Mastering the Art of Fine

I came from a family where excerpts of Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette were read with alarming frequency at the dining table.  We must have been slow learners.  Though it seems unlikely Amy would have condoned the fork jabbing I got for interrupting my father, I was certainly programmed to follow the rules.  Consequently, I know what I’m supposed to say when people ask me how I am.  But why ask at all if no one really expects a meaningful answer?

There are those awkward moments, of course–standing next to someone too lurky, quick-witted, or dashing for me to concentrate properly–when I find myself saying, “How are you?”as desperate filler.  In such instances, even if I might possibly care about the answer, most likely I cannot even hear it.  I am too busy plotting how to weasel out of my clammy-handed corner without drawing too much attention to myself.

But usually I genuinely want to know.  Therefore I feel some sort of moral imperative to answer frankly.  This can be a very bad idea.

The other day, I was really in the abyss, but I decided to drag myself out for some Culture and Shmoozing.  I have no clue why this seemed important in my state, but I got a sitter and shoved myself into something fancy-ish.  Hurtling across town, I practiced, “Fine.  And you?” in a relaxed and self-confident manner.  I knew I was going to see someone who intimidates me terribly.  Someone who makes me sweat but could totally change my life if I could just get her attention and assistance.  My plan was to have a casual chat, perhaps fawn just enough, and then hit her up for a wee bit of advice and support.

The moment of truth.  She turned and smiled when she saw me.  “How are things going?” she asked.  Guess what?  Not well.  My oldest child is depressed and anxious.  A good friend recently betrayed me.  My projects have completely stalled, my husband is out of town, and everything at home is in meltdown mode.  To top it off, I threw my back out vomiting repeatedly while dangling from the driver’s seat.  (My apologies to the kind people on Reposa Street).  I looked at her and started having an out-of-body sort of moment.  I saw myself manage a weak smile.

“It’s a mixed bag,” I squeaked before disappearing into the crowd.  I figure that’s progress.

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Beret Olsen

Writer, photographer, teacher, and part-time insomniac.

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