There’s nothing like a convergence of the ongoing Days of Awe, when Jews are supposed to look at our shortcomings and make amends, and a bout of insomnia to catalyze awareness on steroids. So the other night, unable to sleep, I tossed and turned over my own flaws, which were many, and in the middle of night, seemed Empire-State-Building in size. Where I landed most was on my capacity to be petty.
I come by pettiness naturally. My dad was the master in this realm, able to make anything from a small offense to an actual compliment into a call to arms. One time when he was visiting me in Lawrence, while we were walking down Massachusetts Street, I high-fived a friend. Months later, I discovered my dad was convinced that the high five was a secret signal to make fun of him. A pebble of an issue would be escalated into the end of the world as we know it. When I was very young, our family and my dad’s brother’s family would meet for dinner regularly at the home of my grandparents. My dad and his brother would, sometime after dessert, argue so vigorously that each would declare the other one dead to him, only to make plans a few days later to meet for dinner next weekend. Old arguments weren’t forgotten either, just stowed away for future ammunition.
Although I haven’t declared anyone living as dead to me, I have my moments too. In the last week, I realized I responded, although seemingly politely, to a literary situation in a way I’m not ashamed of: I very daintily pulled rank. As a writer, I’ve had rank pulled on me a thousands different ways over the years, part and parcel of the craziness of some centers of the literary world. It was always something I swore I would never do, yet when the phrase, “Don’t they know who I am?” in the gravelly voice of Darth Vader, I knew I was in trouble.
I apologized, regrouped, and am trying to stay more aware, yet I know it’s likely I’ll be petty again in the future when my awareness slips and ego flares. It’s a little like my propensity to indulge in a bit of dessert after dinner when I know so clearly the next morning that sugar after 6 p.m. means the migraine the next day. Some habits die hard.
Meanwhile, I try to pay attention to the motives behind the words ticker-taping across my mind before they cross my lips, and for added reinforcement, when I catch myself in time, I’ll high-five my shadow.