You Can Be In My “Behind the Music”

Hi to the ten people who read this… I apologize for the extended delay within posts. I’ve been working on a few longer essays, this one included. Pretty please leave me your feedback! I really like this piece, but still don’t love the last sentence, among other rough spots. I’d love to hear your comments!

Two evenings a week for most of college, I taught a group of New York City high school students how to produce a radio program. Adomako, a lanky, animated ninth grader, started the same week I did, and together we learned radio production as a trial by fire. While I excelled at writing coherent sentences, Adomako flew by the seat of his pants, pulling follow-up questions from thin airdespite barely knowing anything about the topic. Research was my crutch, and without it I felt unsteady probing beyond my superficial and fragile expertise. Adomako freely admitted his ignorance but made up for it with earnest curiosity. Most admirably, he quickly absorbed the knowledge imparted by his interviewees, responded deftly with witty remarks, and reflected genuine ease behind the mic. Put to shame by this 15 year old, my mission became cleaning up his written intros and outros. Without sacrificing his unique voice, I fought against improper word usage and mangled idioms, double negatives and improper verb agreement, sentences written in such haste so as to lack subjects, pronouns, and punctuation.

Over three years, my commitment to radio journalism wavered at the same rate that Adomako’s matured. By the time I graduated, I had not produced a radio piece in a year, while Adomako hosted a live radio show almost every month. Though at the end of my tenure his grammar still left something to be desired, I retreated from the role of teacher and became his student–a disciple of that effortless, naïve and blind faith in oneself, the kind worn and projected by New York City teenagers whose youthful tunnel-vision lingers not on limitations but lights on the city’s legacy of rewarding scrappy innovators.

Throughout my teen years, I reckoned myself pretty self-assured. My close friendship with the mathletes did not alienate my from the cool kids, who liked me well enough. Adults recognized my maturity and deemed me a quick study. I made good grades, and though I leaned on my classmates in Calculus, I edited many of their English papers. I liked the way I looked in my bikini, and I figured the guys did too, even if no one lined up to tell me. In college, under self-imposed pressure to find a boyfriend, my confidence wavered. I convinced myself that men could not ignore my pedantic, abrasive and melodramatic tendencies–the stuff of men’s nightmares–despite my other redeeming qualities. In an effort to disguise this, I became conversant on a variety of supposedly manly topics: basketball, beer, boobs, and bluegrass music. My senior year of college, I met my current boyfriend and discovered that though I do love beer and bluegrass, relationships are built on a mutual appreciation for puns and public transportation. My budding romance quieted my fear of becoming a cat lady, but the end of college signaled the beginning of new anxieties.

Graduation broke down the framework within which I had hidden latent insecurities. In college, I never struggled to be someone I was not, because the social hierarchy–from student government down to the MRS degree candidates–wiggled me into a place I felt mostly comfortable. Our campus’s system of cliques )only slightly more evolved than high school) put everyone in their place based on that unscientific theory of relativity pervasive in higher education: if ten classmates write better, dance better, and problem-solve better than you do, they are the legitimate writers, dancers, and intellectuals. If you are not the best, the logic goes, the pursuit is your hobby, something to be done when you are not being the best at something else (like recreational weight training or analyzing 20th century Spanish film). I never deviated from my place, despite my desire to be perceived as having a creative temperament, and so my vision of post-college life included stepping down from the graduation stage into a world ready to accept me as a legitimate write even though I never studied with Professor Gordon, a legitimate dancer even though I never danced with Orchesis, and a legitimate intellectual even though my thesis did not get departmental honors.

The disappearance of that social framework constricted more than it liberated. No one questioned me when I asserted my new identity, but that lack of feedback undermined my confidence. Despite my relief at no longer spending hours studying and writing, the disappearance of exams and papers stripped away the positive feedback and pats on the head communicated in red ink and delivered straight to that mailbox marked ego. The praise I receive at my new job for properly submitting check requests and coordinating meetings pales in comparison to an A+ rewarded for a well-crafted argument.

Finishing college changed the way I though about my physical self as well, and I began to doubt my attractiveness–something I never experienced in high school, even though tan, earthy cross country runners reigned supreme. Unconsciously I always expected to cross the stage, receive my diploma, and instantaneously morph into the Jewish Carrie Bradshaw. I would be hip and know how to blow-dry my own hair! Instead, I now find myself reluctantly disassembling the look I so carefully constructed for myself in college. My post-college life does not condone band t-shirts worn without bras, pajama pants, or dirty hair, and I struggle to find a style that suits me. Unable  to dwear running shorts and yoga tanks, I gravitate towards traditional business casual attire that conforms to the office standard but leaves me uncomfortable, constricted and feeling like I am playing dress-up. The daily grind plagues my skin, and the pimples do nothing to alleviate my dismay at my appearance. Instead of self-actualizing into a trendy, self-assured, empowered woman, I fret that I am a paper doll whose pressed Ann Taylor suit hangs tenuously by tabs not thoroughly creased. At any moment the outfit could tumble off, revealing yoga pants and unshaven armpits.

All of a sudden, this high school student, Adomako, is the object of my envy. While his acne rivals mine, Adomako manages to put together outfits that, on most others, would look worn or kooky but on his lean frame look confident and fresh. His group of friends, classmates from the High School for Fashion Industries and all native New Yorkers, spends weekends cavorting through Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, stealing old clothing from their parents to create vintage looks they then photograph and stick up on the internet. Despite averaging 17 years of age, they are talented photographers, designers, entrepreneurs, poets, and skateboarders, and despite never selling anything or eliciting critical acclaim, they proudly declare themselves budding professionals.

I have critical thinking skills and an expansive vocabulary, which I spent years honing, but I now wonder exactly how to apply such tools. With age, I have shed that cavalier confidence to put my “art,” as a more self-assured writer would refer to their words, into the world and make it my career. Ironically, I spend my days as an administrative assistant, a position whose goal is to maintain stability; I accomplish those superficial, if vital, tasks that make an office run.

Adomako and I spoke last Sunday evening, after a weekend tainted by a rough Friday at work. I described for him how my weekend tasted, well salty–how the flavor of a bad day in the office had diffused once again into my off-hours, not ruining it but serving instead as a constant reminder that something is not quite right. I told him I love who I work with but remained unfulfilled by the tedium of my role.

Though five years my junior, Adomako’s response reminded me that older does not necessarily mean wiser.

“Avigail,” he said, “when I met my ex-boyfriend I had no idea that there were Russians in New York. Now I see them everywhere. If  you look for positive things, you will see them.”

And with that advice, our roles truly swapped. Instead of offering him advice about avoiding drama and staying focused on school, he presented me with the same advice as my yoga teacher, but in a decidedly more grounded manner. Now Adomako is my interviewee, and I the interviewer. I turn to him to provide answers and confidence.

With his advice in mind, I developed a mantra to get me through the week. “I’m going to be a ballerina,” I mutter under my breath each time a new task comes across my desk, “this is just my ‘Behind the Music’.” Madonna ate a package of peanuts and a yogurt every day for years before she got famous. My struggle may be more nutrient-rich but it is still just a sacrifice for my art. Several coworkers have agreed to contribute, practicing their lines for their moments as talking heads in my bio-doc.

Though I entertain the idea of quitting my job and devoting myself to my hobbies–writing in the mornings and dancing in the afternoons before returning home to cook elegant vegetarian fare–I do like my colleagues and am not quite ready to give up that steady paycheck I looked forward to for so long. The dream of becoming a ballerina, of achieving fame and fortune, does not really appeal to me as a practical matter. Though I push myself to socialize and travel, I prefer to stay at home. I seek the attention of my friends, but fear the attention of critics. I daydream about how I would spend millions of dollars, but my guilty conscience would probably allocate more funds to fighting economic disparity than to collecting custom-built bicycles.

Telling myself I’m going to be a ballerina pushes me to stay flexible, to remember that one job does not a career make. A woman I babysit for noted, “liking an entry-level position is not a good sign.” Your first job is a poked reminder to your ambition, a story to tell your future kids.

I do succeed at administration. I juggle the details, write the emails, and troubleshoot. The politics can get me down, and having to re-do tedious chores because of incomplete infrastructure and failed communication leaves me questioning everything from my future career to my existence. Unlike producing radio, which left me insecure because those who enjoy radio are discerning listeners, I can only blame myself for stressing of the prospect of no future path. I remember once speaking to Adomako about college, advising him that even if he failed to get into a prestigious undergraduate journalism program, that he could always transfer. “Options and opportunities always exist,” I told him.

Why am I blind to my own advice? Perhaps the truth is that I enjoy wallowing in dissatisfaction. At the very least it is a topic for conversation, a rhetorical constant to explain and compare against everything else I experience. Without it, I trail off after describing the book I’m reading. I throw out a last, desperate tangent about whatever I have just eaten, a conversational life preserver, and when that dissolves I drown. Complaining about work and the ambiguity of life rescues me from the Davy Jones’ locker of awkward silence, but in a cheap way. Instead of mustering the gumption to sit quietly, I take the easy way out, like signing a pact with Satan. In exchange for a half hour of tenuously constructed intimacy, I forsake good humor for futility. Like most dealings with the devil, you never win. I end the dialogue–I admit, often monologue–cranky and alone, for after that barrage, who wants to hang out with me any longer?

Adomako’s advice is not radical; it is the lowest common denominator of self-help literature. When it comes from middle-aged white men and women who wear enthusiasm like a Disney façade, I dismiss it as patronizing. When it comes from a gay high school senior from the Bronx, it just seems like smart policy. Why complain when I am not judged by the color of my skin or discriminated against for my sexuality? I have an Ivy League education, union benefits, and enough money to have options. With these privileges comes ambition, and it is ambition that keeps me looking down at the dirt instead of seeing sky.

My father often quotes a tasteless Israeli proverb, if it could be called that, when I grumble about inconveniences I disguise as problems: “Life is not like a penis. Life is always hard.” It is easier to focus on shortcomings than excellence, and like becoming more perceptive to Russians in this polyglot city, at the end of each day I must choose to remember the items checked off my list and not the frustrations they entailed. Adomako’s advice resonates with me because I admire his unabashed belief in his skill and the effortless cool that assuredness reflects. I taught Adomako to write, and now he teaches me to believe in my writing–to fly by the seat of my pants and delve deep into things I do not understand.

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