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I’ve mentioned before that I dabble in the world of secret shopping occasionally.  It’s not a bad gig, but oftentimes the amount of money they’re willing to pay me to, for example, drive to Warwick (20 minutes) and pretend to be interested in a buying a motorcycle, just isn’t worth it.  So it’s not a steady source of income, but occasionally something lands in my inbox that I’m actually willing to do

A few months ago, it was secret shopping the University of Phoenix.

As a librarian, I have a rather large beef  with the University of Phoenix.  Since all the classes are online, there is no physical school and no physical library.  This, however, does not stop University of Phoenix students from needing a library, and they often come to me, the public librarian, and expect me to have materials to support their specific curriculum.  They usually become unpleasant when I tell them that we do not have medical coding books, and do not seem to care when I explain that buying those books doesn’t really fall within the purview of the public library.

As a secret shopper, I was all too willing to evaluate their level of customer service, particularly since their online nature meant I could do it from home in my jammies.   So I filled out the online request for more information stating that I have no college education (the secret shopping company said I had to lie about that), and was interested in a B.S. in psychology.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I was an angsty pre-teen, so I figured this was kind of a way to live the dream.  After filling out the form, U of P was supposed to call me and we would further discuss how they could meet my needs.

They never called.

They were supposed to call me within an hour, but it didn’t happen.  I sat there in bed awkwardly wondering what I should do with myself since I didn’t want to get involved with a project or book that I might have to abandon if they called.  I was also a bit anxious about flubbing the script, so I re-read the guidelines for the secret shop about ten times, and waited by the phone which is a truly unpleasant experience.

Finally after an hour and a half, I abandoned my waiting and went for a run expecting to come home to a voicemail–still nothing.

So I washed my hands of them, and decided to fill out the online questionnaire with my secret shopping company stating that the U of P did not call me back, then wait for my check to arrive.  Sadly, it was not so easy.  I needed some kind of code that I could only get from the counselor I was supposed to speak to (presumably to keep secret shoppers from going “oops, they didn’t call me, gimme cash”), and after three days of not submitting my secret shopping report, I got an email from the secret shopping company asking, “what the hell?” and concluding with, “you call them if you want to get paid.”

So I spoke to a very nice man named Jason about my career goals and what the U of P could do for me.

“What has your life been like with no college education?” he asked in a thoughtful and somewhat velvety tone.

“Hard.” I told him, “Really hard.”  There was a long pause where he seemed to be waiting for me to expand on that, so I threw in a “paycheck to paycheck, barely getting by.”

“And how do you think a degree in psychology will help you out?”

To this question, I had no answer.  All I know about the field of psychology is that it requires further education beyond a bachelor’s degree.  I imagine most people with a BS in psychology work in an unrelated field where they’ve been able to parlay their understanding of the human brain into some kind of asset, but this is all speculation.  Finally I just told Jason, “I don’t know, I hope to figure that out once I’m in the program.”

The secret shopping company had not warned me that this counselor would probably ask questions about my (fake) life, so I was very ill-prepared, but I think I pulled it off.

Then Jason called back.

This phone call happened four months after the initial one, and he was just following up (in a very concerned voice) to see why I hadn’t enrolled and started down the road to education and life improvement.  As I’d already been paid, I really didn’t want to spend anymore time mulling over my fake life with Jason, but as I am far too nice, I told him that I’d gotten a new, better-paying job, and would consider college again in the future.

“What are you doing these days?” he asked.

There was a long pause where I tried to remember what I had already told him.  What if he’d taken notes?  Should I just say “I’m a secret shopper, congratulations, I gave you a good review.”

“I have another call I have to take.” I told him and quickly hung up.

Nowhere in my secret shopper agreement and terms does it say that I have to continue to play along four months after the initial transaction, but my Midwestern niceness dooms me to, well, niceness.

I hope he doesn’t call back.

I am the type of person who requires structure in order to accomplish things.  I can be spontaneous, but as a person who only works 19 hours per week, and wants to use the rest of that time not just lolling around like a moron, I need to make a plan.  Basically, what I need to do is make my house more like school.  I need to set goals and meet them.  I need to try to actually focus while meeting these goals, and I need to not feel like I’m wasting my days.

To that end, I painted my office.  It is now a lovely shade of blue (see picture), and completely cleaned and organized since I needed to move things around to gain access to the walls.  I’ve decided that I’m going to start writing fiction again (since I haven’t really written any fiction since finishing my MFA, and I fear that if I don’t make a conscious effort, I will never do it again), work on getting better at Spanish (which is also on my list of life goals–not fluent, just better at), keep up with my out-of-work responsibilities, and generally just be more organized and focused.

Some good things that have come out of these changes. One is that I’m moving around more.  I’m leaving my laptop on my desk, where I’m not buried under cat and blanket and I can therefore get up more frequently and easily.  When I’m reading in my chair, I’m more focused, since my computer is not right next to me.  It used to be that I would be reading, then get distracted by facebook etc, and eventually place the book on my lap with the computer over it, and get no reading done at all.

The bad things that have come out of this new scheme are some that I hadn’t anticipated:

  • Watson (kitty) is seriously mad at me since he cannot sit on my lap while I’m sitting at my desk.  Typical day’s routine usually consisted of me sitting in my chair with laptop and books nearby, and Wee Watson sleeping adorably on my legs.  Now, in his rage at being denied this, he nips at my ankles and squawks loudly and plaintively.  It does not create an environment conducive to concentration.
  • My back is killing me.  I sit in a desk chair at work, but never for very long at one go.  I bought this desk chair that I have at IKEA and have never found it to be uncomfortable before, but apparently I’ve gotten soft.  My back is in agony from keeping myself seated, and my core muscles (apparently you use different ones for sitting as opposed to running or pilates??) are exhausted.  I did not anticipate that sitting would be so difficult for me.

Aside from these rather ridiculous setbacks, things are going pretty well.  I woke up early yesterday, got all my tax information together and sent that off to my accountant (hilarious that I have an accountant since I have no money, but it is what it is).  I ran seven miles, had a lovely lunch, discovered that the online Spanish learning program that I’m using has a section for slang and swear words and spent some time with that, then read two books and started a third.

It’s a solid start.

cooking-poisonThis cooking venture of mine is really starting to take off. A while ago, I mysteriously started getting Shape Magazine in the mail. I’ve given them no money, but it just keeps coming, which is fine with me because free things are awesome. I guess Shape also includes recipes because I found what sounded like a delicious recipe for corn chowder–one of my favorite chowders.

It turned out so well, that Gentleman Scholar looked at me with amazement and said “I hope we can have this again sometime.”

I said, “Of course we can, this is America.”

Since it was in Shape magazine, it may actually be a healthy recipe, but I also added cream cheese, so it may not.


  • 2 tbsp butter 1 tsp minced garlic–the original recipe called for both onion and celery, but as I hate both those ingredients, I left them out.  Also, I think you could sub in olive oil for butter without ruining anything.  I’ll do that next time.
  • 2 small Russet or 3 medium red potatoes, cubed small–I used Russet
  • 3 cups whole-kernel corn
  • 2 cubes vegetable bullion–since I left out the onions and celery, but this definitely made it more flavorful (I imagine)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup milk–recipe called for whole, I used 1% then added 1 tsp of cream cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Other spices to taste–I used Rosemary, Basil, and Oregano

Melt butter and add garlic, pour in water, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add vegetable bullion and cubed potatoes, and simmer for fifteen minutes, or until potatoes are tender.  Add corn, and milk, bring back to a boil, add cream cheese (if you like), and stir in.  Reduce heat and let sit for five minutes or so.

Serve with crusty Italian or French bread, or oyster crackers and watch LOST while eating.

calendarbannerA while ago I read The Year of Living Biblically One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possibly by A.J. Jacobs.  Wise Lawyer Friend’s Husband is a Religious Scholar, and she went to a lot of Catholic schools growing up, so this appealed to her.  I am also a bit intrigued by organized religion, so I thought I’d read it to. I enjoyed it, it was funny, enlightening etc.  Then I read his earlier book The Know-it-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, where he takes a year and reads the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Considering I’ve always wanted to read a whole set of encyclopedae, but never had the chance, I felt miffed that he stole my idea.  There’s another book simply called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea (apparently you have to have an obscenely long title), which I checked out of the library, and Gentleman Scholar promptly claimed for himself and secreted away meaning that I still haven’t read it, though he wouldn’t stop talking about it, so I feel like I got the highlights.  I was also miffed by that one, because after I realized that the encyclopedia scheme was taken, the OED was my next idea.

Currently I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, in which she and her family move to Virginia and create a working farm determined to live only off of what they produce for a year.  Clearly that experiment will last longer than just one year, because they will have created a working farm, but I’m just pointing out a pattern.

A.J. Jacobs books are humorous and include tidbits about his daily life–mostly how his quest of the time affects his daily life, but not always, In short, they read a lot like this here blog.  So, that leads me to the conclusion that I can certainly write a self-indulgent memoir if only I had a scheme, but I can’t think of a single thing.

It has to be something that impacts my life somehow, otherwise what’s the point, but I cannot come up with anything that I would be willing to take on for a year, or that I feel people would want to read about.  This has been troubling me for a while now, so I open up the floor to you, gentle reader.  Any ideas?

lab rat_bannerNote: This blog is unedited for authenticity’s sake

I had a friend, when I was an undergrad, who made his living doing scientific studies.  There was an institution in town that tested name-brand medications versus prescription, and they were always looking for willing volunteers.  He made a lot of money doing this, and was apparently beloved since I moved into his apartment after he moved and fielded call after call from the place until I finally said that he had moved to California and I wasn’t sure if he’d be back.  The woman I told this to sounded devastated.

Aldous Huxley has an extra essay following his work The Doors of Perception, where he takes a lot of mescaline and stares into a strobe light.  Apparently, the reason that strobe lights give a lot of people seizures, is because you can still see colors even if you look at one with your eyes closed.  He was trying to determine what decides the colors, and the effect of mood-altering drugs on that.

I also tried to do the medical experiments that my friend made a living at, but my vegetarianism, and the fact that my veins are so small and ladylike I can barely fill a vial made me an unsuitable candidate.  What I can do is get drunk for science.  I’m currently testing a medical device that reads blood alcohol level through the skin.  For this, I must get drunk at 9am after having fasted since midnight the night before.  I drank a horrifying concoction of cranberry juice and some super alcohol, the level of which was determined by my height, weight, and waist size; and now I am drunk, in an exam room, at 10:18am.

It’s bizarre, but that goes without saying.

After this, I had to record every single bit of alcohol that passes my lips and hand that in after seven days.  While I do not necessarily agree with the implications of what this device may be used for, I am happy to help.  It’s just very bizarre to get drunk in the morning, after dinking something that I would never happily consume, and then have to hang out in a 6×12 room with a broken clock on the wall for seven hours.

They come in to take breathalyzer readings every ten minutes, and I can’t leave until I’ve been at 0.00 for one hour—I’m currently at .086.

I have to say, as freaked out as I am about my career goals and financial future—I’m rather enjoying this summer.  I don’t love that I have to hustle for every dollar, but I do like coming up with schemes.  I feel like it keeps me more creative.  I’m currently doing things I never thought I’d do, and feeling a bit more like a writer again for the first time in a long time.

My worry was that in my underemployment, I’d lack for wacky adventures to write about, and I feel I have a bit, but I’m starting to find some, and getting a feel for the adventure.

10:30—breathalyzer .0802, going down, and I’m fascinated by how pretty the undersides of my shoes are.  This room is where people come expecting to spend 6-8 hours, and all they have is a small stack of magazines (People January 19, 2009, Redbook August, 2008 etc.), and 10 VHS tapes with hand-written labels—A Chorus Line, A New Life, except for Dying Young (starring Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott—not exactly the most appropriate movie for a hospital, I feel).

11:00—I’m dropping fast.  I’m already at .0643, which is kind of cool.  I used to talk with friends about how interesting it would be to drink and then take continuous breathalyzers just to see how if feels to become increasingly intoxicated.  Now I’m kind of doing it in reverse.

11:45—I actually get take-out for lunch instead of the cold cafeteria sandwich I was expecting.  I will be having a cheese sandwich, coke, and salad. My back hurts.

11:53– .044

12:55– .028 There’s a rather large spider in the room making the rounds.  It was initially on the table with the TV and magazines, now it’s been lapping the floor since morning. I probably won’t kill it, but it’s funny to find a pest in a hospital.  I’ve moved from the exam table to the chair, which is significantly more comfortable.  I wonder what other people in this same study are like when they get drunk.  I was asked a lot of questions about whether I get violent, but not much else.  Do some people just fall asleep, do they get really chatty?  Do they get do into watching A Chorus Line that they get annoyed with the breathalyzers every ten minutes?