My wife occasionally accuses me of being the world’s worst compliment taker. It’s an assessment I do not deny, for the second anybody tries to say something nice about me to my face, I go silent or change the subject. The sad irony/petty reality is that there are few things I want more than such recognition for my teaching and writing efforts. It’s a strange paradox that has been further complicated by the world of social media and its currency of “likes,” “hits,” and “follows.”
I don’t believe my aversion to praise is self-deprecation, and I hope it doesn’t come off as false humility. In fact, just writing these sentences is making me uncomfortable as they assume and publicly claim that I actually have achieved something worthy of praise.
An amateurish self-analysis tells me the cause is a lifelong sense that no matter how good I am at anything, I’m never “good enough.” The roots of this discomfort with what the Greeks called kudos branch out in many directions: a difficult-to-please father, so many super-intelligent, athletically-gifted, and accomplished relatives with whom to compare myself unfavorably, natural shortcomings in a number of areas, the knowledge that there are so many people so much better at the things I do than me, and an unhealthy sense that everything is a competition. All of these reasons have left me “staring out at the world from my own little Idaho” as the BoDeans sing. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out their metaphor.)
As I grow a bit wiser in my twilight years, I’m trying to learn to cut myself some slack. I’m trying to lower the bar on my self-expectations in many areas but especially as a writer. My initial goal was not to be just an author but to be a bestselling author. Accepting anything less was anathema to me. That lofty aspiration hasn’t happened yet, and it probably never will. For as a writer, I have come to accept that I possess what is known in baseball jargon as “warning track power”: I can hit it deep but rarely over the fence. Recently, I’ve been trying to convince myself that “almost does count,” and I’ve been turning my mind to the large number of regional artists in a variety of fields whose work has not received widespread acclaim but who go on creating damn good art.
For example, one of my very favorite bands is one that I’m willing to bet most of you have never heard of: the Michigan Rattlers. They’re typically described as a folk-rock group, but they’re so much more than any label could define. Their Midwest-inspired sound and the stories their lyrics tell speak to me in a manner few others do. The sad crying shame, however, is that they may never break out of their marginal regional popularity, which would be a tremendous loss to those who will never have the opportunity to appreciate the Rattlers stellar musicianship and poetry. Please, click on the link below and decide for yourself. I’ll advise you, however, that it may take a few listens to fully appreciate their value. If you give them time, however, you will be greatly rewarded.
I’m learning to be okay with a similar limited level of success: that the good — although not great — is still worth striving for, and that a degree of satisfaction can be found clearing the bar at 6″ even if your competitors are clearing better than 8″. The joy has to be found in the jumping. If I sell hundreds of books rather than thousands, I think I can live with that — at least I’m trying.
As the Michigan Rattlers sing with satisfaction in “Just Good Night,” “There’s a woman at the end of this road who knows my name.” At the end of the day and a life, perhaps it’s such seemingly simple accomplishments as “a woman who knows my name” that matter the most, not the big dreams that fell short or didn’t come true at all. I may never throw a ringer, but I’m going to keep throwing the horseshoes anyway.
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