Next One Up

Next One Up

Professional football is a violent enterprise; huge men hit each other at high-speed causing grievous injuries, from concussions and broken limbs to shredded muscles and ligaments.  No matter how brutal or widespread the carnage, the show must go on, the season has to be played out, and the stakes are high.  It happens that I have known two team doctors (Lions and Seahawks) and one team dentist (Hockey’s Boston Bruins).  I can promise you that you really do not want to know how emergency medicine is practiced on the sideline; I will only tell you that 20 cc.s of fluid drained from an injured knee twice in each half is the rough equivalent of 24 ounces, about the amount in two bottles of soda.

Because injuries are expected, football teams keep a large roster on hand, and another smaller cohort on what is called the practice squad.  As bodies hit the gurney, replacements need to be conditioned and prepared to step into the middle of a game; they need to be familiar with the playbook and need to be able to face the best players on the opposing squad.

As the season nears its end, and only a few teams remain to contend for conference or league championships, the need for heroism on demand is intensified. “Next Man Up” has become the phrase that players and coaches use when questioned about the impact of a lost star.  The words are spoken with thin-lipped stoicism, spartan hardness of features; this, we know from their expression, is war.  Imagine the Roman Legion facing hordes of barbarian invaders, the first line falling, the next taking its place, then the next.  Desert?  Run  away?  We think not.  The penalty for desertion or mutiny was Decimation; one of ten convicted men beaten to death bare handed by the other nine.

OK, that’s grim.

Two other expressions linger outside of the sporting arena,  “Cowboy Up” and “Man Up”, both of which have the unfortunate aroma of unconscious or unexamined gender bias attached to their cowhide, tobacco stained, bronc busting exhortation to summon responsibility, courage, and resilience, arguably qualities possessed in equal measure by men and women  I can’t really guess what Woman Up would mean; I’m going to leave that conjecture to others.  Person Up doesn’t do much for us, but Get Human might.  In considering the lessons taken from sport, would the concept be diminshed if we were to speak of the Next One Up?

As this season has played itself out, and at least two contending teams have spoken the words in almost every press conference, Next Man Up has moved from the gridiron to the board room, and it is in that evolution that some interesting issues pop up.

It is not surprising that business enterprises long monopolized by men would turn to battle or sports to find metaphoric language for leadership; we’ve had Barons and Captains of Industry for a long time. It doesn’t take much to infer gender in looking at words such as Boss and Bossy.  Is a man ever called bossy?   Abrasive?  Nagging?  Language isn’t everything, but it reveals unconsciously held opinions, and the many articles suggesting that businesses can improve performance by adopting a Next Man Up philosophy are quick to explain the efficacy of the principle in the world of male sports.  As it is translated into leadership advice, however, a far more inclusive view of the workplace has to develop and develop quickly.

Mike Tomlin, coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, often uses the phrase because, well,  because he had to; his team was among those most ravaged by injury.

“The more I looked at it, I saw that there’s a fine line between being a backup and being a really good player in this league. And sometimes, it’s just about being right-minded and being in the right place at the right time. When you’re at the top level of football, that No. 1 cornerback and that fifth cornerback – there’s not a lot of difference between them from an ability standpoint a lot of the times.”

Leaving the playing field behind, the principle endorses the inclusion of less experienced, less highly placed employees in positions of real responsibility.  A good manager, according to this philosophy, better make sure that a number of people new to the team  are involved in important jobs so that they are able to perform well when need of them arises.  People new to the team include people traditionally under represented in higher positions, giving them the opportunity to take on meaningful responsibility and the preparation necessary in order to become the Next One Up.

The next observation demands anther reference to the world of sport.  Without getting into the particular skill sets required at particular positions, and admitting that I may favor players from the University of Michigan from time to time, Charles Woodson and Jabrill Peppers are two impact players who play or have played both offense and defense; they can run, pass, and catch, and move from one position to the next without missing a beat.  In order for a football player to emerge as the Next Man Up, it’s necessary to let him  develop skills specific to each position.  In the larger world, that principle would suggest that cross-training, which has more than enough benefit in demonstrating what work others in the organization actually do, could also be significant in allowing talented people to move from one area of need to another.

Finally, undrafted role players driving a two-year-old Corolla value teamwork, even as they recognize that owners hop in private planes after a game without having to deal with concussions or shredded parts, and that stars lounge in a Rolls-Royce, signing endorsement deals as they leave the parking lot; top-down organizations have a tougher time engendering a spirit of shared enterprise.  If any outfit hopes to develop Next One Up principles, it had better look at what teams do.  In the first place, shared effort brings shared reward; a playoff victory or championship puts the same share of bonus money in each player’s pocket, without regard to rank or stature.  Then, the coach is not phoning in advice from Monaco; coaching takes place in the moment, on the field.  The coach has to be present, aware of each individual’s progress, and invested in allowing each one to prepare to rise up.

Football and business journals aside, I like this idea that each of us can be ready to step up when needed.  We live in contentious and dangerous times, and we’re encountering injury everywhere we look.  It’s worth asking which of us will be called upon to be the Next One Up?

 

 

 

 

 

Taxing My Patience

Taxing My Patience

This will be the first year in many that I do my own taxes, ostensibly with the help of an on-line preparation program that promised me step-by-step support and comfort.  I’m two days into this process, and I do not feel supported or comforted; what I feel is bamboozled.  Two days in, and I am flopping around like a frog on a skillet.  I don’t entirely blame the tax-prep program; I’m sure most end-users understand the complexities of state and federal tax codes and are up-to-date on the fine points of managing a retirement income.

I don’t and I’m not.

What I am is math phobic, easily confused, and quick to second-guess virtually every financial decision I have made in the last five decades, starting with my decision to become a teacher.  I loved my career, wouldn’t have changed it for the world, lots of great memories, fulfilling, changed lives – all that.  Sure hope that’s enough to keep us warm and cozy after I get through mangling our finances.

My wife was a teacher as well, in her case teaching math (go figure), but she’s just as allergic to this tax rigmarole as I am.  She has all the qualities a feather-headed impulsive financial daredevil such as I need to bring balance to our lives; she is thoughtful, and cautious, and deliberate, and meticulous, as I say, possessing exactly the sorts of strengths I lack, but …

This thoughtful, and cautious, and deliberate, and meticulous paragon of sensibility anticipates the impact of every mistaken entry, and, so, unpracticed in tax preparation sleight of hand, sensibly reasons that this task is better done by an expert who negotiates every curve with unshakable confidence.

I’m not and I can’t.

There it is:  “I can’t”.

How many times as teachers did we remind students that, “there is no such thing as can’t”?  Actually we never said anything like that as can’t is a verb, which it could not be if it wasn’t…  never mind.  What we did, each in our own way, was to try to find an opening or point of traction.  “Break the job down,” we’d say; “Start with what you think you can do.”  Sometimes we’d find a solid sentence in my case, or an accurate computation in her case, and build on that, asking questions that allowed the student to discover the next step and the next.

You’d think I could get out of my own way after all these years, but everywhere I turn, there I am, being myself all over the place.

The general consensus of lofty thinkers is that when separated from the even less productive statement, “I don’t want to,” “I can’t”speaks in that voice that has been with us for as long as we can remember, the voice that promises failure.  I haven’t put it into words yet, but as I write, I remember that voice chuckling as I floundered through Geometry.  I used to argue that my geometric idiocy would hardly matter in the larger world; when, I’d whine, am I ever going to be asked to find a, b, and c so that the quadrilateral is a parallelogram with an area equal to 80 square units?  Again, never, but here’s the thing:  I know in my heart that I can’t and never could.  I’ve never mastered that parallelogram; it owns me.  In the dark of night, in the hour of the wolf, it mocks me.

I believed that voice the first time I heard it and believed it for much of my life.  When the going got tough, I counted the ways things were not going to work out and began to look for the nearest exit.  In my declining years I have determined to finish the jobs I’ve started, no matter how frustrating they become.  For example, even though what seemed a simple job turned out to be a nightmare, the house has doorknobs and locks that work, except the one that is slightly off, but that’s a garage door, and I rigged things up so that if I slam the door while I kick a thick extension cord over the sill, it pretty much stays where it’s supposed to.

You’d think it might have occurred to me sooner, having been a teacher, that most challenging tasks work out  a bit better if I ask for help.  Many seemingly thorny issues cleared up quickly when I found folks who knew what they were doing, although I still can’t figure out how to attach the grass catcher to the back of the riding mower, despite hours spent with YouTube experts who flip the dang things on and off as if they are playing horseshoes.

OK, time to let that go.

With this tax thing, an easy(ish) out is at hand; experts are standing by to do taxes for me for a mere pittance, a gesture more than compensation, what amounts to more than half of what I cough up in a mortgage payment each month.   So, there is an out, but it’s expensive and painful.  And, it has the stench of defeat by parallelogram all over it.  The voice of doom is coughing for attention again as I consider wrestling with the forms I cannot yet decipher, but, you know what?  All I have to fear is fear itself, and if I can’t walk through mild panic as the tax season nears, how can I handle the truly dispiriting challenges that are sure to come my way?   And, to be completely transparent, how can I pretend to be a responsible adult, if, as the voice instructs, I expect someone else to do my work.

I may have to admit defeat at some point; my suspicion is that no matter how nobly I’ve struggled, the IRS still expects an accurately prepared return.  If I’ve exhausted every resource and battled with every form and still haven’t pulled the thing together, I’ll turn it over, and probably without regret.  I’m pretty sure I’ll learn something along the way, enough to make the job a bit easier next year and the year after.

When it comes to parallelograms, however, it’s good to remember that I have the choice to pick my battles, and the quadrilateral can get along without my help.

 

Don’t Ask Me

Don’t Ask Me

 

I constantly catch myself being myself, and it’s generally not pretty; it often appears as I recognize that once again I have been assuming that my feeling, my opinions, my agenda is at the heart of the universe’s business for the day.  So, I’m not doing very well in the humility department, although that admission is sort of humble, in a transparently self-serving way.  Life’s lessons tend to come to me at full force, jamming a heaping dose of reality down my gullet just as I muster a truly impressive and thoroughly puffed up sense of my own importance.  I know there are spiritual giants out there who engage the world with thoughtful attention and learn from observation; apparently, I need to be hit by a bus and dragged several blocks before I figure things out.

This admission comes as I prepare not to offer advice to a friend.  The stakes aren’t all that high; this isn’t a million dollar decision.  But it’s not my decision to make, and not my decision to influence.  I’m a flop at carpentry, plumbing, and real estate investment; I have owned three cars that burst into flame as I drove them.  Yesterday I put eggshells in the frying pan and dropped the eggs in garbage.   What possible advice could I offer anyone? It’s one thing for me to live with the consequences of my judgment and quite another to watch someone else contend with my advice given too freely.  And, as I think about it, I’ve ignored excellent advice for years and followed disastrous suggestions that more comfortably suited my inclinations, proving that we pretty much hear what we want to hear.

That’s my current estimation of my advice-giving capacity, but as occasions still arise in which I’m expected to offer some semblance of thoughtful reply, I did some rustling around to find examples of advice offered by people I respect.  I’m not going deep here; these are ordinary words offered simply:

I have found that my wife’s response in one of the toughest moments we have shared has served me well in every challenging situation that followed.  Her advice?

“Don’t make it worse.”

I’ll turn next to Fred Rogers.  My eldest son has recorded each of his shows and intends to show my granddaughter nothing but every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a plan I enthusiastically endorse.  His advice pretty much sets the table:

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

Hard to miss the point.

Apparently, Mr. Rogers is not alone.  The 14th Dalai Lama puts it squarely on the table with his opinion:

“Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

Simple.  Obvious.  Not easy.

One of my children went to a wonderful school, unconventional in many ways, humane and determined to honor the gifts students brought with them.  One of their abiding principles was an often stated maxim:

“When in doubt, go with gratitude.”

OK, I’ll up the stakes a bit now, expecting that some situations call for more complicated solutions, realizing that we are bound by ego, easily injured, easily shamed; we are inclined at times to wallow in self-loathing, delicious resentment, or righteous indignation.  There are moments in which the soft rainbow of kindness just can’t hit the ground.  The choice is almost always to pick at the festering wounds or start to heal, but in the moment, that can be a tough choice to make.  Knowing something about tough choices, Maya Angelou put it simply:

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive.  Forgive everybody.”

Everybody?  All those folks walking through their day making dreadful judgments about us, our wardrobe, our hair?  David Foster Wallace, who was an extremely complicated guy who wrote one of the most relentlessly complicated novels in American literature actually boiled it down fairly simply:

“You’d worry less about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.”

Fine. Fine.  Forgive everybody, forgive myself.  Don’t worry about what others think of us since they apparently don’t.  Kindness, gratitude.  Got it.

But how about some advice that is, you know, useful?  Assuming that we’re well on the way to becoming fully self-actualized and intermittently decent persons, how about a few nuggets just to tide us over when instinct and training fail?

I turn to Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry, a man who knows a thing or two about people such as I, people who still have copies of TV Guide from 1962, who have preserved twenty-year-old homework assignments completed by his children, who have saved registrations of cars long since junked.  He’s got advice I really should take to heart:

“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”

With that in mind, and determined to keep things simple, I had hoped to find one elegantly shaped and universally applicable summary to offer as a final apology for my decision to withhold offering advice myself.  It happens that my reading for several months has pretty much been limited to speculative fiction and science fiction written by women in the last decade.  I didn’t set out to cover that territory, but one novel seemed to invite the next, bringing me to the work of Mary Doria Russell, a PhD. in Biological Anthropology and author of the Sparrow series.  She’s often concerned with the largest questions, particularly about the nature of God and the character of evil, but she too has a gift for expressing thoughts with simple precision:

“When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is: Read to children. Vote. And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”

That just about polishes off my store of available insights.  Should anything outside of these situations come up in the next few years, I have to remind you, please, don’t ask me.

 

 

 

Encouragement

Encouragement

When he was about six, my son found his calling in life.  “I’m going to be an Encourager,” he announced.  “People need Encouragers.”

He’s diversified a bit since then, but remains an actively encouraging person, and his insight continues to carry a lot of weight in this family.  As is true of any worthwhile practice, encouragement doesn’t always come easily, and there are a number of traps we individually, and as a family, have to avoid.  Correction, for example, does come quite easily and with weighty authority, insisting that identification of mistakes or mistaken opinions must be delivered for the good of the mistaken party, the family, and, I guess,the universe.   Advice springs to the tongue with equal velocity, with the same menu of justification, and is generally not entirely appreciated, particularly if no advice has been solicited.  Finally, although delivered with the best possible intentions and born of caution, recitation of unanticipated costs, probable embarrassment, and possible disasters can drive a stake through the heart of any proposed endeavor.

The use of the phrase, “through the heart” is deliberate, for encouragement signifies both the lending of courage, and the recognition that courage is found in the heart.  We are heartened by encouragement, disheartened by discouragement; what task could be more significant than responding to the heart of a friend’s aspirations?  It’s probably unneccessary to note that the word “aspire” derives from an old French word meaning “to breathe”; our most deeply felt aspirations are as important as breath itself.

I appreciate the good work done by Brené Brown, a writer and public speaker whose work on vulnerability, shame, and courage is unfailingly inspirational.  I particularly appreciate her contention that ordinary courage is needed to speak from the heart.

“The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” – Brené Brown 

Encouragement gives permission to tell all one’s heart, to speak of the deepest longings, and, as Brown has made clear, to become vulnerable. I think the enduring stories are all stories in which the central character summons the courage to become fully vulnerable.  What mythologists call The Hero’s Journey, tales as curiously divergent as The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, as The Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope, ask an ordinary, uninitiated, untested person to take on tasks that leave them entirely vulnerable, tasks they could not complete without a mentor or guide.

The encourager.

The journey is not well served when others simply nod and stand back; even ordinary courage needs more help than that.  Encouragement demands that we listen for the longing a friend is reluctant to speak, longing that may not emerge fully formed or well-shaped.  Telling the heart’s story is often messy and even contradictory; it emerges in incomplete sentences and with deflecting apology.  We have to work to find the longing behind the throw-away lines:

“Someday…”  “If I could only …”  “Sometimes I feel…”

Telling all one’s heart is to leap into danger; vulnerability and shame are constant watch dogs keeping us from believing that we deserve our own story, and yet, if we don’t tell our story, that story will not be told.  We need encouragers, people willing to sit with our discomfort in speaking of that which we long to do or to have.

I remember a poster that was popular for some time; for all I know, it’s still stuck on walls somewhere today.  A kitten dangles from a curtain, its claws barely holding on to the cloth.  The text reads, “Hang In There”.  I’m not a fan of hanging and don’t feel particularly  supported when I am told to “Join the club”, as if my dilemma is hardly worth noting.  We need better strategies in taking on this job of encourager unless we want to leave our friends hanging.

Fortunately, the best responses come to mind as we ask authentic questions and listen with  care.  We don’t interrupt; we don’t offer advice or correction.  Listening to someone tell all his or her heart is a great privilege.  Holding their words with care, we can ask questions that help a friend see the shape of their longing, the dimensions of their truest story, and those questions will have value because they are spoken with care.

It’s not easy, this encourager role, and it takes time to listen well, but when I think of the moments that have brought me to tears, in films or novels or life, they are almost always moments in which unexpected encouragement arrives just when the world looks most bleak.

And, it occurs to me that if a six-year-old understands that the world needs encouragers, it’s probably a job we should consider.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pudge – First Ballot Hall of Fame?

Pudge – First Ballot Hall of Fame?

Want a break from the hurly-burly of contemporary squabbling?  Long for the historical long view and the considered opinion of reasonable men and women who share devotion to a tradition far more important than their own parochial self-interest?

Yeah, me too, but then, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) released the names of three former players to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame – Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez – setting off what has come to be an annual firestorm of second-guessing and recrimination.  The issues are many and equally combustible, and, given the arcane complexities of the selection process (a snake pit into which I choose not to jump today), any outcome is bound to bring controversy.

I’ll start with Pudge, an iron-man who caught more games (2,427) than any other catcher, won thirteen golden glove awards for his stellar defensive skills, was selected as an All Star fourteen times, and was named American League Most Valuable Player in 1999.  Beyond that, Pudge retired with a batting average of .296, 311 home runs, and the most hits (2,844) and most runs scored (1,354) of any catcher.  In his  MVP season, Pudge hit 35 home runs and stole 25 bases, the first catcher to hit more than 20 home runs and steal 20 bases.

Take anybody’s roster of the greatest catchers of all time, and you’ll find ten or twelve who land on every list.  The order may change, and some fans take a longer view than others, including players from earlier days such as Gabby Hartnett, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, or Josh Gibson, but virtually everyone who follows the sport names Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, and Pudge Rodriguez.  By all measures, he is in the top ten, and by some accounts, in the top five.

OK, you ask,where’s the controversy?

Carping is inevitable, and almost always includes a certain amount of fan fervor.  Rich Eisen, for example, highly intelligent, meticulously prepared, and uncommonly balanced sports commentator is generally above the fray until conversation includes the University of Michigan or the New York Yankees.  From my point of view, his plumping for Michigan is entirely appropriate, but as a Yankee fan, he does occasionally lose his way, as he has in proposing that Jorge Posada’s career compares favorably with Rodriguez.  Perhaps fans may not appreciate Pudge as much as writers have because he played with a number of teams (Rangers, Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros, Rangers again, and Nationals).  He’ll go into the Hall as a Texas Ranger, the first position player to go in as a Ranger, but a career with the  Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Cubs  would have made him a far more highly visible star.

Then, he made it into the Hall on the first ballot, which, to some purists, is an unseemly  departure from what they consider a standard to be maintained in welcoming individuals to the company of the most elite players of all time.  The grumbling swirling around Cooperstown mostly gripes about the enshrinement of players whose careers were fine, fine, but not at the level of the first class of inductees – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth,  Christy Mathewson,  Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson.  After all, Cy Young didn’t make it in the first round.  Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmy Foxx, Dizzy Dean, Hank Greenberg, and Duke Snider all needed several tries.  Joe DiMaggio was not a first ballot Hall of Famer.  Hartnett, Cochrane, Dickey, Campanella, and Berra missed the first round.

By the 1960’s, greatness was more quickly rewarded as Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Ken Griffey, Jr. all came in on the first ballot.

Without question exactly right, and shame on the writer who did not vote for Hornsby, DiMaggio, Campanella, Berra, et al.  Come on!

OK, then who has been left out?  Every fan has his or her own list; mine includes Sweet Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, the best double play combination in the history of the game (Tinker, Evers, and Chance didn’t even come close!) and Jack Morris, who, I admit, are all Detroit Tigers and so may arrive with a fan’s bias.  Edgar Martinez did his job (designated hitter) as the best pure hitter since Rod Carew and belongs in the Hall.   Exiled are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, of course, and, so far, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, each of whom has been touched with some form of scandal.

Ah, there’s the rub.  The Hall of Fame is one section of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, leaving room for the contention that the Hall is part of the story of baseball, part of the chronicle of baseball at its finest, recognizing the players who took the game to the highest level during the time they played.  Some are saints (Mathewson and Gehrig), some are sinners (Cobb and Ruth), and some got caught (Jackson, Rose, Bonds, and Clemens).  If the Hall is to be a shrine to the finest and most high-minded elements of sport, we probably have to take a second look at Cobb, who certainly murdered at least one man and who went into the stands to beat a one-handed heckler; “I don’t care if he got no feet” Cobb is reputed to have announced when criticized.  Hall of Famer Juan Marichal beat Dodger catcher John Roseboro in the head with a bat during a game; Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar spat in the face of an umpire.  Babe Ruth and Wade Boggs were not entirely gentlemanly in their treatment of women; Tim Raines would likely have made the Hall sooner if not for his involvement in a drug scandal in the 1980’s.

Exhausting!  The debates never end!

And yet, it’s what we do until we hear the clarion  cry again next month:  “Pitchers and Catchers Report for Spring Training”.  Tigers pitchers and catchers report on Valentine’s Day, the rest of the squad on February 18th, and the distracting static of life outside the lines quiets, the sound of a high fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt restores balance in the universe, and the game begins again.

Those of us who saw Pudge Rodriguez play know the voters got it right this time.  Let’s just see what smoke fills the air as the numbers for Bonds and Clemens continue to creep up among baseball writers, many of whom seem willing to forgive if not forget.

 

 

 

 

Imposter

Imposter

I might have been eleven or twelve when I picked up a book about the children who had discovered Paleolithic paintings on the wall of the Altamira cave in Cantabria, Spain.  About the same time, I’d read a book about fox-hunting from the point of view of the fox, and, in an equally unlikely impulse, picked up a book about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered by Bedouin shepherds in the West Bank of the Jordan River.

I remember absolutely none of the fine points of any of the three books and have no idea why they came to me as they did, but what remains, and with considerable impact even now, are the descriptions of being trapped in falling rubble, held down by crumbling walls of earth, in the case of the fox, hunted so expertly that the only refuge was in burrowing into soft earth.  In each instance, much attention was paid to the experience of suffocation, with particular attention to the sensation of dirt forced into one’s mouth.

There is a particular variety of panic that arrives with the realization of inevitable, inescapable, terminal entrapment.  I have feared and continue to fear many things, but the merest suggestion if entrapment sends me to ugly, labored panting.  I stay out of caves and have declined the invitation to play fox and hounds, but these jolly memories inevitably came back to me as I watched the excellent adaptation of John le Carre’s Night Manager and currently in watching Amazon’s original series, Sneaky Pete.   In both cases, the central character has to assume an identity, become an imposter, in order to avoid, well, nasty consequences.  I suppose most successful portrayals of espionage involve imposture at some level; it certainly makes watching The Americans an excruciating experience.

And yet, I can’t turn away.

So, there’s something about watching the imposter balance on the edge of discovery that remains compelling viewing, even though I have to walk out of the room from time to time, or zip through on fast forward to escape the intensity of eventual unmasking.None of which is intended as a suggestion of programs; there are a number of sites that provide much more current information, most notably David Bianculli’s excellent TV Worth Watching, and  over the years I’ve learned that my enthusiasms are not always welcomed. It does occur to me, however, that it is worth thinking for a bit about what it is about the imposter’s dilemma that captivates us (me).

The central character in Sneaky Pete assumes the identity of a long-lost grandson in order to escape the consequences of a number of unfortunate decisions.  He’s an accomplished confidence man with a gift for reading people quickly, quickly enough that he grasps tendrils of conversations, glimpses of old photos, and is able to construct just enough credibility to keep himself from discovery, so far.  Unfortunately, his grandmother, the matriarch of the family, seems to have an equally fine-tuned ability to sniff out deception, and his nemesis, a slick underworld lord played by Bryan Cranston, is also sharp enough to read a con before it is played.  Is Pete sneaky enough to whiffle his way through all of this?  Is the family all that it appears to be?  Then again, are any of us?

No need to go into that plot any further as the premise alone brings up more than enough to consider.  For a start, every family (in the case of The Night Manager, it’s a crime family) has its own codes, its own passwords, and its own secrets.  The thing about secrets is that they have power even when unacknowledged. To put it another way, when a secret is revealed, it’s rarely entirely a surprise; at some level, it has been part of the fabric of the family all along.  To further complicate the conversation, what’s the difference between kinship and family?  The genetic blueprint may be interesting, but, even in a family in which DNA is of the purest strain, aren’t there some who share an affinity and some who don’t?  Some folks are cautious, predictable, generally unlikely to chuck it all and start over somewhere else, and some chafe as each day resembles the last.  Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, it doesn’t matter; some daughters completely understand their mothers or fathers, or siblings, and can engage with them as they are, some can’t, and the same wobbly course holds true across the range of parents and children.  Sure, particular life experiences affect relationships, but there are some sets of signals or postures, or attitudes that click with one and not with another.

What’s the difference, then, between pretending to be a long-lost member of a family and feeling like an imposter in the family in which we were raised?

Taking on the more dramatic issue and using a stagey question, are we not all players on a stage, taking cues where we can, stumbling into entrances and looking for a good line as we exit?  We can’t walk into a room full of strangers without playing a role of one kind or another.  I can imitate a congenial party guest for twenty or thirty minutes, but when the mask starts to slip, I know it’s time to find someone with whom I can be authentic, or time to go home.  OK, so low-grade panic in a room full of strangers, how much worse playing a part that depends upon my convincing someone that I am what I am not?  That I can do what I cannot?

Sources tell me that treatment centers worldwide contend with what is now known as The Imposter Syndrome, the deep-seated belief that achievement, success, position, riches, reputation – all of it – undeserved, false, fake.  Discovery is a moment away.  All will be revealed.  Beneath the constant anxiety of being discovered as an imposter is the panic I described earlier.

It may be that we are not what we seem, and then, it may be, that despite doubts and fears, we mostly are. One of the people I most admire was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in her sophomore year at Wellesley,  recruited by the State Department, and later became a pioneer in bringing Scandinavian design to the US, introducing  Marimekko fabric, Henningsen lamps, Jacobsen chairs, and Orrefors glassware in her very successful design store, a columnist on design for the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the originator of a design Foundation that still bears her name.  And yet, as the daughter of the owner of a conventional furniture store in Georgia, she felt she was an imposter.  A brilliant woman of impressive style and bearing, she felt herself a lumpy, awkward imposter.

In what may appear a divergent observation, I think the fascination kids have with dinosaurs,sharks, monsters, ghosts, and all sorts of things that go bump in the night derives from a need to master panic that arrives with encountering big, strong, dangerous things beyond our capacity to control.  As a child I think I hoped I’d be ok if I knew EVERYTHING about monsters and mummies; I don’t remember if I hoped to escape them, or impress them, but at the very least they’d know I took them seriously.

How can we turn away from sneaks like Pete, or Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager, Matt Damon as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Amanda Bynes in She’s The Man, or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire?

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans?  That one makes me feel like a fox going to ground as the hunt grows nearer by the second; I begin to feel the walls of earth closing in.

 

Grace Notes

Grace Notes

In music, a grace note is a small addition, unnecessary, an embellishment.  I’m struck by what might be a larger meaning of the phrase – a note, word, or action that is graceful, in this sense, full of grace.  It isn’t easy to pin down what we mean by grace, unless we’re speaking specifically of gifts from the divine, or of physical finesse, but we intuit that something about grace is freely given, that it arrives without conditions or limitations.

I have to back into the reflection on what I think is the act of grace that inspired Barbara and Jenna Bush, sisters who grew up in the White House, to write to Malia and Sasha Obama.  I’ll come back to the Bushes and Obamas, but, given the complexity of grace, I have to retreat to an experience I can describe in order to find language that is useful in responding to the sisters.  Not surprisingly, I found it at the movies.

I watched Swing Time (1936) for the eleventh time last night.  It’s viewing comfort food for me; no matter what else is clumsy in my day, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bounce me back with their first number.  Astaire has fallen for Rogers after a chance meeting, signs up for lessons at the dance studio in which she is an instructor, and pretends to be an awkward beginning student.  Rogers encourages her dance-disabled pupil, singing a lovely tune which Astaire would later record.  Written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, “Pick Yourself Up”is a charming description of resilience and grit.

“Nothing’s impossible I have found.

When my chin is on the ground,

I pick myself up,

Dust myself off, 

And start all over again.”

Their duet is more than enough to mend any fissures in my character I might have discovered in the course of the day, but it is followed by a remarkable sequence in which Astaire reveals himself as a dancer.  He’s breathtakingly adept, of course, moving with easy energy and all the elements of style that made him the model of gentlemanly elegance.  In this number, as in his best numbers, he’s also playful.  Shot in a single take, as Astaire insisted his dancing be filmed, the scene is suffused with joy.  These two dancers  may not necessarily be in love with each other, but they are in love with dancing, and they let us in on that romance.

I used the word, clumsy, earlier to describe a day with rough edges, slightly frayed, and awkward.  I’m often clumsy as well, not only physically but my interaction  with the world and the humans who inhabit it. I can’t find a description of Fred Astaire that does not include the word grace or graceful, and without going into every dance number the man performed, I’m going to argue that in watching Astaire, I have come to believe that grace derives, at least in part, from joy and generosity of spirit.

That’s the detour I had to take in order to write about Barbara, Jenna, Malia, and Sasha.  For all the talk of finding the center, mending the political fabric, coming together, as a nation we remain partisan, self-protective, clumsy.We seem to be short on both joy and generosity of spirit at the moment; I’m determined to celebrate grace when it comes around.

The Bush presidency and the Obama presidency could not be more dissimilar, in substance and in style, but the experience of being the children in the White House is an experience that these Bushes and Obamas share; we can only guess that their years as presidential children were in equal measure glamorous and terrifying.

There are some lovely moments in the Bushes’ letter. They remind Malia and Sasha of sliding down the bannister to the solarium, remembering their own laughter as they slid with the younger girls, and they remind the girls of the services done for them by people who, as the Bushes put it, “…put their lives on hold for us.”

We on the outside have heard a bit about the challenges of raising kids in a bizarre and entirely public setting, intensely scrutinized and ever aware of danger.  A school day begins as a convoy of armed security forces travel to a first period class; no public appearance is free of the memory of the Kennedy family in Dallas.  How a parent manages anything like a normal life in these circumstances is beyond me, and yet, both sets of parents managed somehow.

 

The distance between an ordinary childhood and that which both sets of sisters have seen is clear in the final paragraph:

You have lived through the unbelievable pressure of the White House. You have listened to harsh criticism of your parents by people who had never even met them. You stood by as your precious parents were reduced to headlines. Your parents, who put you first and who not only showed you but gave you the world. As always, they will be rooting for you as you begin your next chapter. And so will we.

Washington is chock full of speech writers and spin doctors; most of what we read is crafted and massaged so as to avoid giving offense.  I hear real people in this letter, authentic people who know what it is to have parents reduced to headlines.  Spin doctors don’t use phrases such as “people who has never even met them” or “precious parents”; these are not elegant phrases, but they are graceful because their intention is to freely give Malia and Sasha a gift.

The time for trading boastful slogans had passed, and I have never been one for slogans in any case.  What I think we need are grace notes, a few unnecessary lovely acts of generosity; this graceful letter, sisters-to-sisters, is exactly what I needed to push-off into a complicated world again.

OK, there’s work to be done and promises to keep; time to start humming:  “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”