UNDONE (THE SWEATER SONG)

after Weezer

Give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals. 

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale


On our way out of the Roseland, we are pushing through the crowd to get to the exit and dancing to the post-show music. This is one of my favorite things about concerts: hearing people sing together. I worship even those moments before the opener comes on, when some playlist of alt-rock hits asserts its comforting familiarity over the speakers and everyone latches on to a particular song. It’s always something like Wish you could step off of that ledge my friend or I’m gonna fight em all or If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away. Dear Portland chorus: I love you, I swear. All of that simultaneous joy makes my heart lurch with a kind of productive, forward-moving energy, like I’ve had too much coffee. It feels like relief and like waiting for something. I can’t describe its holiness like Hanif Abdurraqib but I know that it’s very much like waiting for something.

In fact, it occurs to me that in these United States, the sheer variety of religious and spiritual affiliation is such that in the event of an apocalypse, we wouldn’t say the Lord’s prayer together like they do in the movies. If, during those final moments, we truly wanted to be in communion with one another, we would sing the words to a song we all love as the asteroid careens toward the Earth.


One night, at a bar in Granada, I was feeling out of place among so many silk blouses and six inch high heels, among a sea of dancers repeating the same elegant salsa step over and over again, when “Mr. Brightside” came on and all of the Americans started singing with so little hesitation and such perfect synchronicity that I almost cried. I loved their laughing eyes and their wild gestures, how they clutched their chests when they sang, I just can’t look, it’s killing me. The well-dressed Spanish folks smoked their cigarettes and giggled at us, at the people who were my family for 3 minutes and 42 seconds. I’m surprised to find that I’m not actually ashamed of the sentimentality of all this. Probably because it, too, was near perfect to me. 


A few years ago, I watched a video of the rapper Post Malone– who I admittedly find off-putting in a number of ways– singing “I Fall Apart” to a smallish crowd in a bar for some kind of collaborative tour with Budweiser. The song is about a devastating breakup in his younger years. In the video, by way of introduction, he says, This song is dedicated to the nasty girl who broke my heart. One grim detail: I’ve heard versions of this song where the audience starts chanting “Fuck that bitch” over and over again before he starts singing, which I gather is some sort of fan tradition acknowledging the degree of suffering expressed in the lyrics; there are echoes of that chanting here, too. Though the aggressive misogyny of the words is unsettling, I find myself drawn to the audience members as they sing along. Though some are smiling, lifting their hands like any headdress-wearing sorority girl at Coachella, a few look quite different. Their faces are solemn and strained, almost religious with empathy and torment. When I watch the most passionate of these singers, it’s like I can see them reckon with a specific heartbreak as they mouth the words, the residue of a heavy and perennial anger. 


This is the last one, and then I’ll be quiet: Talib Kweli’s Blackstar reunion tour in Portland. A night crisp as printer paper. When Talib sang “Just to Get By” and everyone sang “Just to Get By.”

This morning I woke up, feeling brand new. I jumped up. Feeling my highs and my lows. In my soul and my goals. Just to stop smoking and stop drinking. And I’ve been thinking, I’ve got my reasons…

I don’t mean to collapse our identities, our unique experiences, when I say that we all sounded the same that night. I just mean to say that I could hear the choke of a sob in nearly every one’s throat.


As Lucas and I continue pushing toward the back of the venue, I turn my camera toward him and hit record. Though I feel superficial for pulling out my phone so quickly, I swear to myself that I need the footage for later, for my hoard, for when I’m alone in my bed in the dark and I need to remember that I was once vital and breathing.

When Lucas turns to me and sees the camera, his eyes widen and his face opens up. I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, he shouts along with the crowd, moving his hips in a little circle. Right over here. Why can’t you see me? 


Three years later, I drive to Portland with E., who I’ve just started dating, to meet Lucas at a show. I haven’t seen him in a long time.

He is much thinner, so tiny as to be almost childlike, an image magnified by the fact that he’s wearing an undersized t-shirt and a small plastic backpack. His eyes are ringed in thick black liner, making them appear even more sunken. He looks unhealthy and unfed, like the sun has leaked right out of him. His hair, once the color of black tourmaline, is now a stark white-blond, a shade close to the color of his skin. This contributes to my sense that all the pigment has drained from his body.

We smile and hug. I wrap my arms around his grass blade of a waist. I squeeze him once. Twice. He nuzzles my temple like a horse and I laugh. We make small talk, and his eyes keep darting toward the door as I speak, lamely describing my graduate program, my first year of teaching. It’s clear that he’s not focused on anything I’m saying. He bounces up and down in his seat.

When it’s his turn, Lucas says he’s in between jobs and living situations. He shrugs. He has a new boyfriend and I pretend I don’t know this already from social media. He keeps tapping his fingernails on the bar. They are painted black and chipping. He reminds me of some old mechanical toy. His neck on a swivel. His body shaking like a drummer boy’s. His fingers tap tap tap tap tap.

Well, he says, after less than ten minutes, sighing loudly and stretching as if he has completed some great herculean task. I’m sorry, baby girl. I know you drove all this way. But I can’t actually stay for the show. 

Oh, I say. Why? But he is evasive, and makes an excuse about needing to help a friend with something. I’ve been here before. I’m intimate with the sounds that a mouth makes as it forms a lie, especially one made to obscure the shape of a small and shameful thing.

We hug again. This time to say goodbye, I guess. As I wrap my fingers around his shoulders, I think his thin arms and clammy skin might be trying to say something to me, but I don’t really want to listen. I’m afraid that along with saying that he’s changed, they are also telling me that I don’t fit among the changes. And I’m just not ready to grieve that yet.


Selfish as ever, I play the filmic montage of our friendship in my head as I push the bar door open and head out to the car. I hate how I do this. It’s so cloyingly predictable, but like most of my vices, it feels more compulsive than anything else. 

So we’re eating grilled cheese in the cafeteria in college. His face is bent over lines of chemical symbols; my face is bent over Beloved. He’s dancing with silly, jerking movements to a Major Lazer song in a living room lit by Christmas lights. Don’t tell them I’m like this on the internet! He shouts, and points at me from across the room. I raise my palms, laughing. I promise. He’s dragging an Ikea mattress through the door of my garage apartment, the one coated in dust and black mold. Bitch! he says, wiping sweat off his forehead, I was not built for this!


I should clarify something: I have never, before this night, longed for a man I did not desire. But I can’t describe what I felt like as anything but longing. 

I’m always reading things online about how much more beautiful and complex the phrase “I miss you” sounds in other languages. Tu me manques. You are missing to me. I suppose this is true. But this feeling was nothing like a lack. Instead, it was more like extrañar. In Spanish, extrañar means to miss, but it’s also a relative of the word extraño, or strange. And this is just how I felt. I miss you. I’m estranged from you. To me, you’ve become strange.


In my junior year of college, Sasha told me that she found it hard to be around me because I had changed since freshman year.

One bright Saturday, my housemates and I hosted Boozy Brunch, an annual tradition, at the small gray house on Princeton St. We got dressed up and made mimosas and Irish whiskeys and waffles with burnt edges and my housemates didn’t really like me but they pulled me outside for photos anyway. I couldn’t find the shoes that went with my silver sequined party dress, and I couldn’t be bothered to look for them, so I yanked on my rain boots and clip-clopped outside like a sparkling Quarter Horse. That whole time, I was supposed to be writing a paper on speech acts in Troilus and Criseyde, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was just too angry. And what I mean by angry is that I was graduating college a year early in a handful of months, and I felt nothing. I already suspected that I had set myself up for a life of scrapping together a meager income, probably mostly from retail, and who would care about Chaucer and Ferdinand de Saussure then? What good would The Awakening do except to give me instructions for dying? I was forcing myself to fall out of love with all of it then, and the only way I could expel the bitterness that increasingly lived on my tongue was through a vaguely cynical flatness. Through long nights waiting in line at the North Lombard Taco Bell and finally getting everything I wanted. And I was still lonely.

Which meant, of course, that if I had changed, it was hardly monumental. I still got bronchitis in the springtime. Still fielded jokes at parties about my black tights and ballet shoes. Still blushed when Elliott Myers asked if I wanted to do coke with him in the garage. Still walked home from class listening to Mahler and wondering just what about life I seemed to be getting so wrong.

As I tripped on the porch steps on my way to the front yard, late already–and mostly intentionally–for the first few pictures in the yard, I considered Sasha’s words more deeply, and considered that she may have been right. But in the blunt orange of the afternoon, forcing my lips to part into a smile, I decided quite firmly and irrevocably that I was not. I’m only coping, I thought, no, reacting to what I had been given. What the world looked like around me and what I thought it looked like ahead.

I wondered then, as I sometimes do now, if when we think we are getting closer to ourselves, we are really just finding a new way to survive. A temporary one, even, that has much less to do with identity than adaptation. Sasha was smart. Why didn’t she see all that? Wasn’t it obvious to anyone who met my eyes? 


A few weeks ago I came across the Jewish story of Zusha, a revered Hasidic master, on Facebook. The wording is different everywhere I look at the story online, but most versions go something like this: Zusha is crying on his deathbed, and his students ask him why. After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!

Because I am afraid, Zusha explains, Because when I get to heaven, I know God’s not going to ask me “Why weren’t you more like Moses?” or “Why weren’t you more like King David?” But I’m afraid that God will ask “Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha? And then what will I say?!”


Isn’t it funny how you’re different now can be an act of praising, an acknowledgment of some kind of personal growth, but you’ve changed is almost always an accusation?


But then again, I should be wary of what I say here. There are dangers in giving directions to others as they stumble on the paths toward themselves.


By the time E. has slid into the driver’s side and shut the door my eyes are already welling. 

Well, fuck. E. says. 

Yeah, I whisper. I know. And though I’m normally the type to speak my pain aloud, I don’t say much more for the rest of the ride. Instead, slightly drunk and still damp from the rain, I try to identify each bridge we pass by in the city. I used to think that their shapes were so distinctive, but now I can’t remember a single one of their names.

I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got Was This Moderate-Severe Depression

“And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

 

About Me, Your Friendly Neighborhood Millennial:

I was your garden-variety smart kid, shuffled through GATE programs of every type from kindergarten onward. In sixth grade, I left the classroom in the afternoons to study Latin roots with our school’s principal for the spelling bee circuit. As you can probably imagine, I was bullied a lot (Apparently, no one likes a first-grader who says “in addition to” instead of “and.”). I went to a competitive high school near Silicon Valley, where– with my AP courses– I had a 4.0 cumulative GPA, but was not in the top 10% of my class.

After getting summarily rejected from the Ivies, I went to a small university in Oregon, where I worked harder than I thought possible to graduate a year early with two degrees. My reasons for adhering to this less-than-brilliant plan were the following: 1) the astronomical cost of college tuition, and 2) the desire to move to New York to be with my high school boyfriend, who ended up ghosting me at the end of my sophomore year in college (s/o to my ex, you heartless used gym sock*). Here comes the controversial part: I got both of my degrees in the humanities. I know, I know. I was young and naive. But I loved writing and reading more than anything else, and I wasn’t sure, especially given my intensifying feelings of loneliness and depression, that I would be able to graduate if I wasn’t doing something loved. I tacked on the Spanish degree because I loved studying the language, and hoped it would make me more marketable later on. Like most ambitious English majors, I hoped I would find work in either teaching or writing after graduation.

Long story short, I ended up graduating magna cum laude, won my department’s award, and learned that no one really wants to talk about E.M. Forster while playing beer pong. Go figure.

Post-graduation, I attended a fully-funded MA program in English with the hope of seeing if academia was a viable field for me. Though my most promising offer was from Boston College, I could not attend the program for financial reasons. Even as a fully-funded candidate, there is no way I could have afforded to live in the Boston metro area as a full-time student, and I already had an undergraduate student loan. I ended up accepting an offer from Oregon State University, where I would get to teach English Composition for a generous stipend.

Another long story short: It was fantastic. I loved it. But as many of my readers know, there are simply no jobs in the humanities, especially in English Lit. Like every baby academic who is just beginning to fall in love with Eve Sedgwick and affect theory, I wanted to continue on to my PhD, but I was also reaching graduation knowing that my future would likely end up like this:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty

or this:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/28/more-humanities-phds-are-awarded-job-openings-are-disappearing

 

The Job Search:

Before I finished graduate school, I met with a career counselor at OSU and explained that I might like to pursue a career where I could remain part of university life, i.e. as a low-level administrator. For jobs even at that tier, she told me I would likely need another MA in “Higher Education Administration”. Really? Another MA? That I would have to pay in full for? To use the same programs and software that I had already been using as an instructor at OSU? Okay.

I heard her, but I also ended up applying to a lot of entry-level admin jobs, most of which amounted to working as a receptionist. I didn’t get any interviews.

After a summer of job searching, and increasingly desperate for cash, I began working retail at a local bookstore, thinking that I could continue looking for a position while I earned minimum wage. I ended up there for a year. Every few months, I was given tasks that increased in complexity and responsibility– everything from daily bookkeeping to making bank deposits for the store– while being told it wasn’t likely I would ever get a raise beyond a cashier’s minimum wage. At the store, nearly all of us had a college education or more, but we were treated like high schoolers with little to no intelligence. For example, one member of upper management referred to us as “the blind leading the blind.” Another, when I gave my two weeks notice, assumed it was because I was starting college as a freshman in the fall, expressing utter shock after she learned that I was 24 with an MA degree. In addition to those comments, there was the daily drudgery of being condescended to and degraded by everyone’s favorite I-must-speak-to-the-manager-immediately shoppers, who a) routinely berate you for store policies you have no control over and b) treat you like a thoughtless robot.

 

Some ~special highlights~ from a couple of my favorite customers:

“Oh, I take everything a woman says with a pound and a half of salt.”

“I’m looking for books about the USSR. I bet you don’t know what that is, do you?”

“The fact that you don’t keep track of everything your customers purchase is just ridiculous. You know, it’s because of you that Jeff Bezos is winning. Because. Of. You.”

Later that year, I moved with my partner to a town about 40 minutes away from the bookstore. At that time, the owners of the store were running skeleton crew, and had almost no one to close the store at 9 PM.They were going to “promote me” for 25 cents more an hour to “be in charge” at night. In other words, they were going to ensure that I took mostly closing shifts by trying to inflate my ego with…a quarter (Hang in there fellow retail workers. Solidarity.).

 


Hitting 150:

While working at the bookstore, I applied to dozens of positions. But now, with no income, I had to increase the rate and quantity of my job applications. Anyone who has conducted a less-than-casual job search in 2018 will be familiar with the tedious nature of applying to jobs over the internet. You attach a resume and cover letter to whichever portal is associated with that position, then you have to re-insert every item of on your resume, including job experiences, references, demographic information, and educational experiences, into algorithm-friendly online forms, and then answer a variety of supplemental questions. I suppose all that makes a kind of sense. But lately, the process has become even more ridiculous.

For example, Indeed.com, my job search platform of choice, now has its own assessment quizzes according to job type. I’ve applied to a lot of receptionist positions, for example, where the company asks you to take a “Receptionist Quiz” filled with questions like “If this is Steve’s schedule, and this is Sarah’s, what time can they both meet with Client X?” and “How would you label a folder than contains information about Printer Setup?” I have taken this “Receptionist Assessment” about 15 times. None of the companies I took the quiz for ever met me in person, and I doubt a human being even looked at my application materials. I have also taken dozens of in-house corporate assessments, where you are asked to spend about 45 minutes rating your personal attributes on a 7-point Likert scale and then respond to multiple-choice questions about everything from shoplifting to coworker drug abuse. Again, for the ultimate reward of that sweet, sweet minimum wage.

In interviews, I am rarely asked anything about myself or my experiences, but instead given a list of corporate-sounding and depersonalized questions. I understand that for large businesses and universities, some of this is designed to eliminate bias in the interview process. That’s good. But more often than not, the result is an interview where you walk away feeling like your interviewers still don’t know a single thing about you or what you can offer them. Which is…kind of the point of an interview.

Another example: In the past year, the majority of my interviews have lasted around 15-25 minutes, and have consisted of an average of 10 questions that almost exclusively provide sample scenarios that you could probably solve a lot more efficiently after receiving training for the position you are applying for. The other questions are always enormously vague, and don’t provide a lot of opportunities to sell yourself. Here’s a great one I got a few weeks ago:

“Name a time where you were given technology that you had never used before, and explain how you overcame that challenge in detail.” Um, I don’t know, I used Google? I figured it out? This is seriously one of ten questions you are going to ask me before you send me out the door?

 

Some ~special highlights~ from interviews I have been on:

  • While interviewing at a local law firm for a receptionist position, I was told in the first portion of the interview that it was clear that I had an introverted and submissive personality, and that it would be in my best interest to alter myself a bit before the lawyers came in to meet me because “they don’t really like people with the kind of personality that I have,” or something to that effect. No call or email back after the interview, even for a rejection.
  • At an interview for a classroom assistant position, I was led into an empty room, asked maybe three questions (while awkwardly standing across from my interviewer– we never even sat down), then thanked and sent on my way. I drove 45 minutes to that interview. For similar interviews that I have been on, I had to miss shifts at work. No call or email back after that interview, either.
  • At a nonprofit nursery for low-income families, I was told after the interview that I needed to apply to the Oregon Registry** as part of the job application process, and that the organization prefers employees to have about a Step 8 on the registry. It was a process that took nearly two months and tons of paperwork. When my registration was approved, I was given a Step 3 on the registry because “it wasn’t clear that I took AP Psychology in high school on my college transcript.” When I emailed the hiring manager about it, she never replied, not even to say that my step was too low for them to hire me, or that they would be pursuing other candidates. This, like most of the positions I have applied to, was a job that did not pay much more than minimum wage.

 

Throughout the year, I applied to positions in several different fields, but most were related to education, nonprofit work, child care, retail, and writing/editing, all of which I have at least some experience in. But it seemed like so many companies were looking for (random) qualifications and (expensive) certificates that I did not possess, like the Oregon Registry requirement. One of the most common qualifications for receptionist positions is an “AA or certificate in Office Occupations.” Okay, fam, I know how to use Excel. I can answer a multi-line phone. I can greet customers. Please. Just put me to work.***

At some point during this mess of a job search, I discerned from the “Applied” section of my Indeed account, my email inbox, and my calendar that I’ve applied to over 150 jobs in just one year. As I write, that number has continued to grow to about 200.

 

Depression Tacos:

To cope with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and regret that I ever attended college in the first place (when I clearly should have gotten a certificate in Office Occupations instead!), I have eaten a lot of tacos al pastor**** and gone to a lot of therapy. I have also started substitute teaching to make some extra cash while I figure out what I’m doing. Fun fact: they don’t interview you at all, nor do they make you take assessment quizzes, to be in charge of a room full of children. We live in a strange world, my friends.

This humble/ self-indulgent essay will not end in a success story, but it will end on a positive note that recalls Rebecca Solnit’s words in the introduction. As empty and washed out as I sometimes feel, I still believe that there are tangible ways I can contribute to the world around me, even if I do so outside of the workforce. In dark times of my life, I have discovered many ways to experience and share moments of beauty, and I am looking forward to sharing similar moments with you in this blog. At the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, we can be rich in loss together.

 

Resources:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists This is the website that my mom, an MFT, recommends for finding a mental health professional that suits your needs. It is also the place where I found the therapist I currently work with. I have been seeing her for three years now, and she has helped me endure the trash fire that is 2018.

https://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/21/phd-in-english-and-life-after-grad-school/ This blog was influential in my decision not to pursue a PhD. The author tries to get you to buy stuff now, which I’m not a fan of, but that method makes sense given the blog’s premise. Especially if you have grad degrees in the humanities, I would recommend checking out some of the blog’s resources and guest articles.

berthamasonsattic@gmail.com If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, or even if you just feel like you have become a failure in the eyes of the great machine of capitalism, feel free to shoot me an email. Though I’m obviously no expert on anything except the local taqueria scene, I have learned a few things that might be helpful to you.

 

Footnotes:

* classy insult also courtesy of Rebecca Solnit, my eternal muse

** The registry looks at your work experiences, education, and other skills, and then assigns you a “step” based on how well your experiences align with the goals of Early Childhood Education. My understanding is that some workplaces need to know your step in order to decide what to pay you, but frankly, I still find the whole thing confusing and bureaucratic.

*** I have sincere respect for people doing administrative jobs and working in all kinds of entry-level and service positions in this country. I do not mean to disparage their skills or hard work. But I do believe I have demonstrated that I am capable of doing basic administrative work. If my education does not speak for itself, then I just wish that these businesses would give me a chance to prove that I’m willing to put a lot of effort and care into any task that I’m given.

**** s/o to Carniceria Mi Casita: gracias por todo