A cock’s tale

November 27, 2005 at 9:22 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on A cock’s tale

I was invited to a cocktail party on Friday night, and readily accepted the invitation (because I like the hosts and their invitation featured a picture of Nick and Nora Charles), despite the two facts that 1) I don’t own a cocktail dress and 2) I don’t like martinis, whether Manhattans, Gibsons, or whatever else a concoction of gin and/or vermouth and/or vodka might be called. In that regard, I’m a quantity-over-quality girl: after years of serious study, I feel that copious quantities of wine result in fewer hangovers than equal amounts (litre-to-litre) of high-octane cocktails, and being of a sensitive nature (yet generally thirsty), I’m all for fewer hangovers and more wine. Decked out in my ankle-length velvet gown (definitely not a cocktail dress) and with Kir Royale in hand, Yours Truly was ready for something less lethal than a party at the Thin Man’s…

I hadn’t counted on the guests…

The party was studded with mathematicians from the local university, and in the majority (despite the fact that said university department has a number of female professors), they were male while their partners were female. Suddenly, I was faced with a double whammy: at first glance, I had little to talk about with the male mathematicians, while the faculty wives regarded me as a weirdo who, hovering between retirement (not quite) and nubility (not quite any longer), didn’t entirely fit any easy ideas about what a woman of my age should be doing. So, my responses to their question, “and what do you do?”, seemed to lack the satisfying mouthfeel that allows conversationalists to digest the proffered answers… I was left to feel like a bit of gristle or otherwise unmentionable indigestible, discreetly coughed up into a hankie, surreptitiously placed on a plate of cast-offs. When I confessed to two of them that I homeschool, I could feel the guillotine blade descending on my lovely and terribly exposed neck. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “Why did you say a stupid thing like that? You could see from across the room that this would be the kiss of death? Why? Why? Why did you tell them this?”

One’s mind goes into overdrive, and gets all silly in the process — there’s nothing like a gaggle of ladies in real cocktail dresses, holding real cocktails (why the hell can they hold their liquor like that?) — to make one lose all sense of self-esteem. It’s like being across the table from your mom, or barring that, your old highschool friend’s mom. Your brain starts spouting gibberish, like this: Well, dear ladies, let me explain in a way that will make your mathematician husbands seem like club-scene castrati or armchair marxists: homeschooling is all about the system — subverting it, standing up against what’s wrong with the system. (At this point, one builds an almost insane head of steam, like so:) Yeah, yeah, it’s all about freedom, and freedom of speech, and free thinking, and not being a cog in the machine, not being a f*cking brick in the wall, man, yeah, and besides, did I tell you I have a PhD from Harvard? Yeah? Yeah! It’s true! So there!

Well, it wasn’t that bad, entirely. Low self-esteem forbids me from brandishing my academic credentials in real life (let me brandish them here: they are impressive, take my word for it). But it did underscore for me that I’m in danger of running off the rails, as far as conventional sociability goes. It was a relief to overhear one person talk about their disastrous personal life, because finally I felt that something I could relate to was up for discussion. Give me a serious, a real problem to discuss, and chances are that I can leap in, like a surgeon’s knife (one hopes with a surgeon’s hand to guide it, hold the martinis). But put me in a chit-chat situation, with the usual “and what do you do”-type questions, and I feel transported back to toddlerhood. Quite embarassing, nearly pathetic.

I had a longer conversation with one of the two people present who I knew — a writer who seems intent on assuming that I’m in the middle of a book. We’ve met like ships in the night several times, and each time her question to me is about the book she thinks I’m writing, despite the fact that I bow and scrape and say I’m not writing a book at all. She has me so unnerved that I’m afraid to probe whether she thinks it’s a book I’m writing, or a book she’s reading (ok, ok, I know it’s the former), and therefore I’m always afraid to shout at her to say, “Nononono!, I’m not writing a book at all. I’m a boring nobody who is doing boring nothing at all!”, because (A) she seems so ethereal and unworldly, I would hate to disturb any book she is reading, and (B) it seems so validating to have her think that I’m writing a book, which makes it seem like she might be my personal Sibyl who knows something about the me I might be if I were the me that I could be (i.e., …writing a book), even though I am very careful to state (and I say the words slowly and clearly) that I am not writing a book at this time. I finally did get through to her that I’m not writing a book (although, yes, of course I’d like to be writing a book). In the process we actually talked about what I am terribly, terribly good at (namely research and synthesis) and she told me in no uncertain terms that I should get off my ass to market those skills. But it’s really difficult to get paid for one’s ass, if, that is, one is one of those people who don’t own a cocktail dress, don’t drink martinis, and do feel like bolting to the door when the question, “and what do you do?” is casually floated across the Sobranie-scented air…

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