We Are What We Do

In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.

I laughed. “Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.”

“Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.”

Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.

“My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning.” She paused. “And she really said that, mom.”

“Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?”

“Well, sorta, I guess. But not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.”

“Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?”

“Well, yeah. When I listened I wasn’t hitting the notes sometimes. I guess I’m not such a good singer.”

“Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano.” I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. “Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything?” (One of my many canonical refrains.)

“Practice, mom.” She sighed.

I sighed. “My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but generally are not. We are what we do, my dear” (another of my refrains). “If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.”

“So you don’t think I’m a good singer,” she asked woefully.

“Were still talking about defining Ego here, right?”

“Yeah. And my ego says I’m a good singer now, mom. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside our heads?”

“You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we operate, how we act, what we do in the real world?”

“Probably not.” She sighed again, deflated. “Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous. When you’re famous, it’s not just ego, you know you’re good.”

“Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. As you noted, it’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He has 1.7 million dedicated followers on Instagram. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?

My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. “Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.”

“So then, is ego ever an accurate depiction of self?”

“I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom.” She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.

My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.

It is not our potential, or what we believe, or believe in that defines us. Our ego guarantees that none of us are who we imagine ourselves to be—good or bad. Regardless of what your ego tells you, you will never be more then the choices you make and the actions those choices lead you take.

We are what we DO.

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Doing Massachusetts

I’m a native Californian, born and raised in paradise. The weather along our more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline is spectacular practically every day. The Sierra Mountains are our border sentinels, over 14,000 feet at their peaks, stretching 400 miles long of pristine wilderness to world-class resorts. Ski after brunch and be tanning, running, biking on the beach by the afternoon—from mid-October through early June. Ask me my religion, and I’ll say I’m Californian. We are a culture all our own out here; active, progressive, wildly creative—fantastically separate from anywhere else, yet intricately connected to the world.

I was married a little over a year when my husband sold his software to a company in Concord, Massachusetts. A three year, onsite contract was part of the purchase deal. After the blood oath that we’d return to California when the three years were up, I agreed to leave my family, friends, and Bay that I loved, and move to one of the oldest towns in the U.S.

I’ve never been a fan of the east coast. The weather sucks most of the time. Even the young people look older than most old people in California. I’d visited Boston just once, ten years earlier. Mid-August, and it was hot and wet and sticky. The city was dirty, crowded, crumbling, aged, with an excessive number of churches. I don’t remember finding anything I actually liked about the place other than the dim sum in Chinatown.

A decade later and Boston hadn’t changed much, at least from the plane’s view as we flew through the thick air over the dilapidated city into Logan Airport. The sweltering July heat came through the crack where the gangway met the plane and felt like a sizzling brick wall. I hesitated as I stepped onto the walkway, fighting the urge to run back on the plane and beg them to fly me home.

My husband waited for me at the end of the walkway, all smiles. I wanted to slug him. He’d come to Mass. a week before me and found us a rental in Concord, and the entire drive there he chatted it up—how beautiful the historic area was; the one-bedroom with studio house he’d found with its great location just blocks from town center.

What I saw out the passenger window after passing through congested Boston and manicured Cambridge was swampland. Rivulets lined with oak, birch, and pines were all that broke up the tangled shrubs and thorny vines that covered the ground and wrapped the fallen trees. I half-expected to catch a glimpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon moving through the dark, heavily forested rolling hills.

My mood went from bad to black as we came into Concord’s tiny town center. Culture shock wouldn’t touch what I felt. Graveyards were the front lawns of the churches that stood on every other corner. Old stone and brick buildings lined the main streets of the town. Old meaning 1600 and 1700’s. Art galleries, bakeries, bank branches and real estate offices occupied these crumbling two-story structures, which met at the town circle. Every person I saw was White.

The thick smell of mold and the cloying scent of decay hit me as I got out of the car in front of the ramshackle Colonial Inn, which was used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War, according to their bronze plaque. The air was stifling and still. I could barely breathe. People on the streets milled about as if in slow motion. Three years would be an eternity here.

The oppressive heat was suffocating. I had to find air. My husband suggested we go to the Concord River where he assured me there was always a breeze. We drove to Minuteman Park, walked to the end of a creaky wooden pier and looked out across the river to the old stone bridge where the first battle of our War for Independence was waged. I was immersed in the past and felt the weight of it upon me, but I didn’t feel any breeze. 

The screened porch of our rented one-bedroom house turned out to be a haven, shadowed from the heat and separate from the bugs, except for the hive of wasps in the dormer of the upstairs ‘studio’/attic we spent the afternoon eradicating.

Summer passed to Fall, and the brilliant colors of the foliage was only marred by the attack of the insect population as it moved indoors in search of food and shelter from the impending cold. Autumn lasted about three weeks until the first frost when everything died and became flat gray.

The only season in Massachusetts I looked forward to [back in California] was winter, anticipating the pristine beauty of snow. And its splendor can not be denied while it’s falling. But shoveling the drive, managing the icy roads, and freezing my ass off from early November until mid-April was harsh at best, and within hours of falling, the clean white blanket was speckled brown with road grim from the plows and street traffic.

Spring in Mass. brought allergies from hell. I felt like I had the flu for a straight month when everything was blooming. Then summer set in, and there was no air in the air again. There were excessively heavy rain storms though, that invariably flooded the basement numerous times from mid-July through late-August.

I’d left paradise for purgatory.

There were times of spectacular beauty in MA—those few weeks of fall, or a couple weeks in the spring when gray gave way to vibrant greens and crystal blue skies. But the days of sunlight and life were few and far between. At least through the summer months, every night at sunset was Attack of the Monster Mosquitoes! The other eight months everything was frozen or dead, and it was too snowy and/or cold to go anywhere.

For two and a half years I endured Concord. It got, if not easier, more routine serving my time there. I learned to dress for the weather, especially in layers because restaurants, theaters and clubs were usually blazing hot inside for some unfathomable reason. Other than a few affable store clerks and a couple of business associates, I never made any real friends there. Most of the people were as cold as the place, and prided themselves on their rudeness. By late fall of my third year, after totaling my car while nine months pregnant when a snowplow on the other side of the road dumped fresh snow on my side, I’d had more than enough of Massachusetts.

Two months after our son was born, and four months before his contract with the Concord based company expired, my husband accepted a job offer from a tech startup back in California.

We drove through several blizzards across the northern U.S. in mid-winter because it was the quickest route to get home. The February afternoon we drove onto Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay it was 70 degrees and sunny. Across the sparkling blue water the sun was setting behind the city. The air was crisp, almost sweet with the fragrance of fog, the wind whipping around with the windows rolled down as we cruised along Shoreline Drive. People were walking, running and cycling along the strand. A few die-hard wind surfers were out on the bay doing their last sail for the day. And I said a silent prayer to hope that we were home to stay.

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