Baby Gaga and the Fame Monster (Happy Birthday, Sully)

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Today is my nephew’s seventh birthday. Of course, I love both of my nephews dearly, and feel a connection with each of them for their own reasons. His older brother and I bond over a love of math, puzzles, and storytelling, not to mention our mutual struggles with perfectionism and compulsion. But from the moment of Sully’s birth seven years ago, I have always felt the presence of a kindred spirit.

I am sure part of this is our mutual place as the youngest child. We both know the benefits – and occasional frustrations – of having a smart, talented, and attentive older brother. It also doesn’t hurt that I think Sully looked a little like me as a baby. But it goes deeper than that. I see in him my mischievous and creative spirit, confident one moment and wildly insecure the next. We both love to dance and make music, regardless of our skill level. We love to dress up, and play pretend. And (what is perhaps my favorite similarity), we share a groan-inducing love of puns. This is a kid who, at age four, recommended the family name their newly-arrived Elf on the Shelf, “Elfis”. Elfis! That’s brilliant.

One of my favorite Sully stories is from several years ago, shortly after he really started to get into playing fake musical instruments. (I will buy him a drum kit someday, but I am not ready to end forever my relationship with his parents.) He walked through the living room one afternoon, past his mother, who was sitting in a rocking chair reading. She asked him if he would like to come over and rock with her. His response: “I can’t rock now, Mommy. I don’t have my guitar.” I love this kid!

So in honor of Sully’s birthday today, I want to share another story with you. Almost exactly three years ago – just before his fourth birthday – my mother and I were watching the boys for a week while their parents were out of town. Things got a bit silly (as always – I think this was the same weekend we “arrested” G-Ma and turned the hose on her), and at one point Sully started pretending he was a dancing baby. His brother dubbed the character, “Baby Gaga”. Sully thought this was hilarious, and took the name as his own for the rest of the week.

Eventually, his big brother looked at me and said, “Wait, did I mean Lady Gaga?” How he, an almost-seven-year-old at the time, was aware of Lady Gaga is beyond me, but it was too late anyway. Baby Gaga was here to stay. Since Sully – like the real Lady Gaga – loves to sing and dance and dress up in costumes, I sat down that night and wrote the following story for him. The boys illustrated it the next day, but all I can recreate for you here is the text:

BABY GAGA VS. THE FAME MONSTER
By Aunt Katie, 3/20/2011

There once was a boy who was called Baby Gaga,
and he was as normal as you and as me,
Except he could dance like there’s ants in his pants
and sing like the birdies who live in the trees.

Baby Gaga would dance and sing morning ’til bed
because singing and dancing both made him feel glad.
And dancing and singing for others to watch
was the best, so he danced for his mom and his dad.

Baby Gaga liked also to dress up in costumes,
like firemen, pirates, and ninjas and clones.
When Baby Gaga performed in his outfits,
he soon became famous, by *everyone* known!

Soon there were hundreds and thousands of people
running to watch Gaga dance, dance, and sing,
While G-Ma’s and Grandmas all over the world
were racing to dress him up as everything.

At first, the attention was all kinds of fun,
but soon Baby Gaga was tired and sore;
Fans made him sing and dance all through the night,
but he didn’t want to perform anymore.

“I want to play with my toys and watch shows,
and run around crazy and nutty outside!”
But a monster appeared and said, “No, Baby Gaga!”
“You cannot stop, EVER!” the Fame Monster cried.

Faster than light, Baby Gaga dressed up
as a ninja, and soon the mean monster was gone.
At last, Baby Gaga was normal again,
at home with his toys, where he played all day long.

THE E.N.D.

Sully Monster

(Happy Birthday, Sully Monster!)

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Will You Be My Eggplant?

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Eggplant LoveIn college, there was this boy. He had red hair, so I of course liked him immediately, but he was also sweet and goofy, had a beautiful singing voice, and played the French horn, like me, which is how we met. Over the years, we never quite managed to get it together, but there was a lot of “almost”. I liked him, but he didn’t know it; then he liked me, but I had met my first love; I was single again, but by then he had a girlfriend… you know the drill. Our hearts were two magnets with misaligned polarity – naturally attracted to each other, but destined to repel one another every time we got too close. Maybe if one of us had just flipped the other over we could have made the connection, but we were college kids; what did we know?

Even though we never managed to find our way into coupledom, our mutual attraction and tumultuous relationship was apparent to everyone around us. Plus, we were band geeks, which is like being under surveillance by your incestuous family while starring in a reality TV show. Everyone is up in everyone’s business, is what I’m saying. We got a lot of questions along the way. “Are you two dating?” “Do you like him?” “Is he your boyfriend?” “Is this a thing or something?” “What are you guys?”

When you’re nineteen, you may know in your gut that the appropriate answer to all of these questions is, “None of your damn business,” but the nerve to actually say that is still a long way off. Still, I didn’t have much inclination to get into a personal conversation about a relationship I could barely quantify myself, and even if I had wanted to, there was no easy way to answer. I didn’t know what we were; it was complicated. So one day, in response to the latest nosy inquiry about the real deal with this boy, I simply answered, “He’s my eggplant.”

I have no idea why that particular word popped into my head at that moment. Perhaps it is because I have always considered the eggplant to be a ridiculously named object. How did that even happen? “Plant” I can understand, but they are not the size or shape of eggs, or egg colored, or the texture of eggs, and certainly not egg flavored. “Eggplant” is the exact opposite of an onomatopoeia – it is a thing that does not look, sound, or in any way resemble the word used to describe it. We should have a name for that. It’s an “Offomatopoeia”.

We should have a word for a lot of things that don’t have names, which was kind of my point by calling this boy my eggplant (in addition to the point that the people doing the nosing should butt out). For all of the nuance of the English language – and I do love this language – the pickings are pretty slim when it comes to the stages of romance. Fights will break out over the subtle differences between “geeks”, “dorks”, and “nerds”, but when it comes to love, the best distinction our language can muster is “love”, “platonic love”, and “in love”. No wonder poor Kevin Arnold had to ask if Winnie Cooper just “liked” him, or if she “like liked” him.

In relationships, our descriptors are pathetic. Once there is a level of commitment, it is pretty easy: spouse, partner, fiancé, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other. But there are a whole lot of relationship stages before two people get to that point, and for those our language simply has no label. What are we supposed to call someone we like like, or are just starting to date, or are just starting to seriously date? (Even in describing the relationship phases our vocabulary is pretty limited.) We could call him a “prospect”, but this isn’t the NFL draft. A “candidate”? That’s way too political. He could be a “contender”, but that’s way too Brando. How about a “person of interest”? Sure, if you want it to sound like you’re investigating him for murder. And what about someone we’re just sleeping with? (Or: nailing, screwing, banging, tapping, f*cking, humping – here the vocabulary is practically endless.) There is the term “lover”, but I think Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch pretty much killed that one forever.

We’d probably be better off if we didn’t label things at all, but since we do, there should at least be enough labels to go around. Instead, there is a linguistic shaming of people outside of committed relationships (the single, unwed, available, unattached…), and I for one am not okay with it. Calling the romantic protagonists in my life “eggplant” – which I continue to do – is my one-woman protest (objection, disruption, act of defiance, stand…). What do you say we see if it can catch on? Maybe we can start an uprising (revolution, rebellion, movement, coup…). Or maybe we’ll just get some people to mind their own business. Either way works for me.

Poker Face (That’s What She Said)

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In 2012, I wrote a screenplay about a girl who starts an underground casino on the Princeton campus in order to pay for her suddenly scholarship-less senior year. Since the only personal experience I have with gambling is playing “Vegas rules” solitaire on my computer when I’m procrastinating, I had to do quite a bit of research before I could write it. One of my favorite discoveries came when reading about the psychology of the greatest poker players.

In poker, as in much of life, there are four possible outcomes every time we play a hand: we can play well and win (yay!); we can play poorly and lose (boo!); we can play poorly and win anyway (yay!); or we can play well and still lose (double boo!). Most of us – mere humans that we are – are emotional creatures, or what Lord Voldemort would call “weak”. While Voldy’s assessment is a tad harsh, it is true that our emotional dominance tends to result in reactions like those of the parenthetical cheerleader above (Mr. “Yay! Boo! Yay!”). We focus primarily on results – winning is good, losing is bad.

But some people are ruled more by logic instead – Sherlock Holmes, the main character on Bones, and Mr. Spock to name a few. These people would have very different reactions to the four possible outcomes, because they don’t focus on results as much as process when judging performance. Good poker players know that long-term success demands that they learn to think this way – to be more Spock than jock – and they have the experience and maturity to “make it so”. (Yeah, yeah, I know that’s Picard’s line. Give me a break.)

A professional poker player understands that sometimes, life happens (or, in their case, luck). Sometimes, you play the odds perfectly, and read an opponent just right, but he still draws that one improbable card that gives him the one had that can beat you. Yes, this hand is lost, but what matters is that it was played well. The successful poker player walks away from this situation satisfied, and would be similarly displeased if the roles had been reversed and she had won on a lucky card rather than skilled play.

Daft Punk may be up all night to get lucky, but the best poker players are up all night to hone their craft.

Empirically, I know this to be the path to success. I tell my LSAT students relentlessly, because I have seen it bear out time and again: focus on the process instead of the score, and not only will you be happier, you will also ultimately see much better scores. It is logic. It is proven. It is also much easier said than done.

Most people hear about my romantic travails in 2012 and immediately want to give me a hug, buy me a cookie and tell me it’s all going to be okay. I won’t lie – it was emotionally rough. But I look at the year as a success because I finally learned to start looking at the world with the eye of my inner poker player. Yes, I had two relationships end in one year, and yes, both times it was because he chose to be alone rather than to be with me. I could easily look at that, see two defeats, and decide to try being a different person, but the outcomes don’t bother me. Sometimes, two people just aren’t meant to be together – and boy, did I not belong with either of them. Instead, I choose to focus on how I handled things once that was known.

Neither of the two men involved was capable of sustaining a long-term relationship. The first was a true loner; he loved me, but after a year his wanderlust started making him more and more distant. When this became too apparent to ignore – along with the fact that he was never going to own up to it – I sat him down and told him to figure out what he wanted. If it was me, fantastic, I was totally in; but if it wasn’t, he needed to go so I could find a man who did want me. He left and it was heartbreaking, but for the first time in my life I had handled a romantic entanglement with complete maturity and strength. Even though I lost, I walked away with pride because of my good play – and hoped to continue such behavior in the future.

Naturally, my handling of the next guy was a disaster. He was self-absorbed, closed off, and a really good liar. Even though, in the few short months we were together, my inner voice kept screaming, “Get out! You deserve better than this!” I chose to believe him every time he begged for patience and forgiveness. My last capitulation – an agreement to pause, let the holidays pass, and regroup after life was calmer and heads were clearer – was rewarded with an abrupt break-up speech en route from one Christmas party to another. It really couldn’t have ended better.

Still, even though I consider that last relationship more of a win than a loss (being single is so much better than being with him), I seethe with shame every time I look back at it because I really could not have played it worse. Well, okay, I could have “accidentally” gotten pregnant by him to appease my biological clock – THAT would have been worse. But you get my point. Any outcome based on bad play is far less desirable than even a loss after good.

Poker mentality is a refreshing alternative to our usual results-based evaluations. It is especially vital for sanity when taking the life or career path less traveled. Sure, it’s a little annoying that to most of my friends I appear far more upset about (and thus attached to) the ass than the guy I actually loved, but that’s on them for making assumptions. I’ll take my healthier mental state any day.

Of course, it is still harder to practice than to preach. Not only do we have to learn to focus on process over outcome in the face of a culture that overwhelmingly cares about results, but we also have to learn to trust our own evaluation of that process. This is especially hard in an imperfect and uncertain world, where it is often difficult to distinguish bad luck from bad strategy. Did this relationship or project fail because it just wasn’t meant to be, or because there is something wrong with my selection process? Most of the time, it’s a little bit of both.

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. We just need to practice. The more experience we collect, the easier it will become to judge our process and then to trust that judgment. Start small (my oven timer broke and the cookies burned, but the batter tasted great), work up to the bigger things (sure, my kid’s a rocket scientist, but what matters is that I taught her to be nice to people), and counteract inherent uncertainty with self-forgiveness.

If we focus on the method instead of the goal, we will find more pleasure in the process, and with a little luck see better outcomes than we ever imagined. (That’s what she said.)

Quantum Crashing (or, Crisis on Infinite Me)

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Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the best thing that ever happened to me that hasn’t actually happened yet. I know, this sounds like science fiction, but unfortunately it is just the reality of the film industry. Because nothing about this one-year-old event has been made “official”, I can’t get into specifics – and yet, I have already said enough to explain the crux of my angst. For an entire year now, I have been living in Hollywood Limbo; celebrating something I cannot celebrate, having accomplished something I have not technically accomplished.

Basically, I have spent a year stuck between parallel universes: one in which I am a working professional writer with traditional markers of success, and another in which I am a professional writer who so far has nothing tangible to show for it. I am Schrödinger’s cat, stuck in a lead box with a possibly-decaying radioactive particle, both alive and dead at the same time.

On the plus side, I now know what it feels like to operate on a quantum level. On the down side, it kind of sucks big time and I hope it ends soon.

The most common theory of parallel universes – the Many Worlds Interpretation – springs from the theory of quantum mechanics. As I mentioned in Quantum Leaping a couple weeks ago, quantum particles don’t exist in just one state or another (moving or still, for example), but in what Neils Bohr called a “superposition”: they exist in all possible states at the same time. Bohr noted that our observation of them is what breaks superposition and forces them to, basically, pick a state and stick with it.

I would really like someone to try to observe my career right about now so it would be forced to pick a reality. Of course, it could pick the dead cat reality instead of the live one, so maybe I’ll just stay right here in the box for the time being. Be careful what you wish for, right?

The many worlds theory of parallel universes goes one step beyond Bohr and says that while to us an observed particle looks like it chose just one of its possible states, it actually split the universe into several realities – one for each of its possible states. So, when we open the box to check on the cat, in our world she leaps out alive and pissed off, but we also create a parallel universe in which Fluffy was not so lucky.

This too shall pass, Fluffy.

This too shall pass, Fluffy.

And thus it goes, on and on, splitting off parallel realities with each point of decision or action. Fluffy jumps out of the box and can either scratch our face off or hide under the bed; boom: two more worlds exist, one with eyes glaring out from the darkness and one where we’re bleeding profusely. We, of course, see only one continuous reality from our perspective, but just on the other side of the fabric of space-time there are other versions of us with more or less blood on our faces and/or a dead cat.

I find the idea of a multiverse comforting at a time like this weekend’s anniversary, not just because it nicely captures the schizophrenic feeling I’ve had for the last twelve months, but also because it helps put things in perspective. Naturally, it has been really difficult to be on the verge of a dream come true for so long, and to watch that dream be deferred again and again. I feel like Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham from Field of Dreams, standing on the base line of a magic ball field, one step away from the life I was meant to live. Medicine was Archie Graham’s true calling, and I also want to step over that line into my life-long career. But with each day that I wait, I am terrified that writing will turn out to be my version of Moonlight’s baseball career – something I come so close to, have within my grasp, but never quite catch.

And on top of that, I am mortified that in my late thirties I am again barely able to pay my rent.

It is nearly impossible in times like this, when we feel helpless and on the verge of hopeless, not to examine our path to this point and our choices along the way. The “how did I get here,” “what if I’d done this instead” mental spinning that is not good for anyone. To stop myself, I like to think about the fact that somewhere, out in the multiverse, there exist theoretical versions of me that did make different choices – many of them worse ones – and that no matter how frustrating, depressing, embarrassing, or just plain crappy I consider my life and myself right now, somewhere there is a parallel universe with a version that is worse. Somewhere out there, there is even the worst version of me that could possibly be. Suddenly, things don’t seem all that bad.

Of course, there also exists the remote possibility that I am that worse possible version of me. Does anyone have a radioactive particle and a lead box I can crawl into?