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Drive it like it’s stolen

Fridays are always light days at school. The biggest “work” stress in my life right now is the problem of finding a place to park on campus, but since there aren’t a lot of classes scheduled for Friday, the parking ramp that I use does not fill up, so I’m usually not in a super rush to get to campus. Usually I make a really giant latte and drink it on the way to school every morning, but we were out of milk. No milk = no latte. We hadn’t gone grocery shopping recently because I abscond with our only vehicle every day and am gone for ten to twelve hours at a stretch and usually when I get home, my remaining energy is reserved for school homework, grading or watching reruns of Holiday Baking Challenge on Hulu. (Bill was robbed in Season 1, you guys, straight up robbed of his title from a human cartoon character who was basically the unholy union of Guy Fieri and Alvin the Chipmunk and who was basically treating the entire thing like an extended audition for her own Food TV spot.)

So I was forced to run through Starbucks for a latte. What I SHOULD have done was go to the store and buy some milk for the same price of a latte and fix the problem myself but I’ve been in a pique ever since my car was declared a terminal case and the whole Senate tax bill vote threatens the lives and existences of so many people who make less than $500,000 a year (and if you continue to believe that you’re not under attack by 52 people sitting in the Senate, enjoy your self-identity as a temporarily disadvantaged millionaire for as long as you can because you are simply one terrible life event away from bankruptcy, and hopefully that terrible life event isn’t a disease that is being researched by graduate students, because a cure ain’t coming soon, honey.)

My Friday is a quiet morning of office hours (in which I sent two students “Doom” emails as they have missed more than 20% of the classes, which means an automatic F according to the syllabus, and they need to see me about making up some of those absences before the doomsday clock runs out during exam week) followed by a three hour “How to Teach” class that is required of all graduate students who teach without having a Masters Degree. Now, I have a Masters Degree, as do about six other people in that class but the Powers That Be decided we needed to take the class too, so there we sit.

Class ended up being kind of fun — instead of the normal slog through pedagogy lessons on rhetoric and composition education, we had a panel of current youngish tenured professors giving advice about the job market, grad school success strategies and general teaching advice. One of those professors is teaching a class I’ve signed up to take next semester — she’s a 21st Century literature expert (which feels weird to write, since we’re at only Year 17 of that genre) — so it was doubly interesting to hear her teaching zeitgeist knowing that I’m going to have to endure it next semester. We ended up having such a good discussion that we basically never got to the planned coursework for the day, which meant that I did my homework for nothing. Oh well, I guess I probably learned from it or something. Wisdom. Feh.

After school, I headed home and did the tiniest bit of school and charity work and then Esteban popped into my office and suggested that we go try to get some car shopping in before the sun set and it got too dark or cold to deal with it. We headed up to the big “car dealer row” on Sahara and just started knocking them down. I learned that I talk big game about wanting a roller skate that gets me from Point A to Point B but when it comes right down to it, I am less inclined to like a little car that feels smushy. Also, now that I’ve been studying negotiation techniques, it was fascinating to watch the car salesmen try to use persuasion tools on me. They negged my trade in (deserved), tried to confuse the issue by selling to the payment of the car versus the price of the car (that trick is only viable if you don’t understand math, but nice try), tried to get me to fill out financing paperwork “just to see” (Nope), and kept trying to find out more information about how I was financing which of course has NO BEARING on how I decide which car to buy, but it was a way that they could find out more information about me to use in the pitch. They also negged my questions about lower-priced vehicles by implying that I was a higher quality buyer and not some college student or “first time buyer” and kept trying to direct me to new cars. Nope. Not going to work, buddy. I’m in no mood for your foolishness.

We tooled out after three car lots and I think three test drives (Honda CRV, Hyundai Tuscan, and a GMC Terrain) and many many butt drives (where you sit in the car and close the door and say “Nope, no need to test drive this because ugh I hate everything and want to scream.”) and found nothing but a growing sense of “I just want my Murano back and no car payment please.”

My original plans for Friday night were to go to a Neon Lit literary reading with fellow UNLV grad students but in the middle of car shopping, I demanded cheap dinner, so we ended up waiting forever at a taco shop for food that was in fact cheap and delicious (but played havoc with my gastrointestinal system later — lesson learned about cheese and bean burritos eaten from styrofoam containers. The dinner and subsequent car salesmen lingering and obfuscating made us far later than we had planned and we were still way far from downtown, so we headed to the little indie bookstore off Fremont Street downtown and by the time we got there, we were almost two hours late, so we just went to the bar across the street which is the traditional second act of the grad school readings and just locked down an outdoor table near one of the outdoor fire columns for warmth and just hung out drinking curated cocktails for a few minutes until folks started filtering out of the reading.

Soon we were joined by many of my school friends and their significant others. Esteban made some new friends, plus got to see some of the same folks he had met at Thanksgiving. He was really enjoying the beer selections, so after my first cocktail, I switched to water so that I could drive us back, not really interested in funding a Lyft ride both to AND from home, since the truck is currently the only vehicle (the Murano is still in the shop, as we will spring it on Monday, not fixed but still with some labor costs from the diagnosis). We stayed out partying with the literary crowd until almost midnight and then I begged homeward, as I was cold, tired and hungry.

We hit a Chick Fil A drive-thru four minutes to midnight (which was just before it closed) and nabbed some chicken nuggets and milkshakes (a stupid idea, since it took me from just cold to full body shivering) and headed home, where the pug acted like we had been gone for fourteen months and she had given up hope of ever being rescued. Plus, she’s on a diet, so we’re only giving her exactly enough food for one day and that had long ago run dry and she was contemplating eating shoes and the leather couch next.

By the time I got into bed, I was absolutely exhausted — too exhausted to brush my teeth, take off my makeup or put on moisturizer and old lady eye wrinkle preventer or even take my nighttime asthma meds or go get my iPad to trigger my nighttime Sleepy Time playlist which I literally play every night when I go to bed or suffer terrible insomnia. All of this occurred to me after I got into bed, and to which I said “Aw fuck it.” And that’s some tired, let me tell you, because I also have a bedside caddy on my night table that contains additional old lady eye wrinkle preventer, asthma medication and makeup remover towelettes for EXACTLY THIS SITUATION and even so, I DNGAF. Sorry, Past Bix, you tried. You tried.

Happily, I was tired enough to sack out even without clean teeth and the magical playlist, although my dreams were weirdly stressful with highly dramatic writer socializing subtext, so while hanging out with a bunch of literary folks absolutely engages me and makes me happy, on some level I must still have to work some shit out.

In other news, Holidailies are back!

Baby Driver

My car is toast. An 8000 lb paper weight.

Well, no, it’s still plugging along, trying its little heart to please me. I always thought of it as a scrappy little dog, wagging its tail, ready to go on the next adventure, barrel through the next plow berm, load up the boot with the next airport pickup’s luggage situation.

The last year, my car has had some issues. First, the driver seat broke. Apparently this was a known issue with Nissan Muranos — the seats track little plastic gears just wear smooth and honestly, mine was at 160Kish miles so it was due. Esteban used it as an opportunity to fix other issues with the driver seat — bought a junker seat online, had my seat’s cracked panel repaired (another known problem — the seats are leather, but the side panels are vinyl and every one of them cracks right in the same place), the padding replaced and put the entire new track situation into the car, all saving about $500 (still not cheap, though, as you may suspect).

Then the tires needed replacing this summer. That was again a wear part — I knew that we’d have to replace the tires when it got to 170kish miles and a weird thing about the Muranos is that they will tear the tires off if you don’t start practicing orthodox tire rotation religion.

Then the seating that holds the engine in place broke. Another wear part — again, the car is kissing 175K miles, so these things are starting to happen. Then, I spotted the mystery fluid. I drove it to the mechanic and took a Lyft back on Monday, and wrote on my blog:

I dropped off my car at the auto shop today and similarly am doing a prayer that it isn’t something cataclysmic. While we certainly could survive for the three years we’re here with only one car, it’s not a theory I care to test out. And I really don’t want to try to fit another car payment into our budget, which is so tight that you could play the bridge to Inagaddadavida without an off note.

We had decided that the repairs, which were clocking in at a healthy $1300, were still cheaper than buying a replacement. But then they got it on the hoist and tried to start working on it. That’s when they realized that the frame is so rusted from its Wisconsin years (despite weekly car washes and underflushes — or perhaps because of them?) that they need to bring in special forces to even start to fix the repairs. So now it’s an estimate of $2500 in repairs for the tire juice stuff that was all over the floor. And they still haven’t addressed the serious gasoline smell that doesn’t/couldn’t be related to that breakdown.

My car is 10.5 years old. I drove or rode in the car for just about every one of its 175,000 miles. It’s only worth at best $2500 in trade in.

It’s time to call it — I have to get another car.

On my graduate student stipend.

Quite simply, it’s not a good financial decision to keep throwing money into a vehicle that is now reaching it’s “everything is worn beyond usability” stage. We would have to go for five months without a repair in order to equal the same amount of money spent toward car payments and I’m not confident that my little scrapper can do it. So…we need to get another car.

You guys, get ready for some drunken psychedelic refrains, because our budget is now going to be so taut that we will squeak when we walk.

Yesterday, I parked Esteban’s truck in the student parking garage, grabbed my lunch and my messenger bag and started trekking across campus toward the Literature building and then decided “Holy shit, it’s the last day of the month” and then I realized I didn’t have to be on campus until 1 pm per se, so I turned back around, looked up a used Nissan Murano and headed to the auto dealer. It was, of course, wonderful and felt like my scrappy little 10.5 Murano, only newer and shinier and Bluetoothier — but when we ran the trade in information for my broke and busted gal, the total was….. ooof. Way more than I wanted to spend, even on a 5 year old Murano.

Fuck me.

So tonight, we’re going to test drive some more stuff. And then I’m going to try to figure out how to pay for even a frugal reliable replacement vehicle when the Senate Republicans are about to vote to tax my meager living stipend into oblivion.

Now watch me pull this rabbit out of a hat. I’m interested in seeing how we pull this one off too.

Unreliable narrator

Thursdays are a tough day for me.

I leave the house at 8 am straight up and don’t walk back into the house until around 8 pm. I have office hours for my students plus two classes on Thursday. One of those classes is my lovely Jane Austen class, where we totally nerd out in the most felicitous way possible about constancy and visual sublime theory and literary techniques like free indirect discourse  and I get to finally espouse my pet rogue theories, such as the theory that Persuasion is semi-autobiographical with a wish fulfillment ending (particularly telling with regards to the argument on whether men or women feel love attachments more earnestly) and on how Emma‘s Miss Bates is possibly Harriet Smith’s mother (because all Austen first born females are named after their mother, and at one point Mrs. Bates called Miss Bates “Hetty” which could certainly be a short form of Harriet and before you poo poo me, I would like to remind you that Austen is very intentional about her character names. This was no boating accident! (Yes, I just used a Jaws quote to talk about Austen. Quit your pearl clutching, you loved it)). This weekend, between my other obligations (because my car. UGH. My car is a 8000 lb paperweight), I need to write a twenty page paper on the female gaze as pertaining to Austen adaptations and posit that much of Austen is a formalized neo-female gaze and for which I’m reading an entire book about blushing in Victorian times because I am going to blow the roof off this mother! Well, in a very small circle of Janeites, the roof will be blown off and then neatly settled down and gossiped about while playing a robust game of quadrille.

The photo above is my view of the Jane Austen class, along with my folder/notebook selection for this particular class (which I accidentally matchy matchied to my tablet case).

The other class is my workshop — a three hour in-depth course with my advisor plus a bunch of MFA fiction and poetry students that runs from 4-7 pm (after which I can spend about 15 minutes walking to and getting my car out of the parking ramp and another 30-45 minutes driving home in Thursday evening traffic).

And tonight, I realized that even though Esteban outted my age last week, all along I’ve been displaying an age tell through one of my biggest pet peeves.

If you’ve ever participated in a writing workshop — the kind where everyone reads and annotates a printed out version of your short story or novel snippet — you have experienced the moment after the workshop critique is done and EVERYONE then slides or sometimes forcefully SHOOTS their copy across the table to you. Workshops of 14 people are conducted around very large tables, so this shooting requires some effort from the people furthest from you.

I really hate the entire process. Think of the visual — you’ve just laid bare your finely wrought fiction and had to soak in worry that they would hate it or that they wouldn’t get it or that they’ll think you’re a crappy writer for an entire week. You then had to sit there without saying anything or defending your work — because 99% of all writing workshops use the Iowa method, where everyone talks about the work being discussed without interruption from the writer — for twenty to thirty minutes. Then they bring you back into the discussion and you have just heard like 80 different things that your head is full and your hand is cramping from quietly taking notes and you generally just say “Thank you for your comments.” and then those pages that you worked so hard on, the annotations that you’re hoping will help you refine your next draft are then literally THROWN at you in some cases in this crazy minute of a white avalanche. The entire room sounds violent with pages fluttering, paper clips flying and people saying an embarrassed “Whoops” and “Sorry”.

It’s awful. It’s passive aggressive. It is unfriendly. I loathe that moment.

So, when we reach the point of the workshop when the author releases us to talk about the next piece, I always turn to the person on my left and take their copy, and then pass those two along. If the person to the left of that person still hasn’t shuffleboarded their packet at the author, I’ll ask for their copy too. I’m trying to set the example that we can do a nice, controlled passing. There’s no reason to hurtle 100 lb white bond at a fellow writer. Some of those packets are 50 pages! Multiply that by 13 people! Surely we can be adults.

Tonight at workshop, we finished with the story at hand and six different people very calmly and unprompted handed me their copies so that I could add them to my stack. Some of those people actually passed their paper AWAY from the author, basically the wrong direction, to add them to my stack.

But it was a very interesting observation in how things work like this. Slowly, I’ve been training them to act right by example — or so I thought. Instead what I actually taught them was “Hand it to Wendy, she’ll fix it.”

I’m the workshop den mother.

I did however, reward this behavior by mentioning that there was leftover cheese cubes, veggies, cookies and pita chips down in the writing program offices, and then lead a troop of fellow students downstairs to retrieve them, since I was the only one who had an access card for that part of the building.

Which… much to my chagrin… is exactly what a 40-something den mother would do.

I am my own worst enemy.

Say yes to no

I have resting bitch face. I’ve been told this. I have come to accept it. Believe it or not, I thought this was a friendly smile, but instead I look like I want to smash.

I’m trying to reclaim this face and use it to focus on my new zen mantra — the power of no.

No.

It’s amazing that I have made it to this, my fourth decade on the planet, without embracing the concept of No. Most toddlers and young children have this down pat.

No, I can’t help you fix your mailing list. Do I know how to do this? Yes! Would I be awesome at this? I would be so awesome your heart will sing. Is that a priority for me? No. No it is not.

No, I can’t create a marketing plan for your project. Yes, I know, I’m awesome at this. No, I wish I could but it simply is not possible. No, I can’t go to your event. No, I can’t get on a plane. No, I can’t be your tour guide in Las Vegas. No, I can’t give you line edits on your writing project. No I can’t fix your works cited page. No.

It’s so simple in text. No. And yet I’m always so happy to jump in and fix the things I can fix, fight the battles that in essence I probably don’t even care about, do all of the things when really I have to shoot my own goals, my own plans, my own aspirations right in the gut.

Is this feeling a little too familiar? Are you nodding your head in agreement and saying “Bix, shut up, this is exactly how I feel too!” I hear you, baby, Rest your head on my shoulder and weep.

Wait. No. Don’t do that. This right here is my problem!

Why? Why do we do this?

I have a theory. At least in my case, I suspect this is the detritus of a childhood of being  groomed to be the perfect victim. The fixer. The carrier of all things terrible. The responsible emotional baggage hauler. The holder of and internalizer of blame.

No. I see you now, inner pleaser. I am calling bullshit on your mechanical “Yes of course” responses. I am crying foul when you wad up a dense ball of guilt. That guilt is not going to persuade me any longer. No more. No.

This is my zen mantra now. No.

I’m having a hard time with this self-care plan, by the way. I’m all talk and bluster and it’s all very much harder than it looks. Things are coming up with my charity work and I want to rush in and volunteer to do everything myself (No). Things are coming up in my teaching role — like I want to spend 90 minutes giving feedback on each and every student paper, of which I currently have 30 sitting in my To Be Graded queue, since I know that this class is a foundational class for them and I want to coddle their little freshman brains out (No). Things are coming up in my writing program — like the people who gave me my fellowship also own this really big deal magazine that they inherited and I have all of these great experiences in publishing and amazing strategies and wisdom earned by Doing It The Hard Way and also I have this analytical background so I have the skills to Fix Their Data and make it usable except this is like a four month full time job to get everything Just So, Just The Way I Think It Should Be. (No) And then there’s things at home — like I need to finish unpacking our house because we’re going to have a million visitors in the next few months, plus Ward and June are staying with us for a WHOLE month and I know that it will be more stressful for her to see these things yet unpacked and she is helpful and will start unpacking them and asking me where things should go and instead I should just DO THE THING and also I need to decorate for the holidays because that’s not done and I like it to be done already. (No) Things are coming up at school — like I kind of want to build a brand new course to teach next year, one that hasn’t been taught at UNLV (to my knowledge) on Stephen King’s work but it requires SO much more effort than just teaching a course that they automatically give to TAs, things like Comp 101, 102 and your basic creative writing workshop. (No. Errrr….Maybe)

One of my PhD cohorts and I talk about this a lot — how it’s easy to get sucked in because you want to do everything, you know you would enjoy the fruits of that labor, and so many ideas would be good things to execute. But… no. We need to write. We need to pursue our own studies. We need to pave the way for jobs. We need to manage our incredibly paltry funds. We need to save enough down time for our friends and family. We need to focus on not going crazy. We need to give inward. We need to have enough time to recharge and sleep and do our laundry and watch “Gavin and Stacey” because we need to survive.

So, no.

And maybe this is the big problem — resting bitch face isn’t really “bitch” so much as it is not going to say yes. It is the face of someone who has said yes too many times, the face of someone who is exhausted, used up, drained near to weeping. Now that face is not going to let our self-worth be determined by making other people happy.

I’m reclaiming the RBF. Let us use it to add gravitas to our resounding and final No.

Taxed

I am now a fulltime graduate student. That’s weird. What’s more, it’s ridiculously and financially the worst move anyone can make.

Let me tell you how this works.

I am incredibly fortunate in that most of my tuition is paid for (not, however, non-optional student fees for stuff like the health center, campus-wide WIFI, the free gym membership, weekly massages for the Chancellor, etc, all of which amount to about $900 per semester). I also get a very extravagant purchases like dry beans and lard and porridge and a double-thick cardboard box to take shelter in and my very own box of matches to sell on street corners. Well, okay, it’s not much. I get a little extra than most grad students because I’m a PhD fellow, so I already have a post-graduate degree and am not a super green TA with zero teaching experience, but it still nets less than $19K per year.

My MFA peers are pulling about $14K a year before taxes. Just so that you can reconcile this inside your head — the poverty line in Nevada is about $17K for a single person.

Oh, but they can adjunct in the summer months? No, they can’t. The tenured professors take those classes because they get paid extra then. So no.

(And if you weren’t already aware, the new tax plan supported by the House Republicans will plan on taking about $10K a year from that meager stipend… yes, it will take $10,000 from people who are only earning $14,000 a year so that mega rich people can save $100,000 each. This is your elected official at work. You should think about telling them that this is bullshit and an attack on education.)

I’m lucky — I am married to someone who brings home a decent wage and I get to be the bum in his lifestyle. But we also are trying (unsuccessfully it would seem) to sell our Green Bay house, so right now we’re paying for that mortgage, plus storage for half of our belongings, plus rent in Las Vegas, plus double utilities, double water, double insurance (oh and our insurance agency decided to start charging three times as much for our homeowner’s insurance since our house is unoccupied), double basically everything.

But let’s be clear — the ONLY reason that I could do this is because Esteban makes enough to keep us afloat and that I’m still providing a paycheck to offset my expenses like books, that stupid non-optional student fee, parking, gas, my phone bill, etc).

Now ask me again why I can’t afford to visit Wisconsin for the holidays?

Both of our vehicles are paid off, thank goodness, but my little feisty crossover is bridging 175K miles soon and has needed some unexpected maintenance. Then Esteban’s truck needed some unexpected maintenance. Then my crossover filled the garage with fluid, leaking from the unexpected maintenance thing but which necessitated a tow truck. Then, this week, Esteban’s truck wouldn’t start. Greeeeat.

It was either the battery or the alternator, so we jumpstarted the truck with my car and he took it for a short ride on Friday. Then, on Saturday, we went to get in the truck and… it was dead again. I pulled my car out to jumpstart the truck again and it started back up again. Great. Clearly we hadn’t taken it for a long enough ride, so we hopped into the truck and drove the long way to Moapa (about 45 miles outside of Vegas) and then turned around and drove back to town, stopping to eat at a Wisconsin-themed microbrewery that recently won an award for its beer. Esteban had sampled the beer the weekend that the establishment took the honors and he loved it, but it had been so crowded that we hadn’t bothered to try to eat there — this time was a good excuse. Not only were we in the neighborhood, the parking lot was empty enough to look promising. Plus, we could park the truck in such a way that, if it died, we could use Triple A to jumpstart it again.

Lunch was subpar, I’m sorry to say — it probably was my own fault for hoping to have a traditional Wisconsin fish and chips at a Vegas bar purporting to be Wisconsin-ified. Sir, I have seen Wisconsin bar fish and you, sir, are no Wisconsin bar fish. We got the last two bottles of the beer Esteban loves (they need to make more, apparently, having not expected to win the big deal award) and headed back home — and the truck started on its own, although did sound a bit reluctant.

The next morning, we hopped into the truck to go get coffee and a newspaper, and of course, it was dead. Great.

We swore, got out of the truck and hopped into my car. However, we noticed that the garage smelled strongly of gasoline and when I pulled it out, there was a serious puddle of something under my car.

Insert painful financial freakout here.

I’m fiscally a very conservative person. It comes from having grown up so poor that you counted on a nice relative giving you a ham every December because it meant that there would be at least three good weeks where you’d always have food in the house. Part of the emotional baggage from that level of poverty is that I really really get stressed out when my vehicles start getting shitty. If you don’t grow up doing a prayer of “please start” every time your parent tries to start the car, you just don’t understand this stress.

We took the battery out of the truck and took it to the nearest auto place to have it tested. Even though it was only 4 years old and still technically under warranty (shitty Walmart battery! Be warned!), it was toast. Esteban plunked down $200 on the spot for a new battery and then we did a prayer that the shitty battery hadn’t killed the alternator.

Then I dropped off my car at the auto shop today and similarly am doing a prayer that it isn’t something cataclysmic. While we certainly could survive for the three years we’re here with only one car, it’s not a theory I care to test out. And I really don’t want to try to fit another car payment into our budget, which is so tight that you could play the bridge to Inagaddadavida without an off note.

Tomorrow I either take the truck to school and hope the undergrads don’t park shittily next to it or I make Esteban drive me to school. And then we cross our fingers. Have you ever notice that when you rely upon your luck, sometimes the universe likes to throw a spoiler at you? Come on, universe, no whammies, no whammies.

Hopefully the Senate won’t accept the ridiculous tax plan, which would otherwise go into effect on Jan 1, as in four weeks from today. Mamma needs gas money.

Fat pug

I mentioned a few posts ago that we had to say goodbye to our beloved little hard luck case Zuzu this summer. I’m understating that, acting like it was no big deal. I can tell you that it was absolutely devastating, that I can barely think about her without missing her so hard and painfully that I burst into tears, and it still can’t encompass how terrible it has been.

Our other pets, Aveline and Jincy, are also impacted by our family’s loss. Avi has been basically depressed — and I’m not projecting that, she refused to play for months. To complicate things, we moved across the country, which meant she had to go in a plane and live in a climate that is basically hostile to brachiocephalic dogs, so she couldn’t leave the house for weeks and weeks. And while she now has a walled yard to claim as her own, it doesn’t have grass, so it’s basically a walled yard of gravel, which is just weird to her. And quite frankly, us too.

As such, we have been giving her a lot of indulgences. Probably too many.

We established with a new vet her in Las Vegas in September, at which point she was weighed and assessed and generally granted approval. She was a little “pound positive” for her frame, but we figured that she was always trending on the heavy size due to all the additional treats she got just being near Zuzu, who frequently got to eat peanut butter as part of her seizure management protocol — Avi was happy to also eat peanut butter at that time and basically for any reason, thank you very much.

However, she managed to sprain her elbow last week jumping off the wrong side of a recliner, so I took her into the vet and she had gained over a pound in just six weeks. For you or me, that’s like gaining 20 pounds in 6 weeks.

Apparently food is love in our house. And thinking back, I did definitely order an entire CASE of “nom food” for Jincy, which normally I never do, but I had rationalized it that it was wet and she needed more hydration. And of course, Avi got more treats too, and apparently she eats her grief just like any red blooded American dog.

Someone is now on a diet. As such, we had to find another way to indulge the dog, which is one of the ways that we deal with OUR grief.

Enter Truly Giant Bear.

Our living room now looks like a budget day care facility. But the dog is thrilled to finally have a worthy opponent for her Ninja Attack Throwdowns, which frequently occur in the living room while we are trying to watch old episodes of The Great Australian Bake Off.

TGB is large, TGB is in charge, TGB is best of all completely gluten-free and zero calories.

Lest you think that Avi is the only pampered pet in our Las Vegas household — Jincy also has been indulged. She used to have a fabric play tube from IKEA when she was a kitten that she used and abused with frequency — it had the added benefit of terrifying the pug, who is inexplicably terrified of crinkly bags. However, over the years, the play tube lost its ability to stand on its own and frequently got shoved under tables and trapped shut. However, the New Improved IKEA tube is twice as big (and cost twice as much) and has some kind of support that keeps it always standing proud.

We’ve stowed the tube on the other side of the couch, however, so that on one side of the living room, TGB is taking many forms of pug-related abuse, while on the other side of the couch, there lurks a dangerous Tube Cat ready to inflict Maximum Impact upon any unsuspecting villains, squirrels or feathers on a string that happen to walk past the various openings.

All in all, we’ve spent less than $40 on indulging the pets and have enjoyed a fantastic return on investment. Sometimes when life throws a big pile of shit at you, you cobble together some kind of reaction plan and hope it’s enough to hold you all together. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can still get by.

 

Gobbled

 

Our Thanksgiving was a bit of a strange one — it is warm enough to have windows open and of course, no snow on the ground. Apparently it’s been a warm one in Wisconsin as well, so that really shouldn’t feel weird, but I don’t think I’ve ever cooked Thanksgiving dinner in cropped yoga pants and a short-sleeve t-shirt before.

The night before T-Day, we had gone out in search of Kringle Kreme for our morning coffee. Alas, this Wisconsin delicious alcoholic concoction is not distributed anywhere in Nevada, so I had to make due with Almond Milk Bailey’s in my coffee instead. However, we learned that our local liquor store wrangles up a bunch of food trucks in the parking lot every Saturday night, so basically that’s our weekend meal planning from now until the end of time. Liquor store parking lot taco trucks. This is what was promised to me in Trump campaign speeches — I’m glad to see it coming to fruition!

Esteban and I were planning on a quiet turkey day with minimal fuss — between the complications from his condition and my own flutter tummy, we can’t really eat large quantities of food, so it didn’t make sense to make a ton of side dishes, especially when we both just wanted to get our turkey and mashed potatoes on. I made two pumpkin pies earlier in the morning, while watching the parade. Typically I also make at least one if not more pecan pie because it’s so fricking easy and I always have everything you need for the recipe in the pantry, but the bowl for our food processor broke and we haven’t yet ordered a replacement bowl. Not that I really NEED a food processor to chop pecans, but that’s just the way I like to do it, plus we had plenty of pie anyway.

The day before Thanksgiving, one of my fellow graduate students invited us over to their house and I had promised pie and wine, which is why I made two pumpkin pies. Although honestly, if you’re going through the mess of one pumpkin pie, you can easily make two, four, eighty. Pumpkin pie is so easy it feels like cheating — crack some eggs, measure some sugar and spices, open two cans, stir and pour. I come from orchard country — if you haven’t been working at peeling and prepping/stoning fruit for an hour and you still haven’t begun to start the pie, you’re barely cooking. This is also the reason I love making pecan pies — again, you open some stuff, measure and stir. I don’t even LIKE pecan pies, but everyone else does and they make the house smell amazing — plus everyone acts like you invented fire when you show up with a pecan pie. Bitch, please, you do not realize how easy this shit is. Let’s instead talk about the time I whipped up a gluten free black cherry and blueberry torte in an American Flag configuration — now THAT deserved applause.

The lack of Kringle Kreme wasn’t the only tradition broken — in Wisconsin, you don’t even worry about where you’re going to put your Turkey to thaw because every house gets a walk in refrigerator half of the year — the garage is generally a nice 35-40 degrees, and you can modulate that by opening and closing the garage window, setting something on the concrete versus a table (up off the pavement is warmer, obviously). So we’re accustomed to storing and brining our turkey in the garage on a bowl set on the floor. However, in Las Vegas, the highs were in the upper 70’s and I didn’t feel like shitting my brains out from food poisoning, so we had to get ice frequently all week and keep replenishing a cooler set out on our deck. I am unreasonably irritated by that fact — I think it unsettles me the most about Desert Thanksgiving, to be true. That said, the brining worked beautifully and the turkey took on a really lovely herbal flavor from the fresh rosemary and thyme, so maybe keeping it in the garage is a little too cold.

Once I finished the pies, I started peeling sweet potatoes for slow roasting, per the Serious Eats method — which had to happen prior to getting the turkey in the oven. However, after peeling the potatoes and dumping the peels down the garbage disposal with the egg shells from the pie, everything went to hell. Our drain completely backed up. Esteban hauled everything out from under the sink and proceeded to dismantle the plumbing.

Let me tell you about this house we’re renting in Las Vegas. It believes it is a very fancy better-than-you mansion, but it doesn’t want you to look too closely at any details. Sure, it’s the newest house I’ve ever lived in my entire life. Sure, there’s marble floors in the guest bedroom’s closet for the love of god, but the windows? The seals around any openings? The sliding doors? The freaking appliances? The way that the air is handled in the attic? The cheapest possible. They put a thousand dollar ceiling fan in the living room, but the sliding door is locked with a bent piece of metal. And the garbage disposal is more of the same — once we took apart the pipes, I cleaned out the trap and found that it had merely suggested the concept of grinding the waste — it hadn’t really done anything worthwhile to the scraps. Basically, it’s another “they can’t see it so whatever is the cheapest” decision made by the corporation who built every house in our neighborhood.

We put the sink back together and found that somehow the seal around one of the pipes was missing — either it had disintegrated or got accidentally disposed of with the sludge that we drained while taking apart the plumbing.

You know what’s not open on Thanksgiving? Lowes. Home Depot. Places that sell gaskets for plumbing. We went back home, Esteban rigged up a fake gasket out of a Target plastic bag (which weirdly is holding) and we basically didn’t use the sink for more than simple hand washing for the rest of the weekend.

All of this put our entire dinner back by several hours. While the turkey was in the oven, we Skyped with family back in Wisconsin, and then I decided that I was too hungry to put off eating anymore and wanted pie. So you know what? We had pie before the turkey dinner and it was a fantastic idea.

We are adults who eat pie before dinner and set our social calendars by the appearance of liquor store taco trucks.

After a truly delicious but Marie Kondo minimalist Thanksgiving, we drove into town to meet at the grad student party and brought them a pie and some wine, and then hung out talking about character agency and dorky literary stuff, like how many submissions should you have out at any given time (answer: 100 is the goal, 10 is the minimum) for the rest of the evening, which was delightful.

Esteban managed to out my age, by telling one of my classmates that we’ve been dating since 1990. One of my classmates then came over to inform me that my relationship has been longer than she’s been alive. Now they all look at me like the old freak, which is awesome. Ah well, I knew it couldn’t last long. I mean, I got my masters degree in 2008 — most of these folks are MFA students straight out of undergrad, so when I was getting my Master’s hood and walking to Pomp and Circumstance, they were going through puberty.  I’m probably older than their moms.

Now I can justifiably be grouchy in workshop and tell someone to get off my lawn. In my defense, I frequently say “I’m old” in workshop — I think they just thought “old” meant something like “34 or 35”. It’s sweet, really.

Don’t forget — Holiday Card Exchange is taking names and kicking ass this year! You can sign up until Dec 1 and names will go out on Dec 3 so that you can start sending and receiving holiday cards through the New Year. Don’t forget to give your complete address!

 

PhD LMNOp

In my past life as a grad student, my class (because I still worked at my full time job so I could only manage to fit one class per semester into my life) was something I did one day a week. I drove to and from school, which was 120 miles from my home, in a single day. It was a brutal day — I would work half a day at my day job, leave around 1:30 pm, jump on the road to drive for two hours, attend three hours of classes, and then jump back in the car to drive back. I listened to a whole lot of iPod playlists, let me tell you.

In my life as a PhD fellow, things are totally different. I don’t have a day job anymore — my day job is being a PhD fellow. This means in the morning I pack a lunch for myself (and often breakfast too), pack a thermal mug full of ice that I can refill with filtered water from the Hydration Stations around campus (I can’t stand the taste of Vegas water, but if it’s cold and filtered, I have half a chance), another mug or Nalgene with cold brew iced coffee, and hit the road ideally by 8 am, because campus parking is miserable and the ramps are full by 9. It takes me about 30 minutes to get to school because I have to cross the Las Vegas strip, which typically takes about half of my drive time between the lights and congestion near the strip. I used to drive a different way and sneak through the much less congested part of the strip, but then some asshole shot a bunch of people at a concert and it made me cry every time I drove through that section, so I avoid it now just out of habit.

Once at school, I park and walk to the building that contains all of my offices. Weirdly, I have three offices on campus, all in the same building. I don’t even get it. One is for the literary journal that is part of my job — that is shared with all of the editors, but usually we let the one guy who doesn’t have any other offices keep it as his own. One is in the English department — that one is shared with six grad students and only has three desks. The other office is in the Black Mountain Institute part of the building  — that office is shared with four grad students, but there’s three desks, so I usually get to sit in the same one. I like that one because it’s only creative writing PhDs in there, plus the staff of The Believer in the other offices, so it’s very literary and fancy and calm. Plus there’s a gorgeous library/reading room that has a nice couch and really lovely windows, and sometimes I do my classwork in there.

This multiple offices thing is just one of the “only in academia” elements of my career change that makes me shake my head. All of the PhD fellows in creative writing have multiple offices because we are half funded by the Institute and half funded by the English Department. Now, wouldn’t it make sense to just give people their own offices or cram fewer students in a single office instead of giving them several offices to share? Sure. But then who goes where? Why should one department get the writers when the other one is paying for them? This is the academic problem solving in a nutshell, you guys. It’s awesomely dysfunctional and I fluctuate between loving it and wanting to tear my hair out.

Once I’m ensconced in my shared office, I get to work. If it’s a teaching day, I spend about three hours lesson planning — I make a PPT deck because this is my first semester teaching composition and I don’t have a pre-made deck already created. Then I look for alternate resources that can help the students who need/want more background information or resources and upload all of them to my Blackboard shell. Finally, I build the assignment into Blackboard and then usually spend the rest of that pocket of time grading (because I always have (fucking) grading).

If it’s a class day, I have a lot more freedom. This semester, my classes are a lit course on Jane Austen, a fiction writing workshop and a “how to teach the class” class that all first years are required to take. Many of the first years were literally college seniors last year (my program also has a robust MFA program), so while I have a bunch of teaching experience in the college classroom, most of the other grad students do not, and apparently there’s also a Nevada statute involved that requires this course. That class has a ton of pedagogy work and responses, so I try to get them out of the way as it is my least favorite thing (it’s not bad, per se, I just don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy everything else). My writing workshop means I need to print out whichever submissions we’re workshopping that day, read them and craft a response. Throughout the semester I have been actually typing a letter to attach to my manuscript annotations, but as of two weeks ago, I broke that habit because I suddenly felt underwater from grading my students’ work and writing responses to them, so I’m trying to get back into doing that, as it’s really nice to get as a workshop submitter. Finally, my Jane Austen class has a whopper of a research component, so I frequently get lost in the stacks with that research.

For each class we take at the graduate level, we anticipate three times that for background work and reading — actual pedal to the metal active thinking time. So I’m taking 10 credit hours a week, that means that I’m anticipating taking another 30 hours a week for my own study/homework time. On top of this, the university anticipates that it takes me 10 hours a week to teach and grade and lesson plan and have office hours. This is bullshit, by the way, I spend way more time than that, especially if you realize that three solid hours of that ten are while I’m actually teaching — I just can’t get everything else done in seven hours. It doesn’t happen. That’s what I end up doing on Saturdays and Sundays — catching up on (fucking) grading. I’ve also learned that I really shouldn’t grade more than five students’ essays in a single sitting because I start getting really cranky and being more strict, so in fairness I try to spread this out and grade one or two essays whenever I have a spare pocket of time. That means I’m essentially always grading.

Usually at some point in the day, one or more of our PhD writing fellows will come into the office and then basically no work gets done because we all genuinely like to talk to each other. And really, this is why we decided that if I were going back to grad school, it would be full time and I’d live wherever it was, because that kind of community is exactly what I never got when I went to UW-Milwaukee and why I have pretty much only two friends from when I went to grad school. Okay, maybe three.

Finally, I need to put ten hours a week against our literary journal. This year I’m the assistant fiction editor and next year I’ll be the actual fiction editor. So right now, all I do is go through and read the work that our first pass readers have suggested would be good fits for the journal, and then I vote on it and say why I do or don’t agree. I also go through all of the things that the first pass readers voted down and look for anything that might have been a good pick but was misunderstood by the first pass reader — most of the time, though, their instincts are really good and I just decline the submissions. For literary journal submitters, by the way, this is why everything takes so long. Journals are underfunded, we’re reading for the next issue while we’re trying to publish the one before it, and we’re also dealing with literally hundreds of really good stories — I literally have over a hundred that have been thumbs upped by the first pass readers right now, but we usually only publish maybe six stories an issue, so it takes some time for everyone to read and vote on a story.

And then (!) the program expects me to put 20 hours a week toward my own creative writing. If you’re doing the math, this is 80 hours of work a week. This is why you need to buy your grad student friends and family some coffee once in awhile. They are exhausted all the time.

But you know what? I’m happier than I’ve ever been with my life and what’s happening. Even though I’m broke as a joke (PhD fellows get a very small stipend, well below poverty level, to subsist upon), every day is awesome. Even the worst day at school is better than the best day at my old terrible job in tech. Plus, I’m freelancing for extra cash, so I get to just keep my tech chops sharp without all of the soul-crushing assclowns who are making the tech industry a panopticon of douchery.

 

Also, my novel. It is a thing that is happening. I don’t hate it anymore. People are excited about the pages I’ve shared with them. My advisor is friends with a bunch of famous people and on a first name basis with people I idolize like John Irving and TC Boyle and he called my novel “Irving-esque, mixed with a touch of Saunders”. And while I want to pshaw his comment, he studied under Irving at Iowa and he literally was also George Saunders’ advisor as well. Insert deadpan look of shock and awe here.

So. That’s what it’s like to be a 46-year-old graduate student. Please don’t tell the other grad students how old I am. They all have decided I’m in my thirties and I don’t want to be the Creed Bratton of this particular office. Quaaar. Quaaa. Quabity? Quabity assurance!

Thanks for visiting That’s My Bix! where the pop culture jokes are all 13 years old. I’m sure they’ll never figure out that I’m in my 40’s, right?

Now I’m off to stick my arm up a turkey’s tuckus. Brine, baby, brine! (Hey, McCain/Palin reference! That will make me sound younger!)

 

 

 

 

 

Hey

Oh hi.

Well, this is awkward. How did I used to do this again?

So.

It’s been awhile.

Thunderburst recap montage: (Imagine a Sia song playing, perhaps “Breathe Me” or something super classy and not schmoopy even a little) Since we last spoke, I decided to get my Phd in Creative Writing, I threw a book and author festival for about 6,000 people, Margaret Atwood and I went bird watching together, I got a bunch of fellowship offers to various graduate programs, I decided to take the very best offer, Esteban decided to come with me (originally we were going to LDR that bad boy but then decided nah that would have sucked), I quit my terrible tech job, my dog died, we put our house on the market, we moved to Las Vegas, now I teach school and take grad school classes and edit a literary journal as my actual job.

Okay, that was a lot to take in. Many ups and downs. I’ll give you a moment. (Stop the Sia. STOP HER BEFORE SHE DOES EMOTIONAL DAMAGE!)

Are we there yet? Okay!

Vegas is weird. Our house in Vegas is enormous — but I miss the house that’s pictured above, which is our old dining room and part of my office in Green Bay. That room now looks like this, which is one of many heartbreaking things that I’m writing-about-but-not-writing-about in this update.

That’s sad. Let’s instead enjoy a photo of me and one of the people who basically make me work harder and harder at being a decent writer. She’s very wee and very smart and told me that I’m too sensitive because I couldn’t eat shrimp for four years after reading The Year Of The Flood. She told me I needed to toughen up or I wouldn’t survive the apocalypse. I said “Ms. Atwood, I think we all know that if the apocalypse comes, I’m cannon fodder.” And she laughed because she had already decided that anyway. She is wise.

Good thing she didn’t hear the story about my aversion to pork.

 

Yes, she’s in my car. It was a bright point in my year.

So now I work with word people. In the last three months, I’ve met three people who were nominated for National Book Awards. Pretty good clip! I also have had several stories published and someone actually reached out to me and solicited a reprint story, which I thought was only the stuff of legend and/or happened to people like the lady in the above photo. Maybe some of her talent rubbed off on my passenger seat.

Over on Facebook, for the last year, since The Incident in November when we basically went to the Darkest Timeline (Oh hellloooo long time readers of That’s My Bix! did you ever imagine a day when I would have begged George W. Bush to come back? That is today, my friend. I miss that goober like you wouldn’t even believe.) I have been doing this thing called #bixquestions where I start a daily conversation thread. It seems to be fairly popular, although what I’m doing isn’t that big of a deal, basically recycling Reddit forum questions and/or ideas I’m seeing online. I had thought at that time about resuscitating this page but I decided I didn’t want to turn the spotlight on me. We were all aching. We were all hurting. We were all in dismay. We still are.

Be the light you want to see in the world. That’s what they tell me. Some fortune cookie or other, at least.

I miss Green Bay. I miss Wisconsin. I miss my friends there. But this page? It’s still here. And I hope you are too. Hello friend. How have you been? I missed you.

The comments want to hear the elevator pitch version of how you’ve been doing.

PS. Holiday Card Exchange for 2017 is on. I repeat, Holiday Card Exchange for 2017 is a go! Sign up here. 

Old Year’s Revolutions 2015

river road

 

We didn’t have a white Christmas but Mother Nature sure made up for the oversight two days later. I went to the historical society to do some genealogical work on Monday and when I walked into the building, it was still late November weather — in fact, not only was I not wearing mittens or decent footwear but I didn’t even bother with a coat — a light cashmere cardigan was fine. When I walked out two hours later, it was full on blizzard conditions.  We’re sitting under 13 inches of fresh powder dropped in about an eight hour time frame.

Perhaps it’s that shocking reminder — the idea that everything can change in a moment while you’re distracted with other things — that reset my head a bit. I’ve always been ridiculously nostalgic anyway.

You know that journalism nugget of “if it bleeds, it leads”? Well, if it’s schmaltz, I exhalts.

Clearly I write the wrong kind of fiction. For as much as I want to be the next Margaret Atwood, I seem to recall that Nicholas Sparks is outselling Mags ten to one.

So, it’s been a good year. I have maintained my track record of one short story published in a pro mag per year (this year’s in the current issue of Barrelhouse and if you love winter, it’s definitely a story about winter). We sold our house (finally). We kept Zuzu alive (through the grace of modern medicine, hallelujah) and found out that she didn’t have “inspecific seizure disorder” but rather “congenital hydrocephaly” (aka “Why irresponsible dog breeders all deserve an extra toasty spot in hell”). We celebrated the publications of several of our great writer friends and their magnificent books. I turned down two job offers and took door number three. I taught classes, both official and unofficial. I learned to prioritize better. And most importantly, we did a massive landscaping project and still stayed married.

I made new friends. I kept the old. All in all, definitely another checkmark in the Win column.

Happy new year, friends. Thank you for being here.

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