Just Plain Grapes

After my post the other day about feeling conflicted about the recent success of one of my former high school classmates, I wanted to demonstrate that I’m not all sour grapes about other people’s success.

Last week, an article by one of my junior high school friends appeared in the L.A. Times. In eighth grade, on a trip to state finals with our writing team, this friend informed me of the possibility of shaving one’s legs in the shower, thereby revolutionizing my hair removal practices. For a school project, we once made eerie clay-headed puppets and a cardboard cutout of a sort-of Cadillac, which we painted hot pink. We had the puppets perform a sort-of music video to The Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” (The point of the school project is long since lost to me.)

And although I’ve not used her shaving lessons in nearly a decade and still retain a minor phobia of puppets, I feel nothing but just plain grapes to see her byline in the L.A. Times, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read a book she wrote, once she publishes one. Unless maybe if it were a self-help book, in which case I’d have to re-think everything.

In the meantime, enjoy Maggie’s column!

Newlywed’s year of solo travel enforces a bond

The Sour Grapes Test

The other day I found out that I graduated high school with a woman who is now a famous mommy-blogger with a recent New York Times Best Seller.

I felt a bit conflicted when I heard about this. And by “conflicted” I mean “in a bit of a crisis.”

My clearest memory of this particular classmate is from our tenth-grade biology class. We were studying genetics. The teacher had the whole class stand up and then she read off recessive traits. If we didn’t have the trait, we sat down, and if we had it, we stayed standing. As the teacher called out traits, I kept standing. Soon I realized that it was only me and one of the popular girls left standing. She looked around the room and saw me. I gave her a meek little smile and she gave that popular-girl half-smile, half-sneer thing that made it clear she was not happy about being in this recessive club with me.

I hoped that the next trait would force one of us to sit down. I even considered sitting down whether I had the next trait or not, but as it turned out, I got to sit down without being forced to lie. My ring finger is longer than my index finger and apparently hers are the same length. Or at least I think that’s the difference between us; it’s been more than twenty years, and my diaries from that time are in Ohio in the rafters of my mom’s garage so I can’t sift through the teenage angst to find that one detail. Regardless, I felt relieved to take my seat.

And now she’s famous and my friends (who’ve never met her) are quoting her and sharing links from her on Facebook.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d been assured by parents, fellow outcasts, and teen movies that the kids who were popular in high school would be relegated to obscurity afterward while the nerds would inherit the Earth. I’d comforted myself with this thought for years, thinking that maybe its effects for me were diluted because I wasn’t even a very successful nerd; I only got 1320 on my SATs, attended Renaissance Festivals but didn’t dress up, and although I joined Model UN, I never could figure out the point. But now, it seems, it wasn’t true at all.

Hoping for compassion, I told my husband the high school biology story.

“Wow, so that’s why our kids look so much like me!” he exclaimed.

“What?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Because you’re so recessive. My genes are dominant. That’s why our kids look like me and not like you.”

“Have I met you?” I thought but didn’t say.

Then I had a fun time with another friend of mine doing the “sour grapes” thing.

“You don’t want to be on the New York Times Best Seller list,” she assured me. “It’s just a popularity contest. I mean, look how often John Grisham is on it.” And then we laughed, and that helped for a little while.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning the situation to my minister. I said I was having some trouble knowing what to do with this new information.

“You just feel happy for her,” she directed. Of course. What did I expect? She’s my minister. She’s professionally obligated to see the good in everyone.

And none of it helps because that’s exactly the problem: I know I should just feel happy for her. I feel ashamed that I’m not. I mean, I do feel happy for her, but not “just” happy. I keep thinking about that tenth-grade sneer and about how her blog—while occasionally very funny—just isn’t my cup of tea, and how her book—although I’ve not read it—appears to be just the type of feel-good overly optimistic rah-rah self-help book that I read only when I want to feel awful about myself.

And she keeps showing up, probably because she’s got great publicity people who can reach into my no-tv, no-mainstream-media life and still make me aware of her stardom or semi-stardom or whatever.

And just like in high school, half of me wants to hate her and half of me wants to be her.


Then I tell myself, “You know? Really, this isn’t about you at all. What’s the harm in feeling happy for her? Sure, it’s luck of the draw. Sure, it’s a popularity contest. But she’s also got a compelling story, and she tells it in a way that resonates with a lot of people. So, good for her.”

Next year, it will be twenty years since we graduated high school. People can change, and based on her story, she was going through quite a bit of her own crap when we knew each other. Maybe after all these years she’d not be scandalized to know she shares all but one recessive trait with me. Or maybe I’m grown-up enough not to care if she is.

Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe part of me really is trapped back in tenth grade, feeling doomed to obscurity and belittled on the basis of things outside my control, always comparing unfavorably to the people around me, wanting to opt out of the popularity contest at the same time that I secretly want to win at it.

Although it’s not even this particular popularity contest I want to win at. I don’t want to write a best-selling self-help book. I don’t want to be a mommy-blogger guru. I’d like to publish a book, but the party I want to be invited to is the one with Lionel Shriver and Marilynne Robinson and Jennifer Egan. So, no need for jealousy, right?

It’s been a few days now since I started writing this post. I’ve talked it through with a few more people and mulled it over while just living my life, and I realize that this is actually a unique opportunity for me. It’s given me a chance to revisit that unpleasant popular girl/unpopular girl dynamic from when I was fifteen and to react to it differently. Looking at it as a chance to see how I’ve grown over the past two-plus decades and reframe that old hurt, I really appreciate this opportunity. It threw me for a loop at first, but now that the dust is settling, I think I have more perspective. Despite what my minister says, I don’t think I need to feel anything in particular about the success of someone else, I just need to accept it as reality and move on. We each get what we get. If I’m happy for her, great, but the key is to not feel unhappy about myself.

The real test, however, will be how I feel if I see her at our 20th reunion next year. But then, I doubt she’ll be the only test at that reunion. There’s a reason I’ve been avoiding my reunions for 20 years. But, maybe it’s time to jump in. Chances are, it won’t be as scary as I expect.

Who Deserves More Credit? Shane Battier. That’s Who.

Basketball player Shane Battier.
Image via Wikipedia

When I asked my husband who deserves more credit than they’re getting*, he answered like he usually does: tangentially.

He told me about an article by Michael Lewis (“The No-Stats All-Star” from The New York Times, Feb 13, 2009) that he read almost two years ago about how Shane Battier defies all of the NBA’s statistical analyses and makes the teams he’s on into winning teams.

I’ll pause for a second here to mention how thrilled I was to actually know who my husband was talking about. My husband was in grad school at Duke while Shane Battier was playing for the Blue Devils. So, I knew the name, and I knew that I had seen him play (even if I didn’t remember the actual games).

Back to Shane Battier. Lewis writes:

“Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.”

When Battier defends superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (sorry for mentioning his name, Clevelanders), the superstars don’t perform as well as when Battier doesn’t defend them. Bryant and James, when asked why they didn’t do as well when Battier was defending them, say they had an off game. Battier largely does not get credit for his role in decreasing the effectiveness of these all-stars. His own numbers don’t look great, and he’s largely dismissed as a so-so player. But when he’s on the court, his team is more likely to win than when he’s on the bench.

Battier’s not the only one who plays this kind of roll, neither is basketball the only place this kind of under-the-radar assistance makes a huge difference.

Think of a bee hive. The one we always think about is the queen bee. She’s the only one who can reproduce. She’s the biggest and the one that the whole hive revolves around and protects. But if it weren’t for the thousands of worker bees, she’d be nothing. She doesn’t produce honey and doesn’t even care for her own young. But she stands out and the others don’t.

So, what would need to happen to get the worker bees and Shane Battiers more recognition? I think it would require a more collectivist attitude in our culture. We tend to think only of the people who are most visible in a success story. If someone has a serious illness and his life is saved by a medication his doctor prescribes, the doctor is the hero. The doctor saved the person’s life. But what role did the doctor really play? She maybe identified the illness and chose the proper drug to treat it. But did she develop the drug? Does she even know how the drug works, or was she simply acting on the information in the literature the pharmaceutical rep brought her along with lunch the week before? Who knows?

But you know who for sure knows how that drug works and why it’s the best choice for this particular patient? The scientists who developed it. But they’re not heroes because they’re not on the front lines. They are also, by and large, humble about their role in helping people. They see how many pieces must fit together to make it all work, and most I’ve met are hesitant to take too much personal credit for successes. But without them, the doctor couldn’t do much for her patients beyond bloodletting and sugar pills. Even surgery is dependent upon the discoveries made by scientists (the success rate of surgery was not really great until the development of antibiotics).

Back to Lewis’ article about Shane Battier:

“Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates…”

In order to recognize the contributions of the Shane Battiers in whatever field, we need to have more of a sense of the origins of things. We’d need to be more mindful and aware of how the world around us works. We would have to look past the dramatic surface story to the deep and nuanced story behind the story.

But should we give more recognition to these unsung heroes? In Lewis’ article, he writes about Battier’s social struggles in middle school and high school. He was very tall for his age (6-foot-4 in seventh grade). His father was black and his mother was white, which left him in between two worlds racially. He kept to himself a lot, sat alone at lunch, and lost himself in basketball. As Lewis writes, “Losing himself in the game meant fitting into the game, and fitting into the game meant meshing so well that he became hard to see.”

Is the success of someone like Shane Battier dependent on their being invisible? If we brought the glare of attention and the full recognition that someone like Battier deserves, would he cease to be so effective? If every time someone took a medication that saved his life, he asked to shake the hand of each scientist who’d developed it, would those scientists still be able to do the work necessary to make life-saving medications?

Battier is described by some as the most unselfish player in the NBA. Maybe the only way we can have superstars is to have a whole host of unselfish people behind them. The person at the top of her field has most likely done lots of hard work to get there. But it’s not just her work that got her there. If a person’s hard work launches them into the spotlight, is that work more worthy of praise than the hard work of someone who remains in the shadows?

They used to always say, “Behind every great man is a woman.” This reduces the issue to a matter of gender roles, but I think the idea is still apt: In order for someone to rise to the top of any field, she must first be propped up by people who may never be in the spotlight.

Not everyone can be illuminated by the light of fame and adulation. Contrary to what we as Americans like to think, hard work alone won’t lead you to fame and fortune. No one is 100% self-made. If all of us were focused exclusively on getting into the light, no one ever could. As a society, we need the unselfish people who remain in the shadows, content to see their hard work in the success of those around them.

But as a stay-at-home mom, I may be a little biased.

*I asked my husband this question because it was the prompt from today’s The Daily Post, and I found it thought-provoking enough to blog about. Also note that I don’t follow basketball, so perhaps things have changed to such a degree in the intervening years since this article came out that Shane Battier is no longer an enigma and/or is no longer under-appreciated. I think my point still stands even if this is the case.