<![CDATA[Mandy Brown Houk, author - Blog-diggity]]>Thu, 07 Sep 2017 12:25:22 -0600Weebly<![CDATA[How (and how not) to Apologize]]>Thu, 07 Sep 2017 16:49:19 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/how-and-how-not-to-apologizeMy older daughter, who'll be 22 in a matter of days, is a master apologizer. Though that might sounds sarcastic, I'm completely serious.

When there is any kind of conflict, she doesn't apologize off-the-cuff, in the moment. That kind of apology tends to have the goal of quickly defusing things so everyone can just move on with life already, sheesh. It can be useful, but is rarely satisfying.

She also does not under-apologize. This is the kind of apology that politicians are known for making in rushed press conferences. "I'm sorry if you..." The under-apology doesn't actually take responsibility for anything. In fact, more often than not, it shifts responsibility to the other party. You say you were hurt, silly you, so I guess I'm supposed to apologize now. There. All better?

Neither does my daughter over-apologize. This is the sort of apology that is, consciously or not, designed to elicit some backtracking, qualifying, almost-apologizing from the wounded party. I am such an awful person, I'll just stop speaking entirely so I don't hurt you again. Here, the wounded party has a choice. Does he/she respond with "Okay," which makes him or her a heartless wretch? Or the more desired, No, no, you aren't awful. Please don't stop speaking. I'm sorry I over-reacted. See how that works? Clever, isn't it?

No, my daughter instead walks away from the heated conversation (which used to infuriate me, until I learned to understand her process - now I appreciate it more than I can express). She isn't walking away in order to dismiss the situation, or ignore it. Instead, her goal is to understand what just happened--most specifically, her part in it. Once she sorts it all out and gets her heart settled, she returns. Even if the wounded party is still hurt, my daughter walks right into the tension and says, with direct eye contact and a sincere heart, "I am sorry." No qualification (underapology) or manufactured exaggeration (overapology). Then she goes on to explain exactly where she went wrong -- not as an excuse, but rather as a specific way to describe what she understands she needs to do differently next time.

It is truly a beautiful thing to hear and to receive. The best part is the softening that occurs in my own heart when I'm the receiving party. It melts my bitterness and defensiveness, and lo! I suddenly see clearly how I had reacted poorly, and am able to articulate it and apologize in return. 

This is how to build bridges and foundations and create rich, authentic relationship.

It is a wondrous thing, to learn from your own children... 
<![CDATA[Hope and Peaches]]>Thu, 24 Aug 2017 17:05:12 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/hope-and-peachesIn a recent issue of Southern Living, the cover story highlighted peach recipes. Now normally, when I try out produce-centered recipes in Southern Living, I have to compromise a bit. The South is known for its fruits and vegetables; Colorado's culinary fame centers on lamb and beer. 

But for a few brief weeks in late summer, a magical thing happens in Colorado that tethers me to my Georgia-girl roots. It's called the Palisade peach.* 

To say that I nearly swoon when I see the peaches in the supermarket aisles would not be an exaggeration. The cold nights of the western slopes gives the peaches a thick layer of almost-furry fuzz, and the aroma is much deeper and richer than your average California import. 

As you might have guessed, I tend to overbuy these rosy-gold gems. We can't eat them fast enough, and then I have to switch on the oven and start baking things to use them up (my dessert-loving husband does not complain).

But my older daughter and I made a pact in January of this year to eat no desserts, candy, or sweets until January 1, 2018. So, as I thumbed through the delightful peach recipes in the Southern Living pages, it was fairly depressing.

Then my sad eyes landed on this recipe: Freezer Peach Pie. At first I thought it was some kind of ice cream pie, but no! "What’s better than peach pie in summer?" the introductory paragraph asks. The answer? "Peach pie in winter!" This blessed recipe writer went on to describe the genius method of freezing peach pie filling in a foil-lined tin, then storing it in a freezer bag to bake in a crust at a later date.

As I was peeling and slicing my abundance of peaches yesterday afternoon, I had some other things swirling around in my mind. Earlier this week, I heard from my literary agent, with "some good news." An acquisitions editor likes my novel enough that she'll be taking it before committee in a few days. This news was quite welcome, but my thoughts, when not focused on slicing the peaches and not my thumb, were centered on tamping down my hopes. My book has been before a couple of other committees, and in both cases wound up splitting the vote, which resulted in...well...nothing. 

Hopes, when not assured, feel a lot more like anxiety. If I let myself float up to cloud 9, claiming the joy of a contract before I've signed one, I'll have a long way to fall if no contract is offered. So, as I stirred sugar and spices into the sunset-colored peach slices, I told myself that I was allowed to hover around cloud 4, but no higher. 

Those peaches, though? They're guaranteed. I can peek at them, there in their freezer bag, any time I want. They're a promise, not merely a wish or a dream. I know that I'll be baking two juicy, lattice-topped pies for New Years Day brunch, and I will taste their sweetness on my tongue as I raise a glass of chilled Prosecco to the coming year. 

And though my literary dreams might still be abstract, wispy, unassured, I will keep reaching for them with an open hand. 

It's a tricky balance to maintain, but I want to find it: to truly claim and enjoy the assured promises in life, and to keep a softened heart that's willing to risk a bit of hope on the maybes.

*Colorado also has delicious Olathe corn (I've been known to eat some kernels raw) and Rocky Ford cantaloupes (you'll get sticky elbows from juice if you eat a slice by hand), but since there weren't any corn or cantaloupe pie recipes in Southern Living, I'm talking about Palisade peaches today. ]]>
<![CDATA[What's Left Unsaid]]>Mon, 14 Aug 2017 06:00:00 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/whats-left-unsaid“He wanted to think of words that would make some difference but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing.” --Kent Haruf ​

This is the hopelessness we so often feel when faced with griefs too great, catastrophes too horrible, events too shocking. 

In broader events, particularly those that stem from injustice or cultural evil, we must find a way to speak. Most often, we "speak" by shouting across the void to those we despise--those we fault for whatever it is that's causing the disturbance. I submit that it would be more useful to speak calmly and clearly to those who stand nearer to us, if not right beside us. Those with whom we find commonality, but whose messages and methods have descended into madness. Police our own neighborhoods, so to speak. Then perhaps the more moderate voices, those who seek peace, would drown out the hate-driven shouting.

Seem to me that it's worth a shot.

But there are times that we truly ought to remain silent. Because, as Kent Haruf states above, oftentimes words are insufficient. When your friend has suffered a grief too deep for verbal comfort (the suicide of a child; the abandonment of a spouse; the loss of a home to wildfire), your silence itself is a balm. 

The trouble comes when we, afraid of the awkwardness we feel in silence, start speaking merely to fill the void. That's when we say things like, "It'll be all right," or "At least [fill in the blank]..." (Seriously, when comforting a friend over any sort of loss, it's best not to start any sentence with "At least...." No matter where the sentence goes from there, it'll minimizing the pain your friend is feeling. Think about it.)

Still worse, we avoid the awkward silence by avoiding the friend. They don't need a reminder, we reason. But honestly: their whole life is a reminder.

The silent presence of a true friend tells the person in grief that you are sitting in their grief with them. Your silence says, "I'm here, however awkward or uncomfortable it gets." With your silent companionship, the burden isn't gone, but it's shared, so it's eased. And that is the first tiny step toward actual healing.

<![CDATA[Why It Matters]]>Mon, 07 Aug 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/why-it-mattersI've shamelessly stolen the title of this post from one of my favorite songs, from one of my favorite artists. 

Sara Groves"Why It Matters" is required listening on the days that I feel certain I am wasting my time attempting to write stories. Surely I could be doing something more valuable, more world-changing. Surely my husband would prefer that I make an actual steady income rather than essentially gambling with my hours and days, hoping that some day, someone will pay me for putting letters and word in a specific order. 

If I were a painter, I would need the same reassurance. Or a musician. Or an actor (I do act, but I'm not trying to make a living in that profession).

The typical artist's life is inherently uncertain, which adds to the self-doubt that plagues most creatives.

And so, I listen to Sara: 

Sit with me and tell me once again
Of the story that's been told us
Of the power that will hold us
Of the beauty, all the beauty
Why it matters

Speak to me until I understand
Why our thinking and creating
Why our efforts of narrating
About the beauty, all the beauty
Why it matters

Like the statue in the park
Of this war-torn town
And its protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it matters

Show me the love that never fails
The compassion and attention
Midst confusion and dissention
Like small ramparts for the soul
How it matters

​Like a single cup of water
How it matters

The best part of listening to this song is the kinship I feel with one of my favorite artists. She wrote it to herself as much as to other artists. And within its very theme is its own answer: this song matters. 

It calls the listening artist to continue to create; it calls the listening art-consumer to look and listen closer to what they consume. 

Art matters because it speaks to places in the heart that the head can't reach.

Art matters because it conveys deep truth in deep ways.

Art matters because it sinks into us, changes us, affirms and disrupts our beliefs and our closely held prejudices.

Art asks questions. Stares us in the face. Requires response, even if only internal.

Thank you for reading...
<![CDATA[Plans vs. Purpose]]>Mon, 31 Jul 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/plans-vs-purpose

I'm one of those: the list-makers.

And all my lists have to be on paper. My mom keeps me supplied with freebie note pads (realtors, charities, banks, hotel chains), and I make heavy use of them. I write out grocery lists, of course, but the thing I kill most trees for is the Almighty Sacred to-do list.

My favorite part of writing out a to-do list is creating the little box or line (or sometimes I feel like circles) that sits there expectantly, hopefully, waiting for me to come back and mark that this particular "to-do" is now "done."

I'm so addicted to checking things off of my to-do lists, sometimes I'll list routine items like "take a shower."

​Though...that might be a bad example. I work for myself, from my house, and I'm an empty nester. A shower is not always a given.

Ok, better example: sometimes I'll write down "eat breakfast" (that is a given -- I love my food). Yet somehow, even though I know it's ridiculous to give myself credit for something I absolutely would never neglect to do, I still get a little thrill of accomplishment when I mark the box. 

This addiction stems from another addiction -- an addiction to planning. I have to have a plan, for almost everything. The dichotomy is, I am extremely impulsive. So I usually throw my plans out the window pretty early on (and then make a new plan to justify it...with a matching list).

Thanks to this impulsiveness, I cannot remember the last time I actually checked off all my cute little boxes, or lines, or circles, on a to-do list. Sometimes I decide it's due to putting too many things on the list in the first place. Not the ridiculous "given" items. Real things like "grocery shopping" or "revise chapter three" or "laundry." When I stare at all the little unchecked boxes at the end of a day, or a week (yes, I make weekly lists on top of the daily ones. Oh, and monthly ones, and sometimes a 30-day challenge... Why are you making that face?).

The blank boxes mock me. They go back and forth between telling me I'm unrealistic (I set too many goals) and I'm lazy (I didn't use my time well). 

And I don't actually know which of those is true...if either. 

Sometimes I get a sneaking suspicion that I'm looking at life wrong. Or at least emphasizing the wrong agendas. 

I spend so much time making (and discarding and revising) plans and lists, they've become my measuring stick. This habit has become more pronounced since my children have moved on and out of my home. I can't measure my worth by their health or good grades or happiness anymore (I never should have based my worth on those things to begin with -- those things came from their own efforts and character traits and the grace of God).

As I sit here in my house and call myself a writer, with only years-old publishing credits and one fantastically faithful agent to prove it...what do all these lists mean, anyway? If I check off "revise chapter 3" does that make me a real writer? What if my revisions made it worse, so I'm no closer to finishing this manuscript, let alone publishing the last one?

Does the little blank box beside "grocery shopping" make me less of a wife? It makes the pizza guy happy, since I'll have to order delivery again. My husband doesn't seem to mind, and he certainly doesn't love me less. 

The number of things I check off my list doesn't actually define me -- whether it's in regard to my "status" as Wife or Writer or Decent Human Being (did I make that meal for my sick friend?). List-making and planning are fine, but not if they become chains around my neck. 

The thing that really defines me and creates my identity is purpose. (You knew that was coming -- I should've written "spoiler alert" right there in the title of this post.)

Why is "grocery shopping" on the list? Because I want to, at least most of the time, create nourishing meals for myself and my man. I like him. He likes hot meals and the way that I cook them. Meals require food, and in my non-rural life, all the food comes from the store. 

Why is "revise chapter three" on the list (besides the fact that it currently sucks and needs fixing)? Because I was made to write (I almost qualified that with "I think" but lookie! I revised it!). I have always known that, even on the days I think I might be crazy to believe it. And so there is a purpose behind that list item. It's not just something to check off. It's one glimpse of a larger vision. 

If purpose is not at the root of the plan, and the list doesn't support that plan AND that purpose, then it's useless and frivolous and will only serve to foster self-doubt and depression. 

So here's what I'm thinking: 
I plan to keep my purposes in mind when I'm making my lists (see what I did there?).

My purpose: to be a writer (this requires...um...writing).
My purpose: to be a steward of what I've been given (my material gifts, my talents, my relationships).

With that broader view, my hope is that my list items will have more meaning; and as long as I'm living according to my purpose, then the little unchecked boxes won't mock me.

What's your purpose? How is it reflected in your plans?

(Whee! Now I get to check off "write blog post!"
No, I'm not kidding.)

<![CDATA[Dreams Don't Work...]]>Fri, 02 Jun 2017 17:35:49 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/dreams-dont-workThis writing gig is a tricky one.

I don't have a boss to give me deadlines and threaten me with unemployment. I have an agent who believes in my writing enough to spend time trying to find me the perfect publisher. I have a family who cheers me on. I have friends and writing students and peers who want to see me succeed.

But ultimately, I am the one that sets my hours. I determine my work ethic. I either write or I don't; watch Netflix or read writing books; take a nap or do some research.

That's not easy when, on some days, I'm convinced that I'm wasting my time by pursuing a writing career, and I should just go out and get a "real" job. What's the difference, after all, between writing and watching tv, when the writing is only a dream?

Somewhere along the way, I got it in my silly head that writing does not count as work. And so, in order to get some words on the page (or the screen), whether fiction or nonfiction, I have to first have a relatively clean home, a load of laundry in the washer, a groomed dog, a fed cat, a plan for feeding the humans that live in my home come suppertime. It's only when all of those things are lined up that I feel freed up (read: not guilty) to sit down and write.

Fortunately, I have recently realized how dramatically that way of thinking has slowed my progress as a writer. Take this blog page, for example. The last time I wrote here was two full years ago. I have been working on my current manuscript, but not as much as I should be. If I'd been working even a few hours more per week, I'd have finished this manuscript months ago, and I'd currently be working on my next idea (a retelling of the Old Testament book of Hosea).

What I've come to learn (and yet I have to continually remind myself--in stern terms) is that I've handicapped my writing career by treating it like a dream and a pastime, when it really is, in actual fact, my work: my job. A bimonthly paycheck doesn't prove it; my dedication to the pursuit proves it. The truth is, "Dreams don't work unless you do" (John C. Maxwell).

Here's what I hope you'll glean from this meandering, introspective blog post: Whatever your dream is, start treating it like your job. Even if you have to do other work for awhile so that you can afford to feed and clothe and shelter yourself.

If you have a goal you'd like to be held accountable for, post it in the comments. I'm here to cheer you on. 

<![CDATA[In Defense of Creepy Stories:                     We Have Always Lived in the Castle]]>Sat, 20 Jun 2015 22:50:25 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/in-defense-of-creepy-storiesI don't think of myself as a morbid person. I have certainly never been described that way by others. At least not to my face. Hmm... 

I have been described as spunky, bubbly, hyper, talkative, silly, dorky, scattered, and sensitive (you may have surmised that not all of these descriptions were meant to be compliments). 

If you were to survey a list of my favorite authors and books and stories, though, you may get a different impression of me. I adore authors like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Kent Haruf. And I have recently expanded my appreciation for Shirley Jackson, of "The Lottery" fame. (You probably read it in high school and were justifiably horrified. Yeah, I love that story.)

A week or so ago, I finished reading the aforementioned Jackson's slim and deliciously disturbing novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (Even the title has an eerie cadence and implied neurosis, don't you think? Go ahead and draw that conclusion, because you're right on target.)

As the novel progressed and the creepiness increased, and as Jackson revealed more of the darkness in a particular character's psyche, I became thoroughly captivated. 

Now, I am not a fan of any kind of horror or gore, especially not on the big screen. I don't like violence, rage, blood. It's the psychological tension that gets me. 

On occasion, it occurs to me to worry a little, and to wonder what it is that fascinates me about this kind of story and this kind of character. Is there something disturbing about me?

The answer: yep. I'm disturbing. Disturbing and creepy. In fact, we are all a little creepy. It's called human nature. We think thoughts that we ought not to think. We have urges that we are (hopefully) well-adjusted and disciplined enough to subvert. 

So, when I read a story that reveals those normally hushed-up aspects of the garden-variety human, and perhaps even reveals what would occur if the urges and thoughts were set free, it rings true. It confirms what I know, deep down, to be true about people, about myself, and about the world. 

There is no falseness in Emily, from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." You may not fully understand her (I rather hope you don't...), but you know she's not fake. There is no facade to the Misfit in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."* His behavior perfectly (horrifyingly) matches his heart.

Characters like these hold up a mirror (and a high-beam flashlight) to the dark, spiderwebbed corners of our own hearts. They remind us of the struggle and ache that comes with being human. 

What really thrills me about these characters and stories is the sheer genius of the writer. It takes discernment to see through the human condition to that degree; it takes guts to put it out there, risking that the reader won't relate; it takes skill to put it all plainly and beautifully into a story that touches readers' hearts. They implicitly ask the deeper question: "Now what?" It's the question life is asking us all the time.

These stories, when it comes down to it, are honest, brave, and real. That's the kind of person (and writer) I want to be. 

*If you're not one to click on hot links in blog posts, make an exception for this one. It's a rare audio recording of Flannery O'Connor, reading the story herself. You're welcome.]]>
<![CDATA[Of Siren Songs and Stories]]>Thu, 04 Sep 2014 21:04:13 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/of-siren-songs-and-storiesWhen I was in high school, the first and only thing that tempted my dreaming heart away from writing was the stage. I played Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick Rides Again, and I was flat-out hooked. 

Alas, acting was not the kind of profession my (wise) parents were going to help me pursue, and I didn’t love it enough to suddenly become rebellious and strike out on my own. As a result, my opportunities on stage since high school have been relatively infrequent. And anyway, the siren song of the yellow legal pad and pen – later replaced by the laptop – was much stronger than the stage’s could ever be.

When I got involved with the school where I teach, and, more specifically, when my daughters got interested in the stage themselves, I started to have more opportunities on and behind the stage. I’ve volunteered as the assistant director, jumped into roles when students had to bow out, and even been cast alongside students when the role fit.

It’s been great fun, and not overly taxing, and I was able to keep writing all along the way.

Recently, though, I’ve been a little stumped. My first book is finished. (Okay, okay, it’s my second book, but it’s the first I’m really proud of.) I waited awhile to even start expanding on the idea for my next book, because I expect that if my agent finds a buyer, I’ll need to make revisions on the “finished” one.

But creative muscles atrophy, just like physical ones. A few weeks ago, when I tried to actually write out some of my ideas, which right now consist primarily of the main character and her problem, it was pitiful. I had very little problem, and without problem, there’s no story.

What to do?!

And then I saw that auditions were being held at my favorite local theatre, for a daunting, juicy project in which the same cast puts on two plays in the same weekend, for three weekends in a row.

Normally, I’m a chicken. A balker. But I have learned over the years that my acting muscle and my writing muscle are very closely related (like ab muscles and back muscles). This was too good to pass up, for the juiciness as well as the potential boost to my writing.

So I auditioned, and I was turned down.

No, I’m just kidding. That would be a really lame blog post.

I got the part of the weak-willed but manipulative queen; the mother whose choices destroy her son even though she desperately loves him; the woman of questionable morals who craves power, but also wants love.***

Let me tell you: exploring the depths of this character, and following her through her journey as she learns, and regrets, and changes (not soon enough), and sacrifices everything – all this has awakened the sirens that are singing my story.

***Yeah, that’s all one chick. If you can guess the character & play, post in the comments.

<![CDATA[Of First Days and Changes]]>Wed, 03 Sep 2014 18:00:24 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/of-first-days-and-changesThe first day of school swept up on me this year, and I’ve felt largely unprepared. Any first day comes with some anxiety, since each class is so vastly different. I could be teaching the same material year after year (same books, same short stories, same assignments), but it’s never, ever going to be the same class.

I’ve found over the years that every group of people is as distinct in personality as every individual. And so, I feel as if I’m conditioned to change. But we all have our limits.

This year was different. We spent the summer moving from one house to the other (an impulsive move, honestly – there were fewer than sixty days between our initial decision to “look” to the day we moved).

Also, this year I’m teaching a class I’ve never taught, to an age group I’ve never taught. I’ve taught English and writing classes to 7th graders through 10th graders, and I’ve taught American Lit to 11th graders. This year, I’m teaching World Lit to 12th graders. 

Our school has grown exponentially, too. We had been growing steadily at about 10% per year since we were founded in 2006. But this fall, we are opening with roughly 50% more students than we closed with in the spring. That’s more than enough for a huge cultural shift.

And so, I’ve been scared.

This is one of the hokiest metaphors I’ve ever come up with, but here you go: it seems that I regard change in life like it’s the same as change from a dollar. You buy something that costs 75 cents. You hand over a dollar, and you get 25 cents in change. That’s the way change works: you get less than what you started with. You lose something in the exchange. (I told you this was hokey, and I know you gain whatever you bought, but bear with me.)

The reason change is hard is that so much of it is about letting go…losing…saying goodbye.

I had mixed feelings about moving this summer. I adore our previous house. The community, for one thing, was the perfect mix of quirky small town and…well, it wasn’t a mix, I guess. It was, truly, the perfect quirky small town. I love the house itself as well, since we had really made it our own, adding a sunroom and changing the layout of the family room and kitchen. It really was my home – the kind of place where I could physically feel my shoulders release and my breathing slow as I’d round the corner and catch sight of it through my windshield.

I have mixed feelings about all those new students at our school. I want more kids to come to the school. I love kids, and I know they’ll love our school. There is this fear, though, that we will lose something culturally by the increase. How will our school still be our school? Will we be able to maintain the family atmosphere with this big of a family?

I’m thrilled to teach a new class with a new set of students, but I fear the answers to those questions that roll around in the back of my mind when I’m writing lesson plans and reviewing the materials I’ll be teaching: will I have enough command of the material for this class to be of value to the students? Will I be able to keep the attention and interest of these kids, who are itching to move on to the next phase of their lives? Did I sacrifice too much by trading in my ninth graders and the books and materials I’m comfortable teaching (the books I’ve read five or six times over)?

It feels like I’m destined to have less than I started with. Less home, less community, less confidence, less…less…less.

And that’s true. Anatole France said,  “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

But it’s also true that change is necessary, and change ushers in new life, which we would have sacrificed (without knowing it) if we’d stayed still.

So I’ll go ahead and grieve the change, but I won’t grieve for long. I need to lift my head and watch. Watch for the newness and the gain. 

<![CDATA[A Reflection of You]]>Mon, 23 Jun 2014 20:52:19 GMThttp://mandybrownhouk.com/blog-diggity/a-reflection-of-youWhen I was growing up, I did all the typical suburban-kid things when I wasn't at church or school: dance lessons, swim team, piano lessons. 

The dance lessons were a pitiful failure, primarily because of the wall-sized mirror opposite the barre. I was horrified to see my belly bulge in the leotard, and embarrassed of my home-cut, choppy short hair. Meanwhile, all my classmates were stick-thin and graceful with long, ponytailed ringlets. Or that's how I remember them, though I'm sure I wasn't the only awkward, slightly rounded dancer in the class. Anyway, my self-consciousness made it awfully hard to focus on turnout and grace and point and posture. I remember keenly how heavy my landings felt  when I took my series of leaps diagonally across the floor.

The swim team was a bit better, though my belly bulged in my swimsuit, too. All my ribbons were red or yellow, never first-place blue. Also, during practice, there were huge black horseflies that buzzed menacingly around our wet bodies as we waited for our turn to dive in. I was sure my fat, juicy legs were the prime target for a bite. Much worse was the memorable swim meet in which I swam the backstroke in huge, slow circles, somehow not noticing that I'd passed over the lane dividers multiple times. Someone finally had to jump in and stop me, since my ears were below water level and I couldn't hear the crowd shouting for me to stop.

At least I have a pre-packaged "most embarrassing moment," right?

Piano lessons, though, were fun. I loved the music flowing out of my fingers, especially when there were lyrics to sing in my head (or out loud if I was home alone). My piano teachers were kind and patient, and I enjoyed the one-on-one attention and conversation. There were no mirrors, and no competitors. Just music and me.

Then came the day I was asked to play the piano during the offering for a service at our church. I was no prodigy, and I was aware of that, but the idea was exciting - and nerve-wracking. I practiced more than usual, which wasn't all that much (I was a typical suburban kid, remember?). I did get to the point where I wasn't making errors even when playing the chosen piece several times through. So, as the fateful Sunday approached, I felt more and more eager and honored.

That morning in the pew, I was shaking with emotions and nerves and the glory of it all. When we were singing the final hymn before my cue, my sweet daddy leaned over and unwittingly derailed me: "Remember: your performance reflects on the family." Then he patted me on the back and gave me a "go forth and conquer" nod.

Oh, man. I knew everyone would be looking at me as I played, and I wasn't thrilled about that particular detail. But it had never occurred to me that my performance had any effect on my dad, my mom, my sister. Suddenly the room felt huge, and the ceiling far-off, and my family's pew was the center of the universe. 

I wobbled unsteadily up to the big piano and sat down. I don't remember much more, except for the uncountable errors  I made, and the long hesitations between notes, and the difficulty in keeping my fingers steady on the keys. I could hardly focus my eyes on the sheet music, since my dad's large frame was in my peripheral vision. I was watching for him to slump in the pew, or run out of the sanctuary altogether.

The song (or what I did to it) ended, and since our church was traditional, the absence of applause was customary rather than an indictment. I didn't look at my dad's face as I returned to the pew. I didn't look at anything other than the floor. 

I know my dad didn't mean to paralyze or handicap me. I know he was trying to encourage and inspire, not terrify. But I learned a lot from that day. I learned the danger of piling parental expectations on top of kids' already high expectations of themselves. The fear of embarrassing oneself is a heavy load. There's no reason to add the burden of preventing the embarrassment of a loved one. 

There are times when a child needs motivation, and sometimes kids need to be pushed a little. The trouble arises when parents makes it seem as if a child's performance (or lack thereof) will reflect well (or poorly) on them. 

Let's be honest: our culture is wired that way -- hence the "honor student" bumper stickers on parents' cars. Christmas letters are packed with news of kids' GPAs and society memberships and tournament wins and starring roles. 

It's a tricky balancing act, this parenting gig. You want your children to celebrate their talents and their victories. You want them to know you're proud of them. But the talents and victories are theirs, not yours. The embarrassment and agony of defeat is theirs as well, and if you can avoid feeling embarrassed yourself, then you can be the one to encourage them through those feelings. 

I'm still not comfortable in a leotard (or a swimsuit), and I haven't played piano in front of people in many years. This addiction to approval and acceptance is a hard thing to kick. I am glad, though, that I can absorb my own failures and missteps, and not worry about dragging anyone down along with me. 

My slightly wrinkled, overweight reflection in the less-than-wall-sized mirror is mine and mine alone. ]]>