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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?

Friday, February 7, 2014

On Not Sending the New Year's Card and other Failures

I missed my weekly post last week. Sorry. There was the middle school musical. It was tech week and then there were four performances. This wouldn’t have been so much to do if I weren’t on the Make-Up Committee, but I was on the Make-Up Committee. And there was a lot of make up to apply for the show, Seussical, Jr. For a 7 pm start time, we had to arrive at 4:15. With a cast of 65, there were a lot of faces. I painted giraffes, leopards, wolfish things (including the 6th grader), as well as eyeshadows on Circus McGircus players, and forehead swirls on Whos.

It was fun, Readers, okay? I got into this situation because a couple of years ago I did the make-up for the 11 year old and her friend when they went trick or treating as Goth girls, and apparently my skill in that endeavor reached certain channels leading to the middle school musical make-up committee. Okay, truth: At the informational meeting that followed auditions, all parents were instructed to volunteer for one committee or another, and as we swarmed around a table filled with clipboards, my friend, whose child was a Goth girl with mine that Halloween said, “You should do make-up, cuz you did that Goth make-up so well.”

I am sorry to say I failed to take away a single photo of my work. I was so busy. So you’ll have to take my word for it. It was spectacular.

I did take away a cold, however. When a large portion of 65 children breathe in your face, it’s the thing you do. I’m not complaining. It could’ve been a stomach bug. I gave them nothing as long-lasting. As one of the other make-up committee members and I confided to one another, we made sure to eat a mint before working, and to apply more make-up than usual (which is usually zero in my case) to ourselves, so that we would project competence to the middle schoolers who presented their faces to us.

So. That was last week. Now another week has gone by and I am sorry to say I am avoiding writing. I’m avoiding the blog. I’m avoiding the shitty first draft. I’m avoiding the labels for our New Year’s card. The card that is waiting patiently in a nice stack of identical siblings to get enveloped and stamped and sent to sixty lucky recipients. Sixty. Not even enough to cover everyone on our mailing list. How did that happen? Vague memories of having lots of extras the last time we sent out a holiday card (it’s been a few years) in tandem with no memory of how many of that year’s cards we ordered. So we estimated. Underestimated in this case. I’m actually pleased to know we had more people on our list of friends and family than we thought. Chuffed. I’m chuffed. Though not chuffed enough to go to Staples, buy the blank labels, print them at home and slap ‘em on the envelopes.

And now we have one more piece of evidence why I’m not a household name. I can’t even get myself to get my name into the households of people who actually know and care about me. Purportedly. I don’t want to assume too much. For instance, to assume that people on the list would enjoy receiving a New Year’s card from me. From us, I should say. From the family. With a line or two of personalization across the back. That would be presumptuous.

It’s a really cute card, though. The husband and I are absent from it, leaving only the younger members of the family – the girls and the dog – which ups the attractiveness of the card, although perhaps lowers the total interest receivers might take in it, as it eliminates the chance to examine how life has aged us. This wasn’t intentional, this omission. I would’ve opted for a photo of all of us; but if we’d waiting any longer to get a good one, then we wouldn’t have ordered the cards, which have been sitting on the dining room table, ready to roll, for three weeks. 

With all this baggage surrounding a holiday card, it’s not marvelous that I hesitate to impose myself on people who don’t know or care about me, an endeavor that would help make me a household name.

If I were a household name, I would have an assistant who could go to Staples and send out these cards.

Oh, look, Readers! I managed to write something! Next time I’ll write something more meaty.