The Embarrassing Truth
Have you ever really embarrassed yourself? Don’t answer that, stupid. It’s a rhetorical question. Of course you’ve embarrassed yourself. Everybody has. I bet the pope has. If you were to say to the pope: “Your Holy Worshipfulness, I bet you’ve pulled some blockheaded boners in your day, huh?” he’d smile that warm, knowing, fatherly smile he has, and then he’d wave. He can’t hear a word you’re saying, up on that balcony. But my point is that if you’ve ever done anything humiliating, you’ve probably noticed that your brain never lets you forget it. This is the same brain that never remembers things you should remember. If you were bleeding to death and the emergency-room doctor asked you what blood type you were, you’d say: “I think it’s B. Or maybe C. I’m pretty sure it’s a letter.” But if your doctor asked you to describe the skirt you were wearing when you were doing the Mashed Potatoes in the ninth-grade dance competition in front of 350 people, and your underwear, which had holes in it, fell to your ankles, you’d say, without hesitating for a millisecond, “It was gray felt with a pink flocked poodle.”
Your brain cherishes embarrassing memories. It likes to take them out and fondle them. This probably explains a lot of unexplained suicides. A successful man with a nice family and a good career will be out on his patio, cooking hamburgers, seemingly without a care in the world, when his brain, rummaging through its humiliating-incident collection, selects an old favorite, which it replays for a zillionth time, and the man is suddenly so overcome by feelings of shame that he stabs himself in the skull with his barbecue fork. At the funeral, people say how shocking it was, a seemingly happy and well-adjusted person choosing to end it all. They assume he must have had a terrible dark secret involving drugs or organized crime or dressing members of the conch family in flimsy undergarments. Little do they know he was thinking about the time in Social Studies class in 1963 when he discovered a hard-to-reach pimple roughly halfway down his back, and he got to working on it, subtly at first, but with gradually increasing intensity, eventually losing track of where he was, until suddenly he realized the room had become silent, and he looked up, with his arm stuck halfway down the back of his shirt, and he saw that everybody in the class, including the teacher, was watching what he was doing, and he knew they’d give him a cruel nickname that would stick like epoxy cement for the rest of his life, such as when he went to his 45th reunion, even if he had been appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the instant his classmates saw him, they’d shriek: “Hey look! It’s ZIT!”
Everybody has incidents like this. My mother is always reliving the time she lost her car in a shopping-center parking lot, and she was wandering around with several large shopping bags and two small children, looking helpless, and after a while other shoppers took pity on her and offered to help. “It’s a black Chevrolet,” she told them, over and Over. And they searched and searched and searched for it. They were extremely nice. They all agreed that it can be darned easy to lose your car in these big parking lots. They had been there for an hour, some of them, searching for this black Chevrolet, and it was getting dark, when my mother remembered that several days earlier we had bought a new car. “I’m sorry!” she told the people, smiling brightly so they would see what a humorous situation this was. “It’s not a black Chevrolet! It’s a yellow Ford!” She kept on smiling as they edged away, keeping their eyes on her.
My own personal brain is forever dredging up the time in 11th grade when I took a girl, a very attractive girl on whom I had a life-threatening crush, to a dance. I was standing in the gym next to her, holding her hand, thinking what a sharp couple we made—Steve Suave and His Gorgeous Date—when one of my friends sidled up to me and observed that, over on the other side, my date was using her spare hand to hold hands with another guy. This was of course a much better-looking guy. This was Paul Newman, only taller.
Several of my friends gathered to watch. I thought: What am I supposed to do here? Hit the guy? That would have been asking for a lifetime of dental problems. He was a varsity football player; I was on the Dance Committee. I also had to rule out hitting my date. The ideal move would have been to spontaneously burst into flames and die. I have read that this sometimes happens to people. But you never get a break like that when you need it.
Finally I turned to my date, dropped her hand, looked her square in the eye, and said: “Um.” just like that: “Um. My brain absolutely loves to remember this. “Way to go, Dave!” it shrieks to me, when I’m stopped at red lights, 23-1/2 years later. Talk about eloquent! My brain can’t get over what a jerk I was. It’s always coming up with much better ideas for things I could have said. I should start writing them down, in case we ever develop time travel. I’d go back to the gym with a whole Rolodex file filled with remarks, and I’d read them to my date over the course of a couple of hours. Wouldn’t she feel awful! Ha ha!
It just occurred to me that she may be out there right now, in our reading audience, in which case I wish to state for the record that I am leading an absolutely wonderful life, and I have been on the Johnny Carson show, and I hope things are equally fine with you.
Twice. I was on Carson twice.