Last week, my boss, Kathy, mentioned Cats. You know, Cats, the musical. Do I call it a Broadway musical? I have no idea. It was on Broadway forever, a long time ago. I assume it’s done now, but maybe not, I don’t follow such things. Kathy has tickets for later this year. Not on Broadway, not in New York, but in Baltimore or Hershey or some other second-rate musical town. I’ve never seen Cats, but I saw a commercial for it once. Lots of actors prancing about in body-suits, their faces adorn with whiskers drawn in eyeliner or magic marker or something.
We didn’t go to musicals growing up. Three kids, the DC suburbs, I’m sure seeing a show like that was a hefty financial outlay. Easier to just skip culture all together. We went to a couple of baseball games, a football game and a few semi-pro hockey matches instead. I actually do recall going to one musical. When I was in middle school my father took us to a community theater production of Godspell. One of the actors, a girl my age, sang and danced in the chorus. She didn’t have any lines, but she showed up in all the musical numbers that included the full cast. She was short, with bobbed brown hair and a hot body (at least to a middle-schooler like me).
For months after Godspell, I lay in bed at night, making up stories about her, pretending she was my girlfriend. In my stories, I was a hero. Sheila, I’ll call her Sheila because forty years later I still remember her name, Sheila Mack. Sheila constantly found herself being harassed and threatened by one or more of my classmates. Harassment that was destined to end sexual assault and bodily injury.
In my stories, the perpetrator was always one of the dangerous kids from my school. Those real-life athletic kids who didn’t play sports but spent afternoons in the woods, riding their stingray dirt bikes, smoking cigarettes and growing facial hair. These kids all seemed much older than me even though we were in the same grade. Their hobby was intimidating smaller, immature boys… like me. In my nighttime scenarios, every one of them carried a switchblade. Fortunately for Sheila, I always came to her aid, typically at the last possible moment.
In every episode, I’d be losing a fight with David Marcavich or Steve Bartelli. Getting my face ground into the dirt and roots and rocks of our wooded bicycle trails, or getting my head slammed repeatedly into a school locker, when miraculously the tide would turn. I snagged the knife, or I snuck in a stunning punch. A few minutes later, victory. Sheila Mack was saved.
After Kathy mentioned Cats, I got a song stuck in my head. It’s called Nothing. It isn’t from Cats, it’s from A Chorus Line, but it took me days to realize this. In the meantime, it’s been playing through my brain in a zombifying loop.
And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul to see what I had inside.
Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul and I tried, I tried.
And I said…”Nothing, I’m feeling nothing.”
Kathy is the CEO of a domestic violence and sexual assault nonprofit in my town. We run a shelter, a hotline and a legal center. When women (and theoretically men) are victims of these crimes, we’re the place they come to get help. They call our hotline in the middle of the night after the abuse has ended, or early in the morning when their abuser has left for work. Or they show up on our doorstep in the middle of the afternoon when they have steeled their resolve to walk away from their life to get the help they deserve. For many, if not most of these women (and theoretically men) we’re the last resort. A place to go when all other options have failed. It’s a rough place to work.
Kathy’s been in the human services field for thirty years. Her persona is that of a hardened social worker—someone who has seen it all and is now immune to the terrible stories she hears on a daily basis. As a writer, this is when I should slip into story-telling mode, creating horrific scenes to illustrate what it means to see it all. But these aren’t my stories to tell. I’m not the one who experienced the trauma, and it would be voyeuristic for me to write about them.
During the Cats conversation, which did include some discussion about work, Kathy inferred that she and I lack rudimentary levels of empathy. “People like you and I don’t want to hear about personal problems.” She was talking about my coworkers. “We just want them to do their jobs.”
There’s truth to this. After my employee Amy lost her grandmother, she took an extraordinary amount of time to recover. My last grandparent died when I was eighteen, and my mother died three years later. And while these episodes upset me, or in the case with my mother, devastated me, I was able to do my school work, able to perform my job. I needed Amy to buck-up or buckle-down or buck-something. I needed her to stop crying whenever I tried to talk with her.
When Kathy assigned this lack-of-empathy trait to me, I protested. “Oh come on, that’s not true.” And then I followed with “At least I’m fair.” So there it is. I’m not nice, but I’m fair. People know what to expect from me: not sympathy or friendship, but I won’t screw you over.
I feel nothing.
This has been a problem for decades. In college, one of my best friends cut her long, wavy, blonde hair. She altered it from mid-back to mid-neck. I ran into her on campus the day before Christmas break began. “Do you like it” she asked?
“No, not at all.” Like it’s my duty to be honest. Lying would do her a disservice.
My kids are turning into adults. Or at least they’re now teens. At this age a few hundred years ago, they would have been considered adults: married with children of their own. Their opinions are no longer my opinions recycled. And boy, have I got opinions.
A several years ago, Sophie’s school choir sang Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. It’s a sentimental pop song with sappy lyrics and a catchy hook. It’s exactly the sort of song I would have disparaged when it came out in 1981, back when the only bands I listened to were the Clash and Neil Young. As Sophie’s concert approached, I increasingly made fun of the song. Singing the lyrics “a singer in a smoky room, a smell of wine and cheap perfume” in a mocking voice whenever she walked past. I never before contended with Sophie having different musical tastes from my own. We all listened to the same music… my music. Sophie finally snapped: “I like that song!”
This is when I realized I can be a bit of an asshole.
That run-in with Sophie rattled me. Right then, I made a vow to be more respectful to those around me. I think I’ve done a reasonable job adopting this improved attitude with my family. But clearly, I’m still a work in progress. My boss hasn’t even known me for a year, and she’s forged an opinion of me that’s counter to the person I want to be. Where I want to have a deep connection with those around me, she sees a jaded pragmatist who doesn’t have the enough heart to consider the feelings of others.
Fantasy Jeff was a good person–always willing to fight a losing battle to protect my imaginary girlfriend. It’s a simple thing to listen to someone’s problems. To offer sympathy, empathy or to even care when someone talks about their sick dog, their underachieving kid, their dying grandmother. All I need is a little patience. And less selfishness. The willingness to offer the commodity of time.
Life is full of wake-up calls. A series of aha moments to absorb and ultimately learn from. If we couldn’t keep improving, what would be the point of living any more years. The first and most important step is identifying the problem. And Kathy already did that.