Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Yes, It is Better to Laugh at Yourself

A dear friend of mine, who is largely why this blog still exists despite a writer who believes that she is incapable of writing anything worthwhile, sent me an article recently published in the Huffington Post. I’ve never read the Huffington Post so I have no idea what kinds of articles they publish in general, but this seemed to be a bit of an editorial on the danger of taking ourselves- and our work- too seriously. It’s by Thomas Moore, and you can read it here.

Anyway, in the article, Moore says that “Seriousness without fun is the sign of an exaggerated ego.” Now, I’ve never seen myself as having any kind of an ego because I always associated ego with narcissism and I have more self loathing than you can fit into a football stadium. But if I remember what one of my mentors Freud said about ego being simply an extension of self, one that houses conscious awareness, than I can see Moore’s point.

I am definitely aware. Ridiculously aware. Of my mistakes, my downfalls, my failures, my shortcomings. So aware, in fact, that I often lose sight of everything else. I get stuck there, I live there, I set up house there. And all the facts that may contradict that little dark hole I’ve dug myself into go by without notice.

I’ve been reminded of some of those facts recently. Not by huge, grandiose events but rather by small, simple reminders. Reminders of “Yes, your friends are pretty damned cool.” And “Yes, you are very loved.” And “Your house is pretty nice and your car has working AC.” And “Isn’t it nice that you can afford to go to the Ren Faire and buy a few of the pretty tinkets there without breaking the bank?” And “Hey, how about the fact that you can get into and out of the car, walk up and down the stairs, even do a jumping crescent kick half-way decent without any significant pain or discomfort- unlike that nice woman who can’t even open a jar of jam on her own. How about that?”

I do not believe that I am unique in having dug myself into this hole. I know that we all do it, that it’s part of human nature. That if we look at the adversities we have to face and lose sight of the things that we have to keep us going we can get dug down in the seriousness and self-pity and hopelessness of it all. And I know myself. I’ve been here before, many times.

One of my favoirte poems about change is Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. I’m sure you’ve all read it. Well, my epiphany for today is that I am in the hole again. And I’ve been here for a while. And I know better. And I need to get the hell out. Thank you, John.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Losing Faith

I was ten years old when I found out there was no Santa Clause. I used to be terribly embarrassed by that fact because all of my wiser, more mature friends had known long before they hit double digits. But now I look back at that- that ten years of believing so fiercely that whatever doubt may have been introduced in my mind by my peers was almost instantly dismissed because I refused to let go of something so magical- and I am proud of who I was. I was a little girl who didn't just love fairy tales and magic creatures and science fiction and fantasy and all the other things of that nature. I was a little girl who believed.

I believed in magic. Maybe not with wizard hats and magic wands- but in the quiet, invisible kind. That electricity underneath the static of life that you could only hear humming if you stopped listening to all the people telling you to pay attention. That possibility of something extrodinary, something oustide the bounds of reality that only the true believers can see.

I believed in love. Maybe not TRUE LOVE like in The Princess Bride or love at first site. But in the humble, almost unnoticeable kind that exists between two people who choose to spend their lives together. Who grow and change together. Who become better people because of each other.

I believed in greatness. Maybe I wouldn't grow up to become the famous author I dreamed of being when I was really young. The one who would write a book so good that not only would it remain famous for centuries after its publishing, but it would even crack its way into High School lit class cause no one could argue that it didn't need to be taught. But I would do something. Something important. Something that would last in some way long beyond my years of life and have a bigger impact than I could foresee while living.

I believed in these things so wholeheartedly that I refused- vehemently, passionately, rebelliously refused- to give up on them. Even after my family started to unravel when I entered adolescence. Even after High School proved far more rejecting than any of my childhood imaginings could have possibly prepared me for. Even after my first relationships proved that all the ideals I held about being in love had nothing- NOTHING to do with reality. Even after life got hard.

I still believed, I still held out hope. Partially because I went to a college that encouraged its students to hold onto those beliefs. We were supposed to be great. We were supposed to be artistic. We were supposed to be revolutionarily creative. SO many that had come before us were, why couldn't we be?

I entered my adult life with some fear, but a lot of hope. Hope that my dreams could still come true. Not the way I imagined them. More real somehow. But that they could come true.

I'm losing that hope now. I'm losing those beliefs. Magic? Only in the movies, only in stories and books and graphic novels. That's why that fierce creativity is so damned important- because being able to live in that world long enough to write it takes a willful forgetting of everyday life. Love? Sure, it happens. But it happens with palimony agreements and mortgage payments and years without sex while you raise kids and lots and lots of therapy. And that's if you're lucky. Greatness? Read my past few blog posts and you'll see that that belief is firmly dead, replaced by a generalized moroseness that I can't seem to shake.

Sometimes when I'm walking out among the trees, listening to the wind, feeling the hairs on my arms pick up the temperature so I can feel it deeper than skin level I remember that little girl. So full of dreams, so firm in her beliefs, so full of potential. I remember her, but I don't feel her anymore. I can't lose myself in that childhood world view and allow myself to fantasize the way I used to. There's always something pulling me back to reality and a voice chastising me for being so silly and wasting time when there's work to be done.

I work with crazy people. Not neurotic "I have relationship issues" or "I drink too much" people but "I think you have a camera implanted in your forehead to record my thoughts" kind-of people. My boss talks about how scary it must be for them. To lose touch with reality, to be unable to distinguish what is real. Part of me- the logical part- agrees with her. I can't imagine how frightening it is. But another part of me can't help but wonder if maybe, in some ways, they're the lucky ones. Sure, they'll never have what we call a normal life- jobs and mortgages and marriages and teacher conferences. But they don't have that voice telling them that this can't be real, either. They can be lost in that other world. Scary at times, isolated, uncontrollable. But maybe, just maybe, magic.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reality Bites? Yeah, sorta

You know that movie Reality Bites? Back when Winona Ryder was a big star and didn't need to shoplift because everyone wanted to cast her? And before Ben Stiller was famous in his own right for being the hysterical man he is so he had to recite other people's dialog? When Ethan Hawke was still young and hot and pulled off the tortured artist oh so well?

Well, i'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that when I was younger I absolutely LOVED that movie. I related to Winona Ryder (even though I was still in high school) and I, like every other young teenage girl watching that movie, had the biggest crush on Ethan Hawke. And I thought Ben Stiller was a yuppie schmuck.

I loved their passion, their fierce devotion to a life less ordinary, their struggle to stay creative and original in a world full of standardized expectations and planned-out lifestyles. They were messed up and they were somewhat naive but they were true to their inner selves and they struggled on. I ate it up with a spoon.

Now? Now looking through the eyes of a jaded, cynical, downright hateful person I see stupidity where I saw creativity. I see a common tale of post graduates rather than originality. I see a few dumb kids getting their butts kicked by the world which has no interest in letting them continue on with their ideals intact.

And Ben Stiller? The intelligent, well off yuppie with a great career that pays him enough to buy a big house and live a traditional lifestyle? I envy him. And I don't feel bad that Winona Ryder dumps him for the artsy Ethan Hawke because I think HE is too good for HER. Because she's unemployed, and naive and will inevitably end up overwhelmed with debt, breaking up with her artsy boyfriend because they fight about money all the time and eventually moving back in with her stupid parents who don't understand her.

I no longer want to be her, I want to be him. Monotonous job, maybe. Maybe you have to wear a suit and tie and suck up a little. But living well off, advancing in his career, surviving? That's what I want.

I went into my career thinking that because I loved the field and felt passionate that would be all I needed. Now i'm so jaded that I couldn't care less about passion. It's not even on my list of things I want in a new job.

So I guess maybe I still relate to Winona Ryder. My butt got kicked by the world and my ideals are no longer intact. Reality does bite.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

An L.A. Story

No, this is not an ode to Steve Martin (although I do believe him to be the single funniest writer I’ve ever read). This is a story of a trip. A story of how uncomfortable a person who is, at heart, an east coaster can be in southern California. And of one terribly comforting moment in a strange city.

I was recently in L.A. for a wedding. As much as I complained to everyone before I left that I had no hope for enjoying anything about the trip due to the short period of time we had out there and the activities of the wedding that would dominate our few days I had some hopes for an escape of some kind. Not a real vacation, but comfort in the knowledge that work and all if its stress were over two and half thousand miles away. It was not the escape I’d hoped for.

We did have one good day, I must admit. I can’t say for sure that the La Brea Tar Pits are the only worthwhile tourist attraction in L.A. but I can’t help but think that they might be. They are, without a doubt, the most remarkable geological encounter I’ve ever had and I’ve never seen so many fossils in one place. But if given the choice would I plan a trip out there just for that? No.

And the rest of the trip was as bad as I could have anticipated- cocktail parties with strangers and my unending inability to make small talk with them. More activities than I could have predicted which kept my boyfriend occupied for hours while I sat back in the hotel room wondering how much I could hate one wedding. (Being the date of a best man is not as fun as it might seem.) And the characteristics that make up L.A. smacking me in the face every other minute.

I know that some people love L.A. I met a few of them. They had a fierce defensiveness for their home and loved all of the things about it that drove me crazy. The constant sunlight, the endless urban sprawl, the landscape (which I must admit is remarkable in comparison to what grows out here), the new-agey consumerist vibe of everything, even the Hollywood back street seediness. None of it’s for me.

And this hatred of all things L.A. dominated most of my thoughts while I was there. Especially one long afternoon when I ventured out into downtown L.A. because I wasn’t about to kill the hours I had to spend alone while my boyfriend was at the church rehearsing the ceremony stuck inside the hotel room watching bad t.v. So I went down to the street and started walking.

I knew my way around to some extent because our non rehearsal dinner diet had consisted almost entirely of sandwiches from a 24 hour Subway which was a few blocks from the hotel. (The one fast-food edge L.A. has over the east.) And my boyfriend had pointed out the small used bookstore on the way, so I figured I’d check it out.

I love books. Ever since I became able to read (which took special education in the second grade for me to master and thus did not come easily) I’ve loved losing myself inside the mind of a character. Not murder mysteries or stories about things or events- I could never get into those. No, I prefer first person narratives that allow you to see the world through another person’s eyes. I lose myself in them so much that years after I’ve read them I still hold a fondness for them. Like old friends.

It is for this reason that I never really got into libraries. Why, after connecting with a story- loving the characters, feeling their emotions, bonding with them- would I want to let them go? I can’t bear the thought of it. This is why I am a book buyer. It doesn’t matter if I ever read the thing again- knowing it’s there, sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to come back and reconnect- is comforting.

Thus, I am attracted not to libraries but to Barnes and Nobles, Borders, and small, independent bookstores. And the used bookstores? They are a treasure like no other. Where else can you find out of print pulp fiction novels and collections of short stories from the sixties and seventies written by truly brilliant writers way before their time? And where else can you find that smell? The smell of old, used books.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if the glue in the rib breaks up and decays, I don’t know if paper ages like cheese, I don’t if the dust on the shelves collects in such a way as to release that odor but I love it. To me, the smell of old books is the smell of knowledge, the smell of creativity, the smell of words themselves. Whatever it is, I love it.

It is partially because of this that I was so taken with this particular small bookstore- that smell greeted me as soon as I walked in the door. The Caravan Bookstore on South Grand Avenue in L.A., specializing in “Old & Rare Curious Books” and a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America was a treasure. Not just because of the smell and the volumes of old books ranging from classic literature to non-fiction on everything from African cooking to Russian history. But because of what I found there.

It caught my eye as soon as I walked in the door- the only brightly colored cover in a sea of dark green and dark blue books with faded gold print on the covers. Strange to find a new hardback on the front table of an antique bookstore, but there it was. The title struck me like something I’d seen in a billion redundant romantic comedies: Love, or Something Like It. But I opened a few pages in and read a paragraph and instantly loved the writer’s style. I could get inside this character’s head and stay for a while. Forget about my overpriced hotel room or how long it would be till I could go home and get a good night’s sleep. It was exactly what I needed.

I tucked it under my arm and went on perusing the rest of the books. It was a small store so it didn’t take long. Plus, as much as I’d like to pretend that I am really interested in nautical history or the political tactics of the Third Reich I’m not really that kind-of girl. I love history, yes. But I’m not about to spend 46 dollars on an out-of print historical account of Stalin’s right-hand man, no matter how good it may smell.

I lingered mainly because of that smell, and because I didn’t want to miss an unexpected treasure hiding in the back of the store behind the globes and other dusty antiques. And because the only thing waiting for me was an empty hotel room. The only other thing I found that I wanted was another new book: Michael J. Fox’s Always Looking Up exploration of optimism which I’d been meaning to buy ever since he did his special about it on ABC a few months back. So I grabbed it, jumped at the shockingly low price, and made my way to the register.

An elderly man wearing a pair of glasses that looked to be about as old as I am asked me a polite “Did you find everything ok?” as he made his way to his antique print-out calculator. I said yes, and that I loved his store to which he gave a quick ‘thank you’ without looking up. He must have been able to tell that I wasn’t a real enthusiast based on my selections, but what did I care? It’s not like I was ever going to see him again.

He rang me up and pulled off a sheet of brown paper which he began to wrap my books in as I signed my receipt. And I walked out with a neatly wrapped brown package of books, marveling at how I’d never had such an interesting shopping bag. I got a kick out of walking around downtown L.A. with what appeared to be a package of shirts wrapped by a woman in a New York apartment in the forties who ironed and starched white collared shirts for her wealthier neighbors.

The book, it turned out, was better than that first paragraph would have suggested and I plan on finding other stories by Deirdre Shaw when I’m finished. But the book was not the treasure of the afternoon, only a token of it. The treasure was that in the city of L.A. which I’d judgmentally concluded had nothing to offer me, I found a reprieve in a small, dusty bookstore tucked in among the Starbucks and Jamba Juices and over-priced clothing outlets. In a terribly large, terribly discomforting city- I found a friend.