Thursday, October 9, 2014


Last week I had a chance to meet with a top executive of a very well-known company. I didn't go in with my hat in my hand; the idea I was proposing wasn't for my own direct benefit, so there was no reason for deference. I could be honest and cordial, rather than solicitous.

We had our chat, he seemed to like my idea, and he walked me to the elevator while telling me about a mysterious restaurant he'd recently ferreted out. The story drew to a close, I got on the elevator, and we said another quick goodbye, instinctively moving to shake hands even though we'd already done so a few minutes before. But the elevator door closed right at that moment, making us jerk our arms awkwardly back. I chortled at the slapstick, assuming he'd share in the humor. But he did not. Nary a grin.

As the doors closed, I saw him shudder at the echo of my unilateral guffaw, which seemed to resonate throughout the elevator shaft and building as a whole. I was Satan himself, roaring forth with infinite derision while descending back to my subterranean palace of fiery lava.

Ever since, I've been trying to work out what the hell happened. I'd like to conclude that my ability to laugh at myself was a good thing. But there's more to it than that. As my friend Leslie succinctly put it, awkwardness is not the image this fellow wants to project into the world. And the thing is that I've never been big on image projection.

It started with my father, who couldn't stand the thought of ever seeming wrong. I remember the desperate maneuvering required to perpetuate this image of infallibility. It goes without saying that everyone around him was painfully aware of both his failings and of the desperate cover-ups. And I noticed the anger and exhaustion which gradually built in him, as it does in anyone flailing to maintain an ego-crucial image without the release valve of humor and self-awareness. This is exactly why self-serious characters are comedy mainstays. We, the audience, enjoy the awareness and release on their clueless behalf.

With image cultivation, as with political scandal, the cover-up's always worse than the crime. We're never so silly as when we struggle not to seem silly (if you've never seen "Fawlty Towers" - e.g. on Netflix Streaming - watch it right now. I'll wait!). I'm even more vain than my father. I so hate to be ridiculous that I spare myself the worst of it by owning my fallibility (it's something like this).

And so I've always been proudly informal. But perhaps informality isn't always a greater good, and pretense isn't always an atrocity. I've suffered from my lack of gravitas, really. I have a very hard time being taken the least bit seriously by people unless I trumpet my supposed "accomplishments" (something I'd never do). As I wrote a few years ago:
"If you don't project superiority - if you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone. "
Goofy informality hasn't really worked out for me. As I once apparently remarked (I was in a drunken stupor and don't remember saying it): I've tried all my life to come off as nobody special, but I never imagined everyone would actually buy it!

So I can't say I was right and the exec was wrong; that I was "real", grounded, and human while he was stilted, uptight, pretentious. Cool composure has its benefits, but I go too far the other way. In this situation, maybe I truly was the guffawing jackass.

Worse, my mogul-blanching snigger surely registered as my laughing at him. We could call it a misunderstanding, since I was, after all, laughing at both of us. However, he was indisputably half of "us", so I can't say I wasn't laughing at him - and I'm guessing that's not something he's accustomed to. So I was inflicting my rueful self-deprecation on him. While in the big picture we were, indeed, acting like a vaudeville team, I'm not sure I had the right to frame the scene. In his milieu, irony is an unacceptable indulgence - perhaps rightly so, given that even innocent laughter, I've just discovered, can deflate.

But here's the really weird thing. In the middle of writing this, I ran out for some groceries. Distracted by some particularly toothsome-looking broccolini, I returned to my cart, which I began to push, when an agitated-looking woman rushed over to point out that I was pushing her cart. My normal reaction would have been to chuckle sheepishly at my own foolishness. But for some reason that didn't happen. I quietly apologized, grabbed my cart, and puttered away with bland, deadpan seriousness.

No comments:

Blog Archive