Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another way to pepper my resume

I like animals.

I'm no dog lover who sports a golden retriever t-shirt, takes my purse poodle to work, or has an "I love shelties" coffee mug; and I don't have plans to acquire a large (as in more than 2) cat population when I'm middle-aged and still living by myself, but in general I'd say I appreciate the furry friends that most people call pets. If it smells alright and isn't too high-strung, I'll pet it on the head. I may even become affectionate. But if it smells funky, makes too much noise, gets hair all over my furniture or slobber all over my face, I'd rather not get too close. (I tend to feel the same way about men.)

Acknowledging my lack of animal affection, I told the nice man from Medix staffing agency that no, I am not an animal rights activist and as such I did not feel I would have a problem working for a non-clinical laboratory (aka. animal testing facility). I tend to think I have a relatively "thick skin" where things like lab testing and animal science are concerned. I enjoyed high school biology. I did all of the labs and dissections and was more or less amazed during our cytology unit. (Now, I did almost pass out that time I shadowed a nurse, but I attribute that to the combined smells of left over scrambled eggs, dirty dressings and rotting tissue - not my squeamish nature.) I even intended to take A&P while I was in college. So, when I was asked if I would be comfortable working at a facility where animal testing is conducted I didn't really think much of it. I was more concerned with the fact that the job would require commuting 30 miles (each way) and being chained to a desk 8 hours a day, five days a week.

During my second interview I met with the document management manager and two of the principle investigators/scientists, one of whom grilled me on my realtionship with animals. I think a crazed PETA member slipped their way into lab employment at some point, making the company suspicious of anyone without a substantial scientific background. I assured the man of science that, no, I am not a member of PETA. I do not attach human attributes to most animals, and though my family does indeed own a dog, I realize that Cody is no more human than the crickets I've been smashing in my basement. (I say these things, and assure myself that they are logically true, but my less empirical self feels otherwise.)

My third interview was actually on site, where I met with the president of the company (he's British - I confess this swayed my feelings about the job, significantly) and a few of the head scientists (they're not British, but one of them is Indian, which is acceptable). I represented myself rather well, assured them that I had no affiliations with animal protection agencies, attempted to convey a sincere interest in pharmacokinetics, and was offered the job four hours after I left. I'd like to say it was my impressive resume (which is smattered with "odd jobs" and "life experiences") and my winning personality that earned me position, but I'm pretty sure it was their desperate need for a copyeditor. I, with my four-year degree in Writing and Rhetorical studies (thank you NW for creating a major that I have to explain to everyone), am far more than qualified.

Monday (the 27th) was my first day on the job. I got a parking permit, a nifty little retractable name badge, and my very own cubicle. I haven't done a lot of "decorating," but I did throw up some photos within the first week. They remind me of the outside world (there isn't a window in our office), the exciting places I've been (to which I'd like to return), and the people I care about (and intend to speak with during my lunch break).

As I walked by Cube Row (the hallway in which all the lab techs are stationed...when they aren't in the lab, that is), I peaked over the green barriers, and noticed something rather strange. Alongside the family photos and nature calendars were posters showing the anatomy of the Beagle dog. I shrugged it off and introduced myself to the coffee station. During my grand tour of the facility, though, a disturbing wave washed over me as I passed large photos of disections, canisters of biohazardous material, and display board featuring the gross (you've got that right) necropsy of a Wistar rat. Maybe I should just keep to my cube.

But staying in my own little corner did little to keep me in blissful ignorance. It's my job to read and edit lab protocols and reports. I can't not know what's going on behind closed doors.

The rat studies didn't really phase me. Though the 44 pregnant females were going to be euthanized at the end of the study, it's all in the name of better pharmaceuticals and less hazardous chemical compounds being released into the world. I could even deal with the NHP (non-human primate) studies; many of which are done in order to track how long a compound stays in the body. It's the Beagle studies that really got to me.

All of the dogs used in our studies are Beagles (which also happens to be the nickname I have for my little sister) and have been selected as a breed that is docile in temperament and manageable in size. A number of our studies are done on "naieve" Beagles, which means that the animals haven't taken part in previous studies or life experiences. The animals are raised to be lab animals and don't know any other existence. A number of them (usually the ones that are going to be around for a while) come "debarked." I didn't know it was possible to debark a dog the way you declaw a cat and I was rather alarmed at the thought (even after the new vet assured me that the animals were fine). Some of them are tripped out "telemetered" Beagles, that have been surgically enhanced and are capable of automatically transmitting data. Having a telemetered dog is preferable to using jackets or tail cuffs, which "may cause distress to the animal" (but apparently surgery and large doses of toxic chemicals do not). On the upside, telemetered dogs are expensive, which means they usually get to stick around longer (for multiple studies) before being euthanized.

After my first week of work I called my mom and asked if I could talk to our dog. Suffice it to say, I do what I can to avoid the animal rooms.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Take a walk with me

Welcome to Kansas City, Kansas, home to many an immigrant, refugee and social service worker. Also, home to taquerias, paleterias, osunas, barbecue restaurants, bars, liquor stores (it's illegal to sell wine/liquor in KS grocery stores) and a Mexican Sun Fresh. The only thing it really lacks is a WalMart and a decent coffee shop. Also, a Target, or any place to purchase shoes. The character makes up for it.
Delicious, or "deliciosa" rather. My sister and I bought bread here . It was wonderful.
The pastries are lovely. I imagine they taste good too. 

No, it is not written in English on the other side.

This is the paleteria (which is an ice cream store, and so much more).
In two weeks I went here 3 times. The tequila nieva is to die for.

Cheapest gas in my neighborhood.

Typical little home, likely inhabited by an immigrant family
(I say this based on the people I saw and food I smelled as I walked by)

I don't know what Zumba is in English, much less in Spanish.

This building (and the one below) are perhaps my favorite in terms of external decor.

The quincinera dresses are the best items in the shop (see photo below).

A block of houses, typical to the area.

St. Peter's steeple. A sign that I am almost home!
(Always welcome, but especially after a long run)
St. Peter's. It's right across the street from my house. I love it.
The bells chime when school starts and when it's time for mass or prayer.
I might attend mass one of these days. It's been a long time.

This building is right across the street. I'm sure it used to be some kind of general store before it was turned
into apartments. Earlier in the year it suffered a fire and was condemned. I was snooping around the other day and
discovered that the deck and upper level are still accessible. Walking through a gutted out fire-damaged building was eery. I have an inclination to sit on the roof someday and drink wine or hot tea with a couple of friends. 

This sign (and the former gas station to the left of it) are just across the street from St. Peter's.
The place seems rather nostalgic and drips of the 1960s. I love it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Street Where I Live Part II: Technologically Inept

Sometimes I am over-ambitious and try using links and photos and awesome things in my blog posts. It is a mistake. I spent an hour on the one previous to this (perhaps because I was also trying to watch a movie and eat lunch, but still). I will try to keep this simple: Photos and captions. Full stop.
My personal entrance to the house (from the outside)
My personal entrance (and only window) to the house (from the inside)
The bathroom (which didn't make the first blog post)
My car and its parking space out front (the driveway is cray steep and treacherous)

The street where I live
My across-the-street neighbors (I do not know them)
The meat market (the back of which touches our backyard - fresh beef anyone?)
Though I do live on 14th Street (and all mail sent to me is addressed that way), when you see this sign you take a left in order to get to my house. Why? I'm not sure. I think the street is only called "Wilson" for about two blocks.
Some street corners in KCK (and other parts of Kansas City) are labeled with lovely letters that match the decor of the Plaza, which most clearly evidences the Spanish architecture that can be found in the area. KC is a sister city to Seville (or Sevilla) in Spain. Grandview is one of three names given to the street on which I live.

The Street Where I Live

The musical theme returns (for those of you who didn't grow up with Turner Classic Movies, today's title comes from the musical My Fair Lady, which is based on Pygmalion, starred Julie Andrews on stage, Audrey Hepburn on screen and Rex Harrison on both).

When things didn't work out with my intended roommate, I was at quite a loss for a place to live. My internship at Bethany Lutheran Church was complete, and consequently, so was my period of free lodging in Overland Park. I had no job, no place of residence, and no real plan for how I would solve either dilemma. Enter Adam White and the 14th Street Castle. Adam is a member at Jacob's Well (the church I've been attending since June, and the only thing that has remained stable in the time that I've been in KC), and owner of a house in Kansas City, Kansas. When he heard that I had no place to live, he offered the unfinished basement of his 95-year-old home. It isn't ideal, but is a space to store my things, and for the time being I find it inhabitable (the crickets and centipedes seem to agree).

My first week or so in the Castle (the name that has been given to the house where I live) was bearable. I was still looking for a job, and until I found one it made no sense to pay more to rent elsewhere. As the weeks passed I started to become attached to the house and its residents (the human ones that is).

Two weeks in, I made my first attempt at a "deep clean," which notably marks the point at which my dwelling place becomes more than a stopping point. I had a few break downs when the plaster began crumbling off the walls, dirt fell from the ceiling, and I first noticed the 3 cm of dust that coat all of the pipes running along the ceiling. I did my best to Soft Scrub and Lysol the bathroom and bar area. I made do with the "closet" that resembles a garden shed. I sprayed for bugs, removed cobwebs and shop-vac-ed to the best of my abilities.
This is my feather duster. I went to three different dollar stores before I found what I was looking for. This duster has seen more cobwebs than I can count on my hands and feet. It's a trouper, and as such hangs proudly in my closet.

This first bottle of bug spray was used up within the first month. 
I have killed at least four crickets, and for perhaps the first time
 have truly delighted in my victory and kill.

In the back of my closet I found a box of toilet brushes. Where they came from and why there are there I have no idea.

Three weeks after the move (the day of my 24th birthday) was the arrival of my first house guest (my little sister). That day I took some photos of my living space, noting that it had become more than a place to store my stuff.

The bed came from my one of my college friend's houses. There is an extraordinary amount of furniture that floats around her house. The sheets are from my parents. They hide the rather large and unsightly boiler, at least from some angles.

My favorite piece of furniture is the gas stove that is no longer allowed to function as a gas stove (due to the fact that my living space has terrible ventilation and already breaks fire code as it is). Instead the stove has become a makeshift vanity for me.

My mom taught me to use the oven for storage space.
I've learned this can be dangerous when it still works.
Even after procuring a job on the other side of town (30 miles from the Castle and about 5 from my previous place of residence), I prefer to keep living near the heart of the city. How long it will last I don't know. For the time being I call it home.
This is my kitchen area. Not bad, especially from a distance.

To the back is the bar and bathroom, back right is the closet. The steps lead up to my private stairs and door. The piece of couch belongs to Adam. I don't actually own any furniture.
My living space. The shelving unit belongs to my housemate Erin.
Entrance to the closet. Scary place. A little stuffy too.

My closet. It's odd and dirty, but massive.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I'm not racist...really

September 22, 2010

Before moving in June, I had specific schematic ideas associated with the concept "Kansas City." As a child whose family vacationed there at least 6 times in an 8-year time frame, I equated "Kansas City" with Worlds of Fun, Royals games, Stephensen's Apple Farm, and Cool Crest putt-putt golf course.

A little further down the road--but not too far--"Kansas City" brought to mind jazz bars, the Country Club Plaza, street musicians, Gates barbecue, and black people. Lots of black people. It isn't that I had a particular prejudice, I just didn't see much ethnic diversity in my K-12 education in Nebraska's Lutheran schools or my college years in the northwest corner of Iowa. And yet, in the four months that I've been in Kansas City, not once have I blogged about this anticipated cross-cultural experience. 

Granted, I've blogged less than 10 times since moving, but that isn't the reason for the apparent lack of color. It's more due to the fact that I spent my first three months in Overland Park, surrounded by Johnson County children, Johnson County business men, and the unmistakable Johnson County moms (the ones that hire people to texture the walls of their three-story homes, go for mid-morning runs in their $300 trainers (shoes), sip on glasses of wine after their kids are in bed, and eat expensive salads when they "do lunch" with the other members of the PTO). 

But now I have moved to Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) - an area that is the epitome of diversity. My house is located in a predominantly Latino  neighborhood. The closest eateries are taquerias, paleterias, and mercados. Two blocks from my house is "yuppy street", the block where the wealthy cattle owners built there houses a hundred years back, and on which the Irish families still live. A few blocks south is one pocket of the Bhutanese refugee community (most of whom are Nepali by descent and were living in refugee camps on the Nepal/Bhutan border up until a year ago). Every now and then you might see an Asian family, but not too often.

Yesterday, (which was a beautiful day to be unemployed), I went for a bike ride and ventured farther north and east than I had previously been when running around my new part of Kansas. (I was outside the borders of my designated "safe zone," but seeing as I was on a bike and it was only 5 pm, I didn't think it was all that risky.) I wasn't too far beyond my boundries before I discovered the local "hood".

I was pedaling my way along a residential street when I heard the low steady bass that underlies all generic rap music. I looked for a low-riding vehicle with the windows rolled down, but as I got closer to the source I realized it wasn't coming from any tripped out car stereo. In front of a small gray split-level on the right-hand side of the street a couple of plastic tables supported two massive stereo speakers and an amateur DJ's laptop. A handful of dark-skinned "young people" (I'm bad at guessing ages) were outside talking, laughing and swaying to the strong, rhythmic beats of the music. A truck zoomed by, and then - as if it were an afterthought - flipped a U-turn and pulled along the curb. Seven people piled out, joining the others in what looked to be an impromptu dance party.

As I made my way up the street (which also happened to be uphill) I received a number of evaluative and somewhat critical looks. I've rarely been the minority and so very conscious of the fact. No one gave me any trouble (they had better things to do I'm sure). They just stared as the little white girl pedaled her magenta Magna toward Central Avenue.

Further down the road I passed an older dark-skinned man. He was sitting outside a small white house that showed similar age and wear; evidence of the many years it has seen. "Hey!" he called out abruptly. "Where'd you get that bike?" The demand in his voice caught me off guard. As he rose to his feet and moved toward the street I picked up pace and turned my eyes back to the road ahead of me.

Eventually, I reached Big Eleven Lake - a small pond located just across from Gates Barbecue that has evidently been claimed as part of the "black neighborhood." (It sits right on the intersection of 11th and State Avenue - both of which have become signivicant border streets). Attracted as I am to bodies of water and clumps of green space and trees, I ran around Big Eleven as soon as I found it on my KC map.

Usually when I'm running I don't attract much attention. My last run around the pond, however, had led to unprecedented runner-observer interaction. "Hey girl" a park-dweller called out. (I think I'd seen him the last time I was running that route, which was only a few days earlier.) "Can you dance?" It seemed a strange question at the time, even for a pick-up line. It was only later that I realized the shorts I'd been wearing had the word "Dance" plastered across the back. "Uh, yeah," I'd called back, as I continued my route.

As I pedalled up to Big Eleven, I noticed my "friend" at his usually picnic table. "It's about time you got a bike" he said. I laughed - at myself, at my situation, at how easily I am amused. I headed home, passing a small Hispanic girl and her Chihuahua on the way. Welcome to KCK.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


If my life were a jigsaw puzzle (and that's often the way it feels) I think it would be the kind that you buy at a thrift store. Not the elaborate puzzles that are three-dimensional, the simple puzzles with the large wooden pieces, or the impossible puzzles that are all one color, but the kind that are actually a combination of several puzzles that were each missing pieces in the first place. 

It's all like some terrible joke that you'd play on a fifth-grader, giving them a project that can't really finish (if you're the kind of person who would do such a thing). You watch as they pull the pieces out, grouping the ones that look similar, piecing together small little patches that they assume will eventually join into one great picture. Part-way through the process they become frustrated. There aren't enough edge pieces. The bunch of pink flowers doesn't really look like it's going to join up with the magic eightball or the rainbow encircled dolphin. There are a number of pieces that just sit there on their own - neon green or faded puce. Where do those go? The answer: right where they are. They don't go anywhere. There is no picture, kid. You've just spent the past several hours, days, weeks, months, years trying to make sense of incoherent, but not totally unrelated puzzle pieces of life. 

What does one do with a box of useless pieces that don't fit together? What do I do with all of the unrelated interests, experiences, encounters and questions that have filled the past 24 years of my life? I can't come up with the real-life equivalent of a decoupage picture frame.

Deja Derby

I know, I know, the title of this blog is...lacking, but so is the time it would take for me to come up with something better. I'm open to suggestions.

Ever since moving to Kansas City, Kansas (a specific part of Kansas City, usually referred to as KCK), I can't help but be reminded of the four months I spent in Derby last fall. Some of the reasons for my reminiscence are general, circumstantial, and a little vague: I'm on my own. It's fall. I'm not sure what I'm doing here. I don't know what I'll do when I leave. I'm in a new place (even a new part of that new place). I'm unemployed. I'm continually meeting new people and making a few friends. I'm discovering a city, usually by myself. I'm constantly telling myself that I ought to be in school right now. I'm looking for a job, but don't really know how to do that. And so on and so forth.

Other reasons are more specific and have me wondering if something here is related, if there's actually a significant meaning and purpose for my life (which I doubt more with each passing day but desperately search for nonetheless), or if I'm just trying to make sense of my haphazard existence and missing England in the process.

The biggest thing that constantly takes my thoughts to Derby is my recent experience with Mission Adelante. Mission Adelante is a Christian-run organization that seeks to love and serve the immigrant and refugee community. The organization is about 5 years old and was built around principals of relational and practical ministry, as well as biblical mandates concerning the treatment of aliens and foreigners. Similar to many of the Core Team at International Community Church (ICC) in Derby, the staff of Mission Adelante seek to live in and among the immigrant refugee community. They have moved their families into the neighborhood for the purpose of building relationships, sharing meals, having conversations and living alongside Latino immigrants and Bhutanese refugees. These are the same reasons that the Martin family (with whom I lived when I was in Derby) chose to live on the outskirts of Normanton, the refugee/immigrant neighborhood in Derby.

KCK reminds me so much of Normanton. The local food shops, places of worship, foreign words, diverse groups of people. The people groups are quite different (I've yet to cross paths with a Pakistani mother), but the experience of finding the foreign among the familiar is quite the same. Instead of mango lassis, I indulge in Hispanic paletas and nieva at the paleteria. Instead of the Kurdish cafe, I walk past taquerias. Instead of Arabic, I see signs in Spanish. There's a similar feeling of have a cross-cultural experience while in your "native" environment.

I am once again living in a house occupied by an ever-changing group of individuals. Instead of the attic I am living in the basement/cellar, where I have my own tiny bathroom and small kitchen area. Whereas my room on Swinburne was bright (there probably still aren't shades on the window), finished off (quite nicely), and sometimes a bit cold (oh British heating), my "room" in KCK is relatively dark, dirty and a bit stuffy. I tell myself daily (or at least each time I kill another insect, see another cobweb, or notice the dirt caked on the pipes above my bed) that thousands of people (most of the world, in fact) live in worse conditions. I don't want to forfeit my location, and at the moment I don't really have another option.

In place of Mina (not that anyone could replace her), the Iranian refugee who lived in the house on Swinburne Street, I am housemates with Guadalupe, a Mexican immigrant who has been in the States for the past six years. Her English is bit more advanced than Mina's (and my Spanish is significantly better than my Farsi), but our conversation on the steps the other day reminded me so much of chats with Mina. "Together is better," I found myself saying, which any ICC-er would recognize as a Mina phrase.

While learning where to go to buy groceries and other such things (trial and error being my preferred method of learning) I came upon Aldi. Apparently the chain, which started in Iowa, is somehow based out of Germany, which explains why the stores are so remarkably similar to Lidl, a German-based chain of stores in the UK (among other places), and the place I did my shopping in Derby.

Similar to ICC, Mission Adelante offers ESL classes to community members. I decided to volunteer with the Nepali/Bhutanese refugees (more on their story later) on Tuesday nights. Latino programs take place on Thursday nights. Being in an ESL setting again is great. The first week was unstructured and experimental and everything was up in the air and it was all just so very much like being at the Persian Cultural Association or co-teaching Kurdish women with Rosanna in Derby.

Saturday I attended a Bhutanese event celebrating Teej, a Hindu festival that honors women. I think the actual calendar date of the celebration (which is, of course, based on the Hindu calendar in the first place) was last week, but as the women fast during the seven days of the festival, they post-poned community involvement until there could be food - a very wise decision in my opinion. There were delicious traditional Nepali dishes, kheer, cucumber salads, rice, curried dishes, cake, odd shaped fried substances. There were men and women in traditional dress, brightly colored saris, garlands and jewelry. There was music and dancing, poem recitations and singing. Most of the afternoon I had no idea what was being said because everyone was speaking Nepali. I had forgotten what that is like. The contrast of the dingy walls, florescent lights and linoleum floor of the Catholic Charities fellowship hall with the bright pinks, vibrant oranges, and sparkling greens of the clothing reminded me of the Congolese women's event I attended last November.

I spoke with one of the volunteers about her relationships with the Bhutanese, about being in their homes, interacting with their children, sharing meals and becoming a part of their world. She shared her experiences, relating that after one visit to a Nepali/Bhutanese home you are guest, after three you are a friend, and after four you become family. My heart ached for those relationships and for the immigrants and refugees I left in England. The next day I received an e-mail from Shamim, my Derby neighbor to whom I'd been giving English lessons. In the letter she called me sister, thanked me for not forgetting her family and hoped for my return to England. So did I. As I think on that relationship I am torn between a deep longing to return to Derby and a contrasting hope that I might become a part of the refugee community here in KCK.

I don't know what will come of my ESL experience and connection to Mission Adelante. The only jobs I have found thus far will require a long commute from KCK, and may interfere with my ability to be available. None of them are all that appealing, but as I'm continually changing my mind about what I would like to do anyway, that shouldn't be surprising.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


For perhaps the first time in eight years, there is a pair of gloves in my glove compartment. There are actually four pairs of gloves in my glove compartment, all of them stamped with the Union Pacific Railroad logo. Allow me to explain.

Saturday morning I attended orientation and training to be an ESL volunteer with Mission Adelante (an outreach mission/organization just a block or two from my new place of residence in KCK). Following training, a group of the staff and volunteers had lunch together at one of the dozen or so Mexican restaurants in the area (If Kansas City were to have a "Little Mexico" the way that New York has a "Little Italy," then I have just moved there).

I parked my car right in front of Tapatio Mexican Grill, beside a guy who had the hood of his vehicle up and seemed to be having a bit of a problem. I didn't think much of it or of him, walked into the restaurant, and enjoyed some amazing authentic food. Deliciosa!

I was one of the last of our group to leave the building, and when I did I noticed that the same guy I'd seen on my way in was still there checking over his car. "Hmm," I thought, "I wonder if something is awry." Actually, my thoughts were more along the lines of, "Well, apparently something is awry; it's too bad there's nothing I can do to help, seeing as I know more about microbiology and astrophysics than I do about automechanics."

Just as I was pulling out (and feeling a little bad for not offering to help before I got in my car) the guy made eye contact with me and walked up to the open window of my Grand Am. "Hey," he said. "You don't happen to have jumper cables, do you?" "I might," I replied, wondering what had happened to the set that my dad had purchased for the Camry I drove in college and then sold to my sister when I thought I'd be living outside of the country for the next 2-3 years. I pulled back into the parking space I had been easing out of and popped open my trunk. There were no cables to be found. "Sorry," I said. "I thought I had a set." His momentarily hopeful expression deflated. "Let me call someone," I told him, reaching in my purse and pulling out my cobalt blue mobile. I dialed my new housemate, hoping he'd be around and would know where I could find some cables. He wasn't.

"Can I ask a favor?" the guy stammered. I thought he probably wanted to use my cell phone to call a friend or something of that nature. "Could you take me to the auto store? It's just up the street. I walked there earlier to buy some caps, but that wasn't the problem. I think the battery must be dead," he explained. "I mean, it's alright if you can't or don't want to, but I'd really appreciate it." I was a bit uncertain about letting a strange and rather large man get into my car, but his own hesitation offset my suspicions. I had seen the guy in the same space over an hour earlier. It was hot outside. It was the middle of the afternoon. I decided to lean toward benevolence. "Yeah," I said, with a little hesitation in my own voice. "I can do that."

He opened the passenger's door and offered me a hand. "I'm Brett," he said. "Hi Brett," I responded, taking his thick, strong hand in my own thin palm. "I'm Amanda." We drove about two blocks up the street to Advance Auto Parts. I learned that Brett worked for Union Pacific Railroad, and was the fourth generation in his family to do so. He'd never been to Tapatio before and had decided to try it during his lunch break. By the time I encountered him, Brett's break was long over and he still hadn't eaten his take away.

We chatted briefly while Brett searched for and purchased a set of cables, and then drove back to the parking lot. "Is there something I can give you or do for you?" he asked as we pulled in. "It's not a problem," I said. "Do you need any gloves?" he asked. "I have these gloves and some bottles of water from the railroad." I didn't really need either, but he seemed so eager to give me something. "If you want," I said, "but you really don't need to do that."

I parked the car and popped open the hood. Brett clipped on the cables. As I started the engine I was amused by the thought that I was taking part in the vehicular equivalent of giving CPR. "Give it a little gas," Brett instructed. I did, and his car reacted. Brett gave me a thumbs up and removed the cables from my engine. He opened his trunk, dug around for a minute and stood up bearing two six-packs of small water bottles and several pairs of gloves. "I don't know what size these are," he said as he handed me the packages, "but they have the Union Pacific logo on them and everything. They're good gloves." "These will be just fine," I reassured.

One of the managers came out of the restaurant carrying a styrofoam glass of water, which Brett readily accepted. The man offered me the same. I held up my six-packs and said I'd be fine. The manager nodded and went back inside after we assured him that Brett was fine. I stowed my water in the back seat and shoved the gloves in the glove compartment. "Thank you so much," Brett said. "No problem," I replied, sincerely meaning it. "Take care of yourself, Brett." I drove away happy that I had been able to help.

I wonder how many times my schedule and agenda have kept me from similar opportunities. I had other things to do that afternoon. I needed to go grocery shopping and running. I had an apartment to arrange and a lake house party to attend, but none of them were all that pressing. I think of Brett every time I open my glove compartment to reach for my sunglasses. The gloves are a good reminder, and will serve a purpose even if I never take them out of the wrapping.

A New Answer

In a recent post I discussed the angst that I associate with the question "What do you do?" In light of my rather strong and predominantly negative responses, I suggested alternative questions. A second solution would be an alternative response. 

A friend recently told me she considers me to be "a graduate student of life." It sounds trite, perhaps a little sugar-coated, but there is some truth to it. Based on my observations, graduate students - among other things - learn, and if nothing else, what I'm doing at this point in my life is learning. Learning all sorts of things that I didn't know I didn't know. I'm not enrolled in any classes or through any institution, but in the dreadfully cliched school of life I'm quite a newbie. Hence, my new response to the dreaded question, "What do you do?" I learn.

A list of things I have learned since moving to Kansas City:

1. Free cell phones are not really free. Everything costs something, usually more than you expect.
2. A gallon of gas is typically, but not always cheaper than a gallon of milk (depending on where you  purchase either item).
3. Some cars have pads and other cars have drums and shoes where brakes are concerned. Neither are cheap to replace.
4. There is a part of a car called a strut. There is a part of a strut called the strut mount. When it breaks, your car (or at least my car) loses its ability to absorb shock and makes terrible noises when it encounters any unsmooth surface. The cost of replacing this piece of the car is the equivalent of replacing both rear brakes and shoes (with realignment thrown in).
5. Fresh basil is potent.
6. It is possible to set off a smoke alarm without actually burning anything.
7. Changing a tire is easier when you have AAA.
8. First Fridays are best attended as singles or pairs.
9. It is possible to use too much garlic.
10. The Dollar Tree is a good place to purchase cleaning products, but not cosmetics.
11. When you meet someone new, you should not tell them you would like to "grab coffee" or "do lunch" if you have no intention of seeing them again.
12. Craigslist is useful for many things. Finding an entry level job (in my experience) is not one of them.
13. Being unemployed is more difficult than one might think, and until you experience it you should not try to empathize.
14. A college degree does not necessarily mean it will be any easier for you to find a job when you graduate from college.
15. If a car advertised on the Internet sounds too good to be true, it is. 
16. Reading can be a habit, a discipline, an escape, a past time, a trial, and an addiction.
17. There are people who actually love what they do and do what they love.
18. Most people do not.
19. The interstate can be a very scary place and should be entered with caution.
20. Spending hours on the computer does not make you a productive person.
21. I need to see trees and smell flowers and walk outside in order to maintain my sanity.
22. The US Postal Service is underused.
23. Contrary to what I read in the first chapter of Genesis, it can be good to be alone.
24. Aldi is a prime place to buy milk, eggs, bread and cucumbers.
25. Canning can be a social activity.
26. It is possible to form relationships through hour-long games of Nerts.
27. Bubble tea is strange and delicious.
28. Kansas libraries do not offer free printing.
29. In Kansas City, KS numbered streets run north and south. In Kansas City, MO numbered streets run east and west. (This is a cruel trick to play on someone with my sense of direction).
30. You shouldn't bid on items you don't really want to buy on ebay.

That's just a start, and a lot of it is pretty simple. More difficult has been learning how to develop a sense of identity outside of occupation; learning what it means to be "responsible" when there isn't anyone telling me what to do; learning how to budget when I don't have an income; and figuring out how to structure an unstructured existence. There are so many things I need to learn that I don't know how I'll possibly find time to work, if and when that opportunity does come around. For the time being I'm learning. And that really is enough right now.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Question

Moving to a new place usually involves meeting a lot of new people. Meeting a lot of new people usually involves going through standard introductions. Standard introductions usually include the asking of many generic questions. One of those questions is almost always, "So what do you do?"

Right up there with "What do you want?" and "How are you?" this has become one of my least favorite questions ever; not only because I don't have a stock answer to give, but also because I find it so restricting, so definitive; as if the poser of said question feels they will attain all they need to know about me, will understand me and be able to place me into one of the little schematic constructs in their brain based on my job, school status or career choice.

I've toyed with the idea of creating a list of unconventional answers and randomly spitting them out when approached with the "What do you do?" question. So many people don't really pay attention to the answer and have no intention of engaging in a relationship with me after the initial introduction; I may as well add some interest to the day by responding with, "I'm a model at the KC Art Institute. I pose for nude paintings," or "I work on the line for a plant that manufactures nipples for baby bottles," or maybe something really out there like "I'm an industrial engineer, will soon be making six figures, and am actually using the degree that I earned in school." But I never follow through with this idea. I don't think quickly enough to do so, and even if I did I risk being asked follow up questions to which I can't create convincing responses.

Instead I usually answer, "I just finished a youth internship and am looking for a job," or "I'm a freelance writer," which is often enough. Rarely do I give the honest response that also satisfies the "What do you want?" question, which is "I don't really know." I don't really know what I do or who I am or what I want to do or have or be or become or get out of life. I also don't know how to find a job, manage my time, or budget a non-existent income. "I don't know" soon becomes "I don't want to tell you." I don't want to tell you what I do because I'm not all that satisfied with what I don and I don't think you really care anyway. I don't want to tell you what I don't do because I feel you'll judge me the way I judge me and then I'll feel deficient.  I don't want to tell you that I'm unemployed because I equate that with being irresponsible, and despite the fact that I don't know you, may not care to know you, and will probably never see you again, I still want to impress you because I am, at heart, insecure and desirous of your approval, not your pity.

In light of my own emotionally-charged answer to this question, I've taken to asking different questions. Questions like, "So what's your story?" or "What brought you here?" or "What do you do with your time?" Sometimes these questions and the responses they generate are just as conventional and annoying as "So, what do you do?" Sometimes the response doesn't change at all. But sometimes these questions cause me (and my unsuspecting conversation partners) to think about the answer and to acknowledge the part of humanness that is more about being than it is about doing. It's completely possible that I'm trying to skirt needing to explain myself and my situation to one more person, but I'd like to think my motives are a little more altruistic. Maybe that's "what I do" for the time being.