porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘people are strange’ Category

A new trend that I’m not a particular fan of, or potentially a well-established trend that I’ve only just begun to encounter and am not a particular fan of, is for the cost of a ticket to a book-reading by a celebrity to include a copy of the book. I’m not opposed to the selling of books per se, nor even to the inflated cost of a ticket to these particular readings; however, just because I’m interested in hearing what a particular actor I enjoy has to say about things doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to own a copy of their book. Especially if they’ve written a children’s book. While I do want to hear what successful people can share about their creative process, so that I can know specifically what I should be doing when I’m not doing it, I don’t want my bookshelf to look like I read nothing but celebrity memoirs. Which is why, in addition to generally avoiding celebrity book events, I also never invite anyone over to my house.

Last week, though, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket to see Nick Offerman read from his new book at the Wilbur mostly, I think, because I just found out on Wednesday that he was reading on Friday and the pressure of last-minute decision-making overrode my natural aversions. The event was interesting; Mr. Offerman is an engaging speaker with an interesting perspective and a laugh as ridiculous as it is divine.

After the reading, Mr. Offerman opened the floor to questions, and was met immediately not with questions but with a single word, shouted again and again by the audience: mustache. It wasn’t entirely a surprise; when he first took the stage, his face seemed empty without the iconic Ron Swanson mustache. I was taken aback to see his face so naked, and though initially I mourned the loss of Ron Swanson from the world, I was quickly won over by the similarly staunch and intelligent, though infinitely more ribald, Mr. Offerman.

In response to the audience, Mr. Offerman explained that he, a character actor, would be unable to play a new character if people only ever saw him as Ron Swanson. Thus, as beloved as the mustache may have been, it must now belong to the ages. As much as much sense as that makes, though, that we should learn to draw a distinction between the man and the character he portrayed, it does call into question the photo used for the cover of the book, which, now that I can tell the difference, is much more Ron Swanson than Nick Offerman.

As I said, I’m not opposed to the selling of books, and at this particular point, Ron Swanson will probably move more product than Nick Offerman. And probably, too, the cover was shot while the final season of Parks & Recreation was filming. But still; while I would never have cause to question Nick Offerman’s integrity (seriously: you should hear him talk about how much he loves his wife), I just wish he had used a picture of himself.

After the Q&A, there was to be a book signing. And though I enjoyed the idea of telling the erstwhile Ron Swanson that I am a librarian, the theater was so ill-prepared to organize the audience into a formation that would allow any single person to get his or her book signed while also not being an unbelievable fire hazard, that I decided my best course of action would be to head home.

And because last Friday felt like summer, unlike the deep autumn in which we find ourselves lo these several days later, I decided to walk. I know; I’m a damn hero over here. A hero who sees no reason to spend $2.10 to go two stops on the Red Line. Thrift is a virtue, I understand, and virtue is its own reward. Which makes it all the more amazing that on this walk I received the greatest possible gift when I found myself slightly alongside a couple engaging in perhaps the most awkward romantic banter in history. The topic, obviously, was mailboxes.

It may seem, especially when inebriated, which I desperately hope this couple was, that the mailbox presents no end of possibilities for romantic conversation. I mean, when you have key players like “box,” “slot,” “sign for delivery,” and “insufficient postage” doing the heavy lifting for you, the wit practically writes itself. And yet, despite this cornucopia of material, this fair woman, who hopefully was drunk, lost her grip on the topic in a terrible way but tried desperately to keep up with it by announcing that isn’t it so weird that no one ever steals from mailboxes?

As a practical person not generally given to romance, I would probably not have been swept up in her desperate whimsy and instead replied that it’s not, because they do. In fact, it’s a federal offense to mess with someone’s mail, and it probably wouldn’t carry a five-year penalty if no one ever did it. Which would have been unfortunate, as I believe pointing out that the drunken person trying so hard to impress you that they’ll say something unbelievably stupid just said something unbelievably stupid is what the kids call a mood killer.

On the other hand, though, sometimes a topic is so egregious that such a killing would be a mercy. Because even though her young man tried valiantly to engage, or at least not to dash the conversation altogether, it did not get better. On the contrary, it got so much worse that it was thrilling. Desperate to course correct, the woman announced that they just don’t HAVE mailboxes where she’s from.

I didn’t fully hear the rest of what said for two reasons. The first was that, when presented with an intellectual puzzle, I need to make an attempt to solve it, however feeble. Where could a person be from that doesn’t have mailboxes? The most obvious answer is another planet, and this young woman was some sort of intergalactic spy. Which is encouraging to think of, that at least this particular alien race is so poor at fitting in amongst us that any possible invasion would have to be several years away.

However, their conversation continued and turned to the delivery of packages – because they were talking on their DATE about PACKAGES; and not in the sexy way. I assume, while I was marveling, it was put forth that, though the mailbox itself is impervious to theft, not every delivery will fit within said box and must then be left completely unguarded on a person’s porch, tempting any thief who might pass by with its vulnerability,causing her to reveal that on her home planet, packages are simply left with neighbors. Which means she lives in a place without mailboxes, but people are always home during the day. So, alien home world, or, just as likely, trailer park.

The main distraction, though, was that I am, like, 1 billion percent sure that I know guy who was on this amazingly awkward date. A former co-worker, I believe, with whom I was not particularly friends with but knew a number of people who thought well of him. By which I of course mean thought he was cute.

I have to say, here in the honesty of the internet, that I did not see it. Which, as with other things that are particularly beloved that I don’t get, I chose not to comment on. Not out of preservation in this case, but simply because I am very much in favor of finding people attractive, in general; that I may not agree in a specific case is irrelevant to the larger cause, which is one that I think should be celebrated in all its forms.

So my relationship with this gentleman is tenuous; we know each other well enough to recognize and say hello, but not well enough for us ever to laughingly reminisce about that time I saw him on a date with an alien female who wouldn’t stop talking about mailboxes, and he was gamely trying to go along with it. It’s not a memory he and I will share, which is sad, because it is one I will treasure forever.

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While I would not argue that my most defining quality is excessive laziness, I have not yet gotten, and hope never to get, to a point where I wear sweat pants in public. Partially this is because I don’t really like to wear sneakers, and heels with sweatpants strikes me as trashy in a way you have to be truly exceptional to pull off; additionally, the effort it would take to find a pair of sweatpants that don’t have something written across the ass seems in violation of the entire spirit of sweatpants.

So on those days when I can’t be bothered to put on clothes but still must leave the house, I wear overalls. Overalls capture the same laissez-faire attitude of sweatpants, but still get you credit for actually having gotten dressed.  The overalls I have are particularly fetching, because they are the striped sort (which you should be mentally pronouncing with two syllables – “stry-ped”), of the kind associated with train engineers, and with tiny children pretending to be train engineers.

It was these overalls I wore last Monday. I’d had some fancy plans – and a correspondingly fancy outfit – all laid out for the day, but these went astray due to an incredibly terrible sore throat. This would have been unfortunate in and of itself, but it was made ever the more unfortunater by a lack of planning ahead, which left me in the house with no food with soothing recuperative powers, no medicine, and, most importantly, no cat food for Oola’s breakfast the following day; though I most likely would have survived the discomforts caused by the first two, I can’t even imagine the havoc Oola would wreak if denied breakfast.

And this is why I and my overalls shuffled through the streets of Cambridge, first to the vet to buy Oola’s prescription cat food, and then to the new Whole Foods. Which, thanks to some spectacularly convenient urban planning, is directly across the street from the vet’s office. Never have I have I been so glad for corporate machinations and the slow death of Main Street.

As I made my way home, burdened with 4 cans of cat food, three cans of soup, and a two turtle doves, I heard someone call out “Miss!” behind me; tired though I was, I still turned around, and beheld a gentleman, arm stretched out toward me, holding, as though I had dropped it, a stry-ped engineers cap.

“Oh, that’s not mine,” I responded, hopefully appreciatively.

“But it matches your outfit,” he replied, stretching his arm even closer.

To him, this was a clear indication that the cap was the rightful property of mine.

I, however, was skeptical. “Are you sure?” I asked, somewhat curious about why he was apparently walking around with an engineer’s cap he didn’t want, and how he might have disposed of it had I not walked past him right then.

“Yes. Here, it’s yours.” And so he gave me the hat.

I think a lot of people are going to go through their entire lives without getting an engineer’s hat from a stranger. It took me nearly 40 years to get one, but, having done so, I can tell you for sure : it is absolutely worth the wait.

(Warning : portions of this blog have appeared elsewhere. Like on Facebook. Yesterday.)

I had a weirdly aggressive encounter with a patron yesterday. Although a recent arrival, she has quickly become a frequent visitor to the library; while it’s difficult to make assumptions about people, I would guess, based on her behavior, that she is neither Illustrious student nor faculty nor staff, but instead is of the sort of person who eschews the public library despite being the sort of person one imagines when coming up with reasons to eschew the public library.

Or, I suppose the difficulty lies in accurately judging a person about whom you have already made assumptions. Whatever the case, my very first interaction with this particular woman resulted with her thinking that my answer to her very bizarre question about my bracelet (which I no longer remember, except that it was off-putting) was an invitation to grab said bracelet which, having an elastic band, she then snapped against my wrist. And, while we may go into detail on physical contact in the library another time, the short explanation is : No. Even the great Colonel Mustache, who stole my heart by being the answer to the question “What would Yosemite Sam look like if his great-grandparents on his mother’s side had been Norwegian alcoholics, and his paternal great-great-great-grandfather had been a Lorax, who spoke not for trees but for mustaches?” was invited to remove his hand from my arm as I demonstrated how to use the scanner; there are no exceptions to this rule.

Subsequent interactions with this woman – who so far has not exhibited enough personality to earn a nickname, although perhaps we should start working on something tissue-based – have, now that I think of it, been fairly limited. At least on my watch, her pattern seems to be to establish herself in front of one of the computers, do whatever it is that she needs to do, and then leave, without requesting assistance from the staff. However, before heading over to the computers, she likes to stop by the desk to stock up on tissues. And, to her credit, unlike many library users, she does seem to realize that the tissues are kept on the desk not because we want to be a part of your nose-blowing experience, but so that they’ll be easy to find.

However, unlike most – if not all – of our other library users, when she stopped by the desk yesterday she glared steadily at me as she pulled tissues singly out of the box, as though daring me to stop her. One after another, it seemed like her whole purpose in coming to the library was to prove that she could remove as many tissues from the box on the desk as she wanted. It seems weird to describe anything involving tissues as defiant, but there doesn’t seem to be any other word for it.

And I almost took up her challenge. When she got to 4 and showed no signs of stopping, I inhaled, preparing to say Ok, lady – that’s enough with the tissues. And then I exhaled, wondering if that was really the life I want for myself? Do I want to be a person who restricts access to tissues? Kind of, but under the guise of wanting to ensure adequate tissue availability for all of our library users at all times.

However, that’s not a realistic goal – no matter how many or how few tissues an individual person takes, it is inevitable that the library will one day run out of tissues. On the other hand, there is no shortage of tissues in the world. And as long as there *are* tissues, the library will get more.

It may be, though, that her aggression yesterday was a result to regain some face after the tissue-related ordeal of last weekend. The difficulty then was not because of the tissues themselves, but because she was attempting to take all of the tissues. At once. Using only one hand. I don’t know why she had set this unusual challenge for herself, but I worried for a bit that she was not quite up to the task. As she struggled, unable to get her hand fully inside the box, and then unable to get it out, I wondered whether I should intervene – should I try to help her? She was having difficulty, but then she was trying to take all of our tissues – I didn’t want to encourage that. On the other hand, what she was going through was so very fascinating that it didn’t seem right to try to stop her either.

Fortunately, my conundrum was easily solved by realizing that this very moment illustrated the guiding principle behind the Prime Directive, and since anything good enough for Jean-Luc Picard is good enough for me, I decided to let events unfold as they may. Eventually, as I watched with a rapt expression upon my face, she did manage successfully to extract all of the tissues from the box. It was quite a moment, and I quietly enjoyed her victory even though her face betrayed no recognition of her achievement.

This week, I had momentarily forgotten that Directive, but fortunately, I remembered it in time. Since I did, it is my hope that in the course of proving yesterday that she can take as many tissues as she wants, she noticed that I made no effort to stop her. Because it’s interesting for two weeks, but I am kind of hoping for an end to the tissue-related drama in my life. Unless it’s new life forms coming in to the library – I’m always ready for that.

One of the stories I plan to include in the memoirs I will realistically probably not get around to writing is the tale of the time I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. I don’t want to give to say too much now for fear of spoiling the story for you when it eventually doesn’t come out, but I think there are a couple of salient points we can safely discuss now without affecting your experience for when you never get to read the whole thing.

Without giving everything away, I’ll just tell you that one time, I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. Which is to say that it was me who was on the way to yoga, and that I happened upon a rooster while en route, and not that I saw a rooster that was itself headed to yoga. However, even without any avian theatrics or mysticism, the unexpected appearance of a rooster in one’s path can lead a person to certain realizations that that person may not be prepared to face. To wit:

  • There is no previous experience in your life that you can call upon for guidance on how to behave in this particular situation – not even having seen a seal several months prior;
  • That number for the Marine Animal Rescue League you’ve been carrying around in your wallet for the past several months will not help you now;
  • Your life has gone astray if calling on the assistance of a someone who still lives at home with his parents reveals you to be the weaker party;
  • Although you have no association with the rooster outside of this one interaction, people will think you’re weird because of it.

Obviously, not everyone will think you’re weird for having seen a rooster on the way to yoga; not at first, anyway. Your friends will probably have some questions, the most harrowing of which, you suddenly understand, will be “What did you do?” Because the true measure of a human being is not the number of unusual situations they face, but how they behave in the face of those situations. Having seen the rooster is not a defining characteristic of who you are any more than the color of your clothing is a defining characteristic of who you are, unless you’re wearing textiles that borrow from mood ring technologies and/or you’re the sort of sullen high-school student who can only fully express the futility of algebra by composing poetry on your arm.  In the long run, though, while your friends will probably remember that you saw a rooster, that’s not a way that they would describe you to a third party – as “saw a rooster one time,” – although they might describe you as having a weird obsession with poultry.

But the people you will immediately encounter after the rooster encounter, the ones at yoga with whom you will likely be most eager to share the story in response to their perfunctory how-are-you’s :  these are the ones who will think you’re weird, because they have little to no other frame of reference for you in which to store that information. “Saw a rooster one time” is all they’ll be able to say about you, until their memory of the actual event starts to degrade and the information changes in their brain, metamorphosing from “There’s that girl who saw the rooster; weird,” through “There’s that weird girl who saw the rooster,” and then pausing briefly at “Every time I see that girl, I get this weird craving for chicken,” before finally arriving at “That girl is just weird.” And that seems unfair to me : just because you sometimes find yourself in a place where weirdness is happening, that shouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re weird.

One of the major drawbacks, though, of constantly planning a story that you’ll never get around to writing, is that you still do a whole lot of revising, which can lead to drastic changes in the resolution. In the early drafts, I was just the poor, unlucky girl who happened upon a rooster, a victim of people’s poor memories and misunderstanding, doomed forever onward to be uncomfortable in the presence of the sharply kitten-faced gentleman who was staffing the check-in desk at yoga that day, thwarted from ever responding to his usual “Can I get your name?” with the grandpa-esque “Will I get it back?”

Now, however, older & wiser (although I should like to point out that I was at least wise enough at the time not actually to tell anyone at yoga about the rooster, nor ever to zing Kitten Face with my quippy comeback), I understand that being repeatedly exposed to weird things does in fact make you weird. Not in the same way that exposure to radiation will alter you at a cellular level, but in the way that, if the only common factor in every situation is you, there must be something particular about you that is contributing to these situations. Which is very easy to understand in terms of other people : people who are constantly complaining about work, their neighbors, drivers, people in the library or in the grocery store; whatever they are bringing to these interactions is somehow contributing to whatever it is they’re complaining about, even if (or especially if) what they’re bringing is a simply a lack of understanding how to resolve the situation amicably.

When it’s you, though, it can be difficult to see what makes up your negative contribution. But, with maturity, I have come to understand that, if you don’t want people to think you’re weird, a simple thing you can do is simply stop telling them how fucking weird you are all the time. And this, finally, is one of the major reasons that the memoirs will probably never get written : it’s difficult to write a story about yourself in which you’re not the hero, you’re not the victim, you don’t transition from one to the other even once, never mind back again. You’re just a person who saw a rooster one time, and watched it walk away.

One interesting thing I learned in college that I still remember is that when asking for advice, a person will overall get the response they were looking for. As one of the readings from the Sociology class I took in the Spring semester of my Freshman year went on to explain, before asking for advice, a person will run through a mental inventory of the people that they know; in choosing who among these people they will ask, they choose the person or persons who will give them the answer they most want to hear.

While the scope of that article was strictly on advice (I think – that was kind of a long time ago; if memories aged like people, that particular interesting fact would be in college itself right now, just beginning the Spring semester of its Junior year, and might even be at a frat party celebrating the new semester, drinking out of a red Solo cup and wondering why the floor is sticky), it can easily be extrapolated that, when in search of information of any sort, people will endeavor to find something that supports their own already established decisions or preferences.

This is not necessarily to say that people are close-minded. Rather, the belief in one’s own correctness and the urge to reinforce that correctness is, itself, self-reinforcing : it’s unlikely that a person would – or even could – believe things that they believe to be incorrect. One of the great challenges of life is to keep oneself open to other possibilities and different beliefs. Another great challenge is to remain respectful of others whose beliefs conflict with ones own. And perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to remain polite in the face of someone adamantly sticking to a belief that you know is incontestably wrong. This last challenge is one I faced recently, on a day very much like today, in so unlikely a place as the Market Basket.

The setting is unusual due not to any especial grace of the clientele; for example, on my first visit to the Basket this year, an older woman crashed her Rascal right into my shopping cart, then drove off muttering about how I must not have seen her and offering rather a depressing glimpse into the twilight years of Jordan Baker, while I attempted to conceal how startling it is to walk forward into a shopping cart that has been propelled backward into you and your abdomen. What makes the Market Basket an unusual setting is that in spite of the many ways shopping there is a wretched and soul-crushing ordeal, none of these have ever been due to the staff; in fact, the staff  has always been impressively helpful and considerate, not to mention far more friendly than I would be if I worked at the Market Basket; in fact, I don’t work at the Market Basket, and they are, on the whole, still considerably nicer than I am to anyone on any given day.

Even the recent unpleasant encounter itself began as an attempt on the part of a Basket employee to be helpful. She had been dispatched by another customer who was waiting in the parking lot for a friend – wearing a green hat – inside the store, to inform the behatted individual that the individual in the car was waiting still, but, for reasons unknown to me and which I have been unable to reconstruct, was waiting in a location other than the location the friend in the green hat was expecting, but would be easy for the friend in the green hat to find once given the directions to that other location, which had been  entrusted to the Market Basket employee by the individual in the car.

The reason that I know all of this is because, of course, I was wearing a green hat. And because of that, and because the Market Basket employee was on the lookout for a woman in a green hat, I was approached and informed while in the checkout lane that my friend was now waiting in the far left corner of the parking lot. Having discharged this vital information, the Market Basket employee stood, almost rocking back on her heels ever so lightly, spine straight, awaiting the accolades that were clearly her due. It should come as no surprise, then, that she was not pleased to be presented not with a shower of rose petals, treasure beyond imagination, and promises of everlasting gratitude, but with this:

“Uh. . . I didn’t come to the store with anyone? So there’s no one in the parking lot waiting for me.”

I, of course, had expectations of my own how the Market Basket employee would respond : surprise, perhaps a touch of chagrin, and, of course, there was no question that the word “sorry” would come in to play. So it should, again, come as no surprise when, instead of any of these, the employee dug in:

Actually, I don’t remember exactly what she said; this would probably be a better blog if I could, but, like that long-ago Sociology class, time has passed.  What’s important is not her precise words, but her insistence that the message was for me. Ever the model Market Basket employee, it was clear that, even though she was irritated, her effort in repeating the message to me was to jog my memory about my friend out there in the parking lot, and that it had to me because I was wearing a green hat.

Briefly I considered responding that it couldn’t be my friend out in the parking lot because no one knew I was at the Market Basket, but I’ve seen way too many episodes of Criminal Minds to think that’s a good idea; while Oola knows that it’s her responsibility, as it was Mokie’s before her, to avenge my death, and I know that her vengeance would be swift, terrible, and just (seriously; I love Mokie, but the worst thing she ever did was pee on my slipper – which, yes, was gross, but it’s not like I was even wearing it at the time; Oola, on the other hand, will rip your face off for no other reason than your face is in front of her and she feels like it; of the two, she will clearly be the more effective vigilante), I’d rather not go missing and unleash her adorable fury on the world just yet, so I simply repeated that I had come to the store myself. As additional evidence, I mentioned that I walked to the store, so there couldn’t be a car waiting for me.

At this point, another Market Basket employee, the woman in charge of bagging my groceries, tried to chime in in my defense, but her words were lost in the increasing volume of the original Market Basket employee who was irritated and frustrated and only trying to do someone a favor and again these were not her exact words but how could I possibly not understand that someone in the parking lot was looking for someone wearing a green hat and I was wearing a green hat so it could be proven mathematically that I was without question the person being looked for and also, did I mention, green hat?

That I was wearing a green hat can not be argued (although, honestly, I would never describe that hat as “green”; it’s a shade of green certainly, but a yellowy green, like a celery heart, rather than the nice, vibrant pea green that most people think of when thinking “green”) (and obviously, in that last aside, by “most people”, I meant “me”). The issue then, was this : did her knowledge of me, which extended no further than “wearing a green hat,” outweigh my knowledge of me, which encompasses my ENTIRE FUCKING LIFE? In a word : no. No, it did not. Nor did the fact that I was wearing a green hat mean that there were no other women in the store wearing green hats; that what you are looking for is always in the last place you look for it because once you find it you stop looking does not always mean that once you stop looking you’ve found it.

Yet there was no way to explain this to her, not that I could see, and not without profanity. Any argument that lasts through three iterations with neither side yielding even slightly is not one that anyone can win, as each side will simply become more and more entrenched in whatever stand it is that they’re taking. Which, in this case, although we each were using more words, basically boiled down to “are too/am not”. And even though I – the “am not” half – was unassailably right (see above comment re: entire fucking life), it was not a dignified position, nor one I could maintain if I wished to extricate myself from the discussion.

Were my life a hilarious sitcom, I might have done something clever like pulling the green hat of contention off my head and stuffing it in my bag, while saying “Look – no more green hat! Now do you believe it’s not me?” (or something like that; I’d probably hire better writers.) Or I’d tell her I wasn’t the droid she was looking for, while gently waving my hand in front of her face. And if I ever get a time machine, I’ll probably go back and do both of those things.* But since life is not a sitcom, I realized that my only way out was to go into the crevasse. I looked the Market Basket employee square in the eye and said as genuinely as I could “Thank you; I’ll keep an eye out for her in the parking lot.”

Whether she believed that I had come around to her way of thinking or not, the Market Basket employee recognized this as the end of the conversation, and took this as her cue to walk away. Though briefly a relief, this quickly turned out to be kind of a shame, since about 27 seconds later a woman wearing a green hat walked by uncertainly, clearly in search of something but not knowing where to go. I considered approaching her to let her know where in the parking lot she could find her ride, but I had had more than enough of green hats for the day, so I chose to leave instead. Like I said above : I don’t work at the Market Basket, and I’m still not that nice.

*If I ever do get a time machine, I’ll be so busy issuing witty retorts that I’ll completely forget to do the important things, like preventing bad hair cuts and investing in Apple in the ’80s.

In the grand tradition of my people, I celebrated the Christmas of 2005 by taking in a movie and eating Chinese food. I have actually celebrated several Christmases in that same fashion, but the Christmas of 2005 stands out in my memory, not because of the food – of which I have no recollection whatsoever – or because of the movie – The Chronicles of Narnia : The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which turned out to be a far more apt film choice for Christmas day than I anticipated; up to that point, my familiarity with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was limited only to the stage adaptation my 3rd grade put on which, due to time and the affluent Jewish suburb in which I grew up, excised all of the Jesus-y aspects of Aslan the lion, but did include a number of original songs composed by our music teacher; as the titular witch, I performed none of these songs, but I did at one point slip and crash rather unfortunately into another character’s sword; since my death, off-stage, was not due for another few acts, I carried on as though it hadn’t happened. My performance back in 1981 still had nothing on that given by Tilda Swinton in the winter of 2005, but even her icy majesty combined with her incomparable Tildanosity is not what makes that particular Christmas memorable.

(Although, seriously, if you’ve ever wondered if time travel will one day be possible, the answer clearly is Tilda Swinton.)

Most memorable about that particular Christmas was a very brief interaction that transpired before the movie began. Having arrived early, I walked down a row in the still mostly empty theater toward the seat that looked most appealing to me from the stairs. In the center of the row down which I walked was seated an older woman and her adult son; she had, on the ground before her feet, a shopping bag containing several gift-wrapped parcels. Whether these were for or from her I do not know, but what I do know is that as I arrived at the center of the row where she sat, she turned to me and, gesturing toward the parcels, said “I’m not moving that.”

I, however, was undaunted by such unwarranted hostility. “Really?” I responded. “You’re not going to pick up that bag for 5 seconds [pause for effect] so that I can walk past?”

I don’t know if it was the well-placed pause or just my generally tough demeanor that impressed the old woman into action, but she did, in fact, pick up that bag for the fewer than 5 seconds it took me to walk past and take my seat toward the other end of the row where, nestled in to my stadium seat and working to open my Twizzlers, I took several moments to contemplate just how miserable that woman’s life had to have been to make her so combatively defensive about non-existent threats to her territory in a movie theater. While I could think of no specific incident that would account for it, I concluded that, overall, her life must have been an unhappy one indeed for her to have arrived in such a state at the movies on Christmas in 2005.

That brief encounter is one to which I have returned on multiple occasions in the intervening 6 years (6 years! Man.), as it is an easy and perfect example of the many ways I don’t want my life to turn out. This past Sunday, however, I gained, perhaps, and perhaps unfortunately at that, a new perspective on the interaction, as I once again had a strangely territorial encounter with a stranger. Only this time, the role of the old woman was played by me.

Events unfolded like so: having recently developed a taste for their Royal Coconut tea, I decided that I should pay a visit to the Tealuxe to get me some. So great is my liking for the Royal Coconut that I further decided that, not only should I get some loose tea to brew at home, I should also take advantage of the brewing capabilities on site at the ‘luxe, as absolutely no one calls it, to enjoy a cup while I was there. I had done so several times during the holidays the week before and found the whole experience to be so relaxing that neither book nor reading material of any sort was required to mask the fact that I was sitting alone in a public place with nothing else to do; the tea was activity enough.

It was crowded when I arrived at the ‘luxe, enough to cause some concern that I would not be able to find a seat. However, after purchasing my tea, and reeling slightly from the inflated cost of so noble a beverage, which, though worth it, is twice the cost of the commoner Rooibos I usually drink, I noticed that a couple seated in the front window of the store was preparing to leave.

Here let me interject a few words about the seating options in Tealuxe, for those who have never been : a small space, Tealuxe has done what it can to maximize its seating potential. There are, at the rear of the establishment, four small tables, sufficient for a party of two to have nothing on the table between them but tea, a party of one to have a beverage and some kind of work spread out before them, or, if the rest of the tables are empty, a party of three all to share a single large pot of tea, or for two of them to have individual beverages while the third drinks nothing.

There is no good way to combine the tables in the back of the store to accommodate a larger party, but there are three tables in the front of store that can be so joined as necessary, or kept separate if it is separate parties that require seating. Additionally, and finally, there are two counters in the storefront windows, one on either side of the front door, each of which will seat two persons, either individuals or a party of two.

On the day in question, all of the other seating options had been spoken for, making the soon-to-be-vacated seat in the front of the store my only option. Since I like to look out the window at the people going by, I was happy to take one seat in the window and set my bag and coat on the other chair to discourage anyone else from wanting to sit next to me.

Traffic continued to flow through the store as I sat there; while I didn’t pay too much attention to the comings and goings of other tea purchasers, I did happen to notice the two people sitting at the counter on the other side of the door leave, to be replaced a few minutes later by a woman who happened to be in line in front of me when I entered but then left the store altogether. Now she had returned.

I thought her odd; she didn’t look to have any tea with her, and she seemed to be ping-ponging between Veggie Planet and Tealuxe, although it is entirely possible she’d just gone across the street in search of a bathroom; I didn’t ask. But not for lack of opportunity. For, as I sat there, determining the exact right moment to put lid back on my cup to ensure that it did not get too cool to taste good but still did not remain too hot to sip through the tiny little drinking hole in the disposable lid, I was approached by two gentleman, one of whom questioned me thusly:

“Can I ask you to move over there [gestures toward empty seat at the counter on the other side of the door] so that we [gestures toward friend] can sit together?”

In response, I turned to him with my most winning smile and said “No.”

His expression was nonplussed, so I elaborated “I’ll move my stuff off of this chair [gestures toward chair holding my coat and bags], so you can use it. But I’m not moving,” all with direct eye contact and a sincere but not quite sympathetic smile on my face.

To this, they offered no response. At least, not to me; while the odd woman at the other counter did look a bit startled, the two men conferred among themselves briefly and, without even a swear or a nasty look in my direction, decided to take their tea and themselves in search of seating areas elsewhere in the square. Quite gentlemanly of them, I thought.

To you, I will admit that I was prepared for the question; I had overheard enough of their discussion of the general unavailability of seats within the ‘luxe to know that they had concocted a plan and were headed my way with it. And it took them long enough to arrive that I had time to decide that my answer would be no. And I could, in retrospect, offer up a variety of rationalizations for my refusal. Like that seat had the perfect vantage point for viewing passing pedestrian traffic as they approached the store, and to move to the other counter would have required me either to turn my head to an uncomfortable degree to be able to maintain that view, or to be satisfied watching people as they walked away. Which is patently ridiculous because watching people as they approach is so much better.

Additionally, my plan in going to the Tealuxe that Sunday had been to buy tea, sit down, and drink it. It was not to buy tea, sit down, and drink some of it, then get up, sit down someplace else and then drink more. When the gentleman asked me if would move my seat, I performed a rapid and mostly subconscious cost-benefit analysis : did I want to exchange my planned afternoon for an afternoon that, though it would cost me nothing, was less-desirable than the planned afternoon because of a minor inconvenience, for the benefit of someone who is not me, any relation to me, or anyone I know at all? No; in that moment, I did not.

But that is in retrospect and while it does happen to be true, the truth is that I said no only because they asked me. They didn’t ask the woman sitting in the other window to give up her seat to join me; had they done so and she agreed to, I happily would have moved my things to make room for her. Even after I expressed my willingness to free up that seat for their use, they didn’t approach her. Nor did they ask any of the people who were seated singly at tables if they would be willing to move up to the front to free up the table so the two of them could take a seat. They only asked me.

I know that it is statistically unlikely that I am in every situation the person who is asked to give up her seat. However, the situations in which someone is asked to give up a seat that I pay the most attention to are the ones that happen to me; thus, from my limited perspective, it can seem like 100% of the time I am the person asked to move. Or cut in front of in line. Or ignored by drivers who should be stopping as I stand waiting in the crosswalk. In the rain. Without an umbrella. Carrying groceries. And going into labor. Which, even in an otherwise happy life, could get rather tiresome.

I can not say for sure how I feel about that interaction on Sunday, nor can I say with certainty that if presented with a similar offer in the future I would respond similarly. I do, however, have a new appreciation for the trials of the old woman at the movie theater on Christmas Day of 2005. After a lifetime that gets longer every day of people expecting her to get out of their way, I can understand better why she’d want to get out in front of those demands before they were issued. What I will never understand, though, is why she didn’t just put the damned bag on the seat next to her when she sat down. We could have avoided the whole thing.

One of the most interesting things to come out of my working at Harvard was discovering that I lived right next door to one of my co-workers. Which should tell you something about the interest level of most happenings there; people’s eyes tend to widen in awe when you tell them that you work at Harvard – it never seems to occur to them that there are entry level jobs at Harvard too, and that they can be every bit as tedious as entry level jobs in a school they’ve never heard of.

Mary and I didn’t realize we were neighbors until after my first stint at Harvard – when I was a full-time temp – had ended, when, after completing one of the variety of errands with which I filled those happily unemployed summer days (unemployment only becoming sad when it stretches into winter), I passed her coming out of her house just as I was heading to mine. And even though we hadn’t really even been work friends – which I guess is obvious, since we’d never discussed where we lived in enough detail to discover the answer was “right next to you” – we had a good laugh at how we’d worked together for 6 weeks and only were discovering this now. And when I resumed my employment with Harvard a few weeks later – as a part-time term worker – whenever someone new asked me where I lived (which, now that I’m thinking about it, seemed like maybe it happened more than it needed to), I would always make sure to mention that my house was right next door to Mary’s.

Of course, Mary and I could only play the “we’re neighbors!” card so many times before it got old, and our work relationship usually consisted of greetings in the morning, farewells in the evenings, and not a whole lot in between. One day, however, Mary asked me a question:

“You know the woman who roller skates down our street every morning?”

I’m sure you can imagine how happy it would have made me to respond to that question in the affirmative, but instead I could only express disbelief that Mary, in all of our japes and jests about being neighbors, had never mentioned this before. I gathered what information I could, most importantly verifying that the skater was indeed a skater, wearing old-school white roller skates with 4 solid red wheels and a big red stopper (what some might call a brake) right under the toe, and not simply roller blades, which wouldn’t have been exciting at all. I also learned, after she followed up her claim of having seen the skater “every single day” of her life, with “not every day, but most days”, that Mary is given to hyperbole.

While I obviously kept an eye out for a roller skating woman in the weeks that followed that conversation, my interest in her tapered off as she repeatedly failed to appear, until I forgot about her. This week, however, I finally saw her. She was all that Mary had promised – a woman on white roller skates – but somehow, also, a little bit less.

In my imagination, a woman who roller skates to work – or wherever – would be the picture of joy. Because, obviously, she’s not doing it for the sport or the speed of it – if she were, she’d probably have chosen the less nostagically impressive but more aerodynamic roller blades. Or possibly a bicycle. Maybe, just maybe, a Segway. But to choose old-fashioned roller skates, the kind you wore when learning how to skate, when the safest way to stop was not with the toe brake but by slowly skating into a wall – it would be reasonable to conclude that such a person loves to skate.

However, the expression on this woman’s face was not that of one who loves to skate. Frankly, it’s difficult to look like you love anything when you’re going around in public with your mouth hanging open, whatever your mode of conveyance. Even had her mouth been closed, her expression would have still been. . . blank. Which is confusing. Is someone forcing her into these roller skates? Is she a Hans Christian Anderson story playing out right before our eyes? If not, if she’s merely skated so much that all the fun has been taken out of it, I may have to tell her that it’s all right to stop. Because her lack of joy in skating has robbed me of my rightful joy in seeing a grown woman roller skate. And I was really looking forward to being happy about that.


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