Friday, February 26, 2016

Phantom Careers

by Jean Roberta

I was going to brag that I’m good at organizing the stuff in my house and my office, but when I looked for the drawings I made in ink and coloured pencil in the 1960s and 70s, I couldn’t find them, and couldn’t remember where I put them. I know I stashed them in a safe place the last time I organized everything in the house, and filled eight garbage bags with junk to be given away/recycled. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a list (like a card catalogue) for myself, as I did several years ago when I organized all the paper in the house (articles, clippings, pamphlets, newsletters, minutes of organizations).

I may have the instincts of a librarian or museum curator, but my systems eventually slide back into chaos.

About those drawings: I was hoping I could scan one and post it here. It would have to be one of the simpler ones, because many of them are full of curved, branching lines that don’t reproduce well. As a teenager, I was influenced by the Art Nouveau Revival style of so much visual art in the 1960s. (Think of posters for Grateful Dead concerts, covers of albums by almost any rock band of the period, magazines of the counterculture.)

For awhile, I thought seriously about enrolling in art school and producing “real” art that could be sold. When I met my friend Joan in university in the 1970s, she encouraged my ambition. (She was double-majoring in English and visual art.) When I complained that I had trouble making realistic sketches like hers, because I usually got the proportions wrong, she assured me that practice would help me with that. She encouraged me to focus on what was in front of me (not necessarily what I expected to see) and transferring it to paper.

Why did I stop? Well, I didn’t major in art because English seemed more practical, and literature fascinated me just as much. I gave up hope of becoming a “real” artist, but I’ve always produced doodles or cartoons in printed material (the recipe book I put together as a fundraising project when I was an elected “block rep” in a co-op for low-income single parents in the 1980s) and on blackboards in classrooms to illustrate metaphors and grammatical concepts.

I still remember my frustration when I would show my latest piece to some older person (parent, teacher) or even another Flaming Youth who responded by asking whether I was on drugs when I made that. I could honestly say I was sober as a judge. Apparently it didn’t occur to the philistines in my life that anyone could copy a hallucinogenic style which might, at some point, have been fuelled by someone else’s acid trip.

I’ve never designed my own book covers because that process now involves computers, and I haven’t had time to learn those new skills. I could take a jump at it after July 1, when my sabbatical begins.

Another career I once fantasized about was that of clothing designer. As a teenager, I spent much time crawling about my bedroom floor on my hands and knees, cutting pattern pieces out of a few yards of fabric so I could sew them together on the vintage sewing machine (circa 1916) that my grandmother gave me. Making my own clothes was my passion in those days, and whatever my machine couldn’t do (anything other than a straight seam), I did by hand.

Like my phantom art career, my dressmaking career eventually faded into the mist. Making clothes not only takes up time, it takes up space. Any home seamstress (or seamster?) who can’t afford to spread fabric out on the dining-room table must spread it out on a floor where it won’t be stepped on. Anyone who wants to sew on a regular basis really needs a sewing room.

In the 1990s, opportunity showed up in the form of a real designer whom I probably wouldn’t have met if AIDS had not ripped a big hole in the gay male/creative community of North America. He was a local gay boy who went to Hollywood and became a successful designer of costumes for movies and rock star weddings, but then, on a trip home to Canada, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. For months, he was prepared to die, but he responded well to the drugs provided by the Canadian health-care system, and started to venture out of his mother’s house. I met him as a fellow-performer in skits put on by the local AIDS-awareness organization (more about this later).

This designer, “Robert Dean,” told the rest of us performers that he was planning to re-start his career as a custom clothing designer, and he needed an assistant who knew how to sew. He said he couldn’t offer a salary at first, but he would provide mentorship and a chance to share in his future.

I was living partly on welfare at the time. What would I have to lose? But then I had a chance to teach first-year English in the university, and I made what seemed like the more sensible choice. I haven’t regretted it, but occasionally I wonder, “What if?”

(“Robert Dean” has indeed become a local success. Largely due to his efforts, this town now has Fashion Week every spring, and his latest designs can be seen in the display window of his downtown shop. And he himself looks fabulous, dahling, wherever he goes.)

My sewing mostly takes the form of alterations, which can be done in front of the TV. From time to time, I buy an item of clothing that attracts me beyond reason, despite its less-likable features, and I reconstruct it to fit me and my current taste.

I’ve also had phantom careers as an actor/performer. Whenever I’ve acted in an amateur play (such as the ones that were produced every year by the English Students Association at the university, and then by the AIDS organization), I’ve dreamed about treading the boards more often. Even when I was much younger, I was aware of the siren call of show biz, and of the wrecked lives of most people who fool themselves into thinking they have a shot at stardom.

However, I still cherish a secret fantasy of putting on my own one-woman show in a fringe festival somewhere, some time. I might attract interest if I’m the oldest performer there, a kind of living artifact. I could collaborate with my spouse, who has had an even more interesting life than mine (at least in terms of her involvement in big historical events), but she wants her own show. :)

I can’t honestly say I ever had a phantom career as a lead singer or operatic diva. I recognized my limitations as a singer even when I was young and full of dreams, but I loved to sing, and looked for opportunities to sing with other people, so the whole world wouldn’t know when I hit a wrong note. My desire to sing in my early teens even propelled me into the junior choir of the local Episcopal (Anglican) Church, despite my lack of faith. (I was too honest to fake it, and that led to my departure.)

As an adult, I loved singing alto in the local queer choir, which unfortunately shrank to five people and then disbanded after our most talented director left us to do other things. (In the meanwhile, though, the suite of songs our director composed for us were recorded on a CD by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so I can say my voice has been recorded.)

Now that karaoke has spread across the world, I can usually be persuaded to impersonate some real recording artist, usually in the local queer bar. The people I know are too polite to throw tomatoes at me.

I have an open mind about reincarnation, and I really hope I get a chance to live again after my time in this body is over. I can see now that I need at least one more lifetime to complete my bucket list.


  1. How lucky we've had some progress in battling the ravages of AIDS. Those first few years certainly devastated San Francisco. The early 80's marked losses across the board. Everyone lost people.

  2. I suspect that San Francisco was Ground Zero for AIDS in the 1980s, and LA was prob. a close second. Like a war or a famine that drives people into exile, though, the plague drove some exiles here to the Canadian prairies. When "Robert Dean" left here for Hollywood, I'm sure he thought he would never come back to live. Now he's doing his best to bring Fashion to the land of denim. :)

  3. I've always been impressed by your versatility, Jean--and that was before reading this and learning about some of your other talents.

    In a sense, the concept of "career" is false. (Look at Daddy X!) We are the sum of all the activities we've undertaken, regardless of our levels of success.

    Meanwhile, don't feel bad. All systems eventually slide back into chaos! That's the nature of the universe and the second law of thermodynamics.

  4. I like the way you've put this, Phantom Careers. I very often have the experience of enjoying an activity and wondering what would happen/would have happened to me if I focused more on it.

    Also, given my generation, I am amazed that English seemed like the "safer" choice of major! I feel like at my age one is scolded and shamed for anything other than science.


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