FATHER and DAUGHTER sit at a dinner table in a nice restaurant.
I think that’s a terrible idea. Just a terrible idea.
DAUGHTER takes in this information. We see her face redden, her eyes go glassy with tears.
I have to use the ladies’ room.
I’ve never been one who can hide her emotions. An actor agrees to be in my play and I am apt to throw my arms up in celebration, Wallace gets shot in The Wire and my jaw will actually drop, and if something hurts me – oh the tears. I feel my cheeks get hot, I feel a drip in the back of my throat, I feel it and I can’t stop the tears from escaping. I am simply no good at hiding my inner turmoil.
Or so I thought. Working in a conglomo-corporate environment has helped me mask my emotions to an extent. I remember when I first started working in an office I would cry at my computer screen when I felt overwhelmed, but five years later I can mostly hold it together. The truly successful folks, the people I want to be, hold their cards very close to their chest. It’s hard to ruffle these people. It’s hard to get an emotion. And so I’ve learned to control displaying my emotions out of necessity. My mind might be on a death loop of anxiety and fear but on my face I keep a placid office smile. You know the one I am talking about. The default “everything is perfect” smile that allows so many to fail upwards. Yeah, everyone on the team is about to quit, and yeah the project is a wreck, but the office smile tells the rest of the world that everything is just dandy. And the mere perception that the world is dandy is often more important than the truth.
This training has meant it’s easier and easier for me to control my emotions in my life away from the office. Out of habit I sort of tuck away my feelings and those things that used to phase me – annoyance when a friend says exactly what I don’t want to hear, disappointment when talking about my ex – I can keep my face in check. Yet I’ve noticed that there is one situation in which I can not hold my own. I crumble when I feel like I am not being valued and more specifically when my art is not being valued.
My father was a rock-n-roll manager in the sixties. He managed the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Band. If you ever saw the movie Festival Express, then you saw my father wearing a rugby shirt and a handlebar mustache, carrying a crate of beer to the bands. His context for art was the absolute highest echelon – those artists who had practiced and honed their craft so much that they could make it look easy. So when I complain about my writing process, or struggle to write a play, my dad typically chimes in with “Well, it only took Bob Dylan three minutes to write Blowin in the Wind.” Now, my father loves me, I know this, and yet it does nothing to soften the blow of those fatal words. They imply that if it doesn’t come easy, then it won’t come at all. They imply that because it does not come easy – I am somehow doing it wrong or not meant to be doing it all. A life spent hearing this and I truly believed that struggle was tantamount to failure. I thought that if I worked too hard, if it was difficult to get something right then I must be doing something wrong.
I have Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, to thank for somewhat dispelling the idea that art comes easily. In the book, Mr. Martin explains that he in fact had few natural talents to begin with and it was because it was so hard for him to do well that he had to get creative and find his voice. Because he struggled, because he worked, he was able to find his success. Great artists make it look easy. Which can really suck if you don’t know any better.
At dinner recently at a nice Italian restaurant, as a waiter poured white wine, a dear friend of mine whom I deeply respect, told me that a project I was working on really had no value. That he thought the project now in its latest incarnation really had no merit. Now, forget that he did not mean to hurt me, forget for a moment that he is a wonderful man who was being careless with his words, in that moment I felt myself turn into a little girl. I crumbled into my chair, I felt small, my feet no longer touched the ground. The words weren’t there to say anything but I felt my face put on its office smile. I felt my little survivor self quickly try and protect herself. It was too late though, as the smile proclaimed everything was fine and we are all entitled to our opinions, my tears made their way from the back of my throat, behind my nose, and straight to my eyes. “Excuse me,” I said. “I have to use the ladies’ room.”
We all have our shit. Everyone of us walks around with our version of an office smile and we mask little tempests of emotions, little tornados of self-doubt, fear, and loneliness. On any given street you are surrounded by emotions and thoughts that are eating others alive but that we do our best to hide. But there is a place where the wrapping comes short. There is an ancient wound. I’m sure of it. A place each one of us has that can’t be healed and that cuts to something dark and deep. And when someone carelessly touches that wound, when someone actively rubs salt in it, then my-oh-my are you in for a treat. Watch a grown up lady turn into a little girl. Watch me smile. Watch me crumble.