He caught me by the ice machine rubbing the bags under by eyes with ice cubes.

“You crying? Oh my god, angel-face, what you think, you’re supposed to be happy? Why you think that?”

from Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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Arbitrary Arbitrators

My dad told me I’d enjoy college; that one day there I’d look around and realize that I – by far – was not the smartest person in the room. He was right; I enjoyed that as an undergraduate, and learned so much from learning with people far brighter than I am. But as a graduate student it’s been much harder to enjoy the sense the I lag far behind my classmates.

In graduate school I’ve had teachers suggest I consider leaving my academic program; reflecting doubts I’ve had. Professors have told me I wasn’t suited to the work; I don’t fit the mold. I’ve failed so many exams that you’d think I did it for fun. It’s hard not to take the comments and poor grades personally, since I’m the one earning them with my performance. But the truth is that while my professors’ statements hurt, their grading should not. Every single professor – so far – has awarded me a passing grade. Sometimes it’s the lowest possible passing grade, but that doesn’t hold me back. As they say, actions speak louder than words. Even though the words sting.

 

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Message that greeted me outside school. Perhaps they shouldn’t give the students chalk during finals week.

Words, on the other hand, also show that how grades are earned can vary on the day. One of my professors assigned each of us to a group of five, and then had those groups both write a paper together and present it as a team. Since it was a group presentation, all of the comments were supposed to address the full group. However, the professor made an exception for me, writing; “Hannah’s presentation was very powerful. She came across as very well prepared and confident. Really grabbed our attention. Very convincing.” This is the same teacher who felt that our paper – heavily edited by yours truly – was “very lively, but at times it seemed a bit overly expressive given the subject matter of the paper.” Same verve, different grade.

So, maybe I can’t win. But I can accept my grades with good grace. While a bad grade may make me feel stupid, it does not mean that I am; it just means that I’m surrounded by people who know more than me.

“Don’t get me started.” She took a long slug of champagne and handed it off to me. “I wanted to be an actress; that was my biggest mistake. But who knows, maybe there’s still hope for my starring role in Busted: A True Crime Story of Not Getting Away with It.”

My stomach churned, not from the Thai food mixed with my second burger of the day, mixed with champagne, but from the realization that we were in fact an Oxygen network original series waiting to happen.

from The Assistants by Camille Perri

Dance of the Cactus

“It’s a cactus ballet,” I explained, when questioned about my evening plans to take in what New York has to offer. Apparently, it wasn’t a good enough answer. So, I tried again.

“It’s titled Opus Cactus. So it probably has a cactus, or cacti. And it’s definitely a ballet. The New York Times said so.”

My questioner mulled it over, and tried to clarify; “So it’s people dressed as cacti?”

“Maybe?” I offered.

“So, it’s people dressed as cacti just sitting with the sun on them?” was the prompt follow up.

“Entirely possible,” I confirmed.

“I’m afraid you might be disappointed,” they offered, gently.

“That’s why I only paid enough to get the cheap seats,” I agreed.

In the end, it didn’t matter what I paid – I didn’t see anything from my cheap seats. When the usher checked my ticket, he told me to find an empty seat and enjoy the show from there. And so I did.

Momix’s Opus Cactus starts off as tumbleweed enactment, or so I assume given the glowing green balls that tumble across the otherwise dark stage. Presumably, the tumbleweeds’ perfect tumbles, spins, and bounces are being performed by the ballerinas and ballerinos whose work is seen through the rest of the evening’s performances. But that opacity – the questions of what and who is on the stage – is repeated throughout the night. The dancers portray gila monsters, an ostrich, and snakes. The impersonations are uncanny, but even if they weren’t, those are the names of individual pieces. Despite some more ambiguous names, I believe I also saw birds fly, the sun and moon, and a cactus bloom. Throughout it all, the dancers were powerful in their grace. The thrumming music would fit a nature documentary. Dances are modern, a mix of traditional ballet movement and gravity-defying gymnastics. It’s weird and magnetic, not unlike the desert.

Let Them Drink Coffee

My dad has a theory that free coffee at work – good free coffee – is a sign that the end is nigh for your employer. Based on this theory, the government will outlast us all. At my public sector job, there is no coffee. We do have a kitchen with a sink, which is a pretty sweet deal. At least, it feels that way on the days when we have paper towels. Compared to my friends whose employers set out fresh fruit, stock pantries, or offer Tea Time Tuesdays, I’ve felt like an underprivileged government employee. Little did I know how good I had it.

My agency stopped stocking plastic cutlery.

I embraced the change as a call to environmental arms. I brought in my own utensils, and felt, daily, that I was saving landfill space – and thereby the world. In felt righteous every time I washed my cutlery in the rust-spotted kitchen sink, then shook them in the air to dry because there were no paper towels. Then, one dark and gloomy day, my cutlery broke. Of course, it was the day I brought in soup for lunch. With no alternative, I took to the streets to look for plastic cutlery to get me through one meal.

The reasonable thing may have been to purchase a set of plastic cutlery. A few blocks from my office there are some great discount stores, stocked with party goods. But I already own two packages of plastic spoons, they were just both located in my apartment. But I was unwilling to commit to contributing even more to landfills. So, I went looking for a free spoon. Well, not free. I wasn’t willing to stoop to stealing a spoon, but I was willing to take one in exchange for my continued customer loyalty. My first stop was the Dunkin Donuts next door where I pick up a treat from time to time. But Dunkin Donuts is wise to my kind, and they don’t have spoons. Or, if they do, I couldn’t find them and the cashiers looked harassed enough without hunting down spoons for me.

So I walked the streets looking for a shop with a stack of spoons in the window. It took me 20 minutes, a woman who tried to get me to spend $2.75 on a yogurt, one cup of coffee, and $1.46, but I walked back into the office with several plastic spoons – plus a stack of napkins – for my troubles.

Chicago Charms

“Chicago has two season: winter and construction,” I was warned. What no one gave me was advice on what to do once I got there. So, like a Chicagoan shoveling out the snow, I made my own way – in both seasons.

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Boat tour: Lovely views of the city and surrounding traffic without having to be in any of it. Plus, there are some boat rides that provide architectural tours. Or ones that take you to an unfamiliar neighborhood for free and leave you there, like the kind I took. It seemed like the unfolding plot of a horror film where you get kidnapped and wind up enslaved to a drug cartel. So I used the unexpected docking as an opportunity to find a post office so my family could know my last location. Turns out that it’s easy to find a post office, and get an elevated train out from wherever the boat may drop you.

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Toto, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore

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But the zip code says we are

The El: Public transportation that works for most of the public. Unless you want to
gamble
.
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Art Institute of Chicago: It’s got Monet’s lilies for the old-schoolers and edgy modern art for the new. For those who don’t care, it’s also where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off filmed a few scenes. So if you prefer, skip the museum and watch that instead.

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Museum of Science and Industry: They let you watch baby chicks hatch and form your own tornado. Take the family, spend the day.

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Howard Washington Library:
 There are cannons. A 3D printer. Seven floors of books. Librarians who allow people to hide in the stacks till closing. The place is so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it also fit a few coffee shops and maybe an airport hanger. There’s basically everything you’d need to run a small city except people who live there full-time; I’m happy to volunteer myself to make Chicago the first city to have a self-sustaining community living in its library.

 

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WBEZ: Chicago’s NPR station is on a pier. If that was intended to deter sightseers, it doesn’t work. Requests for a tour of active recording studios and a place of business were met with incredible goodwill and cheer. That friendliness that held strong even when I showed up on the wrong date for my tour. Their programming is awesome, they let me hang out with a statue of Studs Terkel, and someone even gave us the inside scoop on the Chicago news-agency softball league. Ask them about it, but don’t mention me.

img_20170305_231241.jpgBusy Beaver Button Museum: Yet another place of business that will let you in to disturb the hardworking men and women of Chicago, turning serious professionals into amateur tour guides. It’s a working button business with an immense collection of slogan buttons. They couldn’t be more gracious about visitors unless they worked at WBEZ. You can see Abraham Lincoln’s campaign button and about a thousand others. Remember the Reading Radicals! button from your childhood? It’s there. Along with the sorts of pithy phrases, pathos, and poetry you didn’t think could fit onto a button.

Chicago Federal Reserve: There are armed men everywhere, so it’s best if you take the opportunities provided to learn about the millions of dollars surrounding you rather than trying to steal them. Also, it’s free – so basically you make bank by just showing up.

Lake Michigan: It comes with a small beach and there’s probably boating somewhere. Sometimes its toxic, but the city puts up helpful signs. No signs? No toxicity!

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They told me there was a Bean. Instead, I found a garden. Next trip, someone bring a map.

Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.