Rock, Paper, Sisyphus, Shoot (Me)

Standard

I imagine if Sisyphus were alive today he would be a New Hampshire-ite. (New Hampshirino?) He would at least be a New Englander. Heck, he may already be Bernie Sanders. And I don’t just say this because of the futility that is shoveling in the midst of a New England winter.

Everyone thinks of endless futility when Sisyphus is invoked, but rarely do we remember why he was sentenced to such a fate. In life, King Sisyphus was a practical leader who placed his own judgment and passion above silly customs and superstitions like “the gods”.

Zeus steals the river god’s daughter for his own version of Fifty Shades of a Rape Fantasy and no one dares to speak up? Not Sisyphus – he’s all, “I’ll tell you where your daughter is, river god, if you promise to give my people water.” That’s good leadership. Angry Zeus sends Death to chain Sisyphus up in punishment? Clever boy says, “Hey, Death, you mind showing me how those chains work first, so I’m less nervous?” BAM. Death in chains, King S back on Earth – Live Free or Die, baby. Literally.

Even when he eventually did die, Sisyphus refused to stop living. He talked Persephone into letting him back up “just to haunt the wife a little”, then simply refused to leave until he’d had his fun. Sure, his lust for life and complete disregard for what is “supposed to” happen made his ultimate torment inevitable, but I’m pretty sure Sisyphus would have done it all anyway. You only live twice; what is an eternity of monotonous labor in exchange for greatness?

Great victories are always balanced by great struggle somehow, whether it be before or after. Call it Newton’s Third Law of Emotion. The problem is that in the midst of those darkest moments – as our strength is on the verge of giving out – it is impossible to know if we are about to be victorious over Death or about to watch that damn rock roll back down the hill for the umpteenth time.

There is a moment near the end of The Two Towers that is one of my favorites because it perfectly captures this uncertainty. Frodo, after months of mental torment and in the middle of a seemingly endless upward climb into Mordor, is feeling understandably desperate. To distract his friend from complete surrender, Sam starts talking about adventures:

“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered… Folk seem to have been just landed in them… But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end.”

Sam then asks the magic question: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” says Frodo, “but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale…the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

Frodo is convinced at this point that he is pushing a ring up a hill in complete futility, but of course we know that he will end up victorious over death. I like to re-read this part of Tolkien’s masterpiece in the midst of my darker moments. True, Frodo is attempting to destroy the source of pure evil and I am merely trying to bring some respectful and multi-dimensional portrayals of women to our modern mythology, but a struggle doesn’t have to be epic to completely suck sometimes.

Hollywood may not be Mordor, but can come close. The need to write is my ring/rock, and the patriarchal, nepotistic power structure is my uphill battle.

Lately, I have been feeling more like Sisyphus on the hill than Frodo in the midst of a dark tunnel leading eventually to light. If we’re lucky, in these darkest times we find ourselves in the company of a Samwise Gamgee – someone to give a little perspective, or at the very least a distraction for a moment or two. I am thus blessed, and so am prepared to keep pushing this rock no matter how many times it rolls back down the hill.

Life could always be worse, after all. As my own Samwise put it recently, “Sisyphus is better than syphilis.” Truer words have never been spoken.

The Shame of the Game

Standard

Am I the only one who feels terrible any time someone tells me I am a good person? Or guilty whenever I am praised for good work? Perhaps it is because I know something my complimenters don’t – the truth about what really goes on inside my head.

As a New Englander marinated in three solid centuries of Puritan stock, I have engrained in my DNA the need to be “of use”. I like to help, to listen, to be there for my friends whenever possible – as, I am sure, do most people. But that doesn’t mean I am not also a completely selfish bastard. If my inner monologue is any indication, I absolutely am.

One time, not too long ago, when I had hit a particularly rough patch with Cancer #3, I found myself in need of some serious girl talk (a mood that doesn’t strike me terribly often). Fortunately, I was already set to meet up with two different girlfriends that week, so things were looking up. Both of these were good friends, and I had certainly been there for them many times; I had no doubt they would return the favor and impart whatever wisdom or tough love I needed.

When it came time for the first get together, my friend opened with her distress at a recent argument with her fiancé and her resulting uncertainty about their impending nuptials. In the card game of girl talk, “possibly broken engagement” trumps “frustrating boyfriend” every time, so of course we spent the evening talking through her doubts and fears and options. Of course. But while I was a good friend on the outside, I was bitter Jan Brady on the inside. She gets to be engaged, planning a wedding, AND have the more serious problem this week? Why does she get to have everything? Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

My next shot at girl talk went even worse. This friend had a large family with a genetic predisposition to cancer and other ailments, so inevitably that week one of her relatives had finally succumbed to his or her long battle with illness. Which is awful, of course – exponentially worse than dealing with a commitment-phobic forty-something Eggplant – and also entirely out of her control. Of course we spent our time talking through her frustrations and sadness and all of the family dynamics that go along with planning a funeral. Of course I was there for her… but in my head I was also thinking, oh my god, I hate you, everyone you know dies all the time! When is it ever going to be time for MY problems?

In my head, I am an asshole. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad girl. I may pick up the phone and be cheerful, but in my head I hear the cursing because you called while I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle. Sure, I will go to your show / party / game, and even cheer you on, but in my head I hear the running calculation of whether or not I can still get home in time to read or watch Jon Stewart before bed. My text response will be pleasant and caring, but in my head I am pining for the days of the Pony Express.

This is my secret shame whenever anyone tells me I am a good friend. Or whenever I am commended for a job well done; sure, I am proud of my work product and I did finish by deadline, but I also know that I spent the first three-quarters of my time binge-watching seasons 1-3 of Leverage. I probably could have done better work, and finished early.

But I can’t admit to that; then I would be guilty of a humblebrag. Ugh. Life is impossible.

To Dream the Improbable Dream

Standard

Where exactly is the line between ambition and masochism, and at what point in my life did I cross over it without noticing? On dark days, like when I miss out on a job or can’t afford a ticket to something or am reminded by my body that yet another egg has gone unfertilized, I often ask this question. It started sometime around age 33, probably because once you reach that “I outlived Jesus” moment it is only natural to take a hard look at what you have accomplished so far.

Ambition – n. 1: the desire to achieve a particular end; 2: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.

The only positions of rank I have ever striven for or achieved are that of first lieutenant of the marching band and captain of the high school math team, and I long ago concluded that any level of fame beyond minor name recognition (just enough to get the occasional dinner reservation) would make me miserable. But still, I have always been an ambitious person. Even without Winston Churchill or an Uncle Ben in my life (the guy on the rice box doesn’t count), it was clear to me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in other words, that when your parents give you genetic gifts, you use them.

What I haven’t been able to figure out is the degree to which the obligation to use talent should dictate life decisions. One of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra, actually loved soccer most, but played baseball because he was so good at it and his dad wanted him to. Was that right? It certainly brought a lot of joy to the world – I enjoyed the hell out of his shirtless Sports Illustrated cover photo – but it makes me a little sad to think he didn’t love the game.

In my junior year of college, the campus was abuzz with news of a freshman girl from India who had been recruited by the school in large part because she was six-foot-eight and good at basketball. (How could she not be, at that height?) Upon arrival, she told the college she would not be playing basketball so she could focus on getting the most out of her Harvard education. I found myself in line for milk behind her one day, and as I watched her unfold from the milk dispenser to her full six feet and eight inches, I couldn’t help but think two things: first, that she was the best argument for drinking milk ever made, and second, that she had some impressive nerve to defy the tacit expectations of Harvard (and of nature) to do what she wanted instead. But was she right?

This friction between obligation and desire is universal – just ask Hillary – and will probably never go away. Do I do what I am good at? Do I do what I love? Or do I try to become the first female President because I, unlike most, actually could? My constant fear is that I will choose the wrong side; or worse – that I already have.

My ambition comes from knowing that I am capable of achieving great things, and also from taking pride in that fact. On top of feeling an obligation to use the brain I have been given, I also want to prove to myself, the world, whomever, that I am not wasting my talents or resting on them. Combine this with a few centuries worth of ingrained New England Puritanism, which screams that nothing is of value unless it is difficult, and the result is an ever-climbing standard for “success” that soon resembles a penchant for misery.

Masochism – n. 1: pleasure in being abused or dominated; 2: a taste for suffering.

Despite major guilt, I have somehow managed to let desire do most of the steering in life. In college, I changed my major from Applied Math to English not because I couldn’t make it as a cryptographer, but because there were so many books I wanted to read and discuss. Still, I feel like I gave up somehow. After getting into a few good law schools, I again decided not to go down that road because, while studying law sounded fun, the idea of being a lawyer after (and of accumulating more debt) did not appeal to me. Even though I am now blissfully happy as a writer, there is also an overwhelming sense that I have to make up for what I have given up. But what level of literary success is the equivalent of a career as an NSA code breaker, or a White House speech writer, or a public school teacher (like my parents)? This is how ambition becomes self-flagellation.

To satisfy my ambition and assuage my guilt, I have to achieve something hard. I mean, really hard. How else can I explain my ridiculous life choice? I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a scientist, and instead I have chosen not only to write in the one medium (film) that least values writers, but also in the one genre (comedy) that gets the least respect, and as a member of the gender (female) that is only grudgingly welcome in the boys’ clubhouse. Whose stupid idea was this?

Ambition is great, we should all be striving for something, but the trick, I suppose, is to appreciate the struggle without falling in love with it. When the dream is so ideal as to become nearly impossible, maybe we should worry that we’re in it more for the pride of survival than for the goal. Or not; I have written plenty about how fairy tales are evil because they teach girls to wait for a perfect man (who doesn’t exist), but here I am in my mid-thirties still looking. I like to think of myself as an idealist, but as the Democratic Party has demonstrated time and again, “idealist” is just another way of saying “glutton for punishment”.

On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a multi-million-dollar property, and a woman my age just snagged a ring from George Clooney. Maybe masochism is the way to go after all.

The Babysitter Clubbing

Standard

Let me begin by stating clearly: I have great respect for nannies. Being “Aunt Katie” for the last ten years has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I love kids in general – I love their creativity, curiosity, innocence, and ability to get away with a level of bluntness that only ever seems to get me dis-invited from things… Kids are great; but I don’t love any kid enough to spend all day with him unless he shares some of my DNA, which brings us back to my first point: I have deep respect for nannies. Still, I am not one.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a complete breakdown. It was short – only about twenty minutes – but what it lacked in quantity it more than made up in quality. We’re talking full-on sobbing: curled up in a ball, tears streaming down, actual vocalized wails. My poor cat didn’t know whether she wanted more to comfort me or run from all the noise and convulsing, so she just kept walking in circles halfway between me and the door. Claire Danes, queen of the ugly cry, would have been proud.

Why was I reduced – albeit briefly – to such a sniveling pile of saline and mucus? Because I am not a nanny.

Earlier that day, I had swallowed my pride and reached out to a hundred or so friends and contacts for help. Times have been a little tough as I have been caught in this weird career vortex where one work source is fading out and another (better) one is perpetually delayed in its fruition. It was time to give the coffers a boost, so I spread the word about resuming my freelance editing work and asked for help with any leads. It is never easy for the overly prideful to admit she needs help, but even though it stung my ego to ask, much like after ripping off a Band-Aid I felt better once I had done it. I even managed to temper my embarrassment with a little pride that I hadn’t let pride get in my way. Have I mentioned that pride is my sin of choice?

Most of the responses I got back were along the lines of, “I will spread the word,” and, “I can’t help but I can buy you a drink!” A few people actually had leads – names of writers looking to self-publish a book or organizations in need of some proofreading or writing. Almost everyone I contacted responded to me in one of four ways: with loving support, respectful encouragement, professional engagement, or a complete lack of acknowledgment of my email (the most common, of course). On the up side, the experience confirmed that there are clearly some great people who make up my community of peers. On the down side, notice that I used the word “almost”.

One person called me right away, eager to help, and cheerfully offered to connect me with her writer friend, not for a specific editing job, not for any lead, but so I could move into his house for a week and take care of his kids while he was out of town. He needed a nanny, and it dissolved me to tears.

Look, I know it is dumb that I lost it just because of one misguided attempt to be helpful. My friend was clearly acting in good faith, with the best of intentions, and in the moment I was mortified that her kindness was met with such a negative reaction. Was this just my pride rearing its ugly head again? Was this the moment my tragic flaw would cause me to starve to death on a diet of principle? I felt guilty that this poor woman left the conversation feeling like she had insulted me (I am not proud of my reaction). But then, after all the gasping and sniveling subsided, I had a moment of clarity. The thing is, she did insult me.

I had sent out a professional missive, asking in a professional manner for assistance furthering my career as a professional writer and editor. This career is something I have tended, nurtured, and toiled over for more than a decade. It is not a fad; it is not a phase; it is not a hobby. Maybe if she had couched the offer, more like, “I know it’s not what you’re looking for, but in case it’s a matter of just really needing some money right now, I do know someone who needs someone…” Maybe then I wouldn’t have reacted so violently. But in jumping right in with, “Great news! Here’s some babysitting,” she not only assumed my goal was just to make money, but also completely denied the validity of my career.

Again, I know she didn’t mean to insult me, but then again, it is also not the first time something like this has happened to me. It is not even the first time it has happened with this particular person. For the entirety of my professional life, I have had to deal with supposedly nurturing people – friends, instructors, my former manager even – who respond to any request for help advancing my career with suggestions of assistant work and child care. They simply do not respect me as a writer. (I won’t even get into how none of them would respond to a man seeking career advancement with similar suggestions, unless that man were seeking a career as a “manny”.)

I have no idea if this form of disrespect happens more often because I am a woman – it probably does a little, but not nearly as much as would be trendy. I don’t know if it happens because my profession is a creative one, or because I look younger than I actually am (thanks again, Mom and Dad, for the great genes). I don’t know if it happens because of some vibe I am putting out there, some lack of seriousness, though in case it is I will do all I can in the future to act more like I mean it. What I do know is that, to quote one of my favorite songs (“Let Go” by Frou Frou), there really is “beauty in the breakdown.” Because in having such a completely, inappropriately hysterical reaction to my poor friend’s phone call, at least I know now that I take myself seriously. Everyone else can catch up in their own time.

Quantum Leaping

Standard

The other day, a girlfriend and I were discussing the defining challenges we all face in each decade of life. You know, in the first ten years it is mastering the basics, like walking, talking, and not soiling yourself; in the next ten it is navigating social situations and surviving high school (again, without soiling yourself); and in your twenties it is coming to understand that you have not actually figured it all out and that you really are still kind of a shit. Now in our thirties, we decided that the major lesson we are fighting to learn is the challenge of letting it all go – not worrying so much about how we are perceived and instead just living the life we want to live.

This is a challenge facing all people, but definitely one that is significantly harder for women. Our fearless leader, Barbara Streisand, summed it up nicely when, after a decade and a half spent pushing the rock that was Yentl up the Hollywood hills only to be vilified for it, she said, “Why is it men are permitted to be obsessed about their work, but women are only permitted to be obsessed about men?” At my first job after college, I can remember the frustration of feeling this double standard but not being able to define it. When I defended one of my ideas in a meeting, I was invariably chided for “taking things personally”, while my male colleagues who did the same were praised as “passionate” and “assertive”. The societal expectations for women are far more defined and far less forgiving – and it really doesn’t help that random estrogen surges occasionally make us cry for no reason at all.

So my girlfriend and I started talking about how often we let the judgment of society (or even the potential judgment) have more say in our behavior than our own desires. Do I want to be starting a family? No, but I feel like I should. Do I want to cut this negative person out of my life? Yes, but I am afraid she will hate me. Do I want to tell this story or voice this opinion? Yes, but what if they call me a bitch? Even with Tina Fey declaring “bitch is the new black,” that one still hurts. But we need to stop letting ourselves be so limited, and instead allow ourselves to reach our full potential. In other words, we need to unleash our inner quantum.

The Theory of Quantum Mechanics exists because over the years scientists have come to understand that, at the atomic level, particles operate in far more interesting and liberated ways than boring solid objects do in the real world. The marquee headline being that atomic particles can and do exist in two states at once. Why? Because of quantum. Duh.

Regardless of why or how, the big problem for many scientists (and other logical types) is the idea that there are separate rules for particles and objects. After all, objects are made of particles, so shouldn’t things be able to act just as “quantumly” as their parts? That little syllogism is probably why so many of us – you too, don’t pretend – believe deep in our bones that quantum tunneling, teleportation, time travel, and all those sci-fi fantasies must be possible.

One of these scientists, Aaron O’Connell, was so certain the logic must follow that he became the first person to actually get a solid object to be in two places at once. No kidding. For a fully respectable explanation of his breakthrough, check out O’Connell’s 2011 TED talk (Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object), but for now let me hit you with the highlights. To achieve his result, O’Connell had to figure out what it takes for a physical object to “unleash its inner quantum” (my silliness, not his). The answer tuned out to be… nothing.

Literally nothing, in this case. O’Connell created a tiny piece of metal that he then suspended over a void in a containment device that allowed him to remove all light, sound, and air, and lower the temperature to just above absolute zero. When completely free of any interference, the tiny object began to “breathe”. More precisely, they found that it was both still and vibrating simultaneously – which means its various particles were both stationary and bouncing around like pong at the same time. Two states, one object. Whoa.

The analogy O’Connell uses to explain is an elevator. As solid objects, we basically live life in a crowded elevator, with lots of other things to keep us company and keep us acting “normal”. But just like you and I are way more likely to get jiggy wit the Muzak when there are no other passengers or visible security cameras (admit it – I am not the only one), solid objects are more likely to behave quantum mechanically when they are alone.

On a practical level, I am pretty sure that this means Aaron O’Connell has proven the show Quantum Leap to be entirely accurate, except for the fact that Sam could see, hear, breathe, and didn’t boil to death in a freezing vacuum. On a broader level, though, his discovery is important because it reinforces the idea that the more we can kick out of the elevators that are our heads, the closer we can come to operating at our full potential.

For us, it is a matter of shutting out the light of all the eyes that are watching and judging, banishing the inner sounds of self-doubt and pride, ignoring the winds of both criticism and praise, and not feeling the heat of embarrassment or fear. If we can boot all of that interference out of our elevator, maybe we can finally start to live quantumly – both remaining solid (the person we are, the qualities we cannot change) and at the same time vibrating freely (quantum leaping like fools to the Muzak of our souls).

Or, maybe we’ll just invent time travel, which would be pretty cool too. Oh, boy!