Hello, my name is Lisa Jakub and I used to be an actor

This is a weird thing for me to write about.

You see, I’ve been spending the last 10 years running from my past. A friend said that I’m so dodgy about my old life, that I behave like someone who killed her entire family and moved out of state. I’m that elusive about it.

I didn’t kill anyone. I was just an actor.

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Viva Italia

“If we get married, we should have our wedding here because it’s so romantic.”

I choked on the chocolate chip gelato I was shoving in my face.

“Dude – you can’t just say shit like that.”

(I’ve always known how to ruin a moment.)

But the things was – I loved him exactly because he’d say shit like that. He was confident and authentic and didn’t play games.

We’d been dating for all of 3 months – but we’d been friends for 5 years before that. And suddenly one day, I couldn’t imagine life without him. He was my partner. He felt like home. And he was right, Italy was incredibly romantic.

But, I was 22 years old, I swore I’d never get married, and I wasn’t totally sure that I could give up the habit of making out with my co-stars in my trailer during lunch breaks. But he was the first guy that really made me consider it. That’s why I had brought him to Italy.

For the year or two prior, I had been contemplating a slow exit out of acting – I thought maybe I’d be happier working behind the camera. I produced a short film called Day After Day and it was selected to be in a showcase at the Cannes Film Festival. What a perfect way to show off to my new boyfriend.

So, three months into our relationship, I invited him to come to France on my work trip to take the film to the festival. We traveled around Italy as well – which is where he made me choke on chocolate chip gelato.

Four years later, I realized I really was done with kissing boys in my trailer (and actually, I realized I was done with the trailers and the films that provided them, as well) so we went back to Italy and said vows.

Jakub 007

And now, after 9 years of marriage, we are on our way back to Italy to celebrate my husband’s 40th birthday. Because I married the kind of guy who says that what he wants most for his birthday is to go back to that very romantic place.

He always has the best ideas.

So, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll eat some gelato for you.

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Book news!

Apparently, this is what a signed book deal looks like

Apparently, this is what a signed book deal looks like

I’m thrilled to announce that the wonderful folks over at Beaufort Books will be publishing my memoir, You Look Like That Girl. It will be available on shelves and as an ebook in fall of 2015.

Thanks to all of you for reading, sharing and supporting my writing. I was so nervous about putting my words out there, but you have given me the confidence to pursue this crazy publishing dream. I can’t thank you enough.

There is a lot of work to be done to get the manuscript ready for publishing, but while I do that – let me know if you have any cover ideas…

Clubbing baby actors

I just wanted to fit in.

Desperately.

All 15-year-olds just want to fit in. They skulk around like those fish on the ocean floor who can alter their skin color to match the rocks. That was me – trying to blend like my survival depended on it.

But Mrs. Doubtfire was still in theaters, breaking all kinds of box office records and 20th Century Fox was putting two-page ads in The Hollywood Reporter thanking everyone for buying a movie ticket. Blending was getting harder to do. But L.A. was my life now and I needed to figure out how to be part of that Hollywood crowd. A club on the Sunset Strip seemed like a good place to learn.

We didn’t even want to drink. My friend Christine had a crush on the singer of the opening band. Her sister had been in a movie with him, and our entire intention for the evening was to jump up and down in front of the stage and scream.

The place was dark and throbbing with coolness. People oozed cool and rubbed it all over their already cool friends. People moved around the place so comfortably that it seemed like it was their living room. I used all the acting skills at my disposal in an attempt to copy those people — and knew I was failing miserably.

Just before the band was due to go on stage, Christine and I headed to the bathroom to preen. She dug through an extensive bag of tools, expertly applying and lining and touching up. I didn’t wear makeup and having no preening abilities of my own, I glanced around the dim, grungy bathroom. I noticed a condom machine hanging on the wall. It was apparently  “for our convenience.” I nudged Christine and snickered.

Both of us had sadly undeveloped chests and few social skills beyond giggling – the machine hardly intended us as its target audience in need of such a convenience.

Nevertheless, flavored condoms were intriguing. The machine’s label reported that they came in three thrilling flavors: piña colada, chocolate and strawberry shortcake. I didn’t drink and was allergic to chocolate, so the strawberry shortcake was the clear winner. Christine and I had a lengthy debate about whether the chocolate condoms were made with real chocolate and if they would induce an allergic reaction.

I thought it would be a horrible time to find out.

She thought I was an idiot.

She started rifling through her purse and pulled out some linty quarters.

“Here. Get two.”

“Wait, why are we buying these?” I asked.

She snorted at me and handed me the change.

“Research.”

As I loaded the machine with Christine’s quarters, she leaned on the bathroom door. This was a scene best kept between the two of us. As our 50 cents went into the machine, slick pink and green packages slid out. They looked cheery. Fun. Yet, I was still scared to touch them. My heart beat quickly.

Christine appeared savvier, though I don’t think she really was. She was just one of those people who always appeared to know what she was doing. Whether on a film set or in a club bathroom holding a piña colada flavored condom, she always seemed as if she has been through it a million times. She was a stark contrast to me – it didn’t matter what I was doing, I always looked like I was about to get yelled at.

She ripped open the packaging with her teeth, a move she must have seen in a movie. I approached the wrapper more tentatively, pulling on either side like it was a bag of Doritos. We removed the smooth creatures from their packaging. We unrolled them. We concluded that they probably looked kind of like penises…if penises were florescent, semi-translucent, covered in a strange powder and stinking of sweet chemicals.

“Ready?” Christine asked. I certainly was not but I was standing in a bathroom holding a condom, what could I say?

“Okay. Lick it!” Christine demanded and we each raised the limp rubber to our tongues.

At that moment, the door swung open, catapulting Christine from her guard post and a Goth girl, bedazzled with safety pins, blasted into the bathroom. Christine and I panicked, threw our condoms into the trash and ran the hell out of there.

Taking refuge in a dark corner with humiliated tears flooding my eyes, I cursed Christine for not guarding the door properly and letting us be the freaks who got caught licking flaccid condoms in a bathroom. She also had tears in her eyes, but hers were caused by stomach-cramping laughter. She smoothed out my hair and attempted to comfort me.

“Don’t worry about it, Lis. Besides, you are not going to need one of those for a long, LONG time.”

Before I could respond with something like “Shut up” –  she grabbed my hand, ran to the stage and screamed for the cute lead singer like nothing had happened.

There were many enviable people in that club, owners of designer handbags, prestigious addresses and powerful careers, but I only wanted what Christine had. Her lightness was admirable and something I could never quite locate within myself. My friend’s skin fit her just fine and she never seemed to care too much about outside opinions. Her ease in this world was like a foreign language that seemed impossible to master. I borrowed some of her sparkly MAC lip gloss and hoped something deeper would rub off on me.

That night, I thought the worst thing that could ever happen was getting caught by a Goth. But four years later, Christine got sick. The lupus moved quickly, and she passed away when we were 19.

I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to capture her lightness. Admittedly, whenever I think of that Sunset club, I can still taste strawberry condom dust and palpable shame in the back of my throat. But whenever I feel myself trying desperately to blend with the cool people, I always feel Christine smoothing out my hair as she laughs at me.

“Don’t worry about it, Lis.”

 

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Panic attacks, social anxiety and other perks of being me

At age 13, battling a panic attack just before a press conference for the movie Matinee, at Universal Studios

 

Recently, I did an interview and we discussed anxiety disorders. I realized that although I’ve written about that topic in other places, I’ve not addressed it much on this blog.

It can be challenging to talk about panic attacks and social anxiety. We’ve been taught that it’s either nerdy (think someone with high-waisted pants, sucking on an inhaler at a party) or it’s just regular stress that we should be able to handle.

It’s neither of those.

I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks since I was a kid. I’ve always been described as “sensitive” and “thoughtful” and “a worrier.” When I was about 11, my mother would push her thumb into the middle of my palm, calling it my Breathe Button. She’d remind me to take a deep breath as I gasped like a fish and anxiety drained the color from my face.

At a certain point, my inherent shyness and introversion turned into hyperventilating, blacking out, and not being able to leave the house. At its worst, I was having a couple of panic attacks a day. If you don’t know what a panic attack feels like, consider this:  it’s common for people to end up in the emergency room during their first one because it feels so much like a heart attack.

It feels like you are dying.

And I was doing that twice a day.

That anxiety was complicated in my early 20s by the fact that I was not happy in my life. I felt trapped and scared and not sure what could ever comfort me. I’ve been carried out of restaurants mid-panic attack, I’ve made bad choices in a fog of anxiety-ridden self-sabotage. The world had become a very dark place and there were many times that I was not sure how I could ever get out of it.

I’ve written before about what has helped me. Personally, it’s all about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation and yoga. I wanted to avoid the drug route – I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking drugs that you need – I just wanted to try a different way. Although I have had prescription bottles at the ready, I’ve always found other ways to manage it.

Even though it’s greatly improved, my anxiety has not disappeared completely. Last weekend, I felt some significant panic just thinking about having to leave the house to go to the grocery store. My heartbeat was irregular. My hands went numb. Flickers of light clouded my vision and made me cling to the counter with vertigo. Those are all signals that I’m not breathing well.

The difference now is that have a whole arsenal of tools that I can use to stop that panic before the sobbing-on-the-floor point. I have breathing exercises. I remind myself that this feeling is temporary and will pass. My husband knows what he needs to do, and not do. My friends understand that sometimes I can’t come to large social gatherings (large means more than 2 people) and if I do, I always drive myself so I can leave if I start to feel panicy. There are preventive things I do every day to reduce my anxiety so that it no longer runs my life – like yoga and a daily meditation practice.

Whenever I talk about anxiety publicly, I get messages from people who deal with similar things and who are glad that we can talk about it. That sense of connection is the reason that I write words and put them out into the world. Because I hope that someone will find them, read them, and say, hey, I totally get that.

I wish there was one common answer we could all share — sadly, there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But if you are dealing with this stuff, know that you are not alone. There is no need to feel ashamed. There are people and books and techniques that can help you. Anxiety tends to drive people into isolation, but suffering alone is never the answer. You can take control of your life and your own wellbeing. You can ask for help.

I used to think my panic attacks could be alleviated by some external image of “success.” Maybe if I got cast in bigger movies or dated a different boy, I would suddenly be fixed. When I finally realized that I was capable creating some peace for myself, right where I was  – that’s when it all started to get better.

 

I created a bookshelf of some of my favorite books that helped me with my panic attacks. You can see it on Goodreads. (And while you are there – friend me so we can share books!)

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Childhood choices: is it okay to recruit a 9-year old?

Jaden Newman is 9 years old. She also just became the youngest person ever recruited by a college program.

Jaden plays basketball. I’m no talent scout but I saw a 30-second video of her playing – and she’s damn good. Clearly, the University of Miami thinks so, too.

While I understand why many people are celebrating this fantastic achievement, it still makes me squirm a little. I’m not sure that we should be celebrating colleges recruiting 4th graders.

It’s wonderful that Jaden is such a talented, hard working kid who has found something that she loves to do. But can’t it just be left at that? Isn’t that enough? Why does basketball need to be something that defines her future right now? There’s a lot of baggage that comes along with being labeled a “phenom” before you hit double-digits.

I’m not sure why a university needs to take ownership of Jaden’s future at this point. She should have the freedom to wake up next Wednesday morning and decide that she doesn’t want to play basketball anymore and that she is much more interested in the debate team. Childhood is all about being free to explore who you want to be for the rest of your life. And if there is pressure of a college scholarship and this precedent-setting recruitment, I worry it will stifle her vision for herself.

Maybe Jaden really did find the thing she wants to do for the rest of her life at the age of three. Maybe this is just giving her a great option down the road. I hope that is what happens.

When I was three, I started my career and I identified myself as an actor for the next 18 years. Then, when I was 22, I slowly realized that I didn’t want to do that job anymore. I had never even bothered to ask myself what else there was, because it hadn’t occurred to me that there were other options available. I assumed I was incapable of anything else. Suddenly, I had no clue who I was. I identified myself as an actor before I identified myself as anything else. If you had asked me who I was, I would have said:

1. An actor

2. A girl

3. A Canadian

So, if I wasn’t an actor anymore, was I anything at all?

For me, it worked out – I don’t have any regrets. I was able to find a new path and eventually found my self-worth somewhere else (thank you, therapy). But not all kid actors end up in a good place. I hope Jaden knows that she has the ability to be something different if she wants – even if it doesn’t come with the media attention and the prestige of college sports. Just because she is good at something doesn’t mean she is required to do it.

When little kids say they want to be firefighters, we don’t suit them up, put an axe in their hands and send them out there. But with sports, music and acting, it seems like the rules are different.

I believe that it’s always important to know, wherever you are in life, that you are allowed to change your mind. None of us have to be just One Thing. If we all had to commit to what we wanted to be when we were little – there would be a whole lot of firefighters and ballerinas. And my husband would be a bird.

So, go do what you love, Jaden. Kick ass and have fun – whether you want to be a basketball player, a firefighter, a ballerina or a bird. I’m pretty sure you’d be awesome at all of them.

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The things we leave behind

The smell of humidity and rot was strong in the air. But it was a pleasant smelling rot – the gentle softening and giving way of enormous trees to a million tiny insects and bacteria. Butterflies sliced zigzags through the air and landed on sun-warmed rocks to splay out their saffron wings. Branches strewn out on the path suddenly lifted their serpentine heads and lazily slithered into the brush.

What my Dad wanted for his 60th birthday was to go hiking with me. I’m not sure, as a daughter, what feels better than that. So, Dad and I went hiking. We crossed an icy river, our feet tingling from the cold and slipping on moss-covered rocks. We waved away the little flies that buzzed persistently behind our sunglasses.

The old stone chimney was hiding just off the path, amongst over-grown vines and fallen trees. It was all that remained of a cabin. When the Shenandoah National Park was formed in the 1930s, most of the residents left the area – but the man who lived here decided to spend his final days in his cabin. After he died, the cabin was destroyed. Only the chimney remains.

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It got me thinking about the things we leave behind. I’ve always been pretty aware of my own mortality and physical limits. Maybe because one of my early acting jobs involved being shot and killed in a restaurant when I was 6. Maybe because I broke my back when I was 11. Maybe because my dearest friend died of lupus when we were 19.

I’ve never felt invincible.

The wonderful and terrible thing about movies is that they last a really, really long time. I find that disconcerting for many reasons. One reason is that there is footage out there of me singing – which is a total atrocity. But also, in many ways, it feels like what remains of me is a lie. It’s frame after frame of me wearing things I didn’t pick and saying words I didn’t choose. It’s me pretending to be someone I’m not.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I write – so that I leave something lasting. Something that is truly me, not simply the shell of me, acting like someone else. I think it’s natural to want to create something meaningful that endures beyond yourself. Andrew Carnegie called it the desire to “do real and permanent good.”

Personally, I’ve never felt the desire to have children and pass on my DNA, so I need to find another way to leave my mark on the world. It doesn’t need to be perfect or spectacular. I don’t think I’m going to cure Alzheimer’s or rid the world of bigotry. It doesn’t have to be bigger or better or more impressive than what other people have done.

It just has to be a true reflection of me. It has to be my best effort. My passion. The thing that my heart feels is right, the thing that refuses to be defeated by my relentless worries and insecurities. It’s what happens when I finally get out of my own way and do the work I was meant to do.

That’s what our mountain man in the Shenandoah National Park did. He found a way to live and die in his little place in the woods. That was his legacy. His passion. And what remains is that chimney he built. Strong, solid, proud.

The forest will come and claim the chimney at some point, just as eventually everything changes into something else. Nothing remains static forever. Even the movies and words will fade and become obsolete. That’s just the nature of impermanence.

But for at least a little while longer, it will all mean something. It will mean passion and persistence and it will reflect the inherent beauty of creating the life you truly want to live.

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Perceptions of the past

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

― John Lennon

 

“What are you writing now?” He asked me from across the folding table.

“It’s a memoir,” As soon as the words came tumbling out of my mouth, I realized how loaded they were.

I was standing across from James Frey. They guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces and got publicly slammed by Oprah when the world discovered that much of his memoir was fabricated.

He laughed and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses.

“Oh God, just….just…call it fiction. Please.”

I didn’t know I was going to be having that conversation with James Frey last week when I went to Book Expo America in New York. I was expecting to have a couple of meetings with publishers, score some free advance copies of books, see some writer friends and have my agent pick up the tab for dinner. I wasn’t expecting to be sent into a philosophical quandary about the nature of truth.

There are several ways you can come down on The James Frey Thing. Some people think he’s a liar scumbag. Some people think he was backed into a corner by his publisher and forced to call his book a memoir when he always intended it to be fictional. Some people think he wrote something beautiful and poignant regardless of its accuracy.

But let’s set aside our desperate urge to pass judgment for a moment – let’s not defend or condemn his actions. Because either way, there are a few things that are pretty clear cut about The James Frey Thing.

  • He wrote a book that resonated with many people
  • He made all non-fiction writers think about their own relationship to reality
  • And he made everyone a little scared of Oprah

I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on reality. I also think most people think that about themselves.

In my book and my blog, I write stories about my life. I believe them to be true. It also occurs to me that there might be people who read what I write and have a completely different recollection of that event.

I’ve told the story a million times about how I became an actor. I was in a mall with my parents when I was three years old and a man approached us and wanted me to be in a commercial his company was casting. Recently, I was telling the story on a radio show and later my mom called me to say it was in a market, not a mall. But I always thought it was a mall. When I think about it, I see fluorescent lighting and a food court — not an open, breezy market with baskets of colorful fruit and glassy-eyed fish lying on piles of ice. But apparently, I’ve just filled in the details where my memory has faltered.

Memory is a slippery thing – it picks and chooses the moments it wants to cling to and it changes rooms and conversations and intonations. It makes you braver or funnier or more awkward than you actually were.

Of course, there are details that are (or should be) concrete. I’m not recommending you claim you had a root canal without anesthetic if you didn’t. But what is interesting and important about telling our stories is the emotion and deeper meaning that we bring to it. And that belongs to the storyteller alone. We own it. There are so many ways of seeing the world and understanding the consequences, but our perception of reality takes precedence when we get brave enough to open up and tell our story.

What really matters when reflecting back is – what came from that experience? Was there joy or pain? What was learned? Where did it lead? How can it help someone else and do something good?

That’s what our memories are really for.

Well, that –  plus the glorious feeling of humiliation that we actually used to wear fringed denim vests.

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Le acne: when movies and real life collide

Before it all went wrong. That’s me in the bottom center of the frame, wearing burgundy.

When I was working as an actor, I had a precise system to decide whether to accept or decline a role. I asked myself the following questions:

• Is it a good script?
• Will it provide an interesting acting challenge?
• Will I get to go to a cool location?

The answer to only one of those questions needed to be affirmative, and I would commit the next three months of my life to a project.

Thusly, when I was 16, I worked on a TV movie in the south of France. I played a girl who was kidnapped and stolen away to be violated as a sex slave or alternatively, harvested for internal organs, whichever option proved to be more profitable for my bad guy captors.

I don’t need to tell you which one of my three prerequisites this project fulfilled.

And yes, it fulfilled only one.

The shoot was extra challenging because we filmed an English version as well as a French version. We would do one take in English, one French, back to English. It was brutal. I had studied French but it was high school French, words pertaining to libraries and chalkboards. I never learned the phrases required for this project, things like, “Please monsieur, don’t take my kidneys.”

At age 16, I could have passed for 12. I’d stare at my very un-Hollywood chest with loathing and confusion. Didn’t my breasts realize that we were in films?  The movie industry had pigeon-holed me where it shoves all of their flat-chested brunettes — roles like best friend, tomboy or Joan of Arc. My agents kindly labeled me as an “athletic” type.

Well, on this particular movie, my 16-year-old hormones finally kicked in. And there were zits. Horrible zits that danced across my nose and gathered conspiratorially on my chin.

This was a deep betrayal. Generally, my physical development had cooperated with my career. For example, my teeth seem to have been scared straight into freakishly perfect alignment from the moment they poked through my gums. They understood that they were required to stand at attention like good little Hollywood soldiers, since braces would undermine my budding career.

When the copasetic relationship that my body and I once enjoyed came to an abrupt end in the French Riviera, my mother did the proper mother thing and proclaimed my festering acne “Not That Bad.”

Not everyone agreed with this charitable assessment.

One day, the producers awkwardly took me aside.

Producer: “So, Lisa, we’re going to give you a little time off, so you can….clear up a bit. We’ll just shuffle the shooting schedule around and work on some of the scenes that you’re not in.”

Translation: you are being suspended from your job on account of your face.

A normal kid with acne would just hang her head low on the school bus and miserably carry on, but I was an actor kid and this “zituation” as we came to call it, was completely unacceptable. It required medical attention.

The producers sent me to the local hospital, in hopes that modern medicine could return me to the glowing, fresh-faced kidnaped girl they needed me to be. The doctor gave me some green stuff that I applied as directed and in a few days my skin was deemed smooth enough to appear in front of a camera as a believable slave for sexual purposes. I was allowed to go back to work.

That was when I realized what kind of job I had. I was in an industry where the entire shooting schedule would be moved around because I wasn’t looking as pretty as I was expected to. We were deep in the world of make-believe. I had dirt smeared on my face and twigs in my hair from wallowing in a sex slave dungeon, but they were perfectly placed dirt and twigs. The realities of life had no place here.

But in the end,  you learn how to take the bad along with the good. After all, I got to hang out in the south of France for a while, and I learned how to say “oozing” in French.

It’s “suintement.”

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Dueling definitions: the trouble with labels

I’ve been going to these writing conferences. They can be quite intimidating, especially for an introvert like myself. They are in huge open rooms with florescent lighting and too much air-conditioning blasting from dusty vents. There are armies of tiny water bottles and people who really want you to wear badges.

I go to these conferences to learn how to do the non-writing part of being a writer. These things are about the chatting. The promotion of yourself. The handing out of cards. The perfecting of the encouraging nod at the lady who writes for The New Yorker and who, ironically, is telling a very boring story.

Even though I wish I could just stay home and put letters and spaces together forever without any human interaction – I need to learn, so I go to conferences.

I was at one recently and I was talking to a man. If you were going to cast a movie and needed someone to play the role of “Writer” you would hire this dude. He was old and white and wore a sports coat with elbow patches on it. He carried a leather briefcase that was worn and reminiscent of a saddle. You just knew he wrote with a fountain pen. It was all disappointingly cliché.

We chatted for a little while and then exchanged cards. His card had things like PhD written on it. When I handed him mine, he looked at it for a moment.

 

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Eventually, he raised his caterpillar eyebrows. He made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and that thing you do when you are trying to clear phlegm.

“Writer, huh?”

It was clear that whatever my credentials may or may not be, he wasn’t buying it.

I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Conveniently, I was standing right next to a folding table that held all the published books of the published writers who were not me. The “real” writers who had books you could hold and run your thumb over the SKU number. Perhaps the weighty, profound thoughts contained in those published books would collapse the table, crush me and put me out of my hack misery.

I swore I’d never go to one of those conferences again.

But then I realized — why did this guy get to define me?

I am a writer. You know how I know that?

  • Because I sit down every day at 7:30 am and write. And I don’t stop for the next 5 hours.
  • Because I get up in the middle of the night and run to my desk to write down ideas I have for a story.
  • Because I’ve been writing to comfort myself and process the world since I was four years old.
  • Because if I don’t write for a few days, I get a little crazy.

And yes, my words appear in magazines/blogs/online publications with a byline and a photo — but above all, I am a writer because I say I am. I am the one who gets to define myself. Not Mr. Elbow Patches. Not anonymous internet commenters. Not even my family or friends. Me. Just me.

It gets dangerous if we let other people do our sorting and categorizing for us, regardless of whether we are talking about profession, politics, race or life choices. When others slap their own labels on us, we are vulnerable to their whims and biases. Most dangerous of all: when we let people tell us who we’re supposed to be, after a while, we become inclined to believe to them.

Let us return to the enduring wisdom of Friends for a moment.

Rachel: It’s like all my life everybody keeps telling that I’m a shoe. You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe, you’re a shoe! But what if I don’t want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat… I don’t want you to buy me a hat, I’m saying I am a hat! It’s a metaphor, daddy!

That’s why we love Rachel. She decided to be a hat. But it’s challenging to be a hat. Sometimes it’s easier to be the shoe everyone says you are.

I don’t know if the man at the conference would have been happier if I was a shoe. I’m not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe if my card had said actor or housewife or frozen banana salesperson, it would have made him more comfortable. But for whatever reason, writer didn’t seem to work for him.

So, I say this with the utmost respect: fuck him. Fuck the judgment and the assumption that he gets to define who I am and how I lead my life.

I’m a hat, dammit. A writing hat.

I don’t know what you are. You might be a hat or a shoe or a frozen banana salesperson. You might not really know what you are. That’s totally cool. That’s the adventure and joy of life – you get to figure that out. And that’s a constant process, because you will evolve and then you get to start the self-discovery all over again.

But however it all plays out, the crazy, twisting, hairpin turns of your life, please don’t give the power of definition over to anyone else. It’s your birthright. You get to keep that, regardless of how many tweed jackets, advanced degrees or SKU numbers anyone else has.

You define you.

 

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Mom, mom’s mom and me: under one roof

Last week, I was in North Carolina sitting on a lawn chair watching a lot of Jeopardy.

The living room of the tiny beach house just has a love-seat, and my mom and grandma were already forced to share that space with my dog. So, I dragged in a lawn chair and yelled out incorrect responses that I always forgot to put in the form of a question.

Three generations (well, four, if you count the dog, and you should always count the dog) were vacationing under one roof for five days. At ages 35, 57 and 85 – we all seemed to be just different versions of ourselves. It could have been the backdrop of a Tennessee Williams play.

Everyone’s families are complicated and contradictory. That’s just the reality of family dynamics. Families are loving and brutal. They are intimate and they are strangers. They are accepting and critical. They are all those things, intertwined with memories and expectations and the desire to make you another cup of tea.

But through all the inherent messiness, there are important moments that come from spending extended time with family. Like hearing the story of how my 20-year-old Grandma would flirt with the guys she worked with at the newspaper, so that they would give her cigarettes. She didn’t smoke, but she’d tuck them away and give them to her boyfriend — that broke boy would eventually be my grandfather.

My mother knows the first album I ever bought, even though I’ve forgotten. She remembers exactly when I attempted to expand beyond the Carole King and Earth, Wind and Fire that pervaded my early musical education. It’s so easy for me to revert back to those days. Mom still uses phases of discontent, like “Shootski pootski” and “Ishkablibble’ that catapult me back to a time when I wore a fringed jean jacket and thought those were legitimate swears.

In this company, many sentences start with “Do you remember…?” – a person, a place, a time in space that feels so removed from this. So far from this 1,000 square foot beach shack with windows that don’t close properly and a finicky toilet handle. But here, over the sound of bickering seagulls, we remember our shared past.

As much as all this reminds me of my history, it also grounds me in the present. I see the grey streak I started to notice in my hair in my mid-20s, reflected back at me. That grey expands into my mom’s salt and pepper hair. It expands further into my grandma’s silver shine.

We are not women who dye.

All this shared DNA and shared experiences express themselves in distinctive ways. We are decidedly different women, with different outlooks and ways of understanding the world — but when I see my mom and grandma sharing gestures, I wonder if I do them, too. It’s like an archeological dig of your own existence, except instead of discovering broken bits of pottery, I’m looking at a woman making an egg salad sandwich.

My mother has put a quote (most commonly attributed to the great poet, Dr. Seuss) on the bathroom wall of the beach house.

quote

I’m reminded where I get my sense of truth-telling from. That no-hair-dye honesty is strong in all three of us. It’s both a blessing and a curse. That same honesty that brings us closer has also hurt feelings and gotten us into trouble and damaged relationships. The truth is powerful, and I want to use it carefully. Sometimes honesty needs to be sheathed in kindness to soften the blow. Sometimes we are skilled at that, sometimes we are not.

I wonder, as I make my way through the years, what family traits I will keep, what habits I will let go, and if my hair will turn out to be the perfectly shiny silver of my grandmother’s.

I watched a lot of Jeopardy last week and I realized that it’s the perfect analogy for life. Because life is all about asking the right questions.

The answers take care of themselves.

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