20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

Month: September, 2013

That Thing I Really, Really, Really Hate to Do

Tonight I am thinking about risk.


Not the board game, which in my family is currently called “Kohleun’s Game of World Domination,” because I won the last time we were all together. Nah, I’m thinking about that thing I really, really, really hate to do.

I hate taking risks, because I am very security oriented. If I don’t have a sure thing lined up, I at least want two backup plans and two backup-backup plans for each backup plan, or at the very least, a couple extra bucks in my bank account. Not because I will ever have enough money to pull myself out of an emergency but because I want to be able to drown my sorrows in a good cup of coffee.

On January 6, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to an anxiety attack. I was signed on to teach a class that semester with a community college in the area in addition to my floral design job. But I hit a psychological wall. I realized that every morning at 4:20 I woke with the sensation of holding up a million disparate pieces that I would, inevitably, drop. Then I would talk myself down, fall asleep for another hour and be back at fighting the world from six in the morning till after midnight many nights. I had to admit to myself that academia, while in many ways a passion of mine, was and is the central source of my strongest anxiety and it has been since I started college.

For several years I felt like an imposter. I decided at the end of my first year of undergrad that I didn’t want to be a screenwriter and film costumer. I wanted to be a professor, a philosophy professor. I dove headlong into studying philosophy. I went through a very painful feminist/intellectual/religious awakening, wrote a lot, consumed ridiculous amounts of coffee, and battled what I am now convinced was undiagnosed depression.

Around my junior year I had seemed to hit my stride, with lots of positive feedback from both philosophy and English faculty while I continued to design costumes for the university’s theatre program and write prolifically. While I don’t think the imposter syndrome ever goes away, I realized then that I could let go of the nagging feeling that I was not good at academic work—that I did not belong. I traded that anxiety for the sense that yes, I do belong in academia, but I didn’t belong anywhere else. I had let myself lose touch with other skillsets. Not that I couldn’t do them anymore; I just tied so much of my identity and self-worth to academia because I knew that was something I could do well. Although it didn’t offer job security or peace of mind, I could be secure in knowing that I knew how to read analytically, how to conduct research, how write an essay, how to fall asleep at my desk. Naturally, that meant investing another year of my life and another thirty thousand dollars into a master’s degree in St. Andrews, and two more years into teaching for adjunct pay. Naturally.

So, when 5:00 a.m. on January 6 came along, I completely fell apart. I waited two and a half hours to call my mom, since it was a Saturday morning, and I was raised to be polite and shit. She picked up the phone, clearly confused. I squeaked out, “Mom, will I still be a real person if I’m not an academic anymore?” “Of, course,” she replied. “But will I be okay if I’m not an academic anymore?” She said, “Sometimes it’s okay to just be a florist.”

And so I was just a florist for a few months, until I found myself turning back to old habits of writing fiction, drawing fashion illustrations, and sewing. I remembered why my mom taught me how to sew: because as long as I didn’t know how to sew, she and her friends would be constructing the doll couture and outlandish 18th and 19th century period dresses I would sketch in my math notebook. A friend recently asked what my favorite subject in school was. I replied, “18th and 19th century corsetry.” He quipped, “In elementary school,” to which I shot back, “Is sixth grade elementary school or middle school?” Yeah, I made a corset and two crinolines. So what?

But even though I love what I’m pursuing now, it’s intensely scary. I put my last fabric order on my already well-used credit card, which terrifies me. I have an interview for an unpaid internship with a famous designer, which also terrifies me. I don’t actually know how to be a designer. I don’t know how to do a lot of things. I spent the past year reconfiguring and doubting my intuitions regarding relationships, so I don’t even know how to ask someone out. I don’t know how to debone a duck. I know that seems like a superfluous skill to a six-years vegetarian, but it’s something I’d like to know how to do, whether or not I ever do it.

I don’t know how to pick up and leave a place or people or routine I’ve grown attached to. I don’t know how to risk more than I already have, and I feel like I’ve already risked a shit-ton; I’ve risked my own understanding of my identity and worth as a person. I just want to feel brave for a while. To feel wise, rather than completely foolish for making such a drastic change in direction. I want to feel like the risks are worth it, that life will inevitably turn into Kohleun’s Game of Life Domination. But if I knew that, it wouldn’t be a risk, would it?

They Never Asked to Be Role Models

Brittney, Lindsey, Hilary, Miley.

I’ve avoided the Miley Cyrus VMAs conversation for a while, since, frankly, I don’t give a flying fart in space over what she wore or how she danced. And while I’ve got your attention, why should I know anything about the Kardashians?

While, yes, I think Ms. Cyrus’ performance—especially considering that wardrobe screen time she will never get back—was deeply unattractive (there’s twerking, and then there’s twerking poorly) and inappropriate for programming supposedly aired for young folk, I don’t think any of us have a right to feel let down by Miley, or to pile on her any responsibility for forming the behaviors of youth culture or our daughter’s values. I’ve seen several posts about Miley floating through cyber-space, about how she is the manifestation of a sad and weep-worthy youth culture, or that she is perpetuating sexual commodification and low self-respect among young women.

Miley and her predecessors are young women growing up in the public eye, and they have been invested with more power and responsibility than they have ever asked for and far more than parents and teens should ever expect them to deal with.

Miley is a performer—a musician, an actor, an interview persona, and sometimes a dancer. Miley is not an intellectual, a political leader, a humanitarian, or a philanthropist, unless you count that clothing line she launched for Wal-Mart in collaboration with Max Azria. As such, there is no reason why we should hold her up as a moral model for young people since she all she signed up for was to be a performer, who is paid to have a fashion-forward image and hone her acting and singing skills.

Yes, Miley is financially successful and famous, but who with sound logic would then assume that those traits bestow on someone role model status at a moral level? The only thing I would think my hypothetical, future children should emulate of Miley is her pursuit of developing her talents. I don’t hold it against her, however, that she isn’t a humanitarian. I just know who not to call if I ever join the non-profit sector and need to do a little fundraising.

It’s hard not to lament the images of Miley, Brittney, et. al. being super sexual while navigating their teens, singing “baby, hit me one more time” and the like. But let us not forget that Miley is not a child anymore. She’s twenty years old, and should be experiencing her twenties (albeit responsibly would be great). She’s gonna do things that twenty-somethings do, not that teenagers do. Don’t ask a twenty year-old woman to represent an entire subculture of teenaged girls. And please, please don’t ask a teenaged girl to emulate a twenty-something’s behavior and then be upset when she places herself in adult situations with adult decisions, and the presence of adult-only substances. It’s not Miley’s job to raise your child.

It’s even more difficult to avoid the images of young women a la Girls Gone Wild in mainstream media at all. These personas permeate our culture, and are therefore influential on our kids regardless of whether we asked them to be. So, does this mean that we become passive consumers of our culture? Who took away your power to at least critique the culture in which you live, to live differently than a celebrity, to celebrate the relative privacy and lower social pressure that your life affords, or to tell young people, “Hey, ya know what, having oodles of money and fame doesn’t make you a more valuable person, or more worthy of our time and attention”?

I grew up learning to live in some very counter-cultural ways, and in many areas of my life I still do, thanks, yes, to my parents. I’m also counter-cultural in ways that they are not, but in a world where a fit body and coquettish smile should raise my cultural currency, my parents also encouraged my educational growth, my art, my writing, and my love of good food and hospitality. When I get to embrace all those aspects of myself I am most happy and satisfied with who I am. I don’t need to aspire to be in the movies, or as the Pussycat Dolls succinctly put it, to “have boobies.” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pop culture, but it is a fluid thing, and it’s better to create a life for ourselves and young people that enjoys what pop culture brings while finding our abiding satisfaction in the realities in which we actually live.

Miley will grow up and presumably get her shit together, just like unfamous women eventually do, just like Brittney Spears is trying to do right now. Miley and her successors will continue to be seen on the big and small screen, in magazines and billboards, and on red carpets. Good for them. And other young women—people like us—will continue to work difficult jobs, pursue educations, have healthy and unhealthy relationships, develop and overcome or not overcome eating disorders, get boobies, fall in love, plant gardens, do socially inappropriate things, learn from our mistakes, grow up. Good for us.

Here’s a little pop culture critique of itself, coming from the Pussycat Dolls. Listen to the chorus. Sound familiar?