Sunday, August 28, 2005

Hall of Literary Shame

Once, a boyfriend stood in my bedroom and perused the top of my dresser, where I had some books neatly lined up for display. "Have you actually read these?" he knew me well enough to ask. "Yes," I reflexively answered with a tone of indignance that did a poor job of masking my guilt. "Well, almost."

Most of the time, you're not going to catch me feeling too guilty about all the titles I haven't read. While I'm sure that Ulysses, for example, is a very good way to pass the time if you are an angst-filled person who doesn't get enough run-on sentences and confusion in real life, I'm currently coasting on having read my fill of disturbing and/or labyrinthine titles as an English major in school (Light in August, anyone? How about Clarissa?). I feel a little bad that I never read Dave Eggers' memoir, even though it seemed nearly all my peers between the ages of 25 and 35 living in New York City in 2000 had read it and loved it, and even though appearing in Eggers' journal McSweeney's has been a lovely thing in my life. I never read For Whom the Bell Tolls. Never read Fast Food Nation... and so on.

Eggers aside, I don't feel bad about missing these books because I have never pretended that I'm going to read them. You can talk to me all day long about what a classic Beowulf is or how interesting The Da Vinci Code was, but I just don't care. (It took me a little longer, but I have also been able to liberate myself from the idea that I am required to hold on to an issue of The New Yorker until I have read almost every article in it.) What I do feel bad about are the books that I consciously took note of, marched myself to the bookstore for (or worse, made unsuspecting relatives march for me, because I asked for the book as a gift), put down on the counter and paid for -- sometimes even in hardcover. Now, they sit unread, testaments to my unworthiness.

The books you buy but never read are the ones that betray who you think you are, or would like to be, but really are not. That's why they cause discomfort. Here are the "dummy titles" I have accumulated:

A Good Life, Ben Bradlee. Thought I was interested in being a gritty, enterprising journalist. But then I found work, as so many others do, as a fake journalist.

John Adams, David McCullough. Somehow, a comprehensive detailing of our second president's career didn't make history exciting and new again. Did I mention it's about John Adams?

The Daniel Boorstin Reader. Who was I kidding? Another failed attempt to achieve historical literacy.

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker. Guess I didn't really want to know.

Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell. I actually did manage to read at least 10 percent of this while I was living in New York. While it might make one feel slightly better about the state of one's "junior one-bedroom" and credit card debt to read about New Yorkers who lived significantly darker lives, it remains a depressing exercise to read about a more affordable, more colorful version of the city you are living in.

I'm sure there are more titles to list, but I'll have to vist my parents' and get back to you.

Monday, August 22, 2005


I have achieved a meta-Uncomfortable Moment, wherein I created discomfort by describing something that makes me uncomfortable.

Here's the thing: I don't like to be touched by feet, whether bare or shod. In the case of bare feet, I rarely run into a foot that meets such standards of temperature, moisture, texture and cleanliness such that I wish to have it applied anywhere on my person. To those who do not understand my problem, I might say, how would you like to have a damp chamois cloth that has been used to mop the floor resting comfortably on your knee as you watch TV? What about an alligator's claw, just removed from the freezer, wedged into your calf as you lie in bed?

As for being touched by others' shoes, I brought this up among friends one night at the Big Hunt, specifically with regard to my pet peeve, which is people who, while sitting next to me, cross their legs so that the crossing leg's foot dangles dangerously close to mine. It's like that kid in the commercial who holds his finger an inch from his sister's face and says, "I'm not touching you," only it has the added peril of shoe dirt. I relayed animatedly, for what I thought was comic effect, how nervous I get when another person's shoe is THISCLOSE to my captive leg.

No one at the table laughed or indicated any understanding. Instead I was met with silence and blank stares, perhaps stares tinged with pity. I wanted to put my foot on all of them.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Stow It in the Overhead Compartment.

This particular u.m. is brought to you by Frontier Airlines, my carrier on a recent trip to Colorado. One of the chief benefits of Frontier is that they have cable TV built into the seat-backs, so you can waste three hours sitting around on your ass flipping from one inane show to another like you would at home, only in this case your lazy ass is being transported hundreds of miles at the same time. Pretty cool.

I had secured a window seat (beautiful cumulus clouds and American vistas are no Bravo, but you've got to have something for commercials). The older woman on the aisle and I were already pleasantly ignoring each other when our middle-seater arrived. My new seatmate was a boy who looked to be about 12 years old, which I considered surprisingly fantastic news. First of all, it's rare that sheer chance delivers as a seatmate a person so demographically alien to me as to make small talk virtually impossible. Secondly, it's rare that sheer chance delivers to me the chance to observe what the hell a tweener boy might possibly do with himself when trapped between two people with whom he couldn't have less in common. I had one more channel to watch, and it was sitting right next to me.

As it turned out, the boy read a Calvin and Hobbes compilation, watched a lot of baseball and listened to Green Day, which means he could just have easily been a 35-year-old, regressive nerd. Occasionally, in our flipping, we both settled on Wimbledon and Popeye cartoons. I was happy to leave it at that until that moment came -- the moment of truth confronted by all window-seat lovers.

When nature calls and you're in a window seat, how long will you hold it? Most window-seaters, in my experience, might just as well blend in with the clouds just outside the window. I might avail myself of an opportunity to heed the call of nature if my seatmates oblige, but otherwise I'll just sit in full-bladdered silence, thank you. While lesser travellers might uproot the row at the first sign of discomfort, perseverance is my forte, and I consider it the price of admission for the isolation and rarefied status of the voluntary window-seater.

Finally, I saw that the aisle seat was empty and this kid wasn't going to be budging for the duration of the flight (a young male being like the Michael Jordan of bladders to this lady). So I indicated to him that I was headed out of the row. Now, this kid had been more polite than I expected all along -- he'd said 'hello' when he arrived and helped out with soda communication between me and the flight attendant -- but now, he wasn't going to give it up.

No, this boy pivoted himself about a 30-degree angle and waited for me to traverse the millimeters-wide divide. Too stunned to know what else to do, I began the journey. It started with me grabbing a seat back with force, convulsing the poor seat-occupant in front of my tweener. Whether it was the pained look on my face or the body mass coming his way, the poor child realized too late that he had erred. "Sorry," he muttered, as I gripped seats on either side of him and edged on by, looking like some obscene game of Twister being played out for all the rows behind us to see. All I could think as I passed before him was, "My ass is in front of a 12-year-old boy." I felt like a lap dancer with an illegal client: I mean, God, I don't think my most recent boyfriend had had my ass this close to his face. Thankfully I wouldn't be able to tell you whether he got anything out of it or not, but I'm guessing he did, because despite the extreme discomfort of the whole affair, he still refused to budge when I got back from the restroom and I had to go back in just the way I came. At least chat me up a little if you're going to do that, buddy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My Big Mouth.

When I was in elementary school, I took part in an annual program called SAS Day. SAS stood for Sensitivity Awareness Symposium. I cannot recall precisely what the teachings of this Montgomery County Public Schools program were, nor what we talked about, nor what we did. What I do remember is the impression that it formed on my young mind, and the impression was this: that most white people are abhorrent racists, and one must take care never to be seen as a racist or "bigot," and must take care not even to appear white around people of color if one can possibly help it. This abject fear of racial impropriety came back to me today as I was speaking to my boss (who is white). "There are two things from the New York City subway that you don't see here on the D.C. Metro," I said in the course of a conversation about the difference between the two. "Asian women selling, batteries and stuff... and buskers going from car to car."

The odd pause and unnecessary detail about the batteries represent the point in my sentence at which awareness dawned that the coworker directly to my left just happens to be an Asian woman.

Now, this coworker is great and cool and we are friendly. She did not give any sign that she heard the comment, nor did she give any sign of offense if she had. I should also point out that the remark was made in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, not meant as a joke or a slight. Still -- I had referred to someone as being ASIAN next to another ASIAN! My SAS training had taught me that most references to an ethnicity, to anyone else of that ethnicity, were likely to get me branded as a RACIST. After all, what the hell do I know about Asian ladies selling knickknacks on the train and why do I have to point out the fact that they are Asian, huh? Why don't I just go ahead and say that most Asian women can be found hawking light-up keychains on the MTA??

I quickly e-mailed my mother and my boss to ask what I should do. As I sat there pretending to work but really just staring ahead, paralyzed with fear that I had now established myself as someone who Hates Asians, and possibly damaged a budding friendship with my coworker, I considered the options. I could ignore it and hope that she either didn't hear or didn't care. Or I could confront her, and risk further being ostracized as a racial harasser for targeting my coworker over a harmless comment and asking her to address it, just because she's Asian!

In the end, both my mom and boss said it didn't seem like a big deal and I decided to drop it. Stay tuned for the next time I am in a social setting with my coworker-friend and can't help myself from bringing it up, thereby creating a new UM.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Gettin' My Swerve On.

My excessive internal cringing about this particular moment occasioned the creation of this very Web log (see Introduction). It occurs -- where else? -- in the office, a place so rife with intense, existential discomfort that they made a very successful cable TV show about it. Let me preface this by saying it involves running into a coworker that I don't know very well after having been out drinking and having fun with that person, a situation I always find vaguely scandalous and shameful (unless it was boring, which is a separate kind of shame). One night I went to a bar with a couple of people from my department and this woman, who also works at my place of business but with whom I do not work directly, was there too. Nothing happened other than drunkeness all around and staying out way too late for a weeknight.

So a few days later I'm going about my work-a-doo sillinaz and I see that this coworker is talking with another person as I walk by but she does not see me. As I make my return trip I'm in a conundrum. Am I obligated to stop and chat here, or is it better just to nod hello and move on? Does this person even remember meeting me? And so on. Every interaction, to me, is Humans 101, and I am perpetually earning a D. Once, while I was being fired from a job, the angry-geek-turned-cool-cocaine-snorting-executive who was my boss at the time berated me, "Obviously, you can't read people. And if you can't read people, I don't think we want to continue doing business with you." (This is another uncomfortable moment that I would rather relate when I can be sure everyone is stoned and will not remember.) Well, he was right. I can't read people. People mystify me, which is why I am perpetually uncomfortable.

So as I am walking by my coworker, contemplating what might be the appropriate social response, I fail to realize that the floor I am walking on has suddenly taken a downward slope -- it's a fucking ramp, a stealth ramp right there in the office, surely designed to weed out the weak links in the building. I make a very obvious dip in my gait, looking as if I am preparing to do the limbo, before I try to regain balance. The two women look at me blankly, perhaps wondering if I needed medical attention. "Did you see what I just did??" I said, before imitating myself wildly careening about. They laughed politely and I wondered why I have not been put on some sort of watch list.


For me, when it comes to the creation and/or perception of socially painful situations, there's simply one thing to do: hold on to them, burnish them, and involuntarily relive them from time to time over the next several hours, days, weeks, or years. I guess this comes naturally to someone whose earliest conscious memories involve wetting herself at points well past potty-training age.

Is there any way to exorcise it all? Probably not, but I can share the discomfort with you. Isn't that what the Internet is all about?

I'd like to promise that these are all going to be original, laugh-out-loud funny and the peak of neurotoxicity. Instead I'll promise that they will often be better than these, with the exception of the "JOY to the WORLD" entry on said page, the sexual undertones of which constitute a meta-awkward moment constituting some kind of fucking genius.