Don’t Sell Yourself Short

I’ve often wondered if that expression is offensive to short people.  Come to think of it, I’m not so tall myself.  This is an outrage!  I demand that I change the title to something else immediately.

Pardon that psychotic eruption of unhealthily high self-esteem.  I don’t know what got into me.  It must have been the coke.

Have you ever seen the movie Sideways?  I watched it again last night with my students.  It was the third time I’d seen it, maybe even the fourth.  It’s based on a book by Rex Pickett that’s even better than the film; the sequel, Vertical, is also good.  I saw an interview with Pickett on the Tube of You and he said he wanted to make a movie out of Vertical, but since the director Alexander Payne owns the rights to Miles and Jack, the two main characters in both stories, and isn’t interested, Pickett can’t.  Maybe he should change his name to Kent (as in “can’t”) Pickett.

The story comes close to home, not because the main character is a lush (Bartender, could you bring me another bucket of gasoline?), but because he’s a failed writer.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m grateful for the attention of everyone who takes the time to read these posts, especially those few devoted readers who keep me going.  I also appreciate comments, as it makes me feel as if I’m not writing on an empty basketball court in the projects with a chain link fence around it with graffiti sprayed on it by someone who couldn’t find a wall to record their illegible message on.

Of course, the good news is that the story, although based on Pickett’s own experience, had a happy ending in real life since Payne picked it up and turned it into a hit movie and made Pickett a rich man.  

I guess I’m just tired of beating myself up for not being as good or as accomplished as I’ve always wanted to be.  Mediocrity is a bitter zeppelin to swallow.  Or should that be “bitter blimp”?  The thing that astounds me about writers who’ve made it is how they can find the time to write novel after novel, full of characters and plots and resolved situations, while also managing to attend to the details in phrasing, word choice, and grammar that plague us all.

William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well has some useful advice for those of us who tend to get too windy sometimes.  I always crave for great books in order to feed myself with inspiration; instead I have to spend my time reading my students’ weekly speeches.  Each one of them has so many mistakes in it, the text should be surrounded with crime scene tape.  I used to grumble and curse a lot at the sheer number of appalling constructions and misuses of words, along with the addiction to the passive voice, avoidance of originality, and insistence on repeating things to add what sounds like contempt for the reader (in other words, an assumption that he or she is too dumb to glean anything by implication and needs to have every iota of the speech spelled out in big crayoned letters written on construction paper) in English, even though in Korean it may sound respectful for all I know.

Speaking of contempt, the thing familiarity supposedly breeds, I’m hoping I’ll finally be able to pull myself out of this country for a change.  Eight years is enough, to paraphrase the name of an old sitcom I never saw.  Despite its Westernized appearance (which I’m not necessarily advocating as a good thing), Korea has a culture that’s still downright militaristic in some ways.  That’s not to say that you have armed soldiers patrolling the streets–you’re thinking of the USA–but people here–especially men–internalize a rigid code of behavior that can make them a drag to be around.  I’m not blaming them; it’s not their fault they’ve been brainwashed; I have too, just by a different system.  Our brainwashing detergents are incompatible.  

To give you an example, most Korean businessmen dress alike.  They don’t usually wear ties (I do, but not in the summer, except when I go to the beach), but black slacks and white shirts are common.  Another curious thing is the limited template when it comes to car colors.  The rainbow boils down to black, white, and gray (they call it silver).  You go to a restaurant, cafe, or bar, and in many cases they’ll have the same songs playing over and over again on a loop, sometimes for months on end.  I’ve already told you about the smartphone pandemic, but I guess it’s getting to be that way everywhere.

As a foreigner, I get stared at a lot.  I’ve heard it’s much worse if you’re black.  And you can’t say that the Koreans who stare are just naive hayseeds.  They don’t stare that way at each other.  They seem to think it’s acceptable to be rude to foreigners, at least as far as staring goes.  Since I can’t speak Korean but am often in a hostile mood when in transit, I usually just glare at them or ask in English, “Why are you staring at me!”  That generally does the trick.  

It wouldn’t be so bad if I were stared at by beautiful women, but it’s always some passive-aggressive, middle-aged male malcontent with a chip on his shoulder.  I don’t know how they’re able to walk around all day without the chips falling off.  They must have great balance.

The other day I rode on a bus driven by a trainee, and I was pleased to see in the rear view mirror the light in his eyes as he took command of the vehicle as his instructor gave him pointers.  He had a friendly face, like a Korean version of Buddy Hackett.  I’ve had the privilege to ride on his bus a few more times since then, and he’s a capable driver who looks happy to be doing his job.  It’s an important one, and I salute him, trying not to hit the person standing next to me in the eye with my elbow.

Somehow I got sidetracked from the title of this post.  I guess what I’d like to say is that you shouldn’t let life push you around too much.  Success in humble matters certainly counts for something.  One of my favorite proverbs to teach is:  “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  We can’t help comparing ourselves to people who seem better off than we are and feeling either resentful or slighted in response.  Or else we just think we’re no good and we punish ourselves with masochistic self-condemnation.

In a world where some people have serious problems that go on for decades, usually because someone else can’t stop messing with them (hello, Iraq and Afghanistan–how are you today?), it feels childish and self-indulgent to whinge about what I see as my own shortcomings.  My situation isn’t as bad as a lot of people’s, so I don’t have a right to complain so much.

I’ll also stop trying to be so pretentious, periodically reminded of how unappealing this tendency can be by Mark Peters (Wordlust), the only Twitter account I read.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s cornered the market on Twitter.  I’d join the service myself, only I don’t think I could ever match him, so I ain’t gonna, unless I can scrape up enough money to buy a mind-changer.

WordPress is good enough for me.  It’s nice to be part of the family.


4 thoughts on “Don’t Sell Yourself Short

  1. I’ve spent the last 7 years working in the Middle East so I know what the stares are like. As for Twitter, I’ve been on for 4 years and sent around a dozen tweets. I just don’t think people need to know the bagel I had for breakfast was toasty, and the few times I got witty, no one cared.

    As for not being as successful with this writing malarkey as you had hoped. Join a really big club. But if you define success as having other people reading your words and finding something relatable in them or trigger an emotional or written response – then you are successful. I have to tell myself this mantra on a daily basis.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed, thoughtful comment. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner; it’s been a busy couple of days. I think you’re right; writing is an act of faith more than anything else. And that’s all it needs to be. Sorry to hear about the stares. Does it help if you wear shades? Thanks also for following my blog; I’ve started to follow yours, too. I look forward to reading of your Middle Eastern adventures! (Finally, thanks for the reference to Twitter; I don’t think I’ll be able to squeeze it into my busy schedule of endless procrastination.)

      • Procrastination and I are a happily married couple at the moment. And no worries about the follow; and thanks for following me as well.
        My blog will be a hodge podge of different things. Eventually I’ll actually spend some time on this site making it a little clearer and having set sections for the different types of writing I’ll be doing. But again, procrastination tells me that can wait.

  2. Our species was born to procrastinate. It’s fun to experiment with different things on your blog. I look forward to seeing what you do with it–not that there’s any pressure to produce. After all, this is a volunteer gig, right? I’m sorry I haven’t had time to explore it yet; I work on Saturdays and argue with my wife (who’s Korean) the rest of the time. Today I have to go to church at her behest, even though the whole thing is a farce as far as I’m concerned. As far as she is, my opinions and beliefs don’t matter. Praise the Lord!

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