Sometimes in the middle of appreciating another person’s skills, I suddenly step through the looking glass and see instead what skills I lack.

If a friend of mine becomes a movie director, or gets a book of poems published, or launches a high-paying online business, or lives in a custom home —  I start to imagine that I’ve missed out.

“Well, I could have eaten one of those hamburgers,” I think, “but she ordered one, so I guess I can’t do that any more.”

Excuse me, Self-Consciousness?! Doesn’t your very metaphor show how wrong your thinking is? Restaurants make and sell burger after burger, each one as savory as the next. Delicious burgers are available for everyone.

Many years ago I found myself explaining to one of my writing students why it was not possible to rank all papers in class so perfectly that you could make a stack of them from best to worst.

First of all, as I explained, each different essay has strengths and weaknesses. A piece of writing can have beauty without development, development without mechanics, and mechanics without beauty. Which paper is better?

“You tell me,” said the student. I don’t recall much more of that conversation, in part because instead of a conversation about the relative value of different aspects of self-expression, the conversation was about grades, and therefore mostly unmemorable.

Secondly, and in a related vein, who cares? Why is that a question worthy of college-level thinkers?

And, ultimately, in what ways would showing the relative value of each paper help us understand a damn thing about thinking and writing?

Okay, one more thing: Can’t dozens of people write tones of amazing essays? As near as I can tell, there’s an inexhaustible supply of good writing — room for one more, always.

Perhaps the scarcity mentality comes from having worked in a field where there were finite jobs within a geographic region, i.e., full-time tenure-track teaching jobs for creative writers with English degrees. Every year, the question in the hall was, “Did you apply for the job at Blank Community College?” And there were always twelve of us having the conversation about one or two jobs.

It seems I always want to work in fields where there are a dozen or more competitors for one position. In the narrow range of major acting roles onstage for mature women in the Seattle area, I feel as though I’m in competition with others. Once, I went to a staged reading, and I looked at the woman playing the part I would be castable as (at least in the abstract), and I thought, “You’re going down, old lady! There’s a new old lady in town.”

There is so much wrong with this thinking I don’t know if I can cover it all. Notable points:

  • I may or may not be in realistic competition with anyone, whether actor or professor, whether wage-earner in a job or profession I’m not even interested in.
  • It doesn’t do any good whatsoever to compare myself unfavorably to others I admire.
  • Who says we must compete for appreciation, other than my Self-Consciousness?
  • Envy separates me, builds a wall between myself and those I love.
  • You wouldn’t believe who I envy, but I will confess it can be anyone at any time for any reason, so if you guess a name, you’re probably on the nose.

If I had more time, I’d say this all better. But I got up today at 5 to work at what I do best, and I had two of those clients today, and I set my own hours, chose my own work location, dressed as I wanted, created language that meant a lot to its buyers and readers, and was finished in time to take my father-in-law to the golf course, run some errands to prepare for my trip out of town, and go to a rehearsal.

Yes, yes, okay: It’s a pretty damn good life. Compared to nothing at all.