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The Library*

February 13, 2010

I have a lot of books. Probably more books than I can or will ever read in my lifetime.  Even if I did nothing but go to work and read my books, I don’t think I could ever finish all of them. (Realistically, I would still have to schedule in time for my RSS feed, “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” “Jersey Shore,” and “The Real Housewives of Wherever.”)  Here is one set of bookcases:

Here is the other:

Here is my bedside table (note the stack of unread back issues of “Vanity Fair” magazine as well):

I love my books.  I continue to purchase books even though I have so many already that I have not read.  I never get rid of books after I have read them: they are milestones to me.  I think my favorite books are the ones I have already read that I can look back upon and remember what they meant to me and what stage of life I was at when I read them.  I also like how books look aesthetically.  We call the room the books inhabit “The Library.”  That probably sounds pretentious, especially since we live in a 2 bedroom condo and not an 18 room English manor, but, it’s our little inside joke.

I honestly intended to read each of the books I own at the time I purchased them.  I often get obsessed with certain topics and go on a tear buying books about them.  For awhile it was George Balanchine and ballet dancers.  Before that it was “outsider art.”  I am really interested in “muses” and influential women who inspire artists and writers so I bought a bunch of books on that subject.  I am fascinated by creative minds so I have multiple  biographies of Jean-Michel Basquiat, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo,and Beauford Delaney.  Psychology and mental illness have been interests of mine since college so of course I have tons of books on Sigmund Freud, by Irvin D. Yalom, as well as memoirs of writers telling their tales of depression or addiction.  One summer I was intrigued by modern musicians so I bought books by Pattie Boyd, Pamela Des Barres, and Nikki Sixx.  When I like a particular writer I will purchase all the books I can find by them: Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Ford, Louise Erdich, Anne Lamott, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Dave Eggers, Wally Lamb, Kaye Gibbons, Alice Munro, Ian McEwan.  I have a ton of books on slavery, African-American history, and Indian-American history.

When I was in my 20’s and belonged to one of those mail-order book clubs, I ordered sets of books by writers I thought I was supposed to read: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner.  I have books on evolutionary psychology, dog training, plays, feminism, the Supreme Court, civil rights, domestic abuse, Shakespeare, religious thought, MENSA puzzle books, and even a history of the Barbie doll.  I love finishing one book, then retiring to the library to peruse my collection while I ask myself what I am in the mood for: a classic?  Fiction? A biography?  A memoir?  Sometimes I am not in the mood for any of my books and I invariably end up scanning or the New York Times book review for a new suggestion.  I am running out of room to store all the books I have not read but love having around, just in case.

I know some people think showing off your books is an attempt to give visitors the idea that you are oh-so-well-read.  Perhaps that is true for some, but I would keep my books even if it meant storing them in a rarely visited basement room.  It is more that if anyone were to see my collection, they would know all of the things I am interested in and that might spark a conversation if they hold the same interests.  More importantly, my books give me options: seemingly endless options to fill my brain with all of the things I wish I could know, while I hold on to the hope that I someday will.

What are your book collecting habits?  Am I a pretentious asshat for hanging on to all my books (do not answer that)?

*Must be read out loud using an English accent


Things Sure Have Changed

February 9, 2010

It’s all well and good that I am trying to finish my degree, but I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties that advancements in technology would present.  Here I was all worried about conjugating French verbs, when I should have been  fretting over selecting the appropriate length answers for the 6 security questions required for my University account. 

After my triumphant notice that I would be able to complete my schooling, I hopped online and tried to register for my first class immediately.  Now back when I was in school (just after they invented the printing press), registration was done through the mail or by waiting in long lines.  Class schedules were listed in a  big fat book that got mailed to your house.  You applied for student loans and grants by mail, picked up your checks by standing in a queue that started with the first letter of your last name, and paid your tuition at the accounting office.  It was all very human.  Also time-consuming.  And comparatively simple.

Nowadays, of course, everything having to do with applying to/ registering for/ paying for college is done on-line.  Granted, I am not SuperTechGirl, but I like to think I can navigate a website without having to consult “The Internets For Dummies.”  Yet here I was, almost in tears after 15 minutes on the website for my University.  The array of topics to choose from was overwhelming.  Every hyperlink was a new pop-up window and I soon had a dozen windows open, none of them offering what it was I was looking for.  I had to first register for my own account which included 5 different windows to enter address/ phone/ emergency contact.  Then set a bunch of security questions that would not accept my responses because they weren’t long enough (Sorry, Spot: your name isn’t long enough to answer “What was the name of your first pet?”  I should have thought ahead at the age of 5 when I was naming you.)  Once that was done I had to search for my class by term/ section/name/ division and if there were any open seats.  Then I had to register for a university e-mail account (even though I have 5 other e-mail addresses already) which included opening 6 different windows telling me what system requirements were needed and what programs I needed to download.  I also had to petition to take  a reduced credit load given that I didn’t need 13 credits to graduate.  Where the hell is that petition?  After 45 minutes I  finally gave up  without knowing:

A) If I had in fact registered for a class

B) How much said class would cost me and/ or when/ if I would be billed

C) What books were required for said class

D) What was the syllabus for said class

E) Was said class in fact the class that I needed to graduate

F) If I had a University e-mail address and if so, what it was

G) Why is it that 18-year-old college freshman can figure this stuff out and I can’t

H) How does one get rid of a migraine

I) Who were the asstards that designed this website

I literally slammed my laptop closed and didn’t venture anywhere near the website for at least a week.  I finally waved my “Independent Woman Doing It For Herself Surrenders” flag and asked the hubby to help me figure things out.  Class was starting soon, after all (as far as I could determine). 

I begrudgingly cracked open the laptop, dug out what I believed was my login and password (it took after only 4 attempts!), ready to have hubby school me on interweb basics, and VOILA: there was my bill!  There was my class!  There was my e-mail account!  It was as if the internet elves had been hard at work spiffing up my university account whilst I had been cursing the day it had been born! 

I am hoping it is just a poorly designed website that is to blame, but all this technology is making me feel really old and out-of-touch.  After a few log-ins I am starting to feel a bit more confident about the site, and I think I have my registration figured out.  Although I did get an e-mail from my student advisor telling me I registered for the wrong class.  Oops!  I still rather long for the olden times, though, when instead of cursing a website,  we got to stand in line for an hour and a half just to curse people directly to their faces.  Ah, the good ol’ days. . .

I’d Like To Argue My Case: Part 2

February 4, 2010

So I recounted the tale of the association meeting to my two friends over lunch and asked them how they do it:  how do they stand in confrontation with someone, whether it be an opposing attorney, a judge, a friend or colleague, and get their point across while seeming to remain calm and self-possessed.  I told them that in many situations I get shut down by the shock of the irrationality of the other person and don’t know how to react.  I said that I often feel like I don’t stand up for myself and I wanted to know where their confidence came from.

They both sat there blinking at me for a few moments and then said that in their opinion, I am not one to back down.  One said that many attorneys, for example, are in fact nervous when arguing their case but they get through it anyway.  I asked him why he never seemed to be nervous and he said, “Having been a former cop and having been shot at and hit with a pool cue over the head; what’s the worst they can do to me?  I just don’t care.”  Then they said that in the example I gave them, I did the right thing.  They said that I could have gone along with “A” and made it a personal argument between us in the middle of the association meeting, but what good would that have done?  I chose to back away from her attempt to draw me into her histrionics and it was the best course of action.  While there are things that I could have said to her, it doesn’t mean that I should have.

I raised another example of a dispute I’d had with a colleague few years ago.  This person, whom I’ll call “L,” had gone behind my back and tried to assign me various tasks and then complained when I didn’t do them (because they weren’t part of my job!).  She then went on this several month rampage wherein she tried to discredit me to my supervisors and attack me in e-mails.  All the while I never gave in to her rage.  Every time she accused me of something or responded nastily in an e-mail I took the higher ground, never retaliating or even pointing out the untruth of her accusations.  I set up a meeting with her to try and clear the air but it was obvious she was inent on holding a grudge and making me the scapegoat for her anger and unhappiness.  The whole time I remained calm and professional, but inside I wanted to scream out: “You lying old bitch!  Who made you my boss?  What did I ever do to you?  When are you going to pull that stick out of your ass?”  I wanted to point out the inaccuracy of every statement she was making, but what would have been the point of arguing with her?  Her mind was set.  Again, my friends told me what I already knew:  in this instance too, I did the right thing.  Even though I stewed about that confrontation with “L’ for months and listed in my head point by point all the things I could have said to her, I knew the truth and I could be proud of how I handled the confrontation.  But I still kind of wish I would have called her a “lying old bitch.”  That would have been fun.

I know that there will be many times in the future that I will wish an argument had gone a different way.  I will wish I had had the chance to make all my points, that I had not taken the diplomatic path, that I had not stared in silence at the craziness and lies being unleashed upon me.  I will continue to struggle with finding that path of confidence and rationality between the field of passivity on one side and histrionics on the other.  I thank my two friends for helping me see that just because you can say things, it doesn’t mean that you should.

How do you argue?  Are there ways you wish you were better or different when it comes to arguing?

I’d Like To Argue My Case: Part 1

February 3, 2010

The other night we had a condo association meeting to try and figure out why our condo board recently decided to suddenly special assess all the members with a $35k bill to replace our roof.  The roof had been leaking for quite sometime and we all knew it needed replacing (especially me, after dirty water started pouring in through the ceiling fan and closet in our bedroom this past fall), but the association had agreed to pursue a long-term loan in lieu of an assessment to pay for the replacement.  Instead, without warning, we get a letter telling us that almost $4,000 is due in less than 7 weeks.  Many residents were livid and sent feverish e-mails to the board and the management company asking what had happened.  The answers we received were incomplete and made little sense so 4 of us demanded a special meeting to make sure this never happened again.

I was nervous going in to this meeting because I am not good at confrontation.  Well, in certain situations I am with certain people, but I didn’t know what to expect in this case and I was ill-at-ease.  I had typed up a 2 page timeline of events, chronicling e-mails and varying responses, as well as a list of questions I wanted answered.  I sat down in the room with my fellow owners, the 3 board members, and a representative from the management company.  A couple of people started in with their concerns, the primary one being the lack of communication from the board and the management company regarding the change in plans and the decision-making process.  I repeatedly pointed out that I had contacted the board and particularly the management company regarding the leaking in my unit, the status of the long-term loan application, and the special assessment and received either no or incomplete responses.  The board stated that the management company was supposed to be the mouthpiece.  I asked what we were supposed to do when the mouthpiece wasn’t responding to contacts.  Finally the management company rep, whom I’ll call “A,” had had enough of being demonized and blurted out that she gets too many e-mails from us, that she doesn’t have time to read long e-mails all day, that she had sent me the information that I had requested and she wasn’t going to “fight” with me.  I sat there stunned at her lack of professionalism and self-restraint.  I calmly said that she did not give me the information I had requested and she simply yelled over me that she had.  I later asked for a timeline of events and she recounted several dates that I had sent e-mails to her that in no way matched up to my timeline.

After we left the meeting I was furious.  I was furious that “A” had singled me out and painted me as this crazy person sending her 15 paragraph e-mails every other day.  I was angry at her unprofessionalism and denial of any wrongdoing.  But I was also angry at myself.  I came home thinking of all the things I could have said in response to her.  I wanted to tell her to calm down, to stop yelling and being so defensive and take responsibility for her lack of communication with the association (EVERYONE, even the current board, has complained that “A” does not respond to pointed e-mails and telephone calls).  I wanted to dispute her recounting of the numerous e-mails I had sent (the next day I checked my e-mail account and confirmed that I had sent exactly 5 e-mails in the 3 months leading up to and immediately following the roof replacement; 2 of them were asking for replies to the previous e-mails I’d sent).  But I hadn’t.  I just moved on.  I went over and over in my head all the ways it could have played out if only I had said. . . I thought about all those times in my life that I walked away wishing I had stood up for myself more, corrected inaccurate accusations, not tried to be the “bigger person” and shut that other party the hell down.  I wanted to know how to be a better arguer.

The following day I had lunch with my two good friends who also happen to be attorneys.  They argue for a living and having seen them both in action, both in the court and in real life, I wanted to know what made them so good at standing their ground in an argument.  So I decided to ask them.

My Secret Shame: Part 2

January 27, 2010

Several times over the past 16 years I would visit the University advising office in the hopes that there was some way I could finish my degree without having to go back and complete that French class. Each time I was told no: I had to take the final semester of French, and that was that. Each time I would walk away dejected.

Cut to November, 2008. I was serving as an election judge for the presidential election. I was chatting with another judge, an older woman, about where we had attended college. Now, I never lied about not having finished my degree but it isn’t the first detail I announce about myself either. If I am asked straight out what my degree is in I tell the truth, but if someone only asks me where I attended college or what my major was, I answer that and only that. This woman flat out asked me about my degree so I confessed I didn’t actually finish. I told her about that last French class that had been hanging over my head. She said that she too, had been in that exact same position and she was allowed to complete a culture course instead. What? Angels sang and the heavens opened! Why had no one else ever told me about this?

True to form, I dragged my heels. I was still terrified of failing. I had been an abysmal student before and what if I hadn’t learned my lesson? My husband was constantly on me about finishing my degree. I told him I was scared, scared of screwing it up again. He told me that he would be there to support me and make sure I didn’t screw up. For the first time in a long time, I was able to throw off that mantle of fucking up and believe that I really could do this.

So a few weeks ago I re-enrolled at the University and met with my advisor. She told me that I could petition the powers-that-be to be allowed to take a culture course in lieu of the French language course I still needed. I had no idea what my chances were but I left her office with a glimmer of hope. I sent off my petition, describing my poor preparation for school and my lack of focus and discipline. I said there was no way I would go back and take the final session of French and I was in no position to take it from the first semester all over again. I said if I was not allowed an alternative course of action I would never obtain my long sought after degree. Then I waited.

Classes were starting and I desperately wanted to register. I checked my e-mail account every 15 minutes to see if I had a response. I received an e-mail update saying that there were many reasons not to approve my request and very few to approve it but the committee in charge of making the decision was leaning towards approving it. A week later I received notice from the senior advisor of the college of liberal arts that my petition had been approved. He said that no such request had been approved in the 13 years he had been in his position and my circumstances were extremely unique. I can’t express the joy that I felt in that moment, reading his e-mail as I stood in line to pay for groceries. Finally, my goal was in reach: I had a chance to redeem myself.

Due to a new requirement I also have to complete an additional psychology class. I enrolled in it straightaway, yet still have to find an available culture class to take. The secret I have carried all these years will soon be dissipated. I regret abusing the freedom and opportunity I was given those many years ago, but I am hopeful that I can prove to myself that I can do better, this time around.

My Secret Shame: Part 1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been arguing with myself over if I should write about this subject. When I asked my husband if I should, he said, “Why not? You’ve written about everything else.” Well, not our sex life, but almost everything else. So here goes.

I have a secret. I have held this secret close to the vest for many, many years, and only a few close friends and family members know the truth. Now, any random person reading this blog (the 3 of you who do) will know as well: I do not have a college degree. Now you may ask, “Piggy, what is the big deal with that? Lots of people never went to college. You are obviously an incredibly intelligent, articulate person and a superb writer nonetheless.” To this I would say of course you are correct, however I did go to college, I just didn’t finish. I had one class left and I didn’t get the job done. Not finishing what I started has been the great shame I have carried with me for the past 16 years.

I was an damn good student in grade school and high school. I graduated with honors and got inundated with college brochures. I was used to being one of the smart kids, and I didn’t even have to try very hard. Neither of my parents had gone to college, or any of my older siblings, but my going to college was a given.

When I arrived at the University of Minnesota 22 years ago I was overwhelmed. I was on my own for the first time and horribly unprepared for the rigors of college life. I didn’t know how to study: I’d never really had to do it before. Looking back I think the more important factor was that I was now a tiny fish in a huge pond. I’d always been used to being special, being a stand-out: here, there were tens of thousands of stand-outs. Instead of going to class and reading my text books, I was busy flitting from dorm room to dorm room, frat party to frat party, focusing on socializing rather than school. I didn’t know who I was or what my role was, and I didn’t know how to work for what I wanted. I was a terrible student: a failure.

My college transcript in an embarrassment. I did well in the classes I was interested in, like psychology and writing, but everything else I blew off. I was in school for 6 years because I had withdrawn from or failed so many classes. That final year I had one more step to take: complete the dreaded language requirement. I had taken 5 quarters of French and only needed the last quarter to graduate. Then my financial aid ran out because I had attempted too many credits. So I gave up.

For years upon years I planned to go back and finish that last class. I tried to practice my French so I wouldn’t forget. But I never did go back. And as each year passed, the French that had been a struggle for me to learn from the beginning slipped away. Soon, the prospect of taking that last class became a dreaded and terrifying thing. Moreover, I was traumatized by my poor performance in school. I struggled to make sense of my underperformance and I was horrified that if I went back I would only fail again. I convinced myself that it could not be done, and I would never have a degree. I had disappointed myself and my mother. I was deeply ashamed, and I didn’t see a way to redeem myself. I mostly just tried not to think about it. Telling this to the world is not easy. I am afraid people will think less of me, as I did of myself

Part 2 is next, and there may be a happy ending.

An Invitation?

January 21, 2010

A couple of weekends ago I met with a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in awhile. We had lunch and toured a museum and it was great seeing her. Even though we don’t get together very often – maybe once or twice a year- whenever we are together it is like picking up right where we left off. At the end of our date one of us said, “We’ll have to do this again soon.” Then she said, “But we always say that.” I said, “But we do see each other, just not always ‘soon’.”

My friend and I keep in touch by e-mail and I feel like I sort of know what is going on in her life, but I certainly don’t know the day to day details like I used to. I can’t remember the last time we spoke on the telephone. So why don’t we get together more often? It isn’t as though she lives in another state – she lives about 30 minutes away from me. Part of it is life. We used to hang out together all the time (she was my partner in crime the night we met Prince!) in our 20’s. We met our freshman year in college and lived together for a couple of years. Even after she was married ten years ago we still would get together quite frequently. Eventually she had a baby, which naturally took up most of her time. I was still single and our lives were different. It is expected that as we grow and take on more responsibilities, friendships change and you don’t get to see each other as much as you once had. But the main part, I think, is that I suck at staying in touch. I am terrible at scheduling time with my friends. I have always been this way, even as a child. I was always the one accepting invitations, rarely the one extending them. I was always the one staying overnight at someone else’s house or hanging out there after school. I have no single memory of having anyone over to play at my own house. My mother was the same: we were forever visiting her friends at their homes and hardly ever did they visit us at ours.

Even now, I hardly ever call my friends or suggest that we get together. We rarely have anyone over to our house (although the main reason for that is my psycho dog), and almost anytime I see my friends outside of work it is at their invitation. Why am I like this? Is it arrogance on my part? Or laziness? Am I afraid of rejection?

Part of it is I am a solitary person by nature. It simply doesn’t occur to me to ask people if they’d like to spend time with me because I am so protective of my alone time. Part of it is habit and a manifestation of how I grew up. I think I end up taking my friendships for granted to some degree and believe that since we used to hang out the connection will remain even if I don’t work at keeping that connection.

I wish I wasn’t that way but as I get older, the less time I want to spend painting the town red and yakking on the telephone. I am grateful that my friends pick up the slack and still want to spend time with me, but I recognize I need to be better at holding up my end of the bargain if I want them to remain friends.