Sometimes you are half-sleeping your way through life, as I was one late Friday morning in math class, expending the least possible energy while still appearing to function as a normal human being, when something makes you wake up. Dr. Schneider, my robotic German teacher whoÕs supposed to be some kind of genius or something is lamenting the fact that the School Board requires us high school seniors to use a compass on the Ohio Graduation Tests. Very few people are listening. This Advanced Math Honors class is somewhat of a joke, the cop-out of AP Calculus, and Dr. SchneiderÕs apparent genius is wasted on us, a group of slackers and idiots. You see, so many kids will waste time trying to perfect the angles using their compass, when we really should just be estimating the angles and spending more time on the problems,Ó Dr. Schneider says in his monotone, jerky German accent. He tries so hard, but always ends up sounding more like a translator computer program than a real person. CompassesÕ only real purpose is in blueprinting and architecture, to be used as forms of estimations. They are useless as mathematical tools because, of course, they cannot guarantee a perfect angle. No matter how precise your compass or how careful you are, you will never create an exact angle measurement. A perfect circle does not exist.Ó In this world, nothing perfect or truly unique exists. Everything and everyone is a flawed copy of a copy of a million copies of some prototype. Everything you do or say or think has already been thought or said or done, probably millions of times. Being ironic has turned into a cliché. Making fun of clichés has become cliché. Really, half the battle of life is trying to somehow differentiate yourself from the masses, trying to convince yourself that you can create something new. The only problem is we all think we are special. No, you donÕt understand, I really am, IÕm different, each pathetic identical life form calls out to each other one. We all think we deserve to have a f***ing movie made about us or something. We all think we deserve the main part, the starring role. In our culture, in this day and age, we are told from birth we are special. Beautiful. Amazing. So strong, talented, and gifted that we can do whatever we want with our lives. From our first living moments, we are showered with unconditional love and approval for doing absolutely nothing. A six-year-old girl picks a flower. What a beautiful flower!Ó her family exclaims. How considerate of you to pick us that flower. How did you find that? You have such an eye for these things. That flower looks even more radiant next to you. You are so beautiful.Ó Every time she walks into a room, the people gasp. What a beautiful girl you are!Ó Every time she makes a comment, people say, How insightful! How smart you are!Ó This girl starts to expect this kind of praise just for progressing through her life, doing normal, everyday things. She begins to believe everything they tell her, believe that she deserves this recognition. She is exceedingly beautiful, talented, and smart. She is special. What people like this girl learn from this is, why bother? Why try to succeed, when just for existing we are already constantly rewarded? Why work ourselves into a sweat to actually accomplish something when just for pretending to try we are exalted as heroes? Our generation will grow to be the laziest group of people that ever lived, all the while believing, deep down, that we are special, amazing human beings deserving of unending praise. Each of us utterly incapable of performing any service except our own self-congratulations. Us all looking with disdain at all the others, knowing that I donÕt belong here, IÕm not lazy or worthless or ugly or stupid. IÕm special. Two boys in the back are throwing rolled up paper balls at each other and snorting, and Dylan and I turn simultaneously to see what theyÕre doing, then exchange a look. The bell rings and we all jump up from our plastic chair-and-desk combinations, some of us getting caught on them for a moment. Want to go get lunch at 5th Street?Ó Dylan asks. Yeah, but I have a meeting at the college office first. Wait for me?Ó Sure.Ó As I wait outside my college counselor Mr. KasabianÕs giant oak door in the Smith House, sitting in one of the worn, moth-eaten armchairs placed there, like so many things at my private prep school, a little too garishly to present a homey feel. You get the feeling somebody went to a thrift store to buy this chair just last month, took it home and beat it up a little, maybe left it outside during a rainstorm or something, and then put it here to pretend itÕs been here for fifty years. I lay my head backwards until it gently bounces off the wall and stare blankly up at the ceiling. A curious checkered black-and-white tile pattern spans its length, and I see bits and pieces of my face reflected in the incorrigible pattern. These days, the sight of my own face reflected back at me always surprises me, as if I am always expecting to find that some great transformation has occurred since I last checked and the wise eyes of a faintly familiar stranger will be gazing back at me. I look at the same wide brown eyes, light complexion, and thin lips, and find that, as I must have already known, I am still exactly the same. Mr. Kasabian swings open his hundred-pound door, a permanent grin stretched across his face, and one of my classmates shuffles out the door, head hung low, spaced out. Zoe! How nice of you to drop in! Come on in,Ó Mr. Kasabian says so enthusiastically, you almost forget we have a scheduled appointment, and that these meetings are required, and all he does all day. It looks like he didnÕt even move his lips. His wide, fixed grin reminds me of a psycho killer clown: kind of creepy, kind of funny, and kind of sad. These meetings arenÕt too bad, because itÕs mostly just Mr. Kasabian stroking your ego for a good half hour, but usually IÕm just waiting for them to end. ThatÕs all most of life is, anyway, periods of waiting for things to end. Waiting until youÕre alone again, but when you finally are, left with only yourself, you forget what it is you wanted to do. Sometimes these waiting periods are interrupted with moments of painful clarity, but itÕs like walking outside into a flood of sunlight with no sunglasses, and we shield our eyes and stumble backwards. I sit down in his dark, cool office, and sink into the plush purple velveteen couch while Mr. Kasabian resumes his place behind his desk, thank God. Sometimes he thinks that this is a little too officialÓ as he calls it, and chooses to scoot next to you on the couch, which is painful. After we exchange the usual pleasantries, he says, Well, okay, today we have to talk about something kind ofÉ serious.Ó But he says this last word in a sing-songy voice as he rolls his eyes to the ceiling and bops his head back and forth, making it sound like we are going to talk about something pretty much the opposite of serious. I know whatÕs coming. In the college office they throw around a lot of words like opportunities and potential. I hate those words. The problem with my life is I have opportunities. And potential. With these things comes the burden of the fear of losing them. What I want is to have nothing. To be ugly, stupid, and poor. Ugly people can sit at home every night, can let their leg hair grow to 5 inches long, hunch and slouch all they want, and nobody says anything about it. Stupid people could drop out of high school and become a groupie to a rock band, experiment with every drug imaginable, hitchhike across America and no one will ever sigh and shake their heads and say, Look what sheÕs throwing away. No one will ever wonder, what could have been? With potential come responsibilities I donÕt want, comes the possibility that something precious might be wasted if you stray from the path somebody else has set out for you, when really, the thing that is being wasted, being sacrificed, is your life, your desires. He folds his hands on the table and clears his throat. You can tell he is trying to change his expression, but his mouth is just kind of fixed into that wide-toothed grimace of a smile. He gives up, and just starts talking. Zoe, your teachers are a little worried. I know weÕve talked about this before, but they are still all saying you have so much potential, but you havenÕt really been applying yourself. We just donÕt want to see you miss out on the opportunities your mind could bring you. Ms. Baker said she gave you three submission forms for writing contests, none of which you entered, and I have a college recommendation here from Mr. Solomon that he wrote without you asking him to explain why you dropped out of Calculus. People are going out of their way to give you a chance to exercise your mind and help you win favor with colleges and it seems like youÕre ignoring all of it.Ó The truth is, I know heÕs right. I want to enter these contests, want to believe that I can create something unique and insightful and thought-provoking and beautiful, but I get stuck. I have these thoughts, these moments of honesty or clarity or something resembling truth, thoughts so big that when you try to grab onto them they just slip farther and farther out of reach. But I canÕt make myself write about them. I feel like if I try to put them on paper, make them into something people will like, I will accidentally warp them, make them into something theyÕre not, and IÕll never see what is true ever again. But I can tell Mr. Kasabian thinks he is really helping me, thinks he is making some kind of breakthrough, thinks he is starring in his own drama where he is the hero who convinces the mysterious, haunted teenager of her own true potential and to turn her life around. He, just the same as Ms. Baker, the same as Mr. Solomon, they all are just creating conflicts out of nothing so they can resolve them and be the star of their own tragedies. This is how to make people like you. It is so simple, really. Let them have the starring role. Just give it to them. Let go of your natural human instinct to hog the spotlight, to make yourself into somebody interesting and worthwhile and special. I have learned, from eighteen years on this planet performing social interactions, that people liking you has nothing to do with you. It, like everything else, has only to do with them. If you agree to be their supporting actor, their sidekick, the one who will illuminate everything they believe is fantastic about themselves, they will love you forever. There are so many roles to choose from. Would you like to be the goofy but lovable f***-up of a best friend, always needing to be bailed out of trouble by their heroic efforts? How about the scorned a****** ex who unwittingly introduces them to their true love, finally conceding at the end of the film that you were never good enough for them? Or you could be just a normal everyday person, an extra walking down the street. Whichever way, your purpose is to highlight their amazing qualities while, of course, never distracting from them with any of your own. Be flawed. You are the curtain that opens and hangs beautifully, but never too beautifully, framing them starring in their own one-act show. So I give him his Oscar. I smile and nod, tell him, YouÕre right, I know, IÕve just been so busy lately, but I see how important all this is now, IÕm going to really work on it, I think I can do it. I leave the college office the exact same way I came in and see Dylan waiting outside and go to meet him. Movies are our form of salvation, the only proof we have that we as human beings can create something beautiful, can be genuine, create meaningful bonds, be a part of something universal, and as lame as it sounds, change the world. Make a difference. In movies, those useless parts of life, the waiting parts, donÕt exist. No, in a movie, every scene is pivotal, every moment, every comment, every glance, has significance attached to it. In a movie, there are no awkward exits; you can just cut to the next scene. Movies are the only place we can find people with raw, unrefined, scary-strong, true emotions, not just the watered-down half-hearted versions we get in real life. In a movie, everyone is as interesting as you give them credit for. In real life, nobody will ever live up to the character youÕve imagined them to be. Everybody, if you know them for long enough, loses their mystery. You find out the truth about them and it is always a disappointment when you finally do. The truth always reveals mysteries for the mundane, unremarkable things they are. Life is really nothing but a series of disappointments, anyway. We walk almost wordlessly to his car, but this is the kind of comfortable silence I wish there was more of, not an awkward silence with one of us fumbling for something interesting to say. He breaks the silence to tell me about something that happened in his last Genocide class. WeÕre studying the Rwandan genocide and watching Hotel Rwanda in class. A couple people got confused because the evil Hutu radio station broadcasting over the airwaves to keep the killing going had the same name as the hotel, the movieÕs namesake, the place where Paul Rusesabegina sheltered Tutsi refugees. They were both called the Milles Colline. Max had said, Wait, so is Rwanda like smurf land, but instead of saying ‘smurfÕ for everything, they say Milles Colline?Ó We laugh. LetÕs get in the Milles Colline,Ó I say. Yeah, IÕm hungry. We better hurry up and get some Milles Colline,Ó Dylan says. Yes, I wonder what IÕll haveÉ some Milles Colline or a little Milles Colline?Ó Dylan is so genuine and real, heÕd almost be able to be a character in a movie. I like him, but, being in his company, I canÕt help but feel awkward and unsatisfactory compared to him and his natural, fluid way of going through life. Dylan seems to just experience life, while I need to analyze and dissect it moment by moment as it is happening. For us unfortunate over-thinkers, our life is a continuous compounding interest problem. Each passing moment is configured into the problem, and we recalculate or reanalyze our entire life based on the last moment to determine how we should proceed. Should I make a joke now? we ask ourselves. Act angry? Say something compassionate? Say nothing at all? Recross my legs? Breathe less loudly? What can I do to make everyone here interested in me? Am I doing something wrong? It seems we are all aware of something that Dylan isnÕt, but this knowledge makes us lose something rather than gain it. We race down Mayfield Road as I stare out the window at the same cars, the same trees that werenÕt there two years ago behind them, the same beautifully clear blue sky framing it all. DylanÕs stereo is blasting some song that could almost be on a movie soundtrack in a scene just like this. As we get out of the car and slam the doors, I notice the giant parking lot for the Target superstore is near empty, a rare occasion. I hop into the nearest shopping cart of the millions strewn about and yell, Push me!Ó to Dylan. He leaps behind the cart and hunches forward, pushing me fast, but not fast enough. Faster, faster!Ó I yell, and he puts more strength into it. The world is whizzing by. Dylan lets go, unable to keep up with the pace heÕs set, when I see a speed bump up ahead. These are the moments I love most about life. The uh-oh moment. The moment of no return. The moment when you realize, maybe this wasnÕt such a good idea, but itÕs too late to turn back, and you brace yourself for the consequences of what might be the biggest mistake of your life, or might be the beginning of the biggest adventure of your life, or maybe, usually, itÕs just another moment you wonÕt remember a year from now that you thought could have been so much more. I see broken noses, crushed legs, a scraped-off face, and feel what might be excitement, but is probably nervous anticipation or terror. I think of my face reflected in the ceiling and know that next time I look in the mirror, the transformation IÕve been waiting for may be complete. The cartÕs front right wheel hits the bump first. The rest of the cart begins to tip as it pivots around the front wheel and the back two wheels leap over the bump. The cart lands on the other side of the bump, on the right rear wheel first, and slowly tips back to its upright position, bouncing a little on the way down. I am fine. Unscathed and exactly as I was before, without even a bruise to show for my troubles. I leap out and Dylan yells from across the parking lot, Cool!Ó That could have been the beginning of the movie someone would someday make about my life, or maybe the end, but it will be neither. That scene probably wouldnÕt even be included. The truth is, weÕre all waiting for our big tragedy, the big conflict weÕll need to overcome to give our movie purpose and to make ourselves a hero. Some of us go searching for it, and some of us just spend our lives waiting for it to come to us. But who am I to be telling you all this? I am just another imperfect copy of a copy of a copy of a prototype decided long ago, another product of an over-praised, over-loved generation of underachievers. Nothing I have done or lived through elects me to be the star of my own blockbuster film. Telling you these things is, probably, just another pathetic human attempt to distinguish myself from the rest of humanity, bring some glory upon myself, when I am just like the rest of you, just another skin bag of holes and bones and muscle and tendons. Maybe IÕll even get nominated for some award. Just because I observe and put into words all these human fallacies anyone could recognize as true doesnÕt make me, what youÕd call, special.
My Life as a Movie
September 1, 2007