Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Inferiority, and Silliness

So the beautiful tree hydrangea that I purchased this summer, managed to transport home in the MINI with nary a leaf spared, planted to partially remedy the sudden lack of shade in my shade garden, rejoiced in finding, and began to use as a fulcrum around which the new, formerly known as the East-Side-Shade-Bed would be redesigned, is dead.

As a doornail, the Marley to my Scrooge.

As in ding dong--though wicked witch it was not.

As in brittle twigs, brown on the inside dead.

Actually, it seems to have died while I was away in September, though I secretly hoped it wasn't so (even if I prefer not to rip it out of the ground until next spring...just to make sure).

Talk about feeling inferior: I can hardly grow something notoriously easy to grow. True. Neither can I grow mint, which has the well-earned reputation of being invasive, nor most hellebores (only 2 of 6 have survived), nor Lady's Mantle. Though I am sure soil type has something to do with pervasive death in my garden, I am convinced that the cause of death of these minor players in the garden drama owes to my overzealous little watering buddy, Gramsci, having caught him in the act many times.

But the tree hydrangea? No idea what killed it so suddenly.

The death got me thinking about inferiority.

Professionally, I act in a world in which inferiority abounds. It's a disease with which most of us are infected during graduate school, since it is the job of advisors to strengthen the mettle of their graduate students, which they (we) do by pointing out all of the flaws and shortcomings in their advisees' scholarship. True stuff. Only the method of delivering such news differs, though even the most humanitarian of advisors will sometimes lose patience and tap into unadulterated, unadorned, audacious brusqueness. In any case, given that scholarship is the outward appearance of our thinking, many have a difficult time distinguishing criticism of scholarship from criticism of self, and hence the seed is planted; the cancer cell born. If cultivated properly, they sprout or metastasize (use whichever metaphor you prefer).

Graduation, and the earned privilege of being addressed with the honorific "doctor" (which the non-PhD holding world will continually remind that you are not a "real doctor"), does not curtail the disease. In fact, the criticism of scholarship (accomplished via the "anonymous review" process) may sometimes be harsher; the disease spreads. Many of us (secretly) think our scholarship is inferior to that produced by others, especially when confronted by the several peacocks and prima donas who strut about singing their operatic graces. At a conference recently, I was gently chastised after my presentation by a senior scholar who holds a prominent research chair at prestigious university Y for doing what she had already done; "read my book," she implored me (nay, dictated).

I looked at her book. No: our work may converse, but there is no correlation or even remote similarity. I happened to mention the incident in passing to a friend, and he reported that the same senior scholar said the same thing to him and to one of his acquaintances. It's her shtick, we suppose, caused by a clear surfeit of ego.

But this is not a "dirty academic secrets revealed" blog, but a gardening blog. Right. Carry on.

I do not pretend that I do not feel inferior--whether with respect to physical appearance (fashionable clothes and fabulous sport coats and ties which I always buy at discounted prices help divert attention), physical strength (sabbatical gives me more time to go to the gym and work on this!), intelligence (meh...I work hard to make up for the dearth of natural smarts), strength of scholarship (not so noticed in the wider academic realm of what I do), culinary skills (ahem, Mara, and Viet, and, and...), and yes, gardening.

Most of the time, I, as most of us do, "just get on with it" and pay no further heed to the inferiority complexes we develop and, dare I admit it, cultivate. Indeed, most of the time these complexes become fuel for self-improvement and self-construction, save for when the aging body revolts against the plan to run a half marathon in a few months by inflaming the Achilles heel and igniting furnace-like flames in the knees to make simple movement from bed-to-bathroom a whole new experience in pain. Or when reviewers force us to rethink our intellectual choices and arguments. Or, or, or...

But these various complexes make us stronger in the sense of turning us into individuals. Platitude? Hardly. It really is true. 

I've occasionally felt inferior to Viet's many considerable talents and knowledges. Take movies, for instance (he keeps a blog, My Criterion Life). The man is an encyclopedia: from film noir to slasher flicks, from classic to contemporary, Viet can name directors, reconstruct plots, and launch into effortless exegesis on meaning/symbolism/perspective/you-name-it--such cinematic prowess variously deployed as valuable social currency (dazzling at receptions!) or scholarly research.

Yesterday morning I was reminded of that particular inferiority. Famous scholar-in-my-field Cynthia Enloe wrote in a 1996 article:

"Looking at NAFTA from Chiapas, giving Indian women and men voices and visibility in an analysis of this major post-Cold War political construction, is not a matter of simply choosing post-positivist 'Roshomon' over Enlightenment-inspired 'Dragnet'. Roshomon was the highly acclaimed Japanese film that told the story of a highway robbery and abduction not just from the omnipotent - 'true' - perspective of the film-maker, but from the multiple - perhaps all 'true' - perspectives of several of the characters...It does indeed appear to make far more sense to adopt a 'Roshomon' posture, to assume that people playing different roles in any international phenomenon will understand its causes and its meanings differently."

Viet-worthy analysis. Why can't I watch films as Viet and Cynthia Enloe do, and as Susan Sontag did, and interpret them so intelligently? Oh, that's right: because that presupposes one stays awake to watch the film in its entirety. 

Yes, dear reader, the passage and the thought made me stop my work. For a moment, the wave of inferiority got the better of me. Rather, I allowed it to.

Oh, right. This is a gardening blog, not "Confessions 101."

And then I thought: how silly we humans are, always measuring ourselves against each other and feeling inferior or superior as a result. This is the worst kind of hierarchy we humans construct, for it easily morphs into an Otherization by the superior of the inferior, which then translates behaviorally.  But I digress, as usual.

Most of our inferiority complexes, I have come to realize, are silly, even if they may be based on some degree of truth (e.g. we may not be able to run a marathon, though our friends can; our pies may taste good, but look rather amateur compared to the exceptional pies made by friends; we have recognized/celebrated taste in home decorating and pairing furnishings with exquisite wall color, but our execution shows on the ceiling). These things are silly mostly because, I am convinced, they stem from unrealistic expectations, misguided notions of perfection, lack of complete information (usually about others and their own realities), and (a prime culprit) impatience.

Gardening teaches me the folly and sheer silliness of major aspects of our human lives: the folly of worrying (an art I have perfected), the folly of self-abnegation (likewise an activity in which I have excelled), the folly of feeling inferior to others. While I may still worry (admittedly, sometimes about really crazy things, like the bookshelf next to the bed toppling over and decapitating cat--and yes, dear reader, I actually stressed about this for a while), I have learned to treat myself and splurge once in a while.

But feeling inferior? Sure, one of its forms rears its ugly little head on occasion, but that's cue for taking action.

Nurse our wounds for a moment, and then focus on the repair. In gardening, it's a little easier: identify the problem and rip it out. Or, if one feels a bit more 'plantitarian,' bestow extra care on the source of our inferiority. And if it doesn't perform, rip it out and get another one. Sentimentality does not a beautiful garden make.

With the human psyche, the situation is more complex. But here, too, we can take our cue from gardening. Gardening is a process. Both plants and the garden itself unfold over time. Each plant and flower should be celebrated for what IT specifically offers to the garden, and, importantly, for what IT in itself and for itself is. We wouldn't impose upon the elegant (though must be staked) stalks of cobalt blue delphiniums the demands we bestow upon the daffodil, which ushers us out of winter blues. Only exceptionally silly (read: unrealistic) people (who are well beyond the help of this doctor!) think that Helianthus, Yarrow, and the Mallows--all flowers for the mid summer garden--should bloom in April.

If we are not exceptionally silly, then:

(a) determine if the subject of inferiority is something we actually want (a "better" physique? a reputation amongst our friends for being a great cook? etc.), and, if so, then consciously and patiently strive for the objective;

(b) determine, soberly, the nature of the objective:
         -- if realistic and achievable, go back to (a);
         -- if unrealistic but enjoyable (e.g. being as skilled a cellist as Yo-Yo Ma though you only just, at the age of 40, started playing the cello), drop the pretenses and inferiority and pursue it because of its enjoyment and enrichment factors, no matter how flawed our efforts may be;
         -- if unrealistic and not enjoyable, take your cue from a gardening life: rip it out of your life and fill the space with something else.

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