I’ve spent a good portion of my time, from the age of four, attempting to upstage my youngest brother, Benjamin. This is no easy task, as Benjamin has spent a good portion of his time attempting to be perfect.
Take four years ago, for example. Ben was graduating from high school (salutatorian) and I was graduating from college (college!) I know, I know – as Conan so aptly illuminated on Sunday, earning a college degree is the definition of NBD, but still, it was something that I managed to pull off before Benjamin (ignore the four year head start), and so I was triumphant.
With nearly no honors to speak of, the diploma itself – plus a weekend of hard-core eating- was all I had to cling to. And so, unversed in the language of Phi Beta Kappa, Suma Cum Whata, I used the opportunity to make reservations at all the Philadelphia fine dining establishments I could think of, an epic Open Table sweep. We ate tuna tartare and stuffed quail and ice cream frozen in liquid nitrogen and very nearly forgot about the fact that I hadn’t done terribly well in college, had spent most of my time preparing for a profession I wasn’t even going into (and would later go into and, um, not like.) More $200,000 tapas, anyone?
My parents did what they could to stem my revelry, seeing it for what it was: a direct attack on their youngest, soon-to-be-high school graduate, an attempt to trump one only really trump-able by virtue of his age. Once the weekend of eating was over, they declined to further mention my collegiate achievement and also declined to throw me a graduation party, instead reserving our old bar mitzvah-era friend, the Omelet Man, for a soiree solely in honor of Benjamin.
I pushed back, of course, inviting a few of my own friends to the party, announcing each gift I received with great effect, holding up every corny card as proof that I had somehow managed to subvert a system designed to keep me from all the $50 AmEx gift cards that were rightfully mine. But despite the act, I was already starting to lose interest in the battle at hand. My mind was drifting to the next big showdown, four years down the line.
That’s when Benjamin – unless he pulled a Benjamin and graduated in three years, a possibility I would have to prepare for – would celebrate his own college graduation. And if I wanted to best him again, I needed to be ready. Obviously, I couldn’t depend on actual achievement to get me there: medical school, law school, any graduate school of any sort of worth was, well, beyond a long shot. So I did the next logical thing. I threatened to get married.
It would be a June wedding, I decided, which would coincide perfectly with Dartmouth’s quarter system. A big blow-out, timed perfectly before or after graduation, it didn’t much matter. Because, just like rock beats scissors, blushing bride beats glowing graduate, no matter how many As he’s earned.
This was all especially hilarious because I was beyond single at the time. Like, kissing more people in an evening than I’d had drinks single. (Note: I had extremely high tolerance.) Creating a list on the fridge white board of people I’d had relations with that semester single. (Note: a long list.) Doing the walk of shame in a satin dress and flip flops single. (Note: men’s flip flops.) Quite single.
Of course, it’s now four years later, and the joke’s on me. Because not only am I totally not married, I had to deal with not one but two superstar graduations this spring.
That’s right, my little quest ended up f-ing me over in a massive way. Instead of recruiting a June groom, I recruited a May medical school graduate.
One who happened to graduate first in his class*. One whose attendance is required at countless awards ceremonies. One whose grandparents think he’s practically already a licensed cardiologist, dermatologist and oncologist all rolled into one, and one whose parents plastered a picture of his face on a cake from BJ’s at his wouldn’t-have-even-been-canceled-if-the-rapture-actually-went-down graduation party.
And Benjamin, oh Benjamin. Benjamin did not disappoint. Instead of flailing in college he blossomed like some weird wine with a four-year sweet spot, racking up certificates and cash prizes and awards that required pledges. (You know the kind. Or maybe, like me, you don’t.) While “philosophy of physics PhD program” might not sound as snazzy as “medical school,” the truth is undeniable: Benjamin is really very smart, if less easy for parents to brag about in a conventional way. He’s brilliant and driven and passionate, and I really am very proud of him. Ditto on David.
But this is what it all boils down to: my father and my husband-to-be have doctoral degrees, and both my brothers are poised to do the same. My best friend is en route to getting her medical degree (it’s the home stretch, M!) All three of my closest friends from college are currently in professional school, the prestigious kind.
And lest you think this is all just about resume building, you should know that my brother Jacob is laid back and wonderful, so cool that every single one of my bridesmaids called dibs on him within hours of my announcing engagement; that Dave is considered a saint in many circles for the way he puts up with me; that Megan is every superlative in the book: the kindest, the more compassionate, the most caring, the best, really.
Round that group out with a few hangers-on like Christy Lee and you can maybe start to see why sometimes I feel like my whole life is composed of hoards of perfect people, all taking great strides in their careers and educations, all continuing to be their happy, peppy, selfless selves, all doing things that make me incredibly proud and grateful to know them, but all who overwhelm me a bit with their ability to excel at life, with the ease with which they do it.
What do you do when you find that you’ve somehow, unintentionally, surrounded yourself with people so perfect, you could never ever measure up?
Some people – my exceedingly kind best friend, for example – would say that the problem isn’t one of substance, that it’s simply arisen in my head because I’m too into comparisons. And it’s true: I have a knack for seeing little contests everywhere, for tallying the things I don’t have, for computing timetables whose chief characteristic is milestones I haven’t met. But I still think there’s more to this storm of perfection swirling all around me than that. I think that maybe it’s one of those side-effects of growing up with super smart siblings, of going to a school full of high-achievers, of gravitating toward people you think are really, really wonderful. They stay really, really wonderful and do some wonderful things and go on some wonderful journeys that you just can’t join them on.
And so here you’re left, cheering them on, clapping when they’re introduced as doctor for the first time or sworn into Phi Beta Kappa. You write them cards and buy those stupid gift cards you once coveted, and you realize that you just can’t best them, they’re too good. All you can do is work on your own timetable and hope that maybe one day, when you finally get your late bloomer act together, you’ll have a victory to celebrate too. And even if it’s not as grand, even if it’s a little too little, a little too late, maybe they’ll be nice enough to cheer you on too.
And you know they will. Because they’re perfect like that.
*kind of, in my opinion; definitely, in his mother’s, and hers is the only opinion that matters.