One of the things that bothers me about reunions is a little dance that I call “the Watchadoin’ Shuffle.” Everyone wants to know what you’ve been doing with yourself since the last time they saw you. That’s entirely reasonable. But the problem is, and always has been, how to respond. Which little dance to perform?
I mean, there’s the guy who has little success, and wants to play it up as larger than it is. Conversely, there’s the guy who’s had great success, and is out to impress, flaunting his success, rubbing their noses in it. Then there’s the guy who’s really successful, but who downplays it with false modesty. And of course there’s the guy at the end of the bar that keeps drinking, watching everyone else out of the corner of his eye, and studiously avoiding the dance, altogether. I honestly didn’t know which version of the dance, of that shuffle, I wanted to perform.
To understand my feelings approaching this, I should reveal that, from a young age, I had a sense that, being the youngest; I was my Mom’s “favorite.” I was a late life baby, in a lot of ways an only child, and her last chance at a baby. All my other siblings had to share my Mom with each other. I got her all to myself. And I came to value how important a thing that was, as I got old enough to appreciate it. That led to a constant downplaying of that important relationship with my siblings, throughout my adult life. Confident that I was in a good position, I had no need to flaunt it. But in more recent years, as my mother’s health has faded, and I’ve been farther away from her, what was a conscious downplaying of our relationship has become reality. Now I’m keenly aware of not being the favored son, a false modesty replaced by real displacement. Something was lost, through my lack of emphasis. It’s kind of jarring, making one appreciate what a stupid conceit false modesty is.
I noticed the same thing happened with my job, and my performance of the Shuffle, in describing it to others. At my first High School reunion, I had my dream job. I was working at Marvel Comics, something I’d wanted and worked toward as a dream since I could dream. I was golden at that reunion. So, naturally, I played my shuffle down. Yeah, I worked at Marvel. No big deal. No thing. While secretly, inside, I was a peacock strutting proudly, handing out those little Spider-Man business cards.
At the next milestone reunion, ten years ago, I’d been downsized from Marvel, and was working at a publisher in Western Mass that no one at the reunion had heard of. I liked the job okay, and I had as much responsibility. But what was really working in my life was that I was making as much money as I had been at Marvel, but in an area where I could buy a house and raise a family. it wasn’t New York, and I missed that, but I also appreciated it as a gift. I was living a rural lifestyle that I found idyllic. I took a lot of comfort in the simple joy of this, laying the false modesty on once again. Only by the end of the evening of that reunion, again, false modesty was replaced by real displacement. No longer did I have to downplay my success, because that success downplayed itself. The life I'd gained was too personal for comparison, and the loss of "status" was all that I felt was perceived. I didn’t have a great time.
So, at this reunion last week, time came for the shuffle, again. Now I’m actually employed at a company that my former classmates will have heard of, and more important, it’s a job that I love. It’s not my dream job, but it has a high potential of becoming such. Certainly it’s a greater challenge than I’ve had in over a decade, and a place where my contribution and my effort, is valued. And without money coming into it, which it shouldn't in the context of a tactful shuffle, it’s still more than I made at Marvel. I’m happy.
So what kind of dance would I do?
What I did was to downplay this success in the fact that, having this job means I’m away from my family for four days a week. Now I live nearer Boston from Monday through Friday afternoon, and spend four hours a week (2 hours each way) commuting to the area away from my home, where I love to live, and would like to die. The good balances the bad, but the bad is certainly there. I went with sincerity. I laid it on the table that it wasn’t ideal, but I loved what I was doing.
I started going into some detail, but after the second go through, I realized I was talking to myself, not anyone else. I wasn’t being falsely modest, I was being straight-forward, but forgot one important element in the dance—my partner. Being objective, nobody cared. At this stage of life and living, you are where you are, and you’re doing what you’re doing, and the question is asked as a point of reference more than to gain real knowledge. There were no subliminal comparisons going on. There were just people who used to know me, whom I used to know, who were just wondering how I was doing. And the answer “Fine,” was just …fine.
I suspect, as most things in life, the more you get good at something, the more natural and effortless it becomes. And consequently, the less important it becomes in occupying your mind, it’s not something you have to do, just something that you are. And the shuffle becomes as simple and natural as a walk in the park, with nothing to prove, and nowhere specifically to go. The shuffle becomes a stroll. And you finally get to see the scenery, instead of paying so much attention to your own two feet.