Monday, October 29, 2007

Doctor Gabie diagnoses the Mom Complex

We own a new ladder. It seemed like a good idea after McKay's near accident, so Ken went out and bought a much sturdier one. Gabie interpreted this as a sign that he could now climb up and down it at will to "help" Dad fix the roof. Gabie did not take kindly to my insistance on Sunday morning that No, he was not allowed to climb up there again, especially in his Sunday clothes.

Gabie looked at me sternly and said, "The problem with you Mom is that you want to control me all the time. You tell me not to do stuff and you think I have to listen to you. Well the world isn't always going to be the way you want it to be."

Is it possible to have a 5 year old teenager?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Close calls

Today I was in the room Nora and Gabie share, changing Nora’s diaper before her nap, when I smelled a strange odor (I mean something other than the contents of the diaper I was changing). It struck me as a vaguely familiar smell but I couldn’t quite place it. My first thought was: “I wonder what Gabie has been playing with in here.” He’s quite the chemist lately, mixing batches of “Super Cleaner” out of lotion, water, soap, scraps of construction paper thrown in for color, etc.

But I couldn’t quite identify the odor and it was very faint, so I mentally shelved it, assuming I’d figure it out later. I was just about to put Nora down in her crib and leave the room when I remembered what the smell made me think of: ironing clothes. This was an odd connection because (true confession) I rarely iron clothes. Maybe once a month I do a bit of emergency spot work, but that’s it. God sent me to earth during the age of the wrinkle-free garment for a reason. But the really strange thing is that I had just ironed something this morning. Ken was running late for work and he was in charge of a big training meeting today, so I had pity on him and volunteered to clear the ironing board of its perpetual 20 pound layer of draped clothing and iron his shirt. Anyway, I’m not sure if I would have recognized the smell in Gabie’s room if it weren’t for the fresh association in my head.

I sniffed my way around the room and then checked all the electrical outlets and that’s when I discovered that Gabie had plugged in a little lamp, buried it under the quilt on his bed, and LEFT IT ON. The quilt fabric was scorching hot and a new package of diapers that had been sitting at the foot of Gabie’s bed had begun to melt. When I lifted the quilt to expose the lamp, a puff of smoke rose into the air.

I unplugged the lamp and dealt with the melted diapers and quilt and then I sat down with Nora in my arms and let my heart stop pounding. I didn’t want to think about what would have happened if I had left Nora in her crib, walked out, and closed the door. No, actually I did want to think about it. In fact I’ve been stirring the scenario around in my brain ever since. Smoldering quilt. Wooden bed. Smoke-filled room. Sleeping baby. . .

Then this evening, Ken was on the roof dismantling the old swamp cooler. McKay was climbing up the ladder to join him and I was a few feet away with Nora and Gabie. Suddenly, the ladder tipped over and McKay was hanging there, holding onto the edge of the roof, his legs dangling in the air. It could have been a comic moment from a Keystone Cops film if it weren’t for the fact that it was my 9-year old son holding on for dear life. I dashed over and put the ladder under him and helped him down. He was definitely upset. But it speaks for his resilient character that he insisted on going back up once he had calmed down for a minute. I held the ladder, of course.

So now it’s 11 pm and everyone is asleep but me. I’ve checked on all the kids and they are still breathing. Sometimes at night I am hit with an overwhelming sense of relief when I can finally say that we’ve all made it through another day, safe and sound.

There’s a print by Käthe Kollwitz—a very dramatic image of death sweeping down from the sky to seize the throats of two terrified children. My favorite part of the scene? The little girl darting off to the left. I wonder how much of life is made up of narrow escapes. Some that we probably don’t even realize. And some that make us grateful for the small miracles that keep us here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Faux pas

1. French for “false step”
2. A violation of social etiquette, a blunder.
3. What I did last year on Black Friday.
3. What my mother got this summer when her foot was reconstructed by a certain Dr. Faux (I swear, it’s true).
4. What I did today, i.e. made such a social blunder/false step that my foot is still firmly wedged in my mouth.

I’ll explain. I was out walking with Nora this afternoon when I ran into one of my neighbors, a woman whose 16-year old daughter is in my Sunday School class. My neighbor mentioned her daughter and how she has been dividing her time between her best friend and her new boyfriend. “Aha,” I said (ignoring the shut up stupid! voice in my head), “Has she delivered her friend the ice cream* that she owes her this week because of that boyfriend?”

Total silence.

From the look on this woman’s face, it was obvious that even though her daughter had casually mentioned the ice cream news to me, she had pointedly NOT told her mother anything about the ice cream news or the loss of her “Virgin Lips” that it signified. Ouch. I tried to back away from my remark, but the damage had been done. Man, I am such a turkey. This is not just a violation of good manners, it’s probably an ethical transgression as well. I mean shouldn’t the Sunday School Teacher/Student privilege be as strong as the Psychiatrist/Patient one? Can she sue me for a violation of privacy?

I’m wondering what kind of conversation is happening tonight in their home…

*Explanation: where I come from when you kiss a boy for the first time, you have to give your friends ice cream. Is this just a Utah thing? A Mormon thing? A teen girls who get silly about boys and romance thing?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stopping to smell a cliche part deux

I had to tell Nora today to stop putting beans in her ears. Where do kids come up with these things?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Living the Law of Chance

It was said of Louis XIV that with a calendar and timepiece, you could predict exactly where he would be and what he would be doing at any given moment of the year. His routine was legendary. Like the sun—the image he adopted as his emblem—Louis rose and set and made his way across the firmament of Versailles with absolute regularity.

Monday, for me, was a Louis XIV kind of day. I woke up at 5:45 and knew, down to the minute, what would be happening during every part of the day ahead. It was a teaching day for me, so I had exams to finish grading and a lecture to prepare. We were also hosting a birthday party for Ethan, so I knew in advance that I would never make it through the day unless I had every moment fully choreographed. By 10:00 am I had a clean house, dinner in the crock pot, and a day’s worth of bottles (for Nora) and a Coke (for me) chilling in the fridge. I had to pause for a moment to bask in my own dazzling competence. But I only took a moment since prolonged basking was not on my schedule.

In one particularly efficient swoop, I ordered the pizza for the party, dropped off Nora and Gabie at their cousins’ house, bought movie tickets in advance, picked up the pizza (paid for with a coupon that for once I did not leave behind on the kitchen counter), and arrived home with 5 minutes to spare before the first guests arrived. After pizza and games, I drove the boys to the theater and sat with them during the movie, grading exams by flashlight. By the time I got to campus to teach my class, I felt like Louis must have felt when—after a day of diplomacy, statesmanship, and politics at the French court—he spent the evening dancing a ballet (in which he played the starring role of the Apollo the sun god, of course).

So despite my frequent blog descriptions of my life as chaotic and out of control, I do have those occasional days of order. I’ve decided it’s probably a good thing that they don’t come very often because: a) I would get a big head, and b) my life would be extremely dull.

Tuesday, in contrast, was a day of surprises. I knew in advance what I thought the day would bring, but several unexpected encounters reminded me that life is often ruled by a powerful force called the Law of Chance. I learned about the Law of Chance from the Dada artists, a group of delightful subversives who following World War I, rebelled against common sense, good taste and the "whole prevailing order" of society. Jean Arp wrote in one of the Dada manifestos, "The law of chance, which comprises all other laws and surpasses our understanding. . . can only be experienced in a total surrender to the unconscious. I claim that whoever follows this law will create pure life" Arp applied this philosophy to his various “Collages Arranged According to the Law of Chance.” He created them by tearing paper into pieces, dropping them onto a background and gluing them in place wherever they landed.

The strange thing about these collages is that for “random” productions, they seem rather well organized. Not to discredit Arp’s stated intentions, but if you look at the rows in this collage, it seems quite unlikely that they were created with the arbitrary method he describes. There is too much balance. None of the squares overlap, even slightly. What are the chances of that?

In fact, this work is not meant to be random or accidental; Arp implied as much with the title, which begins with the words: “arranged according to…” The pieces are still arranged. They are composed according to a certain law. It is a law that surpasses our understanding, but it is still a law. In this, Arp said, his creative works are closer to nature and pure life, which also grants us chance arrangements—surprising things we could not possibly have predicted or created entirely by ourselves, but things that still carry meaning and purpose on their own.

For example, if I see a certain student named Gillian in my classroom every other day for three and a half months, I would not think it terribly remarkable. But if the class ends and two years later, on a Tuesday morning in October, I run into Gillian in front of the fish tank at my eye doctor’s office, we would both be surprised. And if it has been a difficult week for me, a week in which I have graded 90 exams (some at my kitchen table while my two youngest children sat in front of the TV watching back to back to back episodes of I know not what on the Discovery Channel, some in a darkened theater with the voices of animated rats in my ears) and I have been wishing I could quit teaching and wondering if my students are even learning anything, and then Gillian tells me that she loved my class, still remembers it, and “learned a ton,” and my teacher’s ego perks up like one of those puffer fish (and if there were one in the tank next to us that would be really cool, but there wasn’t), I would say that it was quite a remarkable encounter. I might even say something like “This is exactly what I needed to hear today.” What are the chances of that?

So this was how my Tuesday started. Then on my way home from the eye doctor, I stopped at the thrift store in search of a book—something well-written yet funny, something along the lines of David Sedaris, I thought to myself as I walked up to the stacks. And there he was. Well, not exactly David Sedaris himself, but one of his books. What a stroke of luck. Granted, I do live in a county with more Mormons per capita than anywhere else on the planet and David is a bit irreverent and naughty which is probably why someone gave away this pristine copy to begin with and why nobody had snatched it up before I got to it, but hey, it was still a pretty amazing find. The Law of Chance strikes again.

Tuesday evening, I took McKay to a Parent Teacher conference where we waited for over an hour because (and I’m talking from 3 years of experience here) parents with children in a “gifted program” can’t shut up about their kids. While we were waiting, I decided to stroll down to the office for a few minutes. I knew that the new Vice Principal, Mrs. Bestor, was a former English teacher of mine from High School and I hadn’t seen her in over 20 years. She was in fact my favorite English teacher ever. My entire sophomore year she wrote praise and suggestions in the margins of my juvenile attempts at poetry and told me I had talent. I wanted to thank her for that.

I was standing in the office, rehearsing what I would say to introduce myself, when she walked around the corner. Without hesitation, she said, “Julie!” and gave me a big hug. Incredible. I was shocked that she remembered me. After all these years, she still knew my name and even asked if I was still writing. As far as I’m concerned, this woman has earned a permanent spot in the pantheon of saints.

My Aunt Bonnie had called earlier in the day, out of the blue, and offered us tickets to an orchestra concert that evening. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to go and after the long delay at Parent Teacher Conference, I had just about decided to bag it when McKay begged me to take him. I don’t get to spend much time alone with McKay (alas, the poor overlooked middle child, the un-squeakiest of my four wheels). So I decided to take him to at least the first half. I was already in a carpe diem kind of mood anyway.

Another surprise awaited us, and it wasn’t the good kind this time: the orchestra was terrible. In their defense, it was the first concert of the season and they are all unpaid performers with little time for rehearsals, and I have been spoiled by the consummate professionalism of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake, but still, I am not exaggerating when I say that they fumbled their way through the music, often out of synch and out of key. Ouch. Their second number was “Petrouchka” by Stravinsky. I like Stravinsky, but his music is hard to play and hard to listen to, even when it’s done well, which in this case it wasn’t. So I kept looking over at McKay, trying to judge by his expression and body language if he was suffering as much as I imagined he was. For a boy who hates to sit still and on Sundays spends the hour of Sacrament Meeting flopping around on the bench like a trout on a boat deck, he was strangely calm. I wondered if he had fallen into a catatonic state out of sheer boredom. I wrote a note to him on the program: “Do you like this?” And he wrote back, “Yes! Espesialy the loud and fast parts.”

Wonders never cease. This was probably the biggest surprise of the day. My son saw something in this death-by-musical-torture that I was completely missing. I sat through the rest of the piece in awe of McKay's sweet, boyish exuberance for all things loud and fast. At the intermission, we left to go home because it was late and still a school night. We found my aunt Bonnie in the lobby and she too asked McKay if he liked the Stravinsky piece. He told her, "I liked it because it wasn’t boring. It's fun when you never know what's coming next." I had to smile. He's got a great point there.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How to succeed in life with a 5-word vocabulary

The Tesserae family of educational services is pleased to announce an exciting new workshop. This special one-time offering entitled "How to succeed in life with a 5-word vocabulary" will be taught by the eminently qualified Baby Nora herself. With 17 months of experience and a captivating personality, Nora will teach you the best-kept secrets of the toddler trade. Her cutting-edge (and cutting-tooth) approach centers on the all-important question: why waste time with a ponderous, time-consuming vocabulary when you can count on one hand the words you truly need to influence people and get the things you want out of life (which may or may not include bottles of soy milk, time in the sandbox, or an immediate rescue from atop the kitchen table where you have once again managed to strand yourself).

Learn from Nora the fine art of verbal economy in this five-part workshop.

Session One: hi
Master the art of the simple salutation. "Hi" is always a crowd pleaser and a big hit with strangers in the grocery store, where it may be combined with a wave of the hand or batting of the eyes for an effect that will be sure to leave your fans begging for more. It is especially potent when directed in the early morning hours at those who would otherwise be very annoyed with you for waking them up with your demands for comfort and attention. A well-placed "hi" will soften the heart of even the most grouchy parent.

Session Two: da-da
When you're up for the challenge, we'll move on to this two-syllable tool for the manipulation of the paternal figure. It goes without saying that when you learn to use "da-da" correctly, you'll have your father wrapped securely around your pudgy little finger. This may lead to hard feelings on the part of the maternal figure, who can't figure out why all of her children say da-da long before they learn her name despite the fact that she carried each of them inside her body for several months, nursed them from her own bosom and wore them like an over-sized purse across one hip for the first year of their lives. For this reason, we will be sure to move to the next session as soon as possible.

Session Three: nam (pronounced "nahm" as in "Viet…")
Nora's special variation on the traditional ma/ma-ma/mommy fare is sure to be the next big thing. Again, the name of the game is simplify, simplify. Save yourself the trouble of too many syllables. "Nam" will get the point across just fine, especially since your mother, desperate for recognition, will be so delighted you have finally figured out who she is that she will probably accept anything remotely involving the "m" sound at this stage. Nam plops easily off the roof of your mouth and can double as either a joyous utterance at times of reunion or a plaintive shout when you feel your needs are being neglected. Should dire circumstances (such as boredom or need for a bottom-wiping) arise, it can be repeated over and over with accelerating speeds and an incline in pitch and intensity until it becomes a whine. All this will be forgiven. Nams are like that.

Session Four: Oof
For training purposes, you will spend the weekend at the family cabin with seven large, friendly dogs. By day three, we guarantee you will have developed a strong affection for the species and the adorable tendency to bark "oof" whenever you see one. This sound is incredibly useful as it can be applied indiscriminately to all things furry or four-legged, including horses, cows, cats, pandas in books, and 80% of the characters on Sesame Street. You may even find the opportunity to use it some evening when your Nam is singing you a song with the line “Children, children, God is near you.” It may take her a moment to understand why you are barking, but she’ll laugh heartily when she figures it out.

Session Five: oh!™
This multi-purpose word will fill in all the gaps from here on out. You will never tire of discovering amusing new ways to sneak "oh!" into every conversation. Here are a few of Nora's favorites, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

oh! (the phone is ringing / I hear the doorbell)
oh! (I threw my shoe into the heat vent again)
oh! (I am sad because I was headed for the slightly open patio door and Gabie closed it just in the nick of time and now I’m stuck in the boring kitchen while he is out playing in paradise)
oh! (That wall popped up where I least expected it)
oh! (Thanks, I love Ramen Noodles)
oh! (I want that thing right there…no, not that one, the one with the sharp, pointy edges)

And a few variations on the theme:

oh, oh, oh (I know you're working on that bottle thing, but speed it up lady)
oh? (I don’t know where Da-da is. Do you?)
oh! (That is the coolest ______ I have ever seen!!!)

These five words will take you anywhere you want to go (provided you want to go to a place like Nora’s house where everyone loves her dearly and speaks her language).

Space is limited so reserve your spot today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stopping to smell a cliché

Berthe Morisot, Child in a rose garden
Gabie got home from school today and I made him put his shoes right back on so we could go for a walk. Nora was grouchy because she woke up early this morning. I was grouchy because Nora woke up early this morning. We both needed to get out of the house. Gabie did not want to go for the walk. He said he had already been out of the house and was ready to spend some time in it for a change. He also said, and I quote: “I have been dealing with so many things today. I don’t have time for a walk.” He parked his bum on the steps and refused to go and I finally had to threaten him with a timeout if he didn’t cooperate. I promised we’d take a short walk around the block.

He pouted for the first few houses and then remembered that there was a rosebush on the corner. He ran ahead because he loves the smell of roses. The bush was empty. I thought he might get upset and lose all desire to live (or continue walking), so I quickly suggested that there were probably other rosebushes around the next corner. It became a quest from then on. He raced from one house to the next, scanning for roses and sniffing any within his reach—all the while maintaining a running commentary on their particular fragrances (some were “out of nectar” already and thus scored low on the olfactory report).

He insisted we take the long, windy route through several neighborhoods in search of more roses. He announced that today was Rose Day, that we lived in Rose Country, and that one particular street (where there appeared to be a green thumb living in every house) was Rose Heaven. He even told me a great joke: “Why did the Gabie cross the road? To get to the rosebush on the other side.” (He told several others but this was the only one I understood. Five year-old humor is way over my head.)

Nora, by the way, sniffed a few flowers as well. Or I should say she projected baby snot on them since she has not yet mastered the distinction between inhaling and exhaling.

So Gabie reminded me today how important it is to stop and smell the roses, which is just about the oldest cliché in the book. But just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it can’t still be true.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

proxy blogger

Since I'm not going to get around to posting something of my own today, I'll give you a link to a very inspiring post by my 12-year old son Ethan the Environmentalist. He doesn't post often on his blog but he loves to get comments when he does. I promised I'd send a few readers his way if he promised to put his cereal bowl away tomorrow. So please take a look if you feel so inclined.

Monday, October 08, 2007

What I’ve learned from Cezanne and other people smarter than me

Cezanne, Vessels Basket and Fruit, 1888-90

If you look at the left front edge of Cezanne’s table in this painting and then look at the right edge, you notice that there’s something strange happening. Either Cezanne was drunk or he deliberately painted the table from two different angles. He was not drunk. Cezanne knew that all objects exist in time and space and just because our human vision only experiences one angle at once doesn’t mean our human minds aren’t simultaneously aware of all the other options. Cezanne—the most cerebral and philosophical of painters—is asking us to set aside our ingrained assumption that a painting should frame a single point of view. He wants us to admit that art and life are complex and multidimensional things.

I bring this up because I have been lamenting a post I wrote last week about an act of conspicuous Jell-O production. I am not happy with how mean-spirited I came across in that post and I wanted to delete it several times. But I also wanted to apologize first, which I’m doing here. If ever it was possible to hold two completely contrary viewpoints in one’s head at the same time, such was the case with the Jell-O. I was both offended by the salad (offense combined with equal parts jealousy, self-loathing, and general grumpiness) and impressed with the care that went into it. After all, my neighbor chose to share her talents and time. And who did she share them with? ME! (oh, and a bunch of other women, but we're talking about me here). It was an act of thoughtfulness and generosity on her part and even if there was the tiniest hope that she would get a bit of praise and a few compliments (one being from me) out of it then who am I to begrudge her that?

So I could have gone either way in my verbal painting of the evening and I chose to go with the single-minded, negative slant. Frankly, I went for the humor. I laughed as I typed the blog post (I’m still amused that I finally got a chance to tell the “Diane’s house is too clean to clean” story) and in my new spirit of posting more and editing less, I posted it without thinking it through.

I should have thought it through.

Because I know better. I have written two other snarky posts that I regretted later and deleted (one about my husband going deer hunting and another about poorly-written student papers). Whenever I try to put my tongue in my cheek I somehow manage to stick it out very rudely.

What really got me regretting the post was the thought that many of my family members and good friends share their “virtuosity” in generous ways as well. Once when she came to visit, my friend Tara (chef, artist, all-around classy person) showed us how to make dipped and ornamented Oreos. We had a blast making them and when we gave a few to our friend Gayle, she loved that we were giving her these little masterpieces.

My sister-in-law Echo makes birthday cards so intricate and personalized that we all can’t wait to see what ours will look like. Last Thanksgiving, my sister Teri spent about 2 hours helping me skewer vegetables and assemble them like a flower arrangement so that I would have something fun to contribute to my in-laws’ dinner. My mother has decorated wedding cakes Martha Stewart would drool over (does Martha drool? Does it come out in French twists? Am I getting rude again?).

I think we all have things we do well and love to share with others. I once had time to quilt (alas, in another life) and I made this I-Spy quilt for my friend Kathy’s baby. It took me so many hours to make that the baby was nearly 18 months old before I finally finished it. Did I do this to impress her and make everyone who saw it envious? No. I made it because I love my friend and I like to make quilts and I wanted to try something really challenging for a change.

Anyway, it has all been yet another learning experience. Here’s what I’ve come up with thus far:

1. Don’t write when I’m grumpy
2. Don’t write mean stuff.
3. Not even when it’s supposed to be funny.
4. Because it might be funny but it’s still mean.
5. When I’m offended, look at all the angles.
6. Look again.
7. Then look at myself in the mirror.
8. Wipe off the mirror because it’s covered in toothpaste.
9. Jello is spelled Jell-O
10. Go ask my neighbor for her Jell-O recipe because I should really make it someday for my family.
11. They’ll LOVE it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

get a grip, the sequel

I just had to add a funny post script to this post about pencil grips. I had assumed all this time that Gabie's kindergarten teacher must have joined the losing battle to correct his improper hold of the pencil. We had a parent teacher conference tonight and guess what? It turns out that she doesn't care. She's not worried at all. In fact, she normally holds her pencil in a totally bizarre way (although she makes it a point to hold it "the school way" when she's in the classroom to set a good example). She doesn't think her odd grip has stunted her ability to write in any way. I love her and plan to adopt her soon.

So I'm following my mommy intuition here and I'm just going to let Gabie do his own thing. Hopefully his 1st through 6th grade teachers will also be as cool about it. I figure by the time he hits High School, he'll be typing everything or using sophisticated voice-recognition software anyway, so why stress? Besides, if his penmanship is a mess, he'll be one step ahead of all those other medical students who will have to work hard to master their sloppy doctor scrawls.

Anyway, I just thought you'd like to know.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The art of Jello consumption

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.