Monthly Archives: September 2010

That "Frenemies" Thing


Well, stone the crows, all these years I have been attributing this zero-sum-gaming motto to Gore Vidal; but now I find it, in a 1966 TIME magazine article, falling out of the gob of the hugely successful Broadway producer, David Merrick: “It is not enough for me to succeed; all others must also fail.” How humiliating, to have gotten it wrong! (Although I’m not alone. Others have credited Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan. Do I hear a nomination for Machiavelli?) The article, incidentally, in that halcyon, less in-your-face-snarky era of journalism, was called “The Be(a)st of Broadway,” geddit? Cuz, Mr. Merrick was (ahem) ambivalently regarded by the theatrical community.

Now, a short diatribe on the clinical meaning of “ambivalence” (as opposed to the “street” meaning, of “I hate his guts!”): “simultaneous conflicting feelings toward a person or thing, as love and hate” [Webster’s, 1988 ed.] Not, “as fear and loathing,” nar’mean? To illustrate this point in therapy sessions, I hold out my hands in the “supplicant palms” position, and intone, “On the one hand, ya-dah-ya-dah. On the other hand, la-di-dah.” I then say, “There are very few things or individuals in our lives, about which we humans are not ambivalent.”

Oh, but how we hate to admit it! Even to ourselves. So, hurrah for the new portmanteau word, “frenemy,” which captures the both-hands [simultaneously positive & negative] feelings which we can sense in others [but only bald-faced truth-tellers, like Merrick & Vidal, will acknowledge in themselves]. We’ll know that this brave willingness to admit to ambivalent feelings, about even our Nearest & Dearest, has made it into mainstream consciousness, when “to frenemy” someone becomes a transitive verb in Facebook parlance.

The next post will deal with the ways people avoid Owning their Inner Wolf [as in, acknowledging that another’s success can stir feelings of humiliation that they got the “prize” we wanted, and even fear that there won’t be enough “prizes” to go around].

Meanwhile, here are Seamus & Finn, locked in some sort of close contact. Is it a hug or combat? That’s easy. It’s both.

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Filed under ambivalence, zero-sum-gaming

Working on a Clear Round


Those of us who have watched our share of televised equestrian events tend to put the sound on “mute,” to avoid hearing this inane, now-you’ve-jinxed-it phrase, which seems to guarantee that horse & rider will knock over the next fence. In the first place [where this “doomed” equine/human team are now not likely to finish], why state the obvious? It’s not a radio broadcast. Anyone who cares about the outcome of the event will be able to work out if all the jumps have remained up so far, or if some rails have fallen. It’s not a judgment call. As for time penalties, there is usually a graphic in the corner of the TV screen, keeping track for the viewers [but not the rider, who has to make an elaborate, on-the-hoof compromise between haste & accuracy, to win this zero-sum game].

Okay, so horse people are “a breed apart,” notoriously superstitious; but so are theater folk. It’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” before a performance: hence, the Poetic [as in, “I mean the opposite of what I’m saying”] phrase “Break a leg.” In the UK it’s bad luck to say “Macbeth” [especially if that’s the show you’re in]: hence, “the Scottish play.” My favorite line from the 1947 musical comedy send-up of Irish-American folkways, Finian’s Rainbow, is “Don’t be superstitious! It’s bad luck!”

So, that’s my excuse. I’m a horse-loving, theatrical, Irish-American. What’s yours? Cuz everyone is superstitious about something or other. Black cats? Friday the 13th? Announcing that you’re expecting a baby before all & sundry have guessed, anyway? This latter, culturally supported taboo falls squarely in the “working on a clear round” category. It avoids an air of hubris; of “pride goeth before a fall”; of “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” [as it were]. We all remember that obnoxious student in high school, usually [not always] a girl, who after every test would set up a caterwaul of doom: “Oh, I just know I failed it!” And the rest of us just knew s/he got an A, maybe even the highest grade in the class, and were less than sympathetic with this ritual of “needless” worry. Ah! But it does not seem needless to the hand-wringer [any more than compulsive hand-washing seems optional, to the compulsive hand-washer]. It is a magical, albeit Highly Inconvenient, attempt to counter the fear of Bad Outcome. Sometimes, as in the post-test-hand-wringer scenario, it is an attempt to counter the anticipated humiliation of getting anything less than a perfect score.

However, and this is the point, these little anti-hubristic peregrinations most of us indulge in are the lesser of two evils, compared with not trying at all. One summer day, while riding hired horses through the Vienna woods, my elder daughter & I overheard our guide ask her young son, “Max, bist du brav? ” [which we took to mean, “Are you brave?” but Cassell’s dictionary translates as “Are you well-behaved, a good boy?”]. Then she directed him & his mount to jump a newly-fallen tree trunk, which they did, after a few false starts, much to everyone’s delight [and our relief]. Now, when we are facing a daunting challenge, where the odds of success seem long, we ask each other “Bist du brav?” If what it takes, to be brav enough to put all our effort on the line, is a bit of “aw, shucks, I probably will make a dog’s dinner of this” lowering of expectations, than so be it.

Whatever helps you to take that leap. [Incidentally, this is the fallen tree described in the “Timber Wolf” post.]

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Filed under crazy like a fox, lesser of two evils, magical thinking