Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Warts and all Wednesday—my version of Ash Wednesday

You feel like your day is down the toilet and it's only half over. Really, what could be worse than being you right now? Being me, at age 7 and 15. What you are about to witness is one woman's self-flagellation in writing. You may want to look away occasionally.

It's Ash Wednesday here in the U.S. A reminder to all flesh that we all came from dust, and to dust we shall return. As Web personas, we are either complicit or unwitting accomplices to putting our "brand" on a pedestal. Particularly on Facebook, we chirrup like happy little chipmunks. See what my child did, look what I made for dinner, isn't my cat cute, aren't I a well-heeled traveler, my how skinny we were in college, on and on ad nauseum. I confess! Guilty.

Everyone thinks of fasting and abstinence in terms of appetite — meat, chocolate, seconds, sex. I'm abstaining from online self-aggrandizement today. In fact, I'm going to the opposite extreme. I declare this my Warts and All Wednesday. Let the humiliation begin.

In second grade I was transferred to a new school where the most important part of campus was somehow left out during the 10-second tour. All was in order until just before the bell rang. My bladder refused to hold it anymore. I made my way gingerly to the teacher's desk, knees squeezed together, and had barely squeaked out a plea for directions when Teacher said pityingly, "Oh, but you went already." A warm puddle was forming on the polished wooden floor.

"Did you slip on the floor and get your uniform wet?" one of my sibs asked on our way home. I stayed mum. I've blocked out how I returned to school the next day without hesitation. Maybe I was stoic even then. Fortunately, after the school year ended I got transferred to another school.

Years later, when I interviewed job applicants on a university campus, one of the first things I pointed out as I gave them a tour was — yup, the restroom facilities. No one need be denied basic human rights on my watch.

At 15 and a new student (again) during my senior year in high school, I accepted the position of platoon leader during our compulsory military training. We were to compete in drill formations against other high schools. We didn't have sports programs, but the Philippines being under martial law thanks to the late dictator Marcos, pseudo-military posturing for women was apparently the extra-curricular of choice. A big trophy was at stake.

I drilled with my platoon after school and on weekends under the hot tropical sun. On my bellowed commands we practiced marching in sync, turning sharp corners, moving our gleaming fake swords at snappy angles. Competition day came. I led my team out to the exhibition field and turned to face them. You know where this is going. They were so far behind me I had to walk back to them just to see the whites of their eyes. Every face had a grimace lurking right beneath their stony expression. A few shot me sympathetic looks.

We bombed. We just couldn't recover from that initial mistake. I sat alone afterwards, until the faculty advisor plopped on the ground next to me.
"What are you feeling?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Nothing." I said.

Did you have the kind of parents who told you you could be anything you wanted if you set your mind to it? My Dad told me he expected me not to be stupid. A reasonable expectation, if somewhat low. But when I did do something stupid — cheated on my Biology exam at 14 — he didn't make a big deal out of it. No lecture, no grilling. No hissy fit when Mom and I had to meet with the principal over it. He even dictated the letter of apology they required so they wouldn't expel me.

The principal tried to speculate why a student leader like me would stoop to cheat when my grades were stellar. Speaking about me as though I wasn't right there, she told my mother, "There are some students who feel that they want even higher grades." Me, greedy? Lady, you don't know me, you don't know squat, I was thinking. For the record, I had been feeling rather left out for being such a goody-two-shoes. On the one occasion I had decided to be bad I got caught. Thus went my short-lived stint as a rebel.

I can smell perfection-driven people quite accurately. I worked for and with a few in my time. One boss chastised me for admitting that the blazer and shift she had just complemented me on weren't actually purchased together. One fellow dance teacher couldn't come up with a single area of improvement for herself when we were all asked to self-assess at a staff meeting. It was just too important for her to maintain her self-delusion about being perfect. I called her Diva with affection until she turned critical toward me. From then on I still called her Diva, minus the affection.

I am comfortable with my flaws. I don't mind disclosing them. It's easier to be tolerant of others that way. It's no guarantee they'll be tolerant in return.

"Excellence is willing to be wrong. Perfection is being right.
Excellence is risk. Perfection is fear.
Excellence is powerful. Perfection is anger and frustration.
Excellence is spontaneous. Perfection is control.
Excellence is accepting. Perfection is judgment.
Excellence is giving. Perfection is taking.
Excellence is confidence. Perfection is doubt.
Excellence is flowing. Perfection is pressure.
Excellence is journey. Perfection is destination."