George Bailey Day

February 19, 2015

I’m having a George Bailey kind of day.  You, know, George Bailey, the main character in the classic move, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In case you’re one of the thirty-eight people over the age of 40 in North America who hasn’t seen this movie, here’s a brief synopsis: George Bailey is this really smart guy with big dreams, living in a sleepy little town in upstate New York.  As a teenager, he can’t wait to escape the confines of his boring old home town, but through a series of events, most of which involve him making sacrifices for others, George ends up staying in tiny Bedford Falls, a slave to the tired old Building and Loan where he carries on the family business and is a frequent target of the mean-spirited jabs of Bitter Old Mr. Potter, who has lots of money but no soul. George is mostly happy with his life – he’s happily married, and the father of four lovely children, but he sort of feels like life has passed him by as he realizes that all those dreams he had way back when are never going to happen.


Because George is a nice guy, he’s never fired his Idiot Uncle Billy, who’s absent-mindedness lands George in a pickle so desperate he concludes that the only solution is to kill himself.  I know, I know, I’m leaving out a lot of important exposition, but this is a 1,500 word blog, so….Utterly hopeless, George decides to throw himself into the river.  Before he can end his life, the Big Guy Upstairs (you know…God?) intervenes in the form of Clarence, an angel third class, who knocks some sense into George by showing him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.


And of course, George sees how he has made a difference for a lot of people and that he has made the world a better place in ways he never imagined, even if he’s never left Bedford Falls or worked in the Argentinian oil fields or built a skyscraper.  In the end, George runs through Bedford Falls so happy to be alive he doesn’t care if he gets arrested and spends the rest of his life in jail, which, of course, he doesn’t, because the whole town pitches in to help him, and everyone is happy.


I love that movie.  I do.  We watch it every Christmas Eve, and I try to stay up for the whole thing, because it’s such a wonderfully affirming message that just about everyone who’s made it to middle age can identify with.  I love how George always does the right thing and is (mostly) content to step aside while others benefit from his sacrifice and rise to levels of glory and recognition that George will never know.  At the same time, though, I feel his aching desire to have done more, to have had a bigger life.  Sometimes, I feel that way, too.


Now, before all my Facebook friends (who are the only people who ever read my blog) leave comments on my wall telling me what a great person I am, and how much I have to thankful for, believe me – I know.  Well, I know how much I have to be thankful for, anyway.  But sometimes, I ache, too.  I think about all those dreams I had back when I was in college, and seeing as I’m now well into the third act of my life (with the gray hair and creaky bones to prove it), I have accepted that those dreams aren’t gonna happen.  I’m never going to be an Oscar-winning film actress, I’m never going to backpack through Europe and Thailand and Kenya, and I’m never going to have a cover-of-the-magazine, best-of-the-best, award-winning Big Time career. There was a time that I believed that I was going to be a mighty conqueror in whatever profession I chose, that I would rise to the top of my ranks, whatever they were, and would be internationally (or, at the very least, regionally) recognized as the best at what I did, whatever that was.  Well, that hasn’t happened.


I’d probably feel less bad about this if I weren’t so well-educated.  By that, I don’t mean that I’m necessarily all that smart or intellectual, but I was given the great gift of an outstanding education, and while I’ve managed to eke out 25-plus years as a fairly adequate attorney, I can’t say I’ve set the world on fire with my legal brilliance.  Probably the best I can hope for in the decade or so that remains of my professional life is a partnership that will afford me little more than the continued opportunity to draft motions, justify my time entries to a claims adjuster, and fret over meeting my billable hours until I’m too old to wear a bikini.


I can point to many reasons why I haven’t exactly made much of a mark in the legal world. For one, I took a number of years off to stay home with my kids, and for another, my career has always taken a backseat to my husband’s, a decision I have wholeheartedly supported, just as my husband has always supported my career right back.  As well, although I’m a good-enough attorney, I have the insight to appreciate without feeling bad that I lack the sort of legal brilliance that lands people jobs on the federal bench.  Most days, I’m okay with the fact that I haven’t had a career that includes a corner office, Learjets, or frequent appearances before Justices Ginsburg and her posse, because I have a lot of other things in my life that make me happy and fulfilled.  Like a really, really great husband, and three really, really great kids, and two really, really flatulent dogs.  I have a happy marriage, a happy home, and I’m healthy.  There’s more, but you get the picture: Not much to complain about, unless you’re sort of spoiled and horrid.


But today, I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, and today, I want to matter more.  I want to have made more of a difference in my career.  I want to be more important, to be recognized as really, really good at what I do (as opposed to being the world’s oldest associate).  Just once, I’d like to feel like I’ve achieved some modicum of the promise of my education, that I have made good on the imperative of my beloved Mount Holyoke that presented me with “the challenge to excel” all those years back.  Yeah, I’ve raised good kids, and yeah, I’ve done a lot of things right.  But have I excelled? Doesn’t feel like it.


As luck would have it on this George Bailey day, having suffered the slings and arrows of another ten hours toiling in the soul-nourishing world of insurance defense litigation, I came home to find my Alumnae Quarterly awaiting me and was once again made aware of the many ways in which my fellow alums have excelled – they’re all out there forming non-profits, sitting on boards, starting their own businesses, or working in the Obama administration (and even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, you have to admit, that’s kind of cool).  No one ever writes in to the Alumnae Quarterly, “I drive my kids to karate and I go to the grocery store and I draft really boring briefs that no one reads and I fold laundry.  Also, I have bingo wings and the beginnings of a turkey neck.” Maybe we should.  I don’t tend to share with my former classmates the ups and downs of my life as a brown-polyester attorney living in Suburbia, U.S.A. amidst the big box stores and chain restaurants.  What’s special or important about that?


But here I am, at the ripe age of fifty, old enough to know that while my life is by no means over, there’s not much chance that I’ll be shaking the cobwebs off those pie in the sky dreams of thirty years ago.  One of the most poignant lines I’ve ever heard is the following from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River:” “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”  Bruce, who always gets it right, also talked about the “fear so real you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”  It’s hard to imagine Bruce has ever had occasion to experience either of those particular emotions, but I have.  All those dreams I had as a woman with a flat stomach and knees that didn’t pop when I walked up the stairs, are they lies? And all those moments that haven’t come – what am I supposed to do with them?


Yeah, I’m a spoiled brat.  There are people out there who are battling cancer, who have lost a spouse, who are out of work and don’t know how they are going to feed their kids. There are those struggling with mental illness, who lead lives of quiet desperation, who are lonely and sad and have no hope.  I’m lucky, and I know it.  Most of the time, I know how much I’ve got to be thankful for, just like George Bailey did, but still, that didn’t stop him from occasionally thinking about running away from it all, from his lovely wife Mary and his adorable daughter Zuzu and all the rest of his kids and Idiot Uncle Billy.


Sometimes you want to just set aside all the responsibilities and have-to’s and dirty dishes and field trip permission slips and time sheets and oil changes and depositions and say, “I’m going to pursue my dreams and do what I want to do, and I don’t care how my kid gets home from soccer practice or how we’re going to pay for her braces.”

But George Bailey didn’t do that; he didn’t run off to Mount Bedford (or anywhere else) with Violet Bick.  He found a way to be happy working at the Building and Loan while his brother became a college football star and was a war hero who killed a lot of Nazis and then went on to have a brilliant career as a glass manufacturer.  Which is a lot to compete with, even if you are married to Donna Reed and have a really neat house.


I’m not going to run off, either, because for one, I love my family and would be lost without them, and for another, where am I going to run, and what is there, that would be better than what I already have?  Nothing, really.  The high-power career as a $700-an-hour attorney with the Big Important Office and really fabulous shoes wouldn’t make me any happier than I am now; in fact, I’d probably be a lot less happy, since $700-an-hour attorneys with Big Important Offices don’t get to spend much time with their flatulent pets.


I guess I’m just going to have to power through today and hope that the gratitude that usually infuses most of my days will be waiting for me when I wake up tomorrow.  If I’m lucky, by then, I will once again feel in my bones all the joy, satisfaction and contentment

that my family, friends, and, yes, even my job has brought me, and I will happily tuck my dreams of grandeur and fame back amongst the cobwebs where they belong.  After all, even when I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, it’s a wonderful life.

In Praise of Hypocrisy

January 7, 2015

So I understand that Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, after “challenging” married couples to “take a happily married picture and post it” on their Facebook page, have now removed photos shared by gay married couples. Apparently, this “challenge” came as the result of some raised eyebrows following a photo posted by their newly-married daughter, Jessa, on her Instagram account showing her and her new husband (the one she famously was not allowed to kiss, and was only permitted to “side-hug,” prior to their nuptials) locked in a steamy embrace (okay, it was actually a pretty tame, and, frankly, sort of awkward, closed-mouth smooch). Because of the internet, this has now become a bit of a thing, which I suppose I am only serving to perpetuate by posting this blog, which is something worth thinking about—later, that is, after I’ve said what I have to say about this particular issue.

As an initial matter, the Duggars certainly have a right control the content of their Facebook page, and the rest of us are free to support or oppose their words and viewpoints, or (perhaps the better choice) to simply ignore them altogether. After all, I’m not sure that any of us gain very much from paying too much attention to reality television stars whose fame is premised entirely upon the fact that they’ve been very successful at procreating.

As well, since I’ve watched their television program for a grand total of about fifteen minutes, I’m not sure I feel qualified to render an informed opinion about who the Duggars are or what they stand for. From what I did see, however, Michelle and Jim Bob seem to be loving, caring parents who have taken full economic responsibility for their many offspring and live within their means by making careful financial decisions and doing themselves what many of us hire other people to do. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they are featured on a wildly popular television show, the earnings from which probably go a long way towards feeding and clothing those nineteen children). They also seem to have raised thoughtful, creative, kind children who appear to be well-adjusted and happily help in the work of running a large, busy household (and who each also play a stringed instrument). Perhaps somewhere down the road one of the kids will pen a “Mommy/Daddy Dearest” sort of tome, and we’ll learn that things weren’t so rosy in the Duggar household after all; from what I can tell from my admittedly limited knowledge on this point, however, the Duggars seem to be making it work and setting an example of a close, loving family that is a sort of refreshing thing in today’s world where it seems that every time I log onto Huffington Post, I read about some man killing his pregnant wife or some mother leaving a newborn in dumpster.

But now the Duggars have officially expressed their opposition as to gay marriage (which I guess anyone with half a brain could probably have anticipated), and in support of that stance have offered the following from Rick Warren: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. Second is that to love someone means that you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

I agree with Rick Warren, whomever he is, and I don’t fear or hate the Duggars simply because they have (not surprisingly) espoused a position I find repugnant, nor do I believe that they should be pressured by anyone to change that position. Perhaps we should even congratulate the Duggars for remaining strong in their convictions, even though I doubt they will be faced with much opposition within what I gather is a fairly tight-knit, like-minded community, such that it’s probably not all that difficult or brave for them to promulgate their beliefs. It would probably have been a lot more difficult, and would have required a lot more bravery, for them to have joyfully accepted and welcomed gay couples in their celebration of married love, but anyone who is surprised that they didn’t is sort of naïve, and to get too riled up about their behavior is kind of stupid, not to mention a waste of time, since in the history of the internet, I don’t know of a single instance in which someone read an viewpoint contrary to their own, considered it, and then said, “maybe I should rethink my position on this one.” Instead, it seems we do just the opposite by figuratively sticking our fingers in our ears and running around the back yard shouting, “I can’t HEAR you” like a three-year-old. That’s pretty much where we’ve evolved in the age of the world wide web.

Neither do I believe, moreover, that loving someone means you have to agree with everything they believe or do (just ask my husband), and I suppose this statement is encouraging, because it suggests that the Duggars do in fact love all gay people despite their gayness. I suppose this is something of an improvement on groups who just flat-out, and unabashedly, hate gay people and are proud of it (Westboro Baptist Church, I’m talking about you), even though the “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude is just a tad bit condescending, communicating, as it does, “I’ll love you even though you’re defective.” I’m just not sure that it’s terribly “compassionate” to exclude an entire segment of society from your Facebook page celebrating happy marriages in order that your “convictions” remain uncompromised, but, then, I guess that pretty much sums up what’s been going on in our country since, like, forever.

As I noted above, the Duggars’ position on the issue of marriage equality is hardly surprising, but I find myself disappointed nonetheless. I’m not a religious person, but I do have tremendous respect for people whose lives are a testament to integrity, honesty, kindness, and love in the name of their faith. My mother- and father-in-law are such people, and so are the Duggars, I think, and so I guess I would have hoped that when they saw the photos of gay couples on their website, even if those photos made them uncomfortable, they would have celebrated the love they saw as worth celebrating. I would have hoped this especially given how blessed Michelle and Jim Bob have been by the recent marriages of two lovely daughters whose weddings were showcased in People magazine as the joyful celebrations all married couples hope to experience on their wedding day, but which are still denied to same-sex couples in about a third of our United States. It would have been so wonderfully inspiring if Michelle and Jim Bob had just left those pictures on their Facebook page for everyone to see, and if anyone said a word about it, would have urged their critics to embrace their brothers and sisters in Christ, or Allah, or Mohammad, or Zoroaster, or whomever, and say, “there are two people who are trying to make it work. Isn’t that great.”

I guess I was overly optimistic, and if I’m disappointed by people to whom no one would pay any attention if they’d had only two kids, instead of 19, then that’s on me, and I’m an idiot. And who knows; with nineteen children, the oldest of whom are already at work on creating their own double-digit families, there’s bound to be at least one child or grandchild who’s gay, and perhaps that child or grandchild will be the impetus for some soul-searching and an opportunity to rethink the party line.

I don’t think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are monsters, I don’t think they’re hateful, and I have a feeling if I met them, I’d like them just fine. But I would have liked them better, and respected them more, if they’d been able to tolerate a harmless picture of a same-sex married couple on their Facebook page. Since they didn’t, I’d like to invite any married couple—gay or straight—to post their “happily married picture” on mine.

Are You Mad at Me, and Am I Getting Fired?

April 8, 2015

I’m an anxious person.  I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember.  No matter how good things are, no matter how well things are going (sometimes, precisely because of how well things are going), I worry.  If there is something for me to fret about, I will find it, and if there’s nothing even remotely troublesome going on, I’ll make something up.  I used to think I was just sort of neurotic.  In recent years, I’ve come to understand that I suffer from anxiety disorder.  I’m not sure I feel better about it now that I have a name for it; it hasn’t made me any less anxious.

This isn’t going to be one of those blogs that gives Helpful Information by listing the signs and symptoms of, or providing recommendations for living with anxiety disorder, because pretty much, it comes down to this:  Do you worry a lot for no good reason? Yes? Is it, at times, all-consuming? Also yes? Do people tell you that you worry too much over nothing? Uh-huh? Well then, you’ve probably got anxiety disorder.  Wanna know what to do about it? The truth? Medication and therapy may help, but mostly, you’re just going to have to learn to live with it.

There.  That’s all the Helpful Information you’re going to get.

I have some idea of the roots of my own anxiety-related issues:  Raise a painfully awkward child in a less than idyllic setting where life alternates between rigid order and total chaos, add to that a parent who is a demanding perfectionist, then send said child to law school, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up with someone who’s going to worry.  A lot.  If said person also happens to be sort of bookish, bespectacled, and bad at sports, well, you might as well buy stock in Pfizer for all the Xanax you’re going to need to get through the rest of your life.

My particular form of anxiety disorder tends to take two distinct themes:  Half of the time I’m convinced that someone is angry with me.  Something my husband used to hear a lot, until he told me to stop asking, was, “are you mad at me?” “Trust me,” he finally told me, “I’ll tell you if I’m mad at you.”  Given that most of the people in my life who have ever been angry at me have never had a problem making their unhappiness known, you would think I’d would just assume that unless I’m told otherwise, there’s no reason to worry.

But I do.  I worry that I’ve said or done something hurtful or offensive, or that I’ve failed to be sufficiently attentive or available.  Never mind that I am, by and large, an extremely thoughtful, considerate person who tries to be sensitive to the feelings of others, sometimes to a fault.  If I text someone and don’t hear back within a few hours, I assume they’re mad.  Not that they might be busy, or that (unlike me) they don’t feel compelled to check their smartphone three to four times a minute, or that they got my text, read it, didn’t think it required a response, and didn’t give it another thought except, “that Wendy sure is nice.  I wonder if koalas are as soft and cuddly as they look?”  I worry that people will read things I’ve posted on Facebook and think, “she’s awfully full of herself,” or, “did I ask her about her opinions on gay marriage?” or “yeah, we know, Wendy…Wegmans is a zoo on Sunday.  We get it.”  That I have the fortitude to actually start a blog is mostly due to my assumption that nobody will ever read it; if I thought otherwise, I’d probably have to be on a Valium drip.  You know, in case my opinions were wrong.

Most of the time, then, I’m pretty certain that I’ve managed to piss someone off and, as well, that if someone is angry with or disappointed in me, they’re probably justified in feeling that way.  I try to remind myself that all those people I’m worrying about being mad at me probably don’t give me much thought at all, and there’s not much chance they are fixating, as they drive to work or fold laundry, on whether or not I am upset with them.  But I worry nonetheless.

When I’m not worrying that someone is mad at me, I’m worried that I’ve made a critical error at work and that I’m on the verge of being fired.  Mind you, I’ve never been fired from any job, ever, my entire life.  In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve consistently gotten excellent evaluations (which probably has more to do with the fact that I’m relentlessly conscientious than to any real talent).  But despite a record that should give me some level of confidence that I am a valued, respected employee, I obsess about the one comment in a hundred that is anything other than unreservedly positive, and I worry that the smallest error is going to lead to termination.

When you factor in that my profession (litigation attorney) is, by definition, adversarial in nature—where any weakness is blood in the water to be leveraged for a more advantageous result—it’s not surprising that you won’t get many of my colleagues to admit to anything other than utter certitude in the correctness of their position.  I don’t meet many lawyers who will cop to a lack of confidence, and so I try to hide my own lest others perceive me as weak or ineffectual.  So, in addition to worrying that I’m not very good at my job, I worry that others will interpret my worrying as a sign that, in fact, I’m not very good at my job.  It’s exhausting.

Even my dreams are anxiety-filled:  Whereas my husband has fun action dreams in which he’s a Jason Bourne type character involved in international intrigue and adventure, I have dreams in which I’m walking over glass barefoot being pursued by someone, on my way to the final exam in the calculus class I haven’t attended all semester.  Or I’m trying to make an important phone call and keep messing up the digits, or I can’t open my locker at school, or I’m falling over a cliff into a ravine, or I’ve promised a friend I’d look after her pet while she was away for a month, but forgot to do so.  Some nights I’m so tired I don’t dream, and that’s a blessing, because I don’t have the kind of dreams where good things happen.  Ever.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to combat the anxiety.  Therapy has helped enormously.  In the past, medication has, too (self-medication, not so much).  Exercise has been my savior, as has my tremendously supportive husband (the one who isn’t mad at me…at least for now).  Getting older, too, is a factor; there are a lot of things I’ve stopped worrying about (like not having six-pack abs, a foreign luxury automobile, or a firm grasp on what’s going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Russia), and that’s been really liberating.  I hope that the older I get, the less I will worry about things I know, objectively, to be ridiculous.

But for now, there are many white-knuckle days in which I simple have to gut it out, and I do, for the most part, by telling myself that 99% of the time, my worry turns out to be baseless, that most of the people in my life like and respect me, and that as long as I show up to work every day and make a solid effort, I’ll probably have a job until I’m ready to retire.  Some days are better than others, and there are the rare glorious days where everything is right with the world, and I feel sanguine, peaceful—optimistic, even.  I’ve learned to treasure those days when the nagging sense of dread subsides for a little while and I can feel silly and light and carefree.

Unless you’re mad at me right now.  Are you?

Disarming the F-Bomb

March 28, 2015

When I was a kid, my dad cursed a lot.  A LOT.  His mastery of profanity was so exhaustive and such a part of the fabric of my childhood that for a time, I actually believed that the complete name of the deity many believe to be divine was “Jesus Goddamned Christ.”  My dad freely swore like a stevedore, even in the presence of his children, and it is from his example that I learned most of the vocabulary that informs my language when I am experiencing heightened levels of stress or frustration.

My mother didn’t curse (at least, I never heard her), and because she didn’t like foul language we kids would get our mouths washed out with soap if we did.  My mother’s example notwithstanding, however, I grew up believing that cursing was one of those things that was verboten to kids but somehow became permissible once you got older (like eating brownies for dinner or choosing not to make your bed), and I looked forward to the day that I, too, could let rip certain words with impunity.  I imagined that there were age milestones at which you could no longer get in trouble if you said a particular curse word.  In my own 8-year-old brain, the hierarchy of bad words went something like this:  crap (acceptable at age 10), bitch (age 12), bastard (also age 12), goddammit and Jesus Christ (both age 14), asshole (15), shit (16), sucks (17, and mostly because my mother really hated that word), and then the granddaddy of all bad words, F*** (you had to be 18 at least, 21 if you wanted to be absolutely sure you wouldn’t be gagging on a bar of Irish Spring).  Back then, the F word was bad with a capital B.  That was the kind of word that got your grounded for a week, with no dessert or trips to the library.  It was such a bad word that even my dad didn’t say it—much, anyway; no one did.

Things have changed a lot since I was eight, and nowadays, people say the F word about as freely as they eat a hamburger or get their oil changed.  I routinely hear the F bomb being dropped in the workplace, and mind you, I don’t work on a loading dock or an oil rig (and my apologies to those who do but still manage to keep their language G rated).  I work in a law office, perhaps one of the last places you’d expect the casual (and frequent) invocation of a word which, if uttered by a presidential candidate, would probably be enough to prevent him or her from getting elected.

I hear people use the F word waiting on line at the grocery store, trying on jeans at Old Navy, and over soup and broth bowls at Panera.  You’re not allowed to say it on network television or terrestrial radio (though it’s pretty obvious when an NFL coach throws down the F bomb whilst fighting with a referee), but if you have cable television or Sirius, all bets are off.  If you did a shot every time you heard the F word in the typical R-rated movie, you’d be drunk inside of twenty minutes and dead by the end of the first act:  Consider the “F-Count” for the following movies:  “The Wolf of Wall Street” – 569; “Casino” – 422; “Goodfellas” – 300; even “Good Will Hunting” used the F word 154 times – that’s a F*** every 1.22 minutes.  And don’t even get me started on comedians or rappers, who use the word so prodigiously it’s almost as though it’s a verbal tic.

So it’s out there, and everyone says it, so much so that it’s become kind of acceptable (or, at the very least, no longer all that shocking) to pepper your speech with the F word in all its various forms.  I’ve been known to use the word – a lot.  I’ve used it in front of my kids—when they were younger and I lost my temper, and even now that they’re older, because sometimes, they use it, too.  I mostly use it when I’m angry or frustrated, or to add extra emphasis to the point I’m trying to make.  I’ve never used it in a professional context, and I generally only use it with people I’ve known long enough to be assured that they won’t be offended if I do.  But it is a word I use, in spite of myself, and I won’t even try to justify my usage of it, because when it comes right down to it, it’s offensive, unnecessary, and lazy.

Let’s start with the obvious – that it’s a word that, despite its ubiquity, many still find distasteful and vulgar, even people who aren’t in their seventies.  On its own, that’s probably not a good enough reason not to say something.  Given the fact that the F word has historically been considered pretty much one of the worst words you can say, however, there should be at least some fleeting recognition, before the word flows off one’s tongue, of the potential to cause offense, followed immediately by the exercise of some impulse control if the level of offense is likely to be considerable.

I also believe that in a civilized society, some effort should be made to behave in something resembling a civilized fashion, and to my mind, that means that it’s not necessary to use the F bomb in 98% of one’s communications.  You don’t need to say it when you’re describing an interaction with a co-worker (even if the co-worker is a jerk), you don’t need to say it when you’re talking about your boyfriend (even if he’s a lying sack of horse manure), and you don’t need to say it when relating your most recent trip to the laundromat (although the only pleasant experience I’ve ever had in a laundromat occurred in Florence, Italy with my husband, and mostly because it had been preceded and was followed by the consumption of large quantities of pasta).  Most of what you need to tell anyone at any given time can be conveyed perfectly well and coherently (even more so, I’d wager) without the use of the F word.

But we say it because we’ve gotten used to saying it, and because we’ve gotten used to saying it, some of the shock value has eroded.  Then, too, the F word is only shocking because someone decided a long time ago that it was, indeed, shocking (probably because it was a crude reference to the sex act, which you weren’t allowed to talk about back then, whenever “back then” was).  So, there are a lot of people who are no longer offended by the F word, or who think that no one should be offended by any word, because, after all, it’s just a word.  I think most people would agree, however, that the F word is still at least a sort of “bad word,” as evidenced by the fact that you’d be shocked if you heard that word coming out of the mouth of a nightly news anchor, a third-grader, or your grandmother.

Since the F word is sort of a “bad word,” shouldn’t we, at the very least, be judicious in our use of it? In part so as to avoid offending others for no good reason, in part because if you use a shocking word all the time, it sort of ceases to be shocking.  The reason I most wish people would say it less—myself included—however, is because it’s lazy.  When you’re angry or have a high degree of emotion about something, it’s easy to say, “he’s a f***ing idiot!” or “she totally f***ed everything up!” or “I can’t stand that motherf***er!”

What’s harder is making an effort to express yourself without relying on the nuclear option, such as “he’s as dumb as a bowl of chocolate pudding,” or “she so thoroughly failed to properly discharge her duties, one could make a strong case that she is well-suited to no purpose other than to expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” or “I dislike that man more than anyone else who has ever drawn breath, with the exception of Adolph Hitler and the 2013 – 2014 Seattle Seahawks.”  I think we would all agree that those examples are a lot more creative, and much more interesting for the listener.

I wish I used the F word less frequently, and it’s something over which I am constantly kicking myself; every time the word comes out of my mouth, it feels like a small failure, and I mentally remind myself that it’s not a word I want to be in the habit of using, even if my mother-in-law isn’t in the room.  I’m not proud of myself when I use the word, even if I’m justifiably angry to such an extent that finding a more articulate way to express myself isn’t a priority.  There are times when I hear myself, or someone else, use the F word, and I want to say, “Aren’t we better than that?” And by that, I don’t mean, more educated, or more privileged, or smarter, or more sophisticated.  I just mean, can’t we do better than a four-letter word someone coined a long time ago to describe the process of inserting certain body parts into certain other body parts?  I think we can.  I really f***ing do.  So, I’m going to try, starting today, to rid my vocabulary of the F word.  Because even if 21 is old enough to say it, maybe 51 is old enough to stop.

Applause for the Audience

May 17, 2015

On Friday, I attended my daughter’s end-of-the-year chorus and handbell concert at school.  The talent of the various singers, the ringers, and the stringed instruments was pretty impressive.  At one point, two students played a piano duet that was absolutely brilliant, and I experienced two emotions simultaneously:  Delight at the wonderful performance that had me grinning from ear to ear, and regret that I can’t play the piano like that.  It didn’t bother me that I can’t sing or play the cello, because I’ve never been able to sing or play the cello.  But I did used to play the piano, and so, because I’m me, I took it as an opportunity to beat myself up.  You know, because I can’t play the piano like that and, obviously, I should.

I started playing the piano in second grade and continued through college.  I picked up the basics pretty quickly, but though I had marginal talent and a good ear, I never practiced enough, and my technique was deplorable.  As a music major in college, I was required to take performance every semester.  After two years, I switched to harpsichord, and then organ, because I get bored easily, and because the harpsichord/organ instructor was a lot less demanding than my piano professor.

So I was an adequate pianist, but not a great one.  Then I went to law school, got married, and had kids, and I really didn’t think much about playing the piano.  It was all I could do to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner and sign off on the kids’ homework assignments, and this was before yoga pants and the internet were invented, mind you, so you can see why I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my Mozart.

Later, we bought an old piano for $100 from a bar that was looking to get rid of it (mice and all), and later, after my oldest had been taking lessons for several years, we bought a better model that now gathers dust, un-tuned and untouched, in the living room.  I sit down about once a year to tinker around a bit, and I have good intentions of finally mastering the Alla Turca or this Bach fugue that I’ve been working on since college, but billable hours, laundry, and driving my kids places sort of gets in the way of a regular practice schedule.  I’ve mostly accepted that I’ll never get around to that book of Chopin preludes that’s been sitting in the piano bench since 1985.  There have been other more important things to attend to.

Listening to those two young men perform on Friday night, however, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed playing, back when it was something I did regularly, but within three seconds, I knew that I’d never been as good as those high school students were – not even close.  Having studied piano for as long as I did, and having attended many, many concerts over the years, I know a good pianist when I hear one – again, I’ve got a really good ear.

So, I knew that these young men had more talent that I ever did (and, to be fair, probably practice a lot more than I ever did).  As I sat there, I imagined the concerts they would play in the years to come, formal and informal, and I thought of all the joy they would experience when they sat down, opened up the sheet music, and got it just right.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  It made me happy for them, and sad for me that I don’t get to do that anymore.  There’s not much time for creative pursuits these days; I’m pretty much tapped out attending to the immediate needs of work, family and home.  Because I’m me, I felt bad about that; if I were only somehow better, I would have found a way to fit in two hours of practice every day over the last 15 years—you know, between working upwards of 50 hours a week, taking care of my kids, scrubbing the bathroom and folding sheets.  I hate folding sheets.

But then, I had a teeny tiny epiphany – I’ve been having more of these lately, which I suppose is a worthwhile tradeoff for the increasingly frequent word retrieval issues I’ve been experiencing since turning fifty.  It occurred to me that art is a two-way street:  All of us volunteer to be the audience every time we go to a movie or a concert (whether it be Beethoven or the Rolling Stones), or buy a ticket to an art museum, or perhaps even when we pick up a book (unless it’s “Fifty Shades of Gray” or anything written by Danielle Steele).  We do that to be entertained, or edified; to learn something; to feel something; to watch someone do something amazing; to see something beautiful.  We the audience seek out and benefit from art, that much is certain.  But while the creative process itself is likely fulfilling to the artist regardless of whether anyone else ever listens to or sees the finished product, I think there’s some validity to the notion that ultimately, an artist needs an audience – at least some of the time, anyway – and that being that audience has some value as well, especially when the artists are our kids, who benefit from our attendance and encouragement and applause.

Perhaps this is a massive rationalization – me trying to find some meaning in my role as a suburban mom in jeans and DSW ballet flats clapping from the third row and remembering my own end-of-the-year concerts all those years ago when I took for granted my mother’s faithful attendance.  Perhaps I need to face the fact that playing the piano well is just one more thing I’m going to have to add to the list of Things Wendy Meant to Do But Didn’t Get Around To (and Never Will)…you know, like learning Italian or reading “Democracy in America.”  Suddenly, all that time I thought I had to read the great classics or become a serviceable tennis player has passed me by.  George Bailey knows what I mean.

I’m pleased to say that as I turned over these ideas in my mind, I decided that instead of feeling bad about the fact that I can’t play the piano the way I wish I could, I would congratulate myself on being an appreciative audience, which every artist needs, at least some of the time, especially when that artist is your kid, who probably doesn’t give much thought to the fact that you’re there, but would certainly miss you if you weren’t.

I can’t play the piano the way those young men can, but you know what? I’m a hell of a good audience, and at this point in my life, that’s enough.