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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Successful Transvestite

Stephen Burt, Green Acres Alumnus

Here’s something I can’t get out of my head. It's a news item about motivational speaker/success guru/ positive-thinking proponent Tony Robbins. You've probably heard of him. As part of one of his motivational retreats he took people fire-walking. Fire-walking involves burning coals and bare feet. It is one of those extreme sports formerly undertaken only by shamans and other wise men. Now it’s an activity undertaken by anyone who pays Tony Robbins. Seventeen of the participants on the retreat ended up in the hospital with severe burns. I suppose the fire walking was the grand finale, meant to show them how much confidence they’d gained—see, I can walk on fire, Ma!  So, oops.

I am sorry to say that I did laugh when I read this little news item. Why am I telling you this? Not just because I have a compulsion to confess my foibles to everyone, even to strangers, probably in some twisted unconscious attempt to fend off any criticisms that I might think at all well of myself, and thus be asking for a sledgehammer from on high to crush me, but also because. Well, I just don’t know.

I learned something about fire-walking, however. It is that the fire from coals isn’t as hot as the fire from other burning things, so learning to walk across them is in fact possible for anyone. You just have to do it really fast. Obviously, psyching yourself up to do it is part of the message Tony Robbins teaches. You have to build up courage and self-confidence. But you also have to know the trick. 

‘Course sometimes you still get burned.

Okay, I’m coming clean here. I’m suffering a little rejection hangover. I got the query-writing jalopy running, but after sending out four and hearing three no’s, the thing has sputtered to a stop. I’m having a little trouble working up the energy to crank it up again.

Maybe I’m a little depressed. Or maybe I’m an example of what Heidi Grant Halvorsen, PhD, says about self-control and willpower. Namely, that if you use a lot of willpower in one area, you may have a period afterwards when your willpower is lower than usual, until you rest it up. This could explain why, after months of regular exercising and writing and meditating, the rejections kinda depleted me. Or maybe it was the sheer willpower it took to stay calm while the 9th grader started her new high school. Maybe I just don’t have the extra supply in stock to start right in sending out forty or fifty queries.

Or maybe I’m a little depressed.

Certainly, I am worried. About my kids’ educations. When I’m a little depressed about my writing “career,” I usually become much more worried about my kids’ educations. Because, as you may have guessed, I don’t make much of an income off of my writing “career,” but there’s always the possibility that I will. At least, until I get rejections. Then the possibility fades. Then I have to ask myself all over again, if the trade-offs in income, prestige, and um, income, have been worth it. After all, if I’d traded my free time to spend wide awake in the middle of the night worrying about phantom pains in my arm and eating too many chocolate covered almonds for a high-paying career, then my kids’ educations might be better.

And I ask you, readers, is it helpful to me in my vulnerable state to open up the NYTimes Sunday Magazine and see an article about a cross-dressing poetry critic and Harvard professor who went to my progressive, private school, Green Acres? Is it helpful to read articles about the evolution of the human foot and how it works while running, written by another Harvard professor who also went to my progressive, private school, Green Acres? Is it helpful to read that one of the close advisors to President Obama went to my traditional private prep school and was in my class?

No, no, and no.

I have another confession. A couple of months ago, there was a long article in the NYTimes about pedophile teachers at Horace Mann, an exclusive private prep school in NYC. I read this article, and was horrified, yes. But—and here is the confession—I was most struck by the longing I felt for the kind of close, old-boy/old-girl network that you get when you go to one of these private schools. I mean, I went to those kind of schools, but my children don’t. So the longing I felt was for them to have this connection.

Now, readers, you may rightly point out that while I attended Green Acres, I did not become a Harvard professor, and that while I attended National Cathedral School for Girls, I am not a close advisor to President Obama.

Don’t rub it in.

The question I torment myself with--wrongly, I know--is if my daughters can become either of these things, if they don’t go to these kinds of schools.

And in case I’m sounding a little one-percent-y, let’s remember that back in the Stone Ages, when I went to private school, private school tuition was a much smaller proportion of income than it is now.  

So this is what a rejection hangover looks like. A shot of schaudenfreude over burnt feet followed by a large chaser of self-doubt.  

On the plus side, one of the new friends the 9th grader has met is a self-described “trannie,” so I guess that’s something. 

Furthermore, with the money we save on private school tuition, I may be able to sign up for Tony Robbins' next fire-walking retreat. 


  1. As I was navigating massive construction, rain and fierce wind yesterday on UAlbany campus I noticed the kiosks around the campus highlighting their alums - novelist, Tony award winner, New York Times art critic, Turing Award winning computer scientist, political activist (Harvey Milk!). So there's still some hope for your kids. If they develop better directional signage at UAlbany, though, they will have been a success in my book.

  2. "They" in the last sentence being your kids.

    1. Yay, a little perspective! But in general, I find the directions at public schools to be obfuscating rather than clarifying. Just had to do a little "internal" navigating to get Phoebe in the right math class. It was hard to tell she was in the wrong one from the course descriptions. Nevertheless, she is now in the right one...

  3. Once she's been in the school for a year and a "known quantity" I think it will get easier for both of you.

  4. I've just dipped my toes in the query waters, and suddenly hot coals seem trivial by comparison.

    Keep truckin'


    1. Well put! Good luck to you, too.

      If it weren't so humiliating to admit to rejections, I'd start a support group for query-writers...

  5. You're braver by far, because I am too chicken/indifferent/distracted to write anything beyond blog posts, let alone a piece that would necessitate a query letter.

    1. Well, you're busy with your up-cycled clothes...I miss your regular posting, though!

  6. I love this post. It's always about the baby steps we take, especially when the going is hardest. Just the smallest action can make the difference between utter despair and feeling signs of hope.

    I remember a bleak day for me many years ago when my kids were little. I was particularly down and didn't know what to do about it. But for some reason I decided to polish my brass headboard, and when I was done I found, to my surprise, that I felt better. A little action always helps, even if it seems insignificant at the time.

    Keep it up.

    1. Your brass polishing story reminds me of something I've been thinking about lately, which is similar. Basically, making my house nicer by tidying up makes me feel better. Instead of wishing someone else would do it, I just do it.

      Anyway, thanks for the support!