Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's all about me, me, me

Today was my kids' first day back at school. My husband and I tried to honor this occasion and bought them school supplies and new clothes. I tried to reflect on the milestone, but couldn't force any epiphanies. They're starting 5th and 8th grades and honestly, today just doesn't feel like a milestone.

Instead, I spent the morning of their first day of school indulging insecurities. Either you will relate, which will make you feel better about being a ninny, or you won't, which will make you feel superior, which you are.

Three incidents:

1. I had a lovely mother, but she was not perfect, and one of her imperfections was her overuse of the word "fine." I don't mean in the Hemingway sense ("he was a fine bull, very strong and very fine") I mean in the deflating way. As in, teenaged daughter is going out and has put immense effort into her outfit and asks, nervously, "Do I look okay?" Mother replies, yawning, "You look fine." Teenaged girl has first perm: "Your hair looks fine." Adult woman writes article and wants editorial commentary: "I think it's fine."

Overuse of the word fine is not one of my imperfections. I say, "You look great!" "These cookies are fantastic." "This is an incredible monster truck you just drew." I say it when asked and I say it unprompted. Perhaps this is annoying, but I learned from my mother's mistakes and think it is better to err on the side of overencouraging.

Of course, I make my own mistakes. I will describe one: This morning I put on a summery skirt I haven't worn in months. I thought I looked sharp. I said to Isabel, who takes an interest in clothes, "Hey, what do you think of this outfit?"

She assessed and replied, coolly, "You look fine. "

Asking a 13-year-old daughter to provide sartorial affirmation: MISTAKE. And one my mother never made.

2. I changed into jeans. Then I drove Owen to school and met my sister whose daughter, Stella, is starting kindergarten at the same school. (Now that's a milestone.) We all walked in together and I took a lot of pictures.
I told Stella I loved her outfit and also her backpack. See? I'm not just an encouraging mother, I'm an encouraging aunt.

We were standing in the hallway of the school and I saw a woman I know well and like a lot, but, for no particular reason, have not seen in 7 months. I know intimate details of her marriage, the insulting thing a guy at Home Depot said to her once, about her sister's problems, about her mother's death. But I could not remember her name. You have to understand, this was not like forgetting the name of someone I've met once or twice. I've never experienced a lapse of this magnitude before and it was freaky. I tried to avoid her so I wouldn't have to introduce her to my sister and betray myself.

Then, this woman and I made eye contact. I smiled warmly and she smiled warily. I kept smiling. Then the third thing happened.

3. She came up to me and said, "I'm sorry, I don't recognize you."

I said, "Jennifer! I'm Jennifer. From Mary's exercise class!"

She said, "Oh sure, Jen. I'm so sorry." We struck up a conversation, I remembered her name, and all was well. . . except, now I was beset with a new anxiety. How could she not recognize me? But instead of thinking, wow, my memory may be going but her memory is shot to hell, I thought, wow, I must look absolutely terrible. Is my face so very bloated that people no longer recognize me? It is true I have gained weight in recent months. . . or am I just not memorable? Gosh. I've always suspected I was boring.

What a basket case. I sure hope all those children starting school today are more mature and secure than I am. Kids, y'all look GREAT!


  1. What a good reminder for me to be less stingy with compliments.

  2. I am on both sides of the name thing so often...there are at least three people I was introduced to (and my name is unusual) multiple times, and I have at least three I can think of to whom I do that all the time and I don't know why. Chalk it up to a busy life and move on. Next year--that will be a milestone. And at least you got to share the kindergarten one.

  3. Thank you for this post! It was wonderful, totally relatable. Perhaps you are living my life. My mother used to only speak about my appearance in order to criticize or imply criticism. (As in - "Do you like your hair that way?" "Yes, Mom, clearly I do because this is how I wear it.") After a frank talk where I said that it felt she was constantly judging me, now she says nothing. I've lost 20 lbs. No comment. Wearing a new, hyper-expensive outfit. No comment. Awk! Mothers and daughters.

  4. I relate with not being memorable. I wonder if people avoid saying hi because they are shy, or they don't remember my name or do they really not remember me??

  5. This is not quite on topic, but I've always thought elementary schools should distribute a facebook of parents. I can remember who everyone's kid is, but not who is Jim and who is John.

  6. enjoy this milestone-free year. there will be plenty of milestones next year when your oldest enters high school. :)

  7. My husband uses fine the exact same way! He claims that "fine" means "great," but I always push him on it and make him actually say "great." The other annoying thing he does is say "I don't know" when I state a rhetorical question. (As in "Why is our Internet always down?!" "I don't know.") Other than those two things, he's perfect.

  8. Great post. You are NOT boring! Consider it her failing rather than yours.

    Love the bit about the compliments. My parents were skimpy with praise, too. I am resolved to let my kids know how great I think they are. As a teacher, I've seen how well it works when you make kids feel like they're doing a good job.


  9. My mother constantly praised me - for 66 years - and I realized as I grew older that even if I knew it was a ridiculous compliment such as "Your house looks so nice today" when the house was a mess, that it still made me feel good. I know that in this regard I am unusually lucky. On the other side, I saw my mother in law constantly put down her daughter: "You aren't wearing that out are you?" etc etc. very destructive.

    as for names, i have never been particularly good at them. my mother was a marvel at them. it's a remarkable skill if you have it.....but everyone is bound to blank on one once in awhile......

  10. This week's New Yorker has a fascinating article by Oliver Sacks describing his prosopagnosia -- an inability to recognize faces (of people he knows, including himself). His condition also affected his inability to recognize familiar places, such as his house and place of work.

    I'm not saying your friend has this condition, but it's possible because Sacks says prosopagnosia is not uncommon.

  11. Hilarious post! I have forgotten my own sister's name under pressure.

  12. your mother sounds exactly like mother.. fine has become a sort of joke between me and my two sisters.