Unmapped Country

The flip side of failure

Arugula, Sedaris, Stoves, Success

Didn't expect to find a definition of success in David Sedaris's book, but I did

Hello. Have we all been enjoying our arugula? C’mon, you know what I’m talking about. Up and down the East Coast, which is where I've been, we've all taken a new interest in that particular leafy green, because we’ve all read that article in the paper about nutrient levels in leafy greens, and the most nutrient-filled is, yep, you know it, arugula. So don’t even pretend to have always loved it, just tuck into your arugula salads. I recommend a citrus twist. Yum. Just don’t think about that other news item about how that final spritz of water that perks up our arugula before it arrives on the grocery store shelf contains, more often than it should, E. Coli and Campylobacter bacteria.

Anyhoo. I’ve been away, enjoying my arugula salad and otherwise vacationing. Since we last communicated, Readers, the husband, the 11-year-old, and I journeyed to pick up the 14-year-old from her ballet intensive. At least I think we picked up the 14 year old, although she appears to be a clone of the 14-year-old, a little taller, and a little tweaked, attitude-wise. But we persevered to the beach, and managed to close our garage door when we left the neighborhood. We're all getting used to one another again. Family dynamics have changed.

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Which seems like a good segueway to David Sedaris. Now, I’ve read a lot of definitions of success over the past two years, and I was not expecting anything about that topic from David Sedaris, but there I was, reading his latest book, when I came across something new. David and his boyfriend are driving around Australia with a friend, Pat, who invites them to picture a four burner stove on which one burner represents family, one friends, one health, and one work. To be successful, she says, you have to “cut off one of your burners. And to be really successful, you have to cut off two.”

So they each name the burner they've cut. David says it was friends, though he wasn’t proud of it, and also health, and his partner Hugh says it was work, which makes sense since he must travel around with David to David’s speaking engagements and therefore not have time for his own work; and their friend, a businesswoman with several homes and cars and what to David looks like success says family and health.

What do we think of this? This is so old school. This stove is a pot-bellied one and the analogy is, too. I mean, c’mon. What a narrow definition of success that is. One that excludes maintaining health and human connections. What would Arianna Huffington say about it? Where’s that Third Metric? Although, honestly, we all fear that David’s friend Pat is right – and by we I mean I – that to manifest material success requires singlemindedness, and that singlemindedness requires cutting out those pesky distractions like taking care of your body and meaningful connections to other people, related to you by blood, affection, or both. And vice-versa. Pat’s definition is what landed me in trouble, so feh – I reject it! Maybe we need to let a few things simmer on low while we bring others to the boil; but cutting off a whole burner? Bad idea.

When I started this success blog, I’d done that. I’d cut out work. Yes, yes, I was working – I was being a full time mom – but I wasn’t developing my professional self. I don’t want to wade into the quagmire of seeming to suggest motherhood isn’t work, which necessitates high boots and a tromp though the grasslands of apologia. Motherhood certainly is work, and it certainly should be compensated somehow, by respect, by social security benefits, by family leave policies, etc. That’s a whole different story. My point - and I think I do have one - is that, like many stay at home moms (SAHMs), I identifed myself as something else, too. Something related to a profession. While I was being a SAHM, I was also supposedly a writer, but I wasn’t really, because being a mother of young children is a full time job. So, for large swathes of time, I turned off that work burner.

Did it make me a better, more successful person in those other areas (burners?) No, I don’t think so. In fact, ironically, while that burner was off, it was the only thing that seemed to matter to me. Work. Profession. Earning money. I couldn’t stop thinking how I wasn’t doing any of it, and how much of a failure this made me. It wasn’t as if I focused better on those other burners. No, I focused on that one, and felt that lack of success there meant I was a failure everywhere.

This was a rawther counterproductive and downright miserable cycle of despair in which to find myself, and so I began to look for a better definition. I also began to look for some paying work. But the instant I turned on that work burner, I felt better. No, that’s wrong. First I felt really shitty, and I floundered around looking for jobs and so on, so really, the first time I obtained some paying work related to my profession, I felt better. A lot better. A billion percent better. It didn’t take much. It didn’t take the career coming to a boil. It just took a little bit, a simmer, if you will, and everything started to improve.

So my new view of success is much more holistic than Pat’s. Carrying on with the stove analogy, you want to be an Aga, or a Viking, or whatever. The idea is to get all the burners working.

Frankly, I don’t think David subscribes to Pat's theory, either. For one, he points out that his friend Pat “seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.” For another, while he says that he cut off the friends burner, there he is, riding around the Australian bush with his friend. But I’m not going to speak for him. I don’t know what he’s like, really. Antisocial, reclusive, peevish? His sandbox is the nexis of humor and pain, his medium is memoir: We know he’s got problems. Which brings us to the next burner, family. He ends his essay with a painful memory of a senseless power play between his 11 year old self and his father, which ended with him turning off the family burner. But then over time he realized that “without them, I was nothing.” It’s not a heartwarming realization, though. It's more a recognition of how connected we remain to family, even when we’re grown and evolved and fully therapized and can move thousands of miles away. There’s a note of resignation, or perhaps defiance, when he says, “Cut off your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured? What would it possibly mean?” With a suggestion or implication or another tendril-like tenuous gesture that you need family, if only to measure how far you’ve come, how different you are from them.

Anyway, somehow, that family burner has to stay on, too. I write this after returning from a week’s vacation with my sister the psychoanalyst and her family, for a couple days of which our father joined us.

But back to the burners. Yeah, I think the goal is really to keep them all going. As I mentioned, some may need to be turned to simmer for awhile while others come to the boil, but you need them all. As someone’s granny said, “If you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”

You can eat your arugula and have success, too! In fact, you must.

 © Hope A. Perlman Aug. 2013 Visit me at my personal blog! Follow me on Twitter!

Hope Perlman is a writer and humorist.

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