The Art of the Apology

Easter Lily


First, a confession: I am ever-so-slightly sensitive to excessive criticism, sudden and prolonged silence, thoughtlessness, neglect, math, bad manners, misunderstandings, suggestions that I should do more housework, suggestions that I should get more exercise, suggestions that I am less than brilliant/sexy/gorgeous (all ridiculous, but still), excessive noise, reminders of my mistakes, people not eating the gorgeous food I cook for them, people not raving about the gorgeous food I cook for them, pranks (I wouldn’t if I were you), being yelled at, being yelled at in a British accent (it’s never happened, but I just know it would be worse), being unfairly blamed, violence — especially involving children, margarine (no), being made a fool of, betrayal, ungratefulness, and efforts to proselytize me. This is a partial list.


You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that I have given some careful thought over the years to the Art of the Apology. Sadly, in our every-man-for-himself/every-woman-for-herself culture, it is a rather lost art. A humble, sincere apology is a miraculous thing –an eternal thing, really. Deliver one –just one– and watch it show up on a thousand other doorsteps, echo through a thousand other lives.


Too bad apologizing makes us all feel like we’re about to die.


First, of course, you have to recognize when an apology is needed. A few easy ones to get started: if you tell everyone except your bewildered boyfriend that you have broken up with him, then you must apologize; if you unintentionally perform your famous, dead-on, viciously clever Michele Bachman imitation for one of her local campaign staffers, then you must apologize; if you act like Kim Kardashian or Snooki or are fans of either horror show, you must apologize.   If you’re the kind of boob who routinely asks grooms-to-be when they’re scheduled to have their balls removed (translation: get married), especially in the presence of their fiancees, you should assume that most of what you say is offensive and apologize every time you speak.


A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s. 


Once you are aware that you’ve caused injury or offense, you must decide if and how much that actually matters to you; without sincerity, your apology is worth nothing. If you fully intend to keep on choosing the trappings of the world over the people in it, if you fully intend to keep on using the shards of your own broken heart to break everyone else’s, if you fully intend to keep clinging too tight or running too fast or getting too emotional or getting too rational –whatever it is you do when you’re most afraid –then there’s no point apologizing; you’ll never be done and everyone will know you don’t mean it.


But if you do mean it …if you know you’ll keep making the same mistakes and re-breaking the same hearts but you really want the chance to try again anyway, then here are the kind of words people long to hear when they’ve been wounded:


“I’m so sorry I hurt you. I never want to hurt you –you’re important to me. I know I criticized you/neglected you/yelled at you in a Southern accent…and I know I’ve done that more than once. I was afraid/angry/lonely/sad about ______ and I took it out on you. I imagine it hurts a little bit more every time I behave like this and I hate that. Please forgive me and let me try and make it better.”


If you’re like me, your hands will shake a little bit (or a lot) when you apologize like this. Your peripheral vision might close in for a second or two and you’ll hear a high-pitched ringing in your ears. Your chest will burn, your voice will crack, your bones will feel like they’re melting. You’ll wonder fleetingly if this is a heart attack…maybe a stroke. A seizure?


Yes. All of them. Humbling yourself enough to say you’re sorry and really mean it feels like every physical affliction you’ve ever seen on Grey’s Anatomy (we all know you’ve seen at least two seasons). A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s.  That’s why we always remember genuine art. That’s why we always remember a genuine apology. And that’s why both are so damned expensive.

Athletic Prowess

Henry backyard closeup


I confess a certain indifference when it comes to my eight-year-old’s swimming career. Since he’s young, I’m still cherishing hopes that he may one day abandon sports altogether and become a musical theater performer like a proper Gypsy (of course the WASP in me hopes equally that he’ll make enough money to stay out of our basement).


The main problem, if I’m being honest, is that I am out of my element as a Pool Mom. I believe I would make a brilliant and terrifying Stage Mother, but I can’t get my head around the values and customs of pool culture. I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


I, on the other hand, watch with equal parts amusement  (I can’t help it –the kids who swim diagonally across the pool make me giggle) and confusion (is THAT my kid? No. That one? Wait, did he win? Oh, that’s not mine either) –more like a monkey or a lemur than an owl or an eagle. Once in a while, one of the Swim Elders will generously and soberly remark that Henry’s freestyle or kicks are coming along nicely. “Okay! Thanks!” I say, realizing too late that I’m not supposed to be smiling. Too much smiling –forgive the pun—is frowned upon.


Obviously, I can appreciate the inherent value of sports for children, though my own athletic prowess peaked at about seven.  For two glorious years at Wooddale Elementary school, I enjoyed a minor celebrity as the most flexible girl in my little after-school gymnastics class; I could sit in the splits for HOURS. My parents, I’m sure, were seeing red flags –that’s NOT the reputation you want your daughter to have once adolescence begins.


I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


They needn’t have worried.  By 14 or 15, my marginally-promising gymnastics career had been cut brutally short by my boobs, my height, and the fact that I am not at all athletic. I think I stuck with gymnastics until I was maybe 10, when my nice, gentle tumbling instruction ended and my parents blindly enrolled me in a cut-throat, hyper-competitive, Mary Lou Retton cult gymnastics school inspired, I’m guessing, by the Soviets or North Koreans.


Once I became a tumbling school dropout, I quit organized sports entirely, took up baking, and fell into a comfortable rhythm of music, boy-craziness, and pretending to have my period during gym. Pre-boobs, I had been a fast runner, a good swimmer, and a decent skater. Once junior high rolled around, I had more or less accepted that I wasn’t athletic. To compensate, I made a kind of art form out of pretending to participate in ball sports during P.E. by running back and forth a lot, making it clear by shielding my face with my arms that I was unavailable for passes.


This established a kind of lovely symbiosis with the girls in my class who actually liked sports and wanted to be stars. If by some freak accident or misunderstanding I ended up with the ball, I would immediately pass it to one of them and they would get to do whatever unfathomable, sporty tricks occurred to them. Lord knows no such tricks ever occurred to me. They wanted glory, the opportunity to shine; I wanted anonymity, the assurance that the goal I may or may not have scored for the opposing team would be forgiven and never mentioned again. Win-win.


So you can appreciate, I’m sure, how the whole Sports Parent gig is a bit of a reach for me. Most of those other pool parents were athletes themselves when they were growing up –if not in competitive swimming, then in some other sport, like basketball or at least cross-country skiing. While they were doing drills and being coached how not to cry when they ruined everything (I would never have mastered that), I was singing sad songs on Katie Baumgartner’s karaoke machine and writing horrifying love poems to boys who probably really wished I wouldn’t.


There is a certain athleticism to it –you can’t imagine how much speed and agility it takes to make sure you get to the other side of your high school in time to casually walk some cute boy to his next class and then book it to yours, next door to the one you just left.  Endurance? I can cry for DAYS. Can you do that? No. All you can do is skate and fight and flick a tiny black disk past a mummy-giant into a butterfly net all at the same time. If only that were as impressive.  Don’t feel bad –not everyone can be an emotional athlete.


Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak.


And not everyone can be a real one. I thought I had come to terms, more or less, with my lack of athleticism. I thought I was done with PE and all the sports activities –forced or at least pressured– that naturally come with childhood and adolescence. I thought I had grown into a worthwhile human being despite that particular deficit and I thought I could leave it comfortably in the past.


Then Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak. She likes to play scenes from my early life while I’m trying to help my kids with math or teach them not to beg for love or friendship from people who won’t freely give it. See? she whispers and rattles as I feel my way in the dark, you’re far from figuring this out yourself. They know. And so they won’t trust you, even when you do know what you’re talking about. She can be mean, this phantom childhood, and loud.


And she really likes going with me to the pool, where the other parents practically dangle off the balcony where we’re all corralled, watching every stroke with their silent intensity. Don’t lean over like that, the ghost warns. You’ll fall –you know what you’re like. And besides, it’s not like you know what to watch for. You can’t help him with this.


And it’s true, I can’t. The Swim Elders can probably see that, which doesn’t particularly bother me, and Henry can also probably see that, which does bother me. Because I know, my ghost childhood has reminded me, that the scariest moments of childhood aren’t the ones when you don’t know what to do –they’re the ones when you can see that your parents don’t know what to do.


So I have to discipline myself to let my little boy witness my inexperience, my insecurity, my vulnerability, so he can get stronger. Not so he can become a stronger swimmer –I have no idea what will make him a stronger swimmer. What I do know: getting comfortable with vulnerability –both in himself and in others– will make him a stronger friend, a stronger teammate, a stronger person. I can help him with this. Then perhaps when he’s a Swim Elder himself, watching tiny swimmers make their way diagonally across the pool, someone will ask him why he’s smiling and laughing so much and he’ll say, “Oh, I learned that from my mom.”

Full Disclosure

Lizzie pigtails 012712


I spent the better part of my free time this evening filling out forms, inducing the kind of bored, low-grade rage in me I used to associate with algebra and tanning. I have to fight the urge to write “English, some Pig Latin, Gibberish, and Troll” in answer to the question about what languages we speak at home. Lizzie’s weaknesses? Old married men and jellybeans, but I know I shouldn’t write that.


Anything I’d like the teacher to know? Um, yeah … she’s my daughter’s preschool teacher, so there’s a lot I’d like her to know: her ABC’s, some biographical information about each of the Disney Princesses, how to do a cartwheel, a couple of Beyonce songs, some kick-ass dance moves, how to stop a bleeder on the playground without Kleenex or towels, a few constellations, some conversational French and Italian, basic street fighting, advanced wilderness survival, Photoshop, three or four circus tricks, and how to deliver a sincere apology, for starters.


Lizzie’s weaknesses? Old married men and jellybeans, but I know I shouldn’t write that.


Any questions I have for my child’s teacher? Yes: why can’t I ever do my hair the way Matt does, no matter how many lessons he gives me in the salon? Why won’t everyone leave Britney Spears alone? Isn’t she in enough pain watching how adorable Justin Timberlake turned out? When are the Democrats and Republicans going to stop acting like assholes and start solving problems? Why aren’t men better about staying in touch with their friends? Why did they have to cancel Freaks & Geeks? Can’t we just get rid of margarine altogether? Why won’t Liam Neeson write me back? When are women going to stop feeling bad about their bodies? When are men going to start feeling bad about their bodies? Why do people think Jesus and God give a shit about their kids’ soccer playoffs? Don’t we all want those guys focusing on poverty or the AIDS epidemic? Should we move to Edina or Minnetonka? How many candles is too many?


Immunizations are a quicker answer: Lizzie is immune to Measles/Mumps/Rubella, Diptheria, Tetanus, Hepatitis, the Flu, and Reason.


Obviously, I didn’t write any of this on the forms. That’s what conferences are for.