Monday, July 23, 2007

We can't all be the American Idol, and few of us have a Fairy Godmother

Forethought: I've been working on many drafts (so far) of blog posts about blogging, the value therein, community, rights, obligations, limits, etc. These ideas are all gelling in my mind in a way that I'll be working out in posts. Some of these topics are being covered at BlogRhet by other bloggers who are fabulous, so check it out. Others are being worked out in upcoming Hump Day Hmm topics. Don't forget this Wednesday's Hump Day Hmm topic is political correctness and communication, outlined in more detail in this post. I've had some excellent topic suggestions so I'll create and post a schedule soon.



I recently finished reading Nick Hornby's latest novel, A Long Way Down. It's a dark comedy about four suicidal strangers who meet on the top of a building, where each had gone to jump. Their impulse to save each other forces them to realize their own self-preservation instinct. After walking down, the four bond into an unlikely band of friends.

'If Camus had written a grown up version of The Breakfast Club, the result might have had more than a little in commmon with [A Long Way Down] ... a brave and absorbing book. It's a thrill to watch a writer as talented as Hornby take on the grimmest of subjects without flinching, and somehow make it funny and surprising at the same time'

Tom Perotta, Publishers Weekly

JJ, described as a "tall, cool, American, looks like a rock-star (was, in fact, a rock-star before his band split) - who's weighed down with a heap of problems and pizza," was the character who most struck me. At an adult developmental leap point in life, he's trying to decide whether he can choose to leap forward, or if he ought to just leap off.

Early on he's explaining his story, how he ended up on the roof, and references it all back to when his band, Big Yellow, split up:

When Big Yellow played live, it was like some kind of Pentecostal service; instead of applause and whistles and hoots, there'd be tears and teeth-grinding and speaking in tongues. We saved souls.
...

But we used to have these messages boards up on our Web site, and I'd read them every now and again, and I could tell that people felt the same way we did; and I looked at other people's boards, too, and they didn't have the same kind of fans. I mean, everyone has fans who love what they do, otherwise they wouldn't be fans, right? But I could tell from reading the other boards that our guys walked out of our shows feeling something special. We could feel it and they could feel it. It's just that there weren't enough of them, I guess. Anyway.

Sometimes, I look at my traffic stats and comment numbers and compare them to other blogs. Not healthy, I know. Old habits. Habits for a good reason, which is to say, for an understandable reason.

Writing is (and I count blogging in this) a competitive and nepotistic field. For every one job, you know there are at least a dozen (more, usually) people who want it. Reputation and reader reception outscore talent and technical ability nine times out of ten.

If you want a job, first you have to prove that people want to read you. You can't prove that until you get a chance to get your pieces published. What a tricky wicket.

If you do manage to get published, you need the equivalent of good ratings. Otherwise, why use you again? The whole point of publishing your piece was to interest readers and convert them to buyers.

It's all about the benjamins.

JJ's band had a large number of shows and produced two critically acclaimed albums...neither of which sold well enough to generate revenue that made it worth anyone's while to bother further with the band. So one day, after a show, the leader said, basically, "Well, I guess that's it, then."

JJ decided then and there that clearly music was not his future. He'd given it a go, and it hadn't panned out. He fell into a space that was "too small, too dark and airless and fucking hopeless," as he contemplated his very limited future options.

The trouble with my generation is that we all think we're fucking geniuses. Making something isn't good enough for us, and neither is selling something or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to be something. It's our inalienable right, as citizens of the twenty-first century. If Christina Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can't I? Where's mine, huh?

This idea is everywhere; it floods the television. People are chosen to get new houses, makeovers, new wardrobes, voted best dancer, favorite singer, etc. They aren't just sudden celebrities put in front of us; we see the entire process from "nobody" to "somebody." We know these are just Average Joes, just like us, or so we are primed to believe.

They aren't though, not really, not average at all. The ones we see on the shows were culled from very large herds of actual average people---people who didn't rate as much better than good enough (or worse).

The curse of mediocrity.

Growing up we all heard, "Everyone is special in some way...we all have different gifts." We watched kids get special attention and awards/rewards for being the Smartest, Cutest, Most Charismatic, and so forth and the rest of us bided our time, waiting our turn...anticipating our fifteen seconds.

And sometimes, we really aren't good enough to achieve our dreams.

Life Manifesto #1: You can't be anything there is to be. We are all born with certain potential and into limits. You don't have the right, you aren't entitled, to be rich, famous, or the best. But you can do your best at what you can do. And who knows where that may take you...

You want to shoot me right now, don't you?

So how do I reconcile this broadly promoted and aggressively pushed idea that we all ought to pursue our dreams? And how do we not end up like Walter Mitty, living exclusively in our imaginations to the detriment of our real life?

I think it's fine to learn, practice, work, and try but then we need to have enough wisdom to know our own limitations, and achieve our personal best within the bounds of reason. Or else we might end up on the ledge of a tall building, looking at the long way down---metaphorically, or literally.

I know I've had to overcome---err, know I must learn how to overcome---the knowledge of my own personal limitations as a writer. In my fantasies, someone reads a piece I wrote and thinks, WOW! this writer ROCKS! she's the next best thing...I must sign her up for [insert dream project.]

It's the geek version of the starlet getting discovered in the soda shop.

But that never actually happens. In fact, when I pursue jobs, I not only face a tremendous amount of rejection, it's much worse; I'm frequently ignored.

I look at other writers at those publications. I read their work. And I wonder, what makes them the guy, but not me? I can't tell...and nobody ever explains. Damn uppity editors! (that's self-deprecating humor) Am I the Big Doofus making an ass of myself, like the one kid on American Idol, or that other kid on SYTYCD?

Do I think I am better than I actually am?

And I think hard. I have worked hard at this blog. I have goals. I've achieved my personal blog goals: write frequently, write honestly, write meaningfully...work towards deadlines, try different styles and methods of content delivery, hone your craft, keep up the writing muscles.

Like JJ's band, I have found a small but interactive community. As on his Web site, my own blog reflects that people appreciate a certain something in what I write and how I write. But also like JJ, there just aren't that many.

My blog is fairly static, actually.

I watch other blogs come up behind me and then rapidly overtake me, bypassing me entirely.

Does that make what I do worthless? Not good enough?

I keep thinking about how maybe it's true: someone with my experience, education, intelligence, ability, etc. ought to have accomplished more by now. I keep thinking about this mug my younger sister-in-law gave my husband on his thirtieth birthday; it read, "I'm 30, seems like I should have more money by now."

We're so cruel, sometimes, to people in the middle and lower. We're so harsh, actually, about the middle itself. "Those who can't do, teach." "Well, he couldn't make it as an actor so now he directs." "Yeah, her copywriting career flopped so these days she's editing."

When did the top become the only place that matters? Are the bottom 90% failures?

My grandparents' generation seems to have---in my recollection---lived by a very modest credo, "It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do your best."

They may have limited themselves unecessarily at times, not reaching for the stars, but perhaps we do the same thing, often thinking the real accomplishment is catching the stars.

I don't know what my dream is, now. I have to reassess.

If I set aside the messages that culture, society, and childhood drummed into my head that it is my obligation to reach for the stars, follow my dream, fulfill my potential...then what do I think I need and want to do, knowing who and how I am, what I know I can and can't do?

I suppose if Hollywood made my life into a movie my story would have to have a fairytale twist with a fairy godmother sort swooping in to provide magical bestselling novel success. I suppose if Hollywood made Nick Hornby's book into a movie JJ's band would reunite, and with new depth to their music from this experience, would become wildly successful (or maybe not...they didn't massacre his other two books too badly). I like the way Nick Hornby ended it (and no, I'm not going to say...just go read the book).

I'm not sure why we all need to see the wildly successful and happily ever after ending so badly. I say this as one who adores this sort of tied-up-with-a-bow perfection.

But I do wish more things showed people---after not being the ultimate winner---finding joy in mediocrity.

I think Gwen initially planted this seed in my mind with a post she wrote a while back, and followed up with more recently with her post, What to expect. She wrote

It’s tempting to tell our children they’re extraordinary and special. But empirically speaking, from a superficial performance perspective, that extraordinariness is not going to last for most of them. My daughter may be especially, hmm, let’s say kind right now, in her very very small elementary school pond. But as she grows up, that pool is going to grow and her spot of specialness is going to slip. It’s simple mathematics. Not everyone can truly be extraordinary, in that externally apparent way. This is what we learned from The Incredibles: if everyone is special, no one is special.

Nobody ever told me I was extraordinary, but certainly they did focus on my youthful potential. I was bright, I ought to go far. In reality, though, we are limited by many things, not all of which are in our control, and at least one of which might be our tragic flaw. I'm bright and a decent writer. But more importantly, I enjoy it. it has value because I value it.

So I keep blogging. I have discovered a common happiness in achieving my personal goals and have rediscovered a feeling of pride in what I do accomplish, which happens to be making something and being something, even if it isn't the top dog. Plus, the community I have found is outstanding.

Thus, at the end of the day, it seems that each of us is extraordinary in some way, we do all have special gifts. Just not quite in the way I think most of our youthful minds interpreted it to mean. It doesn't promise top tier success, fame, or fortune. It does promise, though, that in life, if we stop and listen, we'll find extraordinary in something and enjoy our special gifts.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

27 comments:

Emily said...

I love coming here. You always deal so honestly with your readers.

I am relieved in many ways as an adult to not have to excel, to be average. But, I am very hard on myself as a mother and I want to be perfect. I cannot accept the whole "good enough." I guess I think my kids deserve better than me, which is silly, but that must be it.

You know, you are one of only two people to mark my blog as a fav on Technorati, and that's OK with me. Whenever I go over there, I get to see your picture, and that is definitely good enough!

thailandchani said...

This post reminds me of something that happened a few months ago. I went to lunch with my friend Pat, the Chinese guy, and we were driving back and saw a banner on a freeway overpass.

It said "you can achieve your greatest dreams."

We kind of looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, "I don't like that message".

It was aimed at high school kids.

It's a false message. It's deceptive. It sets people up for a life of frustration. It does nothing to promote harmony or cooperation.

In that regard, and in my opinion, that is a bad thing.

I don't think any of us like to think of ourselves as "mediocre".. but, really, that word in itself is a value-laden one ~ within a US/North American cultural context.

Really, the only thing "mediocre" is when we stop thinking for ourselves.

I've always heard the same thing you mentioned about "reaching my potential", "You're too bright to do so little", etc. etc. etc. The truth is I never cared very much.

And who benefits from the kind of thinking promoted on that banner? Who benefits from driving everyone to think they always have to be more, be "higher" (the hierarchy inherent in that use of language turns me off in and of itself), own more, be richer, prettier, more, more, more?

Consumer culture. That is what benefits. Produce and consume.

As if that's all that matters in living! Bah!

If people are consistently dissatisfied with what they have, they will constantly try to create it by buying more, taking more classes, getting more plastic surgery, getting into debt ~ and it's a cycle that is never ending.

Imagine a world where people thought more about what they could do for others in a harmonious fashion rather than a competitive manner?

Wow. We might actually create a world worth living on.

And so it goes.... :)


Peace,

~Chani

Magpie said...

Nice post, Julie. You always give me something to chew on.

Snoskred said...

Maybe their greatest dreams is exactly that, Chani - that's what is good about that message. Maybe their greatest dream is to help others, volunteer their spare time, one day do something that truly helps someone.

When I was a kid, I never wanted success, fame, fortune, expensive things. From the age of 13 I was a volunteer for St John's Ambulance. Once a week we'd go to a course for three hours and learn about first aid. Once we had finished the basic course, we could volunteer for events - the ambulance brigade would be paid for us being there and we didn't earn anything but none of us cared. The great thing was in the *doing* - that from time to time there would be a moment where we really helped someone, we touched someones life. Those were the moments we talked about.

Sure, if a kid's greatest dream is to be a rock star, or climb Everest, or something really few people get to reach, it's possible they might not get there. They might not have the talent. They might not have the skills necessary. They might not be able to achieve it - but in the trying they will achieve something, and that is pushing themselves, giving it a go, *participating*. How many people want to run marathons, and they set themselves the goal, and actually go out and do it? Plenty. How many people want to do it but never make any effort and spend their life wishing they had tried? Plenty, too.

That's what that message really means deep down, I think - TRY. I do think it is an important message for kids to get - combined with they might not always succeed, but they'll be able to say they tried and that is an achievement in itself. And if they haven't tried, they can never learn the lessons that are so worthwhile along the way.

I always wanted to work on the ambulances, to be helping people like that every day and get paid for it. But there came a time when I got scared - of the blood, of seeing people hurt, of the images which might never leave me, and I decided that dream wasn't for me. But I will never know - could I have handled it? Could I have coped when I didn't think I would be able to? So many people are doctors and nurses and they can handle it, why did I decide I wouldn't be able to? Who would I be now? I try not to regret things in life but when I think of it, I really wish I had given it a go, at least.

The first aid has always been handy, I've used it in a few situations, there's been those moments where I got to touch someones life, to do what I could do for them with the skills and the first aid kit I had and be that hand they hold onto while waiting for the ambulance to get there, saying it's going to be ok and knowing it would be ok. I will remember those moments always, it is something unforgettable to me. And there have even been times when it has been animals we have rescued from the road, those times will always be remembered. Maybe if I had been doing it all the time it would have been too much - and there would have been the times when people didn't make it, and that would have stuck with me too and broken my heart. Maybe that is why I gave up the dream. I can't remember why now.

Maybe if someone had told me - you can achieve your greatest dreams - maybe I would have tried harder.
I think you summed it up perfectly in the last two paragraphs, Julie. And I'm with you on the goals. I love setting them and then going out and achieving them. There's great satisfaction in that for me.

I've volunteered most of my life in some area thanks to the experiences I had - these days it's mainly helping to warn scam victims but I've done an enormous range of things, from house painting for a group who provided homes to battered women, to phone counselling, to being a zoo tour guide. But even with volunteering I set goals, I push myself hard, and I get a lot out of it. I think that's a dream come true - for me, anyway.

thailandchani said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mayberry said...

I wrote a post with some similar sentiments at one point--about ambition, and whether one must have it in proportion to one's strengths and gifts. I's sticky--and then to think of how to apply it with our children--oh, boy.

Karen said...

In fact, I just had my first open disagreement about theology with my sister-in-law on this topic after 12 years of knowing we had very different beliefs. She has been under the impression that my Christian faith leads to me believe that I can have anything that will make me happy, that I can have that for my kids and my future because I have trust in the universe as a good place that God created. She herself doesn't believe in God but believes the universe is looking out for her because she brings kindness to the world, she therefore believes and tells my children that a person can be anything they want and have anything they want. It seems to be a matter of good works/hard works theology without the theos part. I asked her to refrain from using that exact phrase with the kids because I simply don't think it's true and she was out and out shocked and horrified and has apparently believed for 12 years that we were in total agreement about all things - except for the existence of God - and I told her that I didn't see evidence for it in our world. That I believed my kids to be smart, capable and unique, but no more so than kids all over the world with far fewer advantage (like being white american boys born of college educated parents)- in the end of it all so much of what they might achieve may no be because of their special unique qualities but because of the privilege they were born to and I kind of want to make sure they are socially conscious of that privilege on some level and all the more so as they grow older and leave my nest.
Ugh, long comment, but yes, you are quite right, there are limits but we should do what we love - even with no guarantee of any particular outcome. It's hard to be so all about the process when we feel so artificially close to those getting results.

thailandchani said...

YAY, Karen!

Couldn't agree more!

Sober Briquette said...

Maybe you'll want to shoot me, when I quote Tom Grunnick, from Broadcast News, and ask:

"What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"

Because when I read "And sometimes, we really aren't good enough to achieve our dreams," I think, sometimes we get in over our heads, and that is bad, maybe worse.

Mary-LUE said...

I agree with you Julie, at the same time, I look at my kids and the thought of telling them they're not extraordinary kills me. Which is odd because I actually don't tell them they're extraordinary. I am actually very honest with them about their strengths, maybe too honest with them about weaknesses.

Maybe it is that parental love, that special mama love, in which the sun, moon and stars all revolve around your child. Maybe it is because I had very little positive affirmation as a child. Even the acknowledgment of the talents and skills I had never went with an expectation that I could do something with it.

Re: the Nick Hornby. I've had a couple of people tell me that I should read him. I've been on a book binge, maybe I should head out to the library while I still have time. (My first day of class is 8/20.)

PunditMom said...

Ah, blogging. It's something I do to help find myself. I try to remember the rest is icing on the cake, but then the slightly competitive part of me kicks in. I'm trying to work on that.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

Gina Pintar said...

I think this is really about "enough". How much is enough. Do we all need to be movie stars to be worthy? I really don't think so. I see a lot of successful people around me and not all of them make a lot of money and some don't make any money at all. "Money is a terrible way to keep score" I am not sure where I got that but I believe it.

I think you are really writing about having realistic dreams. My dream was to build things. My dream, for me, came true. I DID build things. I did not design the "greatest building ever", I did not do it alone, I really did not even touch a brick but I was on major construction job that contributed to the betterment of all. That was enough for me.

I think we, as a whole, HAVE dupped a generation into thinking that everyone is meant to be famous, that if you aren't you are somehow lesser. I think that is crap. I don't see a celebrity as any better than you or I.

Tell your kids that they are special TO YOU. They are special in certain circumstances. They are also special to themselves.

Be special to the people around you. Make a difference to the people around you. I may not be on the network news spreading my message but I CAN spread it to people around me. THAT makes me special.

Jenny said...

Yes. And hell yes. And yes again.

I always save my trips here for later in the day because I know that your posts will make me think. You have such a way of exploring a topic and stating your opinions while leaving the discussion so open...my mind sometimes unravels what you say for days afterward.

I don't know why some people make it and some people don't. I don't know why Danielle Steele is so popular but nobody knows who Neil Gaiman is. I don't know why so many great artists and writers and poets are only discovered and revered because of their untimely death.

What I do know is that I've been blessed to have met and learn from a few creative thinkers, artistic geniuses and mad scientists. I'm proud to say that you are in that group. Part of my own little algonquin table.

slouching mom said...

Oh, Julie. Do I ever get this. But you know, I think Gwen is on to something big. One of the things that is really, really wrong with our culture is that the generation now graduating from HS and college has this completely unjustified sense of entitlement. And I fear it's because every single one of their parents told them they were extraordinary.

There are other things that make a life, I've got to believe. I do believe. Things like kindness, honesty, straightforwardness, loyalty, generosity...

flutter said...

I get this also. I really do. I also love coming here to see your take on things and the way your brain works, you may not have even been told, but you are extraordinary.

Christine said...

I really like this topic Julie.

I don't think we all have to be perfect, "special", or achieve big huge goals.

But even though I believe it is fine to live a "mediocre" or average kind of life I still struggle with it in reality. I am the person who is really good at nothing in particular, but is "just ok" at a million little things. I'm working on being ok with this in my self.

As for our kids I think Mary-lue brings up a good point. I want my kids to feel special, but not entitled. Does that make sense? Don't we all want our lovers and parents to just adore us? The question is: how can we do that without turning our little angels into Paris Hilton?

Snokred has a great point about the need to acknowledge effort. In the 80s and 90s everyone rewarded every kid on the losing soccer team. The mentality was that we have to protect our children from competition and reward everyone for everything. While I certainly don't believe this is ok or healthy, I still believe that effort and determination are wonderful things. For example, I will never run a marathon or break any speed records--should I hand back the t-shirt after the race and say well, i didn't win so i don't deserve this? Doesn't that kid who attempts to try out for the team, but fails deserve a pat non the back for even putting them selves out there. They may be mediocre, but they were brave.

painted maypole said...

I just picked up this book to take with me on vacation! Funny. I didn't read the post, but will when I return having read the book.

Cathy said...

Extraordinarily honest and extraordinarily thought-provoking post.

Jeff said...

So many kinds of blogs. Mine is mostly fluff, yours is more cerebral. There's space for all of us out there and I'm glad you're right where you are.

Lawyer Mama said...

Sometimes I think you seriously underestimate yourself, chica. I keep coming back here because you are something special. Blogging for you is about the journey, not a reward or a goal to reach, and that is incredibly appealing. And sometimes I spend days thinking about your blog topics. There are a few books I've read and a very small number of teachers and professors that have inspired me in similar ways.

Gwen's post struck a chord in me too. I think you've both touched on *the* issue of our generation. If we aren't special, if we don't get to be something, who are we? For me, and I think many of my contemporaries, it's hard not to think that we are entitled to recognition for our intellectual gifts just because we were told over and over again just how special we were.

I'm going to slink off and have a mid-life crisis now.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

Compelling post...I'm still digesting it so I can't say much more than that at the moment!

Is this going up over at blogrhet? It would be good - a lot of relevant issues

Julie said...

I really appreciate this post. I've often thought that without meaning to, our parents did our generation a disservice by telling us, for example, that we should do what we love. I'm surrounded by friends who are consantly dissatisfied by their jobs and who drift from career to career seeking the perfect fit. Our grandparents worked because they had to, not for personal fulfillment or happiness. Sometimes I wish someone had instilled in me the belief that work is something you have to do, not something you have to love.

And yet here I am pursuing this difficult, practically penniless path as a Ph.D. student and little-published writer while my husband works his butt off as a lawyer, which isn't exactly his dream job, in order to pay the bills and his exorbitant loans.

Julie Pippert said...

Wow, you guys! These are amazing comments. I have so much I want to say in reply...and when I start, it gets so long.

I am going to blog a post in reply.

Thanks for the great comments, personal perspectives, experiences, etc.

I am going to pick up these great points later today.

bubandpie said...

This post brings back dim memories of seventh grade. Our motto for the year was "Go for the Gold!" (because of the Olympics, I think), and it was exactly that idea of believing in your dreams, with "dreams" being glossed fairly evidently as competitive success - doing something better than everybody else.

I agree that it's a crappy life skill, that never relinquishing your dreams. Everybody has to set aside certain desires/dreams as unrealistic - knowing when and how to do so is at least as important as knowing when to hang on.

And standard of comparison is everything, especially in blogging. Everybody is small potatoes compared to SOMEBODY.

Aliki2006 said...

I too have a hard time NOT telling my kids they're extraordinary. However, I think the key is the hard work factor--my parents emphasized a little too much all of our talents and didn't, I think, emphasize enough the hard road ahead and so I think all three of us siblings grew up kind of expecting the world to sit up and take notice, and we didn't realize so much (until later) that half the battle is getting there.

I think you underestimate yourself--I too love coming here, so much to think about.

Christine said...

i wanted to add that i don't believe you are mediocre in any way. your blog, your writing, and YOU are all wonderful. i do not BS here, lady. it is all true.

kim said...

This topic is a constant commentary in my head. The battle between what I can do and what I want to do. The thing is, extraordinary has a very large price. Harper Lee paid a huge price for her phenomenal success with To Kill a Mockingbird,and fought hard to get her normal ordinary life back.

While I do believe luck is a factor, for someone as gifted as you it becomes a question of drive and desire. Is the pursuit worth it? What do you have to give up in order to gain?