Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blind Ambition: A Mother's Tale

          In eleventh grade I ran for the office of Student Counsel Representative. I can’t remember what inspired me to do so. I have rarely sought positions of power because I like to be liked. When you’re in power, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like you even if it’s solely the person who just lost to you. I can only think now that I ran because I was interested in the lifestyle. Which is probably a top reason for a lot of office seekers. Kids in student government got to skip classes legally to buy ice for soda sales, or paint a mural, or do a dozen things that I never found out about because I lost. I lost to a kid who didn’t even show up to give his speech. Yes, I lost to an absent John McKone by one vote.
            And that vote was cast by me.
It simply seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.
Through the years, I have been almost pathologically non-competitive: recommending girlfriends for jobs that I’m applying for; aggressively offering professional contact information to colleagues who haven’t even asked for help; including colleagues in meetings; sharing credit for my ideas; and backing off or out of any situation that would demand direct competition with someone that I know. I have been self-aware enough to know that being non-competitive doesn’t make me better person. I’ve still seethed with resentment and envy when I’ve lost the job, honor, title or whatever. I suspect that eschewing competition has simply been more comfortable for me and fits into a childhood model of the woman I think I should be.
Recently, however, a long dormant, shadow self is making herself known to me. I first noticed her at my sons’ soccer games. She never yelled. But she would scrunch her chin beneath the collar of her coat, glare at the opposing team, and curse them with medieval intensity. When her sons brought home good report cards, she couldn’t stop herself from casually asking what the other kids got. And when it looked like Spencer might be divested of his student counsel rep status due to a election infraction NOT PERPETRATED BY HIM, she immediately called his teacher after school and with a scary, unhinged voice said, “I won’t let you take this away from him. I will involve the principal and the entire school.” 
            She must be stopped.
            A couple of weeks ago, I was living in a cottage at a writers’ residence on an island off of the Puget Sound. The philosophy of the residence was simple. This was a place where writers could remove themselves from the nagging daily responsibilities that sap energy away from writing. My cottage didn’t have WiFi and I spent my days in relaxed seclusion – reading, writing, sleeping, and staring out the window.  If I needed to go online, I was told, I could walk through the woods to a little shack that housed a communal computer and go online for a brief time. During my stay, I ended up doing this once a day to clear out my inbox and write a couple of perfunctory notes.
            A couple of days before I left, having slipped into a groove of writing most of the day and doing a lot of dreaming the rest of it, I walked down to the computer shack before dinner. I quickly deleted three quarters of my mail and reviewed the rest. Thinking about nothing more important than the meal that awaited me, I clicked on an e-mail titled “Graduation Speeches”. In it, Spencer’s teacher wrote that any kid who wanted to give the fifth grade graduation speech would need to write it and then read it to a small panel of teachers who would choose the strongest to be delivered on big day.
            My face flushed, my pulse raced, and my hands started shaking so much that I couldn’t close the e-mail.  Of course, they had to pick Spencer. Why were they even holding auditions?  He was the obvious choice. The due date for the written speeches was the day after I returned. That wouldn’t give me enough time to give him revisions and run him through the speech several times with performance notes. Would he be able to write the whole thing on his own? Maybe he could e-mail me the first draft.  My eyes clouded so that I could barely see the screen.  My heart continued to pound as I hit the “compose” key. I could feel my shadow self taking over my body completely. I shuddered with intention.  I decided that I would send some bullet points to Pat outlining the features of a good graduation speech. He could share them with Spencer. I was so agitated, however, that when I started to type I couldn’t feel the pads of my fingers. My hands were still shaking so this made normal typing impossible. I had to resort to typing with one finger, letter by letter – like a Neanderthal woman striking flint.
            I didn’t even know if Spencer had chosen to audition in the first place. Surely he would, wouldn’t he? What if he had backed off because of the competition? Just like I would have done. I would send the bullet points anyway and talk to him on the phone later. But were bullet points enough?  What about examples? Examples of great graduation speeches? I remembered the “sunscreen” one and a David Foster Wallace one. Sensation returning to my fingers, I called them up from Google like a witch conjuring spirits and sent them along to Pat.  What else? I could ask Spencer who else was auditioning and find a way to neutralize them by anticipating what they would write based on Spencer’s description of their character. 
            Neutralize them? What?
I needed to calm down and reclaim my writer-lady-in-the-woods-loving-all-things self. I sat back from the computer, closed my eyes, threw a mental cloak over the shadow self, and signed out of my mail. On the way to dinner I stopped to talk to a couple of bunnies on the trail. Surely they would have been frightened away if my shadow self was still hanging around.
The bunnies calmed me and so did the company of the women around the dinner table. When I talked to Spencer on the phone that night, I felt like my old self until I asked him if he was auditioning for the graduation speech.
            “Yeah,” he said.
            I wanted to howl in triumph, reach through the phone, grab his shoulders, and say, “You can do it, my boy. Stick with me and we’ll plough right over the competition.”My shadow self would not be denied. I did, however, manage to keep my tone casual when I told him that I had sent him a couple of e-mails that might be helpful to him.
            “Sure,” he said, vaguely, and handed Pat the phone.
            “Don’t tell Spencer that I want him to win,” I said to Pat. “I have to protect him from me.  I can’t lay that kind of burden on him. I’m a monster.”
            Pat simply laughed and assured me that he would soft-peddle my involvement. I had to stop myself from telling him not to soft-peddle it too much and to make sure Spencer read my e-mails thoroughly.
            Over the next couple of days, I kept the phone talk loose and only sent Spencer one more example of a graduation speech. The night I returned from the residency, he showed me his speech and I felt my shadow self thumping against my rib cage. With some changes, the speech would surely be a winner. But Spencer didn’t like my notes. He said that he liked the speech the way it was.
            Thump, thump, thump. I smiled sweetly and said, “OK.”
            When Spencer came home the day of the audition, he told me that the competition had been tough. He didn’t know if he would get it. I raged inside, but smiled again and said that I hoped that he would be happy with his work either way. 
            The next day Spencer bounced off the bus and yelled “Guess what, Mom?”
            VICTORY!!!!!!!! I thought!
            “What?” I asked, evenly.
            “I got it,” he crowed.
            YE.S. YES. YES – WE WIN!  WE WIN! WE WIN!
            “Good for you,” I said. “You worked hard and it was all yours. I’m proud of you.” We talked a little about the audition and how he felt. Then I put my arm around his shoulders and said, “Congratulations, Bub. And what else happened at school today?”
            We walked toward home, my shadow self curled in a corner of my gut, purring. Hidden, I hoped, from his view.

My two unsuspecting lovelies

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