Oh, To Be Ordinary Joe

I would like to take Ordinary Joe lessons. Can anybody out there help me? I want to be a regular working stiff, a card-carrying member of Middle America, a nameless, faceless member of the teeming masses. Do you know what I mean? Do you yearn for this, as well? If so, you probably understand that this is an elusive goal, more elusive than it sounds. It's about lying awake nights and wishing for a kind of simplicity that feels out of your reach most of the time. It's about longing for a humility of spirit, a perspective that brings your expectations down to manageable levels. It's about wanting to rest, about wanting to stop striving to be the things you're not and (big sigh of relief here) just be. Lately, I find myself talking to friends a lot about my next life. "In my next life," I say, "I want to work in an opti cal shop." Sometimes the fantasy shifts--I want to be a bank teller, or manage a Store 24, or work on a ranch in Wyoming--but usually it's the optical shop. I'm drawn to the directness of it, the lack of mystery: all day long, steering clients into the chair, selecting frames, helping them to see in the most literal sense, instead of in the indirect, roundabout ways you struggle to help people see through a profession like writing. "There. How's that? Comfortable fit? Everything in focus? Great. Next!" Doesn't that sound satisfying? Doesn't it sound ordinary in the best sense? A simple, helpful life. Nothing too grandiose, nothing too complex. Just normal. This goal--the normal life, the Ordinary Joe--has eluded me, I think, because I grew up thinking that normalcy was bad, that being ordinary was an unworthy goal. In part, this was the natural result of my environment, which was over-advantaged and rarified--when you're born and raised on the chic side of Cam bridge, destined for an Ivy League education before you can even hold a spoon, and taught from a tiny age that what you do is at least as important as who you are, it's hard to set your sights on normal, ordinary ways of life. "Mom, Dad: I plan to graduate from college and manage a Store 24. Sound cool to you?" Instant coronaries, all around. But I think the pull to be extraordinary, the sense that normalcy is not a valid option, goes deeper than that. I can trace some of it back to age seven or eight, when my father used to come into my room at night and ask me to draw pictures on a pad. He was a psychiatrist, an analyst, and this was a form of free association for children. "Just draw anything that comes to mind," he'd say, and I'd sit there in my bed with the pad on my lap, frozen. I didn't know what he was after at the time, but I could sense he was on an expedition, probing for something dark and complex, so I drew scary things: monsters, pictures of the dark. I have no idea if I was afraid of these things. But I thought the images would please him, so I made them up. Those episodes have stuck with me, an early template for my experience of relationships: in his own awkward way, my father was singling me out as a special kid, seeing something original and complex in my mind and trying to draw it out. And my response was to give him what I thought he wanted, to perform. That's a touching dynamic in its way, but also a complicated one for a child. As I imagine myself sitting there at seven or eight, it makes me wonder: isn't it enough just to be a kid? Couldn't I just be a regular, unremarkable kid? What's troublesome is that I do exactly the same thing today, live with a chronic feeling of performance anxiety, as though I'm constantly taking a test: gotta stand out, gotta sparkle with insight and wit, gotta have the right answers, gotta be perfect and good and exemplary. I do it in my job, having thrown myself into a profession where my work gets judged on a regular (weekly) basis. And I've done it countless times in relationships, having thrown myself into involvements with men (surprise, surprise) just like my father, who set extraordinary standards and keep me in a state of constant vigilance, wondering if I'm good enough, smart enough, if my performance is up to par. Needless to say, there's not a very wide margin of error in a worldview like that: imperfection (in work, in love) makes me deeply uncomfortable, as though it reflects the most profound sort of failure on my part. Not long ago, at a dinner party, I heard a woman with a background a lot like mine talk about becoming a professor. She thought the goal was to be brilliant and articulate and brimming with ideas, the kind of lecturer who knew everything and never ran out of things to say. Equipped with that perspective, she developed an incredibly stiff teaching style, struggling to twist herself into this extraordinary version of a professor, and it took her many years to realize that it was not only okay but also considerably more effective to be a human being in her job, rather than an idealized model of one. "There is such joy in being ordinary," she said. "There is such relief in being able to be a fallible human being, with complicated feelings and flaws and imperfections." I sat there listening to her and nodded quietly: it sounded wonderful. The alternative, after all, gets exhausting. When you're constantly striving for perfection, constantly measuring yourself against ideals, you lose access to a lot of simple feelings, a lot of humanity: you lose access to ease and joy and fun, to a sense that you're living in the present and that, for the moment at any rate, the present is good enough. You live your life with your teeth clenched, waiting--always waiting--to jump through the next hoop, pass the next hurdle, ace the next exam. I thought about this the other night, oddly enough, during the two-hour season finale of Melrose Place, which I watched with my boyfriend and two of our friends, over pizza. It was the simplest sort of evening--four people passing a couple of hours together, hooting at Jo and Jake and Kimberly on TV, relax ing into the most basic elements of camaraderie: food and friend ship and laughter. It was a non-event, really, but at one point, I looked across the room at my friends, at these three people I genuinely love, and I had a sense, rare for people like me, of the deepest satisfaction, a sense of fit, as though everything I needed to be happy was right there in the room, available simply by looking and acknowledging. No struggle, no test to pass; just ordinary comfort and joy. Isn't it enough just to be me? Can't I just be a regular, unremarkable woman? I've struggled with those questions my whole life, and for an instant that evening, the answers seemed to be quite simple: yes. Ordinary Joe lessons? Perhaps that was my first one. # # #

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