On Thoughtless Social Media Posts

One of my coworkers has for days now been posting to Facebook about how people should leave Barron Trump alone. I agree. It’s completely unacceptable for adults to publicly humiliate a child with no ability to fight back or erase the hurtful things said about them.

But almost every time my coworker posts about Barron, she has also claimed that the Obama girls were left alone by the media for 8 years and that right should be extended to Trump’s son as well. And it makes me SO mad. To believe that statement, one must willfully be turning a blind eye to the reprehensible, racist attacks that were leveled at Malia and Sasha throughout their father’s presidency. It’s just another tacit approval of what our society subjects women of color to day in and day out.

I finally decided to post a response to my coworker, linking to a list of racist attacks made on the Obama girls. It was beautifully worded, clear and logical and fiery.

But almost as soon as I posted it, I felt guilty. I felt guilty not because I’m wrong, but because that coworker is the only one in my newsfeed who has been posting about Barron Trump. Since she is Facebook friends with most of my other coworkers, it would be clear to whose posts I was responding.

Although I like this coworker, the last few weeks have revealed a new side of her to me, a side that makes me uncomfortable. Her posts have grown more hateful and snide. They reveal a person I don’t want to associate myself with because the values she’s expressing run deeply counter to my own.

But one value I try to live up to is not being an asshole. (Admittedly, it’s harder some days than others.) This coworker is more than the memes she shares. She is more than thoughtless Facebook posts. I decided that I didn’t want to call her out on this issue publicly, so I deleted my post.

I felt crappy for deleting it. I felt like I was choosing to ignore the obvious racism and sexism at play in my coworker’s post. But at the end of the day, I know my post won’t change her mind any more than her post will change mine, especially if my post humiliates her. So often on social media we share things to feel like we’re defining and reinforcing our own beliefs as much as we share things to persuade others, and so we ignore things like tone and audience awareness that could make our posts more effective. After all, our real audience is ourselves.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of my coworkers, both conservatives and liberals, calling each other out on social media, often in caustic, snide posts. As tempting as it is to participate in this yelling match, from this point on I’m going to be more conscious of the posts I’m sharing. Over the last few weeks, I’ve already begun paying more attention to the types of news articles I share. I realize if I actually want someone to read what I post, I’d be smarter to share more objective, fact-based articles rather than inflammatory, extremist articles.

That being said, I’m not letting my coworker off the hook entirely; I’ve sent her a private message about her post. Ignoring even small instances of racism, sexism, and classism still perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism. However, just as children don’t deserve to be humiliated publicly, neither do adults, and that’s a lesson more of us could practice on social media regardless of our age.

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Prose Elegy for a Teacher

Yesterday I lost a coworker and friend very suddenly. And so today I awoke to a world slightly heavier in the way that the world tends to grow heavier when it loses someone. It’s a familiar feeling to anyone who has experienced loss. The world seems to sag like a Dali painting.

A common reaction when someone dies is a desire for the world to stop. We have experienced this significant and powerful phenomenon wherein something living ceases to live, and the world should feel this. W. H.  Auden captures this in his famous “Funeral Blues“:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

The speaker calls for acknowledgement. This is not a private grief–surely it is too big a sensation for only him to feel it. Out of respect, the world must pause.

But life does not pause. Life does not even slow down. And so I found myself, in the wake of the news, emailing my boss to ask for direction as I take over my friend’s English 101 class. Do I use her syllabus or mine? Her carefully crafted essay assignments, or mine? These questions seem crass and petty in light of the circumstances, yet Monday I will find myself in front of new students who have paid for a class, and whose lives have not stopped, who at the end of the quarter will need this credit to move forward just as we all must continually move forward. So the unfeeling questions are asked and the vital answers remain fuzzy because we never plan for the inevitable end of ourselves.

Digging through her materials seems like such an invasion. Teachers are proprietary about their materials. Teaching materials are the products of our intellect, of years of study, and research, and professional development, and trial and error, of successful and unsuccessful terms. They tell our story more accurately than our resumes because they preserve the skidmarks, bruises, triumphs, and breakthroughs of our careers. They are subject to criticism and used by superiors, coworkers, and students alike to judge our merit. They are personal and public in a way few works are.

Deleting these files feels strange, like I’m further erasing my friend. The class page should be preserved. This was her life’s work and here I am replacing it piece by piece. The words of Willy Loman’s wife Linda echo in my mind:

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

But my clocks, like Auden’s, have not stopped, and will not stop, and Monday will come. And so I will carry forward what Karen left me–her patience, her kindness, and her tirelessness in teaching. These things I will carry secondhand to her students and mine. Her work will find completion.

Posted in Friendship, Philosophizing, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appreciating those We Love – Even if We’re Single

Today is Valentine’s Day. I’ve never loved the holiday. Every year in elementary school, I was forced to sign a bunch of cheesy bits of paper to hand to classmates, aware that any candy we received at our “party” would taste like antacids and plastic. Middle school introduced the idea of the Candy-Gram and its accompanying, inevitable anxiety: if you received none, you were a loser, but if you received one or more then you were teased.fb140212

It was in high school that my friends first began moping about whether or not they were single. In short, my experience with Valentine’s Day is mostly a hell of a lot of complaining.

Now in my late 20s, the holiday is still no better. On Facebook, people mock those who make grand gestures, others consistently make cynical posts, and others boast about what they have given or received.

But my complaint about Valentine’s Day is a little different, and really isn’t a complaint about the holiday itself, although it gives me a great excuse to post about something that’s been on my mind. Rather, my complaint is one others are beginning to give voice to as well.

A few months ago I read Debra Fileta’s article “Why You Should Have More Than One Significant Other.” The upshot of Fileta’s article is that Western society perpetuates the idea that we should all have one romantic, sexual relationship that completes us, and which is more significant than all of our other relationships, such as those with our parents, siblings, and friends. Without that relationship, we are half a person. Without sharing our experiences with that person, we are only half experiencing. Life begins, truly, when we find this person. But Fileta argues that this is not the case, and that we ought to be grateful for all of the significant relationships in our lives, regardless of how we would classify them.

I agree with Fileta. No one person can be your everything. As I once told someone, each of my close friends offers me something distinct. I never tell anyone everything; rather, I share things with different friends based on their individual strengths. That’s what good relationships are about–complementing, not completing, each other. Good relationships will build you up, challenge you to be better, and introduce you to new ideas. Good relationships help bring out the best in us, so doesn’t it make sense to have more than one?

Yet this concept of soul mates is so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to escape. I remember the scramble in high school to find a date for prom. Single like most of my friends, I suggested we all go together, but that was considered disgraceful, something you did if you weren’t good enough to actually go with someone. Ten years later, as I attend friends’ weddings and dinners and work functions, the same problem persists. If I go alone, I feel pitied, but it isn’t always acceptable to take your platonic female friend as your plus one.

Unfortunately, this mindset cheats us all: when in romantic relationships, we isolate ourselves; we put undue pressure on our romantic relationships; we base our sense of self-worth on the success of these relationships; we become frustrated when romantic partners fail to meet all of our (often inflated) expectations; we undervalue the people who love us most; we fail to nurture the friendships that will outlive most of our romances.

This is partly, I think, a language issue. If I arrive at an event with a boyfriend, I can say, “This is my boyfriend.” But if I arrive at an event with a friend and say, “This is my friend,” this doesn’t fully explain my relationship. It could be that this is someone I am seeing, but not dating. It could be this is my same-sex partner. Or it could be someone I share popcorn with at the movies. We use friend to indicate so many relationships, both intimate and otherwise. There is no word to distinguish my “friend” I’ve known since third grade, who is almost a sister to me, who I once accidentally assaulted with a raw egg, from my “friend” who has a desk diagonal from me at work, whose favorite song I don’t know, and who mostly I tolerate in the absence of better company.

This is why I think we need more words to define the different kinds of relationships that actually make up our lives. I should have more options than to label someone my “best friend” or “friend.” And I should be able to admit to having multiple soul mates without people thinking I’m a polygamist. Because if I’m honest, I do have multiple soul mates, none of whom I would label my “best” friend because they are all wonderful and important to me, each serving their own function. And I hope to share my life with all of them.

My feelings on the matter can best be summed up by the comic below, from Yumi Sakugawa. It has always been a million times easier for me to fall in “friend love” with someone than romantic love.

Click to view the entire strip

Click to view the entire strip

If you want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, fantastic. May all your chocolate hearts be 40% off and taste better than the wrappers they come in. If you don’t want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, then don’t, but please respect those who wish to. Regardless of your plans, let’s all open our eyes to the equal importance of all of our loved ones–romantic and platonic.

Posted in Dating, Friendship, Philosophizing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Trigger Warnings, Banned Books, and their Ethical Dilemmas

A coworker recently shared with me a banned book project she conducts in her English 102 course. I loved the idea and began constructing my own. Once I decided what the project would entail (a 1,500-word essay explaining the banning and siding with or against the banning based on a literary analysis of the objectional sections of the book, followed by a brief presentation in lieu of a final exam), I then had to decide how students would select books for the assignment.

The American Library Association has multiple lists available, but I worried if provided too many options that my students would feel overwhelmed. Therefore, I decided to narrow the students’ choices to no more than fifty titles. I eliminated contemporary releases like The Perks of Being a Wallflower  and The Fault in Our Stars, not necessarily because they have less value than older works, but because I wanted my students to read something they usually wouldn’t think to pick up. I also eliminated books I know are required reading in local high schools for the same reason. A solid, well-reasoned list was forming – and then I hit a moral quandary – Lolita.

Books are banned because they are powerful. They are the voices of the dead that still speak to us through decades and centuries. They are a conduit to the collective subconscious of society, exploring our cultural fears, frustrations, and darkness. They expose what mankind is capable of and chooses to do – the good and the bad. And because they place us in the lives and minds of characters, they have the ability to make us feel, experience, and remember. Books are banned when their content feels threatening, when they show us the things we don’t like and haven’t resolved. For that reason alone, they should be read. Yet for all the good that can come of reading such books, they can bring pain as well.

Others have recognized this potential for pain, which is what has prompted multiple discussions of whether or not books read in school should carry trigger warnings. When I first heard this suggestion, I was hesitant. Do I really want to give my students another excuse for not reading the things I assign? Is it really necessary (or possible) to caution readers against all potential triggers in a work? Especially in college, aren’t we supposed to tackle hard issues?

But there I was, staring at the first book I ever emotionally struggled to read. I remember my professor talking about the importance of being aware of statistics on sexual abuse, and how we needed to talk about how it could be a painful reading experience for some students. Yet the professor also glibly explained that we would find ourselves conflicted, charmed by Humbert Humbert’s wit and charisma even while we were repulsed by the things he did.

I had no such conflict. As I read, I could not divorce myself from the fact that Dolores was the same age as my sister, whose face and whose friends’ faces floated through my mind on every page. A classmate came in the day we were supposed to have finished the novel and asked if I had finished it, confessing she could not stomach it.

However, if I decided to leave Lolita off the list, wasn’t I doing the very thing I was trying to teach my students it was wrong to do? Wasn’t I guilty of the very censorship Banned Books Week combats?

I can justify leaving Lolita off the list of books I gave my students for the simple fact that it is an extremely complex novel. That sounds silly, but working at an open-enrollment junior college in a conservative area of the country, I know few of my students are at a place where they could handle the vocabulary, much less the content of Nabokov. Truly I believe they will derive more benefit from something more accessible. The issue felt resolved, and I felt relieved.

And then I hit Beloved.

According to the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties (Ohio),

  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Among all victims, about nine out of ten are female.
  • 1 out of every 33 American men has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his lifetime.
  • At least 10% of all victims are male.

So out of a class of 25, statistically speaking five students will have personally encountered some degree of sexual violence.

I decided not to remove Beloved or The Color Purple from the list. As painful as books can be, they can be therapeutic as well. And unlike Lolita, these are stories of women who survive terrible hardship to become strong forces of good. They are books that promote compassion. And while their themes are complex, they are, perhaps, more accessible because they are so very human at their core (it is, after all, difficult to relate fully to the pedophile Humbert Humbert). And finally, one of my goals in every class is to promote a global perspective by having students read works from writers of diverse backgrounds. And knowing the demographic I serve, I especially seek out African American writers, because as diverse as literature is, no one should have to sit through an English class feeling underrepresented.

The list of books students could choose from was posted online a week before they could begin signing up. I advised students to read about the books, and the day of signup they each brought in a list of four books they wanted to work with. At the end of class as I placed the signup sheet on the front desk, I said, “None of these books is a bad book. All of them have something good about them, so even if you can’t get your first choice, there are plenty of good choices for you. I do, however, have one word of caution. Three of the books on the list – those by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison – deal with sexual assault. I am not saying you should not read them. But if that’s something you don’t feel comfortable discussing during a presentation at the end of the term, then you should select another book for this project. Again, I’m not saying don’t read them. All three are excellent books. I just wanted you to be aware.”

No one batted an eye. As is usual during any announcement, most were checking their phones or packing up.

There is a difference between preventing others from reading a book and requiring someone to read a book, I told myself. What a student picks up on his or her own, I cannot take responsibility for. I do, however, have to be able to justify what I assign. And maybe that is the difference between caution and censorship.

As the last students were leaving, one girl approached me cautiously, staring at her shoes and hugging her bookbag against her chest. “Which books did you say we should avoid?” she asked. I told her, and, with an obvious sigh of relief, she signed her name to the sheet under a different book.

Maybe she is not a survivor. Maybe simply speaking in front of people is hard enough for her without having to lead a discussion on a land-mine issue. Maybe, like many of my students fresh from high school, she cannot even say the word “sex” without blushing. Maybe I have been over-thinking the entire issue. But what I do know is that it is my responsibility to create a safe space within my classroom. What that means likely varies from term to term, and from student group to student group. There is no easy answer, and there is no certainty. There is only walking in kindness with an awareness of the experiences beyond our own, balancing the need to challenge with the need to protect.

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Who I am Right Now–But Only Right Now

Recently my office-mate, J, and I remarked on how plain our office is. Most of our coworkers, who have been in the job for years, have decorated their spaces with various things: pictures of their kids or pet, a tennis racket clock, a plant–what researchers call “conscious identity claims” or “feeling regulators,” things that tell us something about them or remind them of who they are. Shortly afterward, J began bringing in decor, including a T.S. Eliot print made for her by her brother, a few action figures, her diploma, postcards–the usual things professors have in offices.

I decided I’d like to bring something, too. It might feel more comfortable to work in a space with a bit of color, I thought, so I considered taking in a print. That Friday, I went to Hobby Lobby to look for something appropriate. I searched through every print in the store, even those I knew I wouldn’t buy because they’re too big, but left empty-handed. I kept encountering the same problem–nothing was me.

It sounds egotistical–maybe it is–but nothing I saw was something I felt represented how I see myself. A few times I even found something nice, but thought, “It’s pretty, but I can’t really see myself owning it.”

At my first full-time teaching job, I had a cubicle that I livened up with pictures. Fresh out of grad school, and having just returned from my U.K. jaunt, I had more photographs than a darkroom. Some cute magnets a friend have given me allowed me to display memories of trips to the beach, birthday parties, and accomplishments, and even on days that I could barely hold back tears of frustration, those memories were my patronus. Seeing as I couldn’t find a poster at Hobby Lobby, I decided pictures would be a more personal and creative choice.

But as I looked through my pictures–pictures of my life–I had a sickening sense that these were not me either. I shook the idea aside and continuing browsing, struggling to choose which memories to display, yet nothing satisfied me.

We think of ourselves as being more or less set entities. Our identity, we like to think, remains solid throughout life. Yes, some things do remain. My love of the color yellow, sentimental attachment to childhood books, and inability to cut paper have remained the same since forever. But a lot of who we are comes from the people we’re around and the things we spend our time doing, and those will always change because life changes. No longer am I living in a crazy house with interesting roommates. No longer and I living within blocks of most of my friends. No longer do I spend hours reading challenging texts, having traded that activity for rereading the basic texts I teach my students. And as my world has changed, so have I.

At the end of graduate school, I felt for the first time absolute certainty about who I was. And in the context of my life at that time, I did know myself very well. Life since graduation has been much less certain, however. My childhood expectations for who I would become as an adult have not come to fruition; I am not living the life I would have anticipated. Slowly, I am coming to the realization that I probably never will. That’s not a bad thing, of course, because as I child when I looked into the future, who I wanted to be was based on the things I valued as a child, and as I matured the things I valued (hopefully) matured as well. But if I’m honest, it’s frustrating at 28 to feel I am having to get to know myself all over again. If I am not who I planned to be, and not who I was, who am I? Who am I in this context? Better yet, who do I want to be and how do I become that person? I thought I had answered these questions before. It’s like having completed a big assignment in school only to have to redo it, but this time it’s harder.

I think this is why I’ve been struggling to find office decor, because I’m trying to figure out who I am here and how to project that. And I think that’s why it has taken me so long, and why I am still fighting, to write about my U.K. trip. There’s a part of me that wants to memorialize and savor every detail, but that’s not what makes good writing. Then another part of me feels that part of my life is closed, and I’d much rather open a new part than continue to dwell in what was pleasant, but what has passed. This is, after all, what makes good living.

What I eventually settled on are the things I most enjoy now–a small plant in a glass bottle, a photo of my boys, and a collage of comic strips about teaching and English. Those are the things that relieve stress. Those are the things that make me smile. Those are the future relics of who I am now, and a reminder that I will not always be who I am right now.

Posted in Growing Up, Philosophizing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Encounter with My Other Self

I decided to go to England because my grandfather was dying in south Georgia.

Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was 24 years old and was driving back to graduate school after having visited my dying grandfather in the hospital, and I felt reckless in the way that only despair makes you feel. I still smelled like the hospital. More than anything, I wanted to put space, physical and mental, between me and the place I had stayed for a week as I watched him get sicker. Staring through the windshield at field after field, I felt the need to act because action wards off thinking. I wanted to feel alive.

If I had a year to live, what is the one thing I would want to do? What was the one thing on earth I had to experience before I died?

My answer was to visit England.

It’d be lovely to explain that I had some sort of connection to this country, a family heritage or something. But I didn’t. I had, however, wanted this for fifteen years, ever since I had first begun reading literature, fallen in love with the Latinate prose of Dickens, and decided to be an author. I had just never wanted it enough to make it happen. Or maybe I had never been distracted enough to forget the limitations life seems to impose.

So I drove home and closed myself in my bedroom. I prayed. Then I typed “England tours” into Google. The next day I called my mom.

“I’m going to England.” She didn’t say anything. “This summer.”

“How are you going to pay for it?”

“Please don’t get mad. Just listen. I took out more student loans than I told you and dad. I wanted to have a cushion after I graduate, in case I have to move or need a deposit for an apartment. But I want to use that money to take a tour. This may be the only chance I have. Once I start working full-time, no one will let me have a month off to travel. And yeah, it will take years to pay it off. But this may be the only way I ever get to do this.”

At this point in my life, I had been on a plane once, and that was with Elaine, who booked the tickets and guided me through the airport like a child. I felt safe because she had traveled before, and because she radiates confidence. She’s beautiful, and charismatic, and never afraid to talk to anyone, and she made it so easy to draft without needing to be brave. But now I was going to a foreign country alone.

Alone is exhilarating and terrifying. But alone is an important thing to do at least once in your life because alone is a leap of faith. You prepare as best you can knowing that you can never prepare for everything, and then you throw yourself on the mercy of the same universe that just took your grandfather, trusting that you are safe in your youth, or idealism, or that the universe will respect your courage.

If I chose a theme for my trip, it would be Mathew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” Because that is what happened over and over. It is the most miraculous thing that despite being poor and alone, I was never without for long.

My trip started in Atlanta. I flew into Charlotte, North Carolina, where I waited for eight hours to board my flight to Gatwick, the smaller airport south of London. For most of the day, I entertained myself reading or chatting on Facebook. I was riding the adrenaline high of a first real adult thing, a first big independent step, a first irresponsible, spontaneous, impractical adventure in the life of a shy worrier.

It was in the airport, two hours before my flight, that I met Gary by offering him my power outlet for his laptop. At first he seem wary of me. I told him about my trip, and I was the opposite of everything I’ve ever been: open, funny, enthusiastic, unabashed. I was charismatic. Before my eyes, he transformed. All of his barriers disappeared and he opened himself wide, explaining how it was his anniversary and he was on his way home to his wife in New Jersey. As he left to board his plane, Gary turned back to me and said, “I never do this, but my name is Gary P–. Look me up on Facebook. I want to know how things turn out. I am so excited for you!”

I had lived with this body and mind for 25 years, but I had never known that side of myself. I am likable. I am fun. Have I always been those things deep inside?

The room in the airport grew more and more crowded. As the people poured in, panic began to trickle in, too. What was I doing sitting in an airport in N.C.? What was I doing boarding a plane to England? I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t spent enough time packing. What if I had forgotten something? What if I didn’t have enough money?

And the only What if that really mattered, What if I was disappointed?

An Indian man sat down next to me and I offered him my power outlet (the best way to make a friend in an airport outside of bringing a power strip). I tried to hide the fear growing inside. “You seem upset,” he said.

Again, I was open and unabashed. I told him what I was doing, and I explained the first hurdle I faced: “I booked a flight into Gatwick instead of Heathrow to save money. I know I can take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station, but from there I have to find Kensington, and I have no idea where in London that is. And then even if I find Kensington, I have to find my hotel. I’ve never been on a subway. I don’t honestly know what I’m doing. I ought to just go home. I can’t do this.”

“Kensington, you say?” Like a technologically-proficient guide on my Joseph Campbell journey, the man pulled up Google and searched for a Tube map. “It looks confusing, but it is color-coded. I will save this to my flash drive and then you will save it to your hard drive.” He traced the map with his finger. “Not too many stops.”

I thanked him and saved the map. Then he pulled out a sheet of paper and scribbled a name and number. “This is my friend. If you get into trouble, call him. Tell him I sent you. He will have a spare room for you.”

The world suddenly seemed quite small when a man from the other side of the globe could offer me a room in a land I had never been to. And although my worry did not fade, a steely sense of peace took root in my spine. I had asked–it had been given–the one thing I had wanted: an assurance that the universe was benevolent to young wanderers.

Posted in British Isles Tour, Travels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Steves Steal Toilet Paper

The Steves had been working on our house for four months. They began by hanging siding crookedly, piddled around with yard work (mostly hacking down decorative trees and digging random holes, because their landscaping skills were as phenomenal as their construction skills), and finally, for reasons unknown to anyone with any sense, my landlady then hired them to tear down the sunroom and create two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a screened porch on the back of the house. As mentioned before, these rooms were not legal; to save money our landlady never bothered to get a permit for anything other than the siding. And because they were illegal, much of the work happened at strange times. One morning, I awoke at 5:30 to Steve nearly falling off the roof of my bedroom. Another time Katya and I thought we were being robbed when we caught the Steves trying to smuggle supplies into the backyard at 11:30 PM.

By this point, the Steves had stolen my potted plants and Elaine’s laundry detergent. As they continued botching jobs and imposing on our lives, we increasingly lost patience with them.

One evening, shortly after we were visited by the fugitive with the bloody arm, I came home from a late evening class. It was about 10:45, and no one was supposed to be home but me: Taylor was with her boyfriend, Elaine had gone to stay with a friend, and Sam had not yet moved in. However, when I reached the driveway, I saw the living room light was on. Figuring someone had changed plans, I unlocked the front door to find three enormous men hauling furniture out of our house.

I’m not usually a bold person, but I guess I was in shock, because instead of running away and calling the police, I asked very loudly, “Excuse me, but what are you doing with my couch?”

The men stared at me, obviously as surprised by me as I was by them. Just then, Steve emerged from a bedroom. When he saw me, he looked startled. “Hey! This is my new crew. They’re here to help with the bathrooms.” He was beaming, probably because he now had more people to verbally abuse and blame for his construction mishaps.

I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s great,” I said, wondering how much more damage six Steves would do than three. Given a month, the house might not be standing at all. “But you can’t take the couch. There are still three of us living here and we need the furniture. We can rearrange it for you if you want, but it has to stay.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught Steve’s wife trying to slip out with her arms full of something wrapped in plastic, but she disappeared too quickly behind the new men. Everyone seemed uncomfortable.

“People are living here?” one of the additional men asked under his breath. I couldn’t blame him for being surprised. At this point, only half the house had siding, some of the windows and window frames and had been wrenched out, large portions of the yard were either dug up or piled with small trees and branches the Steves had destroyed, and the sunroom had been completely removed, meaning the French doors in the living room that had led into my bedroom now led to a three-foot drop into the crawl space.

“Yes, there’s three of us, and we use the couch all the time. We use all of this furniture all the time.”

“We were just rearranging,” Steve said awkwardly. “We had to bring in our supplies.” He nodded to a large, outdoor ladder (that would remain in our living room for six months) and motioned for the men to put the couch down.

“Are you going to be working right now?” I asked.

I heard a toilet flush, then watched Steve Jr. emerge from the bathroom carrying a roll of toilet paper in his hand.

“We were just packing up,” big Steve said hurriedly. “Don’t want to hold you up–getting late.”

The three new workers turned and left quickly, followed by Steve and little Steve. Everyone clambered into his battered, blue truck and Steve took off through the yard, tearing up the grass and leaving the back doors open.

For a moment, I stood assessing the damage. The white carpet Mrs. G. had sneaked in one afternoon was littered with muck from under the house. The furniture was all askew. Too tired to clean up now, I walked to the French doors to close them. The lock was new; the lock on the door when I had lived in the now-gone bedroom did not work, but this one did. However, the Steves had put the lock on backward and left the key on the outside of the door.When there had been a bedroom behind the doors, this backward lock made sense, but now that the bedroom had been demolished, this meant that our entire house was accessible to everyone outside, including stalker neighbors, fugitives, or the dog fighters who lived next door.  

I lost it. I called Mrs. G. and demanded the Steves return and flip the lock now. “I am not paying rent again until this lock is correct,” I said, knowing which buzzword would buy me action.

Twenty minutes later, the new construction workers returned, changed the lock for me, and apologized.

I was out for most of the next morning, but I returned to a small crisis. Upon entering the front door, I found Taylor sitting on the couch, distraught. “Do we have any toilet paper?” she asked.

“Is that Brittany?” a voice called through the bathroom door. “Hey, Brittany! It’s Nick. How’s it goin’? Hey, where do you keep the toilet paper?”

“Nick’s IBS is acting up,” Taylor said quietly, referring to her boyfriend.

“It’s in the bathroom closet, where it always is,” I said.

“I looked there. There’s not any here at all,” Nick called.

“There has to be. I just bought a huge family pack. And I think Elaine did as well. We couldn’t remember who bought it last, so we both bought some. There should be almost fifty rolls in there,” I replied.

“You guys must be crappin’ a ton because there isn’t ANY in here,” Nick yelled back. Taylor covered her face and sighed.

“Maybe Elaine put some in her bedroom. It probably didn’t all fit in the bathroom closet.” I took a quick peek in Elaine’s room, but no luck. Elaine walked into the house just as I left her bedroom. “Hey, where’s all the toilet paper?” I asked.

Elaine looked confused. “It’s in the bathroom closet, where we always put it.”

Then it hit me. “The Steves.” Taylor and Elaine looked at me questioningly. “They were here last night. Our packs of toilet paper–that must have been what Mrs. Steve was carrying outside.”

“Guys! I need something! What’s happening out there?” Nick called.

Elaine found some paper towels for Nick, but this happened during one of the gaps in our graduate assistant pay, so neither Elaine nor I could afford to buy more toilet paper. So until the end of the month, when we would be paid again, we spent a lot of time other places and took home extra napkins from restaurants. Eventually, Elaine’s then-boyfriend took pity on us and bought us a pack to carry us through.

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