Saturday, August 13, 2011

Here Goes Nothin'

If it is possible to be both a megalomaniac and paralyzingly self-effacing at the same time, then I am.  If it isn't possible, then I guess I'm at a loss to describe what goes on in my head when I get all ambitious and start making and/or executing wild schemes. 

Between moving and the shit-show that is a tourist industry job in August, I'm already behind the eight ball in terms of getting done everything I need to.  And then I volunteered to play a solo set with my ukulele at the 3rd Annual Long Island Music Festival, a set for which I had no songs written on an instrument that I barely play, although I definitely have an affinity for it. 

I only managed to write two songs, the performance is tomorrow and to top it off, my residual Catholic guilt made it impossible for me to take the day off from work when I realized how short-staffed they'd be, so I volunteered to work for a few hours in the morning.  Less than an hour from now.  What's that?  The only thing I can control at this point is getting a good night's sleep? Oh, you... just hush now. It's aaaaalllll going to be fine.  Or not.  I've already spun myself like a top until I ceased to worry.  Those dervishes might be on to something.

Anyway, sitting here simultaneously cursing myself for signing on to do something that was at best a bit overly ambitious and at worst a total embarrassment in front of people I see daily and being totally excited to do something I love and know I'm pretty good at, I've ceased actually working on the project at hand and gone straight for the solipsistic pop-psychology.

I'm going to venture that a person's own self-confidence is probably most everyone's biggest psychic blind spot, because to take stock of it involves attempting to make an objective judgment of an extremely subjective topic about which we imagine we're objective. You follow?  You thinking about you thinking about you is a feedback loop that is just very unlikely to lead to any meaningful epiphany. That being so, I've made the very practical decision to drag you down that particular rabbit hole with me anyway.  Let's go!

For the bulk of my life, I took for granted a couple of things:  that I'm generally good at learning things and that I'm generally really socially inept.  It's not that I was unable to get along with people, but as I look back, I think of myself as the kind of harmless dork that everyone could get along with because I was so weirdly outside of the politics of social circles.  I had a handful of close friends, but I wasn't really interested in trying hard to fit in.  I felt, by and large, as if I were an alien who read a bunch of Laura Ingalls Wilder books to understand human life and then was surprised that people looked at me weird because I was going to go make homemade butter (yes, really).  If I were a character in an afterschool special about a girl gang, I would have been the one who's only in the gang because she grew up in the neighborhood and all the tough girls feel protective of her even though she's all nerdy and can't fight and is totally oblivious to real life, a real Ponyboy. 

In my twenties I found a community of like-minded weirdos and became outgoing.  I'd spent a long time feeling like it was somehow rude or egotistical to acknowledge things I was good at, and then I met people who were amazingly talented in millions of ways and simultaneously open and unassuming about it.  I'd spent decades conflating simple confidence with some sort of greedy, ugly hubris.  I'm going to go ahead and blame Catholicism again.

What was even more eye-opening at the time was the way these friends were comfortable with their own talent and quick to acknowledge it in other people as well.  I was coming from a small, cramped place where I was afraid to say what I took pride in and afraid to be judged for saying what I admired.  I am still intensely jealous of people who have that kind of easy relationship with themselves, others, accomplishment, and admiration.  Even now, I feel a certain twinge when I meet teenagers who identify as artists or musicians or activists.  Those things won't necessarily define them forever, but how awesome it must be to be so comfortable with your convictions so young, even if they change over time.

For a while, I filed myself in that category.  I booked an art show and sold several sculptures for the kind of money I considered the purview of "real artists" as opposed to dabblers like myself, I played in a band and had shows that people came to.  In 2003-ish we made the obnoxious decision to release a cassette instead of a CD.  People bought it.  I worked as a freelance writer for a couple of local newspapers with good feedback.  On the one hand I wanted badly to be recognized as an artist, a musician, a writer, all things I considered my talents despite the fact that I couldn't get my shit together enough to commit to one.  On the other I felt like a total fraud who mucked around with some stuff but couldn't get my shit together enough to commit to one.

So here I am, almost a decade later, newly awake and aware and alive to possibility kind of like I was then, but also paralyzed by a feeling of comfortable outsider-ness that rivals my early days.  I like my weirdo job, I like that I can run a forklift, I think I'm a pretty good manager of people (although at the moment there are people who would disagree), but I also feel like I'm wasting away spending so much time doing something that doesn't use even a fraction of the things I know I'm capable of.  That's true of a lot of people I know vis a vis their day job.  I feel ashamed of my own dissatisfaction.

When Yvette, who organized the Long Island music shindig, contacted me, it was to see if my band could play.  The band isn't operational as a live act at the moment, we're writing and recording, so I declined on our behalf and then did a weird thing:  I told her that I would be game to play solo. 

Let's be clear:  I've written songs. I play instruments. I sing.  But I don't really play a solo-set kind of instrument and the songs I've written were heavily orchestrated and not so much translatable to something I could do myself.  When I volunteered to play this event, I was banking on my ability to write songs for me and my ukulele in a week and a half, which meant translating my theoretical comfort level with the ukulele into actual practice.  I think we can all agree that that was an impulsive thing to do.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the part of my brain that typed that offer is the most interesting part.  The scared, shy, dismissive part of me got me a practical job that pays the bills and it isn't much interested in the possibility of risk and failure.  When I got happy, I got really excited about risk and failure, and within a few weeks, my instinct for safety told me to wait, wait, wait.  It's not bad advice, provided I don't swallow the tangential implication that I'm risk actually equals failure and that I lack the qualities necessary to do something less secure than what I do now.  Thank goodness, then, for the devious little sliver that makes me take a stab at a solo show, that wants to grab opportunities as they come.

Here's how I see my feedback loop:  I'm insanely proud and competitive, pretty sure I can do almost anything and eager to do it, but desperately afraid of being judged arrogant or out of bounds (is everyone cool if I pin it on the Catholics just one more time?).  I'm working on it, Serenity Prayer-style.

Tomorrow I'll take the day off from work (mostly), take a ferry to a beautiful island and do something I love among people I really enjoy. I wrote "only" two songs this week, but that's more songs than I've written in months.  If I'm going to consider myself at the starting gate of a new phase in my life, it's a great time to set new standards.  Instead of feeling neglected and under-appreciated, it's my responsibility to be more open about the talents I value in myself (by playing an impromptu show, for instance) and engaging with other people on that level.  By the same token, I'm going to have to let go of the wracking anxiety that's made it safer and preferable to be a genius in my own mind instead of risking defeat.

I think I've made a pretty honest assessment of myself, although I'm sure it's not a terribly flattering picture.  I hope you'll forgive me if I come across as a narcissistic bitch or a simpering baby.  Nope, actually, I do hope I'm understood, but I'm not looking for forgiveness...that's just the Catholicism talking.

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