The Happiness of Failure & Graduate School as Ghost Protocol

Yesterday I passed the exam that said that I am now 100% eligible to take a job in my chosen field of moving image archiving.

Not only is this thrilling and a feat of accomplishment, it is a dream come true. However, I also feel like Ethan Hunt in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. At one juncture in the film, injured and beaten to shit, he falls to the floor and growls, “mission accomplished.” Later he expresses surprise that he even said this. Oh, the metamess or metaness of it all.

In a way, there were times when I felt like this second shift in graduate school was my Ghost Protocol.

The independence that Ethan Hunt and his cohort had to work with, the disavowal of the IMF, the continual pursuit of a goal for the betterment of the world…these were all things that I deeply identified with. I don’t think that my cat knew that he was on a moving image archivist rock ‘n’ roll grad team, should he “choose to accept it” but…hey. As my friend Ray would say, I had the ability to make the metal meat mice happen for him. He accepted the mission willingly, if, for no other reason, than he was able to walk across my keyboard at key moments in my digital restoration examinations and planning for film series curations.

Fighting for what you believe in is hard work. Ask Ethan Hunt. Being disowned/disavowed by your organization for the betterment of the Mission is tough. But Hunt moved forward. Not taking no for an answer. Amazingly enough, I did the same thing. I will tell you that I was absolutely not feeling it when I did so. There must be something in my DNA that drives me to do so. But I believe, more than anything, that it is my love for the job and my love for film preservation and restoration itself that drove me to get back up when I got blasted out of the water a few weeks ago.

I failed my grad school exam/portfolio defense the first time.

Holy shit. I was CRUSHED. This was my everything. Watching others in my year be so enthusiastic about passing with distinction and then…I sat there, sobbing. Two years. Working so hard. The worst part was…I knew exactly what I had done wrong. But there was nothing I could do to fix it at that point. Not only that, but I had a show to put on that night! It was the final screenings of a film series that I had spent the entirety of my film archiving education curating. I had to be fresh-faced and enthusiastic, the way that I normally am, not gutted.

By the time we reached the theater, I was composed and the screenings were phenomenal. Perhaps the best events I’ve organized thus far in my career.

This has been an inordinately difficult year for me. As Townes writes in this song,

We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real.
Some fall on you like a storm,
Sometimes you dig your own.
The choice is yours to make,
Time is yours to take;
Some sail upon/dive into the sea,
Some toil upon the stone.

The one thing that got me through everything was the Moving Image Archiving Studies program at UCLA and what I was working on there as well as the different projects that I was planning for the AMIA Student Chapter. From my previous days as a teen HIV/AIDS educator, I knew that activism was my preferred method of working. But it is not everyone’s. My passion gets my work done and gets things changed and lets me know that I will see results. But it got in the way this time and did not allow me to look at my graduate experience critically. Equally important, it blinded me from being critical of my creative or academic work. This was a major problem.

Failing was one of the better things that has happened to me.

While the above paragraphs do not show as much, it has improved my writing, it has humbled me and it has given me new heroes to follow. One of the films I played that fateful weekend was The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984). He failed four separate times before being elected to office. I have recently been doing some research on playwright and author Samuel Beckett, and his work was considered “unpublishable” and rejected from innumerable places before he hit the jackpot. Upon my initial receipt of  the failing grade, one of my mentors, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films responded kindly, saying I should take it in stride. Academy-Award-winning archivist Kevin Brownlow failed many times before he got to the marvelous place he is at today as did he himself.

Depression is a nasty disease and tricky to work with in dark situational moments like this. And I am not one of those people who likes to hide things. Frankly, if I did, it would be unhealthy for me. I have had various health complaints since I was a kid, and they are odd and I have had to tell my employers and friends about them so that it wouldn’t be an issue. My epilepsy is something I have come to terms with now and I have started to try to get comfortable talking about my depression too since I have begun to suspect that, since they are both located in neurologic segments of the brain, they are having some kind of party and making decisions without my control. I am cool with talking about it. What I am not cool with is wanting desperately to deal with failing what I feel is the most important exam of my life and desiring to bounce back right away. It is very frustrating. I hate being frustrated.

Once again this was an area where I felt like it was Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol. I wanted so badly to reach out to someone, anyone, but…I was on my own.

However, the things that I learned were so amazing that I wouldn’t have done this ANY OTHER WAY.

My writing will now be going through so many drafts if it is going anywhere. What you are reading now is an example of the exercise I discussed a few days ago, “Writing the Don Roos Way.” My speech and presentation work will be less vague and a great deal more professional. My thinking will be more critical and many things about my work will be more concise but equally as powerful. I plan to remove the wishy-washyness that has been present within my work and make real focused statements. After all, I have 2 degrees from a very heady institution that say I am allowed to do so. I believe that I may say these things and to hell with anyone who says the opposite.

It’s about using failure for success and restructuring pessimism for optimism. I believe in the power of words and writing. I also believe that we are the ultimate self-babysitters upon becoming adults, especially for women and the marginalized. If you want to have power or to feel that you have power, write it into your work. Change the pronouns, clarify your sentences, give yourself more credit, have conversations about a) what you really wish to say as a writer or speaker, b) who you want the reader/audience to see you as and c) what actually happened. Are you seeing/interpreting/writing the piece up in a certain manner due to gender/social inequities? I do that. I have been known to have less confidence in my work because as a woman I am socialized to take less credit and to be more “maybe/kinda” than “absolutely/yes.”

The  happiness of failure has led me to passing the exam yesterday, reconsidering how I use pronouns, and never wanting to open a sentence with “however” again.

I am a strong woman with many awkward cracks and hiccups in my interior. But I will be walking the graduation path on Friday in my cap and gown in the name of my mother, grandmother, father, godfather, myself, and the thing that has kept me going this whole time: FILM’S FUTURE.

And when I come off that stage, my first two words will be “Mission Accomplished.”

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