Friend or Foe?


There is a peculiar blessing in being underestimated, the most obvious benefit of which is having to only slightly exceed people’s very low expectations to be considered exceptional.

Watch the praise heaped on a child who can Velcro the shoes her mother bought instead of shoes with laces which she couldn’t possibly handle. Such accomplishment, never mind the bar is so low as to extinguish any light between it and the floor.

I have been underestimated my entire life. Every woman my age in this country probably had the same experience. No one expected much of us. We didn’t expect much of us. So if we did anything, finished college, had a decent job, paid our own bills, wiped the ketchup off our own chins, well, we were exceptional.

After a while, though, the sexist bullshit implicit in others’ minimal expectations of us sunk in. Wait a goddamn minute! You think I can’t do this because a) I’m a woman and don’t have the gumption to do it; or b) I’m somebody’s mother and can’t peel the munchkins off me long enough to tend to business? That’s what you think?

Oh. That’s what I think? Why would I think that? Complicated.

My brain has been the site of so many internal wars that it looks like Gettysburg the day after the night before. There are bodies of thought everywhere, parts hanging from trees, business suits shot through with hesitation covered with extreme protestation. The battles and fatalities aren’t even chronicled anymore, too much to put in order, just a tangled and now antique mass.

Most of the time, though, other people’s doubts about my ability have been like a lit wooden match touched to a pile of dry leaves. Smolder, smolder, flames. Any hint, any look to the side, to the margins where folks thought I should be standing and I  would be sitting up straight, pencils sharpened to fine, lethal points, ready for battle. That was my reflex for years until I got to the place where I could just relax. My education, my accomplishments, my high regard for my professional skill, what I perceived to be the high regard of others, all of this made the question of underestimation moot.

But then it started seeping back under the door.

At first, I didn’t get it. But now I do.

Age has replaced gender as the new low bar.

I feel it. It’s sneaky. The old ‘she’s pretty smart for a girl’ being replaced by ‘she’s pretty with it for her age.’ Will anything I do now beyond staying alive and being able to walk unassisted make me exceptional?

Is that a gift or a curse? The indulgence I sense feels homey to me, like my mother’s afghan blanket, made to last forever like everyone’s good intentions. But that low, low bar shouldn’t feel so comforting. I need it to feel like a gun in my ribs.

It’s my enemy. I need to remember that.

5 Comments on “Friend or Foe?

  1. As usual, you have put your finger right on it! First it was sexism, and now at this stage, its ageism. Why can’t we all just be PEOPLE?

  2. Reblogged this on Red's Wrap and commented:

    I came across this one just now and thought, yes! I’m still game for being ‘exceptional.’ Why the hell not?

  3. Every once in awhile it’s amusing to blow one of those patronizing and assuming people out of the water:0)).

  4. I would guess your hearing loss also is a factor – but you are right. I have struggled with whether I want to fight the battle given my pain and fatigue limitations (actually, for the first time in my life I’m not sure I have the courage to go for new challenges) or whether I want to accept the “privilege of age and find private meaning. When I am having a good-body-day I think about volunteering for Hospice when I get back to Michigan. I know I don’t want the burden that comes from paid employment because it interferes with our travel. But then I hear of people who are 70 and still working and making a difference in the world. I love my self-centered days of leisure but also miss the fun of making things happen in the wider world. I know that volunteers are appreciated but they aren’t taken seriously. Good God, I’m rambling.

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