Monday, December 21, 2015

a well behaved woman does a small right thing

My friend Sierra and I decided to borrow some writing prompts from Cheryl Strayed. The first one was: Write about a time you did the right thing. Here goes.

First, let me say this: I’m a goody-two-shoes. Or I was. I was so good that my sister and I used to sigh when we saw bumper stickers that said Well behaved women rarely make history. There went our chance for fame.

Arguably, I have a ton of Doing The Right Thing examples to choose from. Except I haven’t done the right thing so much as I’ve not done the wrong thing. I’ve never dropped out, blacked out, abandoned, cheated, or stolen. But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, Nice is different than good.

Doing the right thing, to me, means taking a risk or going against the grain. It means behaving badly at times. For it to count (or at least for it to make for good reading), something has to be at stake.

So here’s what I’ve come up with: I took a year off between undergrad and grad school.

I know.

Both my parents had master’s degrees, and so did at least one of their parents. If I have any cultural heritage, it is that I come from a long line of nerds. My mom went to library school in part because she didn’t date a lot. My dad got a physics degree partly because he’s somewhere On The Spectrum, I suspect.

We have humble educations—state schools, all of us—but we read and think and geek out hard. Back before the internet, one of my parents was always jumping up from the dinner table to look up something in our musty encyclopedia. My dad and sister have never put birthday candles on a cake that didn’t require some kind of mathematical code to uncrack. The wax melts into the frosting as they ponder whether the blue candles each count for ten and the pink candles count for one, or whatever.

It was a given that I would go to college. Every year my high school published a map showing where people were going to school. Being a public high school in an upper middle class city in California, there were a lot of UC’s, a lot of Cal States, a peppering of private schools and a long list of people heading off to community college. There was also a short list of people entering the military or the “workforce.” The latter struck us college-bound kids as utterly alien and snicker-worthy. It might as well have said “joining a cult.”

Midway through my run at UCLA, I figured I’d go to grad school, too. I was thinking I’d study journalism, since I worked for the Daily Bruin. Then I read a Rolling Stone cover story about how journalism schools were increasingly merging with media and communication schools, i.e. PR. Purists that we were at the Bruin, we considered publicists to be the devil. I had seen Rent too many times to be a sellout, dammit!

So I turned to MFA creative writing programs. I wanted to go to Columbia or NYU and live la vie boheme but without the AIDS part. I also applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop because it was at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list. I applied to San Francisco State and Cal Arts because they were in California, and I liked the idea of going to an arts school.

Viva la vie boheme!
My research was shitty and my motives were dubious. I got four rejection letters in a row, while one of my best friends got a full ride to Stanford’s journalism school. I stewed in envy.

Then I got one acceptance letter, in a large envelope with an orange-striped border. CalArts—a relatively new and therefore less competitive program—wanted me.

During the application process, I’d talked to my creative writing professors about getting an MFA. They agreed to write me letters of recommendation, but despite having MFA’s themselves, they’d been lukewarm in their encouragement. (No one hates the world to which they belong more than MFA writing professors, except for maybe hipsters.) Why pay thousands of dollars to learn what I could learn just by living? Do the old-timey thing: Be poor, read books, go to poetry readings, read more books, have love affairs, travel, read more books.

They had a point.

Plus, imagine what they saw: A chubby blue-eyed 21-year-old who dressed like a cross between a rave kid and 1972, who wrote precociously but didn’t have much to write about beyond her own privilege-guilt. (E.g., in my 1999 journal, you’ll find a long poem about the time some cholos rubbed up on me at a Downtown club. You would have thought giving them the brush-off on the dance floor was tantamount to Cortes destroying the Aztec empire.) It wasn’t that I didn’t have “a story”—my own shit, my own trauma, my passions—but I hadn’t discovered it yet.

My race guilt and my internalized gender oppression did a pas de deux on the dance floor at the Mayan.
I knew this and I didn’t. The future and what I might or might not have to write about was full of unknown unknowns. I was worried about finding a job, about completely supporting myself financially for the first time, about dating, about my unresolved sexuality, and how was I going to afford to see every new musical that came to the Ahmanson on an $8-an-hour job?

School would have been a comfortable refuge, even if I had to pay for it myself. But perhaps because the same parents who’d always taught me to be good had also taught me to endure a certain amount of drudgery and discomfort in the name of getting what you wanted, I knew that sliding directly into grad school would have been too easy.

One afternoon I wrote an emotional letter to CalArts, telling them I really and truly appreciated their offer, but I needed to go live my life. I’d like to defer, I told them, although I imagined such a thing wasn’t allowed. I put it in an envelope and sobbed in a heap on the floor of the apartment I shared with three other girls.

(Three out of four of us were virgins. This feels like relevant information. Also possibly relevant: the night I wrung my hands over the fact that I’d learned Prop. 13 was bad for California, but I knew for a fact my parents wouldn’t have had a second child if it hadn’t passed, thereby lifting their tax burden, and I loved my sister! My roommate Stephanie told me to calm down; her parents were Chinese, and she wouldn’t have been born if the U.S. hadn’t bombed Japan and ended its occupation of China, but that didn’t mean she was pro-nuclear-bomb.)

The bomb will bring us together?
As it turned out, CalArts was fine with my deferral, which makes this story a little anti-climactic. But in that moment of sealing the letter, I sensed I was doing something noble and brave.

I took my year. I interviewed for a bunch of dot-com jobs at companies with names like Lemon Pop, who wanted to know if I could write content about vampires. After a slow summer interning at Entertainment Weekly—during which I mostly watched the fax machine, ordered lunch and read L.A. Weekly in an office bigger than my current one—I began writing profiles of WB stars (or “stars”) for

I occasionally worked weekends at Book Soup, a delightfully crammed bookstore on Sunset, full of drunk and queer and homeless customers. I nursed a crush on a wannabe TV writer named Nancy.

I nursed a waning crush on my roommate in the Miracle Mile, a gay guy named Tommy who made Vietnamese spring rolls and said we should class up our apartment by getting rid of our inflatable furniture.

I went dancing with my friends from Zap2it. I dated a guy named Alex who liked attending weird Christian events ironically. I more or less lost my virginity. I super-briefly dated a guy named Michael who was 31 and wanted to buy a house, and even though he turned me on to some good music, I could not have been more turned off by the idea of dating someone with such a boring name and such Republican ambitions as property ownership.

I earned $31,000 a year at Zap2it, and even though I still hoarded used paper clips, it felt like a fortune. It was, in a way. Rent was cheap (though we’d be priced out of the area two years later) and I had no debt. I bought CD’s and second hand clothes from the dollar pile at Jet Rag on La Brea. I bought a lot of caramel frappuccinos and sugary drinks at clubs. When my 1987 Toyota Tercel broke down, my dad could usually fix it.

You can get four items of clothing for the price of one frappuccino.
It wasn’t exactly a year in the Peace Corps, but it was the right decision. It was a small leap away from the world I knew, but it paved the way for bigger ones. That was the year I finally decided to date women. That was the year my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I could walk those roads with a little bit of bravery because I’d had practice—which is what resiliency is, as they speak about it in clinical terms. A baby falls on his diapered butt so, someday, he can withstand his first heartbreak. Or lose a job. Or lose a war.

I laugh at my 21-year-old self, but I laugh with affection. I don’t see her as privileged and despicable anymore. My youthful naivete walked alongside my youthful wisdom. I was just a dumb kid, but I was no dummy.


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Well-behaved women seldom make history;In 1976 Ulrich was a student at the University of New Hampshire, and she earned her Ph.D. in History there in 1980. She is now an eminent Pulitzer-Prize-winning Professor of early American history at Harvard University. The article containing the phrase was titled “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735”

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