Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Now That’s Embarrassing

I’ve never met anyone that didn’t get embarrassed in certain situations, and frankly, I don’t think I ever want to. A person who lacks embarrassment is a person who has no shame, no privacy or humility, and that’s a person whose immodest conscious has nothing to lose, nothing important anyway. You find these people on reality shows, daytime talk shows and freak shows, mostly, and they’ve been known to consort with those who find themselves craving the center of attention. I’ve never enjoyed the spotlight in any form (lime or any other flavor of light), never one to be that center of attention and not one to draw notice anywhere from anyone (surprisingly enough, I do enjoy the theater though…it’s one of my hypocrisies). That being said, I get embarrassed easily, but lately I is becoming easier to hide my mortification; I’m not sure how this personality trait developed itself over the years but, as a child, I was humiliated easily, as I hid from attention and I avoided situations that would put me in the middle of everyone’s judgmental gazes. I don’t sing, I don’t dance (either in public anyhow) and I don’t like to give speeches (though I have)…so much so that I rarely speak out during business meetings unless I’m so confident in what I am saying that there’s no refuting my point, and we know how rare that is in real life.

Mark Twain employed an effective tool in his comedy writing, and that is to put his characters in such uncomfortable positions it has to be funny; his readers (or lecture attendees) would laugh the most when they were the most uncomfortable. It’s called empathetic embarrassment, when you feel bad for the person who is actually the one that should be embarrassed, and one of our reflexive reactions to uncomfortable situations is to laugh, which is why dark comedies are so funny and it is why TV shows like “The Office” are so successful.

I’ve had my share of embarrassing predicaments, and it seemed to hold true that the more embarrassed a person gets, the more embarrassment he is subjected to. What a horrible Catch-22, as someone who wants to avoid embarrassments finds himself in more and more of them over the course of his lifetime. Here’s a few that I haven’t be able to completely repress to the back of my mind. Take into consideration that these might not seem embarrassing to you in any way; consider yourself lucky. However, if you don’t find any of these to be embarrassing at all, I hope we never meet. Enjoy these at my expense:

1. In the fourth grade, I played The Lion in a school rendition of “The Wizard of Oz,” and during the first dress rehearsal, I was supposed to enter the scene for the first time by jumping out from behind a tree and growl at Dorothy and Company. From backstage, I was going to make this a great entrance, so I stepped back as far as I could so I could take a running leap. When my cue came, I ran onto the stage, jumped up in the air, started to growl with my arms up like the claws of a menacing lion, and when I came back down onto the stage, my feet slipped out from under me and I flopped flat on my back with a crashing thud on the stage. Mortified, I laid there for a while…

2. Any birthday dinner where I am sung to by strangers, servers in a restaurant who don’t really care who I am or what I’m doing there (as long as I leave a good tip). On top of which, since everyone on this planet has a birthday (and there are, on average 16.4 million other people on Earth sharing your “special day”), they find ruckus birthday greetings in the confines of a quiet restaurant an annoying disturbance to their conversation. Have you ever heard a group of disenchanted servers singing a sad bastardization of the “Happy Birthday” song—only because they’re avoiding paying royalties to the estates of Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Smith Hill, who penned the gem while teaching Kindergarten—and been disgusted by the lack of exuberance by the people singing it? It’s just embarrassing. So, my birthday was nearly two months ago and I went to lunch with a former coworker, and before anyone could pull a fast one on me, I told the server that it was my birthday and if anyone so much as mouths any song related to my birthday that no tip would be dispensed. I think she appreciated it as much as I did, as that meant she didn’t have to round up any unwilling fellow servers to blather out the well wishings.

3. I was on a plane coming back from somewhere, I don’t remember exactly where it was, as I was getting home after a weekend covering a show for the magazine I worked for at the time. Now, me and flying are two things that don’t mix well in real life, and I have reservations about sitting in a pressurized tube at 35 thousand feet, rocketing toward potential doom with no way out but down. Not to mention, the swinging, rocking, swaying that goes along with the ride. Let’s compound this with the fact that I had a few beers the night before at the “after show” dinner I was invited to by the show promoters… I remember it now, it was the Michigan show that also involved the untimely demise of a pristine Audi A4, a railroad track and about three feet of air. But I digress. So, I’m on the early morning flight, not fully awake, not really enjoying myself, and I’m sitting next to a nun, a nice lady who looked like she just spent the last five years preaching the word to the sick in the Congo and now she was on her way back to the nunnery to live out her chaste life of quiet servitude to God and his way…and she’s sitting next to me. I tried to break the tension with a joke (but either she didn’t speak the language or she gave up language for Lent), and my mounting anxiety about the flight, an anxiety that was slowly turning into motion sickness, was leading me down the road to inevitable illness. It starts with a chill. Then sweat, but a chilled sweat. Parched throat, thick tongue…no drink cart yet. Palms dripping. The plane suddenly drops, sways to the left like a slow car with no shocks, and swallow hard. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and worry that you’re not going to make it the rest of the five-hour flight. Light headedness sets in; you put your head back, sigh repeatedly, deep sighs. I was sitting in an aisle seat next to the nun who was enjoying being closer to the Lord by the window, and I began the justification for laying down on the floor in the middle of the aisle. If the door was unlocked, I would have opened it and stepped out on the wing. Then it overcame me: I was going to pass out; I was sweating like a pig and black spots began to blotch my vision. I heard myself say this as I said it, but after the words came out of my mouth, I was mortified at the imposition. What did I say? “Can I lay in your lap?” I didn’t wait for a response, just flopped over onto her thighs and slept for nearly an hour, right there in the chastity of the sister’s lap. How mortified I felt when I awoke, feeling much better, but further embarrassed by the perfect impression of my face on her habit… in sweat. Sigh.

4. Long before Kara and I were married (back when I was still trying to impress her), we decided to take a hike up to the top of the mountains above my folks’ house, but not before having a heaping helping of my mother’s spaghetti, which I always thoroughly enjoy, perhaps too much that day, as my plate spilled over with the pasta. About halfway through our hike, stomach cramps set in and I knew there wasn’t much I could do about the inescapability of what was to come. What goes in, must come out, and that is no more true for spaghetti as it is for any other cheesy, spicy foods. But, what can I do? We’re nearing the top of the mountain (which is what “halfway through a hike to the top of a mountain” means), there’s no bathroom on this mountain and I have no toilet paper (but I did bring a couple of hand towels). I’m with a woman I want to date; I want her to admire me for my hiking skills and my abilities to be one with nature, and as it turns out, she witness my being “Number Two” with nature. Sure, nature calls, but why then? Though she laughed at my predicament for months to come (and is probably snickering now), she still married me, however embarrassed I was.

5. I was in the Boy Scouts for nearly eight years, with a matriculation through the ranks of Cub Scouts before that, and I enjoyed the process from start to finish. For one, we got to camp and hike, and I got to see the beauty of nature, but also because we got to do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally get to do. For example, I marched in the 1990 Rose Parade, carrying one of the award banners and I got to go to the Rose Bowl that day (though I slept through most of the game). In 1983 or 84, as a troop, we visited Burroughs, and if you don’t know what that is, it’s a computer company back before they were mainstream, and it consisted of a building packed with millions of dollars of reel-to-reel computer tapes you see in documentary films about the burgeoning computer industry. Well, we got there via a 1976 Honda Civic hatchback, a car whose emissions system had seen better days. I was stuffed in the back with two other scouts and the Scoutmaster driving first had to navigate the slalom course at the Indy 500. I was feeling woozy, but I was going to make it. About halfway through the tour, surrounded by millions of dollars of whirling computers, mainframes and exposed reel hard drives, I didn’t make it. Now, my brother, who is always quick to dredge up embarrassing moments, would describe my sudden illness as “projectile vomiting the likes of which I have never seen,” and I don’t doubt that it wasn’t. In fact, if that building is still standing today and the offended carpet still lines the main computer room on the second floor, I’m sure people walk through the three-foot by two-foot oval stain on the carpet and wonder, “Wow, someone must have spilled a whole pot of coffee there.” If they only knew.

There you have it. Embarrassing to me and my memory, and I’m sure I could come up with a sequel list of most embarrassing moments if I were to give it more thought, which I won’t do. Until next time, remember, if you blend into the wallpaper, nobody will notice you, and if nobody notices you, you can deftly avoid the humiliation and naturally follows unwanted attention.

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