Mistakes and Humility

Once I farted into a phone. I swear to God. In the early 2000s Chris and I were newly in Vancouver, living in a place with a shared landline, and one day there was a call for our housemate, Sean. I answered the phone, a cordless, went to knock on Sean’s door, and as I was waiting, absentmindedly let my arm relax, so that the receiver was hovering by my rear end, and I passed a little gas. Oops.

Live and learn. The problem is that if you are a perfectionist, as I tend to be, you think it goes, “Live and learn, so that at some point you stop making mistakes. Forever.”

About four years ago I made a different embarrassing mistake, and in the midst of berating myself, I uncovered the previously unconscious expectation that I should have already reached the age (40?) of no more mistakes. It was logical. Spend the first 40 years of your life scrupulously learning from your mistakes, so as never to repeat them, and then it’s all smooth sailing from there.

Of course, that logic breaks down very quickly because of, you know, reality. I went on making mistakes left and right. In fact, certain kinds of mistakes I make more frequently now than I used to, which is starting to get me accustomed to it. Once, well before the phone incident, I was verbalizing my incredulity over a mistake to a friend, saying, “How could I have done that?” and she said, “Um, because you’re human?” I’m not so shocked anymore, so maybe that is what life is really teaching me.

You should see me try to do simple math. I did fine in math, in school (my dad is a math genius and he helped me) but now the math part of my brain is so atrophied it’s like it had polio. I’ve been working on it though, ever since last year when I was trying to keep track of some correspondence and I failed to count to nine.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes. It masquerades as a virtue, and is a way we can strive to be good enough when deep down we think we aren’t. Learning from mistakes is useful, even key to living a decent life, but I will say it took a touch of maturity for me to realize that I’m going to continue making them.

Every epiphany of my life turns out to be a no-brainer. Something remains hidden until it somehow pops out and is suddenly so obvious I can’t understand how I didn’t see it before. And there’s always more. Mistakes do more than highlight a better way to proceed in the future, they teach us humility. Perfectionism may come from fear, but it comes wrapped in the hubris that perfectionism is even possible, and the subtle narcissism that believes spending time in excessive rumination on mistakes is a good idea. It’s an elaborate tool for control—control, the ego’s life’s work and hobby—made in an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Humility takes down all of that. It leaves us empty-handed, vulnerable, and, finally, honest. If perfectionism is fear in really good shoes, maybe humility is love in bare feet, made for walking with acceptance.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Study in Cluelessness

1985

Like many of my peers, the summer I was fifteen I entered the beyond-babysitting workforce. I had two jobs, a stint filling in for a secretary on vacation, at the office of two lawyers my dad knew, and one scooping ice cream at my town’s Baskin-Robbins. My first week on the job at Baskin-Robbins I worked three days, learning the in’s and out’s of making the various cones and sundaes. One kindly patron, after watching me struggle for ten minutes to get a wad of grand marnier into a ball, asked, “Are you new?” The other staff members, though more seasoned than I, were also a bunch of teenagers. Everyone stuck plastic spoons into the tubs and ate the ice cream when there were no customers or managers around, and one girl did whippits off the empty whipped cream cans.

Filling in for the secretary, I worked with the office’s other secretary. I learned to file papers, work the photocopier and answer the phones. One of the lawyers heard me on the phone once and told me to answer more cheerfully. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought my flat, tired tone could get the job done just fine. This wouldn’t be the last time, in years of boring jobs, that a boss would tell me to be friendlier to customers. I had the triple-problem of lacking a bubbly personality, of succumbing easily to the malaise of understimulating work, and having zero clue as to how I was appearing on the outside.

Another day at the law office I had to make a number of photocopies of maps of a neighboring county, Butte County, and I kept calling it “Butt County,” until finally the other secretary corrected me. Despite my flaws, the lawyers told me I was doing a good job—they even hired me again, and for longer, the next summer—and the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. Raised in a petri dish of Northern California 1970s feminism, I scoffed and said, no way, I was going to be an archeologist. This might have been an appropriate response had I been asked the question by my high school principal, and not by the professional secretary at an office nice enough to employ a kid who didn’t know the difference between Butte and “Butt” County. But no, clueless again, I had to turn the moment into an insult. I wish she had gone on and told me that if I was going to be an archeologist, maybe I could just go on a dig in Butt County.

The first Friday of my job at Baskin-Robbins was an evening shift, and in the day I went to my office job. Part way through the day I started feeling slightly ill, as if I had a cold coming on. It was only my third day at Baskin-Robbins so I didn’t want to call in sick, even though by the time I got there I was feeling decidedly worse. Since it was a Friday night, and Baskin-Robbins was a happening place, it was crowded and there were lines out the door. Two of my friends came in to laugh at my uniform, and order peanut-butter-chocolate, which was the hardest flavor to scoop, and I thought they did it on purpose.

I was fatigued and achy, but I knew I could make it to the end of my shift. What were these blisters on my hands? I wondered, picking at them between orders. When I went to bed that night it must have been 90 degrees out. We had no AC in the apartment where my dad and I lived, and I guess he’d never heard of a fan, but even under a pile of blankets I was freezing. I shivered and shook, and in the morning I had a fever and a full-blown case of the chickenpox. This was way before the chickenpox vaccine, and what I didn’t know then was that those little blisters (the newly emerging pox) were concentrated virus bombs. I must have infected a hundred people that night.

I called Mr. Right, the store owner, the next day to tell him I’d be out for a week, and he was nice about it. He told me to stay out of the light. The next week I laid around while the virus ran its course, watching TV and cutting up my dad’s old Time magazines into pointless art projects. At one point, going stir-crazy, I stripped naked in front of the bathroom mirror and drew a diagram of my whole body, front and back, mapping out each red crusty blister. Then I named them all. There was one called “Radar O’Reilly,” so you can guess what one of the TV shows I was watching was. At another point I had a freak reaction to the virus where I started laughing for no reason, and couldn’t stop for fifteen minutes. I was sitting on the couch, laughing even though nothing was funny, and my dad kept stepping out of the kitchen to peek at me. A few times I tried to stop laughing, and I would succeed for one second, then it would start up again.

Regrets

The following week I was back to work, and everything was fine. But the week after that they changed the schedule at Baskin-Robbins and didn’t tell me. Apparently they changed the schedule every week, but no one told me that at the beginning, and since I hadn’t yet worked two consecutive weeks, I was still unaware. It was Monday morning and I was at home, expecting to go into work at 2:00, like I had done the previous Monday, and the phone rang. It was Mr. Right informing me that I had not shown up for my 10:00 am shift. I stammered that I thought I was supposed to start at 2:00 like last week, but he wasn’t having it. “Bring in your uniform, and let’s be friends,” he said. That was it, I was fired.

There are some moments in life I wish I could go back to. If I could go back to the moment the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary, I would try not to be such an asshole, but, though I regret it, I’ve never lost actual sleep over that one. But funnily enough, there was one moment, during one of my six working days at Baskin-Robbins, that stands out among all the moments in my life I wish I could go back to. It was a moment when someone came in, a middle-aged woman it took me a minute to recognize.

Here’s the backstory:

            For two years, in the 6th and 7th grades, I had a close friend named Leah, who was two years older than me and had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that mostly affects the lungs. Hanging out with Leah I learned a lot about CF, especially the fact that, since this was the 1980s, and treatments being what they were, she was likely to die in her teens. Leah lived with her mother and stepfather, and younger sister Nicki, who was my age but went to a regular school. Leah went to the hippie school, Mariposa, that I went to, because at regular school she got teased for being so skinny, a typical effect of having CF. Skinny or not, Leah had no problem attracting boys. She probably had ten boyfriends in the time I knew her, which was interesting to hear about during our many sleepovers at her house.

One of the Mariposa teachers once commented to me that he thought having a lot of boyfriends was how Leah dealt with being sick. I remember thinking, well how else is she supposed to deal with it? Plus, it wasn’t like she went after the boys. It was a moth and flame situation, and she was the flame.

Leah knew she was going to die young. At that time, the oldest someone with CF had lived was thirty. Thirty years old seemed very far away to me, at that age, and I could only hope that Leah would at least live that long. But most people with CF didn’t. Leah went to summer camps for kids with CF, and so, during the school years, she heard regularly that another one of her friends had died. Really, how were you supposed to deal with that?

And how would someone deal with it as a parent? Leah and Nicki talked sometimes about their mother’s drinking. I remember Nicki picking up a water glass her mom had left in the living room and sniffing it. In all the time I spent at their house I never saw any evidence myself that their mom, Julie, had been drinking, but it was something Leah and Nicki worried about. Now, a parent myself, it’s unfathomable to me how one could cope day to day, with treatments and medicines and grueling stays in the hospital and life in general, knowing their child would likely die in just a few short years. Bring on the booze.

The summer I was thirteen and Leah was fifteen she went into the hospital for the last time. I hadn’t seen her for several months, since we’d both gone to different schools the previous year, and I went to see her with my mom. She was there in a darkened room, leaning forward propped up on pillows, with an oxygen mask, and barely able to breathe. Julie was sitting next to the bed in a chair, gently petting Leah’s hair. My mom and I sat there for a little while and I don’t remember saying anything. When we got up to leave, I said, “Bye Bea,” my nickname for her—she called me “Benny B.”—and she struggled to say “Bye” also. She died a few days later, and not long after that the family moved away.

The point is…

Fast forward two years, Julie came into the Baskin-Robbins, and as I said it took me a minute to recognize her. She looked so much smaller and thinner than when I had seen her last. She said to me, “Is your name Jenny?” She had recognized me first. I was a kid the last time she had seen me, and I had changed a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I said. I would have said how are you, but I didn’t dare. She might have asked me if I remembered her, and said that she was Leah’s mom, and I probably said, “I know!” and then didn’t know what the hell else to say.

And then she said, “Thank you,” flat out. “Thank you for being Leah’s friend.”

Then she left, and I never saw her again.

So if I could pick a moment in life to go back to, that would surely be one. Because I wish I had asked how she was. And I wish I had stepped over to her side of the counter and given her a hug, and told her how much being Leah’s friend had meant to me. What a good friend Leah was. And that I missed her. And that I was so sorry for what happened. That it wasn’t fair. And that I hoped she (Julie) and Nicki were ok.

What I hope is that Julie could have guessed all that, being far older and wiser, and not the clueless kid that I was. But either way, I’m glad that the moment happened at all. It might easily not have. I’m grateful for that two-week job at Baskin-Robbins, because thanks to that, we crossed paths, and I believe that what Julie said was an extraordinary kindness. That moment is a treasure to me, flawed and painful and afflicted with regret, but a treasure just the same.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Tale of Two Classmates

The first boy I ever liked was a boy named Todd. I was eight and at a new school, a hippie school called Mariposa, in the hills outside the little town of Ukiah, in Northern California. The school wasn’t new, I was new to it. My mom and I, and some others, had moved to Ukiah from Berkeley, so the adults could do the back-to-the-land thing. My class was a combined fourth and fifth grade, but I had started school early and was the youngest in the group. Todd was older by a year or more. He had a big cowlick over his forehead, a staccato laugh, long eyelashes, and I thought he was the ultimate.

Some of my memories of that time are random and vague, and I don’t know how they fit together, such as the time I found myself on a bus with Todd and his older sister. I’m guessing it was a Greyhound and we were on our way to other places to visit our respective fathers. Todd’s sister tried to set us up as a couple. She switched seats so I could sit next to him, after telling me that he and I could “go” together. I asked her what that meant exactly and she said we would sit together, maybe hold hands, and that sometime he could take me to Love-N-Spoonful, which was a candy store in town.

Todd didn’t like me that way, I’m sure. I was little and I wasn’t pretty, but he went along with sitting with me on the bus. What I don’t remember is something he told me about later, that I had picked a big booger out of my nose, held it out to him, and said, “Here.” Classy move. Did I think boys were into gross stuff and that that would impress him? Maybe. In any case, it didn’t work. That bus ride was the extent of our romance.

The next year though, we became great friends, possibly even a form of best friends. We hung out a lot after school, in the classrooms, and made forts out of cushions and the tumbling mats. We spent hours creating slapstick optical illusions that we performed for each other. My best one was creating the effect of going down an escalator, by standing on a bench placed behind a bookcase. The trick was to stand with your legs apart and slowly lower yourself down and forward by bending one knee, while casually gazing around. It was gold. Todd’s specialty was making like he was falling down a flight of stairs, again with the benches behind the bookcase. He’d trip at the top corner of the bookcase, disappear behind it with all kinds of yelling, and then reappear at the opposite, bottom corner with a somersault on the floor. Pure genius.

The other kid I’m remembering right now was a boy I’ll call Ben. Ben was nerdy and into Dungeons and Dragons, and he had his own talents. The year I was in the fourth grade our class produced a literary magazine, and we had to present our contributions while sitting in a circle. Ben wrote an amazing poem with several verses that began,

Where does the Fire Dragon sleep?

And who is the master of his keep?

Todd wrote a poem too, his was called “Cats”. It went like this:

Cats are stupid little stupids,

That scratch and bite.

That was the whole thing. Todd was popular, and his poem earned him cheers and applause.

When the teacher suggested we call our magazine “Where the Fire Dragon Sleeps” there was a general outcry. I’m sure no one objected to the poem, it was more that Ben wasn’t well liked. Kids can be real shitheads, and I was certainly no exception. In the end we chose “Marmaduke’s Masterpiece Magazine” for the title, after the class rat, a big white thing that lived in a cage in the corner.

Around the time Todd and I got to be friends, Ben and I became enemies. I’m sure it had a lot to do with me taunting him. Along with friendship and romance, there was a lot of antagonism among the kids, most of us got nailed by it and dished it out too. Lots of drama. More than once Ben and I got into playground tussles that ended up in some kind of stalemate, like, “You let go of my hair, and I’ll let go of your nose. On the count of three.” But all that evolved. I was friends with Trish, Ben’s older sister, who hated him half the time too, and Ben and I were eventually sort of frenemies.

Both Todd and Ben moved on to the middle school in town before I did, since Mariposa only went until grade seven. But later we all went to the same high school. We weren’t friends or frenemies anymore, by then the Mariposa days seemed like another lifetime, but there weren’t many degrees of separation between us either. If I remember right, Todd had flings with a couple of my friends, and then got heavily into drugs. The last I heard of him was some years later, from a high school friend living in San Francisco, that he was a heroin addict. My friend had seen him on the street a couple of times and said he looked like an old man.

What a horribly sad thing. If Todd ever got into recovery maybe he’s still alive, otherwise, 20 years later, I can’t imagine he is. Back when we were kids the seeds of addiction must have been there already, genetics that made him vulnerable, or other internal demons that could get out of control. Cat poem aside, Todd was really sweet, really smart, really funny. A really really good friend. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s at peace. I seem to have a thing about me where once I really love someone, that part of my heart never goes away. I may not visit that place for years, but if I do I find it alive and well, still there.

I never loved Ben in that same way, but I do value shared history. We connected on Facebook a few years ago and it was sweet to catch up. Ben is an exceedingly nice person who has been through alot, and is now married and raising a daughter. I had a chance to apologize for being such an asshole when we were kids, and tell him I remembered, among lots of other things, his Fire Dragon poem.

I went to Mariposa for four years, and I lived there for three, because my mom became a teacher there and everyone who worked at Mariposa lived together, commune-style. Four years is almost nothing in adult time, but in kid time it’s long and full of formative experiences. There’s one memory that particularly stands out, a night in spring when Ben and Trish’s parents were out of town, and Trish invited a handful of girls for a sleepover. I was 11 and Trish, two years older than Ben, must have been 14. We got up to all kinds of ridiculous things, and then, late in the night, we went outside and crossed the road. Trish and Ben lived in a rural spot and across the road from their house was a big sloping field full of lupines, a sea of lupines in bloom as high as your waist.

The sky was clear and the moon was out, and we played hide and seek in the field. All you had to do to be completely hidden from view was lie down, and we ran around delirious it was so fun. Todd wasn’t there that night, but he wasn’t far away, and I think he would have loved it too: the black sky, the bright white moon, your friends a bunch of shadowy shapes and the field of flowers a ghostly blue. Finally no one is fighting, just laughing, or trying not to laugh, while you’re crouched down on the damp, fragrant earth, and someone is nearby, looking for you.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of four books, including the forthcoming literary novel House of Rougeaux. Read more about her books, or order wherever books are sold.