My So-Called Attempts at Flattery and Other Embarrassments

In life we sometimes do things that embarrass us in such a way that our best judgment tells us to bury it. We can, because in the grand scheme these mistakes are not game changers, they do not alter our lives, or greatly affect how people treat us. So we push them down, shove them into some dark space inside ourselves, and do our best not to think of them. They’re a private, but common shame; the stupid thing said to the pretty girl, the malapropism defended too hard on correction, the wives’ tale presented foolishly as fact. The things we think about in front of our mirrors, staring at ourselves as we realize we should have said this, we should have done that – oh yeah, that’d show them. That would save face.

We feel safe doing this. These are not great failings, and on their own they do us little harm. And contrary to popular belief, not dealing with a problem is indeed a way to not deal with the problem.

But so is dragging those embarrassments out into the light.

One thing I try never to be embarrassed about is my influences. Growing up in the 1990s, I felt like nearly all aspects of the decade, both good and bad, became an important part of my identity. In the annals of popular culture, one of the best remembered and oft-cited 90s hallmarks was the ABC teen drama "My So Called Life." Created by screenwriter Winnie Holzman, the show ran for only a single season, a mere 19 episodes, but still managed to become something more than a cult hit. Even compared to other teen dramas of the time "My So-Called Life" was unique, a show reaching out to the very youth it was attempting to portray and forgoing tidy, last-minute solutions for more realistic, less satisfying endings.

I was barely in the double-digit age range when it premiered, but that hardly mattered. Since I was able to sit upright, I was fascinated by teen melodrama, and to this day the still-living members of my family, and probably a babysitter or two could attest to my fondness for the original "Degrassi High School" on PBS, a show that would often follow the usual, age-appropriate fare of my youth - "Sesame Street," "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," and "Reading Rainbow." I couldn't possibly have understood those Canadian teens and their problems, yet their plight held me at such rapt attention that I'd start bawling if someone changed the channel before the show was over. I was hooked, never to wander far from the strange allure of teenage angst.

So naturally, in 1994, I found myself planted in front of the television set to watch "My So-Called Life."
Like most television watched in the first ten years of my life, I don't remember particulars of plot, or stories. But I do remember the imagery, still photos in my head of a sharp curiosity framed by beautiful red hair, shallow blue eyes working in tandem with strategically non-strategic plaid patterns, regular looks of shock, and a shock of blonde cascading down a particular face. Sounds too, but less so, the contrast of the echoes of the hallways of Liberty High with the unnerving silence of Angela's home. And ironically, I wasn't even as into the show at the time as my mother was [it would famously fall to what came to be known in our family as the Robin Nichols/Grindstaff curse - any show truly loved by Mom was canceled swiftly], and yet, the show imprinted on me, and working together with a few other pop culture mainstays of the time period, flannel and misanthropy followed.

In college, I was blessed with a close-knit group of friends, as well as a relaunch of the show from my salad days which started it all - "Degrassi." Thankfully, the former were tolerant of the latter, and some even became, or already were, as obsessed as I was. One of these was a brilliant young lady by the name of Savannah Dooley, not only a fellow writer but a fellow Degrassi fanatic as too, and a legacy wordsmith, her mother being...well...

Winnie Holzman.

I kept my awe to myself.

I have probably been called an ass-kisser once or twice. I have on occasion been able to endear myself to older people, figures in positions of power [at least academically speaking], and anytime someone older takes counsel from someone younger you're going to have whispering, and I think honestly the most common assumption there is "what a brown-noser." I've probably made they same assessments at times. But generally speaking, I have enough trouble with voicing sincere praise, so shameless flattery that isn't obviously tongue-in-cheek [I'm talking four-speed, Hoover-style sucking-up] just isn't something I do. And even expressing admiration is difficult for me, and sometimes the actual feeling is so close to jealousy, I can't imagine the train wreck which would ensue if I tried.

Besides, Savannah had no end of people wanting to talk her ear off about "My So-Called Life" and I naturally just imagined not hearing about it might be a tad more refreshing for her. Still, I was hugely curious, and more than willing to piggyback and eavesdrop other people's conversations with her about the show, which managed to keep my "too-cool-to-bug-someone-about-something-that-might-bug-them" douchebag persona intact.

Still, I had to admit to being hugely envious of Savannah, not just because of her own talent, but because of the atmosphere she must have grown up in. I couldn't imagine what it was like to have another writer in the house, let alone someone as supportive as Ms. Holzman was of Savannah. My own parents always pushed me, but as with any push it was done at arm's distance, and even today there are few members of my family willing to look at anything I've written. Plus, Ms. Holzman was a writer I knew [a rarity - most writers I knew back then wrote comics, or English novels, or were Quentin Tarantino], and I admired her work and the projects she'd been connected to. And parents visited their kids at college. Which meant... I could get to meet her.

Later, the following exchange happened with a "friend":

"You should get her to mentor you."
"I think... she's taken."
"What, like married?"
"No. Well, yeah she is. But I mean, if she's going to mentor someone, I imagine it'd be her daughter."
"But you get to meet her. It's important to make connections."
"I don't like using people like that."
"Just saying. Brown-nose a little. Maybe she'd look at your stuff."
"Why would I do that? Besides, I could probably just ask her."
"Would you?"
"That's not the point."
"I'm telling you. There's nothing wrong with sucking up a little. Besides, you actually like her stuff. It's not like you'd be lying just to get something out of it."

It was a point. A bad point, from a bad friend who I have since excised myself from. But just the suggestion of it seemed to taint things, and it was the last thing I wanted on my mind before Savannah's parents took the lot of us out for dinner in celebration of our senior year. I mean, I certainly had things I wanted to say to Ms. Holzman, had questions I wanted to ask, and compliments I wanted to give. But thanks to the genius advice of my winner of friend above, anything that left my mouth in either of those veins were going to feel like total self-serving bullshit to me. So I spent the bulk of the dinner glued to my plate, letting everyone else talk.

It wasn't really out of character at the time - senior year, I was pretty taciturn anyway, and I liked listening to everyone, probably more than the self-centered art student in me was comfortable with back then. But it was difficult, and it was nice hearing about another writer, a successful writer, her projects, her struggles, things she'd accomplished. One of Holzman's other credits, a fairly large one, was her adaptation of popular retelling of Wicked for Broadway, having written the book for the musical version that had just recently toured Japan. As Holzman talked about the musical going to other countries, and continuing its strong business, and getting to witness that by joining the crowds around the world as the watched it, she seemed legitimately humbled and surprised by how well received it was, even when presented to other cultures.

There was a silence over the table when she expressed. As if everyone was mulling over the achievement of it, and just what that meant. I knew, but I was torn about saying anything. When I did finally speak, I didn't recognize my voice. Honestly, I remember it coming out kind of as a squeak.

"Well. I guess that just speaks... to the ah, quality of the work. That it has such a wide... ahem. Appeal."

The silence returned. My friends let their eyes drop to their plates now, which was kind, I thought. Ms. Holzman looked... embarrassed, but mostly for me. A cliché about flatulence in a holy building ran quickly through my head. And in fairness, I had sounded reticent, even pained when I spoke - like a parroting flatterer in a Shakespeare play, speaking to someone who had never heard an unkind word, so that even a hollow compliment would sound sincere.

And the worst part of it all, I was sincere. I wasn't kissing ass - I really meant what I said, and wanted to say it. Hell, after years of foreign films and anime, I felt kind of like the guy at the table who should say something, about how amazing it was to do something that could survive crossing culture lines, that wasn't slighted by translation and the language barrier. Because it was! But I didn't trust myself. I was still in that mindset that anything nice I said was only to serve me. It made no difference that I wasn't sucking up - it sounded like I was, it felt like I was, and really in the moment, that was all that mattered.

I was mortified. Not only did I come across as some undergrad apple-polisher, I did it in front of my friends, to a writer whose work I actually respected. And all with so little confidence that it left me looking completely scummy and transparent.

Ultimately, no one really cared, and when it came to my friends at Bennington, every personality at that table was so dynamic that it didn't take any time at all for someone else to speak up, say something interesting, so we all could move on. But I felt sort of awful, embarrassed by the execution and failure of my half-effort. I wasn't even without sympathy for my faux pas - Savannah's dad, a bona-fide movie star in his own right and former West Virginian who'd manage to escape the state, took me aside and told me some old jokes about our shared homestead. It was nice, and helped me feel just a little less like a jackass. And I had so much fun otherwise, that I loathe having to tuck that entire dinner away, just to keep from reliving this one embarrassment.

Had it happened between close friends or one of my peers, a fellow writer, perhaps I'd get the chance to talk to them about it later. Apologize, and explain myself. But when it comes to those we respect, those who produce work we admire, that opportunity so rarely presents itself, and I've just sat on this for a long time, hoping for second chance, if not with Ms. Holzman, then with someone else, someone who has had similar impact on me. To not screw it all up again, and get it right this time.

But what is that, other than me in front of another mirror? Rehearsing what I should have done.

Where do you put a mountain made out of a mole hill? This was intended as an exercise, a little memoir to get working again. Is this just me rambling about myself, ala "Busted" or "You're Chasing Amy", or is there something here more reminiscent of "Dante Hicks is Dead"? Or is it crap? Feedback warmly welcomed. With apologies to the Dooley-Holzman clan for the gratuitous name-dropping - it was a lovely dinner, and I am a basket-case. - The Management.

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