Life is nothing more than a series of social snap judgments. We start making them as children and gently refine them through the rest of our lives. As much as we would like to attribute a crisp and refreshing rationale to them, they remain as fickle as a snowflake judging contest. In this vein, the gentle readers of this column have no doubt formed opinions on the author; whether he is savory, or more likely an uncouth and smelly dirtbag. Regardless of such well founded skepticism about my character, I will reveal a not-so-shocking tidbit about myself this week. To attain what limited charm I have now, I was forced to attend etiquette school as a young man.
This decision was made for me by my mother, who rightly sensed that I was quickly becoming quite abhorrent as I aged, much like fine cheese. It also is possible that I was abhorrent to her because I was deliberately trying to be abominable. I was placed in an etiquette school run by an expatriate dowager from England who loved to tell me my many levels of badness. She and my mother got along famously. To her gang of female prize students, she was a messiah who would lead them to the promised land where forks were never misplaced, burping and farting occurred in private dark rooms or not at all, linens were always sharply pressed, and all men were charming movie stars. To me, she was my Virgil with an upper crust accent, leading me through the many layers of etiquette hell and purgatory. Eventually, I managed to escape the cloying vices of banality enough to graduate and escape her watchful eye.
Such fabulousness would appear to be useless to me in the dorm in Boulder several weeks after my great vehicular escape. I was rooming with a fifth year senior, who had told me proudly that he was avoiding graduation intentionally. He also regarded snoring and drooling on the top bunk as high art. Across the hall from me were two other latent geniuses busy domesticating a squirrel whom they had named Bob with a jar of peanut butter. Since I didn’t need any witticisms other than grunting and the occasional shower among my peer group, I was saving all of my spirit for one of the two classes I was attending.
Luckily, my threadbare polished personality was winning me points in my second class. I liked to call the class ‘Spurious Sophistry for Sycophants’. but it was really just ‘Speech and Debate’. In theory, we were supposed to learn the distinction between ‘ad hoc’ and ‘circular’ arguments. What we did learn was the style of not-so-subtle persuasion in the genre of ‘I’m right/You’re wrong’. Daily debates soon bordered on dramatic performances, and weekly speeches took the form of blistering diatribes devoid of scholarship. In this environment, individual debate teams became fast friends, ready to lampoon and belittle any opponents.
Several weeks had gone by in gusts of hot air and afternoon thunderstorms, when I realized with my not-so-keen eye that I had an admirer in my group. It was fortunate she was in my group because the class was intensely polarized. If she had been in another faction, the whole room could have exploded in open conflict. She was a cute brunette with a penchant for undercutting the most frivolous argument with hard facts, which piqued my interest. Since I had dated about five people before her, she would always be known in my mind as No. 5 ½. It was difficult to ask her out, as I hadn’t developed a good repertoire of pick-up lines. This deficiency was a plus because pick-up lines apparently were frowned upon in upper crust circles.
Instead I settled for a formal, blunt request for a date after I had waited an acceptable amount of time by dithering about whether she really liked me or not. The only way the request could have been more proper was if I had written it out in sonnet form. As I had behaved as a perfect gentleman, she had no choice but to blushingly accept. The prearranged day, Friday, rolled around like a flash of lightning. Suddenly, I was on the date with No. 5 ½ at dinner, trying to be spectacularly dashing. It was fantastically awkward. I did remember not to heed any of the advice of the Squirrel feeders, and as a result, everything seemed to be going well.
Since I managed to escape dinner without breaking any social taboos, we headed to the movie theater. Even though I let her pick the movie, we ended up in some big summer blockbuster, full of car chases, explosions, and fist-fights. It was real romantic. Somewhere in between a convincing beat down and half of the world needing to be saved, I put my arm over her shoulders. Whack! Her flat palm ricocheted off my jaw much more effectively than any stunt. In shock, some drool tendrils almost escaped out of my gaping mouth.
“What was that for?!??!?!” I whispered unnecessarily. Everyone in front of us, behind us, and in our row was now watching us, recognizing that we were much better entertainment than the movie.
“I’m not that kind of girl.” She said indignantly, her facing blazing scarlet and well lit from the on-screen pyrotechnics. “I can’t believe I went out with you.” With that, she stomped towards the aisle.
“Hey – wait…” I managed in the appalled fake silence.
“And you can forget about a second date!” She shot at me. “And don’t even think about apologizing, because you’re just like all other men – you have your mind on one thing only!” And with that, No. 5 ½ was gone with a toss of her hair, leaving me to field the disparaging stares from the audience.
“Hey man – what did you do?” The guy next to me asked.
“Nothing…really…I mean, all…” I managed to get out some words.
“Whatever, man. I’m trying to watch the movie here.” He said, blatantly lying.
I sunk down in my chair. I hadn’t done anything inappropriate that would make anyone but a Nun uncomfortable. In mortified silence, I tried to watch the movie. I hoped that the catastrophes that menaced the characters would enter my reality, so that I could escape the utter humiliation that had set in. It was a complete debacle. As the credits rolled, I slunk out under cover of darkness to end the disgraceful situation. My secret agent antics worked, and once free from the opinions of total strangers, I began to relax and laugh at the chain of disaster. Next date, I would just stick to a bouquet of flowers, opening doors, and a chaperoned waltz – or at least learn to duck or block any right hooks.