Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why Should the Fire Die?

Since we've been living in a rental house where one of the main sources of heat is a wood stove (and we get unlimited free wood from our landlord), I've suddenly realized why fire is a symbol for passion or love in so many cultures.  There's a learning curve with these old-fashioned methods of heating, and as Ari and I have become versed in the art of keeping a fire going, I've found myself mulling over the humorous similarities between a fire and a human relationship of the romantic kind.

Some people have the touch; some don't.  Some say there's a method to building a fire.  Others are just naturals.  Our landlord can casually toss kindling and a log or two in the wood stove and have it roaring in no time.  Ari and I, on the other hand, don't have that kind of charisma.  We've had to work at it, finally chancing upon a method that was consistently successful.

You can't force it.  Even now that we have a general formula for building a fire, sometimes the fire just isn't in the mood.  In that case, we get desperate.  We must resort to begging.  We're willing to try anything--adding the wood in a different order, using different kindling, anything it wants.

Obsessing over it won't accomplish anything except driving you crazy.  Once you've lit your kindling, all you can do is put the cover on the stove and wait.  It's best to just focus on something else entirely.  Sure, you can hover expectantly over the vents, looking for that tantalizing flicker of light inside, but that doesn't matter to the fire, and you just look desperate.  It's better to play aloof.  Go off and do something else, and check on it in a few minutes.  If it didn't light, shrug it off and try again.

It's seductive and addictive in a cruel psychological way.  Sometimes when your fire is refusing to light, you only want to light it that much more.  You may pour up to an hour of your time into it.  When it's finally going, that fire is your world.  You want to be near it, to constantly peek and make sure it's still there.  This unhealthy attachment is all you can think about.  Every time you approach it, you think, "This time will be different.  I'll get it this time," only to fall into the same trap.

Don't get too cocky.  After a while, you might think you and your fire have a good thing going.  You might be tempted to fall into a routine, or you might think you can get away with more time apart.  However, just because you and your fire have had a good day--you've been stoking it regularly, and it's always responded with a nice flame--doesn't mean you can turn your back on it all evening.  Your fire may seem happy one minute, but if you get immersed in a book or distracted on the Internet, you might suddenly find it's burned out on you completely.  Fires are notoriously stubborn and moody when you attempt to return them from this state.

You may be tempted to cheat.  One night, when the fire was being particularly stubborn, Ari and I decided it was time to resort to the propane heater outside our bedroom.  Whereas the fire required care and attention, the propane heater was, well, rather slutty.  With just the push of a button, we had all the heat we needed for the night.  The next day, it was tempting to just crank up that propane heater and not worry about building a fire.  However, we reminded ourselves that we'll eventually have to buy more propane, but wood will always be there for us.  So we returned to our faithful wood stove and endeavored, once again, to give the fire the attention it deserved.

Even though you have your ups and downs, there are still moments when you find it rewarding.  When the wind is howling outside, snow is falling, icicles are forming, and the temperature is dropping steadily, you are unbelievably proud of your fire.  You can't help but curl up in your favorite arm chair with a cup of hot tea and think, "This is so worth it."  And the whole cycle begins again.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Thanksgiving is on the brink of extinction.  At the rate we're going, the next generation will refer to it as Pre-Christmas.  Remember when people actually put up Thanksgiving decorations, like a cornucopia or some fake fall leaves?  These days Thanksgiving signifies it's time to decorate the tree.  However, the most disturbing sign of Thanksgiving's eminent downfall is a cultural phenomenon known as Black Friday.

Black Friday started sneaking into the American psyche over the past few decades in the form of "After Thanksgiving Day Sales."  The idea, as far as I can tell, was to provide the opportunity to buy holiday gifts at deep discounts.  Those sales did so well, and have now become so common, that the entire day is simply referred to as Black Friday.  On this fateful day, big-box stores open at ungodly hours, some opening at midnight, others at three or four o'clock in the morning; traffic near malls and other shopping complexes grows hopelessly congested; and people wake before daybreak to form mobs at store entrances, often trampling one another when they finally charge inside.  (For many people, such as my family, this has accomplished  the opposite of the intended effect--we see Black Friday as a sort of House Arrest Day, when you avoid venturing out into the madness at all costs.)  Some say the term "Black Friday" was coined by frustrated shoppers.  I say it originated with the embittered, overworked retail employees at the big-box stores who hold these chaotic events.

I wonder how many shoppers pause to ask themselves how it would feel to be the person ringing up all their discounted merchandise at the crack of dawn.  It's one thing to voluntarily get up at daybreak because you want to buy something.  It's another to get up at daybreak because you have to run the cash register.  For people who have to drive any substantial distance to see their families, getting a Black Friday shift often means they can't celebrate Thanksgiving with their families at all.  The CEOs of large chain stores might make a killing on Black Friday, but the sleep-deprived clerk swiping your credit card probably won't see a penny of that.

The gap between wealthy and poor in America is already widening at breakneck speed.  As Christmas encroaches on Thanksgiving, we're divided into people who get to celebrate holidays and people who don't.  When did this happen?

Social injustice aside, however, the most annoying aspect of Black Friday are the people who act like they have no choice but to form a mob on the sidewalk.  "I just can't afford a new HDTV any other way," they plead desperately.  The thing is, I've never seen any necessities discounted for Black Friday--if someone offered half-price groceries, I might join the mob charging the doors.  But no.  Black Friday discounts usually apply to things like laptops and iPods and cashmere sweaters.  My grandparents survived the Great Depression by sewing feedsack dresses; we're surviving our recession by nabbing our flat-screens at 50% off.

Maybe someday we'll regale our grandchildren with tales of how we got in our SUVs and drove uphill both ways in the snow, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, just to get a new Wii.  I'm sure they'll be enthralled by how trying our lives were.  Then they'll wish us a merry Pre-Christmas and hop in their flying cars to go shopping with their friends.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Quantitative Humor

This little exchange took place this morning right after I'd woken up.

Ari:  What's 3 + 3?

me:  Six.

Ari:  Wrong.

me:  What is it, then?

Ari:  The correct answer is 33.

me:  You sound just like my GRE prep book...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

You Should be Sorry

I just ran into the strangest lady in Greenlife.

Ari and I were buying some groceries for the week, and I was at one of those freestanding produce shelves picking out heirloom tomatoes.  I was completely absorbed in my own thoughts ("Should I get another green one or a red one?  Or maybe a yellow one...") when a woman pushing a shopping cart asked, "Could you move over so I can get by?"

On paper, it sounds like an innocent enough question.  But the way she approached me was very abrupt, and I almost felt like I was back in retail, arranging a display that a shopper wanted to look at.

This lady embodied a side of Asheville that bothers me--not the scrappy artist hippies, but the rich yuppie hippies who drop $20 on a bottle of essential oil.  She was heavyset and had a blue cloth wrapped around her head, which accentuated her large, black-framed glasses.

I'm a non-confrontational person.  Even though I would personally have navigated around the other side of the produce stand were I in this woman's position, and even though I was thinking, Why can't you just wait ten seconds while I pick out a freaking heirloom tomato? I said, "Oh, sorry," and got out of her way. 

Then, as I was passing her, she said, "It's nothing to apologize about.  There's no need to say 'Sorry.'"

Yet again, this was delivered in the most abrasive tone possible.  I spent the rest of my shopping trip imagining what kind of self-help book this lady had probably been reading.  I'm sure it was full of affirmations like Don't be afraid to ask for what you want! and Stop saying 'Sorry'!  Pity she didn't invest in a social skills class instead. 

I don't always use "Sorry" in the common context.  For me, it's a catch-all word.  In this particular case, I really just meant, "I didn't know I was in your way."  But it was late, and that required way too many words.  My frequent use of "Sorry," oddly enough, really bothered some customers when I worked in the gift shops.  They might say something rude, like, "Could you wrap that a little faster?  I'm in a hurry," and I'd say, "Sorry."  Then they'd say, "There's nothing to be sorry about." 

There wouldn't be, if you hadn't given me something to be sorry about (namely, the fact that I was stuck gift-wrapping souvenirs for mean people).  Rather than indicating submission, I always thought saying "Sorry" leveled the playing field.  It acknowledged that the other party was issuing criticism, which is probably why it bothered some customers.  Submission would have been cheerfully saying "Sure!" or silently proceeding to bag their items faster, which is probably what they wanted. 

It's true, you shouldn't apologize for things that aren't your fault.  Maybe that's what Abrasive Woman was trying to say in Greenlife this evening--it wasn't my fault that I happened to be standing in the spot she wanted to be, so I shouldn't apologize.  But we should be careful not to write "Sorry" entirely out of our language.  It's a powerful word, and it can be your greatest weapon in unexpected ways.

So in conclusion, if I say "Sorry" too much, I'm sorry.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Condoms and Tampons and Bras, Oh My!

I've had the same two bras for the past year:  a black one, and a white one.  The black one is in especially sad shape because it's the only bra that fit under my work shirt.  So yesterday, I finally went bra shopping with my mom.  My budget led us to a large retailer in the mall, where we spent quite a while rummaging through clearance racks of $6 bras.  Eventually I brought several to the checkout counter and was ready to lay them by the register, when suddenly Mom nudged me, gesturing toward the cashier, and whispered, "That's a guy."

I had, in fact, been aware of this, and untroubled by it.  Except now, the cashier had heard us, and we all struggled to maintain our composure, making this two-minute transaction feel like eternity.

At my retail job, there was one gift shop that contained every potentially embarrassing sundry item.  Condoms and tampons caused customers the most grief--usually the tampons, since the full-time clerk in that shop was a very pleasant older man who seemed to terrify menstruating women.  I was once working in another store at the opposite end of the hallway, when a woman asked if we had tampons.  I told her they were back in the first shop, and she said,  "Well, I saw them in there, but--" (she leaned in and lowered her voice dramatically) "--I didn't want to buy them from that man."

In the end, "that man" relayed a box of tampons to my shop so I could ring them up for her.  I found it touching that I was the only person capable of selling this woman tampons. 

On any given day, cashiers may be yelled at, threatened, or belittled by customers.  Ringing up taboo sundry items is the least of our worries.  Sometimes we barely notice what we're scanning.  Ringing up a pack of condoms never bothered me--it was just another item I had to scan and bag, and another total I had to recite.  I will admit, though, I never could bring myself to say "Have a good night" after selling someone condoms.  I just didn't like to get that invested in the situation.  Even "Come back and see us" seemed a little too judgey.  I'd always just say "Thanks" instead.  But I never felt embarrassed.

For my co-workers and me, these situations only got awkward if the customer was awkward.  Another clerk once told me about a customer who was so edgy while buying condoms from her, he felt obligated to reveal that it was his wedding night, and he and his wife were about to have sex for the first time.   I wonder what response he was expecting.  Good luck?  Go get 'em, tiger?  Or maybe, Congratulations, you've won the celibacy challenge!  Then confetti and streamers would fall from the ceiling.

Gentlemen, the jig is up:  we know about the penises, and we know what they're for.  And ladies, guys know about our periods, and they know about the boobs, too.  A natural, inherent discomfort arises when we acknowledge the existence of these things to the opposite sex, but that's okay.  When you need to buy a condom or a tampon or a bra, it's kind of like ripping off a bandage.  Just keep a straight face and get through it with your dignity intact.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Child-Hating Monster

People always seem to have theories as to why I don't like children.

You never had any siblings or cousins, so you just need to get used to them!

You'd change your mind if you spent some time with kids!

And the infamous, It's different when they're yours!

Well, of course it's different when they're yours--when they're yours, you're stuck with them.  Forever.

I get more excited about seeing a dog in public than a baby.  While my female friends swoon over a passing baby or toddler, I stand there in stony silence, waiting for them to get a grip.  My lack of maternal instinct was never an issue before, but now, my friends are having their own kids, and I'm doomed to be exposed as a child-hating monster.

Today my family and I went to a festival in my hometown, where I saw some former classmates talking about twenty feet away.  They didn't see me, and I was on the verge of walking over to say hello, when I realized they both had a toddler.  All I could think then was, "I really don't feel like pretending to be interested in those kids right now," so I ignored them.  And when I found out my fiance's best friend is going to be a father soon, my immediate reaction was, "Wow, that's exciting.  I'm not babysitting!"  Yes, I realize this makes me a horrible person.

It's not that I don't think anyone should procreate.  (Although overpopulation is a huge strain on natural resources.  But there I go again, heartlessly thinking of the environment.)  I know people who are genuinely happier since having kids.  I also know people in their fifties who never had kids, and I can't help but notice how well-rested they seem in their large, clean homes. 

The problem is, how do you tell people you don't like kids?  People will ask whether you like Asian food, or cats, or musical theatre, but liking kids doesn't seem to be optional.  There's never a convenient moment to say, "Oh, I'm really not into kids.  Could we skip the kids for today?  Thanks."

Liking kids is even less optional when you get married.  My future sister-in-law, in an innocent gesture of friendship, once commented about our kids playing together someday.  I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I will not be contributing any children to that scenario. 

Sometimes it feels like the entire world assumes everyone wants kids.  You're supposed to date, get married, have a baby, and get old.  There's nothing wrong with that, but I'd personally like to swap out "have a baby" with "do a bunch of awesome stuff."

During my last physical, my doctor said, "You've been on the pill for a while."  She probably just wanted to make sure I was still happy with it, but it got me thinking... What?  Is it not normal to be on the pill from age 18 through menopause?  Birth control assumes you eventually want to have kids.  I need avoid-having-kids-altogether control.

When women are trying to get pregnant, they can use a nifty device that tells them when they're ovulating.  I need the opposite of that.  Something that will tell me when not to have sex.  Maybe a flashing red light and a blaring alarm will go off too.

Why don't pharmaceutical companies tap into this niche market?  Maybe they think no one would want such a device, because all girls want babies.

The funny thing is, though, when I do confide in certain friends that I'm a child-hating monster, and a lot of the time, they look relieved and say, "Oh my gosh, I don't like kids EITHER!"  Then we share light-hearted remarks about being horrible abominations to the human race.

So maybe someone should get cracking on that anti-fertility meter.  You could make millions.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day was Yesterday

I never used to notice Labor Day.  Labor Day just meant an extra day without classes (which I usually didn't remember until Friday afternoon).  Sometimes I'd go to the bank only to realize, Crap, it's Labor Day.  And then there was that whole thing about wearing white.

When I started my retail job and had to work on national holidays, I didn't mind at first, since I'd never been much for celebrating most of the national holidays.  My only qualm was the huge influx of customers on holidays.  I also realized I was hardly visiting my family anymore.  Then one day, an old man came in the shop and thanked me for working on Labor Day.  He was one of only a few people to ever thank me for working on a holiday.

"Used to, no one worked on Labor Day," he explained.  "Everything was closed.  You couldn't go out to eat, or go to the store."

And I found myself thinking, That sounds great.  What happened to that Utopian place where everyone got a day off, not just the people with 9-5 office jobs?  Don't I have as much of a right to a day off as the rest of the country?  I can understand some people working holidays--you know, doctors, firemen, people who save lives.  But there's only one reason to make people with service jobs work holidays:  money.  While my salaried managers, who worked until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, took national holidays off, my co-workers and I had our most hectic workdays, making sure hotel guests had a nice holiday with their families, while our own families had a holiday without us.  For the first time, I became aware of a growing class divide in this country.  

This year, in honor of finally having Labor Day off again, I did some Wikipedia research to see what I'd been missing.  Long story short, Labor Day was made a national holiday to appease union workers in various industries who had been striking nationwide.  Supposedly, it's in honor of the Pullman Strike that began in May 1894; as far as I can tell, that strike just happened to exemplify a general mood in the country at the time.  Basically, rail workers responded to overly-demanding work schedules and cuts in pay by refusing to work and damaging quite a lot of company property.  In the end, President Grover Cleveland sided with the employers and called in the military, at which point strikers were killed and injured.  Cleveland quickly realized what a bad PR move that was, and Labor Day was born.

Labor Day was intended to be a holiday for the working class, so they could get some rest.  Today, Labor Day is a day when a good chunk of the working class... is working.   Meanwhile, the upper class (most likely, the employers) takes a pleasant beach vacation.

The Pullman Strike happened in a turbulent time.  However, I can't help but think what a great era it ushered in.  In the decades following the Pullman Strike, my great-grandfather had a railroad job in South Alabama.  The pension from that job supported him and his family until he died last year, and still supports my great-grandmother, who turned 93 in July.  I doubt my fiance and I will be able to rely on anything like that when we're older.  My grandfather bought a home and paid it off with his own money.  Sometimes I wonder if Ari and I will be able to do that, either.  These days, my dad wonders if he'll be able to retire at all, and how he'll support himself if and when that happens.  He's held his job for over 25 years, but his company has been sold umpteen times, and with each regime change, his retirement has dwindled.  He's even been laid off and then re-hired several times.

When did the employers gain the upper hand again?  When did businesses start staying open for Labor Day?  People would be angry if their employer, or their child's school, stopped observing national holidays, but no one complains if a restaurant or retail store is still operating.  But those businesses are operated by human beings, too, no less than any other place of work.  When did we start looking down on each other?  The middle class is disappearing again after a short existence of about 50 years.  Let's hope we end up on the lucky side of the class divide.

Recommended reading with this post:  Happy F*ckin' Labor Day by Michael Moore

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My New Mantra

Sometimes I like to check out the work of my more-firmly-established fellow bloggers, wishing my own blog would magically turn into an impressive archive of timeless tidbits and witticisms.  Tonight I was browsing random entries of a blog I recently stumbled upon (though it's been around quite a while) called Barely Legal.  I found one post in which the author details the awkward experience of running into a former high school classmate who's waiting tables, and having to tell him he's in law school.

This especially interested me because I've been on both sides of that situation, though most often on the reverse end.  I never had to endure the humiliation of encountering a high school classmate while working my retail job in a uniform and nametag, but even when conversing with total strangers at said job, most of whom (based on the hotel's usual clientele) had high-income jobs, I dreaded being asked what my future plans were, or whether I was in school.  I hated admitting that I had already graduated college but basically had no further plan.  Usually I'd just make something up.  But even once I'd decided I was going to try running my own business, I never wanted to say it aloud.  I was afraid I'd sound irrational and desperate. 

But apparently even the "more successful" person in those conversations can find them equally painful, as this law student describes:
He asked what I was doing these days, and I sheepishly replied that I am in law school. "Wow, that['s] great", he said. "I really wish I had done things differently in college and done something like that. You know, make a lot of money. That would be sweet." I informed him that it isn't that great, and that, in fact, it sucks. I then inquired what he was up to. "Right now, just waiting tables, saving cash. Then this Fall, I'm moving to Colorado to become a ski instructor. It's something I always wanted to do." I told him that sounded great, wished him luck, excused myself and continued to the restroom. Along the way, I realized that this guy has it together much more than I do. He knows what he wants to do and is doing it, while I hate what I am doing. He seemed envious of me being in law school, and I am just as envious of him and his quixotic life plans.

In a twisted way, I find some solace in that.  Maybe some of those people I talked to so self-consciously were equally miserable, just for different reasons.  Maybe what I see as a year after college wasted in retail would be viewed by some people as an invaluable break.  It's comforting to tell myself that even if I'd plowed straight ahead into grad school or clawed my way into a staff-writing job, I'd probably have been just as unhappy as I was in retail, and exponentially more stressed.  When you put it that way, maybe retail wasn't the worst way to spend a year after undergrad.  And maybe there's someone out there who would view my current business venture as a leap of faith they wish they'd taken themselves.  I do believe that sometimes it doesn't matter how successful you are in something, but simply that you were brave enough to try it.  It was nice to be reminded of that. 

From now on, when someone asks what I plan to do with my BA in Literature, or when former classmates' Facebook statuses mention law school or med school or a new impressive job, I'll just repeat my new mantra:  We're all equally miserable.