Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The World's Shortest Short Story is Everyone's Story

"For sale, baby's shoes, never worn," goes the full text of a story attributed (no doubt aprocrophally) to Ernest Hemingway. It's often trotted out as the world's shortest story.

I found one I like better. I wrote it, but I didn't. Someone I knew said she did, but no, she didn't, either. Not that she lied, because in fact, she did write it. So did I. In fact, I don't think I know anyone who didn't write it. Here it goes:

"If only." 

There. I said it. That's the world's shortest story and I think it's everyone's story, at least everyone I know reasonably well.

Say it aloud, right now, to yourself. Nestle back in whatever you're sitting in, close your eyes, smile slightly and say it again, this time to yourself, and your story starts to develop. You know the beginning and maybe the middle. And the end?

Unless you're dead, you can still write that part. Heck, there's still a chance for some of the middle part.

The predicates to your If Only story can be divided in a few ways. The first is your being something completely and totally different than you are now, e.g., "If only I were gay (or straight, as the case may be), or "If only I were born in 1847," or whatever. Like that.

Next is fantasizing about something you might have been, as in, "If only were good at sports," or somesuch. Sometimes, I think how much better I'd be if only I had more money. Money can't buy happiness, but it can sure buy a lot of fresh orange juice, which is good with tequila. Still, imagining a life as, say, a Broadway diva, or even a forest ranger, is another dimension of one's If Only story.

But that's the easy stuff. The hard part is facing the way you are. Then, your story would go, "If only I stood up for myself," or "If only I weren't so stubborn," or "If only I could stop worrying whether or not people like me."

People's personalities are a mysterious amalgam of the full monty of human emotions and motivations--search for affection and willingness to offer it, kindness, selfishness, sense of responsibility, people-pleaserness, assholeness, whatever. A big part of mine is a subset of people-pleasiosity: I'm anal about getting something right no matter the stakes, about executing tasks so well that it's often overkill.
Sheesh already!

A few nights ago at an HOA board meeting (stay with me, here), our property manager presented several blacktop repair bids. One of the bidders specified use of "hot mix asphalt," to which the property manager said, parenthetically, "whatever that is." I could never have done what she did--present a choice where one option contained a specification the others did not, and then, not know what the spec was.

 In the case of the blacktop repair, I would not only have found out what hot mix was, but I'd have stayed up past midnight, if necessary, to understand its quality and what the alternatives were, and then making sure every other bidder included all options before offering up the bids to the board.

For a minor repair? Most people would have blown that one off in three seconds. I can't do that. If Only I weren't so obsessive about issues of little consequence.

A very close friend, a Geologist/Palentogist PhD., Oxford fellow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon who was working on the Mars lander last time I checked in, told me, once, that he was so nervous about lecturing even to undergraduates that he would sweat himself into a frenzy. He'd prepare two or three times as much material as he'd need. It's nice to be in such exalted company, I suppose. But still.

Over and over, like ripples on a sunrise lake overtaking one another as they touch the shore, I meditate on what good that particular quirk has gotten me. The fact is, not much. Most times, nobody cares about the extra effort. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they're even grateful. But even gratitude can be anticlimatic.

In the case of my personal If Only, the story, the novel, or the movie of my life (where I'm played by Jason Robards or Donald Sutherland), I wonder how things might have turned out without this perfectionist streak, how different my life's plot would have unfolded, if I'd have figured it all out, somehow--whatever "it" is. After all, an anal insistence on perfection can be more about fending off personal rejection than about being a nice guy.

Truth be told, it is often just avoiding not just failure, but the mere possibility of failure, and if you avoid the possibility of failure, you pass up opportunities. You always take the safe road. And at some point, you'll look back and suspect you're not where you could have been, as though you're in a foreign country with a strange alphabet on the street signs. And everyone else but you is getting along just fine.

And that's how an If Only story--mine, in this case--begins.

Or a chapter in an If Only novel, maybe, because really, no one is one thing, and one alone.  Everyone's persona is a tapestry, and every weft and weave is another chapter. "Often, when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of
You are too, Baby!
something else," said Mister Rogers.

And I delude myself, sometimes, into thinking I'll change, but the data indicates otherwise. Several weeks ago, a couple of board members and the Executive Director for a local housing nonprofit contacted me for ideas. It had a failing business model, and its woes had been exacerbated by the Great Recession. The brief email idea I'd intended to send turned into a fairly discursive proposal utilizing "green" construction and foreclosure-related issues--two areas near and dear to me and concurrent with the group's goals--as well as funding sources and achievable goals going forward. The whole thing made me kind of giddy.

Except I didn't hear back from anyone for weeks. Not even a receipt acknowledgement. Then, I got a thanks-but-no-thanks, we-got-an-unexpected-grant email. So it goes, c'est la vie, and goodbye to all that. Had I missed something? Was something in their original subtext that should have signaled me to stay simple?

Where do I wish I were? That's a topic for another post, but I'll let it go by saying I'm not there. And the fault is not in the stars. Well, not entirely, anyway. If Only...

Anyway. Enough of these margin scribbles in my If Only story. That's mine. What's yours? I'm very interested, and I'm totally serious about that.

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