A Jerk, Unaware… by Steve Safran

I was rude to someone, and I didn’t know it. Unwittingly impolite. Accidentally brusque. A jerk, unaware.

I won’t bother you with the circumstances. It was a work thing. The gist is this: after a business dealing, it was reported to my partner that I was rude to a client.

Here’s the thing: I have absolutely no idea how that impression was made. I’m not saying I don’t know how I could be rude to someone. I’m not saying it’s not possible for me to be rude, that I’m a saint who is never rude or that I’m above rudeness. What I’m saying is that I don’t recall even so much as two or three interactions with this client during the event, all which hardly strayed from “How’s your day been?” in quality. I will also say in my defense that I try to be super nice to clients. They’re the ones with the money.

But I was rude. That was her perception, and a person’s perception is everything. She will always think of me as That Rude Guy. She didn’t say how I was rude, so I’ll never know exactly what happened. But really, it doesn’t matter. I was. She felt it. Now I’m That Rude Guy.

Now, I never would have known this if she hadn’t told my business partner. I could have gone on merrily through life thinking my interactions with her were just fine, if I reflected on them at all. Instead, it got me to thinking about how often people must make up their minds about us and we don’t realize it’s happening.

Right now, someone thinks you’re an asshole. I guarantee it. You cut him off in traffic, or wrote something online or even, as I did in a previous column, responded in a way someone took to be aggressive even though it wasn’t.  I once signaled, waited my turn and moved into the left lane and a guy still yelled “Asshole!” at me. I yelled back “You barely know me!” I don’t think he heard me.

The flipside is you have a lot of unearned praise, too. Right now, you’re the funniest person in the world because you told a stolen joke. You’re an awesome guy, just because you held the door, corralled the grocery cart, or made the “most liked” comment.

Our friend Jason is putting together a play called “Talking to Strangers,” and is soliciting interactions. I noted that I’m wary of these people and that the reason is right there in the word; they’re not just strange, they’re stranger.

How strangely unfortunate it is that we are, in an instant, labeled for life based upon one interaction. How difficult it is to change that perception? I may perform ten good deeds in the presence of my client, but how many will it take to dispel That Rude Guy impression? I may even lose her business if I cannot. And I wouldn’t have ever known why.

Strange.

TONE

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Strangers

Jason writes and directs musicals and plays. Can you imagine having the imagination to write and direct musicals and plays? I cannot. But Jason does. For this venue. And he has a really really really long list of accolades and awards and stuff theater people earn for being wackadoodles with talent. Being a scientific sort of the mommy variety, sidling up to Jason’s world is a messy, titillating, uncomfortable, and unusual experience. In the other words: it’s awesome. It’s also no surprise that his latest obsession is with Strangers. I think we’ve all become strangers out in public– tethered to our devices, pre-occupied with emails and texts and the urgent and never-ending comments and requests from people who aren’t physically near us. Meanwhile, we ignore—nay, avoid?—the people in our very path.

But I am John Stockton’s daughter, and I adopted his Rules of Dad as the code of conduct for all adults. Growing up, I had no idea my father was unusually friendly, chatty, inquisitive, interested, and irreverent. I just thought that’s what social confidence looked like. Boring, repressed, stern, and otherwise joyless adults were never in Dad’s sphere. And the gravitational pull of a personality like Dad’s is probably selective to similarly tuned people. Blessed with a father with a frequency for fun, the influential adults of my formative years were hilarious, successful, and brilliant.

Side bar: we can discuss for days how to parent properly, but exposing your kiddos to kind, wonderful people that you admire– that impression lasts forever.

I’ve never had a restaurant meal with Dad after which we did not know the name, station, and career aspirations of our assigned wait staff. Unsuspecting line-waiters are subject to his kind, jokey gibber gabber. Dad is a man who believes everyone is interesting, and is open to learning the stories of strangers. The result is that Dad knows no strangers. And in this world of ear-budded introverts, I think this is a great, great thing.

Jason is collecting stories about strangers over here. The result will be an original piece of theater exploring how we avoid each other, but will probably include the dynamic human moments that happen when we cannot. Do you have a story about A Stranger?

Here’s mine.

It was freezing. One of those ridiculous wind chill days where opening the front door makes you gasp and want to cancel everything. But I was never going to study successfully at home with the temptation of nachos, or naps, or absolutely anything else. The microbiology test was tomorrow: I had exactly 12 hours to cram all knowledge of plasmids into my blonde head. Surely none of the gunner medical students would brave the sub-zero weather to study at Widener… so I hopped the red line into Cambridge.

Studying at the undergraduate Harvard campus is… quiet. That’s the lure. Plus, I always imagined the ghosts of benevolent geniuses to be ethereally cheering me onward. (This is the risk of studying in Boston: delusions of connection to a grander past.)

He was adorable. Moppy, two semesters-overdue-for-haircut adorable. Two tables away, we shared a few sighs and shot hairy eyeballs at the gossipy girls in the carrels. After an hour of distracted studying, he invited me to join him for a study break.

We walked farther than I would have ever agreed, had he not been adorable. It was so so so so cold, but he insisted that the caffeine and treats at this place were the finest. Chat chat chat, I’m cramming for this, you’re studying for that. Oh, aren’t you smart? Oh, aren’t you? Thank fucking God we’re here and tea is ordered.

The thawing begins. I can’t stop listening to Chet Baker. That’s his favorite. I love coconut and twilight and tea. Yup, totally. Long stares. Shared movie titles, favorite books, more tea. But then… plasmids. There will be a test on plasmids. I return to reality and less flirty conversation.

“You are adorable. But time’s up. I need to cram.”

“No, it’s early. Really. It’s very early.”

Repeat times twenty. Then oh, my mom and dad met exactly here 25 years ago and I always knew I’d meet my wife at Widener, and then bring her exactly here, and you look like my mom, and this is meant to be and kismet and fate and and and…

Oh my God, you’re crazy. Or an adorable romantic. Either way, I have to figure out how to cut and paste plasmids and I’m not ready to get married and this is flattering but Jesus, don’t follow me, and yikes. I threw dollars on the table, raced to the Red Line and never saw cute moppy-haired boy again.

No doubt he married some other blonde studying in Widener. I’ll never know. But the fast-tracked romance stayed with me: stranger turned suitor, turned nuisance, turned stranger. And the whole exchange was likely initiated by my receptiveness, my inborn enthusiasm for strangers and their stories… something Dad taught me. When it comes to people, I’m in.

And I hope you are, too. Because that’s where all of the good stories start.

This is the only sort of place medical student stories begin...

This is the only sort of place medical student stories begin…

 

 

Leisure Boy

A-Ma is an artist. She picked up some pastels and began dabbling about seven years ago, but now has moved on to winning awards for her oil paintings. That A-Ma would be so gifted is no surprise to me. If Emily Lee is passionate about something, that shit gets done. And for my in-laws, this could never be a doodle-y amateurish pastime. Nope, they establish interest groups, create invitational exhibitions, solicit prizes, and make it all official sounding with names like International Taiwanese Artists Teacher’s Society. (Which totally exists.) Around the same time A-Ma started churning out fruit-on-table and beach scenes, A-Gong developed a love of photography. This aligned temporally with his love of Ebay and acquisition of many, many, many cameras. Again, my in-laws are not content to tool around collecting snapshots for the family albums. Nope, they arrange expensive tours to take sunrise and sunset pictures all over the planet, and then host elaborate photo exhibitions like a 21st century version of vacation slideshows our parent’s generation used to bore their neighbors with in the 70s. Only theirs has an awards ceremony. But no cheese cubes.

Both of my in-laws are really quite talented. Not that I have an artistic eye at all, but the portraits undoubtedly resemble the family members A-Ma is rendering, and A-Gong has captured some incredible rice paddy panoramas, birds-in-flight, fireworks, flowers, icicles, leaves, rocks, sky (as his hoarding tendencies spill over into photo editing). Occasionally I think we live in the Lee & Lee auxiliary gallery, but I love having these framed, beautiful paintings and photos on the walls. Sometimes I’ll find the art show tag on the corner, with teeny tiny Chinese figures I assume is a description or price. But if I’m really lucky, someone has translated the title into English.

I don’t know they are attempting some sort of poetry, but the titles are just fantastic. A picture of my toy-sharing toddlers is entitled, “Friendlines, Respectfulness.” And the latest addition to our walls is a really rather large painting of Teddy squatting atop a jungle gym. It’s A-Ma’s latest oil masterpiece and its submission to a Cape Cod art exhibition required her to choose a name and price for an almost-life-size rendering of my little boy. I still wonder if the judges giggled as much as Bernie and I have about “Leisure Boy, $5000.”

I figure displaying their artwork all over my houses gives me leave to poke all sorts of fun at them. But after three paragraphs of doing just that I realize there is a lesson to learn from the wacky and wonderful industry of my in-laws. They’d never wait for a faraway editor to find something worth publishing from a CarePage. Nope, they’d form their own International Society of Taiwanese Web Writers, invite guest authors, solicit prizes, and organize more cheese cube-less forums. The confidence, bravery, and commitment A-Ma and A-Gong bring to their artwork elevates it far beyond “hobby.” I kind of love that. Alternatively, it’s just another Asian thing:  why bother slapping paint on canvas unless there are prizes and someone wins?

Although writing these silly essays continues to be fun and therapeutic, the attempt at chronicling my life into a book feels vain (even for me) and forced and blah blah blah boring. But as I watched A-Gong design his own Chinese blog about Energy Work last weekend, I wondered if it’s time for me to get this show on the road. I still giggle over what Steve Safran wrote when I first announced the existence of these CarePages:

“Here are several problems I have with this.
1. It being “Care Pages” makes me feel I need to be sincere. As you know, this is a character defect of mine.
2. There will be caring, loving statements on this page.
3. While I care and love, I express those emotions in somewhat different ways. As in through a total lack of caring and loving.
4. Those who care and love are bound to see my statements and feel I am wishing terrible things upon you.
5. I am not. I am wishing terrible things upon most non-Jews, but not you, a TOTAL shiksa goddess.”

And now that I’m feeling so great, maybe my little ditties are ready for an audience that isn’t expressly asked and required to Care, at a site that doesn’t sensor my use-for-emphasis potty mouth, and isn’t so buggy with the logging in. As I toyed with blog design late last night I got stuck at the very first step: I need a title. Shiksagoddessbritt.com? (Which totally exists. And it’s me. Thanks, Steve.) Leisure Boy 5000? East Meets Breast? That every title embodying the scariest, faith-testing time in my life is somehow silly and funny says oodles about how much having an audience has helped me through it. Wherever these musings land, I hope you’ll find me there.

Leisure Boy, $5000

Leisure Boy, $5000