Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Social Awkwardness.

I took a class today at a museum. It was a teacher education class about teaching using the museum's resources, and everything was going along swimmingly until I heard "This is Lisa, our drama expert. We're going to be doing some theatre exercises!"

It was about then that I started looking around for the bathroom.

I've had the same conversation a couple of different times in the past few months. I make some comment about being socially awkward. The person I'm talking to looks at me oddly. "You're not socially awkward at all," they say. "You're good with people."

Ha. No. No, I'm not.

Let me be clear-I am not in general an anxious person. My social anxiety comes out in very specific circumstances only. All of these people who have told me with no doubt that I'm not socially awkward are people who I'm not awkward around. They're family members, close friends, coworkers--in some cases, people I've known my whole life. They've either never seen me in those situations, or they've not noticed what was going on when they did.

And, even at its worst, it's mostly internal. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. An inability to figure out what to do with my hands. A fake "Nothing wrong over here!" smile. And the voice in my head screaming "Get out! Get out!" That's usually when I hide in the bathroom.

This, by the way, is my reaction to being at some sort of social event where I either don't know anyone, or the people I do know are otherwise engaged. That, more than anything else, triggers a flight response in me. It's not having a purpose that does it, I think. If I know someone there, my purpose is to talk to them. If I have a job or task, my purpose is to complete it. Standing around with nothing to do in a social setting freaks me out. I can hide it--I'm fairly good at appearing fine even when I'm absolutely not--but that doesn't change the fact that internally, I'm a mess.

Over the years, I've learned some solid rules for coping:
1. Don't go somewhere where I don't know anybody.
2. The corollary: Don't go somewhere where I only know one person and they're going to be busy.
3. Don't sign up for any sort of volunteer activity that requires approaching and/or calling people I don't know.
4. Don't stand out. If every other person in the room is in Renaissance Faire garb, by God, put on a bodice.
5. Don't perform an ambush setup. I have enough trouble acting normal under the best of circumstances. Figuring out that you invited Dave from Accounting because we'd be perfect together is not the best of circumstances.
6. Don't put myself in situations that violate rules 1-5 because I think that's what I should want to do.

There are some surprising things about this. I'm fine one on one. First dates, blind dates, job interviews--they don't stress me out any more than they do other people, I think. I call my students' parents whenever necessary. I'm usually fine in small groups. Public speaking doesn't bother me. In fact, I'm quite good at it, even if I have no prep time whatsoever. Any situation where I'm in a position of power--for instance, people coming into my library at work, or when I'm teaching someone how to do something--is fine. In fact, it's pretty rare that I have any work-related social anxiety at all. And none of this applies if I'm dealing with kids. They don't bother me.

So, the theatre exercises. The problem here is that any time I'm asked to do something that I think is ridiculous, I am extremely uncomfortable. Even if everyone else in the room is doing it, I feel ridiculous, and therefore awkward.* I'm not dramatic. I never know what to do when any sort of improvisation is called for. But I put on my big girl panties, pretended I was an 8-track cassette, and had a conversation in character with someone pretending to be a WWII-era Victory Garden cookbook. I did what I had to do. But do you know what I'm not going to do? I'm not using this technique in my library. Not only does it make me feel ridiculous, but I can guarantee that I have at least a couple of socially awkward kids in each of my classes, and there's no way that I'm going to do this to them.

* This goes double for roleplaying. No, I would NOT like to practice what I'm going to say when I call little Suzy's mother. I'm just going to call her. No, I would NOT like to wait on you like you're a customer. You're not a customer. I know that, you know that, and we both know that you know the menu better than I do.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

...Perhaps there IS such a thing as too many books.

I've been writing my book review column for a couple of months now, and I have to tell you it feels a little like Christmas morning every time I come home and find a box or an envelope from a publisher waiting by my door.

I've been assured that this feeling will pass--overwhelming is the word used most often--but right now it still feels like I'm getting little presents every once in awhile. In other news, my guest room closet is now a bookshelf.

(Not pictured: about six boxes of books that I definitely ruled out.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Car Free in DC

DC is not New York. I like it that way. New York is a great place to visit. It's a lot of fun. But I find it overwhelming. The buildings are too tall. There are too many people. After a couple of days, it becomes too much.

DC is small. The height restrictions (which have nothing to do with the height of the Capitol, by the way) keep buildings shorter. There are a lot of people, but the sidewalks aren't ridiculously crowded. Things are closer together.

But one place New York has us beat is mass transit. It's convenient — even easy — to live car-free in New York. In DC, it's doable but more difficult. Metro, for all of its shortcomings, is a pretty decent subway system, and mastering the buses isn't too bad. But there are places even in the city that are really inconvenient to get to without a car. And the suburbs? Forget it. (Obviously, this isn't universally true, but there are wide swaths of the 'burbs that are incredibly difficult to get to by mass transit.)

I've been carless for a week. Not so long in the grand scheme of things, but enough to change my routines and habits considerably. I've been getting up earlier to catch the Metro to work. I've been walking to the grocery store and therefore buying a lot less at a time. And going anywhere outside the Beltway is pretty much off limits.

In a lot of ways, I like it. It's better in terms of willpower as far as shopping. I haven't had fast food in a week, because I can't run through the drive-thru on the way to or from work. I have to be more purposeful in my outings and plan ahead more, which is always a plus for me. And I'm getting a lot more exercise.

There are downsides, though. Thursday at work I was in desperate need of a couple of nine-volt batteries to power a cordless microphone. The closest place to buy them was a CVS a mile away, which is too far to run out at lunchtime if I'm walking. Luckily my incredibly awesome volunteer, A., hopped in her car and picked them up.

This past week I had to cancel a visit to Let's Dish in Columbia with my friend J, because getting to Columbia by bus and Metro would have taken four hours. Then, there was no information for a return trip. We rescheduled for tomorrow. I still don't have a car, so I'm renting one at a not inconsiderable expense.

I've toyed off and on with the idea of giving up my car. It's ancient, it's ugly and I will use it if I have the opportunity. Being without it has forced me to make changes that I've actually wanted to make. But at the same time I don't necessarily live a lifestyle that is conducive to not having access to a car. Of course, Zipcar is an option, and if this little experiment were going to go on longer I would have signed up for a membership, but paying the $25 application fee, the $60 annual fee and the hourly rental fee for one trip to Columbia seemed a little ridiculous.

I'm trying to make the determination as to whether or not mass transit plus Zipcar is at all reasonable and financially sensible. Since it's so old, my car doesn't cost much to insure. Before this recent spate of repairs, it's been incredibly reliable. Gas is pretty expensive, but I also don't tend to drive that far-one tank of gas almost always lasts me more than two weeks. I don't have to pay to park, and street parking is plentiful in my neighborhood.

But if the car is there, I will always sleep the extra twenty minutes instead of getting up for the bus, I will not walk as much and I will eat more crappy fast food.

I've got two more weeks to try this out. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Car Talk: Part 2

When I got home to PA on Friday night, my Dad told me that he didn't think he'd be able to get my car finished that weekend. He had a couple of other projects, and he had a few things he need to do on my mom's car to make it pass inspection. Not a problem-I would take the station wagon home, he'd have plenty of time, and we'd switch back later.

He started taking my car apart Saturday morning, shortly before my mother and I left in her car to pick up my grandfather to take my grandmother to lunch. Four minutes down the road: deer. Six of them. We hit the first one, skidded across the road and ended up in a farmer's field. We were still on the phone with 911 when a young guy rolled up in a tractor. (We called 911 because the deer was not dead; by the time the officer arrived, it was.) My dad drove down in the station wagon and got Mom's car home. The police arrived and made a report; the guy in the tractor took the deer. Mom and I drove back home in the station wagon.

And here we had the first problem. Mom's car was out of commission. She would have to drive the station wagon until it was fixed. And with all of the cars my parents have around them, they had nothing to send me home in.

It's not as crazy as it sounds. Mom's car was wrecked. Dad needed his truck. The station wagon would be Mom's transportation for the time being. The Beetle hasn't worked in years. The new (to Dad) Ford truck is neither registered nor tagged yet. And Grandpa's truck...well, I've driven Grandpa's truck before.

It maneuvers like a tank. I'm up for a lot of things, but piloting that behemoth through the streets of DC is possibly a bit too much. Plus, my feet barely reach the pedals. I have to drive sitting on the edge of the seat.

When Mom and I walked into the garage, Dad looked at me and said drily, "Well, you've just moved up the priority list."

He spent the rest of the day working on my car, only to find that he didn't quite have the part that he needed. His response? "I can work something out."

An aside: My sister's girlfriend has coined the term "Chuck it up" to describe my Dad's way of fixing things. It does not mean fuck it up. On the contrary, it refers to the MacGuyver-like ability that he has to fix anything regardless of whether or not he has the tools or materials to do so. When something breaks, he's exactly the guy you want around.

By Saturday night, he was confident that I'd be able to drive my car home.

Sunday morning he was still working when my sister called. I don't think I can adequately describe the look on his face when my mom handed him the phone-even before he knew what it was. It was this mix of "Why me," and "Oh, shit."

Short story: Plumbing problem. Reeeally big plumbing problem. I got bumped.

My mom drove me home. I've been sans car all week.

I don't really mind all that much. Thoughts on that later...

To close, this is the status update my sister posted on Facebook after Dad rode to her rescue. I couldn't agree more.
Why my father has earned his nickname of Saint Chuck: After spending the weekend working on my sister's car, I called him about a problem I was having at my house and he came right over to look at it. Half an hour after he left, I looked outside and there he was helping one of my neighbors (a total stranger) fix their car. I'm sure that there are a million and one things that he wanted to do this weekend, but he's always there when you need him, whether you're family or a total stranger. Love my dad!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Car Talk: Part 1

I had the most ridiculous weekend. It was one of those weekends where you just have to laugh, because if you don't, you'll cry.

It all started with my car. Those who know me know that my cars have always been...elderly. If my car were a person, it would be old enough to vote, and it's coming up on drinking age. And what I'm going to say next is going to make me sound like a total snot, but it's true. Cars have never been either a major possession or a major purchase for me. For that, I have my father to thank.

Some people collect butterflies. Some collect baseball cards. My father collects cars. Not classic cars. Not expensive cars. Cheap, ugly, serviceable cars. And for years, we had a swap plan in place. Dad would acquire a new car. My mom got first dibs. If she didn't want it, my sister or I could have it. In return, we would give our car to Dad, and he would sell it and keep the money. If Mom did want the "new" car, her old car would be available for me or Clare.

In the sixteen years I've been driving, I have paid money for exactly one car. It was $400. I bought it from my aunt. Again, I know it makes me sound like a spoiled brat, but I've never had a car that was fewer than ten years old. And as image-conscious as I can be about certain things, that has never bothered me. (With one exception. I refuse to valet park a 1992 Camry. If I'm going somewhere with valet parking, someone else has to drive or I'll Metro it.)

Things have changed a bit. Dad no longer works for a car dealership. His access has dried up a bit. This is not to say that they're lacking for cars at my parents' house. My mom has her mini SUV, my dad has his truck. The extra car du jour is a 1993 Corolla station wagon. Dad has a Beetle (old kind, not new) that is his fun car when it's working. (Not currently.) My grandfather's ancient truck is somewhere in the mix. And Dad just bought a Ford pickup truck, as a backup when his truck, which he uses for work, finally bites the big one. But the days of the great Dad trade-in program are over.

That hit home to me just over four years ago, when my mom totaled her car on an icy November morning. I was with her, headed to the grocery store to buy supplies for Thanksgiving. A car coming around a hairpin turn had to stop suddenly, hit a patch of ice, and hit us three or four times before it was over. It was frightening, but not nearly as sobering as what happened next.

She had to go to a dealer to buy her next car.

Suddenly, a car looked like a much more daunting purchase.

Luckily, my car is a tank. I kid you not, I have lost count of the number of accidents I've been in with this car. (Not my fault. Mostly. For awhile, I seemed to have a "please rear-end me" sign on my back bumper. You'd never be able to tell by looking at it.) I hit 300,000 miles a couple of months ago and according to Dad it will probably go for another couple of years.

But, with a car this old things go wrong, and for the last several months I've had a terrible problem with the windows fogging up. If there was any moisture in the air at all it would look like a couple of teenagers were making out in the back seat. This is a problem when you're driving to work in the morning. Or anywhere else. I needed a new heater coil, so Dad told me to bring it home and he'd put a new one in. Piece of cake.

Then this weekend happened, and I ended up back home in DC without a car because he didn't have one to give me. If you don't know why that's hilarious, take another look at the list of cars my parents have.

The rest of the story tomorrow.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich

Several years ago, I read a book about the history of NASCAR. I couldn't tell you why I picked it up in the first place, but I found it fascinating.  I am not a fan of NASCAR, but I will admit to a certain interest in the subculture. Part of this, no doubt, can be traced to the fact that the race was always on at my parents' house when I was younger. In fact, due to my father's propensity for putting the same thing on every TV in the house so he can watch it as he putters around, it was often hard to get away from it.  

When Janet Evanovich's Metro Girl came out in 2004, I snapped it right up.  I was (and to a lesser extent still am) a big fan of her Stephanie Plum series, and I would have read just about anything she published at that point. I remember liking it, certainly well enough to buy the sequel, Motor Mouth. And now that I think about it, it might have been the impetus for my reading of the NASCAR history.    

Some time ago, I lent it to my dear friend N, who returned it to me Saturday night at her New Years Eve party. I shoved it in my bag, then was grateful to have it as the Metro was predictably slow and I got bored en route to my second event of the evening...and also on the way home. Thus, Metro Girl was my first book of the New Year.

It was...look, it was a Janet Evanovich book.  Many years ago on a message board, I described the difference between Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series thus: 
I find the Kinsey Millhone books entirely plausible--I can see the events happening. Stephanie Plum, because the books include so much comedy, is less plausible. Evanovich tends to go for the big pratfall, which is why I enjoy her books. They always make me laugh, whereas the Sue Grafton books are more no-nonsense. 
That's not just true of Stephanie Plum-the Barnaby and Hooker books are the same. There are weird coincidences and ridiculous turns of events and dramatic explosions...sometimes literally. You can't take them seriously. That's fine-I read the Plum series because they make me laugh so hard my stomach hurts-but Evanovich has patterns, and she sticks to them. She has turns of phrase that she uses over and over again. I find the more of her stuff I read at once, the more obvious and irritating it seems to me. And lately I've been reading a lot of her stuff. After I finished Metro Girl, I picked up Motor Mouth right away, but I only got about a chapter and a half into that one before I hit my saturation point.

It is not great art, but it will keep its slot on my bookshelf. It is beach reading, which is a totally valid thing to be. Plus, Sam Hooker has an obnoxious sort of charm to him. Though if I have to read about someone angling out of a car again...

Book 1 of 2012