If you ever want to feel like a terrible person, try yelling at a developmentally disabled child in public.
After I left my first school on that early-morning flight, I took a job for the summer as a nanny for a family with two teenagers. I got the job solely on the basis of my employment at the prestigious prep school that had just fired me – as soon as the children’s mother saw that my email address came from this school, she hired me on the spot without even checking my references. If only she knew, I thought. Immediately upon my arrival, the children’s mother and her fourteen year-old daughter took off for a spa in the Napa Valley, and I stayed at their home with their sixteen year-old son Greg, who had a chromosomal disorder that kept him developmentally at the age of four. The children’s mother had recently expelled their father from the house after he was arrested for his second DUI in recent months; he lived in a rented house in a nearby neighborhood. He had been badly scraped up in his most recent accident. If you see a man who looks like a hundred and eighty pounds of raw hamburger, she said as she and her daughter headed off in her Jaguar convertible, don’t let him in.
I must have looked normal on the outside, but if anything looked like raw hamburger, it was my ego. Greg was echolalic and lived his life through an ever-evolving series of obsessions. One of his obsessions was the movie Richie Rich, which his mother had banned from the house because it stirred him into such a frenzy when he watched it. His favorite phrase from the movie was “YOU’RE FIRED!” – and simply banning the movie from the house couldn’t stop him from making this pronouncement whenever he was mildly miffed with me, which was often. At other times in my life I might have thought the situation was funny, but I had left my sense of humor – about myself, anyway – behind in a storage locker in Connecticut.
Every morning Greg woke before five and watched two episodes of the evangelical self-help guru Joyce Meyer’s TV talk show. Then all day long he muttered – or shouted – phrases he had heard Joyce Meyer say – or his own variations of them. “Your joy will be GONE!” was a favorite. He also liked to mutter the titles of her books: Beauty for Ashes, Battlefield of the Mind, Prepare to Prosper, over and over like a litany. Before his mother left, she told him that as a special treat I could take him to the bookstore to buy one of Joyce Meyer’s books – a task that she herself had been resolutely avoiding. On the first day of her spa trip, Greg and I charged into Barnes and Noble as he screamed, “My mom is going to kill me if I don’t have a picture of Joyce Meyer’s head by sundown!” We attracted attention. Once we found Meyer’s books in the devotional aisle, Greg pulled several of them off the shelf and began chewing on them. He was taller than I was and screamed if I touched him; the wrestling match that ensued attracted even more attention. Finally he selected a hardback copy of Meyer’s newest book, Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Happiness. Back at home, I offered to read it to him, but all he wanted to do with it was chew on it. He carried this book, emblazoned with Meyer’s increasingly tooth-marked face, with him everywhere we went that summer.
I quickly developed my own series of obsessions. Still sickened by my two years working for my ninety-pound boss, feeling like a tongue-tied Pillsbury Dough Girl every time I sat in her office, I fixated my energies on the physical. I was determined that I would never again feel physically inferior to another human being. Early in the summer, before I began my job, I joined a master’s swim team and promptly pulled a muscle in my neck so badly that I ended up in tears on an ER bed, unable to hold my head up without searing pain. Once that injury subsided, I attended Bikram yoga classes as often as my schedule allowed and drank at least two gallons of water a day. In the house where I was working, I slept in a basement bedroom that was adjacent to a large TV room that contained a treadmill. Running had always been a weakness of mine: I had hated it as a kid and, as a result, never developed the lungs and endurance for it. But there the treadmill was, and when my employer was out of town – which was often – I couldn’t get out of the house often. So I set out to become a runner.
Here’s what I did: I bought a copy of the movie Miracle, about the 1980 Men’s Olympic hockey team, which had recently been released on DVD. I had never seen it before, although of course I knew the story of the team’s unlikely success. Every day when it was time to run, I put Miracle in the DVD player and walked as a warm-up while the long opening montage of news stories from the Cold War played on the screen. Then when the montage ended and the scene shifted to the conference room in Colorado where Herb Brooks is interviewing for his coaching position and explaining why All-Star teams can never be great because they rely too much on the independent talents (and egos) of the all-stars, I cranked up the speed of the treadmill and began to run.
OK, correction. I began to jog. Slowly. I am not overstating my life-long resistance to running. In middle school my life was a series of ever-shifting excuses and doctor’s notes and self-inflicted injuries designed to steer me away from all activities that involved running. By the time I got to high school, my reputation had preceded me and my enrollment paperwork said that I had been exempted from P.E. I never found out exactly how this happened: my parents claimed they didn’t request it; my schools were private, so there was no direct transfer of records from one school to the next – plus my transcripts would have indicated that I did take P.E. in middle school; and I, to be honest, had resigned myself to my high school’s P.E. requirement and was surprised – though not displeased – to be excused. I ended up joining the school’s crew team my sophomore year, a sport that required significantly more exertion than an average P.E. class – but even on the crew team when we were told to run I usually managed to hide in the bushes. My runs on the treadmill in Greg’s family’s basement were usually at a speed of four miles per hour. For most people, this is a brisk walk, but my legs are short and I was overcoming serious mental and physical blocks just to step on the treadmill every morning. For me, four miles per hour was a RUN.
Greg liked to watch the neighbors and was on the alert for their patterns and habits, and – even more so – he liked to watch me. He developed a habit of tiptoeing downstairs after his daily Joyce Meyer viewing and waiting outside my bedroom door. When my alarm clock went off, he immediately said, “Good morning, Bethany. Are you going to run? Are you going to watch Miracle?” Every day I spent with Greg was composed of a long series of personal questions. If I told him no, I wasn’t going to run until later, after I had digested my breakfast, he would ask the same question ten minutes later. Greg was fixated on a man who apparently jogged through the neighborhood and past their house twice a day – once in the morning and once at night. Greg called him simply “the Runner” and waited by the window each day to see him go by. “Are you going to get married?” Greg asked me often. Apparently his last nanny had recently gotten married. “Do you want to marry the runner?”
This story grew legs. “Is it true that you’re going to marry the Runner?” Greg’s mother asked me one evening, after I had been working for the family for about a month. When I insisted that I was not going to marry the Runner, Greg tried another strategy: convincing the Runner to marry me. “Do you want to marry my nanny?” he would call from his window. “She has her running shorts on! She can marry you right now!” The first time I heard him calling out these entreaties, I ran to his room to stop him, only to find that the window was closed and relaxed. Over time, though, he did eventually start opening the window to proposition the Runner on my behalf.
Each day, I started my four-mile-per-hour slog during Brooks’ meeting with the Olympic Hockey committee, and I continued for as long as I could. At first I only jogged half or three quarters of a mile, then a mile, then a mile and a quarter. I saw the beginning of the movie so many times that I memorized it. Each day I was motivated to run farther so I could watch the next scene. At one point – when the team has been chosen and their training has begun in earnest – I remember jumping from a mile and three quarters one day to three miles the next, not because I wanted to be running but because I didn’t want to turn the movie off and (worse) go upstairs and explain why I wasn’t going to marry the Runner.
One of the central conflicts in Miracle is the fact that many of the young men on the hockey team are from either Boston University or the University of Minnesota – rival teams that still nursed a grudge over a particularly close national championship game in 1976. After two players get in a fight on the ice, Herb Brooks has the players introduce themselves with their names and hometowns. “Who do you play for?” Brooks asks each player, and each player without hesitation names the school where he played college hockey. As the training proceeds, this becomes a ritual during practice, with players continuing to express their allegiance to their college teams. Several months later, at an exhibition game in Norway, Brooks keeps the players after the game to run conditioning drills to punish them for a lack of effort during the game. Presumably a long time passes in this scene; the rink manager leaves, the lights are turned off, the assistant coach and team doctor urge Brooks to end the drills. The players hack and vomit and stand doubled over on the goal line between sprints. Finally one player calls out his name and hometown.
There is a pause. “Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.
“I play for – ” the player gasps, “ – the United States of America.”
“That’s all, boys,” Brooks says, and ends the drill.
I credit this scene for the fact that I ended up getting into pretty good shape that summer. It took me about three miles (three slow, plodding miles) to reach this point in the movie. When I reached it, I was usually tired and ready to stop, but the scene usually pumped me up to stay on the treadmill for another mile or so. Now, I’ve always been a sucker for a certain kind of hokeyness, and this scene does qualify as hokey. But it wasn’t the patriotism (“The name on the front of that jersey is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back!” Brooks shouts) that moved me to push the limits of my endurance; it was the question “Who do you play for?” The hockey players in the movie needed to learn to stop answering that question with the name of their university: their college hockey careers were over. I needed to learn a different lesson: I needed to learn that I was playing for myself.
This scene always reminds me of a story that circulated around the creative writing department during my grad school days at the University of Arkansas. It may be apocryphal, but I doubt it. Jim Whitehead and Skip Hays were both fiction professors. Both were men of seemingly infinite wisdom and grace, but as teachers they were opposites. Skip’s approach was structural: his mind broke each story his students wrote down into little pieces and taught us to reassemble them like jigsaw puzzles. The effect was tremendously reassuring: he made the process of writing a story feel like performing surgery or rebuilding an engine: complicated and sensitive, yes, but entirely possible with the right training. Jim’s approach was expansive, demanding, and spiritual. He preferred to critique student work not in his office but on the back patio of his home over cigarettes and whiskey. When I was summoned to his house, I ate a big meal first and cleared my schedule – conferences could last two hours, four, six, or all night. Jim saw worlds of meaning in every sentence and liked to say things like “This story isn’t really about a family going to the beach. This story is about THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE! Now go home and FIX IT!” The effect of a critique from Jim was inspiring, terrifying, and addictive. Working with both Skip and Jim was like having Hemingway and Faulkner playing tug of war with your cerebral cortex.
Anyway, this story took place before I was enrolled in the MFA program. I heard it from any number of sources during my four years at Arkansas. A student was working on his MFA thesis. Jim was a member of his committee, and Skip was the director. Every couple of weeks, the student sat down with each professor for a conference. Every time, Skip told him to cut, pare, and prune his stories down to their essences, which for Skip usually had to do with subtleties of character. Then he would take the same stories to Jim, who would tell him that they were ABOUT THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE or some such thing – in other words, he wanted them expansive, encyclopedic, Faulknerian. The past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past. Both Skip and Jim were brilliant and seductive teachers; I can’t imagine a student writer so self-assured or so hardened that he could resist the pull to please them, even to become them. Eventually this student became paralyzed by their conflicting demands and couldn’t write at all.
The student confessed his struggles to Skip, who was directing his thesis, and Skip crossed the hall to Jim’s office to ask him to back down a little. (Asking Jim Whitehead to back down a little is a bit like suggesting to Zeus that it might be a good idea if he and Hera got some marriage counseling. Skip is nothing if not courageous.) He explained the struggles the student was having, and then he said, “I’m his thesis director, so in a sense he’s writing for me. I think it would help him if he could focus on my critiques. Otherwise, he might not be able to finish his thesis by the deadline.”
Jim’s office chair was held together by a series of extremely loose springs; when he leaned his ex-linebacker’s body back in it, he always seemed poised to topple over. He leaned back in this fashion and raked his face with his huge hands. “These kids,” he said. “These damn kids. Writing for YOU? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Don’t these kids know that they’re writing for God?”
Wait, I always said to myself when I heard or thought of this story. You mean that pleasing other people is not the point? This idea was energizing but more than a little scary. Keep in mind that at this point I had not yet met my anorexic department chair, and pleasing teachers was something I was VERY good at. I wasn’t sure about God. What kind of teacher was he? Was he more like Hemingway or more like Faulkner?
I am convinced that most of the process that we call growing up is about developing our sense of humility. But humility is a complicated idea. Humility is not just a synonym for modesty, for downplaying our own accomplishments and deflecting credit onto others, although this kind of self-effacement is certainly something that a humble person might do. Humility is about learning to live with a very complicated contradiction. On the one hand, we are just like everyone else. We deserve no special exceptions, and all rules that apply to others apply to us. The fact that I had always pleased teachers for the first 26 years of my life and had earned my very own Ph.D in rule-following was no promise that I would continue to do so. The world did not owe me any pats on the head. On the other hand, Mr. Rogers was not wrong. We are also unique. The world may not owe us any special treatment, but we do not owe any particular fealty to the world either; we are welcome to give it and its figures of earthly authority the middle finger any time we choose. There may be consequences for these kinds of acts of arrogance or rebellion – as there were for Icarus, for Achilles, for Napoleon, for Adam and Eve – but we always have the freedom to flaunt the idiotic hubris that is our birthright as flawed humans. I believe that a meaningful human life must wrestle with this contradiction and spend hours, years, and long sleepless nights weighing both options. We are 100% unique. We are 100% like everyone else. Every time we make a choice, we have to decide where on this spectrum we want to place ourselves at that moment – we are always answering the question “Who do you play for?” in big and little ways as we move through our lives. Writing for God – or acting for God in any way – means placing ourselves confidently at some place on the spectrum and then defending our right to be there to anyone who challenges us.
The summer I spent with Greg was – well, embarrassing. Everywhere we went we attracted attention, and I felt as if everyone who saw me struggling to move him through the grocery store, through the public library, through movie theater lobbies, and through a vegetable-themed amusement park called Bonfante Gardens without inciting a temper tantrum (from him OR from me) could take one look at me and know that I had spent eight years in college and had failed at my first job and was therefore consigned to steer an irrational being through the world as he chewed on his copy of Seven Things That Steal Your Joy. Humility, yes. But it was also the summer that I slowly – painfully slowly – made it through Miracle to the ending I knew was coming but wanted to see play out anyway: that moment when the U.S. team beats the Russians and Brooks looks over at the Russian coach with a sheepish smile and a little shrug that says, “I’m sorry we got the better of you. I don’t really understand how it happened either.”