Sunday, November 23, 2008
I didn’t use to be, though. Or at least not as effusively so. For sure, I grew up in a rather non-stereotypical Asian family, and my parents have always been generous with their “I love you”s, hugs and pet names. But they also have their culturally archetypical attitudes, and they prize discretion as a virtue. So much so that by the time I left home for college, I couldn’t imagine telling someone that I adored him or her unless I knew exactly how said person felt about me. And was sure that the sentiment would be reciprocal. Likewise, I wasn’t about to tell someone that he or she was awesome just because the thought occurred to me at that moment. Part of the reason for my hesitation—and perhaps for my parents, too—stemmed from pride and the balance of power that emotional vulnerability can tilt against my favor. Another reason was the assumption that I’d have future opportunities to express how I felt, that some things were best saved for special occasions so that they were rendered more precious by their rarity. After all, how much do we treasure a grumbled “good job” from a jerk boss who never exalts his minions? And how much do we value the “you complete me” from a significant other who’s maddeningly stingy with his thoughts?
My attitude changed a few years ago. Doctors discovered a golf ball-sized tumor in my cousin’s brain. Surgery was risky, they said, but inaction was deadly. So they excised the bugger, leaving behind remnants so that they wouldn’t nick his gray matter. He was in his twenties. He survived, but he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life monitoring the tumor and have it removed again when it grows dangerously large. Which, if I am to believe the neurosurgeons, it will. And each operation will bring bated breaths and clenched fists for both him and his family members who won’t know if he’s being whisked into the OR for the last time. Three months later, one of my husband’s close friends found out that she had a tumor on the base of her brain stem. She went to the hospital. And died two days later. She was thirty-six. A month later, my husband’s grandmother passed away. So did my father-in-law’s best friend. For the next year, we started to believe that brain tumors were going to grip us all, that death was hungry and lurking for the unexpecting at every corner. With each announcement of yet another horrible disease and another passing, I heard so many regrets from family and friends, so many statements like, “I should have told him more often how much I loved him. I should have told him what a wonderful person he was.” The more I heard comments like these, the more I felt like I was watching an awful after school special with its sickeningly axiomatic message. And the angrier I became. What kind of bullshit was this, everyone having held back their feelings for who knows what reason? As for my own reticence, was the fear of appearing uncouth really preventing me from expressing how I felt about others? Was I so afraid that my expression might not be reciprocated? What occasion was “special” enough to warrant what we should be telling each other every day? And the answer I kept coming to was, “Who cares if you appear unladylike? Or if the person doesn’t reciprocate? If it means something to you, for God’s sake, just say it.” So I do. Almost as often as I think it.
I think about Clueless every now and then. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies (and a surprising source of life lessons). In it is a scene where Christian asks Cher whether he should keep the leather jacket he just bought. Her response, in all of its teenaged, California glory: “Carpe diem. You looked hot it!” I like that for so many reasons. More than anything, though, I love her attitude toward the seemingly trivial. Why worry if you’re going to end up looking like James Dean or Jason Priestly? Do it anyway. Say it. Express it. Carpe Diem, indeed.
Now, let me give you that hug. Because you, my friend—and if you’re reading this and made it all the way to the bottom, then you are my friend—are the shiznit.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Some years ago, my husband and I were lounging around in the family room of our first home, which was wood-paneled in a hideous shade of Eighties dirty dirt brown. We’d been living there for over three years and had complained every day about how dated the house was, and that Saturday morning, I suggested that we strip the walls and restain them with a more genteel mahogany (because nothing says warm and inviting like dark, cave-like walls). “How hard can it be?” I asked. “I bet we can knock this baby out in a weekend.” Cheered by my optimism, my husband and I ran to Home Depot, were advised that varnish was the best solution to remove wood stain, bought two gallons of the poison and then went home, excited to renovate the three hundred square foot room. Two hours later, we both had massive headaches and were completely disoriented from the fumes, and this was after we’d opened every window in the house. The varnish didn’t work, and to our dismay, we now had a gaping section of lighter dirty dirt brown wall. We couldn’t restain the wall to the original color because we had no idea what it was, and we couldn’t add another stain over the original hue. So, we decided to paint the entire room a Pottery Barn pale yellow, which was perfect, considering that our family room was page 59 of the catalog (interior design is neither of our fortes). We returned to Home Depot, selected the color, bought five gallons of paint, and then went for Round Two, to which I said, “How hard can this be? I bet we can knock this baby out by the end of the weekend.”
Three weeks later, we were almost finished.
Six weeks later, the room was beautiful.
It took forever to paint because the room was twelve feet high with an obscene amount of wainscoting, picture framing and crown molding. It also took forever because both of us were working thirteen hours a day and were painting whenever we weren’t at the office. One would think that I’d learned my lesson in timing. But several months later, a friend of ours asked us to help him move. And as I am now notoriously known to do, I asked, “How hard can it be? I bet we can knock this out in three hours.” Of course, we didn’t.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a cheerfully confident—and borderline delusional—outlook on projects and goals. And I’d always harbored a desire to write, even when I majored in Biology and French, when I pursued a medical career, when I went to law school, and then when I worked at a law firm. The one passion that nagged at me constantly, I put aside in favor of “real life.” Then one morning, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Barnes & Noble, reading a book, and I thought, “I’ve wanted to do this for so long. What am I waiting for? I mean, how hard can it be?”
So I did it. Got a laptop and started writing. And discovered that it was damned hard to write a novel. And that it was even harder to become published. But I kept at it until I finished my first book. And I kept at it when it didn’t sell. I kept at it when my days had become so long that I couldn’t tell when one ended and the next started. But like the family room, I couldn’t stop writing. For every “I don’t think I can do this anymore” thought I had, I had two of, “but I still love it.” I took a step back and listened to my environment, to the complaints my friends had about their own career trajectories. I discovered that we were all in the same boat, wondering how our lives had turned out the way they had when our passions were elsewhere. We talked about it so much that it became the backbone of OFF THE MENU, that conflict of living up to everyone’s expectations while hiding the love of our existences. And because it was so close to my heart, the subject grew organically into an entire novel.
After several iterations, the book sold to NAL/Penguin. I was nearly manic with joy. I don’t have children, but I imagine that the exuberance I felt is not unlike childbirth, when one forgets the pain and hardship and difficulties and long nights and debilitating self-doubt the very instant her agent says those magic words—“they love it. They want to buy it.”
So that’s the lesson we can all take away from my experience. It wasn’t because I’m so awesome (oh, how I wish I were) that I was able to make it in an insanely difficult industry. It was that I continued writing, even when it seemed like everyone in the world was saying “no.” And I kept at it, even when I knew just how slim my chances of publication were. I love the movie Galaxy Quest, and as a rather unfunny joke, I often wander around the house, saying, “Never give up. Never surrender” (in full Mathesar nasally inflection). But it’s become my motto of sorts. That, and my litigator’s philosophy of, “I will take your ‘no’ to mean that you are open to further negotiations.” But it got me to where I am. And now, I feel like I’m living my dream. I’m working on my second novel on nights and weekends and holidays (I still have a day job that takes up a good bit of my time). And as I muddle my way through the manuscript, often wondering if it’s any good, if it even makes any sense, I find myself saying what I’ve always said: “Come on Christine, you can do it. I mean, how hard can it be?"