For the 20th anniversary of my mother's untimely death, I wrote this story, my first on the Medium.com platform.
For the 20th anniversary of my mother's untimely death, I wrote this story, my first on the Medium.com platform.
A while back, I stumbled across a single, incomplete sentence I’d written in a journal. It was a thought I’d hoped to incorporate into an essay I never got around to completing. I’d written, “the kind of person who puts no stock in horoscopes but still credits her inherent mysticism to the fact that she’s a Pisces.”
No doubt about it: I was describing myself. Perfectly.
Few incomplete sentences could sum up the dichotomy of my inner life more succinctly – the tempestuous head-butting between the concrete and the ineffable, the known and the unknowable. The idea that the stars could predict our futures seems patently absurd. And yet, when I first read a detailed description of my star sign’s traits, I was old enough to know what I was like, and wise enough to see that it was a description of me, with few exceptions (I don’t seem to be prone to addiction, thank God, and I don’t run away when I feel unappreciated. Or wait...do I do that? Maybe I DO do that!).
So, it is with no small amount of sheepishness that I confess here that yes, I sometimes peek at my horoscope. I don’t want any predictions about how my week is going to go — I will roll my eyes derisively at such foolishness (unless it predicts something I really want, like when that old Iranian lady read my coffee grounds – something I did NOT ASK HER TO DO, for the record – and made some swell predictions about what my love life would look like in “one month”). But if the astrologer/writer is doing the new-agey thing where she gives each sign vague advice based on their star-prescribed personality, well, I often take some pleasure in those. After all, regardless of whether, as a Pisces, I have in fact traversed all other Star signs at least once in my past lives (I think Linda Goodman says something like that), there’s no denying that I have a Pisces personality.
But enough about me. All this is just to say: here is some inspiration I got this week, and don’t hate me just because some of it supposedly comes from the celestial orb.
1. ) The coffee shop near my house always posts a great horoscope that comes from I-know-not-where. Last week, while pouring half and half in my cold brew, I took a look and laughed out loud.
This is not a horoscope; this is a succinctly worded summary of my most fundamental existential crisis.
In my college years, when in the throes of an anxiety attack (these could last hours or days or weeks), I would sometimes feel devastated by the specter of an unexpressed thought, for if not voiced now, doesn’t it die forever, unheard by anyone!? Now blissfully free from that level of dramatic angst, I still feel the pull to share and the concern that if I don’t find my medium, if I don’t make the time, if I don’t work hard enough, I will not be living my calling.
On a less writer-y, more interpersonal level, earlier this week I mentioned in conversation that I often advise friends to address a conflict by opening the lines of communication. That way, they can at least attempt to set the story straight, both in their own minds and in the other party’s. Earlier TODAY I found myself giving just that advice, acknowledging that my perspective might be skewed because to me, absence of communication (and the corresponding absence of control over your own story) is “like torture.”
This communication imperative manifests different questions depending on which lens of our lives we view it through.
As a writer: What stories can I tell? What stories can only I tell?
As a helper: What wisdom do I have to offer the world? Is there something I have to say that might make a positive and lasting impact on even one person?
As a human being: Am I harming myself by keeping something secret? Or by choosing to say something false, closed-hearted, or judgmental? Who does my silence help? Who does it hurt?
As a creative: HOW am I going to speak out? How can I share what I’ve seen with the world, be it my own little world or the world at large?
2. I have recently become enthralled with The Cut (I have about a million ideas for their wonderful recurring feature, “I Think About This a Lot”). Perusing it this week, in between the fashion pieces and the firebrand editor’s letter about this moment in Feminism, I found what looked like a soothing and ethereal horoscope section, by “Madame Clairevoyant” (Claire Comstock-Gay). I clicked. I was rewarded.
Now these were some horoscopes! Nothing concrete, just some soothing words that tap into our insecurities and seek to hush the sniping of our inner monologues. I even read some of the others, and while they didn’t feel quite as apt, I still found them to be encouraging. Which is really all I’m asking for from the Internet.
Read me clearly: I do not believe that Madame Clairevoyant knows my inner struggles. But I DO believe that it doesn’t matter how inspiration and fortification come to us as long as we are spurred on by what we’ve seen, ready to accept the magic this world has to show us. Almost as if in answer to my nagging concern about making the most of my every moment and saying all the words all the time, here was something that rang just as true: I can give myself permission — we can all give ourselves permission — to explore, to take our time, and to simply be alive.
Which brings me to…
3. Brian Andreas. The power our words have to inspire a stranger. This stranger, whose art enthralled me from the funky gift shop in Valparaiso, Indiana that we sometimes visited after church; whose books of poetry I bought as graduation gifts for my tight-knit group of nerdy, arty highschool friends; who is still creating art that now comes to my eyeballs via Instagram on my iPhone - a device and an app that were the stuff of science fiction at the time I first lay eyes on his work. The fact that this stranger’s stray thoughts still shake me as if from slumber, 20 years later. I feel like this recent post of his, which had such an effect on me, ties all these ramblings up quite nicely. No stars required.
Every Tuesday night for nearly a year, a small group of friends and I had played bar trivia at one of West Hollywood’s oldest, smelliest bars. On an average night, the skimpily-clad waitresses at this dank, storied hell-hole might serve paleo salads to a cross-fit class afterparty in the back, pitchers of Coors to a shaggy-looking couple shooting pool, and burgers to incognito celebrities sitting at the bar. In our year of weekly patronage to the place, my groups’ celebrity sightings have included Robert Pattinson, Chris Rock, and a One Directioner. The blonde one. On the extremely popular trivia nights, you can add to that unfathomable sea of humanity a smattering of birthday girls, socially awkward old men, nerds and wannabe-nerds of all stripes.
As if all this weren’t eclectic enough, it’s also a sports bar. Televisions hang from every corner of the bar’s highly-cornered interior, broadcasting a mix of whatever is showing on ESPN and ESPN 2-10. This cornucopia of sports-package programming draws even more people to the already-crowded bar during any kind of playoff season, and should one of these games fall Tuesday Trivia night, finding a seat becomes a full-contact sport of its own.
Never in a year of Tuesdays was the Table Dash more challenging than during the 2015 NBA finals. The Clippers were out of it, and the Lakers were nowhere near it. But Golden State, California’s last hope, were set to win it all if they could only take down LeBron James and his supporting cast. On the night of game three, trying to snag seats for eight, we arrived early for trivia to find the place as crowded as we’d ever seen it. It was the fourth quarter; we’d have to wait out the game, at which point tables would clear as the clientele shifted from jock to nerd. Some of us stood outside with the smokers while a few of us floated awkwardly in the narrow passage between the front door and the seating area. After several minutes of dodging harried waitresses and drunk Warriors fans, I shifted to a spot in front of a young couple’s booth in an attempt to get out of the way.
The couple was seated side by side on one part of the booth – whether for intimacy or a better view of the TV, it wasn’t clear. Very aware that I was standing conspicuously in front of them, I asked if I was blocking their view of the game. When they said no and asked if I wanted to sit down in the empty half of their booth, I decided to go for it. They seemed nice enough, and it would allow me to stop worrying about finding a table, as the group across the aisle was about to leave too, meaning my friends could swoop in, no problem.
Over the next 15 minutes, I surprised myself with my own energetic friendliness. I learned that my new tablemates were visiting from New Jersey; like me, they were rooting for Golden State out of ill will for LeBron; and the woman of the pair was a hairdresser whose lavender hair had just been dyed that shade earlier that day. The highlight of our brief encounter came when I told them that I was trying to make it as a screenwriter. The purple-haired woman looked at me earnestly and said, “You're going to make it. I truly believe that you get back the energy you put out into the world, and you have such a positive energy.” As if that ego boost weren’t reward enough for my stranger gamble, after the couple left and my friends sat down, I was congratulated for my dedication to table getting and my prowess at friend-making. Trivia night began with me feeling like a real champion in this little game called life.
It was one week later, on the heels of this social success story, that I met Joe. It was the night of game six of the NBA finals, and we came to the bar ready to do battle in the seating wars that we were sure to find there. The first wave of our group made a miscalculation, snagging a four-top that had no nearby seating prospects for the rest of us. The game ended – Golden State won the championship – and the sportsfans began to pay their tabs and finish their beers. I was on the lookout for someone leaving, and my eyes landed on Joe. To be honest, he was hard to miss. He was a hefty, middle-aged, white guy, red-faced and seated by himself at a booth, an empty beer glass and a giant pizza box on the table before him. The people at the table across from him had just left, and he'd been sitting there looking like he’d been ready to leave for the past 10 minutes. My friend Nick slid into the newly empty booth, but it wasn’t big enough for our whole group. Dammit, I wanted this dude’s neighboring table.
So I went in, leaned over to this puffy man and, as politely as possible, asked, “Are you leaving soon, or are you staying for trivia?" He turned to me slowly, uncomprehending. But hey, it was loud in there. So I asked again: are you leaving? He said that he was, but made no move to depart. When he added, speech slurred, that I should sit down, I hesitated. But then I thought of the week before. I thought about what a wonderful, friendly, warm hearted person I am, that kind of person who gives strangers – even dazed, bloated strangers – the benefit of the doubt. So I sat, just perching on the booth’s edge.
My left butt cheek had barely touched down onto the vinyl when Joe jerked his head across the aisle to my friend Nick, who stared ahead at the front door, completely unaware of Joe. The din of the crowded bar made it difficult to hear anyone more than a couple feet away. "Is that your boyfriend?” he slurred. He must have seen us talking before.
Already second guessing my benevolence toward odd strangers, I lied. ”Yes, yes he is,” I replied, trying to sound like it was obvious.
"You guys having good sex?" Joe, the total stranger, then asked.
I should have walked away. Instead, I forced a pivot. “Were you rooting for Golden State?” Very clever.
“No," Joe pouted. I nodded, disappointed that my attempt to change the subject had run aground. But hey, I thought, maybe he’d get up and leave now.
Joe did not get up and leave. He stared at me with a sloshed blankness. "How is the pizza here?" I shouted, pointing to the giant box before him. The to go box. TO. GO.
He shrugged his shoulders. It's pizza. He offered me a piece, but I declined. He patted his ample stomach, adding, “You can probably tell I've had a lot of pizzas.”
What is the appropriate response when a fat, drunk stranger asks if you can tell that he's fat? I pretended the question was about pizza. "Oh me too. I'm from Chicago. We have all kinds of pizza."
"You're from Chicago? I'm from Chicago!" Of course, I thought of course this doughy drunk guy in a striped polo shirt is from Chicago. "What high school did you go to?”
When I explained that I went to high school in Northwest Indiana, he told me his four kids went to Culver, which is a kind of fancy prep-school in the area. I knew a girl who left my seventh grade public school class to attend Culver, so I told him I was familiar with it. “Culver’s the fuckin’ best school,” he asserted.
I was relieved to find that this pervy loner guy was perhaps not such a pervy loner after all. Here he was, an out of town visitor, an Midwesterner, a proud father of four. I learned that he was also a businessman who financed films. When I told him I was a screenwriter, he handed me his business card and said that I should email him. And sure, he phrased it by slurring ”If you don't e-mail me in the next twenty four hours, you're dead to me," but still, this encounter was starting to seem like a real networking win for me. He took at piece of pizza out of the box and handed it to me, and this time, however reluctantly, I took it.
Across the way, our friend Russ arrived and started talking to Nick. I ate my slice of pizza slowly, refusing multiple times when Joe tried to offer me another. Instead of getting up, he ate another slice, so now we were both sitting in the booth eating his leftovers straight out of the to-go box. I propped my chin up on my hand and watched Steph Curry thank God and his teammates on the nearest corner television, out of things to say to Joe and hoping he would decide to head home already to sleep it off.
"How do you do that?” he asked me.
“What?” I replied, genuinely confused.
“Sit so still like that. And make that face. Like a model.” Oh shit. Had he just gotten drunker?
“I'm just watching TV." I forced a polite smile and, instead of turning back to the screen, began trying to will him to boredom telepathically.
Joe took a deep breath, "I'm just going to throw this out there…" he began.
I was suddenly struck by that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when bracing for terrible news, like the death of a loved one. What the hell was this man about to say to me?
“Is there an amount of money…that could be exchanged…and you’d go back to my hotel…and we'd…have sex?”
I wonder what face I made. I can guess, but my brain temporarily shut down for a moment, so now I can't be sure.
“Say, $500? $1000?” He was starting high, which was peculiarly flattering.
“I don't think so.”
‘2000? 3000? 5000?”
Look, I get that those are large sums of money, and I am poor. But I mean it when I say that there was no part of me that was even remotely entertaining the idea of having sex with this man, ever. Or, to be fair, with any man. I could consult the short list of celebrities I lust after — Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey. Theo James in…Downton Abbey. Possible Regency Fetish aside, if you offered me $50 to have sex with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, I’d tell you to keep the money so that I could actually enjoy myself. Some women might get off on being paid for their services; many more find the act fundamentally transactional, and thus might as well get paid for it. I am neither one of those types.
“6000?” I just kept shaking my head. I sneaked a look over to the first group of my friends, seated in the corner on the left. Not one eye was on me. I turn to the guys across the aisle to my right, shouting silently "Are you getting any of this?" But the bar was beyond noisy, and they weren’t even glancing in my direction. Clearly (or so it seemed to me in the moment) I’d created a monster out of my own independent friendliness. These dudes were SO not worried about me and my ability to look out for myself. I loved and hated them for it.
“7000? Seriously? Still no? Why?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong girl.”
Joe stopped at $50,000, finally getting the message through his loaded skull. I think we both knew that there was never a chance that he’d actually pay me $50,000 for sex; it was more that he needed to know that there was a price at which he could buy anything he wanted. When I still did not assent, Joe took a dejected, momentary timeout before telling me that the whole thing had been a kind of thought experiment. A joke, really. ”She said she do it for $1000” he said, pointing to a passing waitress who had not stopped, or even glanced, at the table since I'd been there. “I'm happily married to a wonderful woman. I've got four kids.”
“I remember. They go to Culver.” Drunk as he was, this response still seem to make him nervous. I pretended to believe that his indecent proposal has been a joke from the beginning. I laughed and nodded, feeling like I had passed some kind of cosmic test and desperately trying not to picture this man's tiny penis. Then the people at the table behind Joe got up and left. I could move to that table and be a bit closer to one faction of my group, or, if my friends moved to it, they could be closer to me. It was after 9pm by now — trivia set to start any minute — and I had a decision to make: should I continue to sit across from this man who had now proven himself to be every bit the pervy loner I had once feared him to be, or should I abandon my post, thus rendering the entire ordeal a complete waste?
“So there’s really no chance we’re going to have sex?” Joe then asked, as if trying to help me with my decision.
"Sorry," I said, standing up."Thanks for the pizza." I still had the stale crust in my hand.
“I am trying to play trivia with my friends, and we want to sit together,” I explained. A hurt look crossed his face, as if he was just now learning that I’d been waiting for him to leave ever since I first asked him if he was leaving soon.
“Can I at least have a kiss?“
“Sorry,” I sighed, exasperated. What had I done to deserve this?
“Fuck you then,” was Joe’s charming rejoinder.
I threw my purse into the adjacent booth. "Watch my bag,” I hissed to Russ and Nick.
“Everything ok?” Russ asked me, suddenly aware that I was looking flustered. I just shook my head and rushed off to the bathroom, wanting to be as far away from this stranger as possible. Once in the bathroom, I suddenly felt very dirty. I hurled the tasteless pizza crust into the trash with violent disgust. Why had I even taken it? I didn’t want it. Why had I even sat down? I was just trying to be nice.
When I returned to our new table, Joe was still sitting there in front of his pizza box. He left a few minutes later. He probably wouldn't remember any of this in the morning. But I would.
I debriefed my friends on the encounter. Reactions were divided sharply along gender lines. The boys were over the moon about the unreality of it all. One of them asked me why I didn't take Joe up on his offer, laughing when I answered that it would have meant missing trivia; another said that once he saw I had scored a piece of pizza, he figured I must've been doing pretty well for myself. The girls, however, bought me a milkshake and gave me hugs, telling me how sorry they were that they hadn't noticed I was in trouble. And you know, both sides were right. Being asked to join the worlds oldest profession, if only for a couple of minutes, had been both horrible and hilarious. I was both traumatized and kind of flattered. I mean…$50,000?
We came in second at trivia that night. I was tasked with saving the gift card we'd won, and I stashed it in a purse pocket, right next to the business card Joe had given me. When I pulled both cards out the following week, I noticed Joe's card was double-sided. An investor service was listed on one side, a commercial real estate firm on the other. Under his name, on both sides, were the letters “CEO.”
* * * * *
Is there a moral to this story? I don’t fucking know. I don't want it to be "don't talk to strangers." For one thing, that puts the onus on me. Is it my fault a Midwesterner got drunk alone with his pizza and tried to pay me for sex? Had I been “asking for it” by my mere willingness to sit down at his table? The sweet couple from the week before hadn't tried to sleep with me, and they were from New Jersey!
So let the moral be this: Don’t get drunk alone in public if you’re a total asshat. Don’t try to pay people for sex unless they bring it up first. And when in Los Angeles, be prepared to put up with some weird shit in the name of finding a goddamn seat at the table.
In my second childhood home – the one I know best, where we moved after leaving the city apartment that's probably much smaller than I recall – we had a huge yard. In the back of the house, there was a fenced in portion of the yard where the dogs ran around, and that was where Mom's garden was. Accordingly, it was also where you could fine Dad's compost heap. Separated from the garden by a chickenwire fence was this huge pile of rich, decaying soil and he had to stand in it and turn it with a gardening shovel. It was hard, dirty work and I never really understood why he went to the trouble. Our garden looked great. The landscaping he'd done looked great. We didn't need more dirt, did we?
Ms. Tippett: And this idea — I mean these are your words, but that the subject of your work continues to be “the normal, daily things that people fall in love with.” That’s very resonant with that. I’m just curious — we’re talking in the early afternoon. Have you fallen in love with something today?
Ms. Kalman: Oh, yes.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Tell us, what have you fallen in love with?
Ms. Kalman: [laughs] Too many things.
If you're in the business of calling yourself a writer, one of the aphorisms you can't escape (no matter how you much you might want to) is, "Writing is Rewriting." Time has taught me that this concept is actually a real gift. If you allow yourself to write a first draft of a project (for me, a script) with the knowledge that it will be improved later, you've freed yourself from the crushing, vice-like pressure of needing to get EVERYTHING. EXACTLY. RIGHT. the first time. Suddenly you can produce a starting-point script (or whatever) much more quickly, and you can sit down at your desk every morning without that feeling of dread that (for me) comes from the fear of writing something that is not as good as what I hoped for when developing the idea.
The trick is, you can't just take that "finished" draft and call it a day. Yes, it might be far better than you ever imagined it could be. But you were writing to rewrite, remember? It's only half done. Hell, it might only be a teensy fraction of the way done.
I've just begun to rewrite a script that I speed-drafted last year and then set aside for a longer-than-intended amount of time. I knew the script had the potential to be so much better than it was, but I was also proud of what I'd (unexpectedly) been able to accomplish with my experiment in writing-to-rewrite, which was also an exercise in not being my own worst enemy/harshest critic/craggiest stumbling block, etc. But after a protracted period of ignoring that project, the other day I finally cracked open the extensive rewrite notes I'd gotten on the first draft.
The reason I had these notes is actually pretty cool: I got to take the script to a producing class at my grad school alma mater. The producers would practice giving me "studio notes." It may sound daunting, but it's something I've done several times and it's absolutely invaluable. One of the most important (and hardest to learn!) lessons I took away from my screenwriting MFA program was that you've got to WANT feedback. You have to CRAVE the notes, even when you fear them. If writing is rewriting, getting notes is like using Waze to get from one draft to the next. This is a strained metaphor, so allow me to elaborate: You have your first draft, but how will you get to the second? Are you going to just go on instinct, hoping you don't hit a dead end or a road-closure or a fucking police-car barricade because someone's wheel flew off on the 110? Or are you going to request some guidance -- guidance which, like Waze's suggested routes, might be odious to you, and some of which you might choose to ignore, but which will mostly be helpful and allow you to get to your destination far more quickly than if you were going it alone?
Craving notes is easier said than done. Even in a low-pressure situation, exposing your brainchild to the unfamiliar and often scary brains of others is daunting. This is another place where the concept of "writing to rewrite" can protect you and your fragile writer's ego. If you've taken a draft out into the world for feedback, with the intention to rewrite based on that feedback, you already know it's not perfect, not finished. You're not being judged on how perfect it is, you're being given help to make it into the great thing it could be in the future.
I tell myself this in the moments before a meeting or feedback session. It is in those last fleeting moments before all parties are seated at the table that my well-reasoned wisdom gives way to the fear of judgement. And I was reminded of this fleeting moment of panic (before what is often a fun, exciting volley of ideas and new possibilities about a project) when I cracked open the notebook I'd taken to the aforementioned producing class. There, at the bottom of one of the pages, before several more pages filled with good ideas about what worked, what didn't work, and a plan of action for moving forward, I found this:
Please give me the courage and strength
to behave with grace,
defend my vision
without closing myself off to opportunities for improvement
P.S. Help me to be my best self and not to cry
I didn't cry. Not even close. They really enjoyed my script, and I came away buzzing with ideas for how to make it better. And sure, I failed to take that energy with me into an immediate rewrite, but it's okay. I found my way back to that place eventually.
I like this prayer. So I wanted to give it to you. If you're not the praying type, call it a mantra – something you tell yourself to remind you what it is that you're doing after all. Take it and change it to suit your needs. After all, it's only a hastily-written first draft. It wants to be rewritten.
So I'm walking down Brand Boulevard in Glendale, CA. Signs along this section of the road suggest that it is also known as the "Boulevard of Cars," and the nickname is apt: the street is lined on both sides with auto dealerships representing every make under the sun. Also lining both sides of the street are sparingly-used sidewalks – unsurprisingly the Boulevard of Cars is more often cruised down than strolled. I myself have driven this stretch of road 50 times at least, but this is my first time walking it. I'm killing time while getting my car serviced at one of the dealerships, taking care of a recall on a daytime running lamp that I've been putting off for over year. I'm a relatively new car owner, but I've already developed the bad habit of putting off automotive appointments, in much the same way I put off going to the doctor or the dentist. In each scenario, I dread learning of an expensive, even devastating problem that I can do nothing about. In all of these areas, let's just say...I've been burned before.
But back to the sidewalk along Brand Boulevard. It's hot and I'm on the sunny side of the street. I'm killing time until my car is ready, walking the three-quarters of a mile to the fancy shopping center at Brand and Colorado. I make it as far as Lomita when I come upon two elderly, copper-haired ladies. One of them asks me in a beautiful but heavy accent if I know where the Armenian church is. I have no idea where it is, and I'm willing to hazard a guess that any church in the area could potentially be an Armenian one, but I have my smart phone in my hand, so I offer to find the church on the map. The second woman, shorter, dressed all in black, is on the phone and she seems upset. It's Friday morning, 10:30 am – not the traditional hour for church in my experience – and thinking back on it now, I wonder if maybe they were headed to a funeral. But I don't think about this at the time, I am just a woman giving directions to strangers.
Sidenote: Giving directions to strangers is something I do quite regularly. I'm not the kind of helpful busybody who seeks out confused-looking tourists and offers her help, but rarely does a week go by that someone doesn't ask me on the street, or shout to me from a neighboring car, a question about how to get somewhere. And damned if I don't tell them the answer every time. More often than not, I know without looking it up. Whether I am somehow projecting this geographical knowledge from my aura like some kind of informational beacon or if it's just that I have a friendly, approachable face, I know not. Regardless, this direction-asking phenomenon cannot be denied.
Anyway, back to Brand, late Friday morning, and the old Armenian ladies. The sun is blazing overhead, so bright that I can barely see my phone screen, and the woman who asked for my help notices me sweating and squinting. She says to me with a grandmotherly combination of pity and gratitude, "The sun! It is so hot on you!" I smile, focusing more on figuring out which church is the Armenian one than on what she's saying. But then, much to my surprise, she holds up a piece of paper I hadn't even noticed she's been holding and places it above my forehead, making it a kind of visor that now both protects my face and shields my screen from the sun's glare. It is a simple, wordless gesture, but the tenderness of it, especially in my current anxious state, is sweetly devastating. I find the church on the map, St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic, just down the block and around the corner. The directions are simple, but I repeat them several times, making sure the women know they're close. And then I go on my way, feeling a little better about the day general and musing on things like karma and the depending on the kindness of strangers.
It would be enough by itself, this tiny little moment of my morning. Enough to muse on when I'm feeling frustrated with humanity. But not 10 minutes later (after getting a call from the dealership saying my car was ready, the man from the service department asking Did I know my check engine light was on?) something else happens worth musing over. I am now waiting at the intersection of Brand and Colorado, across the street from my intended destination but turning back before reaching it. I have put my headphones in, am listening to the opening sentences of a podcast, waiting for the light to change. To my left, a beat-up minivan is honking. Noncommittally, I glance back to see why, but it's unclear. The honking continues – I surmise that someone behind the van is pissed off because the van is not turning right on red (a variety of honk common in the Los Angeles area). But then I notice that the van's driver is up out of the car, propping herself on the door so that her head sticks out over the top of the thing. And she's calling out to ME. I can't hear her over the voice in my ear, but the podcast has barely begun, I don't even know what it's about yet, so I pull out my headphones, asking aloud that simple question that will forever sound like a joke: "Are you talking to me?" And yes, she is.
The woman is in her mid 50s, slim, too tan in a way that speaks of wreckless, sun-soaked decades rather than expensive spray tans, and, I kid you not, dressed in jean shorts and a green lamè bikini top. She has to repeat her question several times before I understand: she is asking me if I'm trying to get to the bus stop down Colorado a little ways, and offering to drive me there. She has seen me, waiting to cross the street, sweaty and burning in the mid-morning sun, and thought maybe she could help make my life a little easier. I mean. What the fuck.
If I were catching the bus, the unusual offer might have given me pause. I probably would have declined simply because it seemed too kind, too out-of-the-ordinary a gesture to be purely offered or graciously, casually accepted. The woman might have been a lunatic, bizarrely dressed as she was and oddly insistent on getting my attention. But I am not trying to catch the bus, I'm just crossing to the east side of the street, which I'm now realizing is just as sunny as the west. Which means I can just smile warmly and say, meaning it entirely, Thank you so much for the kind offer! And I can cross the street, making the hot trek most of a mile back to my car – which has been given, if not a clean bill of health, at least permission to leave – with that smile plastered onto my face, thinking of how strange the world is, and how nice it is that there are people in it who will take it upon themselves to try and shield you from the blaze of the sun.
I'm sitting in Echo Park (the neighborhood, yes, but specifically the park proper), drinking an overpriced but delicious coffee drink. Two shots of the darkly fruity, locally roasted type of espresso that is so easily found in this town, along with some maple syrup that might be organic but can't possibly be "local" because when was the last time I saw a maple tree in Southern California? It's iced, which means I'm drinking it too fast; the sun is hot and the drink is too refreshing to savor.
This park is, in my opinion, one of LA's most resplendent gems. Its celebrity is of the same genus as so many of the town's celebrities: you may not have heard of it but you might recognize it from one of its television appearances. It was featured but uncredited in the recently aired pilot of John Stamos vehicle Grandfathered, for example. I've been here many times before – I've speedwalked the circuit around Echo Park Lake with my walk-obsessed father, had a lakeside picnic with my cousin, and trudged morosely over the park's bridge with a friend who was about to move away, attempting to allow the place's natural beauty to dull the pain of our parting. On all of those occasions, the park was crowded with people – children and vendors, fishermen and paddle boaters, dog walkers and joggers – but this morning is relatively quiet. Even the ducks seem to have slept in.
Admittedly, I was not planning to be at the park today either. I'm here waiting for my car, all four tires of which are currently being replaced about a quarter mile down Sunset from here. When I handed over my keys, it was the tire man who suggested I wait out my service time in Echo Park. "A lot of people like to walk to the park," he told me as I wrote down my phone number. This unsolicited but welcome suggestion is the kind of thing I have come to really appreciate about Los Angeles life. There are a number of regional pet complaints that get thrown around by locals and visitors alike, but those of use who have chosen to reside here and therefore live with these pitfalls of angeleno-dom tend to be eager to share our tips for so doing with our fellow citizens. Advice on what surface street to take to Beverly Hills, what LAX terminal is best for meeting your ride, or what time of day the lines at that new ice cream shop are shortest are as much a part of a typical day in LA as traffic on the 101. There is a weird kind of neighborliness to this causal counseling, a spirit of "we're all in this together" that you'll miss if you're not paying attention.
Behind me, I hear a low wolfwhistle and don't turn around. The whistler could be hooting at anyone, and I'm just minding my own business, staring out at the water, my rapidly depleting coffee drink in hand. The couple next to me ignore him too, until they notice he's actually attempting to signal everyone in the general vicinity. The man, an aging fellow in a maroon bowling shirt, is walking his dog. "Is that your car?" he says to the couple, loud enough that he's asking everyone around as well. "You're about to get a ticket." The couple say no, it's not their car, and I shake my head too. But I also think to myself, isn't that nice. Strangers looking out for strangers. And I hope the car's owner is near enough, and paying enough attention, to appreciate it.
This morning, I woke up nostalgic. Even before the alarm went off, I was entertaining hazy thoughts of what my life is like now, aimlessly reminiscing about the two long-short school years that have passed since I came to California for the screenwriting MFA program from which I'm about to graduate.
Maybe it's a kind of mourning, this nostalgia. Not that I'm sad. In fact, though graduation is just a few days away, though my friends are already starting to trek closer to the heart of LA (I'll join them in a few months), though I'm done with classes and that alarm this morning went off only to alert me that another morning was at risk of slipping away, I don't feel much of anything about graduating. I'm surprised by my relative serenity, since I'm used to having rather strong emotions, particularly when it comes to change. So why am I so calm?
If I had to guess – and I do, I must – I'd say it has something to do with the difference between pre- and post- grad school/California move Marissa. Before I headed west, my life was pretty good. I lived in a swanky part of town (yes, with my dad, but he's great) and knew a huge number of very cool people. For nearly five years, I had a job that was, by all accounts, pretty neat; I got to talk about software all day, plan events, meet celebrities, play with mixing boards, be on conference calls. When I quit that job, it was for art; I finished a documentary I'd shot myself, and got to show it to nearly 1000 people. There were stories in the paper.
I helped start a now-thriving not-for profit that allowed me to host a stand-up open mic, and I once got paid $7 and a beer to tell jokes about Dracula. I went on to work for the world's greatest orchestra, and I sang in one of the best choirs in Chicago. I covered the Chicago Auto Show as press – twice – and got to take a trip to New York to talk about Sweet Valley with a publishing house.
It was a lot of good stuff. But it wasn't a calling. I was wandering, living my life in anecdotes rather than finding my story.
That was pre-California. Now that I'm here, I have little more than sunshine, traffic, school friends, and writing. Not that I'm complaining. It's a good, solid start. I'll have anecdotes here, too, highlights and lowlights will emerge. But it's that last item on the list – the writing – that makes post-move Marissa so different. In Chicago, writing was a hobby. Even when life was fun, I panicked. One worry was constantly humming above the rest: "What are you doing with your life?" I would chip away at the worry with a creative endeavor here or there, but it never amounted to much, and I was never able to allow it to define me.
Then, I decided to take the plunge. When I decided to come to grad school in the LA area, it was largely because this is where "the business" is; I knew that it meant I'd be putting myself in a place where stories are traded as a commodity. But I didn't know that committing myself to two years of writing would change how I see myself, if only because we define ourselves through action, and I have found an action and a definition that makes me satisfied. (If that sounds grandiose, rest assured, I'm not saying I'm a great writer, just that I love it; but even this statement supports my point, as I've learned in grad school that being unsatisfied with one's own work is the most writerly trait of them all.)
It was only days after arriving in California that I was overcome by a strange realization: All those years of being alive, all those experiences, those were my invaluable ammunition! Everything I'd done or was afraid to do; all my emotions and the emotions I observed; every person I talked to; they can all be repurposed or called upon for the purposes of fiction! (Do I know you? I may have co-opted you, however indirectly. Sorry. Occupational hazard.) It took me a bit longer to realize that leaving my fun-filled but somehow unfulfilling life behind to pursue a path that felt like a calling had given me a new freedom. Instead of worries, my brain was free to fill up with stories.
Now, listen. I have worries. I worry about running out of money. I worry about finding work. I occasionally worry about finding time to have a family sometime in the next decade. I worry about being in love, and (my perpetual worry) about being loved back.
But I don't spend any energy on the worry that used to dominate me: "What am I doing with my life?" It's a luxury that, to employ a cliche, "following my dreams" has bought me. And more and more, I realize that all the time I spent feeling rudderless in Chicago – time that, on my worst days, I'm tempted to think of as "lost years" – has bought me my current peace of mind as well, not because it filled my brain with stories to tell, but because it allowed me to discover what it was I wanted from my life.
I don't know what's next for me – at least, not the specifics. But I know, whatever it is, I'll be doing it here – in the sun, in the gridlock, in the place where stories are sold. It's a strange business, but it's mine now.