Not long ago I was at a restaurant with a friend of mine when he interrupted our conversation. “My mother would never let you eat at our dinner table. Not with the way you hold your silverware.” I stopped mid-bite and looked at him. He was only half-joking. I knew that his mother was a former Miss Rochester, New York. Undoubtedly she’d place high premium on decent table manners. It’s true – I held my fork like a barbarian, but nobody had ever commented on this.
“How are you supposed to hold it?” I asked. He demonstrated by lifting the fork to his mouth, his palm facing upwards. I mimicked him a few times. “Like this?” He nodded. My fingers looked graceful resting against the handle, though it felt awkward.
Later that week I had dinner with Bearbait. “Have you ever noticed the way I hold my fork?” I asked. He nodded, his eyes downcast as though he had always been ashamed to tell me. “Gee, thanks for telling me,” I said.
I hold my pen the “wrong way”, as well; my fingers scrunched down around the tip. My hand cramps easily, which is why I prefer the computer. But it’s too late; I’m not changing the way I write.
Following that dinner, however, I started holding my fork the right way, palm facing upwards, my fingers cradling it rather than wrapped around it like a four-year old’s fist.
A couple of weeks ago I brought a couple of pairs of jeans into Lee Loy Cleaners on 18th St in the Castro. One pair’s zipper was broken. The other pair’s zipper would never stay closed, always sliding open as I walked around, which meant I spent the entire day doing little zipper checks, pressing my fingertip against the zipper like a nervous tic. The man at the counter took this latter pair and played around a bit with the zipper, then showed me that, in fact, the jeans were fine. He zipped them up and then turned the tab back downwards, pointing towards the ground. He showed me that there was a little groove on the back of the tab that locked with the zipper. All I had to do was turn the tab downwards after zipping up. He handed the pair back and gave me a claim ticket for the other pair. “Thursday?” he said.
“Sure.” I said, grateful not only for his generosity (he could have taken both pairs and made a little more money replacing each zipper) but excited from learning one of those little facts of life that you can go 32 years without knowing.
“Yeah, you didn’t know that?” my friend asked as I joined him outside on the sidewalk.
He admitted he had done wardrobe for his college theater department. Later that week I asked two other friends and neither knew the zipper trick, which made me feel better.
In each circumstance, especially with the silverware, I had initially felt that old insecurity of being somehow less equipped to deal with the world than most others. How come my parents never taught me how to hold a fork, I wondered. It was a knee-jerk reaction; reducing me instantly to the scrawny twelve-year old who only owned one Ocean Pacific hooded sweatshirt and who could never get his permission slips signed on time.
Over the last few years I’ve had to confront and manage many activities that I knew nothing about. Paying taxes. Renting an apartment. Buying a car. Activities that nearly paralyzed me with fear. Maybe everyone feels this way the first time they take on such challenges. But I’ve always suspected that other people’s parents held their hands through the initial stages, and it’s this suspicion that has fueled my twelve-year old self’s resentment at always being different, less able to move through this world as though he had the right to occupy it.
When I was writing my grad school admissions essays, I mentioned my love of learning for its own sake. I invoked feelings of passion, of “waking up” from the stupor that envelopes me working at a job I dislike. I spoke of classrooms and lecture halls as places that energize me. Which is true, for the most part.
But learning, true learning, can be painful. How could it be otherwise, waking up to the fact that what you thought you knew doesn’t work anymore? Whether it’s learning how to hold my fork or how to stop using crystal meth, each lesson hurt. The pain of the silverware lesson was far briefer and less intense than the lesson in addiction. But I had a moment of red-faced shame, followed quickly by self-deprecating laughter.
It’s foolish of me to look for the lessons of the past year, this soon after the game of love and prizes. Any attempt to pick apart this experience leads to self-help type conclusions, which aren’t good enough. It’ll take awhile before the lessons are fully illuminated. I can only say that I would have to be incredibly stupid not to learn something from this, even if it’s just the realization that the only promises that matter anymore are the ones I make to myself.
Learning is like that one time when you were walking to dinner through the Castro in the early evening, hordes of commuters emerging from the MUNI underground and political aides handing out flyers on the corners and it seemed like every great looking guy was totally checking you out and giving you a smile and you’re thinking you must look really hot and then you get to the restaurant and your friend points out that your zipper is down.
And then you zip up and you sit down to dinner and you pick up your silverware the right way, and then you eat.