Under Pressure – My Brain Hurts

In college, at the University of Chicago, I played Queen’s “Under Pressure” song over and over again every single year. It was my theme song. I am more or less a smart person, but I’m not a genius by any measure. The University of Chicago only accepts really, really smart people. And the thing about schools full of only really smart people is that some really smart person always has to be at the bottom of the pile.

To be truthful, in all my school years, I never had to work so hard for a ‘C’ as I did at the UofC. My Physics class was graded on a perfect bell curve, so yep! I got a C. I started out in my Developmental Biology course with a big fat 0 on my first exam but I studied and studied all term and aced the final. So yep! I got a ‘C’ once again.

I remember struggling to understand Molecular Biology and having to take the course twice in order to graduate. The first time, I either had the choice to withdraw or fail. I withdrew. The second time, I passed with a strong B. It was no easy B. I spent at least 2 nights a week with a tutor at the library. But I knew I had reached a special moment when another student asked the tutor to explain the lac operon model once again. The tutor struggled and then I jumped in and delivered a sound, easy-to-understand explanation. I was amazed by what my mind could do with some effort.

Though, I do remember coming home many an evening to my dorm room and crying to my closest friends, “My brain hurts.” Not my head, but literally, my brain. I didn’t know it was possible for this to be possible, but dear Monty Python empathized.

And now, 10 years after my graduation from the great University of Chicago, I once again feel the pressure to work hard and succeed. Again, my brain hurts. You see, I work as a software engineer. And whether or not you understand what a software engineer does, you can understand that most days I go into work not knowing how to do what I need to. Because if I did know how to do what I need to do, it would already be done. And then there are periods where not only do I not know how to do what I need to do, but there is no good documentation from somebody else who knows how to do what I need to. So I am left to struggle and figure it out on my own.

This has made me cranky. It has caused me to throw the Ukrainian out of the room where I am studying working on numerous occasions. I have blocked his IM chats. We have canceled this evening’s planned date. We are basically on hiatus until December 17 when the Ukrainian is done with his MBA studies and presumably, I will have a handle on all the new cutting-edge technology I am working on at work. Either way, we will be on a plane to the East Coast (though not entirely on holiday).  In the meantime, I will be trying to remind myself on an hourly basis how much I love my husband so I don’t let my stress get the best of me us.

As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, I have a really, really good job and I don’t want to lose it. Today, the headlines screamed about the largest rise in unemployment since 1974. We all know it’s going to get worse. So like so many others, much of the pressure I am feeling is self-induced. If the economy was flying and everyone was feeling good, I’m certain I would be too.

But, with all that said, there has been one small shining star in the workplace today. I officially learned that one of things I have been trying to do can’t be done (which is what I thought). So I’m not an idiot, just once again another really smart person at the bottom of the heap of other more-really-smarter people: software engineers.

X-years ago, a meme

I read Sandier Pastures — a blog written by a Filipino woman living and working with her husband and young daughter in Dubai. Today, she blogged this meme and I am following suit.

15 years ago — I was 18 and in my first month of studying at the University of Chicago. Coming from such a small town in rural Iowa, I found the institution to be very intimidating. I was the coxswain on the women’s crew team (though I quit after gaining quite a lot of weight. đŸ˜¦ ). My roommate was from Queens, New York. Her family had moved to New York from China when she was a child due to the fact that she was child #2, a clear violation of China’s one-child laws. In October 1993 (15 years ago), I was reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and Homer’s Illiad. I also studied Physics and Calculus. I did not own a computer, so I frequently could be found in Harper library’s computer lab until 3 a.m., trying to write 3-page papers. I really felt as if I had nothing to say about either texts. (It would not be long until I began to wonder how I would fit all that I had to say in only 20 pages.)

10 years ago — I had just started working my first “professional” job as a software engineer. My office was located on Chicago’s North Side across from Cabrini Green. The firm consisted of the owner, the secretary, myself and one other engineer. I had to answer sales calls as much as I had to write code. The job paid $27k per year. My food budget was limited to $5/day. I worked on the weekends at The Gap on Wabash Avenue across the street from Marshall Fields to supplement my income and be able to buy new clothes. I lived in a carriage house behind a decrepit mansion in Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood with 2 roommates. As soon as the autumn came, mice invaded the house.

5 years ago — I’d just left NYC after living there for 4 1/2 year to return to Chicago. I began studying at the Catholic Theological Union for a Master’s in Theology for Inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. I was also telecommuting from Chicago into NYC and Dallas for my engineering job. I lived on W. Warner Ave. on Chicago’s North Side with a super-cool roomate that I met on Craig’s List. My dogs, Sophie and Anna came with me from New York. I felt very satisfied and content with the world and my place in it. I was reading Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Despite my happiness, I felt very broke as I was still paying off my student loans from undergrad and was now paying my graduate tuition.  So, a few months later, I accepted a job transfer to San Franciso and left grad school.

3 years ago — I just moved from San Francisco to Haarlem, the Netherlands. I was working in Rotterdam. I was suffering a broken heart over the Bulgarian. I was still involved with someone else back in San Francisco. And I was falling in love with the Dutchman. I was having all sorts of problems with my legal paperwork with the Dutch authorities and general problems fitting in at my new job. My commute between Haarlem and Rotterdam was 1 1/2 hours long on a good day. I had no friends — just my 2 dogs that I had dragged with me. I also did not have telephone service or internet at home. I was lonely. I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books on the train back and forth between Rotterdam and Haarlem, grateful that I was even given the opportunity to live my life so much on my own — clearly the women in the book did not have that chance.

1 year ago — The Ukrainian had just moved in. We were spending a lot of time making multiple trips to Ikea to purchase a bed and other needs for our apartment. My sister and her husband had just come to visit. We held a massive party complete with a DJ to celebrate our living together. I was planning my 3 week trip to SE Asia, so I was reading travel websites rather than books. I also went to NYC for a week on a business trip. Felt like I had “come so far” from rural Iowa while in a business meeting at MTV headquarters. I felt very optimistic about my career. Still had no idea that the Ukrainian and I would soon be getting engaged, let alone married. And after that, I would leave MTV.

Yesterday — I walked with a friend from Noe Valley to Fort Mason to meet up with other friends to watch the Blue Angels. Afterwards, I walked to Union Square to meet up with the Ukrainian so we could go home together. While I had been relaxing in the sun with fighter jets doing tricks over my head, the Ukrainian had been studying. We browsed the shops of Union Square and found some things we liked for “the future” but nothing “for now”. We took BART back to 24th St. where he treated me to a “Let’s celebrate trying to make a baby!!” dinner at We Be Sushi on Valencia St.

Today — I regretted not eating raw fish at We Be Sushi last night as I received confirmation that we’re not yet successful in making our baby. I’m only slightly disappointed as we are just beginning our tries and I am not so young anymore. I spent the morning booking the Ukrainian and mine’s tickets to Iowa in November so that we can meet my sister’s new baby that was just born 2 weeks ago. In the early afternoon, we took our babies dogs around the Castro and to Dolores Park. I opted out of the festivities that were going on in Portrero and spent the rest of the afternoon at home catching up with friends on the E. Coast. Now, I’m testing some code for work for tomorrow.

Tomorrow — It’s Monday. Not much to say about that. I hope to either walk or ride my bike to work to enjoy this weather. And I also hope to wrap up this non-enjoyable project I’ve been on. Perhaps I will finish a blog entry I started  week ago. But I have not much to complain about as I am truly grateful I have a good job given these uncertain economic times. I will most likely be reading the NYTimes, keeping an eye on the Dow.

On our first anniversary, I finally learn to trust my husband

Sunday was the 1 year anniversary of the Ukrainian and I meeting. I spent the day stranded at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago due to tornadoes and other extreme Midwestern weather. The Ukrainian spent the day working on his financial internship in San Francisco. We were 2300 miles apart with no idea of what time we would see each other again. I was exhausted from a multi-city tour of the East Coast and Midwest that originated due to the need to attend a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery the previous Monday and to be in Chicago for my 10 year class reunion at the University of Chicago by Friday. In the middle of my travels, I spent 3 days in NYC working. I was stranded and exhausted. The Ukrainian was over-worked and far away.

You wouldn’t think such a set-up would lend itself to romance…but au contraire…as anyone who has ever seen Love Actually knows, airports are the place-to-be for romance at its finest with all its good-byes and hellos, reunions, last-moment-forevers, and those who meet their lovers while being stranded themselves.

I had a friend in New York whose then-boyfriend now-husband used to take a taxi to meet her at La Guardia whenever her flight arrived or departed — no matter how early or late. Another friend would take the bus up to Harlem and then over to La Guardia to meet her fiance so that he wouldn’t have to travel into the city alone. Me? I just gave all my visitors my address and expected them to hail a cab themselves just as I hailed one myself whenever I was off to or coming from someplace. I was never in love enough or had anyone who loved me enough to pay the cabfare and take the time to meet me at the airport.

Then I moved to San Francisco in the spring of 2004. Within months, I met and fell in love with a Bulgarian (not to be confused with the Ukrainian) who drove a silver G4 Golf and made it his duty to see that I was always picked up from San Francisco International airport. During the 6 or 7 months we were together, I traveled often. To Des Moines. Austin. Dallas. NYC. Miami. Dallas again and again for work. Each time, the Bulgarian was there to pick me up right outside United’s baggage claim in Terminal 2. I took his dedication to airport-pickup duties as a true sign of his love and devotion to me. The drive from the airport to the city of San Francisco was filled with my chattering about all I saw and did on my trip. At my house, he would carry in my luggage, we would have a little romance usually followed by a nice dinner out on Valencia St. “Being picked up at the airport”. Could there be a more romantic date than that?

But the relationship didn’t last. All the while the Bulgarian was picking me up at the airport and following up with superbly romantic dates, he had scheduled his ex-girlfriend back in Sofia, Bulgaria to move in with him into his 1-room San Francisco studio apartment come winter.

After her arrival and our breaking, there was no longer anyone to meet me at the airport. Gone was the anticipation I felt when I deboarded the plane and made my way down to United’s baggage claim. Now, it was almost the same mess of a life I led in NYC. After getting the bag, I would have to spend a not-so-small fortune on a taxi, or wait forever for the train back to San Francisco. While in New York, I had felt young and independent and quite worldly making my way to and from NY’s airports, in San Francisco I felt merely old and rejected. Sad that not only did I have to travel myself, I had no one to come home to.

2 years after breaking up with the Bulgarian in 2005 and less than a week after meeting the Ukrainian in 2007, I was departing for another trip. This time I was flying to Las Vegas to join 24 strangers on a wild and crazy road trip through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. We would be visiting the Grand Canyon, hiking in the desert outside of Page, Arizona, and embarking on a perilous hike to Angel’s Landing in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The trip was part of a conscious effort to revive the independent spirit that I had lost when I broke up with the Bulgarian and, subsequently a year later, the Dutchman.

The Ukrainian seemed sad that I was leaving only a few days after our meeting.

“I’ll be back,” I told him.

“I’ll pick you up at the airport,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.”

But the Ukrainian wasn’t waiting for me outside the United baggage claim at terminal 2. I stood at the baggage claim, exhausted and dehydrated from my desert hiking trip, waiting for my desert hiking gear to appear on the conveyor belt when suddenly 2 arms grabbed me from behind, a face nestled itself into my neck, and flowers were thrust into my hands.

It was the Ukrainian!!!

Driving around San Francisco International airport waiting for me to appear, as the Bulgarian had done, was not good enough for the Ukrainian. He bought the flowers. He parked the car. He greeted me in a most romantic, if a bit surprising gesture.

My fellow hikers stared. The women flashed green with a bit of envy. Here was one of their fellow hikers getting the scene-from-a-movie airport greeting. Immediately, I knew I had made the right choice. Of all the men I could’ve been dating at that time, I wanted him: the Ukrainian.

There have been more trips since that first one, of course: Iowa, New York, and Asia. And each time the Ukrainian has made it his mission to meet me right at the baggage claim. Even after his car finally died a brutal death, the Ukrainian would take the train down to the airport to be there for my arrival.

But despite my love for the Ukrainian, and his great romancing talents, I kept finding myself lacking the anticipation of having someone waiting for me at the airport. I was always happy to see him and happy to be home. But I held back from the “OhMyGodI’veBeenWaitingForeverToSeeYouAndIAmSoHappyYou’reHere” onslaught of emotion that would’ve made me grab him wildly and kiss him with all the full force and equality of my love for him.

I held back because I didn’t trust the situation. I didn’t trust that the day might come when the Ukrainian would not be there to meet me at the airport with flowers and a hug and a kiss and a smile. I didn’t want to transform myself back into the rejected woman I had been only a year prior.

But this trip back East on the anniversary of our meeting and almost the same anniversary to the day of our first pick-up at the airport was the first time I had traveled since we’d been married. And something was different. Something had happened in the past 2 1/2 months since we had said “I do” in the same spot that Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio had said “I do” some 40+ years ago in San Francisco’s city hall. I had begun to relax. I had begun to trust my husband. That no matter what divorce and marriage statistics might say, my husband would always be there to meet me at the airport and also be there for anything else I needed in the coming years and decades. There would be no ex-girlfriends secretly inserting themselves into his life and no sudden spurt of Anti-Americanism (as had been partially the case with the Dutchman) causing him to get cold feet. We were already married. We had made a commitment to each other to stick it through thick and thin.

And while sitting there in O’Hare airport on our 1-year anniversary of our meeting, waiting for the weather to calm down, I wanted to be with my husband. I imagined him coming up to me from behind with flowers in his hand just as he did that first week after our meeting. I imagined the romance that was sure to follow once we got home. And I imagined us lounging on the sofa afterwards, eating our anniversary cake and discussing all the details of our week apart and our year together.

I texted him every update to the flight delays and weather pattern. I texted him when I got on the plane, when we ready to take off, when we landed, when I was inside the gate, in the bathroom, and on my way. As I headed down the stairs toward United’s baggage claim, my eyes scanned the waiting people looking for his blonde hair and his tall, lean physique. At first I didn’t see him. I was disappointed, of course. But knew he would be there, somewhere. And then, just as I head over to the claim for United Flight 149 from ORD to SFO, I saw him. And he saw me. And I ran. I ran to him. I jumped on him like a monkey. And I kissed him for the entire past year of loving him. And I kissed him for not having kissed him enough all those times he had met me before.

At last, I had found my someone to always meet me at the airport. And OhMyGodIHadBeenWaitingForeverAndCouldn’tWaitToSeeHim.

A little (un-pc) background

Summer 1995 — Edwardo’s on Chicago’s 57th St.

It was a regular summer weeknight. The Edwardo’s staff comprised mostly of equal parts students from the University of Chicago, local African Americans from the ghettos that surrounded Hyde Park, and not-entirely legal immigrants from Mexico who staffed the kitchen and bussed the tables. We had two waitresses on duty: myself (the UofC student who had just moved up from answering phones to waiting tables) and Lateisha, an African-American woman who came from one of the blighted South Side neighborhoods that surrounded Hyde Park. She had waited tables at Edwardo’s for years. She carried a “Don’t mess with me attitude” and I had no intention of messing with her.

Our shift started at 5 pm and not long after, our first customer arrived: A large African-American family of about 7 people. Edwardo’s waitressing etiquette commanded that the more senior waitress on hand was to get the first table. After that, new tables were to be rotated evenly between the staff.

“You have a table, ” I said to Lateisha as the family stood by the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front of the restaurant.

“Nuh-uh. They ain’t my table. You take them.”

“But they’re first. And you’ve been here longer.” Why the hell doesn’t she want the table, I wondered.

“I don’t wait on no niggers.”

Oh. Ok. If you’re going to put it like that. I guess the table was mine. Like I said, I wasn’t interested in messing with Lateisha. And I wasn’t rude enough to leave a hungry family standing at the front of a restaurant. With my politest, fake-genuine Iowa smile and upbeat tone of voice I knew, I greeted the family, sat them and proceeded to take their order.

And now, here in this little story, if I was a true liberal interested in writing a “Don’t judge a book by its cover”/break-all-stereotypes story, I would write how that family was the nicest family I ever met with the most polite children I’d ever seen and they left me a very generous tip that must’ve been quite a stretch for their most-likely-limited budget.

But that’s not what happened. The family lived up to every stereotype you could imagine for a family that lived in a ghetto and had not been taught — nor interested in — how to behave with decorum and politeness in public. The grown women were rude and talked to me as if I was their personal servant. The children created mess after mess as children are wont to do. There was something “wrong” with every plate of food I brought out to the family. And, of course, only giving a discount for each plate was the only way to “fix” the problem. And, at the end of the meal when that section of the restaurant had been thoroughly trashed? No tip.

Fine, I said silently to Lateisha in my mind. You’re not going to wait on niggers (your words not mine). Ok. But then every piece of white trash that comes in here — they are yours. Every European with the fancy jeans who forgot to read the section in the guidebook that says “U.S. restaurant food is cheap because the restaurants don’t pay their servers” — they’re yours too, Lateisha.

It was not a game of race, but a game of class. It was easy to predict who was going to tip you. Students? Oddly, yes. Many were flush with cash from their parents’ support or had waited their own tables to support themselves. Professors, grad students, etc. Yes, but at a flat 15% rate. Middle-to-upper class African-Americans? Yes, and quite well. European tourists? Not at all. Lower-income whites from the less-desirable white neighborhoods from the southwestern reaches of Chicagoland? Most likely not much, but maybe a token amount. Low-income African-American residents of the Chicago projects. No. And they were going to work you to the bone.

And it was with that single “I don’t wait on no niggers” comment coming from my African-American colleague, my mind began to wake up a little to the fact that the world is a much more complicated place than I was idealistically raised to believe in rural Iowa.

After all, how can race be an issue if you have no concept of race?