This isn’t about you. I promise. Too many facts have been changed for anyone to recognize themselves. Any true connections to me are too distant to track. So even if this sounds like you, it isn’t. But if you think it might be about you, then in some unrelated way, it probably is. In the same way it’s all about me.
I saw Belle a few weeks ago. She’s a local teenager. I don’t really know her, but she goes to school with my kids, so I see her from time to time. Some stuff I know about her: She’s charismatic, engaging, forthright, bright, athletic, artistic and attractive. She bugs the crap out of me. Not because there’s anything wrong with her. As near as I can tell, she’s perfect. But I can’t stand her mother. And that, unfortunately, makes me dislike Belle.
In college, my favorite professor, Dr. Lee, had a saying. “No one is completely useless – at least they can serve as a bad example.” Yes, that’s a harsh thing to say – Dr. Lee wasn’t the nicest teacher in my school, but he was the most honest. I love honesty. Dr. Lee’s point was that you can find a redeeming quality in anybody. Maybe this is true for just about everyone, but not Belle’s mom, Barb.
I know less about Barb than I know about Belle. I’ve only talked with her a handful of times. But each conversation leaves me liking her less than the last. She spends most of each conversation making sure I’m aware that she’s better than me. She’s smarter, wealthier, has a fancier job, a nicer house, a cooler car, and much better kids. Possibly, this is all true, but I can’t understand why she needs to point it out so frequently. Usually, when someone acts like this, I just assume they’re insecure. With Barb, it seems different. It’s as if she thinks I’m too stupid to figure this out on my own, so she feels inclined to help me out.
When I consider Belle’s many positive talents and traits, all I see is an extension of her mom’s boasting. I see it in Belle’s stylish haircut; her perfect teeth; and the natural looking smile always gracing her face as she receives another award.
In their home, I imagine scenes like this – Belle, walking into the room looking for her math book – Barb is appalled:
“Cut! Take it from the top. This time, smile when you enter the room!”
“Cut! Try to flip your hair a bit more when you look around the couch.”
“Cut! Posture, Belle!”
In my twenties, living in Washington, DC, one of my friends had a job more mature than his age. He had recently co-founded a small, political public affairs firm. His partner, Marian, an older, wealthier, more seasoned, Washingtonian hosted a holiday party for their friends and clients. Arriving at Marian’s party, walking awestruck up to the fancy, gated-community townhouse, my girlfriend, Keira and I spied a sled filled with snowballs. It was all set for a morning snowball fight. I commented on how Norman Rockwell this looked. Keira chided me for being so naïve.
“Jesus! You’re going to fall for that shit? She told her kids to leave those snowballs there. It creates ambiance. She’s marketing herself!”
I told Keira that she was the only person cynical enough to think like that.
But now I’m the cynic. I’m the one who thinks Belle’s mom coaches her, drills her, forces perfection upon her to uphold a family image. It’s hard for me to imagine a Gettysburg teenager having her teeth capped to create a better smile. This seems like something that would only happen in Hollywood. But Belle’s teeth are perfect, therefore I assume her mom paid to get them capped. From my perspective, one of the benefits of living in a community like Gettysburg is that no one really cares what your teeth look like. Maybe I’m more naïve than I think.
I spend a lot of my time not worrying about what other people think of me. Trying to “be myself” takes a lot of effort. I’m not talking about the part where I’m doing stuff. That part comes naturally to me.
The hard part for me is being comfortable with what I’ve done after I’ve done it. The hard part is heading out of the house after I blog a personal, introspective story. Or when I submit a divisive Op Ed to the newspaper. Or arriving at work in the springtime wearing shorts when others would prefer me in khakis. Or driving through town in a truck covered in bumper stickers that counter the beliefs of half the population.
Being true to myself is my line in the sand. When I cross it, I’ve let myself down. I’ve made a concession that leaves me feeling uncomfortable – maybe dishonest. Some of these topics lack substance, like wearing shorts to work. But most of it includes speaking up for my beliefs, even if that might make me unpopular. I’ve spent years honing this skill, my ability to hold my head high while others want to knock it off my shoulders. For the most part, I’ve become Teflon, or Kevlar. Impervious to others’ opinions of me.
But after my recent epiphany about Barb and Belle, it occurred to me that I haven’t paused to consider my kids. I’m not talking about what my kids think of me. So far, they think I’m mostly funny, sort of cool, old for my role, but young for my age. They also think I’m corny and annoying, but that accompanies trying to be a funny dad. Sometimes it all works, sometimes I fall flat – life is full of risks. What I haven’t considered is how my opinions and behavior affects others’ perceptions of my kids.
When I think back to my childhood, I can’t remember having any strong opinions of my friends parents. They were either “cool” or “uncool” but that only related to how much nagging I heard around their house. For me to envision the inter-personal relationships of those adults? It just isn’t possible. I never knew enough about them. There was Mr. H. – he always had a cigar in his mouth, and the other parents didn’t seem to appreciate this. A few of the adults were known to over-drink at parties. But other than that, I can’t ever recall any outright strife among our neighbors.
As a teen, all the adults seemed the same. To think of someone looking at teenage-me and rolling their eyes because I was my father’s son seems ludicrous. Or any other parents’ children for that matter. Sure, our parents were all different: rich/poor, liberal/conservative, loud/quiet, fit/not-so-fit, but they all seemed to follow the same rules of decorum. The rules that Barb chooses not to follow with her incessant bragging and comparing.
Those rules that I scoff while trudging my line in the sand.
While I envision Barb coaching Belle on how to be a good representative for their family, I think that someone should coach Barb as well. Belle is doing her part. She makes it hard to not respect the family – or at least the talents bestowed upon her by her gene pool and her hard work. But then it is all undone by her mom’s obnoxious behavior.
We sit on the edge of a new year. Despite the cliché, I always end up making an assessment of my life at this time. For the past few days, I’ve been poking at my kids, trying to figure out if I ever embarrass them. Have they matured to a point where our bumper stickers call unwanted attention to our family? Is it hard for them to live with an opinionated father? A really-vocally-opinionated-father? Have they started to hear rumblings about comments their friends’ parents might be making about me?
Does Belle hear these comments about her mom? So far, she isn’t hearing it from me. I’ve kept this all to myself. I know its unfair to judge Belle based on her mother’s actions. Just as I know it’s unfair for people to judge my kids – or my wife, or my friends – on the things I say or do. But I also know this is human nature, and some people will inevitably go this route. They’ll misplace their opinion of me on one of my kids. At some point, a teacher, a coach, a friend’s parent – it might even be another kid – is going to say “Is your father Jeff Cann?”
I want to do more with my life than serve as Dr. Lee’s “bad example.” But I also want to uphold his standard of honesty. That line in the sand I talk about, it’s a fine line – one that should be walked carefully. Barb is my example of how not to behave. As far as I can tell, she has it all, but she has nothing of value to offer the community. Except, of course, her high opinion of herself. Being true to myself doesn’t mean I need to alienate others or pick fights with those who don’t agree with me. Sometimes, honesty might mean I should just keep my opinions to myself. I’ll be doing my kids a favor.