I am stealing that rock.

The following are seventeen concise steps on how to appropriate a rock from a yard in San Francisco, place it in a cardboard box, and deem it a socially accepted present for a celebrated day of birth:

1 | Discover that a dear friend is turning twenty four and suddenly remember that, at twenty three, unfulfilled promises were expressed about rock climbing.  Feel terrible.  Lament on your respective flakiness, blame the State of California, and, like the many flakes before you, vow to overcompensate on this particular occasion.

2 | Render gift cards and certificates to be the rise of consumerism and the death of sensitive, thoughtful gift giving.  Use the aforementioned as fodder behind your true desire – that is to make terrible symbolic puns in the form of placing a rock in a box with a sticky note that reads “I am a rock.  You will climb me.”

3 | Engage in a phone conversation with your accomplice.  Explain that there are two essential elements to this birthday endeavor: a cake and a rock in a box.  Somehow verbally agree to be the bearer of the rock in said box.

4 | Hang up the phone and realize that while your accomplice must simply walk across the street to purchase a cake you must, within an hour time frame, find two items that are not related to one another and package it in a manner that is not distasteful and/or offensive.

5 | Call your accomplice again and complain incessantly about the difficulty of your task relative to hers.  Say the words “rock” and “box” repeatedly, in front of several Chinese people.  Listen to the feedback produced by your poor cellular phone reception then suddenly realize that it is actually the stifled chuckles of your accomplice.  Hear the utterance, “Well, I guess you have to think outside the box” and be absolutely appalled that she used such a terrible pun.

6 | Freak out.  Think outside the box.

7 | Walk the streets of San Francisco and through public parks in search of a large, suitable rock.  Turn down several pebbles due to some arbitrary standard of rock superiority that you hastily created.  Bemoan the fact that the only loose rocks in this city are the people who post on the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist.  Upon such a thought, say “Zing.”

8 | Pass by a beautiful Victorian home near the apartment where you live and spot, in your peripheral vision, a pile of dirt covered with rocks.  Awkwardly circle the pile.  Circle so consciously of being inconspicuous that you unfailingly look like an Asian vulture.  Eye one particularly magnificent rock, noting that such a glance cannot be reciprocated because a rock is an inanimate object.

9 | Look to your left, look to your right, and look before you.  Feel slightly embarrassed that those surrounding your person will not judge you for the act of stealing itself, but for stealing something of no actual value or importance.  Think, hopefully for the sole time in your life, “I am going to take that mother fucking rock.”

10 | Channel your inner Aladdin, swipe, and prance like hell.

11 | Scour art stores in your neighborhood.  Exchange paths with serious, emaciated San Franciscan artists who are painting a series of octagons that represent the intersection of homosexuality and above ground swimming pools.  Judge them, judge yourself for judging them, and allow them to rightfully judge you for judging them as you are purchasing a box with an adequate size ratio to the rock that you just stole.

12 | Arrive home and place the rock, the box, and a piece of ribbon on your desk.  Notice the steak of dirt that is smeared on your hand, remembering that this object has shared the same ground as soil, as fecal matter, and as a world filled with really smart, trouser-wearing rats.

13 | Tiptoe, with a tinge of paranoia, to the bathroom and scrub the rock.  Tiptoe back to the privacy of your room, dousing the rock with anti-bacterial gel.  Tiptoe to your closet to grab a towel – simultaneously drying off the rock while vowing never to use this towel again.  Tiptoe one last time to your quarters, lock the door, and stand quietly and solitarily as you remove the remnants of dirt, water, and anti-bacterial gel with a blow dryer.

14 | Begin to compose the sticky note that will be taped to the rock.  Go through four different drafts because of the absolute certainty that, if this rock could write, it would not scribble “Hello,” it would not use emoticons, and it would publish in all capital letters.  Tape the post-it note to the rock, place it in the box, and capture pictorial evidence of this anguished endeavor.

15 | In your ignorance, YouTube a grainy clip of an old lady tying a ribbon into a bow.  Proceed to watch this clip three times, living in fear that someone will barge in at an inopportune moment only to witness you, alone, with a rock in a box in one hand, a ribbon in another, and a subpar tutorial playing on your computer.

16 | Admire the task that you have just completed.  Eat an apple and some peanut butter because it is deserved and because they are the only edible complementary foods remaining on your shelf in the refrigerator.

17 | Hand the box to your beloved friend and wish her the happiest of birthdays.  Watch as she carefully unties the bow and opens the box.  Be absolutely relieved and delighted at her laughter at a present that no one else seems to understand.  Explain, at length and with the requisite dramatic hand motions, the aforementioned sixteen steps in bringing this present to fruition.  Realize at the end of the story, that the effort for such a friend was undoubtedly, undeniably, and unequivocally worthwhile – and should you be presented with the option of purchasing a cake or stealing a rock, you would steal, steal, steal again.

I am a mutual friend at the potluck.

The “potluck” is a concept that has permeated every part of my life as of late.  This is, perhaps, because I am a twentysomething (i.e. poor.), a vast majority of my friends are social workers and/or artists (i.e. poor.), my colleagues are servicing public education and the non-profit sector (i.e. poor.), and we all live in San Francisco (i.e. hella poor, yet in rather significant self-denial.)

The etymology of “potluck” is supposedly 16th Century English, derived from the term “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”  I, of course, operate under the firm belief that that the name was developed by a young urbanite who, upon pouring herself a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes while doning an embarrassing arrangement of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt, decided that she would invite several people to gather in her quaint living space under the condition that they bring a dish of their own (thereby minimizing the cost and allowing an inconceivably delightful spread of seven types of pies), lest she be reminded that it is, indeed, a raucous night for all except she – she who is at home eating a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes and wearing a pair of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt.  Henceforth, the “potluck” became a celebrated holiday affair because “Jen’s typical Thursday night as a single 23-year-old” was rejected by the administrators at Wikipeda.

All kidding aside, for all its financial benefits, the “potluck” is challenging and complicated concept that posits itself to be an apocalyptic social disaster.  The very foundation of the “potluck” counters the core of human nature – you mean you want me to show up on time, bring a dish that is both edible and magically fits in with the balanced composition of the other unknown dishes, and interact with the invited cooks of each dish who are as random as the assortment of foods on this very table?

Moreover, there is an unspoken echelon associated with “potluck” items – a spectrum of dish types (entrée, appetizer, dessert) with assigned qualifiers (made from scratch, semi-homemade, store bought, something I saw on Rachel Ray’s show five years ago) and adjectives (delectable, good, mediocre, food poisoning).  What one chooses to bring is a gateway to the soul, an unconscious association of who you are as a human being.  On one end of the continuum is the immaculate, labor intensive centerpiece turkey, meticulously cooked by those who are time efficient, thoughtful, and worthwhile cooks.  On the other side are the non-alcohol beverages – the cases of Diet Shasta Cola purchased hastily at the nearest Safeway 30 minutes prior to said “potluck” out of absentmindedness by people like, well, me.

(Editor’s Note: I fear that I will never be invited to a social event ever again after writing this entry, but I will make that sacrifice for the truth – as true as true can possibly be if it is what it is).

I write in jest because I actually adore the “potluck” despite scoring appallingly low on what I choose to bring.  They are my favorite form of social gathering – more conducive to conservation than bars and an interesting tapestry of people brought together by the assumption that you, like your food, have a complementary place.  They are a microcosm of socially incestuous major metropolitan areas, incubators of new friendships, bizarre reminders the bonds already forged.  I have met some of my favorite people at potlucks and have mapped the numerous connections to the people that I know.  This evening, I was invited to a gathering with guests that reinforced how weird and wonderful potlucks (and life) can be:

  • The Neighbors: One evening, after a few drinks and encouragement by my roommates, I felt compelled to meet the neighbors in my apartment.  I wandered downstairs, walked into their party, and somehow became the unofficial sitter for their cat, Oscar.  Five blocks down and a few weeks later, in another apartment, they were forwarded the invite of the potluck from a friend who was friends with the host who is friends with me.  They brought lentil soup and we talked about grad school.
  • The Friend of a Friend of a Friend: During my senior year, a girl (now a good friend) took a semester off from school in New York to sublet a room in my apartment in DC.  Today, in San Francisco, I met one of her best friends from high school who also went to high school with the host of the potluck who is friends with me.  She brought pie and we talked about our mutual friend.
  • The “So Do You Know [Insert Long Shot Here]”:  I met a girl who grew up in a Massachusetts town that sent quite a few people to my college – one of whom is my friend.  This girl was familiar with the name of my friend, but also randomly met two guys who went to her very high school, who also graduated the same year that she did.  She brought brownies and we talked about San Francisco.

I brought delicious, store-bought pear and fig tart pie (and brought the self associated with such a purchase) and talked about everything I never get to say in bars, to people I would not have otherwise met, in the kind of event that, despite its peculiarities, should happen far, far, far more often.

I am an adult.

1 year ago, I sat in an airport awaiting a flight to a city I had eagerly left – left with a tinge of bitterness, an insatiable desire to start anew, and a necessity to see something other than a Vietnamese supermarket and, on an exciting weekend, a plate of fried vegetables with a vat of ketchup at Chili’s.  The flight’s trajectory was the District of Columbia, the city in which I came to be, to Houston, the city of my birth that smells eerily similar to a Rainforest-themed restaurant.  Houston would no longer be the final destination as it was merely an extended layover to what was supposedly my final destination: San Francisco, California to become an English teacher extraordinaire.

I was going to teach children the rules of rudimentary, standardized-test friendly writing — writing so inconceivably mind-numbing and boring that, naturally, these children would internalize the rules in an effort to break them.  They were going to be the Orwells of their generation, the Dottys of their time, an army of scholars who uniformly believed with complete and utter conviction that the Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter is a classic – a classic worthy of nothing more than being a paperweight or, to be more kind, a projectile object set into motion amidst a backdrop of profanity.  I was going shape little writing elves in poetry circles and short story workshops.  I was going to create a classroom so inconceivably wonderful that the only appropriate visual equivalent would be a rainbow attached to a smiling, naïve sun with Richard Branson hoarding gold on the other side.  I was going to save this world one writing prompt about dreams, passion, and/or puppies at a time.  I was going to nurture and pat the heads of my queer-identified students and explain, “The details of my personal life, for reasons of legality, cannot be divulged but I support you and that flannel shirt.”  Cue frolicking, prancing deer and orchestra music here.

It has been a year.  A year since I awoke, 3 hours before my flight, surrounded by my unpacked belongings and frantically forced my roommates to stuff as many of my books, underwear, and Georgetown paraphernalia into my bags.  A year since I darted, Home Alone-style, down the terminal of Reagan airport.  A year since I had magically bypassed security and, driven by the guilt and the embarrassment of the previous 12 hours, opened this very laptop and began to write:

Hey Everyone!

Contrary to popular notion, I am not one for long mass e-mails, but as I sit at the airport, Texas bound, wearing the dress that I wore last night and surprised that I might be heading “home” in one piece, two things come to mind.  First, I need to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  Second, that I will miss everyone and everything about DC dearly – and the feeling so overwhelming that I feel compelled to write. 

I never finished the contents of the letter, but I did complete the list of people I had intended to send the message to.  There were 36 people, most of whom I saw less than a week ago upon returning to DC.  To repeat an oft-used phrase, last week was a “full-circle” moment – I had returned to my alma mater to see the very people I had listed only to espouse words eerily similar to what I had wrote.  Only to realize that although circumstances have changed, I, in many ways, have not and that it was time to.

It is a difference of context.  A year ago, I was certain that the teaching profession was my calling – that I was destined to bridge rhetoric and pedagogy in public education, that I was going to inundate every worksheet I made withPearls Before Swine comic strips and poorly conceived, clearly dated pop culture references circa 1999.  Yet, in the last 12 months, I have left an organization (and, in my ways, a profession) that I had differences with, joined the ranks of two more, and found myself grappling with bureaucracy of every shape and size in a city that is far less post-racial American that I had originally imagined.  In many ways, the idealistic teacher-to-be has hardened to the reality of world that will change for only a few things: catastrophe, status, money, sex, and sweet, sweet candy.  I am still hopeful and idealistic, but cautiously so.

The last year has been a test to my disposition and, to be honest, it has a test of rotating-imaginary-shapes-and-calculating-the-area-of-certain-slices-of-said-shapes-on-the-AP-Calculus-BC-exam proportions (in other words, epic proportions).  I have come face to face with my limitations.  I cannot depend on caffeinated drinks, youth, and all-nighters in a full-time working world.  I cannot wait for a summer break to sustain my efforts.  I cannot expect to appease everyone in my life without it taking a toll on myself.  I cannot find all the answers.  I cannot take on the burden of the world (or the community or even my family) and place it on my shoulders.  I cannot drink two glasses of wine after a day of work and not expect to fall asleep, in the fetal position, on my roommates’ bed.  It has been a rewarding, tumultuous, difficult, beautiful, ridiculous 12 months and truth of any kind is still very much elusive.  Perhaps the difference 12 months can make is that this reality no longer bothers me.  So this is adulthood.

The wide-eyed girl who sat in the airport a year ago writing a letter to 36, chatted face to face, one year later, with the intended recipients bearing a look of fatigue and uncertainty.  For a year, I held onto the idea that I could sustain the romantic notions of the world I had built in college in this “real world”.  I don’t think I can save the world, but I no longer believe the world is mine to be saved – or that I have the knowledge or authority to lay claim to the saving.

Yet, the tidbits of advice I have received from older colleagues leave me hopeful and yes, still idealistic.  Find things that are meaningful, foster the relationships you have, travel often, seek adventure, learn, continue working (hard) for worthwhile causes, find time to write pretentious things like this entry (I mean, did I really just write that “truth of any kind if still very much elusive?”  Who the fuck am I, Jewel?).  As decisions in the next week or so determine where I go next (professionally – geographically, I have finally found a city I want to commit to), the context – all the intangible things I mentioned – in which I make my decision will factor in far more than the standards I held by in college (prestige, expectation, obligation, world-saving).

What a (welcomed) difference a year makes.