Considering how very little attention I paid this last week, it’s wild to think that at this time last year Robert Mueller was my hero. I was confident that with his band of merry men and women and the beautiful incontrovertible power of American law, Mueller would right this ship before our country fully veered into a real-life version of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Mueller would get it back on track as soon as his report dropped. Mueller would save us.
Right. Maybe not. Remember that first unsettling moment as an adult when you realized your dad was old? Maybe you all went out to dinner and he couldn’t hear the waiter, or he fell asleep in the middle of a conversation. That’s sort of how I felt watching Mueller.
And I felt a little sheepish, because here he was, another guy I was counting on to fix things. Here I was, once again pinning my hope that another grown-up person would take care of all the hard stuff. When am I going to learn that, unfortunately, that grown-up is me?
Obviously, with Trump it’s not me alone. It’s all of us. If we want Trump out, we have to vote him out. We have to engage and read and get out the vote and be fired-up participants in this democracy blah blah blah. (If you read this blog and you like Trump and all that is happening in this administration, you have it easy. All you have to do is maybe invest in a brownshirt to complement your MAGA hat.)
But accepting how ungalvanizing the Mueller testimony felt reminded me of how hard I have to fight my inclination to resort to this notion that someone else—hate to say, usually male—will handle it.
I’ve been forced to learn this lesson over and over again in my life. It’s always for the better and it’s always painful.
Until quite recently I think my life had one organizing philosophy: “Someone else will do it.” I’ve spent a lifetime hoping for someone—picture my father, my husband, my brothers—to swoop in like Indiana Jones and solve it all. As I know now (and most everyone else knew all along), there is no Indiana Jones, and even if there is I wish my M.O. was more Karen Allen as Marion than Kate Capshaw in that wretched sequel with the kids and the monkeys.
I say that now, but a quick glance at my personal history is humbling: I didn’t fight back when i was bullied in middle school, I clamored for approval rather than charting a course of my own satisfaction, I relinquished financial responsibility whenever possible, I diminished my own dreams, didn’t take myself seriously. I passively waited for someone or something else to come along and save me.
Why the hell did I give up so much agency? Why didn’t I grab control whenever I could, regardless of how much scarier or hard it would be? Hell, I should’ve grabbed control precisely because it was scary and hard. (How do I instill this in my kids? I’m hoping it’s by neglectfully not doing anything for them, because I’m good at that.)
Aaah, the joys of being 50. All this personal reflection. So now I’m trying to rework this narrative, in big ways and small. One big way is my hunt for a full-time job. It can really feel like failure, and not the good kind of TED talk, fetishized failure of Silicon Valley. Failure like, “You made a shit-ton of crap decisions in your life and now your scrawny diseased chickens have come home to roost.”
Be a phoenix, not a chicken
I’ve been a successful freelance writer/editor for 20 years but so much of my work was based merely on what came my way since I had no spare time to hustle up dream gigs. I took what made sense with three little kids at home. Try saying that in a job interview ... with a man.
[As a sidebar, I’d like to also point out the obvious: Working even part-time and raising three kids—managing the logistics of their overly scheduled lives, keeping the house stocked and relatively organized, the neverending feeding, the possibly futile effort to inspire a love of reading, learning their everchanging personal wants and desires and knowing them intimately in a way that is attentive yet gives them space to be, and still earning a respectable annual take as a freelance writer—is not nothing. But can I tout that in a phone interview? Hellllllll no.]
True, my life is not as exotic and exciting as Indiana Jones, but the perils of a job search demand the same level of courage and tenacity. A fictional account of my phone interview for a content strategy position at a major non-profit, however, is not going to be a page-turner. I choose to find metaphor in exciting adventure stories since professional development self-help books are boring. So instead of What Color is Your Parachute, I read about a computer whiz kid who discovers a genie has his back. Just like Alif in the book I’m about to recommend, I need to think quick, stay one step ahead of my interlocutor, and never forget that believing in yourself is a certain kind of magic.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
First of all, judge this book by the cover, a brilliant meld of Islamic design and the circuitry of a motherboard.
Alif the Unseen takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that could be Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t matter—G. Willow Wilson writes in a way that makes it easy to perfectly picture the rooftop where computer whiz Alif spars with his neighbor’s more conservative daughter. Keep an eye on the cat that keeps appearing there, by the way. Sometimes a cat is more than a cat.
This novel is about the dangers of state repression, it’s about courage, it’s about understanding what true friendship and love means. And there’s genies. The computer programming stuff is impressively complex but never dull and always understandable. The action is nonstop and so fun. The heroes of this story perpetually surprise themselves with their own bravery and resourcefulness. Wilson’s giant imagination is as permeable and fluid as the spot in the sand dunes that divides our world from the world of the Jinn, and every character she creates in this book is marvelous.
If you read Ready Player One you need to just stop reading now and go get the book. If you haven’t read or listened to Ready Player One, you have to get both books.
Wilson’s more recent book is called The Bird King and I grabbed it as soon as I finished Alif the Unseen. Alif, however, is my favorite. It’s modern and relevant with all the clever and exciting fun of Raiders of the Lost Ark and all the dreamy imagination of 1,001 Nights.
Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
Alif the Unseen is a fabulous fantasy, but real-life heroes are usually just people who are courageous enough to be totally honest. Kelly Corrigan is one of the most honest women I’ve ever read, and also one of the funniest. I listened to her read this to me, and frequently had to pause the Audible because I was overcome with emotion.
When her book The Middle Place was a best-seller, a brilliant friend of mine recommended it. At the time, my own personal life was nearly as harrowing and painful as Corrigan’s, so I demurred, but now that i’ve read Tell Me More, I intend to read every word she’s ever written, including her Twitter feed, which is actually quite entertaining.
I loved listening to hear her dry witty delivery, but it’d be nice to read the words just to revisit some paragraphs. Toward the end, Corrigan recounts a devastating and beautiful eulogy a husband delivers for his wife and that alone is worth the price of the book.
Ok, I spent the top of this blog beating myself up for not being more of a badass career dynamo but here I am finishing with a woman whose work celebrates love, family, and parenthood without sentimental cheesiness. She acknowledges that love and family are the hardest and the best parts of being human. Reading her book felt like having one of those cathartic laugh-’til-you-cry afternoons with an old friend. In revealing her own emotions and flaws she somehow makes the reader feel seen.
Feeling seen and understood is sort of the whole enchilada most days, right? I’d like to have a side of full-time job with it, but for now I will do my best to be that enchilada for the people I love. And thank you for being a little bit of that for me just by reading. xoxo