Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dilemma

Had three appointments with service providers this week, and they went something like this:

The hairdresser parted my wet hair into sections, picked up the scissors and said, “And what are your plans for this afternoon?”

 “Got any plans for the afternoon?” the chiropractor wanted to know, preparing to twist my head off my neck.

“Got anything fun planned for later on today?” said the dental hygienist, adjusting the chair.

And the dentist: “Open wide? Awesome! Ummm...do you have any nice plans for the rest of the day?”

When I mumbled something noncommittal they all, with the exception of the hygienist, asked if I had any exciting travel plans or have been anywhere exciting recently.

I find these questions embarrassing. Don’t these people know that I know how boring they must find their clients’ responses? Do they really think that I am so naïve as to assume they will be fascinated when I tell them that I expect to take a nap the minute I get home, then maybe read a book? Do they think that I have no theory of mind?

But if there is one thing I have in spades, it’s theory of mind. I have so much of it, in fact, that I am often silenced by a too-vivid image of how trivial what I’m about to say will seem to my listener.

 Is there anything more soul-killing than someone nattering on about their schedule? The only being on the planet on whom I inflict the details of my afternoon plans is my spouse of fifty-two years. Ditto for travel plans and stories. Who, aside perhaps from one’s own mother, wants to hear about the bistro in Bogota or the flight to Madagascar?

So when people assume that I do not possess the ability to put myself in their place (something that the normal child learns to do by about age four) I feel patronized and embarrassed.

I wonder why these otherwise capable professionals persist in these inquiries. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for five years, and for five years he’s asked about my plans for the afternoon, never noticing that every time I deftly shift the conversation to his Labradoodle,  who is in fragile health.

This tiresome practice is probably the fault of some business guru, who came up with the idea that asking clients questions about their schedules and travels would improve their satisfaction and lead to financial success. But that only works if the clients have a strong narcissistic streak, or lack theory of mind.

My hairdresser, my chiropractor, my dentist and hygienist are professionals. I am their client. I don’t need to feel that we are buddies. Why can’t we rest peacefully in our respective roles and dispense with these attempts at formulaic chitchat?

Of course the trouble with theory of mind is that it is just that: a theory. Which means that when I imagine that my dentist would be bored if I told him about a trip I took in 1984, I may be wrong. He might in fact be deeply interested in my story, and feel gratified that I am willing to share it with him. Perhaps he gets lonely, endlessly digging around in people’s mouths while they cringe in anticipated pain, and is starved for conversation.

So what should I do--answer the questions and be found boring, or dissemble and be thought unfriendly?  The horns of this dilemma are sharper than a dentist’s drill. The only solution I can think of is to let my hair grow to my waist, do hours of yoga every morning, and commend my teeth to the Universe.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My Inner Snail


Donat pressa! my mother urged at the door of our apartment, as I searched everywhere for my chapel veil. We were on our way to Mass, and if we didn’t get there before the Ofertory we wouldn’t fulfill our Sunday obligation.

Corre, corre! the maid Luisa would say as we trudged up the hill to my school. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns who taught me.

Schnell, schnell! Schwester Maria hissed as I dawdled outside the classroom.

“She’s so slow!” the nuns would lament to my mother. And they were right. In the morning, it took me forever to unbutton my coat, put on my smock (we wore white smocks over our woolen uniforms to protect them from ink stains), find my desk, and get my homework out of my satchel. At lunchtime, I had to reverse the process, and I was always the last one out of the building.

Neither the nuns nor my mother scolded me for my slowness, but I spent my childhood being pressed to get on with it, stop dawdling, pay attention! It felt as if I were mounted on a snail, while everyone else galloped past me on horseback.

It took me ages to learn to tie my shoes. I was ten before I learned to ride a bicycle, twelve before I learned to tell time. I was the last in my class to finish a row of knitting, and in playground chase games I never caught anybody, but was easy prey for my faster classmates.

I lived in a world where people were in a perpetual rush. My father would come home for lunch, fling off his coat, and sit at the table. He would put his watch by his plate and announce, “I have five minutes to eat!” and five minutes later he’d be out the door, violin in hand, on the way to rehearsal. Although my father was the main rusher in the household, my mother, my aunts, and the maid also seemed to live in a whirlwind of activity.

For my part, I dwelt inside a kind of semi-transparent egg, where sights and sounds reached me dimly, and mostly without claiming my attention. While the world spun around me, I peered dreamily at random objects—the s-shaped arm rest in the Tyrolean-style dining room bench, the crusty bread crumbs under the table after a meal, the blue and yellow floor tiles, the raised velvety flowers on the ugly sofa upholstery. I wondered about invisible stuff too, and astounded my mother when, at four years old, I asked her to explain what things were like, before they existed.

But mostly I thought about things that I hoped would happen: that a sudden illness of my maternal grandmother’s would mean that I had to leave school and go with my mother to help out at the farm. And, later on, that my father’s negotiations with the Ecuadorian government would work out so that, again, I could leave school and go with my parents to Ecuador.

In Ecuador my woolgathering habit persisted. Because of the discrepancy between the Spanish and the Ecuadorian systems, at twelve I was put in a class with fifteen-year-old girls, whose obsession with hairstyles, boys, and their “monthly visitor” made me think that they were all insane. I retreated deep inside my egg, and in four years made only one friend, a girl who, as the eldest of twelve children, was accustomed to taking care of slower siblings.

My inwardness was more obvious than I knew. One morning I realized with a start that I was still standing in the silent school courtyard when the rest of my class had filed into the classroom. But I wasn’t alone. Regarding me with her sparkling green eyes, Madre María, the dreaded vice-principal, shook her wimple and said, “I see you’re out of it as usual, Benejam!”

It was only in my teens that I learned to hurry. I hurried to learn English, to clean the house, to play the violin in my father’s orchestra, to finish my term papers, to sterilize my sister’s formula, to put my hair up in rollers at night, to get to Mass in the morning.

With Time’s winged chariot forever at my back, I became a champion hurrier, but at the cost of leaving things half done, of putting the final period on a paper that I knew could be much better, of having to make do with good enough. Newly married, I watched in wonder as my husband dried himself after a shower, from head to toe, including between his toes. I was used to jumping still half-wet into my clothes, never mind drying between my toes.

The older I got, the faster I rushed—mothering, working, cooking, thinking. I did everything at top speed, schnell, schnell! But that was only on the outside. Inside, I was still the same slow me, pondering endless trivia, riding my snail, and wondering if things would ever slow down.

Now that the mothering, the working, and the cooking are mostly over, I still feel that there isn’t enough time in the day for all the things that must be done: clipping the dog’s nails, folding towels, answering emails, inquiring about sick friends, meditating, exercising….My fondest hope is that, sometime in my remaining years, the slow, backward child that still dawdles inside my brain will stop trying to keep up, and be at peace with her snail.