When I turned 25 a few weeks ago, it felt a little traumatic. It seems like the world doesn’t know what to do with its twenty-somethings anymore. This is a guest post. This is Fraylie: Fraylie prefers cupcakes to cake. She is a writer and photographer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, though she hails from the motherland of New Jersey. You should check out her work at www.fraylienord.com.
Last week I frighten myself when, after watching Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” I notice that the psychologically unhinged, disparagingly angry mother, Eve, seems a lot like me. We have the same lines under our eyes. When we consider our failures, we stare at walls with mouths like open bags and say “hello.” Sometimes we cry because crying fills space. I watch the screen, forming her lines as if they were my own.
“Oh, I can’t… I can’t breathe!” we gasp.
Eve and I are overly dramatic and know it. And the lines under my eyes are mostly the fault of my ill-fitting glasses, but I start to believe it makes me seem “sleepily dignified.” And sometimes, it’s amusing to hyperbolize.
I am a twenty-two year old college graduate and, more recently, a waitress. I serve salmon with balls of sticky brown rice and fried tofu. A year ago, I would have been interested in an ethnographic investigation of camaraderie and friendship among women in restaurants. I would have asked questions like, “How does serving food engender a sense of identity?” Or maybe, “Can you describe the personal language of waitresses in this restaurant?” At this point, I invest more time in memorizing the intricacies of phantom allergies than I do acting “discursive” whilst peering over steamed cod. “Glutard” is a more common kitchen offensive than the catchphrase “commoditization in the age of millennial capitalism.” So maybe we do have a lingo. But I need to pay rent so that I can keep serving fish, and so on.
I imagine my past self consumed in the attempt to understand my present incarnation. There she is, my prime candidate! I’ve found a tragic young woman who makes no sense! What are her passions? How, in a reflexive way, can I relearn myself adjacent to her? She indulges in what I would call a “postmodern fragmented identity!” How romantic!
(Eve and I lament, “You spoke with my analyst behind my back? I think I’m going to die!”)
When I was growing up, I used to imagine a family of literate mice who lived in my attic and read stories. There was a grandfather mouse with spectacles and a sweater vest, and he entertained his two granddaughter mice, outfitted with little pink frocks and white slippers. The stories would be of my life, in real-time. It was as if I wanted to give purpose and framework to the existence in which I felt more like an observer than a participant. The mouse scenario was an excuse to form sentences in my head such as, “She grimaced as the man in her bed stroked her waist with a fantastic performance of tenderness.”
It’s clear that I’m still thinking about the mice.
These days, the mice are disappointed, or probably deceased. So in a schizophrenic fashion, I murmur these first person autobiographies to myself in hopes of feeling progressive and reflexive. I sometimes have to double check that I am not speaking these thoughts aloud, and the man in bed is not out the door for a sudden cigarette.
I imagine that I’ve ousted those mice due to a lack of plot and stagnant characters. The grandfather has expired of old age and the little girls have thrown themselves from a bridge because I’ve bored them so. What were their last narratives? Perhaps, “She lay in bed all day, picking at dry skin, thinking about basil-buttered salmon and the middle aged women who eat it alone, at the same table, every day.”
During my senior year in college, my thesis originally addressed how work defined the self. A year and a half ago, I lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a post-industrial city about an hour from where I grew up. I thought about steel workers covered in glittering soot and grime, cigarettes caught between their slack lips, and the five o’clock whistle that summoned the eve of darkly smudged pint glasses. I thought about brotherhood and camaraderie: a shared set of experiences and spaces that linked these workers to one another. And more importantly, I thought about work as an interpretation of the self. I believed that perhaps a person was more grounded, in a fashionably Marxist way, by his or her labor. The endeavor of working was purposeful, practical, and it ate away at the time otherwise spent sitting still thinking, “now what?”
At that time, it was very easy to put faith into the reflexive role of “work.” I had a very convenient title: Fraylie Nord, Division Three student studying critical social theory and photography. Now, when the dreaded question, “so what DO you do?” arises, all I can think to say is, “I’m a waitress.” However, what I really want to say is, “not all that much,” but I don’t want too sound grim.
It’s another one of those upper middle class white person problems. But just because it’s so easily stereotyped, written up in The New York Times and all over Thought Catalog, doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about. The problem with my generation is that we are hellbent on defining ourselves within a society that puts great emphasis on success but cannot provide the political or economic context for a stable career path. It’s a belabored but relevant argument.
But sometimes it’s exciting to think of my job as the temporary result of a “choose your own adventure” story. For example:
- “Well, I started on a PhD program, it was sucking my soul, and I didn’t want to be an overworked adjunct professor. Turn to page 55 for the pedagogical differences between scrod scampi and swordfish!”
- “I haven’t been in school for seven years, and I still don’t know what to do with myself. Decide on tai chi, beekeeping and shrimp tempura, available on page 72!”
- “I finished my (insert degree here) and there was nothing at all in the job market. Cruise past ‘salaried, benefited job’ to ‘side of coleslaw’ on page 87!”
I think here is a good place to mention that, despite my inherent trepidations in the real world, I am thankful for a job when many can’t find a job at all, and I am thankful for the social and economic freedom to worry only about myself. Arguably, I am lucky. Perhaps the liberal arts educated dilettante is destined for the service industry, at least for a little while.
If work is not a defining cornerstone in the lives of twenty-somethings, it is a venue to be economically sustainable in other pursuits of happiness and investigation.
Of course, in a literal sense, work is enriching insofar as it pays (unless work is one of those funny things called an internship or unpaid entry level job.) But where I once ascribed so much importance to the identity building blocks of routine and labor, I now see the fantastic naiveté and romanticism embedded in my shallow thoughts.
So what’s the point? I’m convinced that most of my educated friends in the service industry are just varying degrees of unhappy. But it’s putting faith into everything else – everything else that our parents said was unstable – that makes it worth it. The aloof nature of every day life, freelancing gigs, one-night stands and, to borrow again from Woody Allen, (local and organic) red meat. In the face of an unstable economy where what was once bedrock has become jellyfish, we can turn to that which originally seemed temporary and make it meaningful. And we’ll work it out, maybe, by the time we hit thirty.
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Fraylie’s Un-roast: Today I am happy that I stopped being indecisive, and I accepted an offer to enroll in a master’s program at the New School For Social Research. There is hope for the future!
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