Assuming the Worst

When I was 11 years old, I brought some candy to school. They were those little, sugary mints that most kids have seen a million times. My best friend back then was kind of gullible, though, so when she asked me what it was, I told her it was drugs. I thought it was kind of funny, because by all accounts I was the most straight-laced kid on earth. I wouldn’t have a clue where to get illegal drugs. (Frankly, I still don’t.)

She saw me eat the candy, and bunch of my classmates did, too. I tried to tell her it was a joke, but she wouldn’t partake. I felt bad about that.

Then she went home and told her mother. Her mother called my house right after school, before my mother got home from work. And she screamed at me. I mean, she really, really screamed. She called me a little drug dealer and told me I was going to hell. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me I was never, ever to talk to her daughter again, or I’d be in BIG TROUBLE.

So I didn’t. And that felt horrible for the rest of the school year. Then we each moved on to different schools and I never saw her again.

Lately that seems to be a recurring theme in my life– people assuming the worst of me. There has been a very sharp uptick of that since the most recent election. And it’s not even about things political most of the time. Is this the world we now live in? Hostile judgments at every turn?

It always takes me by surprise when these misunderstandings occur, because I have the exact opposite problem. I tend to assume the best of people, and then I’m shocked when they show me otherwise. So these negative assessments always feel like they’re coming way out of left field, and I’m generally so stunned that I can’t think how to defend myself.

The bottom line is that I seem to be losing people. And I can’t decide whether that’s bad or good. Where these people ever really my friends if they can think the worst of me? Should I have to work so hard to prove myself? Am I absolutely clueless as to the image I put across?

I really would go live in a cave somewhere if I could find one with wifi and pizza delivery. And a supply of sugary mints.

sugary-mints

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Mistaken Identity

There have been many instances in which people have made assumptions about me that weren’t true. I always find these experiences extremely disconcerting. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. I think of myself as someone who is pretty easy to read. But of course, I shouldn’t assume that total strangers know how to read me.

Once, I was shopping for a purse and my hands were full, so I put all my stuff on the floor and picked up a purse and looked inside to see if it had well designed compartments (as you do), and suddenly this store detective grabbed me rather forcefully by my arm. I looked at him and said, “What the hell?” and he apologized and walked off. He thought I was trying to steal the purse.

That reminded me of the many times I was followed by detectives in stores as a teenager. Yes, I was quite visibly poor, but that didn’t mean I was a thief. I’ve never stolen so much as a stick of gum in my entire life. (Well, that’s not true. I have walked off with my fair share of ball point pens. But I swear to you that it’s never intentional.)

Then there was the time when my greyhound ripped up my couch at 3 in the morning and gashed his leg wide open on the springs. I rushed him to the 24 hour emergency vet. The vet was hostile and uncooperative. I was freaked out and still in my pajamas, but that didn’t mean I was neglectful or abusive to my dog. He changed his attitude when I gave him the long list of very expensive medications that dog was on. Suddenly he looked at me in a completely different light. “Wow, maybe she does care about her dog.” That really pissed me off, because this was an emergency, for crying out loud. I didn’t have time to justify my character while my dog was bleeding out in the waiting room.

Once, while traveling in Turkey, I decided to rent a car for a portion of the journey. Simply because I was female, they wouldn’t rent the car to me unless I test drove it with them. They made it clear that they’d have felt much better if it had been my boyfriend driving. I found that quite amusing, since he’d been in no less than 7 car accidents, all of which were his fault. That’s why I did all the driving in that relationship.

I can’t count the number of times 911 operators have assumed I was a crank caller. I’ve also been accused of cheating when I hadn’t (big shout out to one of my ex’s entire freakin’ loser family), lying when I wasn’t, and being part of a bigger conspiracy when I couldn’t have cared less. I’ve also been told that I really must want children when I don’t, and that there’s something strange about me because I don’t want to dress sexy every waking moment of my life. Don’t even get me started on the innumerable times I have been considered less intelligent than I am.

There’s nothing more frustrating to me than being misunderstood. This makes me realize, though, that I get to hide behind my white privilege quite a bit. Most people assume I’m harmless, which means these negative situations crop up rarely enough to cause me outrage when they do. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a minority and have to contend with this bs every single day.

mistaken

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Think of Horses

Here’s a quote that’s often used in the medical profession:

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” – Dr. Theodore Woodward

In other words, don’t assume some exotic medical malady first, when it is much more likely to be something quite common. A child is much more likely to have a bladder infection than maple syrup urine disease.

But I think this quote can and should be applied to a lot more areas of life than just medicine. One of the reasons that I tend to look askance at most conspiracy theories is the simple, basic fact that the vast majority of people cannot keep secrets. And trying to get a large number of people to agree, let alone march in lockstep toward one common, corrupt goal, is next to impossible. If something nefarious is going on, chances are it’s one person at the heart of it, maybe two at most. Not an entire organization.

I know a woman who thinks zebras all the time. For example, she saw a dog hair on the counter at her place of work, and rather than assuming it fell off someone’s clothing, she instantly concluded that someone was sneaking his or her dog to work on her days off. Seriously?

And when you try to do something helpful for this woman, she automatically believes you must be out to get her. It has got to be exhausting, always running with the zebras like that. And because she trusts no one, no one trusts her. That’s kind of sad.

I genuinely believe that the simple explanation is most often the right one. That’s how I choose to live my life. Yup, sometimes I’m wrong, but I’m also a lot less stressed out.

zebras
It makes me tired just watching.

My Truth About Mexico

In my sophomore year in college, I had the great good fortune to study abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico. I think everyone should study abroad at some point. It expands your worldview. And based on commentary in recent years, it’s painfully clear that America’s worldview needs expanding, especially in terms of our neighbor to the south.

When I lived in Mexico, I made some friends that I still have to this day. I learned a lot about myself and what is important to me. I was exposed to art, education, history, literature, architecture, and exquisite food. I met decent, hard-working, loving and dedicated families.

Guanajuato is a college town, full of students anticipating bright futures, and bringing with them the energy and excitement that only people of that age can bring. And because of that, this is a city full of cultural activity and many opportunities for learning.

Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t, but it probably does. If that fool Donald Trump and the media in general are the rulers by which we measure Mexico, then the average American thinks that all Mexicans are living in scummy little border towns full of drugs and prostitution and tacky tourism, and that they are all planning to descend en masse on the USA, so that they can rob and rape and plunder. Run for the damned hills! No American is safe! No wonder so many people are pushing for a wall to be built.

This attitude makes me sick. It also makes me sad. When I tell people I lived in Mexico, you know what the most common question is? “Did you see a dog and pony show?” Seriously. And the answer is no. I wouldn’t even know where to find one if my life depended on it. What I did see was the Bolshoi Ballet when it toured in our town.

I once got into a heated argument with someone who said, “Those GD Mexicans just want to take our jobs.” Here’s something that doesn’t seem to occur to the average American. Not every Mexican wants to move to America. And the ones that come are either doing so out of desperation and take jobs most of us wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole or are (gasp!) already capable professionals who want to make a new start like most of our ancestors did. Both groups make important contributions to this society.

Yes, there is poverty and despair, but Mexico is also a country that’s full of doctors and lawyers and teachers and accountants and shop owners and bankers and clerks, and they love their country as much as we love ours. It’s because of them that their country functions, and they have every right to be proud of that.

So before you start disparaging an entire nation of people, you might want to look beyond the border towns and your unfounded preconceived notions and see the real people of Mexico. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not willing to take your prejudices seriously.

Guanajuato, Mexico, one of the best places I've ever been.
Guanajuato, Mexico, one of the best places I’ve ever been.

On Being Misunderstood

A few years after my high school graduation, I ran into someone I went to school with but didn’t know very well. He said, “In high school, I always thought you were a snob.” That floored me. In high school I was a lonely, troubled, insecure girl who would have given anything, anything to have more friends. If anything, I thought everyone else was better than me, not that I was better than anyone else.

Similarly, I once ran into someone I used to go to college with who assumed at the time that I was always stoned out of my mind. Huh? I was so rigidly straight-laced and such a good girl that I probably missed out on a lot of college fun. I was in my own little world, yes, but that was a defense mechanism because I was scared, out of my element, and socially awkward.

I’ve got an ex-boyfriend who likes to post on his Facebook page that I cheated on him when I never did. In retrospect I probably should have. I was that miserable. But I didn’t.

And I once worked with a woman who was convinced I was out to get her when in fact I was simply trying to figure out how to get along with someone who liked to be confrontational for no logical reason. She also thought I didn’t like her because of her race, when in fact I didn’t like her because she was crazy. Race didn’t even enter into the equation for me.

It’s exhausting, being misunderstood. It frustrates me. And once someone has the wrong idea about you in their head, it’s nearly impossible to get it out. Protesting a negative only makes you look worse. When someone says, “I don’t kick puppies,” it makes them look like the worst of puppy kickers. And yes, a puppy kicker would say that, wouldn’t he? But so would someone who is being wrongly accused.

It sure  makes you wonder, though, how many people you’ve made inaccurate assumptions about.

Calvin

I Love Your Mind

In this modern computer age I have quite a few friends that I haven’t met face to face. In many cases we are a half a world away from each other, and the likelihood of us ever breaking bread is pretty slim. Even so, they’re as dear to me as any partner in crime from college ever was. We banter, we chat, we meet on Facebook or in the virtual world of Second Life. We exchange e-mails. We skype. I have even made several friends through the comments here on my blog. I’ve also connected with distant relatives and reconnected with long lost friends on line. I love being alive at this point in history!

Granted, you can’t always trust what you learn on line. That girl of your dreams might be a fat old truck driver with bushy chest hair pushing out the top of his wife-beater shirt, and pedophiles and perverts love the internet even more than I do. I have met my fair share of crazies, believe you me. But generally speaking, crazy is hard to hide for long. It usually oozes out of the cracks in one’s façade fairly quickly.

But what I love most about meeting people this way is that you skip right over the assumptions and judgments that come along with the usual first impressions. You get past that two foot long beard because you aren’t aware it’s there. Obesity, deformity, race, bad taste in clothes, and really bad cologne do not factor in when you are getting to know someone on line. You aren’t meeting face to face. You are meeting mind to mind.

Within three seconds of meeting an adolescent in Second Life, I can tell. They have no life experience, and therefore very little to contribute to a conversation. I move on. It also doesn’t take much time to determine if you have nothing in common with someone. If someone is pushy, aggressive or rude, they’ll usually be the same way in cyberspace.

But just as in real life, when you click with people, it has nothing to do with the physical. It’s their sense of humor, their integrity, their intelligence and their point of view that makes you like them. You have a better chance of meeting these gems on line, because you won’t discount them for their scary biker attire or their severe facial scarring.

Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we’ve all dismissed someone due to our assumptions based on their appearance. What opportunities have we missed for life long friendships? The internet is the great equalizer in this instance, and I’m forever grateful for the many friends I’ve made through its agency.

read your mind

Visual Cues

Shoebill

This, dear readers, is a Shoebill. It’s a stork-like bird that lives in East Africa. It can get up to almost 5 feet tall. Now I don’t know about you, but if I ran into one of these suckers in a dark alley, I’d soil myself. They look angry and aggressive. They look like they could really f*** you up. Look at those vicious little eyes and that massive, dangerous looking bill!

Actually, unless you’re a fish on its menu, in which case you’re likely to be decapitated in its powerful jaws, this bird is actually quite tame, and will often fly off and abandon its nest if you try to approach. The vast majority of the Shoebill’s time is spent in a zen-like silent and motionless state.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s true with people, too.

It is a natural survival mechanism to see things and draw immediate conclusions, but sometimes it means you’re missing out on opportunities to know some pretty amazing people.

The sweet, generous, and amazing man who bought me this laptop has a two foot long beard. I’m sure that because of that a lot of people make assumptions about him and think they won’t be able to relate to him at all. That’s a shame.

I know someone else who had to have brain surgery decades ago, and because of that half his face sags and he slurs his words when he’s particularly tired. A lot of people actually assume he’s retarded when in fact his IQ is quite high. Babies look at him and cry because he cannot smile. It must be exhausting having to get past the assumptions of every single person you meet before you can have an intelligent conversation.

By all means, trust your survival instinct when you find yourself in a questionable situation. When alone in a parking garage, profile with impunity is my philosophy. But next time you’re in a café, for example, maybe try to allow yourself a few extra minutes to delve deeper into the people that you meet. You never know what treasures you may unearth.

There are a lot of figurative Shoebills in this world. Each one is priceless.