Monday, July 27, 2009

Soup's On!

From our youngest years we are taught to love America because it is a melting pot, a place where different people come to make new lives, find hope, and succeed. And while all of those may be fully possible in our lovely United States, the idea that we are all joining hands and singing Kumbaya seems a far distance from our reality.

As we grow older, we visit Ellis Island and learn that our ancestors’ names were changed to be more “American,” we realize that Chinatown and Little Italy are completely separate entities, and that our internal magnets are automatically attracted to trust those who are most similar to ourselves.

Through my nights of ticket-selling, I’ve come to the conclusion that people love the familiar, they like to feel like part of the group, and be included where they are welcome. The Jews run to Pinchas Zuckerman, the Blacks to John Legend, the lesbians to Indigo Girls, the Swedish to ABBA, the Asians to Yo Yo Ma… Of course, the audience is made up much more than the group to which the performer belongs, but that desire for inclusion, that support for someone so similar to oneself is clear.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s no problem in supporting your peeps but to quote Rabbi Hillel (bring on the JTS jokes): If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Will there come a time when we reach out to other groups, to people so different from ourselves with whom we want to bond, see life from their perspective, support their causes and treasure their values?

Last night I was walking in a Hispanic neighborhood with two other girls. We were conversing in Spanish and from out of the dark a boy from my dual language class asks if he could walk with us. “¿Sí, por qué no?” We casually compared summer stories as we walked the dimly lit streets and I could not help but feel somewhat uncomfortable. As I anxiously fumbled with my silver J zipper pull, I tried to remember that this boy had selflessly donated money to Breast We Can(cer)! only months after emigrating from Mexico, that he was always friendly, and despite the fact that this wasn’t the safest neighborhood, nothing out of the ordinary would occur. He said adiós at his apartment building and the other girls confirmed that they too were oddly uncomfortable; as guilty as we felt, there was something odd about the unprecedented friendliness.

It seems that in this world we must always be on watch, always weary about what may happen next, who will try to take advantage of us, hurt us, or scam us. We have barely melted together yet drawn such stringent boundaries that it seems nearly impossible to cross to the other side. My high school was much of that from West Side Story (except snapping and dancing in the halls was never much appreciated). The White Kids had their territory and the Hispanic Kids had theirs. That’s it.

And it seems that the hallways of life barely deviate from that arrangement. We segregate ourselves by social status, ethnicity, religion; putting ourselves in little compartments that only likenesses of ourselves can enter. We are not melted together in a delicious stew but merely sit side by side like the abundance of Campbell’s soup cans at a supermarket. With our shiny wrappers protecting us we can ensure that Classic Tomato never falls in the same bowl Cream of Celery and dare not even touch the same spoon as Chicken Noodle. Sure, there are a lot of us, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but when can we finally put these together, understanding each other and appreciating our differences? While tolerance and coexistence still have a far way to come, we must strive for so much more than that. Tenemos que luchar para un mundo mejor, un mundo en que podemos hacer todo juntos, mano en mano, donde comprendemos y apreciamos las diferencias de otros y donde queremos ser las personas únicas, las personas especiales y raras, y donde tenemos la capacidad de amar a todos por quienes son.

Because no matter what language we speak, what color skin we have, who we love, or what religious beliefs we maintain, we are all people.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Other Side

How quickly we forget! How easy it is to let all the little things slip from our minds while allowing seemingly important issues to take over our lives. How effortlessly we let materialism guide our lives before even thinking of other human beings.

In my first month of the dual-job summer, I have begun to realize a lot about the world around me, noticing little details which seemed invisible only a few weeks earlier. After chasing eight year old girls around at arts camp all day, mirroring dance move and demonstrating drama exercises, I slip home for a quick shower and a change of uniform and quickly depart for my second minimum wage job. Following my exhausting day, I plop myself down in a chair with a good novel and a can of La Croix and sell concert tickets for the next five hours. While “overscheduled” may be the first word to come to mind as I remind people of my thirteen hour work day, I find the system rather satisfactory and perhaps even relaxing. My jobs give me a purpose, a duty to fulfill, and I enjoy accomplishing whatever work is put in front of me.

While spending hours behind a desk and a glass window, I’ve received all types of questions from “Would I buy a children’s or adult ticket for my dog?” (Neither? Who brings a dog to a concert?) “What if it’s a puppy? (No.) to “Is it supposed to rain during next week’s concert?” (I don’t know) “How can you not know?” to couples making out in front of me rather than signing receipts to various costumers yelling at me in languages I cannot understand in the least bit. (Seriously, the louder you speak in Russian/Japanese/Kiswahili the less likely I am to understand a word.)

The thing is, after spending time on the other side of the line, I suddenly realize a perspective I have neglected my entire life. It’s so simple for me to swipe my credit card at Trader Joe’s while checking my email in the other hand, to force my reusable bags into the hands of the person at the checkout while maintaining seven different text conversations, and to grab my bagged purchases while updating my Facebook status. All without making eye contact.

In my time behind the counter, I’ve realized that a little smile goes a long way. I’ve learned that an extra once of politeness, an anonymous “Thank you,” truly makes my day more pleasant. I’ve seen the value behind full attention, the obnoxiousness of ignoring the person doing your menial labor just so you can save time and place an order on via iPhone while she rings up your current order.

How often do we think back to the laugh we exchanged with the checkout person at the grocery store, the friendly nod with the salesperson in Nordstrom, or the “Have a nice day” given to us by a banker. I’m willing to bet never. But what if all of those people growled and barked at us like the pesky Chicago Traffic Directors in their neon vests on Michigan Avenue/State Street/every other location where they are unnecessary?

There are so many days when I would rather lay in bed all day rather than venture out to work, but I know I have a responsibility, a task to complete, and I allow the escape to divorce me from any and all personal problems. I find my job almost like a kindergarten dance recital: a forced smile, no matter how cheesy, convinces me I’m happy, convinces others they should be happy, and somehow makes my day better.

Working behind the counter is almost the complete opposite of The Biz. For one, my name and headshot are not printed in a glossy Playbill, my accomplishments are not listed below, and I lack pretty much any opportunity for special acknowledgements. No one is here to see me. I'm often referred to as the lady wearing the purple polo shirt (or worse: the young girl in purple). Just as no one cares about the person selling the groceries/clothes/house, we just want the end result.

But I’ve found solace in my job. I’ve realized that in the few hours I am not working, when I finally have free time to buy a bag of spicy cashews or checkout a new library book, I can make a little bit of a difference in the world. I can try and care about every individual and appreciate her helpfulness. I can put down my cell phone while rushing through the convenience store, I can I return a mandatory “How are you?” with a “Good, thanks, how are you?” and perhaps I can even create conversation.

Because from the other side I’ve realized, that as quickly as we forget, it is just as simple to remember that we are all individuals, we are all humans, we have our flaws and our shortcomings, our moments of invisibility and our time to shine, but we cannot forget that we all have to look out for each other, smile a little more often, and perhaps use the magic words (“please” and “thank you” for those of you who forgot preschool) every once and a while. Because without each other who do we have?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Days Driftin' Away

It seems that it was just yesterday I was sipping mocktails on the seventeenth floor of Sulzberger Hall, singing karaoke to bad 80’s tunes, and attempting to watch fireworks in the rain. I wake up every morning half-expecting to need to run down the block to Rite Aid, not forgetting my Metrocard in case I need to travel anywhere else. I sometimes forget that Crumb is not just thirty blocks away but almost a thousand miles. Yet, this July Fourth I was not partying it up on the Upper West Side, I was back home with my family, viewing fireworks on Lake Michigan, bright cityscape in the background, as if last summer never happened.

The interesting thing about summer is that it is completely unpredictable. Each summer brings new challenges and adventures, new friends and stories, new ideas and inspiration for the year to come.

Traveling to Israel, living in Manhattan, and exploring Europe packed all into three months was the best ninety days I could have asked for in 2008. My experiences in Barnard Pre-College taught me even more than I could have hoped: exploring the city on my own, making it my own, building a new network of friends—everything lead to new discoveries about myself and others that truly changed me when I arrived home.

Growing up, my summers were spent in Wisconsin, then in Boston, and finally at performing arts camps in New York. It never occurred to me that I could enjoy being home when I spent so much time there during the year. And now here it is: my last few months at home, enjoying the summer in a completely new way.

There aren’t any rules for summer. Summer lets us do whatever we want to it, gives us the freedom to make new discoveries, and learn and grow in ways a classroom never could. Perhaps we spend our months learning a new language, skill, or improving our talents. Perhaps we just use the time to take a much-needed break, revitalize our relationships or start new ones. Or perhaps we just wish for it to be over, to return to the regularity of everyday life without the anxieties of having to live capriciously each day.

While I’ve experienced all of the following sentiments about the hotter months, I cannot deny the magic of summer. Its ability to completely transform people who are usually uptight into easygoing beach attendees, its mystifying power to turn the shyest of people into more outgoing characters, its enchanting lure of making the most mundane situations romantic, the most boring days hilarious, its encouraging nudges to find the good in everybody, a purpose in the world.

And of course, summer wouldn’t be anything if it weren’t for the friends. If it’s not reconnecting with new friends, having lunches and late nights that would be impossible during the year, there is always the possibility to meet new people. I couldn’t discuss summer without ignoring my summer pals. There are certain people we just click with, people oddly similar to ourselves or completely different with whom we would never have the chance to connect if it were not for summer break. I’ve maintained strong friendships throughout the years; I’m proud to say I have friends living in multiple cities, countries, and continents. I never feel alone; I almost always know someone where I’m going, and I love when visitors come to Chicago. The stresses of the school year are almost always relieved when I can talk to a summer friend, a person who is not involved in my daily life, and reminisce over good times and talk about a problem I wouldn’t want to discuss with my friends at home.

I love summer. I love the ability to escape from everything, to try anything and everything, experience all that I can in such a short amount of time. I cannot bear to think that at some point I may not have this luxury, that everyday adult life may take over and these summer months will not be as special. But for now, I try to take it a day at a time, enjoy everything I possibly can and indulge in as many adventures as possible. See you in the sun!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The C Word

It seems rather odd that a topic which has completely dominated my conversations over the last eighteen months or so seems to have never pushed its way onto the blog. I find it bizarre that I can manage to fit I single word into every discussion/instant message/Facebook thread/long distance phone call but almost altogether avoid posting it in the place I claim to “explain it all.”

This word, you see, comes with quite a few connotations, a fair share of mystery, and more than enough drama to merit its own Broadway show. Around the age of sixteen, if you haven’t automatically inserted it into your current conversation, someone else is surely bound to. Friends, parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, co-workers, you name it, this filthy utterance is not bellow anyone. Before you know it, the word dominates your every move. Your schoolwork, your activities, your interests, your relationships. It slowly morphs from a concept to a worthwhile idea to a plan to a solid decision. And all the while you constantly spit out the word, despising it more and more each time it leaves the tip of your tongue.

Eventually, that C Word becomes a C Place, and you find yourself making plans and changing your life quicker than you can say “College.”

My first C Word adventure began in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was there I fell in love with the small-liberal-arts-school. The place where classes like yoga are legit credit hours, everyone triple majors in whatever she wants, and cookie-cutter students are nowhere to be seen. Smith College is also home to my first big C Word fight. While the beautiful campus on the lake and swarms of empowered women seemed to immediately win me over, my chaperone had other ideas. “You will not go to college with all those dykes; you will become one, etc, etc…” (No comment.)

And while that fight was fought dozens of times, always ending in tears and desires to catch the next bus to Northampton and never come back, I soon realized it was a battle I would have to lose.

My new home became the College Resource Center, a comfortable seat always welcomed me at my counselor’s desk, and the C Word was never neglected in any type of conversation. Making a concrete list of places both my parents and I wanted me to attend was a mêlée in itself: Is it Jewish? Is it close-by? Is the mascot a Fighting Illini?

Side note: Never ask a high school senior what her first choice is. Just don’t do it. We don’t know where we’ve been accepted, we don’t know where we’ve gotten scholarships, and we may not even know what we really want. Just don’t ask. (Unless you have a strong desire to get slapped in the face.)

The C Word continued to guide my life: my free time was not leisurely but rather spent filling out applications, finding essay topics, editing, revising, submitting, interviewing, and waiting.

Waiting and waiting and waiting. The process is even more strenuous than the actual application process.

And suddenly, when we almost forgot that we’re waiting for letters containing the keys to our future, the big envelopes and small envelopes start to appear. We begin to realize that there is hope, we have made it through the storm, and even if we didn’t get everything we wanted, we survived.

For a week, I wanted to hug my mailman, thank him for all the large envelopes stuffed with stickers and pamphlets and letters from professors and deans and students. Others were not so lucky, believing the USPS mixed up their letters with another’s, hoping the small envelope could only be a mistake.

I never really expressed my gratitude for my college acceptances. I’ll never have any idea if it had to do with the painfully long time I spent on my essays, the overwhelming high school course load I took, or maybe my admissions officer had just gotten an adorable new puppy, eaten a really delicious doughnut, and received a bouquet from an anonymous admirer before reviewing my application. I’ll never deny that I felt guilty complaining over my dilemma of choosing between my top choices (which happened to be across the street from one another…) when others did not have that luxury. I expected absolutely no sympathy in my agonizing stress to reach a verdict before May 1.

And somehow everything worked out. The C Word was replace by Columbia, a word worth saying over and over again, a word to wear on t-shirts and sweatshirts and stationary, and finally a place that I could call home. I tagged a J word, a T word, and an S Word onto my C Word and realized that the excruciating progression of my C Word struggles may have actually been worth the haul.