On Coping Mechanisms, or Reflections on My First Auto Repair Job, Week 2

I posted this on Facebook last week, but forgot to post it here. So here it is; sorry for the delay!

 

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Lesser known fact: I’ve been writing characters with PTSD since before I knew what PTSD was.

I’ve just always had one or two characters running around in my novels (which I started writing in 5th grade) with some disastrous tragic past, who are now navigating a world where this is mostly not relevant to their everyday life, but just because it’s not relevant doesn’t mean it’s not always there, capable of snapping to the forefront if they see something, smell something, hear something, taste something. This just seemed to me like a perfectly logical way for a mind to cope with unthinkable amounts of stress and trauma while remaining functional that I had no idea that it was a diagnosable condition, and that some people don’t understand or even believe in things like triggers.

Of course, once I was a worldly 8th or 9th grader, I at some point learned of the existence of PTSD and did some research in the hope of writing my PTSD-afflicted characters in more authentic and realistic ways. But pretty much everything I found aligned just fine with the ways I was already writing the characters, based on the logic of how I perceived a person’s psyche would react to their sorts of situations. I had essentially deduced PTSD and some of the various manifestations of it: triggers, flashbacks, emotional outbursts, self-imposed isolation, frustration and self-loathing at the betrayal of one’s own body and mind, insomnia, insecurity over being perceived as weak because of it, undercurrents of anxiety at being unsure when/how bad the next attack could be, health issues outside of attacks (like high blood pressure), and coping mechanisms.

Lots and lots of coping mechanisms.

I personally did not begin to have anxiety issues until the past few years, and the outright panic attacks didn’t start until a couple of years ago. (I actually have a Facebook note — and post here — about when the first one happened and why, because of course I do.)

 

 

I usually don’t think about my own life in terms of coping mechanisms, because I don’t have PTSD/a diagnosed condition, and my anxiety attacks are usually so sporadic that I almost totally forget about them in between. This is not super great, because then when they hit me, every time, it feels like they’ve just come out of nowhere and that I don’t have the tools to deal with them, because I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis.

But after last week’s spate of repeated attacks with barely any respite between them, I couldn’t afford not to develop some tools for myself. Or at least to hone the ones that have lain dormant in the back of my brain. I mean, I think I do use these all the time, but unconsciously, automatically, and I think I need to start employing them in a more deliberate, methodical way, instead of just relying on my brain to kick in with them when I need it to, because clearly my brain is tired of being taken for granted and would appreciate a little jump start (#carjoke).

Years of writing PTSD-riddled characters has left me with a wealth of underutilized coping mechanisms just hanging around back there. I haven’t technically written any fiction in over a year, but over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent countless hours inside the heads of these characters, a headspace where coping mechanisms are second-nature; I’m sure they won’t mind if I borrow a few.

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So the idea behind the rest of this post is to compile some kind of list and explanations of various coping mechanisms that I’ve been using since my last panic attack. (It’s been a week and a half, for those keeping score at home; it’s been a fantastic week and a half, actually.) The list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, and of course not every technique is right for every situation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of flexibility here. Stress and anxiety are many-headed and adaptable monsters, and trying to counter with exclusively the same move over and over again is rarely going to stay effective. You have to set your phaser to a rotating frequency (#StarTrekjoke).

Exposure Therapy

Again, a technical term I only learned about wayyyyy after I’d been utilizing it for years. Basically, the way I cope with my fears is to bulldoze right through them.

I remember during my gap year in Israel before college, one of my classmates had one of those bags with so-called inspirational phrases slathered all over it, but the only phrase I remember was: “Do one thing a day that scares you.” And I started doing that, maybe not once a day, but once in a while, and I learned to think in terms of what scares me, which at that point in time was a lot of things. Like, talking to that teacher. Or approaching that classmate. Or asking that family if they could host me for a meal. Or going into the Chabad house to see what it was like. Scary stuff. Or at least, scary until you’ve done it once or twice. Then it’s easy.

I gradually graduated from tiny little fears to bigger and bigger ones. Distilled thought process: “This scares me. Why does it scare me? Do the reasons include ‘likely to cause bodily harm, financial disaster, or extensive emotional damage’? No? Then DO IT.”

Afraid to tell that really cute guy he’s cute? TELL HIM. Afraid to write that really personal essay? WRITE IT. Afraid to post it online? POST IT. Afraid to tell that guy you really want to date that you really want to date him? TELL HIM. Afraid to let those people see you without makeup? LET THEM. Afraid to perform at that Open Mic? PERFORM AT IT. Afraid to go to that party where you might not know anyone? GO TO IT. Afraid to start a conversation with a stranger on a train? START IT. Afraid to hang out with that person from the internet that you barely know? HANG OUT WITH THEM. Afraid to travel alone and go hostel hopping for two weeks? DO IT. Afraid to let your new boyfriend see your vulnerabilities? LET HIM. Afraid to say hi to Kevin Bacon when you practically bump into him on the street? SAY HI TO KEVIN BACON; IT’S FRIKKING KEVIN BACON.

 

HI KEVIN BACON!!
HI KEVIN BACON!!

 

All of these things — the more you do them, the less scary they become. At least for me. (Kevin Bacon is super nice, tbh.) I can’t tell you that the fear always goes away entirely, because in certain areas, it definitely does not. But if you know you’ve faced a fear in the past and lived, it’s easier to face it again in the present.
People I know have at times referred to me as “fearless.” That is categorically false, of course. I just have a compulsive need to face my fears, conquer them, beat them into submission. Sometimes this is a bad strategy and results in me damaging my mental health by forcing myself into situations that I ought to have walked away from rather than trying to beat. As I’ve noted in the past, a tactical retreat is not cowardice. But it runs counter to my need not to be controlled by my fears, so sometimes I err on the side of recklessness.

But essentially what I’m saying here is that when that horrible empty feeling and subsequent panic attacks made me afraid to go back to work, I instinctively felt that the only viable path open to me was to GO BACK TO WORK.

 

Identification and Verbal Acknowledgement

One of my greatest talents is my ability to wordify my thoughts. Sometimes this is easier than other times, because honestly sometimes I don’t have thoughts; I just have feelings. Sometimes a feeling will put the whammy on me in the span of a split second — between one bite of my meal and another, I can go from ravenously hungry to losing my appetite completely. It happened a lot last week. I would feel fine and then BAM. The cliched description of it is “that sinking feeling” in your gut, but it’s really more like “that sudden sheer drop off the Cliffs of Insanity feeling” (#PrincessBrideJoke) (#whyamihashtaggingallmyreferences #idontknow #cantstopwontstop)

And because that kind of dramatic loss of appetite and sheer drop feeling is often a precursor to an anxiety attack for me, my immediate reaction when I’m caught unawares is, “Oh god oh god it’s happening again oh god I don’t know what to do what do I do what do I do whatdoIdoWHATDOIDO????” And of course a thought process like THAT is just magnifying the unknowns in the situation, rather than focusing on what I do know. Known quantities are inherently more calming than unknowns. In the opening of the most recent Hunger Games movie, the heroine Katniss Everdeen is shown rocking back and forth, whispering, “Start with what you know. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I survived the Hunger Games,” etc. This is not just handy exposition but a very real way of coping with PTSD, from which Katniss most certainly suffers.

I’ve found it helpful to verbally identify the known factors as specifically as possible. I’ve obviously done this a lot through my writing, but writing is for when I have a chance to sit down and compose eloquent paragraphs of thoughts after having had some time to reflect and ponder and ruminate, which is not the case most of the time. In the moment, my thoughts are scrambled and fragmented, and I need to grasp at all the straws and pull as many of them together as I can. And it helps to whisper it to myself, to say it aloud. For instance:

“I just lost my appetite. I don’t know exactly why. I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling anxious because I lost my appetite and I don’t know why. And my throat is closing up and it’s getting harder to breathe and swallowing is making me nauseous and I don’t know if I’m going to throw up. But feeling anxious made me lose my appetite in the first place. So all this other stuff is definitely adding to the anxiety, but I’m anxious about something else too.”

And then I have to be honest with myself about what is scaring me at the moment. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but honesty is hard. But I have to be brutally honest with myself; I can’t pretend to be better than my fears, no matter how much I wish I were, because I can never deal with them if I can’t admit them, and my gut knows when I’m lying (and often when other people are lying) and has a violent aversion to it.

Sample:

“I’m anxious because I don’t feel happy. I don’t know if this job is right for me. Imagining a future of doing this feels suddenly suffocating and I don’t know what I want anymore. And I’m afraid that means that one of my exes was right, that this isn’t for me, and I really really don’t want him to have been right. And I’m afraid that maybe that other friend of mine was right and that the reason I’m unhappy is because I think I’m better than this. And I don’t want to think like that; I don’t want to be that person. I’m afraid that the only jobs that will satisfy me are the really mentally challenging and exhausting and impossible ones, and I’m afraid that I’m scared to try them because I’m afraid to fail. And I’m afraid that succeeding still might not make me happy.”

Admitting that I was unhappy was a hard thing to do, which clearly meant that it was a major key. (Back to exposure therapy: often the more difficult something is, the more you need to face it.) Same thing with acknowledging that walking away might be my best choice, and to forgive myself for it if it was.

“It’s okay to walk away from this. I have a college degree, I have a wide support system, I have money in the bank, I have no debt, I have plenty of time, I have options.”

And what unexpectedly helped me a lot was when I calculated how much I would earn at this job, at this rate of pay and the number of hours I’m willing to work, and it turned out to be only around 11 or 12 thousand dollars a year (post tax), which is clearly not a sustainable rate of pay to cover NYC rent, insurance, cell phone bills, food, potential car payments, retirement funds, etc, and that hammered home for me how very very temporary this is, and how there’s no need to envision a suffocating future when this is obviously not going to be it. So for my first day back at work this week, whenever that chokey sinking feeling started to hit, my mantra was:

“I’m unhappy right now, but that’s okay because this is not forever. I can leave anytime I want.”

(That’s how I tend to get through synagogue services, by the way, by reassuring myself that I can leave whenever I want. And sometimes I do. So far, I haven’t come close to leaving my job early, but knowing that I can makes everything so much easier.)

And that chokey sinking feeling has all but gone away as my mind has begun to internalize how transitory this job is. A fun detour is much more enjoyable than a necessary stepping stone. And maybe eventually I’ll come to enjoy it enough that it will change from a detour back into a stepping stone and I’ll rise through the ranks of this profession. But that’s not something I need to know right now.

Support System

Don’t be afraid to fall on your support system — hard. It’s tough to reach out to people. It’s tough to admit that you need help. But if you have a support system, if you have good friends, if you have family who you’re on decent terms with — utilize them. Talk to them. Open up about what you’re going through, even if you’re still struggling to put it all together to make sense of whatever it is you’re feeling.

For me, a lot of people were asking “HOW IS WORK??” and I couldn’t tell them; I just didn’t know how. There was too much and it was too confusing to explain in conversation. But I told most of them, it’s complicated, I have a lot of thoughts, I need to write a post to figure it all out. And anyone who knows me even a little understands that. And once I got that post up, I could send it to any of my friends who asked, and then they’d have a reference point and we could move forward from there into commiseration, support, brainstorming, etc.

It’s just hard to explain it from scratch every single time, but I wanted to be able to seek support; I didn’t want to isolate myself and sink further and further into the quagmire in my own head, because that would just suck and compound the problem.

If telling people scares you, you know what I’m gonna say: DO IT. EXPOSURE THERAPY, KIDDO. If the friends you tell freak out and reject you, they weren’t your friends. GET NEW FRIENDS.

Also: It’s good to get outside perspectives, but you don’t have to listen to everyone’s advice. Some friends are better at being supportive than others. You probably have a sense of which of your friends are best at that, and it’s probably best to seek the bulk of your support from them. You probably also know some people who are well meaning but frequently give terrible advice, or advice that simply doesn’t apply to you, and it’s fine to ignore those people and not ask for their opinions. And some people who are just plain awful and toxic and you should avoid them at these times at all costs. And some people are wild cards; you don’t know how they’ll react — they might give great advice, or they might have no frakking clue and say all the wrong things, so they probably shouldn’t be your first line of defense. But people can surprise you and sometimes great support can come from places you least expect if you take a chance on it. (Parents are often wild cards, I think. But I was in bad enough shape last week that I actually reached out to them, and it worked out.)

Lastly, cast a wide net for support. Don’t dump everything on one or two people. They can be the best people ever, but you can have the strongest trampoline ever and if the Hulk drops out of the sky in stiletto heels and lands on it at full combat drop speed, it’s gonna puncture.

“For the last time, we did not order a giant trampoline!”
“For the last time, we did not order a giant trampoline!”

 

Spread the weight around if you can. Talk to a core group of people you trust rather than just a couple of individuals. Don’t be so exclusive that the other person feels like they’re your sole source of support and that if they drop the ball, whatever happens to you will be their responsibility. It’ll be better for you and it will be better for them if you have multiple support beams and layers in your trampoline.

Sensory Distractions

When I’m in the midst of a full-on attack, the previous things on this list are not necessarily going to help me. When my body just flat-out decides to rebel with almost no warning, I can’t just think myself out of it; that’s not how it works. I have to find ways to distract myself so that my body can have the time it needs to reboot itself, or at least calm its systems or metabolic rate or whatever it is that’s going haywire.

(By the way, you might not always be able to tell that I’ve had an attack or am fending off another one just by looking at me; I’m pretty good at hiding it when that’s happening, if I want to. Unless I am puking. That’s hard to hide. But like, this picture was taken less than an hour after I threw up and probably at least 12 hours before I was physically able to eat again:

I’m on the right. That’s how pale I always am.
I’m on the right. That’s how pale I always am.

 

So yeah. Just thought I’d mention that.)

I need things to pull me out of my own head when I’m in a bad place, otherwise my thoughts will just burrow further into my brain and spiral down, down, down. I need to find things that stimulate my senses, but without triggering me further — for example, a strong smell is more likely to make me throw up than distract me, but a radio broadcast of a baseball game will form a protective cushion around my brain and stop me from spiralling.

It sometimes helps to leave the lights on at night because in the dark it’s just me and my thoughts. It sometimes helps to walk around outside and look at everything and distract myself with motion and sound. It sometimes helps to stay as still as possible and focus on my breathing. It sometimes helps to watch TV; it sometimes helps to read. It sometimes helps to talk to other people; it sometimes helps to be away from everything and just sleep. It’s extremely variable, and I have to pay attention to my body’s reactions and see what’s working at that moment and what isn’t.

This is very similar to the next item on my list, which is…

 

Positive Triggers (Soothers) (Not to be confused with a particular type of allomancer from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy)

I don’t have a lot of these, unfortunately. Finding them means being on the lookout, paying extremely close attention to anything that calms me, even in the most microscopic ways. I doubt I’ll ever find something that positively triggers me as dramatically as anything that can negatively trigger me, but little pieces of calm in a storm have their uses too.

For example, a kid I babysit for recently gave me yet another Livestrong bracelet. It’s multicolored, and one of the colors is what my brain dubs cyan, because I know obscure colors like that. It’s a kind of pastel turquoise, I guess. And I noticed that for the split second that my eyes glanced over that cyan patch of silicon, sandwiched between the yellow and the fusia on the band, I felt just the tiniest bit calmer, more relaxed. Apparently very small doses of cyan is soothing to me. Large doses seem to lose their impact, but tiny ones, well, they seem to help. It’s the only bracelet I wear at work now, so that in the constant dusty grey of the repair shop I can glance at it for a second for a miniscule pick-me-up.

Other things that soothe me: Petting my giant stuffed tiger or cuddling with it. Being in my own bed. Taking off a layer (or more) of my clothes so that my skin can breathe better. Wrapping myself in a blanket or a towel. Entering the mind of a character during a scene I’ve been writing in my head that constitutes a particularly serene moment for him/her. Writing a post about coping mechanisms.

Stories

I started putting this in the Soothers section but I’m not sure it really fits there so I gave it its own subheader.

See, I think this second week at work made me realize yet again that the crux of what makes life interesting and worthwhile to me are people and their stories. Let’s face it, the main thing I got out of automotive school was not knowledge of cars. Sure, I got that too, but that feels like small potatoes compared to the vast canvas of human experience that I got a chance to see and learn about by being in that environment.

I think that my first week on the job, I was so intent on being a good little worker that I was all business all the time, just going from task to task to task, so that by the end of each day, I had a lot of tasks accomplished, but no stories to tell. And to me that felt like a worthless existence. I mean, I can tell you how I changed oil, but that’s an instruction manual, that’s not a story.

This second week, I chilled out a little, didn’t focus so intently on the work to the exclusion of all else, largely because I was working on telling myself that this is not where I’m going to end up, that this is temporary, that my entire life and future does not hinge on my success at this job, so it’s okay to relax a little. I actually sat down and ate my lunch, for example, instead of just skipping it or devouring it in five seconds and heading back to work. I took things slower, I observed more. I paid more attention to the dynamics of the shop and the workers.

I think that because I slowed down and was also less new, the guys in shop started feeling more comfortable chitchatting with me, asking me questions, but mostly giving me their opinions on how things work around here. Everyone has an opinion on everyone else and their style of work, and they’re all willing to tell me about it, not knowing that everyone they’re talking about has been talking to me about them. This guy thinks everyone else is incompetent and phony. That guy thinks the other techs have no finesse and take no pride in their work. This guy thinks one of the bosses is incredibly patient and has never seen him raise his voice in all the years they’ve worked together. That guy tells me that two of the techs constantly bitch and moan about the smell of the paint fumes from the body shop section, but that they’ve miraculously stopped complaining since I’ve been around, because “they don’t want to seem like a lady in front of a lady.” (Oh, casual misogyny, you make the best stories.)

I think my mind is happiest when I am occupied with day to day work, but at the same time piecing together another canvas that no one knows I’m working on. I wouldn’t want that canvas to be my primary focus; I wouldn’t want to approach it like that was my job, like I’m a journalist, asking questions, interviewing, investigating. I’d hate that. I like learning by osmosis, in bits and pieces, not through the things that people want to tell me, but by the things I figure out from experience and observation.

That’s what makes life feel worthwhile to me by the end of the day.

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There was actually another subheader on this list, but holy hell this is long so I’m gonna cut it short. If you read all the way to the end, I’m very impressed and I appreciate it a ton. I hope you got something out of it.

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My Year-In-Review, via Facebook Statii

It is way too much work to think back over this whole year and construct some kind of coherent narrative and write it all out for a serious, heavy-duty year-in-review. So instead I’m just gonna take the first and last Facebook status of every month of 2014 and post them in one spot, with minimal commentary in fancy schmancy italics. I’m excluding links and pictures and famous quotes and whatnot that aren’t just pure nuggets of wisdom straight from me. Enjoy?


 

January 1st

So, Wolf of Wall Street? Basically makes me want to go and hug everybody I know and be like, “OH MY GOD I AM SO GLAD YOU ARE NOT JORDAN BELFORT.” Oh, and DiCaprio better win the Oscar.

lolololol oscar hahahaha
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January 30th

If I were to have a “What I Be” portrait done, I think I’d have “vampire” “acne” “makeup” and “smile lines” (with arrows) written on my face, with the caption: “I am not my skin.” And no, I’m not posting this for attention or validation. I’m posting this solely to annoy Rafi Skier.

Because *reasons.* Also, ha, remember that photography project? That happened.


 

February 2nd 

BAD. IT. IS. SO. BAD. ‪#‎SuperBowl‬

Nuff said.
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February 27th

Please keep my friend and radio mentor Philip Rosenberg in your prayers, because he suffered a medical emergency today and is a devout atheist, so being prayed for would probably piss him off enough to get better so that he could yell at me.

Phil is doing just fine, yay! Proof there is a god! Suck it, Phil! (Also no we are not related. Thanks for asking.)


 

March 3rd

Another year, another zero Oscars for Leonardo DiCaprio. Dude is probably going to get a lifetime achievement award before anyone will give him an Oscar.

Whaddaya know.
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March 31st

Why SM will never be a relationship counselor, episode 4567:

Friend: “Stop getting all the men to fall in love with you! Sheesh”
Me: “I’m a heartbreaker. It’s what I do.”
Him: “Yea, I know.”
Me: “you are lucky enough to be immune to whatever it is about me that hooks these poor suckers”
Him: “I thank Jesus for it every day.
My immunity means that I’ve messaged approximately 5 profiles on two websites in the last year, because the rest are boring.”
Me: “move to mongolia or something. People seem more alluring if you can’t understand what they’re saying.”

See, what did I tell you? Nuggets of wisdom. EVERYWHERE.


 

April 1st

Note to self: the axiom “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” was invented for days like today. (Except for the outrage over the How I Met Your Mother finale. I think it’s safe to believe that.)

APRIL FOOLS DAY AMIRITE?? Still have not watched the last couple seasons of HIMYM. But I know I would hate the finale if I ever did. Because ewwwww.
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April 30th

Why SM Will Never Be a Supervillain, Episode 93:

Friend: “So-and-so thinks you hate her.”
Me: “What? Why would she think that?”
Him: “I have no idea. I went to great pains to explain to her that SM doesn’t muster the energy to hate anybody.”
Me: “Seriously. Way too much effort.”

This was later amended in the comments (after other motivations for being a supervillain were presented) to more specifically: “Why SM Will Never Be Slade Wilson, Aside From his Awesome Goatee and Accent, Obviously.”


 

May 1st
Kid I babysit for: “I want you to join Minecraft. Because I want you to come live in this world with me, because I don’t like being the only person in this world.”

Me: “But couldn’t anyone else keep you company too?”
Him: “But I want YOU to live in it.”
Me: “Why me?”
Him: “Because I know you well and I really really want you to live in this world with me.”

I feel like I was just proposed to by a nine-year-old.

Winning ’em over while they’re young, that’s me.
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May 31st
Another Heights shabbos gone — big thanks to everyone who invited me for meals, hung out with me, said hi, and especially to Galit Wernick for hosting me, listening to me explain how engines work, asking me to read “Something Borrowed” out loud for a hour or two, and agreeing to watch “The Normal Heart” with me tonight. Shavua Tov!
Galiiiiiiiit ❤ ❤ ❤
The Normal Heart 😦 😦 😦

 

June 2nd

Things nobody tells you about the differences between automotive school and a liberal arts college: An abbreviated, commonly used form of the word “transmission” is “tranny.” I still get whiplash hearing people throw that word around in a completely inoffensive context.

Yup. Still. Every time.
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June 30th
Out of context quote of the day: “Joanna, don’t miss the orgy. I can tell you where it is.” ~ Tamar Pacht
No, I will not tell you the context. YOU ARE CURSED TO WONDER.

 

July 2nd

omg I love ewoks they are best thing in all of cinematic history

Context and justification not required.
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July 31st

Today in “Questions Never Asked of Male Automotive Students” —

Instructor (apropos of nothing): “Do you know how to make apple pie?”
Me: “No.”
Him: “Do you know how to make cheesecake?”
Me: “Nope.”
Him: “Oh. See, I want to find out how to make them so that I can tell my wife how to make them.”
Me: “Google. Google knows everything.”

Unpack the sexism, people. Unpack. Go.

Also happy birthday Harry Potter!

 

August 2nd
It occurred to me this week that I am starting to become afraid to be a Jew in much the same way I am afraid to be a woman. I, as a woman, know that obviously not all men are rapists or misogynists, but I also know (from experience and from studies and history and well-documented events) that far too many are, and therefore I am instinctively cautious and apprehensive of most men I don’t know. And similarly, I, as a Jew, know that obviously not all people are anti-Semites, but I also know (from current events and experience and studies and history) that far too many are, and therefore am starting to become instinctively cautious and apprehensive of most people I don’t know. ‪#‎persecutioncomplex‬
Oh god the Gaza war. Let’s not do that again. (Ha. As if.)
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August 31st
Dear body, you can sleep late on Sundays. Really. It’s okay. Sincerely, I DIDN’T GET TO SLEEP UNTIL 2 AM LAST NIGHT WHY AM I AWAKE
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

 

September 1st

So Labor Day is about honoring the blue collar workers? Honor me, people. I expect groveling.

Ahem. Still waiting.

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September 30th

It will never not be creepy when guys I’ve never had class with and never spoken to call out to me by name when I walk by them in shop or in the hallways. Never. Ugh, so creepy.

*curls into fetal ball*

 

October 2nd

Signs you’re an auto mechanic student: You cringe every time you see a Chrysler Town and Country because the hood is too short so half the engine compartment extends under the dash and is a nightmare to work on. *shudders*

THE HORROR.
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October 30th

Baby brother: “You’re going to school today?”
Me: “Yup!”
Him: “You know, a wizard could probably fix cars REALLY EASILY.”

‪#‎facts‬

little brothers always ruining everything


 

November 2nd

boston y u have such bad weather also y r u in boston. ugh boston. no me gusta. Awesome people though. Jacquie Chana Yocheved Wolpoe better come back to NYC soon or — or…I’ll just have to visit again, I guess.

but for real Boston sucks so much

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November 28th

These Black Friday taglines of “The more you spend, the more you save!” are shorting out my logic circuits. That is literally not true. Stop it, internet.

although thank goodness for Black Friday because who knows if I’d have a tool set without it

 

December 1st

Things that frustrate me: the fact that we have the technology to land a probe on a comet but not to pack chips into a bag in such a way that the settling won’t result in 2/3 of a bag of air. ‪#‎darncapitalists‬

And don’t tell me the bag is the technology keeping the chips from being crushed. If there was any financial incentive to fit more chips in a bag, they’d find a way.
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December 31st
?????????????????????

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Girl in Automotive School: On Symbolism

 

The High Holidays of Judaism always arrive at around this time of year: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed quickly by the less High but still 8-day long Holiday of Sukkot (7 days if you live in Israel).

 

And I’ve noticed this year, maybe even more than any other year, just how much each of these is rife with symbolism. There are unusual fruits eaten with their own brief prayers relating their metaphoric significance or at least puns about them and how they relate to the blessings we hope to have this year. There is apple dipped in honey for a sweet new year. There is round challah bread to symbolize the circle of life. On Yom Kippur, it’s a common custom to wear white to signify a fresh start. And don’t even get me started on all the things a sukkah may or may not symbolize.

 

Sometimes a sukkah is just a sukkah? Nope, never.

 

I’m not going to deny that symbolism can have great power, that seeing a physical manifestation or reminder of an emotional truth can be very effective. However, I think it’s largely true that the symbols that have the most power to us are not the ones that are passed down to us (not to say that there’s anything wrong them), but rather, the ones that we create for ourselves.

 

I am no stranger to making my own symbols. I’ve been choosing certain actions based on their metaphorical resonances since long before Augustus Waters made it cool.

 

[Side note: I recall reading a review of The Fault in Our Stars movie and the reviewer scoffed at Augustus’s cigarette metaphor, saying that it barely worked in the book and certainly doesn’t work on screen, and to that I say, “BAH. There’s nothing to ‘work’ or ‘not work’ about it. Either you acknowledge that there are people who create symbols for themselves or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, you’re wrong.” We may be unbearably pretentious but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist!]

 

For instance, a while back I took to wearing a fake engagement ring, first as a social experiment and then, as explained here, as a symbol to myself of all the times I have felt most wanted, chosen, or loved, by classmates, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, family, etc.

 

Lately, I’ve taken to wearing another kind of ring for symbolic purposes.

 

There is symbolism in my choice of hand pose and background posters as well. I’m just so symbolic.

 

The ring is a clamp from the inner tie rod of a car that we worked on in class. (Tie rods are what connect the tires to the car’s rack-and-pinion, which is attached to the steering gear and moves to the right and to the left to steer the car. Not important! Well, no, very important, but not in regard to this post.) Point is, it’s a piece of a car and I turned it into a ring. I even coated the outside with clear nail polish so that it would be shiny.

 

The symbol has a couple of major layers, which I was very conscious of while choosing it:

 

  • It takes something stereotypically masculine (car part) and turns it into something stereotypically feminine (shiny ring). This is important to me because it helps me fight my internalized misogynistic thinking that anything feminine or girly or pretty is inherently inferior or weak or useless. These are constructs that are pushed onto us constantly and — while this may surprise you, given my affinities for bright clothes and makeup — I am still deprogramming myself from my aversion to anything girly.

 

  • I made a very conscious choice to wear it on my left ring finger, where it is customary to wear an engagement and/or wedding ring. I did this even though occasionally my fingers swell up a bit and it might make more sense for me to wear it on a pinky finger or even the ring finger of my right hand, which may be slightly narrower. But I didn’t want to, because I absolutely want that symbol of commitment for myself. That this is what I am dedicating my life to right now. That even when it’s overwhelming, or I’ve had a bad day full of sexism and frustration, or when it’s a long weekend and school feels far away and it may feel easier to slip backward into a more conventional career, this nail-polished piece of metal around my finger provides a physical, tangible reminder for why I won’t do that.

 

I lost it a couple weeks ago, and I felt naked without it; kept tightening my fingers or reaching my thumb over to my ring finger to feel the ring but it wasn’t there, and I felt unsettled and anxious, like I’d lost an anchor, like I was loosing my grip on my commitment. It’s irrational, but that’s how much power symbols can have. I totally understood why Augustus would risk his life to get another pack of cigarettes to replenish his anchoring metaphor and regain his equilibrium.

 

bonus John Green
excuse to post gif of Augustus Waters being adorable

 

What was worse than losing it, though, was the way I lost it: I took it off to wash my hands before eating bread, as per the Jewish custom, and I forgot it by the water fountain where I washed. This was because the water fountain is in a fairly small, semi-isolated nook of the school and I don’t like being in that nook for any longer than necessary, because I can’t help but be aware of the fact that out of anyplace in the school building, that is the easiest one in which to overpower a girl. It’s not like it’s ideal for that — if I screamed they’d totally hear me in the shop — but it’s definitely not the most comfortable place to linger. So I get jumpy when I’m there, and as a result, forgot to put my ring back on and by the next day, it had been cleared away.

 

And I hated the symbolic significance of how I’d lost it — letting sexism and fear push me around to the point where my behavior was affected and I lost something valuable to me — I hated that even more than I hated losing it, and so I desperately wanted to replace it, to erase that negative energy and make sure it never happened again. Luckily, I take home lots of spare odds and ends from shop, and I found another inner tie rod clamp in my small collection, and that’s the one I currently wear.

 

So the symbolism on this one is three-fold. Better not lose it.

 

 

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Girl in Automotive School: Injury Edition

 

Last week, someone got hurt in class.

 

He spent half an hour lying on the floor, whimpering into silence.

 

No, it wasn’t some horrific accident like the kind my parents worry about happening to me — no hands were caught between engine pulleys or transmission gears and ground into a bloody pulp.

 

The guy fell out of the trunk of a car.

 

For real. That’s what happened.

 

You see, our shop assignment that day [CAR SPEAK ALERT] was to remove a component of the car’s rear suspension, a part called the strut (a spring combined with a shock absorber), to be exact. Struts are positioned vertically behind the wheels of cars. They go up in a fairly straight line from behind the wheel right up to the bottom of the car body.

 

It’s the black springy thingy behind the wheel.

 

This means that while the bottom bolts of the strut are accessible by reaching underneath the car, the top of the strut is bolted to the car itself, and therefore the bolts are generally INSIDE the car, fastening it there. We dug around and eventually found the top bolts inside the trunk, underneath the carpet in the shadowy inner corner.

 

Some groups got access to the bolts by going through the rear passenger seats. But the best angles for ratcheting and unscrewing the bolts could only be achieved by climbing into the trunk and working in there.

 

So that’s what this guy had been doing. Since other teams were also working on the bottom parts of their struts at the same time, all the cars we were using were on lifts, elevated a few feet off the ground. Not sure how high exactly; maybe 3 feet? Not exactly Mt. Everest, but requiring moderate levels of coordination for ascent and descent.

 

And this guy botched it. Twisted his knee and wound up on the floor, drawing the attention and curiosity of the entire shop.

 

Full disclosure: I had been doing this exact same job. In fact, I was the one in the class who realized that going into the trunk was the best option, and since I am one of the few in class small enough and agile enough to comfortably fit in a trunk (put that on the ole resume), I jumped right in. And out. Several times over the course of the afternoon, to loosen this bolt and that bolt and “oh can you get this one too” and “what the hell, just take ‘em all out, you’re already in there” and then of course tightening all the bolts back up when we put the strut back on.

 

And not once did I injure myself hopping in and out of the trunk, because I am a ~graceful swan~ oh yes.

 

But this guy, either through clumsiness or sheer bad luck, managed to get himself hurt. There was a flurry of activity and sympathy at first: clustering around where he lay half-curled on the floor; fetching him an ice pack; fetching him a chair; helping him get into it — but by the fifteen-minute mark, after he’d abandoned the chair in favor of lying unmoving on the floor again, sympathy began to ebb among some of my classmates.

 

I heard one of my friends laughing around the toolbox with some of the other guys.

 

“What?” I asked.

 

“Nothing, just laughing at what a terrible person I am.”

 

“Oh really? Why?”

 

He lowered his voice a jot. “Look, he’s in pain. I get it. I’ve been there.” (For reference, this friend was awarded five — count ‘em, FIVE — Purple Hearts before being medically discharged from the Army after 15 years, and takes daily prescription painkillers for the injuries that still haven’t quite healed. He specializes in getting shot and blown up.) “But it’s like, come on, man, you don’t have to lie down on the floor; that’s a bit dramatic.”

 

I told him I was inclined to agree, because if I got hurt in class, no matter how bad it was, you know what I’d do? Hide it. Why? Because I’m a girl. And the minute anyone sees me show weakness in that kind of public way, that’s the last time anyone’s gonna take me seriously. I don’t care if that means I have to hole up in the bathroom until an ambulance gets there — there’s just too much credibility at stake for me to risk anyone seeing me in that sort of state. Lots of people already think I am weaker or less competent because I’m female; I can’t afford to give them anything that might reinforce their stereotyping.

 

This guy, on the other hand, could lie on the floor for an hour if he wanted and people are still going to think he’s better suited for this profession than I am.

 

The next day, I overheard him talking to his friends and it turns out he had pre-existing problems with his ACL, but like most guys in school, he can’t take the necessary time off to get surgery, even if he can afford to pay for it. So yeah, his injury and behavior make a bit more sense. But still.

 

Why does this matter so much to me? Well, I’m not especially physically strong. I’m not especially athletic. I have a family history of arthritis and a personal history of back problems, and I live in constant fear that they will rear their party-pooping heads and derail my fledgling career. Or that I will otherwise destroy myself physically. (The night before I started school, I had freakout to a friend which basically consisted of me going, “BUT WHAT IF I GET HURT?!” and her going, “You’re not going to get hurt,” and me going, “YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!” A barrel of laughs I was that night, yup yup.)

 

So I have to admit that it eats at me to know that there are guys in this industry who are just as physically damaged as I am, if not much more so, who are probably much more of a liability than I am, and yet people are going to look at that guy and infer “strong” but look at me and infer “weak.” Because, again, in case you forgot, I am a girl.

 

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

 

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More Stuff on Being a Girl in Automotive School

 

There were some things I didn’t cover in my last piece about my school experience so far. (For those who are curious about the academic front, I’m writing this on the day I took my first final and tomorrow I start a new class, and I don’t actually have a clue what subject it will be because the way things are done is that the class lists are pinned up on the bulletin board the DAY OF the new class, and that’s when you find out what subject it is and what classroom it’s in. Bizarro. In other news, I am a spoiled college kid.)

 

[UPDATE FROM THE FUTURE: My new class is Electronic Fundamentals or something to that effect, and we have shop in the morning with one instructor and classroom/theory in the afternoon with a different instructor, which makes zero sense from a student perspective, because the practical stuff we’re learning may or may not line up with what we’ll be tested on, since there’s no way to communicate exactly what each instructor is covering to the other and they don’t really coordinate. Oh well. I’m a smart cookie; I’ll figure it out.]

 

I don’t intend for this piece to be a huge essay, just some quick notes on what wasn’t covered last time, broken down into sections for your convenience!

 

 

Bathroom

 

There is one girls’ bathroom and one men’s bathroom for students. The girls’ bathroom has one toilet, one sink, one motion-sensing paper towel dispenser, and deliciously mango-scented air freshener. It is always locked, so girls have to go get a key from Student Services every day in order to open it. You can keep the key all day and return it after dismissal, but I forgot to do that on my first day, and now I just “forget” to do it, so I basically have my own key that I take to school every day so that I don’t have to constantly ask them for one. (Don’t worry; they have enough keys for the few girls in the program.) And the hassle of having to remember if I transferred the key from one uniform shirt to the other every day is so worth the peace of mind that comes with knowing that that bathroom is a heavenly slice of privacy.

 

It’s no secret that I love my solitude. The few minutes I spend in that bathroom each day are kind of my favorites. It can suck having to come out of it and promptly coming face to face with a dude who’s like, “Hey, beautiful,” which totally kills that wonderful bubble of comfort and privacy, but it’s also a place where I’ve run into some of the other girls in the program who needed to use the bathroom, and that’s great, because sisterhood, yo.

 

 

Clothes

 

We get button-down uniform shirts. Two of them for $46. With iron-on patches that can display our academic achievements.

 

The sizes on the paper that I could choose from at orientation were: Small, Medium, Large, XL, 2X, 3X, 4X, 5X, and 6X. So, unsurprisingly, the admissions guy’s immediate reaction to me was, “I can see if they can order you an extra small?” Which I shot down and tried on the small. It’s ginormous and fits my body in exactly no places, but I knew that extra small wouldn’t be any better because in point of fact, no one has yet invented a button-down shirt that fits a body that is as hourglassish as mine. Take your pick: Boobs or waist — you get to pick a shirt that fits one, not both. This one fit neither, being too baggy at the waist and too small at the chest. None of this is a complaint, by the way; by not fitting in any way, shape, or form, my shirt basically serves as a reminder to me about how tiny and curvy I am, which I cannot find a way to spin into being a bad thing. And anyhow, I ain’t going to automotive school to be a fashionista so whatEVER.

Everyone wears shirts or tank tops under their uniform shirts (except one guy who our instructor has dubbed “The Phantom” because of his habit of just disappearing during the school day for hours at a time but that’s another story) so it’s not a big deal that my shirt doesn’t close over my chest and I wear t-shirts underneath every day. It puts my t-shirt collection to good use, that’s for sure.

 

We don’t get uniform pants. This is only a thing of importance to me because I don’t own a single pair of jeans. I have like one pair of sweatpants and a few pairs of leggings, and mostly any other pants I have are pajama pants. Hashtag Orthodox Jewish Girl Problems. I asked at registration and was told that for safety reasons, as I assumed, skirts are not recommended. So I put a post up on facebook asking if any friends of mine had old jeans that they thought might fit me, and some friends responded, but I still don’t have jeans because it turns out that even though I am a 6-8 in skirts/dresses, I am apparently probably something like a 10-12 in pants. Like I said, hourglassish. So if you’ve got size 10-12 ladies jeans lying around, email them to me! Much appreciated.

 

Obama will give you a thumbs up. Cross my heart.

 

But this hasn’t really been a problem so far. The first few days, I came to school wearing sweatpants or leggings underneath one of those ankle-length black skirts that I almost never wear in real life, and after the classroom portion of the day (i.e. all morning) I pulled off the skirt and went to the shop in pants/leggings. But then one day I forgot to change and no one noticed and the instructor didn’t care, so I stopped wearing the extra layer underneath (because it is NYC in the summer, gah) and just wear the same ankle-length black skirt every day for class and shop and no one gives a hoot. If we ever do something that’s physical enough to require pants, of course I’ll wear them, but for now I’ll stick with skirts because they are way better in summer heat and most of my non-skirt bottoms are not fit to be seen in public. And they totally don’t match my uniform shirt. (One of my pairs of leggings is like purple and shimmery. Went with the oversized navy button-down shirt super well. Not.)

 

Also the shirt has pockets. They’re breast pockets but it’s not like the shirt fits me so stuff in the pockets doesn’t actually look weird; it’s just part of the overall sloppy-mechanic-mess-look. Which means I carry stuff in my pockets all the time. This is awesome.

 

POCKETS! *drool*

 

Despite all this lack of anything resembling fashion, I get looks and I get hit on with regularity, simply because I am female. This really hammers home the fact that there really isn’t that much you need to do, looks-wise, to get a guy’s attention. They’ll probably notice you exist just because you’re a girl. If you want to hold that attention (which I don’t in this case), that’s where personality comes in. (I know I am saying this from a position of body/overall attractiveness privilege, because I fit into certain conventions of beauty, and that’s unfair. But I do think that being female has a lot more to do with it in this situation than being attractive. I’m not that attractive, especially not in school; I’m just an object of curiosity.)

 

More about this in . . .

 

Makeup

 

I have this policy of wearing makeup for the first few days of any new class/semester, in college and now in automotive school. The theory is that if that’s how I make my first impression, whatever glamour that first impression creates will cling to me for the duration that those people know me. This is a theory that I completely made up and is entirely unscientific because I have not attempted to research it in the slightest, but I don’t need to, because confidence is a head game that you play with yourself, so whatever works will work if you let it.

 

The biggest issue with this is that during each semester/course, you get to what I have internally dubbed the “band-aid day” — meaning, the day I rip off the metaphorical band-aid and show up with no makeup on. And Buzzfeed can tell me all they want that no one notices if you don’t wear makeup, but that is baloney. The first day I showed up without makeup, B. (of my previous post) did a double take and said, “Did you forget—” and stopped.

 

“Did I forget what?”

 

“Nothing. Never mind. You look great.”

 

Because nothing is so utterly transparent than giving a girl an unsolicited reassurance about how she looks after you just looked at her like she showed up wearing mud in her hair. Good one, B. And he proceeded on a few subsequent days to say things like, “You don’t get much sleep, do you?”

 

To which I was always tempted to respond, “None of your business but I get plenty of sleep; I’m just a pasty white girl with no consistent skin tone and I don’t feel like wearing makeup every day just so that I don’t look like a zombie.”

 

SM without makeup, an approximation.

 

But note that this did not deter him from continuing to hit on me, ask me to the movies, offer to take me places “if you’re good” (ugh). He has definitively used up all my goodwill at this point. Persistence is not sexy at all when it ignores and disrespects other people’s clearly-drawn boundaries. B. is fortunately not in my class right now; he’s in the diesel program and I’m in the automotive program, so we had that one intro class together but now we have separate classes. He still comes to find me during breaks and is like, “Can I get a hug??” and I’m like, “No.” And he laughs and says, “Handshake?” and so I shake his hand instead of telling him to get lost, because I’m super polite like that.

 

And similarly to how it works with the clothes, plenty of the other guys continue to hit on me and attempt to chat me up whether or not I am wearing makeup.

 

So to end this on a positive note, I can tell you that when it’s not incredibly annoying or creepy, the inane male attention has actually been a decent confidence boost/reinforcement for me. Like, if I can look like crap and get hit on constantly, then when I finally do get all gussied up and wear makeup and put on clothes I like that actually fit my body, I feel, like, super sexy. Like turbo-charged sexy, to use a car metaphor.

 

Va-VOOM.
Va-VOOM.

 


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On Being a Girl in Automotive School

I’m two weeks into automotive school. Well, technically 6 school days in, since I started on May 22nd and got vacation for Memorial Day and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, cutting the four-school-day week down considerably. But still, 6 days is half of a course in my program, since every 12 days we’ll have a final and move up to the next class.

I am the only girl in my current intro class. There are a handful of other girls in the school and I’ve seen a few at lunch, but none are in my class. This in itself wasn’t something that I considered remotely problematic; I don’t mind standing out, and being a girl makes me memorable, and you want to be memorable in a field like this. Far more nervewracking was the fact that everyone in my class had experience working with cars whereas I was a complete newbie.

That’s still an issue that I’m dealing with, even though I’ve quickly risen to the top of the class with my book-smarts and grades on all the written quizzes and assignments. I am slower with tools because of a) having never used them before and b) needing to use my entire body weight to operate something that my shop partner can use with one hand.

I know that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for not being the fastest with, say, a 3/8 drive ratchet or a torque wrench, seeing as I’d never even heard of those tools and certainly never used them until a few days ago, but I am used to excelling, and I know that as a girl, I need to excel in this in order for anyone to take me seriously. If I were a guy, the raw strength would make up for some of the doubts employers might have when looking at me, seeing that I could be useful in other ways, for lifting and grunt work. But I don’t have raw strength; I’m barely 5’ 2”; I’m thin and I was told by one of the guys at lunch that he thought I was 19.

Babyfaaaaaaaaaace.

Which leads me into the other gender issue that I obviously knew I’d have to deal with — numerous personal interactions with guys, generally without any women around to back me up. Me against the world, dun dun dunnnn. And that makes it sound antagonistic, which it’s not, because everyone I’ve met has been nice to me. There has been no outright hostility from anyone. (When I told that to a friend, she responded, “that’s good!” before adding, “Our standards are really low, aren’t they.”) And plenty of people have been really friendly.

For instance, I remember being somewhat freaked out at lunch on my first day, after sitting in class all morning and feeling overwhelmed by all the new material I knew nothing about, and a Haitian guy in some other class sat down at my table and haltingly told me not to worry: “You gonna make it. Look at me — I barely speak English and I doing okay.” And that was exactly what I needed to hear.

And I’ve also somehow befriended the guy in the class with the most car experience and he’s been enormously helpful, giving me tips and offering me advice and information on all sorts of things without me asking for any of it.

And the guys in the lunchroom have a domino tournament every day and they were happy to deal me in. I actually won one game, though the exact rules of scoring that they play by are kind of a mystery to me.

But it’s not that simple. It never is.

Basically.

So far there’s only been one super creepy incident — when I went to refill my water bottle at the water fountain on the first day, a smallish guy was already there and he insisted on letting me fill it before taking his turn. That was unnecessary but nice, but then he had to go ruin it by staring at me unblinkingly the whole time and speaking in this weird monotone that some guys use when they’re trying to be slick or suave but don’t know how. He told me his name, and I told him mine (it was on my ID tag anyway) with my brightest chipper voice and smile so that he wouldn’t know how creeped out I was, and then when I finished and turned to go, he said, in that slow, deep, deliberate monotone, “Sarah. I hope we stay friends.”

Dude. You let me fill my water bottle. That does not make us friends. Especially not with the bonus leering.

 

And then there’s the condescending and sometimes downright weird sexism that I encountered from some of the administrative staff. The very first time I visited campus, my admissions representative kept saying to me what a “nice girl” I am: “You’re a nice girl, aren’t you? Just a nice girl. I can just tell. You’re a nice girl. A nice girl.” He did this in the midst of selling the school to me as hard as he could, but I seriously can’t figure out what kind of sales pitch that is supposed to be. I am, however, 99.9% certain he didn’t say the same thing to the prospective male students who came to tour the school. (And he did it again once I enrolled a few months later: “We’re gonna take good care of you, because you’re a nice girl. A nice girl.” I can’t even.)

Suuuuuuure.

A different male administrator didn’t say anything nearly that weird to me throughout my enrollment process, but on my first day he passed me in the hallway the first time I wore my oversized uniform shirt, and he went, “Aw, you look so cute.” Which is, well, wildly inappropriate, but I just smiled instead of saying anything, because a) he’s in a position of authority and I do not want a fight, and b) I’m still trying to find the balance between how much to use my cuteness to get students and faculty to like me and be more patient with me than they would if I were a guy, and how much I should really draw the line and say no, that’s not okay.

It’s complicated. More on this later.

Mostly, what I’ve had to deal with, and anticipate having to deal with most, are very well-meaning, friendly guys saying stuff that they mean to be complimentary, that they don’t realize are in fact sexist.

Like I mentioned befriending the guy who turned out to be the most knowledgeable one in the class. I had no clue about that when I met B. at orientation; he was just friendly and easy to talk to, so we talked, and talked again while waiting for class to start on the first day, and sat at adjacent desks, and so out of anyone in class, we’re probably the best friends in that room. It’s been a bonus that he’s got experience and from Day 1, B. basically took me under his wing and doled out all sorts of practical tips and reassured me that there was once a time when he knew nothing about cars and that I’d catch up.

That was all really great stuff to hear on my first day, and I could see how serious B. is about his career and about school (he wants to get 100s on everything and get all the iron-on patches they give you for your uniform to signify the A’s you’ve gotten), and I was glad to have made a friend, or at least an acquaintance, who was as dedicated to school as I was and who was fun and could easily carry a conversation.

But then, after a whole day of just being friendly and helpful and professional, B. had to go and say, “You know, it’s really pretty sexy that you’re doing this.”

Sigh. I just wanted to facepalm everywhere. But I just shrugged it off.

Because it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t already get why a comment like that is demeaning. Because there are situations in which I would not mind a guy finding out what I’m learning to do for a living and saying that it’s sexy. A woman doing blue collar work is a inevitably a symbol of strength and self-sufficiency, so I’d hope for their sake that guys have the good sense to find that attractive. And plenty of people find it attractive when a guy can fix a car, and I’ve got no problems with that.

But not in school. In school, we’re supposed to be peers. We’re supposed to be equals. You’re doing the same work I’m doing, and I doubt you consider it sexy when you do it — it’s just work. Being called sexy from within the industry diminishes my professional standing. It makes my work somehow different from yours; it “others” me. If an outsider looks at me and my work and thinks it’s sexy, that’s different. I’m already “othered” in that situation, by virtue of working in a different job with all the exoticism that entails. But if you’re in the business, find other ways to compliment me.

Trust me, it’s not hard.

Look, I could tell B. liked me. I’m not one of those people that can’t see someone’s interest unless they declare their intentions with flashing neon signs and smoke signals. He clearly thought I was smart and funny and interesting, and I also happen to be a cute girl. So I knew, and I also knew that I was unequivocally not interested back and did my best to communicate that to him without outright telling him to forget about it. I mentioned in one of our very first conversations that I only date Jewish guys (which B. is not), and also that this is a very stressful time for me and I’m not really interested in dating anyone at all at the moment. He didn’t seem to grasp the significance of the Jew thing until a couple days later when the topic of kosher food came up somehow and I started explaining just the bare bones of kashrut rules, and he was astonished by how complicated it is and said, “No wonder you prefer to only date guys who are your religion.” YES.

 

I thought that was that, and even smugly congratulated myself on finding an ingenious method of scaring off non-Jews without hurting their feelings, but the next day this happened:

B.: “I’m gonna take you out someday.”

Me: “Oh really. Why?”

B.: “Because you’re beautiful.”

Me: “So?”

B.: “And I want you to know that I know that you’re beautiful.”

Me: “I know you know I’m beautiful. You have eyes, don’t you?”

I feel like these were lines that must have worked for B. in the past and that’s why he said them, but just no. Compliments on my beauty are not gonna get you a date. Like I said up there, find something else to compliment.

Be creative. I’ve known a lot of smart and articulate guys who’ve given me excellent compliments, so I have high standards.

Not that good compliments would have made any difference in B.’s case, since I had already made it clear that he wasn’t what I’m looking for. In case my response came off as more flirtation than rejection, I clarified to make things crystal clear:

Me: “Look, I think you’re a great guy and I enjoy your company, and don’t be offended, but like I said, I don’t date guys who aren’t Jewish, and besides, I don’t think you’re my type.”

At which point B. backtracked and said he only meant “take me out” as a friend and that I was reading too much into things, and I probably should have let him save face with that but I couldn’t help myself:

Me: “Then what does me being beautiful have to do with it? You’re not friends with ugly people?”

B.: “No, I’m – I’m friends with all kinds of people.”

Me: “Uh-huh.”

I don’t usually give guys such a hard time, but I really needed B. to get it. I don’t think B. is the type who gets rejected much — he’s tall, strong, has a symmetrical face with dark skin and very white teeth that give him a great smile, and he’s intelligent and friendly without giving off any creepy vibes — but he handled it okay.

But being rejected didn’t stop him from giving me compliments on how sexy I am or other very gendered compliments. What do I mean by gendered here? Basically, if you can easily imagine a straight guy saying it to another straight guy, it’s probably not a gendered compliment. Like, “Good job!” or “Impressive” or “Nice!” Gender-neutral, non-sexual, can be directed at anyone, male and female alike. B.’s compliments to me were things like, “I’m proud of you,” or “you’re fascinating,” or “you make it hard not to like you.” Things that I really can’t picture him saying to another same-aged, same-sized dude, which (spoiler alert) I am not.

I’m the one with the cape.

I finally asked him not to call me sexy or describe my work as sexy, and this exchange happened:

B.: “But I just mean it like validation, to let you know that you’re doing a good job.”

Me: “Then just say I’m doing a good job. You wouldn’t say that a guy, would you?”

Him: “No, he’d think I’m homosexual! He’d think I’m hitting on him!”

Me: “And are you hitting on me?”

Him: “No!”

Me: “Then don’t say it!”

Him: “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

Me: “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable; it’s just not necessary.

And he seemed okay with that. Then I tried to push my luck the next day asking him not to say certain other things he said and he wound up asking me why I hate men.

Sigh.

And it’s frustrating, because I don’t want to misrepresent myself as being more uptight than I am. There are tons of jokes made in class about “lubing things up” and “not putting them in dry” and it’s hilarious and I love it. I joked with B. that he lets me do a lot of the work on the engine because he likes watching me, and the instructor overheard and said, “Is that so?” and I said, “Well, who wouldn’t?”

And maybe saying things like that is a mistake and makes people think other remarks are acceptable when they’re not. I don’t want to act like I don’t want anyone to talk about anything remotely sexual around me, I don’t want to call “inappropriate!” on every little thing, I don’t want to burn potential bridges. I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful for everything B.’s done to help me so far, but at the same time, his help does not earn him the right to say certain things to me, any more than it earns him the right to touch me, which he does a bit more than I am honestly 100% comfortable with. But I haven’t stopped him yet, or any of the other guys who’ve casually touched me, because I worry about male entitlement and whether they will be insulted if I tell them not to. Which is absurd, to be concerned about other people’s feelings more than my own right to personal space and comfort, but like I said, I’m only six days into this and I’m worried about starting things off by burning bridges. I hope I haven’t burned any with B.

This = Bad idea.

The weird and contradictory truth is that in a male-dominated setting, invoking my sexuality myself makes me feel empowered, but having it invoked by the men around me feels demeaning. It’s the only thing I have that they don’t and when I control it, it gives me back some of my power. But when other people use it, I lose that control and consequently that power. I’m at such a disadvantage here for not being male; my instinct is to try to recoup some of that with whatever nebulous power comes with being female.

What I’m asking is this: If I don’t have the advantages I can get from maleness and physical strength, isn’t it only fair that I use some of the advantages I can get from being female and cute? (I’m not talking about sleeping with people here. I’m just talking about being a cute, feminine presence. Using my girlness to gain likeability, since, as I am fond of saying, true power comes from likability, because if people like you, they’ll willingly try to do anything you ask.) But at what point do those things cease to be at all advantageous and just invite people to think they can treat you condescendingly and make inappropriate remarks at you? Where is the tradeoff between likeability and respect? Can you have a sufficient amount of both? Is this a harder balance to achieve as a woman than it is for a man? Is it better to just draw the lines from the start and almost certainly get a reputation for being a bitch, just so that everyone’ll leave you alone and respect you? Is that even real respect? Where’s the middle ground and why is gray area so hard to navigate??

 

So yeah, when people ask me how automotive school is going, all of these things come rushing to my head and I can’t figure out how to distill all of them into digestible, conversational chunks. All I can think to do is write ‘em all out.

Here. HERE ARE ALL MY LADY FEELINGS ABOUT AUTOMOTIVE SCHOOL.

This is the seventh page of this post in Microsoft Word. So if you ask me how school is going and I say, “…Interesting. Complicated,” and you don’t get why I’m not exploding with details or jumping for joy or whatever it is you’re expecting that I’m not doing — this is why.

 

____

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Why Cars?

 

Ah, the question everybody’s been asking ever since I, of all people, announced my intention to become an automotive technician/mechanic.

 

I could give you a lovely, oversimplified answer in the words of Roald Dahl:

 

“A gasoline engine is sheer magic,” he said to me once. “Just imagine being able to take a thousand different bits of metal — and if you fit them all together in a certain way — and then you feed them a little oil and gasoline — and if you press a little switch — suddenly those bits of metal will all come to life — and they will purr and hum and roar — they will make the wheels of a motor car go whizzing around at fantastic speeds . . .”

~ Danny the Champion of the World

 

But let’s be real; that’s not really why I’m doing it.

 

My reasons are far more nefarious, of course.

 

There were two major legs of this journey thus far: (1) deciding that I didn’t want a white collar job, and (2) deciding that out of the various blue collar trades I could choose, I wanted to try auto mechanics.

 

Why not white collar?

 

For years, literally years, possibly a decade or more, when people asked me what I was going to do when I grew up, I’d say, “Well, I write, but that’s not very lucrative, so at some point I’ll have to get a real job.”

 

Same answer from the time I was 14 until now. I probably even used the word “lucrative” in my answer back then too. People interpreted it jokingly (a 14-year-old with that much foresight about the ways of the world is always amusing), and I may have even meant it jokingly at first because I was young and surrounded by people who had no knowledge of what writing for a living actually entailed and so always told me that I could do it because I was talented. As if talent alone buys health insurance.

 

Yup.

 

As the years unfolded, my statement about having to get a real job that did not involve writing stayed the same, and people heard it the same way, as a joke, but I started to mean it more and more seriously. By the time I was in college, even though I had no qualms about majoring in Creative Writing, I knew that I did not want to write for a living, that I did not want to have to write book after book or article after article knowing that if I didn’t, I’d have no money and no food. I wanted writing to be something that I did because I wanted to, not because I had to. And the common supplemental jobs that even successful writers tended to have so that they wouldn’t have to depend solely on their writing for income were things that I had little interest in, like office work and teaching.

 

[I have had enjoyable office work experience, for the record, and if I like my coworkers and I like the atmosphere, I’m sure I could be quite content with it. But it feels like a backup, not a Plan A. As for teaching, being the daughter of two teachers has taught me that it is largely the most thankless job you can have, aside from perhaps umpires and referees, and I respect everyone who goes into the profession, but if I’d had a list of possible jobs, “teaching” would have been the very first one I crossed off.]

 

Early on in college, I also realized that I had zero interest in going to grad school. There was nothing I liked enough to study exclusively for two or three or four or five additional years while paying tons of money for the privilege. Medicine, law, business, philosophy, psychology, education, social work, math, engineering — I’d never even wanted an undergraduate degree in any of those; why would I suddenly want a Masters or a PhD? As for an MFA in Creative Writing . . . I knew I didn’t want to write for a living, or get a Masters degree in order to teach, so spending all that money and all that time held little appeal. It seemed like an obvious, conventional path that didn’t really lead anywhere that I personally wanted to go. (No disrespect meant to anyone who does get an MFA or two — you guys rock!)

 

Jesus approves.

 

I concluded in those early years of college that if I was in fact going to get “a real job,” it would be something that did not center on writing, or editing, or sitting in front of a computer screen, or even words at all. I didn’t want my job to tap into those particular creative juices and sap them, using them for the benefit of some company or corporation or publication, and not for my own.

 

And I also did not feel that doing something like that would be satisfying enough for me to do day in and day out. To sit at a desk, type on a computer, fill out paperwork, or work in a lab. Perfectly worthwhile and necessary occupations, and something I could probably be content with, but again, not something that felt like Plan A. And I didn’t want to do something that required me to be in constant contact with people, either, like a therapist or a social worker or an activist or anything like that. It’s not that I don’t think I have people skills, but I’d rather not have a job where that is 80% of the job description. That’s too emotionally exhausting. My emotional energy, like my word-related creative energy, is something I’d rather reserve for myself.

 

I wanted something totally separate, and very tangible. Something that would be gratifying because the accomplishments were visible and measurable and involved getting my hands dirty. I like working with my hands and fixing things, especially when other people can’t. And to me, that all added up to blue collar.

 

 

Why cars?

 

If you’d asked me two or three years ago, I’d have told you that when I finished with college, I was planning to go to trade school to become an electrician. It was an option arrived at mostly by process of elimination because being a plumber would involve poop and being a construction worker would probably require a lot more heavy lifting than my temperamental back can handle and there weren’t many options for carpentry training. Plus, I like wires, and electricity is pretty exciting.

 

I did a lot of research on electrician training in the New York City area, had a lot of tabs open and a lot of webpages bookmarked, and even decided on a school that I wanted to check out. I even called to find out their tuition and enrollment dates. This was back in the summer of 2013, after my graduation from college in June earlier that year.

 

But then I stalled. I was warned that it takes 8 years to get an electrician license in New York. I was warned that there was a lot of heavy lifting involved in being an electrician, too. But mostly I felt that the lack of specificity of “electrician” didn’t make me feel excited about all the possibilities therein, but rather, frustrated by how broad and unfocused and open-ended it all seemed. I started thinking back to other options I’d considered, like in my Hollywood hostel room on my January 2013 trip to do research for my book, when I’d curled up in bed with my laptop and spent a few hours looking into Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning programs and curriculums. HVAC didn’t really hold much interest for me, and the only local program I could find wouldn’t accept students with above-high-school-level education, but still, I felt a pull to invest in something more specialized.

 

this showed up when I google-image searched for “specific” and who am I to argue with google

 

I decided to put things on hold for a little while. Give myself time to mull it over a bit more. And so I decided to work on my novel for three months, see if I could finish it, see how far I’d get, and put trade school on the back burner.

 

This didn’t go 100% as planned. I kept getting distracted by the constant pressure my mother started putting on me to get a job or decide on trade school, and I spent more time surfing the internet doing research and looking at all my options and bookmarking more sites about electricians, HVAC, plumbers helpers, etc, than I spent writing.

 

My mother had also spoken to our appliance repairman, and he’d suggested looking into the field of home automation because the cables were thinner and lighter and would be less taxing on me physically. So I looked into that, but not with the utmost enthusiasm, because it felt to me like the kind of people who are automating their homes — installing security cameras, motion sensors, remote locking/unlocking systems that can be accessed from your phone — are a very particular niche, and of a fairly high socio-economic class, and I didn’t want my services to be SO specific, limited only to moderately wealthy people who want to protect their stuff. I totally support them wanting to protect said stuff; I’d just rather let someone else do it. I wanted to be specialized, but not that specialized.

 

I can’t really remember at what point in the process did it first hit me that, “You know what’s really cool? AIRPLANES.” I’d always thought airplanes were pretty awesome, but I’d never really considered them a possibility, careerwise. Why? No real reason, honestly. Just that the idea seemed so huge and out there and absurd, even more so than working in other trades, especially for a woman, that my brain didn’t really acknowledge the concept.

 

But apparently I’d reached a point where I said to myself, “Self, just let the ideas run wild. No idea is too stupid, too crazy, too impossible. Don’t dismiss something offhand just because it’s huge or you don’t know anyone else who does it or because everyone’s going to tell you that it’s no place for a tiny little girl. There’s never going to be a better time to try something. Life is only going to get more complicated from here on out, so the time is now.”

 

“The way I figure it, we are all entitled to one really big, incredibly stupid screw-up in our lives. Maybe this is one of those. We’ll see.” ~Michael Garibaldi

 

So I arrived at: “Airplanes are coooooooool.”

 

Then came: “You know what’s cooler than airplanes? FIXING airplanes.”

 

And I looked into training options for that and couldn’t really find anything in my area, although there were a number of posts on job sites for “entry-level mechanics” at the local airports, JFK, Laguardia, and Newark. But they required knowledge of tools and other basic experience, not to mention a driver’s license, so while I considered applying, it didn’t seem like the best idea.

 

Then: “What makes airplanes so cool?”

 

“It’s this big giant machine with a bajillion moving parts that all add up to basically magic.” (This is where that Danny the Champion of the World quote comes back around.)

 

“You know what else are big giant machines with a bajillion moving parts that all add up to basically magic?”

 

“CARS.”

 

So I started looking into that, and lo and behold there were trade schools for it within commuting distance from my house. I researched them online, requested information, talked with them on the phone, arranged campus tours, got free swag, waffled some more (I plan to write a future post about how I chose between the two programs I was looking at), spoke to graduates of the programs (male and female), decided that I wanted to enroll in May, and finally did it, student loan and payment plan and all.
 

*

 

People have told me that they find it inspiring that I’m following my dream. That’s kind of awkward to hear, because I don’t know if cars, and potentially ultimately airplanes, are my dream. I don’t always know why I’m doing this. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing it for the same reasons a lot of people go to law school — they don’t what else to do.

 

But I know it’s certainly not anyone else’s dream for me, given the number of people who’ve told me outright or implied that they’re disappointed that I’m not pursuing writing, or radio, or whatever else brilliant college-educated young women are supposed to do. And if it’s not anyone else’s dream, it must be mine, right?

 

All I really know is that 1) it’s the first stage of my education that I have had control over from start to finish, because no one else would ever have chosen this for me, and 2) today I assisted with an oil change and checked a car’s hoses and belts and fluids and got my hands covered with grease and I feel fantastic.

 

I’ll keep you posted.

 

____

 

Like my thinky thoughts? Want more of them? Consider donating and commissioning more, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading! And you can keep up with me on Twitter @FloatingSpirals and never miss a post 🙂