I was in the 1st grade, on the evening of March 7, 1955, when I watched, along with a record-sized television audience, NBC’s live broadcast of Mary Martin and Cyril Richard reprising their award-winning theatrical performance of Peter Pan. At the play’s dramatic peak, a fairy named Tinkerbell has drunk a poisoned cup of medicine to prevent Peter from accidentally drinking it. Tinkerbell will soon die unless the children in the audience clap to show her that they believe in fairies.
The following afternoon, my 1st grade classmate Paula sidled up to me as we descended the big staircase to our elementary school’s exit. I was kind of thrilled, because up until then she had always snubbed me. (Being somewhere on the Asperger spectrum, I’ve never been adept at picking up on social cues. But Paula made it so obvious that even I got it.) She asked if I’d watched Peter Pan the night before. I said that I had. She then asked if I’d clapped for Tinkerbell. A bit surprised that anyone would ask, I nonchalantly allowed that I hadn’t.
Paula at once dashed off to report this scandal to others. (She never spoke to me again. Or even acknowledged my existence. After what I’d confessed, why would she?)
At the time, I was stunned. I thought to myself (naively): It’s only a TV show! I now realize, as Shakespeare observed, all the world’s a stage, so shows of all sorts greatly matter.
There have been many similar incidents in my life since then. Of course, it’s not an everyday event. But it’s happened enough that surely its occurrence is more than random chance. (In recent years, I’ve attended more than one public event at which I’ve been too cowardly not to clap — though I felt like booing.)
But How Did She Know?
Paula was the first to catch me committing a thoughtcrime, but as noted, hardly the last. Since the only tangible effect I have on the external world is what I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at times I’ve wondered why would anyone care if I clap for their favored fairy? What difference to others does my opinion about anything make, especially if they’re only guessing what my opinion is? And I’ve also pondered: Why do people (eg, Paula) make the guesses they make?
Years after the Tinkerbell affair, my 8th grade social studies* teacher, Miss Witherspoon, threw out a question for our class to consider: To what degree are life outcomes the result of individual effort, as opposed to environmental factors? My hand went up. She pivoted right and called on me. I opined 20% individual factors; 80% environmental. She looked stunned, obviously expecting the percentages would have been reversed (in a “hardcore” case such as mine!).
For my part, I too was shocked. Did she think I believed Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Robinson (to pick three of the most famous people of the era) would have been equally successful in their respective endeavors had they been raised in an isolated region of a rain forest somewhere?
And yet, I felt I must somehow have given off that vibe.
In a previous column, I listed a passel of acquaintances who made sure I knew they held me responsible for Donald Trump’s election in 2016. I was perplexed by this. Since I began posting on social media (back in 1995), I hadn’t verbally attacked any other public figure with the vigor with which I’d criticized Trump. In fact, I was a dyed-in-the-wool NeverTrumper.
If I was watching a FoxNews program that was interrupted by a phone call from Trump, I immediately switched to another station, wondering: Why does anyone listen to this guy? He has no idea of what he’s talking about, yet he’s barking about it like a junkyard dog. Yet, on-air hosts seem to take him seriously!
When a biker friend asked on Facebook what was the case against Trump, I responded that he’s spent his adult life immersed in the three most mobbed-up industries in America’s most mobbed-up city (NYC): construction, casino gambling, and show business. (My friend wasn’t at all dissuaded from supporting Trump.)
At another point, I made a fuss on Facebook over Trump’s unethical business practices, including four bankruptcies that left a lot of small-fry businesses unpaid. Then there was the phony Trump University, the steaks, vodka, airline, casinos — a whole smorgasbord of corrupt practices. To my surprise, a wealthy local friend replied that that’s business. And, that it might be a good thing, considering the “boy scouts” who’d occupied the White House in recent memory. (I wasn’t at all reassured.)
And yet, it turned out that many people had me pegged as a Trump supporter!
On the flip side, many times I’ve said something (out of conscious ignorance) that has greatly triggered a listener. For example, the day after the death of a famous cultural critic, I had some unkind things to say to Rob, a coffee-shop buddy, about this critic’s frequent, bitterly anti-American, public pronouncements. To my genuine surprise, Rob completely flipped his wig. His anger continued for days afterward. (But when he had a medical emergency, we were at once reconciled. He passed on not much later.)
Though not conscious that I’d offend Rob when I critiqued that critic, was I really innocent? Or was I unconsciously striking back for the hard time he sometimes gave me over political differences?
When we met in a coffee shop not long after I’d arrived 11 years earlier, Rob mentioned having moved to Oxford from the Midwest 20 years before then. I asked if he’d seen changes in that span, expecting him to comment favorably on social progress (as so many others already had). Instead his face turned scarlet as he raged that Oxford had gotten much more racist since he’d arrived(!)
Those of us who are active on social media all know people who never, ever interact with us — except to strongly disagree about a topic they know little or nothing about. Some go so far as to make clear that their attack has a personal element, not just an intellectual disagreement. Rob was one such person in my life. But, he wasn’t nasty or over-the-top, or even relentless. Tellingly, his sorties didn’t begin until around 10 pm, and would sputter out after 30 – 40 minutes. No biggie, as far as I was concerned.
And yet, might I unconsciously have intended to trigger him as payback for his prior parries?
So, returning to the original question: Perhaps I had been giving off a Trump supporter vibe, and was fooling only myself in cluelessly believing otherwise.
[To be continued.]
* Back in the day, my Grandma Russell taught History and Civics in Pine Bluff High School. By the time I was an 8th grader in New York, the same subject matter was being called “Social Studies”. Looking back, my sense is that the reason for the name change was to exclude any theory of historical change except the interplay of material and social forces — as opposed to, say, willful individuals, great ideas, or religious passion. To be sure, Miss Witherspoon did mention the “Three G’s” (Gold, God, and Glory) as the driving forces behind Spain’s explorations and conquests in the Americas. Still, even at the time, the name change seemed to me like a red flag on the field, so to speak, which perception of mine was perhaps a precursor to other people’s perceptions of me.