Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Bucket List

After the movie The Bucket List came out, I began thinking of what would be on mine. But why should a person wait until they are about to kick the bucket to do all the things they want? I am lucky to have had many amazing experiences in my life, but here are some I still hope to accomplish. Feel free to add your bucket lists in the comments!


  1. See the Grand Canyon
  2. Get my motorcycle license
  3. Visit Morocco
  4. Stand up on a surfboard or waterskis
  5. Raise a child
  6. Complete a catch on a trapeze
  7. Publish a book
  8. Go to all 50 states (9 to go!)
  9. Ride in a hot air balloon
  10. Run a marathon
  11. Visit Machu Picchu
  12. See the Northern Lights
  13. Own a pair of Christian Louboutin high heels
  14. Go paragliding
  15. Have a surprise party thrown for me
  16. Learn to meditate
  17. Become an architect
  18. Visit Stonehenge
  19. Make stained glass, or learn to blow glass
I took the 43 Things Personality Quiz and found out I'm a
Lifelong Learning Traveling Tree Hugger

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chapter 14: Out of the Blue

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. At my darkest post-divorce moments, I sometimes thought it never would, or maybe that I didn’t want it to. All the cliché song lyrics reverberated in my head (“I am a rock, I am an island;” “once bitten twice shy;” “here I go again on my own”) reminding me to be a strong, independent woman. But now a different type of song lyric calls out to me because:

I have a boyfriend!

Yup, it’s true. I am dating a guy who comes complete with a bona fide title and Facebook relationship status. As silly as the term “boyfriend” (and frankly the significance I attach to the Facebook proclamation) seems at thirty years old, what else am I supposed to call him? My “suitor?” My “significant other?” My “friend?” My “lover?” The “guy I’m seeing?” Problem is, he is all of those things, and they are all embodied in the term “boyfriend,” so that’s what he is.

This whole thing may seem to have come out of the blue given the nature of what I have been writing. It certainly caught me by surprise, all starting with an e-mail message I received last Monday.

I am no stranger to an e-mail (or now text or Facebook message) popping up now and again from a “blast from the past.” I have remained cordial, if not friendly, with many of my exes, so it is not uncommon for them to check in with me once in awhile (or vice-versa). These messages are always unexpected, but are sometimes pleasing and other times jarring. One example of the latter springs immediately to mind. On the eve of our wedding, James was checking his e-mail, which he did only sporadically. In his inbox was a message from an old flame of mine, congratulating me on my upcoming nuptials. It had been sent weeks before through our wedding website, and the sender did not realize the e-mail address on the site carbon copied both of us. James was furious that someone from my past would still be e-mailing, asking why we were no longer friendly. It took quite a bit of soothing and reassurance on my part to diffuse the situation, and I questioned whether it was worth it to have these exes lurking in the background when I was about to commit my life to one man. But you can’t control who contacts you, I decided.

On the other hand, hearing from an old friend, whether it was a romantic relationship or not, can be incredibly gratifying. The advent of social networking sites has certainly helped further that cause. I have found over the years that these olive branches seem to come in bunches, without any discernable correlation. The last few weeks were one of those clusters. The week before my birthday, I received a message from Owen (of baby mama drama fame), asking if I wanted to meet up. Interested to hear what he’d been doing since New Year’s, I agreed and we went to an industry event together. It was nothing remarkable, but just interesting to see my old buddy after months of exile.

Then a few days after my birthday, I received a Facebook friend request from someone I had relationship with years ago. It was a long distance thing (he lived in Florida), and ended up not working out despite my best efforts to the contrary. During our time together I traveled to visit him, called often, e-mailed and instant messaged, but there was little in the way of reciprocity. I was at a time in my life when I was willing to come up with hypothetical situations to give a guy the benefit of the doubt (“Maybe he didn’t call because his phone battery died.”). After a particularly fervent bitch session about my absent beau, my friend Lauren once commented to me that, “your back must hurt from carrying this relationship.” Lauren’s words stuck with me, and when the phone calls from Florida started becoming fewer and farther between I realized there really was no relationship to fight for. I ultimately chalked the failure up to the distance and the fact that he probably just “wasn’t that into me.”

His friend request caught me by surprise, but the message that came shortly thereafter really threw me for a loop. In it he explained how sorry he was for how our relationship ended and filled me in on the successful path his life had taken since we’d last spoken. He then added that he was “very thankful, because it was the motivation of messing up our relationship that forced me to move forward with my life.” He said he’d thought about be over the years, which surprised me since I felt like I’d been written off. Reading his side of the story, and hearing his reverential tone, put salve on that old wound and reassured me that putting ones heart on the line was not merely Pickwickian foolishness.

Also in that cluster of “blasts from the past” was a birthday message from my high school sweetheart, checking in to see how I’d fared over the years. This was in addition to various social events I attended with old flames who were now shelved in the “friend” category.

Perhaps the most shocking of all was the birthday e-mail from Ramón (whom I had called “Andres” in previous posts but am using his actual name now, with permission). Ramón is someone I knew at MIT. He lived on the same floor in my dorm freshman year, and had a relationship with a friend of mine towards the end of college. For the last two years he drove me from New York to Boston for my annual trip to attend Suzanne’s birthday party. I didn’t know what to expect going in to that first trip in 2007. I would see him occasionally in mixed company, but I’d never spent time with him one-on-one.

During the drive, our conversation flowed relatively easily and we all had a great time in Boston. Ramón and I repeated the trip the following year. He seemed to be much different than the guy who had hurt my friend in college, but that side of him was all I had previously heard about as she didn’t tell me about their relationship until after it was over. Post-collegiate Ramón seemed kind, responsible, sociable, generous and complimentary. The last trait took me by surprise when he directed his compliments towards me, about the outfit I was wearing or the joke I cracked. I wasn’t sure at the time if he was just trying show how much he’d changed or if he was just being himself. Either way I began to understand what my friend may have seen in him years before.

Ramón joined Facebook in early February of this year and sent me a friend request. I hadn’t seen him since he showed up to my joint birthday party with James the previous April. He worked a block from my office, so we agreed to meet up for a drink in the neighborhood. As we sat chatting in the café, he inquired about James, not knowing we’d been divorced for months. I cleared that up quickly, and our night continued on (and on, and on). While both of us had gone into the evening with intentions to simply hang out as friends, by the end of the night a spark had been ignited.

Ramón and I began dating, seeing each at least once a week and speaking on the phone regularly, and I was having a great time with him. Suzanne’s birthday was in early March, and Ramón invited me to stay with him at the hotel in Boston, which I gladly accepted in favor of Suzanne’s sofa. We had an amazing romantic weekend with one glaring exception. On Saturday night we hit the town, with drinks followed by dinner followed by more drinks. When I woke up in the hotel bed in the middle of the night, disoriented and drunken to find Ramón watching television across the room… one thing led to another and, well, as they say, “nothing good happens after 2am.” It was our first disagreement and I felt horrible that I’d instigated it. It wasn’t a blowout, but it put a damper on an otherwise perfect weekend and made for a quiet drive back to New York.

We continued seeing each other and things seemed to be back on track. I took him out for his birthday, which fell a few days after Suzanne’s, and gave him several gifts that I had put some real thought into. I tried to tell him and show how much I appreciated and respected him. I went out with him to meet his friends, and I told mine about him. Oftentimes it seemed like we shared a brain. The phrase “I was just about to say that” was constantly being uttered by one of us.

My grandmother, while driving me to high school one day, told me to seek out a companion “who has a shared background.” For her it was her childhood friendship with my Grandfather’s older sister. She became my Grandfather’s third wife when I was ten years old, and while they had not seen each other for many years it was that formative connection that provided the basis for the relationship that will last them through their twilight years.

I have taken what she said to heart, and understood it to mean the shared background could be anything that shapes who you are as a person, such as hometown, culture, religion, or in my case with Ramón, getting our asses kicked by the same university for four years. MIT is a very self-selecting school, and the kinds of people who get accepted and choose to attend are a certain breed in and of themselves. An MIT student’s innate thirst for knowledge is generally a much stronger character trait than any other, and in that regard I found a kindred spirit in Ramón.

With James, our common ground was much more superficial, and I tried to use all those little commonalities to fill the mold cast by my grandmother. I realize now that liking the same song, for example, should merely be the drywall standing atop a strong foundation, and not the foundation itself. By mid-March I was beginning to feel that Ramón and I had built a strong foundation.

Then one night we were out on a date. We’d had dinner and shot a game of pool before heading to another bar for some beers. In our conversation, he mentioned that he didn’t like how I frequently compared him to James (like I just did above, for example!). In my mind Ramón had many similarities to my ex-husband, but to show how much I appreciated him, I tried to tell Ramón the ways he was the better version. This was especially true in regards to their relationships with their respective children. Ramón feared that I was only with him to make up for my past mistake. I tried to explain that I was intending to be complimentary and let him know that given my history my craziness and insecurities were bound to surface. Yet the more I spoke, the deeper I seemed to dig myself into a hole.

When I arrived home from that frustrating date, I received an e-mail from Ramón. He had decided that our conflict resolution styles and views on relationships were too different, and that there was “somebody out there better for each of us.” He felt that we would have lasted either “two more dates or at least two more decades,” with the same negative outcome either way.

I was so shocked and hurt that I couldn’t imagine carrying on from there as friends. I decided to stop communication with him, which was extremely difficult. I would walk down my block and hear the cars blasting the songs he played on our drive to Boston. I worried that I would run into him on the street near our offices and not know what to say. I reflected on our relationship in my writing, and just couldn’t understand how a person could go from so enamored to dumping someone over e-mail in a matter of hours.

About three weeks later, on the eve of my birthday, a message from Ramón popped up in my inbox. In it he wished me a happy birthday and wrote, “After everything you did for me on my birthday I thought it would be rude for me to ignore yours,” and signed it using the moniker I’d given him in my writing. It was one of those jarring re-emergences, and it left me flummoxed.

I wrote back, saying:

I'm not really sure how to reply to this... Hearing from you is like ripping the scab off a nearly healed wound. I've been trying to move on and learn from all my past experiences (in part by writing a bunch, which I see you've read) so that I don't repeat the same mistakes in the future. It's been hard because over the past couple weeks I have had a few dreams with you in them, and I wake up happy until I realize they were just dreams. So while my conscience understands where you were coming from and that I have to accept it, my subconscious is still in denial or something. I guess it's a little ridiculous to have taken it so hard, but that was the first time I'd really opened my heart up to someone since my divorce, and now I feel pretty foolish for doing so.

He responded to my reply with some kind words, and I left it at that. I was turning thirty the next day, I was single, and I didn’t want to stir up more drama. Just weeks before I’d envisioned he would be the one with whom I would celebrate my birthday. Instead, a line from a Whitesnake song skipped on the turntable in my mind: Here I go again on my own... I knew it was time to move on.

Then last Monday evening, again out of the blue, another e-mail from Ramón graced my inbox. It’s subject? “Egregious error.” Curious and excited, I opened it. It was the kind of note any jilted woman would hope to receive from a man she cared about, a request for a second chance.

I immediately thought, “This is the sort of thing that would happen to the leading lady in a movie, not to me!” And so, in shock, I read and re-read his message.

He wrote that one of the main reasons he called our relationship off was fear. When faced with our conflicts, he was afraid, in part, to revert to the guy he was when he dated my friend. He indicated that his fear oftentimes resulted in bad decisions, and wrote, “The choice I made to end things between us feels like the worst of those bad decisions.”

I thought about his note the rest of the night and into the morning. Ramón’s timing was perfect in one respect. The night before I received his message, I decided to get on the wagon in terms of drinking because I didn’t want to have it influence any relationship I had in the future. He indicated in his e-mail that he had done the same, for the same reasons. He also said he understood if I weren’t willing to just take him back, but he simply wanted another shot. I decided that since the only thing he did to hurt me was cut me out of his life, I would meet up with him if only for coffee to see what he had to say. In case I needed another indicator, while I had been pondering what to do, I continually caught myself smiling. That was a good sign, right?

We met that afternoon at a coffee shop near our offices, ironically called “Peace & Love.” The conversation started off a bit awkwardly, but soon we fell in to our old familiar banter. Ramón invited me to dinner, and then followed that up with the suggestion we grab a drink somewhere. That drink consisted of sparkling water for him and fruit juice for me, of course, given our new teetotaler status. We held each other’s hands at the bar and discussed what was transpiring between us. I went home that evening feeling very optimistic.

The next day I told Ramón that I was “all for forgive and forget and second chances and fresh starts” but needed reassurance that he wouldn’t suddenly bail on me again. His reply was extraordinarily endearing and very much in character:

I once saw a Military Channel show about pilot training. It was talking about airplane ejections. Apparently in fighter jets an ejection is nothing more than a controlled explosion, and is therefore quite violent and excruciatingly painful. As training potential pilots are strapped into a device that mimics an ejection for two reasons: 1) to practice survival techniques for ejecting (the forces are so great about 1% of the candidates have a leg bone snap in the training), and 2) to understand exactly how bad an ejection is and therefore fundamentally understand it's an option to be avoided at all costs.

I wish I could have had similar training. But now that I understand what it means to pull the emergency lever on somebody I care so deeply about, I am supremely confident I will treat that action with the apprehension and respect it deserves.

After receiving that explanation, I felt confident I could safely pursue a relationship with Ramón. We discussed how to approach our rekindled romance. Everyone (from my best friend to my Gram) who heard about us warned me to take things slowly. Yet that didn’t seem to be our style. We followed up our “second first date” with lunch one day last week, spent practically the entire weekend together, and then had dinner yesterday. We have already made plans for this weekend and for various events in May. The past week has been filled with stories, like-mindedness, canoodling and laughter to the point of tears.

There are moments we look at each other in bewilderment, wondering how it took us this long to get to where we are now, and how quickly we got there once we started down this path. The other day over coffee, he joked that he is the kind of guy who waits three days to call a girl after getting her phone number. But since he’d had mine for three years, I joked that he’s gotten the units wrong in my case!

Things with Ramón seem much different this time around. Our conversations, in addition to consisting of the interesting topical fodder we’d always shared, have gone to a deeper level. I like to attribute some of that openness to the fact that Ramón has been an avid reader of my blog (Hello, darling!). I have been so honest with the public, and myself, that I think it has helped him understand me better. In turn he is much more open and compassionate with me (He showed up this weekend with a birthday gift for me, the sentimentality of which a thousand times over made up for the fact he wasn’t there on the actual day). Plus, to add even more support to our foundation, he now knows pretty much my whole history and I, his – both the good and the bad.

People always cite the importance of communication in a relationship. Speaking for myself, as a socially awkward nerd trying to reform, communication isn’t my strong suit. I think because we were forced to be open with each other to rebuild our mutual trust the second time around, communication now comes much more effortlessly. In fact I feel this newfound transparency has entirely compensated for the time we lost while we were apart, and as a result spending time with him feels both so comfortable and yet still so new.

Several months ago I saw two teenagers in the subway station making out and staring deep into each other’s eyes, as if they were the only people on the platform. Feeling cynical at the time, I thought to myself “Well, I will never feel that way again.”

There is something about young love, like that I witnessed, which can never be replicated. But when I am with Ramón those charming stirrings are brought forth (mostly in the form of butterflies in my stomach, which I can safely say I have not felt in many, many years). I have renewed faith that a relationship can be honest, exciting, safe, caring, and passionate. This feeling was only augmented when I walked out of my apartment building this morning and saw a pregnant alley cat weaving amongst the budding tulips in the garden, and I thought:

Life can begin anew, especially in the springtime.

So that is how, out of the blue, I went from a sullen, single thirty year old to feeling like a giddy teenager. The idiom “out of the blue” originated in1837 in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, in which he referred to something as being “sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue,” referring to a bolt of lighting that come out of the clear, blue sky. While our burgeoning relationship may have been reinstated as instantaneously as that lightning strike, I take comfort in knowing that when I look up to the sky, the sun is in fact shining down on me.

30 things about me

I like lists. I am not super goal oriented, but lists give me something to strive for and a sense of completion. I published this list on Facebook on February 2, 2009 - 30 random things about me as I was about to turn 30.

  1. I have been a vegetarian for over 13 years. In that time I have intentionally eaten meat on 3 occasions: French onion soup in Paris in 1999 with Lara, and then last year I had octopus and a mussel at Las Ramblas with Lucia, Cathy and Aisha; and ate random meats in China, including duck heart, feet and tongue; shark fin soup; sea cucumber, etc.
  2. I have had the same cell phone number and provider since I got my first phone in 2000. My number spells 61-PALM-TREES (leave off the last S for Savings)
  3. I have never broken a bone, but have had surgery on my lazy eye twice (at ages 2 & 12). That eye is a little far-sighted, and the other is severely near-sighted.
  4. I have truly been in love three times.
  5. I have been to 41 of the 50 states (plus DC and PR), and hope to get to the rest soon! I have also been to 13 countries.
  6. I have funky thumbs that look like toes (Caroline dubbed them my thoes)
  7. I am very sensitive to high pitched noises. I can if the TV is on (but the cable box is off) from the next room.
  8. I get great joy knowing that my ex-husband’s friends still want to be friends with me, but my friends and family would only ever want to see him again to cause him bodily harm.
  9. Easter is my favorite holiday because it symbolizes ducks, bunnies, chocolate, Spring, and the approach of my birthday (twice in my life they were on the same day; one of those times I had the chicken pox).
  10. I have traveled by car, sailboat, bus, ferry, U-Haul, motorcycle, ferry, airplane, helicopter, bicycle, taxi, parachute, toboggan, motorboat, innertube, chair-lift, kayak, subway, paddle boat, monorail, elevator, ice skates, skis (cross-country and downhill), foot, commuter rail, canoe, cable car, trolley, cog railway, wave runner, moving walkway, el, catamaran, big wheel, light rail, zipline, coach, limo, whitewater raft, tram, escalator, regional rail, party bike, vaporetto, mine train, red wagon, rollerblades/skates, pontoon boat, skateboard, people mover, wheelchair, hovercraft, high-speed train, gondola lift, rubber-tyred metro, Town Car. I have never traveled by Gondola, horse & buggy, jet-ski, rickshaw, pedi-cab, jet pack, magic carpet, balloon, dirigible, hang glider, hydrofoil, or rocket.
  11. I am a terrible housekeeper. I hate doing dishes and laundry especially.
  12. I drink my coffee (and tea) black.
  13. I recently lost 30 lbs, and weigh about what I did in Junior High. I also have bangs now for the first time since then.
  14. I am fully confident that the Cubs will win the World Series in my lifetime.
  15. I am sometimes ashamed of my career given my education. I know certain family members are disappointed in me, but I am happy in my new career.
  16. I am a Jane of all trades, but a master of none.
  17. I don’t think I am as good a person as I was when I was half my age. I would like to write a memoir about my quest to get back to that person. It would be called “From Nerdy to Thirty”
  18. Life is too short for single-ply toilet paper.
  19. I have been to 202 restaurants in the2009 NYC Zagat’s Guide, and am going to #203 tonight.
  20. My first memories, around the age of 2, are of being told I couldn’t do something that I felt I was capable of; being nervous I couldn’t do something expected of me, or being afraid of getting in trouble for something I did.
  21. I moved to NYC on September 1, 2001. I didn’t know the buildings I saw burning 10 days later were the WTC until I got up to my office on 26th Street and was told by coworkers. I thought they were apartment buildings.
  22. I get grey hairs *and* pimples. WTF?
  23. I have had several people tell me I am like Deb from Napoleon Dynamite. And truth be told, about 16 years ago, I was!
  24. My favorite color is turquoise.
  25. I have a tattoo of a rubber ducky, and am thinking about getting a second tattoo. Pretty much everyone in my mom’s family has a tattoo, including my Gram, who got hers (a whisky logo) just shy of her 80th birthday.
  26. My feet have very high arches, and I am both flattered and uncomfortable when people notice.
  27. I have two cats, Boo (my fat black pussycat) who is 8 or 9 years old and kinda mean and Duke (el tigre) who is about 6 and very needy but empathetic.
  28. I am not really the kind of person to get nicknamed, but people in my life have called me kJ (Dad), KK (Doug), Mush (Carol), Kitty (Tudor) and Katie-Kates (Anna)
  29. I am very loyal to, and willing to pay extra for, Dove deodorant, Aveeno moisturizer, DVR, and my unlimited MetroCard.
  30. Two items on my bucket list are learning to ride a motorcycle and taking trapeze lessons.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chapter 12: This Jane-of-all-Trades Marches to the Beat of Her Own Drummer (part 2)

MIT is known for recruiting “well-rounded” students. The campus does have its share of geniuses who would prefer to stay in the laboratory or in front of the computer all day, but the majority of students become involved in the wide spectrum of activities at MIT. I can’t think of anyone who did not join any organizations while on campus. My college counselor in high school told me that I would like MIT because “the students play pranks on each other and if you wanted to start a club, even tiddlywinks, they let you.”

I wasn’t much for pranks or tiddlywinks, but I understood what she meant. The students were not only intelligent, but also playful, creative and interesting, making “Word Hard, Play Hard,” the most enduring campus maxim. Basically, anything an MIT student puts his or her mind to will be done to the extreme, whether it is a prank, a children’s game, classes, a night at the bar, or anything else.

During the summer before heading off to Cambridge I received a packet in the mail with flyers from the various organizations on campus. I spent a sunny afternoon perusing the sheets, developing my plan of attack to break out of my adolescent shell and jump right in to all college had to offer. I had decided to take this school by storm. I signed up for a leadership retreat held just prior to orientation with 75 other incoming freshmen, hoping to start my collegiate career off on the right foot.

I arrived on campus for the retreat with an ankle sprained the day before on my brother’s backyard trampoline. Suzanne was the first person I met, and we ended up sitting next to each other on the bus ride to the camp. Suzanne and I hit it off from the start and now more than ten years later, we are still extremely close. By the time we returned to campus, the students from the retreat were already a pretty tight group. I had guys giving me piggy back rides around campus because my ankle was so gimpy (in fact, I even had a nickname – Gimp – which was a first). My introduction to MIT was such a far cry from my initiation at my high school.

The dorm I chose to live in had an “open door” policy, meaning anytime your door was open, people could stop by and say hi. Most freshmen ended up in quads that flanked either end of the halls. These rooms with their sofas and ample space to sprawl out often became gathering places for the upper classmen, and my room was no exception. My roommates and I enjoyed playing hostess to the many visitors who stopped by, and the camaraderie of the dorm helped pull me out of my shell.

During orientation week I rushed the sororities. This was a different experience than simply joining a club as it was a mutual selection process. Not only did you want them, but they had to want you back. Though I didn’t know it during rush, the sorority I pledged, Alpha Chi Omega, had a reputation on campus that matched my personality: “Nice girls who like to have a good time.”

I popped into the campus newspaper office during my first week and sat in on their production meeting. I was assigned an exciting story about the Air Force Secretary returning to MIT. Inexperienced in the newsroom and uncomfortable cold-calling people, I prepared my questions in advance of the interview. Over my time at The Tech this skill was honed, as was simply walking up to a stranger in the student center and asking for a quote for that week’s story.

My editor at The Tech always told us to “keep your fingers on the pulse” of the university, and I think that’s why I enjoyed working there so much. As a reporter, it was my job to be a little nosy and to know what was going on. As Features Editor I had even more freedom to discover interesting things that had happened and were happening at MIT; to interview amazing students, professors and alumni; and to share my findings with others. I never felt more connected to the ‘Tute than I did during that time.

So I had the leadership folks, I had my sorority sisters, I had my dorm friends and I had the newspaper staffers. I had built myself a strong network and, for the first time in a long time, I was genuinely happy. I dated boys, went to fraternity parties, shopped on Newbury Street, and hung out in my dorm room with my roommates skipping classes in favor of watching Sesame Street and Jerry Springer. It was college life, and I loved it.

I am not sure what the made the most difference. Maybe it was the independence gained from living on my own for the first time. Maybe it was because the students at MIT are very self-selecting and have inherent similarities. Maybe I took advantage of the opportunity to reinvent myself. Even though I’d changed throughout high school, I was already and always pigeon-holed by my classmates into the first impression they had of me during my freshman year.

My four years at MIT were not easy, but were bearable because of the people who surrounded me. My activities varied from year to year. To earn money, I tutored children in reading for the first two years of college and kept the students caffeinated at the 24-hour coffeehouse during my last two years. That job was fantastic – I could play whatever music I wanted, work on my problem sets and meet and greet the patrons of the shop. I fielded just about every behind-the-scenes role offered by the musical theater club, and I dabbled in student government. I worked hard to keep a balance of work and play, science and art, solitude and company.

I was also proud that my friends hailed from every dorm. MIT’s “East” and “West” campuses are divided by Massachusetts Avenue. West Campus was where you would find my dorm, the on-campus fraternities, the cultural houses, and the dorm with suites. West campus was the “normal” side of campus. East campus is where you would be more likely to find those pranksters my college counselor spoke of. Residents there were likely to be extremely intelligent, sporting all black and a funky hairstyle. The two sides of campus didn’t face off in some West Side Story showdown, but inasmuch as MIT was already an inherently self-selecting community, it was even more so internally. I was proud of how often I found myself crossing these barriers.

I decided to declare Environmental Engineering as my major. Chemical Engineering as a career sounded good in high school, but in Boston I realized I was more curious how chemistry works in the real world, not in a test tube. I was (and still am) a bit of a tree-hugger, so I figured after graduation I would go out and save the planet. My high school AP classes earned me enough credits that I was able to take whatever electives interested me. I focused on poetry and Victorian-era literature classes. I took as many classes as I felt I could handle, five or six a term.

I quickly realized if I kept up that pace I could easily pull off a double major in Literature. The best part of choosing that major was their leniency in deciding what a “Literature” course was. History, Art, Writing and Theater classes all counted towards the degree. My poor, confused brain was thrilled. It meant that my junior and senior years I could study just about whatever I wanted (or whatever gave me a schedule with a three-day weekend!) and walk away with two degrees from MIT.

It took a little convincing to get my advisor and the department chair to sign off on my double degree forms. My advisor questioned whether I could handle it; I suspect she did not think I was a very strong student. She knew I only passed my fall term freshman physics class because the professor, upon realizing I had the lowest test scores in the class but the highest homework and lab scores, took pity on me and encouraged me to learn how to study better for tests.
The chair asked me, “Well why don’t you just take the classes for your own benefit? Why do you need the degree?”

Why? Because I am paying for an MIT education, and everyone loves a good buy-one-get-one!

Plus, I argued, these humanities classes were all that kept me sane amidst the rigors of my technical classes. In fact, my poetry writing class and my sex roles and relationships class were downright therapeutic!

Senior year I focused on recruiting for a post-collegiate job. I still didn’t have a clear idea what an “Environmental Engineer” was exactly let alone what I wanted to do with my life! So, I interviewed with any company that would see me and also applied to graduate school. I knew I wasn’t cut out for finance (my supervisor at my summer internship at Ford told me I “lacked business acumen”), but thought consulting might be a good fit for me. I also interviewed for industry jobs. After what felt like hundreds of interviews, I received four offers and two graduate school acceptances. They were all wildly different career paths, and I’ll always wonder where those paths would have taken me, had I chosen differently.

I was accepted to both the MIT and Stanford Masters of Engineering programs but decided another year’s tuition was not worth it when I wasn’t sure how fervently I wanted to pursue environmental engineering. I had offers from Schlumberger and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad doing environmental work in the field. But the locations were in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t sure wearing a hard hat was what I wanted. I had an environmental consulting offer with Malcolm Pirnie, a large firm in White Plains, New York, but the job description primarily included overseeing wastewater treatment plants, and after the first time I set foot in one, I vowed never to again.

Lastly was an offer from a supply chain consulting firm in New York City. The job was interesting to me because I liked the idea of increasing efficiency. One of my favorite books growing up was Cheaper by the Dozen, about an efficiency expert with twelve children. I loved the idea of using logical systems to minimize the amount of time, money and energy a company wasted. Plus, the people where culled from the best schools, the salary and benefits were great, I would be able to travel, and the office had a foosball table! Best of all I would be in New York City where many of my classmates were also landing after graduation.

I spent the summer after graduation working in Venice, Italy doing FORTRAN models of environmental systems, before moving to Manhattan on September 1, 2001. I would be renting a room an amazing four bedroom apartment on 28th Street. It was a great neighborhood, and I was excited to be living with three complete strangers with interesting careers. I started at my new job, which was walking distance from the apartment. I was on my way to work ten days after I moved to the city, when I saw people looking down Sixth Avenue at a building on fire. I thought to myself “Gosh, I wonder how people in those big apartment buildings get out when there is a fire.”

It was only when I made it upstairs to my office that I was informed those were, in fact, not apartment buildings but the World Trade Center. We watched from our office window as the towers crumbled and debated whether it was safer to stay put or go home. I ended up heading home and after a failed attempt to donate blood at St. Vincent’s Hospital, returned to my apartment to seek solace in my new roommates.

Everyone was in shock that day, and I couldn’t help think to myself that I had asked for this. Raised in a blasé MTV generation, in college I couldn’t help but feel that we didn’t have an event that defined us. I would look through the old editions of The Tech and wonder what it would have been like to be at the sit-ins staged on campus in the late 1960s. Activism seemed to be dead as we entered the new millennium, but in a few brief moments on September 11th, 2001, all that changed. We had our Pearl Harbor, and one day I will tell my grandchildren that I was there, but to be honest I would have preferred to just put flowers in my hair and rolled in the mud.

The tragedy that was 9/11 made New Yorkers more compassionate, thus easing my transition to the new city. Because we had an apartment well-suited to entertaining, friends of all four roommates, who were seeking to “nest” in those hectic times, would come over to our apartment. Amidst the chaos, the dot com bubble was also bursting and the economy was unstable. As a result, only three months after I started, my company declared bankruptcy and laid off our entire staff.

I had moved to the city with certain expectations (financial, career path, etc) and suddenly found myself in a completely different situation. I hadn’t even worked long enough to be eligible for unemployment. I returned home for Christmas, and regrouped back in New York in the New Year. I was lucky to land a job at a restaurant that January – I had a little experience, but the manager hired me because he “liked my vibe.” And thus began my third job and third field since graduating six months earlier.

I continued applying to jobs while I was a waitress, eventually landing one at an environmental engineering consulting company doing precisely what I’d tried to avoid when choosing my job out of school. The company had over-hired, and as last one in I was first one out. In short-order, I landed another similar job with a similar firm. And sure enough, I grew to despise that job over my year there, and tried to seek the balance in my life that I had enjoyed so much in college. I had started watching home decorating shows on cable and redecorated the apartment I lived in, to much acclaim. I even registered for a few evening classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

One of my only regrets in life was my decision not to major in Architecture. For years I have held on to an article from Elle Magazine in which business woman Barbara Roberts was quoted as saying, "The secret to success is remembering the Girl Scout Badges you were most proud of ... they'll tell you what you should be doing in life." The badge I earned for the model apartment I constructed from a cardboard box with bits and bobs from around the house was always the one I remembered most fondly. Somehow my eight year old self had more foresight than her eighteen year old counterpart.

All signs clearly pointed to the fact that I was in the wrong career. I pinned the quote up in my cubicle, continued taking classes, and waited for the opportunity to make the career switch. I began applying for interior design jobs, even though I was wildly under-qualified for most of them. Entry level interior design jobs are oftentimes unpaid internships, and part of me actually hoped I would get laid off from my engineering job so I could go on unemployment to pay the bills while I started out in interior design.

In March of 2004 I finally got my wish. I make an annual pilgrimage back to Boston to celebrate Suzanne’s birthday. I made plans to go up for her birthday weekend as always, but also to support her following a break-up. The Wednesday before her party my boss told me I needed to work on Saturday at a job site. I told him I was unavailable as I had to be in Boston on Friday night, but he told me nobody else who could be there. So, reluctantly and angrily, I cancelled my plans.

I awoke to pouring rain Saturday at five in the morning. I called my boss who confirmed work was still on. I put on my steel-toed boots and Gorton's Fisherman rain suit before hopping on the train for the hour-long commute to the job site. I arrived at the site where my boss said they were scheduled to be working, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. I checked in at the field office, and learned my client was at a different location on the property. When I finally reached him, he was surprised to see me. It turns out the area I was scheduled to oversee had been taken care of the weekend prior, and I wasn’t needed for that day’s work.

I stormed back to the train, furious at the miscommunication. Not only had my boss ruined my planned trip, but I was schlepping around the city in the rain at the crack of dawn. Adding insult to injury was that until two weeks prior, I had coordinated my schedule directly with the client. My boss, in some sort of power play, decided he had to act as middle man and began telling me when I needed to be there. And he screwed it up - royally.

Luckily, the next week I had jury duty so was able to cool down a bit. When I returned to work, I asked around the office to see if there was any new work to be done, but everyone seemed hesitant to give me a project. I knew in my gut that the end was near, and even told some friends I thought so. Sure enough, that Friday, I was called into the conference room and let go.
For most people getting laid off is a disaster. For me, it was exactly what I wanted and needing to begin my career transition. They asked the office manager, a friend of mine, to escort me from the premises. As we rode down the elevator together he asked me, “Why are you smiling?”

Because this is the beginning of the next phase in my life!

Now, every year when Suzanne’s birthday rolls around and I head back to Boston, I am grateful for that singular year I was forced to miss her party, because it meant I could re-invent myself.
The career change wasn’t easy. The owner of the first interior design company I worked for hired me much like my former restaurant manager did. He only cared that I was smart and had a good vibe. He put his faith in me, and I learned more from that job than I had in all my classes at FIT. After my unemployment ran out, I bounced around quite a bit and ended up back in restaurants for a few years while trying to get my footing in design. A recent count revealed that I’ve held twenty-four jobs in the last fifteen years, and fourteen of them were after graduating college. I challenge any of my classmates to top that!

The upside to switching careers is how much happier I am in my current job than I was at any one previously. I work for a small interior design company (it’s only the owner and I who do the design work) as a project manager of sorts for high-end residential and hospitality projects. I shoulder most of the responsibility for making sure the projects are completed, and oversee a half a dozen projects with budgets ranging from half to a million and a half dollars. I generally work independently, and have learned quite a bit as a result. I have been with this company longer than any other – almost two years. However, I am looking for a new challenge because even this position is flawed. For one thing, I don’t get to do as much of the actual designing as I’d like, I hope to work for myself.

The downside to bouncing around so much is I haven’t really had the chance to advance in my field, especially when it comes to financial compensation. Over the past six years I have been on unemployment more than once, and even on public assistance for health care. I am still paying off my student loans, have credit card debt, no retirement savings (or any sort of savings for that matter), and must live an hour commute from my office to have a place I can barely pay for. My current job doesn’t even offer affordable health insurance, and because design jobs generally start at a lower pay scale than consulting, I make less now than what I was offered out of college.
People always tell me how much they respect and admire me for following my dreams, going my own way, marching to the beat of my own drummer or doing what makes me happy. I think from the outside, when you have a job in say finance or consulting, my pseudo-bohemian lifestyle is easily idealized. I think people think I am brave for bucking the stereotypes of MIT and doing something in a creative field that I enjoy.

The truth is, I don’t think it’s bravery at all but quite the opposite. I think after a string of bad luck coupled with unhappiness, I just gave up trying. I spent so much of my life striving to be the best, to satisfy myself and others, that I think I just grew weary. I was not used to being laid off, and certainly not fired. I was used to success, whether it came easily or through hard work. I have let myself internalize my post-collegiate failures to the point I believe them, and am afraid to ask for the responsibilities and compensation that I feel suit my abilities. My desire to switch careers was genuine, but I have also let myself take the easy path instead of pushing myself towards excellence. With that has come a string of jobs that I am vastly overqualified for in some ways and a novice in others. Ultimately, I think my current situation is much more the result of cowardice than the so-called bravery people credit me with.

I am on a certain career path now, but sometimes wish for the strength to just jerk the wheel and send my jalopy careening off that path and into the unknown wilderness. I haven’t been brave enough, and haven’t had the means or client base, to incorporate my own business and strike off on my own in interior design. I’ve developed three different business plans over the years, but never fully followed through on any of them. I looked into a dual masters program at Yale that would leave me as, essentially, a “Green Architect,” but the four years of time and tuition was daunting. I don’t apply to any of the corporate jobs that would have hired me out of college, because how would this MIT graduate explain the last six years of my resume?

Because I have been, for whatever reason, unable to see any of these dreams through, I have devalued myself to the point I accept my current situation as the best I can do, almost as if I were “settling” in a relationship. Ironically, I would never let a boyfriend speak to me the way my boss does, yet I put up with it willingly in the office. The downturn in the economy could not have come at a worse time. Just as I’d learned everything I could at my current firm, after spending enough time there to show on my resume that I could actually hold down a job, when I finally grew tired of my boss’ condescension, and came up with the ideal job for me, suddenly there were no jobs to be had. I feel trapped at my current company, where I am trying to make the best of it. I hoped to have a backup offer to use as leverage my two-year review rolled around, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

Lest I sound like a Debbie Downer, I know the future holds great things for me. I just don’t know what they are. Part of the problem with having so many interests is that no one thing dominates my passion or skill set so I haven’t had one clear road to travel. I remember when I interned at Ford; they had something called a “Six Sigma Black Belt.” I have no idea what that means, but every manager wanted to be one. I realize today that I am not the kind of person to have just one black belt. I have, and always will have, a closet full of yellow, orange and green belts. It leaves me feeling as if, even at the age of thirty, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to chop up my credit cards, chuck my cell phone in the trash, pack up a sarong and some seeds and go practice sustenance farming in a village somewhere.

In that vein, for several years I considered moving out of New York. I visited Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Tucson, Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami, Charleston, and San Juan, taking each one into consideration as my next home. But nothing stacks up against New York, especially for a Jane-of-All-Trades like me who wants a taste of everything.

When I moved to New York, a city with a much stronger pulse than that at MIT, I still strived to keep my finger on it. I started a mailing list, dubbed “Hot Times: Summer in the City.” Each week I scoured the web for free events happening in New York and compiled them into an e-mail I would send to all my friends. I didn’t actually attend many of the events I wrote about, but just knowing they were going on made me feel more connected to the city.

In an effort to take advantage of all the city has to offer, I worked hard to cultivate relationships and establish a clear work-life balance. That balance is what resulted in my layoff from the environmental consulting company. Friendships and cultural pursuits are great but as Liz Phair sang, “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid.”

Getting divorced and turning thirty have motivated me to better my situation in all aspects of my life including career, finances, and relationships. It is a tug of war though between the investment and the potential gains, and I have been trying to feel my way out of this quagmire. The Catch-22 presents itself as such: if I don’t have a good job, I won’t have money. If I don’t have money, I won’t have the means to be social or look good. If I don’t look good and socialize, I will never meet someone which whom I can share the rest of my life. If I am alone, I will be unhappy. If I am unhappy, I will not be confident enough to seek out a better job. Let me explain.

When I was depressed from the break-up, all I wanted to do was be out amongst people rather than cooped up in what I referred to as my “haunted house.” But going out cost the money I shouldn’t be spending, but did anyway. I figured without insurance to go see a therapist, a friendly face on the neighboring barstool was the next best thing. That lifestyle is tiring, and I became distracted from my job which in turn may have endangered my chances of a positive annual review. Just in case that were true, I started thinking about finding a new job, in a happy, safe corporate environment where there was middle management, a 401K, and the occasional Excel spreadsheet. I began fetishizing my friend’s careers they way they had mine.

The stress of the split also resulted in significant weight loss, so my old clothes look ridiculously baggy. As they say, “dress for the job you want,” so unless the job I want is the “after” model in a Dexatrim ad, I need some new clothes. I have slowly begun replacing my wardrobe, but feel like I need a second opinion on what looks good on my new body before investing money on clothes. The only pants in my closet that fit properly right now are two pair of jeans unsuitable for my current dream job of “Sustainable Design Consultant.”

Another motivator to improve my life stems from the realization that as I get older, so do my relatives. My grandfather has been showing his years lately, and had a stroke recently. I truly hope that I can turn my life around before his ends, because his approval means the world to me. He provided the financial support that allowed me to attend and succeed at private high school and MIT. At my graduation from college, I remember thinking that this man who shows so little emotion seemed proud of me. I know he disapproves of my current career. His sister was an interior decorator, and I don’t think she spent four years at a technical college to become one. I would like him to know I am in fact directly using my education, and hope there is some job description out there that allows me happiness and an intellectual challenge.

My grandfather also disapproved of my ex-husband, something he made very clear throughout our relationship by giving him (and me!) the cold shoulder whenever we visited. When I went home for Christmas after my divorce, we celebrated the holiday at my grandparents’ house. At the end of the night, as my grandfather tottered off to bed, he said to me, “Next time, ask me first.” This abrupt and pointed comment from a man of few words shocked me, as I didn’t realize just how fervently he disapproved (and I still am not sure why exactly he did). It’s like when Silent Bob speaks in a Kevin Smith movie. You are so shocked to hear his voice that you just have to listen. I guess there is something to be said for a guy asking a girl’s family for her hand in marriage. Mine probably would have said no, and I mightn’t be a divorcée today!

My abnormal desire to please others may have waned over the years, but my need to show my grandfather I am, and always was, a worthwhile investment, has only increased. It all seems quite daunting, but that is the hurdle I am seeking to overcome before my next birthday. If you wouldn’t mind sending your drummer over for me to march to, I’d appreciate it – I fired my own.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chapter 12: This Jane-of-all-Trades Marches to the Beat of Her Own Drummer (Part 1)

For as long as I can remember I have had the desire to experience everything life offers. My right and left brain battle for control, leaving me, in turns, both logical and emotional. I enjoy science and art, the symbols of math and the words of poetry, the big picture and the tiny details. It means that my interests are varied and that I have a passion for learning. I don’t know if this balance (or is it an imbalance?) was hard-wired in me, or if I should credit my parents.

My dad is an engineer who designs elevator button panels. My mom has held various jobs throughout my life, including in publishing and as a custom drapery fabricator.

Dad would take me to his wood shop in the garage to help me make a car for the sisters’ race at my brother’s Boy Scout Pinewood Derby. Mom on the other hand would sit with me at the kitchen table as we made jewelry for me to sell at the grade school craft fair.

I played with dolls, but I also built with Legos and played G.I. Joe with my brother. I was constantly reading, but I also enjoyed the logic puzzles in crossword puzzle books (who knew both would later prove to be helpful when taking the GRE!). Even though athletics were conspicuously absent, I led a balanced, curious childhood. And if I’d had my way (and if my parents had the money), I would have been an aspiring ballerina or gymnast, too!

My interests continued expanding as extracurricular activities became available through school. In junior high, high school and college I was definitely a joiner. At various points I was in student council, newspaper, yearbook, ski club, bike club, environmental club, Girl Scouts, tennis, track and theater. Every year I loved counting up how many times my photo appeared in the yearbook. I think this mattered more to me than how many people signed the darn thing!

Mom used to chastise me, asking why I thought I was the center of the universe, which I never understood. To me the center of the universe was the center of attention; outspoken, arrogant and flashy. In my head I was shy and awkward, just trying to keep my head down. Mom usually used these words to scold me while I was loitering in the kitchen, listening to my parents talk about their day. I don’t think I even cared if they paid attention to me; I just wanted to know what was going on. So maybe she was right. I did want to be the center of my universe in that I wanted to be in tune with everything going on in and around it, so I got involved everywhere I could.

Joining so many activities was probably a defense against loneliness. You didn’t have to be pretty or outgoing to meet the people in a club, you just had to join. Something I quickly discovered in junior high was how much more socially challenging it was than I remembered grade school being. I went in naïve, but what I saw there worked to quickly change that. Oversexed thirteen-year-olds in body suits and Cross Color jeans talked openly in class about what parts of their body they shaved; tough Mexican girls with bangs sprayed to stick six inches in the air threatened me with violence in the locker room; my partner in Home Economics patted my leg suggestively under the table; and the overweight, greasy-haired, pimple-faced girl next to me on the bus mockingly asked me if I thought I was popular.

“I am popular amongst my friends,” I answered. Truthfully, that was all that mattered to me. We had our inside jokes, cultivated while sitting at “our” lunch table. We hung out on the weekends or after school, and did many school activities together.

In high school I was still a complete nerd. I accept that fact now with nerd pride, but because of it, I never felt like I fit in at my high school. My grandparents provided me the opportunity to go to a private school on the north shore of Chicago. The school was a K-12 private, non-denominational school whose wealthy students were in sharp contrast to those at the public school from whence I came. Many students in my freshman class had known each other since grade school. Each grade consisted of only about 25 students, so by the time they reached high school; it was a pretty tight-knit bunch.

Orientation week at my new high school was very eventful, in some ways shaping the future of my whole high school career. In that one week my braces were removed, I was fitted for a slightly less hideous pair of eyeglasses, got my period for the first time and joined the tennis team. I was excited and optimistic to start at this shiny new school. If my life were a movie, my make-over would have landed me Freddie Prinze Jr. and a homecoming crown. The reality was, by joining the tennis team I had pretty much insured my exclusion from the group that ruled the school.

Before the school year started, my grandmother had taken me to meet two of my classmates whose parents were friends of hers. Both girls played field hockey, a sport I had never even heard of. One girl showed me her field hockey stick, and it looked nothing like the sticks my brother and I used to play roller hockey in the street. Intimidated, I decided tennis would be a much safer bet. Ostensibly to encourage physical fitness but in reality to ensure enough bodies to populate a team, every student was required to play a fall sport their first two years. Maybe I had never picked up a racquet in my life, but at least I’d seen the sport on television and had some clue how it was played. Plus it was more or less an individual sport, so if I messed up too much on the court, I was only letting myself down.

The girls on the tennis team were great, but we were a bit of a rag-tag bunch of misfits - The Bad News Bears of Cook County tennis. In contrast, the girls on the field hockey team were a unified force to be reckoned with. I am not sure if outgoing individuals naturally seek out team sports or if teams bring out a latent extrovert, but those girls had a confidence and bravado I envied.

The movie Mean Girls is set at the fictional “North Shore High School,” a name pretty darn close to that of my school. While it was actually modeled after the large private high school down the street, our two schools drew from the same populations. I am not saying the field hockey girls were ever the antagonistic “Plastics,” because they were never mean like that, just that they clearly comprised the power clique in our small school. And I was an outsider.

So instead I threw myself into extracurricular activities outside of sports, and made friends with others like me. The tennis girls or the guys whom the field hockey girls had deemed unworthy of their company became my circle of friends. My friends were also the lonely musicians, theater geeks, poets and nerds who could never be confused as constituting any sort of “clique.” I must admit, it was never quite as black-and-white as I’ve painted it. It was a small school, so there was some inevitable overlap between these groups, but what I described is generally what I felt.

In addition to filling my schedule with activities, I made it through high school by throwing myself into my studies. Whether required or elective, I enjoyed most of my classes. Subjects as varied as US History, Photography, Calculus, English, Computer Science and Theater all held my attention and an equal place in my heart. I strove to do well and genuinely enjoyed learning.

This was something even the people I considered to be my friends ended up (literally) throwing back in my face. I recall one night I was at a slumber party with a bunch of girls. We were settling into our sleeping bags for the night when someone came in and threw something at me, food if I recall. Upset and confused, I asked why she would do something like that. Her response boiled down to the fact that she didn’t like how I bragged about my grades.

I was in shock. I didn’t think I was a braggart. I couldn’t remember ever asking how someone else did, and if asked I don’t recall rubbing my success in anybody’s face. If someone asked how I performed, and I happened to do well, did she expect me to lie? I will never understand how she took that impression of me because the contrast between her words and my self-perception could not have been greater. How could I be arrogant and hate myself at the same time?

My rampant high school insecurities were rooted in my perpetual feeling of being out of place. For four years I knew I didn’t belong to the “popular” clique. I felt overweight, unattractive and – apparently – so unbearable I was worthy of having a bologna sandwich thrown at my head. While I never wanted for anything, my family did not have the kind of money most of my classmates enjoyed. And I liked school; whereas I felt many of these privileged kids laughed it off, viewing it little more than a stop-over to daddy’s money or their next bong hit.

I had the distinct impression that few people actually liked me, not even the people who were supposed to be my friends. It had to be an act, and there was a period of time when I set out to test this. I would intentionally hide when I knew I would be needed backstage in the theater to see how long it was before someone came looking for me. I would sit in conspicuous but strange places (the railings on the landing of the arts building was one favorite spot) and see how many people would walk by without even acknowledging me.

With every minute that passed in hiding and with every person who passed noiselessly, I grew increasingly morose to the point that any positive reinforcement in my experiment was rendered moot. I gained no esteem from these exercises which served only to bolster my feelings of isolation and invisibility. I turned to writing volumes of angst-ridden teen poetry and listening to Nirvana Unplugged on repeat while burning a séance-worth of candles in my bedroom.

High school is only four years and I tried to pack those years with interests and activities. Because I was exposed to so many new and different things, I developed into a sort of Jane-of-all-trades but a master of none. When senior year rolled around and the prospect of college loomed near, I was at a bit of a loss. I wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Architecture crossed my mind, but engineering, even though I couldn't actually tell you what that was, seemed to be where the good jobs were. My parents had attended a local community college and had little advice to share and no expectations. They wanted the best for me however, and opened up the door for me to pursue an degree anywhere I wanted. The combination of my own ignorance about higher education, a complete uncertainty about my future professional hopes, the lack of strong guidance at home, suggestions from my college counselor and several school visits, resulted in my application to eleven schools. I didn't know what would be a reach and what would be a safety for me, so I selected a wide range of schools:

  1. Case Western Reserve University
  2. Dartmouth College
  3. Duke University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Northwestern University
  6. Rice University
  7. Rose Hulman Institute of Technology
  8. University of Illinois
  9. University of Virginia
  10. Washington University St. Louis
  11. Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Few of my applications overlapped with my classmates, who applied mostly to small Midwestern or East Coast liberal arts schools. Nonetheless, we attended a small school, and nobody was sure where various colleges set their quotas. I knew nobody else in my class was applying to anything with “tech” in the name. In fact, I held a bit of a grudge against the two people from my school who, in recent years, had headed to MIT. These two guys were the nerds of their years, both classic computer geeks. When one was a senior and the other a junior, my school’s Calculus teacher taught them the advanced portion of the AP Calculus class.

Then when I was a senior, I approached that same teacher to set up my own AP Calculus BC class. Imagine my shock when she looked at me as if surprised I was interested and said she would not be teaching it to me. She suggested that I take art instead. So, I took that art class, which only added to my left brain-right brain confusion. I wish I could say that was the only outright sexism I felt in my four years there.

Each year my school arranged for a week off of classes during which students could explore topics of interest outside the classroom. I did a theater production at a shelter one year and shadowed my uncle, a television news reporter, another. When my senior year rolled around, I had saved up enough baby-sitting money to take one of the exciting trips some of the teachers sponsored.

The one that caught my eye was a hike down and out of the Grand Canyon. I had always wanted to see that marvel of nature, so I signed up with a girlfriend. At the last minute she had to bail on the trip, which left me as the trip’s only female. The sponsor, our male gym teacher, pulled me aside one day. He asked if I minded going on the other trip to the Southwest being offered, a van tour of Native American ruins and geological highlights, a trip that did not include a stop at the Grand Canyon. As “the only girl on the trip and it might make the guys uncomfortable if you have any ‘girl issues,’” he explained. I was disappointed then, and now realizing that my lack of external genitalia was his reason for excluding me, I am embittered. And I have yet to see the Grand Canyon. Yet sexism wasn’t the only thing about my high school that made me doubt my ability to pursue everything I wanted in life.

Aside from what I read in US News and World Report, I had no idea how my college applications stacked up against my classmates, or the rest of the students in the country, for the matter. The leaders of my school (who were primarily Quakers) boasted a philosophy of “non-competition.” As a result we were not assigned GPAs until senior year, we were never ranked, we had no prom kings and queens and we had no class valedictorian (our graduation speaker was chosen by a vote).

The “non-competition” philosophy in the classroom never truly bothered me, but I never understood why, then, it did not extend to the playing field. Participation in athletics was not only encouraged but mandatory, annual awards went to the top-performing athletes of each sport, and their games were announced in morning assemblies. Not only did the school encourage sports, the most fundamental form of competition, but they were also pushing the athletes to compete internally for top individual honors and recognition.

It was acceptable for the captain of the football team to celebrate a victory over University High, yet touting academic success was recipe for ridicule. Does this go back to the notion of teams versus individuals? Is it that the difference is getting an “A” on a paper was only my own arrogant success whereas the volleyball team making it to state is a shared victory? In my rebellious teenage mind, I wondered why I would have to conform to such a group mentality to fit in. The theater department with which I was involved did give recognition at a private year-end banquet for the theater folks and their families, so that was some solace.

Yet I remained baffled at my school’s seeming distaste for academic accomplishment (or was it just distaste for me?) At the end of each year a ceremony was held in which the school awarded a handful of academic “book awards” to juniors. After three years of hard work, I finally received one award (The “Wellesley College Book Award,” which proved to be ironic on several levels). Yet any pleasure I might otherwise have found in my award was, over the years, overshadowed by another incident. Or should I say lack of an incident.

I took AP US History senior year, and throughout the year the teacher would comment on how many years it had been since one of his students had earned the highest mark (5) on the test, and how he hoped this was the year. I never needed his encouragement; I just wanted to pass out of some basic core college class and get on to the fun electives. So I took the test, and I earned that 5 he had pushed for. For whatever reason, he never once acknowledged it. That 5 did help me down the road when I wanted to squeeze in a double major, but I sure would have liked some recognition then. Maybe everyone in the class got a 5 so I was nothing special, and he only made a big deal about it all year to ensure our successes. I would never know, because by this time I’d learned my lesson about sharing grades with my peers.

It took me years to fully recognize the hypocrisy of my school, and how easily I accepted being made to feel like a lesser person. Eleanor Roosevelt famously declared that “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Maybe if I had heard that quote back then I would not have let them.

It is with all of these high school experiences under my belt that I faced the decision of which college to attend. I had applied to eleven schools, and was excited and surprised to be accepted to eleven schools, but this did not make the decision any easier. I think being overwhelmed by too many options is one of the reasons I enjoy being a vegetarian. When looking at a menu at a restaurant, there are generally only a handful of vegetarian options. But when I go to a vegetarian restaurant, it takes me a very long time to decide what I want to order! I like to weigh all my options and want to make an informed decision.

By the deadline to accept offers, I was able to narrow my choices down to three: Rice, Northwestern, and MIT. I had visited all three and was really torn. I had decided I wanted to study Chemical Engineering since I liked chemistry and the money would be good after graduation. All three schools had good engineering programs. Northwestern was a close to home, but I thought maybe a little too close. At Rice I would spend much of the year sweating, but it had a beautiful campus. When I visited MIT I had so much fun with my hosts, but it was a city school which scared me a little.

The day the replies were due, I filled out the paperwork and dropped them in the mail, telling nobody that I’d made my decision. Later that night, I revealed to my parents that I had selected MIT. When I told my grandfather, who was helping to foot the bill for my college education, he replied “You made the right choice.” So I scooted off to college knowing that while joining the tennis team in high school may have secured a certain fate for those four years, choosing to go to MIT ensured the next four would be entirely different.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chapter 6: Margaret

I remember exactly when I learned that Margaret was sick. On Saturday, January 12, 2008, I went to see a concert with my girlfriends and their husbands. The show consisted of a variety of bands revisiting Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, in which he played electric instead of acoustic guitar. It was held in the atrium at the Winter Garden, across the street from the World Trade Center. The room was very full and seating was limited, so after awhile we all claimed seats on a set of steps behind the crowd. My friend Cathy was seated behind me, and as we listened to the hippie music she told me rather matter-of-factly that our friend and sorority sister Margaret had a cancerous brain tumor.

I asked the initial questions anyone would ask when presented with that news: Is it operable? (No) Is she doing chemo and radiation? (Yes) What is her prognosis? (I don’t know) Cathy didn’t know much more than that, as she’d only heard a few details from another sister of ours over lunch one day. I knew Margaret to be a pretty private person, so I didn’t really feel comfortable asking her or anyone else for more information.

For some reason, the news really shook me. For Margaret to be sick, of all people, was just unfathomable. She was my age, a vegan and an athlete who did triathlons, for crying out loud! How does someone like that get sick? Add to that the fact that someone that intelligent should get a tumor in their brain of all places just seemed cruel. She and I were not the closest friends in college, but she had earned my respect. A quiet girl, she always struck me as the kind of person who made good choices in her life. Her brother, one year her senior, lived in my dorm, and we did a group project together in a class one semester. His demeanor was very much like his sister’s, and he also gained my respect for his kindness and intelligence. The fact that he had to go through this made the situation even more difficult.

For the next couple months I dealt with the news without knowing any further details. I knew Margaret had to be fighting this with everything she had. In college, Margaret was the type of girl who, if you dared her to do something, could not say no. I remembered one time someone dared her to hold her breath for two minutes. Two minutes later, despite a purple face and an involuntarily shaking leg, she won that bet. In my head, I dared her to beat this tumor. That had to work, right?

Our sorority pledge class had planned a reunion in Boston at the end of April, and I was excited to catch up with everyone and eager to see Margaret. We gathered for dinner on the night of the reunion, and as we settled into the large table, someone suggested we seat Margaret in the middle. She had been intubated during a biopsy, and the tube caused scarring of the vocal chords, causing her voice to be reduced to a whisper.

Seeing Margaret for the first time in years was a bit of a shock. She was always a thin girl, what with all her running and biking, but she definitely seemed frail. Her cheeks were a little puffy from the chemo, which made her look healthier than she actually was. Her appetite was definitely strong. She and I ordered the same pasta dish, and she finished hers while I only managed about half. Our group’s conversation at dinner was light, and included a few of the girls’ significant others, including Margaret’s. Her boyfriend, named Igor, was another MIT graduate who I’d never met before. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him much that night, but learned that they had been together about four years and were living together in Cambridge which made me really happy for Margaret.

~ Out to dinner: Margaret, me, Evelyn ~

After dinner we retired to the hotel everyone was staying at to have a “fireside.” This is the AXO term for when everyone sits in a circle and takes turns giving updates on their lives. When Margaret’s turn came, she started off by saying something like “Well, I guess I’ll talk about the elephant in the room,” to which some of the girls protested. They wanted to hear her good news, about the man in her life. So she filled us in on Igor, and then talked about her job, which she was on leave from at the time I think, and the races the she was running that spring. (Yes, she was still running races!) But she never got back to talking about her illness.

As we were leaving, I felt I had to say something to her. The elephant was still sitting in that hotel room. My words were “I just wanted to let you know that you being sick really pisses me off,” to which she responded “Yeah, it pisses me off too.” And then she started to cry. As I hugged her, I was shocked that this strong woman would cry, and of course felt badly that I was the one who brought her to tears. We shared a cab from the hotel because I was headed out to meet a friend near Margaret’s apartment. On the way we talked more about non-cancer topics and I was happy to have had a few minutes alone with her.

~ Margaret and I right before I made her cry :( ~

During the rest of the weekend I gingerly asked some of the girls who were closer to her for more information. I learned that in true Margaret fashion she was seeking the best treatment at the best hospitals. The tumor was not shrinking, but not growing either. I also learned that she had started a blog, which was a bit of a surprise to me, and I joined so I could follow her progress.

Through the blog updates, I learned about her day-to-day life as well as her medical treatments. She approached her illness with unfailing optimism and humor because the alternative seemed pointless. For example, she nicknamed her tumor “Larry” after an episode of one of her favorite cartoons, Pinky and the Brain, in which when asked what the two mice will do that night, the Brain says, “Try to take over the world... without Larry!” That was Margaret’s plan too, but first she had to get rid of Larry. She would also write parodies of songs replacing the words with ones about battling cancer. There is the saying “as serious as cancer,” but Margaret showed that a few moments of not taking it so seriously could provide a completely new outlook.

Over the course of the summer, I read about Margaret’s symptoms as she had course after course of Chemo, trying any and every combination of drugs the doctors could think of. Her brother researched homeopathic remedies, and she supplemented the drugs with herbal medicines. Her vision grew blurry and it grew more and more difficult for her to swallow and walk, but it was uncertain if the symptoms were due to the drugs or the tumor, so there was still room for optimism. Margaret tried to stay as active as she could, and developed her own regiment of physical therapy in her apartment. She wrote on her blog “we figure it's better to keep me fighting like this than to just give up and stop walking altogether. If I stop, then I've given up, and I can't do that, no matter how hard it gets.” Despite her worsening condition, she remained optimistic and posted that her goal was to run the half-marathon in Philadelphia in September 2009 on the Tug McGraw team. The foundation raises money for brain tumor research and was founded in honor of Tim McGraw's father, an athlete who died of a brain tumor, so it seemed apropos. Margaret’s best friend, one of my sorority sisters, suggested that we start training as a pledge class and run with her the next year as a surprise, as sure as she was that she would be be there. Many people agreed, including me.

At the end of July, Margaret received the devastating news that the tumor was in fact growing. The next day she found out that Professor Randy Pausch (of “The Last Lecture” fame) had passed away. She had found him inspiring, and by sharing the link on her blog I was then inspired not only by the professor, but Margaret’s shared positive outlook. By August, Margaret wasn’t posting much to her blog and the posts that did come made me really sad. Her tone had changed, and while she still professed optimism, it was clear that the reality of her situation was very grave. On August 18 she wrote, “I'm not doing so well. But I'm surviving, and I think that's all I can do right now.” One week later, there was a new post to the blog, but this time it came from her boyfriend Igor.

He wrote about a setback Margaret had faced while at Duke University Medical Center that had landed her in the ICU. She had developed difficulty breathing and was put on a breathing tube. As her breathing improved, she began yet another course of Chemo. Slowly over the course of the next month, with her brother and boyfriend by her side, her condition began to improve.

Hearing that she was hospitalized was a bit of a wake-up call for my friends and me. We felt so helpless, and in my case felt like I just needed to do something. I emailed Margaret’s brother and Igor asking if they thought she would like an individual from the Tug McGraw foundation to run the New York City Marathon in her honor that fall. I was a bit flummoxed when the guys declined, but understood that she wanted to keep her life somewhat private. In fact even in writing this, I wonder if I am revealing too much.

Shortly thereafter, overnight, her condition worsened. She had developed an infection, which over the next few weeks was followed by a seizure, a blot clot in her leg, sepsis, tumor growth and pneumonia. She kept bouncing back and remained alert and responsive through most of it, astounding the doctors. But on October 26th Igor posted that Margaret was fading, and was no longer very responsive. Two days later he announced that she had been pronounced brain-dead. And yet, in his words, “in her infinite generosity, Margaret had wanted to be an organ donor. Sometime tomorrow they may take a part of her to help someone else, and I hope that person will someday appreciate how remarkable the original owner really was. That someone who's undergone so much chemotherapy is still a candidate for organ donation is a further testament to Margaret's resiliency.”

By the time the announcement came, I was somewhat expecting it. The news had been mostly bad for such a long time that despite Margaret’s optimism, I had begun to give up hope. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was deeply affected by her passing. She was my age, so healthy, and then fought so hard. I decided to go to her funeral in Pennsylvania, with many of my other sorority sisters.

I am blessed, I guess, to not have had death in my life much. All of my relatives who have passed away were past retirement age, and had lived long happy lives. When I was very young my father’s stepmother died, but I barely remember her aside from riding in her lap in her wheelchair. I also remember riding (in a limo, I think) with some family members and being upset that I could not go with them to her funeral. When I was a few years older my great-grandmother died right before Christmas, and only my mom flew down to North Carolina for her services. A few years after that, my Grandfather’s new wife’s stepmother died, and I attended her memorial service.

Then my Grampa passed away after a long battle with cancer. I had the chance to visit him in Florida, so had the chance to say good-bye. Only his wife and children were present to scatter his ashes in the ocean. Last year my mom’s uncle Fred passed away, which came as a great shock. I was really upset by it, but was unable to fly home to Chicago for his funeral. So the only service I had ever attended was for the one person to whom I was probably the least close.

As for my peers passing away though, the only one I knew closely was a high school classmate. Katie was a senior and the captain of my tennis team when I was a freshman. She always wore a huge smile on her face and had very pretty, intense, deep-set eyes. She came back to our school the year after she graduated to tell us she had cancer. The school held a memorial for her when she passed away, but I don’t remember going to it. I had always admired her for her good-natured attitude, and hearing of her death saddened me. Maybe it was true, only the good die young, I thought.

So I think that it was that I have been so insulated from death that Margaret’s hit me so hard. Couple that with the fact that she had so much to live for and was such an inspiration in her battle and it’s even more understandable. I wanted to go to the funeral to have some closure for myself by saying good-bye, as well as support her brother, Igor and my sorority sisters who were her best friends. Death, after all, is hardest on the living.

The wake was a really sad but lovely affair. Igor (I think) had put together a collection of photos of Margaret and had the slideshow playing on electronic picture frames throughout the funeral homes. Looking at those photos gave all the guests something to talk about in that awkward moment. We reminisced and laughed about the good times we’d had.

~ My favorite picture from the slide show: Jen and Margaret in costume for a skit in college ~

After the ice was broken, we decided it was time to go through the receiving line and view the body. Given the fact that I had never been to a proper funeral before, perhaps it goes without saying that I’d also never seen a dead body before. I knew that she would not look like herself, but to me Margaret looked like a tiny china doll. On her finger was the ring Igor had given to her when he proposed to her in the hospital at Duke in her final months.

After a moment’s reflection, we moved on to greet Margaret’s relatives. Her parents were so appreciative that so many of the AXOs had come. I had never met them before, but they and other family members engaged us in brief conversations. I think maybe seeing Margaret’s friends was like having a piece of Margaret back. Greeting Margaret’s brother and Igor was one of the most difficult things I had to do. I wasn’t really prepared for that moment. Did the occasion call for a hug or a handshake? Would the words “I am sorry for your loss” suffice? The next few minutes were a blur and I can only imagine what sort of expression I was wearing. My sorority sisters and I left the wake shortly thereafter, and gathered for dinner to remember Margaret and catch up on each other’s lives since our reunion in April.

The next day was the funeral. It was a Catholic service, and Margaret’s brother and mother gave eulogies. Margaret’s brother’s was so extraordinarily touching. It was written as only an MIT alum would write a speech – in the form of a list. He described six ways in which she managed to cram a full, fun, “first class” life into her twenty-nine short years. I am going to paraphrase his eulogy here to be more general, because I think living by these six rules would improve anybody’s life.
  1. Make the most out of the talents God gave you
  2. Live a balanced life
  3. Use your life experiences to develop your own code of values
  4. Cherish your relationships
  5. Challenge yourself and strive for excellence
  6. Never take yourself too seriously
Seeing all the mourners and hearing Margaret’s brother’s words made me really take stock in my own life. My divorce had been finalized four days before Margaret’s death and I was feeling extraordinarily alone. Sitting in the church that day, I wondered, if I were to fall ill now, who in my life would put everything on hold to stay by my bedside for months? Who would travel across the country to say good-bye? If I were to die tomorrow, what sorts of words would people use to describe my life? And if I lived by Margaret’s mantras, would I find a happiness that was so absent at that time? These questions continue to plague me and I hope to use that list to inspire me this year as I seek to make my life better.

There was a memorial service in Boston, and the room was packed with college friends and colleagues. In leading up to the service, I wondered if there was a sorority ritual for the passing of a sister. I knew the one for engagements, marriages and babies, but what do you do when someone dies? I contacted the AXO national headquarters, and the woman there suggested reading “The Symphony of Alpha Chi Omega.” It was familiar to me, and upon re-reading it, I really thought its words described how Margaret lived her life. The memorial turned out not to be the place for a reading such as this, but it brought me a bit of inspiration to further bolster the eulogy list.

The Symphony Of Alpha Chi Omega

To see beauty even in the common things of life,
to shed the light of love and friendship round me;
to keep my life in tune with the world that I shall make no discords in the harmony of life;
to strike on the lyre of the universe only the notes of happiness, of joy, of peace;
to appreciate all that is noble in another, be her badge what it may;
and to let my lyre send forth the chords of love, unselfishness, sincerity.
This is to be my symphony.
- Celia McClure

Margaret touched many people’s lives, and I hope she knew how inspirational she was. On what would have been her thirtieth birthday, an announcement was made that a memorial fund had been set up in her name at MIT. When it reaches its minimum endowment, it will provide an annual scholarship for female student-athletes. Additionally, Igor and one of my sorority sisters, Jane, are running the Boston Marathon next weekend in Margaret’s honor to support the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, respectively. If you are interested in donating to any of these causes, click on the links above. While her goal of being there may no longer be acheivable, my pledge class and I still plan to run the half-marathon in Philadelphia this fall in Margaret’s memory. Her spirit will be there with us, I am sure, keeping the wind to our backs as we run. (It is for these fund-raising purposes that I have used everyone's real names in this piece. I apologize in advance if any of this is not okay, please just let me know)

Bob Dylan, whose songs were being played as I found out the news about Margaret, sang:

When you're sad and when you're lonely and you haven't got a friend

Just remember that death is not the end

Oh the tree of life is growing

Where the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation
Shines in dark and empty skies
When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men
Just remember that death is not the end

Margaret’s spirit will never die, and her death is not an end.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Chapter 13: Turning Thirty

I am officially the big three-oh. Honestly it doesn’t feel much different than twenty-nine. Some little things that have happened since my birthday have set me off a bit. For example, I watched the movie Baby Mama in which the main character has to hire a surrogate to carry her baby because, at thirty-seven, she is unable to conceive. A week ago I would have seen the character’s age as nearly a decade more than mine. But now at thirty, it is as if we are peers, and her plight could soon become mine. Plus I realized that I will have to check the “30-35” box when my demographic information is collected, and that just stings. But these are just little twinkles of frustration that pass quickly as I remind myself that I have decided that thirty is going to be my best year yet. It certainly can’t be worse than twenty-nine.

All-in-all I had a pretty great birthday. It started off early when I went to my favorite restaurant, Zoë on Friday. When I told the bartender I would be celebrating my birthday that weekend, he surprised me with a scoop of gelato with a candle in it. It was coconut, which I don’t usually like, but this one was delicious. It was so sweet of him, and it reminded me why that is one of my favorite places to go.

Because my actual birthday was on a Tuesday, I had my celebration on the Saturday prior. A dozen of my friends joined me for dinner at Spitzer’s Corner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Another seven joined us for drinks after dinner at a bar called The Skinny. We had a big communal table for dinner, and a private area at the bar, so everyone was able to mingle and chat. I have several different groups of friends and I love when they can meet and interact. A couple friends came bearing gifts, which was a huge surprise and I was very thankful.

Despite being surrounded by such a large group of great friends, it was a little bittersweet. This may come off as really trite and ungrateful, but in the moments as we left the restaurant I thought to myself, “I would trade all these friends for one person who thought to tell the waitress it was my birthday so she would have sent over a little dessert.” It’s not that I wanted the sweets or for the whole restaurant to bust out a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” It was just a bit of a realization (one that I’ve felt often in the bustle of New York City) that amidst the crowd, I was alone.

Growing up I was never the kind of person who needed a huge circle of friends. My mom always thought it was weird when, as a child, I would have only one really close friend at a time: Sara, Devon, Erika, Lindsay, Becky, Erica. When one of us would change schools, or if we had a falling out, I would eventually find a replacement. When I got to high school and discovered boys, my one-track devotion often turned to the guys I dated. I was not part of any clique in high school. My (mostly male) friends were all very different from each other and not really friends with each other, like spokes on a bicycle, with me as the axis. Yet I was fiercely devoted to these individuals in rotating succession.

One prime example of this stands out to me to this day. In the spring of my junior year, I turned down an invitation to prom from a guy friend of mine because the girl who I considered my best friend at the time disapproved. Later that summer, she and I had a big fight. At the time, I had summer job working with the guy who’d asked me to prom and we had gotten very close. I realized that my ex-best friend’s opinion had really clouded my judgment, and immediately after the fight with my girlfriend I let the guy know I had been interested in him. We were together until I went off to college over a year later. To this day I still consider my relationship with my “high school sweetheart” to be the easiest and most successful I’ve had. But even with him, our relationship was pretty much the only one I needed.

I think it’s pretty common for couples to “drop off the face of the earth” and enter their own little world of two. I don’t really know what co-dependence is, but I’d have to think it’s something along those lines. I have tried to learn over time how to balance aspects of my romantic relationships, friendships and my Self, but it a struggle. I am a passionate person, and when that passion endears me to another, I focus in on that individual and give them my all.

For a time in college I became somewhat of a serial monogamist. I would stay in a relationship well past its expiration date, until someone new caught my eye. I would quickly end the first relationship and jump headfirst into the next. I think this stemmed from the fact that I was shy in relationships and did not want to stir up drama. So if something annoyed me, I would let it fester until I was so bothered that I was ready to move on. I knew it was not healthy and by the end of college had broken the pattern. However, now I have been told I am “brutally honest,” which I think is a good thing because I am putting my feelings out there. However, I have had my heart broken every time I’ve worn it on my sleeve.

In sharp contrast to my somewhat shy, loner childhood, I decided to join the Alpha Chi Omega sorority during my freshman year of college. I hoped that this group of girls would help me in part be able to develop better friendships with women and also have a group of friends to rely on, rather than one individual. It turns out that is exactly what happened. While the guys came and went, and as I developed friendships with various groups of people across campus, my sorority sisters were the one constant in my life. It is because of them, I think, that I gained any sense of confidence in social settings and interpersonal relationships. It is many of these women, some who live in New York and some who are scattered across the country, whom I still consider my dearest friends today. In fact, now that I think about it, the three AXOs who were at my party were the same guests who came with gifts in hand.

Given that my party was a few days before my big day, I had been really worried about how I would spend my actual birthday. I didn’t want to pester everyone who came out on Saturday to go out again on that Tuesday. Luckily, two of my best girlfriends here in the city were away on weekend trips the day of my party, so offered to take me to dinner on the seventh. It was a huge relief to me, to know I would not be wallowing alone on the sofa with my two cats on my thirtieth birthday.

The three of us went to a cute wine bar called Terroir in the East Village and sat at the bar. When we finished our meal, my one friend made a huge scene, having me pick out a dessert and telling the bartender very blatantly that it was my birthday. That totally made my day, and made me feel like an asshole for thinking what I did at my party on Saturday. Maybe everyone in the group of 13 assumed someone else would say something. Who knows. In any case, by the time I was blowing out the candles on my desserts, I had reverted back to my optimistic approach to being thirty.

In addition to my two evening get-togethers, I had many other occasions to feel blessed. On my birthday, my boss picked up a fruit torte and gathered the office together for a mid-afternoon fête. Throughout the week I received and overwhelming number of phone calls, e-mails, packages & gifts, e-cards and greeting cards from friends and family. I had about 50 messages come into my Facebook inbox or posted to my wall. For this latter surge of birthday wishes I was pleased for entirely kooky reasons. As an admitted Facebook addict, I had set (and reached) the random goal to have four hundred Facebook friends by my birthday. I also hoped that on that day, ten percent of my friends would write to me. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it harkens back to the notion of feeling alone in a crowd. Maybe I just need to feel connected.

On my thirtieth birthday, I definitely felt connected. The love poured in from across the country in forms electronic, tangible and physical. I am blessed to know more than 400 people – old friends, new friends, friends who aren’t even on Facebook, and of course family – who care about me and support me. I may not have seen some of them in half a lifetime, but I think our shared experiences connect us by gossamer threads across time and place. And for that I am truly, and forever, grateful.