Even if you have never met me face-to-face, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I talk a lot. Not at first; I tend to hang back a bit and gauge a situation before just launching right in. But I’m comfortable with words, spoken or written, and I think that, in person, I’m reasonably similar to my pixielated, bloglike version.
I think I’m reasonably quick on my feet, verbally, and this has occasionally gotten me into an uncomfortable spot. Never really in trouble – I’m able to avoid sarcasm when, say, discussing the possibility of a speeding ticket with a highway patrol officer – but I’ve certainly caused the occasional offense, or confusing, or misunderstanding.
Part of this is because I try to avoid the standard, knee-jerk sorts of responses. If someone takes the time to ask me how I’m doing I tend to assume – and I know, this is a strange and unusual way to think – that they actually want an answer, instead of an, “Oh, I’m fine, how are you?” So I’ll pause, and think, and give a response. Not always a fully honest and intense one (“Well, I’m broke and I haven’t found one single new job to apply for in two weeks and I’m in chronic pain and I’m still not frigging pregnant” seems a bit much for the cashier in the grocery store, you know?), but if I’m walking into a restaurant and am greeted with, “And how are you today?” then my answer is usually, “Well, I’m hungry.” Or, when I had to take Jacob to the emergency room where I worked, back in October, and the nurses were saying, “Hi, Kate, how’s it going?” I would point out the fact that I was with my child in a hospital… so, not so great, really.
This creates a lot of repetitions in my daily interactions, not because my hearing is bad (that’s a whole other set of issues) but because I’m just not well-enough-behaved to provide the simple, expected responses every time. When someone expects to hear, “I’m fine,” and instead gets, “Well, I’m thirsty,” they’re frequently caught off-guard and derailed a bit. “I’m sorry, what?” And so on.
It’s just one of those little ways that I’m a pain in the ass, and I’m OK with this. I wasn’t always like this; I used to use pat, repetitive sorts of replies all the time. I tried to switch them up a bit, find new or interesting phrases to insert, but I’d use the same words every time, mindless, just-social-convention, blah blah blah. I learned it from watching my dad, and he still does it now; ask him how he’s doing, and he’ll say, with the precise same inflection every time, “Fat, dumb and happy!” Or if someone called the house looking for me, he would reply, “Yes, as a matter of fact, Kate is here right now. Would you like to speak with her, or are you just checking?” It wavers between cute and obnoxious, and by the time I was in my teens I was developing my own little list of knee-jerk replies for everyday situations.
Then, when I was 19, I used one of those knee-jerk little lines and was beyond horrified, the moment it escaped from my face. I would have happily stricken myself mute, or given any available amount of money to be able to rewind the tape and not use quite that phrase, but alas, once the foot is in the mouth, it stays there for a while.
It happened at the wake following my great-aunt Kathy’s funeral. She had committed suicide by shotgun, an unexpected event in the family and a particularly violent, unusual choice for a woman to make. She was in her 50s, somewhere, long-term history of alcoholism, no job, recent breakup… in retrospect, the warning signs were there, but this is a branch of the family that I never knew especially well, so it was much more a case of going to the funeral and such because it’s what you do to be polite, rather than a deep, personal loss. I hadn’t seen her in at least ten years beforehand.
Still, of course, people were sad and hurt, and it was a hard day. The funeral home held a little service – with, and this still horrifies me, a slightly-open casket. Have you ever seen such a thing? Apparently a fully opened casket was simply not possible given the damages, so instead they cracked the lid up three or four inches and left one of her hands on the edge, so that, I suppose, grieving family could hold her hand one last time. Or something. Anyway, other than that, it was all very smooth and predictable and calm, with a brief graveside service and then a wake, of sorts, at the home of one of my other barely-known great-uncles, her brother.
While there, one of my something-other-than-first cousins decided to take the opportunity of having family gathered together on a beautiful May afternoon, and asked us each to come into the backyard to have family photos taken. I thought it was a nice attempt to salvage something positive from a profoundly negative sort of experience (Aunt Kathy was her mother, so I believe that made us second-cousins-once-removed, but never really figured it out).
Now, the background here is that I worked, through college, as a photographer and journalist for the university’s News Services office. I took the cheesy handshake photos at any sort of plaque-or-check ceremony, attended sporting events, sent out local-interest blurbs when there were robot competitions or what have you (this was an engineering school, so I’m not even kidding about the robots). Thus it was that I took a lot of photos, and therefore developed a pat phrase to gather people together when it was time for some posed photographic event.
It was an insensitive and thoughtless phrase, but somehow my 19-year-old brain found it amusing, and so I said t some number of times as part of my job. No one had ever pointed out to me that it might not be the best choice of words, and in fact most people seemed mildly amused, so I stuck with it.
So it all came together, when my cousin came up and said, “Can you gather your parents and sisters together for a photo in the backyard?” that my traitorous mouth decided to open itself and let those words fall out.
“OK, guys… let’s go get shot.”
Shot, right? Because you shoot photos, photography, pictures, funny, ha ha…? No? Yeah, no. Particularly not at the wake of an aunt who just suicided by gun.
I was immediately horrified, and I still cringe today when I think of it. My cousin – praise be – had already walked away, and so I’m not certain that anyone else actually heard me say it. The point was, though, that I had said it out loud, and it certainly could have been heard, because everyone around me had ears. I was appalled.
After that, pretty much right away, I learned to stop and listen to the question, and answer it each time with a tiny bit of thought, instead of leaning on those verbal time-killers. I still come out with things that I find gauche or embarrassing, but I haven’t since made a blunder quite that big.
It’s another edition of “the madhouse” around here, with this week’s theme being “Open Mouth, Insert Foot.” Please join me in my misery, and share some relevant, horrifying story of your own… I’ll link, you’ll be famous. Well, famous-er, anyway. By a few extra hits. Maybe.
JMLC and Baino have played along, so far…