Saturday, August 18, 2007

More with Less

Just a quick note - I think part of the reason I'm feeling much more laid back now, happier in general, is in part because this summer, I was earning half as much money as I'm accustomed to. There was now a logical reason not to buy things. When I did go out and buy something, it was a big treat. Aside from groceries and the occasional Belgian beer bottle, I only bought two books, three articles of clothing, CDs at all.

It forced me to re-examine what was already available to me. Such as the library. At the very beginning of summer, I put in several requests for them to either buy or get things from Interlibrary Loan - Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking, Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook, and three CDs that my favorite artists just put out. I requested the new Smashing Pumpkins, the new Tori Amos, and the new White Stripes. These things did not come in all at once. (I should note that the library already carried Tori, Smashing Pumpkins, and White Stripes CDs, so if the library did buy these things on my account, at least I wouldn't be the only patron checking them out.)

After a few weeks, the Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist arrived. The library actually purchased a copy of it! Well, it's not very good. It doesn't's not painful to listen to...but it's not really catchy.

A few weeks later, American Doll Posse arrived. It's also not that great. Not bad, just not worth the equivalent of a quarter to a third of my non-profit work day.

I finally heard "Icky Thump" on the radio, and felt I would simply burst if I did not go out and buy the new White Stripes CD RIGHT NOW. But how do I know that the rest of the CD doesn't suck? Thanks to this website a friend at work pointed me to, Pandora, I can listen to music legally and free and the CD-buying frenzy has calmed. (It's not like, any music you want on demand--you put in a song or an artist that you like and it makes a radio station for you, playing music that it thinks you would like based on what you've put in. You rate songs, too, and you can skip a certain amount per hour, so that your station is personalized more and more. A good way to hear music you wouldn't think of checking out, too.)

And just so I'd know that they hadn't forgotten me - they're just sloooooooowly filling my requests, which is fine--the Sparta Public Library <3 just informed me that Super Natural Cooking has arrived and will be held for me until Monday.

So, in a way this DOES relate to materialism, I guess. But it's a different kind, I think. For one thing, I don't get to keep these things. I have to return them. But then I am sharing them with other people. This can relate to the community idea. When I went to pick up the cookbook this morning, the former chef librarian was at the desk, and we discussed books, her new blog, and local farmers markets.

While it's still materialistic and consumptive on some level, it's not the same as getting stuck in the buying-more-wanting-more addictive cycle. This is making happiness with what is available.

On a similar note to the above, while going through my room to try to de-clutter - a constant project of mine that goes nowhere usually - I've been finding all these old CDs. I have been forcing myself, when I get sick of my new stuff, to listen to these old CDs. The other day, I got stuck in horrendous traffic. In Somerset County, no less. (We write about Somerset County at work - that's our big project - so being stuck here was particularly silly. Talk about taking your work home with you.) I pulled a CD at random from a stack in my glove compartment, noted that the date on it was something "/00", thought "oh no...sophomore year of HIGH SCHOOL...this could be trouble..." and stuck it in the machine.

After some cheering, guitar tuning, and a "Thank you for your patience" by a singer who I identified as Thom Yorke? or something? Jeremy Enigk? ???? (being in traffic, I muttered "I'M NOT PATIENT!!!!"), a live version of "Theo B" by Sunny Day Real Estate commenced. What followed was a block of Modest Mouse. Awesome!!!! Not all my musical taste seven years ago was sucky!

This CD, in addition to being good, has also been a source of humor, as what follows the block of Modest Mouse--directly--is a block of Deftones and Tool. Huh? Followed by the Get Up Kids Ani Difranco song. Oh, high school.

Anyway, this is an example of making happiness with what one already has.

When I really think about it, despite bouts of boredom, being annoyed at my job (which has overall been cool in many ways - don't get me wrong), all the changes of plans, getting stuck living at home again, and not making much money, this has been the best summer I've had in a long time. I kept pretty busy, made friends, reconnected with old friends (is this also an example of making happiness with what one already has? ha ha), went to some fun parties, got to go hiking a couple of times, spent a lot of time outdoors, spent minimal time in front of the TV--in general, though I did not do many of the things on my "to do" list - I had a lot of fun and got to try lots of new things. (And this is counting summer as starting on Memorial Day - AFTER the France trip.)

Now, I'm going to go support local agriculture and buy some vegetables.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Sleepwalking Strip Malls

Strip malls are ugly. Highways are (usually) ugly. Suburbia is ugly. This is what I often think. It surprises me, sometimes, that people can live in these aluminum-sided boxes with a little rectangle of stubby lawn out front and ugly pointless shutters on the windows, with ugly curlicue metal at least in one place on the property (maybe holding up the mailbox, for example), and maybe a couple of sickly trees on the property - not tall enough to actually provide shade.

This is extremely snobby of me. (At least I admit it, and don't think these sort of things all the time.)

Sometimes it surprises me how accepting the majority of New Jerseyans are being surrounded by strip mall after strip mall, no real parks to break up the monotony, just stoplight-bespeckled roads cutting towns into pieces as hulking, monstrous trucks clangingly trudge along, sighing and roaring like an elderly dragon should they encounter a hill to ascend.

It's surprising how we let our life fall into a routine. A majority of people (or so it seems) work the same hours, and thus sit in the same traffic, in order to sit in an over-air-conditioned office in front of a computer screen for eight hours, accomplishing approximately two hours worth of work (because efficiency, for whatever reason, isn't exactly rewarded) and spending the rest of the time doing what I am doing, mastering the covert Internet-Explorer-and-AIM-window-minimize.

We line up at a Dunkin Donuts where the staff and the other customers will be rude to us, to get a coffee that costs about 30 times what it would cost to make it in our own home and, if it's the Boonton Dunkin Donuts (not my favorite Bedminster Dunkin Donuts), is 30 times worse than the coffee I can make myself.

Sometimes, I look around like, "These people are zombies. I hope they go home to a better life, that they enjoy their two-hours-of-freedom-before-falling-asleep-to-Jon-Stewart each evening." Other times, I realize that though my office-job-life is temporary (usually no more than a summer long before I return to school), I have totally become one of these zombies. I, too, cannot function until I have had my coffee.

And it's not so bad.

Even in this life, this monotonous, routine-driven life in which maybe 10% of our time is spent according to our own will (and even less if one has a family to take care of!), even then, it's not bad if you know how to look for each day's gifts. Even if you don't, if you have no intention of asserting your own individuality, the importance of responsibility to yourself, whatever you want to call it, even if you don't consciously take the time to notice things like a funny bumper sticker, a stranger holding the door for other strangers at Dunkin Donuts, an interesting bird or tree or flower along Easton Ave, this life isn't bad at all.

(I mean, what do I really do when I have free time? My one day off this summer, I did nothing but watch TV, be cranky, and go to CVS.)

Today, at the rude Dunkin Donuts, I noted that one of the employees took the time to ask a customer to taste her coffee and see if it was made right- if it was the right temperature or had enough sugar or something -and then I ended up running into E., an old friend who's worked down the road yet I haven't seen her in a year.
Even if I didn't work in an office that's really a historic home, adjacent to hiking trails and a beautiful native plant garden, I still get to come out of my house every day and communicate with other people. As a result, I've made some friends. Even at the software company, not only did I make friends with my coworkers, but spending the whole day on the phone - sure I talked to some jerky customers, but there were plenty of pleasant ones, too, people who made normal conversation and jokes with me.

My dad and I were having a conversation, somehow connected to my frustrating, obsessive desire to Do Good In The World, my frustration with how much bad there is in the world - so many horrible things. I was really upset because so much happens - so many people are allowed to die - for money! Some company makes money off of things like cars with intentionally poor gas mileage or, as this article I read part of yesterday showed, things that make cell phones and remote controls function--things we DON'T NEED--and as a result, people die. There's just nothing - now I'm having trouble finding words. There's just no room in people's minds for the thought that this cruelty, this violence, is unacceptable, and they could still make plenty of money without allowing these things to happen. (I guess, as people speak with their wallets- start to buy fair trade coffee, etc- these things could gradually occur, not out of any sense of morality, just more greed, but hey, at least it's something. Maybe we'll see a world of cruelty-free electronics.)

Sometimes, I realize what large numbers of people exist that are actually capable of this violence, and I think, in despair, that this world isn't even worth saving. For a split second, anyway.

More than that, when I'm being pessimistic, I think that, overall, there has probably always been as much bad in the world today, throughout the history of...well, things capable of morality. Like maybe this world is, on average, just as bad and corrupt and cruel as that of the Middle Ages, or something. Some other time period in which we think people were inferior to us and barbaric. (Frankly, I think that anyone who happens to wear a suit, dress and speak nicely, yet profits off of violence, is pretty much a barbarian. But what are any of us? I don't know.)

Oops, I totally didn't mean for this to take a depressing turn. Should have just ended on the happy note!

Anyway, my dad said something like, This is the world we live in. This money-driven world, he meant. This is the world we live in - and that's just the way it is. The only thing you can do is try not to go crazy, try not to I guess be a victim, but mainly what he was telling me is that you can just do your best to make change in this world. That you have to - as I've been saying lately - keep making small changes, and not discredit them. Once, we were having this conversation (it comes up a lot) and he pointed out how much my piano students loved me. That I made their lives in some way better by teaching them music and by just being there, being myself, talking to them, being friends with them, whatever. (What all of us do for different people throughout our life.) Is it fair of me - is it right - to discredit this? In a way, it's like saying that the happiness of that student, just because she's one of six billion, is insignificant. I guess he's right.

So, in short, in all ways - in this obsessive desire to change the world (which has governed my life for as long as I could think of such things - I think it began when I was about seven, I would start clubs with the neighborhood kids with names like The Save The World Committee...a pack of seven-year-olds was going to save the world!), in a life of monotony and ugliness, in a state like New Jersey, the capital of suburban sprawl and previous bad planning - we just have to accept that this is our world, and we can't hope to knock it down and start all over. We just have to do the best with what we have, and to remind ourselves to look around, to see what's really there. In the midst of all the ugliness, there are our "insignificant" interpersonal communications. Smiling at someone, talking to someone, listening to what they did this weekend, matters. Hidden between the strip malls and highways of New Jersey are historic villages and natural parks - not just in the rural counties, but in built-up areas. (Like Paterson Falls - which I've still never been to.) This is the world we live in, this is the structure we're given. The key to survival is to keep alert for these small things, hidden gems of the day (or ugly city), to preserve our own sanity - and for people with a Dorothea-Brooke-complex like me, to keep looking for little, manageable changes that I can make.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More of that lonely Tupperware feeling

I was sitting on my bed, debating whether to go out, clean the apartment, or what else to do tonight, and I kept having all these thoughts - all these things I wanted to write down. I sat down at the keyboard and now I feel paralyzed. Writer's block. So I'll just write whatever I can, even if it comes out stunted, rambly, and/or boring.

I've started some small draft posts this week. I don't want to just leave them never completed, though. I found, when I was looking for something else I'd written, an old draft post I wrote last summer that was just a list of things that happened. Some of it made me laugh, only because I remember what I wanted to write about - the one line in my blog was not funny at all though - and some of it made me think, "WHAT happened? What was I trying to refer to?"

I hate transitions. That's not true. But I find transitional periods very very uncomfortable. They are, I guess, like being on a roller coaster. Sometimes it's thrilling and fun, and sometimes it's just nauseating. Sometimes there's this very distorted sense of reality. For example, when preparing to leave something, feelings often fluctuate - from seeing the soon-to-be-left-behind-place only for its good qualities, or only for what was bad about it. So, I can go back and forth from, "Oh, I can't believe I'm leaving, this is so sad..." listing all of the things I'm going to miss, to "Omg...I HATE this. I hate ___ and ___ and __ and I can't wait to be through with it! Good riddance!"

I know it's really commonplace, but to me it's very surreal, preparing to leave a place. I wonder what it is that I miss - the routine, the familiarity, the people, ???

So, a week from tomorrow, I'll be finished with my summer internship. This is a weird feeling. Not long ago, I was feeling out of place and uncomfortable there, awkward, not sure of the structures, norms, patterns, and now that's all gone. It's weird when, in the last week of something, you discover something new, like "Oh THIS is the best gas station to go to" or "There's a Dunkin Donuts right here!?" It's weird, like, "This information will be useless to me in a couple of days." And while I know that in a couple of weeks, I'll be so used to my new situation, I won't miss the old one at all, sometimes I almost wish I couldn't forget things that easily. Like, for some time period, this pattern was your LIFE, your ROUTINE, the way you did things, and now you just switch.

But why do I even care about such little things? I am weird.

Another source of this feeling is that I have started living in my new apartment, somewhat. Tomorrow I'll go back to my old house, and I'm sure I'll go up to visit a lot, especially as beautiful autumn approaches....

Anyway, I digress. (What a surprise.) So, there's absolutely nothing wrong with my new apartment; in fact, I don't want to speak too soon, but I think I am going to love living here. But it's still very new, so there's a lot to adjust to. Every night I sleep here, while I usually wake up well-rested, I either wake up several times throughout the night, or have very strange, vivid dreams. Clearly, I'm not used to the place yet.

Even when awake, I sometimes have minor feelings of panic in the midst of a totally normal situation. I felt especially weird and awkward with the new people I'm living with, not because of THEM, simply because I would suddenly get this worried feeling, this awareness of my own eccentricity. When people are new, when you haven't yet fallen into a rhythm with them, set up boundaries and standards of acceptable behavior (propriety I suppose), it's weird. (I couldn't think of how to end that sentence.)

Anyway, we all ended up at the bar together on Tuesday and had a lot of fun, so that awkwardness is not an issue really, anymore. It convinced me that this will be a fun year.

- - -

In general, my attitude has changed. At some point this summer, I think this happened. I stopped having that same feeling of having a deadline. Like at the end of some period of time, I would no longer have the chance to do the things I wanted, the fun things, the creative things, etc.

(Though I still want to make a list of things to accomplish by 2010.)

(By the end of the summer, my to do list has dwindled to Buy textbooks and Learn to make ice cream.)

So anyway, clearly something is wrong with my writing. I do not write as I used to. I do not despair, though. I think it will come back to me. Discipline should help, even if it means posting things like this.

Something is crippling/strangling my writing. I felt so inspired, and as soon as I sat down at the keyboard, I felt like a wall sprang up in my mind. I would walk away from the keyboard, have some more ideas, sit down, and feel that wall again. Well, in time this will pass.

So anyway, I think I may have successfully shed this feeling of needing to always be doing, doing, doing - to the point where I ended up doing nothing. I just hope it doesn't go the other way, to complete laziness, to an absence of creativity. To a blur of finishing homework, going to work, and going to bars with my friends. Not that this would be such a horrible existence; I just want more. I want to write, for one thing. I want to make things, create things, learn things. Not necessarily for attention - to have some kind of audience. Not even for the finished project. I just want to create things for the act of doing it, the process of writing, making art, whatever. I want my creativity to encompass something other than what I make for dinner.

Something to write about later, because I'm running out of steam - all the thoughts I have, lately, about my constant desire, my obsession, with maximizing the good I can do in the world. I think about this so much that I end up doing nothing, that I end up neglecting the small things. I've also been thinking a lot about ways to simplify my life, things I could give up, things I can't give up and why...For example, if I own a TV to watch just one show I like, one show that somehow makes my life better (light entertainment, learning something, whatever) but it leads to me watching hours and hours of crap, is it worth it? The internet is this way for me. I waste so much time on the Internet, but I feel like the good things I've gotten from it are worth the tradeoff. But are they? I don't know. It's just so easy, for some reason, with these types of things (laptop, TV) to get sucked in, to not want to tear oneself away. They feed on everyone's human sense of curiosity.

Even books - sometimes I think I miss out on life because I've got my nose so far in a book.

Facebook is a good, specific example. I've wasted so much time on it, I've made myself feel bad looking up things I don't need to know, and yet it's a great place to post my pictures, to keep in touch with people who are far away, and to find people with whom I lost touch, people I really did want to keep in touch with.

It's really all an issue of self control, I suppose.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Summer's Almost Gone...

I would have posted something poetic last night. I was feeling poetic. I was feeling positively fourteen. It began as I was driving down I-295, passing the exits for Mount Holly that would probably have taken me to my friend L's house, passing the exits for Camden and Philadelphia, going further and further south to places I've never seen before--this feeling of being fourteen (outside of the driving part. since I did not drive when I was fourteen.) It was this feeling - now how did I describe it when I was fourteen? - "of loneliness" that is physical - not quite painful, though. My fourteen-year-old self described it as having a Tupperware container somewhere inside you, in your gut or something - an emptiness whose boundaries and shape are defined. I don't know how accurately that fits, but it was sort of like that, this feeling of a loneliness bubble in the pit of my stomach. As a fourteen-year-old, I always asserted that it was better than complete emptiness - that bubble (or "Tupperware") - and it's true. How I was thinking, as the silver Sunfire and I plunged further southward, was like I was holding onto that "bubble," touching it with my hands to learn more about its shape--as opposed to ignoring it.
I felt this way again as groups of people were leaving my friend T's going-away party, as it got dark and the Christmas lights got turned on, as the food got packed away. I felt this way as I was driving home and would have come back to write something about it, but my face hurt too much. That very unpoetic thing --a toothache --just wiped out all thoughts that make for good writing.
- - -
So, a few days after posting my last post, I got e-mailed a comment on it from CC, and I realized I had NO IDEA what exactly it referenced. I went back and saw that my last post was all over the place, without clear breaks to show when I was jumping from one topic to the next. Oops. Oh well.
Anyway, last night/this weekend's feelings fit with a draft post I started during the week, so I'm going to combine it with, I hope, less disastrous results.
- - -
As the summer is winding down, I'm realizing how little went according to plan. Originally, after my adventure in France, I was going to have an adventure in the Pine Barrens, working at a research station and living in the woods. This would only be 6-8 weeks, after which I would move into my New Brunswick apartment and work at low pay, at whatever hours I wanted, in the herbarium. I would live near all of my Rutgers friends. T was even living down the road. (I can see, from my bedroom window, her house.)
But I guess only one adventure is allowed per summer. A grant did not come through, and I could not get paid by the Pine Barrens. It was very lucky that I found this internship in the planning department of a local environmental non-profit. Didn't I even say, once, that working to preserve open space and nature in New Jersey was what I ultimately wanted to do?
Originally, I planned to live the New Brunswick summer life - going to the not-as-crowded bars and parties, having dinner with my friends all the time, hanging out with my neighbor T whenever I wanted, all of it is in this un-air-conditioned, humid, sweaty haze. It would have been great.
Instead, I had to live with my parents yet another summer, the fourth consecutive summer in which I worked in Montville Township!!!!!! There's no adventure there!
And so I worked a forty-hour week, sat in rush hour traffic, had only a little time here and there in mornings and evenings to get things done and/or socialize before the weekend - those two days a week that are like gold to someone working a forty-hour week - arrived. The weekends were taken up with socializing and driving all over New Jersey to do it.
The result is that I only saw my friends a handful of times, which was especially sad considering that some of them are moving away. And now that it's the end of the summer, my time to see them, to change the pattern I'd gotten stuck in, is up.
Now that there's only two weeks left of my internship, it seems like altering my routine is not going to happen - and even if I do, I'll only get to do a few of the things I wanted to do. For awhile I was in this really good habit of going for a walk twice a day (before and after work) and practicing the piano no less than five times a week - beginning by keeping up with my Hanon exercises and scales instead of just launching into a song and crying because I couldn't play it. This faded into forty-hour-work-week-mush. I hope this is just a summer thing, and not what I'll be doomed to after school ends. I hope that, with effort, I can get out of that rut.
Anyway, I wrote last week about this realization - that this will not be the summer in which I finally accomplish all those plans. I never even finished writing my summer To Do list. I didn't finally go through everything I owned and decide what I need, what I'd like to keep around, and what I could once and for all let go of. And this will not be that summer. I'll be lucky to go through one desk drawer. This was not and will not be the summer in which I learn how to play the Moonlight Sonata, to play guitar, or even to drive a stick shift. I won't learn how to spin my own yarn or make currant wine. I didn't read Chaucer or twenty novel-sized books or have an awesome garden. I didn't pick all the fruit I wanted. I didn't make wild blueberry jam. I didn't even finish my plastic bag purse. I didn't see most of my friends more than a handful of times. Should I regret this? I don't know. It was a fun summer, overall. I met some cool people at my internship. The few times I did see my friends, I really enjoyed.
I just couldn't help being sad as I walked around my friend T's house last night at her going-away party. (She is going out of the country for a full calendar year.) Everything was making me a little sad - seeing old photos, seeing kids running around, seeing people in our age group with kids - I guess "sad" isn't the right word, but I was thinking how time just gets away from us, how things change so fast. They don't change for the worse - but sometimes, instead of just being happy for what is, I miss what was. Maybe this is the wrong attitude to have.
My friend will only be gone for a year, but there's just something sad about friendships where you saw someone every day dissolving into once-a-month-if-you're-lucky-I-mean-we're-both-just-so-damned-busy relationships. When I see these people, I feel like we all just can't talk quickly enough, to get all the words out, all the stories, all the catching up of the past year. As well as the reminiscing. Now I'll acquire a new set of friends to see every day (housemates, new classmates) and this inner pouty child wants to say, "But you're not them!"
(Well, I guess we can make new friends without betraying our old friends.)
But it does make me feel lonely to think how few friendships prevail, as though we just replace our large group of friends from one phase of life with another. Are we all that replaceable?
And then, those friends that we do keep, that we maintain the same feelings for, but don't see as often - what happens after a break of one or more years? Is it awkward? In some ways, you can just fall into your old ways with people, but there's always some gap, some kind of awkwardness, some feeling of, "What do I do now?"