A woman, an explanation, and a farewell.
(Read live at the Fanatic Salon in Culver City, CA, in Jan of 2020)
Apologies in advance, but I will probably cry. I don’t think anyone comes out to comedy shows to cry, necessarily, or watch someone else do it, but hey, we’re here now so let’s just see how it goes. (Also, the door is locked.) But I’m emotional. I am leaving Los Angeles, after 20 years.
I was funnier when I first started doing essays. Used to be it was just funny, then it was mostly humorous with a little something to think about. Now it’s a candy-coated chemo pill. So, again, apologies. But I’ve grown older, life has happened, as much as I tried to hide. I’m maybe wiser, definitely scarred, and I want everything to be meaningful, and sometimes that’s not haha funny.
I don’t believe in a single thing out there. About where we’re going or what happens after this. I only have faith in the idea that each of us matters and that we’re all connected. And the evidence has been found for me in little theatres like this, where a particular congregation gathers for the first and only time to witness something that will never happen again. They call it ephemeral art, but it can have a lasting effect. I have to believe that, because I’m leaving, and I’m afraid it’ll be like I was never here.
We moved here, my late husband and I, full of stupid dreams, most recently from Chicago. The winters there had slowed our metabolisms and forward motion, and his transfer seemed like a gift. I had an MFA in Acting, not a good one, but still. I wasn’t auditioning in Chicago and I didn’t know why, but I thought maybe the answer might be found somewhere else. And it was, just not the answer I wanted.
I’m hard wired to think very little of myself. This is the kindest way I can put it, and I’m not fishing for compliments. They don’t work. It’s an official disorder under the OCD umbrella, so the internal messaging is particularly insidious. It only shuts up when I am up here, as it happens, but then it comes rushing back with a vengeance and makes me regret everything I said, what I wore, how I looked. I won’t be able to fall asleep tonight with all that in my head. I can’t make you understand, but I can tell you it’s gotten worse and worse over time. It’s practically cellular, and it affects every part of my life. And you can tell. You may not know exactly what’s wrong, but anyone armed with even two facts about my life can tell that something is off.
By the way, if you’re over 40 and still telling yourself that you have foibles or weird habits or idiosyncrasies, I have to tell you what you have are conditions and syndromes and disorders. It’s a painful realization, but sometimes a relief, and the sooner you figure this stuff out, the clearer you can be about the paths that are actually open to you. I came to LA doomed. I pre-failed at this, but I was 32. I still thought it was about circumstances and opportunities. I wondered a lot about what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t diagnosed till ten or so years ago, and the nature of this particular disorder makes it almost impossible to be compassionate with yourself. Also to audition, to date anyone, or to find a new job. You can’t sell a product you don’t believe in.
So I never had a chance in LA. What I wanted was to be seen and heard, but that’s a tough ask when you also don’t want anyone to look at you. We all want validation, but I require it since I can’t trust what’s going on in my head. But what’s going on in my head makes it impossible for me to even get headshots taken or submit to agents.
So it’s good, even necessary, to shake things loose, clean the slate. I grew up in New Jersey, then I lived in Pennsylvania for college and grad school, then I went to Chicago, where there were so many more professional theatres, then to Los Angeles, where….hm. Where…what, exactly? I don’t know. I did not have a plan. It’s hard to look back at the me I was then, even though I’m prone and even pathologically wired to look back. I’m made of nostalgia. And past a certain age, that’s unavoidably painful. I came here hoping, like everyone else. And I leave here relieved, because I can finally, finally stop hoping.
Twenty flipping years. I’ve overstayed, and I’m amazed it didn’t occur to me till now. The person I came with is long dead. That car, those pets, the dream. I’m living in the rental house we shared, surrounded by the stuff we settled on, hand-me-downs and bargain basement finds. (By the way, if anyone is looking for a daybed, or a CD cabinet, please see me after the show. Pretty much everything must go. Sue me, I don’t want to bring my late husband’s late uncle’s dresser to San Jose.)
I’ve always had problems leaving places. After shows, I end up locking up the theatre at the end of the night. At parties, I’ll be doing your dishes after everyone else leaves. And always there’s my usual social remorse over that. Why did I stay so long? What is wrong with me? But I really don’t know how to leave. It’ll happen tonight. Did I remember to say a proper goodbye to everyone? Was I awkward or rude? It’s just easier to let them leave me.
When it comes to leaving a workplace, I have to be either forced out or moving away. It’s best when I can blame the leaving on the move. Because I don’t want to ever tell someone who cares about me that I am ignoring that and leaving anyway. I am reminded (literally all of the time) of Dorothy on the yellow brick road. It’s different when you have to go. No offense, Scarecrow. We’ll always have Facebook, but home isn’t here.
And historically, moving away for me equals moving forward. It’s important for me to get away from the weight of other’s expectations, which makes it very hard for me to feel like I can effect any meaningful, visible change. I can’t stand the fishbowl; I don’t want to grow where everyone can see me, which I know is part of the disorder. It’s why I like reading essays. I can arrive fully formed, no stumbling steps. Like a crow. You never see baby crows, they just appear. Ready for anything. Scrappy, fierce, confident.
It felt huge to me when I finally decided to go, but it seemed like everyone I told was waiting for exactly this. The reactions were so encouraging and calm, almost…careful. Like, “don’t spook her, just nod. She needs to go.” The voice in my head suggests that they’ve been discussing it among themselves. When, oh when, will she catch on. Why is she still here?
I don’t know. But almost every sign seems to be pointing the way out of town.
The job search was terribly painful, a dredging up of such ugly internal sludge even I was surprised, and I’m pretty well versed in my internal sludge. As in casting, you have to convince a total stranger that you’re perfect for a role you don’t know anything about, and I’ve never once felt like the best at anything. Presenting myself for approval is the thing I’m worst at. Clinically. That’s been the problem this whole time. Now, I know I’m a good employee, but I also know that that’s largely because I’m afraid not to be. And I’ve kept myself low partly because I clung to the idea that these were just day jobs, and partly so that I can more easily exceed expectations.
I should be clear that the only reason I got this new gig is because a friend was advocating for me from the inside. I couldn’t get my foot in the door any other way. And I want it, of course I do. It’s much better money and it will get me out of town. And you know, I can do the work. It’s just hard to feel like I deserve it. I’ve been patient and well-behaved, sure, and I've long complained about the fact that there's no reward for good behavior besides a shining record of good behavior. But this feels like a prize for sitting very still. For being a coward.
It was hard to even say I wanted the job. I’ve been living so long in a state of reactive readiness. It’s been years since I decided on the change I’d be dealing with. That’s the triumph here. I’d been hiding for years. To say I wanted something felt like putting myself in the worst sort of danger. I felt exposed, vulnerable to attack. How dare you, Jenny? How dare you, of all people?
The new company is in a good place but it’s a startup, which is certainly more risky than I’m used to. The recruitment process has been somewhat grueling, and it might have come with one or two red flags. It’s not perfect, but nothing is, nothing has been. But no one settles like I do. It’s in my list of special skills.
We talked a lot about my move during the interview process, and I had this epiphany literally while talking to my new boss: I’m still living in the story of my husband’s illness and death, my subsequent layoff and unemployment, and the slow climb out of that hole. I’m still in it, still kicking through the dust of our naïve plans while I watch my friends continue on ahead in pursuit of a dream I still yearn for. You might say LA has kicked my ass. It’s not a happy story. Screw a new chapter, I need to close that book and start a new one. It really is out of my hands.
So, farewell. Thank you. It hurts to pull up roots that are 20 years deep. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, especially when a thing is growing in the wrong place. Despite the shitty things that happened here, I love Los Angeles, and I always will. I’m more grateful than I can say to you and the others like you, who came out to see shows like this on faith. I hope I’ve held up my end of the bargain. It's meant everything to me.
I’m finally right for the role, one of a middle-aged woman who lucks into a well-paying position after a long career of low-level office day jobs and a flimsy hope of discovery in a town that was never looking for her in the first place. Who against all odds and just past her prime, gets her very first taste of financial security. Along the way, she’ll have to overcome crushing guilt about who gets to win in this world while so many lose, and she’ll be screamed at the whole time by the voices in her head who actively hate her and sabotage her happiness, but hey, she’ll be able to travel more and she won’t have full-blown anxiety attacks over the cost of routine vet visits for her cat – and her little dog too. By the end of the story, she’ll come to realize that people do plays and make art and music and write whole novels outside of Los Angeles, and she’ll learn what happens when the pressure is off and it’s just about what she creates and not whether it will support her and how she looks and who she’s wearing. Oh, and the ideal candidate will have BROWN CURLY HAIR and BROWN EYES and weigh whatever the fuck she wants.