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My Greatest Accomplishment

by Steven Utley

With another birthday glimmering on the horizon, I find myself arrived at an age when one is practically helpless not to compare one’s record of accomplishment with that of everybody else who has arrived roughly at the same age without somehow dying in the meantime. I do not torment myself with thoughts of such prodigies as Bertrand Russell, who lived to be old enough to be my grandfather, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose father I am now old enough to have been if I’d been around at the time of his death. I admit, however, that Mozart daunts. As may be seen from the dates of his birth and death, 1756 and 1791 (respectively), he managed to achieve all that he did, composing his more than 600 works — operas, symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber and choral works — in just 35 years. Why, if he had lived another 20 years, he might have gone on to compose all of Beethoven’s works before Ludwig got around to them, and Brahms’, too, with The Rite of Spring and “The Wang-Wang Blues” thrown in for good measure.

Well, it’s no use envying geniuses. Yet even in my own weight division, which is to say, among the great mediocre majority of humanity, I sometimes feel like a total slacker compared to many of my contemporaries who maybe haven’t composed great music but do have long rap sheets. For example, the local newspaper is full of the tribulations of a former state senator who “is unmarried but has three ex-wives and 12 children, including several born out of wedlock. He lives in a $362,900 home with an ex-wife in M— and a $509,000 home with his girlfriend in C—,” which would seem to explain the ex-wife and/or -wives. In consequence of a bribery sting, he is also under indictment and house arrest, though the papers neglect to say whether he’s confined to the $509,000 mansion or only the $362,900 hovel.

These circumstances strike me as hardly of a kind that simply befall a person, willy nilly, out of the blue, Book of Job-like; clearly, a particle of conscious effort must have come into play, even if momentum did take over after a certain point. I have an ex-wife I’m on pretty good terms with, though not such good terms that her current husband lets me live with her; I have no children, in or out of wedlock; my house cost a mere five figures, and never mind that I can’t possibly live long enough to pay off the mortgage; I’ve never held public office, and am not actually under indictment at present. It could be argued from all of this that I am deficient in ambition, pertinacity, and/or moxie.

Fortunately, a gal I teased in high school has come to my rescue, sort of, and shown me that my life has not been in vain. She would probably phrase it this way: “I guess I sure showed you!”

She says that I drew a cartoon of the two of us and slipped it to her in English class; the cartoon depicted me standing with my foot on her neck and holding aloft a banner that proclaimed MALE SUPERIORITY. I don’t remember drawing any such cartoon but, frankly, neither do I put it past my 16-, 17-year-old self, who was always drawing something, and, furthermore — still some years shy of having much nonsense slapped out of him by Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Elaine Morgan, and other feminist writers — was your standard-issue unenlightened young male-chauvinist pig back in the days when every 16-, 17-year-old guy was no more and no less than that. In those times, young ladies disinclined to become pregnant barefoot kitchen-bound housewives immediately upon graduation were restricted in their career options to secretary, waitress, or sex object.

Anyhow, about the gal in English class: my teenaged self succeeded at so infuriating her teenaged self that she went on to Stanford and studied medicine just out of spite. What’s more, she got her two girlfriends to tough out med school with her. The cartoon was prominently displayed in their dorm room the whole time. “Whenever,” she tells me, “one of us would waver and say, ‘I can’t go on, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this,’ we’d look at that cartoon.” Drawing strength from becoming infuriated all over again, they eventually emerged as real actual doctors and useful citizens and made ever so much more money than I, who grew up to be a freelance writer and therefore not particularly useful. (We won’t discuss my finances.)

The point is, the world can always use good doctors, and I figure that my 16-, 17-year-old self played a vital role in turning out not one, not two, but three count ‘em three of the suckers. That’s quite an accomplishment, if I do say so myself, and I’d like to see Mozart top it, if he were alive.

And just think, if I had been nicer in English class, those gals’d probably all be wage-slaves at Wal-Mart now.

If I’d been even more insulting, they probably would have become lawyers.

Copyright © 2005 by Steven Utley

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