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!”

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