Monday, September 21, 2009

What are you good for?

Patty here…

My mother tells me that one day when I was a toddler she made this off-hand comment to me: “What are you good for?”

“Loving,” I answered, because at the time it was the only skill on my resume.

That got a big laugh around my house. The script became a running joke that was often repeated over the years. My mother doesn’t ask that question anymore because by now she knows what I’m good for, but she still reminisces about the exchange.

Looking back, I have spent my entire life trying to answer that question and a second broader one—What am I good at? I envy people who are piano prodigies at age four or those who emerge from the womb knowing they’re destined to be a dermatologist or a hand model. There’s no wasted time working in boring jobs or accumulating worthless college degrees. Life’s voyage is already charted.

At age six I thought I was going to be the next Sarah Bernhardt after a high school drama teacher “discovered” me in a church Christmas play and told my parents I had talent.

My expectation of stardom followed me until my junior year in college when my boyfriend asked me why I was parading around on the stage when I could be making an actual contribution to society. I immediately rushed out to take the Law School Admissions Test. By noon on the day of the exam, I came to my senses and decided that law wasn’t for me. It was a wise decision, according to my recovering attorney friends.

I had a bunch of jobs after college, and because I’m a good organizer and a quick study, I was good at all of them even though I didn’t love any of them. What I really wanted to do was to make a living by using my creativity. Therefore, in my spare time I studied art and took dance classes. I hired a voice teacher in the vain hope that the screeching I heard coming from the shower was produced by rusty pipes in the wall and not from those in my throat. At some point, I realized that my “gift” (if I had one at all) would never lead me onto a Broadway stage.

Then somebody told me if I did what I loved, bundles of money would soon follow. I decided to test the theory. I loved going to movies, sitting in a darkened room, riding that emotional roller coaster while Jujyfruits gummed up my teeth. I loved lounging on a beach, reading a good book while inhaling the intoxicating aroma of Bain de Soleil #4 orange gelee. I loved talking trash with my friends over pitchers of Rainier beer, which incidentally made one of the best commercials ever.

So I threw myself into doing the things I loved, waiting for fame and fortune to reward my efforts. However, the only money that appeared was the monthly paycheck from my boring job, forcing me to conclude that what I loved doing wasn’t necessarily going to pay my rent.

Still, I couldn’t shake the belief that one day I would find something I could do better than a few other people. Maybe I was chasing a phantom dream, but it’s like the concept of a soul mate. Either you believe or you don’t.

And then I became a writer. I don’t love to write but I love having written and I actually make a few bucks stringing words together. Writing books is the most difficult job I've ever held. Some days I struggle to find the right words and I’m hard on myself when I fail. The crazy thing is I can’t stop even though some days I’d like to do just that. Maybe it's the challenge that propels me forward or perhaps it's just plain masochism. Regardless of what motivates me, I’m not ready to give up just yet because—who knows?—it may be the thing I was meant to do.

What are you good at and when did you know?

Happy Monday!


  1. A lovely, lovely post, Patty. I think you're good at so many things (I've been in awe for a long time), but you are really, really good at being a good person with a wonderful spirit. And you've had books published, which means you're good at something you love to do! So many people make the mistake of thinking their life's work has to do with the job they do to keep a roof over their head, but those two coming together doesn't happen to many people, in the grand scheme of things (think how many writers hold down the day job too - Our Jim is case in point, and I would suggest he has two areas of "life's work").

    I think I'm good at working hard, at just getting on with what I have to do, whatever it is. I may not be anywhere near the best at what I do, but I put the effort into it. "Jackie tries hard," as my school reports used to say.

    Oh, and I really love the fact that you took voice lessons - what a kick! I have always wanted to be able to sing - people would pay me to shut up if I started - so to take voice lessons sounds just wonderful to me.

  2. Our J, I highly recommend that you take voice lessons It allows one to warble away in front of a one-person audience that doesn't cringe--not even one. Who knows? You may be a better singer than you imagined.

  3. what am I good for......Not being as "challanged" as these people: Only one in four Oklahoma high school students can correctly name the first president of the United States, according to a survey released Friday.
    The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs conducted the survey to find the students' basic knowledge of civics, Tulsa World reported. Students were asked 10 questions taken from the U.S. citizenship test.
    The passing rate for Oklahoma high school students was 2.8 percent.

    Maybe they'll have a career in major league baseball.....I seem to remember Paul pointing out the literacy rate in that sport......

    pleasant post Go-Lo...missing seeing one from you last week

  4. Jon, we Nakeds know how brilliant you are and thanks for noticing I wasn't here last week. If I go missing, I can count on you to inform the authorities.

  5. Go-Lo...don't even think of taking "loving" off your resume.....onr certainly never leaves on of your posts pondering, "where's the love?"

    on the other hand, it is certainly is hyperbole to say that having basic knowledge of civics makes me brilliant......

    oh, by the way, I can see Our J as crooner/ novelist......

  6. Patty,
    Nice post, yet again. Love the 'loving.'

    Is what I'm good at the same as what I love? I sure hope so. I have such clear memories of my mom writing short stories, and rewriting, and rewriting. When they were perfect, she put them in a drawer, never to be seen by an editor, agent or readers. So I've taken her love of writing further by intending to get published.

    As for singing, when my daughter got the lead in a school musical, I was ready to have DNA testing done. (Neither my husband or I have any such talent.)


  7. I am good at the obscure and boring legal area known as "remedies." Give me a legal problem, and I will come up with the method to resolve it in a fashion favorable to my client.

    But wait! I'm not a lawyer any more. The remedies I need are for murder and mayhem. Often, these are more difficult, even though you get to make up your own facts.

  8. I adore your first answer to your mother's question.

    And the Rain ----- ieeeeeer ----- beeeeer commercial, as well!

  9. Jon, civics isn't the only basis for knowing that you're brilliant.
    We have other ways of detecting same.

    Our J as the next Sinatra! I like the ring of that.

  10. Oh yes, Louise, you would appreciate the beer commercial, you of the Dancing Raisins fame.

  11. Paul, we know you're not a lawyer anymore but you will still us free advice. Right?

    Carson, you're lucky you have the writing gene if not the singing gene. I was left out on both accounts.

  12. I'm still reeling from the shock of recognition in your mother's question! So much like something my own mother might have said, so much like that hard-scrabble, post-war generation. Something along the lines of "So what can we expect from you to justify the time--not to mention the expense--and energy that you are going to demand of us, your tired parents?"

    Which makes your response so touching and so prescient, given how much of yourself you have poured into your parents.

    Of course I may be overthinking this, but that's what I'm good for.

  13. Ha, Mims! You are so very right on. And that's another thing you're good for.

  14. Paul, I thought the really GOOD lawyers, DO get to make up the facts....I think it's called The "Mr Johnny" [Cochran]method.

  15. That explains why lawyers transition so easily into fiction.

  16. What a lovely piece and how true that is for many people no matter what their chosen occupation.

    I couldn't help but to compare it to the article from the Village voice "No I won't read...." Which is maybe where that writer should have stopped, but after making such a major contribution to the American film lexicon as something entitled "Puppy Love" it's not hard to see why that bloated ego is so full of himself.

    What a nice, humorous and inspirational pice of writing this is...Thank You.