Friday, November 28, 2008

Mr. Rogers Had it Right

When I was still a high school teacher and had to dress all nice and professional, the first thing I'd do upon arriving home was change my clothes.  And we're not just talking switching out the office pants for some jeans; I had to strip myself of all items that had been contaminated by school air, including jewelry, socks, and depending on how I was feeling, my bra.  Even on the days when we could wear jeans to school, I had to change my jeans when I got home (because, of course, there are school jeans and non-school jeans).  The only thing that could carry over from school day to night was maybe my underwear.

See, my school clothes were my costume, and the second I could stop pretending to be a put-together mature adult, it was imperative that I change back to my real self via my real clothes.  This is not to say that I disliked my school clothes -- they were fine, for school clothes.  But, I needed to keep the two identities separate, and the clothes were the medium for my transition.

For those long four years, I thought that this was a hating-school thing.  I  fantasized about a future far-off job where I could wear my crazy-colored sneakers and my sweatshirts and track jackets to work.  I wondered what it would be like to live in a world where the work me and the non-work me were seamlessly merged into one. 

Now, I'm not so sure.  Two weeks into my new non-teaching job, I'm realizing that the changing-of-the-clothes has not stopped.  The second I get home, I still need to take off my rings, switch out the pants, and take off the button down shirt.  True, I might keep on the long sleeve shirt I was wearing underneath or even keep on the black socks, depending on how lazy I'm feeling.  The cooties factor of my work clothes has definitely decreased now that I'm not breathing in the same air as teenagers and school administrators.

And now, as I ponder my fantasy of wearing my bright yellow Brazilian track jacket with matching bright yellow Mr. Happy shoes to work, I'm realizing that Mr. Rogers and Clark Kent were on to something.  Granted, both men did have good reason to change their clothes: Clark Kent couldn't walk around all day in his Superman get-up, and Mr. Rogers had to change into his bum cardigan to comfortably check out the Neighborhood of Make Believe.  But, maybe their wardrobe changes also helped them transition into their taking-care-of-business psyches.

As for me, having a clothing distinction between my work self and my normal self has become a concrete way for me to mark the distinction between the two.  I still need to pretend to be a put-together rational adult at work, while I can spiral into a whiny self-centered kid who starts sentences with "dude" at home.  (It's possible that some members of the house in which I live might wish that I would leave on my work clothes/adult identity a little longer, but this request has never been made official.)

When I ponder the deeper meaning of this work self v. real self distinction for too long (that would be right about now, for example),  I'm soon wrapped up in the dilemma of how separate these two identities should be in the first place.  Should I aspire to have one unified identity -- where work self is real self?  Will I never fully a) either have a "career" or b) really like my job until there is no distinction? (Assuming that the only way to truly love your job is to get paid for doing your passion.)

But then I find myself at the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life question, and no one wants to think about that for too long.  After all, even Tom Hanks in "Big" had to wear a suit to go to work and play with toys.

So, for now, I think I'm okay with my 5:30 p.m. phone booth wardrobe change.  Then again, maybe the self that does my laundry will feel differently.  

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Homeward Bound

I have a problem with going to work in the morning.  The problem is: I don't want to go.  Now, I know that most people don't want to go to work (see last blog), and that most people would rather stay home.  However, what I'm not sure about is how normal or abnormal the sick-to-my-stomach feeling is -- the one I get when I leave home in the morning, where five pairs of legs and varying degrees of smells and hairiness remain.

But I guess I should start at the beginning, where my retardedness (and by retardness, I'm going to steal Sarah Silverman's definition of "I can do anything") begins.  See, back in the third grade (my default grade for whenever I can't really remember when something happened), I had some issues with going to school in the morning.  My family and I had just returned from spending a couple of weeks in London together, and I was used to spending every minute of every day with them.  For some, going back to school might be a welcome relief.  For me, it was cause for tears every morning before school.  I was just too homesick to leave home in the morning. 

This homesickness carried over to issues with sleep-overs and stuffed animals.  For years and years, I could not do sleep-overs.  I would get as far as, oh, say 10:00 p.m., and then, inevitably, I'd call home, claiming "sick" to my parents and my poor friend.  I thought I'd never be able to go away for college, let alone the one-nighter at Camp Timberlee in the fifth grade (and, yes, it was actually the fifth grade).

With stuffed animals, it was similar feelings about leaving my family...except...right, they were stuffed.  animals.  But I felt bad leaving them in the morning, and I so looked forward to winter and summer break when I could spend all day and night with them.  Yes, I could do anything.

So, therein lies my early weirdness, except I did go to Camp Timberlee and I did make it to college.  And things seemed to be going along just fine.  Until I got the brilliant idea to become a high school English teacher and no one stopped me.  That's when my trouble with going to school in the morning began all over again.

Of course, there are many reasons to dread teaching, and that sick-to-the-stomach feeling, I think, is not completely abnormal when you have to perform in front of teenagers.  The thing is, though, it never got easier.  During my second year of teaching, I occasionally needed to call a lifeline on the way from the L to my school, just to get myself to go in.  And then, by my third year, I needed anti-anxiety medication to get myself to go to school.

So, I switched schools.  And I went off the medication.  However, I still spent too many before-school minutes sitting in my car in the school parking lot on the phone with my mom or Willie, sniffling away tears, and hoping for some kind of miracle encouragement.  Every morning when I locked my car, all I wanted was for it to be 3:15 so that I could return to my car, unlock it, and go home.  (By the way, if you feel any pity for it, I have no problem with that. Please, pity away.)

So, I switched careers.  And two weeks into my new job, I'm definitely not crying in the morning.  The wishing it was the end of the day is definitely less than it was with teaching.  (That was one of the reasons I got out of teaching: I wanted to stop wishing away my days -- hoping and praying that it was already 3:00 or June 15.)

And yet, although I don't need to make a call or ingest small white pills, that homesicky it's-time-to-go-to-work feeling has not completely gone away.  True, the job is still brand new and so I'm still dealing with nerves and anxiety.  And Fonzie's face at the window, which I can see all the way from the car, definitely doesn't help.  

I know that, ultimately, I should feel very lucky that I have had and continue to have happy homes that I don't want to leave.  And maybe, as I get more comfortable with the job, my morning homesick-y feeling will get better.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I'm just a weirdo (who can do anything) with separation anxiety who will always want to stay home and play with her stuffed animals.  

Well, at least I got the sleep-over part down.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Will Work For Fun

As of last Monday, I am officially employed.  Just when I was ready to reenter the world of food service, I got hired as the School Service Learning Coordinator at Duke, a nondescript mouthful of a job title.

On the first day of work, I learned that I work in three different offices at Duke (the Office of Community Affairs, the Program in Education and the Community Service Center), and that I am responsible for coordinating two different tutoring programs: America Reads / America Counts and the tutoring program required of students in service learning classes.

On the second day of work, I learned that the woman who I thought was my boss is not my boss.  I was kind of bummed, because she would have been an awesome boss.  And I'm still not positive who and how many bosses I have.

By the third day of work, I realized that I'm not sure how I feel about the word "coordinator."  I'm learning that it's a euphemism for dealing with shit that goes wrong.

And by the fourth day of work, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I need a date book to keep track of all of the meetings and places I'm supposed to be, as the post-it note system I used to rely on will no longer suffice.

It's a given that starting a new job is stressful and that I have no idea what I'm doing.  And I probably won't really know what I'm doing until I've messed everything up nice and good.  My responsibilities seem like a foreign language at the moment, and I don't understand how anyone can keep the two tutoring programs straight, given that they seem to have just as many similarities as differences.

But, in this economy at this point in time, I feel lucky as hell to have a job -- a job that will get me out of the office and into schools once a week and where everyone, so far, has been super nice.   

But, the real kicker?  It's not a teaching job.  Which leads me to a preliminary list about what is in and out, good and bad, about going back to a normal non-teaching job:

Let's start with the bad:
  • No Christmas break. (I just found out yesterday that I only get December 24th and 25th off and that I am not entitled to any vacation days or sick days until I have worked for 90 days, which means, basically, that I am fucked for the holidays.)  
  • No summer break means no end in sight. 
  • The work day no longer ends at 2:55 p.m.
  • I can no longer claim that I can't stay after school because that would be over union time.
And now the good:
  • I can wear the same pants every day of the week without any teenagers noticing.
  • My day doesn't depend on the mood of 120 teenagers.
  • I no longer have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. 
  • I could actually schedule a dentist appointment at, say 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday in February.
I know that a job is a job and that 99.9% of people would rather be doing their life than their job.  I will still get the Sunday blues and will still be tired.  

But, I'm hoping that I won't be so exhausted by the end of the week that I want to kill myself.  And that I'll still have time and energy to, say, start my own t-shirt making company (for example).

Having been employed for a stretch until this fall, I had forgotten how good it feels to get up in the morning and have somewhere to be, to know that you can pay your bills, and to be a part of whatever kind of community the job provides.  

I had forgotten how great Friday late afternoon feels, when you've made it through the week and arrived at the weekend.  

Yes, working sucks.  But unemployment sucks more.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fonzie

So, week three with dog.  As the walks and plastic bags and failed attempts at "sit" accumulate, my complete ignorance of dog ownership has channeled itself into one doggie question: how good does my dog need to be?

Now, for the most part, Fonzie is a good dog (said in that universal dummy doggie voice where you raise your voice five octaves and add some guttural throaty "let's rough house" oomph to it).  He doesn't bark in the house, he doesn't go to the bathroom in the house, he leaves the cat alone, and he has only chewed through one computer cord and one can of trash.  (Translation: he has not touched the sneakers.)  Outside of the house, however, Fonzie has a mixed track record.  Again, for the most part, he is good.  He walks well on a leash (whatever that means), and sometimes he runs well with me. 

Other times, though, he pulls and pulls.  The trainer at the dog obedience classes warned me about getting leash burn on my hand, and sure enough, there's some redness that I pretend I don't see.  Fonzie has also taken to barking at other dogs and occasionally tries to jump up on me or others.

And then there's his PTSD.  On a couple of occasions, Fonzie has completely lost his mind.  At first I thought it was crowds or loud music, and that something traumatic must have happened to him in that kind of setting.  But then, on a perfectly normal Sunday afternoon, while taking a perfectly normal walk on a path we walk almost every day, something clicked in Fonzie's brain.  He began barking like mad and attempted (almost successfully) to jump over the wall enclosing the path where we were walking.  It was a full twenty minutes before he calmed down.  It was embarrassing as hell.

So, there's anxious/PTSD Fonzie, and then there's normal dog Fonzie.  And the anxiety -- well, not sure what I can do about that except hope that it gets better.  But it's the normal "bad" behavior that I'm unsure about.  Is it bad that he barks at other dogs?  Or is it okay and normal?  Or does it depend on the bark, and somehow I'm supposed to distinguish between good bark and bad bark?  I know that I do not want a dog that jumps up (or that sniffs human crotches), but the "ignore the jump" advice I was given does not seem to be working.  Fonzie is responsive to getting squirted with a water bottle in class; do I just start carrying around a water bottle on a holster?

All of my issues and insecurities came down to a decision I had to make in this week's obedience class of whether or not to use this gentle leader leash that the trainer recommended I try on Fonzie.  It goes around the dog's snout and head, so that he can't pull on the leash.  It looks like a muzzle, but the trainer assured me it's not.  "He can pant and chew and everything," she said.  The trainer let me try it out during class to see if I wanted do purchase it.  Fonzie, of course, hated it.  He pawed and pawed at it, and we didn't learn a single thing in class.  Finally, he was able to pull the gentle leader leash off of his mouth, after the trainer had loosened it slightly.   I knew that the muzzle-looking leash wasn't cruel, and that it would help Fonzie not pull when we walk.  But, I just couldn't do it.  Partly it was watching him with it on, and partly I wasn't convinced (or ready to admit) that he needed it.  Sensing my reluctance, the trainer showed me pictures of other dog graduates with the gentle leader / muzzle-looking leash on.  "See?!" she said, except the dogs in the pictures were all pit bulls or other scary-looking breeds.  Not like my sweet, female-looking, innocent Fonzie!

I know my question of what is acceptable dog behavior comes down to the question of what is acceptable to me.  And I know that I do want a well behaved dog and that that requires me to be a disciplinarian, although I've been told that my "NO!" is way wimpy.  To what extent do I accept that Fonzie is not a perfect dog (the Craig's list ad did say "near perfect," and now I understand the "near)" and to what extent do I insist on perfection? 

Part of the problem is definitely me and my vanity about walking around in public with a squirt bottle or a dog who looks like he has a muzzle on.  Will I appear vicious or cruel?  And would that be worse than looking (accurately) like I can't control the dog?

Well, yesterday at 3:00 p.m., I had sided with my vanity about not using a leash that looks like a muzzle.  

By 3:30, I had changed my mind.  Oh, the difference a walk makes.

The freak-out was a Fonzie standard, and this time, it was prompted by a noise coming from the Just Tires store.  "Really?" I asked him, "Just Tires?"  After his panic attack kicked in, he pulled and pulled and barked and couldn't walk normal.  It as a full 15 minutes home, and he pulled every step of the way.  

By 4:45, I had purchased a gentle leader head collar.  And by 5:45, I could have done an infomercial.  Fonzie definitely does not like it, and I'm starting off really slow; so far, we've only been on shorter walks and we've gone at a snail's pace.  I have to figure out how to properly use the thing so that it can effectively teach him not to pull.  But the little instructional manual converted me to the belief that the leash will help with Fonzie's anxiety and freak-outs, and that his resistance to the leash means that he is the kind of dog who could use it.

The gentle leader leash still looks like a muzzle.  And I interpreted a look we got from a lady on our walk today to mean, "how could you muzzle your dog!"  But, worrying about what other people think is my problem, not Fonzie's.  And if he can be fine with the muzzle-looking gentle leader leash (even if takes 57 treats to not get him to pull at it), then I should be, too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Big Apple, Little Durham

When I booked a plane ticket from Durham to New York a couple months ago, I was primarily going to see family.  But, a small-to-medium part of me was very curious about what New York would feel like after Durham and what Durham would feel like after New York.  Would the crazy crowdedness of New York make me feel good about coming back to deserted Durham?  Or would I not want to leave the big city and return to the land of cars and crap parked on front lawns.

Disclaimers/caveats: now, of course, New York is an anomaly -- no other place feels like New York -- not even Chicago.  And, of course, it's only been a couple months of residing in Durham.  What was I expecting -- severe culture shock on either end like my college classmates who would return from their exotic, transcendent, 10-week trips abroad and describe their struggle to return to the culture of cows, colleges and contentment in Northfield, Minnesota?  Puh-lease.

But still.  The trip might offer a tiny glimpse of an answer to my big question: do I need to live in a big city?  The subtitle being -- can I really live in Durham?

The first night in New York was all about family and getting to hang out with my sister -- walking the streets of the Upper West Side, eating at a Vietnamese spot and, of course, getting Tasti D-Lite.  Yes, there were more people on a single New York block at any given moment than there were on all of Durham's (lack of) sidewalks in the entire two months that I've been there.  But, so far, no major life realizations were coming to me.  I was too busy looking into store windows and trying to tell if people were dressed in Halloween costumes or if that was just their normal get-up.

Then came Saturday morning.  Everyone was out walking their dogs, getting their bagels and coffee, running in Central Park or walking down by the river.   Walking the streets of New York that morning, I was accompanied by a loud voice in my head crying, "I want to live in New York!  I can't live in Durham!  There is nothing in Durham!"  I felt panicked.  Could the move be undone?  Could I ever afford to live in New York?  Could I sacrifice space and comfort?  And would Fonzie be able to come along?  (I couldn't believe how many dogs I saw walking around New York.  And not just little dogs.  Apparently, dogs go with New York as much as they go with North Carolina.)

I quieted the voice in my head by getting some pizza for breakfast (ah, the things you can do when you're on your own) and by mapping out my shopping for the afternoon.  I had decided to hit some sneaker stores while I was in town.  Although I love my sneakers, I had never made it a point to look for sneakers in New York on previous trips -- probably because I was living in Chicago (although the majority of my collection comes from the internet).  But, now that I was a country bumpkin, I had to hit the big city to get my fill of civilization (aka colorful high tops and American Apparel). And get my fill I did.  I spent the afternoon with my cousin and his wife in Soho and the East Village, first eating a $15 corned beef sandwich, and then fighting the crowds to walk down sidewalks to peak into packed music-blaring shoe stores.  It was the deadly combination of being in store heaven and being on a budget.  I'd blink and see a store I like and have to steer myself away from the entrance.  

Luckily, after a few hours of what felt like shopping blob tag in Soho, I felt done for the day.  I had drained my budget and had that raggedy blown-out feeling you get when you spend the entire day running around going places or when you spend too long at the Super Target.  It was nice to go back to a home-cooked meal in my aunt and uncle's calm and beautiful Upper West Side apartment.  

The next morning, while 40,000 people ran the marathon, I slept in and ate bagels and lox for breakfast.  And then it was time to head to the airport and go back to that place where I live.

The planes I took to and from North Carolina were little -- so small, that, on the way there, they had to put sandbags in the cargo area to increase the plane's weight, and, on the way back, passengers had to move to empty seats in order to balance out the plane.  Apparently, no big plane is needed to schlep the people to and from North Carolina.  In fact, I was a little concerned that I had got on the wrong plane, as I had been on the phone when we boarded, and it was one of those small-commuter-Comair-no-sign-on-the-board-at-the-gate-we-don't-really-care-what-small-city-you're-flying-to-because-we-would-never-want-to-live-there planes.  But, sure enough, I spotted a man in Tarheels Carolina blue gear sitting a couple seats ahead of me.  I was on the right plane.

Willie picked me up from the airport, and it was a beautiful warm sunny day in North Carolina.  I took Fonzie for a walk as soon as I got home.  There were a couple people out -- it was a nice day after all -- but it was back to Deserted Durham.  

DD keeps me out of stores, as there are few to go into that don't require a trip to the mall, and even fewer open past 5:00 p.m.  It gets me outside, with the help of Fonzie and his ever-curious nose.  But, one short trip to New York has not given me any answers to my big question.  I still don't know if I need to live in a big city, and I probably won't for a while.  What's more, I really have no clue how I feel about living in Durham.  But, at least for the moment, there is a four-legged creature helping me to crowd the empty streets of this place where I live.


Last night Fonzie answered one of the questions for me.  As we were taking our nightly walk, we came upon an outdoor music fest of the alternative variety.  There was a small hipster crowd, and people were drinking beer and hanging out.  (Interestingly enough, or maybe not interesting at all, a couple people have told me that Durham has been referred to lately as "Little Brooklyn."  If that were indeed true, there would be an American Apparel here.)

I tried to get close enough to see what was going on while staying far enough away so that Fonzie wouldn't get freaked out. (He is not a fan of Petsmart or other chaotic places.) It took him only a minute before he started to lose it.  We started heading away from the crowd and even crossed the street.  It was too late; as the band started to play, all Fonzie hell broke loose. He began barking loudly and pulled hard at the leash as he tried to run free.  I hung on tight as he pulled me for about a block.   We passed people who were giving me disapproving looks and moving out of the way -- here came crazy dog and girl with no control over crazy dog.  It was extremely embarrassing, although I also couldn't stop laughing.  

Fonzie wouldn't last a second in New York at this point in his life; he needs the deserted in Deserted Durham.