You Can Be In My “Behind the Music”

Hi to the ten people who read this… I apologize for the extended delay within posts. I’ve been working on a few longer essays, this one included. Pretty please leave me your feedback! I really like this piece, but still don’t love the last sentence, among other rough spots. I’d love to hear your comments!

Two evenings a week for most of college, I taught a group of New York City high school students how to produce a radio program. Adomako, a lanky, animated ninth grader, started the same week I did, and together we learned radio production as a trial by fire. While I excelled at writing coherent sentences, Adomako flew by the seat of his pants, pulling follow-up questions from thin airdespite barely knowing anything about the topic. Research was my crutch, and without it I felt unsteady probing beyond my superficial and fragile expertise. Adomako freely admitted his ignorance but made up for it with earnest curiosity. Most admirably, he quickly absorbed the knowledge imparted by his interviewees, responded deftly with witty remarks, and reflected genuine ease behind the mic. Put to shame by this 15 year old, my mission became cleaning up his written intros and outros. Without sacrificing his unique voice, I fought against improper word usage and mangled idioms, double negatives and improper verb agreement, sentences written in such haste so as to lack subjects, pronouns, and punctuation.

Over three years, my commitment to radio journalism wavered at the same rate that Adomako’s matured. By the time I graduated, I had not produced a radio piece in a year, while Adomako hosted a live radio show almost every month. Though at the end of my tenure his grammar still left something to be desired, I retreated from the role of teacher and became his student–a disciple of that effortless, naïve and blind faith in oneself, the kind worn and projected by New York City teenagers whose youthful tunnel-vision lingers not on limitations but lights on the city’s legacy of rewarding scrappy innovators.

Throughout my teen years, I reckoned myself pretty self-assured. My close friendship with the mathletes did not alienate my from the cool kids, who liked me well enough. Adults recognized my maturity and deemed me a quick study. I made good grades, and though I leaned on my classmates in Calculus, I edited many of their English papers. I liked the way I looked in my bikini, and I figured the guys did too, even if no one lined up to tell me. In college, under self-imposed pressure to find a boyfriend, my confidence wavered. I convinced myself that men could not ignore my pedantic, abrasive and melodramatic tendencies–the stuff of men’s nightmares–despite my other redeeming qualities. In an effort to disguise this, I became conversant on a variety of supposedly manly topics: basketball, beer, boobs, and bluegrass music. My senior year of college, I met my current boyfriend and discovered that though I do love beer and bluegrass, relationships are built on a mutual appreciation for puns and public transportation. My budding romance quieted my fear of becoming a cat lady, but the end of college signaled the beginning of new anxieties.

Graduation broke down the framework within which I had hidden latent insecurities. In college, I never struggled to be someone I was not, because the social hierarchy–from student government down to the MRS degree candidates–wiggled me into a place I felt mostly comfortable. Our campus’s system of cliques )only slightly more evolved than high school) put everyone in their place based on that unscientific theory of relativity pervasive in higher education: if ten classmates write better, dance better, and problem-solve better than you do, they are the legitimate writers, dancers, and intellectuals. If you are not the best, the logic goes, the pursuit is your hobby, something to be done when you are not being the best at something else (like recreational weight training or analyzing 20th century Spanish film). I never deviated from my place, despite my desire to be perceived as having a creative temperament, and so my vision of post-college life included stepping down from the graduation stage into a world ready to accept me as a legitimate write even though I never studied with Professor Gordon, a legitimate dancer even though I never danced with Orchesis, and a legitimate intellectual even though my thesis did not get departmental honors.

The disappearance of that social framework constricted more than it liberated. No one questioned me when I asserted my new identity, but that lack of feedback undermined my confidence. Despite my relief at no longer spending hours studying and writing, the disappearance of exams and papers stripped away the positive feedback and pats on the head communicated in red ink and delivered straight to that mailbox marked ego. The praise I receive at my new job for properly submitting check requests and coordinating meetings pales in comparison to an A+ rewarded for a well-crafted argument.

Finishing college changed the way I though about my physical self as well, and I began to doubt my attractiveness–something I never experienced in high school, even though tan, earthy cross country runners reigned supreme. Unconsciously I always expected to cross the stage, receive my diploma, and instantaneously morph into the Jewish Carrie Bradshaw. I would be hip and know how to blow-dry my own hair! Instead, I now find myself reluctantly disassembling the look I so carefully constructed for myself in college. My post-college life does not condone band t-shirts worn without bras, pajama pants, or dirty hair, and I struggle to find a style that suits me. Unable  to dwear running shorts and yoga tanks, I gravitate towards traditional business casual attire that conforms to the office standard but leaves me uncomfortable, constricted and feeling like I am playing dress-up. The daily grind plagues my skin, and the pimples do nothing to alleviate my dismay at my appearance. Instead of self-actualizing into a trendy, self-assured, empowered woman, I fret that I am a paper doll whose pressed Ann Taylor suit hangs tenuously by tabs not thoroughly creased. At any moment the outfit could tumble off, revealing yoga pants and unshaven armpits.

All of a sudden, this high school student, Adomako, is the object of my envy. While his acne rivals mine, Adomako manages to put together outfits that, on most others, would look worn or kooky but on his lean frame look confident and fresh. His group of friends, classmates from the High School for Fashion Industries and all native New Yorkers, spends weekends cavorting through Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, stealing old clothing from their parents to create vintage looks they then photograph and stick up on the internet. Despite averaging 17 years of age, they are talented photographers, designers, entrepreneurs, poets, and skateboarders, and despite never selling anything or eliciting critical acclaim, they proudly declare themselves budding professionals.

I have critical thinking skills and an expansive vocabulary, which I spent years honing, but I now wonder exactly how to apply such tools. With age, I have shed that cavalier confidence to put my “art,” as a more self-assured writer would refer to their words, into the world and make it my career. Ironically, I spend my days as an administrative assistant, a position whose goal is to maintain stability; I accomplish those superficial, if vital, tasks that make an office run.

Adomako and I spoke last Sunday evening, after a weekend tainted by a rough Friday at work. I described for him how my weekend tasted, well salty–how the flavor of a bad day in the office had diffused once again into my off-hours, not ruining it but serving instead as a constant reminder that something is not quite right. I told him I love who I work with but remained unfulfilled by the tedium of my role.

Though five years my junior, Adomako’s response reminded me that older does not necessarily mean wiser.

“Avigail,” he said, “when I met my ex-boyfriend I had no idea that there were Russians in New York. Now I see them everywhere. If  you look for positive things, you will see them.”

And with that advice, our roles truly swapped. Instead of offering him advice about avoiding drama and staying focused on school, he presented me with the same advice as my yoga teacher, but in a decidedly more grounded manner. Now Adomako is my interviewee, and I the interviewer. I turn to him to provide answers and confidence.

With his advice in mind, I developed a mantra to get me through the week. “I’m going to be a ballerina,” I mutter under my breath each time a new task comes across my desk, “this is just my ‘Behind the Music’.” Madonna ate a package of peanuts and a yogurt every day for years before she got famous. My struggle may be more nutrient-rich but it is still just a sacrifice for my art. Several coworkers have agreed to contribute, practicing their lines for their moments as talking heads in my bio-doc.

Though I entertain the idea of quitting my job and devoting myself to my hobbies–writing in the mornings and dancing in the afternoons before returning home to cook elegant vegetarian fare–I do like my colleagues and am not quite ready to give up that steady paycheck I looked forward to for so long. The dream of becoming a ballerina, of achieving fame and fortune, does not really appeal to me as a practical matter. Though I push myself to socialize and travel, I prefer to stay at home. I seek the attention of my friends, but fear the attention of critics. I daydream about how I would spend millions of dollars, but my guilty conscience would probably allocate more funds to fighting economic disparity than to collecting custom-built bicycles.

Telling myself I’m going to be a ballerina pushes me to stay flexible, to remember that one job does not a career make. A woman I babysit for noted, “liking an entry-level position is not a good sign.” Your first job is a poked reminder to your ambition, a story to tell your future kids.

I do succeed at administration. I juggle the details, write the emails, and troubleshoot. The politics can get me down, and having to re-do tedious chores because of incomplete infrastructure and failed communication leaves me questioning everything from my future career to my existence. Unlike producing radio, which left me insecure because those who enjoy radio are discerning listeners, I can only blame myself for stressing of the prospect of no future path. I remember once speaking to Adomako about college, advising him that even if he failed to get into a prestigious undergraduate journalism program, that he could always transfer. “Options and opportunities always exist,” I told him.

Why am I blind to my own advice? Perhaps the truth is that I enjoy wallowing in dissatisfaction. At the very least it is a topic for conversation, a rhetorical constant to explain and compare against everything else I experience. Without it, I trail off after describing the book I’m reading. I throw out a last, desperate tangent about whatever I have just eaten, a conversational life preserver, and when that dissolves I drown. Complaining about work and the ambiguity of life rescues me from the Davy Jones’ locker of awkward silence, but in a cheap way. Instead of mustering the gumption to sit quietly, I take the easy way out, like signing a pact with Satan. In exchange for a half hour of tenuously constructed intimacy, I forsake good humor for futility. Like most dealings with the devil, you never win. I end the dialogue–I admit, often monologue–cranky and alone, for after that barrage, who wants to hang out with me any longer?

Adomako’s advice is not radical; it is the lowest common denominator of self-help literature. When it comes from middle-aged white men and women who wear enthusiasm like a Disney façade, I dismiss it as patronizing. When it comes from a gay high school senior from the Bronx, it just seems like smart policy. Why complain when I am not judged by the color of my skin or discriminated against for my sexuality? I have an Ivy League education, union benefits, and enough money to have options. With these privileges comes ambition, and it is ambition that keeps me looking down at the dirt instead of seeing sky.

My father often quotes a tasteless Israeli proverb, if it could be called that, when I grumble about inconveniences I disguise as problems: “Life is not like a penis. Life is always hard.” It is easier to focus on shortcomings than excellence, and like becoming more perceptive to Russians in this polyglot city, at the end of each day I must choose to remember the items checked off my list and not the frustrations they entailed. Adomako’s advice resonates with me because I admire his unabashed belief in his skill and the effortless cool that assuredness reflects. I taught Adomako to write, and now he teaches me to believe in my writing–to fly by the seat of my pants and delve deep into things I do not understand.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

If All Else Fails

I always said that if I didn’t make it in the big leagues, I’d train to be a copy machine repairman. Some may frown upon this plan; it does appear a waste of a very expensive education. My scowling and confused acquaintances just do not see what I see in these docile beasts of reproduction.

Copy machines do have a tainted reputation. Like hippopotomi, the purring and warmth radiated from the grey exterior of the xerox copius invites our trust, projecting a calmness only achieved by tame animals. Only later, after the aggressive mammal storms you, do you realize that the xerox copius only wanted to eat your electricity, and is rebelling against your bidding with a four-door paper jam.

A copy machine repairman is the Dog Whisperer of the IT industry. While programmers brainwash computers into obeying their commands with software installations, or worse, wipe their hard drives to erase behavioral problems–the technological equivalent of euthanasia?–copy machines must be tamed. The copy machine must know that you are the boss. Finicky creatures, prone to panic, they need to know that their owners can operate independently.

Think back to the last time your copy machine jammed. Your deadline approaching, you begged the machine to spit out your document. Each time you fed it through, a terrible crunching sound halted production after only two pages emerged reproduced. The remainder you found stuck in the duplexer, another page stalled on the bridge, another pinched between two rollers, streaked with toner. 

A copy machine cannot suspect your desperation, or it will test you. A stellar repairman not only frees the jams, reloads the toner, and runs diagnostics. Such a repairman empowers users to show their machines that they not only command the respect of their employees, their families, and their pets, but also their technology. The repairman teaches troubleshooting techniques, so the authoritative office worker may outsmart their Xerox, teaching it to think twice before getting sassy.   

Despite their penchant for doling out immense amounts of frustration, I adore the two copy machines delivered to my office a few months ago from a giant warehouse (breeder?) in New Jersey. The quiet hum drowns out the squirrel prancing in the ceiling, and the warm pages it spits out drive away the damp, chilly draft that surrounds me when I pick copies out of the tray. The mindless work of reproduction provides respite from hectic days; the problem solving and coordination required to collate and staple a duplex print job energize and rejuvinate a mind left sluggish by a dull day.

Nigel, our copy machine repairman, visited last week after I failed to find the source of a particularly wicked jam. I warmed him up with some small talk before interrogating him about his job satisfaction. He appears happy. He comes in late and leaves early, gets to travel throughout the hospital campus, and meets new people every day. The Toshiba models he primarily services only require a one week training class. 

I have interpersonal skills. I walk fast. I have nimble fingers. I could be a copy machine repairman! I am not yet ready to give up my job, as manic and as depressing as it often can be. I am not ready to give up on the dream of writing a book, or saving the world, or becoming the next expert in my field. Yet I find reassurance in this plan B, even fantasize about it when stressed by the demands of my job. In my rolodex, I keep the business card of the account manager from the copy machine warehouse–my parachute out of my white-collar nightmare, if all else fails.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The (decidedly not blind) Bagel Taste Test

I do not love my job, but I enjoy being at work. Many of my co-workers are native New Yorkers, even more are Jewish, and all are friendly, passionate, and have a sense of humor. Together we weather the constant frustrations, failures, malfunctions, and bureaucratic impasses sustained by a division straddling two institutions who like to think their marriage works. Like the counselor forced to breach their divide, we desire to strangle them both, but hope that calming words and a little pressure will ensure enough satisfaction so that they pay the bill at the session’s end.

The reality on the ground, the daily by-product of the aforementioned rocky marriage, is that I spend many days alone in the office, save an administrator or two. We often eat lunch together, joined by the rare straggler who decides they can work that day without the vast majority of the internet (blocked) and no access to a shared drive or database (as of yet, unprovided). Last week found myself, M. and L. gathered around a small table in the break room.

M. grew up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, the youngest daughter in a large Italian family. Her oldest daughter is only three years my junior. L. grew up on Long Island, in a predominantly Jewish community, and now lives on the Lower East Side… what once was a predominantly Jewish community. They both know bagels.

I, however, went to college eight blocks away from a bagel shop that consistently ranks in the top three of all (actually blind) taste tests. Eating such fine bagels, such superior cream cheese, turns a girl into a total bagel snob. So I challenged my co-workers to conduct a blind taste test, assuming they would just capitulate and agree, yes, my bagels probably were the best, most likely.

Unfortunately for my commute, but rather fortunate for my appetite, they took me up on the challenge. Yesterday morning, I rode the train 70 blocks in the wrong direction to spend 23 dollars on a baker’s dozen and a half pound of schmear. Arriving only 15 minutes late, I was disappointed to find the office empty. Consoled by an everything with veggie cream cheese, I waited out the competition.

Some competition! Ess-a-bagels left my jaw cramping. David’s Bagels proffered up a promising crust, but fell short of the mark with their doughy insides. M.’s bagels from Yonkers put up quite a fight, but the consensus agreed: Absolute Bagel’s everything bagel with veggie cream cheese would not disappoint even the most hardened connoisseur.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Desk Dance Parties

I have an L-shaped desk that squares to a window, on the second floor of an awkward shaped building that sits on a corner lot. Yesterday, walking back from an errand, I found myself casing my window. I looked from various angles on the street, to see what exactly a passerby would notice if they happened to glance up, their eyes landing squarely on my window. Could they see my computer screen? Could they see a person standing in the window? Perhaps even the top of my head if I was sitting?

No, my paranoia does not stem from my habit of perusing salacious materials via the world wide web (even if this interested me, the fascist network of my employers would block the website, along with ESPN and the Times’ City Room blog). Rather, I have fallen prey to another vice: pop music. It streams from Lala, iMeem, Pandora, even NPR. With its peppy beats and mindless lyrics, I never need a cup of coffee to get me through the day.  

I spend a lot of time alone on the second floor. With no one around to complain, I often turn up the volume, stressing the tinny speakers built into my computer. When actively working on something, the most I usually manage is an aggressive head bob. It is not a particularly flattering movement, but certainly more attractive than when I start bouncing up and down in my chair and waving my arms around in the air. No, not a seizure, just enthusiastic dancing.

I attempt to maintain an air of professionalism by remaining seated. I acknowledge the logic here is flawed; how can spaztic dancing ever be professional, even if one remains at her desk? I understand the most decorous thing to do is to cease dancing, but I cannot. I cannot let myself succumb to the tedious, soul-stifling conservatism of the working stiff. I need my pop music, and I need to dance. No one ever comes upstairs, so as long as the fascists have not extended the reign of control from the internet to surveillance cameras, I believe myself to be safe.

The window remains the one breach in intimacy, an access point to the outside world that could let out my secret desk dance parties and invite in ridicule.  As my friends fight to point out, I am a ridiculous dancer. The only moves I have truly nailed are the white man’s overbite, the old man hip shake, and the “start the fire, make the pizza” routine made famous by Kevin James in the movie “Hitch”. I prefer to jump up and down and pump my arms in the air than attempt any measure of coordination. When the building is empty, save myself and the administrator downstairs, I often move into the windowless hallway and skip and “dance” around to the songs selected by my Destiny’s Child pandora station.

As of now, no one has caught me in the act. Without a dancing figure by which to gauge the sight lines, my reconnaissance proved futile. So I just cross my fingers and remain discrete, saving my big moves for the early morning hours. The rest of the day, I subtly groove to the jams, patiently waiting for “Single Ladies” to come on and give me an excuse to break. it. down.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Planning for Retirement?

Almost three months into my first real job, I met with a financial planner. He did a double take when I walked in; I suspect 23 year olds do not often take advantage of his services. Why give up one thousand dollars of your already meager income for a retirement that (god forbid) you may never live to see?

Alas, a nest egg is the Xanax of the risk-averse–the knowledge that you could buy your way out of most any mess a panacea for those surrounded by shlemiels and shlemazels. So my budget includes a small sum for retirement in addition to a general savings fund, for emergencies, travel, or the occassional soul-soothing materialistic splurge.

My father, from whom I inherited my aversion to unpreparedness, began stressing the importance of saving when I began my first summer job at age 15. When I recieved my last paycheck that August, I used every penny I made over the two month period to buy a hulking desktop computer with a monitor bigger than most televisions. Apparently, the ability to chat on AIM from the privacy of my room made more of an impression than my father’s sermons on thrift.

Subsequent summer income funneled into an account to pay for living expenses in college. I graduated college with $100 of my own money, owing my parents a thousand bucks and using all of the money I recieved as gifts to furnish my bare apartment. My summer income went straight into rent and bills, and my first month’s pay at my new job went into paying off a sky-high credit card bill, accumulated in that liminal period between un- and employed.

Noticing the balance in my checking account steadily rising, my father felt justified in resuming the good fight. Routine phone calls home ended with barked reminders to investigate my employer’s matching policy. Emails arrived weekly encouraging me to put at least 10% of my pre-tax income into a 401(k). My replies noted that I work for a nonprofit institution of higher education, meaning that, if I were not a member of the union, I would have a 403(b).

If his bombardments elicited snarky responses and weary explanations of the costs of living in New York City, they also managed to actually spur me to action. Morbid thoughts began to float through my daydreams about the future. What if a car crash leaves me debilitated in 10 years, saddled with a mortgage, children, car payments, and no income? Retired by virtue of a disibility, I could be restricted to a diet of rice and beans just to make ends meet, unable to save any further funds.

I called my cousin, four years my senior, to hash through the pros and cons. My parents, I told him, invested $5,000 in a mutual fund 23 years ago and, left untouched, its worth has increased tenfold.  Shouldn’t I make my money work for me in that way? My cousin’s response: “What is the pithy $1200 you save this year going to do for you in retirement that is any more fun than spending it in your youth getting drunk and having a good time?” I see his point, but what if I get in an accident while drunk and never even get a chance to save for retirement!? 

To quell my fixation on disaster scenarios, I committed myself to enrolling in a Tax Deferred Annuity Plan. I met with the financial planner, optimistic that at best I will use the compounding dollars and cents to spend my golden years tanning my saggy body on the beaches of Greece, and, at worst, will withdraw the money under a hardship provision to sweat out a hard financial hit. Although I am fate’s strongest proponent, when it comes to the worldly and material realm of finances, I march into the camp of those believing luck favors the prepared.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Blissfully Uneventful”

My job requires no knowledge of physics. One need not have management experience, nor a knack for crunching numbers. While it’s a skill employers always appreciate, no one will ask to see your CPR certification. With internet proficiency and savvy research skills, a twelve-year-old could do my job.

The tedium of taking messages, coordinating meetings, and calling in service requests to IT often grates on me. How is it that I spent $200K and countless hours analyzing Foucault only to find myself, in my first post-college job, analyzing nothing but possible dates for conference calls? These days, work keeps me busy enough to resist dwelling on the tasks at hand; completion itself lends enough satisfaction. In this economy, a recent graduate cannot ask for much more. I count my blessings that I have any tasks at all, be they mundane or fulfilling, lucrative or merely resume-building.

After a beautiful fall day spent cooped up indoors, compiling a spreadsheet of researchers’ contact information, I could easily emerge from the office wallowing in bitterness over a wasted afternoon. Every so often, I emotionally indulge myself in this way, calling my mother as I walk to the train for a whine and a moan about the stupidity of it all.

Most days, I just get on the train. I sit in the last car, and while I gaze out the windows I think: “I could find a new job. I could pick up and move to Chicago, where I could rent a dirty little (cheap) apartment, and thus could afford to spend a year writing a book of (uninspired, but critically acclaimed?) short stories.” By the time the train pulls into the station at Fordham Road each evening, I have decided to delay this little dream perhaps a bit longer, relegating it to that fuzzy future where I will also finally speak fluent Spanish and dance ballet without eliciting grimaces from the teacher.

How could I trade away my current existence, one so blissfully uneventful? One in which, yes, I spend my days doing silly, if helpful, chores, but an existence that then permits me to escape into the night with nary a Blackberry nor a to-do list. I go to the gym! I cook squash for dinner! I have free time, and it is MINE, ALL MINE!

I may not have the money I dreamed I would have as a workin’ gal. I certainly have less free time. The beauty of a blissfully uneventful lifestyle, however, is the lack of guilt associated with that time. There are no papers I should be writing, nor texts I   must read. If I want to sleep until noon on a Saturday, then spend two hours reading the newspaper in bed with some home-baked oatmeal cookies before moving to the couch to spend the rest of afternoon watching reality television, I can, and oh, I will. I repress no creeping voices, warning of impending academic doom. I frankly do not care what a responsible person would be doing with their time. I pay my bills, I eat my vegetables, my apartment is spotless, and as I have yet to decide what to do with my future, I certainly do not feel obligated to study for the GRE.

So, of course I could find a more rewarding job, or give up my gym membership and dance classes to try my hand at an unprofitable, if noble, art. More meaningful work would certainly allay my insecurity over being an unsuccessful empowered woman, but as my mother always says, “what you gain on the straightaways, you lose on the roundabouts.” With the abatement of career anxiety would come the stress of setting boundaries between work and play, responsibility to employers and responsibility to myself.

This year, I choose to indulge my inner sloth, the woman in me who prefers to stay home, who would rather take a dance class than apply to graduate school, and who would much rather have nothing to talk about than regale an audience with the drama of my life. And so, my life is blissfully uneventful.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gleaning Meaning from the Madness

Though I share academic interests with my father, I inherited almost every other facet of my personality and physical being from my mother. I have her pre-rhinoplasty nose, her penchant for chatting in the supermarket checkout line, her insatiable addiction to nuts. She taught me to love James Taylor, to hate wasting time in front of the television, and to always advocate for myself.

My mother, though always generous with her time, cannot be called touchy-feely. This cuddly trait, shared by my siblings and I, obviously tumbled down as a genetic vestige from higher up in the family tree. Growing up, we were discouraged from approaching Mom with a boo-boo, so barring hemorrhaging or dismemberment we just stuck on a band-aid ourselves. When my sister, brother, and I whined about double standards among us, she and my father often retorted with “life’s not fair,” or justified their decisions using an Israeli expression: “so you have a question to ask.”

Truly, the most spot-on illustration of my mother’s laissez-faire parenting arises from a study of contrasts, from the juxtaposition of the differing philosophies that governed the rearing of myself and of my best friend. One afternoon, after my friend graciously allowed me to vent ad nauseam about my resume-related insecurities, I asked her how she remained so confident about her job prospects.

“Well,” she replied, “when I was very young, my mother read somewhere that young women lose roughly 50% of their confidence when they go through puberty. She decided to inflate my self-confidence by 100%, so I would never come out at a deficit.”

Hearing this, I burst into laughter, leaving her bewildered. When I finally managed to catch my breath, I reassured her that I was not mocking her mother’s strategy, but rather, that it so perfectly explained the difference between us.

“My mother,” I told her, “was listening to the radio in the car one morning, when she heard a pop psychologist going on and on about how a parent should not call their children ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ or ‘angel.’ Why not? Because some days, children just cannot live up to those monikers and it crushes their self-esteem. So, growing up, my mother never gave her three children endearing nicknames, but instead called us by one of two names: uglipuss or fatso-face.”

While my mother never coddled me, she was never emotionally unavailable. My freshman year of college, stunned by the workload and the difficulty of making friends, I racked up a substantial phone bill by calling home every night. My parents jokingly created a “support hotline” for me, to differentiate their divergent roles. My father would pick up my calls, and in a robotic voice say, “Thank you for calling. For academic emergencies, please press 1. For emotional turmoil, please press 2. To ask for money, please hang up.”  Even in my worst moods, this elicited a laugh. If I replied 1, my father, the professor, would talk me through the art of skimming long readings, or help me craft a compelling thesis statement. More often, 2 was the requested extension, and my mother promptly picked up the phone.

“Mom,” I would moan into the phone, “Mom, I have no friends and I’ve gained fifteen pounds. I want to drop out of school and write a short story collection.”

“So go ahead and drop out of school. It will stop you from eating all the cake in the dining hall.”

Knowing that she supported my decisions made them easier to make.

“Mom, I don’t want to drop out of school. I love you.”

“I love you too, uglipuss.”

My mother rarely offered advice based on her own experience, mostly because my college experience differed so greatly from her own. A shy and codependent teenager, my mother chose to major in physical therapy, which she studied with singular focus. She graduated summa cum laude, and with her degree came a career. Outgoing and independent, I chose a liberal arts college, graduated with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Cultures, and walked out with an existential crisis instead of a career. My mother’s advice: “Chill out. It’ll happen when it happens.”

She is right, as mothers always are. That does not stop me from calling her biweekly, as I leave work, to wonder out loud in a most cathartic fashion why exactly I put myself through this day in and day out. A few Mondays ago, I could not wait till finishing work. Festering in boredom, I picked up my phone and speed dialed Mom.

“I feel so purposeless. I feel like, after 17 years of tracking towards something–the best high school, the best college–I lack a destination. I question the professional field I chose, in fact, I question choosing at all. Should I drop everything, leave my boyfriend and New York, and become a vegan yogi in India? Is that too cliche? Maybe just stay here, quit my job, and pedal one of those pedicabs around Central Park making conversation with tourists.”

As I put the breaks on my verbal diarrhea to take a quick breath, my mother piped up with a phrase I rarely hear drop from her lips: “I remember that well.”

This, from the woman who, when asked where she was when Kennedy was shot, answered, “I stayed home sick. My mom told me and then I went back to sleep.” I, meanwhile, can tell you in intricate detail about how Ms. Prince, my 3rd period World History teacher, uncharachteristically had the television turned  on the morning of September 11th, 2001, so we watched the towers collapse in real time. By 4th period, they knew that Islamic terrorists perpetrated the attack, and I cried with fellow classmates because I feared that the repercussions would endanger my Israeli relatives. I digress, but the fact remains: my mother is not nostalgic.

So, her admission surprised me.

“Yes, I remember that feeling of panicked inertia.”

However hackneyed it may be to take comfort in our shared moment of compassion, it’s not every day that two women can commiserate over transitions occurring 35 years apart. As much as I lament the inability of my generation of empowered women to relax and enjoy a certain measure of aimlessness, myself included, through Mom’s confession I recognized that the post-college year has never instilled confidence in budding adults. Thrown from the cocoon of the quad, whether in 1973 or 2009, we wander about with new freedom, reaching out in every direction, touching, smelling, seeing what fits into our new conceptions of ourselves.

My mother moved to Israel a few years after graduating college. After six years she decided to stay in Jerusalem permanently, and during what was supposed to be a brief stint in a master’s program at NYU, she met my father and never moved back. So who am I to stress the future? Even if I come up with what I believe to be the most productive, most advantageous, most profitable gameplan for the near future, something will change and render it useless. Worse, it could blind me to seeing a sparkling opportunity lurking under my nose.

So, the moral of this story is anything but trite. From a short, perhaps corny, moment of bonding between a mother and her anxious daughter, came a framework through which to reassess this awkward lunge of mine into adulthood. My mother’s admission, uncharacteristically sentimental if still quite frank, condoned my existential neuroses while simultaneously dissolving them (if not totally, at least partially). So I am chilling out, and to egocentrically corrupt on of my Mom’s favorite sayings, I am waiting to gain on the straightaway what I currently burn soul-searching on this post-college roundabout.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized