December 20th, 2006

Voluntary Humiliation

I am on intimate terms with embarrassment, which is extra convenient for me since I’m a chronic blusher. 

I’m the kind of person who gets caught talking to herself. (Often.) I have skidded, slipped, fallen, banged into furniture, and smacked my head more times than I can count. (Not infrequently before a live audience.) And though it may be that I don’t actually lay claim to a higher percentage of stupid remarks than the average babbler, it probably seems as though I should simply because I talk so much. 

But I decided long ago I couldn’t waste time feeling embarrassed about embarrassing myself. It’s just who I am. 

I was thinking all this today as I walked around downtown Orange with a five-foot-tall green elf. Complete with long curly nose (tipped with a red bulb), massive elfin ears, and slippers that curl up at the toe. Also complete with a high-pitched voice and an attitude. 

Tinker (not her real name) likes to make visits around this time of year—to elementary schools, to senior centers, to homes for abused children. I have never witnessed this production, so this year she invited me to tag along, reporter’s notebook in hand. 

Our first stop was the senior center, and most of the seniors warmed to her immediately. 

“Have you been naughty or nice?”

“Naughty!” a snappily-dressed lady would reply.

“Good answer!” And out would come a candy cane from the two-foot-long stocking Tinker was hauling around. 

Then we decided to stroll around the Orange Plaza. More than once we had to stop walking because we were laughing too hard to go on. 

Tinker waved at drivers navigating the traffic circle, and it was hilarious to tabulate the different reactions to her. A bearded man, chatting on his cell phone, waved back—with the hand he’d been using to steer his truck. (I’m all for Christmas spirit, but only when it does not directly impact the number of fatalities in my hometown.) A teenager who had the distinct look of being too cool for anything grinned hugely and waved back, too. One guy gave Tinker a thumbs-up before she even had a chance to wave. Two men ogled us—okay, just Tinker—from across the street, and lingered on the corner till we reached them. “Just perfect!” one of them exclaimed with a grin. 

Then there was a group of about eight city employees dawdling in front of a store window. Six of them hung back, smiling vaguely in the vain hope that that would suffice, and Tinker would leave them alone. But the other two walked right up to greet her, wishing her a Merry Christmas and giggling. (It made me think of Knott’s Scary Farm. [Oh, how I LOVE to be terrified in the Halloween mazes at Scary Farm!] I learned long ago that the best way to not get jumped-out-at is to make eye contact with the monsters. This works beautifully except on the really clever monsters who know what you’re trying to do, and jump out at you anyway, and then chase you through the park. Either way, you win.) 

We walked past the lunch crowd at a Cuban restaurant, and the wave of laughter rode ahead of us. “I know, I know,” Tinker called out, gesturing at me. “She sure dresses funny.” That got another laugh. (Thanks a lot, Tink.) 

And then we passed another self-styled Cool Guy on his cell phone, dressed all in black except for his hot pink high tops. “Nice shoes,” Tinker told him. He glanced over his shoulder, looked her up and down, and muttered, “Thanks.” I could scarcely prevent myself from explaining to him that the correct answer would have been, “Not as nice as yours!” Or, “Look who’s talking!” or “Nice nose!” She left him a pretty big opening, and he blew it. Then he shuffled down the sidewalk, obviously anxious to distance himself from us. 

Tinker admitted that when she’s out and about in her green facepaint, she’s a different sort of person than she is without it: more outspoken, more obnoxious. And, I imagine, less embarrassable. She’s safe under there, after all—no one knows it’s her. (The funny thing is that the "normals" she passes on the street are so often embarrassed by her. Weird, no? After all, they're not the ones painted green and wearing gold ankle-cuffs strung with bells.)

In my own quiet way, I guess I do the same thing (though I don’t generally stroll around downtown seeking out embarrassment. I just stand still, and embarrassment finds me). And in her own “Dear-God-what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this” way (that's me talking, of course), my mother trained me for this vocation. 

When I was a young teenager (young enough to still go to the mall with my mom. Though this was probably the last time. Soon you’ll see why), we were walking through the mall and my mom suddenly said to me, “Watch this.” 

She turned around, called out, “Hi there! How are ya?” and waved wildly. There was a sea of people behind us (the Orange Mall was never as crowded before, nor has been since, I swear), and as one, they turned their heads to see who my mother was calling to. She turned around and we continued walking. 

“Who was it?” I asked. Oh, the naivete.

“No one,” she cackled. 

Of course I was outraged. How humiliating! How embarrassing! How… odd! But she opened my eyes with her explanation: 

“What do we have to be embarrassed about? We’re not the ones who turned around to see what stranger another stranger was waving at.” 

I argued the point. The humiliation! The embarrassment! The… oddness! But my mother, as usual, had an expalanation difficult to argue with. “What do we care if they look at us or not? We’re never going to see them again anyway.” 

A line I have uttered to myself more than once after falling down, dropping stuff, breaking things… (I could go on, but you get the idea.) Only now I have an even better argument to bolster my bruised ego: "It’s just fodder for your writing," I murmur soothingly to myself. "You just tore your skirt and lost a shoe on the escalator for the good of literature."

Sometimes, I even believe it!

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