Last night after a family get-together, my fourth consecutive night of interacting with my brother, I kinda shut down after he made like the seventh insulting, embarrassing, condescending remark in all those nights (to say nothing of a small fiasco he caused me with an Uber)—he’s big on behaving that way, and it drives me crazy, but I realize, too, that it drives me too crazy, that I’m hypersensitive about people who try to insult my intelligence or suggest that I don’t know what I’m talking about, which I think is partly to do with the fact that I was never really a good student. Middle school was the worst of it. But high school, particularly, is where I discovered the social anxieties of being a bad student because I was dating Lynda at the time, who is mindfuckingly smart (if she closes her eyes and thinks really hard about something you’ll see the windows fogging)—and meanwhile, as she was Mick Jaggering through a host of academic accolades, I was taking remedial math, remedial science, and my English teachers kept insisting that I take Advance Placement English (which I was definitely aboard with) but then I’d get placed in those courses and end up just barely scrape by with a B or a C because, ahdunno, I just couldn’t follow the structure of it all. Like in my junior year we had to read Huckleberry Finn and basically all we talked about were the socio-historical aspects. Nothing about style, nothing about metaphor, nothing about the kindsa things that I think make reading so rewarding. We were reading it like a newspaper. I remember being really proud, in the second week of that class, when we were given this assignment: we had to write short answers to a bunch of personal questions. And one of the questions was, “What did you read this summer?” And so I wrote out like fourteen titles (the only ones I remember now are Breakfast of Champions and a slim collection of Kafka’s stories that my friend Tommy’d given me—but I know I was on a Vonnegut kick that summer, so they were probably mostly books by him), and when I got my assignment back the teacher had bracketed the response and said, “Wow! Very impressive! But this sentence is too long.”
I got a 900 on my SAT while my girlfriend got a close-to-perfect score, plus gave some dazzling performances on the ACT, and in the latter part of high school I became really friendly with a pre-formed group of friends, Helen and Zara and Krista and Kelly and Harry, who all had phenomenal grades, earning themselves positions in that Bright Futures program or whatever it’s called, and meanwhile I did feel like I fit in with them, but I also didn’t ever feel like I should share my opinions because everybody did seem to have an easy time of showing me how I’d misunderstood something, or how there was some ugly bias entrenched in my impressions, and so I kept mostly quiet unless we were talking about sex or dating or movies. Obama was running against John McCain in my senior year and it was a hard conversation to dodge but I dodged it because (1) I wasn’t that interested in politics and (2) I was 100% convinced that I wouldn’t understand anything about it if I tried.
College was a little different. I did OK. Like my grades weren’t remarkable (graduated with a 3.45) but I got chummy with a few professors, I published a short story for the first time, found my crowd.
But it’s still this open wound, the intelligence thing, and I guess it’s been exacerbated cuz I’ve never been able to find a white collar job that calls for my specific skillset (such as I have one): I was a bad-to-mediocre student until college and then after college I’ve always been an unremarkable job candidate, am currently clinging to the same tutoring gig I’ve had for five years, and then, on weekends, I work at a restaurant.
This is self-pitying, I know, and it’s always inherently pathetic when an adult talks seriously about their high school performance; I’m only putting it in these terms because I’ve noticed over the past couple weeks that I’m really quick to shut down and shut people out when they do something to offend my very delicate sense of, like, ability. And then every time I see my brother, if there are other people around, I’ll ask some innocuous question, or point something out, or give voice to an opinion and he’ll squint at me, and make a straight line of his mouth and respond in this tone like I’m a fucking idiot for having even ventured to speak.
And then two weeks ago, for instance, there was a small social crisis with a couple of close friends where I just went silent and stopped talking to them because, in the course of an hour, there’d been three jabs made about my misunderstanding something, or having a crude understanding of something, and they explained to me that the reason I was so naïve is because I’m entrenched in a larger capitalistic system that I don’t even realize I’m entrenched in—it’s the seed from which stem so many of the arguments people employ when condescending to me: they’re woke enough to see the men behind the curtain and that if, for instance, I find Joe Biden charmingly aloof (I don’t) then this is some kind of moral failure because obviously he’s a morally regressed lecher and I, by extension, am condoning or endorsing his behavior because I’m talking with a smile about how he beckoned for a man in a wheelchair to “stand up and give me a hug.”
The moralizing the moralizing the moralizing.
And I completely shut down when it happens.
My behavior here is pathetic and lame and reactionary.
My dad is good about just smiling and nodding and letting these petty offenses go.
I, on the otherhand, am immediately and emphatically prepared to not speak to my brother for probably a month on the grounds of his publicly humiliating me.
And that’s probably exactly what I’ll do.
But it’s also decidedly not a good reaction to things. Like we were at a holiday party a while ago where, during dinner, a woman stood up and announced, with a gracious smile, that she was sorry to be leaving so early, that it was nice to see everybody, etcetera. I found out, later, that this was apparently because somebody in the next seat had said something to offend her, and this was her garish way of shutting down about it.
Seemed pretty tacky.
But this is essentially what I do all the time. I don’t make a show of it, like the woman at the party, but I go totally quiet, allow for the evening to unfold along its appointed course without incident, and then, once it’s done, I draw the shutters and block the offending person’s number and resolve to never speak with them again—and part of what’s toxic here is that I seldom sit down and talk with the offending person about how and why they’ve offended me. But! I’ve also come to realize that, whenever I get offended by somebody, that person knows what they’ve said to offend me, and then, when they realize I’m mad, they ask me how they’ve offended me, pretending that the offense isn’t readily apparent (and thereby implying that I’m quibbling over minutiae); and then, if they do apologize, they say they’re sorry—not for offending me—but that they’re sorry if I am offended—which is now a new layer of offense, the condescension of the apology, which, if I point out that their apology is insincere, only gives them the ammunition of saying, “Oh, so now my apology isn’t apologetic enough?” thereby implying that, again, I’m quibbling over bullshit, which creates such a recursive tangle of insult and frustration that I just end up resolving, guiltlessly and completely, to never speak with the person again. And I stick to that. Which is maybe a little scorched-earth of me, I’ll confess; but y’know what? Fuck it.
Anyway. I don’t know how to start approaching this issue. Is it just a matter of not being proud? Steve Donoghue always seems to have the answer for this kinda thing, and if you’re somebody who’s not too confident or confrontational you’d probably find some good pointers in his videos about how to keep your integrity in the face of these things.