My neighbor brought a fifteen-layer Jello salad to the Women’s Conference dinner at the church on Saturday. Now why did she have to go and do that? I love this neighbor. She is a kind, generous person. When I broke my foot last year, she brought my family a home cooked seven-course meal in disposable containers, bless her incredibly thoughtful little heart. But seriously, fifteen layers?
I sliced a serving and set it respectfully on my plate where it shimmied in all its rainbowed glory—seven different flavors of Jello, alternating translucent and cloudy stripes, with a creamy white topping. It tasted delicious, of course, but every bite was—for me at least—a spoonful of guilt because I knew exactly how much work went into making that salad. It represented a giant undertaking of foresight and effort: a shopping trip involving an actual planned-in-advance list, fifteen washings of the mixing bowl, organization and memory skills that I could never hope to possess (just think about the math: a new layer every hour on the hour for an entire day!), and above all a clean fridge with room enough for not one but two large dishes because I can guarantee she made a double batch and left one salad home with her husband and six (6) children along with a chicken casserole and homemade rolls.
I, on the other hand, decided to attend the function only at the last minute, mostly because I needed an escape from my chaotic house, and so I deserted my family without a single thought for what they might scrounge up to eat (Ken ended up ordering pizza). I would also have arrived completely empty handed at the church except for the lucky encounter I had in the foyer with a man carrying a plate of brownies. His told me his wife had made them but she didn’t feel well, so would I be so kind as to carry them in with me because he felt uncomfortable intruding on all those women. “I’d be happy to,” I replied magnanimously. Yeah (I thought as I waltzed into the room and asked sweetly, “so where would you like these?”) I’d be happy to usurp your wife’s brownies to hide my own negligence. I felt like the scroungy dude in a t-shirt who arrives at a fancy restaurant and is rescued from the humiliation of failing the dress code by a polite manager waiting at the door with a loaner jacket.
But I want to talk about that salad. Because I really need to know if I’m crazy to think that there’s just no call for that kind of public demonstration of talent. Did anyone really enjoy eating it? Was I the only one who would have been fine with four layers, or even one of those Cool Whip and pudding jobbies thrown together at the last second—the ones that say, “Hey, I was made by a woman who walks on earth, not water. You too could have done this, if only you had thought of it.”
Fifteen layers just screams, “Yowza, look at me, I’m a fifteen-layer salad that also tastes fantastic. You wish your household ran this smoothly.”
I have another neighbor named Diane whose house is always immaculate. I don’t mean tidy and presentable. I mean white-glove-inspection-ready clean 24/7. She has seven children and is a fabulous mother to boot. I have dropped in at random times just to catch her off guard and once I found a single cup in her sink and a music stand in the middle of the living room. That was it. A few months ago, when Diane’s mother passed away and she was out of town attending to the funeral, six women from the church planned to spend the morning “cleaning her house” for her while she was gone. They had a hard time finding anything to do and left after an hour. To this day, Diane still doesn’t know that they were ever there.
Might I suggest they could have taken a different approach. You know how sometimes instead of sending yet another batch of flowers to a funeral, you might donate the money, in the name of the departed, to a charity? Perhaps those women could have gone to a house that really needed 6 woman-hours of work done on it and left Diane a note saying, “On your behalf, we cleaned so-and-so’s house today.” I’m not saying they necessarily would have had to come to my house, but I’ll tell you I would definitely have known they had been here.
My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable in Diane’s house. Not that it’s one of those places where you’re afraid to wrinkle the furniture or spoil the white carpet, but I just can’t help but be fully aware, the whole time I am there, of how clean everything is (and by implication, how far short my home falls from her level). This is also why I can never truly enjoy listening to piano concertos. The more insanely well they are performed, the more agony they cause me. I can’t relax and enjoy the beauty of the music because I’m sitting there thinking: man, this guy is good! . . . he must practice six hours a day. . . wow that was a tricky spot. . . (and inevitably) You knew you’d regret quitting piano lessons when you were 15, you big slacker.
The word that comes to mind is virtuosity, which Websters defines simply as great technical skill. But I think the word implies more than just talent; a virtuoso draws attention to their talent by showing it off. A virtuoso pianist does not play chopsticks; he plays Liszt. A virtuoso artist pushes the envelope of his medium and lets you know, in unveiled irony, how much work was involved to make the feat seem effortless. In this 17th century still life for example, the artist (Adrien van der Spelt) used incredible skill at painting light and detail to fool the viewer into assuming that a curtain has been drawn part way across the canvas.
On closer inspection, you can see that the curtain is only painted on. The curtain serves as a fitting metaphor; that which usually parts to unveil the real view now becomes the main attraction. I imagine most viewers of this work do not leave with a strong opinion of how beautiful the flowers were but with appreciation of van der Spelt’s mastery of trompe l’oeil. So let’s just be honest about what the painting is really about. Instead of calling it Still life with flowers and curtain, they should call it Self-portrait of the artist’s talent.
Maybe I’m the one with the problem. I mean, who else gets offended by gelatin? But I think the world needs more people like me—the underachievers without whom those who aspire for excellence would have no cause to feel superior. I’m here to make everyone else feel better about themselves in comparison. I’m here to leave the door to my cluttered garage open wide for everyone driving past to see and disparage. I am here to go to my 20-year reunion looking 20-years frumpier so that the ladies who have worked their tails off to stay slim and glamorous can make a good impression. I am here to send out my Christmas letters in March (every other year) to ease the holiday burden on the postal service.
I am not, as I had imagined, merely a slacker. I am truly hard at work, making the world safe for virtuosity. I fail to accomplish even a fraction of what I hope to accomplish so that the success of others means something. I do everyone a great service and I’m happy to oblige. I have to admit that the world is a more beautiful place because my neighbor took the time to share her talents and build an elaborate Jello salad. But the world is also a more symmetrical place because there are people like me, ready to show up with a plate.