Thursday, April 14, 2005


In Which I Take A Compliment...Any Compliment...

Feeling dullardly and sluggish--or is that sluggardly and dullish?--today. Woke up looking and feeling like I had lost about 20 IQ points (points I can ill afford to lose, I hasten to add) and work was one long stumble to 5 o'clock. Hope I didn't decide anything important today.

Part of it's just that I haven't been sleeping so well. I am stiff and sore from both my impromptu cycling weekend and the non-stop work on the Brownie's Secret Room (which she is now calling The Foxhole, so named for her beloved stuffed animal Foxo, who will apparently be living there in the future). Also while my parents have been here Her Lovely Self and I have been sleeping on the fold-out couch. See, the guest room was emptied because that's where we were going to put in the door for the walk-in attic. And I don't know what kind of son you think I am, but there was no way I was going to ask my sixtysomething parents to sleep in a room full of drywall and insulation dust, nor would I put them on the hideaway, especially when my dad's busting his ass on the room and my mom is acting as built-in babysitter. So they're in the master bedroom. I knew we had a nice mattress on our bed, but damn! I had no idea how nice. Three weeks later I do (and so do my parents).

I've never been a good sleeper, but last night was pretty bad. About the only bright spot was my dream. I used to remember lots of my dreams. That hasn't happened much lately, but when it does, they're usually quite vivid.

First, some reality back-story: my sister-in-law is in the final stages of adopting a baby girl from Guatemala. Yes, it's a very big deal and there is much excitement and we're eagerly awaiting the nubbin's arrival, some time this summer. Blahblahblah, huggy kissy, thank you missy. Let's get back to the dream.

So, in the dream, I'm at work, editing stories (only instead of working on a computer, I'm playing with a bowl of fruit. I'm rearranging pears and peaches, picking grapes off an exceedingly large bunch. Somehow I understood, in just that way that you can when Dream Logic is in effect, that this bowl of fruit had some kind of interface with the story I was working on, with the grapes representing individual words and the pears and peaches representing whole paragraphs. All being rearranged in the story--which was somewhere else--as I rearranged the fruit in the bowl. Anyway, it made sense at the time. Doesn't it always?).

The phone rings, and it's Her Lovely Self, all distraught. Apparently, her sister and husband were in Guatemala, all set to retrieve their adopted baby. But there was a problem: some official--a customs agent, a local police chief, somebody in authority--was being a real asshole, holding up the baby's travel visa, claiming some important stamp was missing. Of course, what he really wanted was a bribe.

Next thing I know, my mother-in-law is somehow conferenced in to the call and the upshot is that they want me to fly down to Guatemala that very night with a fistful of Thomas Cook (this was a very specific detail in the dream) traveler's checks to haggle with the guy and free up the travel visa.

"But...why me?" I ask Her Lovely Self. "I would think your dad would be your first choice to do this." As I may have mentioned one or five times before, because of his status as an ex-airline employee, my father-in-law can fly pretty much anywhere in the world--yes, even my dream world--for free. Also, he is singularly unencumbered with anything resembling a full-time job, and so, it seemed to me, just the person to toddle off to Guatemala and bribe the necessary official.

But apparently, he had an expired passport. And because of my job, I'm sort of required to have a current one (like I ever have to fly out of the country for work on a moment's notice).

"So you're our first choice," says my mother-in-law. "Besides," she adds, as if this clinches the deal, "you're the biggest asshole we know."

This apparently qualifies me to negotiate the terms of the bribe.

I don't remember the rest of the dream--it sort of segued to nothing once I got on a plane--but I woke up feeling ever so slightly honored. My mother-in-law would never call me an asshole. I suspect she thinks about it from time to time, but she would never say it. And while it sounds like an insult, I actually took it as a compliment. At least I would in real life if she ever said anything like that to me.

The compliments I remember most are the back-handed ones, probably because so many compliments you hear are so often not much more than the equivalent of asking "how are you?" or "that's nice." It's just something that's expected of people in a given situation, and so they give the required response ("you were great" or "I really enjoyed reading that"). Whereas with back-handed compliments, you're getting a certain level of sincerity that is inescapable and impossible to fake.

When I was 11 or so--to pick an example relevant to my dream--I was not exactly a star athlete. In fact, I was pretty uncoordinated, a bit on the runty side, and therefore always one of the last kids picked for any kind of team activity. It's an old story, and one you've heard--and probably experienced--before. It was especially true during Play Day, the annual school event in which we spent a whole day playing various games. It was a kind of school Olympics and I'm sure you had something similar in your school.

In the morning there would be individual events, such as the long jump and the hurdle race (in which I one year I not only lost the race, but also my gym shorts, when they somehow got caught on a hurdle and were yanked to my ankles. I sprawled to the ground, but not realizing what had happened, actually jumped up and waddled another 10 or so feet before I had the presence of mind to pull them up. Oh, the indignity! And it didn't end there, but that's all I have the nerve to tell you, gentle reader). In the afternoon we'd have team activities. Mr. Terry, the school principal, would anoint captains for the different activities and these captains would choose teams from the class.

One year, instead of the usual soccer and baseball and kickball matches, Mr. Terry had organized a scavenger hunt for each class, a really tricky one with cryptic clues written in riddles and some in secret codes that would guide you to each object hidden on the school grounds. And there were false clues too, and false trails to follow to false items. It was a complicated game.

After he explained the rules and had announced the captains--Michelle and Theresa--the choosing of teams began almost immediately. David Johnson, the athlete of our class, was the person who was always picked first and, sure enough, Theresa had her finger pointed at him and her mouth forming the syllable "Da--" when Mr. Terry interrupted.

"I forgot one more thing," he said. "This isn't an athletic event. This isn't a game where it pays to be the fastest or the strongest or even the smartest. You need to be..." he faltered for a second, the phrase "able to think outside the box" not quite in common parlance at the time. Instead, he said " need to be sneaky. You need to think in strange, crazy ways."

And as soon as he said "crazy" both Michelle and Theresa pointed at me and called my name. It was a funny moment and the rest of the class all laughed, except for the captains, who actually got in a heated debate over who had the right to pick me (Michelle argued that Theresa had already picked David. Theresa countered that because Mr. Terry hadn't finished explaining the rules she was entitled to a do-over). It was the first--and I'm willing to bet it will be the only--time that two girls fought over me.

I forget which team I ended up on (I know my team won), but I was walking on air the whole time. It felt as though the line between dream and reality had blurred. Sure, Mr. Terry had said "sneaky," "strange" and "crazy," but I heard something else entirely, a subtext that spoke volumes about the kind of resourceful, creative--and okay, sneaky, strange and crazy--person I imagined I was. And I always felt that my classmates had heard the same thing.

Of course, on that point, I could be completely kidding myself. For all I know, the team captains and the rest of the class might have interpreted Mr. Terry's comments as, "Pick the biggest asshole you know."

But even if they had, I still would have taken being picked first as a compliment.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I know what you mean. I was on a date a month or so ago, with this woman who was remakably bad at telling a story (and she had good stories; it was the delivery). At the end of the date, she said something to the effect of, "You're a really interesting person." Quelle ironie. She didn't seem like she was being facetious. I didn't know what to do with that compliment. Except take it and call it a night.
You were great, I really enjoyed reading that... hee hee.

I think a lot of people will relate to this. Especially bloggers, most of whom strike me as the type of people whose high school annuals are signed (by their friends!) with words like "strange" and "weird" and "kook".

Not that I would know anything about that, of course.
Yep, you're certainly the biggest asshole I know, and I mean that in the nicest way.
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