How to win friends and influence people.
About two weeks ago, Daughter and I went to cheer on friends who were competing in gymnastics. One of the girls competing at an advanced level caught my attention by being very good and considerably younger than the other girls. Upon closer scrutiny, I realized she wasn’t as young as I thought she was, but was a dwarf. Whatever challenges this put in her way, she was an exceptional athlete, strong and airborne and cleanly defined in all of her movements. All of us watching applauded a little louder as she did the ending salute to the judges.
Last week, I took Daughter to her art class and as I was walking out, I saw a mother standing outside, watching her younger daughter play. We had talked before, but we had never discussed the fact that she is a dwarf, as is one of her children, at least partially because I suspect she already knows. For reasons known only to the god of chaos who rules my brain, I felt compelled to walk over and tell her about the gymnast I had seen compete. About two sentences in to my sports analysis, something which I like to think is the teeny, weeny, socially-adroit quadrant of my brain spoke up.
“Quinn,” it said calmly, “just because she is a dwarf doesn’t mean she has any interest in other people who are dwarves. That’s like assuming you would want to hear about other people with mostly-green eyes. Or, perhaps more accurately, people who start stupid and slightly offensive conversations. And, by the way, I think calling them a dwarf is rude.”
The other 99.98% of my brain screamed in terror, “Augh! You’re right! Then what is the less-offensive term?”
The other part sneered, “I’m sure I have no idea. I think how one handles it is not to bring it up at all. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to try to burrow my way out of your head through your ear and live in a less-humiliating brain.”
The mother had patiently waited through my blatherings, and then we reached silence. Anyone with sense would have slithered away, claiming a colonoscopy appointment. But not me, because I cannot leave a conversation when the last words made me look like an idiot; I have to cleanse the palate of the listener with something banal. Luckily, I had the dog with me, who was being petted by her daughter.
“Oh, there you are!” I bent down and said to the dog, as if he had not been leashed to me, but off on a bicycling tour of the Pyrenees. He thumped his tail, and then looked over my shoulder and barked fiercely, a sound I have only heard once before. I turned and saw a woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk, mumbling to herself. Turning back, I comforted the dog and said to the other woman, “She must be mentally ill. He gets upset by the mentally ill.” He barked again, and I turned to see her walking towards us, no longer talking to herself but dragging one leg behind her. I said cheerily, “Or she’s just disabled. We haven’t had him that long; maybe he finds the disabled upsetting as well.”
We all bathed in the uncomfortable silence, broken only by the sound of her foot sliding along the ground, her soft mumbling and the dog growling threateningly. The woman with whom I was speaking glanced around for someone else to break up this folie a deux.
My socially-adroit brain cells, all six of them, sighed and said, “That was your dignity-saving move? Can’t we just leave and hide under the hedge until the class ends?”
My brain, eager to save the day, swung into action and before I could throw myself on the lawn and hope to muffle the sound, I blurted out, “It could be worse, I guess. I had a dog I adopted when he was already an adult and he was always aggressive towards African-Americans. At least there are fewer mentally-ill or disabled people than African-American people.”
We stared at one another in horror. My brain shouted “Wait! I can make her forget all about this! Let’s tell her about the time you accidentally walked into that store which sold accessories for men who liked to dress as babies and be diapered! Tell her about the size 50 ruffled rubber diaper covers! Tell her they were bigger than she was!”
I glanced over into the parking lot and spied a person. Waving frantically, I shouted “Yes, here I am! I’ll be right there!” The gardener, removing his leaf-blower from his truck, waved at me tentatively. I turned and said “I am so sorry, I have got to go.” Both of these were the truth, as I am sure was her response of “Oh, it’s okay. Really. Don’t rush back.”