The first day of the AWP conference, I ran into my good friend Tod Goldberg. Since Tod is now, also, my boss and since I’d be doing some time unofficially manning the booth where we teach (UCR/Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA Program), my behavior has, for the first time in our friendship and, especially, his professional life, some bearing on whether or not Tod gets to keep his job. And by extension whether Tod gets to keep his house. And maybe even keep his dogs and his wonderful wife Wendy. There is, at this stage in life, more for me to fuck up than just me.
So it made some sense when Tod, upon seeing me for the first time at AWP, after hugging me and saying hello, said, “Whatever you do this week, try not to be you, ok?”
There are some troubling aspects of this statement and perhaps not the ones you might guess. Being told by Tod Goldberg that you have a tendency to be too inappropriate in public is akin to Keith Richards pulling you aside and letting you know you’re hitting the booze and smack a little hard for your health.
In short—there was no way to take this as a good sign.
Now, some of my problems have something of a medical base—though it will be clear to any readers that far from all of my problems can be explained and dismissed by said medical issue.
The medical condition you should be aware of (and when I say “aware,” I need to be totally honest and say that I have a very minor case of the condition I’m about to relay to you) is:
Prosopagnosia—which is, in layperson’s terms, the inability to recognize faces.
Again—I do not have this at anywhere near its more extreme levels. There are people who cannot recognize their spouse. I do have tremendous—at times—problems with faces, but I have, as I say, a relatively minor level of Prosopagnosia—plus, like anyone with a disorder, I’ve come up with coping mechanisms that allow life to be quite a bit easier. I spot people by their bodies…by their voices….by any number of other things that differentiate them from others.
An interesting thing about Prosopagnosia? Nearly 10 times the people suffer Prosopagnosia than suffer from Dyslexia. (I was lucky enough to grab both of these out of the crap basket early in life). And, while schools (finally) are starting to have ways of dealing with dyslexia in its many forms, most people have never heard of Prosopagnosia.
I don’t mean to dwell on this—as it has very little bearing on what makes me such a social buffoon, which is really what this recap of my week at the AWP conference is meant to be about.
Avoidable Social Error #1: At a party for a good friend’s book release (a night or two before AWP started), I stood in a corner with my good friend (and the person putting me up and driving me around) Gina Frangello. Other than Gina, who I love—but who does know other people and so she had to talk with them—I knew few people and wished I could take a drink. But since it’s been a number of years since I could do that, and, to be fair, I don’t miss living alone and being arrested, it’s best that I avoid drugs and alcohol, so I figured it would be best if I just bit my tongue and waited until whatever gods I didn’t believe in got me the fuck out of there. My social error here was not so bad. If I could have stayed at this level, the trip might have even classified as “uneventful.”
“Did you see all the renovations?” someone asked me.
“I saw what seemed like a ton of them,” I said.
“I’m not big on renovations,” I said trying to be polite.
Later, Gina and I tried to talk about interesting sexual fetishes while the hosts talked about quality schools in the suburbs and Girl Scout cookies.
I made every sign I could to say, “let’s fucking go!” I was a veritable semaphore of “get me the fuck out of here” signals. Until, giving up, I simply said, “Let’s fucking go” within earshot of one of the cookie fans (and I believe, homeowners). I had no idea where we were, but Gina had a few Jamesons, so I had to drive home the two or three hundred miles back to Chicago in the frighteningly solid rain.
Tuesday Evening: was kind of a day off, except I was supposed to speak at Gina’s writing class. The students were great. They’d actually read two of my pieces and Gina told me the class was loosely structured with the sort of theme of writing about sex, so she’d taken two of my more sex-heavy-pieces and had them read those.
Avoidable Social Error #2: Prior to the class, Gina said I was probably going to do a short Q and A and then we’d meet Tod and Betsy Crane for dinner. But, I’m a pretty shy person—which most people who meet me never believe. Yet, shyness tends to manifest itself in one of two ways. One is the common—and more well know—type of person who can barely talk. The other is the kind of person who can barely shut up. I fall into the latter, and I ended up, without too many pauses to even breathe, talking to Gina’s students about:
- Genital piercing
- A band I was once in that was named after bestiality porn (accordingly to Gina, I made some gesture that resembled the physical manipulation of a horse’s penis, but I have no memory of this. Still, a better person would go Frangello on this one).
- A story of helper money I knew in Florida whose owner turned it into a drunk and said drunken helper money jumped out of a tall hotel window and killed itself. Whether it was a drunken accident or an intentional suicide remains a mystery.
- How ridiculous I thought the pedagogy of their undergrad program sounded.
- I stopped class at one point and told them to be quiet so that I could write a new title in my writer’s notebook: “A Horse Cannot Consent.”
- And, of course, more…
Near the end of class, a very good and very earnest student raised his hand and said that I was the perfect person for advice because it was obvious I “clearly had no boundaries in either my fiction or when I talked with people.”
I kind of forget his question, but I did later wonder if it was the most professional thing in the world to have no boundaries in the classroom. I’m cool with having none in writing. But some boundaries might come in handy in life.
Wednesday Morning/Start of AWP
Avoidable Social Error # 3: Now this is where, perhaps, a touch of the Prosopagnosia comes in. BUT, it could just be me being a fucking idiot on too little sleep, as well.
Before I go on, you should know I was only in my 2nd week of walking after rupturing my Achilles back in NOV, and my walk was…well, very Frankenstein’s monster. Kind of creepy, is what I’m getting at. Which did not help in the upcoming situation.
Gina and I were in line at Starbucks, and a very beautiful woman I recognized as my old friend, the great writer June Melby was only a few tables away. She seemed to have a beaming smile of recognition, so I spread my arms wide, said “hey!” and went toward her, even awkwardly knocking over some Starbucks chairs—only to find out it was a friend of Gina’s who had never met me in her life and was looking at me very suspiciously.
Avoidable Social Error # 4: I was in one of the men’s rooms—which, may I tell you, were as crowded and dreadful smelling as any I have every experienced at Fenway Park or any Carnival Midway Port-O-Let Crap city….I mean, come ON people. This is the Hilton, right?
On my way out, there was an elderly lady on her way in. Trying to save her both the astounding stench of males acting as if they lived at the Chicago Zoo AND the embarrassment of entering the men’s room, I stopped her gently and said:
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. This is the men’s room.”
To which the old (it turned out) man gave me a look that seemed to wish me dead and said, “Fucking asshole” (in a rather deep and husky voice) under his breath.
Very Avoidable Social Error #5: OK…NOW, I see my good friend June Melby for sure. I’m a little gun shy, but the woman I am seeing is clearly not the one from early in the day—not the one who knew Gina and who now hates me. I’m sure of that because that woman had a white coat and this woman does not. Again…this is one of my coping mechanisms. What people wear isn’t a sure fire thing, but it does help.
So I scream “June!” and I run up toward her with my arms outstretched and I am just about to hold her in a years-overdue hard embrace when I hear her voice and realize it is, yes, again Gina’s friend, only she has taken off her coat.
She looks at me—not without justification—like I’m a stalker and says, “What is with you?”
I slink away.
Opening night: There is a party. I don’t seem to do anything wrong. The reading is loud. The band is loud. It’s a drag, but I stay out of trouble. I don’t talk to anyone. This would have been a wise move for the rest of the week.
DAY # 2
Avoidable Social Error #6: I called a guy I’ve never liked a “pretentious asshole.”
It got back to him. And by “it got back to him,” I mean he was standing eighteen inches behind me when I said it.
Avoidable Social Error #7: The wonderful Leah Tallon, standing near a friend of hers, asks me how the party the night before was. Truth be told, the night before wasn’t that bad…I just HATE parties like that. But, somehow saying I hate shit like that where I can’t drink and it’s hot and it’s too loud seems kind of boring and I did just put my foot in my mouth with the guy I hate, so I say:
“The party sucked, the reading sucked, the lighting sucked, the bar sucked, and the drinks sucked.”
Leah is laughing.
I say, “It was motherfucking cold, too.”
Leah says, “This is my friend. She planed the whole evening. And she read.”
Reading that night: I read somewhere near campus and AWP. Somehow, as far as I recall, I don’t fuck up or offend.
Avoidable Social Moment # 8: I am on my way out of another men’s bathroom overrun with human waste, rancid toilet paper the color of highlighter pens swirled all over the floors. I feel like I could vomit my whole time in there.
On my way out, I see a woman coming in, but figure, nope. Not going to go down that road again. This ugly man is not going to get stopped by me.
And, of course, it’s a woman. A woman who is horrified by the men’s room. And I am blocking her boyfriend’s way to get in and rescue her.
Set-up to What Will Become a Later Social Awkward Moment: I’m standing at the bar with a very nice woman who gets herself a gin and tonic and a friend a JD on the rocks. I get a friend a Jameson on the rocks. A man in front of the woman I’m with turns and knocks the Jack Daniels all over her dress. She’s nice about it, but once the guy takes off, she’s upset.
She says, “Jesus. My top is ruined and my clothes smell like a fucking distillery at three o’clock.”
I don’t know what to say, but I buy her a second gin and tonic, so at least she has two of her drinks to deal with her day going bad.
THURSDAY NIGHT DINNER
Awkward Social Moment #9: A dinner with friends really should go smoothly. There were six of my very close friends at the table. Two very nice people I didn’t know. We were out for Sushi, but there was plenty for the two vegetarians to eat. Dinner was lovely. Great conversation—nothing but smart and interesting people at the table.
The three women to my left were all mothers. Actually, so were the two women on my right—it’s just that there were two men on my right as well. I was at the head of the table because of my lame leg. At some point someone on the left of the table mentioned The Secret Garden. Not having kids—and slightly mishearing the title, I thought they were talking about Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden.
Now, apparently, THE Secret Garden is some kid’s book. However, MY Secret Garden is a book from the 70’s that is filled with women’s sexual fantasies—quite a few of them very radical for their time (and, of course, guess which one I know).
Anyway, one of the moms mentioned the other book (but I didn’t know that) and I said, “Wow. That’s cool. They let that stroke book in school now?”
I seemed to be within 30 seconds of a 911 call when I asked Gina, loudly, “Gina! Wasn’t there a women’s sex book with that name in the 70’s?”
She confirmed there was.
It may not have saved the evening, but it did save me.
Awkward Social Moment #10: I see the woman who had the Jack Daniels dropped all over her and had her top ruined.
As she walks by the Other Voices Books booth, I tell her:
“Your outfit looks so much better than yesterday’s.”
She stops and looks at me, slightly confused and very annoyed.
I am still clueless. “And at least you don’t smell like a distillery like yesterday.” (It is, I should mention, 9:30 in the morning).
“Who are you?” she says.
I realize it’s not the woman from the day before. “I work at Norton,” I say.
She nods with hatred and walks away.
Last AWP Awkward Social Moment #11: I see a woman who looks exactly like my friend, the great writer June Melby. It IS June Melby. It has to be. But, then, the first woman had to be. The second woman (who nearly maced me) really HAD to be.
I need to make very sure. This has been a rough week. I’ve fucked up a lot and I’m tired and my foot with the bad Achilles hurts and, well…I don’t trust myself. If it’s the same woman as the first two times,–hell—she might shoot me, or shiv me with a bottle from one of the six hundred dollar beers at the Hilton.
She’s coming towards me, but I’m not sure if that means she has some giant boyfriend or hotel security or Chicago cops ( I can’t deal with anymore cops at my age), and then she screams, “Rob?”
I look at her, not trusting. I must seem like a feral cat. Or, well, an insane person. But I’m jumpy. Unsure. She approaches slowly. “Rob?” she says. “Are you ok?”
It is June. I snap up and hug her, but by now she’s a little weirded out by my reaction. Eventually, though, we settle into a real conversation. I tell her I thought I’d seen her a lot at this conference.
“I saw you,” she says, “but you always seemed to be with someone else.”
A couple days after the conference, I see Tod on campus. We’re hanging out, laughing and waiting for a panel to start where we teach. We start making plans for where we’re going to dinner that night.
Tod says to me, “So, did you embarrass me?”
“You?” I say. “No, I don’t think I embarrassed you, no.”