Incidental Lessons

Even though it’s only been about a week, and I’ve only taken a couple of my new classes so far, I’ve already learned a few things, mostly unrelated to the actual course material:

  1. I have a terrible habit of comparing myself to people.

    I’ve never been an outwardly competitive person, never one to do extra credit or work extra hard to get a leg up on everyone else. Even so, I admit I have this innate desire to be better than EVERYONE at EVERYTHING. In school I was frequently singled out for my work or seated comfortably at the top of the class, and I had attention lobbed at me even though I didn’t go out of my way to attract it. Needless to say, though I hate to admit it and would never declare it outright, I got a bit of a swelled head from this constant recognition, and even came to expect it despite my not working particularly hard for it. So it’s humbling and somewhat frustrating, for instance, to take a drawing class and realize I’m not actually great at nuanced, realistic drawing, and even worse, other people are better than me at it! GASP! HEAVEN FORBID! I’d like to think of myself as a more gracious, less petty person, but the truth is when I am not the star pupil I get a bit of a knot in my stomach, courtesy of a little green-eyed monster with, I imagine, a bad haircut and bad breath. Not good, lady. Stop it. Jealousy and self-importance do not become you!
    Not my best work…
  2. Everyone reminds me of someone (and this probably means I watch too much TV).
    In both of these classes, I’ve had such a sense of deja vu with some of my fellow students, I have to stop and consider that I may be in a weird time warp, or the Matrix: Ah, I know who this woman looks like! She’s Ron Swanson’s girlfriend, how bizarre! Or I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else. Did we go to school together? Maybe she works in town somewhere? Or THIS LADY LOOKS LIKE A PIXAR CHARACTER AND OH MY GOD I CAN’T STOP STARING AT HER WHY IS SHE A LIVING CARTOON I NEED TO DRAW HER IMMEDIATELY. It’s freaking me out.
    This does not accurately capture her cartoonishness, and it’s driving me nuts!
  3. Classroom shyness doesn’t go away with age.
    In school, I always used to get embarrassed on behalf of teachers when they asked a question and were met with blank-faced silence from the students. Sometimes those silences would go on for so long, the discomfort in the room became almost a separate entity: a nervous, throat-clearing little creature scuttling around the room with its eyes darting, waiting to be put out of its misery. Of course, even when I knew the answer to the question I wouldn’t come to anyone’s rescue; I was too shy, and not a hand-raiser. Fast-forward a decade later, and guess what? I’m still not a hand-raiser. Despite being a generally more confident human being, that old habit of staying quiet hasn’t died, and apparently that’s not just true for me. Sure, there are always the few people who will talk and talk at any given opportunity, but the majority of students–dare I say, a silent majority–are like me, and let those awkward silences build and stretch out until they are nearly intolerable. Somehow, this is both slightly unnerving and slightly comforting to me.
  4. No matter how worthwhile an experience is, if the drive to get there and back is even remotely challenging, I will kind of, sort of hate it.
    This is pretty self-explanatory. I hate driving, particularly at night, or in heavy traffic, or on complicated routes my spatially-challenged brain can’t remember. Even if I’ve had a great time in a class or at an event, if I spend the whole drive home white-knuckled with my teeth gritted, forget it. Bad mood and crippling anxiety for the rest of the night! (This is legitimately one of the reasons I don’t do a lot of things that are more than a few miles away from home. I can’t express strongly enough how much I hate driving. Blech. Uck. Nope! Please to be stopping now.)

These are all incidental lessons, obviously, and I am indeed learning some actual new skills at the same time. While I hate the commuting, and fighting the inertia to get up and go out after a full day of work, I’m still glad to be taking the initiative and giving my brain some new experiences to chew on. When the brain is stretched and dragged out of its comfort zone, that can only be a good thing. So here’s to continuing the stretch! Except not tonight. Tonight I’m going home and lying down on the couch like a slug because it’s Friday and I can. So there. Yes.

September Stepping Out

One of the nice features of the new apartment is the deck, which by some stroke of luck doesn’t look out onto a parking lot, or the dumpsters, or someone else’s apartment, but onto trees. Trees that, for the moment, are still mercifully green (to match the fake ferns the boyfriend picked up with great pride at a friend’s yard sale).

Soon enough, though, the green will fade and all those real leaves will fall and we will be left looking at bare gray branches and the apartments beyond them. So I have to drink in the opportunity to be outside, in the sunlight, with the greenery and relative warmth, while I still can. The apartment has giant windows that cheerfully let in the outside world, which is a delightful feature, but I anticipate they will let the chill air in just as cheerfully when the weather starts to turn.

I wouldn’t say I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, just that I am a warm weather junkie and the end of summer is always a downer, which I make worse for myself by dwelling on it (like this!) when it’s still ninety degrees outside. It’s something I have to work on, the constant lamenting of the change of seasons, as if it were something unexpected and not something that happened every damn year. If I’m not careful I’ll become one of those tedious people who only ever talks about the weather. (A neighbor greeted us this weekend with, “Hot enough for ya??” and I felt a twinge of embarrassment for hearing the phrase uttered so unironically. To be fair, though, it was hot enough for me.)

Tomorrow I begin a drawing class. I’m doing it both to distract myself from this inevitable descent into darkness, and because I’m in a social and creative rut. There is a distinct lack of activity in my life, and prolonged idleness, I have found, is not the best creative fuel. So I am going to put myself in a room with strangers for a couple hours a week and relearn how to draw, in hopes the experience sparks something new. Strangely, though I have always been an avid doodler, and in the past entertained the idea of being a graphic designer or illustrator, I’ve only taken one actual drawing class. It was in high school, and while there was a kind of peace in dutifully filling my sketchbook, I didn’t enjoy the class much. Now, perhaps, is an opportunity to try again, with fresh eyes and without the pressure of being graded.

Next week I also start an ASL class, though my reasons for taking it are less clear, beyond sheer curiosity and a more-than-passing interest in language. It’s been nine years since I sat down in a classroom setting, and I’ve never taken a class that wasn’t for credit of some kind, so I don’t know what to expect. Do I still know how to be a student? Will I be the youngest person in the room? The oldest? Do I still have the patience and the drive to learn new things in a structured setting? Should I eat dinner at home first? (Food considerations are always the most important.)

I’m entering into a lot of unknowns, but there are much scarier, riskier things I could be doing to add interest to my life. For now I’m just splashing around in the kiddie pool, getting out of my stagnant routine for a bit. With any luck, these classes will help drive me to create and learn further, and this will only be the beginning of a series of new experiences. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to forget that we are slowly but surely being consumed by the cold, gray void of winter.

For a few hours a week, anyway. I just want to forget…for a few hours a week…please…

The Theoretical Homicidal Bus

I would like, if I may, to put a moratorium on the use of the phrase: “Say you get hit by a bus tomorrow…”

If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, always as the beginning of a discussion about contingency plans, or insurance (which I guess is a form of contingency plan in itself). It is, of course, prudent to plan for the absence of key people in the workplace or the family, but…a bus? Really?

Who decided a bus was the go-to instrument of theoretical unplanned absences? Why do we need to conjure such a violent, splattery end for our colleagues and loved ones in order to plan for the future? Is it because being hit by a bus is a realistic enough scenario to be plausible, but not common enough to be completely horrifying? As in, it’s more believable than “Say you’re kidnapped by a gang of sentient CFL light bulbs tomorrow,” but less depressing than “Say you have a fatal heart attack tomorrow”?

Either way, I don’t much like it. If someone is looking me in the eye and imagining a world in which I am no longer there, I’d rather they assume the event that pulled me away was a happier, less gruesome one:

“Say you run off and join the circus tomorrow…”

“Say you take possession of a small tropical island tomorrow…”

“Say a talent scout sees you singing to the watermelons at the grocery store and whisks you away to Broadway to join the cast of Les Miserapples tomorrow…”

“Say you wake up tomorrow and know exactly what you’re meant to do with your life, and you quit your job on the spot…”

It just seems like a bit of a slap in the face to assume the reason I won’t be around anymore is because I have met my untimely demise, especially through something as stupidly pedestrian as getting hit by a bus*.

I know bad things happen, but could we save the morbid reality for reality, and have a little more optimism in our imaginings? Eh? Please? I would prefer not to be terrified of buses, or as I have come to know them, “Contingency Death Machines**.” That’s all.

* (Only slight pun intended.)
** Still working on the name. Fear of theoretical bus death stifles creativity, you know.

Wake-up Call

Yesterday morning, head still foggy with sleep, I went to wash my hands in the company bathroom, and as soon as the water started running, a giant spider, big as the width of my (admittedly tiny) palm, skittered out at me, causing a mild cardiac event.

After staring at it for a moment, perched defiantly on the side of the sink, I determined it had claimed that space as its own. Not one for violent confrontations, especially before nine a.m., I nodded to it and slid over to the other sink. ‘If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you,’ I thought, as that has been my lifelong philosophy towards insects and arachnids of all kinds. ‘There is plenty of space here for the both of us,’ I thought, and put my hands under the faucet.

Immediately upon turning on the water, a moth flew out of the second sink into my face.

I was not pleased.

It’s times like these I am humbly reminded that, given the chance, nature will DESTROY and CONSUME us, until IT is ALL. Forget the robot apocalypse! The victors at the end of the world will be the little critters we blithely swat at. When the time is right and we are at our most vulnerable, they will creep up on us like a person with a rolled-up newspaper and take us DOWN.

Serves us right, I guess.

Until that happens, though…good one, guys. Way to prank me into alertness. I bow to your superior strategic thinking and many, many limbs.

(Jerks.)

The Day of the Button


When I was in ninth grade, I was sitting in biology class, mind wandering, when I noticed one of the buttons on my teacher’s shirt was unbuttoned. Let’s be clear: this wasn’t a sexy thing. She was a middle-aged woman with a dark brown bouffant who once made us use the biology concepts we had learned to explain why a handful of Far Side cartoons were funny (because nothing makes a cartoon funnier than having it explained to you in scientific detail).

The button was obviously an oversight on her part, hardly at the level of “wardrobe malfunction” that would cause my classmates to pay any mind. Even so, I noticed it, and a thought struck me. I’m not sure what sparked it, but I told myself in that moment, ‘I am going to remember this.’ I resolved to focus on this insignificant detail and remember it for as long as possible. I would remember it was a Thursday, and the rebellious button in question was the fourth one down. (I made no such resolutions to remember the content of the class, which is, predictably, totally lost to me now.)

It was an experiment I set for myself in a moment of boredom, and for the most part, it worked. Every so often, even more than fifteen years later, the memory of that lone button comes floating to the surface of my mind. While it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, the intention behind it somehow does. I can’t remember why I set myself the task of remembering, and I’m not a hundred percent confident that I have the day of the week or the location of the button correct, but the general memory remains in tact.

It’s a curious thing to me that something as insignificant as a button could be so easy to recall, and yet twenty-five percent of the time I walk into a room I can’t remember why (though a safe assumption is that I’m looking for snacks). And more often than not, the brilliant ideas I know will stay with me forever vanish into smoke the next time I try to recall them. I definitely can’t remember what the lesson was on The Day of the Button, nor can I remember most of what I learned in fifteen-plus years of schooling.

But the button remains.

I’d like to think I have the same capacity for focused intention that I had back in that moment in ninth grade. That if I really, truly wanted to commit something to memory I could do it. Fourteen-year-old me was not yet subject to the distracting twenty-four-hour tyranny of screens, so perhaps she had a strategic advantage when it came to remembering things for more than six seconds. Still, the potential for focus is surely buried somewhere in this jumbled mess of sensory input and occasional original thought I call my mind.

It may require throwing my phone out the window or feeding it to a bear, but I’d like to carve more time out of my life to commit to the practice of focus and intention. In a world of constant stimulation it can be hard to sit still; my eyes ping-pong inside my head all day and have gotten dry from staring, and almost every tidbit of knowledge I Google in a moment of curiosity is forgotten a minute later. When journaling, too many times I find myself unable to form a complete thought, much less write a complete paragraph, and in fits of frustration I think, ‘There has to be a better way!’

If that button is any indication, there is a better way. I just have to get back to it. I just have to get quiet, even bored, again. And from there…F O C U S . Make a point of it. Continue the experiment.

And, of course, remember to check my buttons before leaving the house.

Blank Walls

It’s been a couple weeks now since I moved out of my charming one-bedroom apartment—the one with the eroding stone wall and the upstairs neighbor who vacuumed at least four times a week, usually at ten o’clock at night—into a two-bedroom that I now share with my boyfriend. Moving weekend was brutal, as we chose the hottest weekend in twenty years to haul all of our belongings up and down stairs all day, but the pain of that experience is now a distant memory, and the bruises I incurred are at least 70% faded. Of course, they have since been replaced by other mysterious bruises, but that’s just how my anemic, olive-skinned self rolls. It is not uncommon for me to look like I’ve recently been in a fight with something about as tall as my shins, like an angry goose, or a fire hydrant.

It’s been a few years since I lived with anyone else, so there is an extra level of adjustment in this relocation, a constant checking of the more self-centered habits I’d gotten used to indulging in when I lived alone. Despite that, and despite the fact that I’ve never lived with a significant other before, so far things have been…comfortable. As anticipated, the change of setting has been simple enough for me to adapt to, and I’ve fallen easily into my new routine, which includes a seven-minute commute to work and, so far, no need to adjust my sleep schedule to accommodate my neighbors’ obsessive housekeeping. So far, so good.

Buffy posterIf there has been any source of angst in this move, it has been in the fact that I am aggressively no-frills in my home decor aesthetic. For a long time I’ve had a strong aversion to the collection of crap. If something isn’t immediately useful, I don’t want to waste my time or money on it. As a result, for the entire first year I lived in my previous apartment, I hung up perhaps one picture, leaving the rest of the walls bleak and bare. For a long time I didn’t even have a bookshelf, leaving my books stacked up in piles on the floor.

My significant other belongs to the “more is more” camp, and gets more satisfaction out of the art of interior design than I ever will. Thus, I now find myself in a position where, to be equally represented on the walls and shelves of this new apartment, I need to grit my teeth and invest in more art and *dramatic music* tchotchkes.

It seems like such a silly thing to be angsty about. There are certainly worse things to spend your money on. Like drugs. Pyramid schemes. Crocs. That burger where the buns are replaced with fried chicken. As someone who presumably appreciates art and has a reasonably developed aesthetic sensibility, you would think I’d be thrilled at the opportunity to decorate my space with objects and images that inspire and delight me. Somehow, though, my frugality and laziness merge with a latent sense of utilitarianism, and the end result is bare apartment walls and an office at work completely devoid of personal items. If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my office and said, “You should put up some pictures in here!” I’d have…well, at least enough to feed the parking meter.

So to fight against this tendency towards sparseness, I’m keeping my eyes open and thinking about the things that, while not useful in the strictest sense, still serve a purpose in the memories they evoke or the feelings they inspire. I find it all too easy to get caught up in asking what the point of things are, asking why I do the things I do, and sucking any potential joy out of experiences in the process. I still think it’s wise not to spend time and money recklessly on things that have no positive value, but at the same time I have to remind myself that it’s possible to simply enjoy and appreciate things and experiences for what they are, whether or not they have an immediately apparent utility.

The new apartment is a lovely, comfortable, quiet place, and I think we will get along just fine here. In the meantime, though, I need me some more art! STAT! (Or, you know, whenever I get around to it.)

Moved Again!

I tried blogging on Tumblr for a little while, but when it came down to it, I didn’t really like the platform for the long-form blogging I wanted to start up again. And try as I might, I can’t get my Tumblr posts imported into WordPress, so if you want to browse the archives for some unknown reason, take a gander at gemllama.tumblr.com. Going forward, though, I’m back here on gemllama.com, WordPress-style. Because I’ve never been that good at being a cool kid.