“When I ask what’s next, it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?”
– The West Wing, Season 3 Episode 9
In the dwindling days of my college experience I fantasized about what it would be like after college when I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. Nothing could hold me back now! I would have a degree and the world would be my oyster! I could finally dive into books, writing, auditions, training, spending emotional energy on the things I love instead of serving an institution I despised. I had summer and fall work lined up and I was ready to disappear into the mountains for half a year. I thought it would be pretty impossible to kill that momentum, but as of today I’ve been unemployed for exactly two months.
So far, it’s been pretty insufferable. I’m lucky that I’ve paid off my rent, otherwise I’d be homeless right now, but as it stands my home has become my prison. If I was working, I’d have a reason to leave the house but as it stands I can barely afford to get coffee or grab a beer, let alone get lunch with friends or spend the evening on the town. Most days, I don’t even change out of my pajamas. I just got approved to start Ubering, but that’s a choice between something that gives me heart-pounding, teeth-grinding anxiety (driving) and paying bills, buying food, and funding my writing habit. It’s hard to learn, write, and create when I’m pacing the floor trying to figure out how I’m going to pay my gas bill, so I guess making money takes the top spot in my list of priorities. If I was working, I’d qualify for utility bill assistance—one of the many lovely benefits provided by the state of Indiana to its poorest working-class citizens, in addition to SNAP and subsidized healthcare costs.
This is not the level of glamor I pictured for my post-college life.
I have really big dreams: writing plays, acting in Hollywood movies, the bright lights of Broadway, all that jazz and more. Sitting in my pajamas on my couch in Bloomington, this seems further away from me than the moon. I read interviews with people I admire—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jonny Sun, Chris Hayes, Chris Arnade, among others—and they seem so astronomically out of my league. I read their wikipedia pages, I try and figure out how I get to there from here. I don’t have Ivy League schooling, I can’t get into grad school, I don’t think anyone would ever pay me to talk about anything (what would I even talk about??)—I feel so incredibly inadequate. I want to do the hard work, the shitty jobs, bet my entire life on my own success, but I don’t even know where to even start. I don’t even know how to contact these people to ask them.
So, in August I’ll be moving: New York, Chicago, or LA. I figure I lack some of the connections that get me a fast pass to the in-crowd (Ivy League education, nepotism, a trust fund, a smokin’ hot bod) so my best chance is to put myself in the center of the crowd and make myself heard. As an extremely poor person, the thought of living in any of these cities terrifies me (I can expect my rent to DOUBLE or TRIPLE (!)), but that’s what needs to happen.
I’m from the Chicago area, so I know the rules of the game there, but I don’t have the faintest idea how to move to New York or Los Angeles. Even those cities feel far out of my league. Wherever I end up, it will be a practice in the power of self-confidence: lots of odds are stacked against me and the only thing I can really control is my work ethic, my self-ethic, and my attitude. I just hope that’s enough.
I packed up my apartment in May. I packed hastily: clothes wrapped around dishes, pens and CDs mingling with spoons and forks, Christmas lights and candles and pillowcases all tossed into a reusable grocery bag tied off at the top. When you pack up as frequently as me, you know exactly how much stuff you have. I have two skateboards, 86 records, 12 DVDs, 209 books, 8 skeins of yarn, four decks of cards, 11 N64 games—I packed it all into boxes and reusable grocery bags.
Every May, I pack up my home. I get a storage unit twenty miles to the north because I never remember to get one before all the students take them here in town. I plan to leave early so I can get into Kansas City with time to enjoy the town, but end up packing until the last minute and leave in the afternoon. I get into Kansas City after midnight, rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat to keep myself awake while sleepily singing along to whatever musical theater soundtrack I grabbed off my shelf. I sleep for a few hours and drive through Kansas in the morning. I get so sick of the soundtrack by lunch that I toss it out at a gas station in west Kansas (this is how I lost the copy of the Rent soundtrack I had signed by Anthony Rapp, rest in peace dear compact disc). I arrive in New Mexico and I go to the mountains. I go to the mountains and I don’t come back until August.
This year was different. This year I got a storage unit in town. I woke up early and grabbed Hamilton. I got into Kansas City at 6pm and ate real food, not whatever you call those gas station sausages that sit on the rollers all day. I slept for eight hours and got to New Mexico with enough time to visit friends. I went to the mountains and I didn’t come back until November. (P.S. – I still have my copy of the Hamilton soundtrack. Now to get it signed by Anthony Rapp…)
I graduated college in May, a seven-year journey with odds stacked heavily against me. Unfettered by my university schedule, regular employment, or serious relationships in Bloomington, I decided to do some soul-searching in the wilderness. That’s what I do for a few months every summer: soul-searching under the guise of employment at a youth wilderness leadership experience base. One year it was teaching astronomy, another it was playing music, then it was giving tours of an abandoned mine, and this year I directed a living history musical program—my resumé is complicated. The work I do is difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced the place, but I’ll try. I hike long distances at 9,000 ft elevation to stand on a cliff and look at trees, often alone. I climb mountains and poop on the ground and drink water from streams (away from the poop). I teach high school kids how to be independent and self-sufficient, and they teach me things like how to do the whip and nae-nae (at least, they try). The summer is filled with priceless friendships and wonderful accomplishments, and the smiles of my kids are the fruits of my labor.
This year I watched all those friends and kids leave and I stayed for the fall season. The fall is different. The fall is cold, and there are no kids. I did what I was told. I hiked where I was told. There were no exceptions. It got dark early and I spent a lot of time sleeping. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fit in with my coworkers—that happens, I turned my energy inward and continued soul-searching, albeit much more self-consciously.
At the end of the fall, I went back to Indiana because that’s the only place I know to go to. Two cars, two cats, six planes, 12,000 driving miles, and eight months later, here I am. Back in Indiana, looking for work, planning the Next Big One.
I’ve had a lot of time for soul-searching since May—there was a lot of alone time that was well suited for introspection and extrospection alike. I learned some things I’d like to share.
1. Happiness is made, not found.
Take it from someone who has bolted every time life flashes the slightest sight of bad news: you can’t run from unhappiness. After a bad relationship ended in 2012, I sold everything I owned and moved to a goat farm in northern California to live what I thought was my lifelong dream. It was warm, we were by the ocean, and there were goats—what more could a girl want? Turns out, it didn’t solve my problems. Why? Because I still had a bad work ethic, I still hated myself, I still had unresolved traumas, and no one was going to drive out to the goat farm to hand me the key to success on a silver platter. You can’t run from happiness, you can’t run to happiness. You won’t find the answers to your problems on the interstate, just like you won’t find them on a goat farm. I’ve been unhappy in 46 different states and never once thought to stop and consider the common denominator: me.
That is, until this fall. I realized that I’d been happy, I don’t know for how long, but the idea was frightening and confusing to me. I don’t know how to be happy! Yet, there I was, happy (I think). When the cold loneliness of autumn set in, I felt this eerie familiar feeling, like walking through a house I used to live in after someone else had moved in. I felt like I should be sad, but I didn’t want to be. My brain argued with my heart: “but you’re so alone! You’re so poor! It’s so cold! Trump is president! There’s no reason to be happy!” But I didn’t cave. I stayed content and made my own happiness, because I could. I realized then that, to some extent, unhappiness is also made and not found. The problems that caused my unhappiness, and my penchant for behaving like a textbook chapter on risk factors for suicide, were under control and I was living healthily and I was not unhappy. That doesn’t mean I had a blast, but hey, I didn’t die.
I know a lot of people who are still running, either toward an unknown happiness or from an unconfrontable unhappiness. I’m not running anymore, and I’m glad I stopped.
2. Community is made, not found, and it’s important.
I spent a lot of time traveling. I had a few periods of time off during my six-month employment, and did a lot of traveling in the two months post-employment. I went to Atlanta to help my mom find a new library, a new church, and a new coffee shop near her house. She’d just moved from Chicago, where she’d lived for the previous 57 years. I went to New York to see Hamilton and also saw friends, Josh Groban, and the Statue of Liberty. I went to San Diego (twice) and watched groups of surfers chat around mini-grills on the side of the 101. In between, I hung out with people on my delayed connecting flight in the Minneapolis airport. I taught a young girl how to play two chords on my mandolin in the Denver airport. I went to a super-cheesy tourist trap in Winslow, Arizona (take a guess) and took pictures of couples decked out in Harley Davidson gear. I went to a McDonald’s in every town and sat for a while, listening, just like Chris Arnade said to do. I learned that these small and sometimes temporary ad-hoc communities are the backbone of American society.
I spent most of my life thinking I was alone, friendless, unjustly disliked, thinking I just needed to keep traveling, keep moving, keep looking for the right people and the right place. This is, of course, insane. This is a function of a narrative I fed myself to externalize my self-abandonment and self-hatred. The same kind of people are everywhere, it’s just a matter of a shift in specific outlets for common interest and a shift in specific habits. Everywhere I went this year had the same kinds of people. Rural New Mexico has the same kinds of people as Los Angeles and San Diego and New York City and the suburban Chicago neighborhood I grew up in: families, people navigating office politics, people buying leeks and potatoes and onions and lunchbox baby carrots, people who do silly things with their friend groups, people who like to have Sunday football potlucks and who gather at the pub to watch the World Series. By abandoning the lie that I wasn’t worth spending time with, I’ve been able to find a temporary community everywhere I go.
It took a lot of painful soul-searching to discover that I was sabotaging my friendships and communities. I was over-committing then stressing out and taking it out on those around me. There are beautiful wonderful people who I’ve completely burned bridges with because I resented them for something I couldn’t control or because I wasn’t willing/able to keep up my end of the bargain. When I left the church in 2009, I lost the greatest and safest community I’ve ever known. Without a community behind me, I’ve been floundering since then. After my alone-time this fall, I’m invigorated to get involved in my community and surround myself with it and do a trust fall into it. It takes work to stay involved and stay interested, but eventually it comes naturally. I’m ready.
3. Never be too polite to accept an offer of kindness.
I was raised in a painfully midwestern household. I learned at a young age the complicated social mechanics that lead to coming to blows over who pays the check at an extended family dine-out event. I learned how to insult an ungrateful houseguest with the quality of my mac-n-cheese casserole (use panko instead of crumbled croutons). I learned to take my shoes off every time I entered a household—this is not a barn and I’m not an animal! Most importantly I learned that, under no circumstances, am I to take anything offered to me by a host, except maybe water if I know the person really well. Likewise, under no circumstances am I to fail to offer everything short of the sole benefits of my living will to any guest that walks through my door.
You see what I’m getting at. Welcome to the pain, stress, and confusion of being from the Chicago area. There’s a club for this, we meet two or three times a week in the warm season, at Guaranteed Rate Field on 35th street.
This behavior is something I had to grow out of very quickly while traveling. When I first started traveling as a lifestyle, I was couchsurfing. People let me stay in their home…for free! I brought food, or wine, or beer, or all three, and when I left I neatly folded my dirty sheets and towels (if I allowed them to give me towels (I’ve taken many showers using a sweatshirt to dry myself)) at the end of my bed. I went through my adult life for years not knowing that my aggressive politeness was…impolite.
Until Erin. Erin was a close friend who had me over for dinner every Sunday with her family. I went, I drank water, I ate modestly, and I aggressively attempted to do dishes in spite of her best efforts to keep me away. One night, she’d had enough. “Can’t I just do something nice for you, without you feeling guilty? Sometimes it’s polite to just take what you’re offered!” This was a major event for me. Now, when someone offers something, I take it. I’m not afraid, because this is part of the trust of friendship. You’ll make you a mimosa today, and I’ll hold your hair back while you’re barfing in the bush next to the Rally’s drive-through on New Year’s Eve. That’s just how it goes. Me saying yes has made people happy, given me opportunities, and pissed off no one. And thus, my Midwestern sensibilities are satisfied.
Part of accepting offers of kindness is letting go of the notion that I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve it. We all know that’s bullshit, and it’s a deep dark spiral of pain. Accepting offers makes other people feel like they’re doing something good, and it forces me to accept that I’m worthy, I’m good enough, and someone thinks I deserve it. So that’s cool.
I was able to put this into practice pretty regularly this fall, for the first time since opening my eyes to it. I can say this: it’s a good thing.
4. Don’t be afraid to fail.
A few years ago I tried something out: a friend told me the best way to show someone you admire that you admire them is to simply tell them, unconditionally. Sometime later, I was at a concert (okay, it was the Mountain Goats) and I stood in line at the merch table to talk to the lead singer afterword. People were handing him CDs and shirts and tickets to sign, and he was doing it politely, smiling with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and moving on to the next person, completely forgetting about the previous interaction (seemingly, but who am I to personify John Darnielle (actually…)). I wanted to stand out, not for me, but because I really loved him, his music had really touched me, and it was really important to me. I put my phone away, put my CD away, and when I walked up to the table I said “thank you”. I said I loved him, and the music had touched me, and it was important to me, and I thanked him. He hugged me fiercely and thanked me back. After a brief conversation about a shared trauma, he smiled with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and we both moved on. We became Twitter acquaintances and share a special smile at shows and I think he remembers me. If he doesn’t, I still think I did the right thing.
Since then, I’ve never been afraid to ask for something, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place. It’s extremely important to be genuine. I asked my employer, off the cuff, for a rare job opportunity and I got it. I wrote the president letters about my post-college anxiety and I got a letter back. Last year I went to LA and asked some comedians I like if they wanted to meet up—they did, and I made some friends. It’s as simple as asking, and part of that is owning failure, accepting failure, and telling failure to go fuck itself.
As many times as me asking for something has been successful, asking has also been unsuccessful. Those opportunities are dust in the wind, and who cares. I’ve made mistakes, too: the goat farm, the trip to San Diego where I blew through my savings, the time I took drugs at a frat party. We all make mistakes, we all fail, but taking that lesson and relaying it into further success is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, and it’s so integral to succeeding.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted one thing—to entertain people. I’ve wanted it so bad I think about it every day. Now I’m 25 and I’m not doing that, I’m a college graduate eating tortilla chips on her couch and who’s also been too afraid to pursue her dreams for too long. No longer. This fall I thought about what I’m still afraid to ask for, what I’m afraid to fail at. Of course, it’s the thing I want the most. Too afraid to fail to even try…what’s the sense in that?
5. I still have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be.
I was sitting at McDonald’s at 9:30 AM in Sapulpa, OK, just outside of Tulsa. I’d been absorbed into a group of retirees that I’d sat next to. It was mostly elderly folks, a few “Vietnam Veteran” trucker hats, and some people my parents’ age. A few of them asked me about my travels, about my work in New Mexico, and soon I was talking about the finer details of my mental state. I told them that I have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be. A man with a salt-and-pepper mustache laughed at me. “Honey, I’m 63 and I still ain’t figured that out. When you figure it out, come back and tell the rest of us.” The ones who were listening verbalized their agreement, and I heard some stories about long and winding career paths.
I’m terrified of the future. Sometimes I’m so terrified, I think of driving into oncoming traffic or joining the army or trying to get into prison—anything to take away the pressure of having to choose for myself what to do next. I have big dreams and we live in a high-stakes world. I’m privileged to be pondering my many options from the comfort of a rental home that my mom (mostly) pays for, eating food from the generous local food pantry. I’m privileged that I have time to search for the right job, and that a career as a writer or an actor is something I can even consider pursuing without fear of starving on the streets. It’s not any less scary. Failure isn’t any less scary, no matter the stakes.
I have a vague idea of what I want to do next. I want to move somewhere warm, write, and act. I don’t know if I want to do it forever, or if I can do it at all. I don’t know if it’s the “right” choice, but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I feel in my heart is the right step. I hope I’m making the right decision, I hope I’m not missing out on some better life as a pharmaceutical rep. I hope I don’t end up in my 50s with no savings and no plan for retirement, and I don’t know if that’s worse than looking back and wondering “what if…” after a life of pursuing security instead of dreams. Ideally, I’d be able to pursue both. We’ll see if that’s the case.
Here’s to owning failures, saying yes, finding a supportive community and, God willing, happiness.
An auspicious morning — sunny, calm, warm — turned into a grey afternoon as our planned departure time came and went. We were still scrambling to get out of town when the rain started, but our spirits were high enough to keep things going. Tennessee was a foreign land to Annie, and I’d never been to Knoxville before. We were breaking up the freshly-settled fall semester routine with a debt trip to Knoxville, TN.
This all came out of a destitute beginning to the fall semester. I spent the last penny of my summer job money on gasoline to get back home, with one month before I’d get a paycheck from my next job. I lived on freeze-dried trail meals and peanut butter packets I’d snagged from my summer job and when my car gasoline ran out, I rode my bike wherever I needed to go. When someone stole my credit card info mid-September and tried to spend $3.86 at a gas station in Louisville, they overdrafted and I had to borrow four dollars from a friend to get my bank account out of the red. I was eating free dinners at the community kitchen a couple times per week and when I couldn’t make it because of work or school, I didn’t eat.
When I woke up one morning to find my new roommate, Annie, had written “$110 for bills” on our whiteboard, my heart dropped into my stomach. There was nothing for me to give her but promises. I offered to pay Annie’s way for a weekend trip to Tennessee instead of paying her for my share of the utilities, and she was open to the idea (thank god). My paycheck deposited into my account on a Friday morning. I filled up my gas tank, bought us lunch, and we took off for Knoxville in the rain that same afternoon.
We made bad time through Louisville — construction is the bane of the road traveller. The rain broke as we broke free from the city traffic, and we soared over the rolling leafy hills of northwestern Kentucky. Light fog was settled in the valleys on either side of the highway and rivers coursed with fresh brown water. Bourbon County offered giant, pelting rain drops propelled through the air on gusts that felt like a hurricane. The hazard blinkers went on and we moved tensely past pulled-over cars occupied by people with more sense and more time. The plan was to get to a concert at 8pm in downtown Knoxville. I’d bought tickets in the Starbucks drive through back in Indiana, and I wasn’t about to lose that investment. We’d built a couple hours into our schedule for food and exploration, but between construction and weather we were slowly losing that time.
It always takes longer to get somewhere when you’re on a tight schedule.
Night fell with still an hour to go, but our spirits were high. Annie slept while I listened to an NPR station that was fading in as we approached Knoxville. We’d long-exhausted the classic time-passing methods of talking and singing along with old music. We started off discussing travel and family and boys, and before long we’d fixed American politics and expressed deeply hidden hopes and dreams. Road trips work this kind of magic if you’re willing to let it.
We arrived in Knoxville in time to run into the venue—accidentally leaving our phones charging in the car—and catch the last couple songs in the opening band’s set. Some laid back Eagles-esque country rock from dudes with long hair wearing chacos beneath their flooded chinos. The main act came on (the Mountain Goats, of course) and we cried ourselves silly, living and dying with each line.
My generation lives in a wormhole of perception, of movie moments and snappable sights that put up a wall between us and our own memories. Our technology has made us extremely self-aware, sometimes cripplingly so, to the point of dissociation. Travel is a benign inoculant to this tendency; being confronted with the nature of humanity outside the “hustle” changes one’s mind, changes one’s priorities and biases. The simple act of experiencing something, of being with one’s self or simply enjoying the company of another person, is so novel and stark. I wonder how much my own sensibility is subject to this bias, and in typical self-aware fashion, question my own enjoyment of each moment.
The concert was great. Music has the ability to transport a person just as much as a jet, just as far and with just the same psychological benefits. Experiencing it with Annie grew us and grew our friendship, as much as eight hours in a vehicle did.
We crashed at the home of some couchsurfers who were out of town, and left early in the morning. We slowly meandered through Kentucky on our way back, stopping at coffee shops and exploring desolate downtowns in the foothills of the Appalachians, talking about the future and about America, the great unfinished symphony of humanity.
My roommate is an Emma Watson-type, an Amal Clooney, a Leslie Knope. She’s beautiful, smart, high-achieving, confident, unbothered by men, and when she’s running the world government in a couple decades, we’ll all be the better for it.
Contrast my roommate with me: a 6th-year senior, former college dropout, fully content with being a C-student. I’m not judging myself here; like I said, I’m fully content. I’ve got my own set of strengths that are impressive to my roommate, and honestly my roommate’s approval is not the metric by which I measure my worth. I’ve got my own trajectory to a beautiful joyous tragic unpredictable life. I dream and I hope and I plan and the two of us are walking two different paths.
I’m fine with this concept.
Yet, I’ve certainly heard this my whole life: “just do your work.” Barf. I was recently talking with a psych professor before class.
“I’m bad at coming to class,” I admitted, surprising no one.
“Yeah, why is that?”
“I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t care, but I also sort of don’t.”
“Yeah, but don’t you want to graduate?”
“Of course, but I also want to stay at home and read the internet and do my own thing.”
“Well you know what they say: C’s Get Degrees.”
I’ve also had this conversation: “but you’re so smart!” Okay, and? Without writing a short novel, and without coming to any conclusions about how smart I may or may not be (because Dunning-Kruger, or something), I’ll say that smarts alone mean nothing. Smarts does not equal hard work, or studiousness, or creativity, or desire to succeed. Smarts does not equal an easy time in school, smarts doesn’t equal success or world government. Smarts equals smarts. Smarts doesn’t explain why I can’t pass Finite Math, or help me out when I try to describe the possibility that yes, I get Finite, I just don’t care enough to work hard enough to pass it. Smarts is pointless, so let’s rethink the metric here.
How about if I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to explain to someone that I like learning, I just don’t like school. “What’s the difference?” I could write another novel about it. I learn from books in libraries, from friends in forests, from the passionate tomes nestled in the depths of the internet. I learn on the job. I put my hands on things and I tell everyone about what I just touched, I externalize the information I take in. Math is reorganizing the furniture, languages are the macarena, the tango, the two-step, physics is a morning ritual, grammar is the unconscious cracking of the knuckles.
I just don’t do well in school. That’s just the way it is. It’s not a reflection on my intellect, my work ethic, or my worth as a person. So what does my degree mean? Or like, what will it mean when I get it? What’s the point?
I want to know everything, I want to see everything, I want to experience my dreams and make them happen by being good and desirable and interesting. I want experience to be my bachelor of the arts, and wisdom to be my master’s degree.
The first time I almost died, I was 6 years old. My mom was taking me to school, 8 A.M. on a Monday, when a man decided to run a red light, or something. We were in front of the McDonald’s playplace on St. Charles Ave, my eyes were fixated on the slide winding around the storefront, green and yellow and red plastic panels shaking with the weight of young bodies. The car hit the driver’s side door, where my mom was sitting. I was next to her in the front passenger seat.
We had just enough time to lock eyes. It must have been a split second, an immeasurable moment in the midst of the noise, but we had time to find each other’s eyes. I memorized her face (shocked, scared) and the way her autumn leaf printed mock turtleneck cradled her chin. I felt myself move through the air, my neck straining, my ass lifting off the seat, my stomach lurching like I was riding a roller coaster. This moment is seared in my memory with stunning clarity.
Then it gets a little blurry. The airbag exploded and I hit the side window. I felt my heart beating. My mom commanded me, calmly but forcefully, to get out of the car. She climbed out after me—she was not a limber lady, but I remember watching her move and thinking of her body as a child’s body, climbing a tree or running at recess.
Her eyes flashed between me and the car and the man crawling out of the other car. I was holding my head and wiping blood and trying to find the sidewalk. Horns blared. People got out of their cars. People ran from one place to another. People directed traffic. Police were there before we could think. Sirens and horns and voices wailed and I sat on the sidewalk holding my burned forehead.
I spent four days out of school; any kid’s dream, but a nightmare for me. My ears were damaged and ringing and desensitized from the airbag explosion and my head was wrapped with gauze. I had a concussion, I had chemical burns, I had whiplash. I heard the paramedic telling my mom concussion symptoms and PTSD and I refused sleep. I stayed up all day in her bed and stared at the wall or the covers or the cat. I stayed up all night watching old movies on AMC. At the end of the week I returned to school tired and wrapped in gauze and hard of hearing. I stepped out of the rental car my first day back and a huge group of kids from my class swarmed me in front of the school. They hugged me, held my hand, looked at me, asked me questions about airbags and ambulances—my misfortune had apparently been a convenient teaching moment for many parents about the reality of vehicle safety. Good, I remember thinking.
* * *
I saw my cousin that weekend. We were the same age, single children, more like sisters when it came down to it. We played dress-up—I was a doctor in an ambulance and she was a car crash victim. She wailed, sprawled out on the floor like a crime scene chalk body outline.
“The pillow came out and hit me!”
“Pillow?” “Yeah, the pillow that lives in the car!”
It occurred to me that she was talking about the airbag. The airbag that exploded out of the dashboard and knocked me to the window. The dynamite-fueled industry-standard safety feature that burned my face, broke my ears, made me bleed. The airbag that, if my ass had not lifted off the seat in just the way it did, would have missed me, would have exploded and sailed over my head while my skull smashed into the dash and imploded from the pressure.
“I don’t want to play dress-up anymore.”
On the way home, I asked my mom—”why did Aunt Tina tell her that the airbag is a pillow?” She explained that sometimes parents need to explain things to kids in ways that kids can understand, and that sometimes this leads to misunderstandings.
“Mom, promise to always tell me the truth, just the way it is.”
She still went on for a few years with Santa and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Boogie Monster. I knew, I knew, but I said nothing. It made her happy for me to be a child so I said nothing. In my own life, the soft-focus world of youthful ignorance was growing rapidly sharper.
Many years later, I found a diary entry from another sleepless night in the weeks following the crash. “Why do grown-ups have to lie? Why can’t I know the truth in this world?” I was angry. I promised to never lie to my kids. Looking back, I’m not glad that I lost the soft-focus world of youthful ignorance, though at the time it felt like such a gift. I wouldn’t mind a world where airbags are pillows ad Christmas Eve is filled with wonder and magic. I’d happily take those days back.
When I have kids I want them to keep those days forever. I’ll lie, I’ll tell them about Santa and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Boogie Monster. I’ll tell them airbags are pillows. I’ll explain things to them in ways that they understand and midunderstand and they’ll have a great adventure figuring it all out.
I was recently hired to work in the tasting room of a local winery. My job entails speaking with customers about wine, informing them of the history of the winery, talking about the winemaking process, and handling other aspects of customer service in the tasting room.
Since being hired last week, I’ve delved into the training materials. On the first day of training I was given a large binder stuffed with information to read, study, memorize, interpret, and regurgitate—and it must be done well. This is a task I have no small amount of skill at. My summer job requires me to undergo an overwhelming six days of training before I’m shipped off into the electricity-less backcountry, where I’m expected to provide world-class programs for people who have paid thousands of dollars to come see me provide world class programs about things I’ve just learned with no Wikipedia to back me up.
During training, there was an afternoon where we walked through the production areas of the winery with the Winemaking Coordinator. There were rooms with towering stainless steel tanks reeking of fermenting grapes, rooms with every square foot stacked high with rows of oak barrels with dark purple streaks along the seams, rooms full of complex machinery that performed unknown tasks absolutely essential to the winemaking process. The Winemaking Coordinator filled the entire time with a passionate, informed monologue about the field of winemaking and the particular philosophy of such followed by the winery. He had a wealth of information, and he was more than eager to share with us.
At some point during the tour, he stopped between two short steel tanks near a doorway and turned to us, saying: “It just occurred to me that I haven’t told you anything about myself.”
He was a medical student who was hired to work part-time in the tasting room. The next summer, he worked doing production: harvest, crush, and fermentation. He eventually dropped out of medical school to work full time at the winery as the Assistant Winemaker, then as the Head Winemaker, and eventually as the Winemaking Coordinator (a bit of corporate gobbledygook that I still don’t quite understand).
This story has remained with me and struck me with a series of thoughts: if a med student can become a winemaker, what could become of me? Who will I be? Who can I be?
This is something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve considered many careers and trajectories for myself, with a major factor of my indecisiveness residing in my ability—or tendency, or desire—to mold my own interests into my circumstances quite well. I can find interest in a great number of things. As I scroll through the list of my university’s “areas of study” webpage, I can find myself thinking things like yeah, I have a knack for spatial reasoning and artistic design, perhaps Landscape Studies is the right field for me and I’m really missing out over here in the Psych Department. This is the thinking that has taken me down a garden path of majors, from Political Science to English to Physics to Astrophysics to Math, back to English, and eventually to Psychology.
In all honesty, I don’t even want to be in school. I just want to work—and that’s where the indecision stems from. The lines of work that have continuously resurfaced for me are the ones that I am more concerned with: clinical psychology, academic research psychology, nursing, medicine, education, politics…but the important question is: how do I become these things? What choices must I make? A Ph.D in Psychology, a bachelor’s in Nursing, a Medical Doctorate, a master’s in Education, a law degree, not to mention hours of time, years of experience, and exceptional talent. How can I be firmly confident in my pursuit of a Psychology B.A. when I might decide to be a doctor? I would still need to complete a couple semesters-worth of undergraduate coursework before I could even think about medical school—that is, if I can get into med school, since I’ve failed many courses due to my lack of commitment to coursework in areas that ended up being of little or no interest to me. Even more importantly: do I like the job well enough to succeed?
Without a degree these days, my dreams are just dreams, as far from reality as angels and ghosts, but even with a degree, some dreams are just as far.
Why is this inefficient method the status quo that society has settled upon? What about the line of best fit, or cultural/social Darwinism? I could bring down Dawkins’ memetics theory with four simple words: “the american education system”.
I am not fond enough of any of these careers to invest the necessary time (read: money) to achieve them, at least, not without knowing for sure. I don’t want to make a bad investment. I wish I had the opportunity to experience these things before I decide, to create a buffer between myself and the Wrong Choice; I want to know for sure that I won’t fail. It’s not a fear that’s been warped into some weird potential reality: I’ve done this, I failed at Political Science and Physics and Math and English. I’ve dedicated myself to things that turned out to be wrong for me, so what good is my judgement?
I know this is such a young fear, and such a privileged fear, but the comfort for me would come in the form a job that I like. Just that. No degree necessary. I just want to do good work and that’s it. If I could guarantee that I could become an ER Nurse in a place that I want to live, or an educator at a school that properly funds me, or that I could find regular work in politics, I would jump in a heartbeat.
Perhaps my fear resides more in whether or not I can succeed in general, at anything. I really do fear that (who doesn’t?), and I think that failure could very well happen (self-imposed). Then again, what good is my judgement.