My mother calls it being “shy”.  I more look at my inability to stand up for myself and ask for what I need as a way to avoid confrontation, disagreement, or simply being told, “No”.  That’s how I found myself with a pack of orange Bubblicious gum in my snow boot one December day, having smuggled it out of the drug store in said vessel.  Mom found me out when, unable to “act natural”, I guiltily pulled it from my boot while still in the car. 

“Where did you get that from?”

“I – had it.”

If kids aren’t pathetic liars to begin with, I am now, and have always been, pathologically awful at misrepresenting the truth.  I had wanted the gum, and didn’t want to ask my mom for it, fearing she might say no. So I took it. I was so embarrassed at having done the deed and by being caught, that I couldn’t bring myself to returning the gum to the drug store, and gratefully gave up the rest of my week of Hanukkah presents for being spared the more humiliating punishment. 

Was my mother the kind of person to deny her child a $.69 pack of gum?  I doubt it.  But was I the type of child to go to extremes to avoid the remote possibility of having my request turned down?  I was. 

Thankfully, the emotional toll that experience had on my younger person has spared me from a lifetime of shoplifting, sneaking around, and taking things that I might only have to ask for.  Unfortunately, the underlying inability/unwillingness to simply ask for what I need/want remains.

On more practical matters, this manifests as a difficulty asserting myself.  I clam up, go quiet, and disappear into myself when my views are challenged, or when my values are questioned. 

I was tutoring a 17-year-old boy in preparation for his pre-calculus final last week.  It was a one-time thing, not an ongoing tutor-tutee relationship like I have with most families whose children I support.  This kid was, like many 17 year olds, bent on distraction and avoidance of work.  So he prodded into my personal life – “Are you married?” “How did you meet your husband?”  As I related this story last night to my husband, I asked him, candidly, “What’s one word you would use to describe yourself at age 17?”  “Handsome,” he responded after a thought.  “No, “I demurred, “One word to describe your temperament.” Easily, he said, “Oh, ‘douche’.” With the decorum of 17-year-olds in mind, I pressed on with my story.  This particular boy is from an Orthodox Jewish family, where people typically marry fairly young, and women are pressed into service as breeders almost immediately.  The fact that I had been married 4 ½ years and denied having any offspring was cause for suspicion.  Therefore, he was within his cultural métier to ask what was taking so long, or if something was wrong.

It was not that I was so off-put by the suggestion, or that the bluntness of his inquiry shocked me into silence.  In fact, it’s a teachable moment for a kid who leads a somewhat sheltered life.  After all, any 17-year-old might have said it, and plenty of well meaning parents-of-newlyweds (WMPON) have.  In the moment, I brushed him aside and refocused our lesson on trigonometric identities and imaginary numbers.   Later, in my head, I concocted a half-dozen appropriate responses.

“People have any number of reasons for starting families later. “ (Later than age 26, in his world)

“We are choosing to start our family when our careers are established.” (A subtle hint at birth control)

“The time just wasn’t right for us.” (Ditto)

 “Not everyone is so easily blessed with children as soon as they get married.” (Infertility not being a topic I’d like to discuss at depth with a teenager)

“Well, I’m sure HaShem wanted to wait until we were ready.” (Religious mumbo-jumbo in language he would certainly understand)

But in the moment, I remained mute.  That’s not “shyness”; that’s deer-in-headlights aversion to defending myself.  I think.  But against what?  Am I really afraid I’ll get into right-to-life debates with a teenager I’m tutoring in math?  Am I fearful he’ll hurt my feelings and accuse me of going against the natural order, or of being a Bad Jew?  Am I anxious my own responses will call him out on his ignorance, and make him feel bad?  Any of these.  None of them.  I don’t know.

I do know that conversations I have even with long-time friends, where they say something I know to be untrue, or on a topic I would be able to have a healthy discussion, I remain mute in disagreement.  And those conversations remain regrets in my mind; they stick with me for years, no matter how trivial the topics. 

  • Sunscreen helps you tan
  • A “double” bed is a different size than a “full”
  • Still photographs are less artificial than people putting on an “act” for a video camera.
  • Jenny’s portrayal of someone with AIDS was unrealistic.
  • Hooks you have to cut off with a “special saw” are better than ones you can just peel off.
  • Running the air conditioner with the car windows down is a good idea.
  • A hereditary history of twins on the father’s side can increase the chance of twinning in his offspring.
  • A woman pregnant with a girl will get a fat ass and a fat face.
  • You mustn’t ever leave the house while the dishwasher or washing machine is running.
  • Soy sauce might just be intended for soy; it might not contain soy.
  • The plural of passerby is “passerbies”.
  • Babies too young to focus more than 12 inches from their faces enjoy watching football on a TV several feet away.
  • There is no cause for alarm if a child is not talking by age 21 months.
  • A shrimp allergy in a child’s paternal grandmother puts him at high-risk for the allergy himself.

The list goes on and on.  And the common theme is that I never speak up.  I never share my knowledge or my opinions, even jokingly, even with friends and family.  I just let the fallacies, falsehoods, and misinformed opinions wash right over me.  I end up thinking of well reasoned arguments after the fact, or consulting Google to make sure I was right.  I can’t even trust myself and my initial instincts about things I know I know.  I need back-up.  I need a citation.  I’m locked in a never-ending round of high-school debate team, and all I can do is dumbly verify facts for myself.