5.12.2008

Farming, Hollywood and the Great Unknown


I moved to Hollywood (from a kind of bi-city existence on the east coast, based in DC, but working in NYC two or three days per week) on Friday, September 13, 1991. I used the many frequent flyer miles accrued in my advertising job (my first career) to upgrade to first class, so though the day may not have been auspicious, the surroundings gave a transitory sense of calm. Once in L.A. (or, more precisely, Culver City; at the time, well-deserving of the nickname I gave it, "The land that time forgot", now, just another stop on the overdeveloped Westside) I stuck a toe into the waters of business school, hated it, and from that point on, felt like a raccoon trying to strap on water wings to pretend to be a shark. If that image is uncomfortably awkward--yep, that's it.

It didn't get any better when I started working in the entertainment business. My first job was easy, if time consuming; I was an assistant (code for secretary) to a producer (yes, with an MBA from a then top tier B school. Welcome to Hollywood, baby.) He was a good guy who needed a lot of attention but in return was thrilled to have an intelligent and rapt audience. He taught me a great deal about the kind of producer or executive I might want to be (one who cultivated relationships, did his own reading, said no in a way that was kind and constructive, one who had strong and well-founded opinions) and when I moved on, to my first "real" job, he sent me with his blessing and an enduring willingness to mentor and support me. I was lucky. But even when I worked for him, I had the nagging, itchy feeling that I was missing out on some key piece of information: everyone else understood the "business" in some innate and critical way that eluded me--if only I could see through their eyes, every decision would be obvious, every negotiation successful, I would always say the right thing.

Instead, when I moved to that new job, I found myself working for an amateur machiavellian, the kind of guy who would gaslight his own employees just for the power rush. I kept notes in my journal about all things he was teaching me, by example, about how NOT to do my job. He was mean, capricious, mercurial and syncophantic-- everything I didn't want to be (though he had excellent taste in furniture, literature and music. So you can't say I can't find something nice to say.) Still, working for this evil non-genius, I felt like it was all about what I didn't know. If had that Key Piece of Information--I would know how to deal with him, how to do my job in a way that didn't constantly result in eye rolling, screaming and scapegoating.

Even when I moved on to a later position of arguable power (I could actually say yes to projects and mean it, meaning I had the power to decide which scripts my department would develop into films) I still felt like I didn't get it. (Maybe this was all the fault of the script I developed at the old job about Werner Ehrhard and est. If you don't get it, well....*) Eventually, I decided I had to stop worrying about what I was missing and do the best I could with what I had, which was wise, if perhaps a little too late in the game. I finally came to believe that Hollywood rewarded the appearance of certainty and confidence as much as it did the reality of those qualities, and though I agree with the H that Hollywood is in many ways a meritocracy, it also confers awards of merit onto those who merely bullshit very, very well.

Now I find myself living at more than arm's length from Hollywood, even as I stay somewhat engaged with it both personally and professionally. But my day to day present is about the place that surrounds me. And every time I look around my barn, I am absolutely certain that I lack information. Not a single idea that would make it all make sense (perhaps this is why I always hated Economics classes? Because I never believed that those theories could make it all make sense?) No, this time I lack generations worth of nearly-ancient knowledge: how to build things, how to take them apart, how to move water, or straw, or wood, how to handle, feed and nurture animals and plants, how to plan ahead for weather, how to clean the floor, the ceilings, the walls. What I don't know is immense, and I am aware of it constantly.

Today, I visited my intended asparagus bed. Indeed, there is a small spring feeding water into it. In fact, I have made asparagus crown soup (heavily seasoned with expensive bags of organic compost) and a big wet trench. This will not be the year that I start my asparagus patch. But I did manage to dig up two of the hated boxwood bushes (two down! Only eighteen to go!) and plant perennials in the empty spaces. Whether they will survive--I can't know. The pansies and violas I bought several weeks ago are thriving, their blossoms hardy and intense. While weeding in the kitchen-garden-to-be, I found a white violet, which I spared, and some sweet Johnny-Jump-Ups which arrived from who knows where. I bought two bird feeders and some seed, and tomorrow the kids and I will hang them. I know how to finish fencing the apple trees in the new orchard so that next winter, the deer won't feast on their still-soft bark. I can look with satisfaction at the immense pile of thorny brush I cut (and still need to burn) on the lower part of the slope, where it was threatening an old lilac. I am learning, and I will never, ever be done.

4 comments:

rebecca said...

Funny, that "missing a crucial piece of information" is how I feel in almost every aspect of my life, almost all the time. I used to think of it as the "better party" phenomenom: that feeling that the real action is happening somewhere else. I might here add what the buddhists would call that, except I seem to be lacking that information.

Anonymous said...

I am so envying your willingness to just roll up your sleeves and do it. You are an inspiration!

I'm not one to go out of my comfort zone.

xomk

mieke said...

I enjoyed this bit of writing.

monika said...

I enjoyed this too.

More please.

As to not knowing the bits... these days, I feel I do not know how to be a mother -- how to teach and amuse my 18 month old (no Montessori infant training here), how to discipline and guide my 4 1/2 year old. I am convinced others get this better than I.

An gardening?! I once embraced it -- one fall, we drove cross-country one year, and had to make a special detour to a rose place, that sells rare bare root roses. I remember planting them that spring, moments of utter bliss. And then, how under the brilliant blue prairie sky, my gardening hopes and dreams - along with most of the roses - died (alas, the thistle didn't). I started HUNDREDS of tomato plants from seed. Ordered sweet pea seeds from England. Scoured plant catalogs for unusual perennials (Himalayan blue poppies, amongst others), planted thousands of daffodils and tulips one sleeting Thanksgiving day. I never got skilled, I needed a guide, a teacher. A real-life garden mentor, not a book.

Last year, I planted 4 tomato plants and then ignored them the rest of the summer after the first tomatoes were a disappointment. Maybe the sorrel will survive for me this year...

But I remember times when I didn't know things, but learned on the job, and mastered the situation. When I was a manager, younger than all the employees I supervised. Or the time I went to work at the Privy Council Office on the international trade file -- which I knew nothing about. Advising the Prime Minister about something you know almost nothing about...! But I learned very quickly. It's not rocket science or brain surgery, and there is a lot to be said for jumping in the deep end. And a lot being said for sitting at the Cabinet table, listening to the Ministers discuss policy issues, or get back the briefing note you wrote for the Prime Minister, with his comments and initials. Cool.