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Archive for the ‘expectations’ Category

tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_1280Last night iDaddy and I watched “20 Feet From Stardom,” a wonderful documentary about backup singers (or, as they called themselves, background singers) for pop stars like Sting, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. The women in the film were amazing singers, and a couple of them wanted to break out from the background and become solo successes. They made some recordings, gave some concerts, appeared on some TV shows — and then, almost to a woman, they flamed out. (The exception was Darlene Love, who, after a series of bad breaks and setbacks in her youth, finally made it big, and a couple of years ago even entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Why weren’t these background singers bigger successes? They had the voices, and the yearning, and the willingness to put in the time and to work hard. The film suggested some explanations for why some made it while others didn’t: Luck. Pluck. Looking right. Sounding right. Hitting the right market niche. Getting the right record producer, the right manager, the right moment in the sun. Following up a first success with a second one; following up quickly enough.

It all sounded painfully familiar to me, a perenially midlist author forever striving for the bestseller list. Is this what happens to writers, too? Does success in publishing also depend on a series of incalculable lucky breaks? Are talent and desire never enough?

And is it time for me, at the fading end of my professional life, to start redefining what success even means?

The film was great fun to watch, especially the concert scenes, but in the end it was quite sad. It was all about fame and not-fame, about making it just when you wanted it most, and especially about deciding whether the goal is to become famous or simply to become as good as you can be. The women who tried and failed to go solo seemed happy, because they said that when it came down to it, all they really wanted to do was sing.

Now that I’m 60 — an age that, frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around — I’m starting to think that it might be time for me to gradually, and graciously, begin handing the reins of success over to the next generation. In my case, my professional next generation includes my own literal next generation, my two daughters. In a way this complicates things; in a way it makes things easier.

I was glad that I was, by coincidence, watching the film on the very day I had gone back to posting on this blog. If the background singers can decide that all they really want to do is sing, no matter who’s listening, maybe through this revitalized blog I can see whether, in the end, all I really want to do is write, even if there’s no one there.

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Articles that make sweeping claims for an entire generation make me crabby, and the essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine was no exception.  It was by Judith Warner, who isn’t usually prone to over-generalizing, and her point (I think; it wasn’t a great essay) was that we Baby Boomers have ruined our Gen Y children, raising them with an eye on boosting their self-esteem rather than teaching them skills and humility, creating a generation of young people who are entitled, narcisstic, unwilling to work hard, and have that annoying interrogative way of talking.  OK, the interrogative thing is just my own pet peeve — all the others are stereotypes that come straight from Judith Warner.

She defines this cohort — who have also been called, variously, millennials, echo boomers, Generation Me — as people born between 1982 and 2002.  Really?  That includes Nutmeg, who’s 26 — but it also includes my 18-year-old niece and my cousin’s 10-year-old daughter.  These people could not possibly all be in the same generation.

That’s the first objection, then.  The second is that there are so many exceptions to Warner’s observation that her whole point strikes me as meaningless.  Yes, my exceptions are anecdotes — but so are her generalizations.  Warner herself admits that she bases her opinion on interviews with nine young people.  Nine.  Based on that, and on a couple of interviews with a couple of psychologists, she concludes that kids today feel entitled to jobs that are rewarding, creative, and worthy of them; they turn down job offers as though there’s a whole string of alternatives waiting in the wings; they don’t know how to make compromises; they wear flip-flops to work.  What emerges based on her nine interviews, she writes, is

a picture of emerging adults with a striking ability to keep self-doubt — and deep discouragement — at bay. Many were jobless, others were dissatisfied with their work or graduate-school choices, yet they didn’t blame themselves if life failed to meet their expectations. They didn’t call into question their choices or competencies. It was as if all the cries of “Good job!” they heard as children armed them against the repeated blows of frustration and rejection now coming their way.

To her credit, Warner defends these kids — they’re resilient, she writes, and maybe the fact that they were raised in an atmosphere of “unremitting ambient anxiety” from 9/11, Columbine, and blah blah, has given them a higher tolerance for the kinds of stress they’re facing now as they try to figure out how to make a living in a tough economy.  But I’m sorry —  even positive generalizations make me twitchy.  My own two daughters never acted especially entitled — there might have been times when Meta felt insulted by the demands made at her entry-level jobs, but she reacted to that the way any mature employed person is supposed to, by doing her job while looking for a better one.  Both of them always seemed willing to work long hours if that’s what it took to do their work.  (Warner writes that employers complain about kids who expect to work 40 hours a week and no extra.)  And since I know a bunch of their friends, especially Nutmeg’s friends, I can say that most of the young people I know are serious, hard-working, willing to put up with an employer’s crap if they have to.  They might grumble about it — often on Twitter and Facebook, which does make me nervous — but they do the work.  They are not the Generation Me kids that Warner describes.

And anyway, what would be so unusual about that if they were?  Wasn’t the Me Decade the term Tom Wolfe invented to apply to MY generation, those of us who were young when he wrote his classic New York magazine cover story in 1976?  Maybe a little self-focus and high self-regard is part of what it means to be in your twenties, no matter what generation you’re in.  Maybe that’s what it takes to figure out your rightful place in the world.

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I made the bed in Nutmeg’s old room today with a quilt I created for her with my own two hands.  It wasn’t supposed to be here in my apartment, dressing up Nutmeg’s old twin bed.  It was supposed to be with Nutmeg, in her grownup home.  But things took a different turn than I’d anticipated.

I’d had such a great time making that quilt — well, not a great time, really, since I’m a total domestic klutz.  But as I pricked my fingers and strained my eyes piecing the thing together all through the winter of 2006, I kept picturing how excited Nutmeg would be about it when I gave it to her for her college graduation in May.  I had made a quilt — my first, and till then my only — for Meta’s high school graduation in 1997, but Nutmeg’s high school graduation in 2002 had come and gone, swamped by the frenzy of that time, as iDaddy and I sold the girls’ childhood home and, just a month after the school year ended, moved hundreds of miles north.  I had always felt bad that the quilt I’d promised for Nutmeg to take with her to college, just as her sister had taken hers, had never materialized.  Now, four years late, I was about to present her with her handmade quilt at last.

“Don’t get ahead of her,” iDaddy told me whenever I mentioned how psyched Nutmeg was going to be when she opened her gift.  It was something he’d often said to me — a piece of advice that has always irritated me greatly, but that is, of course, very wise, because iDaddy is a wise and temperate man.  Making the bed with Nutmeg’s quilt this morning, I realized that this phrase is especially wise when it comes to parenting grown-ups.

“Don’t get ahead of her.”  Don’t get more excited about the quilt than she will (reader, I did that — details below).  Don’t like her boyfriend more than she does (I’ve done that, too).  Don’t urge her to take a class she isn’t sure about, go to a college she doesn’t want, consider a job that isn’t right for her.  Don’t live her life for her.  Don’t live your life through her.

Now, Nutmeg is a thoughtful, sensitive, delightful person, and when I gave her the quilt, gift-wrapped awkwardly in a huge shopping bag, she smiled and expressed much gratitude.  She even took it with her to Boston when she moved in with the boyfriend I liked so much (with whom she’s since broken up; as I said, I’d gotten ahead of her).  But she never really loved it — not the way I had pictured her loving it, not the way I had loved picturing her loving it.  When she moved from Boston to Brooklyn, Nutmeg gently gave the quilt back to me.  “It works better with your color scheme at home,” she said, even though I had deliberately picked colors — with the help of my best friend Judy, who creates spectacular art quilts in her spare time — that I thought were Nutmeg’s colors, not mine.  Wasn’t that apple green the exact color she’d painted the walls in her college apartment, the color she told me she wanted to have in every apartment she lived in for the rest of her life?

It wasn’t about the color scheme, though.  Nutmeg returned the quilt because she could sense, I think, that it was loaded with more freight than she wanted to bear.  I’d gotten ahead of her after all.  The quilt, in a weird way, contained my own vision of how her life should shape up, and she was trying to tell me that ownership of that vision was hers.

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The idea that there could be such a thing as “gender disappointed” parents — parents who fail to bond with their babies  because they’re not the sex they were hoping for — got Salon blogger Ann Nichols thinking about what it means to have preconceived notions about what kind of a child you’re going to have.  Nichols has a 13-year-old son, and he’s not quite what she expected.

My own child has facilities and interests completely alien to my own. I honestly expected, to some degree, a child version of myself, or at least some of myself; a young person with a great love of reading, and art, with some musical aptitude. Instead, I have a son who is a technology wizard focused passionately on wires, mother boards and “glitching” XBox games. He hates all things related to English class, from reading to writing, and after a year of playing the cello, decided that he would rather be in choir because ‘they don’t get yelled at if they don’t practice.’

She tries, every now and then, to urge her son in a direction more to her liking.  She reads “The Phantom Tollbooth” to him, she turns on the classical music station when she drives him around town on errands.  But, as she puts it, “he is just not that kid.  He is a person who loves what he loves, just as I am.”

Our kids declare themselves to be who they are, if we listen, from the moment they start choosing their own clothes (Lord, how many fights I wasted, telling Meta she had to wear pants to preschool when she wanted to wear a dress) or their own entertainment (cello? softball? x-box?).  And they are much more forcefully and insistently themselves as they get older.  It’s difficult, sometimes, to let go of our personal expectations and dreams for our kids, to deal with the fact that they might not like the same music we do or read the same books — or any books at all.  It’s hard if, as adults, they might finally rebel against being dragged along to the museums or football games we thought they were enjoying, the kinds of activities we always envisioned sharing with them even when they were grown up.  If we’re lucky, though, we get kids we like to be around, and so we manage to find some common ground.  Nichols is negotiating that territory, the disconnect between the kid you want and the kid you get — and all this while her son is still a tween.  Kids aren’t craft projects, she writes:

they come into this world as human beings in their own right, and with whatever gender, talents or aptitudes occur in nature. Although he is not, strictly speaking, what I expected, I could not be more pleased with what I got, and I look forward to finding out who he grows up to be. If we’ve done our job right, he’ll be himself.

Sounds like Ann Nichols’ son is one lucky 13-year-old.

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