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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Calvin and Tiger Mom and Me

8:45 a.m. I’ve had my last meal for the next 30 hours. From here on out, it’s a liquid diet. I’m going for my first colonoscopy, Readers. I’d like to tell you that I am approaching this milestone with sang-froid, with insouciance, or even with stoicism; but alas, I am approaching it with my usual mix of abject anxiety and fear. It’s at these times – these times of abject anxiety and fear, which are really the same thing, aren’t they?- that I confront the chasm between the real me and the me I’d like to be. The me I’d like to be is a Katie Couric let’s-watch-my-first-colonoscopy-together-on-TV type. Instead I’m the type who dreads, fears, has insomnia, and wishes to be knocked out today and woken up when it’s over. 

I’ve heard that courage is perseverance in the midst of fear, so I guess I can pat myself on the back and call myself brave, even if I’m not going to watch the proceedings, let alone have millions of TV viewers watch along with me.

How did it all come to this? Age, of course. I’m approaching a certain age. Gracelessly, I might add. Although I suppose I don’t really need to say it. It’s obvious.

However, the other reason it has come to this is that in trying to be Big about Stuff, I have implemented two strategies I’ve learned in my success inquiry. The first is being proactive, as Stephen Covey stipulates. I figured it would take weeks and weeks to schedule this procedure, so I called ahead. I was being mature. I was also, it appears, using another technique: harnessing procrastination. The idea to be proactive about this procedure came to me while I was NOT working on my writing. So, delaying writing, I took care of other business, like calling to schedule my colonoscopy, thus harnessing procrastination in service of other goals.

And it turned out that the wait was not very long at all. In fact, it was really rather short. And so. Tomorrow I go. Full of awareness that I am somewhere inbetween the person I’d like to be and the worst version of myself.

The joke’s on me.

Speaking of being caught in between - I’ve been mulling the cognitive dissonance created in me by the serendipitious conjunction of two articles that came to my attention about the same time, a few weeks ago. One was an opinion piece by Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and her husband Jed shilling their new book about what makes cultural groups successful in the United States. I’m not going to go into detail, nor am I going to link to the article, because I object to Chua’s approach to publicity for her books. Namely, she writes something incendiary, sure to cause controversy and create sales, and then on interviews complains that she is being misconstrued. So the latest controversy is that the title of this book of hers is The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. The subtitle is the source of the controversy. She and Jed are getting accused of racism and stereotyping. Meanwhile, in interviews, she claims that these traits are not inherent to these successful groups – they are traits that can be taught to children, so they can grow up to be successful. Yet they titled their book, “rise and fall of cultural groups.”

Anyway, Tigermom and her hubby claim the three characteristics that all these groups share that drive their success are, 1) impulse control, 2) a sense of (group) superiority, and 3) deep insecurity. 

Well, there's oodles to say about this, but I really want to point out that the implicit definition of success from which Amy Chua and her hubby Jed are working is that traditional idea of rising up a ladder, achieving elite status and money, and competing for scarce resources “at the top.”

In short, it’s a familiar definition for a lot of people, including me. It’s also the definition of success that has made me feel most like a failure. I resist it, even as I am entangled in it.

The other article came to me via social media, just after reading the Chua op ed. A beautiful comic by Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, the best comic ever, that came to my attention. This comic. Well, I’m just going to copy out the text for you, because it is so great. Here it is:

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life…A person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to purse other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential. As if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out…and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy….But it’s still allowed….And I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. – Bill Watterson.

That, upon the tail of the Chua article, summed up my whole success/failure dilemma. I mean, the definition of success Chua and her husband work from is pretty much the opposite of what Bill Watterson is talking about. Unless, of course, you’re Bill Watterson and write a fantastic comic strip that takes off and runs for years and you earn big bucks from it and then can afford to turn down licensing deals for your characters and so on. But, seriously, Amy Chua and her husband are describing how certain traits can make one prominent in a traditional profession or field - and rich.

Is that the best definition of success? It’s a definition of success, for sure. It’s the definition that many of us most understand. But it’s the definition that continues that “culture that promotes avarice and excess as the good life.”

My dilemma has been, I see now, that I’m caught between Amy Chua’s implicit definition of success and Bill Watterson’s.  I want to be the artist/writer/mom, but I feel I ought to have been the other kind of success, and I want the trappings of it.

What both these pieces made me think about is whether, if my life ended tomorrow, I could call myself a success. Can I accept my smallness? Can I take pride in my under-the-radar accomplishments? The moments when I kept my cool when confronted with a challenge from a child and found a good enough thing to say to get us all through it? Not the greatest thing. Not an amazing or profound thing. Just a good enough thing. Can I be satisfied with a solid marriage, with well-grounded daughters, with work that’s meaningful only to me and to a small circle of friends?

If this is all I ever am, can that be enough?


  1. It should be enough, but so for so many people enough is never enough. It seems to be human nature to constantly want more than what we have. And that is both a good and a bad thing I suppose.

    1. Yes. For sure, a mixed bag. After all, inspiration needs a jolt of competition sometimes. And thus the cycle begins.