Acceptance speech

Saturday January 26, 2013

I’d like to talk about this year’s Golden Globes. I’d like to start with the worst job I ever had.

Worse than the time I scraped membranes from farmed-salmon stomachs, worse than the spring I coached a mountain bike club when I could not mountain bike, this job was also the plushest.

I worked on a sleek Mac with the newest software. There was a wide selection of coffee and tea, and both hot and cold filtered water, and a full kitchen, and two microwaves, and free microwave popcorn. The supply shelves fairly burst with mechanical pencils; employees got free theme park passes; the health insurance was good and the pay great; cost-of-living increases were routine even during the recession. The job provided a middle class security that people in creative fields in rural New England rarely enjoy.

I hated it by the second week. It was clear my bosses regretted hiring me with equal passion, though we endured each other for two painful years. Those of you who have seen "The Little Mermaid" will remember the prisoners of Ursula the Sea Witch, the shriveled slimy drab-green shivering frond-like things that were the poor unfortunate souls who had bargained away their freedom for a failed shot at one fantasy or another. That was me. If you haven’t seen the movie, just know this: A day I didn’t end up crying behind the parking lot dumpster was a banner day.

Aside from not doing the numbingly unimportant work well enough, I also could not connect to my co-workers, save one or two. The nadir of my sincere effort to make palatable chit-chat happened during a staff birthday lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant.

On these technically voluntary outings, the talk was dull, the jokes predictable from six miles away, and the overall tone a cross between a bad day at church and a subway ride. And yet my colleagues seemed to ride this flat vibe with ease, if not genuine pleasure. They were smart, accomplished people. I should have found inspiration and resonance. But the whole scene was so impenetrable to me, as if I were too inferior to belong, that it hurt far more than a work-lunch should have. It was like my brain was trying to squeeze flan.

Silence was the only sane response, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. This time, over slabs of iceberg lettuce slathered in Thousand Island dressing, I heard a staffer mention the upcoming Academy Awards.

"Haven’t you always imagined giving an acceptance speech?" I said. This had to be a hit, a palpable hit; who among us hasn’t pictured the moment of great accolade? We could trade tales of dresses or tuxes we’d wear, what we’d win for, how we’d move the crowd to tears or chuckles or an Odetta sing-along. I even had a super scene to share involving Best Song, singer-songwriter Dar Williams, and arrival by Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

My bosses looked at their plates. "No," one of them said, and the table was quiet until the most motherly of the bunch changed the subject to the new bus schedule at the middle school.

It would take a few more months to discern just how poorly and pityingly my co-workers regarded me, but in this moment, I fully understood my exile. My people, my tribe, would understand that an awards show, while frivolous and shallow, is also an opportunity for fantasy, for virtual wish fulfillment, for schadenfreude and thrill. It’s an emotional, narrative experience. It’s a bridge to your capacity for fabulousness when you can’t find it on your own. At the very least, my people would have liked me enough to let a conversation unfold. Great job or not, I was hanging with the wrong crowd. I had to find the courage to leave.

So. The 2013 Golden Globes. They were pretty good, right? Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were funny. The in-jokes and narcissism flowed like the folds of a ballgown. The ladies were mostly lovely and the gentlemen inoffensive. The nominated movies and TV shows were by and large interesting and heartfelt.

My favorite part of the ceremony was Jodie Foster’s much-maligned speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to something grand-sounding. Sure, she rambled fiercely. True, she didn’t explicitly say, "I am a lesbian." She definitely had her cake and ate it too by making a pointed case for her privacy on a televised stage. It was messy and raw, and certainly unrehearsed. It was actually kind of crazy.

In other words, it was awesome -- authentic, strange, unpredictable, moving. That’s why we love actors. For all their beauty and wealth, the really good ones exist outside normal life. They are gorgeous weirdos. They condense emotion and story into these explosive moments, thousands of tiny moments that become hours that unlock the prisons of jobs we hate, connections we can’t make, failures we shiver through, dreams just out of reach. They give misfits a refuge. They give them hope.

The trick, then, is using that hope to make your actual, normal, non-screen existence full enough not to need the escape anymore. For me, life got a lot sweeter, a lot poorer but more rewarding, when I finally scraped together the guts to quit the job, and soon I didn’t need to imagine winning statuettes in order to survive reality. I continue to fantasize about being widely loved and celebrated, of course, but my acceptance speeches these days come in the shape of kisses for my little boy, hugs for my husband, writing projects that I manage to work on here and there. Most days are peppered with a handful of humble but real wins.

I don’t watch awards shows much anymore, to tell the truth (we don’t have regular TV and the networks don’t stream them yet), but I still like them. I always will. In their gaudy, dumb way, they remind me of how far I’ve come, and who I yet dream I could be.


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