Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reframing Work

I was chosen as a guest contributor for recently! You can read my post here. Allegedly, at the time this was posted, 51 people liked it on facebook.

I've also copied and pasted it for this blog, which I'm reconsidering.

In my student affairs office, we pass the duty phone from one administrator from week to week, and this week it is mine. While you’re on duty, you respond to a number of student concerns – from breaking up parties to dealing with students with serious psychological concerns. While I love my job, I never look forward to duty. It means you’re working late hours and generally dealing with unpleasant after hours scenarios, often involving the police.

At lunch the other day, one of my coworkers in another department asked me how my week on call has been going. She used to work in my office, and so when I responded that it had been “a pretty normal weekend”, I expected that she’d get the gist. A few calls, but nothing life-shattering. She instead responded with “Oh, I wouldn’t know about normal. I had the curse when I worked there”, meaning that she always responded to tough and involved situations when she was on call.

I totally understand where she’s coming from – when I get a call on my duty phone, my heart starts to beat a little harder. Could this be a student death? Suicide attempt? A fight? Drug bust? Angry parent? When she says “cursed”, I know what she means. Most times, I don’t like responding to these events; I’d rather be in bed. Something about calling it a curse struck a note with me that day, though.

The people I work with generally entered this field because we were interested in helping others. This is a way to share our expertise and caring in a way that can positively shape the experience of our students. We’re here because we want to help. Why does she (and I will admit, me too) frame our work in the context of the curse? In each situation to which we respond, there is an opportunity for an educational experience for our students and a way for us to make a positive impact on their collegiate experience. I can provide some light to each student, whether its a ray of hope, a light to guide the way, or illuminating the error of their ways. Ultimately, the goal of our work it to make our student’s lives a little better through our intervention. Is it a curse to have to do good for others? Or is it exactly what we wanted all along?

I’ve got a big day of work tomorrow, and part of me isn’t looking forward to it… and then I realize that what I do, while it can be stressful and jarring, ultimately serves the purpose of making things better for my students. It may not feel great all the time, and I may get run down and disenchanted. To be doing work that makes me feel like I’m changing the world – that’s a blessing. It’s certainly not a curse.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cigarettes and a Side Part

I smoke for all the wrong reasons.

It's hard to justify smoking, for any reason, especially my generation. Growing up in the early to mid nineties, who didn‘t ingest a steady diet of anti-drug messages--from Nickelodeon to those trite “tobacc-y is whack-y… if you’re a teen” ads in the comics . Rising Millennials watched the fall of Joe Camel, tipped off by every media outlet that the tobacco industry was intent upon indoctrinating us into becoming lifelong customers. The tricks of the trade were laid out for us by any authority figure with a podium and a captive audience. In these, our early years, we were made to be wise to the ploys of the seasoned spin doctors based out of Winston-Salem. We were the generation that told our parents to quit smoking, armed with the bizarre upended dynamic of the moral authority. How surreal it must of been to watch a 4th grader chastise an adult for making poor life choices. We Knew Better.
I too, was one of these children. Looking over at the “Smoking Section” at local restaurants (yes, remember those?) I remember thinking absolutely awful things about the kinds of families that would sit there. To think, those families had children. Like myself! Why didn’t those parents know better, and why hadn’t their kids said something to them? The whole family was a failure to my six year old eyes. Later in life, this behavior would become a part of my self identification, and would be called “elitism” or “being hyper critical”. At the time, all I knew was that I was ashamed of and better than those families.
It's an obvious fact that these messages haven't been internalized by the whole of my generation... how could they? Everyone, I'm sure, has their own reasons for starting. For many, smoking starts in high school, in college, or whenever they start drinking. Others seized on it because it was available in their homes. I started under much flimsier pretexts.
It all starts when I was studying abroad in Luxembourg. How can you avoid feeling Continental when your journey into sophistication begins in Europe? I like to believe that being on the other side of the Atlantic gives my beginnings unimpeachable legitimacy. Imagine me, sitting at an open air café with a pan au chocolat et chocolat chaud, ordered in FRENCH no less, while I lean disaffectedly against the back of my chair, an arrow-straight flow of smoke streaming from the cigarette expertly balanced between my fingers and dissipating in some zephyr blown over the Seine. I'm certain that scene did take place, my companions likely thinking about how obviously European we seemed. Likely, in the same moments we were entirely unaware of how distinctly American we were as we snapped photos of each other crowded to one side of the table, the locals rolling their eyes violently at us.
The truth is, my first pack of cigarettes was purchased from a convenience store down some alley in Brussels. I had left my group behind at a ridiculous Americanized bar on the street where we stayed, which is worth mentioning only because our drink (made with Jack Daniels) cost somewhere around 8 Euros, and was served in a shot glass printed with the phrase "Tequila Pistelleros". How had we crossed an ocean, taken a bus into Luxembourg City, navigated the trains in French to Brussels, only to find ourselves drinking Jack from cowboy shot glasses? What Americans! How could we have gone so far, only to remain so ashamedly from the Western Hemisphere? I was ashamed of myself, and after stealing the shot glass (I DID pay 8 Euros), stumbled off into the night towards the closest gay bar.
Quite frankly am amazed that I was able to navigate the streets, three drinks in and understanding no French to find myself at the hole in the wall that called itself a gay bar. I think it was the giant neon sign of a naked man with a raging erection chained up spread-eagle that helped me navigate. Birds use the North Star, I use dicks.
While in the bar, I was approached by two friends, one of whom spoke pidgin English, and who was able to keep a short flirtation going… which is to say that he asked questions and made awful innuendo, and I smiled and convinced him to buy me another beer. While he was the one making all the effort (and paying for drinks), it was his friend, Olivier, whose boyish smiling and coy body language said more. When all was said and done, it was Olivier with whom I left for the next bar. I felt bad leaving the guy who tried so hard behind, but he had a shaved head, wore tinted sunglasses, and wore one of those newsies hat. I’d rather just have the cute Belgian whore.
Between the first bar and the thumping nightclub we came to next (cross indexed to: first time I was offered poppers), he stopped to purchase the cigarettes and pick up a packet of matches. Frankly, he was set to get some that night simply because I was a tourist, but that he used matches really sealed the deal.
I won't bother with the rest of the details of the evening, but suffice it to say by the time we parted ways, Olivier's cigarettes had fallen out of his pants pocket and landed just almost under the bed. Unsure of what to do with this unexpected souvenir, I pocketed it. Later that week, back at the chateau, I confided in my friend Alana. As far as I knew, she had picked up smoking roughly a week before in preparation for the trip. She’s a planner that way. I offered her a cigarette one day while we sat behind the chateau where we stayed, overlooking the Moselle River and Perl, Germany.

"Well, you could certainly smoke them" she offered. "Think of it as a poetic tribute to your first European one night stand." Alana was effortlessly brilliant and had a flair for the literary. She convinced me instantly of the brilliance of her suggestion. I opened the pack, pulled one out, and took her lighter. Putting on some expression approximating bravado, I put the lighter to the end of the cigarette and lit it.

"You have to suck in while you light it" she offered, noticing how confused I was that I couldn't get paper and dried detritus to stay on fire. I inhaled hesitantly and tried again, finding it difficult at first to navigate all the steps simultaneously. I tried again, sucking valiantly on the rapidly moistening filter, and instantly regretted it.

FIRE. There was fire in my wind pipe! I was fairly sure I had inhaled the cherry itself in my zeal and would clearly require hospitalization. How would I explain to my parents that I had ingested flaming tobacco and that was why I was being airlifted to Paris to have emergency trachea surgery?

Alana offered a sympathetic look as I hacked and hacked, bent over in agony in a pristinely manicured European garden. As the pain subsided, I looked down at the offending object, balanced expertly and yet somehow awkwardly between my fore and middle fingers. Skeptically, I tried again, somehow suppressing half of my coughs and all of my theatrics.

Truth be told, I lost the pack while it was still half finished, having fallen out of my pocket somewhere in Amsterdam while bicycling along a busy road. I hope that someone was able to benefit from my Olivier's generosity and my carelessness.

When the school year began again, I was a casual and social smoker. I kept the habit up through RA training, and found myself in the company of four of five others in our cohort, welcomed into a loose brotherhood of smokers. It was, I learned, a social niche all its own, with a culture of generosity and amiability about which no childhood PSA had ever warned me. This was information I could use! I resolved to be seen smoking from time to time by my residents. Among the other misguided ideas that passed through my head during that year, I believed that smoking would be an in with a subset of students who might otherwise choose not to interact with their RA. It was for my job, I reasoned, that the smoking would continue.
To recap, I started smoking as a poetic remembrance of a casual lover, and continued because I thought it made me a better student leader. That I was not rehired should not come as a surprise.
This continued on and off throughout the entirety of my sophomore year, and I think that it was among the dumbest things I have could have done. I cut back, almost quitting on several occasions until the late spring. The trees had come into bloom with an intensity that sidelined me instantly. All of a sudden, I was bedridden with allergic reactions unseen since the days of Exodus. Imagine how different the Bible would have been if only Moses had visited the Pharaoh with a plague of blooming maples instead of locusts. They’d have been able to keep their first born children AND their yeast. Even students who hated me offered me, from their vast supplies of assorted prescription drugs, allergy medicines. Assuming they would slip me Ecstasy I politely declined.
Between my sinuses being filled with a gallon or so of viscous clear mucous that cut off air from getting to my brain and the violent shaking my body experienced as I convulsed my way through yet another sneeze, I was addled enough to look for any ridiculous way to cut this crap off. The multiple doses of benadryl, perhaps enough to take down an elephant, hadn't done anything to cut through the symptoms of my allergy attack, but maybe dampened my higher reasoning skills. Somehow, I arrived at the conclusion that a cigarette might just burn off anything in my nose and throat that was receptive to pollen. I grabbed the pack of American Spirits I purchased drunkenly one night at the Tedeschi's on the corner of Main Street and stumble-ran through a sneezing fit down the hallway and out the front door of my residence hall. To my delight, my idea had worked perfectly. Cigarette smoke, which some call an allergen, had completely disabled my body's ability to detect pollen, and I was symptom free. Let me be the first one to say that cigarettes did my body good, and to this day are the only thing that has ever worked to stop my symptoms. D.A.R.E. never told me about this.
I've been wondering recently on my walks between Kenmore Square and Back Bay Station what people think when they see me smoking and walking down Commonwealth Ave. I briefly held the notion, several years ago, that I had a menacing air about me when I smoked--crew cut, facial piercings, cigarette in hand, and especially with the added bulk of my winter coat. I realize now of course that at my most menacing, I probably resemble a moderately annoyed high school sophomore. Now, with my straight blonde hair parted neatly to the side, I look a bit like Alfalfa after an experiment with peroxide. My cowlicks erase any semblance of street credibility that I might otherwise warrant.
I am not immune to thinking that I hope that the people I see on my walk think that I'm cool. Of course I want to be perceived as such, maybe with a dash of sexy aplomb thrown in too. On these warm May evenings, I watch the Brads and Buffys of the South End walking by in their Nantucket Red shorts, boat shoes, tight cotton dresses and recently bleached hair (none of those bitches are real blondes). To me, these young moneyed folk are the newest permutation of the popular kid mantle that seems to be foisted on other young innocents by those who feel put upon. In other words, I hate them because I think they look down on me. To be fair, they probably do. Cigarette in hand, I feel like I've got a bit of a shield to protect me from their judgment; a prop that suggests a devil-may-care attitude. At least, its something to do with my hands as they walk by and I don't know where to look.
In a way, I've begun to believe my own pretenses and buy into some sort of mentality associated with being perceived as "a smoker", and that maybe I do hold inside some seed of irreverence and badassery. The fact of the matter is, I don't. I'm terrified that someone is going to make a comment about how I should know better, or about how I'm likely killing myself. I can't feign ignorance , given the cloud of puffed out warnings surrounding the collected heads of my generation. The fact is, I don't have a devil may care attitude. At heart, I am still the innocent God fearing teenager that refused a champagne toast at my brother's graduation. At 17. Because I took an oath at school as an incoming Peer Advocate. Seriously. I did this. That a stranger may think otherwise, that I'm not still that fundamentally good boy would be crushing. As though I let down every authority figure I ever purported to respect. Like putting each cigarette out on the shoes of my 5th grade teacher, like snubbing my parents in my Oscar acceptance speech, like punching a baby holding a motherfucking daisy.
Nor can I suggest that I don't worry about my health. The truth is, I'm hyper aware of carcinogens in everyday life. I consume antioxidants compulsively, finding reasons to have green tea or beets with every meal because they fight cancer. In this hypothetical scenario, what am I supposed to say? I suppose I could tell them that without comprehensive health insurance its ultimately cheaper for me to buy a pack of cigarettes than it is to go to a doctor and get an allergy shot. Or that I'm clearly too frail, own no tools, and have no working knowledge as to where to begin trying to cut down the tree in front of my apartment that's blooming and slowly killing me. I guess I could tell them that what they're seeing is the sexiest equivalent to an inhaler I could muster. While I know how ridiculous it sounds, it does explain to curious onlookers why I would suck down on my cigarette, press down on one nostril, and then exhale a large jet of smoke from the other. Obviously, its to clear it out better. I wonder if that has a sexy name, a la the French Exhale. Maybe I can take to calling it "Fonzie's Inhaler". Maybe I can just tell them that I can stop whenever I want... but that I just want to finish off an imagined half pack of cigarettes I still carry around for sentimental reasons.

Monday, March 9, 2009



My name is Michael, and I am addicted to the internet.

Addiction starts as a pleasurable experience. You like what you feel like, you like that you can forget, or you like getting lost in the experience. So you go back. Then you go back again, and then a little more frequently. Then you keep going back. Then, you need it. You're not sure how to live without it. Suddenly you realize that your addiction is cutting into your life in negative ways. Your relationships are suffering, you're not doing work, or you're neglecting your previous interests.

I realized I was addicted to the internet sometime this week, when I noticed that I couldn't surf the net for less than three hours. Sure, I'll get to that presentation, I said around 2pm. Come 8pm, and I'm sitting down to format the powerpoint. Meals happen in front of the computer. I use stumbleupon until I fall asleep. Email gets compulsively checked. What if someone IMs me, and I'm not there to respond? What if there is something worth reading on digg? I don't want to miss the new thing on fmylife.

So now, my to-do list is gigantic, and I'm not working on it. Why? Because its late, I'm blogging, and it would mean NOT being online. This is crazy. Why have I let this happen to me?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

These Deep City Lights

When you first start drawing or painting seriously, I find it interesting that we always seem to gravitate to small paper or small canvas. 12"x18"still seems a little big, you might think, but its about as small as you can get away with. Its easy to throw your body over, too, if its a terrible painting. It doesn't attract the same attention as it would have if you walked a 4'x4' canvas across campus. Relatively, its a small amount of canvas, but when you first start in on painting, it seems like far too much space to cover with a paintbrush. Its the intimidation of blank space.

Once you start painting, you realize that you need more space. So you graduate, slowly but surely, to larger canvases. Suddenly, you're not sure if that 4'x4' is really going to be space enough to fit everything in... but it might be just the right size. Surely you're able to incorporate what you've learned in smaller paintings, add more and more detail and attention, and loose yourself in what is, in all relativity, a small space. You learn this too, and that sometimes your largest brushes are too small, or your smallest brushes are too big. There is so much artistic and muscle memory that goes into filling all that space, so much attention to each square inch, that you are as intimately acquainted with each part as you might be of a smaller painting. Maybe even more so, actually.

What I notice in these situations is that as I add more, the space gets smaller and more filled. Each brush stroke is a memory, a mark made to indicate the impression of a moment past. Soon, what was once a sprawling expanse of gessoed canvas is now crowded in, shrunken by our involvement. So too, I noticed, is Boston.

Cities seem to have this habit of shrinking with use. The transformation from impenetrable walls of cinder block and concrete to a model you can hold in your hand is often imperceptible. It happens day after day, walking along the same streets, visiting new places, and following the well tread paths made by others in their day to day. Soon, streets begin to connect to each other. What was once a destination becomes a location-- perhaps a small distinction, but also the crux of this experience.

Today, a walk to the ice skating rink took me through a variety of locations I hadn't visited since I first moved here: a building where I got lost on a rambling walk through my neighborhood, a train station I used en route to my interview, and the end destination of a long walk where I got lost with a friend. It all terminated, interestingly enough, at my favorite restaurant in the North End. In that moment, I watched Boston shiver, shake, and then shrink. The rest of the night, I was pleased as punch, walking through the North End looking in windows, admiring apartments.

On the walk back to ice skating rink, I noticed an advertisement for living in the North End-- it said "Where Progressive Meets Quaint", with an image of a brick building from which you can see the Boston skyline. To me, that happy coincidence summed up my entire experience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gracious Gravy

It's been over a month since my last post. Has nothing interesting happened in that time? Have I no compelling thoughts I feel need to be shared? Hardly. Rather, I find that there is just no time or interest in setting down anything resembling a thematic account of my experiences.

In short, perhaps, I am feeling content. Is that trouble? My dreams are of kitchens filled with Williams Sonoma, Sunday morning rituals, and making the coffee in the morning. I dream of domesticity, it seems. In a way, this is the best way to describe my interests and goals. To find stability in self reliance. This is perhaps spurred by my growing disinterest in being housed in residence halls (at least, in open rooms where my presence is required as an element of my job. In short, I'm tired of being an RA). Perhaps next year, should I land my current version of the holy grail, then my story will be different.

The point of this entry is to say that I have things left in my head. I'm just not as diligent in relaying this information as I might usually like. I'm sure my readers (if there are any left) can related.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mortality Microblog

The past month or so has made me really take a look at life and its fragility.

Similarly, the worst part of being an adult, so far, has been the constant reminders of your own family's mortality. Its too present, too consistent, and too frequently a theme in my life.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In which i set goals

Being in a weird mood right now, with no work to do and no willingness to keep slogging through "This Side of Paradise" (ENOUGH about being disaffected at Princeton!), I think its time that I record, if at least for myself, a few things about 2009 which I am truly excited or terrified for. Likely, 2009 is a big year for me. Lets break it down

New Years Resolutions and I do well. Remember that time my resolution was to give up meat? 18 months later, I ate meat regularly again. Fancy that! So this year, I have two.

1) Train for and run a 10K
Having realized that I was in the best shape of my life in Junior year of high school when I trained for a 5k, coupled with some things below, it seems like both a lofty and attainable goal. I forgot that I love to run, so this is a good opportunity for me to recapture that part of my life. Also, because it lets me shower in the middle of the day. WHICH I LOVE.

2)Read More
When asked for recommendations when I worked at Barnes and Noble that either a) I was illiterate or b) I don't read-- I'm a student leader. As such, I worked at a bookstore for 4 years and remain terribly poorly read. I was inches away from being one of those "Yo, I read the Da Vinci Code" types-- people who just DON'T read as a matter of course. I still default to that, most of the time, so I have to make a concerted effort to include reading in my life. I think the goal will be to look like one of those smart people on the T who have their noses buried in a book.

Things About Which I Am Excited

1) The Obama Administration.
Despite the vehement objection of the blogger-mother of my best friend, I honestly think that, if not even sweeping reform of failed policies and bad management, we're headed toward a direction where I can say that the government is doing something that doesn't make me say "yeah, about that... we picked a dude based on curb appeal." With my apologies to John Kerry: Bush is a bigger hunk.

2) Disney
K and I officially booked the trip: We're going to Disney in March. For me, this is a big step for a variety of reasons. I am extremely wary of making big plans this far out in a relationship that is, relatively, rather new. Not that this is a sign of doubt, but rather pragmatism. So this allows me to let go a little, as well as saying "you know what, Michael? Spend some money. Have some fun". K does this to me, and I am grateful for it: He makes me reconsider fun and makes me have fun. Too easily to I become all business, and what purposes does that serve?

3)Master's Degree and Job
In December, God willing (and the waters don't rise), I will receive my M.Ed in the Administration of Higher Education. Similarly, in May, I will hopefully be moving into a residence hall in the greater Boston area as an honest to God Residence Director. Like, you know, the job I've been waiting my whole life for. Is that depressing, that my goal in life is to basically be an RA? That administration, room conflicts, ice breakers, and diversity programming excite me? Yes. Even still... I've been working towards this for so long, and it will be nice to see it come to fruition.

Fruition. Great word. Perfect word for what's happening this year.