Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How not to make friends and influence people


This is not how you make new friends. Watch me and learn. I am the living proof of the truism that if one can't be a model of good behavior, one can at least serve as a warning to others, much as I would make an example of the rodents that want to eat my tomatoes and lettuce by jamming their little heads on pikes that would surround my garden.

Only there is no decapitation involved in this situation.

I go to the Y a few mornings a week. I have made my Y friends, but everyone can use more friends, right? Nice ladies here but I am still in search of the Milwaukee equivalents of Leigh, Lindley, Claire and Megan, my Memphis friends with whom I could happily spend hours just goofing off, although I suppose that even if I were still living near them, such halcyon afternoons might not be an option as they all have 1. jobs and 2. children, both of which are the biggest inhibitors to adult friendship known to woman.

So there are the Y friends I talk to and the Y women I know by sight, enough that after three years, we greet each other with a friendly nod and a smile, that is, once I am close enough to see them for of course I do not wear my glasses to aerobics or yoga or weights class. I do not need to see myself reflected in the giant mirror in front of the class. I know full well the impact of age, sun, and too many donut holes on my skin and buttocks.

We smile. We roll our eyes at the instructor running around adjusting everyone's step. Well, I roll my eyes. I can't see anyone else's eyes to judge, but really, who doesn't get a little impatient with the overly enthusiastic teacher trotting around ordering people to move their towels and to adjust the risers? Where is her bossiness when the class is really crowded and people won't move their steps just 8 inches to the side so another student can fit? Not a word then.

After three years, I know enough of my fellow students by sight that I can even recognize them out of context. You know that's not always so easy. On my flight to Dallas a few weeks ago, I glanced at the man sitting in front of me. He looked very familiar but I couldn't place him. I had to review every place I had been in the previous week before it hit me. He wasn't the manager at Sendik's. He wasn't the bartender at the restaurant. He wasn't the usher at church. He was the tennis teacher I had at my first class of the season.

(A class that I should note left me so sore that my ankles hurt and that reaffirmed my belief that there is no such thing as cross training, as one can do aerobics, weights and yoga and run up to seven miles and shovel snow but one will still be brought to one's Ben-Gay'd knees upon spending 90 minutes with a physical activity one has not done for seven months. And then if one goes two weeks before the next class because of rain cancellations, one will be just as sore following Class #2 as one was following Class #1. Which seems rather unjust. But I am not in charge of these things. Obviously.)

I was lucky that I had time to think of what to say to Tennis Teacher. At the end of the flight, after I had had over an hour to think about it, when we stood to get our luggage and deplane, I asked, "Aren't you Coach Bob?"

He answered that indeed he was and he and his wife and I had a lovely short chat about tennis and traveling and the horrible weather in Milwaukee, although I have to say that at least up north, the women do not get that leathery spotted skin on their necks and chests as some of the women I saw in DFW. Not because they wouldn't want to, but there just aren't enough days in Wisconsin where that flesh can be exposed without risking frostbite. So there's an advantage to winter: you don't get over-tan.

Anyhow, I didn't say anything stupid to Coach Bob and I was relieved because saying something stupid is often my MO.

This weekend, SH and I went to a play. As we were standing in line to pick up our tickets, I recognized the woman in front of us. She turned and saw me. One would hope I look a little better cleaned up and out in public than I do at the Y, like to the point I would be unrecognizable, but she did furrow her brow a tiny little bit.

"Hi!" I said to her.

"Don't I recognize you from someplace?" she asked.

"From the gym. Omigosh I KNEW you were French!" I blurted out. "Or Canadian!"

I had to add that "Canadian" bit hastily because I didn't want to insult her. English-speaking Canadians get insulted when you meet them abroad and ask if they are American, so when I was traveling in South America, my default question upon hearing a North American English voice was to ask if the speaker was Canadian. Americans don't care if you think they might be Canadian, but Canadians get a little touchy about the issue. I didn't know if French Canadians don't want to be mistaken for French or not, but I didn't want to take any chances.

If she had been speaking French, I might have recognized that Quebecois accent. Or not. It's been a while. My friend Steve was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad, where he spoke French. After he was done with the Peace Corps, he and another volunteer went to Paris. They were in a bakery, speaking French to each other, and confusing the heck out of the clerk, who kept looking for the Africans. My French is probably not refined enough to distinguish among all the variations, but Quebec French? Pretty distinctive.

So I blurt out to her that I KNEW she was French because 1. the filter between my brain and my mouth is broken and 2. she has a French face. Or a Canadian one. She looks a little bit Celine Dion-ish, with a very French profile.

You say But CF, how can you tell what ethnic background someone is just from looking? and I say, If you ever go to Europe, it's pretty clear who the Swedes (tall, big, pink) are versus the Greeks (shorter, dark curly hair, olive skin), especially when they are standing right next to each other. Somalis look different from west Africans. Berbers look different from other Moroccans. We Americans might be a mix of everything in a bucket, but in Europe? Not so much.

She looked startled. Did not confirm or deny my assessment, but I know a French accent when I hear one.

The logical next step or the logical instead step would have been for me to have said, "Yes we are in the step aerobics class together. How are you?"

That opening would have led to a nice while we wait in this interminable line conversation, but when you announce someone's ethnic/language background to her, the conversation shuts down very quickly.

As happened with this conversation. She gave me a polite smile. I went on to my next brilliant observation. "Your hair. It's usually up in a ponytail."

She nodded, wondering how much more I was going to say about her 1. voice and/or 2. hairstyle. Would I comment on her outfit? Her body? Who knew what delights awaited?

She explained, in her charming accent - who doesn't love a French accent?- that she has to put her hair up in class or else the enormous fans in the corners of the room blow it in her face.

And that was our conversation. Finis. She got her tickets and turned away without another word, probably thinking, "Whew! Glad that's over!" or more probably, "Zuts alors!"

I didn't even get a chance to redeem myself with a better thought out question today, like, "What did you think of the play?" or "Could you hear the old lady sitting next to me who should have known better smacking her chewing gum all of act one?" because she wasn't in class this morning. I want a do over so she can see that I am not an overly-personal weirdo.

1 comment:

sharon said...

Oh my! You've made me laugh again today as I am reminded of somethng similar that happened in Hawaii while our foursome scoured the local market for flip-flops. How do you go on a beach holiday and forget flip-flops, but remember the divine pair of stilletto evening sandals that you can only wear for an hour before your feet scream?
I digress.
An elderly Asian woman approached and asked if we were Canadian. "Why do think that?", we countered. "Because you are the tallest and the whitest people I've ever seen!"