Tuesday, August 27, 2019

If You Could Not Fail

I’ve seen or heard it many times over the past few years. More times than I can count and in more places than I can remember. On the internet, on cups, on posters, on refrigerator magnets…the meme that says “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

And every time I saw or heard it, and heard people’s responses to it, I felt that they didn’t have enough imagination. That they didn’t seriously consider the possibilities open to them with this question. That they limited what they could accomplish by considering only mundane things.

Me, on the other hand, the first time I saw that question, I realized its true potential, and ran with it.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail?

Well…let me tell you what I wouldn’t do.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love music. And anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I play piano…after a fashion…and wish that I could play a lot better than I do. So one might guess that I’d work on playing piano as well as Billy Joel or Elton John. Well…that would be nice, but that’s not it. Being able to play piano that well wouldn’t be using the possibilities of that opportunity to its true potential.

One person suggested that I’d buy an extra lottery ticket. This, of course, begs the question of why should I buy an extra one. Statistically, it wouldn’t get me any more money than simply knowing the right numbers to choose in the first place. But that ain’t it either.

These, and the things that I’ve heard most people talk about when they’re faced with the question, are small potatoes. They’re things that only benefit one person. But perhaps instead of dealing with potatoes, we need to think about rice.

You know…Uncle Ben’s rice.

Uncle Ben Parker, who told his nephew Peter that with great power comes great responsibility.

And now that you know that, I think you’ll have a better idea of what I would attempt to do if I knew I could not fail.

There is a big problem that needs to be solved, and it shows itself in many ways. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for personal gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for political or national gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other because some of us somehow believe that it’s part of a religious obligation we have.

The big problem is that we just aren’t kind to each other. We don’t think about the needs of other people. We don’t think about people different from us as people, but as “those people”…as ciphers who merely stand for something that’s “not us”, that prevent us from having or doing something we want, and aren’t real living, breathing, people.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail? What rice would I buy?

I think it should be fairly obvious by now. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d talk to people…in person and on the internet; from the people in my neighborhood to world leaders; and get them to learn to play nice with each other. I’d convince everyone to convince everyone else to treat everyone fairly and ethically, and with an eye toward justice rather than mere legality.

If I knew I could not fail, that’s what I do.

And when that was done…I’d go practice piano.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

On Being "Mr Wonderful"

I’ve officially been Mr Wonderful for about seven years now. That’s the nickname I was given by a patron at the library where I’m the Tech Guy who tries to help you out with problems with your mobile devices and laptops (I promise nothing). But even though I only started being actually called Mr Wonderful since I started working at this library, I’m aware of having had this reputation for a long time.

The first time I clearly remember having that reputation was when I was working for a film company in New York, back in the 80s, and got a job offer from a company across town that wanted me to start in a week, rather than the standard two weeks you give for notice. When one of my coworkers asked our department head if he was upset that I didn’t give two weeks notice, he said, that his only concern was what three people he was gonna hire to replace me.

That sounds like Mr Wonderful to me.

And yet, as I think about it, even my starting to work there was a case of being Mr Wonderful. I was supposed to temp for two weeks while they found a new receptionist, and after one week, they asked if I really had to leave. I stayed for a year and a half, until I was lured away to the job across town by someone who knew how “wonderful” I was at the film company.

I was wonderful in all my other jobs too, but just never thought about it. I was just doing what I thought needed to be done, the best I knew how.

And I was wonderful in other facets of my life. I got my dream job of becoming musical director for the annual Parents’ Weekend student musical at Syracuse University because I was wonderful at learning to play three songs by ear at a time when we needed to replace a lead the night before we opened, and the only person who knew his lines, his three songs, and his three dances was the pianist. So we put him on stage, and I went to the pit for those three numbers.

In everything I’ve done, I’ve unconsciously tried to be Mr Wonderful.

But sometimes you just can’t be Mr Wonderful anymore. Or at least, you can’t be Mr Wonderful to everyone…not at the same time.

And one of the results of my having crashed and burned a few weeks ago is the realization of just that. The counselor I’ve been seeing said that you can’t be Mr Wonderful all the time. That sometimes you have to be Mr “Good Enough.” Sometimes you have to be Mr “It’ll Have to Do.” And the most freeing thing she said to me was that sometimes you have to be Mr “No, I’m Not Gonna Do That.”

I was stunned. I was like, “Wait a minute. I get to tell people that I don’t want to do certain things? Even though they’re asking me to do them because they think I’d be wonderful at them?”

This was something new, and yet it wasn’t. It was advice I always gave to others, but couldn’t take myself. And yet, when I talked to other people who had dealt with depression, they told me that I absolutely got to tell people “no”, no matter how hard they twisted my arm.

So for now, I’m gonna work on being a little less wonderful…or at least accepting the fact that it’s OK to be not quite so wonderful all the time.

And maybe by not trying to be so wonderful for so many people so often…I’ll be wonderful to myself.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

People Like Me

Last week, when I mentioned my struggle with depression, I also mentioned how a friend of mine said that depression seems to follow people like me around.

What are “people like me”?

People who think too much and feel too much. Well, OK, if you think that sounds a little judgmental and isn’t helpful to “people like me”, let me rephrase that…people who think and feel intensely and deeply. I’ll talk about the thinking part next week. For today I want to talk about the feeling.

Any of my friends who knew me in grade school will tell you that I’ve been an incurable romantic since first grade. My friend Sally from college told me once that I fall in love too easily. When I was in my late 20s, I had a girl break up with me because I felt more deeply for her than she was ready for (don’t worry, we’re still good friends). I’m convinced that the problems I had with one girl in my early 20s were because I felt more deeply for her than she wanted me to, while she still had other irons in the fire.

I replay the tapes (yeah, I know…what’s a tape) of situations from my teens and twenties, and ask myself, “What if I had dealt with this differently? How did I miss that social cue? Suppose I’d said this instead of that?” Some of you might say that this goes under thinking rather than feeling. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a gray area. Maybe it’s thinking about my feelings.

Of course, this could also be called “having a great imagination”, or being able to see alternate outcomes to things I’ve gone through. And this definitely helps when I write my stories. But sometimes it just gets you “stuck.”

And it’s not always about me. Sometimes it’s about others. It’s about other people…other wonderful people…that I want things for, and my disappointment that they don’t have or never got them. For example, there’s a woman I worked with many years ago who was one of the nicest people I knew, but didn’t have anyone…that I knew of. I imagined a secret love life for her that was wilder than anything you would’ve thought about her from seeing her at work. Many years later, she’s still never had anyone…that I know of…and I think it’s kind of unfair that someone that nice never got anyone to tell her just how nice she was.

But you know something…even in that, maybe it is about me…and how much I would enjoy being told that someone thought I was wonderful…even many years later. I remember how blown away I was to find out that the younger sister of a girl I had a crush on in high school actually had a crush on me. 40-odd years later, and with both of us happily married to other people, I was walking on air! Maybe I think that other people are this way too…when they’re not. And I’ve embarrassed myself more than once...and even gotten seriously burned...when I clumsily tried to pay a compliment that I’d be thrilled to get, but wasn’t received well at all.

But, going back to the woman I worked with, maybe that’s my issue…my issue as the incurable romantic…as the person who feels deeply…and not hers. Maybe it’s my issue as the person who feels incredibly deeply…and didn’t understand until very recently that not everyone else feels that deeply, wants to feel that deeply…or wants to know that I feel deeply about or for them…and not hers. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, while I’m sad for her.

And as I said a few weeks ago, maybe knowing this means that I can let go of my desire to make things right that I screwed up in the past.

And make me right in the present.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

D is for Depression

Today I want to talk about depression…because it’s something I’m going through.

Hi. My name is Keith, and I’m depressed. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’m rather glad to be able to have a name for this feeling of helplessness and incompetence I’ve had for a while now. Because now that I have a name for it, now that I know what it is, I can start to get help for it.

Now that I know that it is depression, I can stop trying to power through with my life held together with duct tape, and just let things fall apart…so I can start to get better.

When I first announced on Facebook that I might be suffering from depression, I was a little hesitant about it. Not because of any stigma it might carry…screw the stigma, I know plenty of people who’ve suffered from depression, and the more we talk about it, the better it is for everyone. No, I hesitated because I knew plenty of people who’ve suffered from depression, and I didn’t want to appropriate the word for their serious condition for what might merely be a “rough patch” for me.

But an amazing thing happened when I made my announcement…all my depressed friends came out of the woodwork in support, saying “We’ve been there. We’ll help you through this.” One friend laughed and said, “What took you so long to figure this out? People like you, who think as deeply and feel as deeply as you do, are prime candidates for depression.”


She was saying that it made logical sense for someone like me, a self-confessed overthinker, to be depressed. But she also hit on something else…that I’m also an over-feeler. OK…get your minds out of the gutter…you know that’s not what she meant.

And hearing her say this meant that I could let go of a lot of things I’ve been thinking too much and feeling too much about over the years. I could let go of the girl who broke my heart 40 years ago, and my desire to tell her that I understood and forgave her. I could let go of the girl who I hurt seven years after that, and the desire to apologize, and explain that I now understood what was going on in my head at the time. I could let go of trying to figure out what was up with the friend whose car was hit by a train on a deserted stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, back in 1977.

And that girl from freshman year who I never got around to giving the $20 to when I bought her stereo from her…I could stop calculating what $20 is over 45 years at 7% interest (it’s $392.57, by the way).

I can let all of that be water under the bridge. 

I was never one for perfection, but I was one for getting things “just right” rather than just good enough. But when I crashed and burned, it gave me the freedom to say that maybe I don’t have to be Mr Wonderful all the time, and maybe sometimes I should just let things be “good enough” rather than aiming for even just right. Perhaps good enough is good enough; and perhaps good enough will give me the space I need to breathe and get my life back together.

And of course there’s medication. I know…this a big stigma attached to taking medication for depression, but as an insulin-dependent diabetic, I see things a little differently. If there’s no shame in people like me taking a drug every day to stay alive, why should there be any shame in taking a drug every day to stay sane?

It’s gonna be a long journey, but I’m up to it. I have my first appointment with a counselor today.

And I will get better.