I Depend on the Disapproval of Strangers

My oddest in a long list of odd jobs was as a naturalist on a whale watch boat. The captain roamed from Curmudgonia to Jerkville but didn’t bother me much — at least, I mostly stayed out of his way. Until, that is, the day he skewered me in front of 43 paying customers.

I was ever trying to engage the tourists, so during “pre-whale” as I taught about using the boat as a clock to indicate direction (“Dolphin at 9 o’clock!”) I jokingly suggested that the correct way to call out a whale sighting was, of course, “Thar she blows!”

The seasick Nebraskans laughed, but the captain cut them (and me) off by shouting (on a smallish boat): “Don’t DO that. Nobody likes that kind of crap.”

The embarrassment of that moment lives with me to this day, despite the secret generous and tip from the aghast Nebraskans. The burning ears and seizing stomach revisit me regularly still, almost 15 years later.

Shame sticks.

* * *


Do not cross the fence.
Or dress like the Klan.

When I’m a parent in public, I frequently discover myself, voice raised, justifying my choices in detail for any skeptical ears that might be cocked.

“Sure, honey, you can have a entire cup of whipped cream, but remember, THAT’S YOUR REWARD FOR DOING SUCH A GREAT JOB CLEANING OUT THE GARAGE. AND WAXING THE CAR.” Boo just looks at me (as she frequently must) like I’m nuts, but at least I have convinced fellow cafe patrons that I’m not an irresponsible parent.

Or, playing in the yard with Boo while the Blueberry cries on the baby monitor: “Oh, Boo, listen, your sister is having a hard time getting to sleep BUT WE’LL JUST GIVE HER FIVE MORE MINUTES BECAUSE THAT USUALLY WORKS.”

Or, at the playground: “Yes, a lunch of nothing but salt and goldfish is fine BECAUSE OF THAT HIGH-FIBER AND FRUIT-FILLED BREAKFAST YOU HAD.”

I raise my voice to combat the internal monologue that’s constantly telling me what a bad job I’m doing (and how many people are noticing it).

* * *

Today, at the aquarium with a friend, we were deep into a game of “I Spy” when I noticed that both girls were resting their feet on the tank glass. Not kicking or smearing the window, just sort of sitting there. On the glass.

My self-check ran into high gear; my voices shouted “Are they allowed?” and “Will they mess it up?” and “I can hear you people commenting darkly behind our backs!” But we were too deep into our wonderful game — the kids were observing and describing and characterizing the fish — and I just didn’t feel like stealing that brilliant lesson to replace it with a boring old “sit properly” admonition.

And so I discovered my overactive sense of shame has only one saving grace: I (mostly) keep these invented regulations in my head. I might be afflicted with the dreaded rule-follower disease, but I’m determined not to impress that on my children. Besides, there are enough rules to teach that make sense for real reasons.

Be kind. Sleep well. Wipe.

Maybe I’m spoiling Boo a little, but I’d prefer that than to feel I am constantly devising extra restrictions on her natural explorations in order to assuage mythical strangers.