Scheherazade asks: "What's the hardest thing to talk or write honestly about?"
I've saved this request for a few days, because it felt like the kind of thing I needed to be in the mood to write. But I think I have an answer. I think it's hardest for me to talk or write honestly about things I fear will make people dislike me, even if they're fair and honest things I'm thinking or feeling, and even though in most cases I'm almost certainly underestimating the audience, whatever audience it is, and imagining a reaction different from what the actual reaction would be.
A relatively trivial example is probably the books and movies I'll write about. I'm pretty sure that when I started blogging, I was a lot more willing to post something negative about a book I didn't like. At some point over the past three years -- and maybe this is due to Technorati, or maybe it's due to more and more people using Google for more and more things, or maybe it was due to a growing readership on this blog -- I started getting a fair number more e-mails from people whose things I'd post about. I don't think I've ever written anything too terrible about anything, but, honestly, it's a stomach-turning kind of feeling to get an e-mail from the director of an independent movie eighteen hours after you write a relatively critical post about his film, telling you he was disappointed by the post and thought it was unfair. I think I still write a fair number of negative things about things I write and see, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I'm probably a lot more careful than I need to be. I feel like in my head I divide things into two categories, when I think about posting. Mass-market things -- anything on TV, movie releases, Broadway shows, mass-market books getting other press, any sort of consumer product in stores, anything posted on the Internet -- I feel like I don't really have any qualms about posting something negative. Anything I write is a drop in the bucket, and whatever I'm writing is a drop in the bucket. But smaller-scale things -- an off-off-off-Broadway show where I can imagine the writers are going to write and take personally anything anyone posts anywhere, a book written by someone I know is probably reading my blog, obviously anything anyone I'm friends with is involved in -- I'll admit I'm a lot more careful. When I post about something, it's honest -- I won't write something positive about something unless it's really what I think, but there are shows I've seen that I haven't posted about, there are some books I've read that I haven't posted about. For the sole reason that I'm not trying to make anyone upset with me, and it doesn't serve me to do so. I can riff on Quaker Oatmeal Squares and how awful they are without feeling like it will seriously come back to haunt me, but if I write about how I think a performer in an improv show really sucks, well, then I'm just being a dick.
A less trivial example probably deals with how I post about things that I have real opinions on, or about things that are happening to me in real life, or about the world. And I think it's actually as much about how I interact generally, and not just on the blog. I may have a skewed memory of these things, but I'm pretty sure that when I was seven or eight years old, I was kind of intolerable to other kids. I fear that for a little while, I was the kid who kept raising his hand in class with the answer. I was a second-grade gunner. I'd have to go back and ask my teachers (or classmates) to know for sure, but I'm pretty sure the adults liked me more than the kids did, at least for a little while. In fourth grade, I remember my teacher, Mr. Osterweil (who was a terrific teacher, and I wonder what's happened to him -- I remember specifically that he didn't use textbooks in same way that other teachers had done before him, and actually crafted lessons on his own, and taught us a lot more interesting things than the textbooks did... we had a unit on Brooklyn neighborhoods, where we had to label a map with all the different community names, and then there was some sort of huge floor map we did something with, I think... and all that stuck in my head in a way that most stuff we learn in elementary school really didn't... he was just a really good teacher), had a set of math cards in the back of the room, and if we did all 60-some of them by the end of the year, we would get extra credit. And I got to the end, and one card was missing. So I couldn't get the extra credit. And I think I remember writing him a note about how it was unfair, and feeling sort of wronged by it. Clearly, any kid who's going to feel wronged by a missing math card... yeah, so I was probably kind of a gunner, at the age of nine.
At some point, things started to click that maybe it's better to sort of underplay stuff, and let things roll off you a little bit more, to have a happier and more well-adjusted life. I expect it was a gradual process, and took a few years to totally click. But what I've internalized, from elementary school, is that there's maybe a pretty narrow space between competence/confidence and arrogance, and I find that I try really hard to make sure I stay there, and if given a choice, I'm much more comfortable to seem doubting and unsure than I am to seem arrogant or obnoxious.
I think I fear that deep down -- and it's way deep down and unexpressed by now, I think -- I could be a gunner, and I have to do everything I can not to let that out. Gunner's the wrong word -- I raised my hand about a dozen times in all of law school, and never had the urge to raise it any more than that. It's not even about competitiveness or anything like that. But it's about a sense that in more contexts than necessary, I find that I'd so much rather not press a point and have people like me than take even the tiniest risk of being obnoxious about anything at all, to the point that I'll let other people take the lead in almost any context.
But I'm not convinced this isn't a good thing. I mean, I like myself a lot better than I think I'd have liked the eight-year-old me that I imagine in my head. I don't mind playing low-status in an interaction, and letting someone else feel important. But I'm sure it comes through on the blog. I downplay my opinions, and temper them sometimes, to make sure I'm not coming across differently than I mean to. Even if it cuts against the power of whatever point I'm trying to make, and weakens whatever it is I'm trying to say. But I'd rather that than have someone think I'm being arrogant.
A couple of my friends came up and saw the law school parody show last year, when I was one of the writers. And at the party after the show, one of my law school friends made some comment about how there were points in the writing process where I'd been stubborn about getting my way, and the truth is that I probably was. There were definitely things -- little things and bigger things -- that were important to me, seemed at the time a lot more important than they probably were, and I absolutely pushed more than I necessarily should have if my goal was lack of drama instead of doing something I thought would make the show better. But one of my friends from undergrad who was there reacted by saying that the person saying I'd been difficult must be stupid, because I'm not difficult. I was really pleased by that reaction, probably more than it makes sense to be. Because in the end, I'm much happier with myself if someone feels like I'm not difficult than if someone feels like I'm right. Even better to be both, and best of all to be right and no one even realizes they were ever wrong -- but it's when I choose "right" over "not difficult" that I end up feeling really bad about myself, because it's that nine-year-old gunner coming through, and he's been banned from the kingdom.
Senior year of college, we had to write a thesis to graduate. I was a little lazy about finding an advisor, and ended up with one who I hadn't known beforehand, and didn't know me, and we were both a little bit lazy about setting up meetings and about interacting much at all. I'd send half-hearted outlines, wouldn't get much response, and wouldn't push for anything more. It was my fault as much as hers for not having more interaction, absolutely -- I imagine we both wished the other had pushed more. But it ended up that we met in person once all year, and exchanged maybe three or four short e-mails in total. I wrote the paper, and it was fine, but at the oral presentation session afterwards, it was fairly clear to me that my advisor hadn't read the paper very carefully, and had misread the conclusion. A couple of days later, I picked up my grade from my mailbox, and it was a B. Grade inflation being what it is, that was a pretty lackluster grade. And some of her written comments didn't make a ton of sense, given the paper. My instant reaction was that the grade didn't seem fair, and I started walking toward her office, thinking about what I was going to say. I got about halfway there -- and this was maybe a 5-minute walk, nothing major -- and stopped. It hit me that there was really nothing to accomplish. The grade didn't really matter, it wasn't going to affect my life, surely to get someone to reconsider a grade was going to be an ordeal, and not end up making me feel terribly good about the whole process, and even if the grade became a B+, did it really matter? And I turned around and went back to my dorm. I'm really, really proud of that decision. And it's a bizarre decision to be proud of, perhaps. I'm pretty sure my paper deserved a better grade than it got. But I made the decision to let it go, and it felt like exactly the kind of decision the nine-year-old me wouldn't have made, but exactly the decision that the person I aspire to be would make. I've never told anyone this story, because it's so silly. Somehow writing this post triggered the memory.
Okay. I think I've answered the question. And in doing so, I've tried not to think about how this post will come off, and to just be honest about what the question got me thinking. So there it is. I'll take more requests if anyone has any -- I think this one finishes up the ones I've received.