Failure #30: Be truly selfless

Is it possible to be truly selfless in the 21st century? Are you able to donate more than your wealth, to give your time and yourself to causes outside of your personal needs and desires? I’m not. I am guilty of selfish behavior and complete obliviousness to the needs of others. I walk around town plugged into my handheld entertainment device, dodging the shapeless masses walking toward me. I quickly avoid eye contact with people more disheveled than myself. Did someone fall down? I’m already half a block away.

I have a reputation amongst my closest acquaintances for being misanthropic. It is true that I detest the current state of the human race, but I didn’t choose misanthropy. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide it would be great fun to hate people. It was a gradual decline. A result of years of ridicule and rejection, giving of my love and treasures with no reciprocation, no appreciation, and no acknowledgment. If I seem bitter, it’s not without reason. Some days it feels like the human race gave up on me long before I gave up on it.

I am third generation misanthrope. My maternal grandfather once wrote a letter to my mother encouraging her to dumb down, that people would not appreciate her for being smart and definitely wouldn’t appreciate free thought. My mother passed this wisdom to me, fat lot of good it did. Given the choice between kowtowing to popular opinion or lifelong unpopularity, I’d much rather be left alone with my thoughts. Thinking is a delightful hobby. Thoughts can lead to ideas and imagination can lead to innovation. That’s how we got some of the most brilliant theories and inventions in the world. Sadly, a lot of people are afraid of thinking and thinkers. And those people will try to beat the intellectuals—physically or psychologically—into submission, shame them for being different, push them off the swings and kick rocks at their glasses.

Why should I be selfless? What’s my motivation?

I like doing nice things for people. When I worked in a video store, I liked helping customers find obscure movies. I don’t mind sharing my design resources with fellow designers. I take delight in offering up my pop culture knowledge, however weird or potentially shameful, when my boyfriend can’t remember an actor’s name. I draw the line at lending things. There’s no easy way to ask someone to return your copy of Steve Martin’s The Underpants without getting into nasty awkwardness. Just say goodbye to The Underpants.

I’ve fallen into the trap, you see. Despite all my attempts to cast off the stereotypes bestowed on me, here I am, lumping All People into the category of Mean People. Once again, the minority (although, I think I’m being kind when I say “minority”) of bad seeds ruin it for everyone. Not everyone is horribly insensitive and self-absorbed. Some people are kind. They are generous with their time and their love. They carve out time from their busy schedules to volunteer for causes close to their hearts. They make the effort to help those in need. Then there are people in need. Needy People. They get the worst rap of all. The underprivileged are painted as people to pity, dirty and helpless and perhaps malnourished. But there are varying levels of need and people who require assistance aren’t always looking for a free ride. Sometimes they just need a jump.

When I needed routine check ups for my hearing impairment, the best we could afford was the local crippled children’s clinic. Back then, all the disabilities were lumped together. There we were in the waiting room, me with my little hearing loss and toddlers with cerebral palsy and all the disabilities in between. As far as the government was concerned, we were all crippled. I sat in the waiting room and watched the other kids. Most times, I was the healthiest looking in the bunch. Some of these children would need assistance for life. They probably didn’t intend to grow up into Independent City Girls. Did I pursue independence more fiercely in their honor? No. I scurried as far away as possible because I didn’t want to be a cause. I didn’t want to be crippled. I didn’t want to be—as my mother so lovingly called me—the next Helen Keller.

If I were a better person, I would turn my failures into opportunities. I’d look for ways to contribute to society, filling in niches and luring fellow misanthropes from their caves. I could organize a field trip to a strip club for childfree non-drivers or an overnight camp for friendless introverts. I’d encourage impatient unemployed atheists to work on their penmanship. The possibilities are limitless. The possibilities require strength and dedication I don’t yet possess. It’s still easier to avoid human interaction than to invest myself and risk further rejection and remorse.

Is it possible for me to be truly selfless in the 21st century? I don’t know. I’ll try.

Failure #29: Leave North America

To be a truly fascinating person, it seems, one must have come from Somewhere or gone Somewhere. Books are far more interesting when the writers have traveled to distant lands to learn important life lessons. The life lessons picked up after hours in a Best Buy parking lot, while valid and pertinent, are not so easily romanticized. Sunsets viewed from the window of TGI Friday’s are not as breathtaking as when viewed from the balcony of a hotel in Greece. Or so I assume. I’ve never been to Greece. Or anywhere else east of the Atlantic Ocean. I am not yet a fascinating person.

I could bemoan my lack of a jetsetting lifestyle. I could whine about not having the opportunity to take class trips abroad. I could shake a fist at my mother for not getting involved in a foreign exchange student program. Instead I’ll remind you (and myself) that international travel is not a given. Traveling overseas is still a privilege, a luxury afforded to those with expense accounts and independent wealth. It just seems a more tangible dream thanks to globalization, modern air travel and credit cards. It’s easy to forget that some people have never ventured farther than the neighbouring town.

Vacations should be fun and relaxing. I’ve seen brochures with blissed out people, scantily clad and frolicking about in glee. What the vacation brochures should show are late night scrambles to find empty motel rooms on a questionable stretch of interstate and hordes of cranky American tourists queued up for theme park rides. Family vacations were not the norm amongst the working class in Alabama. It was a big deal for the land-locked to visit the beaches in Fairhope or Gulf Shores. Extended families would load up a convoy for north Florida and squish into motel rooms, Spring Break-style. With no extended family to speak of, my mother and I were unable to put our CB radio slang to use. Through some of her work friends, my mother discovered the joy of cruising and we were soon international travelers.

I have been to the Bahamas five times. Now you’re wondering why I love the Bahamas so much that I would go there five times. I don’t. I haven’t found anything to love about the Bahamas. No offense to the tourism board and their attempts to make their country appealing to visitors. Granted, I have not been to the ritzier parts of the islands. My experience has been limited to Nassau’s Centreville, where the cruise ship passengers are dumped off and left to seek out parasailing and moped rentals. My travel companions could not be persuaded to explore the island beyond the dinky souvenir shops as we eked by the hair braiding pavilion. The desperate aggression that the islanders resort to for tourist dollars is sad and a little off-putting. I have been to the Bahamas so many times because those cruises were often cheaper and the right length of time to be trapped in the middle of open waters with cranky family members.

As a moderately intelligent, liberal, white American, I carry some guilt over not immersing myself in some form of international culture. I still haven’t learned a second language. I stuff my homemade quesadillas with pineapple and coconut. I put ketchup on my Kraft Dinner. I spend my toonies at Timmy’s for iced capps and double doubles. Wait a second…could Canada be considered a foreign culture?

To make up for my lack of exposure to true ethnic diversity, I now live in a cultural mosaic. Toronto is a prime example of what would happen if Epcot’s World Showcase were applied to the real world. Condensed cultures from various countries are contained to neighbourhoods throughout the city. We’ve got Little Italy, Greektown, Koreatown, and two Chinatowns. And none of them are in geographical relation to their national counterparts. Americans complain about Spanish infiltrating their conversational air space. In Toronto, dozens of accents and languages filter through the air. If you don’t like the language, walk five blocks and it’ll be something different.

With so many countries represented in Toronto, I’m hard-pressed to find reasons to travel abroad. I suppose I’d like to see the Irish countryside in person. From what I’ve seen in calendars, there are lots of kitty cat faces to smoosh in Greece. But does the beauty outweigh the inconvenience of the actual traveling? Just to take a two-hour flight from Toronto to Atlanta means getting to the airport two hours in advance, thanks to terrorism and threat-level orange. I would need to stay in a foreign country at least three weeks to make up for all the stress of travel. I would also require a wealthy benefactor and lively companion to fund the trip and make sure I didn’t get abducted by swarthy men in dark glasses who feast on the flesh of pale friendless ladies. Since I don’t anticipate the acquisition of a wealthy benefactor in the near future, I will settle for bubble tea, saganaki, and poutine while wandering the streets of my favourite city.

Failure #28: Perform in public

I could have been a performer but I never had the bosoms. I never had the bosoms to give me the confidence to go up before a live audience and amuse them with a performance. As it is, I lack the stage presence necessary to capture and retain the attentions of an audience.

For years, I worked to cultivate some kind of proficiency in the performing arts. I tried dance, music, and theatre to no avail. The absence of busty substances further eliminated a number of performance-related vocations such as Go-Go Dancer, Magician’s Assistant and Sexy Mime. My dreams of writhing about silently on stage were shattered. I managed to become a writer instead.

My interest in performing was limited to narrating stuffed animal plays and playing Tape Recorder DJ. My family liked for me to sing songs in my Fuddian English style. To say I had ambitions for stage and screen would have been quite an untruth. Despite all my creativity, I am still just a frog in a box. When confronted with an audience participation bit with Beauregard (the janitor Muppet) at a live action Muppet show, I pulled my itchy skirt *fwoop* over my head. I would do this again later during my first visit to the Adventurers Club.

At the height of the original Dirty Dancing craze, I had the opportunity to take dance lessons. Thank you for asking, but no, I did not have the time of my life. We were chubby little girls in leotards mastering the step ball change and pas de bourrée to the tune of Taylor Dane. I don’t think any of us were Rockettes-bound. My mother couldn’t afford the costumes for the annual recital, which was only disappointing to the sliver of ego that imagined I’d be discovered on the stage of some high school gymnasium in Alabama. The instructor choreographed the numbers for the recital and shuffled me off into a corner so I could clomp and twirl about for the duration of the class.

In junior high, we were offered the option of either taking home economics or joining the school band. I was completely uninterested in domestic matters. Independent City Girls don’t worry about running a household and learning practical life lessons. If they did, chick lit novels would be much shorter. So I joined the band. The stupid school band with a stupid limit to the number of students who could be percussionists and saxophonists. Because everybody wants to be Mr. Black and every kid wants to be a drummer. I say, unhook your minds Junior High Band Instructors. Invent a new sound for the South and be the first all-drum-and-saxophone band in the region. Alas, we conformed and I picked a clarinet that I named Norman. Norman and I spent our off-hours learning television themes and making sounds that only experimental musicians could appreciate. There were recitals that I’m sure I was obligated play in. Clarinets generally had three parts. Two kids would be first, four on second, and twelve on third. Guess who was on third. Norman and I went through the motions but we weren’t really invested in contributing to Angels We Have Heard On High and the Batman motion picture theme.

Norman and I parted ways and I threw myself into my writing. I was on track to be a Serious Journalist and dedicated myself to my high school newspaper. With diploma in one hand and squashed dreams in the other, I went on to university as a theatre major. My new dream was to become a playwright. And I was…for two ghastly one-act plays…that received ghastly one-time performances. The tech booth was visible to the audience for the one-act I had video recorded for posterity. I can be seen in the video cringing and wincing through most of the show, the mortification completely deafened me to audience reaction. My acting class forced me on stage for a recital of monologues to be performed in front of my mother and everyone else’s family (Performing for family is a bit like changing in the communal locker room. Does it count as “public”?). I performed a monologue from Electra, in which I accuse my mother of murdering my father. Obviously this is not the part of the story where I describe my newfound love of the stage and the pleasure of interpreting text for audience enjoyment.

In my one stage performance I wasn’t terribly nervous. I didn’t suffer from stage fright. I just became overly aware of the voice emanating from my mouth. It was…wrong somehow. Four years of speech therapy and a lifetime of television viewing rendered me without that signature Southern accent. My voice can be accurately described as monotone Valley girl. I hadn’t paid much attention to my voice; I was preoccupied with my physical appearance. My internal monologist sounds drastically different from the sounds that trip and stumble out of my voice box. This voice was not an elegant one. No audience would ever be captivated by it. My vocal chords do not produce tones that are velvety or silky or any other audible fabric that people might want to roll around on naked. I could have been a performer with an awful voice if I’d had the body for it. Writers can have any sort of body or voice and it doesn’t matter at all.

Except…does it matter? Video might have killed the radio star, but what will finally kill the writer? Will it be the book tour, wherein writers are coerced to read aloud passages from their latest tome? When writers are encouraged to record podcasts of their books and articles for the non-readers, will once cherished scribes be dismissed for having a funny voice? Perhaps I can track down Norman and together we can perform interpretive squeaks of these essays, a Peter and the Wolf for the modern age. Yes, this will make for a very interesting Fringe show. Ribbit.

Failure #27: Own property

When I was a kid, the attributes of a well-adjusted Grown Up seemed clear. Grown Ups were married, they had children and full-time jobs, and they owned houses. Grown Ups had the middle class comfort that was the standard to which we aspired. It wasn’t the American Dream, it was the American Expectation. Even I, with my affinity for defying expectations, assumed that I would one day assimilate and become a Grown Up. Then I grew up.

Middle class comfort is as attainable a goal as becoming a fairy tale princess for those living in lower class squalor. While other little girls imagined living in prim Colonial-style houses with white picket fences, I imagined finally having my own bedroom and not sharing a bed with my mother. My only architectural concern was whether there were four walls and a door that could be properly slammed. When I did fantasize about The Future and a place for my stuff, I never considered a proper house. I had loft ambitions—exposed bricks and beams, giant windows, four walls and a door. In The Future, I was going to be an Independent City Girl living in a sexy apartment. Well, at least I got the City part down.

Just as I was not blessed with the Business Savvy gene, the Home Owner gene is also missing from my DNA. My parents were not avid home owners. My mother was a serial renter and my father had the charming habit of purchasing houses and then putting the deeds into his lady friends’ name. Both parental units were terrified of having property attached to their own names, living in constant fear that everything they owned could be snatched away without warning. Whether this fear was a symptom of their divorce or of being born in the Silent Generation or just being lower class Caucasians prone to fits of general fuck-uppery, I’ll never know for certain.

My mother was in the real estate research business. At the request of banks or other lending corporations, it was her job to track the history of ownership for residential properties. I spent many afternoons and summers accompanying her on adventures through the local court house, digging up relevant information on homeowners and their properties. Oh, the information that’s accessible to anyone who’s being paid to ask for it would have privacy advocates reeling! We flipped through thousands of files on Johnsons, Williams, and Smiths and their residential history. We learned where the Johnsons got divorced, which Williams had the most tax liens, how many times the Smiths refinanced their mortgage. I didn’t wholly understand the information I was gathering, but I did enjoy the blue glow of the microfiche. Our research could turn up pages of deeds and mortgages and foreclosures just on one property. Seeing the kind of legal drama that can unfold in home buying—even without HGTV’s quick cuts and tension-building edits—didn’t instill great consumer confidence in the real estate industry.

I’ve been content as a renter. Many people make a lot of noise about how renting is just throwing money away or paying someone else’s mortgage. I like renting when it means someone else is responsible for the outdoorsy bits and structural maintenance. It’s nice to have someone to blame when the house breaks. Home ownership is a major purchase and a huge responsibility. One could even argue that it’s bigger than marriage. Unless you’re a house-flipper or just trying to get a leg up on that property ladder, the house you buy is presumably the house you’ll live in for a substantial chunk of your life. So, it’s not enough to fall in love with a house (unless it’s portable), there’s the neighbourhood to consider…the city, the country. Well, at least I got the country part down.

Things have changed since I was a kid. Expectations have shifted. Thanks to the invention of the Quarterlife Crisis, we can defer adulthood along with college loans. No one really expects new 30-year-olds to own much of anything. The middle class is not as comfortable as it was a few years ago. It looks like we need new social norms by which to measure our failures and successes. I am master of my own web domain…that counts for something, right?