Some people collect coins, some prowl the Internet for vintage guitars; I know a woman with a closet full of antique Kewpie-doll heads. I'm not totally clear what turned her against everything from the neck down—she may have been frightened by a Barbie breast as a child. But I'm nobody to judge, because I, too, am a collector. What I collect are slights, digs, withering remarks, and the occasional mean-girl glare. I examine a good when-are-you-due story from every angle, I trade them with friends, I commit them to memory, I savor them for eternity.
Here are a few of my favorite insults:
My old friend Suzanna remembers the first time she had her Hungarian husband's family over. She cooked for three straight days. The woman goulashed and paprikashed and put her tomato sauce through a food mill, for God's sake. At the end of the meal, her new mother-in-law took Suzie's hands in hers, looked her straight in the eye, and said: "I'm so glad you feel you can practice on us." Ouch.
My former roommate Laurie came home with an A+ on her test and proudly handed the paper to her father. "Interesting," he said. "I always thought you had to be really smart to get this kind of grade." Kaboom.
My pal Faye tells the story of spending an entire evening with a guy she met when they both reached for the same stuffed zucchini blossom at a fancy fundraiser. He suggested they get together the very next day for a picnic in Central Park, and she was delighted to take charge of the fried chicken and potato salad. The next day she waited and waited. Two hours, one drumstick, half a pound of red bliss potatoes, and five weeks of dieting down the drain later, Faye picked up the phone: "What happened?" His reply: "Well, I honked...but you didn't come out." Yikes.
I bring Jules to the pediatrician for her annual checkup. "Would you say she's unusually tall?" I ask, hoping that she'll someday be able to reach all the stuff her 5'2" mother cannot. "No, she's average," he replies, quick and to the point. "Are you sure?" I persist. "My friends all tell me that she's really quite tall." The good doctor peers down his bifocals. "Maybe your friends don't want to tell you that she's really quite average." Touché.
Forget about kids; grown-ups say the darnedest things. Sometimes they mean well, sometimes they mean to lacerate, sometimes they're just clueless. The challenge (at least for me) is not to take any of it personally...even when it's meant personally. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, unless of course I decide to let them.
But it's a brand new year, and I've resolved to make a few changes. I don't want to lock and load when a nasty comment comes my way, but I also refuse to duck and cover. Instead, I am going to answer clumsiness with equanimity, bitchiness with compassion, and verbal violence with disengagement.
I think it's a damn good plan—wise, tolerant, even kind of Zen. If I play my cards right, I could be crowned Miss Mental Health 2009! There's just one teeny, tiny problem: I honestly believe Metallica's next-door neighbor stands a better chance of getting a good night's sleep without ear plugs and an Ambien than I stand of actually getting this plan to work. But that certainly doesn't mean it's not worth a try.
So I will seek, to paraphrase Saint Francis of Assisi, not to be understood but to understand. I will send my collection of slights to Sotheby's and have them auction it off to the highest bidder, one dig at a time, and if none of my attempts at happiness and harmony pays off, well then, I'm heading for halvah at Russ & Daughters.
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