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White Collar Crimes

My hands are starting to ache and lose their strength from typing all the time.

bandaged hands on keyboard

gotta be nicer to them.

Doctor again today, first time in over a year. I had a list of complaints. My skin is developing scaly patches at my hips and shoulders; my heart periodically takes big gulps of whatever it’s swimming in and frightens me; I have back pain like someone hit me between the shoulders with a mallet. I didn’t tell him about my hands. I didn’t want to sound like a hypochondriac.

He showed me how to do exercises for my back, and then he sat down and wrote me out a series of prescriptions so long it was almost comical: muscle relaxant, painkiller, EKG, echocardiogram, bloodwork to follow up on the discovery last year that I was anemic, physical therapy. I was glad I finally have health insurance again. I wondered what he’d get out of the deal. The faces of my very good and earnest friends who are going through med school right now came to my mind.

He asked me if I was feeling any stress. Kind of a stupid question to ask anyone these days. He raised his pen over his prescription pad again. I said not really.

The URL will not be ready for the launch of our website tomorrow at work, which means the press release we’re sending out tonight will be wrong. I take the blame, because it was me who panicked thinking nobody was going to do it on Tuesday, and re-assigned it to someone we had already agreed wasn’t going to do it.

It’s like every party I throw: I bollux the invitations, three people show up, and none of them know each other and it’s awkward. I thought I was improving at this because of the event coordination practice I’m getting. The website is not done; viewed from last Friday it appeared to be on the edge of completion, but it’s clear now it’s going to go on for another couple of weeks.

So is the article I’m writing about AmeriCorps. I told the editor today I wouldn’t have time to rewrite it. She knows my boss is at my back when I say this, telling me she needs me to work extra hours, scoffing from a position of some authority at my editor’s methods of dealing with this piece. Still my editor says Listen, just write an outline, and I know she means Write the whole thing. If she doesn’t mean that, I’ll still do it anyway, even though the first two drafts didn’t satisfy her and I know she’s likely to undo all my work again.

I want this article to be mine. I don’t want to share a byline. I had some good research in it, enough to feel like this clip could be some kind of ticket someplace. They’ve changed the thrust of this article twice, and I’m starting to feel like all that research was for nothing. I don’t trust myself to do any more interviews. Those quotes felt right on while I was gathering them, and if they don’t amount to anything, how can I trust my instincts?

I have a student I’m helping in the Bronx. She is thirteen and writes poetry, and by my schedule at least that means she’s ahead of the curve. She doesn’t use standard English, mostly, but her prose is lucid and wild. It’s about the fickle attentions of boys, and questions about the purpose of her life, and darkness, which she’s not totally sure is OK. She’s at that age where socialization to literature has only gotten through enough to leak references into her writing, not to impose itself on her form. Her ear for it is keen. She can hear a thesis even if it’s buried a couple hundred yards under. Words stick to her like iron filings on a magnet.

She interrupts my points about the proper form for quotations to ask things like How old do you have to be to write a book? It’s not that simple, I have to tell her. I explain literary magazines and MFAs and workshop circuits, and suggest she think about being a teacher. I don’t want to be a teacher, she says. And she does that thing which terrifies me where she says she doesn’t want to go to college because she’s tired of math and science and all she wants to do is write.

I was talking with her and her friend the other day about their high school prospects. I pushed for Stuyvesant, because I don’t know much about schools in New York but I hear it’s respectable and I have a good friend, a seasoned leftist, who went there. Her friend bobbled her skinny legs and humphed. They give you too much work there, she says.

Nobody at my high school would ever have said anything like this. People might have thought it, but to say it out loud would be taken as a defect of character.

This is not the first time I’ve heard sentiments like this, though. I have a very smart friend who grew up in a part of rural Maine where the schools were obviously crummy. He could have gotten into a boarding school downstate, but his parents, a nurse and a farmer-turned-mailman, would have been sad to have their children be away for so long.

(I don’t think sad is the right word there, but I don’t really know the right one, either.)

When I was in high school there was a rule that teachers could assign you up to one hour of homework a night. It was issued for the sake of humaneness. The scale of my mind is tipped towards a certain kind of justice, so I did the math. Classes lasted fifty minutes. An hour of homework from each class would more than re-create the school day in the evening, keeping you solidly at work until ten o’clock if you started when the last bell rang, and that didn’t count the extracurriculars that were supposed to look so good on a college application. I complained. The teachers looked at me blankly. The students looked at me blankly. My mother shrugged, and my father frowned.

I skipped my first class when I was in college. I took a bus with a friend so we could get books from another college’s library for papers we were writing. Greed and a petty kind of satiety. That was the year I started to feel like I was sinking, and breathing water.

The rule in my house was you do your homework first, and then play. There wasn’t time to play after my homework. I learned to steal time from myself. I met other people who did this in college. We made a ritual out of procrastination. Tonight I’m stealing from the AmeriCorps article; there will be no draft tomorrow. I’m shooting myself in the leg; it may well mean less payment for this article, which already had a dwindling dollars-an-hour ratio.

It makes more sense to steal a little air by sleeping in and being late to work. Steal / From work / Steal, steal from work, my favorite protest chant goes through my head as I add another rubber band to the ball I’m making. Steals the drifting molecules of my carpals back from the keyboard, too. Cease / Production / Cease, cease production.

After work yesterday my boss was holding her breath like she wanted to say something about my performance. In the elevator she told me I wasn’t cut out to be an editor and suggested maybe she’ll just have me continue to coordinate our press clubs. I don’t want to be an editor, I said; I hated being the college newspaper editor and having to be the one who stayed up until dawn because I actually cared that there were commas missing. I don’t like to manage people, but I can’t find a stable writing job which doesn’t require I do so. I need practice, I told her.

I want to play to your skills, she said.

I liked my job when I started it, because I was on top of everything, and got to try everything. I caught things before my boss realized they were slipping off her to-do list. I didn’t mind doing overtime because it was important work. My boss praised me just about every day. I was at least A-, like in high school. I’d rather not be perfect, you know? It offends God.

I think about a horse I read about when I was little, who powered a mill by walking around and around on a track, attached to a big crank. When the horse got too old they put it out in a pasture, where it nearly died of depression. Instead, it started walking a circular path in the grass.

I am your horse, I think when the boss speaks to me sharply. I walk in a circle, but it is a damn perfect circle and I don’t stop. I wish you’d recognize how thin the grass is.

James wrote to me tonight saying his tango teacher had been encouraging him to relax his upper body. “relaxing has an immediate emotional payoff,” he wrote. “it’s amazing.”

You’d think it was obvious, but it isn’t, to us. Is it right to send my student to Stuyvesant?


  1. stuy parent wrote:

    Stuy is an interesting place. Your kid will either go in crazy or come out that way.

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  2. stuy parent wrote:

    Stuy is an interesting place. Your kid will either go in crazy or come out that way.

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

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