Monday, August 11, 2008

So That's Why This Blog Is Called That . . .

When I was in fifth grade, our teacher brought in an elaborately carved ivory ball, which had another elaborately carved ball inside of it, and that one had one inside of it, and so on. I was entranced; even at that age, I loved the intricacy of such designs. And I was fascinated by the idea: the carver would start with the exterior carving, and use the holes that design created to start carving away the connections between that ball and the one inside it. I can almost imagine the feeling he'd get when the last bridge between the outer ball and the next one in was severed and the inner ball could move freely.

Of course, you can never see all of the design work; it's just too hard to rotate the inner balls around enough to work out what they must look like if they didn't have the outer ball(s) obscuring them. This sense of the design being there but unseen seems utterly lovely and rather sad, all at the same time.

I've always wanted one of those balls. Of course, these days one can't in all conscience buy anything new that was made out of ivory, but buying something antique seems less objectionable. And, as fate should have it, my friend Dianne has a small booth with antiques in her hometown of Jacksonville, Illinois. When Hub 1.0 and I visited her some years ago, she happened to have one of these balls. I was thrilled to buy it.

Every once in a while, my life seems complicated like one of these Chinese curiosities. No matter which way I turn it, I see something else, but I can never see all of the concentric problems. This happened to me recently. I wrote something on the quilt-related message board I'd been happily participating in, and it rather came back to bite me on the butt. But what I wrote, what it means, how others perceived it, and why I did it, is all very elaborate. I'll try to explain.

Here's the surface story: Someone on the message board posted a comment about "six degrees of separation," which she interpreted as those weird coincidences, e.g., where you strike up a conversation with a total stranger, and it turns out that she used to live in your aunt's house or dated your husband's best friend two decades ago. This was a fun thread, and several people shared their experiences with such coincidences. (My original story was this: When I was in grad school, I got an internship that included an overnight stint shadowing the psych resident at an Albany, NY hospital. When he heard my last name, he asked if I was related to . . . and named my brother. They'd gone to college in Rochester, NY a decade earlier. I also contributed a couple more posts in the freaky coincidence thread in the following days.)

But a lot of people know the "six degrees of separation" game as dealing with celebrities, and those sorts of posts started to get mixed in with the "and then that's when I realized her aunt had been my second grade teacher" sort. Because some members of this message board had discovered an interest in aeronautics, someone posted something about the famous names they had connections with in aeronautics. Which prompted me to post a list of the famous people that someone in my family has a connection to (has met, worked with, etc.).

Now, before you cry out, "Oh, no you dint!" I hasten to explain that I credited the family's "Zelig" gene (referring to the way Woody Allen's character ends up alongside a bunch of historical figures), stated that I'd only met a couple of these people (and I didn't specify which ones) and tried to be tongue-in-cheek about it ("That, and $4.50 will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks..." was how I closed the post), but yeah, a list of famous names is still a list of famous names. What I thought was interesting was the list itself. Mahatma Gandhi, Susan Lucci, J. Edgar Hoover, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, F. Murrary Abraham, Walt Disney, Isaac Asimov, Yo-Yo Ma, Bronson Pinchot, B.F. Skinner, and Mischa Barton (late of the O.C. TV show on Fox). It's a wacky list.

You can easily guess how this was received by a couple people. The woman who started the "six degrees of separation" post chastized me for missing the point of the weird coincidences thread, and someone else remarked mildly that this smacked of name-dropping. I would disagree with the former criticism, but I cannot deny the latter.

I do know it's a social solecism to be boastful and self-important, and if I'd felt I'd done that, I'd apologize and we'd all move on. But I don't think I'm special because my father met Walt Disney in 1964, or because my mother worked with Eunice Kennedy in 1945 (she used to leave her chewing gum on the telephone -- eww); that would be absurd. What I think is fascinating is that there is not a single famous person in my family (you have to go all the way to my first cousin twice removed to get to the guy who wrote "I, Claudius" . . . and I never met him!) but we all have this weird knack of meeting famous people. What is that about?

One thing it is -- it's narrow end. Humans tend to form tribes, and one tribe comprises celebrities. Brad Pitt dates and marries other celebrities, not Tammy Jo at the local Mickey D's. So if you have a Venn diagram with Famous People in one circle and Non-Famous People in another, they don't overlap. Even if Brad does marry Tammy Jo, she becomes famous, so it's not a problem Venn diagram-wise (whether it's a problem in other respects is debatable). One way non-famous people meet famous people is when the non-famous person does something noteworthy, like be a contestant on Project Runway. But that's not most of us, and it's not anyone in my family.

I clearly belong to the Non-Famous Tribe. But I also belong to a tiny subset of N-Fers that meet famous people without trying to. And because being narrow end is important to me (frankly, in a lot of ways that don't seem to apply to anyone else in my family -- so even within the tiny tribe of N-Fers Who Meet Famous People, I'm the lone wolf thinking about this stuff), I can ruffle through the index cards with the stories of who met whom when and create a list. Which strikes some people as self-aggrandizing.

I was upset when I read the comments on the message board, and I quickly turned it off and haven't gone back. Which brings me to the next concentric ball inside the last one. Why was I upset? Hurt that my new friends didn't "get" what I was about? Hurt that they would think I'm that shallow? I'd be pretty stupid if I thought that way -- theirs is the mainstream thinking on this subject. It is rude to say, "Oh, and then there's so-and-so, and then whassisface, and don't forget whassername!" I thought the context took some of that rudeness away, but I clearly got the calculation wrong.

What hurt was that I'd wanted to share the fact that I have the Zelig gene. I suspect I'm always looking for the time and place where it's safe to say, "Hey, here's this narrow end thing about me," and have people go, "Oh, okay," or better yet, "Hey, me too." Strangely, this had already happened on this particular message board. I'm a larger woman married to a Brit (for the second time, no less), and two other women fit that description (!); in another context, I'm a non-practicing lawyer with a connection to Kennewick, WA, and another woman is also a non-practicing lawyer who lives there now.

So I got a bit defensive, and stepped away from the computer before I wrote something too sharply worded, expressing my outrage that they should so completely misunderstand, etc., etc. And actually, I haven't missed it much. I love the people I've met, and would like to participate, but I'm always gun-shy around groups, and this experience hasn't reassured me. I'm not saying never, I'm just saying not right now.

Incidentally, I just finished reading Jennifer Weiner's book "Little Earthquakes." She wrote "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes," which was made into a movie starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. In the movie, Cameron Diaz reads aloud an e.e. cumming poem, "I carry your heart." I saw that movie on the plane coming home in May, 2006, and that poem really expressed the bond I felt with the Starman, who was still Just A Friend at that time. A Friend I happened to feel a really strong bond to, that's all. Anyway, I read that poem at our wedding, and didn't cry too much . . .

I've met Jennifer Weiner. I've been to her house (unless they've moved), and I've eaten quiche that she's made with her own hands. Mind you, she wouldn't recognize me if we bumped into each other at the South Philadelphia Curves, and I know that because we did and she didn't. That's fine. So after reading the book (which I really liked, btw), I checked out her blog, which was interesting because she had just completed a mini-triathalon, and while she's way smaller than me, she's not exactly svelte.

But here's the thing. I don't know Jennifer Weiner. She's not my friend; she wouldn't recognize my name; I can't call her and say Hey. So I think I'm pretty clued in on the difference between "meeting" somebody and knowing them. And even if I KNEW her, how would that reflect well on me? (I say all this, but when one of the Fugly girls wrote back to me in response to a clever and amusing email that I had spent a LOT of time composing, I was truly puffed up with my .4 seconds of [proximity to] [almost-] fame.)

Here, then, are the concentric balls as I see them: On the outside, I posted a message that suggested I was somehow special because my family has met a diverse group of famous people; some people were offended; I was hurt by their reaction. Inside that, we have the idea of belonging to, and not belonging to, various tribes. Did I violate some code by suggesting that I belong to a subset tribe, and was therefore special? Inside that: But I do feel acutely the separateness of being different from the tribe I ought to identify with. And finally, the littlest ball that I can see: I want someone to embrace, or at least accept, my narrow end nature. Maybe it didn't happen this time on the message board; maybe instead I've left people with a lingering nasty taste when they happen to think of me; but maybe someday someone will say, "Yup, I know what you're talking about."

I still have a lot of questions about all this, but I do know one thing: If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't write that particular post. At the same time, I'm glad I did. It's gotten me thinking about this topic in sharper focus than I normally do. It's a trust issue: Who can I trust with the most personal truths about me? The Zelig gene thing isn't very important, but it is narrow-end. Almost certainly I goofed in how I presented it, but that's a useful lesson in itself.

Oh, and one last thing: My ivory curiosity came with a base:

She looks like she knows how to keep her cool. She doesn't exactly look computer-savvy, let alone ready to master a message board. But she looks like she knows who she is, what she wants, and how to live with her choices.

I'll endeavor to learn from her the way I've learned from the ball on her head!

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