I grew up way out in the country in a family with a good solid Puritan work ethic. My father was away half the time earning a living as a pilot for TWA. My mother was busy keeping us (five girls) clean and fed. In her spare time, she sewed us identical velvet party dresses with lace trim.
We had chores, taking out the garbage, feeding the dog, and of course, for most of the year, we had homework. All of my sisters did really well (you could actually say they ‘excelled’) at school. They got prizes, they got into the best colleges in the country. All except me. The fact is that I had issues.
Every September as far back as I can remember, I’d resolve that this year would be different. I’d sharpen my pencils, I’d write my name in all my notebooks. I was going to do a really good job at ‘my most important job'. But for some reason, I just couldn’t hold still long enough. I hated sitting in classrooms. I’d fall asleep as soon as I opened a book. And, easily frustrated, I’d take a break from homework and somehow, forget to get back to it.
For years it seemed that I’d gotten by on charm. Just recently, it became clear that maybe it wasn’t charm at all, that maybe the fact that I’d ‘just squeaked by with a 65’ in every Algebra, Latin and science course was collusion among the teachers: they realized that I was basically ineducable and simply pushed me along.
My plan had always been to get a job as a flight attendant for TWA until my father came home with the devastating news that he’d checked the requirements and that I was too tall. The terror (not too strong a word) of spending the rest of my days as a file clerk wearing pantyhose in a fluorescent-lit office motivated me to notch up my ‘study habits’. Maybe it was at this point that a switch flipped and alarm bells sounded. The future was nipping at my heels and it didn’t feel safe or friendly.
I began to incorporate anxiety into my being the way some people take vitamins. I kept myself on a short leash, trying very hard.
By the end of college, weary of all the memorization, I decided to cast my lot with the one thing that seemed fun and to come easily, drawing. Part of the deal was to never let go of the awareness (anxiety) that very few artists manage to make a living with their art. I’d have to keep my expenses at rock bottom in order to be able to carve out a life I could bear to live.
The clenched-fist-and-teeth approach to career success carried me through pretty much to this Summer. (to be continued)