The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was Indiana Jones. Even as a little girl, one who loved her baby dolls and Barbies, My Little Ponies and dress up, I just don't remember making plans to grow up to be a mommy. I wanted to travel the world, speak a hundred languages, discover new things, forgotten things, always have a witty comeback, and maybe spend my down time neglecting a tenured position at an ivy-covered stone-walled university. In tweed. Having to fight off Nazis and savages with a bull whip would just be an occupational hazard that I would deal with on a case-by-case basis.
(I grew up with older brothers.)
And as I grew up, archeology fell by the wayside (too dusty, for starters), and although I found that I had many natural skills, I still couldn't figure out what I wanted to be. For example, I used to play in local classical piano competitions, but I hated every single second of it. Playing the piano was innate - almost a physical need. Learning to play well was exhilarating. Playing in front of strangers was absolute torture. Every time. My hands visibly shook while trying to articulate Chopin, Bach, and Debussy, and when the agony was over at last I used to find the nearest stairwell and run up and down and up and down long flights until the adrenaline finally ran out and the shaking stopped. I competed because my excellent teacher required it, and I competed because I hoped and prayed it would somehow get me over my horrible stage fright. But it never did.
I loved the music, but I hated what it required from me in order to make a living. I also loved reading literature, but didn't want to teach when I grew up (hello, more performing!). I loved movies, but that was a pipe dream. History? More teaching. So when it came time to find a college, I looked for one with a great art program, because one other thing I knew I loved - I loved to draw.
I found the college with the great art program. Then I found a boyfriend in the neighboring theatre department. Then I found that professor in the theatre department - that iconic teacher who is young, who relates to his students, who is intelligent and creative and wildly inspiring and who - quite literally in this case - is a genius. I transferred out of the art program and into theatre, fully inspired, hoping that set design could be my ticket. Art, music, literature, history, philosophy, travel, creating, building, tearing down, beginning again - it was all wrapped up together in set design. I got my degree and built up a little experience and moved to Los Angeles. I could be an artist, in a new city, working in film, traveling for shows, and this was perfect.
It was not perfect. I had expected a few years of struggling, of begging for work, and fetching coffee and earning next to nothing, and I got them. More than a few years. But I just couldn't get it all to pay off. I don't know if it's because I moved to Los Angeles just when the unions were threatening to strike, just when business was really slowing down, and just months before 9/11, or maybe I just was absolutely not cut out for working in the film industry. But it didn't happen for me. I found work, but I had to fight for every piece of it SO HARD. I went from broke to terribly in debt, and it seemed that at the end of every day I found myself sitting in my car, pulled over on the side of some street or another somewhere in LA, still on the clock, crying into my hands. Every time I got a good break, something fell through. I had to burn a bridge at the cable network in order to work with the Academy Award-nominated production designer who soon pissed off one too many studio execs and never worked again, the busy commercial art director decided she was tired of the industry, both leads on the respected art department team decided it was time to retire, etcetera etcetera. Highlights of my film career included exactly eight zillion runs to Starbucks, being sent all over town on a mission to find a bucketful of Bazooka bubblegum for a director - only to have the gum thrown into the trash because it wasn't "stale enough" and then having to go buy a bucket's worth of Bazooka gum piece by 5 cent piece at 7-11 while the angry Indian clerk behind the counter and the eight customers waiting behind me tried to burn me alive with their eyes, working all day on 9/11 because the producers weren't answering their phones in order to OK our going home, riding an elevator with a spectacular-looking Jamie Foxx in his 1960's suit and fedora on the set of Ray, and meeting my husband.
Thank God for meeting Jimmy.
When I could transition out of film, I did. I took a job at a start-up marketing firm that dealt peripherally with film, and they let me build their creative department from scratch. Sounded perfect. Or, at least, less stressful. It wasn't. The owner was an ex-studio exec with ever-changing needs and whims, and eventually I was fired for doing something I'd been directly asked to do. I found this more upsetting than the time I was slated to be fired because I couldn't pick up an item in the Valley and a latte at the Beverly Hills Starbucks (supposedly the BEST Starbucks, of course) at the exact same time. I'd left the industry expressly to get away from this brand of crazy. But it was still LA, I guess, and on the way out the door I was given an evaluation in which they listed every skill I thought I had and said, "You just aren't any good at these things."
At this point, I was pretty well crushed. I had worked hard for nearly nothing for years in hopes of chasing my dreams, and failed. I had compromised, found a paying job, and lost it. I was told I wasn't good at any of the things I thought I was good at. And, still, I was pretty much broke.
I threw myself into a series of short jobs after that, signing up with placement and temp agencies, doing anything I could to earn money and, hopefully, prove myself.
But every job seemed worse than the last. I would walk into a position at a design agency only to be told conspiratorially by my new supervisor that the owners fired every person in that position in under two weeks because they were too demanding, and didn't know what they wanted from the hiree. My temp agency violated our contract by sending me to a telemarketing job, then took me to court for filing for unemployment after I walked out of that job with the agency's consent. Once I was fired for stealing $80, something I most certainly would NEVER do, because of a store discrepancy on a receipt. But instead of allowing me to correct the mistake I was just sent out the door. I'm still indignant about that. Ugh. And then there were the months I spent - how do I put this accurately - managing millions of dollars' worth of irreplaceable client assets, a job I was barely trained for, with a boss who spent all day drinking vodka from a paper cup and doing cocaine in the back room.
That job....that job was the last straw. I was at breaking point, or possibly already broken.
The placement agency called me up after that with a job in Pasadena at an ad agency which worked with non-profits. I feel like I must have shown up there looking like a storybook rain-sodden sad-eyed orphan. I had been in Los Angeles for almost five years, and my faith in myself was absolutely lost, as were any dreams I'd had when I'd arrived. The job I was placed in at this agency didn't fit for me, but my supervisor was kind enough to pass me along to an account team looking for someone who could proof copywriting and edit artwork, and I was hired.
I have to name names, here. I just can't not. My supervisor and manager at this new position were named Lyric and Melody - no lie - and even though I must have told them a hundred times, I don't know if they'll ever really know what they did for me there. For heaven's sake, I'm crying as I write this. For the first time since moving to Los Angeles, I was working for people who saw me, who took the time to train me, who were patient, and who were encouraging. They seemed to like me, I was promoted in due course, and in my evaluations was told the exact opposite of what I had been told before: that I was good at the things I had known - at one point, at least - I was good at. You two, if you are reading this, I will love you forever for that. You have no idea.
Maybe it wasn't my dream job. But I loved it. I loved having it, and I loved the people. I sat in traffic for two hours every day, bogged down amidst the skyscrapers downtown both ways, reminding myself as the sun reflected off the mirrored towers and bounced directly under my visor that it was worth it to have found the only job in LA where people seemed to possess an ounce or two of sanity. It wasn't perfect, but it was good. And good was good.
The next February I found out I was pregnant.
Next: what is mine - part two, heart