Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Valentine Queen...

“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” -- Adlai E. Stevenson II 

A while back I accidentally noticed one of my books had been an entry in a contest. Some book-of-the-month thing. No, no, I hadn't entered it in the competition, it was just there by default of having been reviewed during that particular month. 

My reaction? Nope, not the giddy glee most authors feel, not the rushing off to Facebook it, to ask for votes. My reaction was a cold chill, a sort of panic. Shaky fingers poised over the keyboard to write to the contest site, to BEG for my book to be withdrawn. A please do not enter me in a contest. I don't want to BE in a contest. And my panic wasn't just a fearful one, it was also an angry one.

Remember (if you are as old as me) the infamous Academy Awards ceremony when actor George C. Scott rejected his award for Best Actor? His very public statement on how he felt about the Oscars? THAT was what I almost did. 
And don't dare for a  minute think I was afraid my work wasn't good enough. I've come far enough along in my writing career to be more confident than that. My talent has a long way to go, sure, but I just try to have more faith in myself and my work. 

So why did I panic?

Old memories. Painful memories. One distinct remembrance from childhood that was my introduction into reality. The Valentine Queen contest.

Fifth grade. Mr. Harvey's class. 

Valentine's Day was approaching. A truly fun memory from my kidhood. Handmade decorated boxes---complete with glitter, colored hearts, doilies, foil, romance. Painstakingly writing names of classmates on those tiny little Valentines. The big day of the party. Cookies with red and white sprinkles, red punch. Pretty crepe streamers. Beautiful.

Then the announcement came. The class was going to nominate---a popular vote sort of thing---a Valentine's Queen.How cool was that? An unprecedented event! Complete with a crown (I believe it was handmade, cardboard, foil and glitter, but it was a CROWN). 

For a kid who'd never, until that time, experienced any sort of popularity contest, the event turned into an awakening. 

The day of the party arrived. I wore my best jumper. I remember is so clearly. A beautiful black corduroy jumper with red and white embroidery trim. A white blouse with a high ruffled collar. A Christmas gift from Grandma Vivian who lived in Seattle and always sent pretty outfits to my sister and me from the Spiegel catalog. 
Here's the funny part. I felt so pretty, I felt so confident. I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, thought I stood a chance to be voted Valentine Queen. Oh, yes. Even up against the most lovely, outgoing, sparkling gal in the class. Rella, her name was. 

Yes, Rella won. And rightly so. It was a vote of popularity. She was popular, she was everything one would imagine a Valentine Queen should be, even for fifth grade. 

I shouldn't have been surprised. Looking back, I don't know why I was surprised. Why I was...yes...disappointed. Silly, for sure. But I was genuinely disappointed. 

Do you know why it never occurred to me that I stood no chance to be voted most popular in a popularity contest? 

Because my mother never, ever told me I was not beautiful. She never clued me in, ever gave me a hint that I wasn't pretty. Oh, no, she never pumped her children up by telling them they were the prettiest, smartest, bestest. She didn't operate like that. But we were who were were and she never once told us that it was not perfect to be just that. Ourselves. In her eyes----without her ever having to say it out loud---I felt that I was A-okay just like I was.

In reality, looking back, I was as close to being homely as one could be. Big nose, awful hair (you remember the 50's short, short, short bangs)? Why, even once someone joked about my baby picture, commenting that I looked like Frank Sinatra. To look like Ol' Blue Eyes is okay...for Frank Sinatra. Not for a three month old infant. I just was...not...pretty. Not as a baby, not as an elementary student, not even in high school. 

I see that now, but I never, ever, ever realized it then.

So when the first popularity contest of my young life happened, I was inducted into the world of reality. That people really did rate you. By looks, by personality, by how well you dressed, by many things. Even as children, we start to rate others. We start, so very young, to make life into a contest. Competition.

For that reason, because of that very deep, very primitive, helpless feeling of coming up short in the popularity world, I've been skittish about contests. Of all sorts. Popularity. Talent. Beauty. Most popular this, favorite that. 

When I saw my book in this contest, those embedded feelings surfaced. I mentioned to a couple of friends that I wanted to remove my name from the list. And honestly? Yes, I'll be true and admit part of it was fear of being up against much bigger, much more popular authors than myself. I'm not going to lie about that. One thing I am, and that's brutally honest. It scared me to be pitted against popular authors. Here I was, set for rejection. Fifth grade all over again. LOL. 

After whining to someone about it all, I was pretty much made to feel like an attention monger, a prima donna. I was reminded that those popular authors were good people, good writers. And shame on me for bellyaching.

Whoa! Wait a minute! In my heart, this is never----ever since Mr. Harvey's class---been about resentment. I don't resent the other authors. I didn't even resent Rella. But what I do resent is being thrown against the Rellas of the world to prove that I'm not...well...a Rella. Because, as petty as I may seem, it is a truth: popularity contests not only prove who is popular, they are monuments---by virtue of voting---to those who are not.

I simply don't like---for myself, and I only speak for myself and my own work---to be thrown into this whirlpool of contests, the best of this, the most popular that. 

For me, it's not about the others. It's about me and my private---silly, irrational, surely---fears of coming up short.  It isn't right, it isn't grown-up. But it's me.

Being raw and honest again, I'll even admit that I'm just perhaps not emotionally equipped to face the disappointment that comes from competition in contests. I can talk the talk and strut and say it is what it is, that it doesn't bother me. But I am human. And, yes, it does affect me, even though i wished to the gods it didn't. Yes, I have an ego. And, yes, it can get crushed. And it's one thing to crush it on my own by submitting my work to a contest. But to have a proverbial boot hovering over my ego just because my work is out there---in a perpetual competition, simply because it is out there---is terrifying.

And I'm a wimp. I don't have what it takes to not be afraid of comparison. 

J. D. Salinger said There is a certain peace in not publishing during his absence from writing toward the end, during his years when it was found he indeed was writing, but not for publication. His situation, his comment, reminded me of those early days when I just wrote for pleasure. For a not-so-social miss like myself, I knew that peace he spoke of. I loved that peace.

Even a close friend of mine commented that she has seen the difference in my passion between my early writing-just-for-me days and my writing-for-publishing days. The days when writing wasn't a job, it was a hobby, a very private solace shared with only a handful. I miss those early days.

I wonder. Could I disappear from the social vortex and just...write? And never, ever be cognizant of the industry around me? Would my work be strong enough to pull the weight for me on its own?

Could I be this recluse writer-woman, this Howard Hughes type lady, who lived happily unaware of her own or anybody else's popularity status? In a mountaintop cabin with my laptop and cat and wind chimes and fresh air and hot tea. And just quietly write beautiful works---how could I not write beautifully in that surrounding?---but nobody ever know anything about me personally? Would my work hold up under such anonymity? Would I really be happy not ever knowing if my work---or me---was popular or not? 

Salinger seemed okay with it. He might have been on to something. 

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Fear of Water...

Depression isn't just being a bit sad. It's feeling nothing.. --- J. K. Rowling

When I was nineteen, my sister and I took swimming lessons at a local middle school. If she sees this, she'll remember this story.

The instructor was an athletic coach for that school. Young. Good looking. Well-built. Particularly sexy in his swim trunks. You know the kind, you remember him from high school. The gorgeous hunky coach/teacher who all the gals swooned over. I think his name was Fred.

Fred, on our second day of lessons, decided it was time to leave our float boards behind and try out the waters unaided. 

With my fear of water, I knew I hadn't gotten to a comfortable level in my swimming. This pumped up the panic in me. 

My turn came.

"Jump in!" Fred commanded. 

"I don't think I can do this." Me, cowering, about to piss my pretty little swimsuit.


Again, no. 

"Jump in!" Fred's third and final command. 

Oh, hell, Fred must know better, I figured.

I jumped.

The moment my feet paddled against nothing but water, with nothing but water and more water under me---miles and miles of water it seemed to a aqua phobic like me---I panicked even more. 

And when I began to sink, head under water, nothing below, nothing above, I'd never felt such terror in all my life. 

The worst part? In those fear-filled moments when I could manage to get at somewhat above the surface, I saw good ol' Fred. Laughing.

Who will ever know what Fred thought was so funny. My guess? With his virile movie-star looks, he might have been used to gals feigning distress to get him to dive in and help them. Or maybe I just really looked hilarious. 

But my sister, on the sidelines, had had enough of Fred's sink-or-swim tactic. 

She shouted to him, "You get your goddamn ass in there and you get her out!"

So Fred finally plunged in. Unfortunately for him, my panic was at such levels that---when he placed his hands at my waist to push me up above the surface---I was frenziedly clawing at his head, pushing him down. Fred nearly expired in his rescue attempt.

I did not have to swim the rest of the day. 

This week, the vision of that frightful moment has come back to me. Strong. Because this week, I've sort of paralleled that experience with something I've wrestled with recently---depression.

I've spoke of depression before. But, when I mentioned on my Facebook wall about being in depression, I was surprised---and saddened---to see how many others suffer this condition as well. 

Why did the Fred experience remind me of this dark world my mind has been---this depression? 

Because the feeling of floundering, of being in over my head in an Olympic sized swimming pool of life is like that ill-fated swimming lesson.

In this big, huge nothingness where there's no bottom to touch your toes to, no shore to reach out to, it's a traumatic experience. There are people---like Fred---on the sidelines, seeing you are sinking. And, kind of like the handsome instructor, they can't fully grasp your panic because they know how to swim. 

You wonder---sometimes you know---the bystanders, our friends, sigh, There she goes again.  But, like with my sister's intervention at the pool, the blessing sometimes comes in the form of a friend who sees you are sinking. And they reach out. They might not be able to save you, to make it all go away, but they offer a hand to pull you up above the surface.

The saddest, most frustrating part is that others often feel your weird panicky behavior is nothing but self-importance, you're a big ol' prima donna. When, really, you are in a mode of high voltage fear, irrationality and frustration. And you're clinging to them, you're trying to make life rafts out of them. And, who wants to be a perpetual life raft to a panicking swimmer? So you lose those friends. 

Want to know the funny part? Since that awful day, I've learned to swim. Or I guess you can call it that. I can swim confidently in a pool if I can see the concrete sides within comfortable distance. Something to reach for, a safe touch point, as the pool is just too big for a chicken like me to swim without a proverbial net. If I know my head can still be above water if I sink. Which means I can pretty much swim in the shallow end of the pool.

Life has those kinds of touch points as well. Those sidelines and concrete botoms that---when we see them in sight---we feel we can do this swimming thing. And these little markers are nothing more---in daily life---than just those familiar things that have incorporated themselves into our routines. A friendly face in a store, a neighbor we say hello to every day, the mail man, anything or anybody. 

I even felt the added sadness to my depression when a neighbor in my apartments moved out last week. Not that I knew him well, but I had become accustomed to seeing him, chatting, seeing his cat in the window everyday when I came home from work.

One of my silly, daily markers. Gone. One of those little sidelines, those touch points in the big pool that made every day seem safer, more friendly. 

Sure, maybe it sounds silly. But depression isn't silly, it's not a mood. It's not a tantrum. It's not being sad about a thing, about anything. Like the quote says, it's the feeling of absolutely nothing. How much easier it might be to cope with depression if one could point a finger to the reason and just deal with it. But depression is a void, a big hole of nothing with no rhyme or reason. No warning that it's coming. It is just there like a black fog and you're enveloped before you can resist. 

Depression is not the glamorous fretting in the movies. 

There's no Greta Garbo to play your part in depression. No "I want to be left alone" chic-ness. Nope.

A fellow author wondered, on her blog, if social forums played a part in depression. My thought was a big, resounding yes. Although Facebook denies it, there is actually a legitimate term, Facebook Depression

Looking deep into myself, I think I agree with this. Instead of being a friendly, safe touch point in the pool of daily life, I wonder if it's not more of a sinkhole that swallows those---like me, who might not be emotionally strong enough to deal---into a constant whirlpool of competition. Insecurity because you're in the waters with much bigger talent than yourself. Frustration because, as it's a free-speech community, so much antagonism flows from the walls of the forum. Bad-mouthing, constant innuendos about other people who for---silly folk like me---keep one in constant fear that it's us they're talking about. 

Coming and going of friends on forums---loss of those comfortable touchstones---happen. To them, you were just fish in the sea. To you, they were safe markers, faces you saw every day. You shouldn't have, but you did depend on them.

While I can't do anything about losing these touch points in my life---life is change, after all---I can at least try to look deeper into myself to understand why I so desperately need this sideline markers to feel confident in navigating the social ocean. In navigating life. Period.

I feel like I'm rambling here. But that's how my mind feels. Floundering, kicking, dog-paddling like mad, to stay above water. To make sense of this dark place, to get to the surface. And that frenzy to get there is a rambling, wild and scary feeling.

I'm grateful to those life rafts, those friends, who've let me panic but stood by the sidelines just in case. Oh, hell. Sure, I'm even grateful to ol' Fred.