Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's all about winning

Tonight I had five people from church over for a little dinner party.  Every few months the ward coordinates these small-group dinners:  They pass the sign-up sheet around, and I indicate whether I want to host, how many people I can accommodate, and what my views are on children.  The person in charge then sends me the contact information for a few people who more or less fit my requirements, and from there I organize the dinner.

Standard church procedure would probably be to coordinate a potluck, with everyone bringing random and potentially horrible food that I would pretend to like while secretly gagging.  But that's not how I roll.  Instead, I check to make sure that no one is vegetarian or allergic to anything, and then I tell them what time to show up and where, but with express instructions not to bring anything.  Then I prepare the fail-safe menu of Mormon comfort food that I inherited from my parents:  spinach salad, ham, cheesy potatoes, and the Davis familiy chocolate cake.  It really is the perfect dinner for this sort of party.  It's super-easy to make, and everyone always loves it.  I've made it at least five times during the past year or so, and every time people have polished off the potatoes and chocolate cake (either at the table or in the form of take-away leftovers) and asked for the recipes for both (the potatoes I give, the cake I don't).  It makes me happy.  And all the credit goes to Lady and mon père, who gave me the recipes and a childhood full of delicious Sunday dinners.

Hey Lady - I got compliments on the placemats!
My guests this time were as follows:
  • Young white married couple: he's in law school, she's a high-school music teacher, no kids.
  • Young white married couple: he just graduated from law school, she's a middle-school math teacher, no kids.
  • Single African-American woman in her mid-sixties who introduced herself as the "Nubian Queen."
The Nubian Queen was by far the most interesting.  She teaches Spanish classes to retired people and claims to make a mean chili con carne.  She also had many stories of her trials and tribulations:  She had survived thyroid cancer (which she was convinced was the result of her habit, as a child, of eating dirt out at the Dugway proving grounds) that was removed by opening her up "from here to here" [dramatic hand gestures to heighten the gruesome effect].  She was also the recent victim of theft in her own home.  Someone had pinched a $24 packet of makeup from her upstairs bathroom!  And the thing of it was, there were only three people it could have been!  One was a woman who was "challenged" [and we all know that "challenged" people don't wear makeup], and the other two were men [significant looks all round]. 

The others were somewhat less interesting.  They were pretty typical young married Mormons:  Grew up in Utah, went on missions, met at BYU, came out here for law school.  And they were so very, very nice.  So nice.

I'm just going say it:  Nice Mormons drive me nuts.  I don't know all the reasons why, but there's a certain type of Mormon niceness that I just can't stand.  I don't really know how to describe it other than as a vacuous, saccharine-sweet niceness.  It's what I think of when the Witch in Into the Woods sings, "You're so nice.  You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice!"  And when I encounter it, I sometimes react by being extra not-nice (which isn't admirable but probably better than hitting the nice person).  To be honest, I sometimes wonder if I'm reacting to a trait that I see but don't like in myself.  Whenever people say that niceness is my most salient trait, a little piece of me shrivels up and dies.

Niceness is a condition that affects many of us, but it manifests with alarming frequency and intensity among returned missionaries who are recent graduates from BYU.  Unfortunately, my law-student and music-teacher guests tonight each have extreme cases of niceness.  I'd noticed it when I'd met them in the ward and had avoided them because of it, but tonight, in the interest of being a gracious host, I decided to see if there was any backbone behind that niceness.  For the music teacher, I decided that yes, she was nice, but deceptively so.  She was also smart and more than capable of getting what she wanted despite her niceness.  Her husband, alas, didn't fare so well on closer examination. 

He was telling me about his experiences in law school and some of his interviews for summer jobs.  He explained that he only had an average GPA and that, despite his being eligible for patent work (which requires an engineering or other technical background, a rare condition among lawyers, and is therefore highly marketable), he hadn't been successful at landing a job.  I asked him to explain, and he gave me two stories:

First, he said that, during one interview, his interviewer asked him about a line on his resume that said he had co-founded a company in Kenya that brought affordable water to people who needed it.  The company's business model was to sell water in plastic bags, rather than bottles, since bags could be produced at roughly half the cost of bottles -- a simple and practical solution for a part of the world that is in desperate need of water.  Unfortunately, political corruption, ineffective regulation, and anti-competitive cartels stifled the company before it could flourish.  Boy, if I'd that that on my resume, it would have been the highlight of the interview.  Talk about a slam dunk!  But what did Mr. Nice say?  "Oh, that, well, it's much less of a big deal than it looks on paper."  He totally downplayed the experience and the things he learned from it and, in doing so, he undermined his credibility by inadvertently suggesting that he'd puffed up his resume.  Why?  Because, he said, he is just too "honest" and "frank" and didn't want to come across as "prideful" or boasting.  From my perspective, that's total b.s.  Telling the truth and telling a good story are two different things, and they are definitely not mutually exclusive -- look at President Monson, for crying out loud!   

Second, to illustrate how he was not a "confrontational or argumentative" person, my guest told me about one of his professors, who had had an impressive career as a litigator prior to going into academia.  The man is pompous and arrogant and probably a jerk.  One day, in class, the professor went on some tirade and asked the question, "What is the only thing that matters in being a lawyer?"  My guest paused for dramatic effect -- and I said "Winning."  My guest reacted with sincere astonishment and said, "Yes!  How did you know?  That's exactly what my professor said!"  How did I know?  Because that was the only possible answer!  OF COURSE that's what he was going to say!  My guest's response:  "Oh, I would have said something like, 'Helping people.'"  Right.  Of course you would have.  But that was the wrong answer.  For two reasons:  First, because, as a practical matter, as a lawyer (especially a litigator) you don't help "people," you help your clients, and you help your clients by winning for them.  If you can't win, people won't want to be your clients.  Second, because even if you have a more nuanced/idealistic view of what lawyers do, the professor is clearly the sort of person who cares enormously about winning.  So while another answer may not be wrong in the abstract, it was the wrong answer to that question posed by that person.

These two incidents illustrate part of what annoys me so much about this "niceness" that I've described; namely, that it seems to be the opposite of "gumption."  In each case, my guest was so concerned about being humble and helpful and service-oriented that he completely failed to play the game.  He seems to think that in order to be a good member of the church, he needs to be a milksop who never puts himself forward in a way that might make him shine -- which means that he lets important opportunities pass him by.  I just don't believe that being a good Mormon is incompatible with being ambitious and figuring out how to play the game to get ahead in school or professional life.  There's nothing dishonest about presenting yourself in a way that helps people recognize the God-given talents that you have or the skills that you've been blessed to develop.  Nor is it necessarily inappropriate to want to "win" in your profession or other pursuits.  Sheesh, buddy -- get some gumption and do something with yourself!


Anonymous said...

So glad your dinner was delicious! So glad the secret cake recipe is not getting out. Glad to be of help in the placemat department. Lady

Ashley said...

Yet again you have me laughing out loud (in the middle of nap time when my house is absolutely silent... somewhat unnerving some days). But I couldn't agree more with your last paragraph!!! Maybe that'll have to be my next "smack down" subject for opportune moments!