Experience

… is everything. I know there’s a lot to be said for brains or muscle or guts. They’ve all got their place. But brains can be short-sighted, muscle atrophies, and guts are sometimes just another way to say stupid. (The difference between stupidity and bravery is often the outcome.) Experience, however, like an extra ten years on a scotch, is the difference between good and great.

That’s not to say that literal years are synonymous with experience. They’re not. Accumulating years on this spinning ball of dirt doesn’t mean you’re experienced. Simply accumulating them in any particular profession doesn’t mean this either. Experience isn’t a party favor handed out to those just drawing breath. It must be sought and must come with reflection resulting in growth and a developing understanding of the ever-changing worlds around us.

Having spent ten years as a teacher, I know that no matter how mediocre I was at the start, I only got better with experience. I made a lot of dumb mistakes. We all do. (Maybe we don’t make the same mistakes, or the same amount of mistakes, but you know what I’m getting at.) Mistakes are what help you learn what not to do, and more importantly why, and hopefully you only make them once. (Hopefully.) You need to make mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes fuel experience. And in any given field, be it teaching or publishing or bartending or life, the mistakes are what make you better. Behind the bar, I didn’t pour a bad mix twice, but I poured a lot of different bad ones once.

I remember one heady pour of experience from when I was a kid: the stars I saw the first time I was in a fight with someone who actually fights. Not the pushing, shoving, wild air-hook punching of most elementary school fights, but the real bloody deal with purposeful punches that connect and an opponent who’s got older brothers and who had to learn to fight as a matter of daily bread. Getting your ass kicked is a very special serving of experience. If you’ve never had it, I highly recommend you go out and get it. It’s so choice.

Craig was a kid who moved into the neighborhood without much notice. His family lived in a house set far back off the main road surrounded by coops of one kind or another and what I remember as being a lot of dirt and chaos. Of course, I only gleaned this as Tony, my neighborhood friend and oft-times worst enemy, and I rode our BMX bikes past his house. We knew little about him or his family. He was an outsider in a neighborhood with a lot of outside to go around, outside that Tony and I felt belonged to us.

My run in with Craig was quick. There were some words, some posturing, some scared-kid-playing-tough-guy talk, and a lot of egging on from Tony, who seemed to verbally propel me forward into a confrontation with a kid who wasn’t really doing anything to us. A kid who may or may not have been refusing to budge off the dirt hill where my bike was left briefly abandoned, but who was certainly not budging when Tony volleyed taunts and heckles and possibly rocks at his head. My “friend” Tony, who was now sinking further behind me as his insults continued to fly.

I don’t remember how it physically started. Ascending the dirt hill, I do remember a quick moment of doubt when I saw Craig square off with his hands up in front of his face, measured and ready, in what I’d later realize was a boxer’s fighting stance and what I’d realize in just another second was not the first time he’d had to crouch into it.

I also remember a ringing in my ear and a quick flash of light as a guided right hook landed on the side of my head. The warm, syrupy thickness of blood seeping into my mouth. Then another flash. I may have sky-hooked a sad shot or two, maybe tried to rush in with my head down, most likely got hit a few more times. And then it was done. I was walking backward, red dripping between the fingers cradling my mouth. Craig was moving off in his own direction, back to his dirt and chaos. Tony stood finally quiet. I think I was more thankful he had finally shut the fuck up, only now registering the chatter that had existed throughout the brief fight, than I was thankful that the fight was over. I bad been beaten by a kid who knew what it was to fight, actually fight. I learned later he spent his afternoons fending off blows from older brothers who were disgruntled or angry or bored or all three. He had been through this before. Craig had experience.

I now had some experience too. I had experienced letting myself get pushed into a fight with an unknown entity and getting my ass handed to me. I learned that it’s best to assume the unknown opponent is more experienced than to be surprised by your own ignorance. If you’re prepared for someone better, you’re at least ready for it when it comes. And lucky when it doesn’t.

I came home from the fight with a loose tooth, a split lip, and visual memories of Craig’s poise under pressure, his almost boredom while beating me. I wasn’t done yet though, as I had one more experience provided courtesy of my mother. When she heard what happened, that I had gotten into a fight with the new kid down the street, she grabbed my arm, turning me on my heels, and marched me back down the block, down the dirt road, right up to Craig’s front door. Made me knock. Made me ask to see Craig, and his Mom. Made me apologize. Apologize to Craig, the kid who had just laid down a bit of a beating on her son.

Another experience to remember and a new piece of personal knowledge won through it: losing a fight you start doesn’t make you the victim. (It does make you an asshole though.)

I could have avoided all of this by doing the “right thing.” I could have saved myself a little humiliation, a little pain and discomfort, and a week without eating candy bars for fear my loose tooth would come out in the caramel. Sure, I could have done that.

But it’s easy to be “good.” It’s better to be experienced.

Obstinate Patience

It's not always what's on the inside that counts. Thankfully.

It’s not always what’s on the inside that counts. Thankfully.

I’m impatient by nature. And nurture. I’m also obstinate. Dumbass, thick-headed, frustratingly obstinate. It’s not exactly the world’s most coveted combo of characteristics: impatience and obstinance. This could be considered bordering on cantankerous, or curmudgeonly.

But years of being a teacher, a profession where patience is tried and tested on a daily basis, helped me realize that if I ever wanted to make it out of the day alive (or for that matter let half the students walk out of the room with their heads still cleanly attached to their shoulders), I would have to find a way to develop that quality I lacked. And so I set out to turn my obstinance against my impatience. Two wrongs may not have made a complete right, but it didn’t go too awry.

I’ve developed what I might refer to as a very obstinate patience. Really it’s just me internally arguing myself into elongated moments of inaction, allowing what others might call patience to reign, but which I know to be little more than a seething cauldron of impatience kept just a notch away from a full-on boil over. It’s the notch that makes the difference.

Case in point:

After waiting in line for coffee in an overly crowded café, already paid and ready to quickly doctor my drinks and dash, I casually pull up behind a small woman who is comfortably taking up all the real estate at the milk counter. Now this counter, like New York, doesn’t have a whole lot of real estate to start with, so when someone is holding a monopoly on the milk, the wooden stirs, the sugar, the lids, people tend to get a little antsy. Well, I tend to get a little antsy. And impatience begins kicking without ever really looking.

What the hell lady?

An observer might notice a man calmly waiting his turn to pour some milk in his coffee, as a smallish woman delicately pours cream in her cup, waits, inspects, and awkwardly pours a little more.

Seriously? You could place your cup six inches to the left and we’d all be better off and on our way. At least I would. Six inches!

The observer might notice the man shift slowly to his right and glance over the woman’s shoulder, his sunglassed eyes revealing little, but his face a serene smile as the woman sets down the cream and reaches delicately for the cinnamon.

Damnit. What’s the malfunction up there? How hard can this be? You all thumbs?

One shake. Two shakes. The cinnamon slowly settles on the coffee. The woman moves to return the shaker to the shelf, ever so slowly, like it’s volatile.

Now get a lid and get moving!

She slowly reaches back for the cream.

It’s at this point that the heady, heated interior monologue turns to argument. Impatience starts wrangling with obstinance. Just say excuse me, jostle in, do your thing and leave. This is ridiculous, waiting like this…We’ve waited this long. What’s the difference if we wait a little longer?…My foot in her ass. That’s the difference…Well we’re not moving because we started to wait and now we’re going to finish waiting…This is taking forever. There’s no reason not to move her over, get what you want. She doesn’t even care you’re behind her. She’s concentrating on that coffee like it’s brain surgery…That’s not the point. The point is that we’ve started waiting and we’re going to finish waiting. Period…You’re an asshole…So are you. I know, they’re both very eloquent in argument. 

Of course the observer hears none of this, notices the woman finish checking her coffee to cream ratio for the third time, and maybe sees the man shift his weight from one side to the other, maybe sees him take a slightly deeper breath.

I’m going to move her out of the way, with a hard elbow…We’re going to stand right here like we started and see this through.

The woman is now slowly lifting the sugared water bottle and sweetening to taste. And taste. And taste again.

Continuing to stand here and do nothing is the dumbest idea you’ve had all day. And you saw “Iron Man 3.”…We’re not done with the wait and we’re not leaving until we finish what we started… You could have been out the door by now, down the road, on about your business…Still waiting!…The voices often reach a fevered pitch inside my head as impatience froths at the mouth like a gremlin fed after midnight and obstinance pushes back with blind, brute force. (This is the same internal struggle I would have at times in the classroom after some idiocy or other had me pondering the fate of mankind and the next forty-five minutes of class.) You see? It’s this kind of self-absorbed “there’s no one else in the world but me” action that makes people go on about their lives considering only themselves. She’s the Lehman Brothers of the coffee counter…That makes no sense… If you don’t step forward and claim the space and place that’s rightfully yours, people like this will continue to steal your time and you’ll die standing in line, waiting for your turn like a complete…That’s all well and good, but we’re not moving. We started standing here and we’ll fucking finish standing here.

At this point, noticing the length of time the woman has been trying to find a lid that correctly fits her cup, four completely different attempts to make it work (there’s only two lid sizes available, you do the math), our observer might even comment to himself, under his breathe, regarding the crookedly smiling, still unmoving man in the glasses, “Nice guy. Patient.” He might even think quietly, “I should try to be more like that.”

Get the fuck out of the way!

Sometimes arguing yourself into inaction, into a sort of perverted patience, has its benefits.

As the woman turns to go, she reaches her left hand across her body to discard the straw’s paper. Finally! The last act of a too long play of inconsideration. And now I see clearly: two stubs for digits clutch crumpled white paper and the rest of the hand is an empty space where fingers used to be. Oh. So that’s why…She gently pats the lid of her drink one more time to make sure it’s secure, picks up the cup by squeezing it between the palms of clearly damaged hands, smiles, and goes her way about the day.

I step forward, slightly embarrassed. Two silent voices ringing in my head.

Sometimes, even though you’re a dick and despite your worst intentions, you can appear slightly better than yourself. A little patience goes a long way. Barring that, faking it once in a while sure doesn’t hurt.

All the world’s a bar…I mean a stage.

All the world’s a stage…

And nowhere is this more apparent than in a Brooklyn bar on a Friday night. Or any bar that’s conscious of its own “bar-ness,” its own esthetic sensibility. It’s a stage, set with a certain décor that bespeaks speakeasies and times no one there is old enough to remember (that includes the grey-haired intern in the corner) yet for which everyone seems to have a certain bizarre nostalgia. (This nostalgia is about to go full-tilt batshit commercial crazy when Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” hits the screens. In fact, it’s already got a full head of steam as Brooks Brothers displays are happily hawking the suits that make the man in his twenties look like it’s the twenties. Excuse me old sport, but does that suit come with a matching flask?) It’s a stage recognized from movies and TV, stories that trace outlines of archetypal locations in our collective pop-conscious. It’s dark enough to provide shelter and light enough to invite curiosity. The faces flashing forth in the windblown candles’ flickering light, dancing shadows on the walls. The place teems with just enough je ne sais quoi that you know exactly what’s what. People are out to hang out. This is the pretense we’ve agreed to believe. Our suspension of disbelief. What we’re really out to do is to watch and be seen and to inhabit this stage.

And all the men and women merely playa’s…

Everyone is here to play a part. Costumes creating character as we stare at each other and write lines in our heads about how the others see us while we watch them. (In a Broadway echoing announcement we hear that tonight’s role of the aloof, slightly intoxicated observer in the corner will be played by The Gray-Haired Intern. I too assume a guise.) All of us acting out roles while scribbling scripts on the fly, like a mad-hatter improv party. We shed our weekday day-time parts in the hope of adding drama to our comedy, or comedy to our drama, or dimension to our docudramedy. There is everything and nothing going on. Drinking the preferred way to pretend you’re doing something. Each of us the slightly out of focus background characters in each other’s show, getting more out of focus with each passing glass, wondering who might step forth into a guest-starring appearance as we hear canned applause in our heads or music surge at just the right moment.

There’s no denying we play roles. Even if I say I play no role, I’m just playing the role of the person who refuses to play a role. There’s no escaping the spotlight of self-awareness.

Stumbling through their exits and their entrances…

And so I exit the multitude of plays happening on this small set and enter many others. Strutting and fretting my hour upon the stage, right on over to the taco shop.

For The Man In The Park

Looking back, years after the tears turned to scars, but before they were torn back open, he wondered how it had all come to pass. He knew decisions and indecision had led him to this point beyond repair. What he couldn’t figure out was why.

It could have gone so many other ways; there were, at any given time, a thousand and one different outcomes and yet it seemed that this was also the only way it could have come out.

No matter how many times he applied the brush of imagination to the canvas of memory, the painting would always be the same: he’s alone in the park, older and no wiser, writing about the time he sat looking back.

A Quick Breather

The floating imagination of the child gives way too soon, too quickly. In a flash we’re speeding towards youth then adolescence then a-dolt-hood. We’re on to the larger, bigger issues and responsibilities and the smaller, faster computer to hold them all, the slick-talking phone to remind us of them, the status-symbol car to take us to them in roundabout circles chasing our tails. Bigger responsibilities. Faster. Louder. We’re fragmenting and splitting into a hundred points of contact, two hundred, a thousand. It’s not enough and we want more. Always more. The noise of what we should have or need. The noise of what it takes to get it. The cloying crackles of static brewing in the background and gaining prevalence, jarring us to action. Nothing is good enough, quick enough. There must be, always, something else to want, to buy, to sell, to own, to use. Because if there’s not then we’re not trying hard enough. And soon we’re older and no wiser and there’s been no fun, or fun so plagued with the preoccupation what comes next that everything has slipped away. We tried to hold too much and lost it all. Gone. In. A. Flash. Like electric current running away through the wires, spitting in a million directions instantaneously – never stopping – and we’ve got no breath because we’ve been running too far, too fast, and we’re panting, gasping short on life. We need to breathe deeply. We need to unplug. We need to stop splitting our attention and take a break, break bread, break the routine, break out, break away.

Catch Twenty-Snooze

Snoozing with authority

Snooze with authority

The alarm goes off. I think, “Fuck.” Hit the snooze. Nine minutes. The alarm goes off. I say, “Fuck.” Hit the snooze.

This is how my morning goes. Every morning that the alarm is set.

The alarm is a modern catch-22. Chances are if I’ve set it, it’s because I have to wake up. Not because I’m ready to, or want to, or got enough sleep. Because I have to. I hate my alarm. Loathe it. Feel nothing but the most acute animosity for it. And yet I need it. I hate it if it goes off. I hate it if it fails to go off. Damned if it do. Damned if it don’t. I feel like Yossarian every time it happens, except not as funny.

I use my phone as an alarm these days, replacing the foghorn like eeee-aaww many of us know so well from the digital clock days with the iPhone’s Xylophone tone, which actually sounds like an even creepier version of the theme from the movie American Beauty. So every morning I’m awakened to a tinkling sound that calls to mind the horror-show surface perfection and rotting subcutaneous depths of Kevin Spacey’s world in that film. Nice way to start the day, you may say? I’m one who needs a reason to get up and shut off the alarm, needs to be jarred, jacked, and racked into the day. I’m not a gracious riser.

Which is one of the reasons I use the snooze. Take the nine train. Like a Pavlovian reflex, that digital xylophone starts to ding dong and my arm shoots out and hits the snooze with such lightening fast ferocity that I wonder if that’s the quickest and most intense action I will take the entire day. And in fact it is. At least for another nine minutes. It’s sad to think my best moves are used in pre-consciousness to put off the waking world. But it is what it is.

Everyone has his own snooze-style. There’s the one-timers, those who need only use it once and not really to sleep, just to lazily open their eyes and make sure they’re moving soon enough. There’s the jugglers, those who vary the number of snoozes according to their feelings about the day to come or how much they had to drink the night before (or that morning). And then there’s the riders, those who will beyond all rational explanation hit the snooze for what seems like hours, catching fitful snippets of nine-minute naps with neither the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep nor the slightly gratifying if groggy feeling of just getting the hell out of bed. (Yes, I know there’re people out there who set the alarm for exactly when they need to get up and then get up exactly when the alarm goes off, but I personally find this kind of annoying; their deterministic use of the alarm is alarming.)

During one of these daily doses of snoozication (or maybe during every single one), I wonder why every alarm I’ve ever owned had a nine-minute snooze. Why nine? Why not ten? Or eight? Or five? Or twenty? It seems to be oddly torturous, that nine. It’s not long enough to qualify as actual sleep, but anyone who’s hit that button knows it’s definitely enough time to start falling back to sleep. But just as you start to trip, flip, and tumble down the sleep slide, the alarm goes off and puts an end to the whole thing like a bad act on the Gong Show. In the exact moment the snooze ends and the alarm rings again, the button beckons like a crack dealer on a dark corner (not that I’d know), “Come on. One more hit won’t hurt.” And so I roll another nine.

I realize I could Google the reason for the nine-minute snooze. I’m sure there’s a totally rational explanation. One that makes sense and probably has to do with some uninteresting industry standard enforced by no one and now just “the way it is.” But I’m not going to look it up. Or believe what anyone tells me.

I’m going to believe that the snooze button was perfectly designed to entice people to use it. To abuse it. To beyond all logic keep demanding the world wait nine more minutes before they have to face it, like when my Mom would try to wake me up for Sunday church as a kid and I’d pretend to still be unconscious so maybe she would just leave me alone and let me sleep, which she never did. (The fact that it always failed never dissuaded me from trying it. Every. Single. Sunday.) I’m going to believe that a wonderfully philanthropic inventor from whichever era the snooze button belongs to bequeathed his inheritance and snooze-related royalty checks to the impoverished, overworked, underslept children of the world. That every time I buy nine minutes off the clock I’m doing something good. It’s basically the same principle as going organic. It doesn’t actually do what you wish it did, but you feel better about yourself.

So go ahead and ride the nine tomorrow. Once. Twice. Three times a Monday. There’s children awake in China.

Chairman of the Bored

Let your boredom roll...

Let your boredom roll…

Saturday I was covered with the sickly sweet molasses of boredom; its dark, exquisite rubberyness pinning me to the bed. I was too bored to do anything about my boredom, bored by the thought of alleviating the tedium of being awake. Bored stiff as a board.

And I loved it.

Boredom is too often thrown around as a curse or a complaint. A simply unsatisfying state. There’s all kinds of quotes vilifying it, making it seem like the kind of thing you’d want to avoid, like an STD or the DMV.

But I’ve got to say, when you’re bored to tears, when maniacal laughter spills from your gut because you’re empty of all desire to move or be moved, there is a blissful, deeply fulfilling shallowness to be felt as the time slowly ticks, ticks, ticks away to nowhere and for nothing and with no reason at all.

Boredom is a blessing.

Just ask the first parent you see.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Last Week's Manhattan View

Last Week’s Manhattan View

I spent the last two weeks driving cattle from a small, desolate Texas town to the empty skies of Montana. (Though I never left Manhattan. I barely left the West Village.) I lost a lot of friends along the way. Some left. Some got left behind. Some died. Though they’re all still with me. I met a lot of decent people who did terrible things and some terrible people who did worse. They’re still with me too.

At the same time I listened to my late Grandfather, a man I idolized and loved and wished I could be more like, tell me the story of people facing a hard life for the sake of it, because what else is there to do but face it. I can still hear his voice echoing across the plains…a Lonesome Dove.

I’m trying to reconcile with the experience. There were things I learned about myself I’d rather not know, or admit. There were also things I was reminded of about myself I know to be true. It was magic.

Of course, there are all different kinds of magic. (I can hear the Harry Potter hordes looming, so cool your broomsticks and put your bent wands back in your pants; I’ll clarify.) The magic I’m talking about is the magic of reading good fiction, fiction that unlocks the imagination and lets dead voices talk about cattle drives across the plains, that lets me be on those very plains nodding off on a horse or gambling or whoring. The kind of magic that allows me to dislike a character for his weakness in love and ineffectual advances towards a woman he wants worse than water, dislike him because in part he’s me. The kind of magic that reveals to me I’m both the loyal lover who will always be there and the scoundrel who’ll leave for a card game and some whiskey. The kind that reveals a whore in me. The kind that allows me to find the savage. The kind that allows me to feel my female body. The kind that lets me know without reservation that I’d charge a camp and execute everyone in it without a word in order to save the woman they stole and abused, while I am also the man standing impotently afraid and watching someone else do it. The kind that allows me to sit sleepily under the wide night sky and wonder if I could hang on the crescent moon. The kind that shows me to be a father who won’t recognize his son and a son who wishes he knew who his father was. The kind that lets me ask and answer the question of whether or not I’m a good enough friend to do that. The kind that allows me to understand so many different perspectives, to empathize so deeply with so many different people, their love, their fear, their loyalty, their hate, to live so many different lives all at once, that I cannot help but be made a little larger in my feeling for everyone in the world. That’s the kind of magic I’m talking about.

Reading fiction is different. The reader is so deeply involved in creating the story that he is every character, every voice. Everything happens to him, is done to him. And he does everything to others, good and bad. Reading is so tied up with interior imagination and creation, so intertwined with our own emotions and experiences, so personal, individual, and solitary an act, that it changes the reader in a way that few other art forms can. It’s one that allows us a peak of sorts into the great unknown: the thoughts and motives of others. I’m reminded of the Doctor measuring Marlow’s head before he heads off to the African Congo, telling him the change happens on the inside. It certainly does.

I fucking love a good story. I’m not knocking other forms of artistic expression or catharsis, but I celebrate reading because it’s the most internal. Everything else is the outside coming in, but words come alive inside me and I’m rewarded by their birth.

The reward is empathy, something I think we could all use a little more of. I’m not talking about compassion, feeling sorry for someone (which is a feeling that resides on the outside, a feeling that still has a sense of “the other”). I’m talking about empathy, actually sharing the feelings of another. Literally having those feelings oneself. Even in the smallest doses, even in the most commercial romance-thriller-sci-fi-fantasy-erotica (no one steal that…I think I just found a new niche genre), it creates empathic understanding. It places me inside someone else and places them inside me. That’s how reading fiction works. That’s how it works its magic. The voice in the story is always me and their voices are always in my head.

Sure, it’s fiction. And, by definition, fiction isn’t real. In fact, fiction is an elaborate lie. But such is another of the great paradoxes of life: a lie can tell a truth.

You leave without leaving and a beloved dead Grandpa can still tell you a story. Now, that’s magic.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Sometimes Selling Balls in the Meatpacking is Just Fine

We've all worn different hats. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

We’ve all worn different hats. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

It doesn’t take long looking for a job to begin to question your reason for breathing. Especially in a country that seems by and large to define who you are by what you do. I’m not saying everyone does this, or does this consciously, but you feel it when you’re on the receiving end. Think about some of the first questions you ask someone upon meeting them. I guarantee in that list, particularly as you get older, is “What do you do?” This question is almost a proxy for asking someone, “Who are you?” I know; it’s small talk. It’s something to fill the space as you find other things to talk about. Or a line you use to seem interested until something with more substance comes up. With enough experience in other countries I know this is not uniquely American, but it is certainly a part of who we are. The work ethic permeates our culture and out of this stems a sense of identity and place. I’m not throwing stones. I do it too. It’s second nature, almost. But this correlation is also, often, false. Of course, as with many things, knowing that it’s false doesn’t curb the feeling you have when someone asks what you do and you don’t have an answer.

But pride is tricky business. It ebbs and flows and trying to hang onto it when you’re not permanently employed doing anything particular is a real trick. As this has happened so many times I’ve lost count, I’ve found myself tired of what used to be my standard lines. “I was teacher at international schools overseas” (trying to establish some credibility and a previous sense of purpose). “I moved to New York to pursue work in publishing” (trying to establish a sense of direction). “So now I’m starting over from scratch” (trying to excuse what comes next, which is the fact that I’m not in fact doing anything at this particular point). This was fine for a while, but when I started stretching into months of unemployment, of informational meetings and days filled with emails and questions, I found I could no longer linger with this answer. I hadn’t worked for months and what I used to do is about as interesting as talking about what happened to Jessie Spano after she had all that caffeine. Actually, it’s far less interesting because at least she got “so excited.” So I had to come up with a new shtick because the question wasn’t going anywhere.

So I started doing “the resume,” where you fluff your current work to make it sound far more important than it ever actually was. For example, when I worked Fashion Week (the result of a generous offer by a friend who knew I needed money and was willing to work crazy odd hours) I was the “Inventory Flow Manager for Sponsor Relations.” Oh yeah. Throw that title out there with an all access pass to the venue’s vacant-eyed models and hopped up fashionistas and it sounds like I’ve made it in the big city. The reality? I was out back in a storage container that was too small for all the crap inside, sweating like a POW in a tin hotbox during a sweltering NYC heat spell, arranging, rearranging, losing, finding, distributing, picking up, and generally learning more about cosmetics than I ever really cared to know. Not so sexy. Another example? “Culinary Promotions for Arancini Bros.” The reality? Serving fried risotto balls and getting drunk on craft beer. Okay, that one sounds pretty good however you slice the balls, but it’s not exactly impressing anyone other than people who like food and free beer (so it worked pretty well on all my friends). The point being, you start trying to find ways to boost your sinking pride because no one is paying you to do anything permanent. And you think you see the judgment in the eyes of the people who ask you what you do.

(A quick side note: If you’re in Bushwick, go to Arancini Bros. They are ridiculously addictive, like crack that satisfies. You can even stop into a fantastically rough dive bar called the Wreck Room and get a Miller High Life tall boy and a shot to wash down your balls. Dave, the owner of Arancini Bros, is a mad genius. See Dave? Still working. But I digress…)

This madness over job identity, regardless of what it is, becomes so insidious you start considering taking any permanent job just to be able to say you’ve got one. It’s like high school and a car. Sure, everyone wants a sick ride, but in reality even if you drive a beat up Bonneville station wagon or a permanently overheating clunker, you’ve still got a car and people still want a ride, which is better than bumming rides off people. Just ask Ferris Bueller. At least there’s a sense of purpose. It got to the point that I found myself walking by Help Wanted signs and wondering if I could get hired. Peanut Butter Company? I wonder if I’d get a discount? The coffee shop? I can foam milk. The liquor store? Could be an interesting foray back into my employment history. (Then I recall how that job came to an end and quickly move on.) Desperation and a dwindling bank account does damaging things to your pride.

It came to a head when I found myself applying for a volunteer job. Yep. Wrap your head around that little tidbit. Applying for a volunteer job. I probably took it further than necessary, but when you’re firing off resumes and cover letters like Rambo stalking the Soviets it becomes second nature. So there I was, sending a resume and a crafted cover letter expressing my interest in the philanthropic nature of Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, my belief in what they do, my prior education and work history (including my restaurant experience, should they feel they need a sandwich maker or rice crispy cook), and my hope that they can use me. Yes, I actually believe in what the bookstore does, and it’s filled with amazing volunteers that make it an impressive place to hang out, but that’s not the point. I was so desperate to be doing something, to say I had a permanence that took up some of my copious free time, I applied to Housing Works like I applied to Penguin Publishing. It was a real moment of humility. And a moment where I realized I just might be losing it a little. And by a little I mean a lot.

But it was an important moment too. Because from this I had to step back from the brink of Peanut Butter Product Professionalism or Caffeine Infusion Specialization or Liquor Lair Lordship, and just laugh.

Two things became clear, again (because these moments of clarity come and go and I’m sure I’ll have to learn this lesson again and again and again). One, it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I like it. And I liked fermenting in the Fashion Week tin container. I liked selling hot balls in the Meatpacking, risotto that is. I enjoyed each experience, and I was going to enjoy the others to come. Two, I don’t judge people by what they do (though I do ask the question), so I better stop thinking people were judging me for it. It’s my insecurity I see in their looks, not their judgment.

There’s a lot to learn in going back to the basics.

And I did get the volunteer job. It must have been the cover letter.