Today.

On my way to lunch, I’d witnessed the following: a parade of small Asian children, wearing the same green t-shirt and being shepherded across a busy intersection by frazzled adults; a guy do a flip on a pogo stick; a French bulldog that sounded inches away from heat exhaustion; and a flyer saying that scenes for White Collar will be filmed a few blocks from my office sometime over the next few days/week. You can’t say that Midtown isn’t exciting.

Today at the office was the one of those “I’m going to blast music through my headphones so no one bothers me as I write a 5-page paper/complete an entire problem set in one sitting” days, except I didn’t have any music to listen to and the things I do on a daily basis are much less thinking intensive. The entire day still had that isolated, narrowly concentrated feel to it though, and it took me until 3:30 to figure out why.

Normally, there’s a reasonable amount of ambient noise in the office. Someone is either chatting on the phone, asking the person next door about the status of a project, or having a mini-meeting about other important matters. On this particular Friday, the occasional murmurs of conversation were missing. It was quiet in a way that was more noticeable than the noises that the printer makes when it’s producing a 300+ page document. I became preternaturally aware of the clacking keyboards all around me. Everyone seemed to be typing something. I was probably typing something.

The subdued quiet seemed to exaggerate everything. Not only were noises louder, the sun seemed brighter, the room warmer (probably because the air conditioning wasn’t on). A basket for UPS packages on top of the cubicle cabinets appeared out of nowhere after I returned from lunch. (I can’t possibly be that unobservant.) I was also really tired. In keeping with my subconscious refusal to sleep at times that accommodate the normal workday, I fell off the eight hours of sleep every night wagon. This may have been a contributing factor. By the time 3:30 rolled around, I was ready to go home and couldn’t really sit still. I got up twice to get water I didn’t really want to drink and decided to take the mail out twenty minutes earlier than I normally did because all I wanted to do was walk around, jaywalk across busy intersections, and look dreamily at the passing storefronts.

Whether it was because I was tired or there were no ambient noises to distract me, I was also incredibly irritated at the computer today. It runs Windows 7 and has the latest version of Microsoft Office, so in theory, it’s all good to go, but for reasons that I have yet to discover, it runs at the pace of an arthritic dog and gets upset when there’s too many tabs open in Chrome. I’ve been dreadfully spoiled by my trusty MacBook Pro, which is the one item I will refuse to leave behind in the event of an airplane accident, tornado, fire, earthquake, or flood. This morning, when I was waiting for the computer to start up, I thought about how nice it was to simply open my laptop and have things instantly work. I decided that I waste about four minutes of my life waiting for my work email to load, which probably sums into a distressingly large number over the course of the summer. Then, if you add in the precious seconds caused by loading webpages, the loss in productivity is probably astonishing. I seriously considered whether I could bring my own laptop to work for about thirty seconds before realizing that I would have to carry it around. (As much as I love my computer, I hate carrying things more.)

At the end of the day, it seemed silly to get so annoyed at slow computers, but I wanted instant gratification when it comes to the Internet. Although a loading browser doesn’t impact my general day-to-day life in any real way, it feels like a demand for attention when I come face to face to it. Or more accurately, when I glare at it, which may be part of the problem. My tolerance for falling-under-the-standards technology is evidently much lower than I realized. I can wait an extra thirty minutes for a train to take me home, but a few seconds of lag as an image struggles to materialize, forget it.

So far, I’ve been trying to decide whether I might be less adept at dealing with technology than I thought or whether I’m just impatient. The photocopier perplexes me sometimes. The mail machine also requires a bit of thinking in order to get it to spit out the right postage. I had to ask, on two separate occasions, how to turn on a desktop computer. But I also know how to find personal information using a simple Google search. I have a thousand and one keyboard tricks. I own (too) many electronic devices.

I’m going to be self-indulgent and say I’m just impatient. Nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure.

On Being a Messenger

It’s been one of those weeks when one of the major reasons why I’m glad I get to go to work is because of the temperature. A heat wave has been passing through the area, and on Friday, the thermometer told me that it was in the high 90s. With no air conditioning at home, the office is a cool and breezy paradise. As I am typing this, my arm is sliding down the edge of the dining room table, and my back is sticking to the back of the chair. The fan is moving the edge of the tablecloth in the kitchen, and from the corner of my eye, it looks like there is an creepy animal skulking in the house.

There’s no strict dress code at the office. It’s a weird hybrid of business casual and what I would normally wear on my way to class in spring quarter before it gets outrageously warm. I wear a lot of sundresses, pencil skirts, dressier sandals, and jeans. On Friday, I was wearing a dress, which was a good decision.

I spent a third of my day playing messenger. Sent to pick up a check from one office downtown and then a proof for a book cover from another office nine streets away, I braved the blazing sun, the oven that is known as the New York City subway, and rode on a train without air conditioning. But mostly, it was fun running errands. I generally like wandering through cities. I borrowed a coworker’s monthly transit pass and daydreamed a little about how awesome it would be to live in the city with unlimited access to public transportation. On my second trip back to the office with the cover proof in my hand, I thought of the opening of The Bell Jar’s opening. “It was a queer, sultry summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Rosenbergs were long dead, and unlike Esther, I did know what I was doing in New York, but whenever I think of glamorous internships in the city, the image of Sylvia Plath and guest editorships at the now-defunct Mademoiselle wander into my brain.

The problem with releasing me into the wild streets of New York is that I have a very poor sense of direction when it comes to this city. Maybe it’s because there isn’t any Lake Michigan to serve as my proverbial compass, but even though most of Manhattan functions on a grid system, I have to recalibrate my brain each time I emerge from the subway to figure out what direction I”m supposed to be walking in. But that’s neither here nor there. What I really learned on Friday is that learning how to work the subway system requires a certain degree of attention to detail.

Multiple lines often travel on the same track, which was something I paid attention to in London, but it took me a lot of backtracking to find my way back to Penn Station from the MoMA. If that weren’t tricky enough, you can’t just wander into any old subway entrance and hope that you can get on a train that will take you somewhere. On the contrary, I absentmindedly stood on the platform on a downtown bound train before realizing that I really wanted to go north, costing me a good fifteen minutes (?) as I waited for my borrowed MetroCard could be reused.

Just when I think I have things figured out, something else crops up. A few weeks ago, I was eating lunch at the pedestrian plaza next to the Flatiron Building. After walking the few blocks to get there, I parked myself on a green folding chair and looked up to see the Empire State Building looming in the distance. Sometimes, I wonder whether I should be more embarrassed.

Small Talk

I hate small talk. I’m also someone who has a higher than average tendency to choose pajamas over people, but think about it: If you had the choice, would you rather listen to me blather about the weather or watch an episode of Game of Thrones in your most comfortable pair of sweatpants? (Not that I’ve actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but I’ve been told it’s good.)

Despite my dislike for meaningless conversation, it’s a necessary skill, and over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten much better at it. I can avoid awkward silence for almost five minutes if I try really hard. My toolkit consists of questions like: “How are you?” “What’s your major?” “Does that mean you get to take this class? How do you like it?” “What year are you?” “Which house do you live?” etc. etc. etc.

Last week, I realized that there was a bit of an issue with my go-to list of questions. They’re great, except if you happend to have graduated college years ago and the memory of dorms now seems like a big blur. Long story short, I don’t think I really know how to talk to people older than me.

Of course, I know how to talk to my parents. I can do a job interview (sometimes really well too!). I’ve had twenty-second conversations with strangers at a bus stop, in line for a cash register, and other places where you usually bump into people. But if you threw me into a dinner party with people who aren’t really my age anymore, I’m not sure what I would do besides start off with a “How are liking this dinner party?” and hope they mention gardening or a tv show or their dog.

I learned recently that this might be a problem with our generation. In their May 30, 2013 issue, Time wrote a feature on the millennial generation. The tagline: “The New Greatest Generation…Why Millennial Will Save Us All.” I finally tracked down the issue with the full article (since only subscribers are allowed to read the whole piece online). The author quotes from Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, who states, “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things.”

Normally, articles that generalize the failings of the generation make me tired. It seems inevitable that older generations criticize the newer ones. I’m sure that people were definitely convinced that society would collapse with hippies running around in the 1960s. But perhaps Bauerlein has a point. Most of what I talk about at least 9 months out of the year revolves around things I know would be relevant to people close to my age.

Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll figure it out. I’ll also see if I can get started on A Game of Thrones.

Commuting

Commuting is terrible.

This is not exactly a new revelation. Last summer, I took the bus downtown, a trip that only took about a half-hour and had the hidden blessing of making me buy a 30-day CTA pass. Inching down State Street was sometimes excruciating, but I quickly mastered the art of being able to stand and read at the same time without falling down. I learned the rhythms of south-bound rush hour traffic and played the game of guessing who was a young professional who happened to live in Hyde Park and who was a UChicago student intern to pass the time when my eyes were too tired to read tiny print.

Commuting from the suburban wasteland that is northern New Jersey to Penn Station is another beast entirely. I take the train, which lets me skip a ride on the subway once I get into the city. In the mornings, I’m usually too tired to do anything but stare out the window. I love the views of the city on the El, but my train rides have reminded me that trees with their jewel green leaves are pretty in the sunlight. Yesterday, I saw a crane perched in the swampy marshlands that sprawl around Secaucus Junction, where everyone gets off to transfer somewhere. (I much rather see cranes than the raccoons and possums that make up Chicago’s urban safari.)

Still, pretty scenery does not make up for the fact that public transportation is now remarkably inconvenient and much more expensive. A roundtrip nowadays costs just under $20. I can no longer walk to the nearest train station or bus stop in New Jersey. And worst of all, after 6:30 pm or so, trains only depart towards the suburbs once every hour. I’ve been wasting a lot of time waiting for trains to take me home. I’ve been using it to read (old habits die hard), but I would rather just go home and eat dinner.

I have picked up a few other things about my adventures on NJ Transit:

  • If I ever get lost or forget to find out which train will actually take me to Penn Station, I just follow the harried looking people dressed in shirts and ties and closed-toe shoes. (They also typically carry newspapers and e-readers or type furiously on smartphones.)
  • I have yet to ride a train that has been eerily empty. Even at 8:30, there are people in work clothes filling the seats.
  • Train conductors have amazing memories. I want to discover the secret of their system. (How do they remember all those faces?)
  • Seriously, I can waste up to four hours getting from one place to another. Four hours!
  • No one likes sitting next to each other. There are three seats to the left of each aisle and two seats to the right. Once someone has occupied a seat, it’s as if they spread cooties on the rest of the others. Having ridden the 172 right before 10:30 classes on very rainy days, I find this all vaguely ridiculous.

While most train-waiting does lead to intense boredom, something intriguing did happen today. I arrived at Secaucus at about a quarter to 8, which left me about forty-five minutes to kill before the train headed in the direction of home was scheduled to leave. I sat down in one of the benches in the vestibule and opened my book (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in case anyone was wondering) to read when I spotted a security guard hovering beside one of those yellow “Caution! Wet floor!” signs. The bench behind the sign was empty except for a black and white houndstooth purse. People, spotting the vacant bench from across the room, passed by, wanting to plant their tired bottoms onto the seat, but the security guard shooed everyone away and kept speaking into his walkie-talkie.

I was sitting on a bench connected to the one with the houndstooth purse. As all the posters and public service announcements have taught us, unattended bags that have been abandoned by their owners are always, always, always a cause for concern. I’m half-reading and half-wondering whether I should move to a different bench. If there was actually a bomb in that bag, I’d be in a very bad position. Concern about my mortality was fleeting because then I would have to move, which meant I would have to find a new bookmark for my book, and all the other benches were occupied, and besides, a guy who had just ordered pizza at the cafe had looked at the guard and handbag and proceeded to sit down at a table directly behind the possible bomb-filled purse anyway, so whatever this thing contained obviously couldn’t be that dangerous.

As I contemplated my possible course of (in)action, another guard arrived on the scene with a friendly labrador retriever. At this point, the people around me began to stare. The dog started sniffing around the bag, the benches, my ankles, the ankles of the people sitting next to me, pausing at a man munching a sandwich. After two minutes of this, the new guard gave a thumbs up to the one who was standing watch and shooing tired commuters away. He nodded, folded up the wet floor sign, picked up the houndstooth purse with as much daintiness as a slightly overweight security guard could muster, and the two walked away.

And just like that, people started drifting onto the empty bench. And like all the other world-weary passengers waiting to go home, I went back to my own business.

Fun Facts From Work

 

  • The Netherlands is below sea level.
  • The Semantic Web – it’s a thing.
  • Some Starbucks locations now serve beer and wine.
  • There is a prominent sociologist named Walter Reckless. He wrote about juvenile delinquency.
  • Margaret Wise Brown, author of such classics as Goodnight Moon, had a number of tumultuous love affairs, including one with Michael Strange.
  • The Pennsylvania system was a penal system based on the premise that solitary confinement fostered repentance and encouraged criminals to reform their ways. Prisoners were kept in isolation for their entire sentences, which did not always work out so well.
  • Baby rabbits are called kittens.
  • I kind of, maybe, perhaps have an inkling about the intricacies of the eurozone crisis.