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.

Monday, January 31, 2011


Sunday, January 30, 2011


Twas the night before the phone call,
and all through the week,
I had spent my time blogging,
a bit like a freak.

While my husband was nestled all snug in our bed,
I blogged all the anxious, wild thoughts in my head.
My interviews over, I now had to wait
With hopes that this cool job would alter my fate...

Due to my excitement, I haven’t been sleeping much more than an average of three hours a night, which explains (but doesn’t excuse) the bad poetry. I believe the technical term for my condition is “keyed up” – I’ve invested too much in the idea that this job could be THE ticket to the life that I want. Now I’m restlessly counting the days, waiting to hear from the director of the department. She told me that she wanted to make a decision by the beginning of (this coming) week, and so she would be in touch either Monday or Tuesday.

That interview was last Wednesday, and I had problems sleeping a day or two before that, too – so my sleep schedule has been a little… off… for a while now. I’ve started mixing up words with other words, which is what can happen when you eat breakfast at 6:45 (a.m.) and then go to bed.

I do not handle stress very well.

I used to randomly burst into tears a lot more often, which left my husband feeling helpless and frustrated. He suffered as much as I did during my first year of graduate school.

Once I learned how to manage my anxiety on a conscious level, my body decided that it still needed an outlet for all the tension that builds up inside of me when I am under certain types of pressure; my chronic insomnia worsened and I developed stress-induced stomach problems. This means that I can no longer drink coffee unless I want to participate in competitive sprints for the bathroom, but the bright side is that I no longer need coffee to stay up for most of the night working. I’ve learned that I am quite capable of going in to work after only having had 2-4 hours of sleep the night before – although it can make for a pretty loopy lecture.

I’ve got all this nervous energy, which I’d like to say that I’ve been channeling into a variety of outlets. Mostly, though, I’ve been reading and blogging, reading and blogging. More blogging than reading, actually, because I am so antsy that I haven’t been able to sit still long enough to become peacefully engrossed in a novel. For some reason, though, I can surf the internet for hours at a time. I try to appease my own guilt with the justification that I’ve not been surfing idly: I’ve been learning more about networking with social media that will be of use when I get hired as a public relations specialist, wherever and whenever that may be.

Honestly, though, I’ve been on the internet a lot but I haven’t been very diligent about submitting other applications during the interview process. I’ve taken a hiatus from job searching – which is admittedly putting all of my eggs in one basket, or counting the chickens before they are hatched. (I wish I could come up with less cliché phrases, but I’m so sleep-deprived that coherent sentences are sometimes a challenge. But you try being clever when your brain hasn’t had deep REM for almost a week.) I’ve been going off the high of a really good second interview for several days – but now it is the night before the phone call is supposed to come, and a string of what ifs are running through my mind:

What if I don’t get this job? What if I don’t find another job like this for months? Or years? What if my husband feels like I haven’t been trying as hard as I could to get a job? What if he feels like he has to support us all by himself and he starts to resent me? What if I have to take a job as an editorial assistant and I have no desire left to read and write because I spend all my spare time weeding through horrible manuscripts for harlequin romance novels?

Even though I wasn’t job searching every day over the past week, waiting a few days (or even a week) before checking the local postings didn’t seem irresponsible – it’s unlikely that something new will pop up every day, anyway. Give the market a little time between queries, I say (because I’m such an expert). But now that these what ifs have proliferated, I’ve decided that I need to be a responsible grownup and keep pursing other career options and employment opportunities.

And so I’m back to the tedious and fairly depressing process of picking through postings on CareerBuilder and LinkedIn. Job search key word: “communications.” Listings include: loan officer, pharmaceutical sales representative, treasury analyst, data warehouse architect (what the heck is that?) and furniture sales associate (how did that one get in there?). Job search key word: “writing.” Listings include: manager of international tax accounts, store detective, legal secretary, wild life biologist (I’m definitely not qualified for that one), Python programmer.

I’m not even getting any possible hits with my searches this time around, which tells me that this non-profit job is, as I suspected, a rarity. So maybe I’m not exaggerating too much when I say that the direction of my life hangs on the phone call that I receive tomorrow.

I doubt I’ll sleep much tonight.

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Offering

Note: this turned out to be a much more serious post than I first intended. I’m not really sure how I feel about that. But you've been warned.

People always take stock at New Years – out with the old, the boring, the frustrating, and the painful; in with the new, the hopefully better. They offer up prayers and make resolutions, desperate for change. In years past, I’ve heard people say things about how a particular year has been a particular hell; my friend Tara at Head in the Clouds wrote a very amusing end-of-the-year post describing her resentment of the year 2010 – the whole year. But I’ve never experienced this phenomenon before; usually there is some good and some bad, but not enough to tip the scale in one direction and make me hate a particular calendar year in total.

At least, not up until now. I’ve never been quite so ready to say goodbye to a year until 2010. I think my year was right up there with Tara’s, only I can’t find a way to make it sound nearly as humorous. If nothing else, I envy her for her bad year because of the opportunities it gave her to crack self-depreciating jokes. Not that her year wasn’t horrible in many ways, but even when comparing unpleasant experiences, doesn’t the grass still always seem greener for the other person?

Over the course of my 2010, both my grandmother and grandfather died, and there are just no good verbal witticisms that are appropriate to discuss such a significant loss. I wish I could put into words just how important they both have been in my life – but I think that is the subject for another post, perhaps many. Suffice it to say that their deaths have colored all my other experiences in the year 2010, and coupled with a move across five states and the realization that I would not be hired to teach full-time in New York, I have decided that radical life change only turns out for the better if you’re Julia Roberts – in either Pretty Woman or Eat, Pray, Love. I struggled with depression all throughout the fall, listlessly watching endless reruns of Law & Order instead of going out to make new friends in New York. I spent Christmas in bed with mono, and by New Years Eve, I was definitely for it to be 2011.

If I’m honest, not all of the changes that took place in 2010 were awful – although it was hard to leave our friends in D.C., we love the little town in New York where we live now. I can gush about Nyack for paragraphs at a time – our entire Christmas letter was filled with details about the adorable little town. We live within walking distance of dozens of restaurants, shops and several state parks; we are finally free from the urban crush in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Yet we can easily take the train into New York City and enjoy all of its incredible enormity. I can hike along the Hudson River with the sheer-faced cliffs rising up over the path, or sit by the creek behind the library. I can go on a whim to see a Broadway show or walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, pretending to be John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Having moved to Nyack, my husband and I feel like we will finally be able to have a regular life – which may not sound too glamorous to a lot of our friends, who give us a hard time because we don’t spend more than the occasional weekend in New York City. But honestly, after several grueling years of graduate school, all you want is to walk on the beach or by a stream, to explore the woods and admire the cliffs. I’m learning to kumbaya with myself again, which has been one of the best things that I could have wished for in the midst of loosing my grandparents.

(Yes, I am using kumbaya as a verb. You don't have to be in a place as serene and lovely as this forest to kumbaya, but I've had a really hard time trying to commune with nature in the middle of Washington D.C.)

It was difficult at first to realize that in gaining this physical space and emotional freedom, I may have lost my shot at being a professor. Now that I have potentially found a job that would lead to a very fulfilling career, I can envision a whole real life here – preparing grant proposals that would help fund educational assistance and disability services, joking with the employees that I met at my interview the other day, then coming home to my husband, a stack of books and my writing. We will visit the nearby state parks and the museums downtown on the weekends, and travel further up and down the East Coast. We will be able to breathe.

All of the sudden, getting this job seems like the ticket to everything that I’ve wanted for a long time, even if it is an unexpected route to my goal(s).

A friend of mine has wisely advised me that I shouldn’t get too invested in the idea of this job. She knows how I get excited about things that aren’t settled yet, then I inevitably end up very disappointed, even depressed when things don’t work out. I am trying to remind myself that even if I don’t get this job, the department director does consider me a qualified candidate and so I would likewise have a shot at similar jobs. Out of all the job listings that I have answered, though, this seems to be the one most perfectly fitted to my experiences, skills and interests.

And so I find myself wishing that I believed more firmly in the power of prayer.

I won’t try to explain my philosophy on prayer or faith in this post; that would double the length of the blog entry. Suffice it to say that although I was raised a Baptist, I don’t exactly believe that simply asking for something will bring it to pass. Whoever he is, God is not a genii. You cannot rub the bottle and expect to get your wish. Over the last day or two, though, I have wished that I could try something similar – something akin to an ritual offering or a rain dance. I find myself wishing that my actions could affect the outcome of the situation – and so for some reason, into my head have popped images of Native Americans offering up prayers of supplication to the skies.

I do not have enough faith – in God, in myself – to believe that a whispered prayer will bring me the job and the life that I have imagined for myself. There are plenty of people who wish and pray and never get what they would like. But in way, by collecting these beautiful images here, I feel as though I am praying.

I am hoping that while 2010 was a year of great loss, 2011 will be a year to rebuild, to create a new life for my husband and myself. That is my prayer, even if it does not take a traditional form.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Cleansing

I think I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I am never going to be an Illustrious Professor of Literature at a Prestigious University. I feel comfortable, even happy with the direction that my life seems to be taking.

For the past few weeks, I have been excited about the possibility of getting a particular position at a non-profit organization. My excitement mounted as I got a call for an interview, then a callback for a second interview, and I haven’t been able to sleep very well. Now that I feel like a desirable job is within my grasp, it hasn’t been quite so difficult to let go of some of my old dreams and goals. I hadn’t realized how fully I had embraced the idea of so drastically changing my life, though, until I was in the middle of the second job interview.

As she looked over my resume, the head of the department asked me whether I was ready for such a change in careers. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t consider my work for the non-profit as a temporary gig, just something to do until I could find a way to go back to teaching. I told her in all honesty that while it is disappointing to give up my plans to have a university career, I am eager to begin working for their organization.

This is partially because I’ve found a second career track that shares some significant factors with my original career choice. Although I talk about wanting to be an Illustrious Professor at a Prestigious University, which makes it seem as though my priority is the status that I would have in the academic world, the truth is that I enjoy teaching because it gives me the opportunity to help people. As a composition professor, I teach critical thinking and communication skills that allow my students to succeed in college and beyond, making it possible for them to build good careers and comfortable lives for themselves. If I were to get the job with this non-profit organization, I would likewise be helping to change the quality of people’s lives. This organization provides under-privileged individuals with medical care, legal aid and educational opportunities; my job as a public relations professional would facilitate donor communications, fundraising and volunteerism, making the continuation of these various programs and services possible. So although the daily tasks of the one job are quite different than the responsibilities of the other career, they are both ultimately at least somewhat altruistic.

After making such a noble sounding speech to the head of the department, I thought I must have sounded like a big phony. Or at least a cheeseball.

Alas – I’m just an idealist, which is bad enough.

But since this woman also works for a non-profit organization, I would imagine that she might likewise be something of an idealist. Perhaps she won’t judge me too harshly.

Meanwhile, I came home and had a sudden impulse. It was like that feeling that I get after being cooped up in the apartment all winter with the stacks of books gathering dust and the windows accumulating grime – that feeling that I need to break out the bottle of Mr. Clean, scrub everything down and rearrange the furniture. It was time to metaphorically clean house – I finally felt free to go through my book collection and rid myself of all the trappings of academia that I would no longer need.

Let me explain: I love literature of many kinds, but I must confess that I do not love all literature. I do not like very much of James Joyce’s writing (and I fervently believe that it is wrong to teach Ulysses to most undergraduate students). I am not a fan of most Medieval and Renaissance literature, and as a general rule, I dislike reading plays. Truth be told, though, I feel a little bit guilty about these preferences. I spent several years in the company of many wonderful people who share my passion for learning and for the written word; we had many thought-provoking and entertaining debates and they theoretically convinced me that these types of literature are worthwhile and even exciting. I have many a good friend who can become passionately inflamed while discussing The Canterbury Tales or The Knight of the Burning Pestle, but something about these works has always gone over my head – even when I learn enough about them to intellectually understand them, I still don’t enjoy them. I would much rather serve a few beers to my friends and then hear them recite selected passages or make speeches about Chaucer’s wit and eloquence, as opposed to reading the work for myself.

So, when I say that it was time to clean house, I mean that I finally felt free to get rid of many books that I felt that I “ought” to own if I was going to be a Professor of Literature. I opened an Amazon sellers account and then proceeded to gather the castaways:

Out! went Dubliners and The Sound and the Fury. Out! went Dante’s Inferno (sorry, Melissa) and Pedro Paramo and the anthologies of British Romantic poetry. Out! went Giovanni’s Room, which I felt guilty for disliking because it is about a homosexual man – which, let me be clear, isn’t the reason that I disliked the novel. I just disliked the novel, but felt guilty for disliking it because it was about a homosexual. Out! went unread copies of The Clouds by Aristophanes and Mandragola by Machiavelli (because let’s be honest, I won’t ever get around to reading them – there are too many Young Adult novels that I’m dying to read). Out! went The History of the English Composition Classroom!!

As the pile grew taller and taller, I felt as though I was participating in some kind of cleansing ritual. My bookshelves are now once again pure – stacked only with the novels that I love by Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. I decided to keep my copy of the detested Ulysses, though – I made it all the way through that labyrinthine novel and so I now consider it a trophy. It sits on my shelf to remind me that, as one friend stated, I have completed my literary black-belt. I doubt that I will ever open it again, but now that I am not planning on being a Professor of Literature, that is okay to admit. (I know that will make at least a few people sad – I’m sorry, Max.)

It is not as though I didn’t enjoy the classic novels and many of the more difficult works that I had to read while earning my Master’s degree. It was during graduate school, in fact, that I gained my appreciation for the lyrical Virginia Woolf and came to understand that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about sex. These are now favorites amongst my books; I will always be grateful that graduate school forced me to expand my literary horizons in every direction.

But it feels absolutely wonderful to toss aside the books I didn’t enjoy, even if they are considered classics. I will sell them on Amazon, hopefully to someone who will enjoy them – and then I will use the money to buy myself some more Young Adult novels. (I’m told that I need to read David Levithan’s novels and explore the steampunk genre.) From now on, my job will not require me to spend time on Great Works of Literature simply because they have been deemed as such; I will read exactly and only what interests me – which is part of the exhilarated feeling that I get when I consider all the possibilities that this new direction in life is offering to me.

Dress to EXPRESS

My clothing has always been a particularly important part of how I express my identity or position myself in a certain way within a specific group of people. When I was a teenager, I attended a private high school and I chafed at the dress code because I felt as though it constrained not only what I wore but who I was as an individual. Thank God we didn't have to actually wear uniforms -- I think I would have done something drastic if someone had tried to force me into a blazer and kilt. It was humiliating enough to have a teacher measure the length of your skirt. Even in college, I disliked sharing clothing with my roommates most of the time. It wasn't because they would stain my clothes or forget to give them back; it was because my outfits were an expression of my personality, my outlook on the world, my attitude.

Not everyone understands this close association between a person's identity, wardrobe and other material possessions. Plenty of people are comfortable wearing uniforms, in fact. I admit that I probably derive too much of my sense of identity from the books and movies that I own, the paintings and photographs that I hang on my apartment walls, the jewelry and scarves that I wear. But the truth is, I use possessions to create my personality in visible, tangible ways. It gives me something concrete to help me understand the concept of my otherwise-amorphous identity.

As shallow as it may seem, clothing and accessories are therefore important to me, especially when I need to make a good impression. Job interviews are a challenge, though, because of course I want to appear professional -- yet I don't want to seem just like one of the herd. When I go to a job interview, I want my wardrobe to say "Hey, I'm as qualified as the other guy, but I'll also help to make your office a more fun work environment!" It is additionally important that I am applying for jobs that require creativity in a corporate or organizational setting. The clothing that I wear could therefore be the key to communicating that I can bring both professionalism and style to my work, so I carefully consider my wardrobe before an interview.

Therefore, I partially disagree with the advice that I found on the Virginia Tech Career Services Center website: “In an interview your attire plays a supporting role. Your attire should be noticed as being appropriate and well-fitting, but it should not take center stage. If you are primarily remembered for your interview attire, this is probably because you made an error in judgment! Navy, dark gray and black are safe colors to wear; avoid the extremes.”

I do agree with the idea that you should choose subtle ways of expressing your personality when dressing for a job interview – you want your outfit to achieve the all- important balance between your artistic sense and your professionalism. But I advise against wearing all gray and I abhor navy. These types of dour colors and plain outfits, especially if they are not accessorized, communicate, "Hey, I can get the job done, but I am easily replaceable with any number of people who have the same skill set."

Meanwhile, a slightly brighter business/dress shirt with some subtle embellishment says to your potential employer, "I have creativity and an individual personality that, in combination with my skill set, will make me an irreplaceable asset to your company." Ideally, I would put a suit jacket over this pink shirt or choose a slightly more subtle color, but you get the picture. It's not a bad thing if the person who interviews you notices and admires your tastefully pattered shirt or compliments your hand-made jewelry. My theory is that they will even be drawn to a person who has interesting hobbies like jewelry-making.

Of course, my fixation on clothing could also be viewed as my way of handling pre-interview stress.

In any case, when I received a callback for a second job interview this past week, I set out to find the perfect outfit. I have exactly one business shirt that I believe communicates an appropriate balance between personality and professionalism – and I had worn that to the first interview. So it was time to hit the mall.

At first, I had no success. I like a shirt to have a little bit of embellishment, but for the past several seasons, these types of overly-ruffled shirts have been all the rage. Please let me be clear: they are HIDEOUS.

Come on… doesn’t anyone see the ridiculous similarity between these two items?

I had to make several trips to the mall before I found what I was looking for – but at last I was successful. I was hoping for a stylishly striped and tailored shirt with a collar, somewhat like these:

Unfortunately these types of shirts seem to be out of the stores for the season, now that spring is theoretically approaching. I ended up with a crinkly white collared shirt that had a subtle sparkly thread and clear sequins sewn into the pattern. The texture of the crinkly fabric creates a subtle pattern and as a bonus, meant that I was able to avoid ironing the night before.

The sad part is that I spent at least as much time scouring the stores as I did preparing for interview questions. But I feel pretty confident that I made the right impression at my interview, so even my husband agreed that the thirty dollar shopping expedition was worth it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Confessions of an Unemployed Recluse

Alright, I’ll admit it – being unemployed has its perks, at least if you have a cushion. I am lucky enough that my husband has a good job, so if I can’t find work for a few months, I’m not going to go hungry or miss a rent payment. I realize that not everyone is so fortunate and I don’t mean this post to be insensitive to anyone who is stretched thin. But if, like me, you have someone who’s got your back (my husband’s phrase, not mine) while you’re job-hunting, then being unemployed can make you feel a lot like you’re a high school or college student on Christmas Break. I’ve got loads of time on my hands but can’t get out of the house too often, so I have the luxury of spending my quiet days on frivolous and/or relaxing things around the house.

Despite the fact that I’m no longer sixteen and do in fact have a car of my own, I don’t want to go out as much as I usually do, even to the library or to the mall – for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s been ridiculously, freakishly cold. It’s supposed to be more mild in New York than in my home state of Michigan, but right now, I really couldn’t tell the difference between Nyack and the northern part of the Michigan mitten. Since I have the luxury of doing (or not doing) whatever I want, I’ve spent several days refusing to go outside – or even change out of my candy-patterned pajama pants. Somehow I always feel warmer and more cheery when I am wearing my favorite PJs. So, I spend many mornings sitting by the window and admiring the fluffy white snow while I sip Winter Spice tea; I feel guilty that my husband has to go out every morning and shovel off the car, braving the cold to get to work. I am lucky that I can do my job-hunting while sitting next to the oven, which is exuding the smell of the pumpkin pie that I am baking. Or from the comfort of my cushy bed while I have the TV on in the background.

I also don’t want to go out of the apartment too often because then I am tempted to spend money – money that I don’t have. That’s the downside to unemployment that I am in fact experiencing: a spending freeze. My husband buys the groceries and the gas; I have my credit card for emergencies. Getting out of the apartment every once in a while is healthy and necessary, but if I start hanging out at Starbucks every day, that’s going to start to add up. I’ve got enough to keep me busy via the internet anyway, so I have decided that I’ll just avoid the temptation of cute sale items at the mall and instead tick off items on my to-do list at home.

Except I haven’t been able to check off many of the things from that list.

First of all, I keep writing more lists of things to do than actually doing them: Things To Do Around the House, Things to Research for My Book, Emails To Write, Blog Posts To Write, Book Reviews to Write, Books to Read… and then there’s the list I recently started compiling of My Favorite Episodes of The X-Files. It's a time-sucker to research that one, let me tell you.

Next on the list: tackle the stack(s) of unread novels on my desk and bookshelf, then write reviews of them. Read as many books as possible before I get a job.

Despite the fact that I have recently started a book blog, I haven’t done a whole lot of reading – I’m feeling too antsy. Ironically, this is probably because I haven’t been getting out of the house; if I spent more time moving around, then I’d probably be able to spend more time actually sitting still, as well. So I keep surfing through other people’s blogs and trying to network with other bloggers. I have also written several reviews of novels that I have read within the past two months instead of reading new books. It’s as though I feel that I should be producing something, and so while actually sitting down to read for more than an hour or so seems “idle,” working on the design/HTML code for my blog or whipping up another mini-essay on the merits of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is adding content to my website – a product. I really need to just sit down for an afternoon and get around to reading Moon Over Manifest, especially since I just spent my Christmas Amazon gift certificates on several novels that my fellow Y.A. book bloggers recommended.

I have to admit that other (even more ridiculous) pursuits have side-tracked me from reading an actual book (or the even more important job hunting itself). I will start searching for one thing on the internet and come across something very amusing. My favorite diversions have been my discovery of Dexter bobble-heads:

The runner-up for best amusement/diversion was the related discovery of Dexter action figures:

The final confession: I haven’t taken down my Christmas tree yet. This is less because I’m being lazy or distracted, and more because I just don’t want the holidays to be over. Until better weather arrives, it’s nice to have our cheerily-lit little four-foot tree adding a glow to the living room/dining room. It makes the dull afternoon and early darkness more bearable; I feel a little less lonely. I am reminded of the way that I would sit by the tree in my parents’ home late at night, my fuzzy-slippered feet up on the coffee table, staring at the glimmering white lights as they reflected in the face of the grandfather clock. I would be holding a novel, but sometimes be distracted for five minutes at a time by my sheer enjoyment of the twinkle-lights and their reflection. Then, just as I would return to my book, my mother would come in and sit down, distracting me again. We would quietly enjoy the lights together.

So even though I am unemployed, all these diversions and activities have helped me to set aside my anxiety for the moment; I feel as though the whole month of January has been like one long extended Christmas Break. That has been especially appreciated because I had mono over the actual Christmas/New Years holiday and wasn’t really able to enjoy any of the usual festivities. But I’m fully aware that not everyone who is unemployed feels so safe and cared for; not everyone has someone like my husband who has “got their back.” I don’t feel guilty, exactly, for being so lucky – but I do want to be sensitive to the fact that I’m in the minority. Despite whatever concerns each person might have, though, and even in the midst of the unusually cold winter that has set in upon much of Northeast America, I hope that people can take the time to enjoy a little more holiday cheer – or at least a Dexter bobblehead—with me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

On the Subject of "Aging"

One reason that I have felt so confused and directionless is that only within the last few months did it hit me that wow, I’m twenty-seven and I’ve never held a full-time “adult” job. I worked a full forty-hour week at a few low-paying jobs that I held during college and after I earned my Bachelor’s degree, I took a thirty-hour-a-week job as a Teacher’s Aide. That gig felt like a full time job because I spent the day trying to keep up with five-year-olds who have the energy levels of tiny rocket boosters. Then I worked part-jobs while I attended graduate school, and after earning my Master’s degree, I started working as an (part-time) adjunct professor. This can be a lot of work, depending on the number of classes that you’re teaching, but still isn’t considered full-time employment.

Basically, I’ve spent my entire life working too hard for too little—but that’s how it is when you start out. I repeat: when you start out. I’m beginning to worry that by the age of twenty-seven, I should have “gotten somewhere in life,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

But what does that really mean? Why does “getting somewhere” have to do with your position in a company, the amount on your paycheck, or whether you own a house yet?

In the six years since I graduated from college, I have gotten married, moved to Washington D.C., learned how to make and sell jewelry, gotten a Master’s degree, presented at three international conferences, learned how to paint with watercolors, and moved to the New York City metro area. I haven’t done as much traveling as I would have liked yet (because the funds of a graduate school student with a book addiction are quite meager), but there’s still time for that; meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed exploring both Washington D.C. and New York. So why should I feel dissatisfied with my life?

I don’t feel discontented, in fact, but something external is telling me that I am falling behind. I couldn’t tell you what I’m falling behind, exactly, but it must be something important. Otherwise that nagging feeling wouldn’t have quite so much power to wake me up in the middle of the night. It is, after all, a quiet voice—but it has quite a lot of sway sometimes. And that little voice is telling me that I need to find Direction. A course a little bit different than the one that I’ve been pursuing.

I’ve been shoving that feeling aside for a while, but what has finally motivated me to change directions to find full-time employment have been the endless discussions between my husband and myself about finances and home ownership. The facts add up this way: in order for us to be able to afford a house in New York, I would have to get a full-time job and make X amount. If I continued to just work part-time and we popped out more than one kid, little Jeremy Jr. and Lauren Jr. would be sharing the tiny second bedroom in our apartment. That could get pretty awkward when they hit puberty. Also, we’d never be able to afford that cruise in Greece that I would like to take, or have the cash to tour Italy or buy a boat. So once I took stock of all of these factors, I started feeling much more motivated to find a career that would guarantee full-time employment.

Career choices aside, being twenty-seven doesn’t really make me feel “unsuccessful” or old. I really enjoyed being twenty-five; two and five are both round-looking numbers, which appeals to me. Some friends of mine had some sort of quarter-life crisis when they turned twenty-five, but I just thought it was cool that I had been alive for a quarter of a century. Twenty-seven seems a little odd, although I can’t fully explain why. Seven is a pointy number, which I guess isn’t all that appealing to me.

What does make me feel old? Well, there are a couple of things that I’ve noticed lately:

1) January 19th, 2011 was Buffy Summer’s thirtieth birthday. If you read my last post, you know that I grew up admiring the teenage heroine, and to imagine her as thirty years old is almost more foreign than realizing that I am nearing that age.

2) When I looked down at my favorite thick, brightly-striped socks from the Gap, I saw that there were finally holes in the toes. This made me realize that I’ve had these socks for ten years, which seems somewhat impossible. I still won’t get rid of them, of course—Gap doesn’t make cool socks like these any more.

3) Sometimes I look at my bookshelves and realize that it’s been five or even ten years since I’ve read some of my favorite books. Are they really my favorites if I haven’t read them in ten years? I ask myself. (They are stories that made such an impression on me at the time that I read them that they have never faded from my memory, so I think they count as favorites in a way. I’m planning to re-read some of them this year, though.)

4) Conversations that I’ve had over the last year with my students, in which I describe “the card catalog,” have made me feel extremely old. It’s not that I have trouble with technology changing at such a fast pace, but it’s strange to realize that many of the people with whom I interact have never used the card catalog or listened to a “mix tape.”

5) I had the same feeling when we went to the American History Museum in downtown Washington D.C. and saw, in the History of Technology exhibit, the Apple computer that my family owned when I was young. (Does anybody remember the all-black screen with the display characters in that bright neon green?)

Other than these strange moments, though, I don’t really feel old at all. In fact, part of me feels as though I could still happily spend a few more years experimenting with different jobs before settling down to a career. But because my husband and I know that we want to have kids in a few years, I know that it’s time to find something a little more permanent. It’s really more about growing up and accepting responsibility, not just achieving something particular or feeling successful. It’s not about being older; it’s about being more mature. So it’s time for me to be more realistic… which ultimately will allow me to fulfill more of my dreams, anyway.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

(Un)Defining Myself

I wrote my Master’s Thesis about Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there are fifty pages on file at American University’s Library and another fifty pages sitting on my hard-drive that went off-topic. I also have at least fifty more pages of typewritten notes—meticulous observations about dialog, actor’s facial expressions, lighting, camera angles, sets, thematic connections… Yet I can honestly say that there was a time in my life when I was even more obsessed with Buffy.

I was thirteen years old when Joss Whedon’s TV show premiered on The WB; I was awkward and self-conscious and tongue-tied around boys, so I immediately identified with Buffy’s best friends Willow and Xander. In the first episode, Willow explains, “When I'm with a boy I like, it's hard for me to say anything cool, or-or witty—or at all. I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.” I was elated when she made that comment—I had stumbled upon a television character that seemed exactly like me. As I watched Willow develop into a more self-confident teenager, partially as a result of Buffy’s supportive friendship and self-assured example, I thought, “If Willow can become more like Buffy, why can’t I?”

I started out with superficial things; I got my hair cut in a short, layered style just like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s. I began to wear clothing like the character’s and imitate the way she moved her hips while she was wearing those awesome knee-high boots. Then I tried to mimic the way that Whedon’s teenagers talked with witty grammatical liberties. Often, I would actually quote the show, feeling clever because no one recognized what I was saying as someone else’s words. Eventually I got pretty adept at inventing some of my own humorous and sharp-edged comments. I infuriated my father with all my Whedonesque lip.

This kind of imitation is a ritual of adolescence—look at all the boys who wear their pants down around their knees in order to be like a certain rap star. Unfortunately, many celebrities aren’t very positive examples to follow. But everyone—not just adolescents—needs role models, so for thousands of years civilizations have created stories that help the members of their society understand their place in the world. Mythology like the Greeks’ and Romans’ exists because these societies needed to explain the workings of the physical universe, and moreover, how people should respond to the world around them and others in their community. Myths, fables and other fictions have always provided examples of how—and how not—to behave.

My own previous role models had included Lois Lane (of the Teri Hatcher brand) and Nancy Drew; now I had found someone else who had the same poise and ability to handle herself. But although Buffy could deal calmly with a vampire attack or an apocalypse, she experienced the rejection and sense of isolation from her peers that I felt. She too was flawed: spoiled, often self-centered, resentful and snarky. In discovering Buffy, I had found a character who shared my teenage angst and my imperfections. She still managed, though, to overcome these character flaws in order to be a self-confident, successful and generally admirable person.

But as much as I love talking about Buffy Summers, this entry really isn’t about her. It’s about me.

People started to notice a change in me—not just in the way that I dressed, but in the way that I actually talked during class. As I borrowed Buffy’s self-confidence, I started becoming a different person. I made Buffy my model and my guide to social success—and it worked. But I was so excited by how the show had helped me that I started to talk about it all the time. I even decided that I would give a presentation to my religious studies class using clips from Buffy, where she and another character discuss moral accountability. That’s when people started to notice me because I talked so much more than usual—about Buffy. My classmates even began to call me Buffy, and I encouraged it. As you might imagine, though, this was less than positive for my social status.

I don’t remember many of the specific conversations that with people I had about the TV show, but in case I ever forget the way my classmates started to heckle me, I can go back and read the messages in my yearbook from junior year. Most of the messages were addressed to “Buffy” instead of Lauren, and many commented further on my obsession. Here are some of my favorite comments:

“What a year this has been, especially with Buffy entering the scene. I’m glad that you got to show your Buffy clip in Bible, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to fight with all those Buffy-haters out there. Well, I hope you get to marry Seth Green one day. You definitely deserve him! Thanks for your friendship.”

“Chica—how is my Buffy pal? Did I ever tell you that you kind of look like her? You do! Have a great summer…”

“Lauren, what happened on Buffy’s season finale? – I’m so confused.”

Roswell is better than Buffy.”

“Be a good Slayer for me.”

“You know, one day when you’re old, you will still have all those Buffy videos and not even know why. Then one day, you will think you are her, and jump out of bed and start killing vampire-looking people.”

“Let’s talk about the big issue – Buffy. What to say? How about ‘obsessed’… but that’s alright. Have a great summer.”

“When you find Seth Green, invite me to the wedding.”

“Learning of the extent of your Buffy obsession was astounding.”

“Hey, I had a lot of fun this year listening to you explain Buffy to me. (I still hardly understand it.)”

“You’ve been a great friend… How did Angel come back in last night’s episode? Anyway, we have been through a lot, like Buffy, Angel and Wednesday night sleepovers…”

“Don’t worry – I’m going to be the only one who signs your yearbook and NOT say anything about Buffy. Oops, nevermind.”

And then the Buffy-haters:

“Buffy, Don’t get too obsessed with Buffy. It isn’t healthy. She is definitely a hottie though. Have a great summer, my two-dimensional friend.”

“Buffy died. You need to stop lusting over that show. Watch something educational like the Discovery Channel. Well, have a great summer.”

“Buffy must die! Sorry… well, see ya.”

(Aren’t adolescents sweet? And they’re so eloquent.)

When recently reading over these entries, I also took a look at my yearbook from my senior year of high school and found something very different. It was only a year later, yet no one even mentioned my obsession. This was because my senior year was the year that I stopped babbling about the show to my uninterested classmates. Instead of constantly updating my Buffy website and chatting with members of my online Buffy fanfiction group, I joined the backstage crew for the school play, helped make the Homecoming parade float, cheered on my friends at their hockey and football games, went to parties and dances and prom. I stopped talking like Buffy and started being like Buffy – by going out and getting involved with other people.

So long ago, I learned that verbally defining myself is a lot like playacting and only has so much power. Calling myself “Buffy” and allowing others to call me by that name didn’t actually change who I was. Just because I want to be like Buffy in certain ways doesn’t mean that I should have identified myself as Buffy. Instead, I needed to go out and act like the person that I wanted to be. Maybe I even need to stop trying to verbally define myself altogether. For example, I’m not “Lauren the Buffy girl” or “Lauren the Dexter fan.” I’m not even “Lauren the English Professor.” I’m just… Lauren.

It seems unlikely that I’ll stop trying to define myself, since I’m such an incredibly verbal person… but maybe someday I’ll find the courage to allow myself to remain undefined.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Grab a good pair of walking shoes – the more attention-getting, the better. Make sure your hand basket (err… bag…) is packed. Then – cue the Munchkin Chorus.

As per the theme of my last entry, I have been thinking a lot about the way my life – or at least my professional life – has seemed to be going in circles. Author. Waitress. Artist. Camp Counselor. Church Employee. Food Industry worker. Tutor. Childcare Professional. Part-Time Professor…

Now that I have accepted that it is not likely that I will be able to find a full-time teaching job here in New York, I have been examining my other options. Although it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time going in circles, in reality, I built a more coherent career and resume while going to graduate school. Now I’m applying to jobs at non-profit/social services organizations, publishing houses, and in public relations/communications departments – all for which I am qualified. I’m not spinning around quite so quickly anymore. But all the same, the experience of trying to orient myself has been more than a little bit dizzying.

As I was thinking through all this, a picture popped into my head, accompanied by those high-pitched, nasal voices:

As Dorothy starts her journey toward the Emerald City, she begins in the heart of the Munchkin City, where the yellow brick road originates. Her course runs beside a red brick path, both of which swirl around each other and into wider lanes, then finally diverge. She places her ruby slippers at the very center of the swirl, then follows it as it spirals ever-outward. She looks a little bewildered as she walks in circles, but the munchkins leap forward to repeat their instructions with enthusiastic certainty over and over again: “Follow the yellow brick road!” Crowds line the widening lane – dozens of little people jumping up and down with excitement, singing and cheering her on. Finally, the lane widens fully into a road and Dorothy is off on her adventure – to meet the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and eventually the Wizard himself. (Watch the full clip here:

Dorothy is heading toward Emerald City, but beyond that, she’s heading for home. A place where she knows that she will be accepted and loved.

The more I think about it, the more Dorothy’s journey seems like my own: I started out going in circles and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere at first, but after walking for a while, I find the path straightening and widening out into a proper road with a definite destination. I’m not really sure what the Emerald City will be like, but the more I apply for jobs and picture myself working in various places, the more I am comfortable (even excited) about working in Public Relations/Communications for a non-profit organization. Hopefully I can find a place where people appreciate my skills and abilities. I'm not even asking for anything as big as a heart or a brain -- just a job.

This seems to be the best way of explaining how I feel. At first she’s confused, but the Munchkin’s excitement and energy is catching – and she starts to skip and dance. She slows down when she gets out of town, cowers as she makes her way through the gloomy forest, but eventually gets to the Emerald City, where she and her companions all find what they are looking for.

It’s like life -- or at least how we would all like life to be.

Now, was that too cheesy? Maybe I need to get out of the house a bit more.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Around & Around & Around She Goes

[Note: This post is something of a continuation of my entry from Friday, January 14 – follow this link if you would like to read that posting.]

Once upon a time, I was living in the Land of Youthful Ignorance and planning to be an Important Author and Artist. I studied Creative Writing and Literature in college, making sure to take plenty of other extremely useful classes like choir, life drawing, mixed media arts and religious studies as well. During the summers, I worked as a camp counselor and made crafts along with the kids.

Then I decided that I wanted to do something more “significant” with my life. This idea was partly the result of a Bad Dating Experience, which led to a Stirring Religious Experience, all of which I now understand to be the epitome of cliché. (I’m over-simplifying more than a little bit, of course, but sometimes you have to make light of these kinds of things.) So, my next life plan was to become a church employee, providing social and emotional support to college students like myself who had encountered similar Rude Awakenings to Life.

Living with the protection and support of other church members, I was able to remain a fairly blissful resident of the Land of Youthful Ignorance. While I wasn’t able to make a very big paycheck—donations will only pay a fraction of the rent—my parents approved of my involvement with Christian campus ministries and agreed to pick up the financial slack. Not to mention my adorable grandparents, who never came to visit without bringing me a few sacks of groceries and a big jar of pickles for my roommate. So I never had to worry about whether the bills would get paid or that I might run out of food.

But when my love affair with church was disrupted by an Upsetting Religious Crisis, I had to find a new plan for my life. Again. Up until this point, my impressive resume had included employment as a waitress, a summer camp counselor, a church intern and an on-campus dining services employee. Not exactly any jobs that seemed as though they would help me to build a career. At this point in my life, this was a cause for concern—in another year, I would be graduating. I would have a four year liberal arts degree that had trained me to write bad poetry, and only too late into my degree had my boyfriend managed to convince me that as an Author, I wouldn’t even be able to afford Ramen.

When said boyfriend (now husband) suggested that I take a job as an on-campus tutor and try my hand at teaching, I balked. My mother is a teacher, and her many complaints about exhausting days and stacks of papers to correct had made a vivid impression on me. I had already decided that teaching was definitively not the way to go. Yet, the job as a tutor would let me sit in on some of my favorite literature classes with some of my favorite professors. Get paid to listen to lectures on books?! The job had some immediate upsides. And that’s why I took my first teaching gig.

Author. Artist. Childcare Professional. Church Employee. Food Industry worker. Tutor. There still didn’t seem to be a whole lot of direction to my vocational path. Around and around and around she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows.

Church Employee. Food Industry Worker. Tutor… and then came graduation—and I still had no clue what to do. In that last year of college, I had discovered that I liked teaching, but didn’t have a degree in Education, so that didn’t seem to be a long-term career option. I had a panic attack while looking at job postings on careerbuilder.com, finding that according to the list of desired credentials that accompanied each post, I wasn’t even qualified to be someone’s secretary. Apparently you need to have clerical experience to get hired for a gig like that—they need hard evidence that you can work the complicated office fax machine. But I figured that even if I did get a job like that, I would spend all day entering data and filing papers. This caused more panic—I pictured myself in a scene from Office Space, taking a baseball bat to the copier.

In hindsight, I have to admit that I was/am too spoiled—all I wanted to do was to play like I was a grown-up, but not actually be a grown-up. I don’t think I really felt up to the task. (If you are interested in this subject, please see my previous entry “The P-Word,” as well as “This Is Why I’ll Never Be An Adult” by Allie on her hilarious blog Hyperbole and a Half.) It has not been easy for me to admit that I have a spoiled attitude, though. Who wants to admit to such incredible immaturity? (Except Allie.)

As I chafed at the idea of working as a secretary, my husband and I came up with a plan—since a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature isn’t that useful on its own, I could go to graduate school! I started studying for the GREs, looking up various Literature graduate programs on the internet, and filling out applications. I was accepted at American University and devoted myself to the intense workload for two years, which took a significant toll on my health. Then after I graduated and we moved to New York, I came to the upsetting realization that I still wouldn’t be able to get a full-time job teaching at a college around here (another subject for another post). Teaching at a high school is only an option if I go back to school to earn a teaching certificate. So I have returned to the same question again—what do I do with my life?

I am back to skimming long lists of discouraging-looking job posts, trying to figure out if I have the qualifications necessary to be hired a rung or two up the ladder from the office filing clerk. Sometimes I want to give up and accept the title of “homemaker,” despite how that offends my (admittedly skewed) feminist sensibilities. And then I have strange thoughts, like “Maybe I should look into a career in restaurant management.”

Around and around and around she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows.

Does anyone have some Dramamine?

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