eyes on the prize

I had just a few simple dreams when I was a child: to meet the Spice Girls, to buy an entire wardrobe from the Limited Too, and to will myself into having perfect vision so I could cast off my Coke-bottle glasses once and for all.

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Did you know they make miniature cellos for tiny people who set their sights on being popular and accidentally end up playing the cello instead?

Yeah, that didn’t work out too well for me.

I wasn’t done setting goals, though. I was going to be a cheerleader, and play Brigitta in the spring musical, and seriously if I just thought hard enough I could dream those braces right off of my teeth.

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I wouldn’t have let me be a cheerleader either.

Nope.

I am a poor judge of my own abilities. Today I call it imposter syndrome, because I know logically that I’m not actually terrible at my job, but when I was a kid I was downright delusional. I was as certain that I’d be a cheerleader as I was that I could wake up one day with 20/20 vision, maybe because I didn’t understand how cheerleaders got there. “By dint of hard work” wasn’t the kind of thing I was willing to consider. I was sure that it was effortless and so I grew up lazy, waiting for the elusive triple pirouette to grace me with its presence during ballet class while the other girls practiced their 32 fouettes in the corner until the janitor was sweeping the floor around them as the studio closed.

Things came easy to me when I was a child. I was a champion rote memorizer. I wandered around the house muttering my times tables under my breath so I could walk into school the next day, take a giant gulp of air, and exhale the entire thing faster than anyone else, from “onetimesoneisone” to “twelvetimestwelveisahundredandfortyfour” with my eyes bugging out the whole time from behind those Coke-bottle glasses. I was the queen of state capitals Jeopardy (“Harrisburg!” “Dover!” “Pierre!”).

It was only when rote memorization began to fail me as a tool that I began to fail myself. I tried my mightiest to write out a plan to become popular: my elementary school journals are filled with lists where I impel myself to “be cooler” and then bemoan the lack of tactical guidance on how to be cool. “Stop picking your nose in front of people” was the only advice I could really muster and that wasn’t happening anytime soon. (If we’re being honest, it still hasn’t. Thank God I sit behind a Thunderbolt monitor all day.)

Absent instructions to follow, surrounded by people who had it all figured out, I began to supplant goals with wishes. It was half laziness and half growing up brunette and bespectacled and comically uncoordinated with a bunch of blonde soccer players. Everything seemed so hopelessly out of reach—and it was, really, since I wasn’t about to wake up blonde—that it didn’t occur to me to find something more realistic to set my sights on.

Eventually, I grew up a little, took a ballet class, realized that I could do more pirouettes if I did situps while I watched “The OC,” that I could ditch the glasses if I could learn to stick my finger in my eyeball, that I could get A’s if I studied for my chemistry tests (or if I was nice to J_____ and he let me copy off his paper). It was like next-level times tables and it worked until I discovered that sometimes there are things called extenuating circumstances that get between you and your goals. You can practice as hard as you want but if the girl who would grow up to play Sandy in Grease Live! walks into the audition after you, it doesn’t matter how many pirouettes you just did, everyone has already forgotten that you exist. (This happened. 2005 was a rough year for everyone at the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts who had previously had self-esteem.)

I decided shortly thereafter that setting goals, per se, was just setting myself up to wallow. If something doesn’t happen and you’ve classed it as a “goal,” you experience not only the disappointment of losing out on being Brigitta or a cheerleader or first place in state capitals Jeopardy but the meta-level disappointment of failing yourself. So I reverted to my childhood practice of wishing. “I want to be in the ballet piece next year,” I said to myself, but like hell I was going to set a goal to be in the ballet piece next year, because I had no control over whether a bunch of skinny freshmen were going to show up at dance company auditions and tombe-coupe-jete circles around me. (Spoiler alert: they did, and they all got to wear pink sparkly tutus while I shuddered around the stage in, literally, a bonnet.)

It was a good way to get through the first painful years of young adulthood. Setting goals is especially hard when you don’t know what you want out of life: I didn’t want to go to law school or med school or teach in China or backpack Europe. And when I eventually tripped into a career—because my sister went to a party thirteen years ago where she met a kid who, ten years later, moved my resume to the top of a pile—it occurred to me to be grateful that I hadn’t set some kind of goal for myself. I’ve never been one for planning, anyway; serendipity and luck and privilege are more fun. Doing it for the stories is more fun. These are my excuses, but the fact is that these are the things I worry about:

  1. Failing.
  2. Failing while people are watching.
  3. People watching me.
  4. Plane crashes. (This would be #1 were it not for the fact that I only worry about it when I’m on planes, which occurs less frequently than when people are watching me.)

I can work myself into a panic about nearly everything—squirrels, the prospect of my Kindle running out of battery on a long subway ride, how I’m going to fit an umbrella in the tiny purse I wanted to carry next time we go to the Bell House given that Weather.com is forecasting rain ten days from now—and when I let myself think about the kinds of goals that are as dependent on circumstance as they are on persistence, I am overcome.

How could I possibly vow to publish a novel by the time I’m thirty when sending a query letter is as much a moonshot as auditioning for the non-Equity tour of “The King and I?” How could I do something as audacious as tentatively plan to buy an apartment in five years when I could get fired from my job at any moment? How dare I imagine that I might one day direct a company’s marketing department when the bottom is about to fall out of the entire tech industry anyway? I am terrified to say that I want any of these things because, frankly, I’m terrified that people might laugh at me when they don’t pan out.

In my head, there is a tiny studio audience observing my every move, judging me as harshly when I try to shovel half a salad into my mouth in one bite as when I say I’m going to stop flaking on social invitations. (This studio audience was thrilled when I decided that I was going to lose ten pounds and then, again, when the first eating disorder therapist I saw told me I wasn’t “that far gone” and so I decided to find out what “that far gone” meant. I should replace them with Oprah’s studio audience. Oprah fans would sit me down with the latest Barbara Kingsolver and tell me to quit trying so hard to make a point.)

I’m afraid to take risks because I’m afraid of what this studio audience will do to me when I fall short. I set myself small, digestible goals and I pursue them slavishly and I am disproportionately upset when I fail at them. I decided this year not to read white male authors, and then I accidentally borrowed a book from the resident of the sixth-floor walkup where I found myself unexpectedly a couple months ago late on a Friday night—okay, so it’s hard to find yourself unexpectedly in a sixth-floor walkup, but you get what I’m saying—and now I have this Tom Wolfe book sitting on my nightstand that I can’t read but I don’t borrow a book and then not read it so I can’t not read it and at this point, I might as well just pencil in a deadline for my first publication date on my calendar four years from now and one more a week later to dig my own grave. (The studio audience roars.)

There aren’t many things that I want to do while I’m alive; when people ask, I say “Have fun.” I’m not sold on marriage and children terrify me. I’d like to see more of the world, but I’ve got no checklist of countries to visit. I will never run a marathon or dance on Broadway. I don’t have many flags to plant—fear or not, I would rather amble along, mostly aimlessly, living according to circumstance. But as much as I like serendipity, I think that if I die without having published a novel or purchased a home I will not feel finished.

And that means that I have to use the dirty word and set a couple of goals for myself, goals that I might not accomplish by thirty because I might contract writer’s block or get fired or move again or lose a hand to a squirrel attack or get murdered on the subway. I have to set some ground rules for my studio audience: they’re allowed to heckle me when I spill coffee on my boob the day I’m wearing a white shirt, but they can’t give me shit when I drop eighty bucks on another black sweater instead of putting it in my savings account.

Studio audience, are you listening? The APPLAUSE sign is flashing. Put away that bucket of tomatoes and make yourselves useful.

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