Thursday, November 08, 2012

Keep Moving Out Into The Gap*

"Over the course of a lifetime a man will overhear a fair number of remarks about himself and learn from them how very wide is the gulf between his public perception and the image he hopes to project. I've always known there's more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn't regret that he isn't more fully understood?"
~~Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs

One of the first things we were told during training at Burger King (where I worked for most of my high school years) was that old nugget of minimum-wage wisdom "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean."

It was my first job and I was an earnest and socially awkward girl, so, in the beginning, I often did clean when there was time to lean--all things considered, scrubbing baseboards in the dining room, crawling under tables and booth seats to scrape away months' worth of built-up burger grease and globs of petrified chewing gum, was a more manageable and pleasant task for me than trying to make conversation with guys and girls my own age.

Eventually, I became slightly more comfortable, having both consciously and unconsciously honed my strategy of self-protection by sarcasm--and I spent less time cleaning and more time goofing around.

Much of the goofing around involved hat stealing or water spraying--occasionally things would really devolve and someone would grab a wad of defrosted, uncooked Whopper meat from the waste barrel and fling it at someone else. All hell would break loose at that point, of course, resulting in flaccid pickles and soggy tomatoes ending up on every exposed surface. Once they'd dried on, they were especially fun to clean off of the lattice work that divided seating sections in the dining room. Turns out tomato seeds come encased in their own adhesive, which few man-made solvents can destickify.1

I remember one very slow night--in the middle of an epic New Hampshire snow storm when we hadn't had a customer (in the lobby or drive-thru) for over an hour--we got into a deep2 discussion on what exactly a portion of defrosted, uncooked Whopper meat should be called--a wad? a clump? Someone threw out "globule," which was somehow gross enough (with its guttural opening "gl," short "o," softly percussive "b" and squishy "ule" at the end) to be perfectly suitable. Added bonus--"globule" was alarmingly close to the sound made when one such portion landed with a plop-slide against the plate glass window and stuck there. Positively onomatopoeic.

Food-related mayhem was surprisingly uncommon, though. Mostly, like I said, hat-stealing, water battles and relentless verbal teasing. At this last, I was a star--the queen of quips, quick with a cutting comeback. It was not just fun and games to me, of course.

Truth was, on the inside I was a quivering mass of hokey pop song lyrics and hormonally-charged emotions. For some reason, it was imperative to me that this information not get out. So vulnerable and raw did I feel on the inside that it seemed impossible to me that it did not show on the outside. Surely, everyone could see through my shield of sarcasm, well-crafted though it was.

One night, I found myself alone in the kitchen with two guys--Tommy and Terry--on whom I'd had alternate and occasionally overlapping on-again, off-again crushes. Needless to say, I was certain (and horrified by that certainty) that they were both aware of my deep3 feelings for them.

It was a slow night and things rapidly degenerated into their usual chaos and I soon found myself in the walk-in freezer while the two of them held the door shut. I struggled against them briefly before giving up and making myself comfortable-ish on a stack of boxes of frozen chicken patties, where I intended to wait the guys out.  

It did not take long. As Terry yanked the door open, he remarked, "C'mon Tommy, we better let her out before she lowers the temperature in there!"

They laughed. I laughed. Laughing was the sportsmanlike thing to do--and besides it was pretty funny.

I'm so cold-hearted, I'm going to lower the temperature in a walk-in freezer! Ha ha ha h--hold up a second...

On the one hand, I was delighted--or at least relieved--at this assessment. Maybe the soft and sappy self was safely protected after all.

On the other (utterly paradoxical) hand, I was deeply wounded to be so very misunderstood. The connection between this misunderstanding and my own efforts--some of them made consciously--to obscure my true feelings, to thwart any real understanding of who I was did not immediately occur to me. When, much later, in an entirely different context, it did occur to me how ridiculous it was to feel sorry for myself that no one saw the "real me" when I worked so hard to hide the real me, it was a revelation that did not immediately stick. It was a lesson I've learned over and over again and it's a lesson I'm learning again, still.

I've long nurtured a fascination with the gap between how I see myself and how others seem to see me and if the walk-in freezer moment was not the seed of that fascination, it certainly fertilized the ground it was planted in. I have sometimes hypothesized that the true self, to the extent one exists at all, lives in that gap.

Even the clearest vision of one's self is pocked with murky smudges and blind spots. Sometimes people around us can help bring that vision into fuller focus--but the assessments of others are only as valuable as they are accurate and, at least in part, they are only as accurate as we allow them to be.

All these many years later, I am still, again, mostly a quivering mass of hokey pop song lyrics and hormonally-charged emotions. If I am not yet parading that self around for everyone to see, I am at least a little more comfortable with acknowledging that she exists--and a little less petrified that my secrets might get out.

*Don't feel left out, Larissa. I'm probably one of only ten people on the planet who would get this '80s reference and three of the other nine used to be the Thompson Twins.

1. The thesaurus was oddly unhelpful in finding a synonym for destickify--so we're stuck with it.

2. Did I say "deep?" I meant high-pitched and hysterical as we leapt from booth to booth, running across tables, trying to escape the deadly aim of Jim, Globule Sharpshooter.

3. Did I say "deep?" I meant shallow and fleeting. Not to mention painfully embarrassing.



  1. I have been there and been disappointed that people have believed the mask and not seen the real me inside. I tend to just put myself out there now and if people don't like what they see they don't have to stick around.

    Globule is a fabulous word!!

    1. PS You have been nomiated

      and your shout out is here

    2. I still love globule. Thanks for the award...I will try to make time tomorrow to check it out more. ;)

  2. I find people make their own minds up about me relatively quickly - my ex's friends for example decided (before even meeting me) that I must be a stupid girl because I was raised in a small northern town and not the big city like them.

    They weren't joking.

    As you can imagine they didn't react very well when they found out I was studying for my second science degree.

    They made me feel ashamed for no reason, and I used to try to be someone different so they would accept me. I don't bother anymore. If people don't like me that's there issue.

    1. It is definitely much more energy efficient to be myself. The older I have gotten the less choice I really seem to have in the matter, to be honest. And I agree that the judgments people make are very often MORE about them than they are about the person being judged. Absolutely.

  3. I was so incredibly shy in high school that I rarely spoke. To anyone. I didn't know until much later (my younger sister told me) that people thought I was very stuck-up. I just had to laugh at the absurdity.
    Now, you're making me wonder about how people see me. I feel like I'm pretty honest in my actions and interactions, yet, that doesn't mean people perceive me the way I intend.

    1. Oh, Jewels, I got the stuck-up thing a lot too. In fact even into my twenties and early thirties, I was hearing that from Hubby about people he worked with thinking I was stuck-up when I was really just terrified most of the time.

      Like I said to Loki-Lou, perception is often as much or more about the perceiver than it is about the person being judged.

  4. I'm sorry but I found this "The thesaurus was oddly unhelpful in finding a synonym for destickify--so we're stuck with it." hilarious.

    That being said, I often find it surprising how many of us there really are. I don't think everyone sees the "outside version" of us the same.. so there are all these different "outside versions" and then there's the "inside version" of us. Does that even make sense? It's all a confusing thing really. *sigh*

    Thank you for the 80's clarification. Always makes me feel special that y'all remember me. :)

    Thanks for linking up Masked Mom!

    1. I'm glad you liked the thesaurus thing--it kind of cracked me up too, but I'm easily entertained. ;)

      The versions thing absolutely makes sense--and I have to say (as I've said a hundred times), your grasp of all of it is really amazingly wise for someone your age.

  5. I have a very large "utterly paradoxical hand". It's a syndrome of sorts, I fear.
    You know this topic fascinates me. You write about it so clearly and so well.
    Here is a thought I've been mulling about that gap phenomenon (that has nothing to do with khakis and sweaters): I spend a lot less time trying to hide who I am or how I think or the fact that I love and adore sappy 80s ballads than I did when I was younger, but there are parts of me that I want to stay hidden from other people. As if some people don't have all access backstage passes, they haven't paid for them yet. I can't decide if that is utter hubris or just a different kind of insecurity.
    Love this post, MM. Anything that begins with an obscure Thompson Twins reference and ends with some pretty intense contemplation is a winner in my book.

    1. Thanks, Lou. I definitely get what you mean about keeping certain parts private--and I would have just as much trouble calculating the exact motivation for that.

      (Here's the part where I confess that I hadn't thought about that Thompson Twins song in YEARS until I started writing this post and then when I did, I found the video and watched it SIX times in a row. And THEN, bought the album on iTunes--even though I think I still have the cassette around here somewhere...)

  6. I found this post utterly fascinating and will remember it every single time I go to a Burger King from here on out.


    1. Thanks, Kathy. Three and a half years of toiling away at Burger King was educational in a surprising variety of ways.

  7. This strikes so many chords for me. I'm also constantly amazed that people don't really understand me even after I've spent all this time hiding things. I think of myself as a pretty open book, but upon closer examination, I keep several topics very close to my heart and some people are surprised to learn about them.

    We're all onions, is all.

  8. Very thought provoking piece. Indeed how we human tend to perceive/judge others certain ways before we actually know them well. Even so, certain actions could portray the 'wrong' us.
    Visiting from Larissa's Thursday Blog Hop :-)

    1. Nice to "meet" you. Isn't Larissa a sweetie? I will try to hop over your way soon! ;)

  9. Love this post. So deep and deep-fried at the same time. I identify with feeling terrified about being myself around people and being thought of as stuck-up. Now that I am "older" and more comfortable in my skin, I try to help pull others out of their own shells. Not like escargot though, that would be cruel.