Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

16 thoughts on “Slipstream

    • I do my math slightly differently: when the partnership is so good, one plus one equals much more than two, so that we are strengthened to be our better selves when left to our own devices by a work schedule, required travel, and so on—but that partnership does have to be consistently refueled by together-time to be so potent when we have to be apart. 😀 I do think you know what I mean, though. 😉

        • Yes indeed; just thinking of a sort of parallel part of the wholeness-in-togetherness puzzle. 😀 I *do* know that you get that, since you and your love have been happily together all of these years!! 😀

  1. how refreshingly illustrated, all while giving true definition to the idea of being in someone’s slipstream – a natural fit for some, and a position that requires the ability to be content with hovering just behind, but always on call, and always ready to smooth out the path for another

    In the earliest years of our marriage, I suppose it was that way with my husband (although to a much lesser extent than your own situation). While he worked diligently at building his career (as a mechanical engineer), I was busily ironing uniforms, cooking meals, raising children, and taking the midnight shift so he could be well-rested and prepared for the challenges of his work, all while working outside the home myself, and while staying busy with volunteer work and scouting activities and going back to school. It was a collaboration that worked for that period in our lives.

    When my own career started accelerating, he became much less comfortable with the arrangement, in that I had less time to devote to his needs because more of my time was being eaten up by my own career demands and college classes. I don’t think either one of us recognized it at the time, but the basis of our unwritten agreement had shifted, and he felt neglected. I was still cooking and cleaning and ironing and raising children, but my focus shifted to more about building my career, and less about serving his needs. I’ve always thought I could have done a better job at balancing my career demands against his need for someone to be behind him, providing support. I suppose I did the best I could at the time. Looking back now, I am a bit more forgiving towards my efforts. I was spinning lots of plates, and I don’t suppose it was any surprise that occasionally a few of them came crashing down.

    • Among other things that being married to a twice-divorced person has taught me, I know that the most wonderful and loving and bright and skilled people—and their relationships—change over time. What was a beautiful and excellent arrangement becomes different in ways that make it too hard to maintain as a benefit to both parties. Both of Richard’s exes are fantastic women, just as he’s a fabulous person, but who they were when they married is far from who they became, and it turns out that in the meantime, *I* was fortunate to be growing into the right partner for him in this latter part of his life, and he for me. Work relationships operate on that kind of basis; friendships work that way; why would we be surprised that family dynamics work that way, too? The transitions may be tough, but they’re often a useful part of the process, too, in which we contemplate what did or didn’t happen and begin to see more clearly what everyone’s needs and wishes, requirements and desires are.

      It still amazes me how many plates you did keep spinning for so long. While most of us go through busier and less-hyper cycles in life, it’s often only afterwards that we quite get the perspective that allows us to see when we might have been expecting too much out of ourselves, our friends and co-workers and partners. Doesn’t mean we can always fix the situation as it stands, but if we can learn, accept, and move forward from that perspective, there’s better hope of doing it smarter and less painfully on the next go-round. You are so accomplished as a person who has had to reinvent herself so many times in life that I’ll bet you don’t give yourself full credit for all of the good you have propagated and all of the love and hope you yourself have given and inspired in others throughout that life. You *are* an inspiration.


  2. Why thank you, my sweet! (and yes, I appreciate all the many things you do to make my life much easier–and I hope I reciprocate in other ways for you!)

  3. Excellent post. Although I have been on my own for the past 27 years I do believe that there is nothing better than a really good partnership where two people compliment one another. Thank you xxx

    • And in case I wasn’t quite clear, I think partnerships take all sorts of shapes: friends, colleagues, relatives, life partners, and even cyber-connexions can offer each other all different kinds of support and encouragement and shelter. I will gladly travel in *your* slipstream, too. 🙂

    • We both think we’re pretty lucky, and that works nicely for us!!

      I’m a huge fan of fish. Besides that I’ve always enjoyed eating well-prepared fish (great luck, being a coastal kid!), my attraction to shiny objects made them a naturally fascinating subject for my attentions. No surprise that they appear often in my artworks! 🙂 I’m delighted you enjoyed these, erm, homemade hybrids. 😀


    • It took me a very long time to recognize my vocation, but I’m so happy I did, finally, and that my circumstances allowed me to embrace it. 😀 Thank you for your sweet comment!

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