3.28.2021

View of the South Side via drone

As I've said before, I really enjoy teaching English to immigrants (English as a Second Language - ESL) at Daley College, which is on Chicago's southwest side. When I wrote that post, I had been working there for 13 years, and I didn't know if I would get another class to teach this semester. But I did get a class in January, so now I've been there for 14 years! 

We're still online due to the pandemic (and that area of the city has the most cases), but I've still gotten to know the students pretty well, and one of the students has been creating videos and even has a business.

Last week, he showed the class a video that he created via a drone, and it features the South Side (of course), near the Dan Ryan Woods. I've driven past that forest preserve many times, because sometimes a good way to get to Daley, which is located at 76th and Pulaski, is to take the Dan Ryan Expressway, get off at 87th street, and drive west. The video is below, and can also be viewed on Facebook. He's also on Instagram @chrisamfilms


Video: Dan Ryan Woods, by Chrisam Films

p.s. My novel, Wicker Park Wishes, will be published this year by Eckhartz Press. Stay in touch by signing up for the newsletter.

2.22.2021

Novel coming later this year: Wicker Park Wishes

I don't know how many people have been reading this blog the entire time, since around 15 years ago, but I've been talking and whining about trying to write fiction for a while. I managed to finish novels and drafts that I ended up throwing out because they were so bad; there was no point in keeping them around. Well, as I said before, I was working on a novel from fall of 2019 to fall of 2020, and after I mentioned that I totally finished it, I ended up sending it to Eckhartz Press. After some months, they said that they wanted to publish it.  

I actually can't believe what I wrote is going to be out there, and I feel sort of sick about it, not because I'm not glad, but because it's actually happening. I've helped other people write with none of my attribution (which is totally fine), and have my own bylines out there, including audio interviews I've done, but this is the first time that a novel will have my name on it. 

I've contacted some people to review it, and they'll be getting a copy when it comes out, which is later this year. Thankfully, one of the people who read the book pre-publication had this to say, and this is not a fake review; this is her honest opinion:

Margaret has a way of writing about Chicago and transporting the reader back to a time before the Internet was a part of daily life, before we were tethered to our cell phones and when you actually called people to make plans and have interpersonal relationships. "Wicker Park Wishes" really takes me back to the 1990s with Margaret's artful and accurate style of writing, and the descriptions of Chicago neighborhoods from that time make me feel as if I am really there. She does a great job painting a picture of Chicago without making it seem forced. 
— Tina E. Akouris

What I've done is set up a newsletter, not just to let folks know what I'm up to, but to promote other people as well. To get the newsletter, sign up to stay in touch here. Thanks!

1.29.2021

Briefly talking to a human offset a ton of screen time

I was making a list of all the activities I did over the past couple of days online and on my computer, and you'd think I had the most dynamic work and social life ever. But all I was doing was looking and speaking into a screen, and the flat experience made me feel disconnected and down. 

Now to some folks, not interacting with people IRL and spending hours in front of a machine is a fantastic lifestyle. But to me and I suspect millions of others, it's a way of dehumanizing our existence. The architects of technology probably imagined a world that's efficient and does not have to be messed up by small-talking humans, so they've pretty much gotten what they've wanted. But to those of us who actually like heartbeats and laughs, it's been challenging, and spending time online socializing is two-dimensional.

Even though I socialized and taught online the past couple of days, and got a lot of non-people-related work done on my high-quality Mac that has a large screen, decent sound, and a sharp graphical interface, I still felt like I barely existed. I even walked outside surrounded by snow, lights, and notable architecture, but I still felt like I was some kind of detached machine that had unplugged from another. It wasn't until I went to the store to get a few items that I finally snapped out of it. All I did was order something from the deli, and when the person working behind the counter (and plexiglass) asked me to repeat what I said, I joked that one day we won't have to try to figure out what each other is saying through masks, and she nodded, and then I thanked her for taking care of my order. I don't know why that broke my automaton sensation, but I felt like someone had opened the door and cut the cord and allowed me to live in the real world again. 

I think it's because I had a spontaneous interaction with someone, and it wasn't work-related. I'm lucky that I can go to an essential job a few times a week, but there aren't many people there and they're all busy in a high-pressure situation, so even if we do chat, it doesn't feel like a break but a tense reprieve. And being at home for hours in a room getting stuff done and feeling more empty after scrolling through social media doesn't fix the problem, even though my productivity has increased. Having online meetups is better than nothing, but it all still makes me feel flat. I am conforming to the screen, not moving or interacting with anything three-dimensional, and I still have to fake introversion to keep things together. I feel like my face has become a wall, because I don't want people to misinterpret my expressions, so I try not to have any. And if I smile (barely), it's still an act, because I'm trying to stay in control of my screen image. 

And then there's this: part of the flurry of my online experience was a seminar that was led by a very talented speaker whose lectures I'd attended offline before. And that person managed to be animated and dynamic on screen, so they seemed to effectively transform their offline presentation to the digital space. But it was like what I'd observed before the pandemic: the person was really friendly and interactive, but I know they're really not like that. Yes, they're yet another person who seems to be so into people, but it might just be an act: one time we were heading in the same direction, and I was the only one who could drive them several miles back to where they were staying. I assumed that since they were so into people and so talkative, we'd have a conversation during the trip back to the city. But they didn't want to talk and didn't initiate any conversation. So the talkative, energetic, seemingly people-oriented person, who makes money from working with and helping people, wasn't really that way; they were withdrawn and awkward. So remembering their outgoing act became part of my excessive screen deflation and just reinforced the fact that it's much better to meet authentic people, especially offline. 

1.20.2021

I love waking up early

A while ago, I had a part-time job that was not exactly the most thrilling situation. It wasn't bad, and the work was honest in a decent place, but it wasn't very stimulating. An introvert or person who doesn't want to deal with people would've loved it, but since I'm not introverted (thus had to fake introversion, as usual), it was difficult for me. Then I found a great article written by Jennifer Winter that gives advice when you hate your job.

There are three tips: get up early, make plans, and make a list. I actually applied all of them, and it helped get me through the situation. But the first point stuck with me because I ended up loving waking up early. I took her advice and woke up some minutes before usual, then it ended up being a couple of hours before departure time. I would watch TV, read, eat, drink coffee, and even nap. Then I would go to work, and I would feel better because I'd had a couple of hours to do what I wanted. It became a habit to the point that when I later got an additional part-time job, I woke up very early (though I was too tired), got to the job before it opened, and wrote in my fake blog or worked on my Nanowrimo project or just read. Then when that job started, I'd spent some time doing what I wanted, and I felt motivated.

I currently don't have any dreaded jobs, but I still like to wake up very early. The exception is if my work hours are tough; sometimes I end work at 1:00 AM, and sometimes I start work at 2:30 AM. I cannot handle waking up at midnight before going to work before dawn; I would probably collapse. But in normal situations, I often wake up early.

For instance, today I woke up before 5 AM, and I don't have to be anywhere until 8:30. I ate, drank coffee, spaced out, watched TV, read stuff online, sent emails, and am now writing this. Since I have to work late tonight, I'll probably take a nap later, or if I can't sleep, I'll do other stuff. But there's something about waking up early and doing stuff in my own space in the relatively quiet hours of the morning (unless there's drama or trucks or sirens outside) that is refreshing and motivating. It's like the day is blank and I can put on it what I want, and not many people are privy to the freshness. When I was free on Sunday mornings (now I usually work before dawn), I would wake up early and do things before I had to be anywhere. When I walked outside, I saw other early-risers, and it was as if the city was ours. Then later, the general public would join in, and it's like our exclusive early club was over, and we had to share the area with lots of other people.

Of course, I am not perfectly disciplined, so I have woken up at a normal time. But it's not the same because I'm in the rush with others, and I'm just trying to catch up. Also, if I have to be somewhere, there's not much space to ramp up to departure time, so there's no time-gift waiting for me; I'm just functioning and getting things done. And if I really sleep late, which is rare, my mood dampens and I can even end up with a headache. 

Basically, every time I wake up early, it's like the day is greeting me and letting me know that there are possibilities. The sun is breaking through the darkness and the beginning of the day is saying it's possible to start over or try something new. Sounds like I'm trying to be cleverly creative in my description, but I'm trying to honestly convey what I feel when I wake up early. Right now, I see the sun hitting the top of a building nearby, and it's letting me know that another day is opening up, and there are still things left to strive for and work to get done (because I actually have to get a lot done today and tonight...I'm definitely busy this week).

12.16.2020

I "won" Nanowrimo yet again, for the sixth time!

Even though I said last year that I will never do Nanowrimo again, and I also said it the year before that, I did it yet again this year! If there were no pandemic, I wouldn't have done it, because I would have spent a lot of time commuting, working, and perhaps socializing (though my social life wasn't great anyway before the virus), but since we've had to stay at home so much and social distance, I had more time on my hands. So I figured I'd do it again. And I'm not as wiped out as previous years.

This year, for the first time, I joined writing sessions ("sprints") on Twitter, and they were really helpful. If I had more time, I would have edited what I was writing along the way, but since the daily word count had to be about 1700 words to reach the 50,000 by the end of November, it would have turned the couple of hours that I had free into several more.

In the past I had an idea and just wrote a bunch of pages about it, knowing that most of it wasn't salvageable. But this year, I took a character from the novel I finished and put him in the Nano draft as a love interest of the main character in this new book (he was a love interest in the previous book, and this takes place a few years later). You wouldn't have to read the first book to read this new one, but it would at least answer the question of what happened to him in the previous one.

And when I'm talking about "book," it's obviously got a long way to go, because during Nanowrimo I wrote a bunch of scenes that were really rough. I had the main character, had an idea of her journey, and other characters, and wrote a lot. But because I had to keep going, I would make notes along the way such as "check this" or "finish this." For instance, when the month ended and I thought about tech in the late 20th century, I realized that texting wasn't common. Flip phones had emerged, but even texting on flip phones didn't really happen until the early 21st century. So that's something I definitely have to fix in the rewrite. I also have to find out more about a south side neighborhood where some of the story takes place. I was in that neighborhood back then, but it was less developed than it is now, and the shiny police station there wasn't built until about 10 years after the time the book takes place. So there are a lot of "check this" in such sections because I don't totally remember when the transformation of that area took place (it was most likely seedy for the time period that I'm writing about, but I need to check just how run down it was).

Just as in previous years, I was so used to writing intensely that when December started, I still had a burning desire to keep writing. But then my real-world work responsibilities hit me like a wave, and I couldn't get the energy to write every day. But I have been writing often, by either reworking the Nano draft or writing in my fake blog, or here. Basically, I love writing and feel irritated if I go too long without creating something, because my life is basically about getting work done and not really generating that is unique to moi.

I just looked at what I wrote and it's still a mess. There are random scenes and holes. But the basics are there, and at least I understand who the central characters are, and the potential conflicts. What's cool, though, is that I discovered stuff as I kept writing, such as focusing on a ring or having the main character find something out about her mom that she didn't know, which in her world is quite a bombshell. I also figured out what her friend's issue is, which has made her bitter and rebellious, which also makes sense in the main character's world. So I'm on my way! But I have a lot to fix!




12.09.2020

I have way more experience and skills than I sometimes let on, which reveals how people really are

I have a lot of work experience, and of course, I've made mistakes along the way (which I've learned from, so it's not all been in vain). I've also traveled to many countries, lived abroad, worked in all kinds of situations, been to all parts of Chicago, and have met hundreds of people. I am educated, with a bachelor's and master's degree, and have taken several classes in addition to that formal education. I also read books and articles in at least a few languages (for which I often use dictionaries), and write pretty consistently. In other words, I'm qualified to do a variety of jobs, and if I don't have such experience, I'm able to learn how to get a job done. I have good references, and even when I've wanted to drop a job, some people have convinced me to stay. Even if they don't explicitly say that they like having me on board, their responses have shown that they think I'm a valuable worker.

The reason why I'm saying all this is because sometimes I put myself in a situation that I am over-qualified for, and that is totally fine with me. I don't need to do high-level jobs, and I don't have to associate with people who have the education and experience I have. I actually like people and like learning in all kinds of situations, even if I know that I could do more. Yet I choose to not always go for the top. I started taking that approach several years ago, and I stuck with it because it's a good way to learn about people and to keep myself humble, because one day I'm going to "make it," and I want to keep it real; I don't want to forget where I came from and who helped me along the way, whether the person was in a privileged position or the lowest one. People's value does not come from what they do but who they are. I've met amazing, smart people who barely made it through high school, and have interacted with dim-witted jerks who have achieved everything our society values. 

If the virus had never happened, I'd still be working at one of the lowest-level jobs I've done in recent times. It was at a fitness center in a university, and the reason why I did it was because I spent many hours in front of a computer challenging my mind or meeting tight deadlines, and I wanted to do something mindless and more physical, where I would never sit. It was probably the least important job in the whole place, and I was one of only a few non-students doing it. When I first applied, I felt sort of weird about it because I'd been going there for a few years as a member, and I wondered if I was perhaps affecting my reputation or worth, whatever that means. But then I thought who cares, I'll do it. I had to do something that had nothing to do with computers or words or audio or pressure, and I liked going there, especially very early in the morning. I'd get there before the doors opened, write in my fake blog or work on my novel, and then I'd walk in and clean, organize weights, and give people towels. I thought it would just be for a couple months in the summer when a lot of the students were gone and the place needed extra help, but I stayed on for almost two years, until the virus closed places and limited our activities.

What was interesting was that while I first felt self-conscious because I was doing that job and a lot of the people coming in were academics or accomplished community members, I eventually didn't care and just did my job. I eventually met some of the regulars, and found out that some of them knew people I knew, and they were decent people. Most people had no idea what I did outside of that place, and I didn't feel judged or looked down-upon by most of them. I was impressed that before they even knew about my experience, etc., they were decent people who liked all kinds of people, and didn't elevate certain types above others. That's how it should be. 

One day, someone I'd often played tennis with at that center was surprised to see me working there, and I could almost seem them wincing. They're the type of person who associates with others like them, financially and culturally, and probably no one they knew would play tennis with a certain strata of people while having a job that included pushing loads of towels into an industrial washing machine. For a second I felt sort of ashamed, but then I thought hey, at least I'm doing something that takes me out of my Gold Coast existence. 

I think life is an adventure, and if we limit ourselves to what we "should" do, we're missing out on seeing how a lot of the world lives. But unfortunately, some people aren't so open or understanding.

My longstanding habit of doing jobs that are on different parts of the skillset/socially acceptable spectrum is not always understood or appreciated by others I work with. And it is when I experience such friction that I wish I would have explicitly told people what I have actually accomplished, and what I can do. While my bosses at the recreation center were absolutely fantastic (another reason why I didn't want to quit) and did not judge me on my desire to do something that is way below my ability level, other folks in other situations have maligned me and have treated me as "the help"--I have written about that when referring to broadcasters' attitudes, but it can apply anywhere, where higher level people treat lower level people with disdain. As I've stated before, I made the mistake of not talking about my writing experience at a gig I'd just started, which I'm pretty sure tarnished my reputation. I should have told the better paid, more senior worker exactly what I'd done, but because their question was laced with judgement and scorn, I chose not to reveal my qualifications, as if to not give them the satisfaction of knowing who I really was. 

And that's another habit I've developed over the years. Perhaps because I went through a lot of rejection and failure, I learned to not reveal much, then over-deliver or surprise people, or just not say much because there's no point in trying to "prove" myself. But when those people are not simpatico or are quick to judge and nitpick, then it can create a horrible experience to the point that I want to retreat. Sometimes if someone is being unreasonable, I will say that what I'm doing is not easy, and not a lot of people can do it as well as I can, or say that I have a lot of experience and don't want to be treated badly. A couple smart, self-aware people have apologized and changed their approach so that I wouldn't quit, but others have just plowed ahead and have been high maintenance and at times abusive. 

Being underestimated because I haven't boasted about my accomplishments and talents, in addition to not mentioning superior people whose admiration and endorsements I pretty much have for life, has backfired at times, because petty people have formed opinions that they feel justify substandard treatment. On some occasions, they've been dumbfounded to discover that I can actually do more than they assumed, and have actually changed. In one organization, some people pretty much ignored me until I did some presentations and they saw that I actually knew more than they'd assumed, and had done more varied jobs than they had, which helped my reputation. In another place, one person barely acknowledged me for a while until...I don't know what happened, but suddenly they were complimenting me and gave me a reference. In that case, my modesty paid off, but other times it has not, and I continue to be misunderstood and maligned, which really has made me wonder if some pursuits are worth it.

But thanks to those who've given me a chance, despite not knowing the extent of my experience, and even my real age (since many folks think I'm younger than I actually am).


11.18.2020

Why I like teaching ESL at Daley

I've been wanting to write this post for a while, but I didn't want to sound like I was trying to score points with anyone. But I figure since I'll be staying at home for a while (when not going to work or appointments or the gym--all places that are clean and where masks and social distancing are required), I might as well write about the topics that piled up while I was busy interacting more with the world. 

I've been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults at Daley College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) on Chicago's southwest side for 13 years (and it will be 14 in January if I get another class to teach next semester), and overall, it's been a good experience. I won't get into details about the issues there, and if you know me offline, you've heard some of the "interesting" stories about that place. Let's just say it's not the most stable, well-run organization around, thus my appreciation of it has nothing to do with how it's set up. And it's not even located in such a stellar area, nor are the buildings that clean. For instance, I used to teach in dilapidated, small buildings that I think were originally built to be temporary, where mice sometimes roamed (and one turned up dead), the air wasn't fresh, and if there was air conditioning, it took over an hour to activate. Then I moved into the main building, where someone told me garbage still remains (I haven't been to the school, or the South Side, since March). 

I've been teaching online, which isn't as enjoyable as in-person, but is still a positive experience. First of all, the students are wonderful. Most of them are Spanish-speaking (I don't speak Spanish though I love it and translated Spanish into English for some years, including when I started this blog), and others come from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In 13 years I have rarely had any issues with students; they are so nice and interesting, work hard, and are appreciative of what they and their kids have been able to do here (which is a subject for another post: what I've learned ambition really is). 

My coworkers are also generally cool. Of course, not everyone is awesome, but no place is perfect. But what sets apart Daley from other places I've worked is that I can always find someone to talk to if I'm having issues, or if I just want to chat. In fact, when I first started working there, I was working in a toxic place (which would be a great candidate for Robert Sutton's excellent, must-read book, The Asshole Survival Guide [whose advice I wish I'd followed years ago]), and once a week, I got a chance to work with friendly people instead of mean ones. I would tell some of my work buddies what I was experiencing during the week, and they couldn't believe it, and shared my astonishment that there are places tolerate such behavior. And while other workplaces might have people who try to backstab or say mean things about each other, or falsely accuse others, I haven't experienced that in all the years I've been at Daley. Yes, people have made disparaging comments, but in general, I don't feel like I have to walk on eggshells or walk around avoiding landmines. 

One of the many reasons why I like teaching immigrant adults is because of the interesting experiences they have. They have gone through a lot to come to this country, and they have a great work ethic. What's inspiring is how they always find a way to get things done, find work, and help their kids succeed. One time I was talking about an area of the South Side that is fine on the eastern side of a north-south street, but is pretty dangerous west of that street. I thought the students would think of avoiding that area, but a student said that they had sold ice cream in that western area and generated more sales. What they discovered is that all kinds of people in that area, including the gangbangers and their families, like ice cream, have parties, and want to eat something tasty after they smoke certain substances. Another student showed us where they work in an even more dangerous area of the South Side (I'm not being specific because I don't want to malign any South Side neighborhoods, nor perpetuate the already-negative stereotypes of the South Side), and said they wait for drug deals to clear out before they get into their car to drive west to the southwest suburb where they live. 

Basically, some students do jobs or live and work in areas that many people wouldn't want to be, and their perseverance is inspiring. Also, since I don't live on the South Side (never have, and probably never will), I get to find out things about the area that are not covered in the media or elsewhere. And it's not just positive stories that are overlooked but negative ones, too, such as why the virus has probably spread in the area where Daley is located (right now, the most cases are on the southwest side of Chicago). 

It's also interesting to find out where the students come from. I've learned a lot about other countries, and I've also learned about students' lifestyles. At one point, after noticing that the students have a great work ethic, I asked them if they helped out around their homes, or what they did as kids in addition to going to school. Most of them grew up doing chores and odd jobs, including helping their elderly relatives. Because they grew up working in some way, that lifestyle and attitude have helped them as adults, which explains why they find ways to thrive rather than sit around and complain. They see and seek out opportunities that others might not see or care about, and I never get tired of hearing about what they're doing. It shows me that anything is possible, even when it seems like there aren't many options.

Because the economy and educational situation are not stable or predictable, I have no idea if I will continue to teach adults ESL, and in the past, I sort of didn't care (I have like four or five other jobs, depending on what is available). There were times when I would drive up South Pulaski late at night to go to the expressway to get home, very tired, wondering why I was going all that way to teach at a dusty school in a gray neighborhood. Then a student, or my supervisor, would tell me that I'm doing a good job, and some students would tell me that I'm a nice person or that they like my class. Last week, some students said they think I'm a good teacher. When comparing that feedback with the little or no feedback I get at other jobs, it's really appreciated, which helps to motivate me. A lot of times I'm just getting work done and have no idea what people think, other than they're glad I'm meeting deadlines or showing up to get the job done. Approval and recognition can go a long way, especially in an increasingly isolating world. 

And finally (I think I've been able to remember all the points I wanted to make), I don't have to fake introversion at all. As I've said before on this blog, I am not introverted but have had to fake it for years because it's the best way to integrate and survive the introverted world. When I walk into the school after a week of staying silent or subdued, it's great to chat with the fantastic security guards, then speak loudly and openly with some of my coworkers. Then I see the students, who are so nice, and I end up having a great day. It's basically an experience of belonging and freedom, which equals fun.