writer, editor, girl wonder

Month: June, 2012

sick daze

Sometimes, even when you feel full of vim and vigor, even when you move to a new city and start a new job and feel really gung-ho about Doing Journalism and Living In New York, and even when you live on couches for a week with basically nothing more than a hobo bindle and a banjo and really did intend to write a blog post here about it, you get sick. Life just decides you need a good ol’ elbow to your Grown-Up stomach. Or throat, as the case may be.

I don’t get sick much, because I’m a jerk like that. But the last time I did get sick was a mysterious, RENT-themed and antibiotic-resistant chest cold acquired at the tail end of my previous New York tenure as an intern. Something about that city makes my antibodies get nervous and hide, like they’re Midwestern tourists in town for a youth group trip. But I figured now that I was really a Real Person, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen, like a college diploma is some kind of mystical inoculation against infectious diseases.

Tuesday night, I went to bed convincing myself that the weird swollen lymph node and headache I was nursing were the result of too much couch-sleep and not enough water. Whatever! I am a Grown-Up now! These things happen! Wednesday morning, I woke with chills, a sweaty forehead, and a teeth-gritted determination to get into the office for an 11 AM interview I had scheduled. Because grown-ups with jobs don’t get sick! And definitely not in the summer!

I thrashed about for a good ten minutes attempting to extricate myself from a sweaty tangle of XL-dorm-sheets before cooler heads (literally) prevailed. My boyfriend pointed out that if I my throat hurt too much to insist I could go to the office, I probably wouldn’t give a very good interview. Fair point, I conceded woozily. Unable to talk past the golf ball in my throat, I emailed in sick, accepted two of his roommate’s Liqui-Gel ibuprofen, and mumbled an apology for infecting suite 902 of the NYU Palladium dorm before losing consciousness in a fevered delirium of almost-sleep.

Upon re-waking, I realized the acute problem of being sick as a Real Person: I had no idea what to do. As a kid, your parents can take you to the pediatrician or hospital or holistic-shaman healer. You don’t have to worry about who pays for it. As a college student, you just have to pull on some crusty sweatpants and drag ass to the student health center, where you might have to wait forever in a room with CNN Health Highlights on loop but, eventually, you will get treated by a distracted nurse-practitioner with triple her usual caseload. And thanks to the Student Life Fee, or whatever, you don’t have to worry about who pays for it. But Real People? There’s no familiar doctor. There’s no student health center. There’s just you and your inflamed throat lining and what suddenly feels like the largest goddamned city in the world.

But I’m lucky. I’m a Real Person, but also a Modern Young Adult, which means I have two good things at my disposal: Yelp and Obamacare. My smartphone located a walk-in clinic with good reviews literally around the corner, in the middle of a drug store. This being New York, the place also sells aisle after aisle of store-brand snacks, a frightening variety of frozen food, and beer, on tap, for take-out, 24 hours a day. My parents’ insurance, which otherwise would have been unavailable to me as of a few weeks ago, covered me for a doctor’s visit, a strep test (positive), and a round of amoxicillin capsules half the size of my thumb. And I could go home, just over two hours away on NJ transit, to lie on a familiar couch and watch cable, to let my parents buy me ice cream, to take my temperature and to take care of me.

The point is, Real People, you don’t have to be sick in a vacuum. You don’t have to do any part of Real Life in a vacuum. You can let the people who love you talk you out of going in to work and buy you probiotic kombucha and you can let your interviewees and coworkers and banjo teachers know you’re too busy burning up to come in and infect them and you can let the government give you a break on co-pays so that you can afford not to die. Get some rest. Watch some Netflix. Chug some Nyquil.

But then you’d better as hell get well, because you are way behind on your blog posts.

things we’re not good at

I realized two days ago that last weekend, in the flurry of diploma-getting and picture-taking and packing-up-everything-I-own, I missed saying goodbye to one of my best friends. This being The Future, I quickly typed distressed messages of apology for my oversight at her on Facebook. But, as it turns out, she said she had actually slipped out on purpose, because it was hard for her to watch so many people leave and seeing them was too much.

“I’m not good with goodbyes,” she said.

scene from my moving-to-college roadtrip four long years ago

I’m not either, I told her. Nobody is! And so we said a kind of fakey-Facebook goodbye, punctuated with emoticons instead of the sobbing through tears that would likely have accompanied the physical act. I didn’t have much time to dwell, because in the short span of three days that I was home I had many glamourous tasks to attend to: unpacking, doing laundry, getting my teeth cleaned, going to the doctor, having blood drawn (ugh), trying not to barf on the nice phlebotomist, going back to the dentist to have my sexy tooth-grinding mouthguard refitted, and putting something in the family fridge that wasn’t pre-shredded cheese or moldy Indian takeout.

And! In my infinite wisdom, I had signed up for banjo classes in Brooklyn that I was Very Excited to take without noticing that the first class was on June 14, also known as Three Full Days Before I Intended To Move to New York. So I took the Boltbus up, for just the night, to learn the very beginnings of the clawhammer style and doodle around in that wonderful city for a bit. (Pro-tip: if you ever want to be regarded with suspicion at your favorite vegan bakery, go there in a stained-button down with a banjo strapped to your back. Hayseed-chic!)

The class, though, was great, and started the usual way any class does, with a go-around-and-say-your-name kind of deal. The teacher was friendly and did his best, but three people in he did a sheepish little palms-up.

“I’m not good with names,” he admitted.

Which made me think. As we were practicing forming our hands into claws and awkwardly strumming out our first attempts at the bum-ditty, I realized that no one ever says they’re good with names. And yet people still point it out, invariably, in situations where there’s a whole roster of new folks to get acquainted with. Same with goodbyes. I’d bet you two vegan donuts that no one relishes the act of parting with their friends any more than they profess their utter confidence at learning what people are called.

So what compels us, as a people, as a species, to qualify something that’s so universal? Why can’t we just come out and admit it? Change is hard. The best part of spending time with people is when you’ve mastered their name but don’t have to say it for the last time. If introductions aren’t queasy and nerve-wracking, then they’re at least a bit of tricky memorization. And goodbyes are just awful. No one wants to wrap their arms around someone knowing they’ll have to release them, and so soon, too soon.

I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it, either, other than try to ride it out. Not to get all “Closing Time” on you, but it is true that beginnings follow endings. There was once a time when you didn’t know your best friend’s name. The people you’ve bid farewell circle back in the strangest ways. So maybe it’s a good exercise to relish these precipitous moments we’re “not good with” and give people healthy dose of consideration–not judgment, just taking-in–when we see them first and last. Who are they, and where will they go with or without us?

And if you really can’t remember names, or can’t handle the burden of keeping in touch, worry not. There’s always Facebook.

how to address 5000 of your closest friends

Hello! Since last we met and talked about talking in front of people, I’ve had a bit of a stage upgrade.

Yes, I spoke on a stage so large and far away from everyone that they threw me up on a JUMBOTRON. Life goal: achieved.

But in all seriousness: I was selected as one of three student speakers to give a brief Convocation address to the University of Chicago College Class of 2012 (also known as my friends). It was a huge, huge honor and not nearly as terrifying as it sounds.

I wanted to make a list here of all the people I have to thank for getting me here, starting with Cecilia who threw my name into the hat and winding all the way back to my first-grade teacher who said I was the best writer she’d ever had, but there are so many of you that I’d inevitably leave someone out. But please know that each and every bit of time with you, my teachers and family and friends, are the cornerstones of my own wonky mosaic.

I’m also not going to talk about the other events of the weekend, the packing and saying goodbyes and feeling so many feelings, because the emotional gears are still turning. Processing is in progress. Hell, I haven’t even unpacked my car yet.

Here’s what I learned, however, about standing up and talking to lots of people. Maybe this is so stupidly obvious as to be unremarkable, but that’s just how the truth works sometimes: you gotta believe in yourself. In writing this speech, in revising and smoothing its manifold metaphors, in practicing its slow-calm-breathe-pause delivery, the advice I got was always the same: be confident. They picked you because you have something to say, so say it.

For someone who once bunched the covers over her head the morning of her turn to deliver the Old Testament reading on Youth Sunday, I felt preternaturally calm clutching my printed-out speech and lining up in my assigned spot for the bagpipes procession. I believed my own hype. I had emerged from the shadows of always wear sunscreen and this is water to craft 3 minutes, one-and-a-half 14-point pages of something I really meant. I looked around at the sweaty faces of all these people around me, all these kids in their cheapo robes and variously-angled mortarboards and knew that I wanted to tell them what I was going to tell them. I had a message and by God I was going to sell it.

At my school, we call our graduation exercises Convocation instead of Commencement because we as an institution believe not in firm beginnings and endings of learning experience, but of a constant ebb and flow, gatherings and dispersals, continuity. I hadn’t even considered this beforehand, but that was all I wanted to say in my speech. You tell people that you love your friends and you remind them that theirs are great, too; that there’s really nothing else to life. You get on a stage, you speak slowly, you don’t throw up on your shoes. And voilà. Three minutes fly by.

Also, in terms of Good Graduation Advice: the sunscreen guy was definitely on it. Especially when your ceremony involves sitting without shade for three-plus hours.

You can listen to my speech, recorded by my loyal father on his Zoom H2, right here. I hope you like it.

5 things i learned from stand-up class (and 1 i didn’t)

On Sunday night, I got up on a tiny stage in the back of a pancake house and told some jokes into a microphone. It was not as awful as it sounds! For the past five weeks I’ve been a student of the awesome Feminine Comique, an all-girl, totally-badass comedy class where I learned the basics of the stand-up genre with some really awesome other ladies and taught by the indefatigably hilarious Kelsie Huff.

Why? Well, for one thing, I wanted some practice in case I was going to speak at Convocation (and that is totally happening, so, check mark!) But also, I wanted a chance to see what writing and performing in a genre that I liked but had never tried was like. Also, I was desperate to get out and meet some non-UChicago people. And, well, Mission Accomplished all around! I told jokes! People laughed! And I also took away some good insights from Kelsie and the other gals that I think extend to plenty of parts of my (creative) life. Behold!

1. The power of the exercise

Some of the first things Kelsie had us do were just simple joke-writing practice. For instance: she’d give us two nouns to fill in the sentence “I like my [blank] like I like my [blank]…” and then complete it. Not the most groundbreaking of joke forms, but it got the wheels a-turnin’. And it wasn’t easy. Having to come up with a logical conclusion to the pair of “lawnmower” and “dental floss” put my brain in knots, but I found a punchline eventually: “I like my lawnmower like I like my dental floss: for begrudging, occasional maintenance.” Not that funny, but! The muscles are now stronger. I have lifted a comedic weight.

2. You can’t go wrong with feelings

Another of the exercises we did was to compare two events or things and tell the best and worst parts of each. “Finding a job is like going to the prom: I’m overdressed and hoping to get lucky.” When stuck for a way to finish this particular prompt, Kelsie would have us fall back on how things made us feel. Not to be fuzzy or sentimental, but to dig at what’s really going on in these situations that can make them funny. Peel everything away and the raw nerve can make you laugh. Or cry.

3. Tighten, tighten, tighten

Once we had our bits in place, we would perform them for the class and get notes. Invariably, there was some version of this advice: cut it down. Stand-up comedy is not reading essays. It’s not even really telling stories. It’s being conversational while still hitting all your funny marks. And that is hard! But it’s a good skill. For those of us who love being verbose (guilty) or obtuse (guilty) or using lots of adjectives that end in -se (see previous two items), it’s a challenge to reduce your artful prose to something talkable. Pro-tip: write it out, perform it with your notes, then put your notes down. Perform it sans reading, preferably into a recording device, listen, and evaluate. The stuff you remember to say is the stuff that you keep.

4. Pace yourself and Let It Land

Probably the second-most common critique was about pacing. The girls and I would just cruuuuuuise on through our routines without pausing for laughs or letting things sink in. But remember, stand-up is a conversation. It’s a dialogue. The audience wants to respond and trust me, you want that energy coming back at you. Example: my joke that I was “tall, or as I like to say: vertically fat” didn’t go well when I flew on to my next bit about the mortal danger of wearing high heels because no one understood what the hell I had said. Let them process. Let them think. Let it land.

5. Find Your Truth

This could pretty much be a cardinal rule all kinds of storytelling, or even all kinds of creative work period. Tell the truth. Tell the funny truth, the uncomfortable truth, the adorable truth, the repulsive truth. It’s not that easy, but it’s also not that hard. You can be yourself in a campy, stage-whisper-y, jab-and-wink kind of way and still be telling your truth. Case in point: despite my bit about being from Pennsylvania, I do not actually hate the Amish. Much. Being honest just means being a little vulnerable.

And what didn’t I learn?

1. How to be funny

This is not a teachable thing. People are funny because they’re funny. But! You can become funny-er if you think through these rules, deconstruct a little, and then take your comedy building blocks and assemble them into a veritable Tower of Mirth (and avoid stupid metaphors such as these). It’s about taking leaps of faith onto that tiny stage, fumbling with that microphone, and trusting that you will not die if you try to tell people about your Junior Prom.

my last hundred(ish) bucks

$100! It is a lot of money, and yet, it is also not a lot of money at all. Where did your last hundred bucks go, Blair Thornburgh? (with apologies to The Billfold)

Memorial Day barbecue, one of many free-ish hot-dog-themed dinners this week

$2.89–Shipping my old copy of Mastronarde’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek to someone in Tempe, AZ and netting me a cool $7.89 on half.com. So maybe this doesn’t count?
$43.50–Cap and gown at campus bookstore, which is neither returnable nor rentable, so basically my education has cost me $200,043.50 at this point
$5 plus $1 tip–Double IPA at campus pub, which I bought to kill time and ended up making me semi-drunk for a 10 PM showing of Dazed and Confused
$4.50–Saltines and ginger ale at CVS, for my best friend who mysteriously contracted a stomach bug at a minor-league baseball game and wouldn’t let me into his room because there was puke on the floor so I had to just leave it by his door like he was the Phantom of the Opera or something
$10–Tickets to see Chelsea Peretti do standup at the Lincoln Lodge, which cost $15 but my friend bought them and gave me a discount for the aforementioned CVS purchase. Technically I could try to get in free with the card they gave me as an Official Stand-Up Comedy Trainee but I figured I should pay up.
$20.25–Enough gas to last me the rest of the week. My parents are just going to fill up the tank when we drive back to the East Coast from Chicago, so I’m trying to get juuuuust enough to use up exactly.
$7.75–Laundry. Tried to cram 3 weeks of clothes into the $2.75 machine and had to bail halfway, suck it up, and pay a dollar more. Like usual.
$18.79–Groceries: 4 Jonagold apples and 1 Pink Lady, 1 lb. carrots, parsley, dozen eggs, butter, ¼ pound of kalamata olives with pits (because you save $3 a pound that way!), 2 avocados. Shopping light due to impending moveout and need to eat through pantry reserves. I also had picked up two containers of hummus (2 for $5! A STEAL) but then it turned out I had the wrong size and had to ask the checkout guy to put them back.