Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lunatic Cringe

Apple pie with lattice upper crustImage via Wikipedia

Why is it that when we’re doing something stupid, we have no sense of the stupidity? We have a blind certainty that whatever it is we’re doing, it’s good for us. We all have those cringe memories that make us want to erase, erase, erase. I probably have more than most people.

My mother said I’ve always been a little odd. As a child, I was like a time-share salesman in the pursuit of my latest ideas. At five, I left home to sell pies door-to-door, which involved crossing a freeway-like main street and masquerading as a “Girl Scout.” Problem was I had no pies. They were “future” pies -- pies for which you paid now and received “at a later date.” Somewhere I missed the part about Girl Scout “cookies” and was convinced they said pies. I came home proud of my pockets full of change to parents red-faced with worry.

In second grade, we were studying the southern states. I thought – hey! My cousin, Dawn-Adele, lives in Mississippi. Why not get “dismissed” from class and come back as my cousin Dawn-Adele? The teacher and the school secretary went along with the scam. At the office I changed into a short, dark wig, put on a different polyester pantsuit and went back to the class with a southern accent and a speech about my new “home state.” If the kids had tomatoes, I would have been standing there like Carrie covered in red. They teased me incessantly for years to come.

Every summer, my friend next door, Leslie, and I sat outside our neighbor’s chain link fence gazing in at them as they swam in their pool. I would shout to Leslie, “BOY AM I HOT!” Leslie would yell back, “I AM, TOO. I’M SWEATING.” Unable to enjoy their pool in private, Mrs. Boutelier would buckle, “Go get your swimsuits on and come swimming.”

I’d jump up and feign surprise, “Oh, look, I have my bathing suit on under my clothes!”

As if I didn’t torture them enough every summer, when I was in junior high, I begged my mother to ask Mrs. Boutelier if I could hold a boy/girl party in her basement. I liked the Boutelier’s basement better than ours, so to me, it was a natural question to ask. Theirs was “finished” whereas ours had cement walls and floors. Mrs. Boutelier went along with the plan and 20 some-odd 12 year-olds piled into her basement and played their first game of spin-the-bottle.

In high school I worked as the counter girl at the local dry cleaners. I marveled over the cashmere sweaters and puffy-sleeved blouses that came back as perfect as the day they were bought. Clothes were my drug of choice and I couldn’t be trusted around them. One night, giving into the addiction, I took a freshly-cleaned antique sweater off the rack and wore it to my friend’s party. It was a huge hit and I basked in the flurry of compliments. I’m pretty sure there was a mishap with some onion dip that night, but it wasn’t my fault. Because I had morals, I returned it to the cleaner’s around 1 a.m. and neatly hung it back on the rack for next-day pick-up.

I spent my four years of high school devoted to cheerleading. It was my religion. It never occurred to me that the prancing around, ponytail swinging, boobs jiggling, memorizing rhyming lines and robotic movements with stiff arms might make me look ridiculous. I let people climb on me and put dents in my neck. I behaved like a pogo stick every time some boy got a good pass. It didn’t hit me until college that cheerleading wasn’t quite the right ladder to the strong woman I wanted to be.

In college, I went with my boyfriend to a formal dinner-dance. I showed up at his parents’ house wearing a strapless satin dress so shiny it made you squint, earrings the size of a donut and hair in a mullet with electrified spikes shooting out the top of my head. Around my neck hung fifteen necklaces that made me look like a cross between a Christmas tree and Mrs. T. My entire body was so tan I could have made a belt. Sad part was, I thought I looked hot. I was sure of it. Even when my boyfriend’s mother gave me the what-the-hell-is-that look, I was certain she had social anxiety and trouble expressing joy.

In my roaring 20’s, my friend Leora and I turned crank phone calling into a sport. We routinely called our old boyfriends at 3 a.m. I would begin with a Lily-Tomlin-one-ringy-dingy voice: “Hello [old boyfriend’s name], this is Mrs. Trowbridge from the Thayer Public Library. I’m sorry to bother you at such a late hour but see, we’re doing inventory and apparently you have an overdue book. It’s called, ‘The Birds and The Bees by Dr. Ruth.’ Do you have the book?” They figured out it was me in very little time, so I had no choice but to ask the $10,000 question: “Are you still thinking about me?” I was surprised to hear that they weren’t. Not that I believed that.

When I turned 31, I went to London for 10 days to interview at three ad agencies. I was determined to live there. I had never traveled alone, and certainly never shut my mouth for that long. It was a daunting feat – more the shutting up part than the actual travel. I spent every day walking the city, alive with wonder. My stupidity kicked in around the ninth day. Coming out of a movie in Piccadilly Circus, a man with a Middle Eastern accent approached me.

“Excuse me, but are you Australian?” he asked.

“No, I’m American. But my mother was born in Australia,” I said. Suddenly, “Ali” and I were walking and talking. After nine days of virtual silence, I was wild for conversation.

It was dinner time. He asked me to join him at a Spanish restaurant. Before I thought it through, I was drinking Sangria and answering a barrage of questions. He took pictures of me and asked the waiter to take one of the two of us. Flattery and sweet wine canceled my judgment. We moved to hear Flamenco guitarists in another room. People were dancing. Another man asked me to dance and as I accepted, I felt a hard tug on my arm.

“SIT down,” Ali demanded.

“No!” I said.

He grabbed me again and tried to pull me to the door. I yanked my arm away and ran to the restroom. A group of young Spanish women were applying lipstick. I asked for their help and they ushered me out of the restaurant in a large pack.

Now in my 40’s, I try to play it safe. Having kids makes most people’s winding path a little straighter. It certainly did mine. Someday I will tell my kids about the mistakes I made along the way. In the meantime, I will try to step back, as my mother did, as they make their own. I do believe that our lunatic cringe moments are there to teach us something our elders have been trying to impress upon us since we could walk: to think before we act. What a concept.

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