Jan 31 2011

“Like Newborn Puppies”

I’ve written before about vampire and werewolf boyfriends—a la Twilight, 90210, and My So-Called Life.  And I’ve written about girlfriends, primarily within an athletic context.  Most recently, I wrote about the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque friendship that I shared in middle and high school with Leah, whose parents severely limited her social outlets. 

But until reading “My Rayannes” by Emma Straub — http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/01/24/my-rayannes/ — it hadn’t occured to me how little I’ve written about those very tumultuous, passionate, all-consuming adolescent female relationships.  I, too, fondly remember watching My So-Called Life as a high school sophomore, during the show’s short-lived run.  I still wonder what would have happened to introspective Angela Chase, troubled Rayanne Graf, and that Vampire Boyfriend Jordan Catalano.

Maya was my Rayanne.  She was bright, creative, and intelligent.  And somehow dangerous.  She had an air of edginess—of experience—that I just didn’t.  I fell hard for her during the transition between freshman and sophomore year of high school, being completely awed by her ethereal appearance and attitude.  She didn’t have a drinking problem like her My So-Called Life counterpart, but she did introduce me to a number of vices one damp October night early in tenth grade.  In fact, she regularly opened my eyes to independent films, grunge bands, and the art of subtle pretention.  We were a study in yin and yang—she being waifish and artsy, me athletic and wholesome.  She dyed her hair outrageous colors with Manic Panic and lunched on Annie’s organic macaroni and cheese.  I secretly (or not-so-secretly) loved corn-fed American boys who played sports and did their homework. 

Maya had her fair share of flaws, like any teenage girl including myself.  She had some bullying tendencies, despite her talk of open-mindedness.  Deep down, I think that she held on to some insecurities like all of us did (and probably still do), despite maintaining a façade of confidence.  She was generally judgmental of anything that she perceived as ordinary or conventional.  I often felt like I needed to hide those very present parts of myself. 

In the pilot of My So-Called Life, Angela dyes her blonde hair a deep crimson, explaining that Rayanne says “her hair was holding her back.”  The change shocks her parents, her teachers, her former-friend Sharon, and the geeky childhood neighbor Brian.  What’s happened to the innocent Angela that they knew?

While I didn’t dye my hair for Maya, I remember changing like a chameleon for her in more than a few ways.  At times it was exciting and eye-opening to try on a new identity; to wear Birkenstocks with hippie skirts and listen to Liz Phair.  But it was also alienating.  I wasn’t entirely sure who I was yet, and experimenting with this new character of the alterna-Colleen was always for the benefit of Maya and her extended circle of friends.  Who was that girl?  Ironically, I’m grateful for having had that experience.  In some ways it helped me figure out who I was, in the way that you can sometimes determine the definition of a word by recognizing what it doesn’t mean; by examining its antonym.  But this play-acting was never comfortable.  It never sat quite right on my shoulders.  It felt like I was wearing an old Halloween costume that I’d long-since overgrown, or one that had never fit me to begin with.

I didn’t do this consciously, and by senior year I’d grown up enough to figure out that my real persona fell somewhere in between the sports crew and the artsy, brainy clique.  I was lucky enough to attend a school and live in a town where you could be both, so I was a floater.  I was also active in student government and theater, dabbling all over the place with different friends and activities, and eventually I realized that I could embrace my ability to code-switch.  It was fun to wear different hats, and I didn’t have to apologize for it or define a specific identity.

My Rayanne was an entry point into one of those circles, and I loved her for that.  I remember many a snowy day lounging on Maya’s bed or on the couch in her room, lit only by giant candles, listening to Simon and Garfunkle and memorizing the (I perceived) worldly statements that came out of her mouth.  As Straub puts it, “Teenage girls curl up together like newborn puppies, painting one another’s toes as if they were licking one another’s ears.”  Indeed, Maya and I would snuggle up for warmth and hold hands, defining ourselves through the company we kept.  We’d physically announce our relationship—our closeness—by linking arms in the hallway and exchanging locker combinations.  Teens are so much like that anyway, no matter what generation they belong to.  Also like newborn puppies, their developing personalities are shaped, morphed, and informed by their peers.  When we’re little, our entire worlds center on our parents or immediate family/guardians.  In our teen years, though, that scope changes.  We become dependent on our friends, and those relationships—especially for girls, it seems—eclipse all else.  Our friendships dictate how we dress, the classes we take, the activities we adopt, our vernacular, our choices, our behaviors.      

Maya and I are still friends (or, at least, Facebook says so), though we aren’t by any means close.  The last time I saw her she was exuberant and genuinely warm, and I quickly appreciated her charming husband.  I still admired her fashion sense, though it had clearly matured and become a bit gentler, and I was happy to engage in the customary catching-up conversation.  As adults, the relationship was so easy, so grown-up.  We were appropriately affectionate.  We weren’t hopelessly, desperately in love with each other, but we shared a mutual respect that felt like something close to relief.  My husband was surprised that he hadn’t met Maya before, or that he hadn’t at least heard more about her, so natural was our interaction.  I shrugged when he brought it up, explaining, “We were really close back then.  But it was a teen thing.  A phase, I guess.”

And yes, it was.  But that doesn’t make it any less important.  And maybe it was me, but ten years later she still looked just the same.

Jan 24 2011

Gratitude Journal

It’s been a while since I documented a few of the things that make me happy, so here’s just a quick sample.  It’s all about the little things…

I’m grateful for fleece pants on chilly nights.

I’m grateful for marathons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

I’m grateful for girls’ nights with pedicures, margaritas, and tex-mex.

I’m grateful for local coffee shops with strong, sweet lattes.

I’m grateful for quiet time with my little pup.

I’m grateful for open machines and stretching space at the gym.

I’m grateful for talented, intelligent friends who share support and constructive criticism.

Jan 17 2011

Life Lessons, According to “Friends”

“You know who’s hot?” Dan asked casually, without glancing up from his pen-and-ink drawing.

“Who?” Addie replied.

“Monica,” he told us firmly.

We were high school sophomores, sitting around the table in art class one winter day.  That was the first time that I caught on to the popularity of the show Friends, at that time still in its first season.  I still remember thinking, I guess I’m not the only one watching this.

By our tenth reunion, Dan would be 100% Out and proud.  But clearly Courteney Cox’s appeal as Monica surpassed all boundaries of sexual orientation.  Hell, I still lust after all three of the women of Central Perk.

Maybe it’s because the show ran through my high school and college years, straight into the turbulent waters of my mid-twenties.  But it seems like every moment, every relationship, and every experience in my life can be linked to Friends.  For example, when I make an irrelevant argument, it’s a “moo point” (you know, a cow’s opinion).  In bed, I’m clearly a hug-and-roller.  While my 30th birthday party didn’t come close to rivaling Monica’s drunken sideshow, I think that my bachelorette party (when I was 29) came pretty damn close.  (I, too, had some issues with opening the door to an apartment even though I had a key.)  When a student strings random syllables together (forming something like, say, “transponster”) I have to resist the urge to holler, “That’s not even a word!”

Yes, it’s true.  I learned some very valuable lessons about life, love, adulthood, and friendship from the sitcom.  Here are just a few:

  1.  You should always laminate your list of five “freebies.”  You never know when you may need permission to sleep with Christian Bale (or Taye Diggs, or Tom Brady…) without officially cheating on your husband.
  2. It’s better to move to Yemen than to stay in a bad relationship.
  3. Lotion + baby powder + leather pants = messy situation.
  4. No leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich is complete without a moist-maker.
  5. You can be as neurotic as Monica, as bizarre as Phoebe, or as spoiled as Rachel.  Your real friends will know this about you and love you anyway.  They may even celebrate your flaws.
  6. If a friend is about to embarrass herself in front of a host of friends and family, you’re obligated to take off your top as a diversion.
  7. Let’s say that your whole life, everyone has told you, “You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe.”  But one day you realize, maybe you don’t want to be a shoe.  Maybe you want to be a purse, or a scarf.  You may find yourself explaining to your father, “It’s a metaphor, Daddy!”  But you go out there, and you be that purse.  You listen to your heart and take the leap.
  8. The winter holidays aren’t complete without a visit from the traditional Hanukah Armadillo.
  9. Rebounding with a girl from the copy place, even if you’re “on a break,” will still devastate your estranged girlfriend.
  10. The best men can be geeky like Ross, dumb like Joey, or awkward like Chandler.  But they all have one thing in common:  Heart.

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that a sitcom informed the adult that I’ve become.  But didn’t we all wish, as adolescents, that in our mid-twenties we’d have a close-knit community of friends?  An urban family?  Didn’t we imagine living somewhere chic like Manhattan, in unrealistically large apartments, visiting cozy coffee shops, working eclectic jobs?  The show exemplified everything that we idealize about single twenty-somethings living in the city.  Given the fact that I discussed it ad nauseam with my teenage (and college, and grown-up) friends, it’s only natural to assume that we would aspire to become a “Rachel,” a “Ross,” or a “Phoebe.” 

My list above is by no means complete.  I could wax poetic for hours, quoting Friends lines, and living by the words of wisdom that they impart.

Jan 10 2011

For a Friend

When I was in late junior high and early high school, one of my closest friends was wading through a series of family troubles.  Leah’s* mother’s re-marriage, a secret about years of abuse, and religious fanaticism were all contributing to a hostile environment in her home.  To make matters worse, she wasn’t allowed to spend time with other teenagers outside of her religion, unless they agreed to attend religious meetings with her.  In no uncertain terms, she was trapped.

Sometimes we forget how little control kids have over their own lives.  They don’t often get to choose where they live, what school they attend, or even the social group available to them.  Leah was a victim of her circumstances, as created by her parents.   

Ask any teenager what’s important to them, and their friends will be at the top of the list. But I remember feeling like we were a Romeo and Juliet story without the sex.  Thankfully, her mother and stepfather chose to send her to public school, which gave her an outlet and an opportunity to meet other kids her age.  I can only imagine what a relief it was for her—what a reprieve from the confines of her abusive home and narrow religion—school felt like.  She was safe there; protected, and free to say what she truly believed.  Also thankfully, I had parents who trusted me enough to let me go to meetings with her (arguably) unstable parents, believing that I was strong enough to stay true to my own beliefs.  I can only assume that they recognized how important she was to me, and perhaps even identified her need for friends outside of the boundaries of her extremist religion.

Leah’s situation devolved further when she gathered the strength to share her story of abuse with our school guidance counselor, setting in motion a chain of events that led to her stepbrother’s incarceration, and further alienation from her parents and religious community.  Mis-identifying her public school as the cause of these “problems,” her parents threatened to withdraw her from school.  Leah realized that she would lose her only healthy support system.  Her lifeline was disappearing. 

So she ran away.  I mean, what else could she do? 

We stayed in touch for some time, but eventually I left home for college, life changed, and Leah and I lost touch.  I looked for her over the years, googling her and asking around.  Finally, she found me on Facebook.  After almost fifteen years, we re-connected and got together just a few weeks ago.  In the two hours that we sat over beers and caught up, I was reminded why I adored her so much in high school.  It wasn’t only the strength and resilience that she had maintained through tremendous challenges (although that would certainly have been reason enough).  Leah is fun.  She’s non-judgmental, confident, self-possessed, and so much older than her years.  And she was like that even when we were kids.  Despite everything that happened to her and around her, she maintains a sense of self-awareness.  She doesn’t apologize for who she is, or for the decisions that she makes.  She’s funny, direct, and honest.  It doesn’t matter how much the grown-ups in her life beat her down emotionally, or how much they tried to brainwash her into thinking the same things that they did.  She shrugs it off and hold tough to who she is.  As a kid, I admired that quality, recognizing how rare it is in another teen.  As an adult, I’m awed by her. 

Sometimes I see other old friends, and I recognize that whatever brought us together when we were young doesn’t exist anymore.  Maybe we don’t have that much in common, or we’ve just naturally grown apart.  But getting together with Leah was so damn easy.  We could have talked for another three hours and not run out of things to say.  It was like we hadn’t missed a beat.  She’s made an amazing life for herself, filled with love, joy, and forgiveness.  She still struggles with her relationship with her mother, but there’s no bitterness in her heart.  I can only imagine the emotional work that she had to do in order to recover from the scars of her childhood.  But nothing has broken her.

Kids don’t have much control over their lives, but Leah accessed all of the resources at her disposal.  She found the love for herself that she needed to make some difficult choices, and to get through the choices that she couldn’t make.  She may not have had control, but she did have power.

Jan 3 2011

The Art of Re-Resolution

I began my academic year with a list of “New School Year’s Resolutions,” but I have a confession to make:  I secretly doubted my ability to keep those resolutions.  The list was just so long.  I ferretted them away in the back of my mind, vaguely recalling them now and again with mild shame and defeat.

So you can imagine that I was pleasantly surprised when I looked back at that post from four months ago, finding that I’d done a better job than I realized of maintaining those goals.  I suppose I’d internalized them more than I thought. 

But I wasn’t perfect.  So now that 2011 is really here, I’ve decided that, rather than making an entirely new list (I mean, what was wrong with the old one?), I’ll reflect on pre-established resolutions.  What can I improve?  What have I accomplished?  To that end, here are my re-resolutions: 

  • Be present.  I took on additional class this year, and I’ve found that having more work to do and less time to do it presents a different challenge on the way to this goal.  On good days, I just surrender to the marathon that is teaching six classes in a row.  Other days I find myself distracted by the grading and preparation that needs to be done, and I can’t focus on being in the moment.  I can do better.  The key, it seems, is just accept the chaos.  Embrace it!
  • Read aloud.  “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil,” The Princess Bride, A Christmas Carol…I read them all with my students, to my students.  So fun.
  • Take my classes outside more.  Um, yeah.  I can do this one a lot more.  I think my creative writing class would especially benefit.
  • Take care of my body.  I had a little mid-semester dip in October on this one, but overall I’d say I earned a solid A-.  Even over the holidays, I managed to get to the gym and go for runs.  I could probably cut down on the comfort food a little, but I’ve been prioritizing fitting in some fitness and it’s paying off.  Do I look the way I want to?  Probably not.  But this isn’t about how I look; it’s about how I feel.  And I do feel pretty good.
  • Take care of my mind.  This resolution is two-fold, and I’ve done better on one part than on the other.  I’ve found a yoga class/instructor that I love, and when I make a specific point to get to that class my week always feels brighter.  I just feel more at ease.  Writing has the same effect, but I’m afraid that I haven’t had enough QT with my journal.  It does help to have great writer friends and coffee dates with those friends, but I hit a lull in my writing this fall/winter.  Thankfully, I think I’ve made a breakthrough recently, and it seems that my calendar will be opening up significantly in the New Year.  So the writing looks promising. 
  • Celebrate Austin.  This is another one that I need to work on.  Of course, it partly depends on my “saying no” (see below) to some things, and “yes” to others.  Balance, balance, balance…
  • Resist the urge to over-plan and/or plan too far ahead.  (See above, “be present.”)  This is so hard for me, but I actually think I’ve improved. 
  • Publicize BookPeople events and speakers to my students.  I love that place and what they do, and I know that many of my students would fall in love with it like I have — www.bookpeople.com  Unfortunately, I’ve found my schedule to be in unfortunate conflict with  BookPeople events recently.  I’m cautiously optimistic that this will change in the New Year.
  • Do the best I can with what I’m given.  I think I’ve managed this one pretty well so far.  But as the infinitely longer spring semester kicks into full stride, I have to keep this goal in mind.
  • Teach units and texts that I’m truly excited about.  Our curriculum changed this year, but I’ve managed to stay true to what is right for me and my kids, while working within those constraints.  With yet more changes coming down the pike this next spring, I’m going to continue to focus on this resolution. 
  • Be disciplined and efficient with my time.  I don’t know about the efficiency part, but I have been disciplined.  I’ve managed to let go of certain things, prioritizing what I feel is most important. 
  • Say no.  I’ve been pretty good about this one, but I want to modify this resolution.  There’s an old saying that “10% of the people do 90% of the work.”  That was definitely true of me for the first five years of my teaching career.  And again, while it’s uncomfortable for me, as a team player, to back off those responsibilities, I’ve found it incredibly important for my mental health.  What I would like to do better is say “yes” to the social things.  I have some amazing friends here in Austin , and I need to make a better effort to spend time with them…Even if it’s a Friday night and I’m so tired that I want to lay on the couch with my hand in a bag of Doritos.

So there you have it.  My Re-Resolutions for 2011.  Is it cheating to recycle an old list?  Maybe so.  But it’s my list, after all!