Failure #14: Obtain healthy glow

Look, as a Caucasian, I cannot possibly relate to the struggles and discrimination and violence encountered by other races. The physical and emotional oppression of an entire race of people makes my getting picked up by the ears by a freakishly tall bully in grade school look like petty griping. But I do know how it feels to be judged by one’s skin colour.

I never had any of my basic freedoms stripped away based on the colour of my skin. I was only made to feel uncomfortable within it. And even then, only by insensitive bastard Caucasian children. Insensitive bastard children know no boundaries in the crude art of ridicule. Actually, ridicule is a tad harsh in this instance. We’ll call it criticism. As someone involved in commercial creativity, I am open to honest feedback and constructive criticism. And, my position on procreation aside, I’ll grant that sometimes those darndest things out of the mouths of wide-eyed babes can be amusing. I still have no idea how to react when someone exclaims, “You’re so white!” at me. Similarly, I struggle with crafting a clever response to “But you look so young!” Are these insults? Compliments? Insults wrapped in compliments and dipped in jealousy? I can tell you that my youthful appearance and skin tone are direct results from staying out of the sun and wearing my sunglasses more than Anna Wintour.

During my tweenage years, the occasional bitchy beige girl took the opportunity to ask snidely, “Why aren’t you tan?” and “Don’t you ever go outside?” They were being rhetorical. They didn’t care. They just needed to make me aware that they were judging me just as harshly as I might’ve been judging myself. If I responded with, “Is that rhetorical?” The girls would snort about my use of a big word and go compare tan lines with her toasted friends.

As I got older I would encounter people—heavily made-up middle-aged women, mostly—who went into rapture over my “gorgeous porcelain skin.” “Oh, she’s just like a little doll!” they would exclaim to my mother. Of course they were meeting me under the flattering fluorescence of mall lighting. People at the beach or at poolside were less enchanted with my blindingly flawless complexion. They were just blinded.

I don’t have to tell you how I achieved my Ultra 00 (according to the Merle Norman make-up packaging) skin tone. The 60-watt incandescent bulbs that lit my childhood homes don’t have the same impact on skin colour that the UV rays of good ol’ American sunshine does.

I was the pigment-challenged sheep of the family. My father had a mechanic’s tan. Years of being in the sun and doing manual labor had turned his fingernails black and his skin a nice burnt sienna. My mother told me I would call him “my fat brown daddy.” He did not accept this term of endearment warmly, I was also told. My sister spent the bulk of her late teens through early thirties in pursuit of the perfect tan. She split her free time between tanning beds and sunbathing by the pool. I dedicated my free time to watching Kids in the Hall marathons in bed and bathing in Cheetos crumbs. Her skin would glow like a lightly glazed Thanksgiving turkey. Um, well, my fingers were orange.

I would be lying if I said I was always content with being near translucent. While I haven’t followed in my sister’s tan lines to the tanning beds, I have experimented with tan-in-a-tube. Um, well, my fingers were orange. My legs never changed beyond a milky white. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to believing in God’s will.

Since escaping the Deep South, no one in my new life wastes a thought on my skin colour. Canadians are not bothered if your skin is lighter than beige. With nearly five months of winter each year, there’s little motivation to run around in the good ol’ Canadian sunshine.

South of the border, my skin tone still elicits polarized reactions. Sometimes I get a compliment. Occasionally someone feels compelled to ask if I’m a goth chick. But being paleface doesn’t have the same stigma from 15-20 years ago. Thanks to skin cancer and science, it’s actually fashionable to forego the extra pigment. My peers are no longer concerned with my outdoor activities. I take pride in never worrying about tan lines. I can wear as many or as few straps as I’d like, though the latter might lead to public indecency charges. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I am not pure as the driven snow. That’s probably fodder for a different essay.

Failure #13: Move to NYC

Living in a small town, it’s easy to be seduced by concrete and neon. And with a life chockful of awkwardness and misery, my mantra became “anywhere but here.” For most of my life, “anywhere” was New York City.

I know, the whole move-from-rural-Alabama-to-sophisticated-NYC is such a cliché. Which may be how the notion got lodged in my brain in the first place. Well, and the Arthur movies. Eventually I wised up and gave up the dream of living in a tiny roach-infested rathole and suffering for my art. If you call comedy writing art. I set my sights on slightly smaller cities.

Okay, I’ll be honest, my decision to not move to NYC was made in part thanks to the decade-plus battle I had with my mother titled “No, that’s too far away…why don’t you just move back home?” which usually resulted in my remaining in the Southeastern quadrant of the U.S. Though my mother has lost at this point, the battle goes on, silently. My sister and her daughter are preparing for the reenactments.

To be fair, I did give my mother false hope from the outset. I moved back home after my first semester at university when my roommate, a Bible-thumping perky blonde girl annoyed me with her fear of black people (and you’re attending a predominately African American school, why?) and insinuations that my late nights were a result of frequent fornication sessions with my boyfriend when I was really getting bleary-eyed and cranky at ridiculously long theater rehearsals.

When I turned 19, I quit university and moved to Atlanta. Living in Atlanta quenched that thirst of big city life. My father had lived there when he was my age. But here’s the thing—it’s not what you’d call pedestrian-friendly. To me, Atlanta is the Southern perception of what big cities must be like. The drivers are crazy impatient and there’s a cacophony of horns on the city streets. I quickly grew disenchanted with the city and its multi-storey escalators. While trying to decide on my next destination, my mother and I locked horns and I wound up moving in with a different boyfriend. In retrospect, moving in with a boy I’d only known for mere weeks was not the smartest move romantically. But it was a successful move in the ongoing NTTFA… battle. It sent the message that I would rather deal with unpleasant Boy Drama and mentally disturbed felines than move back to the cozy bosom of Home. To do that would be to admit failure!

Of course, when the inevitable end came to my tumultuous affair, my family was so willing to jump to my aid and help me move anywhere I desired, given that it was far away from That Boy. My list of potential destinations by early 2000 was whittled down to Chicago and Orlando. I didn’t know anyone in either place and was going by pure instinct. We hauled my stuff from Northern Georgia down to Central Florida. My mother lived in Orlando in the ’60s with my sister’s father. We vacationed in the area frequently. My mother spoke often of moving to nearby Ocala. I did not expect the backlash I got several months later, as she became increasingly bitter over my decision to live where she vacationed. I did briefly consider packing up and heading up to the Windy City. But I stuck it out.

After six years in Orlando, it was time to pull up roots and relocate. Eventually my family stopped vacationing where I lived. Opportunities were drying up. And so we set our sights on points North. I don’t want to delve too much into the Big Move, so I’ll simply say that some stuff happened, people did some things, and now I live in Toronto. The decision to move here wasn’t impulsive. And, if you think about it, it’s not all that surprising. See, Toronto is like that friend you like but never really thought of in “that way.” While NYC is the hunk that everybody wants—including you. In the end, you realize that friend has everything you were looking for and was right there the entire time. After watching tons of movies set in NYC and Chicago and finding that they were actually filmed in Toronto, I found that I’d been lusting after Hogtown my whole youth.

I was able to visit NYC in 2004. We were sidetracked by a hurricane that wouldn’t let us get home, so we stayed with friends in the city. After having spent a week living it up in Toronto and Montreal, I was tired and cranky and in no mood to be wooed by the city I’d dreamed of for so long. It failed to charm me and I was secretly comparing it to my new love. I should give it a second chance sometime. Maybe I could phone up my old college roommate and we could meet at the Empire State Building.

Would my life be different if I’d refused to compromise and moved to NYC? Or even Chicago? Sometimes it’s fun to ponder the what-ifs. But after I’ve pondered, I’m content to hop on the TTC and visit all those places I saw in the movies. “Anywhere but here” may still be my mantra, but the meaning is a little different these days.

Failure #12: Exercise patience

If you’re on line at the post office and hear someone tapping their foot and heaving sharp, dramatic sighs, it might be me. I am not a patient person. My impatience is not a quality I am particularly proud of, but it keeps me bitter. Without bitterness, I wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.


Why am I so impatient in post office queues? Why do I get restless if the subway train sits at a station for one minute too long? What compels me to dash to the checkout ahead of the elderly Chinese lady? I have Places to Be and Things to Do, of course. Nevermind that the place is my home office and the things are wearing pajamas and looking at Apartment Therapy and Popdose online.

As often as I am impatient to get back into my pajamas, I am anxious to get out of them. I may be the only woman in Western civilization to be on time for any event. In fact, I’m usually unfashionably early. Whether it’s for an interview or a casual night at the pub, I will be there 20 minutes before the scheduled time. It’s a challenge to look cool while sitting in a waiting room or bar all alone. And I haven’t quite mastered disguising my ire when I’m left waiting 20 minutes past schedule. Especially without wi-fi, so that I can make passive aggressive comments on Twitter and Facebook.

But really, how’d I get this way? I suppose I am a product of modern society. Like many of my generation (and a few before), I’ve been spoiled by our fast food culture. I expect my whims to be met instantaneously. I want what I want when I want it and I don’t want to wait for it. Haven’t you heard? We live in a fast-paced world where everyone is busy. We don’t have time to wait for slow-cooked meals. We don’t have time to sit through three minutes of commercials. I’m Entitled. Gimme!

In my chosen profession, I have been conditioned to work at breakneck speed on short deadlines. Generally I’m able to do so without breaking much of anything, not even a sweat. Commercial creativity, though, is a hurry-up-and-wait vocation. Hurry up and write that article or design that ad and send it off to the client for feedback. Clients always want to receive the creative content immediately, like yesterday. Minutes turn into hours and hours turn into days before a client will respond to creative work. Oftentimes the client will respond mere hours before a project goes to press with loads of suggestions and changes. If only an accredited post-secondary institution offered Wizardry and Time Travel degree programs.

Impatience can be a virtue if it’s properly harnessed. Earlier this year, I took on the challenge to take some old essays and shape them into book form. I started the project in February. The book was print-ready by June. Now it’s available online and in stores in Toronto. If I’d gone the traditional route, I’d still be waiting for rejection letters to trickle in. Now I can get rejected directly by consumers!

By nature I am restless and fidgety. I am not content unless I’m chipping away at some fancy plan. I like to get things done. Some people work for accolades or applause, but I’ve got a jones for that sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, the accomplishment high wears off pretty fast and my mind wanders onward to the next project. Sometimes, when the restless demons need to be quieted, I’ll visit the local swing set or turn on an American International beach party movie. These distractions allow for a brief escape from obsessing over the lack of responses to my latest batch of resumes and why I’m not further along in my career. Watching a 45-year-old Harvey Lembeck as juvenile delinquent Erik Von Zipper gives me hope for the future. Perhaps one day I will be a middle-aged teenager. (It’s not an entirely far-fetched notion in this McWorld of ours.)

I have longed for the ability to step back, take a deep breath and say “que sera sera.” Let life happen instead of trying to control the uncontrollable. Things should run their course in their own time. My dinner doesn’t always have to go from freezer to microwave in three minutes flat. I can sit through a few commercials. Some of my whims can be put off until tomorrow. Maybe the next time I get impatient behind the elderly Chinese lady at the post office, I’ll invite her to join me in the park for a swing.

Failure #11: Attend overnight camp

Just as television, books and movies had planted romantic notions about high school and breasts and Jesus in my head, summer camp was a glamorized unattainable fantasy. But it was not my destiny to don terry cloth shorts and frolic around the great outdoors with people who were not part of my normal world. I would not spend balmy summer evenings underneath the stars, roasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs. Instead of bunking with strangers in the woods, my youthful summers were a little different.

My earliest summers were spent with my mother’s mother. I hesitate to call her “grand.” She was rarely without a frosty can of PBR in her hand, with a paper towel beer cozy because that’s how classy she was. Oh, and her pet name for me was “the little retarded one.” My days with her were spent in her seniors residence, sitting with other little old ladies and making crepe paper flowers. In the three years I visited the old folks’ home, I never saw any other children. Most likely because they were away at sleep away camp.

I spent a couple of summers in my default after school hang out—the snack bar of the Montgomery County Court House, where I alternated between reading Lewis Grizzard books and fielding questions about how I liked school, who my sister was dating and whether I was enjoying my summer. Occasionally my mother enlisted me to “help” her with her work, which mostly meant copying information from the microfiche and then looking up the parents of my classmates. I was the only nine-year-old who knew about second mortgages and tax liens. Also, I was probably the only nine-year-old reading Lewis Grizzard.

When we could afford it, I would participate in daytime summer activities. One year I was fortunate enough to indulge my creative side by taking dance lessons and a ceramics class. I squished myself into a brightly coloured leotard and learned routines to popular 1980s hits on the even days and painted tacky knickknacks on the odd days. Then I went to day camp, which compressed all the popular summer camp activities into eight hours a day. While I was involved in these programs, I actually spent time with people my age. To a normal child, it might have been a relief to hang out with youths and indulge in youth culture. I came into it after spending years in the company of the elderly and was unaccustomed to a summer day that didn’t smell like death, Vaporub and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The trouble with any “camp” is that it implies that copious amounts of time be spent outdoors. After age seven, I wasn’t encouraged to be outdoors ever. Even without my allergies, interacting with nature doesn’t rank high on my list of interests. I like looking at photographs of nature. I hope that nature can hang on for a few dozen more years. But nature and I won’t be playing a round of Boggle anytime soon. My idea of “roughing it” is staying at a bed and breakfast without internet access. Sleep away camp would’ve meant spending time in the wilderness and out of the jurisdiction of my mother. My mother and I have always had differing opinions on how far away I should be from her. She’s been on the losing end ever since I outgrew the papoose. Anyway, overnight camp was never a possibility.

Those of us who attended day camp managed to accomplish most of the things kids do in overnight camp. There were brief summer crushes. The pudgy girl with the pink glasses and black elastic sports strap was ridiculed and pushed down on the playground. Unlikely friendships were forged. The pudgy girl was ridiculed in the pool for wearing inflatable floaties on her ankles. Lessons were learned about sex and gender. The pudgy girl avoided ridicule on the swing set and made up parody songs that could be viewed as morbid foreshadowing. All achieved with minimal adult supervision. At the end of the day we went home to air conditioning and television.

Do I imagine sleep away camp would have been a better experience? Given my track record with insensitive bastard children at school and day camps, it would’ve been absolute misery and I’d have called my mother to retrieve me from the hell in time for Saturday morning cartoons. After I hit puberty, my mother left me at home with cable television and Cheetos and I was content to live vicariously through Hayley Mills times two and the Camp Anawanna kids.

I think summer camp provides an opportunity to reinvent yourself, a chance to try out new fashions and affectations without interference by those who’ve known you since diapers. The closest I got to reinvention was when I tried on my grandmother’s wig and tried to learn the harmonica. Maybe if I’d gone away to camp, I would’ve found my life-long BFF, mismatched bunk mates turned bosom friends. Or, perhaps while on a nature hike, I could’ve found Jesus skinny dipping and teaching bears about love and kindness. Oh, the failures that could have been avoided! Okay, so I can’t join in when people share anecdotes about camp practical jokes or sing campfire songs. But if you want to go swinging and reminisce about microfiche and crepe paper, give me a call.

All that said, if there was an adult summer camp for people who are inept at dealing with woodsy environs, I might consider attending. They have wi-fi, right?