The Oscars took me back to those dreams when the show closed with an elementary school choir singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song I’ve sung since I was a child, and now sing to my own children. A song that fueled dreams.
One of my long-held, unfulfilled ambitions is to be a professional singer. I don't remember when I discovered I had a voice. But, by the time I was in the second grade, I thought maybe I had something. Plus, I had the confidence of second grader, at the time.
I'll admit, a bit of it's personal. Besides being a writer, I've always been a singer. My first time on stage was in the second grade, when our school did it's own version of The Wizard of Oz. I told my teacher I could sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." So she asked me to sing it right there in class, and I did. I got the lead, which they changed from "Dorothy" to "Danny." Actually, I shared the part with another boy who played it in the second act, because we resembled each other and the teachers thought it was too much for a kid to do both acts.
Actually, the story went something like this.
I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz on television once a year. and watching Judy Garland sing "Over the Rainbow."
Something about that song resonated with me, though it would be years before I really knew why. But I learned it, and sang along with it until I knew it by heart. Back then, I probably had the same range as Judy Garland, in the movie, and probably imitated her singing more than a little. But it sounded good and felt good to me.
Then I heard that my second grade class was doing a production of The Wizard of Oz. I told my teacher that I could sing "Over the Rainbow." She looked like maybe she didn't believe me, but said, "Alright, sing it." I did. The whole class was quiet. When I finished, the whole class laughed. (Or at least that's what I remember.) At the time, it took a chunk out of my second-grader's confidence, but now I think it was because I didn't sing it like a second grader. I was trying to sound more like an adult, because I was trying to match Garland.
My teacher didn't laugh, though. Instead, she had me sing it for the other second grade teachers. Probably because I didn't sing it like a second grader. They listened, and didn't laugh.
Instead, they took me to the music teacher and had me sing it for him. Again, probably because I didn't sing it like a second grader.
And he changed the part from Dorothy to Danny, the ruby slippers to "ruby sneakers," and cast me in the role.
In the years that followed, I looked for opportunities to perform, and had my dreams fueled by a number of different things. Maybe it was a brush with fame, when I met a member of Chic, who happened to be visiting her mother, who happened to be a member of my family’s church. Maybe it was a field trip my entire school took to see The Wiz, and I was inspired by Lena Horne’s performance of “If You Believe.”
And at that age, I dreamed and I believed. I didn’t know how it might happen, but I dreamed - and if you asked me then I’d have said I knew - that I would be one of those people; the people you see walking across the stage at the Oscars, the Grammy’s, the Golden Globes, etc. Maybe somebody told me about the likelihood of that, and my chances of ever being one of those people, but at that point, I wasn’t listening. I was probably too busy watching Fame.
Yet, I think reality began to dawn on me around then. In hopes of escaping the high school I was zoned for, and what was almost certainly going to to be a ramping up of the bullying I had already experienced for two years in middle school, I auditioned for the local performing arts magnet school. I was told they didn’t have a spot for me at the moment, but that my grades and audition scores put me at the top of the waiting list.
I didn’t wait long. I was finishing my first semester of eighth grade. Or rather, I was suffering through it. The bullying and harassment had rendered me “a tortured, suicidal wreck,” as I put it in a song (unpublished, unreleased) that I wrote about it years ago. The school called and told me that a spot had become available. Another student had been expelled for fighting, after a repeated offense. I don’t know who that kid was, but his departure opened up a spot, and I was next in line.
The school gave me a choice: I could finish out the year at my current school and start there in the summer, or I could change schools in the middle of the year. I took the latter option. I couldn’t get out of my current school fast enough.
So, I went, and reality began to dawn on me about how the size of my dreams compared to my talent and ambition. It’s not that I didn’t have talent. I knew I did. And while I didn’t have much confidence, I saw that other people felt I had talent too. When I met with the principal after my audition, and she told me that the voice teacher (who recently passed away) had come into her office after my audition and said “I like his voice. This teacher would twice pick me to be part of the boys quartet that represented our school in state literary meets. (I would go to the state literary competition a third time, with a one act play about Vietnam Veterans that two classmates and I wrote for a class project, based on our interviews with veterans.)
Looking back, I think this teacher picked me for the quartet for the same quality she noticed in class. For those of us who were picked to be in the school’s mixed chorus (shortly after I started, the school launched an all-girl Treble Chorus), the last class of the day was always chorus practice. In the four years that I was in that class, the teacher/director would arrange us by voice, in each section. By that I mean that she would have student A go and sit next to student B, and then have the two of them sing a few bars of something together. Depending on how well their voices blended, she keep A and B together, and maybe add students C and D, until she got the blend she was looking for, and finally would have the sound she was looking for from a particular session.
Me, I was a “blender.” She noted that I had a knack for blending my voice well with others. And it was true. I don’t know where it (along with a natural ability to improvise harmony) came from, but I’d done that. It wasn’t at all about imitating someone else’s voice, but about matching my voice in tone and color to another’s. I don’t know how I did it, except that I could just hear it. It’s like someone tuning an instrument, using a pitch pipe, or like musicians tuning their instruments to one another. After a while, I did it without thinking about it or even trying. My chorus teacher, recognizing this, would often put me next to someone whose voice stood out rather than blending. Or she’d place me in between two distinctive voices that were pulling against each other.
I realized on some level that it meant I’d make a great back-up singer, but I’d probably never be a lead vocalist, a soloist. In other words, I could be one of the other Supremes, but I’d never be Diana Ross.
My other “major” in high school was acting. So, I was in two of the school’s performing groups; the chorus and the acting troupe. Things were pretty much the same on stage. It was kind of like know enough to know just how much you don’t know. I had enough talent to be there, sure, but also enough talent to know how much more talented than me so many of the people around me were. I would be member of ensemble, part of the chorus, or a supporting player at best, but never the lead.
At some point, even my Oscar dreams changed. My acceptance speech was no longer for “Best Actor,” but “Best Supporting Actor.” Now that’s expanded to include “Best Adapted Screenplay” or “Best Original Screenplay.” If I had any talent for make-up or costume designing I might include those too.
And that is pretty much how it played out. The biggest role I had on stage was Barnaby Tucker in The Matchmaker during my senior year, for which I received a “Most Improved Player” Award. The only lead role I played was outside of school, as David in a production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, in a production put at my family’s church.
After that, I never really acted again except for a year in an improve group at my university, called “brief encounters,” which used improve to address social issues in performances for student audiences. I never really sang publicly again except for a semester or two in my university’s mens’ glee club. and one attempt at an “open mike night” at a local bar.
I don’t know whether my dreams were bigger than my talent or ambition, or not, but in some ways it’s easier to think that. Looking at people at the pinnacle of their careers, I’m reminded of a saying a former co-worker of mine used about such situations, when one looks at someone else and envying or coveting their life: “You don’t know what’s in their cup.”
She was referencing the biblical story of the disciples James and John, who demanded to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, only to have him say to them, “You don't know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Meaning that not only could they “drink from the cup,” but that they don’t even know what’s in that cup in the first place. (In a “ghetto standard version,” Jesus would probably tell them they “all up in his Kool-Aid and don’t even know the flavor.”)
There was a time I might have felt bitter watching the acceptance speeches of the winners, wishing I could have been or could be “up there.” And while there’s a part of me that still wishing that, there’s another part of me which acknowledges that while I do have talent maybe I never had “what it takes” to be one of those people, and that’s OK. Yes, I can sing. Yes, I can act. But maybe not well enough to grab a trophy.
Then there’s the part of me that also must own that I never did what it takes to be one of those people. In the words of my former co-worker, I don’t know what’s in their “cup.” I don’t know how hard or easy it might have been for them to get where they are, or how hard or easy it is for them to stay there. I don’t know how many years of hard work it might have taken for any of them to get into movies, let alone win an Oscar. Or maybe it was easy to get into show business - as it might be for one who’s born to parents already in the business - and the hard work comes with trying to sustain a career, make one’s own name, etc.
And there’s the reality that I lived with untreated ADD until I was 33 years old. As a result, whether or not I had what it took, it was even harder for me to do what it took. My reality is that I spent two decades of my life watching my peers race past me, moving forward with their careers and education, while it was all I could do to keep my head above water. That’s a lot of lost time and missed opportunities. By the time I got help with my ADD and was finally able to do some of the things I couldn’t before, I was married, working full time, and a parent. I was, basically, a late bloomer. I arrived at two different points in my life at the same time, that for some people are separated by a decade or so.
As a song I listen to every once in a while (based on a famous speech) reminds me:
Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
It’s true. Used to think I’d see some of the people I went to school with on the Oscars, Tonys, or some other award show. Who knows, I still might. But so far I’ve only seen one of my classmates in a movie. Still others have gone on to pursue their arts, and to have careers that have taken them to many places.
Some choices I had, and some I didn’t. Some chances and had, and some I didn’t. (Or I had them, but couldn’t really take advantage of them.) As I sat in my house, watching the Oscars while my family slept upstairs, I felt good about how the choices and chances I did have worked out. I wouldn’t change places with anyone on that stage last night, at the cost of having my family. If I could go back in time and change it, at the cost of not having my husband and children, I’d say “No, thank you.” I don’t know what’s in that cup, but I have a feeling I’m finally getting to the sweet part of what’s in my cup.
But still… Whenever I watch an awards show like the Oscars, I get an “itch.” The same “itch” I get when I watch a really good performance in a movie or a play, especially when it’s in a role that I think I could or would like to play…if my talent, my chances and choices had led down that path. It’s the same itch I get when I’m listening to someone else on the radio sing a song I know is in my range and that I know I could sing.
And I find myself wondering if it’s too late, and remembering a Shirley Horne lyric from “May The Music Never End.”
We were young,
Tomorrow seemed so far away.
But now there are times
When it’s all so perfectly clear.
Tomorrow is hear
What happens to your dreams
When time has slipped away,
And you still have songs to sing,
And words you need to say?
One of the best books I’ve read for and about adults with ADD is Journeys Through ADDulthood: Discover a New Sense of Identity and Meaning with Attention Deficit Disorder by Sari Solden. Solden writes about exactly what I mentioned above.
Why is it so difficult in certain cases to get diagnosed? One of the reasons is that many adults who are inattentive and not hyperactive may have fallen through the cracks because as children they had structure and support in their lives. Or because they had other protective factors, such as a high IQ or other talents, which shielded them from seeing their difficulties. In these cases they often don’t “hit the wall” until later, after graduating from high school, getting married, or going to college or to work…
While other young adults were starting out, reshaping, refining molding and adjusting their choices, self-images and dreams, you may have reached adulthood with a gap in information about yourself that didn’t allow you to do that initial bit of reality testing and adjustment.
As a result of your AD/HD, you may have held on tightly to dreams that were slowly being submerged little by little, year after year, until they were just treasures lost at the bottom of your soul. Most likely, you felt there was no way to retrieve your dreams
And, she says, that itch means something.
To resolve this identity crisis, you will need to revisit a difficult and painful time in yoru past. You almost have to go back to where you fell off the developmental road and complete that process now that you have more complete informaiton that you lacked then. This process will ultimately give you the means to construct a vision for the rest of your life.
The task, Solden writes, for someone like me is to “face the pain of old dreams or parts of yourself left behind,” and then finding a way to fit the core of those dreams - what made them important to us - into the realities of our lives now. This, Solden says, isn’t downsizing those dreams so much as “right-sizing” them into lives that are different from what they were when we first dreamed those dreams.
Solden writes of her own unfulfilled youthful desire for a career in broadcasting, and how she felt twinges of anger and frustration sometimes when she watched the evening news. But, at that point in her life, it wasn’t feasible for her to try to start building a career in broadcasting. Instead she realized that she felt those same twinges at conferences when she saw someone wearing a “Speaker” badge, and realized that the core of her dream was being someone with something to say, communicating with and reaching people. So, she started pursuing that goal, and became a popular conference speaker.
And me? Those feelings I have during the Oscars, or while watching listening to great performances are telling that I have unfinished business. Good or bad, leading player or chorus member, there’s a performer in me that’s been standing in the wings for some time now, while I did everything else I was “supposed” do to, and struggled at things I’ve never been good at because I believed the things I am good at and wanted to get better at were “extras”; things I could do in my “free time,” as a hobby, after I mastered the “important” things - a/k/a the stuff I’ve never been good at.
But this is my life now. I can’t very well quit my job, leave my family, and run off to pursue a career in show business. Nor would I, if it means failing to be the husband and father I want to be and promised to be. So, I’ve made forays. I’ve taken a acting class in the last few years. I’ve noodled around with musical ideas. But at this point, if I somehow landed a part in a community theater production, I couldn’t really commit to a rehearsal schedule if it meant not being at home in the evenings, after I’m done with work.
When I talk to friends, what I hear in response is, “Well, in few more years, your kids will be old enough that it’ll be easier for you to start getting back to that…” It’s said or mean as a dismissal of dreams that are important to me. It’s just an acknowledgment that for now those dreams - even in their scaled-back, “right-sized” form - will just have to wait. At this rate, I’ll be in my mid 40′s, at least, before I can start fitting those dreams into my life somehow.
In the meantime - or “mean time,” when pain can recognized and named, but little can be done to relieve it - I’m sharing what gifts I have, or have left at this point with my children. The frustrated singer in me looks forward to singing to them at night. The frustrated actor in me looks forward to reading to them, and turning the books and stories into mini-performances. My “gold statue” comes when they look forward to it as much as I do, and ask for more.
Gareth Unwin, one of the producers who one an Oscar for The King’s Speech, said in his acceptance speech, “This is a boyhood ambition come true tonight.” And I know that I still have boyhood dreams and ambitions, unrealized. Except for some miraculous accident, I no longer expect pursuit of them to get me any closer to the Oscars or anything like the top tier of entertainment. But, in the “mean time,” I can only wait to see where they’ll take me, when I finally get back to pursuing them.
In the “mean time,” that 12-year-old boy sitting in the dark will have to watch, wait, and yearn just a little longer.