Monday, January 29, 2007

Swattie Emeritus is on hiatus as he continues his efforts to navigate the myriad perils of the post-Swarthmore world. Look for him to return in the not-too-distant future with all-new, never-before-told tales of adventure! (Or tales of him attending meetings and responding to e-mail. There might be a few of those too...)

Monday, December 18, 2006

The holidays are almost upon us.

Well, actually, Hanukah has come but not yet gone; New Year’s is still a short while off; and Kwanzaa remains quietly lurking in the shadows, threatening to pounce the moment we dare to admit that despite our many years of multicultural education, we still don’t know exactly when (or what) it is. But Christmas is almost upon us and out in the real world, and it’s rather hard to overlook that fact. The moment Halloween passes, CVS has festooned its aisles with garish green-and-red tinsel and lined its shelves with Santa-themed bric-a-brac. A few weeks later, the supermarkets start playing “Winter Wonderland “on endless repeat and Salvation Army volunteers take the streets by storm, punctuating their “Merry Christmases” with loud bell-ringing to emphasize just how merry they really are. I’ve found Swarthmore often obfuscated the spirit of the season, perhaps recognizing that students toiling to complete three final projects during reading “week” might not appreciate jolly elf statuettes smirking at them as they walked from Parrish to Sharples. The real world clearly has no qualms with such displays of ostentatiousness.

Yet despite all this holiday hullabaloo, I’ve had a hard time mustering my usual cheer this winter. In the days of yore, I could buoy myself for weeks with visions of Lego sets and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures wrapped and piled under the Christmas tree. Now, off on my own, I find myself asking for boring, practical, home-oriented gifts: furniture, kitchenware, and the like, all the while knowing that however functional and durable and it might be, a colander will thrill me far less than, say, the gift of a (sadly, far less durable) rapid fire foam disc shooter once did. Colanders do not produce captivating whirring noises. They cannot launch airborne projectiles at one’s annoying younger siblings. In a pinch, maybe they could provide percussion in a makeshift kitchen band or serve as trendy, avant-garde headgear. Maybe. In all, excited as I will certainly be to liberate myself from the tyranny of straining pasta without appropriate cookware, I’ve had to acknowledge that my colander simply will not provide the same raw, unbridled entertainment that presents past once did. And so it is with many of the items on my wish list. A cheese shredder is no match for the Shredder. Assembling a living room chair won’t be the same as assembling a pirate ship.

I wonder sometimes whether my excitement will ever return for the presents under the Christmas tree. Whether once more firmly in adulthood, I’ll find myself sincerely agog over home furnishings or electronics. I can’t help but suspect that this is a mere fantasy, a suburban legend confined to the world of Best Buy ads. And honestly, would I even want to live in that saccharine world depicted in holiday advertisements? Where, when not mesmerized by the allure of HD TV, I’d be doting all over my wife, trading diamonds and cars for heartwarming smooches? It all seems so phony. How many wives actually awake on Christmas morning to find perfect new luxury sedans parked in their driveways? Wouldn’t they sometimes grouse over the paint color, the interior, or the selection of special features? And where ever do their husbands go to pick up those twenty-pound novelty bows? I can’t believe that even if this idealized world actually existed, it would restore joy to the gift-giving portion of the holiday season.

And yet I must admit, while the promise of neither drying racks nor electronics, furniture nor fondue sets, leaves me all a-tingle with excitement, I still find myself counting down to Christmas all the same. Last week, I bought a large bunch of bananas, one fruit for each day till I returned home for the holidays. Now I can’t help but feel a slight tinge of anticipation each time I peel one over my morning cereal. One day closer to family and Christmas trees and stockings and warm gingerbread! It’s like I’ve got my own yellow, mushy Advent calendar.

Thus, here I am, rolling my eyes at the ubiquitous Christmas kitsch (try saying that three times fast) and yawning at the presents under the tree, yet still looking forward to the holiday all this same. It’s almost as if—brace yourselves for this dramatic revelation—there’s some DEEPER meaning to the holiday than the material goods that defined it in my youth. Who’d have thunk it? For so many years I’d assumed those cheesy, moralistic Christmas specials were just propaganda to mollify kids who were getting crappy toys. Now I’m thinking otherwise.

So now I head home for the holidays happy, trusting that my faith in Christmas is not misplaced and that somewhere in the frenzy of gift-wrapping and caroling and milk-and-cookies, its true meaning will emerge and warm my heart. I will learn the joy of celebrating Christmas with the family as a mature, responsible adult. And if not, at least there’s always the ol’ foam disc shooter to break out.

Till next time, Happy Holidays good luck on finals,

Swattie Emeritus

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Had a job interview the other day. Faced the usual lot of questions about my triumphs past and told the same tired tales that show what a remarkable problem-solver I am, full of initiative, determination, and, of course, spunk. I remember these being quite the novelty when my job search first began. “You mean you want me to sit and here brag about myself for half an hour?!” (Well, twenty-eight minutes, I suppose, after you factor in the inevitable “What’s your greatest weakness?” question) But now I’ve actually gotten sort of bored with myself. There’s only so many times you can tell the story of how you took the reins of downtrodden Student Group X and transformed it into a campus-storming juggernaut before the whole thing starts to feel a little stale. I’m thinking next time out maybe I should spin a fresh yarn or two—invent some new story paying tribute to my superb leadership, fortitude, and/or interpersonal skills. Nothing too dramatic or outlandish. (“Well, Mr. Johnson, I’d say my greatest accomplishment was wrestling a crocodile to the ground, skinning it alive, then salvaging its hide to fashion prototypes for my own line of designer leather handbags.”) Just a different cliché-ridden adventure to liven up the ol’ back-and-forth a bit.

Now, I don’t actually condone using interviews as opportunities to hone your storytelling skills (unless, I suppose, you’re looking for work as a storyteller). At the same time, I think it can be tempting to head down that path just because the job search process is so full of half-truths, misrepresentations, and doublespeak. And I’m not even talking about the scammers on every career website offering opportunities for HOME TELEMARKETING / EZ -- NO COLD CALLS / BIG $ NOW. (Heck, for all I know, those folks could be on the up-and-up. I haven’t actually tested out their offers yet). I’m talking about the culture of not-quite-saying-what-you mean that permeates every step of the traditional job search.

Take career networking, a discipline that’s all about saying one thing ("Law is such a fascinating domain!") when you mean another ("Please give me a job at your firm now"). (In this regard, “Could you give me some advice on how to enter your field?” is definitely the “Would you like to come upstairs for a cup of coffee?” of networking). Or job interviews, where you’re expected to flatter your previous boss even if he was a neurotic kleptomaniac with unresolved hygiene problems. (In job interview-speak, these are known as “professional differences”). Not to mention rejection letters, the ultimate illustrations of corporate doublespeak and hollow praise (“We have taken note of your diverse and extensive skills and abilities, but are unable to continue employment discussion with you.”). In this environment of half-truths, it’s only natural to start viewing your past as a somewhat malleable entity.

In a sense, though, it sort of is. You don’t want your interview anecdotes to be fictitious, but you want them to be sculpted and pruned so that they cut to the very heart of how gosh darn amazing you are. You want to make sure that your stories are concise and to the point, even if you have to omit details—negative or positive—that seemed important at one time. And it’s wise to figure out in advance which details these are. Heading into an interview, don’t just know what anecdote best demonstrates your problem-solving skills. Know its back story, its dramatis personae, its narrative arc, exactly as you plan to present them. In theory, the best way to accomplish this is by practicing these monologues in front of other human beings. In reality, I know a lot of people (myself included) would find this substantially more embarrassing than just throwing in the towel and regaling your interviewer with tales of crocodile wrangling. (At least when you embarrass yourself in front of an actual interviewer, you’ll probably never have to see her again). Even so, I’ve found I still like rehearsing my responses somehow, whether it be mentally, in front of a mirror, to a trusted teddy bear, whatever. There’s nothing worse than having the perfect answer for a interview question and botching it because you stumble over the details.

That’s my advice for this week. Further questions about job hunting are entirely welcome, though, as there’s plenty more I could say on the matter.

Till next time,

Swattie Emeritus

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

While you’re a student, Swarthmore is kind of like your Mom.

That’s not the set-up to some clever insult. (Obviously, no one’s ever called Swarthmore “easy”). That‘s a simile meant to convey the idea that Swarthmore spends a fair amount of time looking after you while you’re there. She feeds you, houses you, and sends you stern little reminders about all those DVDs you never returned to McCabe. It’s sort of reassuring to have her keeping an eye out for you. Unfortunately, when you graduate, your relationship with Swarthmore changes a bit. It’s not that she loses touch. It’s that overnight she turns from your mother into your teenage daughter. She’s still sweet, charming, and you love her to death. But you can hardly turn around without her asking for $10 to go to the movies or $50 for new designer jeans or $14 million to build a fancy state-of-the-art residence hall.

This process actually starts senior year when your class agents start collecting contributions for your class gift. This often involves them asking you to show up the previous year’s grads by surpassing their incredible donation record. Of course, no one mentions that (for example) the class of 2006 is too busy figuring out how to fix its broken shower, pay its overdue phone bill, and put together “dressy business casual” outfits for its job to notice your Guinness Book worthy attempts. Or that even if we do discover you’ve bested our mark, we won’t have time to formulate a grand concession speech or pillory ourselves in shame. We might even be happy that you improved the lives of some future Swatties-to-be. Or simply relieved that it’s Mom and not us paying to build the automated walkway from Sharples up to Parrish.

Now, like the teenager who casually mentions that Becky’s mom bought her a fancy new car, Swarthmore has a few tricks to inspire her alums to donate. For instance, consider one special alumni mailing: the brochure listing everyone who's given the college money. The message isn’t subtle: “Look, all the cool parents mature college grads are donating to Swarthmore. If you were cool, you’d give too.” The coolness factor is only heightened by the names they give to those donors who meet a certain threshold of contribution: Parrish Pillars, Adirondack Associates, and Garnet Leaders. (Yes, I know, someone dropped the metaphorical alliteration ball on that last one). I can only guess at what perks come with entry into these fabled societies. A personal tour of the secret underground tunnels? A gold card guaranteeing a lifetime of all-you-can-eat Sharples meals? A precious lock of Al Bloom’s hair? A sense of satisfaction at making the world a better place? Whatever they are, judging from the thickness of the brochure, they certainly seem to have worked.

Now, Swarthmore does outdo many teenagers in one important regard: they always remember to thank you when you help them out. Last month I received a letter from Al Bloom himself acknowledging the vast and generous contributions I’d made to the Meaning of Swarthmore campaign. Of course, the most I actually did for that effort was tolerate the construction it caused. Years and years of orange fences and housing crunches so that the school could wow future specs with a swank, multi-floor admissions office! That might not have been what Al was was referring to. But it’s still nice to know that had I given cash to the cause, I would’ve received a kind letter in appreciation. It might not be as nice as them honoring me by, say, building a Swattie Emeritus Performing Arts Center, but it certainly would be a start.

So that’s what you have to look forward to from Swarthmore when you graduate. No more reminders about free pizza at Career Services. No more Reserved Students Digest. Just lots and lots of love and thanks. With only minor strings attached.

Until next time,

Swattie Emeritus

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Food. Air. Water. Shelter. All basic necessities of life, but some harder to find than others. At Swarthmore, for instance, it can be tough to find good food, especially at 2:00 AM once Appetito’s has stopped delivering. Yet out in the real world, it’s much tougher to find good shelter. Sure, there’s always the option of squatting in an abandoned warehouse or moving in with your parents. (Many recent grads would find these two choice about equally bearable). But without a doubt, the gold standard in shelter is getting your own apartment, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. That’s why today I’ll be giving you an overview of the apartment-renting process. If there’s interest in this topic, let me know, and in a future entry I’ll give more precise and useful advice about how to navigate these various steps.

1. Background Research

This is the part of the process where you stare at grainy satellite images of potential neighborhoods and look for cracked sidewalks that might indicate a community in disrepair. You also dredge up old crime statistics and ask yourself questions like, “How many murders per capita is too many? How many rapes? How many arsons?” Is 7.3 aggravated assaults for 13.5 narcotics arrests a reasonable trade?” Eventually you give up and decide you’ll need to visit and judge it on its “feel”, a fancy word meaning “the number of boarded-up buildings, graffiti-covered walls, and drug busts in progress you observe while on a (brisk) stroll through the neighborhood.” (See Part 3, The Walkthrough, below).

At the same time that you’re researching neighborhoods, you’ll also be figuring out your preliminary price range. There are two easy ways to do this. The first is to calculate your estimated post-tax earnings, develop a comprehensive monthly budget, and determine from that precisely how much you can afford to spend on housing. Then take that number and add 15%. The second is to pull a number out of thin air. Either way, your price range will end up turning into “whatever it takes to get into a neighborhood with appropriate ‘feel’”.

2. Research

This is the part of the process where you obsessively refresh craigslist seven times an hour so you can make an appointment to see your dream apartment the second it goes on the market. This can be both time-consuming and stressful. That's why you'll want to pursue my tried-and-true tactic of finding a roommate who'll take care of it for you.

3. The Walk Through

This is the part of the process where you amble through potential apartments with a quizzical look on your face, peering intently into dusty corners, pretending that doing so will answer all your concerns about the livability of the place. You’ll ask realtors open-ended questions, hoping they’ll accidentally blurt out condemning (“Why, yes, the cabinets are new and the colony of cockroaches here just love them!”) or captivating (“Blackbeard was a wonderful tenant, but he wanted a smaller place after he kept misplacing his treasure maps”) responses. This will rarely happen. You’ll leave after ten minutes of wandering around with the same impression you had the second you walked in the door.

The walk through is often followed by the walk around, wherein you survey the surrounding neighborhood for features like public transportation, grocery stores, and panhandlers. This latter step can be curtailed slightly if panhandlers approach you as the realtor attempts to unlock the apartment, as happened once during my many tours.

4. The Application

This is the part of the process where you pay for strangers to dig through your past for reasons not to lease you an apartment. You also fill out lots of forms where you attempt to spin “unemployed” and “no previous rental history” into positive qualities. (Unless, of course, neither of these descriptors apply to you, in which case you’re way ahead of me and probably don’t need this blog for advice). Eventually, you’ll come to the realization that you’ll need your parents to co-sign your lease. Most realtors will have no problem with this. Unfortunately, I can't make any similar promises about most parents.

5. The Lease Signing

This is the part of the process where you sit down in a small room and sign away your right to own pets, play loud music at any hour, or “use [your] water closets…for any other purpose than that for which they were constructed.” (The latter restriction taken from my actual lease). You also promise to write checks to your landlord on a regular basis that are far, far larger than any checks you’ve ever written in the past. In exchange, you'll receive a pamphlet describing how the lead in your apartment’s paint will slowly kill you. And, I suppose, the right to live in the apartment with all the lead paint. This whole process can be a bit scary, but if you simply think of the lease-signing as a “rite of passage” rather than of “mess o’ responsibilities and legal obligations” you’ll feel much better about the whole ordeal.

Besides, once the lease is signed, things are easy. All you have to do then is pack up everything you own, shop for lots of things you don’t own, move them all to your apartment, unpack them, set up utilities, decorate, buy all the things you forgot to buy before, and then you’re (almost) set. I’ve got plenty to say about that as well. But that’s a topic for another day.

Until then,

Swattie Emeritus

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Today’s topic: social networking, or as your kindergarten teacher used to call it, “making friends”. Though looking back, I think it’s a bit ironic that we were all taught how to make friends in kindergarten. Back then, potential playmates were all around us and the bar for friendship was set pretty low. Share your toys, don’t punch anyone, don’t pick your nose, and you were golden. Things are a bit trickier out in the real world.

In the real world, it’s hard to find a social network. Worse than that, it’s hard to build a social network of folks you actually like when you don’t have an Admissions Office pre-screening everyone you come into contact with. Now, there are ways to confront this problem directly. One can hit up the bar scene and scout out folks with compatible astrological signs. Or search through MySpace for other Clevelanders who like cats, postmodernism, Italian food, and Mozart’s piano concerto in C Minor, K. 491. (If that’s what you want in a friend). These are perfectly valid strategies. But for now, I want to talk about a different theory about how to meet people, a model I’ve dubbed The Butterfly Theory of Social Networking.

This name, of course, alludes to that old standby of cheesy time travel movies, the butterfly effect. For those of you not in the know, the “butterfly effect” refers to what happens when a butterfly in Guatemala flaps its wings, producing a tiny gust of air. This breeze disturbs a nearby toucan, which takes to the sky, setting off an unpredictable chain reaction of atmospheric events that eventually lead to tropical storms ravaging the Eastern seaboard. Towns are flooded, trees knocked down, power lines felled, computers zapped, files lost, and next thing you know, you’re begging for an extension on your physics lab. Yeah, you probably should’ve finished it four days ago instead of watching the full second season of Lost on DVD, but, really, you swear, you still would’ve had it done if only it hadn’t been for that stupid insect. The butterfly effect backs you up. (Your professor might not).

The Butterfly Theory of Social Networking holds that you can develop a perfectly respectable social network just by getting off your butt and out into the world, even if you have nothing better to do once you’re there than flap your wings aimlessly. There’s no guarantee exactly what sort of chaos you’ll cause by doing this, but you’re still a heck of a lot more likely to meet people that way than by cocooning yourself in your apartment all day long.

Half of the message here is simply to get out into the world and see what it has to offer you. Take a walk around the block. You never when you might get caught in a freak rainstorm (perhaps caused by an errant butterfly?); duck into a bookstore for cover; discover your favorite author is doing a reading there; strike up a conversation with a fellow fan; get invited to join his book group; go there; and on the way home get into a fender-bender with a nice young graduate student and in the process of sharing insurance information become friends for life. This exact chain of events might be unlikely, but it’s one of infinitely many individually unlikely occurrences that could happen to you once you’re out in the world. Many of which are far less convoluted. The point is, there are definite, if uncertain and unpredictable, benefits to being out in the world. (Not the mention the obvious benefit that all these forays around the block, to the bookstore, hither and thither, are certain to improve your cardiovascular system). You never know where you’ll meet people. If you’re clever, you can even manipulate the vagaries of fate by choosing props even before an untimely occurrence sends you scuttling into a bookstore. Sport a shirt advertising your favorite band or bring your favorite Greek epic along to read on your train ride. Cool folks who aren’t cursed with stereotypical Swattie social awkwardness just might be inspired to strike up a conversation with you.

The other half of the message is to take advantage of the social opportunities that are presented to you, however lackluster they might seem at first. For instance, imagine your co-worker Steve invites you to his Halloween party. Steve is sort of dull and a bit of a showoff. You’ve never loved Halloween and haven’t got a clue what you’d wear for a costume. In fact, you’re allergic to latex masks and chocolate candy. The point is, while you’ve got a boatload of reasons to decline his invitation, still lots of good could come from you accepting it. You might love the party after all. You might hate the party and skulk off alone to nurse your cup of punch in a corner, where you encounter Samantha, who also hates the party, and the two of you spend the night recounting your awful Halloweens past and laughing at Dracula trying to put the moves on Betty Boop. Then you exchange contact information and meet up with two of her friends and from that your social network blossoms. Bonding with a girl in a Snow White costume over your mutual distaste of Almond Joys probably wasn’t on your short list of ways to find new friends. But it’s the sort of beautifully unpredictable thing that can result from making efforts to flap your wings.

Until next time,

Swattie Emeritus

Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Tuesday, I bought a plunger. Then I unclogged a toilet. It was a rather mundane occurrence.

In truth, that was fine with me. From what I’ve gathered, the best toilet-plunging stories (from the storyteller’s perspective, at least) are the LEAST eventful. It’s rare you’ll hear a tale like this:

“I was plunging the toilet last week and having a hell of a time with it, when what do you know, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s Ed McMahon telling me I’ve won the lottery.”

Much more common, I’d imagine, is the following:

“I was plunging the toilet last week and having a hell of time with it, and just when it’s nearly fixed, what do you know, there’s a massive flood and I’m swimming in regurgitated sewer water and fecal matter.”

So, yeah, I’m all right with the fact that I unclogged the toilet without a major catastrophe occurring. Besides, being the talented writer that I am, I could easily rework the mundane story of my toilet plunging into a gripping narrative if that’s what I desired. The dramatic tale of the lad who ventured into an ancient hardware store to retrieve a coveted plunger from amidst cluttered piles of dusty relics. Or the feminist parable of the young man obtaining his plunger-cum-phallus in order that he might prove his manhood in the ultimate test of masculinity, home bathroom repair. But taking one of these rich angles on my plunger-buying experience would only obscure the point I wish to make (yes, there is a point to all this nonsense): that plunger-buying is exactly the sort of mundane activity that one must do on a regular basis out in the real world.

Not that one must buy plungers regularly, I hope. In fact, I’d be greatly dismayed if my latest purchase fell into disrepair after only a few uses, particularly after I shelled out an extra ninety-nine cents (plus tax!) for the deluxe model with the plastic handle and blue cup. (It matches our bathmat). Yet this genre of task comes up time and time again. Taking out the recycling (after you’ve figured out when recycling day is and where to put it out). Cleaning out the refrigerator. The little things you have to do to keep your small corner of the world tidy and functional when you’ve realized there’s no Environmental Services staff to clean up after you.

The odd thing, though, is that you feel good about these little things at first. Each toilet unclogged, each moldy cup of leftovers thrown away, each empty can sent out for recycling is like a little testament to your independence. You might not feel like an adult yet, but, by golly, the empty tin of Campbell’s you placed carefully into a sturdy plastic or metal container less than twenty gallons in size proves otherwise. Kids don’t have to worry about the minutiae of trash day. You, however, do.

So that’s one plus to moving out into the real world. You might spend your time unclogging toilets. But, for a while, at least, you’ll be unclogging toilets and loving it.

ADDENDUM: How to Unclog a Toilet In Ten Easy Steps, Swattie Emeritus Style

(Because I like to provide “useful” advice occasionally)

1) Flush toilet. Cross your fingers that water will drain smoothly.
2) Flush toilet again. Maybe last time was a fluke.
3) Google “how to plunge a toilet” (don’t forget quotation marks)
4) Click through links that come up. Find simplest set of instructions available for toilet de-clogging.
5) Take break to eat lunch.
6) Attempt to flush toilet, just to triple-check that it didn’t unclog itself while you were eating.
7) Leave apartment. Buy plunger.
8) Return to saved instructions. Choose to ignore any steps that are complicated, hard-to-understand, or require undue expenditure of time or energy. (e.g. surrounding toilet with old towels to sop up potential overflow. If I follow the steps correctly, there shouldn’t be any overflow, right?)
9) Follow remaining steps of instructions. Use stylish new plunger as called for.
10) Voila, toilet good as new! And best of all, you’ve got a full stomach to boot.