It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

In the spring of each year, my high school held an Awards Night, where academic prizes were bestowed, and newly-elected student, class, and athletic council members were sworn in. Only the students who were receiving these honors (and their parents) were invited. It was kind of a big deal, especially if you were winning an academic prize, because those weren’t announced beforehand, so it was a surprise to see who won what.

At the end of my sophomore year, I received an invitation to Awards Night. And I’d just lost a heated election for Junior Class Council Vice-President, so I knew I wasn’t going to be sworn in for anything. That could only mean one thing — I was going to win an academic prize.

As you might imagine, my parents were thrilled. I was thrilled, too, and a little shocked — academic prizes were reserved for the creme de la creme of the student body, and while I was smart, I can’t say I always applied myself. But maybe I’d just been selling myself short, I thought. Clearly, someone had finally recognized my unassuming genius. No doubt it was going to be an English prize; that had always been my best subject (only because forging signatures to get out of gym class was not yet officially sanctioned by the Board of Ed).

On the evening of Awards Night, my family and I got all dressed up and headed over to the high school auditorium. My parents and sister sat in the audience, while I sat up on the stage with the rest of the invited students. I felt proud to find myself among these smart, driven, popular kids. They were clearly winners. And now, I was one, too.

I don’t remember exactly when I realized something was wrong. It was probably after the English prizes were awarded, and my name wasn’t called. I KNEW my name wouldn’t be called for math, or science, or foreign languages, or history. And as I hadn’t attended gym class all year, I knew I wouldn’t be recognized for athletics. One after the other, the awards were announced, and the students around me went to claim their prizes, as their families clapped and cheered. And then the officers of the various councils were sworn in, which meant the evening was over.

Don’t ask me to tell you what it was like to face my parents afterwards, because I’ve clearly buried the shame and humiliation pretty deep. But I do remember being approached the next day at school by Ms. Eyerman, who ran the Awards Night, and apologized to me for the mistake. Evidently my name had been added to the list of invitees accidentally, and for that, she was deeply sorry. Did it make me feel better, to know I’d accidentally and regretfully been labeled a winner? It did not.

But it did make me feel something else.

One year later, it was Awards Night again, and I was sitting up on the stage, looking out at my parents in the audience. Only this time, it wasn’t a mistake. I was there for real, being sworn in as Student Council President. I’d spent the whole year planning and plotting, carefully assembling my council slate, devising a campaign slogan, creating posters and radio commercials and speeches. And all that concerted effort paid off.

This might seem like a sappy After School Special ending to the story, only it’s not the end. Since that victory, I’ve gone on to experience a lifetime filled with many moments of defeat and disappointment, moments that made me feel like even more of a loser than I did on that first Awards Night. Not getting into ANY of the MFA programs I applied to the first time? Check. Having to move back in with my parents after college? Check. Having a boyfriend break up with me ON my 21st birthday? Check. Being laid off? Check. Bad reviews? Check. Numerous rejections of my work? Check, check, check, check…

But something happened to me after that first, fated Awards Night; it’s as if my exposure to that level of radioactive disappointment altered me chemically, and infused me with extraordinary resilience and determination. It made me, in effect, a super loser.

Now, when disasters strike in my life, I am momentarily sullen, like anyone else. But then, I spring into action. I get back to work, and I work TWICE as hard. Usually, the extra effort pays off. But if not, I just pick myself up, dust off my super loser costume (which features lots of padding for my many falls, a crash helmet, and a utility belt with Band Aids for my bruised ego) and try again.

For those involved in yesterday’s DearReader.com contest, the “winner” is Brooke Anna Roberts of Purdon, TX. Congratulations! And many thanks to all who entered — you’re all winners in my book! (More contest winners to be announced tomorrow…)

Bathing beauty photo c/o The Graphics Fairy.

Stormy Weather

So, apparently we have a little bit of rain coming to the east coast.

As we wait for Irene to make her appearance, I can’t help thinking about another big hurricane: Gloria, in 1985. I was a freshman in high school, and I remember baking a Boston cream pie right before the storm hit. We lost power for a few days and most of the food in our fridge went bad, so we ate that pie at just abut every meal. Now, I have a hard time with even Boston cream donuts; they seem less filled with cream and more with desperation.

One photo exists of me from just after that storm, where I am posed next to a tree that crashed through the fence in our backyard. I am wearing a Chicago concert t-shirt and Jordache jeans and a red bandanna tied in my awkwardly-feathered hair. I am smiling like a fool, my braces glimmering in the post-hurricane sun, as if I fancy myself a big-game hunter standing next to a recently-felled elephant.

I don’t remember being afraid at all when Gloria came to town, probably because I trusted that my parents would keep us safe. When the eye of the storm passed over us, its false sunshine filling our neighborhood, I insisted on going outside, despite my mother’s protests. I knew the storm was coming back, but there didn’t seem to be any sense of immediacy to it for me. Maybe it was because I had such a sheltered childhood, I just never imagined anything could hurt me.

Over the past couple of days, as the reports of Irene have grown more and more serious, I have developed a growing sense of anxiety. I’ve toggled between every known weather channel and news service, I’ve watched as #hurricaneirene has trended on Twitter, and I’ve read all the heartless comments from those who hope that the east cost is wiped off the map, who think the rain will cleanse us of our sins, who blame everything from Bush to Obama. I’ve made lists of emergency phone numbers, planned our inventory of non-perishable items and batteries and bottled water, mapped out a list of responsibilities for myself and my husband to accomplish before the storm hits (me: clean the house, do the laundry; him: set up the basement water pump, store anything in the yard that’s not nailed down). And then, last night, on our way to Target to stock up, I had a bit of a meltdown.

“I’m…really…worried,” I managed, hyperventilating while holding back tears.

My husband was reassuring, but I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: what the heck was wrong with me? I’ve been through other storms over the past twenty-six years, and I’ve weathered many, many other disasters of equal or greater malignancy.

And maybe it’s just that. Maybe I’ve just had enough, for now, of that feeling of impending doom, of being exposed to the elements, like an already-battered lawn chair someone forgot to pull into the garage. I’m through with “battening down the hatches.” I just want to feel the sun on my face for a while.

But life is never just a series of sunny days, not for anyone, and certainly not when you’re an adult, with your own life and your own responsibilities. And being a grownup can be TIRING. You can’t just bake a Boston cream pie and listen to your Chicago albums while the storm rages and your parents tape up the windows and fill the bathtub with water; you actually have to deal with adversity head-on, again and again and again. You can no longer trust that someone else is going to keep you safe, and while that autonomy can be empowering and exhilarating, it can just as easily leave you feeling unsettled and vulnerable and facing a panic attack on the way to Target. It’s all dependent upon how the storm tracks.

Ultimately, I suppose I can only do my best, and hope for the best. To that end, my latest goal is to eat all the ice cream in my freezer. When the power goes out, it’s all going to melt, anyway.

Umbrella photo care of The Graphics Fairy.