Chimera Song Mosaic
Monday, May 19, 2003
Actually, the meeting wasn’t that long; Marisa and I decided to lurk around in Barnes & Noble for a while. We wanted to spy on one of the members of our group, but he caught on and left right away. I should explain that I like to like to loiter in various aisles (such as “Self-Help”) and find out what people are reading. I once spent an entire afternoon lounging at a table, sipping caramel-flavored coffee, with my elbow propped on a very large sourcebook called Infectious Diseases. How thrilling!
Perhaps I should also explain our attraction to Barnes & Noble. (This will not need to be explained if you are from or have ever lived in the Valley.) When all the intellectuals heard we were getting a Barnes & Noble last year, it was all the buzz. And not (just) for Starbucks (personally, I like Seattle’s Best & Tim Horton’s!). We have very few places to “hang out,” chat, or browse here in the Valley. In fact, we have very few places to read. This lack of a specialty coffee shop/bookstore supercombo has led to some pretty peculiar anomalies, such as an excellent independent coffee shop (Moonbeans) and a freakishly well-stocked and helpful Walden’s at the mall. Alas, such things are seldom frequented now that we have our B&N. Some might mock our devotion to it. But it was a long time in the coming.
Some might mock our lack of amenities in many areas. With just at 500,000 people on this side and over a million on the Mexican side, the Rio Grande Valley is huge. But much of this has grown up very recently, and we seem slow to draw the kinds of things that make city life bearable. Besides, many Valleyites live in what can only be described as the country, and we are used to small town ways.
As a native Houstonian, this has been somewhat hard to adjust to, but there are many perks. For example, independent businesses seem to have more of a chance here because we have yet to attract all of the major chains. So we actually have locally owned, one of a kind restaurants and shops and beauty salons and barbershops (those are the best!). And these aren’t the kind that crop up in areas that have undergone gentrification—the kind that stoically resist the megasize and the multipurpose communities of Wal-Mart. I see these businesses as innocent and naïve—unaware of the inevitable encroachment of Big Lots. Yes, I know I am offering a highly romanticized and possibly erroneous portrait of the Valley from an outsider’s perspective, but as so many people see the need to justify their choice of living in Paris, New York, or San Francisco (all equally qualified with comments such as “This is the greatest city on earth!”), I feel the need to answer this question: “Why would you live in the Valley, or in Texas, for that matter?” Others don’t feel the need to answer this question; they live here because they have family here, or jobs, or simply because they are from here (that often overlooked justification that is insensitively tossed aside; of course people like where they come from!).
Anyway, I do have two examples to offer as evidence to support my romanticized version of the Valley: 1) This is the only place I have ever been to where Hollywood Video has outperformed Blockbuster. I can’t stand Blockbuster, and will avoid supporting it if possible (for many reasons—lack of selection is one). Hollywood Video is also a chain, but one that attempts to meet the needs of its customers (foreign film aficionados, too!), and Valleyites have seemed to ignore the corporate glossiness of Blockbuster and have made a service-based choice.
2) Taco Bell refuses to stay open in the Valley. Every time one opens up, it promptly shuts down. We will chase away all the fake Tex-Mex (the Valley’s Tex-Mex is very different from the rest of Texas’—in fact, I don’t think Valleyites know or like Tex-Mex at all. Go to Houston or West Texas for good Tex-Mex). Instead, we have our own Mexican fast food; it’s a scrumptious chain called El Pato. (By the way, I don’t dislike Taco Bell; in fact, it was my mainstay in the Tex-Mex vacuum of Montana.)
Okay, that’s enough about that. I am getting hungry. More on the job search:
Marisa is my partner in crime. We do most of our spying together. She has her MFA in fiction from the University of Montana (like me—but poetry), and she also teaches at the same community college. Today we decided to look for a book on the public service exam, or whatever it is called, and we found some fascinating information.
First, we took a practice test. They had some really interesting questions. We balked at ones that sounded like, “If country A imports 2,400,00 lbs. of blah, and then you send a note to your Aunt Ute in Denmark . . . which intersection on this graph represents a balanced trade deficit—AH, AI, HO, or DE?” Okay, this is not an accurate representation of the question, but that’s what it sounded like to us. We went straight for the literature-based questions, which we aced, along with the grammar and punctuation stuff, which we rocked. Actually, it was pretty hard. We said, “Gosh, and we are English teachers! Think how badly everyone else fails this portion of the test!” We thought about that a while and snickered.
We loved the questions that had little maps attatched to them without the names of the countries on them. They had little numbers so you had to guess the name of each country. Of course, we went beyond that. As soon as we sighted a new map, Marisa correctly identified the continent: “That’s Asia!” Then we started filling in the numbers with the names of the countries, and then we got to the questions. Here’s a sample:
Which two of these countries share the same religion and ethnicity but were appropriately separated in the 20th century for geographic and political reasons?
The answer, of course, is 10 & 11—Pakistan & Bangladesh. We got that one. (I learned that from reading Salman Rushdie’s Shame.)
So the test is pretty general like that—they don’t give anyway too much information—no dates and few proper names. The questions forced you to draw on many different bits of knowledge to answer them (like you didn’t get a list of countries—you had to come up with those on your own). But the best part was the multiple-choice psychological evaluation. It had questions like this one:
Which of the following adjectives is that last word your friends would use to describe you—helpful, judgmental, brusque, active, obsessive?
Hmm . . .
Also, we found this one:
What were you doing during the summers while you were in college—attending summer school, traveling, working, volunteering, or resting?
I had to laugh out loud at this one. As Marisa sees it, one of the chief benefits of teaching at a college is that you get to go home and take naps during the day. So I said, “Well, for me, that’s traveling. I did that as much as possible during the summer. But look, Marisa! You can put resting! I can’t believe they have an example that is so perfect for you!”
And she said, “Deb, I worked at the DMV every summer I was home from school. But I am beginning to worry about how you will look on paper. You said you would mark ‘late—frequently,’ ‘absent—a lot,’ and ‘did your parents pay for your undergraduate degree—yes.’ And now this traveling thing! You have done a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t show up on paper.”
So this test is designed to make you reflect on your life goals, your laziness, and your lack of incentive. “I hope you don’t have to take this test right before you take the real exam. We would be walking blobs of insecurity,” I said.
Anyway, we got even more suspicious when we read things like,
Were you ever in a leadership position in any of your extracurricular activities in college? The answers were: yes, frequently; yes, more than once; yes, once; no, but I was involved in various groups; I was not involved in any extra curricular activity of any kind.
I thought this last response was really defensive. I guess they are screening for belligerents and slackers. I was a psychology major as an undergrad, and by the end of my undergrad career, I was noticeably more paranoid. I thought I could be in a double blind psychological experiment at any moment. That’s sort of how I felt when we were taking the test.
Then we discussed our possible goals in life and how we wished we could do school all over again. We thought about different decisions we could have made that would render us: a) happier b) wealthier c) less busy or d) less frustrated by not having time to write. We threw a lot of possible occupations around, including: medic for Doctors without Borders; human rights activist for Amnesty International; lawyer (either greedy and phat ambulance chaser or public defender); diplomat (we ultimately thought we could weather the smarmy, Pro-Bush civil servant persona in exchange for the diplomatic pouch!); weather girl J; pathologist; speech writer; international teacher in Japan; famous singer; famous writer.
Marisa said, “Do you know who they brought to my mom’s school the other day for career day? A florist from H-E-B, a Chinese food chef from H-E-B, a border patrol agent, and a manager from H-E-B. They didn’t plan very well and just brought whoever they could find!”
This is a problem because that’s not exactly representing the kinds of options available to kids. It’s not exactly giving them the information they need about how to develop their career paths; it’s not stressing the importance of making good decisions now that can mold the rest of their lives. Of course, people need to fill these jobs, realistically, but isn’t hope still part of the American Dream?
Of course, that’s a dream that I have just recently awakened from. I spent so much of my young life insisting that I become a famous person—an actress, a singer, whatever—that I ignored any of the potentially wonderful occupations that may have been introduced at my school. When you really think about, all of the above occupations pale in comparison to being a celebrity. Which brings me to the painful theory that Marisa and I share:
The Theory of the Quan
Marisa and I have realized that we don’t want to work hard or deserve our success (as writers, presumably)—we just want the Quan. If you’ve seen Jerry McGuire, you know what I mean. Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character just wanted the glory and money associated with being a star athlete, but he didn’t want to do the necessary work to get there. As Tom Cruise’s character points out, this is a very poor (and likely to be damning) attitude. He knows this because he himself previously suffered from a poor attitude. What can we learn from this?
I learned (am learning) that I need to devote myself to writing if I ever expect to get anything out of it. The whining is getting to be extreme (as I’m sure, if you are still reading this, you are beginning to note). The Quan is a hollow demon! The Demon of the Quan will never be satisfied!
Presumably, I think making up some mythology to explain my problem will gain me a measure of control. Whatever! Now that I have identified my problem, I have to fix it. Or I have to fail.
Maybe we don’t need new jobs. Maybe we should just stick with what we got to and what we are good at. This is the thing that I care the most about in the world (writing), and if I fail, it will hurt the most, but if I succeed, it will feel the most like a homecoming.