Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I am officially a waitress with a master's degree

It's no coincidence that my last post was months ago, right before the start of spring semester. Every time I had an interesting encounter at work that would have lent itself to an interesting post, there was always a paper or student or work shift that took precedent. This crazy final semester put an exclamation point at the end of the absolute hardest year of my life in all ways imaginable, down to the very metaphysical aspects -- a wonderfully awful life detour that allowed just enough time to really think about what led me here and who I will be at the end of this process.

I was thinking about some of these heady and heavy things while sitting in my seat at graduation on Saturday. I was handed my empty diploma case (the real one doesn't come for six weeks), and I shook a few hands on stage, and I heard my family and friends clapping and "Woo"ing at the back of the auditorium, and it was suddenly very official and exhilarating: I had EARNED a master's degree. I did it. It was so hard, but I did it, and it was over. As I took my seat, I surprised myself with how proud I was of what I had achieved. I also surprised myself with quite a healthy dose of self-acceptance. I had thought for months about all the things you're supposed to think when any kind of graduation is on the horizon: "What comes next? Who am I supposed to be now? What will people expect?" I fully realized at that moment that those answers can't be rushed, and it didn't matter at all what other people expect.

That's really what this blog has been about: managing expectations. The premise was interesting: a grad student in her mid-30s leaving a white-collar career to wait tables again. My mistake in this little sociocultural experiment has been focusing those expectations outward. Case in point: Several months ago, a girl in my high school class was sitting at the bar one night with a wedding party. It should be noted, during the six years we went to school together, we never once spoke. I don't even remember an instance of eye contact. Yet, when she saw me in my uniform, a Ranch dressing stain on my apron, filling up a glass with Coke, she locked eyes with me and gave me the most supercilious, disdainful look. (Women, you will probably understand this look much more than men.) My initial response was to smile and laugh it off. (I'm actually quite proud of that; I think it shows a level of comfort in one's own skin that comes with age.) But, of course, the desire to save face inevitably kicked in. I wanted to somehow have the opportunity to explain myself, to tell her that I'm not just a waitress, that I'm almost done with my master's, and that I had a whole career before this that was filled with excitement and (at times) prestige and that was surely better than anything she had accomplished. So there!

I, of course, did not get that opportunity. This woman left the restaurant thinking whatever it was that she was thinking after that one glance. And I'm actually fine with it, especially now. Because what I'm doing now is just fine. I am a waitress with a master's degree. It doesn't matter if anyone else has a problem with that. For now, it's who I want to be.

Many people have been asking the natural "what next?" kind of questions, and I have had no qualms with giving them the honest answer: I plan to spend a good part of summer drinking, not thinking, and doing some leisurely reading. In short, I'm going to take a minute. How many adults get to just take some time to meditate on the future? To carefully think about their next move? And most importantly, to ENJOY who they are and what they have achieved?

Sounds like a good plan to me.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Six-month check-in: My rash decisions tend to have a 50/50 success rate

My inner circle knows a somewhat hidden truth about me: I'm incredibly impulsive when it comes to big decisions. You'd never know it from the outside. My outside is organized. She sits down to write checklists for her day. She's a homebody. These personality traits don't coalesce with the accepted definition of an impulsive kind of person, one who throws caution to the wind and lives life on the edge.

That kind of impulsive person sounds awesome! Like the kind of girl you really wanted as your best friend in college. I'm not that kind. My kind of impulsive decisions make my loved ones roll their eyes at best and brace themselves for catastrophic fallout at worst.

Allow me to demonstrate the difference:

Cool Impulsive Girl: (2 a.m. on a Tuesday) Wake up! I can't sleep. Let's go to Perkins and eat three different kinds of pie!
Me: (Broke living paycheck to paycheck at age 26): I think I'm going to buy a house today.

Cool Impulsive Girl: I know I said I was going to use my tax return to pay off my student loans, but I'm totally going to Florida for spring break instead.
Me: (With no experience doing demo or flooring) I hate this tile floor in this very large kitchen; I'm going to get my tiny hammer and chisel and start prying them up and just assume that I will know how to lay a new floor by myself.

Cool Impulsive Girl: I've been a brunette too long. I think purple is my new color.
Me: (Having not so much as googled how to care for a dog) I'm getting a puppy today! How hard could it be?

Over the course of my 34 years, I have made enough of these rash decisions to know that, on average, they have a 50/50 success rate. The puppy, for example, turned out very well. The puppy has grown into my 7-year-old Squishy, who is the best dog in the whole world. But that's not to say there weren't enormous growing pains. The first night I brought my 7-week-old Squishy home, I had absolutely no clue that a newborn pup needed to go outside and wee every two hours. So I tucked her into bed with me, and I was shocked eight hours later to wake up in a pool of puppy pee. I had no idea that puppies lost their baby teeth, or that when they do teethe, they use your hands as chew toys. I didn't know about kennel training or potty training or curbing dominant behaviors or socializing. Baby Squishy and I learned about those things together. But by the six-month mark, that's when I was sure I had made a fantastic impulsive decision that had started the same way most of my impulsive decisions do: With me sitting in my recliner, daydreaming about how cute puppies were, and then driving to an animal shelter the very next morning to pick her up.

Like with Squishy, it usually takes about six months for me to know whether one of these decisions of mine were good or bad. Six months into owning this house, I knew I couldn't afford it. My mortgage was more than 50 percent of my income, which led to a series of very unfortunate roommates. (I must also point out that I had a couple of really good ones. But having the bad ones living in my house was a nightmare.) Six months after prying up that tile floor and laying down a new slate floor, I knew I should have had a professional come in. Every couple of months one or two of those tiles pop loose, and I'm constantly making repairs.

My decision to go back to school to get my master's also happened impulsively: In December of 2013 I was sitting in my recliner and thinking, "I wonder if getting my master's would help me find a better paying job?" The next day my application was filled out and I was on the phone with Dr. Chris Brown attempting to begin the process of enrollment in Comm Studies at MSU. A month later, I was sitting in a classroom again. It took a good six months for me to realize that decision had been a good one. It was a ton of work, and there were, of course, the growing pains of re-learning how to be a student again and how to think critically after a decade of not using the thinkiest parts of my brain. But I had straight As, and I was nearly halfway done with the program thanks to summer sessions. So by last summer, I was comfortable saying that such an enormous impulsive decision was working out well.

The other day I realized I was six months into my most recent life-changing impulsive decision: the decision to quit my 12-year career as a journalist and wait tables again while I finished my degree. I started going through all the growing pains in my mind during the last six months: getting acquainted with that kind of work again, the stress of juggling a busy section, being on my feet for hours at a time, smiling and being courteous and showing gratitude, even when people don't return the favor. I'm wearing a uniform, punching a clock, coming home tired and smelling like grease. I don't have health insurance or sick pay, which would have come in handy during these last two weeks of a nasty cold virus. I'm working with mostly younger people, many of whom I can't really relate to and vice versa. It hasn't been easy. But the real question is: Is this better than what I had? Did my impulse lead me onto the better path? And I have to say that, in this case, it really did. I was working more than twice as many hours for a lot less money as a journalist. The flexibility of my waitressing job is invaluable, especially with school. I work 15 hours a week and easily pay all my bills. I pick up shifts when I want more money, and I unload shifts when I don't. And even though I don't have much in common with many of my coworkers, I have found them to be willing to help out when they can, including covering my shifts when I was sick. All in all, I actually like going to work, and I have the time and the money to get everything done that needs to get done during this chaotic little detour in my life.

So, to my loved ones who always have shown me enormous support -- even when I know they're not quite sure if my impulsive decisions will be good ones or not -- thank you for encouraging me when I shocked you with the news that I would be ditching my AP Style Book for an apron and a pair of non-slip shoes. This impulse has panned out. I promise to try and hold off for a few months before I have another one.