Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kung Fu Socializing

I am not one of the most social people you'll ever meet. I'm probably one of the least social people you'll ever meet. I am so unsocial -- I'd say antisocial but that has a weird, sociopathic-y vibe to it, and I don't like to think of myself in that way, so I'll stick with unsocial -- I am so unsocial that I was nervous, for a while last Friday, that Sweetie was planning a surprise party for my 40th birthday party. Actually nervous about it, and I don't get nervous about hardly anything anymore. I can't think of a single thing that makes me nervous with the sole exception of that opening scene in Mission Impossible: 2 where Tom Cruise is climbing the rock and dangling from various tiny outcroppings and hanging by one hand. That makes me nervous. That makes me incredibly nervous, because I have a fear of heights that is pretty much wildly out of control and improbably disabling.

My fear of heights begins at roughly 2 inches off the floor. When I stand on a chair or stepladder, I get a little worried about falling. Put me three stairs up on a ladder and I get tense and appreciate it when people hold the ladder, although my appreciation is muted by the fact that they are never serious about holding the ladder. Ask someone to hold a ladder for you and they'll maybe comply but what they'll do is put a hand on the ladder, or maybe two hands, and they'll watch while you start to climb up, and then when your back is to them (as it must be, to climb the ladder) they'll take one hand off and start watching TV or looking at a squirrel near the road or something, forcing me to take my mind and attention off the all-important task of gripping the ladder so tightly that my hands hurt, and instead, focus my attention and mind on the next-to-all-important task of making them hold the ladder tightly. But it doesn't matter because they cannot possibly hold it tightly enough for me. I say I want people to hold the ladder but what I really want, if I have to climb the ladder at all, is to have the ladder's legs driven deep into the ground and encased in good solid concrete. Being a clear-headed thinker, though, what I really really want is to have someone else climb the ladder, but because I'm a man, I frequently have to climb ladders and mask my fears, which is hard to do when I'm gasping "Hold the ladder" between clenched teeth.

You'd think that my fear of heights wouldn't kick in unless the height could actually hurt me, but that's not the case. Standing on a ladder trying to clean a gutter makes me nervous even though if I were to just drop, entirely, I'd likely not even be hurt. The fall from our gutters is so short that if I somehow dropped and spun around so that I landed on my head I probably wouldn't be hurt, even then, but that doesn't stop me from worrying about the dizzying height of my gutters. My fear of heights is so profound, and improbable, that fictional heights scare me -- like when Tom Cruise is climbing around rocks. There's a scene in Kung Fu Panda where the characters go up on some tall rocks, and that worries me, both because they go up on some tall rocks and might fall, and also because it means that at some point there will be a sub-branch of acrophobia meant to specifically describe my condition, the fear of fictional cartoon panda heights, and while I mean to make a mark in the world, I don't mean to make a mark in the world by serving as a case study for people who are afraid that a cartoon character may fall to his death.

It was that kind of nervousness I felt at the prospect that Sweetie might have a surprise party for my 40th birthday -- a social phobia and nervousness brought on by the idea that when I got home from work on Friday after my first full 5-day workweek since prior to the holidays, there would be a houseful of people waiting for me and I would have to talk with them -- and nervousness, too, that I would have to talk to them while Sweetie was secretly upset with me.

I was worried that Sweetie would be secretly upset with me because I was late, on Friday, to pick up the repaired window that Mr F had broken. I had until 5:30 to pick it up from the window place, something I knew because Sweetie had reminded me of it the night before, and that morning, and that afternoon when I'd talked to her, and she had brought it up again when she'd called me at 4:55 to ask whether I'd left work yet to go pick up the repaired window.

She was calling me at 4:55 at work for two reasons, at least. First, she had to call me at the office because I'd let my cell phone power down the day before. I hadn't charged it in about 5 days and it'd run out of power and then I couldn't find it because I'd misplaced it. Ordinarily, I put the cellphone in my little dresser drawer near my iPod and camera and the combination lock I used to use for my bicycle back when I used to bicycle. But that Thursday night I'd put the cell phone somewhere else because I meant to make sure that I plugged it in to charge it up for Friday, only somewhere between "meaning to plug in the cell phone and charge it" and "actually doing that" I'd put the cell phone somewhere and couldn't remember where it was, and I couldn't locate it by calling the phone because it was out of power. So I had no cell phone Friday and Sweetie had to call me at the office at 4:55 to remind me that I had only until 5:30 to pick up the window and also to remind me that I'd told her that morning that I was going to leave the office at 4 p.m. that day.

"What are you still doing at work?" she asked me.

"Working," I told her, and explained that I'd gotten tied up in doing various things between 4 and 4:55 -- things that I probably could have done earlier but "earlier" was when I'd been busy reading old Peanuts comics online, so I was running behind schedule.

I didn't tell Sweetie that last part. I just assured her that I would be leaving the office immediately to go pick up the window and come home, and she sounded disappointed and a little irritated that I was going to be about an hour later than I'd told her I would be, even though it really wasn't my fault that Peanuts had been so interesting to me that day.

I then left the office only about 15 minutes after finishing that phone call, and was hurrying to make the 30 minute trip to the window store in the fifteen minutes I had, and as I drove along and tried to not crash in the snow falling and coating the road and also tried to set up a playlist of mostly-Noah-and-the-Whale songs, it occurred to me that I was probably not going to be in time to get the window, and also that Sweetie may have been disappointed that I was late because (I thought) Sweetie maybe had a houseful of people there waiting to yell "Surprise!" when I walked in, and those people would have been waiting around an extra hour.

Sweetie might have, I reasoned, wanted to throw me a surprise party because I'd once thrown her a surprise party, back about 10 years ago, when I got people to come and decorate and wait for her and I got her out of the apartment through the ruse of saying I was taking her to dinner. We got back to the apartment and I was about to lead her upstairs when she stopped and headed downstairs.

"Where are you going?" I asked her.

"I've got to grab the laundry from the dryer," she said, and she insisted on carrying the laundry, and what could I do, tell her no, leave the laundry for later but don't ask me why?, the result being that Sweetie was carrying a load of laundry for folding when her party surprised her.

So Sweetie might have wanted to get me back, or reward me (depending on your perspective) for that and might have been planning a surprise party, and I was nervous about not just the fact that, yes, I was late picking up the window so we'd have to have another night of cardboard-and-green-blanket hanging in our front window, but also about the idea that when I got home I'd have to tell Sweetie that I was late, didn't have the window, and then I'd have to talk to a bunch of people and pretend that I was a social person when I'm not and what I really wanted to do was relax in a pair of sweatpants and my "Gators" sweatshirt.

Sweetie didn't, in the end, have a surprise party; she was concerned about my being late because she had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rocky Rococo's pizza waiting for me and it was getting cold, but I don't think I can really be blamed for fearing the worst and dreading a social gathering as I drove home that night because sometimes my social interactions with others are ... problematic.

Take when Dad came over on Saturday for a combination Christmas/birthday party. We'd had that planned for some time, and then had to go through with the visit when the weather didn't cooperate and Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were drivable. So Dad and his wife, Pat, came over to visit and bring presents and eat dinner, which all should be enjoyable but is instead fraught with concern and sometimes repetition.

A visit from Dad is fraught with concern because Dad's staying is always unpredictable. He may come for an hour, he may come for a whole weekend, and you just don't know because he won't tell you in advance because if he did, you might tell him he couldn't do that. We once had this exchange:

Dad: "Well, I'll come up there on Saturday and stay overnight."

Me: "That's not that good. You can come up Saturday but we really don't have any place for you to stay and we've got to get out of the house early the next day for Church."

Dad: "It won't be any trouble."

And I was so befuddled wondering what wouldn't be any trouble -- having to leave early? Having no place for him to sleep? His coming? My life? -- that I couldn't respond and he did come, sleeping on the couch and then getting up and being around for breakfast (we had to skip church, because we didn't want to abandon him and he was sitting at the table drinking coffee when we would have had to leave for Church) and then staying around even after I left to go into work. Sweetie told me later that he didn't leave until 2 p.m.

Then there was the time he came up around 11 a.m. on a Saturday, stayed for lunch, and dinner, and was still around at 6 p.m. when he suggested that we put in a movie. I went to get a movie to watch and came back to find him asleep on the couch.

It doesn't even help to tell him that we're busy or won't be there. He wanted to come up one Saturday and we weren't going to be home; we had plans and I told him that. He apparently didn't believe me because when we got back from our errands, there was a pile of things stacked in front of our garage door, little things he'd brought to drop off for us, and a message left that he'd been there and we for some reason were not home.

Saying that we have vague "plans" or that it won't work never puts him off. Even having a specific, iron-clad excuse won't work. He called one time and wanted to come up on a Saturday, a day that Sweetie and I had been looking forward to just hanging out relaxing and doing nothing and not having company. When I told him that Saturday wasn't good, he said he wouldn't stay long. So I lied and said:

"You can't come up because I won't be here. I'll be judging the high school mock trial competition." In reality, I wouldn't be doing that for a few more weeks, but I figured any port in a storm.

"How long does that take?" he asked.

"Most of the day," I said. "Maybe 'til early evening."

" he said, and then said "Well, I'll just come up and hang around the family until you get home," at which point I was stuck, because Sweetie was adamant that I could not disappear for the day and leave her and the kids to deal with company. So when he came and visited, I had to lie again and say that I'd traded judging days with someone else so that I could hang out with him.

It's not that Dad is a bad guy; it's just that his visits are long. I think he makes them so long because they're so rare -- we only see him about 5 or 6 times a year. But they're rare because he makes them so long. I always want to tell him that if he'd come for an hour or two, he could come more often, but then I don't know how I'd enforce that.

I'm not sure he realizes how long his visits are, either. This past Saturday, he got there at about 2, as we'd planned. He stayed until about 8:30, which is an awfully long time -- he stayed through snacks, and dinner, and clean-up, and giving Mr F and Mr Bunches their baths and then putting them into their pajamas and then more snacks, too, and it was about the time I was wondering if he and Pat were actually going to stay over that he finally got up and left.

Here's how long his visit lasted: When he first arrived, I asked him about how his Christmas Eve was, and he told me a story about how Pat's granddaughter Natalie had handed out the presents and played Santa, wearing a Santa hat and complaining, at one point, that the hat was hot and she was sweaty.

Later on, around 8 p.m., while Sweetie was up putting the Babies!' pajamas on them, Dad and Pat and I were sitting downstairs with the football game on and silence lingering because we'd run out of things to talk about. That's when Dad, out of the blue, said this:

"Did I tell you that on Christmas Eve, Pat's granddaughter Natalie played Santa, and even wore a Santa hat?" And he went on to tell me the story all over again, almost identical to the first time I'd heard it 6 hours before. So Dad stayed so long, on Saturday, that he went into reruns.

Phone calls aren't much better. My mom called me Friday to wish me a happy birthday, and last night I finally called her back, only to learn that she was having some troubles with her phone, and that the phone company had been out there to fix it but it hadn't worked that well.

Rather than tell her I'd call her back some other time, something I worried would insult her because it would make her think I didn't want to talk to her (I didn't, but not out of any malice to her; I just don't like talking on the phone, to anyone) and something I also felt would simply keep the need to call her hanging over my head like an albatross, I tried instead to soldier through the call, living through a few hang-ups and disconnections, after each of which we'd both do the same thing that people always do in that situation, which is wait a second, then try to call the other one, get a busy signal, then wait a second, then call again, and do that a few times before then setting the phone down to wait for the other one to call.

It was in one of those breaks, when the phone had cut out, that a thought occurred to me. You know how, when you're waiting for a phone call, you don't want anyone but that specific person to call you because you're worried that the specific person will call you at the same time as whatever jerk is calling you, and as a result you'll miss the call you were actually waiting for? I know exactly how that feels, because I've gone through it twice in my life, both times when I qualified for the next round of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? contestancy, a qualification which meant that the next day I might get a phone call that would tell me I was flying off to New York to be a contestant, the results of which were that I sat by the phone all day hoping that Millionaire would call and that nobody else would call because I felt that if someone who was not "Millionaire" called me, they'd call at the exact time that Millionaire was calling and I would have lost out on my opportunity.

As it turns out, Millionaire never called me, but my fears were still well-grounded.

My thought last night, during the intermittent conversation with Mom, was kind of the exact opposite of that. It was the second time that her phone had cut out, and when I got the dial tone I hung up and then dialed her number, getting a busy signal. Then I tried again, and got a busy signal. So I put the phone down to wait a minute or two for the line to clear, and I was certain that Mom, on her end of the line in Milwaukee, was mirroring my actions. That's when I thought this mind-blowing thought:

What if both of us set the phone down to wait a minute or two and then waited for the other one to call and then neither of us ever picked up the phone to make the call the other one is expecting us to make?

We might never talk again.

But that didn't happen; instead, she called a minute later and we began again, trying to pick up where we'd left off, with limited success because then Mom's phone went even more haywire: her phone began making calls on its own. It began clicking and dialing and then my call waiting clicked, and I told her I had another call.

"That's because my phone just autodialed yours, for some reason," she told me. My phone clicked again, and I said:

"So you just called me in the middle of my call?"

Mom said she didn't know what was going on with her phone, and then said this:

"Go answer that call in case it's me."

It's not enough, then, for people to simply visit me or call me. They have to visit me so long that they're visit wraps around on itself and begins to repeat, or they have to call me twice in the same phone call, warping space and time just to chat with me, which I suppose should be flattering and I suppose I should be pleased that I am so important to people that they would violate the laws of physics as we know them just to spend a little time with me. But I'm forty years old, and I'm not a very social person, and I get tired at the end of the day, so I'd appreciate it if people would obey the laws of physics, give me a little time to myself now and then, and also hold that ladder more tightly.

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