Originally posted March 10, 2002.
Birthdays for the Clinically Insane
Try to follow along: My wife’s stepmother’s stepfather had his 62nd birthday party today, which we attended. It was a pretty interesting event, mostly because Nikki’s dad has a pretty small house and there were a lot of people there. I’m not even going to try to go over the roll call. Trust me, there were more people there than most of us felt comfortable with. The catch phrase of the afternoon was “Oops. Can I get by you?
The truth is, I feel out of place at most family gatherings… including those for my own family. I am convinced this is a problem with me, and not gatherings or anyone’s family. But I felt a little more out of place because I knew that even Nikki wasn’t terribly familiar with this side of the family. Of course, they were all perfectly nice, but there’s just something odd about spending an afternoon with people whom you could easily go your whole life never even being aware that you had a distant familial connection with and be no better or worse off for.
A good example is Denny (Nikki’s stepmother’s stepfather, the one with the birthday, remember?) has a couple of sons who were there. Both of them were extremely nice, and the oldest had his wife with him. This is a woman that if I met under different circumstances (which isn’t actually completely unlikely, she’s a database architect in The City, which means I could bump in to her later in my career) I would have no idea whatsoever had any kind of distant relation to, through step-families and several layers of marriage. It’s people like this who are precisely strangers to me and yet I spend time with while people only slightly more closely related to me offer helpful “ice-breaker” commentary like “Paul’s a big computer guy, too!”
I know people have good intentions and in fact I appreciate the effort. It’s just a part of married life I haven’t gotten used to… It’s a feeling I can best describe as if everyone were trying to force me into their families with a giant human-sized shoehorn. It’s not that I don’t want to fit in, I just feel like saying, “Look, I’m an outsider, and everyone here knows it. I’m okay with that, and you should be too. Can’t we all just start shoving food in our faces to break the uncomfortable silences like real families do?” But somehow I feel like I might get kicked by my wife under the table for saying that right out loud. Instead I just hope everyone follows my lead.
Re-Arranging Furniture at 11:00 PM
The Computer Room, as my wife and I call it, was a disaster zone. This is where I spend the majority of my time and it was completely uncomfortable.
I have a nice computer desk with an overhead bookshelf, sliding file drawer, built-in tower hutch and CD rack. But I also have four computers, not counting Nikki’s. When it was just the Linux box and the Windows box plus the laptop and webserver, it wasn’t so bad. The laptop fits away nicely in a corner and the webserver wasn’t ever really suitable for everyday use anyway. Plus I didn’t need a monitor to work with it, I just ssh to it and administer it remotely. Finally I moved the webserver to ColoQ and was down to three, which was fine. Then I got the Mac, and for the first night I had it on a very low shelf that used to be our entertainment unit, but has since been used as a fax machine stand.
The fax machine got the floor but there was absolutely no comfortable way to use the Mac while sitting in a chair designed for adult human beings. But, I wasn’t going to complain. I had, after all, brought this on myself by accepting the offer to take the G3 and I didn’t want to suffer my wife with tales of woe about the computer room when it was 90% devoted to my junk anyway. Then she made the mistake of complaining about the set up.
She sat directly to my left, with her computer, a printer and scanner set up on a monstrous cast-iron desk I inherited from my parents when they moved. The desk is so old that it’s been dropped down a flight of stairs without any discernible damage, and it actually weighs more with the drawers removed. It is a huge pain to move, but it holds a load of equipment comfortably so I keep it around. But Nikki isn’t a fan of it because it’s too high for her 5’3″ frame to sit and type at comfortably and she got tired of me reading over her shoulder, which was easy since I could just turn my head and see what she was doing.
So a trip to Wal-Mart later we had a new some-assembly-required desk for her and a vague plan to rearrange the whole room. Unfortunately we started the project at about 9:00 PM so it was well into the night while I was banging with hammers and snapping measuring tape. Plus the grunting and dropping of computer equipment, yelling and slamming after getting shocked from the power outlet trying to plug in the 20 or 30 cords in the room and of course, the near-constant exasperated shouts at the cat, who was intent on exploring the insides of the cardboard box the desk came in.
I would have worried about our neighbors, but these are the people who I swear have built a Jai-Alai court directly above my side of the bed. At any rate we ended up with it so that the Mac is now on the cast-iron behemoth, along with the fax machine and the laptop. Nikki is now behind me when I’m working on the regular computer desk, so I can’t peer over her shoulder anymore without significant effort, which if history is any indication means I won’t be peering over her shoulder at all. She seems much happier.
Ah, social awkwardness. I spent a lot of my least socially awkward times—and I’m referring to times when I didn’t personally feel awkward, mind you—in high school. The distinction between then and now is that I was awkward and spent a lot of that time saying and doing incredibly stupid things, things which my brain loves to recall now every time I encounter some new person or some new collection of people, but at the time I was oblivious. With the mixed blessing of enlightenment at how dumb I can sound and act, I now paralyze myself into a minimal interaction mode which is, in itself, stupid and awkward. I often come across as aloof, sour, boring or irritable. I actually am all of those things, but I’m so afraid that people will judge me as being over-earnest, saccharine, insufferable or annoying (which I am as well, only I inflict those particular traits on the select few I’ve decided to be comfortable with), I go too far.
About a year ago I wrote this entry in response to a series of encounters at a funeral. What I was trying to say then was that, remembering a man who was outgoing and friendly, who took the time to care about other people, I realized that my issues in social situations were products of my own devise (way to make it about you, man!—I know, I know). I don’t think I care what people judge me to be, except that I judge myself first which is the same, at least in essence. I don’t want to be an annoying guy, telling myself, “I hate annoying guys who don’t have any interesting stories to tell!” Then I realize I don’t have any interesting stories to tell so I decide I won’t even tell an un-interesting one and in fact I won’t say anything at all. I’ve lost friends because I second-guess myself into knots like this and let distances grow where, perhaps, they didn’t need to. I wanted to say last year that I decided to just get over myself, to stop worrying about it so much. Turns out, it’s not as easy as all that. But I’m trying.With patience and help from Nik, who is everything in social situations that I wish I could be, I’m making an effort.
What I get from the entry back in 2002 is that I spend too much time over-thinking the nature of interactions. Does it matter in the least that I’m in a room with a perfect stranger under the auspice of a family gathering? Of course not. When people try to assist in breaking the ice with comments about shared professional work, that’s a gift they’re trying to give me. “Here,” they’re saying, “you really suck at this, so let me get the ball rolling for you. Maybe you’ll actually make a friend.” Instead of being grateful I go on a tirade about how weird it is to be talking to the person in the first place. And, of course, not making a friend.
Oh, and for the record, we don’t have any of those three desks I talked about anymore. In fact, the notion of a desktop computer for anything other than gaming or specific professional applications seems a little quaint to me now. Ah, progress.