Meet Me at the Food Court

As a Gen Xer, my formative years spanned the 80s and early 90s, which means I spent a considerable amount of time hanging out in malls. And as an adult, I still have a part of me that holds those bastions to consumerism very near and dear to my heart.

Last weekend, Virginia and I needed to do two things: pick up a birthday gift for one of her friends and hit the Gap. Yes, I thought, knitting our shopping plan together, we get to go to the mall! I still love the mall. I love that in order to get to the actual inside, you need to walk through an old-school department store first. Virginia and I wended our way through Macy’s girls section, luggage, home goods, and their Christmas displays before we were spit out into one of the ends of the mall, when we start walking and browsing—passing windows displaying perfectly coiffed mannequins or scenes of pre-holiday cheer. Yes, shopping with a ten-year-old can mean fighting off the occasional, “Can we PLEASE go to Game Stop and buy the new Pokémon 3DS game?” But a little bit of begging and whining won’t spoil it for me. We had clear goals in mind when we started and when we were done, plastic bags in hand, we rewarded ourselves with lunch from the food court. Even though I rarely go to the mall (maybe because I rarely go), I secretly relish every moment of this bonding while shopping.

I think slowly over the last couple of decades, malls have become old fashioned and in most ways, unnecessary—they’re now these relics of the days before Amazon. All of the stores in a mall have not only a website, but an online, ultra-convenient way to shop for the same items in stores often with free shipping thrown in. Rightly, most of us think, why would I get out of my pajamas and drive to a mall when I can buy this now and have it arrive it two days? Which is why fewer and fewer malls are thriving. Last May, The New Yorker ran a story that examines the current (ir)relevance of malls in “Are Malls Over?” There’s even a website Retail History that provides a listing state by state of “dead malls.” The mall VA and I went to last weekend in Plymouth Meeting was pretty desolate. I also wonder there’s a link between the helicopter parenting trend and the death of malls. No child is unsupervised anymore. A mall is no longer your tween’s babysitter after school and on weekends. Or your teenager’s place of work. The Galleria in Sherman Oaks hasn’t been the mall from Fast Times in, well, forever. I don’t think it is a mall anymore.

Yeah, the shop ‘til you drop mentality hasn’t gone away (Black Friday madness is a case in point), but it doesn’t seem to live solely within the confines of stores sandwiched between a Boscov’s and a J.C. Penny. I don’t feel the need to join the swarms of post-Thanksgiving bargain hunters, but I do enjoy an afternoon at the mall with Virginia.

Dinner for One

I love to entertain. I like throwing a potluck, a barbecue with friends, a simple dinner for us and one or two additional families, or a big blowout for the whole neighborhood. With each scenario, the rules change—my guests and I might share the food responsibility, for example. Or sometimes guests bring nothing or a bottle of wine. But when I entertain, as nice and as accommodating as I may appear to be, I’m in charge and I make the rules. It’s a time when I can use my control-freak tendencies to everyone’s advantage. Thanksgiving, I’ve found, is a different ball of wax.

What gets me about Thanksgiving is that even though I might be “entertaining” by hosting family and friends in my home for the day, I’m following someone else’s rules. When Josh and I first hosted Thanksgiving at our house a couple of years ago, I envisioned I’d be spending the day cooking a variety of dishes and preparing the house. People would trickle in to the scent of roasted turkey and apple pie and maybe place a bottle of wine or a dessert on the table, and then go off and pour themselves a drink, nosh on an appetizer, and start to socialize. I’d have the kitchen to myself to make the finishing touches before pouring myself a well-earned beer and joining everyone in fun and conversation.

Nope. I learned quickly that that’s not how it goes. At all. What happens is your family bursts in through your front door carrying bags and bags of uncooked food that needs to spend a significant amount of time and space in the oven or be heated on the stove before it can be put on the table. Nevermind that you already had mashed potatoes (and green beans and yams and cranberry sauce and gravy and cornbread stuffing) covered. Your kitchen soon becomes usurped by these outsiders. Every conceivable surface is taken over or dusted in flour or covered in something sticky. The environment can get so thick with my own resentment, I make a note to self that ordering Chinese food next year would probably make me feel more grateful on this Thanksgiving day.

But I must have some sort of Thanksgiving amnesia. Why am I surprised? Probably because Thanksgiving as an adult host is different from being a kid or guest. My mom has dealt with being a Thanksgiving host on and off for most of her adult life, and I do remember that she would, on occasion, need to just grit her teeth and get through it. Champagne helps. Now, as an adult I get a crack at it, which is a pretty nice problem to have. We’re really lucky to have family and friends to share the day. I think I just need to learn to get over myself a little and let others take over my house for Thanksgiving. Or, take a few days with Josh and Virginia in Puerto Vallarta and spend Thanksgiving sipping margaritas at the beach.

That Reminds Me of Something

Like a lot of book nerds, I belong to a book club. We meet once a month and discuss a book chosen by the person hosting the meeting. That’s actually my favorite part. We have to read books that someone else picks out, which means I’m often forced to read books I wouldn’t ordinarily choose on my own. I tend to gravitate toward sweeping family sagas like The Corrections or & Sons or anything by Tom Perrotta. I’d be happy rereading the entire John Irving collection chronologically, though I have my own ideal nerd order to read his books. Hint: start with Garp first. But no one else is as enamored by these stories as I am, and that’s fine by me. Because of Book Club, I’ve had the opportunity many times over to be happily surprised by graphic novels, young adult books, narrative nonfiction, and British mysteries that I may never had heard of or thought I would be interested in. Some of these selections have become all-time favorites (yes you, 1Q84), and that’s a total win.

Over dinner and wine, the group attempts to launch into a detailed discussion about the book for that month. We’ll take apart the plot, characters, tone, and style, talk about whether or not we liked it and why, consider what the book is “really” about—that sort of stuff. I say “attempt” to discuss, because it doesn’t always go that way. Sometimes we get started on the characters or setting, and something about the way the conversation turns reminds one member about her grandmother’s experience as an immigrant. And then another might mention that she’s visited where the book takes place, in fact, it’s where her son attends summer camp. Someone else might follow up with, did you sign up Virginia for indoor soccer? Practice is at Greenfield—we could carpool. Wow, another member exclaims, this flour-less chocolate cake is to die for. Can you email me the recipe?

And every month, at least one of us realizes about 10 minutes in on a conversation that’s now turned into a discussion about hair removal, we need to swing this ship back around to Their Eyes Were Watching God. Yeah, sometimes we get distracted and go off on tangents far from whatever book it was we were supposed to be discussing. I can appreciate that. Book Club is social, and we’re there not only to talk about books, but also to shoot the shit. And eventually we come back around to the star of the show: the monthly book.

This month, it’s my turn to host. We’ll be discussing our vacation plans, summer camp options, Josh’s new job, how horrifically early back-to-school sales are, Lasik surgery, and How to Be Both by Ali Smith.

Next month, it’s my turn to host. We’ll be discussing our holiday plans, the stupid shit our families pulled on Thanksgiving, puffer coats, Josh’s new job, Lasik surgery, and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel.

Have a Nice Day

After a year-long search, Josh got a new job this week. And as reality about this good fortune has slowly begun to settle in, I reflect on what it takes to look for a job these days. Josh found it takes as much time and effort to look and apply for jobs now as it does to actually hold a job. For the last year, he felt like he’d had two, full-time jobs.

And I’ve noticed how impersonal the application process can be, especially at the beginning, when you first fill out your information. Back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when we looked for jobs after college, we were regularly advised to drop off our cover letter and resume to a prospective employer in person. Heck, if the hiring manager was there that day, he or she might even be able to squeeze you in for a quick interview, which could turn into a golden opportunity to show how capable and sane you are. You might be able to explain away some holes in your resume or lack of experience. A face-to-face conversation right at the beginning could go a long way and might even give you the edge over some other chump who simply sent their information in the mail.

This advice is no longer true. In fact, the recommendation now is to never ever drop off your information in person—that’s not just a faux pas, but it could put you on their shit list as some sort of crackpot. Thanks to technology, the application process is now managed by huge databases that crunch your education, experience, and salary requirements into numbers that jibe with a company’s bottom line. If the numbers fit their profile, you might get an email about a phone interview, which may lead to a face-to-face interview. But for the most part, applying for a job involves a lot of copying and pasting into one form after another, resulting in little more than an automated email telling you that someone would be in touch if they are interested in speaking with you further. Have a nice day. So it seems like small miracle just to get to the in-person interview stage, which thankfully, still feels nerve-wracking but familiar.

I know it’s ironic to be writing this in a blog post, but the internet seems both to be a tool to personalize and impersonalize at the same time. It simultaneously connects and isolates. By being able to connect directly to Kathy Griffin, one of my favorite comedians, through her Facebook or Twitter or other social media connections, I’m made to feel like I am actually in direct contact since I receive her postings as she sends them out. At the same time, because I am one of a gajillion followers, I am no more differentiated than someone in the back row of one of her shows or even someone watching her stand-up special on Bravo.

I take this into account when I teach online classes. I want my students to feel my presence online as much as they would in a face-to-face class. I bombard them with announcements, video lectures, and comments on their work. I’m not spamming them, but giving them personal and appropriate feedback. I answer posted questions and messages within 24 hours. I even conference with students over the phone. But I’d be kidding myself if I thought it was the same experience as a face-to-face class.

Applying for jobs online, buying clothes with a mouse click, downloading games, and chipping away at your degree with online courses is certainly more convenient in many ways, but it may not be better or more gratifying.