What I really Learned in Grade School

As young ones, tots, and teenagers make their way through their first week of school, I wanted to take a moment to reassure them and their parents that their public grade-school education is worth every tax-payer dollar. The truth is, I learned more about life traveling through grades k-12 than in college, grad school, and “the real world” combined. Here are a few highlights of my suburban, middle-class primary education, wherein I learned…

fallout
Thanks to middle school, I learned where to go in the event of a nuclear attack — our choral room. #Glee

The choral room of my junior high school was in a subterranean, double concrete enforced room. At the entrance to the stairwell was not only a sign that said “Chorus,” but a yellow configuration of triangles signalling that the room was a remnant of the building’s Cold War construction.

2. Gym Class isn’t long enough and should be every day.

3. Nap time isn’t long enough and should be every day.

4. How to right a capsized canoe.

We had a pool. It was fancy and indoors and you could paddle around it in a canoe. During the swimming rotation of gym class, we had one day dedicated to water safety and water rescue. As a member of the swim team, I was made “captain” of a rescue team. 4 of us got in a canoe. Flipped it. Righted it. Then rescued the one idiot who got smacked in the head with the paddle when we capsized. This is a skill set that has come in handy more than once, I hate to admit.

5. Sumac that points down is poisonous. Sumac berry clusters that point up make great lemonade.

My 7th grade science teacher used to build bow & arrows and hunt deer with spears. He was the original Bear Grylls. As a result, our class curriculum was less NY State mandated and more wild-life survival.

6. Homemade cards for mom always trump something from Hallmark… even if they make absolutely no sense and look like something your dog painted.

westside-story
If I ever find myself in a rumble, I’ll be more than a little prepared.

I had an old school Bronx Italian English teacher for 2 back to back years. It was Romeo and Juliette year, so we watched West Side Story in class. He wanted to make sure we’d be prepared if we were ever in a rumble.

8. It’s not about what you’re selling. It’s all about how it’s marketed.

As part of a social studies project, I had to set up a company with a team of classmates. We made “organic, all-natural, handmade soap.” By handmade I meant we purchased bars of pre-made glycerin soap, melted it down and poured it into molds, with hand-selected trinkets scattered within the forms. Technically, we didn’t make the soap, but we did do 2/3 of the work by hand. Including the branded paper-bags I created by rolling brown lunch bags through my printer. We made a killing — at the end of the assignment, we had the highest profits. As CEO and Creative Director, I was pretty well convinced I’d end up with an MBA from Wharton before my 18th birthday.

9.  Frozen pizza on Fridays is delicious, if not horrendously lazy.

10. Nothing holds more potential than the first page of a new notebook (let’s just say, I consider this a metaphor for life in general)

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The Loose-Leaf Worries

carton (c) The New Yorker

At 4AM my eyes shot wide open for no particular reason, as far as I could tell. For the next several hours, until my alarm clock went off, I spent the minutes tossing and turning, my brain operating at full-speed, dreams mimicking all the awake moments of days past and days to come.

It’s a scene I’m used to: Late August Insomnia.

Sometimes, I sit up in bed and read or write until my body finally agrees to a system shut-down. Other times, I attempt yoga breathing exercises hoping to force a blank-slate on my brain. In theory, I’m supposed to wipe it clean of my thoughts and hide the chalk. This is a method I’m new at and therefore find it largely unsuccessful. So most nights, I just try to tough it out, hoping the physical exhaustion of flipping from my right side to my middle to my left will eventually put me back to sleep.

I realized this is an annual occurrence. A sort of seasonal allergy. But instead of ragweed or pollen, the root cause of sleeplessness is loose-leaf.

Yes, loose-leaf.

I used to believe that my Late August Insomnia was the result of excessive sleep stores. Perhaps I had slept in too much in July and my body was some how trying to return to equilibrium? No. It was because of loose-leaf.

Loose-Leaf. The root cause of my Late August Insomnia

It was usually around mid-August that I began my back-to-school supply shopping. It was, as the Staples commercial is so keen to say, the most wonderful time of the year. Fresh notebooks. Clean binders. New pens and just sharpened Ticonderoga pencils. It was exciting: Nothing holds as much potential as a clean first page in a brand new notebook.

But with back-to-school shopping and my new stacks of loose-leaf, so came a boatload of concerns to keep my head spinning into the wee hours of the morning.

Worries that I hadn’t completed all my summer reading assignments on time or to standard.

Insecurities about lunch-time cliques.

Aspirations for athletic glory.

Hopes for young love.

Concerns that I hadn’t bought enough loose-leaf.

All of it kept me awake at night.  The funny thing is that it’s been nearly 4 years since I’ve had to do back-to-school shopping, and yet I still find myself suffering from Late August Induced Insomnia.

First-day-of-class anxieties have been replaced with real-world “grown-up” worries. In the art world, a gallery season often kicks off in September. My next opening looms right around the corner. Offices return to full-steam-ahead. Galas and fundraisers sneak in before the close of the fourth quarter. Holidays creep closer. Somewhere in all the hullabaloo of responsibility, I have a social life, a family life, and a romance to maintain.

It’s past my bed time as I put my head to my pillow on Labor Day night, but I’m far from sleepy. For a fleeting moment, I wish my biggest worry was a book report on The Great Gatsby due in class tomorrow.

…But maybe that’s only because I know the grown-up me would ace it.

Women Can Have a Graduate Degree or Love, but Not Both?

Back at the end of December, the New York Times ran an article on women and post-graduate education. The piece, written by Catherine Rampell and entitled “Instead of Work, Younger Women Head to School,” offered me no new news — effectively, all of my female friends have gone on to receive/pursue Masters, Doctorates, or their equivalents within the 5 years since we graduated college, while only two of my male friends has decided to return to school for an advanced degree outside of the medical variety.

My MA degree represents more than more schooling -- it represents cultivated interests.

The article presented some interesting statistics but some pretty traditional explanations for the reasons why, in this particular economic climate, women might be more inclined to return to school than men.

Moments after skimming the piece, I got an email from Columbia’s Art History Department announcing a post-doc program at Duke. The following line was bolded in red:

Particular focus is on fields in which women and minorities are under-represented.

In all the studies Ms. Rampell cited, she forgot to look at the number of scholarships/grants set aside specifically to serve women who choose to pursue education beyond the college level.

I’m not going to find the numbers for you. You’re a grown up. You can google. I have bigger fish to fry…

The day after the article ran, I got an email from a friend pointing me to a Gwaker response:

“Women be schooling! [Pause for laughter.]…Which, ironically, only isolates them further from the majority of men in the dating pool, leaving them to fight over the relatively scarce (and concomitantly self-entitled) educated men of their age.”

I wish Mr. Gwaker was wrong, but here’s thing:

A graduate degree represents more than a few more years of schooling. It represents cultivated interests and a self-awareness of what things, beyond shelter, food and an income, are really important to you.

Once upon a time, I may have been happy with a Hendrix-loving sporty type, but now, I need someone who enjoys spending afternoons here too.

Mr. Gwaker, like the woman who told me “you’ll never find a husband, half the men aren’t good enough for you, the other half will think you’re too good for them,” you’re tragically onto something.

When I graduated from college, I would have been content saying “I do” to a sporty Wall Street type with a dog and a predilection for striped shirts and Jimi Hendrix. An MA, PhD application, and several curating attempts later, I realize he also needs to enjoy museum-going and have the “intellectual bandwidth” to discuss the merits of Braque vs. Picasso over coffee shortly there after.

The dating pool is a lot smaller for me than it was a few years ago.

So yes, splashing around in the dating pool is harder for me now than it was 4  years ago. It’s a tall order to ask for a literary, sporty, artsy, humorous, dog-loving outdoorsman with good taste in music, a joy for cooking, a sophisticated sense of style and a stable career… who likes you back.

But I’m reasonably optimistic… mostly, because I know that if all else fails, I’ve at least got my glorious gaggle of fellow over-educated females who’ll join me at MoMA for the Diego Rivera murals.

Take that, Mr. Gawker.

Educated, Unemployed, Frustrated, but Looking on the Brightside

We're more than fodder for a cartoon. We're young adults stuttering at the start of our lives, but we have a voice.

I don’t know who Matthew C. Klein is, but I like him. I like Matthew because he wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “Educated, Unemployed, and Frustrated” for the New York Times on March 21st, and in doing so, is one of the few of us early 20-somethings attempting to tell the world how we feel. We’ve been mocked on the cover of The New Yorker, labeled boomerang kids by those who need catch phrases, and attacked in the New York Times Magazine. But we’re not just fodder for a cartoon. We’re young adults stalemated, stuttering in our attempt to get going. But we have a voice.

“The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future…Even if the job market becomes as robust as it was in 2007… my generation will have lost years of career-building experience.”

Right On, Matthew, right on.

Us educated 20-somethings trying to find work in saturated job markets, where entry level positions are going to applicants technically at a “mid-career” stage, are living in a constant state of uncertainty. It’s a Catch-22. The process is frustrating, and we’re forced to be victims — you can’t say to a potential employer, who may take weeks to get back to you, “Please, Sir/Madam, could you make your decision on me a little faster — I’d like to get my life together now.”

There are many times over the last few months when I wanted to bash my head against a wall — like when I learned an email I sent to an old boss about a job opening at her museum went into her spam folder. She liked me for the position, and would have gone to bat for me, but didn’t get my email until after the position had been filled with another applicant. Lesson learned? Pick up the phone.

Someone told me landing that first job is all about luck. And while luck hasn’t necessarily been on my side, I’ve managed to stay cheery. Remember, if all else fails, there’s always my back-up career as a wingwoman.

It's been 3 weeks since I've heard on those 3 interviews, there must be an outbreak of wastepaper basket fires

I try to be practical. Interviewers do have jobs after all, and they have work to do: “There was just an opening in their gallery — I’m sure they’re busy.”

Then another week passes. No one has said “No” yet, so I’m still inclined to give the company the benefit of the doubt:

“There must have been a fire in the building and they’re not allowed back into their offices this week.”

Yea, that explains it. I’ve only heard back on a handful of  job applications because of an unannounced outbreak of wastepaper basket fires raging across the tri-state area. And apparently, Mercury just entered retrograde.

Okay, it’s not me or my resume — it’s Mercury and office fires. I feel better now.

Boys Don’t Have Cooties

In kindergarten, I didn’t know what a cootie was, but I never thought boys had them. As far as I could tell, a cootie was just an excuse for girls to avoid boys on the playground. This made no sense to me. Boys played better games at recess – tag, dodge ball, hide and go seek. Girls played pat-a-cake. I was terrible at pat-a-cake, but I had a mean peg for dodge ball.

I always thought girls who said "boys have cooties" were ridiculous. Boys didn't have cooties. They had penises.

“Eeeeew, no! Go away!” Lauren squealed when Michael Cagliatella asked if he could push us on the tire swing. “Boys have cooooooooties.”

I shot her an evil eye. Michael Cagliatella didn’t pull my pigtails like the other boys in class and he once offered to share his chocolate milk with me at snack time. Michael Cagliatella was different and I was smitten. The way I saw it, Lauren and her cootie problem were getting in the way of my childhood romance.

“Boys don’t have cooties,” I replied indignantly as I watched my first love skulk off to jungle gym. “Boys have penises.”

Lauren’s ears perked up. “What’s a pensises?”

The truth was I didn’t really know what a penis was or what boys did with them, but I’d been such a know-it-all — I had better follow through.

“They’re kinda like toys and fun to play with. You’re no fun.” I got off the swing and joined Michael on the monkey bars.

I can only imagine the dinner table conversation at Lauren’s house that night: “Kathleen and I had a fight. She said I was boring and that she rather play with Michael’s penis.” Lauren wasn’t allowed to have playdates at my house any more. I could tell by the sideways stares that her mother and father had painted me as a five-year old harlot that their daughter was to have nothing to do with.

Michael liked it when I was the nurse to his doctor, but I made sure he agreed to change it up -- I mean, sometimes, I liked to be in charge.

The scarlet letter didn’t really bother me because Michael became my “boyfriend.” Our favorite games were doctor-nurse play-acting. Michael liked to dress-up as a doctor and I would be his nurse. He even gave me a white hat with a red cross to wear when I came over. Michael would call the shots as we performed emergency surgery on his favorite teddy bear with the arm that fell off at least once a week.

“What should I do, Doctor? I can’t stop the bleeding?”

“Pass me the masking tape! Stat!”

“Oh, Doctor! You’re so clever!”

“Now the paper towel and the string!”

“Doctor! You saved Mr. Fuzzywuzzy’s arm. My hero!”

Even though this was Michael’s favorite scenario, I made him agree to change things up every so often – I mean, sometimes, I liked to be in charge.

Our role play abruptly ended that summer when Michael’s parents moved the family to California.  I can’t say I was heartbroken. I acknowledged that I was only 5 and that there would be plenty more boys who’d want to play doctor to my nurse in the future.

Every so often, I think about Michael Cagliatella. Does he still have those trouble-maker’s eyes? Does he still wear those striped shirts and a middle part in his hair? What would happen if we had a playdate today? Would his parents finally let me sleep over? And if they did, would he still like to see me in my nurse’s hat?

My Father Always Told Me to Keep My Alternative Job Skills Honed

Our resumes get lost at sea, our cover letters messages in a digital human resouces bottle.

I’ve come to accept that the job hunt is a long and arduous process. Sometimes, you’re lucky to have a  family member or fairy godmother who can make a call and throw a little pixie dust into the air so that in the morning you wake up with a job, a book deal and a pony.

Most of us lack pixie dust. Instead, we rely on resilience, patience and padded resumes.

In one day,  I churned out 5 cover letters requesting to be considered for recent postings in a variety of fields:

  • Auction House Junior Specialist
  • Gallery Coordinator
  • Culture blogger for an online edition of a magazine
  • Documentary film researcher
  • Professional Wingwoman

The Professional Wingwoman was my father’s idea.

He has lots of ideas about what I could be doing for work: running a gourmet hot dog shop in our home town, hosting a “fresh baked farm bread” stand in upstate New York, working as a barista in my own NYC cafe. Very few of his suggestions are practical or have to do with art history, though he’ll argue a cafe is a great place to hang paintings.

I've had years of experience in the job. I'd be a natural professional wingwoman

The wingwoman option struck him while he was watching Rachel Ray (!?!). The founder of wingwomen.com, a dating service for men who lack game — the only thing they can pick up at a bar is their own tab, and only if it’s very short — was a guest. My father thought it was a natural fit given that my college years were spent mostly in the company of sporty guys with ivy-league degrees and monosyllabic names. Indeed, I had 4+ years of wingwoman training.

Figuring it was better to have more lines in the sea, I took my father’s suggestion and went fishing again. I updated my CV, uploaded a photo and submitted an application.

I’ve only just started to receive interview requests on job applications that went out in November. Who knows if I’ll hear back from wingwomen.com. But maybe, just maybe, in May instead of “art historian,” I’ll have a new career teaching another art form — the art of the pick-up.