Self Esteem, Back In Vogue Again

Innocent Nashvillian travels to Foreign Lands (an essay derived from a few emails I wrote back in the ’90s)

To one and all, have a Merry Summer and a Happy and Prosperous Fourth of July.

Monday

In times past I have mused about that happy-go-lucky personal mental fitness guru and ex-ectomorph, Tony Robbins, author of self-help books, motivational tapes, and fraternity pranks involving burning charcoal. Given my own sorry state of affairs (I have to work for a living), his nutty approach to life has got me to thinking about self-esteem, confidence, life, success, and how to whip it (life, that is) good. Needless to say, this is something I am sure we all have heard a lot about lately (for those who are tired of Donald Trump, Obamamama, and that wacky Bush thang). And figuring that I’ve got the inside track on this particular aspect of psychotic life approaches, I am going to pass along a bit of wisdom to those folks in the under classes.

Oprah Firewalking with Tony Robbins

Oprah Firewalking with Tony Robbins

This all came about when my boss, Dr. Mengele (a multiple personality disorder sufferer, with a tape worm, and a one-armed sadist) had me in his mahogany lined office the other day to discuss his perception of my performance.

“Greetings, Slug,” Big Joe shouted over the noise made by his huge air conditioner set into the wall of that dark, windowless room that was his sanctum sanctorum. “Vat kind of scum ist you brinkink into my place of business yourself?”

“I,…I,…I,…don’t know what you mean, I’m sure,” I replied, drawing on my typical snappy repartee.

“Listen,” Herr Doktor, sneered, as he flailed his arms wildly in an attempt to un-snag the hook that he uses to hide the fact that he has no left arm from the lining of his suit. “I am goink to give you thirty seconds to make ust profitable or its der dental drill for you.”

“But sir, there is so little time for me to do anything about our profitability, and besides, you’ve never told me that it was my responsibility to cover this profitability thing. Also, I know precious little about gas chambers anyway, there just isn’t much demand for the things anyway, and I only empty the trash here for $4.11 an hour anyway. What could I do anyway?” I hung my head in shame and noticed that several small bunnies had been inexplicably flattened against the floor.

“You are slime, you malodorous pile of dead fish flesh. Are you suckgestink, that I, a Hillary Clinton supporter, know nothink of how to motivate people und develop self-eshteem in my clod employees?”

“No, no,” I replied, “I think you’re one of the greatest, most caring, loving, and understanding bosses I’ve ever had (I’m not kidding here, kids).” I then fell to my knees, a work requirement, I’m told, information I got from a hunch-backed, scar-faced, Martin Sheen look-alike named Slash who works down in Human Resources when I asked him why the Boss would have pistol-whipped me one day for no apparent reason–I hadn’t dropped to my knees when he passed me on the way out of church last Sunday.

“Thank you for your obeisance, Ratchethead,” the good Doktor screamed as he tipped me over and rolled me like a cigar out of his personal cocoon into the work area. He slammed his door loudly to the high-pitched squeal of rusted hinges, and I heard the tumblers on his deadbolt slam home. I lay quietly for a few minutes and then rolled over towards the door to get up. A single, malice-yellowed eye peered at me from the crack between the threshold and the bottom of the door.

I stood up shivering and heard the Boss hiss behind the door, referring to me as a “seven-fold son of sophistry” who would do well to learn to keep his helpful suggestions to himself. At any rate, I was pleased to find myself back in the safe confines of the work area with very few bruises to show for my latest experience with the Lee Iacocca of the gas chamber industry.

My work-place is a lovely area reminiscent of downtown Chernobyl the night of the melt-down–a large dark building with Big Joe’s office set dead in the middle of what appeared at first glance to be the holding pen for trouble-makers at Dachau. I could just make out through the darkness and smoke that two old women responsible for picking up cigarette butts around the Boss’s door were heating a couple of tiny new potatoes stuck on the end of a rusty coat hanger. Hovering over their small fire made of very short pencils, toothpicks, stray pieces of dirty cardboard, and wadded up pieces of toilet tissue, they pulled their old burlap shawls low over their eyes. As I walked away, I heard one of them remark loudly to the other that I would never amount to anything in this company since I tended to walk up-right on two legs.

This really got my goat, ducks, and pigs. I slunk around the corner meaning to leave the area, but I was suddenly overcome with an extreme feeling of resentment since it occurred to me that the two old women are paid much more than I. With murder in my heart, I picked up an old Coke bottle and raised it over my head ready to sling it around the corner at the old women. My violent movement scattered a flock of starlings that nest in the rafters, causing me to look up. Dried guano, disturbed from its resting place on the exposed, drooping support members stretching across the width of the building, rained down on me forcing me to drop the bottle and hunch over to protect my eyes.

When I thought it prudent to look up again, my eyes inadvertently fell upon a dirty poster on the wall that had heretofore been covered up by a large picture of our beloved Dr. Mengele. The Boss’s picture had fallen onto the floor face up. You could barely make out the words that framed his face: on the top it said “Big Joe is Watching You” and at the bottom “Get to Work, You.”

Returning my attention to the poster remaining on the wall, I attempted to discern its meaning. It said, “Confidence is the Coal that Fires the Engine of Success.” It sported a picture of a perky blonde in a bikini waving from inside one of our early model chambers. Goofy, but I deemed this a good omen as I retired to the spacious employee lounge to discuss this concept with my fellows.

Conficdence is the Coal that Fires the Engine of Success

Standing on a dirty commode seat and hunched down to make it appear that there was no one in the one empty stall in the single rest room provided the employees, I whispered into the next stall, “Hey, Lyle. What the hell is Confidence?”

Lyle, his feet likewise hidden from view, began to answer, “Confidence is the Coal that…,” but hushed up when we heard the door slammed open against the wall. I could feel the Boss’s eyes sweep the bottom of the stalls, looking for shirkers.

After three minutes of silence, when Big Joe had crept back to his office to continue to entertain himself by scaring gerbils with a length of two inch PVC water pipe, Lyle continued “…Fires the Engine of Success,” exhaling loudly as if he had been holding his breath for a long time.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I hissed. “I know that much. I can read posters. too.”

Lyle, sensing that a simple hackneyed phrase would not satisfy my incisive, determined intellect, responded with another: “To laugh often and much…”

“Lyle.” I cut him off. “You make me so mad I could stomp bunnies.”

“Hey, that’s a neat quote; can I use it?” Lyle asked.

I looked down at a small hole that made our two stalls one and noticed that Lyle was trying to poke me through it with a yard stick. Snapping the end of the ruler off with an exaggerated judo chop, I exited the stall deciding that trying to get information out of Lyle on this particular subject was about as effective as attempting to get Tiffany cuff links from The Cable Guy. I couldn’t wait for this happy night to end. My curiosity was at a high pitch, however, regarding this confidence thing, and I was determined to think it through.

Tuesday

Returning at day-break to my home, I was greeted by my kitties, Frisky and Rosebud. Now here were two up-beat characters that might afford me some insight into this confidence thing. I started to scratch Frisky under the neck and felt something hard and pointed. Pulling her fur back, I noticed that she had on a necklace made of Robin’s beaks. Dropping her in disgust, I turned my affections to Rosebud only to notice that she had a squirrel’s skull impaled on a small pike which she held up for my approval.

Recoiling in horror, I realized that the kitties were more attuned to Dr. Joe’s point of view. But they seemed happy. In fact, they seemed to exude what I thought confidence was all about.

“What is confidence? What is self-esteem?” I mused aloud to no one in particular.

Rosebud rolled over and began pawing open her shrew-skin kit bag that I had not noticed before. After a few seconds, she had deftly removed a small, dog-eared manuscript that she pushed in my direction. On the cover sheet a pink 3M Post-it note was attached with a message addressed to Rosebud from Tony Robbins asking her to read the manuscript and get back to him with any suggestions.

Paging through the manuscript, I saw several suggestions written in the margins in Rosebud’s unmistakable scrawl. On the page that describes Tony’s new technology for obtaining success by converting bad habits (i.e., non-money making behaviors) to good habits (i.e., money making behaviors) Rosebud had written in big cat-block letters: “Confidence is the Coal that Fires the Engine of Success.”

Wednesday

On my way to LA, BRKV (Before Rodney King Verdict), via CattleCar Airways, on a mission loosely associated with my compensation package, it rained in LA (sprinkled, really). Consequently, the LAX Airport authorities closed two runways due to damp pavement and I was stuck in Phoenix for four hours waiting for someone to daub up the puddles.

Finally in LA, I took the Santa Monica Freeway to the Hollywood Freeway to the Bat-Out-Of-Hell Freeway. Exiting onto Beechwood Drive, I drove into old Hollywoodland to visit my brother, the one who makes english language television programs on American music for the Japanese. The programs are about the various types of music found in various U.S. cities, and when he finishes one, he ships them off to those sneaky Japs who put Japanese sub-titles on the films and then show them all over Japan between those crazy Japanese TV shows that have two smiling commentators who talk for a while and hold their elbow and their chin to observe young Japanese women walking by in various states of undress.

I could tell that I was in Hollywood because whenever I looked one way or the other, my eyes fell on either a car worth more than $50,000 or a collection of seeming lunatics. Stopped at a light at Hollywood and Vine, I spied a greasy looking guy at a bus stop jumping up and down and bouncing around flailing his arms as if he were fighting shadow ninja in a cheap Chinese Kung Fu film. Two glam punks with fuchsia hair coifed to appear butthole-like and wearing matching black leather motorcycle jackets with chrome chains, studs, rings, and buttons along with electric blue jams were totally ignoring him. I figured to myself that this greasy guy looked like he knew something about self-esteem.

“Hey, Pal. What’s the word on self-esteem?” I hollered out to him.

The greasy guy stopped practicing his Vulcan Death Grip on Casper the Ghost and the really ugly glam punk, the female one, looked up from the screenplay she was working on. Both sang out in unison, “Confidence is the coal that…” I gunned my Avis V-8 Chevy outa-there.

Thursday

I flew up to Frisco the next day and drove down to Palo Alto to visit those nutty people at Stanford University who buy our software product. After a day of talking a lot, we retired to a roof top above the Hoover Pavilion to observe the weather and partake of California wines and Girl Scout cookies to wind down.

Intelligent looking students in athletic shorts and sensible shoes were rushing around everywhere, rushing, not necessarily because they have anything really important to do but rather because everything on campus is so far apart. No two buildings are any closer to each other than a hundred yards; the place is huge, dotted with palm and eucalyptus trees, and much spread out.

Interspersed among these well adjusted students was the occasional sullen rebel, dressed totally in black, hair died black, and sporting a perpetually pissed-off expression on their face. Fortunately for the rest of society, these kids worry for us over acid rain, nuclear power, snail darters, global warming, and ineffectual acne medicine freeing up the rest of us to worry about the really important issues. Watching the glorious California sunshine highlighting the wall of clouds pouring over the Santa Cruz Mountains like some mystical waterfall of the Gods, we discussed the usual heady subjects covered by the highly intelligent: the weather, the declining quality of Girl Scout cookies, the best California wines under four dollars, bad art, and girls (out of earshot of the girls who are talking about boys out of earshot of the boys). Self-esteem, confidence, personal worth, stock options, Hillary Clinton, and cookie recipes were never mentioned.

Clouds rolling over the Santa Cruz Mountains

Clouds rolling over the Santa Cruz Mountains

Friday

Hanging with the Buff Bunnies down at the free weight pit over in Venice, attempting to bench press my weight, I turned my head and asked Buffy and Turquoise through clenched teeth to pull the barbell off of my chest where it had rested for three long minutes. Turquoise, a six-foot tall blond investment banker with a figure that was a cross between a Barbi Doll and a female Arnold, told Buffy to handle it. Buffy, a startlingly beautiful hard-body brunette who was studying space vehicle re-entry physics at CalTech, dropped her ninety-five pound curling bar in the middle of her sixth set of twenty-five reps to rush over and save me. She was dressed in one of those dental floss bikinis and her highly bronzed muscles rippled in the sun as she closed the twenty yard distance between us.

Daintily lifting the two-hundred pound bar off of my chest with her left hand, she remarked in her perky, lilting way that I had grown to love, “Hey! You’re rilly, rilly cute. I’m just wild about somewhat over-weight forty year-olds that smell of minoxidil and Chanel Pour Monsieur; but I rilly get turned on if it’s Old Spice.”

I responded with a hurt look. Turquoise was looking at me smiling. She winked.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Buffy said. “I rilly mean it. Guys like you are all the rage these days with me and my friends. We’re sick of those self-absorbed youth of America.”

“Huh?” I responded.

“No, I mean it. Turquoise and I are nuts for guys like you. You’ve got it all: wisdom, objectivity, a passion for life, positive cash-flow, a cute little paunch. What more could a girl ask for? By the way, are you married?”

“Listen, I’m married–happily married for the last twenty years.”

“See,” Buffy gushed.” You guys are great, even in the long-run. What would it take to convince your wife to dump you? How much?”

“You don’t understand. She sees me as a significant asset. My net present value to her is very high.”

“I’ve never understood net present value. I prefer ROI as a measure of potential value. By the way, have you ever calculated the standard deviation of the mean of disposable income for the average man between the ages of thirty-five and…”

“Hey, let’s skip this part. Look, you seem to have a very high level of self-esteem and confidence. How did you get that attitude?”

Buffy cocked her head slightly to the left and looked confused. “Why do you ask?” Buffy queried me. “You look like a guy that knows what’s what.”

“Well, frankly this self-esteem thing has always eluded me. I’ve always felt a little behind everyone else. You and Turquoise, on the other hand, seem to have a supreme level of confidence. How did you get it?”

“The hard way,” she answered. “When I was a kid, I was very shy and unsure of myself. But in the fourth grade, when I was reading Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, I had an epiphany. Adam, waxing eloquent on the subject of Eve, exclaims to the Angel Raphael that ‘Oft-times nothing profits more/ Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right/ Well manag’d.’ Though self-worth was a bit off the subject–Raphael went on to excoriate Adam for a too heavy reliance on Eve’s capabilities rather than depending on his own good judgement–reading what Adam said showed me that in my heart of hearts I had a poor self-image and this point of view was killing my creativity and motivation. Furthermore, a good self image was not the product of self-help tapes or emotionally pumping yourself up by repeating over and over again that ‘You are a great person… You are a great person… Everyone loves you….’ Rather, achievement of self-esteem was a bi-product of honest effort and intelligent choices, preparedness for the job laid out before me, right action from a position of knowledge and responsibility, and a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. In fact, what I finally got a good purchase on was that self-esteem doesn’t guarantee success at all. While it does tend to allow you to build upon it somewhat, self-esteem is really the icing, not the cake. Anyway, are you free tonight?”

Buff Bunny at Venice Beach

Average Buff Bunny at Venice Beach

Slack-jawed, I was very confused at this point. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how a buff bunny could turn out to have so much more depth than my sophisticated self. I felt worse than ever, and so I didn’t pursue the discussion any further. I needed time to mull over what Buffy had told me. It seemed like it had a seed of truth in it.

Heading back to Hollywood via Venice Boulevard, I-10, and the Santa Monica Freeway. I was nearly run off the road by a twenty-something young woman in a beat-up Toyota who was more interested in getting her hash pipe started than keeping an eye on the traffic. Pulling over out of her way, I noticed one of those wondrous LA light signs that tell us what we need to hear like what happened to the guy in LA Story. This big sign hovering over to the right of the freeway was flashing me the message “You are a Worthwhile Person… You are a Worthwhile Person….” Getting out of the car for a closer look, I figured that this god-like creature would tell me what’s what regarding confidence and self-esteem. Standing on the side of the road waiting for my own special message, the sign flashed again, “You are a Worthwhile Person… You are a Worthwhile Person… You are a Worthwhile Person… Buy a Bill Hinkley Ford Taurus Today….”

Saturday

Back in Hollywood on Saturday, I went to Hugo’s for breakfast with my brother Marty and his little genius boy Zach. I bought Zach his first Mad Magazine and told him to keep it hidden under his bed knowing that his parents would not approve. After a delicious plate of blueberry pancakes, we hopped back in my brother’s Volvo to buzz over to UCLA to see my nephew. On the way out of Hugo’s parking lot, I was rubber-necking, as usual, and noticed Terri Garr leaning on an LA Times paper box scratching her ankle. I really didn’t realize who she was at first, but I was acting cool behind my Wayfarers and she noticed me. Her gaze lingered on me a bit too long.

Mad Magazine #311

I turned and asked Marty if I should ask her if she knows anything about this esteem biz only to be berated for the next ten minutes for ever suggesting that I should talk to a star, even one who’s put on a few pounds, has on no makeup, wears a dress that looks like it was bought at K-Mart, undresses middle-aged men with her eyes, and claws at her ankles like she’s got chiggers, bad. It turns out that they have lives, too, and hate being noticed, according to Marty. That’s why they dress like they’re up-scale bag ladies these days–kind of a rebellion against what Dolly Parton has brought to Hollywood, i.e., makeup, x-ray levels of slender, Rodeo Drive haute couture, reduction mamoplasties, regular baths, country music, and wigs. Now Dolly has got this confidence thing under control, but I never could find her to get the real skinny.

Sunday

Flying back on Sunday, I opened CattleCar Airways’ in-flight magazine The Sardine, and started flipping through the pages. My eyes inadvertently fell upon an article written by a business professional other than Harvey MacKay or that other dweeb Tom Peters. Utterly surprised that I wasn’t going to be treated to twelve pages of numbing, utter crap, I quickly devoured the article. I can’t even remember the guy’s name, but he had actually written a self-esteem story that didn’t suggest I jump up and down naked on a dead man’s grave while chanting ancient incantations and swatting myself across the butt with the right-front leg bone of a cow. Indeed, his article was telling me the same sort of things that Buffy told me, only I could understand it.

He said that all that crap about walking on burning coals, chanting motivational mantras, and the like was useless. What really worked was setting realistic goals and achieving them, one step at a time. Success, it seems, is achieved in the doing not in the wishing.

By the end of the article I had slipped into a trance. I began to meditate on man, woman, life, death, leisure, work, love, hate, infinity. I fell half asleep and a few minutes later seemed to awaken.

Looking out of the window of my 737 at thirty-two thousand feet, I had a vision. Looking up into huge and bright cumulonimbus clouds, I saw the dark blue of the sky open up and viewed a long line of cats, bunnies, blacks, whites, indians, poor folks, dogs, glam punks, script writers, lunatics, buff bunnies, and a host of AT&T customer service representatives all marching and singing up a long stairway into the open arms of St. Peter. Each had a look of supreme confidence on their faces, a look of satisfaction, of a job well done.

Escalator to Heaven

I knew immediately that each of them had renounced all efforts to increase self-esteem and confidence via Tony Robbins, fundamentalist positive confession, all of the two thousand motivational self-help books printed between 1987 and 1990, Leo Buscaglia, and the Institute for Self Actualization. They had all instead achieved what they had set out to do by setting out to do something that had intrinsic value to the individual. Many had achieved a specific level of athletic skill, had acquired and mastered a difficult subject material, had caught fifty birds in a week, had set obtainable goals with regard to their business or personal lives, had learned to balance a check book, or had overcome some disability by sheer will power and guts. They had all attained what they had set out for themselves, not by emotional chicanery, but rather by defining what they wanted to achieve and then setting out a path that would take them there one goal at a time. Self-esteem and confidence, for these individuals, were the results of their efforts, not the end. Confidence doesn’t drive success, preparedness does. Confidence is the result not the road.

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