Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Should A Person Be, by Sheila Heti - A Review

I’m having an existential crisis.

Two days ago, I paid $16 for a book I’d never heard of. This was out of character for me, $16 is a lot of money and I usually only invest that kind of cash / reading time on a book I have solid reason to believe I’d enjoy. But the reviews on the back of this book (and the front, and on five devoted pages at the beginning) were just OUTSTANDING. Usually you read comments like “Boldly original… Gorgeously rendered.” Vague but verbose, inviting but not over-committal, similar to a recommendation letter or travel brochure. In the case of this book, not only was it endorsed by some pretty prominent names in the industry, the reviews were practically novels in themselves – just gushing on and on for paragraphs about the “raw, urgent depiction” of life. The author also won a closetful of awards, received a ton of endorsements, and was named a “Best Book of the Year” by eight different prestigious newspapers.

48 hours and many facial expressions later, I closed the book.

The reason for my existential crisis is this: I JUST DON’T GET IT. The entire time I was reading it I was thinking: Am I missing something here? I really must be missing something. There must be something fundamentally wrong with the way my brain works. This was a book that was allegedly supposed to CHANGE MY LIFE with its profundity (I’m not exaggerating, it was categorized as “novel / self help” at the bookstore), and was reportedly the feminist bible of our generation, or something… I’m admittedly not the most active feminist in the world, but I figured that description meant it would empower me somehow, inspire me to cast off the shackles of my oppressed female existence and rise above to become the woman / person I’m meant to be.

…It’s really a wonder I’m ever able to enjoy any book when I go in with such unreasonably grand expectations.

In any case, I did not feel inspired. For most of the book, I felt confused.

Have you ever read a poem and something about it just rubbed you the wrong way? I find myself physically squinting at poetry like this. As if my eyes can adjust and refocus to illuminate something I missed before – something that would bring the whole thing together in a way that makes more sense to me. I was also never a big fan of free verse. Make the thing rhyme, give it a cadence, stand it up straight with structure, balance, and iambic pentameter. Show me free verse that can nail a line like “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; // The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality” with the same haunting heartbeat. You can’t! Maybe this preference makes me an immature reader, or limits my ability to fully appreciate art… But I would much rather read complete sentences and coherent thoughts than abstract, disjointed ramblings that (literally, intentionally) have no rhyme or reason.

This is more or less how I felt reading this book. Squinting through the whole damn thing.

It was almost SO conceptual and intense that it was trying too hard. To quote Peter Griffin, it “insists” upon itself. Like, HEY! LOOK! LOOK HOW EDGY AND RAW THIS IS! IS IT MAKING YOU UNCOMFORTABLE?! DO YOU GET IT?! The protagonist’s relationship with her friends seemed flighty and erratic, her sex life decidedly unhealthy, and with the plot of the story being… erm… finding a plot to her story… I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed with the ending.

I was hesitant to write this review because I’m almost kind-of embarrassed… like maybe my lack of reaction is an indication that I’m just not smart / open-minded / mature enough to fully grasp the awesomeness that so many others have. And if that is the case, I’m certainly not one to highlight how UNCOOL I am for not getting it.

Good or bad, though, I will say that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the book since I put it down. And upon reading other reviews online, I suspect I’m not the only one with this feedback. While I am having a really difficult time determining whether I would recommend it to others, I can’t deny that some of its assertions are resonating with me. I found myself even skimming back through it with a highlighter, to review some of the passages that stood out.

So in short, I would say it’s a book with pages and pages of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, punctuated by a few profound nuggets of wisdom.

…But definitely not worth the $16.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Night in the Life of an Insomniac

I have a lot of trouble sleeping.

I don't know if this fact alone qualifies me as an insomniac, because I'm not sure how severe my troubles are compared to others' troubles, and it isn't like I've ever been diagnosed... but it's a nightly battle and very literally my least favorite part of the day. I dread going to sleep so much that I find myself watching the clock, wincing as it gets later and later, knowing that my bedtime is looming. In some twisted way I actually sorta look forward to getting sick, because it gives me a very legitimate, socially acceptable excuse to take excessive amounts of PM cold medicine and knock myself out.

I KNOW, on some conscious level, that it's all in my head. Insomnia is a problem of the mind, not the body... so in theory if I could just get my brain to, I dunno, shut up for 15 minutes, I should be able to drift off into dreamland as easily as the next person. But as any overthinker will tell you, it's easier said than done... here’s my typical inner monologue when I settle in under the covers:

Okay, here we go, Susie. Time to sleep.

Deep breaths, ahhhhh. This is gonna be good. This is comfy. I got my pillow, covers up to my chin, my body is at the perfect temperature. There isn't too much light in here, it's dead quiet, these are perfect sleeping conditions. It'll be no problem at all falling asleep tonight. This is a sleeper's heaven, sleep paradise, a veritable kingdom of sleep. I'll be unconscious any minute.

The cable guy is supposed to be here from 8-10 tomorrow morning, I can't forget that. Should I set my alarm? Nah, I'll be up by then. Oh shoot, I don't have any cash! Are you supposed to tip the cable guy? I can never remember things like that. My parents were always really good about knowing who and when to tip. That reminds me, Mom’s carpal tunnel surgery is coming up. I wonder if I should get her flowers or something, or if she’d think that was cheesy. This isn’t considered major surgery, right? I can’t imagine there would be any complications…

WAIT A SECOND. These are not sleep-inducing thoughts, I'm still wide awake! I'm even more awake than I was when I laid down, because now I'm also a tiny bit stressed out. CUT IT OUT, BRAIN. Just relax. These are all things that can be worked out later, when you're vertical. Think calming thoughts.

I'm in a sprawling meadow, next to a beautiful cascading waterfall. Birds are chirping. But not in an annoying way, in like a peaceful meadow type of way. Haha! Remember in Failure to Launch, when Zooey Deschanel wants to kill the bird outside her window? Remember in Friends, when Phoebe breaks up with Gary BECAUSE he shoots the bird outside her window? There are a lot of birds outside of windows in pop culture, I guess. But no birds outside MY window, because this is a sleep kingdom. This is the cloud nine of sleep.

This position is starting to get a little uncomfortable. But if I move, then it's kinda like I'm tossing and turning, which gets the blood pumping and is definitely not good for sleeping. Okay, I'm gonna switch, but then I'm gonna be totally, 100%, fully committed to that position forever until I fall asleep. No more rolling around. Deal? Deal.

Okay great, yes, this is much more comfortable. This is perfect. There is no doubt in my mind that I will be in this position until morning. This is about as comfortable as it gets. This is a sleep kingdom, a sleep empire!

Should I have my eyes open or closed? You would assume closed, but if they’re not naturally closed then I'm physically holding them closed, which is like, effort. And exerting effort doesn't seem like the kind of thing you should do when you're trying to go to sleep. But then, having them open and staring at the ceiling doesn't seem very good either, especially when the smoke detector light is blinking. Is that just an indicator that it’s on and functional, or does that mean the battery is low? Naw, I think it chirps when the battery is low…

This is silly. People are able to sleep in way worse conditions than this. Soldiers can sleep in a bunker on a battlefield, children in Africa can sleep on wet concrete in dirty orphanages, hell somehow I'M able to sleep in a moving vehicle when Taylor listens to sports radio. But now, when I'm perfectly comfortable, and in a piece of furniture DESIGNED FOR SLEEP, I can't manage it? What the hell is wrong with me?!

AHA! I just started to drift off! I felt it! God DAMNIT, why did I have to notice it and wake myself up? Just do it again brain, you were so close, just try to relax… Am I pretty much starting over now, back to square one, back to the end of the line? Or is my progress cumulative? I’m so close to the doorway, all I need to do is step through…

Hey that kinda reminds me of that David Bowie song. “This is Major Tom to Ground Control, I’m stepping through the doo-oo-oo-oor… And I’m floating in a most a-pecuuuliar way-hay… and the stars look very different… tuh-DAYYY-AY-AY-AY!”

Uh-oh, this position is starting to get uncomfortable. But I promised myself I would be totally, 100%, fully committed to this position forever. Do I stay like this, committed? Or toss and turn?


Welp, look at that. It’s 3am.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Idle Hands

One prominent aspect of my temporary unemployment is the fact that I’m home. Alone. All day. Every day. This is a phenomenon that I have not experienced since I was 15.

On one hand, in theory it’s fantastic. I can spend all day in my bathrobe. I don’t have to be anywhere, talk to anyone, I barely have a reason to brush my teeth in the morning. Which is somewhat of a shock to my system after my previous situation, where I was working 10/12-hour days, and frequently being called in on nights and weekends. Foreign as it is to me, it’s also kinda amazing.

But on the other hand, having no responsibilities carries a lot of responsibility in itself. I still have this unshakeable urge to be productive, to still feel accomplished at the end of the day. So while I technically have the freedom to just veg out and watch Dance Moms reruns for eight straight hours, I have yet to actually take advantage of it.

Instead, I am plagued with anxiety that I’m not doing enough, and holding myself to an even higher standard: With such an open schedule I should surely have time to do EVERYTHING, shouldn’t I? I still wake up at 7am every day, and I make sure to create a rigorous To-Do list to ensure that not a moment is wasted. Registering my car in this new state, filling out change of address forms, switching banks, transferring my prescriptions... Similarly, I would feel like a failure if I didn’t allocate a portion of this free time to self-improvement, so I make an effort to work out daily. I also just moved in and am largely still living out of boxes, so I try to consistently devote time to unpacking, decorating, and generally making the place more home-y… On top of that, this move brought me closer to several friends and family members, so I’ve been trying to pencil in a lunch here, an outing there, etc…

And then there’s that tiiiiiiiiiny little detail (minor, really) of the fact that I. Don’t. Have. A. Job. And so it feels like every minute that I’m not spending poring over career websites or tweaking my cover letter is time squandered. I find myself worrying that I’m missing something – a website I’ve overlooked, or a resume-writing rule of thumb that I missed. Can I be sure that I’m leaving no stone unturned? Until I’m safely employed again, I cannot afford to trade in one minute of job-hunting for channel surfing.

I guess it’s tragic that this is the first time in the better part of a decade that I’ve had the luxury of free time, without the ability to indulge in it. I suppose my bathrobe and Dance Moms will just have to wait.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Back to Reality

(OH, there goes gravity, OH, there goes Rabbit he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t give up that easy, no…)

I’d like to believe that my blogging maturity will someday evolve to the point where I can script a simple entry title without it launching an Eminem song in my head. Maybe on that day, I will know I’ve officially crossed the threshold into adulthood… but I’m not holding my breath.

ANYWAY. This week my luxurious three-week vacation is over, and now it’s back to the grind.

Which means…

Job Hunt: Day One.

There are very few experiences in life quite as unnerving and disheartening than searching for a new job. One day in, and I’m starting to remember why I had previously been with the same company for almost six years: Oh thaaat’s right, because JOB HUNTING IS THE MOTHERF$#%ING PITS.

The last time I was really in the job market, it was 2008, and I was 17. Fresh out of high school, and ready to move on from my fulfilling career at Cold Stone Creamery. Back then, it meant putting on a professional-looking outfit, DRIVING around town and physically stopping into places to ask if they had openings. If they said yes, you sat down right then and there to fill out an application, occasionally being interviewed on the spot.

Two things have happened since then: 1.) I grew up a little, and am no longer looking for the same type of entry-level position that this sort of job hunting lends itself to, and 2.) The entire world stopped doing this whole in-person rubbish, because of inventions like Craigslist and Monster.

So I’m a little out of the game here, but I have life experience and the benefit of previous management positions on my side. I know what I look for in potential candidates, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of how to present myself to others. That, and I’ve been trying to make up for lost time by doing as much online research as I can. I have a million resume-building tips and “How to Write an Effective Cover Letter” articles practically coming out of my ears.

And yet, even for the most qualified applicants (which is a category to which I desperately hope I belong), you cannot help but get discouraged with the skewed ratio of outgoing to incoming. By my estimate it’s about 20:1. That is to say, for every 20 times you send out your resume, you can expect one callback.

It’s like speed-dating. You have a very restricted opportunity to give a quick overview of yourself: “Here Is Why I Am A Worthwhile Human Being.” And the person across from you has a split-second to decide if they think you’d be a good fit… And if not, BYE! That’s it! That was your shot! Go home, do not pass go, do not collect $200. (I might take this opportunity to shed light on the fact that I also haven’t really been single much since high school. I think the same principle applies here: I’d rather know I’m loved than have to be out in the world, vulnerable, constantly facing rejection.)

And oh, the rejection! I have been the unlucky recipient of several canned email responses from companies:

Thank you for your interest. We are fortunate to have many qualified applicants. After careful consideration, we have determined that the credentials of other candidates may better fit our needs at this time. We wish you the best in your career search.

In one case, this response was received LESS THAN 30 MINUTES after I sent my resume, which of course plummeted me into a downward spiral of shame. How could they have decided they didn’t like me that fast?! Was it something I said? Was my resume too generic? Did I use the wrong font, should I have picked a different color? It made me want to march right into their corporate office, slam my fist on the receptionist’s desk and demand to speak with the person responsible. I would storm into the Human Resources department, look them up and down, and say “EXCUSE ME, you little self-righteous twerps, but you don’t even KNOW ME!”

C’est la vie. It’s still early; hopefully this venture will be more fruitful in the coming weeks. Until then, you can find me reciting Eminem lyrics to my bathroom mirror.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Alternative Resolutions We Should All Have for 2014


Ah, the New Year. For me, having just hours ago settled into my new place up North (with no cable or internet yet, and very little furniture to speak of), it meant counting down to midnight on my phone and toasting champagne in my new cardboard-box-filled living room. For most people, it’s a time of reflection, anticipation, hope, and Best-Of lists.

Oh right, and resolutions.

Data from this recent ball drop indicate that 62% of Americans made resolutions this year, while only 8% of those who made resolutions in 2013 claimed to have been successful. I like this statistic, because one, it’s basically the equivalent of saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, let yourself off the hook and give it another shot in a year or so.” But on the other hand, I sorta like the discrepancy between the two figures. 92% of people FAILED in keeping these promises to themselves last year, and yet two thirds of that group are back for more.  There’s a certain tenacity to it that I admire. That being said, I think we might have a collectively better success rate this year if we take a closer look at what it is we’re actually ‘resolving’ to do.

The most common resolution, by a wide margin, was weight loss and/or fitness goals. Predictably, every year in January there is a huge spike in the sale of gym memberships. Possibly more predictably, attendance invariably drops off again by March.

Another common resolution year after year is some derivative of “spend less, save more” – this presumably resulting from the average American’s household credit card debt currently hovering around $7,000. Regardless of annual resolutions to the contrary, this figure is steadily increasing.

One of the third most common resolutions is to quit smoking. This is perhaps the only one on this list with which Americans seem to have had some tangible success. Most recent data indicates that 18% of adults would identify themselves as “smokers,” down from 19% in 2011 and 20.6% in 2009.

Aside from that last one, it seems as though on the whole, resolutions were made to be broken. This fact somewhat depresses me, but not for the obvious reasons. I don’t think that it necessarily denotes that we are blundering failures, or that we should just give up trying altogether. I think, rather, it just means that we’re putting our focus in all the wrong places.

Don’t get me wrong; I think a world with less obesity and tobacco-related deaths would be a great thing, and it would certainly be nice if everyone were largely debt-free. But rather than concentrate on these somewhat self-focused resolutions, I think the New Year should be an opportunity to reflect on how we can become better to the people around us. To put it in more cheesy terms, becoming a better citizen of the world. If I ruled the universe, here is what I wish the whole world would resolve to do in 2014:

1. Perform random acts of kindness. Recently, a friend of mine told me a story about how the person in front of him at a Starbucks drive-through paid for his drink. The way he told this story, you would honestly think he won the lottery or got Megan Fox’s phone number. He was completely floored by the gesture, and – here’s the best part – he, in turn, paid for the person behind him. We wondered together if the person in front of him had also gotten their drink paid for, and if so, how long the chain of do-gooders went. The fact that he paid it forward is my favorite part of the whole thing – he was given the option of free coffee, and instead still chose to spend money at Starbucks. So while the ultimate result of the adventure was technically no different… it brightened the day of everybody involved.
2. Recognize that the people with whom you interact on a daily basis are just that – PEOPLE. This covers all areas of human interaction. You may not want to actually contribute to the homeless man’s tin cup, but at least don’t give him a disgusted look as you walk by. When you’re on the road (I know this is hard to believe) everyone in the cars around you also have somewhere to be, and might also be in a hurry, so maybe just be nice and let them in instead of trying to “teach them a lesson.” Keep in mind that the customer service representative you’re dealing with is likely not personally responsible for whatever frustration you’re currently experiencing with their company/product, so try not to yell or condescend to them. If we try to maintain this mentality, we can start treating each other with dignity and respect.
3. Don’t hold grudges. You will never look back later in life and think “I should have stayed mad about that longer.” Anger and hatred are wasted energy, and the sooner you can learn to forgive and forget, the happier your life will ultimately be. If someone wronged you in a way you can’t forgive, fine. Remove them from your life. But don’t dwell, and don’t continue to harbor negative emotions about it – We are creatures of habit, and negativity breeds more negativity. Similarly, once you start to cultivate positive cognitive and emotional habits, those will multiply as well.
4. Pay somebody a compliment. Whenever someone tells me they like something about me – even when it comes from people who are contractually obligated to say such things, like my mom or my boyfriend – I find myself with a little extra spring in my step. Whether it’s a friend who just got a new haircut, or a coworker who did a particularly good job on a recent project, don’t let it go unnoticed. People like being acknowledged and appreciated, and a little kindness can go a long way.
5. Learn to apologize. Why is this sometimes such a difficult task to manage? If you make a mistake, own up to it. Whether it’s bumping into someone on the street or being a flake about returning your best friend’s phone calls, hold yourself accountable to being a good person. Nobody’s perfect, but part of the beauty of being “human” is having the ability to remedy it.
6. Remove envy from your emotional landscape. The other day someone mentioned casually that they thought Ana Ivanovic was sexy… and I immediately found myself poring through Google images trying to convince myself that my looks could compete with hers. Which UHHHH, they cannot, so my brain’s next logical conclusion was to hate her – and that’s unfair, because I’m sure Ana Ivanovic is a super person and is in no way deserving of my hatred. No good can come from comparing yourself to others, and doing so just generates unnecessary negative energy. Just do you!
7. Write handwritten thank-you notes. Or handwritten anything notes. It only takes an extra few minutes and means so much more than a text message or email. Which brings me to…
8. For the love of god, put the phone down. This one is tough, I get it. I’m battling with it myself. I cannot even remember a time when I didn’t use commercial breaks and stop lights to keep tabs on every single thing going on in my / everybody else’s life. First thing when I wake up, and last thing before I go to bed (and, oh, 62935691 times in between), I do my standard social media routine: Facebook–Twitter–Pinterest–Instagram–LinkedIn. Then, if I have time, check in on my favorite blogs, read a few news articles, take a Buzzfeed quiz… and then, because it’s been a few minutes now, re-check Facebook and Twitter again. Before I know it I’ve been on my phone for 45 minutes, and that’s time I’m never getting back. I’m now 45 minutes closer to my grave, and all I have to show for it are my Buzzfeed quiz results (my Mean Girls character is Cady Heron, and the city that most closely matches my personality is Paris. Thanks for asking). Let’s all commit to reversing this increasingly pathetic stereotype. This is your LIFE happening around you, after all.
9. Do a little something for the good of humanity. It doesn’t have to be huge – Donate your old clothes to Goodwill instead of just throwing them away. Pick up a stray piece of trash here and there and put it in the garbage. Rather than letting leftovers sit in your fridge for a week, give them to a homeless person outside the restaurant. Sort out your recyclables (and if you’re really adventurous, start a compost). Try taking small steps to contribute positively to the world around you.
10. Let someone know how important they are to you. I know this is cliché, and we hear it all the time, but there’s a reason for it. Life is too short to let “I love you”s go unsaid, and often times we don’t realize how much someone means to us until it’s too late to express it. Be it your parents, your best friend, or significant other – tell them you love them / miss them / how important and wonderful they are, loudly and often.

May 2014 be the year of good deeds and respect for our fellow Earth-dwellers.

Then again, if I happen to also lose a few pounds in the process, or start to bear a few similarities to Ana Ivanovic… well, we’ll just call it a win-win for everybody.