Just before a massage session, I immediately go on auto-pilot. I say the same thing to all my clients: I’m
stepping outside. Once I’m away, please place the robe at the foot of the bed; slippers remain on the
floor. Slip under this sheet, face up. I’ll be right back.
My instructions are succinct. And boring. Most clients follow them without incident. Once in a while though, a client will have heard nothing I said. When I re-enter the room, there they are, still sitting in a chair or lying face down above the sheets, their head at the foot of the bed, with or without the robe. I’ve learned to avert my eyes and calmly repeat my instructions, word for word.
I must admit that speaking with few words is unnatural to me. My friends, family and co-workers have all told me that I tend to talk in circles, excitedly repeating my stories over and over.
I once had a boss who tried in vain to improve my communication skills. Apparently, it involves an exotic art called Listening, which I have very little interest in and even less talent for. Part of my old job was to communicate mind-numbing topics, like how to correctly fill out an expense report, or how to pack and ship hazardous materials. During conferences, I gave speeches that were, in truth, oral interpretations of a policies and procedures manual.
I struggled to make my speeches entertaining, which is like spraying perfume into a garbage bin. My boss would review my work and return it covered in angry red ink, the brilliant humorous asides crossed out and decorated with exclamation points.
“What are you thinking,” my boss would say. “You can’t say those things. They’re inappropriate!” I urged her to visualize a comatose audience with dead eyes rolled upwards into their sockets, gaping mouths caked with dried saliva. “A little levity,” I pleaded with her. “Just to distract them from suicidal thoughts.”
Oliver recoils whenever I speak in public, waiting in terror for the inevitable faux pas. He tells me I suffer from a rare form of Tourette’s, which triggers outbursts of jokes at someone else’s expense. I call it Tropical Storm Inappropriate, and I am convinced it originates in the Philippines. Filipinos, especially middle aged aunties, are quite skilled in the art of inappropriate public speaking. Throughout my life, I have heard them say these exact words: “Oh, you’re so fat-fat!”
The word for fat in Tagalog is taba. Unlike English, we don’t add “very” or “so” in front of the word to
indicate emphasis. Instead, we say the word twice. “You are taba” becomes “You are taba-taba” to
say, “You are even bigger than I last saw you. You must be eating delicious food. Very often.”
Our good friend "Jane" was walking down the street when she bumped into a Filipino auntie. The
auntie wasn’t a relative, like most Filipino aunties.
“Oh, Jane, so. You are fat-fat! When are you due?” She pronounced the last word like “jew”.
“Jew? Oh, due. For what?”
“The baby,” the auntie gushed, stroking Jane’s belly. “How far along are you?” Jane’s mind spun out of control. For the record, Jane is a big, beautiful girl and no, she wasn’t pregnant.
“Uh. Three months?”
Jane was appalled at her own response, a flat out lie. But in Filipino culture, respect for our elders supersedes the humiliation our elders are obliged to inflict upon us.
A year later, Jane ran into the same auntie.
“Oh, Jane, so. Did you have a boy or a girl?”
“Oh,” said Jane, her mind spinning out of control again. She glanced down at her belly and touched it. “I lost the baby.”
Something similar has happened to me many times, and Oliver relishes in retelling it. We were speaking to a customer service representative at the Home Depot, when she suddenly told Oliver, “You have to listen your father.” I spun around, half expecting my father-in-law to be behind me. Then it dawned on me what she meant.
“Oh, no you didn’t!” I sputtered. By all appearances, this woman was not a Filipino auntie, but she was clearly infected by one. “Son,” she continued, gesturing to me. “Show your father some respect.” I mentally covered her in angry red ink, her mouth crossed out and decorated with exclamation points.
“I am not his father,” I snarled. “But I am his daddy.”
Oliver yanked me out of the store, before Hurricane Inappropriate made landfall. “I’m only eight years older than you,” I said, seething with indignation. “And I’m prematurely gray, with a preternaturally mature countenance. And stop smiling. Son.”