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Apologia for Self-Deprecation.

Being, apparently, a professional crab, I have to resist the idea that self-deprecation is such a bad thing. I mean, let’s grasp nuance here, and admit that we can find a space between ‘tearing oneself down pathologically’ and ‘being humble’. Because the worst–the worst–people I know, find no flaws in themselves.

Studies have shown that most American high school students are terrible at academics. They have terrible math skills (I had to tutor a bunch of high school graduates who were flummoxed by fractions), they don’t know basic grammar (like proper nouns). My friend has stopped asking his students what the last book they read was because so many say, as though they’re somehow rebellious, that they don’t read books. At all. Ever. Not even for school.

But you know what? They’ve got AMAZING self-esteem. They have no flaws, they have themselves, bold and vibrant, and the expectation that the world needs to change itself to conform, accommodate, and work around them.

I fear they are in for a harsh awakening. The world does not conform to our desires, much less our flaws, at least not in ways that serve us.

I’ve seen students announce that they have a mental disorder like it’s a mark of pride. I’ve seen young people on tumblr self-diagnose themselves with things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and then use it as a badge of pride and identity. (I know that mental health issues are too often stigmatized, but bragging about how YOUR PTSD is so much worse than everyone else’s and that the act of getting out of bed triggers you…does not help real people with real mental health issues!)

So, you know what? There ain’t nothing wrong with a little humility. There’s nothing wrong with applying a little reality to the situation. I say this as someone who used to fancy herself a good writer, and who was frustrated, depressed, and finally crushed by the fact that I…wasn’t all that good. Sure, it was true: writing was my lifeline. Writing got me through some bad periods in my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m good at it. That doesn’t mean I’m amazing. The fact that I’ve earned precisely $40 from my writing in my life while outright plagiarists like Cassandra Clare and EL James are rolling in dosh is enough to tell me…I can’t be bragging about my wordsmithing.

So, you know, maybe that’s what I do well–I break things down and turn them over, the way the bacteria in dead trees, in bodies, turn them over, reduce the tree to rich soil, reduce the body to something that could give someone else life.

You know, a garbage disposal of ideas.

Toot Your Horn

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L’Esprit de l’Escalier

That’s what you call it in French–the spirit of the staircase–that the verve, the wit, the perfect words, will save up their zest to spring on you as you turn to descend the stairs, stepping down, walking away, giving up.

This is, in short, one of the guiding ironies of my life. I am the queen of the socially awkward. I envy my cousin, who, in those childhood Thanksgiving and Christmas kiddie tables, could reel off joke after joke, perfect delivery, perfect timing (which we all know in comedy is absolutely essential). I sit silently among my friends, while they bandy smart references and witty remarks. I can keep up. I can appreciate. I just can’t do it myself.

I have a slower wit, I think, the same way I can read French, even watch French programs on TV…but can’t produce. I’m a consumer, in a sense, taking in the words, the jokes. And that’s important, let’s not lie. A joke without a laughing audience is a wasted thing, a bridge that only makes half the span. Words want to be heard, to be taken into the heart, the brain. And I can do that. I’m needed, to listen, to laugh, to get the joke, to understand the reference.

But I can’t produce, even after the event. I have no quick burst of OH DAMN I SHOULD HAVE SAID. Instead I worry, and fret, over what I did say, how I could have said it better or maybe not spoiled the moment by speaking at all. When I speak, at work, I sit and pick over my words, like a trash picker trying to find some prize among junk, thinking of a hundred things I did wrong–bad turn of phrase, a metaphor muddled, repeating things too much or not at all, going on a tangent that violated the maxim of relevance (the worst part of knowing linguistics is how it highlights one’s own flaws). I feel like I can only spot wrong, never come up with anything better, bright, shiny or perfect.

I don’t think the perfect words ever come to me, so I content myself (or try to) that listening, laughing, being the appreciative, in-awe audience, is good enough.

Drawing a Blank

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Stop Quoting that Shitty Robert Frost Poem At Me

I…really hate that poem. I hate how people interpret it as some sort of ‘I broke away from the pack and yay’ paean to nonconformity. That’s not what it says at all. There’s this idea that all conformity is bad and ‘settling’ and selling out your ‘true self’, and I’m sure it sells tons of self-help books, and so on, but I’m not sure it’s a great knee-jerk response to life. When you want to nonconform, you have to be ready for the consequences, and Frost’s poem barely even alludes to that.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way.

Most of my choices have been the ‘up against the wall’ choices, where if I didn’t act, disaster was certain. And I might not have done the right thing, but I did something. It’s possibly a testament to my passivity, or maybe it has something to say about my tolerance for discomfort. Or, as I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, my childhood, where passivity and inaction were survival mechanisms. Be neither seen nor heard. Draw no attention to yourself except in praiseworthy things. And I learned, quickly enough, what those were, and which ones I could never succeed in (try as I might, I am not ‘beautiful’.) Effort didn’t count for anything unless it yielded results. If not, it was a waste and the thing was, in my mother’s most stinging voice ‘ruined’. There were no partials in my childhood world, no ‘close enough’. It was either perfect, or it was further proof of my failure.

Nonconforming had a price too high for most of my life.

But more to the subject, there are men I could have stayed with, yes, but it would only have cost me a slow grind of my soul, losing myself bit by bit to be their image of the ‘perfect girlfriend’ or ‘perfect wife’, just like my mother’s ‘perfect family’ we all had to shine as part of, or slink away in failure. Do I want to write the life I would have led if I’d stayed with those men? No. How dreary they would have been–I saw glimpses enough in what I was becoming: the hostess of work parties for people I don’t know and their spouses; a conversationalist able to talk about any number of subjects but unable to find a listener for the conversations I wanted to have, about art, ideas, philosophy, books that weren’t on Oprah’s list…; the maintainer of the vessel of my husband’s house-proud life.

There were good things–I enjoyed gardening, though he hated the tomatoes I loved so much, hated even the smell of the plants themselves; I enjoyed baking, though I got reprimanded when I hand made a birthday cake instead of buying a tasteless sheet cake from Wal-mart; I enjoyed someone to do things with…even if only his things.

But there’s the elephant in the room, always–his infidelity. Not physically–oh he did that too!–but I would have forgiven it (perhaps in my own desperate attempt to piece together a quilt of a marriage, darn over the rough spot) if he hadn’t have lied to me about it. Physical infidelity is one thing, but he broke the emotional trust.

How can I write about the life I could have had in any positive way with THAT around? A divorced woman who has no use for men with baggage, with men my own age who want girls half my age to date–that’s not the road less traveled, at all. There are many–thousands–of women who find themselves on this same road. And like me, their stories are probably banal and boring, too.

The Road Less Traveled

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Autoimmunity and a Polite Decline

Today’s prompt is something about writing a letter to the part of yourself you like the least.  HA, I gigglesnorted, the hard part’s going to pick one, because, I kind of want everything to change–my temper, my social awkwardness/self-awareness, my voice, my opinionatedness, my cowing to my mother’s abusive behavior constantly, my procrastination…I mean, it’s a bounty of choices and I can’t serve my entire self with an eviction notice, can I?

Then it kind of hit me: I kind of have.

I have an autoimmune thyroid disorder that we know about. Yesterday, on top of that, though, I was in a rheumatologist’s office getting the orders for tests that will decide what other connective tissue autoimmune disease I have, because, like my flaws, autoimmune disorders tend to invite their friends to the party.

Autoimmune diseases are when your body decides YOU are the enemy. Normally, the immune system, as I understand it, finds something foreign–a virus, a bacterium, etc–and marshals the system–the white blood cells and all that, to fight it off through a host of techniques.  Your immune system is an army patrolling the borders of your body.  Autoimmune issues mean that your army is kind of in chaos–it recalls to me that last few lines of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”–“Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Your immune system is that nightblind army, striking out at everything.

Read as a metaphor, autoimmune is the ultimate in self-hatred–you yourself are the enemy. You yourself are the thing needing to be fought against, so your body fights against itself, leaving both parties of this non war depleted, a slow, almost ridiculous, death by attrition.

I think, instead of telling part of me to ship out, I’d like to bring it, and myself, back into a circle of compassion. I grew up in a kind of emotionally abusive household, and compassion, kindness, and support were entirely absent, so these are still, sadly, new to me. Maybe I’m afraid to kick things out, because, well at least it’s A THING, at least it’s something I have, a known quantity. But I’d like to think I’ve spent enough time and energy dividing myself into parts, and setting one against the other. Sorry, prompt, I can’t do this for you.

Shape Up or Ship Out

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Reincarnation

I believe in reincarnation, definitely.

It might be because life seems to me too short (doesn’t it always feel that way to everyone?) and that the only way to get to experience all the things of life, good and bad, is to go on the ride more than once?

And it appeals to a sense of poetic justice that gets lost all too often in the mundane world. We all know of good people who just seem to have a constant shit tornado in their lives, just bad things happening one after another….and we all can think of bad people who seem to get good things just handed to them, without any effort at all. It rankles us at our deepest root of unfairness. So maybe my belief in reincarnation is an attempt to give a larger perspective on that, so that maybe that good person is dealing with the junk from their previous life when they were bad, and maybe that bad person is getting rewards or even new temptations of their own (people find it hard to be compassionate when they’re rolling in cash).

Reincarnation makes us feel that our lives have some purpose.  I mean, movie after movie vomits up the cliche about ‘you are specially chosen by fate/destiny’ and most of us know that, yeah, that’s never going to happen to us. We wish it would. We LONG to be important, to have our lives matter, at least a little. So maybe reincarnation is a way of saying, “I am in the work of purifying a soul. This is important stuff.”  It allows us a narrative that we can stitch the random patches of our lives together with.

In movies and books, when someone dies, it’s because their story is told, their arc is over, life’s work has done itself through them. Look at how people react to deaths of characters on shows like The Walking Dead.  We…don’t have that here. Once you’ve seen someone you love die, you can’t say WELL their arc was over. There’s always something unfinished. There’s always things they didn’t do, didn’t say, didn’t finish, that defy the tidy narrative arc.  So reincarnation is not the end of the book, but just, you know, the end of a chapter, the ultimate TBC…..

My sister tells me that in Jewish mysticism, women are actually the top of the reincarnation chain–that according to the mystics, being a woman is so difficult that once you’ve lived life as a woman…you’re done. You have your PhD in Life. It’s a strangely empowering thought, really.

You can tell I’m willing to be wrong. I’m willing to admit that my faith in reincarnation might be wishful hope and longing rather than a spiritual reality.

Karma Chameleon