I was telling TBB about my last phone call from the amazing Kate Bornstein, a few years ago now. Kate had read some of my work and was telling me how amazing it was, how bold and brilliant my thinking was.
After I thanked her, I explained that it wasn’t just my work, that it had roots in collegiate research, and as I explained, I could hear the air go out of Kate. She wanted to be sweet and encouraging but I was being pedantic and minimizing.
TBB laughed when she heard the story.
“I know that feeling, because I have tried to compliment you. You just acknowledge the affirmation and then move on, putting your work in context,” she told me. “It isn’t very satisfying, but I have learned to understand that you do hear everything, that it does count, so that has to be enough.”
Most people know how to bask in praise, at least a bit. They may puff up or they may fish for more compliments, but they have a strong emotional response to flattery.
As the child of Aspergers parents, I learned very early to filter and contextualize any emotional response I had to anything. I knew that my emotions lead me to danger, that they needed to be controlled and managed.
This frustrated bosses of mine who were trained as salespeople, their skill of softening up and leading others through emotional feeding going cold on me. “I don’t understand what motivates you,” one expert said as he tried to get me on his side.
In the end, though, most of them figured out that I did listen and that my goal was honesty. I know when I am good and I like it. I got my first big, improvisational on-stage laughs when I was 13 and they have always been rewarding to me.
People who know me understand that expecting me to melt on the spot is too much to ask, but that seeds planted will come back to bloom. I hear the positive and will reflect it, but in context and not in a flushed rush.
I am a big fan of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s “Crazy Ex Girlfriend,” where the titular Rebecca spends her life stuck between a whip-smart brain and a dramatically romantic heart. “If you are deciding who the right guy is for her,” the creators warn, “you are missing the point. This is about her getting right in the world.”
In the season finale, Lea Salonga, the singing voice behind two Disney Princesses, belts out the syrupy ballad “One Indescribable Instant,” which she goes onto describe. The music is swelling, romantic and carries everyone away to that moment out of time where all there is to say is “I love you.”
Rachel is swept away too, back to the princess dreams she had as a child, back to the drama camp fantasies that Josh Chan could be her own, very real Prince Charming.
The second verse of lyric, though, has a bit of smart doubt creeping in:
In one indescribable instant, There is no time or space. In one indescribable instant, It all falls into place. In one indescribable instant, Your dreams will all come true. 'Cause in that one indescribable, Magical, mystical, Endless, incredible, Barely believable, Truly unlikely, But not inconceivable, What? Are you kidding me? No, it's for-real-able instant, The only words you need are "I love you!"
The heart wants what it wants, but the head, well, the head is always there to help. As much as we love the simple, romantic emotional rush that Ms. Salonga and the music creates, well, the third gotcha is always there.
Life is a lot more nuanced than that, as the saying goes.
Never having been one of the girls or one of the boys, I never learned to trade in that sexual commerce where women are ready to do what he wants in return for hearing what they want to hear.
The trade in flattery always seemed scary to me because I understood that people were manipulative, trying to enforce gender roles by giving or denying affirmation. Being who I am, I just couldn’t afford to be pounded by that game, so my filters had to be strong.
My days to be swept away by the fantasy that someone else can save me are long gone.
Although, I do suspect that if I looked like I was delighting in compliments more, people would me more likely to share them with me.