Unsolicited Thoughts

This is a spot where I will place my unsolicited thoughts. All thoughts mine and written by me, Amanda Kraus.

Eating in restaurants with my parents Pt 1

I think we can all agree that 2021 was a wretched mess of a year. When I look back on my own experience, I see January and February starting off with a genuinely optimistic healing vibe in which I attended online workshops, scheduled meetings, and cooked up plans to attempt to rebuild my professional life after a long and disappointing 2020, which ended with the complete dissolution of my department and my layoff from a beloved longtime teaching job. 

Guess what, exactly none of my ideas panned out aside from one: I started teaching at a new institution that would prove to be more supportive and well-organized than anywhere else I ever worked. But it wasn’t enough money; adjunct teaching even at the finest institutions this country has to offer continues to be a losing proposition in terms of financial stability.[Click here to learn more from the AAUP about the working conditions of contingent faculty]  I needed about $350 more per week in order to cover my basic living expenses. Every day I would go for long walks and see what sorts of businesses/organizations were within walking distance from my home and wonder “could I work here?” The idea of starting at a second new institution was too exhausting; I needed another less-stressful way to make money.

On one of these walks, I saw a sign outside a fancy pizzeria that sells $13 cocktails saying they were looking for front of the house workers, servers and bartenders. I had worked at restaurants in my distant past, before moving to my current city and before teaching.. Strangely, I don’t especially like eating in restaurants, but working in them is something I remembered fondly, or at least with a neutral tone. 

Those nightmares people talk about having decades after working in restaurants? I never had those. I never found it particularly stressful aside from the precarity of the compensation and lack of security, which is real and pants-shitting scary compared to, say, receiving an after-hours email from a superior. In fact, I always said that there are a lot of ways in which teaching and helping people have an enjoyable restaurant experience felt very aligned to me, at least in some ways perhaps only notable to me. In fact, I have yet to find anyone who feels the alignment as strongly as I do. I convinced the restaurant owner that I would be an asset to their team and I got the job. No prep work, no planning, no grading papers, a cooperative work environment (we pool tips) and a 10 minute bike commute. Plus the promise of discounted delicious pizza! It felt right to me and I started in August. 

Teaching academic writing skills by day and folding napkins at night took some time to adjust to. I also think it got me thinking about stuff I hadn’t really thought about for a long time, including why do I like this environment so much? Why do I feel so comfortable here? 

Then, at the end of October, a health crisis (completely unrelated to Covid-19) shook my tiny 3-person family of origin. It was a Saturday night and I was at work at the restaurant when my mom texted me to tell me that my dad had been admitted to the hospital; she didn’t say why. When we talked the next morning, I learned why and things haven’t been the same since, namely because the incident that initially sent him into the hospital caused a cascade of subsequent problems. Now he is in a nursing home where my mom visits him every day. 

One night at the restaurant, a family came in to celebrate a four year-old’s birthday and they asked if we had a kid’s menu. We don’t, but we have two things for kids and it’s usually all they want: a plain cheese pizza and a plate of buttered noodles with cheese. Pizza or pasta? The birthday girl ordered the noodles and I praised her choice, knowing the only people who were listening to me were her parents. I immediately began to think about all the times I had asked for plain buttered noodles at a restaurant when I was a kid. 

Growing up, my parents and I spent a lot of time eating in restaurants. In fact, it was the #1 thing we did together regularly. Thanks to my dad’s line of work as an elected official, from the earliest moments of my recollection my parents were always on the move, going to events, and grabbing a meal on the way there or home. We also used to eat in restaurants with my grandmother as well as throughout my adult life when I would go home to visit. It occurred to me that the majority of together-time we spent as a family outside of the home was spent at restaurants. And frankly, frequently, I hated it. 

My mom recently reminded me that when I was very young, I used to slide down under the table and hang out underneath the conversation by myself. I didn’t like the feeling of being on display and the conversation was often quite dull by my childish standards. On the nights when I would be woken up from my caretaker’s couch to go grab a bite in my pajamas, I felt humiliated and on display in my private sleeping clothes. My prevailing complaint was that we couldn’t go anywhere without people recognizing my parents, and many of those people had thoughts they wanted to share with us. For me, it was like our table was a customer service desk. Not only was it my only time with my parents, it was constantly being interrupted by complete strangers who had something they needed to share. So I wasn’t in love with eating in restaurants as a young person. 

When I sat down to think about the weird relationship I have with eating in restaurants with my parents, it all made a lot more sense. That time I went out with my dad in my early 20s and he warned me not to dress up, lest someone not see the resemblance between us and think we were on a date (gag!!). The times I would go out to eat with my parents as a young adult and spend every moment wishing we were in my kitchen cooking our own meal and not sitting here in public among all these strangers. But there were good times too. 

We went to New Orleans one Christmas (I was 19) and ate in so many good restaurants without being bothered at all because no one knew who my dad was there. We ate smoked fish in Florida with our hands and didn’t care about the little bibs because no one knew us there either. We were a mess! It was fun. I actually found these experiences really enjoyable because it was just us, like the rest of the world had dropped away and we were the only people left, and we were at a restaurant. No complaining constituents, no hostile looks from strangers, we were finally just regular people eating a regular family dinner in a restaurant. I finally got to know what that felt like, albeit briefly. 

Working at the restaurant now, sometimes I feel cascades of sadness when I see small families eating together, even (especially?) if the children are grown adults now. For me, there is something about eating in a restaurant with my parents that feels like home. And since my dad was hospitalized, it dawned on me that we would never have that opportunity again. I may have groused and complained my way through countless restaurant meals with my parents. Still, the dining table that most reminds me of home, of my family of origin, is not the long family dining table teeming with homemade food, conversation, warmth, and a holiday centerpiece. It’s the one where someone drops a check with a smile at the end. 

Poloroid photograph taken by my mother circa 1984

Things Can Only Get Better

June 25, 2021

In January 2021, I was staring out the window at a superbleak vista of snow, bitter midwestern cold, everything else terrible about winter, and as a sweet bonus, a recently-broken front tooth and my fresh unemployment during a pandemic. I was disoriented. In spite of a childhood spent entertaining myself, I wasn’t exactly sure how to spend my brain-time. Audiobook? Podcast? I am antsy and prefer to keep moving. And I have been told that cleaning is catharsis, so I embarked on a top to bottom scrub/reorg of my living environment. During the hours I spent cleaning/organizing, I passed the time by listening to Billboard’s Top 100 from 1980-1990. I wanted to feel the landscape of popular music changing all over again in fast-forward, through my own modern audio lens. 

This was the most popular music of my entire remembered childhood: I was 5 in 1980 and 15 in 1990. It goes without saying that there was a lot of the holy trio of singing/dancing/crying, and texting of old photos to and from childhood friends. I also realized how good my recall was —  I knew a good 80-90% of the songs. I liked a smaller portion, but I knew almost every song. Instead of being surprised by my recall, it made all the sense in the world — these were the songs that kept me company during those years. 

How can this be? Wasn’t I busy doing kid stuff? LOL, who do you think I am? I was an only child of two public figures (an elected official and a veteran teacher) with three pals nearby: my dog, the printed word, and music. I had a couple of friends at school, but at home I read or listened to the radio basically 100% of the available time, same in the car when going here and there with my parents or caregivers. When I wasn’t listening to my mom’s records or those little storybook 45s (I will never forget the blue grasshopper) at home, I was reading and gobbling up whatever information I could about the world outside my experience. When I got older, I watched MTV constantly after we got cable and a color TV in 1986. Around that same time, at 12 or so, I had a musical awakening of my own and actively started to move away from the music of the top 40. I also got braces. Still, I can’t deny that popular music of the 1980s was my constant companion when that was really what I needed, and hearing it all again was a complete revelation. 

Now, some observations. First, in the 1980s, I had been listening to radio broadcasts, tinny car speakers, and budget boomboxes without intention, absorbing whatever and whenever. Even though I was listening at the programmers’ whim,  I didn’t know how the songs got onto the radio, I only knew what I heard and it all got stuck in my memory without my intention. Hearing some of these songs intentionally, sometimes for the first time was such a weird experience. I’m thinking of solo Phil Collins, Foreigner, Kool and the Gang, Cher — I had never pressed play on these artists but I still knew so much of their music. I almost never knew the correct lyrics, but the song structure and melodies came back to me instantly. For better or worse, that is the power of osmosis. 

Also, much of the sparkling production choices of the early 80s were lost on me until I could hear them properly. The synth tones of Lionel Richie’s “You Are” were clear, the canned horns in Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” almost deafening. Duran Duran changed the sonic landscape completely. And finally, I realized that my preferences as a child weren’t that different from my preferences as an adult. The songs I had liked way back in my grammar school days, I still liked. The tracks that stood out were the same ones that stood out to me as a child. (“Life in a Northern Town” anyone?) I had found a new appreciation for some of my longest-term musical tenants and a growing confidence that I should do something with this.

After listening to the 1000 most popular songs of the decade and scrubbing a lot, I taught a composition class between March and May, got vaccinated, started practicing with Impulsive Hearts and didn’t think much about the 1980s. Then I realized I needed a project, so I went back to the playlists I had listened to and took my laptop to my basement practice space. Beginning with 1980 again, I went through the hot 100 for each year again only this time with a new purpose: I favorited/liked/hearted all of the songs I enjoyed playing. The hearts started slow, only 16 songs from 1980 and 19 in 1981, but it shot up to 43 songs in 1982. The hearted songs peaked in 1985 with 60 songs. From 1982-1990, the number of songs I could play and also liked didn’t drop below 40 again. I would suspect that if I continued into the 90s and I entered my period of most severe musical snobbery that my taste for popular music would wane substantially. But for those ten years between kindergarten and 10th grade, I amassed a substantial catalogue of music in my mental jukebox. And it’s still there! My final count was in the neighborhood of 500 songs, which is a strong half of the top 1000 of the decade. 

What is the point of this? I’m not sure, maybe I just wanted something to do, maybe I was trying to make the time go by in an enjoyable manner just like I used to do. Regardless, I have amassed 500 chart-topping songs from the 1980s I would be happy to play. You can take a look at them by clicking here

Fun facts: 

  • My first 45 purchased of my own volition: Toni Basil, “Mickey”
  • My second: Joe Jackson, “Steppin’ Out”
  • Trajectory of my budding childhood motorik obsession: was obsessed with “Steppin’ Out” → “Young Turks” → “I’m On Fire”
  • Surprise fan fave of this experiment: Phil Collins
  • The Lasting Power Versatility in Song Award goes to: George Michael 
  • Shocked by my recall: every Samantha Fox song
  • Still don’t like it: Huey Lewis & the News (all songs)
  • Not at all fun to play: all REO Speedwagon songs
  • Super fun to play: most but not all power ballads (no Chicago)
  • Had forgotten their staying power: Duran Duran
  • Fave childhood banger that never ever gets old: Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” 
  • Fave childhood entertainment industry aspirational anthem: Paul McCartney’s “Take It Away” 
  • Corniest year: 1986
  • Overall best musical year of my childhood: 1985
  • Surprise Covid vaccination anthem: “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, Human League 
My friend Liesl and I in our finest, photo by her mom?

Inaugural post: The Unforeseeable Loopty-Loop of Life

Our human lives don’t develop on a linear path; to me, it has always seemed like a series of doodles and curlicues that overlap in sometimes surprising ways. My writing life has felt this way, full of unexpected returns. To orient my reader, in another lifetime (late ‘90s/early ‘00s), I was in my 20s living in North Carolina, writing for a weekly magazine and feeling pretty great about sharing my thoughts. I wrote personal essays, concert previews, album reviews, interviews, profiles of local people, etc.; you name it, I wrote it. After 9/11 happened, my partner and I picked up and moved to Chicago. I went to graduate school, and I have been an ESL and writing teacher for 14, possibly 15 years if you include early courses I taught, before I really knew what I was doing. My specialty, as it evolved, was and remains recognizing and amplifying the genius in everyone; I believe we all have a writing voice and we should learn to use it as well as we can. Sounds great, right? 

2020 was a beast of a year for everyone, self included. The school I had considered my professional home went through a complete restructuring, and my department was dissolved. Where there was once a place for me, there was nothing. I had been RIFed (laid off). Once the dust settled, I found myself on 1/1/2021 tasked with figuring out where to apply these skills and enthusiasms after losing my longtime professional home. I was at a crossroads and didn’t even know where to look for the signs, much less how to read them; you never know what sort of signs you will receive, though. Keeping your mind and eyes equally open to potential signs is the only way to navigate the loopy doodle-path of life. 

Sometimes the light goes on while we’re going through the motions, in the most mundane moments. In January, the days were starting to blur together, long expanses of time connected by showers, meals, a series of the same non-revenue producing activities I had done before without second thought in between actual required tasks before the RIFing. It wasn’t that things were “normal” because Lady Rona had made that impossible months before; it was whatever had passed for normal during the pandemic. For some reason, I was showering in the morning rather than the afternoon. Because of the particular time of day, the sun was streaming through the bathroom window and I noticed the way that the light was making the water sparkle. It looked like confetti made of light was being tossed my way, like a visual reminder of the sparkle I was missing. It was at that moment that it dawned on me: I could write if I wanted to. And, weirdly, I wanted to. I wanted to write about that very moment and so many others like it. So what was stopping me? 

Honestly, I have no idea what was stopping me. I took the question to a friend, Natalia, who has been working on designing existential games to bring joy and levity to some of the challenging aspects of life. She had offered to design a game for me to overcome whatever obstacle I wanted to overcome. Having an abundance of obstacle options, I found myself wondering what she, specifically, could help me with. After discarding a few more tantalizing obstacles to overcome (things I would rather be doing than sharing my thoughts), I realized that despite my experience both writing professionally and teaching the art of writing I was deprived (by myself) of my own medicine. She and I met over Zoom to discuss this and, in her singular way, Natalia poked around my excuses and identified the paradox of my inability to share my thoughts in writing. We developed and named the “game” that would lure me into achieving my goal: sharing my thoughts. A dose of my own medicine delivered by an expert practitioner of the dark art of human persuasion. And it worked! I still had to get started, but I felt motivated for the first time in decades to share my own thoughts in writing. Go ahead and laugh, I get it. 

My next step was to provide myself with a space for my thoughts, as I am trying to move beyond the notebook without turning into a social media essayist. I wanted to retain ownership of my thoughts, wasn’t concerned at all about reach or spread of my thoughts, and needed a receptacle into which I would be able to safely pour my heavily guarded thoughts. Not a journal, not a monetized blog, not a compendium of opinions or links, just…unsolicited thoughts. Thoughts that no one asked for, but I was compelled to share anyway. Since my website was already established and I thought I could figure it out, I decided to add a page for my writing and named it, somewhat cheekily, Unsolicited Thoughts. The day I created it, I sent a screenshot to all my friends who have known me for decades and it was like a chorus of inaudible applause rippled through the universe. Weirdly, I felt like people were waiting for me to come to this conclusion and were fully supportive in my endeavor. And now, here I am, fully dosed on my own medicine, sharing my thoughts and composing sentences for other people to read. In some ways, it feels super weird! It also feels very familiar and natural.

Everyone needs to start, or restart, somewhere. We circle back to things we thought we lost, or forgot. For some people, it’s going back to school after a long period of doubt or obligation, sometimes familial or financial. Like so many goals, education can appear to be accessible, and yet feel so profoundly out of reach. That’s how I felt about sharing my thoughts; it should be easy, and yet it seemed well beyond my reach as I spent all of my energy trying to gently coax thoughts out of other people as a part of my job. Without that full time responsibility, I felt adrift, a lonely bird on a lonely log floating to no particular destination. It was easy to think about what I had lost, what had been supporting me that was no longer there, in so many ways. Still, that day in the shower was a potent reminder that sharing my thoughts through writing was something I was coming *back* to, not something I was trying for the first time. And maybe it would feel different, better, from my current perspective than it had previously. So far, so good. 

Many thanks to my current (and former) students for helping me to edit this essay & find my way back to sharing my thoughts.

#narrativeessay #curlicues #inspo