Books for Everyone!

Mid-October 2014

Patience and the Palimpsest

One morning at breakfast, Dear Husband read to me a quote from Charles Schulz:

“Sometimes I lay awake at night and ask, ‘What have I done wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’”

I cannot say that I have contemplated the same thought, but I have come close. When one owns and loves a beagle, that type of thinking becomes routine.

The premise, however, is so simple and yet sublime. We all have made mistakes and in doing so rarely realize the extent of the mopping up of emotional floors and mending of mental fences that must occur before we are free of the error or the error is free of us. The pathways to freedom from the nagging conscience (if, of course, you have a conscience!) are the true tests of character.

Those true tests of character do not come from whether or not you make a mistake (which is part of living and learning). Such challenges and trials are given to us to build character. It is not the making of the mistake but how we set about to correct it that shows to others, and ourselves, what we are made of. Do you admit the error of your ways, take responsibility for its consequences (unintended as well as intended), and try to make amends, perhaps even knowing amends might be too late?

Or do you blame someone else (or something)? Do you proffer the requisite apology and practiced tear, expecting mere words to do the job? Do you deny you even made a mistake? Use of the passive voice, e.g., “Mistakes were made,” composes the theme song of the coward.

There is also the “luxuriate in guilt” approach which is hardly a luxury; self-pity robs the soul of sustenance while playing the victim becomes rather trite and annoying in a world where there are real victims who bravely face their wounds and do their best to heal them. Anyone dealing with the con artist of victimology learns patience the hard way!

Patience is a crucial element in building a strong character, both in life and in fiction. Gustave Flaubert stated, in part, that talent is a long patience. The inverse is also true: long patience is a talent. And patience comes in small doses, not all at once!

When I was younger (youth, like love, is a state of being or state of mind), I aspired to be a writer of great import and perhaps even fame. A sweet and charming pal during my university years said to me,

“What do you want, fame and Johnny Carson all in one night?” His Long Island-accent made the question all the more imploring.

I did not watch Johnny Carson, and so I cannot claim to have aspired to sit beside him on the couch on the telly. Since Johnny is departed from real life that part of the speculation is outdated as well as irrelevant. And I did not seek fame, although recognition of my talents was a burning desire, perhaps too burning a desire. That desire was rather easily detected by Avaricious Persons in Positions of Superior Power and in situations of far greater advantage. Unbeknownst to me, I would tacitly admit how much I needed to be acknowledged for my abilities. And I unwittingly displayed impatience for that professional recognition.

My ambition (a true and noble hunger) got used against me, more than once. Those experiences were all that I needed to learn that patience is a long talent, one that I would have to master if I were to master anything that mattered in this life.

I also learned that recognition of my talents did not come in the form of a direct, affirmative statement. The affirmation almost habitually came in the form of the backhanded compliment: the underhanded use by “Professionals” of my writing for their own. It was a huge wake-up call to me that I did indeed possess talent, in many areas, but I did not wake up to that fact for many years after the call sounded.

The experiences did not injure me as much as they taught me well the trade-offs that were too often involved in a young underling trying to make it on her own and the older overlord (who was usually a female) spotting the energy, the drive, the talent, superlative skills in several areas, and a marked need to achieve -- and siphoning off just enough of each element for herself to jump-start her flagging career or sapping “power.”

Once I woke up to the covert encroachment in such a situation, I left it, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly. I recently discussed this phase of my life with a colleague and she stated that I must have realized even then, at quite a young age, that I possessed a great talent for writing. I’d like to think that discovery was the case, but it wasn’t.

My writing was good, but not great. My observations and insights were far better, perhaps even approaching greatness. And it was my little bits of brilliance that Boss Lady and Boss Man were in such dire need of that they felt perfectly entitled to steal them, and, undoubtedly, to pick the brains of whoever else was willing to pay for “the experience.”

I was willing to pay for my own experience, but I was most unwilling to underwrite the experience of someone else, especially with my own abilities, and particularly when the balance of power was so heavily tilted in the favor of the Well-Paid (often Overpaid) Employer. I always left an unfair set-up on principle, and not always to protect my nascent talent, although that nascent talent was also duly protected even if my pantry went without provisions! It is amusing now to look back upon the well-paid, socially prominent people who became highly miffed whenever I sniffed a rip-off underway.

In short, I instinctively protected my artistic self at the expense of my personal self. Eating boxes of Rice-A-Roni and macaroni & cheese (the kind with the powder, not the ooey-gooey plastickey cheese) were symbols of my principled stands that usually meant working with my hands -- waitressing, cashiering, and typing -- until I was ready to try the professional writer wheel-of-roulette again.

Eventually, I opted to write in technical terms for the federal government where everyone becomes anonymous. “It” is the most commonly used pronoun, accompanied by the passive voice: It was decided. It was agreed. It was determined. Yes, “It” was busy all the time. I got to know “It” quite well!

Before my turn at the wheel of fortune of technical writing, I was known to have walked out of so many jobs that one derisive beau (soon to be rejected) interjected at a posh dinner party that, for a living, his invited guest “collects W-2s.” (A “W-2” is the U.S. government tax form for individual earnings.)

In the world of officedom, I was scathingly deemed an under-achiever by some superiors while others confided to me that I was the workhorse. It was rather confusing for me as I tried to figure out the logic of it. It did not compute! Either I was the young Seabiscuit or a plodding Percheron. Maybe I was both! At the time, I was working one full-time office job, one part-time waitressing night job, and one weekend cashier job.

The reality is now obvious to me: I was quite single-mindedly not “working up” to the out-of-proportion demands of the employer. The more crucial truth for me was that no one was acknowledging my quest for self-determination. That undertaking involved developing my talents on my terms, not on the terms of others, terms which included pilfering my prize: several God-given talents. No one understood that my exodus from “professional” offices was in response to seeing my writing being filched or being expected to donate my thoughts or to create on demand without just compensation.

One of several jobs that I encountered as a journeyman journalist in Washington, D.C. was a researcher for a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. I recall with some humor one assignment to research if “the elderly” (now Senior Citizens) were really eating cat food for dinner because of entitlement deprivation. I silently went about my work, but I really did want to ask the High-Minded Hypocrite if she wanted to visit the rented room of her minimum-wage employee and take a look at the Sea Trader Tuna I’d be having for dinner. Cat food would have been an improvement!

Once I’d left any Parasitic Professional, bitterness from the High-Muckamuck always ensued. I was completely unaware that I had hit a touchy nerve, and discovered the rancor only after my departure because back then I was naïve enough to seek a letter of recommendation from the person who had once too often stolen my thunder (writing)!

The letter of recommendation was indeed composed just for me: terse, trite, even choleric. Maybe I ought to have offered to compose a draft for the Angry Bird!

Those letters of recommendation were swiftly torn up and thrown away. I became my own Letter of Recommendation, and the idea worked! Years later, one supervisor confided to me: “We always give a glowing recommendation for the employee that we want to get rid of.”

I also made short shrift of The Resume. One CEO told me, “The resume tells me what you’ve done, not what you are capable of doing.”

I was capable of doing a lot and any prospective employer quickly saw that goldmine. So here is my advice about any interview for the under-employed and unemployed and for those eager beavers who have been grossly misinformed about Getting the Right Resume, or Getting the Resume Right:

Simply show up on time; dress simply and neatly (not dressed-to-the-nines but not dressed like a slob); display who you are as a person and what you are willing to do for an employer; and then be prepared to state your desired salary. It makes no sense to beat around the bush about the “money.” You are not in the interview chair for a social call. The best salary is one that is a compromise between what you think your skills are worth and what the employer is able and willing to pay you.

Then let the chips fall where they may. They may fall right into your hands!

If, however, there is any whiff of desperation on either side of the table, the best thing to do is walk away. (Desperation on both sides of the table is a topic for a weightier form, perhaps film noir.) What presents itself as an overly fair deal may be a raw deal in disguise. Above all, do not send the obsequious, groveling “Thank You” note after an interview. The employer needs you as much as you need It!

You will learn, as I once did, that moving forward in one’s life, and with one’s talents, will be a journey of mistakes and of infinite patience in correcting those mistakes!

Patience is not an easy virtue to put into practice. It may be an inherent quality as well as a learned behavior. I am by nature both passionate and patient, so therein moves a lot of electromotive force! I am patient, extremely patient, patient beyond belief in many areas of my life. In other areas, however, I keep a watch with Swiss timing and I check it often. Perhaps my overly abundant patience in some areas does not permit me the best effort in other areas. Life can be an intense balancing act. Getting the balance right is part of why Charles Schultz asked where he’d gone wrong.

That voice was simply saying that grand things can be made from grand mistakes. There is a reason for the eraser at the end of the pencil. Although I have noticed that the proportion of the eraser to the amount of graphite is not realistic! A separate eraser is often needed! A while back I saw the properly sized eraser in a store: it was approximately 6 inches by 2 inches and it said, “FOR REALLY BIG MISTAKES.”

And one cannot always completely erase or eradicate the mistake. Those pesky smudges and smears, some of them from the pencil mark, some from the eraser itself, and some from the fused gunk of the graphite and the eraser (a product of heat and pressure) -- they refuse to leave the page. There is even an odd-sounding word (with equally odd spelling) for this condition of error residue when we want to “re-purpose” the entire page: palimpsest.

A palimpsest is a page of a manuscript (scroll or book form) from which someone has attempted to remove the text to use the page once more. Some might say it would have been better to just get a new page, but in the olden days paper was at a premium. Nowadays, while we cannot completely remove all traces of bad writing from a page, we can start with a new page.

As a writer, I can attest to going through many new pages before I “get it right.” I save the old pages to find the words or nuggets of thoughts that can still be used. After I am satisfied that the pages have been sifted for the gems of worthy thoughts, I then tear up the pages and throw them away.

With the laptop, I am not as cautious or -- patient! I wrote a poem one day, revised it slightly the next day, and decided on the third day that I did not want to keep it. I deleted it and then promptly emptied the “Recycle Bin.” The next day, I asked Dear Husband if he could retrieve “The Castle.”

It was a valiant effort!

Using cast-away technology from the CIA, he scoured the hard drive and located the original version within the electronic abyss. The poem was immensely improved for what it went through! A palimpsest could not have worked better! Some patience before emptying the “Recycle Bin” would have worked best!