The bottom 50 percent

When I was in grad school, studying for my master’s in mental health counseling, one of my professors told us: “In any given profession – whether it’s doctors, truck drivers, teachers, whatever – about 50 percent are not good at what they’re doing. Don’t be in the bottom 50 percent.”

This same professor told me I was “a natural” when it came to being a therapist, so maybe he himself was in the bottom 50 percent who aren’t good at what they’re doing. At any rate, I’ve always remembered him telling us that when I’ve encountered poor service or poor performance from any professional.

If nothing else, the law of averages would indicate this simple truth: Not everyone can be great at their jobs. Add to that the probability that people can be great at certain aspects of their jobs, but not others, and add to that the fact that everyone has an off day now and then, and you start to realize the ever-shrinking chances of encountering exceptional professional service all the time, or even most of the time. In fact, taking all of the above into account, exceptional professional service really starts looking like a rare and wonderful gift.

Throw a pandemic into the mix and you really start to appreciate the person who was brave enough to even show up for work in the first place!

My sweet husband, a former pastor who will always have a pastor’s heart, has developed the habit of thanking workers in the grocery store, the drug store, customer service reps who answer phones for a living, and anyone else he encounters just doing their jobs. He tells them to “take good care of yourself and your family, please,” and thanks them for being there for him and for others. He tells them how much he appreciates their service, especially in these crazy times when stepping outside your door can lead to any number of catastrophes.

The recipients of this weapons-grade kindness are almost always blown away and incredulous of what they’re hearing. Once the shock ebbs a little, they thank him and often return the sentiment. I’ve thought many times how much his simple expressions of gratitude might brighten someone’s day, help them get through their shift, or tame their anxiety for just a moment. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, even the bottom 50 percent. And who can say what effect a show of appreciation might ultimately have? Kindness never hurts.

   

Not good enough

My grandfather always sat at the head of the table during meals shared by my extended family. Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, he was the patriarch that all my aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered around. He was a small man, gentle and unassuming. Raised in a conservatively religious family, he was a solid Christian and lived what he believed to be a righteous and literal interpretation of the Bible.

My grandfather chose who would “ask the blessing” before each meal, following a specific hierarchy within our family. At the top of the list of qualified blessing askers was an uncle who was the biggest and loudest person in our family, by far. He didn’t just wear his religion on his sleeve, he wore it on every inch of his body. Being the most outwardly religious, if he was present, he was asked to say grace prior to any meal, without exception.

In his absence, my other uncle held second place. He was the second most qualified male, as deemed by my grandfather and therefore everyone else. If, for some reason, neither uncle was present, offering the pre-meal prayer fell to the son of the First Uncle. In fourth place, my grandfather himself would pray. This hierarchy was never breached.

Neither my father nor my brother ever received the anointing of being asked to pray. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I do know this: No woman at the table was ever asked and definitely no child.

So early in my marriage, when my new father-in-law asked me to pray before a meal around which his entire family was gathered, I nearly choked. With sweaty palms and teetering on the edge of a panic attack, I politely and respectfully declined and had a sense that my grandfather was rolling over in his grave. Not only am I not qualified to “ask the blessing,” I’m not even in the running!

Growing up in my extended family, only the two children of the First Uncle were talented enough to be recognized. Like their father, each of them had an amazing singing voice and would often be asked to perform at family gatherings. As they entered their teen years, I began to sense in them a budding resentment, which their unyielding father firmly crushed anytime he got a whiff of it. As I sat there with the rest of my family, listening to them joylessly sing hymns for my grandmother, I was equal parts sympathetic and jealous. I knew they hated these command performances, especially my older cousin who was, to her detriment, beginning to develop a strong sense of self.

But I also felt small and ignored. Left out. As my grandmother and the rest of my relatives heaped praise and appreciation on my cousins, in awe of their considerable talent, I sat quietly, watching and listening. I had talents, too. I could draw really well. I could play the piano, I could even sing a little. But any talent I might think I have was on the fringes and certainly not good enough to be included on the same family stage as my cousins. Nobody was interested. The spotlight was for my cousins and their father and the rest of us knew to stay in the shadows. They were the loudest, the most religious, the best.  

It’s extremely difficult, some would say impossible, to uproot the rules you learn as a child, unspoken or otherwise. You can adopt new rules, but the original rules will always be at your foundation. Like looking both ways when you cross the street. Sniffing the milk before you pour it on your cereal. Yielding the spotlight to those who are more worthy. Understanding the religious pecking order and your place at the table… if you’re even AT the table.   

This “not good enough” dynamic has played out again and again in my adulthood. It’s weird how childhood dynamics will do that. I know the rules. I know not to try to participate in religious settings; it just never goes well. Nobody is interested and even if they were, I’m not qualified. Fortunately, God and my sweet husband have been patient and accepting of me just as I am, and for that, I am so grateful.  

Are you sure?

Sometimes I have to laugh at the friend requests I receive on Facebook. Not because they’re random people from across the globe who couldn’t possibly know me, but because they’re people from the area in which I grew up and I guess they recognize my maiden name, see where I attended high school, and think I’m a kindred spirit. I can almost guarantee… I’m not.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a conservative person from a rural farming community. It’s where I was raised. But somewhere along the line, while I never shed my appreciation for country life itself, I took on a different worldview from that of most in my hometown area.

Here’s the good: Fresh air, even when it smells faintly of manure; rolling green fields of corn stalks reaching for the sky; eating vegetables at dinner that were still growing in the ground this morning; twilight evenings when fireflies dot the yard with tiny pings of yellow, while crickets provide a soft carpet of sound; crunching snow under tractor tires as my dad clears the lane after a big snowfall so the milk truck can get in to pick up our milk.

Here’s the bad: Manhood measured by how many guns you own and how many animals you can kill with those guns; disdain for those who appear to be trying to better themselves; suspicion of and scorn for anyone or anything that’s “different.”

When I get a friend request from someone who’s spent their entire life marinating in that culture, I feel as though deleting the request is saving both of us potential disappointment. I believe that friendships, even those online, should be built on a foundation of commonality and shared values. As I delete the request, I think, “Thanks, but you don’t know what you’re doing because you don’t know who I really am” and “You’re welcome.” I have no interest in seeing posts that extol the features of their new tractor or new gas-guzzling Ford F-250, I don’t care what their grandchildren ate for breakfast, and I sure as hell don’t care to see bloody pheasant, rabbit, turkey, bear, and deer carcasses come hunting season.

In the past, I’ve sometimes accepted these friend requests just to see how quickly I end up either having to hide them or unfriend them. To date, my record is three hours.

So I wish you well, person from where I grew up, but I just don’t see the point of becoming “friends” when we have zero in common except having existed by chance for a few years in the same geographical region of the country.

Don’t be cruel

It amazes me how so many people who are otherwise amicable and kind to their fellow humans find joy and vengeful satisfaction in being abusive to telemarketers.

I’ll be the first to admit that telemarketers are beyond annoying. They call at the most inconvenient times, and worse, they can be the point person of a nefarious scam operation. We have a mental picture of dozens of them sitting in little cubicles in a dimly lit warehouse, each sporting a headset and making call after call to unsuspecting elderly people, easily taking advantage. And that’s despicable. But what if that’s not the case for every telemarketer?

In a recent Facebook post, a friend described how he asks telemarketers if they went to college. If they say yes, he then attempts to shame them by asking: “You went to college and this is the best you can do for a job?” and “Does your mother know this is what you’ve done with your college education?” Another person responded that they tell the caller to “hang on for a minute,” then they put the phone down and walk away. Others have said when they answer a telemarketing call, they blow a whistle loudly into the phone. These comments received enthusiastic support. It’s become not only justifiable but good fun to abuse telemarketers and share best practices for doing so.

These same people will also post: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

I’m not suggesting that anyone strike up a conversation and become BFFs with telemarketers. But what’s wrong with saying, “Thank you for calling, I’m not interested,” and hanging up? Or “I’m not interested, please remove my number from your list.”

What I am suggesting is that perhaps telemarketers are people, just like you and me. Perhaps they are single parents trying to make ends meet by taking a lousy job in which they know they’ll suffer endless, creative mistreatment, but they’re desperate and it’s all they can find at the moment. As someone with a college degree who’s had great difficulty finding jobs in the past, I can tell you that a college degree is certainly no guarantee of employment, well-paying or otherwise. Thank God I never had kids to feed.

It’s impossible to know what circumstances people who work as telemarketers may be dealing with, but even if they are heartless scammers, it’s never a mistake to err on the side of kindness. You don’t have to cheerfully recite your social security number or your bank account number, but you don’t have to be a flaming dick either.

Yes, untold numbers have been scammed and we need to continually warn people, particularly the elderly, to be cautious and not provide personal information to anyone they don’t know. But maybe all of that isn’t the personal fault of the telemarketer who’s about to dial your number simply because it’s next on the list and they have a job to do.

Elvis said it best: Don’t be cruel…

Dancing in glass slippers? Ouch.

The other night I stumbled upon a movie on YouTube that I hadn’t seen since I was a young girl. The 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Cinderella, which aired on TV once a year beginning when I was in elementary school. A then-unknown 18-year-old Lesley Ann Warren played the title role, with Stuart Damon (the erstwhile Dr. Alan Quartermaine of General Hospital) as the Prince. It was a cast of legendary actors who were Hollywood heavy-hitters in their day: Ginger Rogers, Walter Pigeon, Celeste Holm, among others.

Much of the sets, dialogue, song lyrics, even costumes were so familiar to me, as if it hadn’t been more than 50 years since I’d last watched it. I was continually amazed at how much of it I remembered, and how enchanting it still is for me. It left an indelible mark on me as a young girl, showing me that I could achieve true happiness if I endured emotional and physical abuse at home, then cried hard enough to conjure a magical fairy to transform me into a beautiful pseudo-princess. I could attend a big party where the best-looking guy in the room notices me, then focuses all his attention on me for the rest of the evening, ignoring every other woman there – but only if my face, hair, body, and outfit are perfect. This strong, powerful guy would eventually show up with my lost shoe and rescue me from my horrible family situation, then sweep me back to his castle to meet his welcoming parents, who are practically my in-laws at this point.

As I watched, the adult version of me kept wondering, how does one dance in glass shoes? Ouch. And on those buffed and slick castle floors? Also, the ball gown that Cinderella shows up in looks undeniably royal, with its ermine fur collar and her outfit completed by a crown atop her head. Did anyone object to this lowly maiden from the village arriving at the castle looking like royalty when, in fact, she isn’t? And since this production was her first big role, I’m assuming that Ms. Warren couldn’t yet afford to have her teeth fixed prior to filming. I hadn’t remembered them from childhood, but now, I found them truly distracting. Wow, adult me can be a real buzz-kill.

Most of all, my inner feminist was warring with my inner child the whole time. I felt like I should be more outraged by this silly movie, a product of its time that so clearly reinforced patriarchal authority. There have been countless iterations of Cinderella since then, none of which I’ve seen, so I can only hope that someone somehow presented a more modern twist to the story, reassuring little girls everywhere that they do not have to wait for a “handsome prince” to come save them and make them happy. That they can and should be doing that for themselves.

Still, I have to admit it was fun being transported back to a time when my age was still measured in single digits and critical thinking was not yet my strong suit. I could be a little girl again, believing the fairy tale while mostly beating back my adult cynicism and questioning reservation. I could enjoy simple escapism, as I did before I even knew what that meant.

Dance steps

Lately I’ve noticed a commonality among people on social media – mostly women – struggling with the process of change. Specifically, struggling with how family members are reacting to a woman’s newfound determination to evolve into her best self. Now, you would think that if someone is trying to grow into an improved version of themselves, family would be the first in line to support them and cheer them on. And you’d be dead wrong much of the time.

It seems counterintuitive, but too often, it’s those closest to us who resist our changing. “Resist” is such a polite word, almost clinical; “throw a weapons-grade tantrum” is a more accurate term to describe the reaction we often get. But when you think about the dynamics of what’s happening, that extreme reaction makes more sense.

A former therapist of mine used the example of a dance when she explained it to me years ago. At the time, she was talking about my family of origin, but this can apply to any long-standing relationship. She said that everyone grows up knowing the unique “dance steps” of their particular family. Everyone follows along naturally, without even thinking about it. It’s those unspoken rules that every family has. You know the ones. When you’re around the people you grew up with, you know instinctively what topics are taboo, what behavior will get a silent stamp of approval, and which opinions are accepted as truth. Life around your family is much easier when you just stay in your assigned box, right?

The trouble starts when someone suddenly tries to change those ingrained dance steps. The dance can go wrong pretty quickly. People are caught off-guard and they stumble. They have no idea what you’re doing, what you’re going to do next, or why you’re messing everything up in the first place. They demand that you go back to the well-established dance steps that they know you know. They berate you for trying to change a routine that was working, in favor of something so strange. Why would you do that? They don’t understand, but one thing they know is, it can’t be better. Not for them, anyway. Most of all, they do NOT want to learn this bizarre new dance you’ve discovered. It’s an awful adjustment and leaves them with few choices, none of which are palatable. So they just get mad and frustrated and label you as the crazy one or a troublemaker.

Sound familiar? For me, it’s been a real eye-opener to think of personal growth as changing the dance steps of relationships. It’s helped me understand why people often go a little nuts when someone close to them decides to introduce new steps into the dance, even when doing so will lead to greater fulfillment for the person trying to grow. 

A physical devotional

When it comes to sticking to an exercise regimen, the common wisdom you always hear is: “Find an exercise you enjoy, so you’ll look forward to doing it!” That has never worked for me.

I am the least athletic person on the planet. Even something as easy as walking, I could never seem to keep up as a routine. I’d go in phases, regularly walking a mile or two a few days a week for a while, but inevitably I’d let it fall out of my schedule.

About four years ago, I decided to try yoga, hoping to improve the chronic pain of my lower back, which I’d blown out when I was young and single and stupid, thinking I could lift and move heavy furniture all by myself without eventually paying a price. (The things we do when we’re young, thinking our bodies are indestructible and nothing will ever come back to haunt us as we age.)

Yoga has turned out to be not just an “exercise” to tone and condition my body, but also something else I never expected: a quiet time of peace, connection, and self-awareness.

Now before you roll your eyes at that last part, let me add that I probably would have done the same prior to becoming a dedicated yogi. And I’ll be the first to admit that yoga may not be for everyone. But if you approach it with an open mind, it can be beneficial on so many levels, not the least of which is better fitness for the non-athletically gifted among us.

As I’ve practiced yoga regularly, it’s become more of a spiritual experience for me. Someone once said: “Exercise should be a celebration of what your amazing body can do, not a punishment for something you ate.” Amen! That one true sentence has done more to change my mindset toward exercise than anything I’ve heard or read in my life.

And I’ve realized this amazing body that God has given me can do all kinds of kick-ass things! When I’m in a pretzel-shaped yoga position, breathing deeply, I pause and thank God for my body that He’s loaned to me, and for all its abilities. I ask His guidance in taking care of it properly. When I raise my arms above my head, lean back and open my heart center, I pause and ask God to burrow deeper into my life so that I can better reflect Him to the world. And when our yoga instructor invites us to imagine bright, white light streaming down to cover us in its energy, I visualize God’s fierce love bathing me in its healing power.

I know there are conservative Christian groups that condemn the practice of yoga because of its Hindu origins. They believe that opening one’s mind and heart to yoga invites dark, non-Christian influences to enter. I believe that if all it takes to derail your Christian faith is practicing yoga, you may have bigger problems than you realize. Make it what you want it to be, what you need it to be. For me, turning yoga class into a physical devotional has deepened my faith and connected me more tightly to God. And I am so grateful.  

Serving poison

It’s been said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Too often, that is no more luridly on display than in one’s own family.

Sometimes I think God brings friends and pets into our lives to help make up for all the damage done by our wing-nut family members. You know the ones; those people to whom you are most closely related who are, ideally, supposed to be supportive, engaged, and accepting of who you are, even when they disagree. Ideally, indeed. What a fantasy that can be.

When “family” takes indifference to levels way beyond rude, into “cruelty” territory, it’s particularly difficult to swallow, especially when you are watching helplessly on the sidelines. Watching as the most precious person in the world stands there with his heart in his hands, generously offering love, affection, support… and in return, is spat on, kicked in the face, bloodied, and ultimately ignored. For no discernible reason except just that it’s tolerated. Over and over and over again.

When “family” takes the old “70 times 7” rule to new heights of abuse, I’m afraid all my civilized, therapeutic notions of detaching emotionally from the situation go right out the window. My faith edicts of taking it to God and praying for the abuser are the next to go flying. Given that “we all fall short,” I admit I am positively in the abyss at this point, for there are no words to describe the fire that rages out of control in me. I feel like I can’t breathe and there’s a crushing need to step between the abuser and her victim to give her what she has so abundantly earned over the past 20 years: my strong backhand across the face while wearing a big cocktail ring. And that would be only the delicious beginning (where’s my baseball bat?).

The one aspect of this appalling situation that I do find laughable is the fact that the abuser is a faith leader in her community. A faith leader who mentors young people. I nearly choke on the irony. Somehow, she has fooled the right people at the right time into believing that she is worthy of this position. Her own children have taken their place alongside her in her toxic, emotional freezer, and I fear for the other kids in her influence. My only hope is that the poison she so casually serves and the damage she inflicts is somehow kept to a minimum. Job security for the local therapists, I suppose. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want my child anywhere near her. I’ve seen who she truly is for decades now. Without question, a future inductee into the Fake Christians Hall of Fame.

I don’t know exactly how this “relationship” will end, I only know that it can’t end soon enough.

  

Adventures of a urinal

Artists are a special breed of human. They tend to color outside the lines, dream big, hear their own music and march (or not) to their own drummer. They view the world through uniquely tinted, tilted eyes.

Not long out of college, I began dating an artist. By day, he worked as a curator in an art museum, but his work as an artist was most important to him. The walls of his apartment bore pieces that he’d created in grad school, his preferred medium at the time being plaster of Paris. He’d created life-size plaster of Paris forms of women for which he’d used real models. He wrapped women’s bodies in strips of linen soaked in plaster of Paris. Once dry, he’d use the resulting true-to-form sculpture to create his art, adding ordinary items — dried flowers here, a spiral telephone cord there — to complete his statement.

The most outstanding of all his pieces, in my opinion, was an actual urinal attached to a slab of tiled bathroom wall. Within the urinal, as part of it, sat the plaster of Paris torso and head of a woman wearing a strand of beads. He’d even added yellow glitter at the bottom to simulate urine. When I asked him about the piece, he explained, “Men have been using women as receptacles for bodily fluids for millennia.” He felt a woman as a urinal showed just how low men would go in their subjugation of women. A woman’s body represented as part of a urinal was a logical extension of how men have historically viewed women. I loved it. I loved the statement it made, the symbolism, the one-of-a-kind distinctiveness of it. He asked me if I’d like to have the piece. I enthusiastically said yes!

In case you’re wondering, an actual urinal attached to a piece of bathroom wall is pretty heavy and cumbersome. Somehow, we carted it from his apartment to mine, where I kept the piece in my bedroom.

He and I eventually broke up. When it came time for me to move to another city into an even smaller apartment, I wrestled with the idea of keeping the piece. I still loved it and its symbolism, but it was so big and so heavy, I just wasn’t sure I still wanted to make a place for it in my home. I decided to table the decision to keep it or not until I was settled in my new place.

On moving day, my soon-to-be old apartment was swarming with my strongest and most loyal friends, family, and co-workers who’d shown up to help me move, God bless them. Among the movers were my dad, the dairy farmer from rural Pennsylvania, and a couple of the guys from the Sports department of the local newspaper where I worked. When it came time to load the urinal artwork onto the truck, a burly sportswriter approached it, along with my dad. They looked at this thing, then gave each other a look I’ll never forget. Without a word, they raised their eyebrows, shook their heads and shrugged, then picked it up and carried it out.

When we arrived at my new place, nobody knew in which room the urinal artwork should go, including me. I voiced my indecision as to whether to keep it or not, saying that it didn’t really match my décor, to which my aunt, with a straight face, wondered aloud, “I’m not sure what décor it would match.”

My new apartment was lovely, but small. The longer I kept the piece, the more I became convinced, sadly, that I wouldn’t be able to keep it. Since the artist and I had broken up a while back, the piece had begun to lose its charm anyway. My next dilemma was how to get rid of it.

I asked a couple of co-workers if they wanted it, especially those who’d seen it on moving day. Shockingly, they all said no (did not see that coming).

So one evening, while a friend was visiting, we planned to wait until dark, then carry the piece up to the apartment community dumpster where everyone took their trash. But when we tried to lift it, we realized it was too big and too heavy to lug all the way up to the dumpster. Plan B was to take it apart and carry it up in pieces. Here’s where my memory gets murky. I think we pried the plaster of Paris lady loose, put her in a trash bag, and took her up by herself. I think we somehow removed the urinal from the slab of wall, each of those being heavy enough on their own, but at least we could carry them individually once they were separated.

In the end, we got everything to the dumpster and I remember looking back, seeing the urinal leaning against the green dumpster, and wondering what the trash collectors would think when they saw it in the morning. I hated to dismantle a piece of art like that — no matter how “unique” — it felt blasphemous and disrespectful. If my ex-boyfriend artist ever becomes famous, I’ll kick myself even harder for having gotten rid of an original piece of his. I do sometimes wish I still had it. What a great conversation starter it would be for all those cocktail parties I never have.   

Careful: Preoccupied author driving

In order to write a novel, one must first do a lot of thinking. I mean a LOT of thinking. And not just everyday, run-of-the-mill thinking about the weather or the grocery list. I mean thinking as in plotting, strategizing, choreographing, cross-referencing what you want to write with what you’ve written before so everything remains consistent and plausible. I construct scenes in my head and mentally tweak them over and over and I seem to do all this best when I’m driving.

With music playing in the car – music is a big part of my creative process – I do my best creative thinking. My emotions swell to flood into my thoughts and drench my imagery of scenes and dialogue. Like a mini movie playing in my head, I dream up plot points, interactions, conversations, trying to enrich relationships within the arc of each character. I try to expand these scenes to maximize emotional and dramatic effect….

Since I’m doing all this while I’m driving, it’s perhaps not surprising that the other day, I inadvertently blew right through a red light.

I immediately snapped out of my fantasy, realizing what I’d done, and blurted “Sh!t” as I looked in my rearview mirror to see a police car sitting at the opposing light. However, the officer apparently wasn’t paying any better attention than I was, because the cruiser didn’t move. I sighed with relief, but thought, “Geez Louise, I need to be more careful.” If there was an active camera at that intersection, I may still receive a ticket in the mail, deservedly so. Either way, if you’re out driving around and you see my car, better give me a wide berth because I’m writing a novel and we now know how dangerous that can be. The Partridge Family had a sign painted on the back of their bus: “Careful: Nervous mother driving.” I need one that says: “Careful: Preoccupied author driving.” (Seriously, Mom, I’ll be more careful.)