Leaning the Fuck away
At 26 and having just ridden 586 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles on my bicycle, my great aunt Dolly asked me point blank: “So what do you want to do?” My answer: “I want to ride mountains.” Dolly was a second-generation Smith grad, very much cut from the First Generation Feminists on that side of my proud, blue-blood, rice-paper skin family (that thank heaven my grandmother defected from), and I knew precisely where she was headed. For the first time in what felt like 5 dead years I was resolute in knowing what I wanted — confident, and proudly subverting her attempt at drop casting my ass to fit our family’s (multi-generation!) mold for women.
My first nervous breakdown had been at 21. Over my first summer home from college at 19, 2 friends my age died within weeks of each other; another, just before that year’s Christmas break. 2 more died in the months after, and a close friend, the month before we were to graduate high school. All heroin, suicide, and 1 Hodgkin’s Disease. The boyfriend I’d later dump that summer was furious I’d held him off for 3 weeks from arriving home so I could break up with him in person, not caring that I hadn’t wanted to hurt him by doing the deed on the phone but was too busy attending funerals, etc. I still feel badly for having botched that one. He hurt for a long time, and deserved better.
Life is complicated. Ambitions oddly, don’t seem to be. Not for me, at least. Ambition seems to be a very straightforward thing: you have it, or you don’t. The business idea or creative interest stokes your passion that roars beneath your heels, propelling you to a velocity only limited by your gearbox and fuel supply — or you know, it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok. If it does however, and that’s all you know, well — that’s me. That’s me, my dad, and my brother. Three incredibly broken slaves to our hearts passions, but also equally committed to not repeating what the three of us agree to be sins of personal sacrifice in the name of Capitalist ambition. All three of us, painfully aware of our own personal fallibility and of the sacrifices that could have us each fired high on adrenaline into orbit as guided missiles of Accomplishment™… but humans that at best, are just kinda meh.
30 under 30
I dread those magazine covers. I really, truly do. I had achieved more at 20, than most people do by the time they hit 40. My fiancee’s breakup line to me at 21, was:
“Richard and Riley see you in your underwear, more than I do!”
It was true. Startup life: my studio apartment’s kitchen was also the magazine’s production room; Richard and Riley, the magazine’s publishers & creative directors (and — good times — a couple!). *surface magazine, look ‘em up. Still around, still beautiful. None of us — not even the founders — are still involved. All of us burnt out, all of us licked our wounds full of creative reward and financial losses, and moved on.
It took months of soul-searching and the eventual adoption of a new obsession — motorcycle racing — to offset my career-as-mainline life path that had become clearly evident to me as too toxic for my psyche to handle. I was also at that time just coming to terms with accepting that I’d been “Raped” at 15, and not “sorta-kinda-not-really-he-was-my-boyfriend-raped-ish” or some other watered-down variant. I’d grown-up with one mentally-ill and un-medicated birth-parent, followed by a psychotic (and just for fun, also un-medicated!) step-parent as a teenager. Learning about the PTSD I was living with as a result of the rape, about the low self-esteem and confidence the trifecta of adult women influencers in my life had put me onto the path of life with; so it goes, so on and so forth. My 20s was a very busy period of my life, qualitatively spent heads-down on unravelling & comprehending the mess that was the highside/triple-roll-over of my later childhood and early adulthood years, while quantitatively spent working 24/7 chasing career and racing obsessions.
It took a lot to let go of the idea that making one of those dumb lists each and every year was what success meant. A. Lot. Questioning concepts of “work” and “life” and deeply rooted identity, and how all the while to remain a good human in the world. Which only became clear to me as a priority, upon seeing so many my own age die before they were even 25. At least, that was the point of resolve I took away from my 3–5 year typhoon of piss-off towards God. We did finally reconsile. Turn 5 at Thunderhill. Great chat, solid moment. Not really, but that does make for a better story.
That having won prestigious awards at 21 but then nothing but nervous breakdowns, 2 career changes, two motorcycle classes raced and multiple injuries later, no other trophies to show for any of it — I was… a broke failure? It’s a stupid goddamned way to think. And: thank GAWD Facebook didn’t yet exist! One more time…
Thank GAWD Facebook didn’t yet exist!
My dad would look at me point-blank and say how stupid my back-of-head critics were. Bellow as much! But, we’re wired differently, and he knows that as well as I do. So, we ally — my dad, brother, and I — to keep ourselves grounded and intent to not be Those Overachievers, and to instead be Real Dorky Humans. No new age bullshit, but also no stupid enlightenment egos & stuff. Just keeping it real, keeping it day to day.
We have our entire lives ahead of us, after 30. The systemic push to peak or to do it all before then — or even 40 — is preposterous. In my case, it shorted-out every system inside of me. It’s the kool-aid of American Exceptionalism, but in measured doses on blotter paper.
The Sandberg family is definitely one to commend. Seriously, her grandmother, mother, and other women role-models she grew-up with, did seem incredibly fierce, as she documented in LeanIn. My own great grandmother was an early Suffragette, and my mother an adorable Beatnik art-school girl just six credits shy of a double Masters degree in social work and fine art. The prior being a rent-payer, of course took priority.
I love my family. Ferociously. Our flaws and our strengths together make us who we are, and without the rocky journey I’ve been down, I wouldn’t be who I am today — so none of it, I regret. Where my family and Sheryl’s diverge however, is — well, a lot. I also somehow suspect that, with about 90% of the American population. No exaggeration. LeanIn is subsequently, a bad damn book to be set as the example for all or most (or more than 5% of) women to model our own paths on… or for society to expect us to model ourselves towards, in any damn way.
My own parents — both White, and in 1985 firmly upper middle-class — divorced when I was young. My mother was raised in the 1950s deep South, and while creatively and intellectually “fierce” she had no concept of autonomous survival free of a paycheck earning husband. That didn’t stop her from trying with all her might, though — and try, and try, and try she did. Just not to much success, beyond barely surviving. She also never knew self-confidence, as her own mother was a sociopathic monster and her father was a drunk salesman with weekly rotating girlfriends. Not a happy marriage or home life, to say the least.
To raise a child with confidence in themselves
is a skill. On one hand, it’s far from rocket science. On another hand, it is learned — learned by the example of people who’ve showed you love and encouraged you to feel solid in your own shoes, from your first days through your beer-bong days. When adults don’t have that in their own childhood, raising children with such a confidence is apparently really, really hard. In hundreds of dollars of therapy sessions from a razor sharp therapist, I have been assured of this over and over again.
Sheryl Sandberg’s upgbringing was filled with security, stability, reassuring adults, fierce female role models (that lived not just in comic books or tv shows but in actual real life), and hell — she was popular! Much as I don’t believe she intended LeanIn to paint her as a glistening preppy Donna Reed on a half-shell, it all but did — and for a woman whose foundational years were spent with that kind of support for her own intellectual and emotional development, a clear expectation she’d go to college (which also in my family, was never a choice — and was regular dinner conversation) and onto a fierce career path… YES, all that LeanIn leaning-in makes total sense! That crazy system of a multi-generational formula for rearing a confident 20th century girlchild with a built-in a forcefield to prevent LeanIn faceplanting; she probably even had an invisible hair & makeup team to make sure she stayed fabulous looking while facing psychic death 20x a day 80hr a week, for the first 20yrs of her career. Or not. Imagining Sheryl Sandberg’s early adulthood without an always-on styling team in an invisible airplane, is kinda hard.
My mountains, my choice
Back to my aunt Dolly, in her Hollywood Hills kitchen, and her friend Frank Gehry. If I would drop this “silly” hobby of mine — this motorcycle-racing thing I was misguidedly wasting my time and God given intellect with in a juvenile crisis of some sort — she would reward me by personally having Mr. Gehry (apparently an old friend of hers, from back when she was a Max Factor executive in the 1940s-60s) and I both, together, for a luncheon at Spagos (or wherever trendy people went before Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan took over) to discuss my future in architecture (which of course meant another 4 years of school and 3 years of exams there wasn’t a hope in hell I would ever put myself through).
That was a big damn deal. Frank Gehry is some heavy shit. So were the 4 hard-drives and 5 SyQuest discs filled with high-res photos, layouts, and images mid-compositing that were lost in the airport’s checked-baggage 5 years prior. So was me sobbing, heaving, crawling and grabbing at the carpet floor in the basement as I ran to my room to shut the world out from my reality I couldn’t face, when my dad had to wrestle me upward in a near choke-hold restraint to get me to tell him what had happened. Then of course we went to the ER for the subsequent asthma attack. No hyperbole, my shitshow that week really was that epic a trainwreck.
Northwest Air (RIP) eventually recovered my discs, and I spent NYE in the UofM’s AI lab, watching through its gothic windows the beautiful snow fall while working all night on a Mac a friend of our family smuggled me a key to get in to use, to finish my work for the March issue of *surface. Two weeks before my 21st birthday.
Jessica just OWNED her mountains !
Jessica William’s Twitter stream energized and excited me like nothing else has in some time, when a friend pointed me to it earlier tonight. After I had publicly Tweeted my fangirl desire to see her succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. “oooh no,” my friend Tweeted back, alongside a link to Ms. William’s Tweetstrem. Holy. Fucking. Mother. Of…. What. A. Goldmine!!! A treasure trove of ass-kicking, brutal honesty. Guessing Ms. Williams wasn’t raised in California?
Never before in my life have I seen ANYONE so solidly, so boldly, and so on-point w/o any dancing around words or other bullshit, handle what Ms Williams had been up against— as the fan favorite to replace Jon Stewart when he retires this summer, who was then told by some bipsy reporter to “Lean In” and get past her purported Imposter Syndrome later the same week.
That, AND this is the most elegant, regal, fan-fucking-tastic-awesome PR agency dream-come-true (but fuck if any PR agency bozo would ever approve this to run!) composition of statements to dissapoint the flames of Twitter, as they stand un-fanned… fading, fading, into the night. More on point: damn, should I have a daughter, wow — I could only dream she’d have her head on her shoulders as solidly as Ms. Williams seems to!
At 41, I finally do just roll my eyes when I see those “30 under 30" covers, and I keep walking. San Francisco is a fickle town however, and part of why I’m feeling tension between us recently is that I’m proud to finally be letting go of the dogmatic overachiever bullshit.
All the reasons that Jessica Williams would have been a perfect successor to Stewart, are both symbolic and specific to how her talent fits into the niche he carefully routed over the past 20 years. She’s twenty fucking five years old, though, and her unique talents aside… her woman-ness and her Black-ness ain’t ours to shove onto flagpoles to wave around in solidarity for a 70y/o media problem that won’t suddenly stop because she’s joined the parade with the one life she has to live. Hell, her talent and interests as they develop in the years ahead, just may route a whole other niche than what Stewart routed with The Daily Show. Did anyone think of that?!
Regardless: there’s a 25y/o actor/comedienne whose work I adore, and I want to see more of. Metallica went onto MTV, pffftz. End of the road. I feel like Jessica Williams has just dropped her own metaphorical Master of Puppets into the store bins with where her work is today… and I eagerly anticipate where this self-determined badass will land with her career, in her future, on her own damn time. In the interim: Fuck all the bozos and their “If you don’t take it now while it’s hot, it’s gone — boom — and you lost!” Fuck that, you live —your terms — your life — you win.
Lean the fuck away, bitches — it’s 2015, and that’s a message to all of us. Black, White, Latino, male, female, and everyone in between. Life is a journey, not to be squandered by American Exceptionalism or a calling to live our lives as martyrs fighting systemic bullshit so much bigger than any one individual. Ride the mountain, and lean the fuck away.
So: Thank you, Ms Williams. ☺
Your owning of your mountains hadn’t shit to do with me, and your thunder on this ain’t mine to make all about me. Your actions did prompt me to want to share my story though, with what you did as an addendum I’d tell 25y/o me to get it in gear to do, had I the chance to do it all over again.
The afternoon after the whole Frank Gehry thing, I did get to meet aunt Dolly’s neighbor Erik Estrada at a neighborhood barbecue at the end of their street, hosted by her other famous neighbor Lucy Lawless (Xena Warrior Princess). So, there was that.