Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My favorite oldie


So you've started to dread holidays because you're still not a famous actor.

And it's becoming just too painful to explain why you're still not, "...after all this time?"

In fact, every time you try to justify your thus-far-anonymous existence in LA or New York to your family, well, you always leave such conversations feeling worse than when you entered them --and you enter into them, as your family does, with the best of intentions. Yet attempts to make them understand the path you've chosen result in frustration, disappointment, and, sometimes, isolation and pain.

It's not your loved ones' fault: in recent years they've been so inundated with information (and misinformation) about the inner workings of Hollywood that they engage in such discussions assuming a knowledge that they actually lack. Honestly: did you ever imagine you'd be discussing box-office grosses with your parents? And eventually the prospect of reciting your padded resume to all who ask, followed by a series of humiliating "I-know-what-you-should-do" conversations prompted by some invariably unflattering comparison to a co-worker's relative who also acts, cause you to contemplate spending your holidays alone. And that ain't right.

Next time, try offering this analogy:

You're a gold miner.

Like all gold miners, you're a dreamer. (But you don't have to tell them that. And don't ever be ashamed of it. The world needs dreamers.)

Dreamers climb the highest mountain; Gold miners mine the richest mine. Otherwise, as any dreamer will tell you, what's the point?

So, like all real miners, off to Alaska you go. That's where the gold is. Being the best gold miner in Nebraska is a tin crown, at best.

And until the world hears otherwise, you're just another schmuck on the mountain. When you strike gold, you'll let them know.

In the meantime....

Don't try to share with those back home the specifics about your days. Your little ups, your little downs. People who've never been on the mountain don't understand it up there and never will. Not their fault; they can't.

(A rare exception: some miners leave behind those who truly believe in their dream-- better, those that believe in their ability to achieve it. If you're such a fortunate soul, you can --and should-- ask your supporters for whatever support they can offer. In helping you stay on the mountain they're dreaming, too. And they're the first people you pay back when you strike it rich. And, sure, tell them about your victories, cry with them about your defeats. But tell them not to spread it around.)

As to the rest: don't listen to their story of their friend, "the lawyer," who goes down to the local creek with a plastic pan on Saturdays ("...and really, he's pretty good at it. You two should meet."). He's not a gold miner, he's a lawyer who likes to play around with the pan, which is fun and not at all risky if, like him, you know that come Monday morning you're going to be at your desk and not along a crowded riverbank in freezing water with your pants rolled up.

You know the difference; they never will. They're afraid of the mountain, and for good reason....

Life on the mountain sucks. It's cold, or blistering hot; you spend what little money you have on mining supplies; worse, because it's a mining town, prices are gouged on everything else. Eventually you will have to take all manner of demeaning work merely to survive. No Carribbean Christmas, no 401-K, no health insurance for you, no, you need that money for a seventy-dollar trip to the grocery and coin-op laundries that charge six dollars a load. On the mountain, among the other miners, this is an accepted part of the bargain; down in the valley it sounds like failure. Remember: keep the day-to-day to yourself.....

And don't ever, ever, be swayed by the advice of those next to you along the river. No one knows exactly where the gold is, especially not them. And advise they will-- on the size of your pan, the shape of your pan, your sluicing technique, your position on the river (yet they will never, ever tell you if they hear rumor of a better spot); if you listen, you'll begin to doubt your every move, and quickly grow discouraged. Remember: if any of their suggestions were effective, they wouldn't be knee-deep in mud next to you.

Any advice whatsoever from anyone who's never been on the mountain is worse than useless.

On the other hand, advice from those few who actually walk off the mountain wealthy can be invaluable, but all they'll really tell you is this: keep at it. Because they know...

There is no justice on the mountain. Some pan for years, only to see those who stake claims yards away strike it rich; others find gold their first day out. This can be crippling to old-timers still chipping away.

And sometimes those who strike a little gold can be the harshest of all on their fellow miners. That's okay; they're just afraid their vein will dry up. And they're ashamed of all their days as a failure, which is a pity (more on this later).

All miners are, more or less, offered the same deal: in most cases, the mountain will win. (But you know that long odds never deter the true dreamer.) What your friends in the valley will never know is the cruelty in that bargain, how, as time goes on, every day becomes difficult. Every day there's a summoning of energy that must occur for you to crawl outside and return to the river. Every day you'll curse your tiny, decaying tent, you'll find it harder to smile when someone just above or below you strikes gold; every sunny card from friends and family not on the mountain announcing a new home, a new birth, will cut a little deeper, and every day you'll find it a little harder to ignore the gnawing thought that perhaps it isn't the mountain, it's you. And if you manage to survive up there for years without even a nugget (and you might) a funny paradox takes root inside you, paralyzing you as it grows: the longer you're on the mountain, the harder it is to stay or leave. If you stay, the hardships are harder, the sacrifices seem more meaningless; at the same time, well, you've been up here this long, and so you cling to the miner's one life-preserver thought: just one big strike and all this will be worth it. Then, if I want to, I'll leave.

And yet every day you'll see fellow miners leave the mountain. Some just walk off at night, under cover of darkness; others, overcome with exhasstion and grief, must be carried by family who load them into Volvos and Audis, triumphant in their sympathy. Young miners will scoff at such sites, for surely, they think, they share nothing with this weakling who simply doesn't "have it;" older miners either stand quietly, offering a moment of understanding and respect, or turn away, haunted by the thought that that spectacle should be, and perhaps soon will be, them.

And once in a great while, one of two things happens: the first, of course, is signaled by a banshee whoop!, an animal cry instantly understood by all miners: someone hits it. This is followed by a breathtaking stampede of hangers-on, well-wishers, gold-diggers, photographers, even, all wanting nothing more, ultimately, than proximity to the Winner and with it the possibility that some of that gold dust will rub off onto them-- or at least will buy them some six-degrees-of-fame free drinks or sex at the saloon. Depending on a fellow miner's frame of mind that day, such spectacles can be heartening ("see, it does happen"), or heartbreaking ("... but not to me.").

The second thing? That's the rarest of all:

someone walks down off the mountain, empty-handed. And smiling.

Something happened to them, one night.... maybe the newest young miner to earn the affections of the local suppliers did them in,,, or the latest baby shower invitation from a friend down in the valley... something... and some switch flipped, deep inside them, and they realized, awake in their raggedy tent as the sun comes up, the secret the mountain holds closest and reveals only to those who can become still enough to hear it: although they're leaving empty-handed, they didn't fail. And even though they can never explain this secret to those in the valley, they won't have to. That this strange, draining, heartbreaking life that they knew, this struggle, had its own awful beauty that those who stayed in the valley (and even those who struck gold right out of the gate) can never know. Bittersweet, too, that all those days that they'd cursed themselves and bullied themselves and agreed with all the whispers of failure that seemed to surround them, they'd failed to understand that they'd already won. They won the moment they'd staked their claim and set up their tent and waded into that cold water not even knowing how to hold the damned pan.

Or, maybe, they won the moment they stepped onto the bus to Alaska.

What did they finally, finally hear from that quiet voice that morning as they watched the sun come up? That through those scorching, humbling days and freezing nights, they'd been living a dream, and that dreams have lives, too, and deaths. And that while their dream slipped gently into the night, it lived a full life, and that smile they wear as they walk the trail off the mountain comes from a lack of regret, and peace.

None of us has any way of knowing whether we'll leave the mountain rich or poor; my hope is that either way you walk off happy, or at least content. In the meantime, whenever friends or family or boyfriends or girlfriends or neighbors ask "how's it going," tell them this:

"Think of me as a gold miner. When I strike it rich, I promise you, you'll know. Until then, you don't even have to ask. Just assume I'm still on the mountain with a pan in my hand, digging around in the mud for a dream. Wish me luck."

Peter Kelley
New York, NY
November, 2002

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