Recently, during a trip to the pediatrician, my gray hair got me The Look. The boys and I waited in the exam room until Doogie Howser came in. Have you noticed how pediatric interns at teaching hospitals get younger every year? This is definitely a trend item.
Anyway, Dr. Doogie gave me The Look.
The Quizzical Look.
The Look that asks, "Are you the grandmother or the mother?"
He actually asked, out loud and interrogatively, "Mom?"
No, dearie, I'm not your mom. I am, however, the mom of these two boys: the polite and compliant teenager you will examine and the 11-year-old with autism who will, for the next half hour, repeatedly tell you he hates shots, ask to use your stethoscope, and teach you what the otoscope is for...all while trying to play with said otoscope (though I will not allow it...you're welcome).
Oh, he will also occasionally turn off the lights in the windowless room, just for his entertainment and to provide you with excellent training for any pediatric combat situation you might find yourself in during your years of service to the United States Air Force.
Wow. Wright Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center ought to pay us for the excellent training we provide.
Anyway, I'm not the doctor's mother, though to be fair, I suppose that at 47 I'm technically old enough to be his mother and to be my 11- and 14-year-old children's grandmother. But that isn't what I see when I look in the mirror. I see me. All of me at a glance. Susan Raihala. A woman with a history, a fabulous story arc, wonderful relationships, strong values, and preferences and choices that meant a long wait for children...a smart woman who had accurately diagnosed Nick's problem even though Dr. Doogie needed to take us to a specialist to figure it out.
Yay, me! (And don't worry...it was nothing serious.)
My point, which seems to be coming very slowly and I'm sorry about that, is this: we human beings are a lot more than can be learned in a quick glance. Wow. That seems so obvious, so banal when stated baldly like that, but how often do we honestly pay attention to how we are judging others at a glance or--just as importantly--how we react to other's glancing judgments of us?
I've thought about this sort of judgment for a very long time, ever since 1988 when I judged a man from Tennessee as mentally slow because he spoke in that slow Tennessee drawl. Oddly, I didn't even realize I'd judged him until he was named the distinguished graduate in his USAF navigator class and my first reaction was surprise...followed quickly by shame. I'm from the southern United States, and I know better than to equate slow speech with slow wit. Ever since, I've tried hard to grant others grace when they judge me on assumptions, and that's why Dr. Doogie's question made me suppress laughter rather than indignation.
Assuming is, oddly enough, a fundamental function of our brains. In the fight-or-flight lives of our primitive, pre-historic ancestors, our brains had to make snap decisions based on very little information and then react before our slower (yet more sophisticated) cognitive functions could engage. We will get bitten by that cobra and die if we start trying to reason out whether the snake on the trail is, indeed, venomous or just a harmless rat snake. Instead, our brain screams "Snake!!!" and our body takes off running before we can even think about it.
Assumptions can save lives on the African savannah, but in the world of complex social interactions, assumptions can seriously mislead us, and sometimes, when we are very, very lucky, give us a good laugh.
Yesterday at Barnes and Noble, I sat on the floor in Home Décor thumbing through books, looking for the magic bullet of decorating. You know the one I'm talking about. The magic bullet that will make my house look like houses in the books, except personalized to our Raihala style, at zero cost to us and minimal effort. THAT magic bullet. Anyway, I heard a male voice ask, "Are you finding what you're looking for?"
Assuming this was an employee, I replied, jokingly, without looking up, "No, I'm not. There's no magic solution in any of these books to make my house look great without spending a lot of money."
My assumption that this was an employee was based in sound logic. When I worked in book stores, I asked that very question thousands of times and never expected much response. If people needed help, they generally made eye contact (unless they wanted porn) and asked; otherwise, they grunted and kept their eyes on their books. When someone joked back, it lightened my day with a brief, funny interaction. I always appreciated those exchanges that went beyond a grunt, and didn't want to take customers away from the books.
Anyway, in my peripheral vision, I saw the guy stop, and thus began a very strange conversation that quickly veered off script. He asked me about my drink, which was from the café in the bookstore that serves Starbucks coffee, but he didn't seem aware that there was a café in the bookstore and referred to the Starbucks in the strip across the parking lot.
Realizing I'd badly misjudged this person's inquiry, I looked up and saw he wasn't wearing a lanyard around his neck and thus clearly was not a Barnes and Noble employee. He was, ahem, an older gentleman who didn't even appear to be a regular customer at the bookstore.
Once I got a good look at him, things got creepy. Most casual conversations with strangers are just that: casual. He seemed...purposeful, probing, like he was trying to get the small talk out of the way before giving me an Amway pitch.
And then it hit me.
He was hitting on me.
Ohmygosh. The silly gray-haired woman sitting on the floor in Home Décor was a target of elderly lust. She should have looked up immediately and seen the creepy bait-and-switch snake slithering toward her and run fast the other way. She assumed poorly.
Fighting the urge to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, I smiled. He took this for encouragement and left the topic of coffee, asking, "Do you live around here?"
"Is your house nice? Judging from that book you're looking at, it must be."
"Yes, we are very blessed with a beautiful house."
Plural personal pronoun. I'm giving you a clue!
He pounced on it.
"Are you married?" Hmm. Very direct.
"Yes. Yes, I am. My husband's around here somewhere, and our two boys. Oh, look, there's one of our boys now. Hi, Jack!"
"Hi, Mom!" Jack offered obligingly.
"Oh, well," he said immediately. "Bye." He turned quickly and walked away.
And that was that. I chuckled to myself. Like Jack at the doctor's office, I found it rather entertaining to turn out his metaphorical lights...which perhaps says something not entirely flattering about me, but there it is.
It's interesting how many conversations--casual, anonymous conversations--I've had with men over the years that were not at all creepy. In the past year, two older gentlemen complimented my silver locks in ways that didn't feel creepy or odd. Their compliments felt just like the compliments offered by Jack's silver-haired principal (a woman) and the 20-something check-out clerk at Target (also a woman). Neither the men nor the women had ulterior motives detectable in their conversation, and the men certainly didn't send off any trolling-for-tail vibe whatsoever. They just seemed friendly. They brightened my day and made me feel happy. I appreciated them and tried to pass on their kindness to others.
I assumed this man at Barnes and Noble was an employee because he asked me if I was finding what I was looking for. As soon as my assumption proved false, I let the situation play out as politely as it could, knowing that George--my strapping bald husband who can look very threatening even though he's a sweetie--was a shout away. This man assumed I was alone and perhaps available for...whatever. Perhaps my gray hair led him to imagine he stood a chance. As soon as his assumptions proved false, he slithered off as fast as he could, faster than good manners allow.
I have no idea what story arc led this man to hit on gray-haired old ladies in Barnes and Noble, but I feel sorry for him and hope he can find happiness and warmth and kindness...and that he can learn to give these good things to others as well. I certainly felt no kindness or warmth from him yesterday.
On the bright side, I'm not the gray-haired old lady he assumed I was. I am Susan Raihala, a beloved child of God (flaws and all), a woman with a 47-year history, a fabulous story arc, wonderful relationships, strong values...a smart woman who has a head full of sparkly silver hair and absolutely no need or desire ever to hook up with random old dudes at Barnes and Noble.
Thank you, Jesus. And I mean that. Seriously. Thank you.