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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Other People's Successes - & Bayonets of Hate

Readers, I have finished Bruce Feiler’s book, The Secrets of Happy Families, and I have things to say about it. I want to write, for example, about our foray into one of his suggestions: the family meeting. But before I do, I have a compulsion to tell you something terrible about myself. Here’s why. See, to tell you about the family meeting involves mentioning an awards ceremony for one of my children. As I’ve discovered, the slightest mention of anything about one’s children’s possible accomplishments, no matter how slight, puts you out there in front of the bayonets of insecure parents who want to immediately kill you for bragging, even if it’s only the most incidental kind of mention of anything about your child, even if it’s the humblest. You’re a braggart and jerk and deserve to be beheaded and for all your spawn to grow warts on all their visible epidermises (epidermi?), or you’re even worse – a humble-bragger, begging for notice while seeming not to and therefore deserving of none but contempt. Which is a problem if you want to actually get across a message of some kind. Why not just leave out the bit about the award/event, you ask? Well, that would be fine, except in this case, the occasion for the meeting depended on it. In other words, if I talked about calling our first family meeting without mentioning this event, then I’d have omitted the reason AND the content of the meeting, which would make for a pretty short and meaningless blog post.

So the thing is, before you get all bayonet-y at me, let me tell you about how my child didn’t win an honor and how well I handled it. Then you can decide if I deserve that beheading and if my child can go forth wart free into her uncertain future. And I can tell you about our family meeting (in the next post, because this one is already too long.)

Now the reason I know about these bayonet-y tendencies is that I’ve been jabbed by them – certain comments on my Motherlode posts qualify – but I’ve also been guilty of them. On occasion. And for only the very goodest and most understandable reasons; but I have felt some of those feelings I describe above. In fact, I felt them pretty recently.

I think the compulsion to tell you something unflattering about myself is also related to Anne Lamott. You see, Anne Lamott was giving a reading in Troy, and I was planning to go, even though she’s promoting her new book, Help, Thanks, Wow, which is all about prayer, and which might just be a little much for me, the atheist-ish, sometimes agnostic Buddhist Jew. Then I realized that the 5th grader’s DARE graduation was the same morning, and I thought, Oh crud, I can’t miss the DARE graduation, because DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is, you know, the kind of program it’s important for a parent to support and for a child to see her parent support.  Since the graduation was at 9:30 in the morning, the husband immediately bowed out, citing some lame excuse about having to attend rounds on patients with strokes.  This left me to represent.

The day before the graduation, the 5th grader came home from school saying the essays written by four boys and four girls (one of each from each 5th grade class) had been selected to be read aloud at the graduation (can we please just call it an assembly, for God’s sake? NO? Okay. Crup. Anyway.) By the way, it’s possible that the DARE assembly is called a graduation for the exact same reason I felt compelled to be at it: to make the students feel it was important. It’s also possible the assembly is called a graduation to make the parents feel important, which sort of thing happens, but I think not in this instance. Perhaps it’s called a graduation to make the police feel more important….

Anyhoo,  I had a vague recollection of my child showing me an essay, a few weeks before, and of me suggesting that it could be stronger if she added a little more detail by way of examples or something. That was the last I thought of the essay until a few days before the DARE finale, when I was driving the 5th grader’s band carpool and the 5th grader and her friends began talking about the essay. They spent several minutes wildly proclaiming how much they had “sucked up” to Officer Friendly in it, and how much they didn’t care if their essays got picked. They all agreed the whole exercise in writing the essay had been to suck up to Officer Friendly. Of course, I’d thought. Essays would be picked.

So then the 5th grader came home with this announcement. She was detailed in her reporting of the teacher’s selection of the essays. The teacher had described narrowing the selections down to four girls’ and four boys’, but had been unable to decide among them, so she had mixed them all up and picked at random. The 5th grader’s essay was not selected. But, she was quick to say, maybe hers had been one of the four among which Mrs. M had been trying to decide.

Readers, I would like to tell you that this didn’t bother me, but I would be lying. It bothered me a little that my child’s essay hadn’t been chosen and that my child would not be up there reading her essay at this graduation that would be keeping me from hearing Anne Lamott. What also bothered me, was how my child rationalized the situation by saying hers could have been one of the finalists. Was this some weird ego-protection device on her part? Or a pre-emptive assuaging of feelings I might not hide as well as I think I do?

As I said, it only bothered me a little. A first. It was just one essay. It was just DARE. What bothered me more was that the 5th grader had done a pretty half-assed job on the essay, but still thought she might have been chosen. Or hadn’t thought about the long-term effect of doing a half-assed job. She hadn’t been strategic. Neither had I. I thought, my kid should’ve sucked up more. That’s what you’ve gotta do in this life to get noticed. You’ve gotta suck up. You’ve gotta be strategic. And you’ve gotta be whole-assed.

Directly I thought this thought, I became much more bothered by this non-winning. If I didn’t mind that she didn’t get selected, I did mind if other kids did. Certain other kids. Like the 5th grader’s best friend, who hasn’t been so best friendly to her this year and has delivered one too many put-downs. It might not be so bad that my child hadn’t won; but what if this girl had? What if some of the other girls, who from time to time, had done things like turn their backs on my child at recess (true), won?  I tried to find out from my child who the other winners were, but she showed an annoying lack of knowledge, concern, or interest, so I would have to wait until the morrow.

Natch, the first mother I saw at the graduation was the mom of the 5th grader’s bestie. She was chatting with Officer Friendly. Sure, I thought, Suck up, suck up. I sat down far away from her. I beamed hate bayonettes at her. Look at her in her yoga pants. So smug.

The first essay, read in a spindly voice by a nondescript girl, provided several details and facts that the 5th grader’s had not. Next up was a boy. More facts. I began (continued?) to have uncharitable thoughts. Chief among them was involuntarily imagining these kids reading these essays aloud in ten years, whilst a montage of their descents into drug-addled depravity played behind them on a large screen. It was possible that these essays were selected by Officer Friendly and the 5th grade teachers, not because they were so well written about the positive lessons their authors had learned from DARE, but because these kids needed the whole community of students and parents to bear witness to their promises to never smoke or drink or do other drugs; because, clearly, they were likely to become abusers. So it was actually good, in other words, that my child, had been overlooked.

Let me say, Readers, that I was aware of my state of mind. Envy, insecurity, anger, check, check, check. They were all present, and I knew it. Thanks to mindfulness practice and years of therapy, I was in touch with my mental formations. Helpless before them, but at least aware of that, too.

Now, I’m late posting to my blog this week. In fact, I missed posting last week. Not for lack of subject. I wrote this last week. It’s just been hard to click “publish” on this one; because this essay really makes me look bad. I mean, here I am, searching for a definition of success, and resenting others who have some. I know this is not pretty. Yet I feel compelled to go on. I might as well say it. I think, in my heart, I am no worse than many in my pitiful inability to channel what Oprah might call “My Best Self.”

In conclusion, I must say that the bestie’s class was announced next, so my suspense came to an end. The essay selected was – not the bestie’s. I sagged back into my chair. There was a second of relief. Immediately after the relief, though, came the remorse. I’d done a disservice to the friend, and worse, to her mother, with whom I’ve been quite friendly. It was ugly, people, ugly. I tell it to you now. 

Next week: The Family Meeting....

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No Such Thing As Failure

Last night, the husband and I went to listen to a talk by Stephen Sondheim. It was actually not a talk, but a conversation between Stephen Sondheim and some lady named Mary. Sorry, Mary, I have forgotten your last name, as I almost always forget names. It’s to your credit that I remember your first name. You did a fine job. To give myself credit, let me say that I bought the tickets as a birthday present for the husband, who performed in “Sweeney Todd” in college, who was a composer before he was a doctor, and who just may get back to composing one of these years. Except that he’ll never be able to retire, because I, his wife, make too little money; but eventually, we will run out of British crime dramas to watch on Netflix, and he will have time of an evening to create.

It was really some kind of miracle that I found out about this Stephen Sondheim gig. I’m so out of every loop – except my own internal, neurotic ones – that it amazes me that I came across this event, in time to order tickets for it.  It was, of course, sold out last night.

Mr. Sondheim is 83, and still working. Artists never stop. He talked about his shows, mostly. He also gave little glimpses into the wild evening life he used to lead and had a couple stories about Elaine Stritch, who played Jack Donaghy’s mother on “30 Rock”, in case you don’t know her from Broadway. I learned that the phrase “Everything’s coming up roses” is from the lyric to the eponymous song from “Gypsy,” written by Stephen Sondheim. He admitted that coining a phrase that entered the lexicon was satisfying. I should think so.

But really, the most compelling thing he said, he said early on in the conversazione. (Throwing in a little Italian, just for kicks.) Mary Whose Last Name Escapes Me asked him if, when he was starting out, he worried that he would fail. He said, “I don’t think that ever occurred to me.”

Thank you, and good night. That explains a lot. That explains why I was sitting in the audience listening to Stephen Sondheim, and not the other way around. Or, at least, it explains one reason. It never occurred to him he might fail? That’s pretty much all I think about when I consider my writing.

Of course, it might have been a little easier for Stephen Sondheim to forget to consider the possibility of failure than it was for me. He had Oscar Hammerstein as a father figure. I had a father figure, but he wasn’t Oscar Hammerstein. He was my father. (Still is.) A fine man, a lawyer, but in no position to help me become a successful writer. He did help me get the job in a law firm that led me to decide against pursuing law. This was helpful, in its way, although more for defining what I wouldn’t do than what I would do with my career. Kind of like negative space in a drawing is important, but it’s not where the artistry lies. Usually.

So Sondheim’s first job was in the “family business,” too. Although he had some lean years, Sondheim had Oscar. Oscar Hammerstein helped him develop his skills and got him involved writing lyrics with Leonard Bernstein for “West Side Story,” when he was twenty-five. If he wasn’t working for Oscar Hammerstein, he could call Oscar Hammerstein for advice. So, you know, failure seems pretty unlikely to me, too, in that scenario.

I am glad that I didn’t call it a night after that astounding proof of self-confidence. After hearing that, I just listened and marveled at a person who had such self-confidence that he could question aspects of any of his works, without questioning his basic right and ability to work at that art.

In fact, he had a few shows that didn’t do all that well. One of them, “Merrily We Roll Along,” of which I’d never heard, closed after 9 shows on Broadway. It was, you know, a flop. Guess what? He revised it. He fixed it. That's the growth mindset at work, by the way, Readers. He kept on working at it, and eventually it showed in London and then on Broadway – years, indeed decades, later – and garnered great reviews. So he believed in his idea, and he had strength of character enough, or confidence enough, to deconstruct the parts that didn’t work for audiences, and to keep on revising them until they played well. Along the way he did “Company*,” and “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “A Little Night Music,” and a bunch of other musicals that you probably have heard of, even if you don’t care for musicals. 

All of these works were collaborations, by the way, and all developed over months and often years. He’s working on something now that’s been steeping for twenty-five years. What really struck me, was that once Sondheim felt some idea he came across had “something to it,” he didn’t look back and question that judgment. He worked, and continues to work, to get that idea out. All of that work is built on a steady foundation of accepting his judgment of what is worth pursuing. For those of us who work at bringing ideas into the world, that is a great lesson in success. 

*Video clip of my favorite song from "Company," sung by Carol Burnett here. She sings it a little slower than others do, but you can hear the lyrics clearly.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Annals of Gardening: An Inventory

It’s taken nearly four years, but I am pretty sure we’ve finally killed the pachysandra. Yes, I know. You readers who are gardeners are amazed. Killed pachysandra? I thought that was impossible, you are thinking. If I’ve learned one thing in all my research on success, however, it’s that almost nothing is impossible.

To be honest, I didn’t kill it. At least not directly. In fact, I’ve regularly shaken little granules of fertilizer on it from a container left behind by the previous owners of our small cottage. They left behind the fertilizer, but managed to “lose” – that is, to toss out in a fit of pique or thoughtlessness, probably the former – every manual for every appliance in the house. But what does it matter? Every appliance has broken since then, so whatevs. I digress.

If not me and the husband, then who? The dog, of course. The dog killed it. He and his best friend, who lives across the street, have mowed it down, wrestled in it, lounged in it, peed and pooped in it (sorry – TMI?) while their owners stood idly by, chatting and waving off the school bus. The stuff has given up.

And yes, it has been almost four years since we moved into this house. It’s been nearly four years since my venerable father visited and left me with these words, “You’ve taken on a mature garden with this house, and it’s going to require a lot of work – staff – to keep it up.” More or less. I didn’t record him, and I am pretty sure my entire head filled with a mental drumbeat – “staff/can’t afford, staff/can’t afford, staff/can’t afford” – thereby blocking out the few remaining mental capacities I retained after moving from the city to the suburbs. So his exact words are lost. The rest of my brain, aside from the drumbeat, was screaming, “Fool, you were a fool, why didn’t you buy a house with a tiny yard? But he said pretty much that, because the words seared my innermost accesses, and there they remained, waiting until now to prove true. The way a father's words can. 

Now, when I say the pachysandra, I don’t mean all of it. Just the patch of it dead center in the middle of the front yard. Just the most obvious patch of it. There’s plenty on the side and in the backyard, still.

But there’s more devastation. I may have been overzealous in pruning the variegated dogwoods by the front door. The dog had nothing to do with that. 
Although, again, I am being perhaps disingenuous if I don’t mention that an actual, official, and not incidentally, very handsome tree specialist told me that they usually only last about eight years, which is probably how long they’ve been there, so I might as well give ‘em a last ditch effort to come back bushy and handsome. So I did it in good faith. There are a few buds. Same with the over-leggy hedge along the garage. A major hack job in a last ditch effort to revive it.

Not so the roses. There, following only advice I gleaned off the backs of cereal boxes, we seem to have under pruned some and outright murdered other bushes. Not a whit of green on those stems.

On the bright side, all the evergreens are still thriving. The rhododendrons are doing just fine. (Those are jokes. They require no effort, people.) The crabgrass, dandelions, and moss are also doing very well. And the ferns. (Ditto, and ditto.) Live and let live, I say.

Furthermore, as we say up here in the Northeast, it's early days yet. The dogwoods may well do me proud. Spring has only just begun. 

So what does this have to do with success? Well, Readers, this may be a stretch, but how ‘bout this? I still hold my head up when I walk the dog around the neighborhood, and the neighbors still say hello. I’m not an ulcerated mass of suburban guilt because my yard isn’t perfect. Nor am I trying to keep up with the next door neighbor, whose grass is definitely greener. I am putting my mark on the yard. Now, those marks may be lethal, but they are mine. I do have plans. If the roses and the dogwood and the garage hedge don’t come back this year, we will tear them out and replace them with something else. Probably pachysandra. (Kidding.) And that dead patch of pachysandra front and center? We may turn it into grass. The yard may have weakened since we moved in, but I am feeling more rooted. That’s one kind of success.