhibit C: Michigan. I wouldn’t say that I’ve quite demonized Michigan, my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, to the same extent as I’ve cultivated my dislike for Hyattsville and Greenbelt. But my husband and I consistently have conversations about how, even though we miss our families and college friends a great deal, we are so glad that we escaped the freezing weather and dying economy in our home state. Many of our friends there are stuck with part-time, low-paying jobs and have to deal with frigid temperatures for six months out of the year. We already knew that we hated the climate when we moved down to the D.C. area for graduate school, so in a sense, I was detaching even before we left home that first time.

And when Jeremy started talking about moving again at some point in the future, I dug in my heels. I cried, I made threats, I turned and stared at the wall in moody silence. I’m so sick of wrapping up dishes and pottery, packing boxes of clothes and books, hauling art supplies, my doll collection and jewelry-making tools, and an entire library of design magazines… I’m so sick of trying to make new friends and then leaving them again. NO. THANK. YOU.

And yet, once I accepted that I’d rather go through all of that one more time than have my husband be miserable and horribly cranky every winter for the rest of our lives, I started fantasizing about owning a boat that we could dock in Florida or North Carolina. A boat is a significant part of my retirement fantasy, so this is definitely a selling point for me.

I also started planning how I would have to invest in an extremely efficient climate-control system (re: state-of-the-art air conditioning) in order to protect my several thousand books from warping in the humidity of the southern states. I started thinking about what other belongings I might be able to donate (anything but books, obviously) in order to thin out our possessions a bit more, which would make the packing process a bit easier and moving costs a bit cheaper. My husband may have to part with our five-hundred pound exercise machine before the next change of address. I am now, as Jeremy said, full-speed ahead. And we don’t even want to move any time soon.

So I guess my steering mechanism is a bit faulty – it gets stuck sometimes, and the wheel is hard to turn. Throw your weight against the wheel, though, and although I may groan, I’ll eventually change course. And then look out – I’ll end up in some completely different (hopefully warm and exotic) location.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Unhappy in Happily Ever After

When they tell you all the “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” stories, narrators traditionally describe how the hearts of the prince and princess soar just as care-freely as birds when they are united at the end of the tale.

Nearer to the beginning of the story, audiences are given some information how the princess is miserable while the prince is dating her best friend. Romance includes misery – check. We got the memo. We should all be prepared for the heartache, right? But we focus on the "happily" in the ever after.

There is an awful lot that follows the “Happily ever after,” but most of that gets left out of pretty much every fairy tale, whether it is the Brothers Grimm version or the Hollywood version. No one really wants to read or see a movie about married people because they’re all old and boring, say The People In Charge of The Story Formula. (This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to novels and films.)

So we say “I do,” shove cake in each others’ faces, and ride off into the sunset (possibly still wiping off the cake). But because everything we know in life, we learn from Hollywood (right?), then there are a whole bunch of potentially dramatic emotional upheavals for which we’re completely unprepared. It wasn’t on the screen, so we lack a script to guide us, and we wonder, what do we do now?

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit. A bit.

But sometimes things still catch me by surprise, like the way that my emotions are so entangled with my husband’s emotions. I should expect this, though, because despite Hollywood’s general tendency to be silent on the subject of certain types of emotional drama, Joss Whedon has always been straight with me on the subject of pain in relationships:

Buffy: “It’s too late. I’m already at the ‘I hurt when he hurts, I smile when he smiles’ stage.”
Anya: “I hate that part.” (“Goodbye Iowa,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer 04.14)

But even when you know that your mood is susceptible to his mood and vice-versa, you don’t think about it too much until one day, his frustration or grief swings around and full-on punches you in the gut. Your own mood plummets and you might not even be able to figure out why. At the sight of bare tree branches outside of the window, you suddenly feel like crying (or is that just me?). If you’re lucky, you realize: this is the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ stage.

It turns out that even when you’re still happily in love, you can be unhappy – even when you’re not fighting with your partner.

But isn’t that a bit annoying? It’s like your own emotions have been hijacked. You were perfectly fine (or at least managing alright) before he started talking about his own unhappiness. And then all the sudden, you’re dissatisfied and grumpy. Perhaps even unable to look at the world in the same way. It’s like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

This is what happened to me when we went to Washington D.C. for a visit over the long Easter weekend.

Everyone wants to know how you are doing and what you are up to, of course: “I haven’t seen you in months! What’s new with you?” Usually this is an invitation for me to begin a twenty minute soliloquy, since I’m typically the talkative one. But because my husband has been so stir-crazy this winter, this time he took center stage whenever this question was raised. And what followed was not only excessive praise of the warm weather and blooming trees in D.C., but a corresponding rant about the cold and lack of sunlight in New York during December, January, February and March.

After a while, I guess it just wore me down.

It’s not that I don’t agree – I hate the cold, too. I think I’ve even come to terms with the idea that we will end up moving again eventually, in order to settle and retire in a warmer climate. A small part of me has even begun fantasizing about owning a cottage or a Spanish-style condo and boat.

But the larger part of me was still ready to enjoy spring and summer in New York – until I listened to my husband reiterate over and over again that the winter weather had depressed him. Never mind that he kept repeating, “For eight months of the year, we love it in Nyack.” All I heard after a while was, “Dark. Cold. Dark. Still no green on the trees.”

And oh, what a contrast it was in D.C., with the sunlight beaming down and a hint of humidity already hanging in the air.

Everything was green, and we even worked up a bit of a sweat when we went on a walk by the Potomac River on Saturday afternoon. “I know it sounds strange,” said my husband. “But it feels good to be sweaty.”

So by the time we drove back up I-95 and through the smoggy pit that is industrialized New Jersey, watching the clouds roll in overhead and cover the warm sunshine, I was feeling more and more down. I was hoping that once we got through Jersey, New York would seem more welcoming – but all I could see through the pouring rain was the bare tree branches, and my heart ached a little bit, missing all the green leaves that were already so abundant and shady in D.C. What’s wrong with me? I thought. It was just a few weeks ago that I was fighting with Jeremy to stay here in New York for the rest of our lives. Now I feel almost as dissatisfied as he does, knowing that he’s unhappy.

It’s the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ thing.

And when I realized what was going on, I was annoyed. So then I was depressed AND grumpy, snippy with my husband and trying to figure out how I was going to muster the excitement to go in and tackle my to-do list at work the next day. I felt as though his dissatisfaction had robbed me of the ability to enjoy the coming summer months in New York, even though he’s actually looking forward quite a bit to exploring the state parks and NYC this summer. I may have been in a worse mood than he was at the prospect of returning to New York after our weekend in D.C. Ironic, right?

He and I talked about my grumpy mood, discussing how your emotions can be so inter-connected with those of your best friend, and after that I felt a bit better. But it still somewhat amazes me – how in this situation, my emotions seem to have been hijacked. “And they lived happily ever after, sharing everything they had – even their unhappiness…”

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