the hope scale

My therapist said people who are high on the hope scale (I didn’t know about it, but I think it’s a scale that measures how good you are at being a person) succeed more. There was this study.

I said, “Shit. I’m screwed.”

“No, no,” she said, laughing. “Your hope will just look different. It will be subtle.” I think that’s what she said.

But seriously, it is lame to be a champion worrier, and to wait and wait to check my goals off the list that runs my life. Especially because goals change so fluidly, without you even noticing. It makes it hard to trust yourself. It makes it hard to figure out what’s actually important.

For example, when I was twelve or so, my dad took me to Carnegie Hall to see Oscar Peterson play. My dad is a jazz pianist, and he loves Oscar, and so I loved Oscar, too. I played classical, then, and I took it very seriously, like I take absolutely everything because I am probably a robot. At intermission, I went up to the stage and I touched it. It was golden brown wood, maple? I don’t know my wood colors very well, and deeply scratched, which I hadn’t expected. I’d thought it would be shinier. I whispered, “Someday I will walk across this stage.” It was a vow.

(eep. source)

And I kept it, but not really. I sang in a choir once at Carnegie Hall, in college, but that didn’t count. I’d meant that I would walk across the stage to a grand piano, and then I’d sit down alone and play, like the fifteen-year-old girl I’d heard of who was already doing that and who I hated passionately for it. I am not good at keeping my vows, apparently.

But the thing is, by the time I sang with the choir, I didn’t even care who was sitting on the piano bench. I didn’t want that anymore. Not even a little. Instead, I wanted to get into grad school. More than anything, I wanted to prove that I was smart enough for Harvard (spoiler alert: I wasn’t). Recently, it occurred to me that I’m not so concerned with being that kind of smart anymore. And now I want to be this famous writer. It’s always something, isn’t it?

It all seems a little silly when I think about it for a second. Being this kind of person. The kind of person who is always rushing towards something, who is always scrabbling for a handhold, trying to pull herself up a little higher, towards something she can’t quite see.


It’s true, just like the stereotype: this city is full of people who are dragging themselves up and up, and sometimes I feel like every time I take a breath I’m breathing in someone else’s ambition, like secondhand smoke. Sometimes it seems like everyone I meet is a little famous for something, and desperate to be a little more famous. And if they aren’t, then they definitely know someone who is.

“This city is full of every kind of person,” Bear told me a while ago, when I said I felt like we should being doing more of everything, because we’re so boring and quiet and the city is so demanding and alive. “There are plenty of people just hanging out in their apartments right now, being like us.”

And it’s true. But the air is charged anyway, I can feel it.

I fell for New York immediately, like a chump. Like some wide-eyed country girl. I surprised myself. I got addicted. Which seemed weird, because I grew up running around outside, pretending to be an elfin warrior, and I still sort of want that, and I sometimes google “mountains” and then just stare at the photos that come up and my stomach clenches with desire, the way you feel when someone you really want but thought you couldn’t have suddenly leans in and you know they’re going to kiss you.

(aaahhhh!!!!! Yes!!!!)

But then, it’s not very surprising when you consider that I’ve always had this hot need to prove myself, and the city is the battlefield where everyone comes to plant the seeds of their wildest dreams and then stand over them, fighting.

Wildest dreams can be confusingly fickle.

I think I’ve been telling myself for a while now that if I can just get a book published I will be really happy. Nothing else will matter. My name will be on a book and I can hold it up and show the world and bring it back to where I grew up and when people say, “What do you write?” I can be like, “PUBLISHED BOOKS” and then I can live the rest of my life in peace, making iced coffee and trailing string for my cat to chase and raising babies and writing occasional pieces for the New York Times Magazine because they only seem to publish people who have already published books.

I was talking to a woman who has a book coming out. It seems complicated. It seems to take forever. It seems like there are lots and lots of people involved, and they all want different things.

I sent in an outline to the agents who were interested. “Make it catchier,” they said back. “Make it tighter.” I tried to figure out what that might mean. I realized it might take a while, for me to get it right. For me to understand. For everyone to agree.

The crazy thing about goals is they only take like one second when you get to them. One day, there was an email from an agent in my inbox. I read it in a gulp.

One day, I got my Master’s.

One day, my essay went up on

One day, this blog had gotten a million clicks.

One day, maybe I will hold a book with my name on the cover.

You cross that line that was always in the distance, and then you’re in the expansive land on the other side. And if all you’ve ever learned to do was climb, you’ll find something else to climb.

I wrote about it before (sometimes I feel like I have to repeat myself a hundred times before I figure anything out or write it well): I am bad at being in the space on the other side of an accomplishment. I don’t know what to do with myself. I think I should be celebrating, maybe, but instead I feel something more like panic. What do I do now? I should be doing something! Why did I think that was a big deal? Look at Lena Dunham! She’s 26! My god, DO SOMETHING. START A TV SHOW! Why are you just sitting there like someone who isn’t going to start a TV show?!

(is she laughing at me? source)

The thing that suddenly struck me is that crossing the goal lines only takes a moment, when you get there, but the getting there, the rushing and climbing and dragging and endless anxious inbox checking and the buildup of pinching desperation and the dogged sense of impending failure and the suspicion that wherever you are is never far enough—all of that—that is life. That is every day life. That can become someone’s whole life very easily, without them even noticing.

And suddenly I am wondering if that kind of life is really worth it, even if you’re J.K. Rowling at the end. And suddenly I’m annoyed at myself for feeling so noble and long-suffering about driving myself ruthlessly towards the line at the faraway horizon. For allowing myself to clutch this careless belief that once I cross it, I will have arrived somewhere so much better.

I was looking through some old blog posts yesterday, trying to find something, and I got embarrassed because so many of them were bad. I thought for a moment that maybe I should delete most of them. Or at least all of the ones at the beginning. I sound so trite in them, I thought. I sound like a little kid. I sound like I don’t know anything. But then I left them alone because I can see myself learning here, as I keep writing. I can see how far I’ve come even in a year or less. I’ll probably look back at the stuff I’m writing now in a year and think, “Dear LORD. Who gave that girl a laptop and told her she could write on it?” But secretly, that is the accomplishment. The quiet one we goal-chasers so often run right by without noticing. It’s the way you get stronger from all the running, even when you don’t even come close to winning the race. (A mismatched metaphor for me because I’m a wimp and I never get any exercise. But whatever.)

I am probably not a hopeful person. I’m more of a shifty-eyed, scheming doubter. I know hopeful people and I plot their eventual downfall, even though I never trust myself to be able to pull it off.

No. I know hopeful people and I wish I was like that. I have this dim sense that they are better at life. That they are going to be happy no matter what.

(they will probably readily wear this on all of their clothing)

When I lay in bed for half of Sunday reading Game of Thrones and then Bear was sad because he was leaving on a long business trip the next day and finally he said something about me not hanging out with him and then I was like, “I can’t be expected to hang out every time you want to hang out,” and he was like, “Why are you getting upset at me for being upset? Can’t I just be upset?” and then I was like, “Maybe I’m just bad at life,” and he was like, “That’s not what I meant at all! I don’t think you’re bad at life,” and then I burst into tears and I was sitting on the couch crying and crying and I kept saying, “I am so bad at life! Why am I not happier? If I was happier, everything would be better.”

He was very comforting. I told him I shouldn’t even worry about my career. It’s not even that big of a deal. Why do I think it’s such a big deal? Why do I feel all this pressure? Why am I so selfish? What if I have something real to deal with someday? What if someone dies? I can’t even handle my career, so how will I handle everything else?

“That’s just how people are,” he said, “We always find something to worry about.” And then he said that people are less happy when there are more options and more happy when there are less options, and when something really difficult happens, sometimes the only option is to keep going, and that’s when people get resilient. I think he got that from the Daniel Gilbert documentary we watched. He said my life is full of options which is why I’m being crazy. Except he didn’t say I was being crazy, because he’s very kind about me being crazy.

I am not one of those hopeful people who will always succeed because they can visualize themselves succeeding so clearly. I am more the terrified, quivering sort. But maybe I don’t actually have that many options after all. I can either learn to pay attention to the secret of the strength I gain through climbing, or I can keep pretending that crossing the line is the only part that matters.

It felt like such a relief, realizing that, that instead of doing a little more work today, I took a long walk in Central Park. In some parts of this city, the air is clearer, and you can almost imagine mountains. And I think my legs feel a little stronger, too.

(I can’t really tie this picture into the post, I’m just thinking a lot about Game of Thrones and I have to keep reading it, to find out what happens to Tyrion.)

*  *  *

Unroast: Today I love the way I feel when I know there’s another brownie on the counter.


Kate on October 17th 2012 in fear, life, new york, work, writing

23 Responses to “the hope scale”

  1. Alpana Trivedi responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 8:13 am #

    I don’t know if I’m low on the hope scale, but I AM low on the letting go scale. The other day I was having a discussion (read: argument) with a co-worker about forgiveness. He said that it’s a choice. I told him it’s not that simple. I’ve been told many times that I make things more difficult than they are.

    Little things DO get to me. I can’t just “let it roll off your back” like they advise. I’ve been told this gets in the way of all the success I could have if I’d “just lighten up a little.”

    I believe in having hope and positive thinking, but I think sometimes the pep talk is taken too far and the people who promote it tend to blame you for having bad days and complicated emotions (because that’s supposed to be “choice”).

  2. Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 9:10 am #

    The thing that suddenly struck me is that crossing the goal lines only takes a moment, when you get there, but the getting there, the rushing and climbing and dragging and endless anxious inbox checking and the buildup of pinching desperation and the dogged sense of impending failure and the suspicion that wherever you are is never far enough—all of that—that is life. That is every day life.

    Yes. Yes. Yesedy-yes.

    For the record, I think you are a hopeful person. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have accomplished the things that you have, and you wouldn’t aspire to the seemingly impossible dreams that you do. You don’t have to be positive and confident 24/7 to be ultimately hopeful and optimistic.

  3. Jenn responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 10:01 am #

    TELL US WHAT YOU THINK OF GAME OF THRONES!!! And if you watch/plan to watch the tv show.

  4. Rachel responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 10:03 am #

    I’m a happy person. I’ve certainly been sad and had very bad points in my life when bad things were going on, but in the absence of anything I’m happy. I don’t tend to worry much. I’m not terribly competitive nor ambitious. I do often think, though, that I wish I WERE a bit more anxious and ambitious because I feel like I have a lot of unreached potential. I’d like to do more. But I won’t because I just don’t care enough. There is no nobel prize in my future, because I’m just not willing to put in the hours. I like my leisure time. I like my quiet, homey hobbies. It’s okay. I’m happy like I am. But there is this vague free-floating disappointment in myself for not being one of those people who wants more and works harder to get it.

    So, I think there are probably pros and cons to each side. It can surely be a good thing to worry about doing well and impressing yourself.

    Tangentially, I participated in an experiment a while ago that required me to carry around a palm pilot and record my emotions throughout the day when the alarm came on. It was pretty annoying, but I did learn that I don’t have as many emotions as I thought I did. A couple of dramatic sad things happened (family illness) that made my scoring dip for about a day, but other than that I was pretty much constantly just on the happy side of neutral.

  5. Kate responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 10:17 am #

    @Rachel@Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
    You’re probably right– I think I’m ultimately hopeful. I’m, like, big picture hopeful. But still, during the regular, small days, I could probably stand to put things in perspective.
    I’m glad I have women like you to inspire me to work towards big goals and remind me that big goals take time!

  6. Kate responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Good points. I’m not good at “lightening up” either. And I think you’re right, it’s one thing to learn to feel better about a situation, it’s another entirely to be told to just suck it up.

  7. Wanderlust responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I love this post. Beautiful writing. Love this: “I feel like every time I take a breath I’m breathing in someone else’s ambition, like secondhand smoke.”

    Your husband’s comment about happiness and choices really resonated with me. As that person whose life fell into crisis, I can honestly say that a life lived in crisis has not made me any more or less happy than before. Just a different set of obstacles. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the ‘fewer choices’ leads to happiness, or perhaps just peace or contentment. Sometimes I think the internet and the explosion of social media, with all it’s instant access to information and engagement, has drained the pleasure we used to derive from simpler activities.

  8. Kate responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 11:26 am #

    I’m really surprised by this, but I can’t stop reading! Bear read it, and my little brother read it, and I was like, “Pssh. Whatevs.” They made me watch some of the TV show with them, and I was disturbed by it even though I thought it was really well done. And I already love Peter Dinklage from The Station Agent. But I don’t know what made me pick up the books. Boredom on the subway? And then once I started, I was hooked. They are entirely depressing and dark, but the world is so, so richly imagined and depicted that I can’t help but love George Martin as an author. He’s SO committed to this place, and, like me, he loves describing food.
    Have you read the books at all?

  9. Kate responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Interesting! I also wonder that about the internet sometimes– we are just a tweet away from our favorite celebrities, and all of these worlds are constantly overlapping and colliding. Sometimes I think it fosters a sense of “I’m always about to be discovered by the world!” Sometimes I think there are just so many opinions it’s overwhelming.

  10. CJ @ Fill the Well responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 11:33 am #

    From one “terrified, quivering sort” to another, THANK YOU. This reminds me to celebrate the fact that I’m writing every day instead of berating myself for not being a “real” writer (whatever that means, ugh). This was a breath of fresh air.

  11. San D responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    I think in this media driven (read: twitter, tv, email, blog) times we tend to expect too much too fast. “I mean if Snooki and the Kardasians can strike it big”, why can’t I, kinda attitude. I read that college graduates are disappointed that they aren’t at their ideal job right out of college. HELLO people, where is it written that you will succeed the moment you get your diploma? It took me 7 long years to get my first teaching job. The market was flooded at the time with art teachers, it was the hippy dippy 70′s afterall. In the meantime I took interesting jobs not as careers more like experiences that paid the bills. Every experience you have will make you a better writer, THAT should be your HOPE. As for worrying and being afraid, you are reading from the champion worrier and “frady cat”, but that said the other part of me pushed me through that. I make lists to counteract the worries. I previsualize my goals and then set everything in motion to attain them. I can be ruthless in doing so. There are very few things in life that I didn’t get that I wanted. Children being one. But cancer fixed that. Speaking of being a cancer survivor, believe me when I tell you that cancer makes you very hopeful, appreciative of the little things, and slows your need to rush through life quickly.

  12. Kellie responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    I love what you have written here Kate, so raw, so meaty, so real. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I will read your book, and I will get copies for my friends. Why? Because your writing is that good, that captivating. I wanted to highlight and paste a bunch of quotes from the piece, but hate it how you can only do one at a time and to keep scrolling up and down would have ruined the momentum for me…maybe there is already an app for that, and I am aware. But seriously, you are so right on in your thinking and in your viewpoints, and THANK GOD somebody has the courage to be honest. I recently listened to a 40+ hour series on all very hopeful things (thinking positively, imagining the life you want to have, yada), and to read your piece makes me feel somehow more hopeful than all of it. Thanks. :)

  13. hanita responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Can I be honest?

    You’re only in your twenties – OF COURSE you’re intense! Don’t worry so much about everything you feel and everything you are. It’s not a bad thing to be driven, as long as you know what you’re aiming for and it’s gonna make you happy when you get there. Secondly – you’re not the only one feeling this way; don’t make it sound as if you’re a freak, coz you’re not. Dark feelings, obsessiveness, depression and nervous complaints are as common as colds and flus. Thirdly – maybe you need to go and work in a development area or a homeless centre for a while. Nothing like seeing other people’s misery to make you realise how fragile (good) life is and that maybe you should just enjoy it while you have a healthy body and mind. Not lecturing, honestly. That’s just how it is. And as I don’t have a daughter I can bore with my “wisdom” you’re the accidental recipient. xxx

  14. Melanie responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Oh god. Every time I read your “If I could just ______ then I would be happy” sentences I remembered when I was that person. And it made me so happy I no longer am. It’s not that I don’t have goals anymore. It’s just that I choose to be happy now even if I haven’t achieved all of them. Some of them I will eventually achieve, like setting foot on every continent before I die. Some of them I will not. But all of them are just kind of hints for where I might head. None of them determine my worth or if I’m a success or failure. I’m really glad I know that. It’s a good place to be.

    I missed reading you for the past week while I was on vacation and away from computers. It’s nice to be back. Your blog always makes me happy, and makes me think. I adore it.

  15. Kande responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Can I be honest? I read about eight blogs regularly. A couple of them from habit or hope (that they will become interesting again). Most for in the moment entertainment that I do enjoy but quickly forget. Here is the thing about YOUR blog, and in a way a question about your book ambition – I would in a heartbeat, if it wasn’t forbidden due to copyright laws, take all your posts – assemble them into a book – and then sell the rights to that book for tons of money. Unless I was feeling generous in which case I would donate that book to high schools and force the girl students to read it – well, maybe the boys too, but the girls in particular. Why are you not doing that? (or are you?). I have just only see you write about wanting to write a YA book. Why? Your blog is the best YA/adult cross book I have ever read! Most people write blog posts. You write chapters. I love it! I would love more! I hate when your posts end. Sometimes they are funny, but they are always genuine, intelligent, thoughtful, interesting … same writing style which helps flow but various ideas which helps keep interest. Seriously? Seriously! Haven’t you ever heard write what you know? You know this. You got this! You are rocking this. Want a book? You already have one – you haven’t realized it yet. I have – each time I read a post of ours with the same interest I would read a book, and spend the next few hours reflecting on it.

    And second point? Bear is a fucking genius! People are better the less options they have. From a Mom/working woman perspective – could NOT be more true! When I had no kids and worked full time, I didn’t love my job, but it was my only option (work full time) and I was content in that. When I had my first kid and debated part-time work, I felt more stressed than when I decided to just return fulltime – because we needed the money, so no choice. When I had my second I did go part-time and have been happy to be with my kids but also terribly conflicted about what to do with the rest of my life, if I made the right choice, if I just messed up my career, if it doesn’t matter to mess up my career for the sake of my kids, if I am being a selfish wife or a fantastic mom (or both at the same time, and if that is a good thing or a bad thing). Too many choices, too stressful trying to weigh and balance all the pros/cons! If I visualize winning the lottery, what pleases me is not the money … it’s the knowledge that I can then quit. But it’s not about the not liking my job or wanting oodles of money. It is the knowing that then I have just one choice (I know I don’t, I mean that I can make the choice to be at home with no main con of no income, so it just feels like no(or just one) choice). My cousin, who is a single, young, childless lesbian thinks I am a terrible feminist. She just doesn’t get it, the way Bear does – sometimes cages come disguised as coveted freedom …

    (and no, I do not want all moms to stay home unless they want to, and no this is not meant to criticize anyone else’s decision re: careers, family, working etc. It is about ME, and how I feel, and the pressure in MY life. I support women doing whatever they want to do. I am glad glad lad that we aren’t being told what to do. But I am also just saying – some mornings when I am dragging myself out of bed at an ungodly hour followed by dragging kids out of bed at an ungodly hour and dealing with stress to get out the door in time for work, then stress picking them up after working all day then dealing with the time crunch of making dinner/ activities/homework/prep for next day etc., and dealing with tired cranky kids from being up so early and tired cranky kids at night (not to mention the hell of dealing with pressure to be a work and sick kids!) I secretly wish it was the 1960′s and that I could with no guilt, just stay home! If that is wrong – I don’t care.

  16. Sheryl responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 8:07 am #

    I used to worry a lot that I wasn’t as hopeful and happy go lucky as I wanted to be, or as cheerful as I feel like I’m supposed to be. It made me feel like I sucked as a person, a little bit. Lately that’s been shifting though; I’ve had an extremely difficult year and getting through it has cemented this strange little glimmer of hope in the back of my mind. This feeling like “ok, I can get through this. I may not always get where I want to be in life, but I will get to somewhere that works for me.” The same little glimmer tells me on a bad day that I can feel bad but things will still be ok, that the bad feelings aren’t going to last forever.

    I don’t know that it makes me exactly a hopeful person, per se, but it allows me to get through tough times and tough feelings without feeling as if they define me.

  17. Erin responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 8:29 am #

    I, also, resisted Game of Thrones for a long time before I caved to the peer pressure. My sister read them years and years ago, and more recently my entire lab has been obsessed. Well, now I’m on the bandwagon,and I can’t stop.
    I was SO EXCITED to see who they chose to play Tyrion for the show. We haven’t watched it yet, but as soon as I began to love his character, I had to look it up because I had in mind the guy from Elf… and sure enough, that’s who they picked! Woohoo!!

  18. Kate responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    You have made me a very happy woman.
    Seriously, this comment was incredible for my self-esteem. I walked around all day today like, “Hell yes! I can do ANYTHING!” :-)
    And actually, I am working on a memoir book project now. The fantasy’s on hold for a bit. But I’m never gonna stop writing secret stories for dorky kids!
    And that’s really interesting– about being a working mom and the way options work. Sometimes I find myself wishing that staying at home with the kids was this totally normal, acceptable path that every partner’s salary accounted for. I know, ridiculous. And problematic. And complicated. But I sort of wish that one day I could just stay home with my eventual kids and not feel any guilt or pressure to do anything else.

  19. Kate responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    I missed you, too!! I was wondering where you were.
    And I always want to be more like you, when I read your comments. Maybe one day…I love that you’re at a point where you’re not constantly measuring success and failure. How freeing. And I also like the continent goal. I think I should copy it.

  20. Kate responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    LOL! I love it when people tell me, “You’re only in your twenties!” It makes me feel like things are OK and will always get better. It makes me feel like I don’t know much yet, which is comforting, because it means I don’t have to have figured everything out.
    And you’re right– I should do something more real once in a while.

  21. Kande responded on 19 Oct 2012 at 8:06 am #

    @Kate, oh I am so happy to have made you happy! That makes me feel good about my own life :)
    Parenting is weird and complicated and the pressure women place on each other ( or more accurately – themselves) trying to figure out ” ideal” balances and changes sucks. IF you fall into the trap. If you can fill yourself with confidence and know your choice is the best choice for YOUR family, and enjoy other people’s differences but not judge them then – you will never fall into a Mommy War or take much notice when Mommy Guilt forced on you. In my case, I just wish I could earn more money. But I can’t – unless I do something (Masters degree … commute 1-1.5 hours for work). And I just can’t justify it.
    Truth is in life we can have money or time. I’m choosing time. I feel guilty or jealous when I see friends who are great Moms AND have fantastic careers but – every life has choices, and issues, and I am not them so should learn to just love being me. I’m working on it!

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