Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"You can do ANYTHING you set your mind to."

25 years ago now, having left my marriage and come home to Virginia, I found myself in a job with one of the best managers I've ever known, a woman I'll call C. C managed a keen balance between getting the ratty jobs done but finding each employee's talents, and playing to them. So it was that, as a secretary, I ended up assisting the guy who was writing a book. And the IT guy. Writing our newsletter. And, by the end, taking care of orphan clients (we were an insurance and financial services agency).

It was just at the moment I was about to be sent to Minnesota in February for securities training that I left that gig. But I never did forget that manager, and C stands out to this day as one of the smartest people I've ever worked with. And I've worked with some great, wise people.

All this time later, I have found a position where I get to do my own balancing - still a secretary, but one with decades more experience on the resume, and in a company/with a team where I have been able, almost singlehanded, to define my job. I get to play to my own strengths now.

Not long ago, I was thinking again about how I ended up being a secretary. Yeah, it was the early and mid-80s that formed me, and yeah I was VERY much an underachiever during my early career (though, looking at that job I mentioned above - maybe not so lacking in gumption as I have told myself for so long now) ... but nothing was stopping me from pursuing some more specific or lucrative or creative ambition.

But, the thing is: my parents always told me, "You can do anything you set your mind to."

Here is the problem: they never gave me specifics. Mom might occasionally talk about things *she* would wish to do, or which she found prestigious.

But neither my mom nor my dad ever did as C did: took up the thread of what I loved, or was good at (which were not entirely the same thing), and revealed to me the particular things my talents or my abilities could lead to. Nope, not even my dad. And he was a professor - a student advisor. His very life and career were dedicated to pushing people toward success.

Or ... maybe just to knowledge. To understanding those concepts he himself taught, or to harnessing those from other disciplines, which his students were studying. Synthesizing these to the tools to reach their specific goals.

My dad was encouraging to a fault - but the fault was, he just opened the doors wide. He provided no guide but "anything" - and that was too much. Overwhelming, or under.

I have always known that what I do is "less" in the eyes of other people; nobody's subtle about it. I basically fell into it to make a living. Doing what I do was not a dream, wasn't something I *sought*. I have made it mine, and I'm not complaining nor regretting. But it, in the barest and least freighted, but clearest sense of the phrase, "is what it is."

I could do anything I set my mind to. Sure. But in high school, I already knew I was directionless.

And MOST OF US ARE as teenagers. And that is okay.

But then majoring in Theater (or, insufferably, Theatre/Dance, at my insufferable alma mater) never was going to get me famous and wealthy and yield a successful movie star at the end of college.

(To which I now say: Thank MAUD.)

But it wasn't getting me anywhere else, either. Working on the crew was pizza money and fun, not a career trajectory. Our department wasn't good enough to provide one of those, frankly.

And I could type.

So I fell into my first jobs, my early talents - whatever they might have been - sublimated to make a living, and over the years I've done well, or just done *enough*, and scrabbled and fought my way to giving a damn ... and here we are.

I am proud of my work, and I love what I do. But don't ever think that this was my fantasy. Or even my calling. It was barely my *aptitude*, even, for a while there.

This morning, musing to a friend at work that my hair was looking particularly teased-and-tapered in an 80s sort of way, I pulled up Beauty and the Beat on my phone, and revisited that time before directionlessness became ... well, to borrow one of the Go-Go's song titles, Automatic.

The Go-Go's, I think, may seem a bit bugglegum and maybe even gimmicky these days. But that first album, steeped in 1981 and its New Wave-ness, was not a feather-light pop concoction. There is a menace in the chords. This album is bouncy, but it's bouncing on bruises, and it's propulsive. (Automatic is very dark and affecting. It *still* hits me in a very deep place, perhaps the more for life's experience rather than less.)

And this album is inextricably linked to the one person, before C, who ever pointed me at anything specific.

It was my brother.

I can't remember how it came up, and how it ever seemed "real" at all - and, the fact is, the moment of this memory may not have lasted more than a few days. But my brother, for some reason, excitedly encouraged me to get a band together, like the Go-Go's. To cover them, for Stunt Talent Night. He pointed to Kathy Valentine, and said I could do what she did.

It didn't change my life - or, at least, it didn't set me on a path. But my brother was the only family member who ever looked at anything in me, and pointed to anything at all. He didn't say "You can do anything you set your mind to."

He said, "You could do THAT."

I was too shy. I didn't know any musicians. Time ticked on, the moment passed, I never did it. Years later, I still entertained the odd fantasy of being a drummer - or, later still, a lead singer. But instead I watched Beloved Ex do it, and was still too shy. And never thought to connect to the many musicians we did know then, to try to become one of them. Well, never thought of it seriously. Never had the confidence to try.

And I had a job. And hadn't, perhaps, divested myself of the vague idea I might become wealthy and famous by sitting around waiting, hopefully being 80s-foxy enough for the world just to arrange its attention and money around me. Or maybe being a writer. Or just getting by, day to day.

There were a lot of years of getting by, long periods of time lived day to day.

And, not in the least ironically at all, it was my brother, again, who pointed me at something, years later. Aged 35, he asked me to go to a writers' conference ... and we all know how that has gone. Still the world has not arranged itself around my ridiculous success. But at least I consider myself something more than a 'nartist now.

I don't wish things had gone some other way. My life is an awfully good one to live, and the means to my living never has been the most important thing to me (the people I work with are, though). The idea of an alternative life in which What I Do *was* more important is no source of regret for me; perhaps in that life, my soul would not have been the one I have here and now, and my soul means everything to me.

No, I don't wish things had gone differently at all.

Just: looking at my parents. Thinking of the way C managed the people she worked with. I'm actually just surprised it *didn't* go differently. And curiously grateful I failed to have certain dreams ... ? What I did have was people like C, and others, and enough privilege to say I've made my way successfully, even if not prestigiously.

And I'm doubly grateful for that big brother, too. Turns out - he's actually even more special than I understood. Back in those years when I idolized him so, and didn't even know why.

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