On the Contrary The Gift of Envy

November 16, 2001
The summer I was 20 years old, I worked as a maid at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel and Casino. My uniform consisted of an orange-and-blue plaid smock not unlike those worn by pretzel vendors at major league football games. The smock was matched with a pair of dark blue polyester pants with a thick elastic waistband and a crotch that hung to mid-thigh. It was a uniform custom-fit for pregnant maids, or maids with extremely short legs. I was neither.

If I rolled up the waistband to adjust the crotch, the pants rose to mid-calf, exposing white legs and short dark socks. If I left the waistband as it was, the long crotch caused me to walk as if I had braces on my legs. In retrospect, I realize that the job was one of those life-changing events that woke me up to the value of a college education. But at the time, I was too distracted by envy.

You see, I had applied at the hotel along with a number of women I knew from college. After my application was processed, I was handed a pair of yellow rubber gloves and instructed on the importance of creating triangular "courtesy folds" on the rolls of toilet paper in each guest bathroom. "At the Sahara Tahoe, these details matter," the trainer explained in a far more serious tone than the subject called for.

Two of my friends, however, were granted vastly different assignments. One, a blond beauty straight off the set of a 1940s film noir, was hired as a lifeguard. Another was hired as the pool cocktail waitress. Both of them were named Karen.

Every day from my perch inside the guest rooms on the upper floors, I could see the Karens "working" in the sun alongside the hotel's large blue pool. Gripping a toilet brush in one hand, a wastebasket in the other, I felt like the mongrel puppy at an animal shelter that has to compete with purebred collies for adoption. Even the two-dollar tip I occasionally plucked from used pillowcases didn't alleviate my deep-seated envy.

Of course, at the time, I rationalized my employment situation in the most mature way I knew how: "I'm too fair-skinned to be a lifeguard and not slutty enough to be a cocktail waitress."

Sadly, my jealousy over the Karens was not an isolated event. Envy is something I've battled ever since I entered the work world, although it often lurks -- at least for a while -- behind other emotions.

I listen to accomplished writers at bookstore readings and comment, with the thin-lipped superiority of a New York Times book critic, about how the writer wasn't that funny, or how unfortunate it was that her last three books didn't sell as well as the first.

I learn about a 13-year-old art prodigy who's commanding six figures for original oils and state, with Freudian concern, how tragic it is that she doesn't have time for hopscotch.

Sometimes, though, the envy is more apparent.

For example, I recently learned that a cousin, now in his mid-30s, had just masterminded his second takeover of an ailing pharmaceutical company. All I could think about was how lamentable it was that my résumé didn't yet boast a single corporate takeover, even though I'm already 40.

Among the many other professionals I've envied are, in no particular order, jailhouse ministers, symphony conductors, playwrights, art-house auctioneers, and anthropology professors. I've also found myself wishing I could be more like people who wear loud clothing or sport colorful tattoos. (Just for the record, I have never envied politicians or accountants.)

For a time I thought my chronic sense of envy was the result of a basic dissatisfaction with my own career choices. But I've recently come to realize that envy is so much more than insecurity.

In September, like everyone else with a television, I sat riveted to footage of New York City firefighters clawing through the rubble that was once the World Trade Center. As I watched them working, covered with sweat, grime, and unspeakable grief, I began thinking about the truly important work that firefighters do. I began to envy their bravery and sense of civic duty. I found myself wondering if I was too old to become a firefighter, completely overlooking the fact that I'm a wuss who's scared of fire and heights. Still, I envied their commitment and determination.

Then it dawned on me that envy is not necessarily about insecurity or unhappiness. It's also about admiration. I've envied others, and coveted -- and, yes, sometimes disparaged -- their capabilities because the qualities those people exhibit are qualities I admire and aspire to.

When I was 20, I envied the Karens because they set out to get "fun" jobs that summer, while I simply took what was available. I envied -- and admired -- their ability to focus and get what they wanted.

The writers I envy most are those who not only write with brilliance but also are disciplined enough to complete whole novels year after year.

And I envy my cousin because he's young, smart as hell, and extremely goal-minded.

When I really think about it, I admire success, public service, artistry, loyalty, confidence, and teaching in any form, and the people I most envy are those who exhibit these qualities in spades.

Now, whenever I feel the sickening knife-twist of envy, I don't automatically think it's because I've accomplished less than I think I should. Instead, I try to see what it is about a person I envy that I also admire. In a sense, the people I'm most jealous of are those who can plug me back into my own value system and remind me what characteristics and behaviors are important to me.

The writers, artists, firefighters, and yes, cocktail waitresses in my life have all given me a tremendous gift: the gift of envy. Now, if I can only teach them about the vital importance of triangular courtesy folds.

Workforce, November 2001, pp. 20-22 -- Subscribe Now!

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