That is the title of a professional development class I am obliged to attend recently: “Breaking Out of Self-Imposed Prisons.” Good thing I attend a lecture on “Stamping Out Stress” right beforehand — having to admit that I’m mired in mediocrity makes me remarkably tense. Who but the mediocre would sign up for such a course?
I do love a good self-help motivational speaker talking down to me and mouthing platitudes in toothy cheerleader tones. It’s the sort of perfect prison I impose upon myself. I figure purgatory will work the same way – an eternity of carefully customized half-hearted tedious mind-numbing dull-knife punishments. It’ll be an incessant corporate team-building getting-to-know-you exercise, or an endless plane flight stuck between a crying baby and a foul-smelling weirdo who wants to be my friend, or an interminable wait for the bathroom while some chicklet is camped in there curling her eyelashes and practicing pouty mouths in the mirror.
I know I’m not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell; for me, there is no escape from mediocrity. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and fruit flies like a banana (that’s for you, Mark).
Presenter Babe exudes pity tinged with scorn and condescends to speak to us as though we are her children or doddering elders.
OK, OK, so my impression might be influenced by a bit of hostility and resentment – I don’t want to be sitting there. Why must I be objective? We only ever pretend to that, anyway. And it’s my blog! I don’t have to be fair and even-handed. I don’t have to bite my tongue and suffer fools. I don’t even have to be nice. I do have to try and keep from embarrassing my mother, but that’s not a bad general rule of behavior. Writing a blog is pretty pedestrian, as secret lives go. I could be sneaking out at night to be a pole dancer at that seedy bar out by the interstate.
Husband might just enjoy that.
To escape mediocrity, we are told we must HOLD ON TO OUR DREAMS. Presenter Babe shakes her fist in the air like Scarlett O’Hara holding up that muddy turnip at sunset and vowing never to go hungry again.
Presenter Babe will certainly never go hungry again. She’s figured out how to get money for nothing (cue Dire Straits).
She tells us all to write that down: HOLD ON TO DREAMS. She speaks in capital letters. She waits and watches to make sure each of us does this. I write, “What a load of crap.” I can do better than that, but I have nagging fears of exposure.
Anyone over the age of ten has outgrown a few dreams. Surely, that’s a good thing. I knew in 3rd grade that I’d never be a famous ballet dancer. I had no grace, no balance, no athleticism, and no flowing beauty of movement. Even The Lorraine and Shirley School of Dance couldn’t help. Lorraine and Shirley drove over from a neighboring town once a week and set up shop at the American Legion Hall down the street from my house, teaching tap and ballet to flocks of fledgling swans.
Me? I want to study dance in a studio – I’ve always been a purist. I want a barre and a wall of mirrors and polished wood floors and a high ceiling and tall windows brimming with natural light. I want a French woman with high cheekbones and hair pulled into a severe bun, wearing a black leotard and demanding that I call her Madame. Instead, I get Lorraine and Shirley, old women (probably my age) with tight curly perms and tight smoking lines around their mouths, wearing polyester pants with creases sewn into the front. I get the veteran’s old meeting hall, dark and dirty and rank with the lingering hopeless smell of Bingo games and cheap beer and cigarettes. There is indeed a bar – loaded with gray pickled eggs and red sausages in big gallon jars. How is one to pursue one’s art under such circumstances? With Lorraine (or maybe Shirley – I never could keep them straight) pounding out the tempo and shouting, “Heel! Heel! Toe! Toe!”
It’s OK to stop smoking the pipe dreams. Despite what the man from La Mancha says, possible dreams are the ones worth having. Don’t tell a sturdy 55-year-old matron to buy pointe shoes and a tutu and expect to become a ballerina (or a pole dancer).
The folks around me are eagerly raising their hands, vying for the chance to share their sad spent dreams. We are all of us middle-aged school clerks of various sorts – to escape mediocrity, all we really need to do is quit our jobs. But there’s that long summer vacation to consider, and those two weeks off at Christmas, and that spring break. Freedom is a relative thing.
“You know, I’ve always really wanted to be a doctor,” says a grade school health tech, rather timidly.
“Well, what’s stopping you?” bellows the Babe. “You’re limiting yourself! It’s totally up to you! Get out there and do it! You’re not getting any younger! Nobody to blame but yourself!”
The school health tech has three kids in college, two mortgages, and one shiftless husband who (on good days) is self-employed. Her job provides health insurance for the family, and much of her modest salary goes to pay for that. She takes care of her ailing mother. Waltzing off to med school is quite possibly not an option. She sits there, silent for a moment. “It’s . . . too late,” she says, with a sudden wrenching sob.
We shift uncomfortably in our seats. The only man present stands up. He is a school custodian in his 50s, beefy, balding, and ruddy, who looks like he rides a Harley on the weekends (without a helmet). “Me? I’ve always wanted to be a male model,” says he.
Even Sniffling Failure Woman laughs. I want to kiss that janitor. He is a model male, indeed.
Presenter Babe tries to regain control. She says to Sniffling Failure Woman, “But, hey! You’re working in the medical field! You’re living your dream, doing it your way!” She hastens on to her next point, which is DREAM BIG. She rubs salt in the wounds she has just inflicted. And so it goes. We move from bromide to banality until she makes her big finish: NO NEGATIVITY.
To achieve this, on every New Year’s Day she goes through her list of friends, family, and associates and weeds out anyone who hasn’t contributed to her own personal greater good. She ticks down the list considering each name and asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Anyone not up to par gets cut from her acquaintance. She has no time to waste on “depressing bores or needy losers who drag me down.”
So just be on notice: You might want to be especially nice to me at the end of the year. I’ve already warned Husband. And I’ve got a letter ready to go to my mother. It’s all about me, you see.