Monday, February 20, 2017

I Want a Name When I Lose

 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.


anne marie in philly said...

YOU GO GIRL! I'mma not that handy; I call in professionals.

Ol'Buzzard said...

we all do what we have to do to get by, buy that doesn't define us. Money and position would be nice, but living to a healthy old age and enjoying each day has become my goal in life. You are doing just fine keeping on keeping on.
the Ol'Buzzard

Debra She Who Seeks said...

This makes me think of the movie "Amadeus." Remember how Salieri, as an old man in a mental institution, calls out to everyone to acknowledge that we are all mediocrities? I saw this movie when I was young and was so offended by that notion. "I'm NOT a mediocrity," I thought indignantly. Now I'm pushing 60 and I realize how true Salieri's words are. And accept them. And am fine with it cuz fuck it, ain't that just life.

Jono said...

I can relate so well to this. I have a similar education background, although not PBK, and have only had a suit and tie job for about 8 years a long time ago. I did a lot of digging, firewood cutting, splitting, stacking, trail clearing, etc. at a resort I worked at later on. Went home to visit the parents who wanted to get rid of some thirty year old, large shrubbery, but didn't know how to go about it. I got the tools I would need and went hard at it. In a couple of hours the offending shrubbery was gone and the ground repaired. My father was impressed (not something easily done) and knew I hadn't learned this stuff in college. It's always good to be handy when you decide not to be wealthy.

e said...

Your loser name should be: The BOSS of what matters.

Yay, you are now a painter!
Yay, you earned extra money over the summer!
Yay, free fitness work out 40 hours a week!
Yay, boulder climbing waterfall seeker!

I'd say you are winning. But, I've been there too. Sometimes it's a real effort to turn off the interior critic. Stay strong, woman!