Everyone has a moment when they either realize their life's ambition or understand, irrevocably, that they never will. For me that moment came last summer, 2016.
On the fifth of July, at 5:45 in the morning, I found myself getting in my car to go to my school. I had landed a job painting the school for the summer. It was 8 hours a day, five days a week, at $13 an hour.
As I drove to work that morning, I felt that moment when all my youthful ambitions died, forever and ever.
Painting is hard work. Painting for an 8 hour day is really hard work. I had plenty of time to ask myself how I, Anne Johnson, Johns Hopkins University Class of 1981, Phi Beta Kappa, came to be painting 100-yard-long corridors in 90-plus degree heat.
EXHIBIT A: Anne Paints a Ceiling in the Auto Tech Shop, Summer of 2016
There's an old Steely Dan song with the lyrics, "They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose." It kept running through my mind all day.
There's also the Langston Hughes poem:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Some afternoons in the summer of 2016 I came home from my shift feeling like that broken-winged bird.
Then a curious thing happened. Not overnight, but slowly.
It started when I was lugging two full paint buckets up the two flights of stairs in my school. When I got to the top, I wasn't out of breath. I always used to get out of breath climbing those stairs, even if I wasn't carrying paint.
One day the buckets didn't seem as heavy anymore. It wasn't as hard to hold up that ceiling pole (still daunting, though).
One weekend when Mr. J was out of town. I phoned up The Heir, and we went hiking. Only we didn't just go hiking. We chose a waterfall crawl, on a trail rated difficult where a number of horrible hiking accidents have occurred. Heir is intrepid, and a stripling at 27. I am way older than that, and when I saw the trail (which was really only a steep boulder tumble) I almost bailed. But I didn't.
EXHIBIT B: Anne at Glen Onoko Falls, Like a Boss, Summer of 2016
I could not have made this hike without first spending five 40-hour weeks painting shop ceilings.
If you do anything 40 hours a week, you will learn how to do it well. I spent the summer of 2016 learning how to paint. As another year of teaching loomed, further corroborating my certainty that all hope of realizing any youthful ambition was gone, I came home from painting and looked at my house.
The walls hadn't been painted in over a decade. In some rooms, they hadn't been painted in 20 years.
I bought some supplies -- brushes, a paint bucket, rollers, spackle, frog tape -- and started painting my house.
Not everyone can achieve their life's ambition. I wanted to be a novelist. Well, I did write a novel. It got rejected by a half dozen agents and almost everyone who read it. Okay, at least I tried. I'm still a loser, though.
But I am a loser with a great new paint job in the foyer of my house.
Our current head of state likes to proclaim himself a winner. When you look at winning and losing through his lens, being a loser doesn't sting so much. This consoles me.
I want a name when I lose, and it might as well be "house painter." Maybe I can broaden it to include other home repairs. I've got some caulking to do in the dining room.
And Pennsylvania has a lot of waterfalls.