I don't know if there is something in the water they give you at large private universities like not-Yale, or something in the air, or some subliminal signal they implanted in my sesame street, but I have to say, I'm good at the shmooze. While generations past may have attempted to disregard social conventions and overturn Emily Post, my own peers and I seem to have decided that if there is a cocktail hour happening we are damn well going to be a part of it, and not only because we are resessionistas, but because talking with people twice our age about subjects beyond our comprehension is really what we do best. We as a generation when asked what we are rebelling against can calmly give answers like "racism" or "global warming" or "low rent vodka", rather then upsetting a small town and driving away on a motorcycle (do you know the mortality rating on those things? Incidentally, aren't these horsd'oeuvres fabulous?) Reading social cues and bantering about political situations is the way we roll. Or at least, I thought it was.
I recently was out to brunch with my brother,who is himself a champion level shmoozer, and we ran into an acquaintance of mine who is the sibling of my brother's friend in LA. Now, this young person is, with the exception of their west-coast origins, nearly identical to many of the people I know, private school educated, recently graduated from a high profile college, clearly intelligent, not a terrible dresser. But the thing is, well, the thing is, this kid just can't play the game.
Now, let's be clear here, I'm not saying that I myself don't have my share of awkward moments. I actually probably have more then my share of awkward moments. I could open an awkward moment store and sell some off and still really have enough left for the rest of my life, just to give you an image of my awkward moment reserves. But I at least can carry on a conversation without feeling like I need to phone a friend.
But perhaps I'm being harsh, here. Perhaps I've been deluding myself all these years in thinking that the people around me know what they are doing in public. Perhaps lots of us are struggling to make conversation as they wait in line at the grocery store or for more canapes at a party. Perhaps it's only the weather that is preventing humanity from leaving their homes naked each day because they can't be bothered to dress. And so, for those secret struggles out there, unable to discuss topics which they neither know nor care about at length with virtual strangers, I provide for you now a practical guide to shmoozing:
1. Gently mock yourself. It makes other people feel instantly superior, and therefore, at ease.
2. Once you find out where the other person is from, inquire about that location. For example: You're from Iowa? Wow, is it weird for you to be in a building over two stories and not made of corn husks?
3. When discussing someone else's job, it's wise not to react badly when you find out they do something you neither understand or respect, like hedgefunders or people who make handbags.
4. Talk about T.V. Everybody loves T.V.!
5. If they don't love T.V. just walk away. It's not you, it's them.
I have been told by many that the Fall after your graduation from college is the strangest period of time you may ever experience. The summer may pass you by in it's normal fashion, a blur of trips or internships or jobs or reruns, much the way it always has. We are conditioned from an early age to enjoy the summer, to see it as our vacation time, our respite from school and it's routines. However, as August moves forward I find myself in the period of time in which I usually start to look forward to the beginning of the school year, with it's Target runs and uncomfortable conversations with people whose names you barely remember. This year, though, I'm looking to the future, and I have to say, I'm drawing a blank.
As my friends begin to peel off and start their lives being busy and important in New York (Hi Shaughnessy and Michael), or political and high profile in Washington D.C. (Hi Jon and Elyse!) or snowed in in Chicago (Hi Becca!), or off to Teach for America or save the amazon or perfect their Chinese or Texan, I myself remain here in Struggledelphia, lost in limbo.
Look, it's not that I don't have a plan for the fall, I do, and it's a good one, but more on that later. The truth is that I really think whatever I do now, whatever anyone my age in my situation is doing now, is really a kind of limbo, no matter how well planned it is. It's going to take a while for anything to equal or to feel like the security and stability of an academic setting. And perhaps that is okay, at least for a while. Perhaps security isn't the thing that we should be looking for, but rather instability, not a constant but a variable.
Yesterday I saw the play "Never the Sinner", John Logan's chilling and terrifying look at the relationship, crimes, and trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb. As I watched this superbly performed piece, another fabulous offering from the Maucking Bird Theater Company, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. Leopold and Loeb were freshmen in college when they murdered young Robert Franks because, in their own words "they could". Now, I'm not saying that academia necessarily drives people to murder, though, of course, I've never taken multi-variable calculus. But I am saying that, unstable as it might be, I'll take limbo for a little while. A change might do us all some good.
History is scattered with what my middle school gym teacher might call "good efforts". As someone tragically born hand-eye coordination deficient my childhood gym classes were filled with falsely cheerful cries of "nice try, Leah" and "that'll heal with time, we promise!".
But while I wont be entering the Olympics any time soon, unless there's a category for struggle, in which case I'm taking home the gold, I usually can give more then a "good effort" when it comes to other activities, like, say, eating, or mocking, or watching tv. And I do indeed enjoy reading, in fact I'm not half bad at it, I rarely have to look up words, my comprehension makes me moderately amusing at cocktail parties, and I don't shy away from books whose length challenges the bible to a cage match. In fact, some perverse part of my mind attracts me to tomes of great length, maybe because I can use these novels both as reading materials and as small hand weights to tone on the go. The Iliad, Don Quiote, Crime and Punishment, I've slogged my way through several of the world's great books (of course, the term "world's great books" was coined by the older white gentlemen who wrote them, so let's not put too much stock in THAT) and I've enjoyed the process, to some extent. Lost in a world of windmills, ancient cities and names that end in -sky, I've wandered the halls of the western canon, chewed my way through the words of dead men like a bag of potato chips. So this summer when I decided that I should tackle Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina I was looking forward to the wide world of 19th Century Moscow. Lord, was I fool back then.
Look, don't get me wrong. Anna Karenina is a wonderful book, and I'm enjoying it, I really am. I just can't seem to make myself read it. I'm 500 pages in, I'm finally at the point where I can figure out who is who, no small feat considering that ALL THE NAMES ARE THE SAME, and I just can't seem to move forward. Instead of sitting down and reading this great novel, among other things I have done the following:
1. Re-watched the second season of Mad Men. 2. Read the last two Harry Potter books, the Rough Guide to Europe, Sputnik Sweetheart, several Terry Prachitt novels, a book of Chinese folktales, and countless magazines. 3. Considered changing my stance on Lost after seeing a photo of Matthew Lillard with his shirt off. 4. Scolded myself for my shallow, shallow mind. 5. Rented 10 apartments. 6. Memorized the contents of the Sephora website. 7. Spent some time with my good friend wine. 8. Attempted to create the perfect gazpacho. 9. Took a tour of historic Philadelphia. 10. Stared at the cover of Anna Karenina.
So clearly I'm in a weird holding pattern and I think I need a motivational coach or a trainer or something to get me through this. Do they have that sort of thing?
I know you've all been dying to hear from me this past week, and you feel stunned, betrayed, hurt and saddened that I haven't had a chance to write. Maybe you talked to some food about this. Maybe you went a little overboard with the prescription drug and vodka cocktail that I like to call "the junior high delight". But whatever your coping mechanism was, I apologize for putting you through that, and I assure you, I will try not to let it happen again. But Leah, darling struggle of our hearts, you cry, where WERE you? Well, my chickens, I was in the land that time forgot, the world of yesterday, the struggle behind the struggle. Yes, that's right. I went back to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Now, before you moan and groan and beg me to take that silver spoon out of my mouth before it CHOKES me, let me remind you of a few key facts. One, it is now August, so Puerto Rico is face the approximate temperatures usually seen on, say, the surface of Jupiter, or a particularly warm moment in Hell. Two, this event may well have been titled: Puerto Rican Highways have I known, because we spent at least two full days marveling at the complete lack of logic that went into Puerto Rican highway design. And three, most significantly, we went to Home Depot.
There may be people out there that love, nay, adore Home Depot. There may be people who live for the lighting displays, the stacks and stacks of thinly sliced wood, the floor tiles which go on as far as the eye can see. I, however, am not one of them. Frankly, having once gotten lost in a Home Depot at the tender age of six and finding myself sobbing at the front of the store until my parents heard the loudspeaker announcement and came to my rescue, I'm not so much a fan. And despite the claims that everything sounds sexier in another language, asking for drill bits in Spanish didn't really light my fire. Wandering the aisles and aisles of screws and bath fixtures, I couldn't help but think that no matter where you go, home maintenance is a huge bitch. Thanks, terrible economy, for saving me that lesson first hand.
I ended my trip by being an extra in my cousin Jessie's movie, which meant three hours in a studio with 50 other people pretending to be the audience for a fake talk show, Nada Que Perder, or Nothing To Lose. As my aunt Jeanie plastered make-up on my face ("this is no-glow, dios mio, Leah, your skin! You gonna thank me...), I though back to the live iguana I had seen days before, strolling the streets like a lazy tourist. Now that's a creature with nothing to lose. Me, I'm still somewhere in the Home Depot. Check in the kitchen section. I like the stove tops.
Leah Franqui is a fairly interesting person/director/writer/reader/eater/drinker. She likes ugly dogs and dislikes her hair in the morning. She's a sucker for environmental causes and plays hardball with deals on chewing gum. She is a struggle.