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Kind of a big deal
On being a Public Person again, getting free clothes, wilting of embarrassment, and making a TED course (!)
Back in June, I was eight months into maternity leave and I had only just started to feel like a human being again. The babies were mostly sleeping at night and I had managed, finally, to disentangle myself from the breast pump. For the first time, it seemed possible to actually do something—something small—for myself. What I wanted to do was write. In my mind, writing was a little island I might have the endurance to swim to again. I wouldn’t be able to stay long, but maybe I could make my way over a couple times a week and stretch out in the sand. But then, out of what seemed like nowhere, I got an email from the people at TED, asking me if I would consider making an online love and relationships course with them.
At first, this invitation was bewildering. I’ve had a (very) casual relationship with the folks at TED for a few years now, but this felt serious. It felt like kind of a big deal. And it felt about a million miles from the substance of my life, which could be described as shoving a finger into a giant tub of diaper cream over and over and over again. I couldn’t really conceive of myself as a public person. And, let’s be honest, it is not difficult to name several other people who are way more well-known whom they could’ve invited to make this course instead. People who probably shower every day and wear pants with buttons.
My immediate internal response was a panicked no. I had so little time for myself. I did not want to spend it on Zoom with people I’d never met. I wanted to go to my writing island! But of course part of me—a big part of me—was really flattered by this invitation, and this part of me also wondered if creating a course like this might be kind of fun.
Still, I worried that if I said yes, they would want something I was not up for making: something too amatonormative, something that celebrated only the most conventional version of love. I was more interested in dispelling the myth of the soulmate than leading people to think I could help them find one. (Related side note: Have you listened to the Twin Flames podcast? Because if so: call me, let’s discuss!) But when I eventually decided to meet with them, it didn’t take them long to convince me. “This would be your course,” they said. “Make it yours.” They had read pretty much everything I’d ever written about love and they trusted me to create something I was excited about. It felt like the rarest, best kind of offer. A distraction from writing, yes, but one that was too interesting to turn down.
The TED folks were so warm and sincere that I felt like a jerk for having doubted them.* We did spend a lot of time together on Zoom in the weeks that followed, but the process turned out to be genuinely fun. I loved digging into the research on love and connection. And it was exciting working closely with people who are extraordinarily good at what they do—from learning design to fact checking to directing and producing videos. I think the thing we made together is actually pretty good.
But this isn’t what I came here to talk about. All of this preamble is actually just a way of setting up what I really want to say, which is this: Being an expert is weird. And I’m not sure if it’s for me. Maybe it’s that the gap between “expert” and everyone else feels uncomfortably large. It seems to me that the label offers the illusion of being special, while, in reality, just setting you apart from everyone else. It is a lonely space where you trade solidarity for elitism. And this trade is always a trap, something I think I want, but the spotlight leaves me squirming. Maybe it’s that I am an essayist at heart, most at home in spaces of curiosity and not-knowing.
To be clear, I am very grateful for the expertise of many people in this world. Like, for example, epidemiologists and public health nurses and microbiologists and people who design and manufacture vaccines. I’ve been thinking a lot about all of these experts the past few years. And I understand that sometimes we need a trustworthy face, someone whose knowledge feels reliable and easy to digest. But knowing a lot is not the same thing as having learned everything you need to know and I think it’s far too easy to confuse the two. I am always telling my students that the best way to express authority in their writing is to admit what they do not know. And teaching is, if you want it to be, a great job for admitting what you don’t know, for inviting conversation and making space for all the knowledge in the room. But there is much less space for uncertainty in the world of online content production. I’m still not sure how to be both Someone Who Has Something Figured Out and someone who’s still not always getting it right.
The course officially launches this week. And the social media folks at TED sent me a bunch of materials for promoting it. I’ve spent weeks trying to decide what to do with them. There is an entire folder full of behind-the-scenes footage from our video shoot. Here I am having the folds of my top adjusted by the stylist. Here I am having my hair sprayed. Here is someone testing the light while I sit in front of the camera, my face blank. Do you want to see me stretching my leg because it’s fallen asleep yet again—because in each take my leg must be in the exact same position asit was the take before? Here you go.
People love this kind of thing, they told me, and I’ll admit that I like an inside scoop. So, if you’re interested, the real behind-the-scenes story is this: I showed up at a studio in Vancouver early one Sunday morning and finally got to meet the people who had been working so hard to make this thing happen. Everyone wore a mask except me, which felt weird. A really nice woman named Angela did my hair and makeup and she did a great job even though, when I look at the footage now, I don’t quite look like myself. They brought me clothes, which I loved and which fit pretty well, and which I got to take home with me (!!). For many hours, everyone in the room stared at me while I slowly learned the art of reading from a teleprompter. Or, they stared at the version of me that appeared on screens all around the room. If it sounds awkward, it was. At least at first.
Do you know how much work it is to make someone look professional on camera? I had no idea. The whole crew spent a solid ten minutes scrutinizing my blouse—looking at it on the screen, replaying the footage for each other, pointing, showing it to me (it seemed okay?)—before they finally decided cinch it in the back with some scotch tape so my torso wouldn’t look unusually triangular. If a hair was out of place (literally a single hair) they would stop a take mid-sentence. The stylist would stare into the camera until she could spot the rogue hair, then she’d walk over, pull the hairspray from her toolbelt, and tame it with no small amount of product before we could pick up where we’d left off. Slowly, over the course of the day, my hair became a single, immobile sort of hat attached to my scalp. Every take involved the reapplication of hair spray and of powder, the readjustment of the smallest folds in the fabric of my clothes. Many, many minutes were devoted to adjusting and readjusting the lighting so it didn’t reflect off my glasses.
“Is this what it’s like for celebrities?” I asked Angela. “People are just constantly buzzing around them fixing every last hair on their heads?”
“If it’s a film or tv shoot, then yes,” she said. “For live events they might have a stylist with them, but they’re kind of on their own once things start.”
I mean, can you imagine? The sheer tediousness! The nonstop self-consciousness! I left for the day feeling relieved that, for the most part, how I look doesn’t matter to anyone other than me—and not even to me much of the time.
The real behind-the-scenes story is that thank god we finished most of the filming on day one because I only got about three hours of sleep that night thanks to a middle-of-the-night trip to the ER with two very feverish babies**. The next day we filmed the trailer and a bunch of promotional materials and I summoned energy I did not know I had. And I felt, with each clap of the clapper board, the effort required to switch between public person and private (exhausted, slightly-beleaguered) self. And even though I can see all of this on my face in the outtakes, I think we made it work. It felt—still feels—kind of miraculous.
The thing about being Someone Who Has Something Figured Out, is that, even though I was having a pretty good time, it never stopped feeling like a coat I was trying on but would never actually buy.
Over the holidays, I found myself in a painful conversation with a family member who, at one point, looked at me and said, “You’re supposed to be an expert on relationships.” Which was another way of saying, “Why haven’t you tried harder to connect with me?” Which really meant, “You hurt me.” Some expert.
Maybe part of why I feel so ill at ease with the role of professional expert is because I always need my own advice. The writer Richard Bach says, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” And I don’t think this is a universal truth, but, for me, it has definitely been true. The effort it took to fit the making of this course into our already overcrowded lives was hard on my relationship. Everything I was researching, the scripts I was writing, almost all of it felt immediately applicable to my daily life. Writing the course made me a better partner at a time when I really needed it.
There is so much bad relationship advice out there—most of it suggesting that the secret to happiness is to take the love-marriage-baby-carriage route to the end of the line and then just…never go to bed angry? I’m glad I got the chance to make something that takes an entirely different approach, something that invites people to start by thinking about what they actually want from love, instead of how to get what they’re supposed to want.
If you know someone who might be interested in thinking about love in a new, and, I hope, more empowering way, you can read more about the course here. If you are my friend and you take this course, please don’t tell me so I don’t have to wilt of embarrassment. Okay?
In the meantime I’ll be here, relearning the same lessons: that this life is full of incongruities, that our many selves must coexist, that you can know a lot and still get it wrong, that caring about someone is not the same thing as loving them well, that what looks like success often feels like something different, that I am not, in the end, a very big deal.
Oh and hello from my writing island! It’s pretty great here. I never get to stay long, but going at all has me feeling more like myself than I have in months. It is my best reprieve from this Season of Snotty Noses and Irregular Sleep. I hope you’re getting more rest than I am and getting out to your island once in a while, whatever it is that you do there.
*Though I suppose it is good to be mindful of the unintentional (or worse, indifferent) harm created by so many large institutions. As Tressie McMillan Cottom says, the institution cannot love you. It can’t. But these people I got to work with to make this course? Every last one of them was wonderful.
**The real thanks go to Mark who got zero hours of sleep that night so I could at least have a little before I had to film again. And to my in-laws who so generously helped care for two tiny sick people.