Con Man V. Confidence (August 2020)

I avidly read Mary Trump’s memoir the day it was released. I still crave insider confirmation of the obvious emotional chaos we observe from the outside, hourly and daily, via the news and Twitter. 

(Yes, this is a musician’s newsletter, not a political blog, but if you disagree with me on the basic fact that Trump is a total disaster as a human being, let alone as president, please unsubscribe.) 

I also have a writer's preoccupation with how dysfunctional families operate, especially when money and power are in the mix. There are fascinating, perverse, and profoundly sad commonalities to be observed, whether we’re talking about despotic dynasties with shitty, bombastic decorating tastes throughout world history, or abusive, narcissistic, cruel, scapegoating, perhaps even sociopathic families of deeply troubled people we've known...and/or have been. 

To pull out just one strand of these psycho-narrative archetypes, let's look at the notion of “confidence.” There’s the false kind that arises when a person starts with deep self-hatred, and overcompensates like a tap dancer on meth. Then there's the real kind that comes from making mistakes--from small faux pas to life-changing whoppers--slowly learning from them, and then having enough self-awareness to forgive yourself and take quiet pride in your progress. 

I'm lucky to have experienced enough false bravado that I recognized the real thing when it tiptoed into my life. Not that the inner flimflam artist is ever completely vanquished. With a few blessed exceptions, under the right kind of stressors, we are all capable of empty braggadocio and  neurotic self-sabotage. 

The trick is to focus on small, sturdy accomplishments and grow from there. During the challenges of early motherhood, I used to keep a journal by my bed in which--no matter how exhausted I was--I’d force myself to list “Three Things I Did Well Today” just before falling asleep. Sometimes numbers one, two, and three would all say, Did not yell at my toddler. 

Now that we've all been imprisoned during a pandemic with the country's most tantrum-y toddler, our strengths and hopes have been battered. The "possessions" to which we cling--whatever we have had in the way of health, wealth, income, purpose, as well as any lighthearted sense of  belonging to a loving, caring world full of good people--reveal themselves as conditional, ephemeral, maybe even pure bullshit. 

Along with cascading debacles in public health, economic stability, social comity, and democracy itself, there’s a deep and massive crisis of personal confidence. I’ll even be super generous and throw the current batch of reignited white supremacists into this “we” I describe...for what else are they but sad and pathetic people bereft of any selfhood beyond their imaginary “innate” superiority? 

Not that we shouldn’t do everything we can to stop them from gaining more power and perpetuating violence and injustice. Likewise, Mary Trump’s sad and trenchant family narrative explains how her uncle, once a neglected and unloved boy, was systematically turned into a monster. Pity the boy, then stop the monster. 

There are the big, collective activities we should participate in to try to restore order and sanity to the larger world. Then there are our private monsters to battle. My strategy is to go small. If I focus on tiny daily achievements, I feel like a goddamn warrior princess. It’s not a world-changing level of confidence but it’s a form of strength-training nonetheless. 

My daily Three Things are sometimes as simple as this: 

I exercised. 

I cooked a beautiful, healthy, low-cost dinner for my family. 

I sang the same song, an old, old song of mine, two dozen times into a microphone hooked up to a DAW, until I was that much closer to mastering it. 

That may be all I've got that makes me feel alive and empowered. But notice, I'm not conning myself or anyone else.

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