Four times I was awkward this week
The enigma of Other People, plus how not to respond to a compliment — and a reminder to always keep your phone charged at the Playhouse.
The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that this is a new sub-section of Life Litter called Awkward Encounters.
I’ve been racking my brains trying to work out what theme(s) unite my posts here because everybody likes a theme, a structure, a story.
What I have landed on is that most of my posts seem to be about me being awkward, in various interactions with other people.
So many of them. It’s quite humbling, really.
Why are my encounters so awkward? I’m not really sure.
I’ve been told my resting bitch face would curdle milk. I learned it from the b****es at the all girls school in Dublin I went to between the ages 12-15. One of them poked me with a pencil so hard through my school shirt that there is still a lump of graphite visible in my arm twenty five years on. I never really trusted girls after that and I didn’t understand boys. I certainly didn’t know how to talk to either of them.
I marvel at people who engage effortlessly with others. For me, it is a conscious and exhausting effort.
They say it takes ten thousand hours of study or practice to become expert at something.
I have spent many, many times that trying to work out how to blend seamlessly into social interactions. I applied myself to it, as others apply themselves to learning a new craft or skill, and still I lack the unpractised ease of people around me. Through trial and (much) error, I have achieved passable decency.
But trust me, there is still a vast amount of room for more error.
Just yesterday we went to Joel’s family for Sunday lunch. Joel’s sister hugged me and said my hair looked nice. I responded fast and in one breath “thanks it’s a bit hard and crunchy”.
Because, reader, I am super fucking awkward.
I can’t just accept a kind compliment from a well-meaning person without vocalising all the things I am thinking that they are definitely not thinking.
That is part of the reason why so many posts are about me being awkward, in many different situations and with many different people. And it’s why I’m dubbing this bit of Life Litter “Awkward Encounters”. The aim is that it will carry with it news of my Awkward Encounter of the Week (or several, when there are just too many to choose from). You can find them all on the dedicated Awkward Encounters section of my page.
As a (somewhat related) aside, I’m reading a book by Ruth Ozeki at the moment and, in it, there’s a brilliant passage about needing other people to make sense of the world, not living in a barren human desert.
“It was only in an urban landscape, amid straight lines and architecture, that she could situate herself in human time and history. She missed people. She missed human intrigue, drama, power struggles. She needed her own species, not to talk to, necessarily, but just to be among as a bystander in a crowd or an anonymous witness.”
See? I need the Awkward Encounters (even though they are often so very awkward). They are just how I make sense of the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Non-human nature writing can be great and there is some excellent stuff out there. Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin. But (for me) the best bits in their books always have the human element. Robert Macfarlane’s nearly getting lost on the Broomway. His recounting the ancient custom of gannet slaughter on frozen beshitted Sula Sgeir off Scotland. Roger Deakin going off to hang out with biologists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in search of the ancestor of the malus domestica or ancient wild walnut groves.
Pretty much the only pure nature writing I can think of that I’ve really enjoyed is Nan Shepherd. She writes about the mountain, the water, the rocks (a chapter on each, no less). But again it’s the human experience of it that are the bits I most remember; the feeling of jumping in cold water, resting a cheek on moss. When I post updates about my garden on Insta, I mostly lose followers. When I post about my kitchen cabinets, people pull up chairs in droves.
And Richard Powers wrote a whole 600-page novel about how, fundamentally, we want to read stories about ourselves, not about trees.
Nobody cares what you wrote unless you wrote about them.
Or unless what you wrote about is relevant to them, even obliquely as a member of the same species.
So, without further ado, here is the inaugural instalment of Awkward Encounters.
This week there were almost too many to choose from so I shall instead recount the story of me going to see a new play in Oxford from Complicite theatre called Drive your plow over the bones of the dead.
The first half was a good solid long hour and I was gagging for a beverage at the intermission. My mate went off to the loo and I queued up to pay for my tea.
As I was queueing, I spotted the woman who follows me on Insta (who I follow back) and who (I think?) works for the production company that produces this play. Her Insta is how I heard about it and thought, ooh Oxford, that’s near me, I’ll go. And bring a friend, which I duly did.
I said hi as she was walking past and she said hey! In that slightly panicked way British people have when you address them unexpectedly and they don’t immediately know who you are. Then she twigged and we did a very awkward 45 second dance of how we don’t really know each other except on Insta and how she originally followed me on Insta because I used to live near her in London. But now I don’t.
Then the man behind the till, who had thinning blue hair and a large thick non-blue beard, asked me to pay for my tea and I remembered that my phone was dead.
Insta-pal immediately seized the opportunity to vanish, liberating us both from the awkwardest of encounters, as I tried to explain to non-blue beard that I’ll have to wait for my mate to reappear from the loos so she can tap for me.
He looked at me like I suggested he wait while I take a dump on the counter instead. I went to the end of the bar and hovered there, too afraid to even remove my teabag from the ill-gotten tea.
A much older woman came up. She was coddling her teabag around in a rich and unashamed way that suggested she had already paid for it.
“Are you enjoying it?” She was direct. Very un-British.
“It’s ok.” Diplomatically and discreetly non-American and noncommittal in my response. “You?”
Taken aback. This is unusually forthright for a British person. “Oh right. Why?”
“Well.” Spoken as an exhalation, an entire sentence, and a condemnation. “It’s just the same thing Complicite has done a million times before. It’s been done to death. Nothing new.”
I pointed out that it’s probably new to all the Gen Z-ers in our midst. I also admitted that, while I didn’t really like it either, if her biggest complaint is that it’s just like the ones that have gone before, I probably wouldn’t have liked those either. And I certainly wouldn’t have come to yet another one.
She moved swiftly away.
I was still standing there waiting for my mate to reappear and non-blue beard eventually took pity on me.
“Are you still brewing that? Take out the tea bag and just drink it, for heaven’s sake!”
I panicked and grabbed the tea bag and burnt my fingers a little bit and also got tea everywhere and started drinking it.
He regaled me with a tale of dropping his phone in Liverpool Street on the way to catch a flight to Morocco. All his flight details and cards and everything were on his smashed phone.
I feigned horror, as I knew I was supposed to. “So what did you do?”
“Well, I had printed out hard copies of my tickets and I had all my cards in my wallet too. So I was fine.”
I took his point and made no response.
He moved down the bar to attend to paying customers.
Chastened, I drank my tea alone, pondering with some awe my unflagging awkwardness until Helen returned at length from the toilet queue to rescue me.
And thus did yet another chronicle of my awkwardness write itself — and Awkward Encounters was born.
🙇🏻♀️🤦🏻♀️ (Because, hair gel).
This is true — and somewhat depressing.