This week’s post is about not living in New York, and what that means…. I guess? HERE.
Hey. I started blogging over at the Bangor Daily News last week. Yes, I will absolutely keep writing here. Because I own this, and I can fucking swear.
I started writing again. Not like this. Fiction. With a friend. It’s the sort of project that requires a bit of inner time travel. Maybe for a better writer it wouldn’t – but this is me, and this is how I work.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this assignment I had in the tenth grade. I remember that our teacher handed out blank sheets of yellow ruled paper – the kind I now know is prone to fading and disintegrating if it isn’t stored properly in a dry, temperature controlled environment. The kind of paper that important things like dreams and half-incorrect spelling quizzes are written out on. The kind of paper that only lives on in memory and never survives more than two months at the bottom of school bags.
The assignment was to write out our life goals. Not our Five Year Plans. Not where we planned to go to school or what we wanted to do for work after that. What we really wanted to do. That is a tough question to ask a fifteen year old. At fifteen you live for other people. Teachers. Family. Peers. So it’s a much harder assignment than it might appear to be.
I remember writing that I wanted to live in a large empty space that I could fill with thought. I was really into zen as a kid. I’ve also done that now. It was terrifying.
I wrote that I wanted to live in Boston for a while. Check. And in Portland. Also, check. I wanted to go to New York. Have done, and quite often. I wanted to tour with a band – yup, just not mine. There was probably some other stuff about falling in love which, sure. All of that seems deeply important to a teenage dreamer who hasn’t seen the world yet.
It’s still really important.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the “bucket list”, and how important it is to not lose sight of dreams (I’ll spare you the Langston Hughes quotes). I’ve also ticked off a few things on the original list, and I think it might be time to aim a bit higher. So, here it is. The revised bucket list:
1. Go to Paris. Because I want to, and haven’t, and I’m tired of people who have been “abroad” telling me that I simply can’t be a great writer/artist/human being if I haven’t seen Paris. (Fuck those people, by the way).
2. Live in New York. See above, basically.
3. Go to London. Find TARDIS. Touch TARDIS. Or go to Cardiff and touch a TARDIS there. Whatever.
4. Sing with a live orchestra. No loop holes. Actually rehearse and perform with an orchestra, not sing along from the audience. I’ve done that already. My seatmates hate me.
5. Write something big, actually finish said big thing. Get thing made into bigger thing. This seems reasonable, right?
6. See the Grand Canyon. I really don’t think I need to say why.
7. Touch the Pacific. See above.
8. Learn how to dance an honest-to-goodness waltz.
It beats yellow ruled paper. At least this will live forever on the servers over at the Internet Archive.
Here goes nothin’.
I’m obsessed with things like post-mortem photography; Ouija boards; classic Hollywood; digital preservation; teenage vampires and basically every shitty TV show or movie made about them; painfully awful movies and the people who make fun of them publicly (with puppets); places where awesome feats of rock and/or roll have taken place (even if I don’t like the band); science fiction about exploring the universe but NOT FUCKING FIGHTING because for real, battle sequences are boring, friendship is rad; Post-Punk and New Wave; pop art; ephemera, obscure history… Trust me, if you are recruiting for your trivia Dream Team, you need me. Also, I feel like I’m writing an online dating profile, but that also kind of ties in.
Sometimes geekery can bleed into the real world. Who am I kidding? Geekery ALWAYS bleeds into the real world. Last week Liz and I were at the Frick (which, seriously, OH MY GOD) and we sneaky-joined a tour group led by a well appointed gentleman who said that the thought of the condensation created by early cooling systems in the main gallery “made (him) dizzy”. As a person with a bit of conservation experience my cockles were thoroughly warmed, and I had to cling to my companion so as not to squeal with delight.
Being a geek means having feelings – so, so many feelings. All the time. All of those feelings can also mean being somewhat vulnerable and… you know… socially awkward. Getting older means an almost morbid sense of urgency when it comes to matters of the heart. You thought this whole “find your lobster” thing would die with adolescence? Think again, asshole. When you’re a sensitive socially awkward weirdo who owns more t-shirts with spaceships on them than you do sensible button downs, you get it. The fear of dying alone is great within me – the fear of meeting The Right Person is greater. Why? THAT’S JUST HOW IT WORKS, I don’t make the rules.
Seriously, it’s like if the TARDIS materialized in my dining room and the Doctor offered the guy across the hall all of time and space without blinking. I have been waiting for this shit my entire life – what if when it finally happens, the other person barely notices? Even worse, what if I don’t notice? What if I’m Harry except for instead of running to Sally on New Year’s Eve, I just go to the batting cage to antagonize pre-teen wiseacres? Could totally happen – geeky obsessions also mean being thoroughly up one’s own ass.
Being a self-designated geek can be a badge of honor. There’s a bit of masochism there as well, a little self-hatred, a dash of fear, a pinch of anxiety. A potent cocktail of “I don’t deserve this” when it comes to companionship. Who will ever love and accept all of the weird and intense feelings I have about Victorian funerary practices, and Conan O’Brien? The idea that such a person exists somewhere out there is almost too much to bear. My fear is that I will someday encounter this person in the wild and will simply prefer to admire them from afar as I do with everything else I am devoted to. This fear seems somewhat realistic since I have thus far settled for partners who have, at the very least tolerated my quirks, but who have not shared in my enthusiasm. You see, losing someone who treats me well but who doesn’t understand the importance of pop culture seems a lot less painful than losing the one who really, really does because I’m so intense and weird about nearly everything.
My best friend the Internet has always told me that I’m not alone, at least when it comes to the whole Victorian funerary practices thing (I mean, there are still Goths out there, so I can sleep easy tonight). If there’s anything I’ve learned about “the thirties” so far, it’s that sometimes this whole “settling down and starting a family” thing means finding an apartment with a lot of wall space to hang my fanart and being highly selective when it comes to choosing friends (as in, BUILDING my own damn family). The stakes may be higher now relationshipwise, but hey, I have my quirky obsessions to pad my fall when the bottom falls out, right?
Let me tell you what the greatest heartbreak in the world is.
It’s not being good enough. And I don’t mean for someone else. It’s not being good enough for yourself. It’s knowing that you’re brilliant at one thing, but nothing else lining up the way it should.
You know what I’ve always wanted? To be a great musician. I started playing piano when I was three years old. My grandfather had an old blondewood upright in his basement. I would pound on the keys while he chain smoked Camel’s and drank thin black coffee. I’ve never felt so loved, or so safe as I do when I’m sitting on a piano bench.
Here’s the real heart-smasher: Doesn’t matter how long I practice or how much I focus, I just don’t have rhythm. My hands are small, but they feel giant and awkward when I play. Same goes for guitar and every fucking instrument I’ve ever tried. I got into Berklee in 2002 and I couldn’t cut it. I couldn’t keep up with the virtuosos who weren’t faking it. I’d spend hours in cramped practice rooms trying desperately to translate sheet music. I felt like Jordan Catalano trying to read Of Mice and Men. It was humiliating. I could hear the 17 year old in the adjacent room NAILING Rachmaninoff (he was probably blindfolded for all I knew) while I couldn’t even get through a basic music theory class. It almost goes without saying, but I flunked out of Berklee. I was barely able to gain admittance to the state university I eventually landed at, and the only reason I did is because I won a prestigious writing award my senior year of high school. But I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be a rock star.
The worst thing in the world is admitting defeat and letting go. There are just some things that hard work and persistence will never get you. Every few years I take a stab at the RPM Challenge. Ostensibly it is a great refresher – a great working out of song writing muscles that have perhaps gone slack from lack of use. What I can tell you is that I’ve written some excellent lyrics and my voice sounds great…. but hoo boy, the rest is straight up humiliation.
There is danger in surrounding oneself with brilliant people while maybe not being as brilliant. Sure, it’s inspiring, but it can be kind of a letdown. There’s a specific face that everyone who has tried and failed in front of an audience of friends will recognize. This face is the “Oh no, Honey” face. It’s a sort of pained half-smile that says “I support you, and I’m so proud of you for trying, but please oh GOD don’t ask how you did because I hate lying”. I am a connoisseur of this face. The friends I respect the most are the people who have the stones to say “it needs work”.
At a certain point a question needs to be asked, and the question is “but seriously, how much more work do I need to put into this before I say ‘fuck it’ and accept the long khaki-clad walk into obscurity”? I’m in my 30s, and I’m not entirely certain that duct-taping a metronome to my forehead is going to make any difference. I never expected any of this to be easy, I just always kind of figured I’d get… better. Maybe even good.
The 30s are a funny time. There’s all this pressure to finally figure out what we want. What the future is. Where we’re going. To make some kind of plan. I’ve known for a while now that my plan is that I don’t have a plan – really just to go where the work is, to follow the tide and try to survive (man).
The worst thing in life is knowing that you have to grow up some time. For a lot of people that means having kids and getting married and I guess having the ability to pay bills on time. I’m still trying to figure out what that means to me… but maybe part of me knows that no matter what “it” is… “it” needs work.
I spent a week in New York this past August. My best friend Liz picked me up on 34th street. Manhattan was the specific kind of hot that Manhattan gets in the summer, a literal brick oven. We exchanged greetings. She then informed me that we needed to head to her apartment in Brooklyn.
“Because Taylor is putting out a new video today…”
You see, Liz (who is brilliant, by the way) is kind of into Taylor Swift. As in, last March she curated a gallery show called “Who’s Taylor Swift Anyway?”. As in, her Tumblr has more than 50,000 followers and has been referenced on Buzzfeed and Jezebel. As in, I’m fairly certain that Taylor Swift is AWARE that my best friend EXISTS.
I have to be honest. Back in August I gave zero fucks about Taylor Swift. But I sat on Liz’s couch and watched the premiere of “Shake It Off” as though I was waiting outside of a dressing room to give my opinion on a pair of jeans. I did not like “Shake It Off”. It was too feel good. Too up-beat. Back in August I didn’t feel good. I was not up-beat. I was not going to “Shake It Off” any time soon.
In fact, at that moment I was in the dead center of another bout of unemployment. I felt completely helpless and as though I had no control over what was happening to me. I had lost the plot. One of the countless reasons that Liz is my closest friend is because she knew that I needed New York right then and there. That I needed to get away from my apartment and from doing nothing for days on end. And from the utter routine of being caged in by uncertainty. That I needed to drink too small, too strong gin and tonics in a basement level piano bar in the Village. That I needed to have a come-to-Jesus moment after stumbling across The Starry Night at MoMA (and trust me, there’s a whole essay there).
What Liz also knew, and that I continued to deny for months after that visit, is that I needed Taylor.
I’ve come to the same conclusion that pretty much everyone else in America has come to: We can’t escape Taylor. Every day brings a new think piece. A new story of some amazingly sweet thing that Taylor has done for her fans. Another photoset of Taylor baking with her collection of impossibly gorgeous friends. We eat it up. It is as though we have all contracted a Taylor Swift specific strain of toxoplasmosis: Toxoswiftmosis.
My toxoswiftmosis started innocently enough a month or so ago. I was still in the “everything makes me cry” phase that everyone who has recently been dumped knows all too well (see what I did there, Liz?). It was the middle of the night and I was coming off of a crying jag brought on by a viewing of a not great Anne Hathaway melodrama. I turned to YouTube to find something to distract myself and clicked the first link. It was the video for “Blank Space”. That was it. There was Taylor wearing some truly fabulous chandelier earrings and destroying paintings and cars and just… having a ball. So from that night on whenever I came home late or couldn’t sleep, I would play that video on repeat.
On Friday I went to a record store and bought a copy of 1989. I have not stopped listening. Something has shifted inside of me. I feel as though a huge weight has been lifted. That is the power of good pop music. Her lyrics are both wildly specific and extremely universal. I look at Taylor and I see the woman I’d like to be. Not the supermodel with perfect hair – I want to be the woman who laughs and is free of cynicism and is frank about and owns her sexuality. Who feels things and understands that FEELINGS, and specifically the feelings that young women have are full of power. I want to be the woman who succeeds by working hard and who is relentlessly kind.
Taylor Swift represents many things to everyone who has fallen in love with her. She is the savior of an entire industry. She is the champion that hordes of teenage Tumblr users so desperately needed to systematically and succinctly shut down comment section bullies. She is the voice that says “I know that this thing is really hard, but we’re all going to be alright” and we believe her. We sing her lyrics like mantras into hairbrushes. We are better now, and we are legion.
So hey Taylor? On the off chance that you might be reading this, your record means a lot to me. I’ve been having a shit time of it lately, but when I listen to 1989 I feel like everything bad is truly temporary. That something good is just around the corner, and that I really am in control of my own happiness.
I am now actively shaking it off.
I left Boston in September of 2011. I left because I felt like I’d done all I could do there, and that Boston had done all that it could for me. It turns out that cities don’t owe their inhabitants shit, and I EASILY could have done a lot more. Like find a job, for example. I probably could have found a job. Back in 2011 I thought that I was brave for moving to a new city where I didn’t know many people and where there were no job prospects for a woman with no experience in the service, medical, or financial industries. I felt like a pioneer moving to a place where there was no subway and no GrubHub.
“I’ll not only make it” I thought as I packed my life into various poorly organized Banker’s boxes “I’ll make something of myself!” I pictured myself as Mary Richards throwing her beret into the welcoming arms of the Minneapolis skyline.
I am not Mary Richards, as it turns out. I’ve spent the last few years trying to justify my reasoning for leaving a place where my life was much, much more stable from a financial standpoint. I looked so good on paper back then: I worked for a well-known internet institution. I co-hosted a weekly trivia night, I showed my art and (pretentious) performance pieces at a local gallery, my extended circle of acquaintances boasted various well-known personalities. I just wasn’t happy. All of that shit had gotten tired, and Boston and I needed to have a clean break.
I was defiant for my first year in Portland. “I made the right choice!” I would proudly declare to anyone who dared to suggest otherwise “I’d do it again!” I’d shout every time an abusive employer yelled at me in front of a customer. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been!” I’d proclaim every time I got rejected for a job I really, really wanted. I wasn’t lying, not exactly. I did make the right choice, and I would totally do it again. It was the happiest I’d ever been. I was making friends, good friends. And I was falling in love.
Time wore on, and those words of defiance started to sound a lot more hollow, and the endless rejection started to weigh on me. I stopped looking so good on paper, or in reality. I stopped spending as much time with my friends. I stopped playing music. I stopped making things. I just stopped in general. I became sour and full of self-doubt, and it cost me.
That just about brings us up to date. So what have I been up to? Well, working weird and constant holiday hours at a local box office mostly. Every weekend brings a new Christmas themed show with a lobby full of happy families holding hands during the matinee, and elderly couples doing the same for the evening performance. In short, it’s a soul crushing nightmare for a recently dumped 31 year old. But I like my co-workers, and one of the promoters gave us a giant block of cheese this week, so I can’t complain.
I’m starting to feel that old defiance creeping back though. I’ve been watching a lot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer when I’m not at work. Fans of the show will be very familiar with the climatic battle at the end of the second season finale “Becoming Part II”. Buffy must fight her former lover, Angel (now Angelus, having lost his soul during a moment of “true happiness” with Buffy on her 17th birthday). He taunts her, and it appears that he has the upper hand until
Angelus: Now that’s everything, huh? No weapons… No friends…No hope. Take all that away… and what’s left?