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A Small Hard Reality

August 17, 2009

Gertrude Stein could kick your ass and mine. In fact, even though I don’t know who you are, I’m going to take that statement a step further and suggest that she could take both of us at once. And if you’re Georges St-Pierre or something, I apologize for offending you, but what the fuck are you reading my blog for, GSP, would I guess be my question.

When I was in grade 12, I took a drama class. One day the teacher asked us to brainstorm a unifying topic or theme for our next batch of class projects. She was a flighty, clueless person who probably to this day has never been taken seriously by anyone, let alone a room full of 17-year-olds. So of course everyone is shouting out inane suggestions (“My math textbook!” “Horniness!” “Mr. Kreklewich!”) and she’s dutifully writing them on the board, no doubt inwardly lamenting the 20 years’ worth of bad decisions that led to this moment. This one kid in the back says, “Alien Nation.” And Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Was lights up and writes “alienation” on the board. She can see that we’ve also suddenly perked up and started laughing and taking an interest, and she misinterprets this as enthusiasm about the theme of alienation. And so we spent the next month doing skits and tableaux about alienation.

Four years ago I moved to Seattle to start a PhD. Everything was comin’ up Strayer. I had funding out the ass, I had a cute apartment in a city I’d been in love with since the grunge rock era, and I was, for the first time in my life, fully confident that everything was going to be awesome from here on out. I was incorrect. It was the worst two years of my life. I spent most of it at bars and mental health clinic appointments. Eventually it got to a point where I had to get the hell out, somehow or another, and I had just enough fight left in me to choose leaving Sea-Town (the locals all call it Sea-Town) and academia over leaving the universe. And so, two years and two days ago, I shoved my huge angry cat into the fuchsia floral-printed travel bag that she justifiably hates and got on a one-way flight to Calgary. I think we all have a momentous experience like that at least once in our lives. One of these obnoxious two-roads-diverged scenarios that challenge us to start actually living by the principles to which we have always claimed to have a subscription. In my case it was a matter of having to choose between a life that looked good and a life that felt good. I’d spent my whole life claiming I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of me or my decisions. I’d spent a decade insisting that I cared more about creative writing than I would ever care about my theses and term papers. And yet I’d spent the past six years making a living as a scholar and hadn’t written a non-academic word since I was 12 years old. I was a poser and an imposter/-or. So the gods thought it would be interesting to see if I actually had it in me to ditch my doctorate for a minimum-wage retail job and to give up the idea of a secure future to chase down one of the most elusive dreams in the world. I mean, the odds of my achieving literary success are probably on par with any individual sperm’s odds of fertilizing the egg. But here I am, though, irregardless. There is a very fine line between bravery and stupidity. I’m honestly not sure which side of it I live on.

I hated almost every minute of my academic life, but I clung to it anyway because it looked so goddamned impressive on paper, and because it paid the rent, and because it was familiar, and most importantly because it soothed my ever-increasing fear of alienation from my own group of friends. Most of them were graduate students like I was. Most of them were also engaged in two or more of the usual twentysomething activities: dating, mating, marriage, procreation, home ownership, vehicle ownership, RRSP contributions, etc. I couldn’t really imagine myself getting involved in that stuff. I still can’t. I don’t know the first thing about any of it. And I’m no longer part of a classics department, and I’m no longer headed doctorateward, and so I find it ever more difficulter to feel like a respectable 29-year-old in the company of my friends.

“Alienation” is just a fancy Latin-based word for “otherness” or “strangerdom” or “foreignicity.” Even though I stand by 90% of the decisions I’ve made in the past two years, I get pretty fucking depressed sometimes. Part of this is just a brain chemistry situation, Lifestyles of the Creatively Hardwired. The rest of it is an increasing sense of panic that the music is going to stop any second and I might not get to a chair in time. Like, I’m almost 30; shouldn’t I have found a place in the world by now? Shouldn’t I have a spouse and a driver’s licence? Shouldn’t I know what a TFSA is? Shouldn’t I have stopped starting sentences with “Like”?

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I have infinite respect for the gods’ timing. Yesterday, while looking up some facts to make inappropriate use of in a future post, I came across the following delicious tidbit of autobiographilosophy courtesy of the Fernhurst of the abovementionedly kickass Ms. Stein:

“It happens often in the twenty-ninth year that all the forces that have been engaged through the years of childhood, adolescence and youth in confused and ferocious combat range themselves in ordered ranks – one is uncertain of one’s aims, meaning and power during these years of tumultuous growth when aspiration has no relation to fulfillment and one plunges here and there with energy and misdirection during the storm and stress of making a personality until at last we reach the twenty-ninth year, the straight and narrow gateway of maturity, and life which was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose, and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality. Also in our American life where there is no coercion in custom and it is our right to change our vocation so often as we have desire and opportunity, it is a common experience that our youth extends through the whole first twenty-nine years of our life and it is not till we reach thirty that we find at last that vocation for which we feel ourselves fit and to which we willingly devote continued labor.”

So maybe everything’s going to work out after all. It has as a matter of fact been an unusually formative year. Two weeks after my 29th birthday I decided to quit the pointless job that was paying the bills but sucking the soul out of me and making me feel like despite all my rage I was still just a rat in a cage. I devised the escape route of going back to school to take psychology, and I was feeling pretty excited – perhaps a more accurate adjective would be relieved – about having settled on a future to replace the one I threw away two years ago. But last month I went to Vancouver for a couple of weeks to take some writing workshops, and it became strangely clear to me an hour into the first seminar that I can and should dispense with any and all writing-unrelated career possibilities. Each day the impossible ridiculousness of the idea of my becoming a psychologist became more apparent. I’d love to be able to spend my working life calming people down and teaching them how to put up with themselves, I’d love more than anything to be that kind of sweet warm approachable person, but I’m not. I’m the kind who’s really fucking sarcastic and unintentionally scares the shit out of people and is probably too lemurishly anxious to ever drive a car or be in a relationship and can rock this language like it’s never been rocked before. Those are the parameters. I need to work within them. It’s just going to be one gong show after another, otherwise.

I’m getting on board with the 29th-year threshold theory. Stein in ’09, baby. There are a few more months of uproar and confusion in the forecast; fair enough, I’ve weathered worse. And then it’s Small Hard Reality Time. Pretty soon I’ll be able to kick your ass to next Christmas, GSP, if you’re still there.

The future is exciting. I’m going to go buy Fernhurst – or, more likely, considering the priorities of Calgary’s bookstores, order Fernhurst online…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2009 5:39 pm

    Well, I could comment in person, on the telemephone, text, or whatever else they’ve come up with, but I’ll do this instead. This is some good shit, M (Meaghan, not Martin, in case he’s reading). Keep it up (that’s what she said). It feels weird commenting in such a banal ablative of manner, but there it is. Doing what you do suggests you have it more together than those of us too chicken-shit to drop our safety nets and do what we want (like dance, guard trees, open up a fellation station, et cetera) Keep rockin’ it with your cock in it.

  2. April 21, 2012 5:06 pm

    Found this post while searching for that Stein quote; talk about finger on the pulse! GS is the shit. I read this when I moved to SF and was treading water in the endless pool of unemployment. Every job posting I saw fell into one of two categories: 1) Okay jobs that required 5 more years of experience than I had at the time 2) Jobs that would be so ill-fitting that even applying for them would confirm the futility of the previous four years at school (thanks, Creative Writing BA). GS’ quote got in front of my eyes somehow. It lifted this pressure I had put on myself, to find happiness, money, and not fuck others over; to live up to all the privilege I’d been born into. I found it calming.

    Months later I was still repeating this quote (trying to lift myself from four part-time jobs and a fairly dark depression) when my sister’s boyfriend turned to me and said, “That quote has ruined you.” To him it was simple: the quote had provided me with just enough credibility to continue wallowing in indecision. Truth is, he wasn’t entirely wrong. BUT being a writer is really fucking hard and it’s not an easy path to choose because EVERYTHING else is easier and makes more money. In conclusion, fuck yeah. It’s amazing to see that someone else has connected with this quote. Keep writing. Your blog is the bomb.


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