Last night, Jake and I went to see a drum corps show. For those not familiar with drum corps, it’s basically a marching band but without woodwind instruments that compete at a super high level of difficulty.
Since we’ve started dating, Jake has taken me to a number of these competitions and at the end of the night, we always have, essentially, the same conversation.
Him: Well, what did you think?
Me: It was good…
Him: What did you really think?
Me: I just— How do you know who’s the best?
Him: It’s not about who’s the best, it’s about making the best product, together.
Me: Right. (2 minutes later) But how do you know who’s the best?
Him: **Frustration noise.**
Last night, as usual, we had that same conversation, but this time, Jake asked me WHY it’s so hard for me to understand the idea of working together for the common good as opposed to “being the best”. He equated it to doing a show– “well, when you do a show, you’re working together to make the best show possible– it’s not about being the best, right?”
“Catie, you don’t actually think like that, do you?”
I shrugged again.
“It’s like running a marathon or whatever. You know you have absolutely no chance in hell of winning, so why bother? I just don’t get it”.
Then Jake said “It’s not always about being the best, Catie. You don’t ALWAYS have to be the best”.
Have you ever had one of those realizations that are so startlingly obvious in their simplicity that you feel like an idiot for never realizing it before? I had one of those moments.
Explaining my childhood is complicated, if not impossible, for anyone who didn’t live it. I was raised in a world of contradictions with one through constant– you are expected, at all times, to be the best.
That was it. “Be the best”.
Since “be the best” must have felt too stringent to directly say out loud, (even for my parents), this message of expected success was always delivered through a complicated series of “we love you no matter what’s” and “it’s just important that you try your best”s and “You can be whatever you want to be”, but the expectation that I “be the best” is what was enforced.
I’m terrible at math, and struggled with the advanced classes I was put in. I remember, at the end of the quarter, being thrilled at the “C” I received– I spent ten times longer on my math homework then I did on any other subject, combined– and I was, per my parents’ instructions, “trying my best”. When I brought the report card home (and I’m sure you know what’s coming), I was punished for that “C”. I told them that I HAD been “trying my best”, but then, when MY best wasn’t THE best, I was asked “Why couldn’t you work a little harder for an A?”
The expectation was always there. I played softball, and the single year I wasn’t drafted to the state “all-star” team, I got in trouble. I played for 9 years. I tried out for the school play, and I didn’t get the biggest part– I must not have tried hard enough. I graduated with a 3.8. Should have been a 4.0. I got a perfect score on 4 out of 5 sections of the ACT– how could I have missed 2 points on the math section? I must have been careless.
Last night, my realization wasn’t nessessarily earth shattering, but I realized, quite honestly for the the first time, how much of that ingrained notion of “I must be the best” shapes what I do as an adult, and I’ll be honest, it’s a little bit sad. Grown up Catie knows that her friends will love her no matter what, but little-kid Catie is still terrified that if she brings home the wrong grade, they’ll reject her because she wasn’t the best.
I realized that I don’t know what it feels like to just do something for the sake of doing it.
On Wednesday night, we got together with a couple of friends and I offered to make pancakes.The conversation went like this:
Me: Okay, so pancakes? What kind? I can do cinnamon, chocolate chip, plain…
Friend 1: Um, cinnamon I guess.
He got a plate of cinnamon pancakes with caramelized sugar and creme brulee sauce.
Friend 2: Chocolate chip!
Me: I have milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate…
Fried 2: Um, plain chocolate is fine.
He got a plate of milk chocolate pancakes dusted with cocoa powder with a chocolate caramel ganache sauce.
After I made them, I asked them what they thought. Friend 1 said “These are really good”. Friend 2 made a very excited face with matching noises.
I was devastated.
My pancakes weren’t the best pancakes they’d ever had.
I had the conscious thought about 2 milliseconds later of “Okay, Catie, you need to stop being so goddamn ridiculous”, but I was still upset.
It’s in nearly everything I do. And it’s goddamn exhausting.
I won’t just stage manage your show, I’ll literally set a new standard for any stage managers to come after me.
I won’t paint because I think the color yellow looks nice, I’ll paint because I want to have the BEST KITCHEN.
I stopped playing the piano because I was never going to be a concert pianist. I stopped singing because I wasn’t good enough to be on Broadway.
I won’t just direct, I’ll design the costumes and props and set and make most of them, too.
I won’ t just make cookies because I love making cookies, I’ll make cookies because I want to be the BEST GIRLFRIEND EVER.
And that– that right there, is why I don’t understand the concept behind marching band. Because the entire system is designed around the concept of fitting into pieces of a machine, and my entire life has been spent trying to fight that.
But there’s this part of me that wonders– what if?
What if I did, just for a little while, make plain pancakes because it’s easier?
What would that feel like?