Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Embarrassment

My most embarrassing moment took place at Lagoon, an amusement park north of Salt Lake City. I was in my mid-thirties, and agreed to spend a Saturday thus. (What led to this baffling choice? Would I have agreed—that day—to go to a meat-packing plant? A medical-research lab? A public swimming pool? Why this moment of compliance, of familial cooperation?) A dozen family members were in attendance. The day was hot, and I was fat. Nothing good was going to happen.

I went on a ride or two, and it wasn’t awful. I had a corndog, a Coke, maybe a fistful of someone’s cotton candy. I reapplied sunscreen. Then, my ten-year-old niece said, “Ooh! Paddle boats!” and I chose poorly. We stood in line, we handed a teenage boy our tickets, and I gingerly stepped aboard a paddle boat.

Immediately, the boat took on water, soaking my tennis shoe. I heard someone giggle. I felt my face turn warm and pink. I should have slowly backed away; I should have reminded myself that there’s no shame in changing one’s mind. Instead, I heaved my bulky self into the paddle boat, next to my brave and lovely niece.

The seats were designed for someone (anyone!) with smaller hips, and I didn’t fit. So, instead of sitting between the metal pieces that defined the seat area, I perched atop the metal pieces that defined the seat area. Despite my well-cushioned butt, it was not comfortable, and I hoped to paddle around the man-made lake (maybe 200 yards in diameter) in record time.

It was not to be. More than fifteen years later, I still insist that our boat was faulty in some respect. Despite my weight, I was able to paddle, as was my able-bodied niece. Even so, when we were as far away from shore as possible, the boat slowed, stopped, and refused to budge. When we got any momentum going at all, we went in tight circles. The sun beat down on us, and I ached from head to toe. I yelled at my niece: “Steer, goddamnit!” Therein lies my greatest shame.

Five minutes passed, then ten. I saw my loved ones gathering at the dock, watching. What I didn’t see (‘cause it wasn’t happening) was the launch of a rescue boat. I can’t imagine that we were the first boat to ever experience distress. Not a single heart attack? A hyperactive child tumbling into the drink? A group of pot-smoking teens refusing to come ashore? I considered the possibility of jumping ship, but didn’t know if the water was three feet deep, or a hundred feet deep, teeming with carp or sewage or the bloated corpses of folks like me (I’m not a strong swimmer).

Eventually, we hit on the right combination of paddling and steering and crying, and we reached dry land. There were snickers from the crowd. There were even some well-placed jabs from family members. I attempted to look sheepish, but not devastated, as I climbed out of the boat and moved to my husband’s side. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly. “Sure,” I said, knowing that I’d never be as comfortable in the world as I was before the paddle-boat debacle. “I’m okay.”

Later, I apologized to my niece, and she was congenial and forgiving, shrugging it off, as is her way. It’s probably not too late to buy her a very expensive gift.

Well, that’s my most embarrassing moment, and it didn’t kill me to share it with you. Another time, I soiled myself at a campground near Monterey, California, while suffering from labyrinthitis. And once, I thought a boy invited me to an Elton John concert, when he was simply attempting to discern my level of interest (“Would you like to go?”), and he had actually invited my friend Heather (a fact that I discovered only after shopping for a new outfit, shaving my legs, and slathering on the Coty Wild Musk). And my favorite embarrassment: the verbal assumption that I was pregnant, when I was not (at least three times by adults, and oh-so-many-more times by children).

So, let’s break it down. Embarrassment seems to require a degree of public scrutiny. I don’t recall ever being embarrassed when home alone (unless I was imagining public scrutiny). Someone (or everyone) must know about said behavior in order to feel the sting of embarrassment.

It helps (or hurts) if there’s a degree of personal responsibility. Sure…it’s possible to be embarrassed because of something that happens accidentally—something that is not my fault—but it won’t smart as much, or as long.

And violations of physical privacy are fertile ground for embarrassment, as is anything to do with elimination or sex.

Usually, though, embarrassment is the result of a glaring lack: of knowledge, accomplishment, experience, sophistication, or physical, financial, or emotional fitness. Once, at a spiritual retreat (during liturgy, no less), I sobbed noisily for the duration of “Hallelujah” as performed by Rufus Wainwright. Only later did that seem like a silly-ass thing to do, and I was embarrassed. (Since then, I’ve tried to be more emotionally robust. I remind myself that I’m refraining, not repressing.)

One can certainly be embarrassed by the actions of a loved one, but this feels a bit different (like a painful form of compassion). When this happens, I try to move past the embarrassment by asking myself, “How can I help?”

During a recent conversation with my husband, we agreed that “avoiding possible embarrassment” is a poor reason to shrink from doing something we truly want to do, what with life being short and all. Easier said than done, and I continue to “delay” all kinds of activities because I’m not feeling confident, or cute. We also agreed that (a) we want to eliminate some of our embarrassing behavior; (b) we want to be less embarrassed by some of our embarrassing behavior; and (c) a certain degree of embarrassment (in response to embarrassing behavior) is a good thing, and healthy, and—in theory—serves to shape behavior in the right direction.

I knew a man who happily farted in public (small, perky, odorless farts), without becoming horrified or even saying “excuse me.” At first, I thought it was cool (so natural! so hip!), but later I thought it was gross (so impolite, so out-of-my-life-forever).

It’s pretty to think that one reaches a certain age and no longer engages in embarrassing behavior. That is not my experience. In my fifties, I do embarrassing things all the time. However, I’m less likely to castigate myself (maybe because I’m more evolved now, but maybe because castigation is a lot of work). Here in middle age, forgiveness is my friend, and self-forgiveness is my dearest friend. If I laugh nervously and too loud, if I mispronounce “Goethe,” if my handsome neighbor happens to pull up next to my parked car while I’m eating a Peanut Buster Parfait, if that same neighbor is next in line at the grocery store when my Visa card is declined (for no good reason), if I’m chatting with my cousin and I vehemently denounce the girls-only store Sweet & Sassy only to have my cousin's eight-year-old daughter enter the room and happily reveal that she celebrated her birthday there just days before with thirty of her closest friends…

Well, I’m able to forgive myself all of that, and remain relatively unembarrassed.

That said, I haven’t been in a paddle boat since that dreadful day, and I avert my eyes when they show up unexpectedly in movies or novels. My husband is of the opinion that one ought to pile up (similar) good experiences to ameliorate the effects of a bad experience, so maybe I’ll do that, eventually. But, clearly, now is too soon, so I’ll curl up on the couch, reliving the horror, remembering the shame of “Steer, goddamnit!”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Certain Type of Girl

There's a certain type of girl that I observe frequently, and with increasing distress. I'll describe a recent encounter.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my five-year-old nephew to Arctic Circle, a fast-food restaurant near my home in a suburb south of Salt Lake City. He was enjoying the indoor playground; I was sipping a diet Coke and admiring him. A mom and her kids showed up, joining another mom and her kids who were already there. They greeted each other warmly. The combined children ranged in ages from about two to thirteen.

One girl in particular caught my eye. She was seven or eight, and very attractive. She was tall and slim. Her Northern European skin had a healthy glow, as did her waist-length blond hair. I gathered (from overheard conversations) that Mom had spent all morning crimping said hair, and it cascaded past the girl's shoulders like an expensive wedding veil. Pinned atop her head was a huge lime-green daisy.

Her outfit reminded me of a more wholesome version of something I've seen in the Victoria's Secret summer catalog. Her denim shorts were a modest above-knee length, but were skin tight, emphasizing the curve of her backside, and her rounded thighs. Her white eyelet top had one-inch straps, a fitted bodice, and a gathered skirt that fell smock-like to just below her waist. She looked adorable.

I didn't tell her she looked adorable, but everyone else did. Friends and strangers admired her pretty hair, her pretty blouse. I think it's unlikely that a day goes by that she doesn't hear the words "You're a beautiful girl" from a grandparent, a neighbor, a piano teacher, an ice-cream man. I'd bet my eight-month emergency fund that she's adept at learning, at memorizing, at reading aloud. Perhaps not yet--but soon--she'll be joining Mom at yoga class, and perhaps they'll hold demanding poses side-by-side on the family-room floor during next season's "American Idol."

I was enjoying my Coke and keeping an eye on my nephew, when the girl approached the play structure. She climbed the stairs, grabbed onto each side of the padded entrance, and froze. Her back was to me, but she turned her head slightly, to verify that--yes--she was preventing another child from entering.

Her favorite prey (perhaps her only prey) is a boy, slightly smaller or younger than herself. Someone who's not going to shove her face-first into the structure, to land clumsily on the vinyl-covered padding. Someone who's not going to say, "You're blocking the entrance. Move immediately, or I'll summon an employee, and have you removed from the premises." But someone who will cower slightly, unsure how to proceed, because he wants access to the playground, but he doesn't want to be perceived as a bully.

My nephew turned to me for guidance, a nervous smile on his face. He had one foot on the ground, and one foot on the stairs. The girl held her position, and an ugly sneer began to form on her flawless face.

In two strides, I was there. "Move aside, sweetheart," I said in an unfriendly tone. Upon getting caught, her sneer changed quickly to a sheepish grin. She shrugged, and climbed down. It was clear that she wasn't interested in the playground equipment, but only in preventing others from enjoying it. I admit to wanting to slap her.

Her meal arrived, and she sat down to eat, immediately complaining because she wanted ketchup instead of fry sauce, and she wanted a corn dog instead of mini corn dogs. Her mother apologized, and jumped up to fix the order. I watched the girl, thinking about what this might look like in adulthood.

In the late nineties, in Dallas, I had a neighbor named Tiffany. She was in her mid-twenties, and newly (if not happily) married. She confided to me that she didn't want sex (ever again!), but that she very much wanted men to want to have sex with her. She wanted men to crave her...keenly, desperately, endlessly, futilely. Her clothes, her makeup, her hair, her hairlessness, her augmentation, her brief foray into stripping...were all designed to make men want her. What brought Tiffany pleasure was the frequent opportunity to reject advances. "My degree of pleasure is commensurate with a man's degree of disappointment when I reject him," she once said. (She didn't really say that, but that's what she meant.)

Now--God knows--I've never been one to reject advances, but I'm sure there have been times when I've cared more about decreasing the share of others, rather than increasing my own share (and, to my shame, I usually direct this tendency toward women, rather than men). I wonder: If I had a friend who was a single woman, and I had the opportunity to introduce her to a man--a potential mate--and that man was superior in any (or every) way to my man (unlikely, but for the sake of argument)...would I do so? Would I tell her about a job opportunity, if it was better than my job? Would I tell her about a compliment that was paid her, if it highlighted a strength of hers, and a weakness of mine?

I don't know if men share this unpleasant tendency. Based on my narrow experience, I think that most men are focused on getting more, rather than ensuring that others get less. This is borne out to some degree by my experience (you guessed it) at the indoor playground.

A week later, we returned to Arctic Circle. There were three girls playing when we arrived; they were a year or two older than my nephew. I watched as he approached he made it clear that he was available to join their playgroup. (Other moms send text messages or read "Twilight" while their children play, but my eyes never leave him. He's absolutely compelling.) Soon, he joined me at the table. "They don't want to play with me," he reported. "That's okay," I said. But the next time he climbed to the top of the play structure, and approached the slide entrance, the prettiest of the three girls blocked his way. (Her name was Adriana. Maybe her parents have HBO, and admired the attractive junkie on Sunday nights.) I wiped the fry sauce from my fingertips, crossed the room, and looked up at them. "Let him pass," I told her. She smiled at me broadly, revealing perfect teeth, and pirouetted away.

I do my best, but the over-sized and confrontational aunt isn't the best deterrent to this type of girl. The best deterrent is the slightly older child, either male or female, who cares more about seeking his or her own pleasure, and less about contributing to another child's pain. I silently cheer when I see a nine- or ten-year-old kid enter the playground, especially if he or she possesses a little swagger.

On this day, my savior was a ten-year-old boy with uncombed hair and a cast on his right wrist. He had no desire to play with the clique of younger girls, and was intimidated not at all. He said "Sure!" when my nephew said "Wanna play?" They gathered additional playmates, and soon it was all about Rebel Fighters and Storm Troopers, with the ten-year-old boy as leader. They plowed past the three girls, scattering them. It wasn't long before the girls joined in (perhaps weary of sitting in a tight circle and passing judgment).

All the kids got a little sweaty that day, and had a lot of fun. There were friendly farewells as groups of kids left with their parents. "Bye, Adriana!" my nephew hollered. I stood, and dumped my fast-food trash. "Yeah...can't wait to meet up with you again in junior high," I said quietly.