Those Things That Remain

July 6, 1963

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I told you I would tell you why I condemn [R] plus her friends..It all started about the day before or the other day when we had Rest Hour.  [R] started writing notes.  I have a sample right here (you will find it in the envelope).  Today in the bathhouse while we were changing the girls got in a huddle and started to talk about me…It is getting worser and worser.  I feel very hurt and I want to come home on Visiting Day.  Please try and arrange something.

Love and 1,000 kisses,

Mimi

ps.  Please write back and tell me your answer.  Thank you.

July 1963

Dearest Mimi,

I am terribly sorry to hear that you are having problems with R.  What she is doing surely is not very nice or commendable, and if it spoils as much as an hour for you I am sad.  However the idea is to see how to correct this problem as quickly as possible.  We will do what we can and you must contribute also.  You are a big girl and I’m sure you realize that in life you take a little bad with the good.  If problems arise we must deal with the problem not run away from it.  This solves nothing – it only makes more problems…Perhaps you have contributed your share.  I know your first reaction would be no – but I’m sure that if you think about it you’ll realize that are always several sides to an issue and that you may have done your share here also…

When things go wrong we don’t back away, we stay [and] face them and work the thing out.  This way we get satisfaction.  When I get upset or discouraged I work harder until I’m happy.  I don’t run away to Mommy.  I’m sure you’ll find that you can work things out just fine and have a great summer at this marvelous camp.

Love,

Mommy

I was eight years old when I sent and received these letters (I must tell you that I’m impressed that I used the word “condemn”).  When my sister and I were growing up, New York kids with parents of certain means, would go to summer camp.  Parents saved up for this gift – getting their children out of a sweltering city with no available summer activities.  Although I still hurt for that kid, you should know that I eventually loved going to camp.  But in my eight year old heart, I felt broken and re-defined by this particular summer (I swear my letters contained more sorrowful commentary than any Allen Sherman song).

To abbreviate the tale, I was redeemed by some talent or another that was greeted with enthusiasm later in the summer.  Yet, some small part of me is still waiting for my parents to pick me up with dramatic indignation and bring me home.  Even if they were still here, I’m not sure they would.

I’ve worked with hundreds  of people throughout my career.  Early life lessons have taught me that the most critical question one can ask prior to any exchange is “who’s it for?”   Such a simple question, such a complicated answer.  Two partners at the firm were  engaged in an argument  over office space – each positively livid with each other.  I was receiving copies of their email exchanges – written as testaments to their positions.  Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read.  When I spoke with one of them, his frustration was palpable – how could his friend not get it?  So I asked the question that informs most of my training programs, conversations with friends, etc – who is it for?  Fortunately, he laughed, threw an epithet in my direction and admitted that it was all for him.  He wanted his colleague to see the logic  of the decision, the sensitivity with which it was made – and at least acknowledge that as a leader he was unparalleled.

Cut to the next morning – and another email.  This time he wrote an email of apology – from hell.  You know the kind – ‘I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my position and for the purposes of rapprochement, I will explain it to you again.’  When he asked me for my thoughts – I again asked – ‘who was that for’?  He hung up on me.  He also picked up the phone and offered a genuine apology to his friend.  Thirty years later the three of us remember this incident similarly, which says something about the accuracy of the memory I think.

At the end of the day, it would seem that the idea began to germinate when I was eight.  The most successful dynamics are defined not by what we hope to gain, but by our understanding of what others want from us.  If we are able to provide that without compromising our belief systems, without upending our fragile sense of who we are, then the end result is potentially far more rewarding than we could have ever hoped.  I used to tease my mom, asking her to eliminate the words, ‘no’  and ‘but’ from her vocabulary.  Maybe we could also try using a little less ‘I’ and a lot more ‘you’?

To begin

February 10, 1949

Sweetheart,

…I laid on the bed – I don’t know how long – just thinking about the future and what it may hold in store for us.  The picture my mind conjured was a beautiful one – although I must admit that I dismissed all real or imaginary shadows that drifted across.  My flights of fancy envision [a life] without any difficulties, problems and heartaches…I know that such a state is impossible to achieve, and yet I still go on hoping and dreaming.  I can’t describe to you how much I worry about how I’ll adjust to the problems of living.  I mean ‘living’ in the sense of taking my place as a responsible member of society, of having a job, a family, a home.  I don’t really expect you to understand because you haven’t led a relatively sheltered and secure life.  But try to realize that even in the Army, there were people looking out for my welfare – although in an impersonal way.

What will it be like when I have to stand on my own two feet and make decisions which will affect more persons’ than myself?  I honestly don’t know, any more than I know my ability and capacity to handle responsibility…The buoyant confidence and enthusiasm which people see in me are not always there but are merely a “front” – possibly I kid myself along, pretending abilities which are non-existent.  It’s wrong for a young man to fear the future.  Youth should have courage and confidence..And I torture myself with thoughts that I may be a failure – mostly a failure in my own eyes.  It’s not that I feel sorry for myself, for there’s nothing to be sorry about.  It’s just that I want so much out of life and I’m not sure of my ability to get the things I want…

If I get a chance I’ll write you again this week, although the work has been piling up.  In any event, I’ll call you Saturday when I get in.

All my love,

Jack

Jack was my dad.  He was 25 when he wrote this letter to his girlfriend (later to be his wife, my mom).  He was very successful in life and in love – lit up a room with a grin and charmed everyone he met into believing that s/he was the most important person in the room.  There’s a lot of him in me; I see so much of him in my sons.   His capacity for play, his curiousity and magnetism.  His sobering moments of self-doubt and conflict.  His ability to articulate his thoughts in a way that drew people to him.  My youngest son wrestles at 25 with the same questions that my dad tried to pin in 1949.  And perhaps we never emerge the victor in this match – we just learn how to best protect ourselves from our most paralyzing doubts and move forward.

And now I know from whom I learned the sham theory.   No matter how much I have achieved – and I’ve been pretty damn lucky in that regard – I have been driven by the knowledge that if someone ever looked hard enough, they would discover fakery.  I’m not that smart, thorough, sensitive, insightful…I just managed to fool those around me.  I shared this belief with my favorite boss of all time when I began to earn far more than I was worth.  Given that he had more exposure, responsibility and income than me, he consoled me with the view that by rights, he was the larger sham.   I’m beginning to think such motivation is common.

I like to think I’m a reasonable example of ‘every woman’, only shorter.  Ok, shorter, of a certain age where gravity is no longer something to be ignored, white Jewish, perpetually guilt-ridden, non-threatening and unfortunately still bearing the mantle of  “perky” (back to being short).

Guilt-ridden – now that’s something I think of as a universal characteristic – so much so, I was going to build my future on it.  In grad school, I determined that I could best work with the perpetually guilty.  Certainly there’d be a reasonable and steady client stream.  It’s one of those conditions that is easily trivialized (‘change the tape in your head’, ‘chant that you are letting go with each exhalation’), yet powerfully informs one’s persona.  I think it must start during the process of birth – at the outset of the journey comes the knowledge that you’re hurting your mother.  How the hell do you get over that?  You don’t – thus my idea that there’s a market out there.