A Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Woman

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a dream. There was inspiration and motivation and daring and excitement. She was going to conquer the world and with a voice in her ear and endless story in her heart she knew that she could.

*                          *                           *

The land of creation is populated by liars. Its waters look deep but when stepped in are shallow, and the language is not how it sounds.

–How is it yes means maybe and maybe means don’t hold your breath? She never could understand or remember. She never learned to speak WhatsInItForMe.

But there are sparkly people, too, and she loves them! There are brilliant ideas and shiny talents; there is work and play and work and collaboration. O the collaboration! Yes, she says, and yes again. Let’s do something, or another thing, or lunch. A new project, new spark, new yes and yes I will Yes.

*                          *                           *

How can a world so small and crowded feel so empty sometimes? She has uncovered the challenge of living in the world while working in her head.

–It’s far better than the reverse, she reminds herself.

She watches friends change and fade and move on to better things, to better people. One by one some give up. She dreads the day she is faced with the same decision, wondering how one could possibly stop.

–Better odds for the rest of us. She secretly loves the acquired wisdom such ugly understanding betrays.

*                          *                           *

–This work is fantastic! Can you make it less ‘smart’?

–I love everything about this. Can you make it about a man?

–A brilliant new voice! Can you take out everything that makes it different?

Some create while others calculate, she learns. She wishes the calculators had as much faith in humanity as she does.

Stupidity and fear increase with power. With each note she leans to find the useful in the self-indulgent slop. She realizes she has a choice. Not every suggestion has to matter. Even if it’s right, she decides if it’s right for her. She learns to listen to herself.

*                          *                           *

Success is a carrot dangling, tantalizing up ahead. There is work, and money, but never the meal. She drags the weight of experience one step closer and grasps; victory keeps pace. One more step, one more reach, one more miss. With each try the weight gets heavier. Her legs get stronger. The distance gets smaller. But there is still distance.

She played Lucy once in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It sucks to be on the other side of the football.

*                          *                           *

–Why can’t my work speak for itself? Why do I have to learn to market to people?

–If only it worked that way. This is a business too, she explains. People have to see the dollar signs.

Mentoring reminds her how much she knows after all the years, how much she has to offer. It is good to give back, help, feel useful. She hopes they won’t look close and see she’s a fraud.

–What is the best strategy for breaking in?

–When you find out you can tell the rest of us.

She explains time and again there is no best way. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has the same answer: whatever works. Time and again she watches their faces fall to frustration. She remembers the feeling. It doesn’t get better, she wants to tell them. Unless it does and she just doesn’t know it yet.

–It really is true that if anything else can make you happy, you should do it.

–They tell the same thing to clergy, her student replies.

–Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Isolation, devotion, a calling. The joke works because it’s true. She wonders if she accidentally took a vow of celibacy at some point.

*                          *                           *

Night is dark, but feels darker. The city moves constantly, yet nothing changes. She wants desperately to give up. What if the years ahead look just like the ones stretched behind?

Stopping would be easy, logistically – she could teach, go back to school. Stopping spiritually is impossible. The voice is there. She has something to say and the ability to say it. Her drive to be heard will never fade; stopping just means desire with no hope.

But she lacks means. Substance and skill are useless without means. It feels like the means will never come.

Death would stop desire. She briefly considers it; the moment is one moment too scary. Her practical side objects: too much willpower, love, guilt. She wishes there were better reasons to get up.

–OOF. Okay, I’ll feed you! Now please get your fuzzy butt off my bladder.

She is reminded why she adopted the cats in the first place. Who rescued whom, really?

*                          *                           *

Nov. 9: Another birthday without the gift of work from anyone supposedly invested in my career. Another day is frustrating enough. If I make it to 40 in the same situation, it may kill me. Although I’m pretty sure I said that about 39. And 38. Time for champagne!

Nov. 26: Today I get to be with family. As rough as the last 13 years have been, at least I haven’t had to deal with parental disappointment or a lack of love. I give thanks for family.

Dec.1: It’s tempting to hate the agent who refuses to sign female comedy writers, but he’s not wrong. The odds are for-never in our favor re: work. But my motivation is starting to return. Spirits are up.

Dec. 27: Winter is coming? I’m pretty sure it’s here. A Game of Thrones marathon can ease me through the end of the year, but I need preparation to survive. New projects; new strategies; new sparks. Time to work.

Jan. 1: Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated story of my future. Stand me now and ever in good stead.

Los Angeles 2016

[My thanks to James Joyce for writing something I struggled with the first time, started to understand the second time, and have loved every single time since.]

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One Fish, Three Fish, Big Fish, Me Fish (Or, What I Learned on my College Vacation)

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One day, in my Senior year of high school, something unexpected happened to me in the middle of calculus: I didn’t get it. I have no memory of what mathematical principle we were learning that day, but I vividly remember the frustration of being confused. It had happened to me only once before (with math, I mean – I “didn’t get” the rest of life all the time), when my 5th-grade class learned “greater than” and “less than” (“>” and “<”).

Back then, I had stared at those little arrows for hours, trying to see the difference between them that everyone else could see. Was one wider than the other? A more acute angle? Was there something wrong with the printing on my paper? It simply never occurred to me that they were pointing in opposite directions.

Eventually, light dawned on marblehead, but for what felt like weeks (and was probably only days), it was as if everyone spoke a language I just couldn’t comprehend. Like how people describe the experience of having a mild stroke – or a conversation with hipsters.

In calculus class that day, those feelings of vertigo came rushing back, and it was a formative day for me because of two things that happened in response. First, unlike in 5th grade, this time I raised my hand and asked for clarification. Since I had come to define my self-worth by my academic ability, it was no small thing to ask for help. It is also why it pissed me off when, instead of answering, my teacher told me to see her after class. I felt that my years of patient listening to the answers to everyone else’s questions had earned me a little class time, so I asked again – and a third time when she politely deflected.

I have no idea why this otherwise-wonderful math teacher refused to address my question in class. Maybe I was missing something obvious again, or maybe we were behind schedule or she thought I was punking her. What I do know is that her denial made me feel that my questions didn’t have value – and the memory of that feeling hovers over me as a cautionary tale every moment that I stand in front of my own students now.

The second thing that happened that day is that, not two periods later, my friend Doug – who would not have understood calculus if Jaime Escalante himself explained it – came up to me at my locker and said, “I hear you messed up in math class today.” Apparently, word had spread around school, and there was a fair amount of Schadenfreude at the fact that Kate, Captain of the Math Team, had “messed up” in calculus.

My initial instinct was to tell Doug that if having a question constituted a mistake then he must be the biggest disaster since the Hindenburg, but instead of lashing out I decided to listen to my second thought: “F*ck this, I need a bigger pond.”

That day, my outlook toward college went from terror I would fail to remain the best to ardent desire for a place full of more-accomplished peers. When the miracle that was my Harvard acceptance letter showed up a few months later, I knew I had found the Lake Superior I was looking for.

Humility is a wonderful thing, and being humbled is even better. Those first couple of years in Cambridge, the knowledge that I was surrounded by so much talent freed me to try all kinds of new things. I figured, “if I’m not going to be the best at anything, what the heck? Let’s explore!” I took the hardest freshman math class there was and actually hung in there for a few weeks; I took Ancient Greek with a bunch of people who already spoke Latin and only freaked out a little at my F on the first midterm; I volunteered for Model Congress despite almost no awareness of current political events, and I did perhaps the scariest thing of all: left the comfort of mathematical certainty for the subjective world of the English department.

As I reached my last couple of years, the freedom of the big pond turned more into a driving force. Swimming with bigger fish had boosted my confidence, to the point where I was frustrated I wasn’t bigger myself. My desire to make a splash (or even a plop) drove me toward leadership positions I would never have considered before, and even inspired me to audition for a spot as a commencement day speaker – something I still can’t believe I actually attempted.

This weekend, the class of ‘99 returned to Cambridge for our 15th reunion, and my fellow Harvardians continue to represent for me those two pillars of a happy life: confidence, and humiliation (er, humility). The ambition, drive, and success of my classmates is inspiring, and reflects back on me the courage to earn my spot within their ranks – or at least to try. At the same time, I am acutely aware that no matter how good I get at anything, there will always be someone bigger or better. Probably someone I have seen contemplate philosophy and quantum physics while high.

Sure, knowing I will never be “the best” can be a little depressing at times, and occasionally makes me want to go drown myself in a small pond somewhere. But mostly, I find it a comforting assurance that I will never be bored. No matter how far I get, there will always be those who challenge me to swim farther; there will always be new waters to explore.

As long as those waters aren’t the Charles River – that shit is still toxic.