Underground, subway windows transform into mirrors. I marry the reflections of strangers beside me—Nose-ring Girl stomps off at Grand, Bearded Guy deserts me at Division for his wife. But I collect the moments between, carry them home to occupy empty corners.
A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.
The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.
In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.
And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.
For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.
But it’s not.
Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.
Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.
Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?
Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.
Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.
(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)
This isn’t easy to admit, but, on my nightstand underneath two books lies a folded-up piece of paper–a photocopy of pages 160-161 of a book called Living Fully with Shyness & Social Anxiety.
If you’ve never met me that admission may give you the wrong impression. I’m not a shy man. I say hello to strangers on sidewalks. I lead game nights and book groups regularly. I freely express opinions.
No, I am not shy. But I am most certainly socially anxious.
Not familiar? Here’s an example: Twenty years ago I played a practical joke on an acquaintance with whom I was trying to befriend. I wrapped a birthday present in a plastic bag, placed it in a box, and poured whatever I could think of on top—peanut butter, mayonnaise, coffee grounds, frozen peas, moisturizer. I left it out for three August days and then gave it to him. After mucking through layers of rancid gloop and dry heaving twice, he stormed off. I was never invited over to his house again.
Pretty typical high school trial-and-error stuff, right? What makes this an example of social anxiety is what the author of the book, Erika B. Hilliard, calls Post-Event Autopsies (PEA).
[A post-event autopsy] occurs when we go over and over a particular, past social event with a fine-tooth comb. We filter through bits and pieces of the event, picking out the bad parts and obsessing about them, sometimes for days and even weeks.
Yes. That. All of that. Only in my case the span of time is decades. Twenty years later and I still obsess about that birthday party. The guilt, shame, and embarrassment is as fresh as if it happened last week. It sometimes still keeps me up at night no matter how many mattresses I lay over top of it. That is how pervasive social anxiety is. (For a funnier example of my anxiety, click here.)
You can imagine that this kind of self-punishment doesn’t make socializing easy for me. It’s sometimes hard to leave my house. The dread of socializing has nothing to do with the nice people I will visit or the good time I know I’ll have. It’s about the panic that I’ll mess up and have yet another event in which to fret over for eons. Sometimes the stress I feel at the onset of a social interaction is so high I’ll preemptively blurt out something rude just to relieve it. A technique that often results in bad first impressions.
For a long time I thought everyone shared my fear. When I started telling people about it though, I started fearing I was the only one. Others would try to help me by saying things like Just don’t worry about it. (Non-worriers are an alien species to me. Don’t they know that ceasing to worry isn’t like closing floodgates on a dam? ) Worriers have to process through it. It’s similar to the routines people with OCD undertake to quell their anxiety. Worrying is my version of checking the stove exactly a dozen times.
Before I found Erika Hilliard’s words I’d make myself feel terrible over and over again. Now I just read through the paper on my nightstand when I start feeling the anxiety and it acknowledges my feelings. It reassures me that it’s natural and useful to regret things, but it should never damage my self-esteem. After all I would never harp on a friend for 20 years for an adolescent mistake. Why am I harping on myself?
Why does everyone like that Cosby show so much? I think it’s bogus. Last night there was a rerun of the one where Vanessa tries to sneak away from home to see her boyfriend. He’s all sticky sweet with her and then he tells her that they need to spend every moment they can with each other. Please. Get me a hose with some strong water pressure to spray them both off my tv. Teenagers just don’t date like that. I know. I’ve been dating my boyfriend Patrick for 4 whole months.
First of all, boyfriends don’t say all that lovey crap–all those beautifuls and need yous. We don’t need them to. It’s almost the 90s, people. (!!!) Women have evolved. Geraldine Ferraro was this close to being Vice President of the United States! My mom always says that when there are other adults in the room that aren’t my dad, but it’s true.
My boyfriend Patrick and I don’t need to talk. He shows that he loves me by picking me up after I’m done babysitting and walking me to the arcade. That’s what we do on Friday nights. He’ll buy me a pack of strawberry watermelon Hubba Bubba and I’ll give him the money Mrs. Davis gave me for watching Jennifer. Then he’ll play Galaga for hours. We’ll be together all night without ever needing to say a word because our love transcends using voice boxes!
What do I do while he plays games? Well, I mostly sit on the floor and lean against the side of the game and chew my gum. Sometimes I’ll trace the circles of acid marks in my jeans. Sometimes I’ll watch the arcade owner stomp around trying to catch people tipping the pinball machines. When he does he screams “TILT! TILT! You brats!” and two or three kids will start running to the front door. It’s pretty funny. Patrick just keeps feeding the machine more quarters and staring at the electronic insects that are swooping down on his battleship. He’s not much of a talker. He started buying me gum at the arcade so I wouldn’t try to talk to him and break his concentration. That’s how I show him my love. I don’t break his concentration. . . and I let him pay for gum.
Second of all, a healthy adult relationship means we’re fine doing stuff apart. Vanessa Huxtable needs Jeremy to feel special. She’s completely dependent on him. Grown up relationships are about sharing lives, not living the same life. Friday night is the only time Patrick and I spend time together. He likes to hang out with his friend on the football team– Brian. And Brian has his games on Friday nights. I think Patrick’s spending every day with Brian because he feels bad about the screamfest they had in the cafeteria a while back. It was bad. They fought until Patrick finally punched Brian in the jaw and Brian stormed off with his teammates.* I tried to get Patrick to talk about it, but he just said it was no big deal and clammed up. I tried to get him to go see Rain Man with me. I said it doesn’t require conversation to sit and watch a movie together, but he just started to cry. So then I tried to show I understood about fighting with friends by telling him about the fight I’m in with Whisky.
Whisky’s my best friend. Or was. She bought this new jean jacket that looks like an old dress my grandma has in the back of her closet. The jacket and the dress are the same shade of blue and have this freakazoid fringe all over them. Mom called the dress a flapper or something when I pulled it out of the closet and asked her about it.
Anyway, after I said that about Whisky’s jacket she called me Sarcastro, which is our way of telling each other we’re being mean, and she told me to leave her room in that voice that’s all flat and cold-like. I don’t care. Her jacket did look like that dress. Denial is such a strong force in some people.
But I do miss talking to her. She and I love each other, but not like Patrick and I do, thank God, because Whisky and I talk ALL THE TIME when we’re together. And when we’re not together we’re talking on the phone. We’ll talk until Mom trips on the phone cord and yells at me to get off the line. It’s not my fault that I have to pull it so tight so it will reach into my bedroom. That’s the only way I can get any privacy in my stupid house.
Usually I’d be at Whisky’s house right now. I like it there because her mom is always baking something. Last week, it was peach cobbler. My favorite. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Patrick.
I think he looks like a taller, buffer Doogie Howser. (Future self: he’s a dorky doctor on a tv show.) But, Whisky says he looks more like that superhunk from Growing Pains. She says Pat couldn’t be Doogie because Doogie is totally innocent. I think she’s right. Like, last Friday, Patrick had Brian meet him at the arcade so they could play Mario and Luigi together. For some reason, Brian didn’t have a ball game. I’m not sure why Patrick and I have never thought to play a video game together like that. Anyway, when I told him I had to go, he just told me I knew my way back home. So I had to walk all by myself like in that weird song where the guy sings about a girl having different colored eyes. (Future self: it’s the one that goes “Tonight I think I’ll walk alone, I’ll find myself as I go home. Woo! Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo!”)
That’s what I was singing to myself all the way home. I can’t believe he made me do that. There I was walking down the street alone like a hooker. As if. So maybe I should break up with him. Seems a waste to throw away such a long relationship! But I’ve been thinking I miss Mickey, my first love. He wasn’t so into his friends like Pat is. And Mickey’s mom always made us chicken alfredo dinners and this really mature dessert with Italian cookies and whipped cream. I know it’s weird to call a food mature, but it has fancy coffee in it– not the powdered kind– so how else would you describe it? Besides, Mickey is really fun. We have a lot more in common. And he showed me how to hide the creases under my eyes using some concealer. Maybe he can help me figure out how to make up with Whisky, too.
Anyway, that’s what’s up with me. Oh, Cosby show’s on! Gotta go.
*taken from Stephen Chbosky fantastic novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that very much influenced Candi’s character
I am not a morning person.
It’s not that I’m angry or sad or upset (my morning thoughts are usually pretty upbeat in fact), it’s just that it takes some time for any social skills or an ability to express emotions to kick in. This is not something my poor neighbor across the hall knew about me when he met me one morning.
Here is the ensuing conversation — the parenthetical statements are what my brain was thinking, the regular text is what my mouth was saying. You will notice grave differences between the two, unfortunately. Keep in mind that my dialogue is said extremely deadpan.
The set-up: We were both standing on the landing locking our facing apartment doors. It was 7:30 am on a weekday. He was dressed as if to go to work, as was I. He smiled and commented on all the rain we’d had recently.
Me: (Yes, it has been rather rainy lately. I hope you remembered your umbrella!) Yeah, it was coming down so hard when I woke up this morning I was thinking of showering out on my back porch.
Unwitting Neighbor, with concern in his eyes: Hah, uh, yeah, but I bet those pesky public decency laws stopped you, right?
Me: (Yes!. . . No! I would never go out in public naked. I blush when someone says the word “Cockney.”) No, it was the pigeons that stopped me, actually. I thought once it stopped raining and the sun came out all of those suds from the shampoo and soap would make the porch all sticky. . . and then I thought what a pain it would be to have to go outside every half hour or so and pluck the pigeons from the roof. Or what if they liked the taste of the suds?
[Pertinent sidenote: My back porch was also simultaneously the rooftop of the video store underneath us.]
Unwitting Neighbor, no longer smiling: Huh. Well. I’m glad you didn’t because I wouldn’t want to look out one day to see you rinsing off. No offense.
Me: (Oh my god! I’m sorry! I have gone way off the tracks here, but I just don’t know how to stop the awkward now.) Come on now, it’s not that bad. I work out. You could do much worse. [Yes, I actually said that.]
Unwitting Neighbor: Are you hitting on me?
For the next 2 weeks, I worried and worried about what I would say to that guy if I saw him around again. My partner had to talk me down a couple times. Thankfully, he is rather used to my awkward morning conversations and, occasionally, he even finds them charming.
Here is basically what my partner said to me during one of the said talking-downs: I’m sure that guy is telling that story to all of his friends at parties. And if you run into him again, he’ll either avoid you completely or he’ll ask you how the pigeon-plucking business is going. Either way, he will never ever forget meeting you.
I love him for that — my partner, not the neighbor. He reminded me that my morning awkwardness is just a side effect of having a personality. It’s really not that uncommon.
In this blog class I’m taking, we were challenged to comment on four new-to-us blogs, then write a post expounding on one of the comments we’ve left. I read Crystal’s funny account of forgetting to buy pepperoni for a birthday dinner and the mental fall-out that ensued. I read Andy’s lament of reading Hemingway and being subsequently ruined on writing anything ever again. And then I read about Meg’s defiance of a cranky (and absolutely wrong I might add) hipster who commented unkindly about something she’d written. I found a very common theme.
And that leads me to my point in sharing my mortifying neighbor story and its aftermath:
I call it the “Needless Obstacle Courses We Put Ourselves Through In Our Heads”. It’s acronym is unwieldy and despite its length, its effects make us short-sided. Crystal and I sweat over the small stuff. Andy, Meg, and I (along with about 95% of anyone who writes) are insecure about our writing abilities. Those two obstacle courses make us focus on the miniscule and forget to acknowledge the big picture. As Crystal said, her husband wouldn’t be upset by a missing pizza ingredient. What mattered was the thought. I think Andy, Meg, and I just needed to be reminded that writing isn’t a contest. What matters is that we enjoy doing it.
In all of our articles we move forward. Crystal goes on to remind herself not to beat herself up. Andy opens up to the possibility of revisiting some of his work despite the scars Hemingway lashed upon him. And Meg continues to write her blog. Together they remind me that all of our misgivings, beatings, and worries are self-inflicted. They’re all in our head.
Perfection isn’t the goal; simply trying to get out of our own way is the goal.
And, maybe for me, avoiding that neighbor I inadvertently hit-on for the rest of my life.
A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling logy at work, I’ll jog up and down the three flights of stairs in my office building. I do sets of exercises each time I reach the tucked-away basement. I used to do my jack knifes, squats, and pushups at the top of the stairs, but people would often be spooked when they turned into the stairwell and spotted me huffing and puffing on the landing situated just before the stairs open out onto the roof. The location I used before that was a recess in the hallway near the service elevator. I moved from there when not one, but two different dogs came over and sniffed my scalp as I did my push-ups (my office building is pet friendly). Those dogs made me feel a little vulnerable. So, I moved to the barely used basement for my privacy and to maintain other peoples’ sense of security.
The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s directly adjacent to the back door of the building. Many office workers take their cell phones to that landing, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to their desks. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. My perfectly innocent presence still scares them when I emerge from the dank basement to cross between them mid-conversation and continue my jog up the stairs. I should also mention that my office building houses about 20 different companies, so these are people who don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that likes to scare people and enjoys having his scalp sniffed by dogs.
In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.
And sometimes, I must admit, I feel a little like my family’s genealogical creeper: lurking in unseen corners, overhearing the snippets of their lives I find on documents and pictures, surprising newly found relatives on Facebook asking for info about their relatives after sniffing them out.
That’s why I’ve all but given up researching living relatives. As much as I would like to bring my distant cousins together, it feels intrusive and a little stalker-y knowing my connections to people who don’t know me. Also, I realized early on in my research that my feelings of connection to my relatives went unrequited more often than not (not to discount my family members who were open to connecting).
That was a hard lesson I had to learn just about out of the gate. I found some relatives and was instantly rejected because of bad blood. I just couldn’t understand their rebuffs at first. What’s the big deal?, I thought, the past is past.
But it’s not.
If that were true, genealogy wouldn’t exist. Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there. And genealogists like me are set on rifling through it like the NSA does a suspicious suitcase. The past is directly tied to our present. Some events in the past are still so raw and tangible that a single name might burble up the pain or joy we associate with it to our surfaces like blood to a blushing cheek. And some details in our past can transfer to seemingly unrelated people and things. An inconsistent parent can deem an entire branch of a family tree unsavory. Words left unsaid to a loved one can fester and make a person want to never talk about that person again. I realize that now. (Insert grateful prayer here about having to learn that lesson as opposed to having to live it.)
So, I often wonder if my research is ticking my ancestors off, like it did those relative who rejected my interest in them. Knowing that quite a few of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet, honest lives. Perhaps, they weren’t the kind to talk about themselves. Or I wonder if they would rather I stick to the facts instead of making up my own flouncy stories about them. Perhaps more to my point, I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. Most of them probably wouldn’t have agreed (while they were living) with my life as a gay man. They were after all solid, modest Midwesterners living their lives as best they could in the capsules of their time. Some or most of them might have thought less of me, might have disowned me, might have sent me off to ‘conversion therapy’ camps, might have ignored me completely.
But I hope not. (Insert another grateful prayer here about the ability for times to change and for my very supportive family.) I hope they’re happy I’m interested in their lives, happy in my efforts to remember and learn from them, happy to have lights shine on events that no longer elicit bad feelings, happy I’m spreading their tales. I happen to believe, among many other things, that our relatives can see our lives from our perspective after they’ve passed, and I’d like to think that they know that I’m striving for the same goals they did: exacting my own quiet, honest life the best way I can in the capsule of my own time.
Surprisingly, that task has involved a lot more gasping strangers and dog snouts than I ever expected.
American Idol is a depressing show and that is a depressing opening statement, but stay with me here. I know what I’m doing.
Oh, I was on board at the beginning– the deluded singers, the occasional star performer, the fun of figuring out which judge was the most drunk. But after a few seasons, seeing literally thousands of people get their dreams systematically annihilated for something as fleeting as the inability to generate a zazz moment on one’s very first time being on national television, I grew sour. I was bothered by the fact that the people who very obviously knew how to work a crowd never won. I was bothered by the product placement in every judges’ hands. But what bothered me most were the singers that walked out onto that stage and gave it all they got for three people who had been sitting there for way too long to respect the preciousness of that singer’s moment in front of them. (One could argue that the singers did it of their own volition; but for a homeless teenager living in a car, that audition is pretty much the ONLY way they’d get in front of a powerful music representative.)
How could anyone be expected to create a genuine special moment in such a sterile, manufactured environment? And if you do manage your moment, you are immediately shoved into a world of bright lights and expectations. As most of the past AI winners have demonstrated, stardom just doesn’t work like that. Most people’s success comes to a boil like a pot of pasta– after a few years, a bubble rises to the surface. After a decade, if you’re lucky, you achieve a rolling boil, and, from there it all happens so quickly: your pot’s boiling over and you’re hoping the world will at least keep you on its burner.
It all reminded me of the time back in college that I’d won a second-place award for a poem I wrote. I was a standard creative writing major. The guy that won first place was a sort of nemesis of mine. He’d entered the contest on a whim; he was an engineering major. He was part of the Honors College at the university and lorded it over people. As part of the “reward,” I got to recite my poem to a room full of people, including the snobbish guy who had won. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life. My rib cage was shaking. My stomach was roiling. The cankers of being emotionally naked in front of my nemesis, not to mention the other strangers in the room. No one booed; no one hissed. The guy even complimented my reading. But I was wrecked. I couldn’t just be happy with the award I’d received; I had to compare what I had done with my nemesis’s accomplishment. I couldn’t see past the fact that he was a dabbler of writing and he beat me. And it’s taken me 18 years to want to risk the comparisons again.
Now what roils is my frustration from all of that time I wasted. Like any of that matters anymore. Or that guy whose name I can’t even remember is sitting in an office somewhere evil-laughing at thwarting me. Another case of “Needless Obstacle Courses We Put Ourselves Through In Our Heads.”
A few days ago, I read an article in a genealogy magazine that said 63 million blogs pertaining to genealogy exist just on this site alone and I immediately felt myself deflate. So much discouragement. 63 million people on just one site. I was not Mary Benn riding up into the mountains to kill myself a bear. I was just another sidewalk vendor on a city street. I wallowed in that feeling for a few days.
Then I remembered some of the rejected American Idol hopefuls who came out of their auditions, looked right into the camera, and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is what I want to do. I’ll keep trying till I get a chance.”
So, it doesn’t matter if I’m any good at this. My moments of insecurity about what I’m doing here are normal and show that I care. My effing numbers on this blog site’s statistics page do not matter. It’s just a blog. Many people have them and don’t make it a source of angst. I post things all the time on Facebook without fussing over who’s reading, who’s judging, or the quality of my output. Why would this blog be any different?
What matters is that I showed up for the audition. I got out of my own way. What matters is I’m not hiding from any drunk, jaded judges, real or imaginary. What matters is the asshole voice in my head has stopped nagging me constantly about not writing. Why aren’t you writing? Why are you avoiding it? Chickenshit. The voice has stopped nagging me about letting my fear of failure stop me. It’s fine you’re not writing anyway, because it’s all been said before. There’s nothing new under the sun. The inanity of not even trying to do what I love and have always loved doing.
Instead, I’m walking through my city’s streets mapping out in my head, like a star chart of constellations, the things I want to tell you. I’m waking up excited to research my story and find my voice in telling it. To introduce you to the cast of characters whose names I didn’t even know until a few years ago. I’m back to doing what I love. Researching my family motivates me to write. I’m finding answers to my questions. I’m creating.
And only good things can come from that.
So, fear or not, the stories are coming. I have the title of this blog to reassure me of my power, because the name of that guy’s first place poem all those years ago was The Cartographer. And now I have this note to myself to read when I get discouraged. And I will get discouraged again. I will change course or fall down. It all doesn’t matter.
At least I’m on stage.