Sunday, March 1, 2009

Keeping Up With the Dean's List...

Friday nights at the Two-Fer (the Naymark family compound – and by compound I’m actually talking about a house, not a Kennedy esque playground) invariably feature my two and a half year-old nephew, Ethan, who is, at this point, the family’s star attraction. As the evening draws to a close we good few Naymarks gather in the den to sing Puff the Magic Dragon, en famille (yes, that’s right, how much more Norman Rockwall can you get?). In more recent months, as Ethan has matured into a toddler, Bold Sharon will turn to him and ask: “Ethan do you want to make a pee pee on the potty?” At two and a half years we’re hitting potty training mode and familial encouragement, “Why don’t you show Uncle Jono how you make a pee pee on the potty?” is the name of current game. I’m not sure why showing me how he can make a pee pee on the potty would be enticing for Baby E, but I’m sure Bold knows best, she is a doctah.

Milestones such as potty training are great equalizers of our youth; give or take a couple of months and Ethan will become potty trained at around the same time that the majority of his peer group will also learn how to make a pee pee on the potty. And Bold, being bold and Toronto’s star pediatrician is happy to tell you, “Ethan is right on target for potty training.” As with anything else these days it seems there are matrixes with which we can examine in order to compare results.

Potty training is a right of passage, like losing your first tooth, your first day of grade school, or the day you finally get your driver’s license. Such societal and natural milestones are expected and accomplished at a certain stage of life and in a way such barometers of our youth are extremely comforting. To some degree they’re normalizes. They allow us all to realize that our development is proceeding apace. Remember when you were 18 and your entire year in high school was carted down to the auditorium and shown how to fill out the OUAC application form? It was like you were being handheld and encouraged throughout the process, “Do you want to see Jono apply to university?” If memory serves me right that was about the last time anyone held my hand. The decision to attend university is perhaps the last of life’s unchoices; for most it is the potty training of your teenage years.

By the time you graduate from an undergraduate program, communal milestones don’t really exist. Some people take longer to finish their degrees, others go directly into grad school (never to be seen form again), those with an entrepreneurial flair will start up companies, others will hurdle themselves into the corporate ladder. Suddenly everyone isn’t sitting in the same auditorium filling out the same application form; rather everyone is in different auditoriums filling out different application forms. But if that’s the case how can you compare yourself to everyone in order to make sure you’re doing ok?

In short you can’t; and the much longer answer is you probably shouldn’t. Unfortunately as human beings, shallow creatures that we are, comparisons to our peer group are what we thrive on. After all our economic system, albeit tarnished, is bred on such competition. At RotFunMan, for example, every professor provides a grade distribution and analysis for every test, homework assignment and exam handed in. As future business leaders we are bred to think competitively. Even in high school competition exists; remember those seemingly benign English essays: “at our ten year high school reunion I will be…” [And not to freak anyone out, but I’m about two years away from that ten years].

So who is my peer group now? Ethan’s peer group is the 18 other kids in the Dinosaur Playroom 1 at his daycare. At North Toronto Collegiate Institute my peer group consisted of approximately 150 other kids in the NTCI Class of 2001. In real life of course, almost, everyone becomes a competitor. An old McGill friend called me about a month after my picture appeared in the Toronto Star (insert shameless self-promotion here), “Looks like I’ve bested you,” he said. Colour me confused. “A press release I wrote was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.” “Oh,” I paused, “congrats!” In fact I hadn’t quite realized that we were in competition, but of course, we had gone to McGill together, had taken similar history majors, and just as we had sparred over grade point averages in the Redpath Oasis, it made sense that we’d be comparing bylines in our twenties.

Similar rumbles occasionally make waves through my circle of friends. Whenever someone gets married, or someone buys a house, there’s the collective gasp of shock. While everyone is super psyched, there’s always that conversation you wind up having with the person who isn’t getting married or who hasn’t bought the house: “Why don’t I have a house? Why aren’t I married? We did go to high school together. How did I go so wrong, but so and so did everything so right?”

In my own existential crisis just the other day, I called KB.
“I think I’m falling behind.”
“Falling behind what?”
“Which people?”
“Everyone. I’m not successful. People have jobs, they’re climbing the corporate latter. This girl I fooled around with (yes, screw you all for judging) has a book deal.”
“You’re doing your MBA.” She said calmingly.
“But that’s all I’m doing…”

Worse – I came across a New York Times article about a gay couple that had bought and restored a house in the Hudson Valley. Between commuting from powerful jobs in Manhattan, they were making organic goats milk on the weekend. I was despondent; after looking through the slide show of their life on the New York Times website, I realized they were living my dream (if you replaced organic goats milk with organic beer: Faux Hill Bitter). In comparison I have no job, no farm, no partner; fuck I don’t even have a goat. If this were a shtetl in the pale of Russia, I’d be first to be offed when the Russian army came riding through town.

KB tried to talk me back to earth, “Nay. They’re a decade older then we are. You can’t compare yourself to them.”

Suddenly I understood why my mother cries against how she’s kept up with the neighbours her entire life. It’s exhausting. How do you keep up with the Jones’s when you’re not even sure whom exactly you’re keeping up with?

The cheesy euphemism of course is that “Success is yours to define”. A friend and I came up with this line for a speech she was giving at high school a couple of years ago. But still its cold comfort isn’t it? I mean, success is yours to define, but isn’t there a matrix I can apply my successes to just to make sure I’m still on track?

At least I’m one up on Ethan; I can make a pee pee on the potty.

No comments: