I recently had the odd experience of reading an obit of someone who was once — so briefly, so many years ago — unkind to me. Her obit made her sound really nice. Obits tend to do that, as they should. The thing is, I’m pretty sure the person in question thought I was so stupid, so naive, so without redeeming value that I would not actually understand that she was running me down to my face. She thought that her contemptuous insults were coded, over my head, a joke to be shared with the other two people present.
Just last week, someone introduced me to the idea of “mean up” and “mean down.” Well, it wasn’t the idea that was new, but the expression, mean down, a term for those who cultivate people of equal or greater stature, while unleashing rudeness on those that they consider below them. No one on the planet would admit to being “mean down,” but my hunch is that almost everyone has at least one or two less-than-stellar moments — snapping at a store clerk, getting frustrated at the post office, ridiculing a newbie.
Now I have this obit in front of me, in which people say the person I remember as cruel was intelligent, kind and compassionate. Are they being polite? Did I catch her on a bad night? Was it all in my head, a product of a raw, insecure young woman who was, in fact, in over her head?
I don’t know. But it occurs to me that if one is very, very vigilant about never being mean down, then one might have the solace of knowing that a near stranger won’t read one’s obituary and think: “What a sad premature death, although I remember her as a real bitch.”
Stories about mean up/mean down, or even one’s own fleeting moments of bitchery in the comments, please.
(P.S. I’ve been very careful here NOT to give any details that would reveal the subject. But, given that the mystery community is mourning the death of Barbara Serenella — and, on many blogs, encouraging organ donation, as Barbara died while waiting for a liver transplant — I want to be clear that it’s not her, or any other novelist. I have lovely memories of Barbara, but the stand-out is watching her win the Anthony just last fall. I can’t imagine that Barbara ever had a mean-down encounter with anyone.)