Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poor social skills

So this thing at shul last night kind of brought out all my insecurities… big time.

On the one hand, I was there as a professional, a writer, so that is a great disguise to bring anywhere.  Whip out the clipboard, whip out a pen – SuperWriterWoman, at your service!

But on the other hand, there I was, trapped in the Mother of all Kiddushes, everybody dressed up super-duper nice.  Like, I mean, if I thought everybody normally looks way nicer than me on Shabbos, well… let’s just say a couple of layered cotton shirts was NOT the look everybody else chose to have on.  I don’t think there was a female person in the room without spangles.  Had this been the 80s, shoulder pads would have been de rigeur.  That kind of event.

And there I was, trying very hard not to have flour smears all over – tough in a dark skirt!  Trying hard to flash the BFS (“big fake smile,” as I whisper to Elisheva over and over at a typical kiddush… she’s worse at this stuff than I am).  Trying hard to make smalltalk, but it’s tough when I am the person everybody else can apparently see through to the way-more-interesting-person on the other side of the room.

I am the person who, if somebody is waving at me across a table, I look around behind me first to make sure there isn’t somebody better they’re trying to reach. 

Last night, somebody I wasn’t sure I had ever met before did that.  She wouldn’t stop waving.  So I looked behind me:  nobody.  Pointed at myself, quizzically.  She nodded.  Okay!  Flash the BFS, smile, wave back, relieved and baffled, all at once.  Yay, she wanted ME!  Um, who is she?

I sometimes try hard not to think it’s a money thing.

But the people with money always seem to be absolutely adorable?  And adored by everybody there is to adore them.  They have the right clothes, just grab them and go.  The right hat or sheitel or whatever, and you can bet it’s all set and they look terrific.

But I know it’s not just money, because I have known people of meager circumstances who look simply fabulous.  Who you might guess they didn’t have a million bucks, but they have a personality that shines and a million true friends nevertheless.

We are the people who, when the rabbi circulates, he says, “hi, guys!” enthusiastically, and moves on fast before he has to come up with specifics.

I felt like a ghost for the better part of the evening.

This is something my mother does really well, by the way.  Social stuff.  She can work a room, or she can just sit one-on-one and really listen to somebody.  People LOVE her.  I know because the first time I appeared in shul with her, somebody who’d never given me a second glance swooped over and shouted, “I love your mother!”

I’m usually too scared to connect with somebody more than once, for fear that I have the wrong person.  If they’re wearing a different hat or a different outfit, well, let’s just say there are about three hundred really SIMILAR-looking people in our shul.

Somebody walked up to me in the hall last night.  A person who, like me, was obviously Not Circulating.  A person I have seen at least hundreds of times in shul.  Everybody was doing a double-take when they saw her, so I guess she was more dressed up than usual.  I actually recognized her, but didn’t know her name. 

Luckily, she introduced herself, by name (oh, what a difference!), and said, “I’m the one who sent that email.”  She did, a couple of weeks ago, sent an email to a bunch of people to remind me of something important that we’d all apparently been careless about remembering.

But here is where I did something brave.  Instead of just shrugging or smiling, instead of changing the subject, I took a HUGE leap.  Huge for me.  Probably a baby step for most people.  I said, “I was really glad you sent it.”

Because I was so scared as I said it.  What if it was a different email?  What if she’d emailed about some stupid board meeting or a kids’ program or something completely else?  Still, I figured “glad” was tame enough, just in case I was wrong:  who wouldn’t be glad to be reminded about a board meeting?

And she took a breath and explained why she’d sent the email – like I said, it was something important that we both apparently care greatly about.  And we had a fairly nice (for me) little conversation before her husband came along to rescue her from the layered-cotton-shirt drabling in the hallway (that would be me).

Yes, that was a leap, and I took a few more.  One person told me his last name and I mentioned that I’d taught his mother at the Betel Centre.  It could have been someone else, but I was right, it was the right person and that is how you make conversation.

What would happen if I was wrong?  What if I jumped in and actually made a mistake?

The world would end, that’s all.  I would shrivel up and die of embarrassment, like salt on a slug.

Once, when I was maybe six or seven, I was alone in the park across from our house, and I saw my zeidy at the other end of the park.  I ran over, shouting, “zeidy!  zeidy!”

Dumb.  Of course, it wasn’t him.  Nobody heard me or saw me, that I know of.  The person who might have been my zeidy was too far away to notice the manic skinny flailing green child rushing at him with such enthusiasm. 

Did I mention that I was a skinny, flailing, gawky green person for the first twelve years of my life?

Dumb.  I kicked myself, metaphorically, for hours.  Of course:  it wasn’t the day or time that we usually saw my grandparents, and why would he be walking towards our house from a street at the other end of the park that he never goes to?

I still do not call out people’s names in public unless I get an absolutely clear ID, not just on the face, but everything.  Faces change from day to day along with hair and clothing.  What if I remember a woman because of her facial hair and she goes and has it removed? 

(like what actually happened a few months ago when I didn’t recognize a fairly close family member who I didn’t recognize because he was wearing gloves so I couldn’t see his… ahem.  Distinctiveness.)

At what point can I just declare myself autistic and demand that everybody around me wear name badges until I’ve seen them naked at least a few times?  At that point, I figure we’ve bonded and I’m not likely to mix them up with someone else.

Definitely, at shul, nametags for everybody, even regulars, would make my life much simpler.

What was helpful at this thing last night, apart from hiding in the corner where nobody could see me and smiling continuously but meaninglessly, was that at the end of the evening, they called up some of the major donors by name.  By name! 

They said the name of each could, and then two people would stand up and walk to the front and everybody claps for them.  Okay, I hate that, deep down, I don’t really see why some lovely sleek couple gets clapped because they gave money and we will NEVER have people clap for us because we don’t have enough money to share in multiples of $18,000… but anyway.

The autistic person in me was cheering because these are names that I hear all the time, and faces that I see all the time, and all of a sudden, for a brief instant, they came together.  Of course I know who so-and-so is!  He’s the guy who always nods to me as I’m arriving late for kiddush and he’s heading home.  Of course that is so-and-so!  And isn’t her sheitel gorgeous?

But I have to say, it was a comfort to find a few people, maybe two or three faces, among the rabble at the dessert reception downstairs, who know me, really know me.  Who are reasonably familiar – despite my not having seen them naked ever – and with whom I can bring out the regular smile, ask about stuff in their lives and not feel scared out of my wits that I was mistaking them for somebody else. 

Coincidentally, they were also, by and large, the people who actually took the sweet stuff for dessert… didn’t just pass it over for fruit and coffee.

I may not have come away feeling popular, loveable or rich, but there’s nothing like chatting over chocolate to help me feel better about my abysmally poor social skills.

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