Sunday, July 13, 2008


I'm always fascinated by how others see us as opposed to how we see ourselves. I had an interesting conversation (okay...facebook IM conversation) with my friend Thea a few days ago about perception and it's stuck with me.
According to Thea, I was the envy of the "cool kids" in high school because I could sing. You could have knocked me over with a feather. First of all, I didn't really sing all that well in high school-not compared to now anyway after I've had some training. Second, I find it hard to believe that I was the envy of anyone in high school, except perhaps for the girls who were less endowed than I was. (and believe me, if I could have traded boobs with them I would have). I was a geek-I'm still a geek; I just dress better. Third, I don't even know who the "cool kids" were; they operated on a different plain of existence. They hung out with my cousins.
High school was tough for me on a number of levels. I grew up in Quebec (Dollard-des-Ormeaux to be exact) and went to elementary school there, and 2 years of high school. In QC, high school was considered grades 7-11, and then you did 2 years of CEGEP before university. When we moved to Kitchener in 1977, I had spent grade 7-8 in a private girls' school that only accepted 50 students a year and required an entrance exam prior to acceptance. Academics were paramount; a 75% was a failure, and if you were not in the top 5 in the class, you were worthless. I was in the top tier in class in everything but math, and I still maintained a math average in the 80s. We were also taught almost exclusively by nuns-Sisters of St Joseph-with the exception of the Spanish teacher and the gym teacher. We were allowed to fraternize with the boys' school 3 times a year for school dances and other than that the company was estrogen-driven. I had asked to go to that school because I was terrified of the high school I would have attended in DDO. It was safe, it was protective, and it in no way prepared me for high school in Kitchener.
Because of my academics, when I arrived in Kitchener, I was placed in Grade 10 instead of the Grade 9 I should have been in. My cousin Pat has never quite forgiven me for that one, even though I had no control over it because we were supposed to start Grade 9 together, and instead I ended up a year ahead of her.
To say I was overwhelmed is not even close to the feelings I encountered. I was in a strange city, in a new school with the only similarity to my previous one being uniforms and girls only. It was easily 3 times the size, and the emphasis was more on sports and student council-at least it seemed like that to me. I don't make friends easily and the culture switched from French to German. Kitchener can also be very insular and I had trouble understanding how to fit in. I still do; I just don't care anymore.
Music and theatre were my salvation. I loved to sing, and I loved music and choir became my solace. Theatre was perfect because I could be whoever you wanted me to be. If you didn't like me; wait one minute-try this persona instead. It took me years to shed the chameleon tendency and just be me. The theatrical productions took place in the all-boys school across the road from the all-girls school because the boys school had a stage. The theatre crew were all a bit eccentric-we were smart (we read Thoreau for fun, listened to Springsteen and stopped parties on Saturday nights to watch Saturday Night Live-it was still funny then. Of our group, 3 are now university professors, others own their own businesses, at least one is a professional musician, and most of us completed at least college or university) we were loyal and we were not into sports or school politics. I loved it and I felt like I fit in. It was okay to be smart in our group.
I was the kid who sat in the back of the class and said nothing. I was debilitatingly shy and hadn't learned yet how to live as an introvert in an extrovert-dominant world. Every once in awhile I would be compelled to say something and usually caused jaws to drop all over the classroom. I was bullied in high school; the wings of the theatre became by safe place. I also had no social skills and struggled to make friends.
I look back on that teen who almost committed suicide in high school and wrote a poem called "The nobody poem" and am truly amazed that anyone would envy me then. Of course, I have a hard time imagining why anyone would envy me at all.
I'm a 3rd generation, half-empty glass-raised girl. I've been actively trying to change my thinking, but it's tough to change 45 years of thinking overnight.
People who don't know me (and some that do...) have called my profile picture gorgeous. I don't see that, because it looks like me. All I see is fat face and big nose. Now granted, it's a good picture-my friend Dave took it in our backyard. My father used to call me a stupid, ugly, lazy slut and it stuck. Now I know I'm not stupid(except in math and that's why accountants and calculators were born) and I'm not, nor have I ever been, a slut (and I really don't think he knew what that meant when he called me that in high school but in any hear it enough...) I can be lazy but I can also work like a mad woman-I work from home around a 3 year old after all. That leaves ugly and it's how I've always felt.
I'm average height and I was born in the wrong era. I would have been a poster girl in the Rubenesque period. I'm short waisted, big busted, wide hipped (my friend Clare's mom once said I had good child bearing hips-you could turn a bus in them. The irony of that is I never managed to carry a baby in my uterus long enough to find out) and have fat thighs and cellulite that won't go away. I have short stumpy little legs and short stumpy little fingers on a short stumpy little body. Yeah...that's gorgeous alright. I've always felt like the Pillsbury doughgirl with PMS, regardless of what the number on the scale said. Shopping for clothes has always been a nightmare because if it fit the bust it didn't fit anywhere else. Unfortunately, Mother Nature and Father Time have now balanced the scale so that clothes fit sizes I never dreamed existed.
I don't think I've ever felt pretty. I've certainly rarely felt sexy and gorgeous-never. These days, mainly I feel fat and frumpy. Some days I know I look better than others, and thanks to no smoking and carefully staying out of the sun, I'm aging pretty well. I know I need to start working out again, and I always liked to swim, but there's that whole "bathing suit in public" thing. I'm afraid to go to the beach lest Greenpeace spray me with yellow paint and throw me back in the water...and I've felt that way since high school. I have worn a bikini exactly ONCE in my life (I was probably 13-14 and it was my cousin Kim's castoff) and I wore it for about an hour and never again-not even on my honeymoon.
I have a picture of myself at 18, standing beside my life-long friend Laureen (we've been friends since were were 3) on her deck in Vancouver. We were both in bathing suits. Now, Laureen is 6 ft tall and was a twig then. I was 5'5" on a good day standing straight and tall. She's tall, leggy, long waisted...and makes column dresses look amazing. I'm...none of the above. I was certainly not fat then but compared to my willowy friend, I always felt fat. All I can see when I look at that picture is how fat my legs look and how wide I looked compared to her.
I recently read Valerie Bertinelli's autobiography and found myself nodding in agreement many times in the book. I think we were sisters in another life. (except for the drugs part...)
I can sing pretty well, and I've been a member of the Grand Philharmonic Choir for 12 seasons. However, I don't have formal training, and when the conductor, Howard Dyck starts talking about singing a minor third scale or "to start at the E flat major bar" I panic. I sing by ear and always have. I still can't read bass clef-I'm a soprano...why would I need bass clef? :-) There are lots of people who sing much better than I do in the choir, and who have much more training than I do. I panic when we have to re-audition every year because I always feel like I'm 1 sour note await from expulsion. I don't think I'm anything to envy. I'm okay, better than some not as good as others.
I know I need to change my self-talk so that I don't pass ideas to my daughter. She is going to be tall and leggy. She's going to be really tall. Luckily, I have cousins who are raising tall girls because heaven knows I don't know what it's like to be tall. She's going to learn to be accepting and happy in her own skin...if it kills me.
And for the record:
I am not stuck up; I am shy. I have always used humour as armour and as protection. I see the world in a warped way...and it gets me through.
I am not a diva; I sing in church choir because it's how I pray. I am not there to take over or drown you out. I have a big voice. I'll do my best to blend but I suggest you sing louder and I'll stand at the far end away from the microphones.
I am not, nor have I ever been an extrovert. I have learned to deal in an extrovert world but I am very happy working from home.
I am not a hardass judgemental bitch (as an ex boyfriend once referred to me). If I come across as hardass it's because I'm protecting myself because I hurt easily and feel other people's pain acutely. I am honest. But I am also loyal and will fight fiercely for my friends, or for people who need to be fought for...if that makes me judgemental, I can own that.
I am not unapproachable. I am focussed and shy. I was always willing to help anyone who asked. If you thought I was unapproachable, you didn't try and I'm sorry you thought so. I lost alot of sleep over that particular label.
I can be intense. I'll give you that one. I can also be downright goofy. Just ask the kids who were in Annie with me...

So that's me. How do you perceive me?


Anonymous said...

Many of us remember where we were and what we were doing when JFK was shot.
The same goes for other consciousness-changing events like the moon landing
and the first time we tasted "Thrills," those purple, chicklet-like pieces
of gum that tasted like dish soap. How we knew they tasted like dish soap
is one of those forbidden secrets of childhood. However, my first such
seminal moment came the day after Labour Day, 1958. This was my first day
of school at St. Patrick's Catholic Elementary. These were the days of mass
segregation and corporal punishment. Only Catholics could attend St.
Patrick's while Protestants had to attend Alexandra Elementary down the
street. We were not aware that there were other faiths in our provincial
little city of Halifax. Also, there was a 20-foot-high fence separating the
boy's school from the girl's. The school was run, largely, by grim-faced,
vaguely Aryan-looking nuns who always seemed to be on the verge of
committing assault and battery (which, in fact, they often did).

As we sat quivering at our ancient desks with the holes for inkwells from
centuries past we were given "The Drill." We were to not go within 50 feet
of the fence separating the boys from the girls or we would be strapped.
The drill nun, obviously aware that we had no idea what a strap was,
proceeded to demonstrate. From behind the chamber of horrors that was,
nominally, her desk she produced a two-foot-long slab of quarter inch thick
leather and slammed it on her desk with such ear-splitting force that most
of us hit the floor as if fatally shot. As I lay there in a fetal position
I stole a peek at the boy across the aisle and saw the unmistakabe dark,
spreading stain on the front of his pants. This was followed by the drill
nun's scream of, "Back in your seats!" I felt badly for the boy who had wet
himself as he tried desperately to cover up his shame.

Once she was satisfied that it was unlikely that any of us would ever
procreate, let alone go near the fence, the nun started in on the rules
concerning "those Protestants." Under no circumstances were we to set foot
on their school grounds, let alone commingle with them, under penalty of the
strap. We were advised that although not strictly Satanic, Protestants were
excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. The best they could hope for was limbo
(which sounded very much like a dentist's waiting room). We were also
advised that stepping foot in the Protestant Church would result in instant
excommunication from the Catholic Church and its exclusive promise of entry
into Heaven.

Finally, we were advised that we would all be receiving a daily dose of cod
liver oil (administered in liquid form with a spoon) for our health. We
were ordered to march single file to the nurse's office where we were lined
up along the walls leading to the nurse's door. I shuddered in terror as
the screams of horror and the sounds of retching, followed by the hideous
crack of the strap, filled the hallway. My worst fears were confirmed as
students were disgorged from the torture chamber grasping their bright red
hands in agony while a pus-like substance dribbled from their wailing
mouths. Suddenly, the boy beside me collapsed on the floor. I screamed for
help as the stricken tyke lay there like a corpse. The doors flung open and
two burly nuns rushed out, grabbed the kid and dragged him into another
room, never to be seen again. Figuring him for dead and determined not to
taste the wrath of the strap I opened wide and swallowed when my time came.
As I staggered back to class with the phlegm-like substance that tasted like
an open grave permeating every pore of my senses I experienced a revelation.
I decided that life from here on would consist of a choice between misery
and death. But as time went on my young crushed spirit rose like the
phoenix as I came to the conclusion that all things considered, the gruesome
curse of cod liver oil wasn't all that different from my mother's cooking.

Fred Desjardins

Clare said...

Lisa, I stumbled on this through your Facebook link to your guest blog. I felt many of the same things you did in high school, although my issues didn't revolve around my weight, just utter insecurity. However when I was 120lbs my sisters were 95lbs and warned me off borrowing their clothes lest I stretch them, so there was some of that in later years. I can't believe my mother said that about your hips!! It was something she was told and I supposed she must have said it to make you feel better. Yikes.

I feel the same way you do about music. Orchestra and stage band were my salvation. I loved hanging out with the plummers and I know exactly those nights you're referring to. I also love to sing but couldn't fit it all in. I've never thought you unapproachable or judgemental. Actually, it's never occurred to me. We haven't spent a lot of time together since university (somewhere else I felt out of place but I've enjoyed getting to know you again through Facebook.

It took me a very long time to be comfortable with myself. Sure there are things I would change, but I finally think I'm good enough. What is it that makes some of us (heck maybe most of us) feel that way? I only hope I can raise my girls to know that they are good enough just as they are. I'm sure trying to have that kind of relationship with them.

Anyway, from one busy mother to another, you're ok by me and I must get back to work now.