The Picture of Success

Month: October, 2011

The Economy of Love

“When I told my boyfriend in high school I loved him, he told me he had to do his taxes.”

-Lynnea

I am fairly fiscally responsible. Not always. Most days I can find a way to justify the purchase of a third glass of wine, another novel, or even truffle cake to share with friends. However, throughout my life I have developed a wicked strong ability to deny myself one thing in order to enjoy another. Call it the Lutheran in me, I find great pleasure in withholding.

In economics, we might call this an observation of opportunity cost, a notion that says the cost of my choosing one particular activity is “measured in terms of the value of the best alternative that is not chosen.” (Thanks wikipedia/my college econ professor!) For example, let’s say I want to buy a gorgeous pair of boots from Mi Shoes. They may or may not be made of beautiful brown leather and cost nearly as much as my rent, but that’s besides the point. I could buy these boots. No, actually, I could not. But let’s say I could. Let’s say I could buy these boots but my next best alternative was a plane ticket to New York to visit my lovely friend Kristin. While the monetary cost of the boots would be $180 (!), the opportunity cost of the boots, if I chose them over the plane ticket, would be one plane ticket to New York City. Make sense?
Theoretically, then, if the opportunity cost of something was too great, I wouldn’t choose it.

It seems, lately, that the women in my life are experiencing great difficulties of the heart. Their romantic dissatisfaction is almost so rampant that I could call it a mid-twenties phenomena. What is it that’s so easily observable, you ask? They meet someone, someone they’re interested in, and they hit it off immediately. This individual has them excited, which is saying a lot. These women are fantastic, intelligent, witty, beautiful, and wildly independent. They are not people who base their self-worth on relationship status, so for them to express genuine interest in someone new is significant. They open up. They make dinners, make plans, make out. They recognize the occasional scarcity of what they’re experiencing and so they appreciate it fully. The person of their interest acts similarly, gushing at the romance of it all, but also expressing sincere sentiment.

Unfortunately, what happens next is a little disheartening.

Their interest becomes suddenly distant. No, in fact, this isn’t really working for them. It’s too much, too fast and they definitely don’t know what they want. Ties are cut. Break-ups ensue. Go ahead and cue the confusion. But what’s to be done? These are my friends. I would do anything to prevent them from feeling this sort of rejection. So I tell them,¬†you need to be Barcelona. You need to approach this situation like you’re one of the best soccer teams in the world. A team that’s able to get into the heads of their opponents, and direct the course of play in the way that benefits them the most. Moreover, you are Barcelona!

And while they appreciate my sentiment, this soccer analogy doesn’t necessarily do it for them. Cue more confusion.

So I say, let it go. If they don’t know what they want, then don’t stick around for them to figure it out. The opportunity cost is too great; we’re talking about your own personal power here. You’re missing out on the next best alternative while this man or woman works through their quarter life crisis. You? Wait? Never. You cut it off, and walk away. If you want them, you can have them. They’ll be back. And then you get to make the decisions. Sure, maybe they don’t come back. But then they weren’t worth it, to begin with. Do not let them string you along.
At this point in the conversation, I usually shoot the rest of my whiskey and scream “Barcelona!” for effect.

If we considered love like we consider economics, all answers would be simple.

I will stand my ground with this advice; I know there are people who need to be shut down. Sometimes, you have to walk away from something to make a point. No one should take away your personal power. I know what it is to lose your own identity to love, to forget the outline of your own shape but for the shape of someone else. To answer the question, how are you doing, Jessica? with a retelling of your partner’s latest endeavors. In the end, that loss of self is just as much your own fault (if not more) as it is theirs. And so I tell my women to hold their ground, to keep their passions like a lighthouse.

That being said, here’s what they don’t tell you in economics. Human beings can measure decision making with math all day long, but they can not predict desire. Maybe I too have known love that’s left me confused. Did I return to it? The self-preserving idealist in me doesn’t want to tell you the truth. So instead, this: I am grateful that these earth bound equations don’t dictate what I’m allowed to feel. Which is much. Which is more than I expected. And the opportunity cost of preserving my ego, what I would lose if I didn’t allow myself this experience? That cost is too great.

 

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One Hundred Seasons

You feel old? You should. God, look at you. You probably need to get your knees checked out.
No, seriously. I’m worried about your knees.

-Kristin Chick Emmet

It was Sunday night.

I found myself meandering the aisles of Fred Meyer, noticing all of the new paint samples, the frames. I picked out some screws, anxious to finish my shelving project. I was feeling so free that I even found myself a new filing system; I had brought the measurements with me, to make sure it would fit in my recently organized desk drawer. Orange juice. Then I bought some orange juice. Somewhere between ensuring that my granola had enough fiber and finding a good basic pen (one that wouldn’t just bleed through everything! like I’m not writing on the other side of the page?), I realized something had gone terribly wrong.

It didn’t help that I was about to turn twenty-five, or that my father had informed me an hour earlier that no, he and my mom “did not think of me as a kid anymore.” Hadn’t I graduated from college? How long had I been supporting myself? Who filed my taxes? Yes. Seven years. Me. I was only one small step away from having an IRA. I was terrified.

When I’m working at Starbucks, I often tell my customers, “Today’s a great day. I couldn’t complain. Well, I could, but that wouldn’t really change anything.” So I’m a year older, so what? Complaining about it sure isn’t going to give me an extra 365 days to work with. And as I’ve struggled with this quarter of a century life crisis, the response I typically get is that I’m too young to be worried, that if I feel old, there’s someone else who feels infinitely older. I just couldn’t reason out why this particular life marker was giving me so much trouble. Then I realized, for the first time in my life, people have begun to assume I’m an adult. It doesn’t matter how much Ke$ha I listen to, how many nights go by without nearly enough sleep, or how many times I eat ice cream for breakfast, for some reason this past birthday has moved me into a whole different set of age related expectations. Or, at least, it seems that way.

Last month, my mother started her own promotions company. She had paid her dues in the world of corporate misery for long enough, and now she’s branching into territory that is simultaneously exciting and fairly uncertain. I’m sure plenty of people would have stayed with the sure thing, continued to work themselves into a dismal existence, counting on their retirement plans to be enough to justify all the wasted years. But my mom took a risk. I know she’ll be wildly successful, because she always is, but I appreciate that she doesn’t sit idly by and accept the future that many people her age (29, in case you were wondering) wouldn’t think to question. I may have spent the last twenty-five years of my life working towards set goals, remaining incredibly disciplined and wondering what it would be like to be an adult. Maybe I’ll spend the next twenty-five pursuing every whim and desire of my heart.

I think to be an adult is to be dynamic. To be willing to change. If this is the case, Annie Lohafer, you’re doing a great job. Maybe the overachiever in me gets to have a reverse childhood, an adulthood that isn’t so obsessed with perfection and measurable success. Or, maybe I’ll get into grad school and become obsessed with perfection and measurable success. Probably a little of both. Regardless, I find myself at my desk, more excited about everything than ever before.
And my knees, though a bit sore from my run this morning, well, they’ve never felt better.

The Privilege of Failure

I’m tired of stories about the body.

-Dorianna Laux, “Fall”.

I can’t stand the sound of my own voice, sometimes. When my thoughts are contained to only my own notebooks, I don’t have to worry about backlash, about the opinions of those around me. I can sound as narcissistic as I want, without fear of judgement. Writing in a public forum is causing some sort of anxiety for me; I no longer have the luxury of privacy. I can, of course, choose to not share my work but that brings us back to accountability, to deadlines, to the reason this all started. But it’s not so much my voice that I find irritating or embarrassing. No one would call me a quiet person and I have little to no difficulty expressing my opinions on most anything at any time. So what is it that keeps me from opening rough drafts to fresh eyes?

I don’t want to share my process.

I would rather come into the room with work that’s pristine and perfectly enlightened. Find a theme that’s somehow both universal and freshly relevant. I want you to think that I didn’t have to think¬†too much about what I wrote, or for too long, that it came to me like a voice from heaven, showering me with manna and exciting sentence structure. That I offered my work to the lord and the lord boomed back, a la Charlton Heston,

It is good.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. I, like every other writer (except maybe for Dorianna Laux) have to meet my subject matter like any other suitor. I wink at it. Flirt with it a little bit. Ask it where it grew up. Try to seduce it onto my desk, take it out to dinner and see what it’s willing to do for me. And sometimes, it doesn’t bite. I wake up the next morning, forearms covered in ink, waiting for it to call me back.

Sometimes, my literary inspiration doesn’t call me back.

You have to know when to let go. Sure, you might think a memoir about the struggles of an upper-middle class girl from a small farming town would make for a good read but that doesn’t mean anyone needs to read it besides you. You might flounder on the page. Furiously scribble down three stanzas, only to find you’re completely copying someone else. Maybe you think your idea is so good, your prose so engaging, that you ask it to your junior year Homecoming dance, only to accidentally hit it in the chin while performing a particularly difficult swing dancing move, injuring both your pride and its jaw alignment. Let’s be honest, you’re getting a handshake at the end of the night. But I digress.

Everyone fails sometimes.

As an artist and a feminist, I’ve realized it’s just as important to show off your failures. Unfair expectations have discouraged too many women to the point of inaction; I will stumble through misconceived book titles and half-baked play-writing attempts with pride, knowing I’m allowed to take risks. I’m allowed to participate in the process. A novel idea, to cultivate your own perceptions of reality, and reflect these ideas back towards your culture. It is a gift to be allowed time to create. I will work past awkward, knowing at the end of it all, I’ll be able to recognize when any given project is complete.
Then I’ll sit back and tell myself, a la Gloria Steinem,
It is good.

To write, again

I think good work dies due to hesitation.

My life as a writer has been fueled by tangible goals, the things I could touch, believe in, or facilitate. Somewhere around six someone put a pen in my hand and suggested that things were worth recording. Reason enough, as a child, for me to write story after story. Then came elementary school and (joy of joys!) people wanted me to turn these things in. I realized quickly what I wanted most: to write what I thought and read it out loud. Seventh grade gave me genre; home sick from school, my teacher sent me my homework. I was supposed to write a poem. And while the poetry communist in me feels we shouldn’t rate writing, that all work accomplishes different but equally important goals, it is significant to note that on this particular assignment I got an A. One hundred percent of the possible points. More than that, it was validation, proof positive that my work was good, that it had appealed to someone other than me. This feeling, to be appreciated, carried my artistic endeavors through an onslaught of adolescent doubt, held me together even under the oppression of my 10th grade English teacher, who graded me down because she didn’t “care for my writing style.”

This was a minor setback, compared to every other encouragement I encountered. From community college to college, I was told, “this is good, Jessica. Keep going.” I lived for deadlines and first drafts. Third drafts. Final drafts. Complaining the whole time but loving it. The panic of page count is something everyone should feel, the fear of not producing enough, fast enough, and the welcome rush when you succeed.

But what now?

Nine days away from turning twenty-five and one bachelors degree in literature later, no one is telling me to write anymore. I work at a Starbucks and dodge my student loan payments. I worry I’m painfully close to a slow middle class demise; if I continued doing what I’m doing now for the rest of my life, not many people would notice. Aren’t I offered health insurance through my job? Yes. Stock options? Yes. What is there to complain about?

Not much, truthfully. But I want my deadlines back. I want creative urgency, to be held accountable again. I want to be a practicing writer and so I am reaching out. And while this medium might be unfamiliar to me, I have every hope it will serve its purpose. I still want what I’ve always wanted: to write what I think and read it out loud. I only hope you will be so kind as to listen.

To new beginnings.

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