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Adrift and forever shy of the ocean

This is something I wrote straight through and stopped. I did not go back through it to rewrite and edit it. And the topic is personal.

I spent a couple of days in Portland, Ore., late last week. Unfortunately, it was Buffalo, N.Y., spring weather while I was out there: rainy, cloudy when it wasn’t raining, and chilly, with temperatures struggling to top 50.

That didn’t keep me from walking around in the downtown area where I was staying. During an extended stroll Thursday night, I felt like a tourist. I still was wearing my airplane clothes: long-sleeve black T, black jeans and a loose black jacket. Not only were most of the people I passed on the street half as young as I, but their clothes also were a lot more colourful. I kept waiting for someone to stop me to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Thinking about that question forced me to confront something I know about myself but would rather not deal with: specifically, when put in situations that are strange or different or challenging, I would just as soon fade into the safe background than stand out. At 57, I should be over being shy, but at the conference I was attending, I found myself making hesitant (at best) eye contract with people, apologizing for getting in someone’s way by accident, and thinking that I was talking too much in the few conversations I managed to strike up. Fifty-seven years old, and I don’t have much more self-confidence than I did at my first junior high school dance.

These thoughts danced through my head as I walked around downtown Portland hungry, but hesitant to go into a restaurant because I was afraid I wasn’t dressed right. I walked around and around, thinking there was nothing worse than being hungry in a strange city. Then I passed a homeless guy huddled up in a storefront door, smothered in a bundle of blankets as big as a bear, and I changed my mind: There’s nothing worse than being hungry and out on the street. I didn’t change my mind, even when the driver who took me back to the airport said to me, “We don’t call them homeless. We call them crackheads.”

Finally I got hungry enough to step into a well-lighted, modern-looking place that had two televisions tuned to basketball hanging on the walls. The crowd was thin, and the server and the bartender made me feel welcome. When I was walking back to the hotel, though, I again found myself all alone in the big city—and that made me realize for perhaps the first time in my life that each of us is so very, very small.

Certainly, I swim better and more confidently in the small pond of my local life, but that never was my objective. I wanted the ocean and a sense of élan. Portland made me see that I’m just Popeye: I yam what I yam. Someplace along the way, I settled. And as I walked into the hotel lobby and caught the eye of the good-looking young woman at the checkout desk, I instantly averted my eye.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2011 01:49 am (UTC)
Interesting post. I liked the last graf and the candid, open musing of the whole thing.
May. 2nd, 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
Thanks, Brett. Every once in a while I'm able to write without filters.
May. 2nd, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
Your welcome. It can be liberating.
May. 2nd, 2011 02:44 am (UTC)
Happy homebody here...
Love the title. I'm a fairly social person, but still - I don't do all that well when there's nothing familiar to anchor myself with: a person, the place, some history... something.

In the grand scheme of things, you're right - we're all just little blips, blinking and orbiting on the big radar screen of life. But I like to think that it's the way we communicate and interact with the other little blips in our path on the screen that matters, not the breadth of our orbit or the flashiness of our blinkage.

You were just temporarily forced to blink in a different orbit, that's all. Welcome home.
May. 2nd, 2011 10:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Happy homebody here...
You're right: I've got to focus more on those blips and less on the mirror.
May. 2nd, 2011 04:36 am (UTC)
I would like to say something really profound about this entry, but mostly all I can come up with is "I can totally relate".
May. 2nd, 2011 10:23 pm (UTC)
I was only six hours' flight time from home. I'll bet six hours in the air barely gets you started. And whatever stress I may have been feeling no doubt pales when compared to the pressures of vet school. Thanks for the perspective!
May. 3rd, 2011 10:21 pm (UTC)
Flying is like teleportation to me - I sit down, fall asleep, and when I wake up I'm magically where I want to be. In a way, the shorter flights are worse because, well, for one thing they don't usually serve food or have good entertainment, and for another if I'm not tired I don't fall asleep for a while, and then the plane wakes me up in the middle of an REM cycle and then I have to deal with airports while groggy and brain dead.

Also, I'm pretty sure being a professor is more stressful than being a student. :P At least as a student, you have someone to blame for your lack of success in class, for instance... and the thought of having to stand up in front of people and teach them things (much less all the other stuff to do with professorhood, research and departmental politics and such, augh.)

Which is to say, to each his or her own (chosen career)? XD
May. 2nd, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
What she said.

This was my weekend. And when it was over I wondered if I'd ever get over it, or if it was okay not to.

Thanks for making me feel like it is okay.
May. 2nd, 2011 11:26 pm (UTC)
Just a little clear-air turbulence, I guess.
May. 2nd, 2011 07:50 am (UTC)
I think there's so much that triggers that reaction in us, that "I should've outgrown/figured out/changed/improved THAT by now." I caught myself doing the same thing the other day, hearing about a friend's sister who's just had a baby, and who has a nice big house that they've just built an office into, and I was thinking how far from my life that kind of stuff seems. And then I thought of my parents, how I'm just a little younger now than they were when they had me, and how that seemed old for parents then (being 30 and 31 seems less unusual now, but in my head, it'll always be old because they think it is and that's what I grew up thinking), and by this time they had a nice house and a stable life and all these things that I just can't see myself getting by that point. Or at all.

Maybe it's similar with you and thinking you should have gotten over your shyness and introversion "by now." It'd be nice if we outgrew all our bad habits but it'd be nicer, I think, to get past the cringing and self-flagellating and be able to think "Well. This is what I am." It isn't a phase, it isn't something we are waiting to grow out of... and I think that makes it easier to come to terms with, and be comfortable about it. In the long run. I realize in the short run it might be less fun ("you mean I'll never change?"). Of course change is always possible... but it helps to think it doesn't need to be necessary, as a prerequisite to happiness, or feeling comfortable in one's own skin, or anything like that.
May. 2nd, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC)
I can deal with my OCD or my bouts of depression more easily than I can deal with being nervous about entering a new restaurant in a new city.

However, I must say that the next night, when I was wearing coat-and-tie, slacks and good shoes, I walked into the restaurant without hesitation. Maybe it's true that clothes make the man!
May. 2nd, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
Very thought-provoking post, pjv. And one I really relate to.. when left to my own devices in an unfamiliar situation, I'm most comfortable--happy, even-- to just sit back and watch the show. I always think about that at events where I'm supposed to be meet-and-greeting or networking and I'd rather be sitting at my table and writing things in my head.
May. 2nd, 2011 10:30 pm (UTC)
“I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph.” — James Thurber
May. 2nd, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
Right there with you. For all my travel experience, I still suck at having the confidence to tackle unfamiliar situations head-on. In London, I spent quite a bit of time wandering around alone, and that was fine. I can blend into a crowd quite well (flaming red hair notwithstanding, people are more brightly-colored in large metropolises, I've found) but sidling up to a bar or sitting down at a table and distinguishing myself from the hordes was another story. I think I went to a cafe (not even a sit-down restaurant. Never a sit down restaurant. Nope, wouldn't have gone well) a grand total of five or six times by myself, and the experience was stressful enough that the accompanying caffeine was totally unnecessary. I think it's a part of a person's personality they don't really "grow out of," and maybe that's an opportunity? Maybe instead of growing out of it, we're supposed to grow into working through it instead.
May. 2nd, 2011 11:00 pm (UTC)
Around campus, I don't hesitate to say "hello" to anyone and everyone I pass by. If I do that outside the bubble, though, people look at me as if they think I'm daft.
May. 2nd, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC)
Maybe that's the way: confront it head on, deal with it even though it's scary. Now, if I only could work up the nerve.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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