Thursday, November 21, 2013

Being 30, Being an Artist, and Dog Poop

In a few months I'll be 30. I'm not freaking out about it or anything; that'd be silly.

But I have to say, it does feel kind of like a deadline, like I need to accomplish certain accomplishments before the three-o rolls around. And I don't mean the familiar accomplishments that so many in my peer group have reached by 30. For instance, I have no desire to buy a house or have baby at this particular juncture. God knows I don't need to add property taxes and spit up to the mix juuuust yet. No, instead of these hallmarks, I find myself substituting the need to achieve arbitrary and rather quotidian feats - ones that are probably pretty inconsequential, but have become high priority in my mind, what with the deadline fast approaching. 

For example (and this is an embarrassing admission here, so be gentle): I've realized that I don't actually know for sure whether the Trojan War actually happened, or if its half-gods/half-men are all just part of an epic poem that Homer made up to pass the time and impart some lessons. I know! I should know that by now. I must have missed that day in high school. 

Regardless, I now feel very strongly that this is something I should know before I'm 30. If I don't know this basic piece of information by the time I'm 30, I have surely failed at life in some way. It has become a matter of critical importance. Also, how have I never read Their Eyes Were Watching God?! Thirty is coming! Houses and 401ks can wait, but if that book is going to get read it's now or never. And the word crepuscular. I should know what that word means by now and be able to confidently use it in a sentence.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like to disparage us Millennials for our tendency to delay the traditional mile markers of adulthood. But not only has the paradigm of adulthood for my generation shifted (major recessions have a cute way of doing that), the elements that the old paradigm involves - a house, some kids, and long-term employment with a single company - was never one with which I was aligned anyway. 

Well, I do have a graduate degree, which is something that quite a few of those in my peer group have earned by 30. But because my advanced, nay, my terminal degree is in the arts, I am not as well-positioned for income-stability as peers who got degrees in, say, accounting, or dentistry, or even education. I do have a career. It's one that I love and wouldn't trade for the sweetest retirement package in all the land. As an actor in Chicago's thriving theatre community and burgeoning film scene I am never short on professional and artistic challenge, growth, and comradery. Larger society, however, does not tend to validate acting (or any of the arts, let's be real) as a legit and grown-up career choice, and neither does the economy. So being an actor anywhere - even one with an MFA - doesn't exactly lend itself to raking in the kind of dough that puts a down payment on a house. Nor does the actor lifestyle tend to lend itself to the rearing of children. So for now, for my love of and commitment to my life in the arts, I'm happy to let those supposed milestones wait.

Still. It's hard to deny the sneaking suspicion that I'm doing something wrong when I see others my same age move ever more decisively into lives with stability and plan-able futures. And I can't help but wonder if I should have studied business or IT instead - if the life that fields like those allow would help me feel more validated, more grown-up, more economically powerful, more worthy of 30. 

The year I finished grad school the economy was about as warm as Lake Michigan in January, and my first day-job, taken out of desperation, was at a daycare center...for dogs. I can say decisively that I do not miss waking up just shy of 5am for minimum wage so that well-off people who studied business and IT can have someone look after their dogs while they're at work. Still, having a job at all was more than a lot of the country had at the time.

One cold, rainy November afternoon, it was my turn to empty all the trashcans in the dog runs - trashcans filled with dozens and dozens of plastic baggies full of dog poop. Here's what you do: You get a large, black, industrial strength garbage bag and you empty the trashcans full of dog poop baggies into that large industrial bag which, when full, goes into the dumpster. After awhile though, all that dog poop starts to get heavy, and even though I'd try to carry it as far from my physical body as possible, it wouldn't be long before it would get so heavy that the only thing I could do was heave it over my back and get on with it. 

That cold afternoon, as I was schlepping the industrial size bag of dog poop, it occurred to me that I have a terminal degree - the highest degree my field has to offer. It occurred to me that I, a master of fine art, having consumed many thousands of dollars worth of education, with all of my smarts and ambition, was walking along outside, in the cold November rain, giant bag of dog poop slung over my shoulder, in a pair of cheap rain boots bought specifically for this purpose. 

In that moment, the absurdity of life overwhelmed me so greatly that I couldn't help but let my grimaced face give way to laughter. And then such humility overcame me, and I felt...grateful. I felt grateful for the ability to work, and the ability to strive and hope. I felt grateful for my life's lack of convention, and for the failures that increase my hunger for triumph, and for each leap and stumble down such a tricky and unpredictable path as I have chosen, as I cruise in high gear toward 30... Not that I was suddenly enjoying carrying dog poop or anything, that was still totally gross. But humility made the bag a little lighter and the day a little warmer.

I have come to wear this unfettered, if uncertain time in my life as a badge of courage - as proof of a right of passage that any artist with something interesting to say must endure. With 30 coming, I'm letting go of the rubric of adulthood which, really, is as arbitrary as my need to know the meaning and proper usage of the word effulgent. My path is my path, with all its art and glory and folly - house and dental plan or no. 

The only trappings I need in order to welcome 30 are gratitude and love. (...And maybe a used copy of Langston Hughes' collected works. I really should have read that by now).

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