Earlier this year, my friend Erica asked me to read at the first installment of her new reading series, Hazel. She asked the readers to share ‘a recent writing experiment.’I took a little liberty with the prompt and wrote a fairly traditional essay about an experiment I was doing with my life. This is what I wrote:
Making the Suit
I was born in December, 1980, just before the final month of the lame-duck Carter administration. The Soviet Union dissolved shortly after I turned eleven, and we got our first modem the year I was thirteen. Depending on whose math you go by, I could be either a Gen Xer or a Millenial, or neither, or both. For most of my life, ‘neither’ has felt right.
A few years ago, after the recession hit but before we’d really had time to wallow in it, my friend Lizzy and I were sitting out on the patio of her neighborhood bar, playing Scrabble and drinking margaritas, when it occurred to us that we are the end of the American Dream. “We have to work hard,” our parents and grandparents said, “so that our children can realize their potential.” And here we are. Our great-grandparents immigrated from places like Ireland and Germany; our parents earned Master’s degrees in useful things like Nursing and Education, all so we be can here, in the middle of MFAs in Creative Writing that we’ve managed to stretch out over four or five years, playing Scrabble and drinking margaritas at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon.
My peers and I were raised on phrases like “Follow your dreams,” and “You can do anything your heart desires.” Our teachers told us we could be the president, or an astronaut, or win the Nobel Prize, not because we showed a particular talent for politics or astronomy or any of the various things people win Nobel Prizes for, but because these were easy examples of the far-out aspiration we were being trained to glorify. All we had to do was love something enough and the path to happiness, freedom, success, would unroll itself before our feet.
After my father died, one of his high school classmates tracked me down and sent me a letter that he’d sent her in 2005, after they’d been out of touch for over 40 years. In seven hand-scrawled pages, my father summarizes his life from 1960 to the present day. It’s a valuable historical document, but what strikes me are not its contents but its deliberate omissions and half-truths. Like the fact that, before attending Ripon College in Wisconsin (a classmate of Harrison Ford! my father exclaims in the letter, always his greatest claim-to-fame), he did a year a Northwestern University, but was expelled for not going to class. Or the not-quite-accurate timeline of his work for the City of Chicago—he claims to have retired in the early 90s, when in reality he had a psychotic break in the mid-80s and was eventually terminated after two years of medical leave.
And, no, of course I shouldn’t expect him to disclose this information to someone he hasn’t seen since high school graduation, someone who might as well remember him as the handsome basketball player he once was, but it fascinates me nonetheless, particularly in light of what he says, and does not say, about me. He mentions that I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and moved back to Chicago; that my poetry had been published in a few small journals and I was thinking of going to grad school for an MFA. All true. But here’s the part that gets me. He described what I was doing with my life as follows: “She’s currently exploring several avenues (painting, creative writing (poetry and short stories). [sic]” He doesn’t mention that I had quit my job as a secretary at a language school after only three months, that I then became a dog walker and was, at the time the letter was written, tending bar at an unremarkable Italian restaurant near the Metra tracks, in Evanston.
And, again, why should he? These random jobs were nothing to be proud of me for; they didn’t illuminate the persona of a bright, talented offspring the way honors societies or minor publications or plans for grad school might. Still, reading that assessment of my life, five years after it was written, I couldn’t help but feel that nothing had really changed. The facts might be a little different. I did go to grad school, in San Francisco, where I remain. The journals I’ve been published in aren’t quite so small. Still, I know that in the same way that, for my father, “I was burnt out and decided I needed to retire” is a euphemism for completely losing your shit, for me, “exploring several avenues” really means I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m afraid I never will.
It’s 2012 now and I have the same job I’ve had since grad school, tutoring community college students with learning disabilities. It’s a good job, maybe even an important job, but it’s also part-time, with no clear next step, and, even at part-time, is emotionally exhausting. While I was in grad school, I could say “Hey, this is just a job to get me through grad school,” and be done with it. But now it’s what I do, and I know I can’t do it forever. I had hoped, planned even, that it would help me transition smoothly into teaching. But all the decent jobs dried up with the recession. The last time the community college I work for posted an opening for English teachers was almost two years ago, right after I finished my MFA. Of course I applied. When I went by my former professor’s office to pick up the letter of recommendation he said he would leave pinned to his bulletin board, I found a dozen identical envelopes bearing the names of students I’d been in classes with. Smarter, more involved, more passionate students. I didn’t get the job. Neither did they. I heard 300 people applied for it, all told.
So I came up with a long-term plan. I would power through until 2014, and if by then I had not found a job with long-term potential—a job I felt good doing, a job that required some amount of creativity, a job that paid enough that I could have lines on my budget for things like clothes and trips and maybe a haircut every couple months—if I hadn’t found that by 2014, I was allowed to go to fashion school. The idea of allowance, of permission, was very much a part of it. I had to prove, if only to myself, that I could survive in the real world—or at least, that I’d made an effort.
All my life, I have resented having a job for the time it takes that I could be writing, or drawing, or making things, or doing yoga, or even washing the dishes or taking a shower. I do not understand how some people work 60, 70, 80 hour weeks and still have time to clean the house. I like to tell myself it’s because they aren’t artists, they don’t have this special, extra thing sucking up all their time. But when I look at how much time I actually spend doing art, or what I’ve accomplished with it, the truth comes out: I’m just lazy. I’m lazy, and yet I expected so much more from myself. I am baffled, daily, that no one has offered to publish my novel. The fact that I haven’t finished a novel is irrelevant.
When popular culture wants to sum up Gen X in one word, that word is ‘slacker.’ For the Millenials, it’s ‘entitled.’ I realize, with some embarrassment, that I’m not neither. I’m both. I am an entitled slacker and I always have been, ever since I was a child. I prided myself on how little time I had to spend on homework. But a B was offensive to me.
I did manage to find a small teaching job—not enough that I could leave my other job, just one class per term, a decent supplement, a baby step—at a shiny art college downtown that costs something like $27,000 a year. The honest truth is I wanted to work there because I figured they would have tuition discounts. And it turns out they do, but only if you’re full time, and as we already know, those jobs don’t exist anymore.
I had a disagreement with my boss there a few months ago, and while the on-the-books reason I’m not teaching this quarter is ‘scheduling conflicts,’ I’m pretty sure being an entitled slacker, or at least being perceived as one, has something to do with it. So suddenly, I have about a third less money, but twice as much free time. I thoguht, okay, I’ll take that evening Fashion Illustration class I fawn over every semester in the community college catalog. And when my registration date came around I thought, well, might as well sign up for Draping on Saturdays, just to hold the spot—I can always drop it later. And oh, hey, Fashion Careers is only an hour a week and it’s right before Fashion Illustration, which I’m definitely taking, so why not? And the next thing I know, I’m enrolled in 7 units.
My first class is on January 19th, 2012. Shortly after New Year’s I start to freak out. What am I doing? I should be looking for a better job, a full-time job, not going back to school again, to study another highly competitive, irrational, nepotistic art form I have little hope of ever ‘making it’ at. And even if I do come by an honest living as a costume designer or product developer, I’ll have to start at the bottom, with all the 20-year-olds who don’t mind living with six roommates and eating grilled cheese for every meal. No one is going skip me to the front of the line just for being older. Maybe I should go back to my 2014 plan. Give this ‘real job’ thing another chance.
Then again, the longer I wait, the more young, eager people I’ll be giving a chance to jump ahead. I’m only going to make my prospects worse. No one wants to hire a 40-year-old with no experience. Still, fashion, really?
Everyone is willing to validate my decisions but me. My girlfriend is nothing but supportive and seems genuinely excited about the whole thing. A friend from my book club says “I think everyone is entitled to as much useless schooling as they can get.” (This in response to my comment that I feel like I used up my useless schooling allotment when I got my MFA.) My best friend says “If you’re worried people are judging you for the choices you’re making, I want you to know that I’m not.” (This in response to me saying I’m worried people will judge me for the choices I’m making.) My mother says “I think this is really going to perk you up.”
Exactly once in my life can I recall my mother straying from the script of ‘follow your dreams’. I was about 12, and I’d decided I wanted to be an architect, like Frank Lloyd Wright. “But you’re so good with numbers. How about an architectural engineer?” she said, which I immediately recognized for the suffocating bullshit that it was. Sometimes, now, I wish she’d said those things more often.
“You don’t think I’m being irresponsible? That I’m wasting my life on something superficial? You’re not worried that I won’t be able to take care of you when you get old?”
“All I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”
Our parents worked hard so we could realize our potential. So we could be artists and entrepreneurs. So we could have a better life. They raised us to believe that fulfillment would come to us. That we should never settle. But is the type of fulfillment we’ve come to expect really possible en masse? How many people graduated with MFAs in Creative Writing last year? Thousands? Ten of thousands? How many will write books that even a hundred people will read? Never before has the world been faced with so much failed greatness.
Our modern mythology says that Gen Xers avoid the issue by being miserable. They’re defined by slacking, settling, selling out, by regret for all they haven’t done and disdain for whatever circumstances stopped them. Meanwhile, the Millenials have increasingly little to settle on. Once again, I find myself lost in the in-between. If I’d been more practical in my twenties—studied engineering, or even just stuck with that secretary gig—I might have an actual, marketable skill set now. I might have settled. Sometimes I wish I’d settled. Instead, I played by my generation’s strange new set of rules: Travel! Make art! Go to grad school! Don’t worry about the debt! Go! Be great! Your dreams? Follow them.
Any first grader who’s ever made a model of the solar system can tell you that the phrase “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll wind up among the stars” is scientifically laughable. In reality, you’ll probably either burn up upon reentry, or become a piece of space debris, stuck in orbit a few hundred miles above the earth. The other option is to never leave, never try. We were raised to believe we would all be astronauts one day. Okay, then. Time to start making the suit.