I recently passed a diverting lunchtime with a writer friend revisiting some of the opportunities we
failed to grab, back in our twenties. Turns out we have a couple of doozies. For example, I offer my tour of the The New Yorker, about 20 years ago. Through a connection I can no longer recall - something to do with his mother - Louis Menand gave me a tour of The New Yorker. Yes, that Louis Menand, who writes regularly for the magazine. He gave me a tour. Through the offices. Of The New Yorker.
What was it like, The New Yorker? What was Louis Menand like? I hardly know. I doubt I had a better notion then. It’s as if I were led, blindfolded, on that tour. I have one memory, a glimpse into a small office space. It was empty, but showed signs of occupancy. Which famous writer worker there? I don’t have the faintest idea. Maybe it was a plebe’s office. Who the heck knows? As for Louis Menand – I have only the recollection of the sensation of being with a person. I wouldn’t recognize him now, and frankly, I wouldn’t have recognized him a week after that tour. I don’t know that I ever looked him in the face. He was with me – beside, ahead, behind? – the way any authority figure was throughout my childhood, a shape or a bulk of anonymous but indisputable existence with which I could expect no real interaction. Like a coat rack draped in an overcoat. Certainly not like person with whom I could (ought to) communicate as an equal.
Looking back, I see the whole thing as a failure of imagination, not of courage. I wasn’t nervous. I was simply unable to consider my proximity to Louis Menand and that tour as opportunities for career advancement. It’s possible I stood on a point of honor: I didn’t want to be like everyone else he toured around The New Yorker on his mother’s request and then ASK something of him, career-related. It’s possible. And stupid. More likely, though, my muteness sprang from seeing him as an authority figure, and seeing myself – or not seeing myself at all.
So why was he an authority figure? And why was I – a child?
This where I indulge in a little parent bashing. I don’t really like to do it, because, now that I am one, I understand that parents are mere humans, full of insecurities and fatal flaws that can obscure our good intentions. Nevertheless, I have to say that some responsibility for the stupid lack of imagination I showed then lay with my parents. For who else but they were supposed to teach me how to see my possibilities? I came across this bit by none other than Martha Stewart, in which she says the best thing anyone ever taught her was that she could do anything she put her mind to – and the person who taught her that? Her dad. She says, “I think it really often is up to the parents to help build confidence in their children. It is a very necessary part of growing up.”* (Then she applies another layer of decoupage to the birdcage she's making out of strips of six thousand thread count Egyptian cotton sheets for her gazebo.)
Now, Martha's run the gamut from model to mogul to jailbird and back. Whatever you may fault her for, you can't fault her for lack of imagination for where she could be and what she could do.
It never even occurred to me that my tour with Louis Menand could be anything other than that, a tour. I never for an instant considered myself equal to anyone working there. Even though there were people my age, people from my high school class, working there around that time, I just felt different from Those People. They were on some other existential plane. So that’s the bottom line.
I left Louis Menand and The New Yorker, and I returned to my stultifying data entry job and my novel in progress, and never followed up. If Louis Menand noticed I didn’t write him a thank-you note, I hope he didn’t tell his mother. It never occurred to me, not because I was rude. I wasn’t. I was raised to write thank-yous. I had a supply of cards with my name printed on them for this purpose. No, I didn’t think of writing him because I didn’t imagine I had registered on his brain. He was one of Those People.
So, my point, Readers, is that it’s necessary to imagine yourself using your talents and skills for work you want to do, and it’s important to help others imagine these things for themselves. Not unrealistic things. Realistic things. Who’s to say what’s unrealistic? That’s where imagination kicks in – imagining seemingly out-of-reach places reachable. Like taking advantage of an in at The New Yorker to explore how you might fit there. If it’s too late for you, then do it for your kids, or for your niece. Do it for your mentees. You might help shape the next Martha Stewart – or, if that gives you the heebie-jeebies, the next Louis Menand. You want people to believe you could be a contendah, and you gotta do that for them, too.
My friend has a doozie of a regret story. It also involves The New Yorker. I won’t tell it here, because it’s her doozie. I’ll just say it might beat mine.
*Martha on the best advice she every received (in LinkedIn)
©Hope A. Perlman Feb. 2013
This post appears on my blog Unmapped Country: The Flip Side of Failure
Follow me on Twitter