Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Never Enough

A friend of mine made a keen observation the other day, as we discussed my potential "future plans," which may or may not include a year-long English teaching stint in China:
"I think you like making things hard on yourself. NYC just isn't cutting it anymore, even though it was a step up from running and swimming and working at Hillside (the campus coffee shop) and writing a memoir thesis senior year. NYC + half + full marathons with volleyball, a full-time job, social life, and a triathlon in between just isn't cutting it for you these days. The next logical step is to go to China and teach English--while training for an Ironman, of course."

At first, I argued with him. Isn't this just a way of of "moving on?" And isn't he trying to "move on," as well? He's been working a lab job in Boston as long as I've been in NYC, and now he is considering moving out to the West Coast to try teaching. However, the more I consider his argument, the more validity it seems to hold. "Making things harder" (or, in more positive-sounding terms, "finding the next challenge") looks as though it may be a reoccurring pattern in my life.

I would say it started for obvious reasons: I was (am?) a competitive and curious child. I wanted to do more--and be the best!--all the time. And this was without having an older sibling to emulate! My parents helped me to join activities that interested me and were socially appealing--tap/ballet classes, swimming lessons, flute and piano lessons, a community soccer team--but always with the qualifier that I had to stick with them throughout the duration of the class/season. Then, if I didn't like the activity anymore, I could quit. There was a reverse rule, too: for every activity I joined, I had to give another one up. This rule forced me to quit soccer in lieu of basketball, when I was "recruited" in fourth grade, and it kept me off of the club swimming team. (Because my mother insisted that if I joined WHAT--Woodland Hills Aquatic Team--she would make me quit every other one of my activities. Which of course I couldn't do.)

But notice: only the latter rule--concerning having to quit one activity to take up another--was ever exercised; the former--that I had to finish the class/season before quitting an activity--never proved to be a problem. This was because I didn't want to quit anything! If I didn't like something, that probably meant I was bad at it, and that just meant I needed to work harder! The only activity I can remember quitting was Brownies; just when I had graduated to Girl Scouts, I left the troop. My reasons were that it was boring, and I had no friends there. This was clearly an activity that needed to be cut to make way for bigger and better challenges!

By the time I reached middle school, I was taking piano lessons in addition to flute lessons. I was still tap-dancing. I was working a one-day-a-week paper route (a job I had taken when I was 9 years old, with the help and encouragement of my father). And in the summers, I swam on the community swim team. Not bad for a kid who accepted nothing less than straight A's and checked out the 20-book-maximum on her library card at every visit.

Junior high school got busier, because while I continued to participate in all of my aforementioned activities, I was not entering public school and encountering activities that hadn't been available before. I was now playing three instruments: flute, piano, and alto sax (which I learned in order to be in the junior high jazz band). Obviously, having just learned alto sax, I could not be The Best at that instrument, but maintaining my first chair flautist position was very important to me. Therefore, although I was no longer taking any flute lessons, I still had to practice from time to time, because we had these annoying things called "challenges." What would happen, is that a lower "chair" would challenge your superior skill. Then, both you and the challenger would hide behind the stage and play a passage of music chosen by the director, and then the band would vote on which anonymous musician they thought played it better. Sometimes, the band voted for the worse player, merely because they could tell who it was and they liked that person better. But to my credit, I was never dethroned!

Besides jazz band, other new "public school" activities included the G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) Program, which sometimes required staying after school for competitions or projects; the National Honor Society and its randomly organized volunteering activities; and less regimented, fun things, like school dances!

Then came high school. And here is when it becomes obvious that I cannot help but seek out "more challenges." Because in spite of my parents' warning, I took everything I was already doing and tacked on even huger responsibilities. I was already playing basketball, which I continued to do. Since our team was still rather undeveloped, and because I was one of the tallest girls probably in the whole school (sad but true), I was kept on the varsity squad, which clearly required a massive time commitment. Before basketball season even began, though, I decided to add another sports season to my rotation: volleyball. I had never played this sport before, but I somehow decided that just being in the high school marching band in the fall wasn't enough, and being the flute head section leader in the marching band wasn't enough, either. So I threw volleyball practices into the mix that was already chaotically filled with band camp, football games, newspaper delivery (which I thankfully gave up by my senior year), tap dancing, and piano lessons.

But wait! This is not all. Because after winning the "rising star" contest twice in junior high school and having first a poem and then a short story published in the illustrious high school literary magazine, Graphiti (and it was illustrious--it won awards nearly every year and rivaled some real magazines in both stylistic and print quality), I was determined to hold the most senior position on that staff possible. I ascended the ranks, from Literary Editor, to Senior Editor, to Editor-in-Chief by my senior year. These appointments, of course, also required oodles of time, which I squeezed in by skipping class (not "skipping" skipping, of course--I dutifully checked in with my teachers and made up the work, which then generated more homework that I didn't have time for...) and also working on the magazine during that sliver of time between when the final bell rang to let school out and when I was expected for band/volleyball/basketball practice after school. No rest for the weary!

In the spring things got a little better. By then, the marching band and all of my varsity sports were over. But that was when the church instrument ensemble would gear up for Easter, so they would hold more frequent practices, and I also played flute/piccolo in the high school musical pit orchestra, which required that I camp out at the high school for entire nights during the week and resulted in my oftentimes skipping tap classes and piano lessons. Moreover, in my senior year, I decided that I had had enough of basketball (or maybe it just wasn't challenging enough? Maybe I wanted I had to try something new again?), and I joined the swim team for my winter sports season. I was certainly not the cream of the crop, in terms of swimming capability, but I liked the coach and the training regimen well enough that in the spring, I signed on with the club team (WHAT) and commenced daily 2.5 hour practices which, often, led right into pit musical practice for the rest of the night.

Also, did I mention that there were college and scholarship applications going on during all this time? And that not only did I apply to 7 different schools, but that almost all of them were private and would require ample funding that I felt obligated to secure? Nothing like setting the bar high!

So far, I have neglected to mention my summers, but they yield more-or-less the same pattern. Initially, when I turned fifteen, I trained to become a lifeguard because I wanted to work outside. This is all I did for one or two summers: I worked as a lifeguard at local pools. Then, however, I felt pressure to "consider my future," so I found a volunteer internship opportunity at Carnegie Mellon University. Since it was unpaid, it was rather flexible, so I went in for a few hours, two days a week, and lifeguarded the rest of the time. The following summer, I found an internship with College Prowler, Inc. that paid me a stipend. I continued to lifeguard and fitted this internship around that job, but things were scheduled considerably more strictly now that money was involved. The summer after that, the working roles reversed: I found an internship that demanded regular hours and provided regular pay. Still, I was unwilling to give up lifeguarding, so I filled in for lifeguards when they went on vacation and on the weekends, and spent the rest of my time interning indoors.

Then came college. This has already been described above, but let me add a few details: I decided to walk onto the varsity swim team at the beginning of my sophomore year, knowing full well (and being reassured by the coach) that I would be the slowest person on the team. I decided to double-major in completely juxtaposed subjects (English and Brain & Cognitive Sciences) AND to go abroad for a semester AND to get an English honors degree. But not only would I get an English honors degree, write half of the thesis the first semester, and then I would completely start over the second semester, just because I wanted to write a memoir, and the first-semester thesis-writing course required a research project (i.e. did not permit anything "creative"). Furthermore, not only did I work at Hillside Cafe, but I was promoted to the 2nd-in-command student supervisor senior year, when my friend became the manager. And I held three other jobs in the meantime: as a Writing Fellow, as a proofreader for a professor, and as a freelance copy editor for a student writing his own book. And yes, I meanwhile managed to secure the Time Inc. internship that led me to NYC, while courting Teach for America . . . just in case I couldn't make the publishing thing work out.

And now, here I am! So who knows what challenge will be next.


K said...

Reading that made me feel tired. Then again, when I think about all of the things that I've done and still do now, it makes me feel tired, too. :-P

Rome said...

This is why everyone normal person tells you to SLOW DOWN!! It's good to expect challenges, but wow.