April 29, 2009


As Beth and I were driving to and from Pennsylvania this past weekend to see Marshall, we listened to a few podcasts of This American Life. Looking it up now online, I find that the episode - Cringe (#182) - was a few years old but that had pretty much no bearing on the content. It started with a story that is paraphrased below, in the absence of a transcript.

There was a guy who had bad vision and wore glasses who worked in an office. A coworker frequently brought her daughter to work. One day, whilst coming out of the bathroom having not yet put on his glasses, Impaired Vision Man saw the daughter and, because he was cool and liked kids, he couched down and crabwalked towards her and said something to the effect of "what are you doing here little girl?" in a funny voice. And of course - can you see this coming - it wasn't the little girl but a midget who worked in the office. Oops.

The premise of the episode followed this theme, that everyone has cringeworthy moments in life and those moments are usually brought on by one's own extra effort. As in, cringeworthy moments are achieved only after one has stuck one's neck out.

The episode of This American Life flooded back when I walked out of a parking garage in Monkeytown yesterday morning. Armed with a lame keyboard, a guitar, a chorus pedal and a truly terrible voice, a street performer was making a sad attempt at covering Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World. I shouldn't have been surprised. It was, after all, What A Wonderful World Corner, where all street performers are apparently required to perform the song almost constantly. It's bizarre. Anyway, a thought struck me - it really takes balls to put yourself out there, to suck so bad but still go the extra mile. Then I turned to my own running list of cringeworth moments. Here are a few.

  1. The red notebook full of doodles, rants and poetry my parents turned over not long ago is filled with cringe.
  2. When I was a kid, we were bordered by older neighbors. One, Mr. Swan, had done some major yard work. I saw a pile of mud clumps and asked him if I could throw them. I did, down his driveway, muddying the whole thing. This was not, apparently, what he had in mind. Though it's minor, I still cringe when I think of that.
  3. I switched schools in the middle of fourth grade, from the Conservative Baptist Bible-Thumping Academy to your everyday, ordinary public elementary school. Two people almost immediately helped me get settled on the first day. During recess, they volunteered to help me set up folders that I needed for each subject. Which I took to mean hey, we'll do it for you and I took off. I caught myself a minute later, headed back and made up an excuse that I'd tried to find the bathroom. I've felt reasonably stupid about that ever since.
  4. Allison. That three year relationship was one long cringe. I was kind, attentive, and sensitive. Other girls looked at Allison with envy for having a boyfriend like me, a boyfriend who helped her babysit her younger sisters, who went to each and every one of her softball games and gymnastics competitions. My efforts were not repayed in kind. Unless you could screwing around with other guys and getting drunk and puking on clothes she had borrowed from me affection. I hear she's married with a kid living somewhere in the south. That's cool. But part of me wants to hear that she's cracked out, working crappy strip clubs with lopsided fake boobs.

Here's the thing. It takes balls to be stupid, to come up with something that in days, weeks, months or years will make you cringe. But it also takes balls to do something great. Had the Wright brothers made their airplane out of bacon, they'd have set themselves up for a cringeworthy moment later in life and probably revisited the moment constantly. Bacon? they'd say. What the fuck were we thinking? We should never build planes when we're hungry. But they didn't make a plane out of bacon. They made it out of wood (and probably some other shit too). They stood on a dune in Kitty Hawk, stared into the wind and took an historic leap. That took balls. I guess that's the lesson - to do something important, you have to risk the cringe.

What are your top cringeworthy moments?

(Oh, and of course, as I walked back to the parking garage yesterday afternoon, a completely different street performer was on What A Wonderful World Corner. Performing - no joke - What A Wonderful World.)

Posted by Chris at April 29, 2009 6:23 AM

Husband # 1. And being so certain to all who asked, that this was "true love" and could sustain us through everything and anything. Ha! When the chips were down he started screwing anything in a skirt, including my then best friend! That's okay...he married her, and she now makes his life a living hell, so there is divine justice after all.

Posted by: Maribeth at April 29, 2009 6:43 AM

Great post, as always! I love the theme.

My moment... I had a massive crush on one of my husband's (at that time just a friend) best friends. While I had a huge crush, he just wanted sex. And I thought if I just give him that, he'd fall in love too. I guess I was wrong. We still see this guy from time to time. Though I'm over the whole thing and actually like him as a friend, it still makes me feel a *little* uncomfortable!

Posted by: Nadine at April 29, 2009 7:08 AM

The other day I was standing in a carpark trying to stop my daughter from running in front of cars when I noticed an older man drop something. A man with one arm. Aha! But I was prepared! I knew exactly where the cringey banana peel was placed. So I'm thinking to myself "DON'T say Do you need a hand! Don't say Do you need a hand!" And I'm saying it in my head so loudly that when he thanked me, I almost didn't hear myself say "Oh that's ok, I never have enough hands to carry everything either".

Yep, I'm here till Thursday. Try the veal.

And Maribeth, I'll go head to head with you on husband #1 - what's with them anyway? He was so ridiculous that when I told my daughter's daycare teacher we were separating, she said "Oh thank goodness - none of us like him!"

Posted by: Jo MacD at April 29, 2009 7:40 AM

I am terrible about introducing myself to people, usually sticking to those I know when I walk into a room, but I am always trying to be better about it. Still, it causes me some anxiety to walk up to someone and introduce myself. One night I went to my sister Melissa's apartment to join some siblings and cousins going downtown to see fireworks and as usual, my cousins had brought along assorted friends who I didn't necessarily know. And on this night, this alcohol-free night, I walked up to my sister Cyndie in a moment of anxiety riddled ambition and introduced myself. To my sister. Of fifteen years. She'd gotten a haircut that afternoon, unbeknownst to me and somehow I just went blind to her face? I don't know. But it remains one of my top embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments.

Posted by: Laura GF at April 29, 2009 8:05 AM

In 8th grade I had just gotten braces and glasses and the one time I had the attention of my entire homeroom class, I spoke, and drooled on the table right in front of them. I was mortified. Still am.

I love http://queserasera.org/ by the way.

Posted by: Brad at April 29, 2009 8:12 AM

I agree with Maribeth...Husband #1...though not the same guy.

My dad, while standing at the back of the church, asked if I wanted to leave...I said no, I knew what I was doing. 9 months later he's a drunk who's screwing his secretary and trying to kill me...that was a tough one to swallow. Thank goodness my dad never said "I told you so".

Posted by: Krush at April 29, 2009 8:14 AM

In eighth grade my teacher was giving a lecture and I rubbed my mouth and exhaled at the same time. The combination of the two actions sounded as if I had tooted (loudly). The entire class turned to look at me, even my teacher stopped talking for a second to figure out what was going on. I tried to explain what had happened, but no one believed me. It was mortifying.

Posted by: Tess at April 29, 2009 8:34 AM

In eighth grade my teacher was giving a lecture and I rubbed my mouth and exhaled at the same time. The combination of the two actions sounded as if I had tooted (loudly). The entire class turned to look at me, even my teacher stopped talking for a second to figure out what was going on. I tried to explain what had happened, but no one believed me. It was mortifying.

Posted by: Tess at April 29, 2009 8:36 AM

Also Husband #1 who is now a woman.

Rising 7th grade, needed glasses, but didn't have them, could not see the person accross the playground who was waving at me. He thought I was stuck up and B after that, and I was too embarrassed to tell him I was only severely visually impaired.

Several "lapses in judgement" that I would later run into and forget their names. I'm so glad I don't live in that town anymore!!

Oh, and too many more to mention... or want to remember.

Posted by: varinia at April 29, 2009 8:40 AM

The last relationship occurred during my stint in Alaska. It was three years, like yours, only in this case, I was the idiot. The short version is that my priorities were what I was doing in the military at the time and whatever it took to make the career a long and highly successful one. I neglected the fact that I was in the most beautiful state in the country and had an incredible girlfriend in Seattle. I lacked anything remotely similar to introspection and now when I look back at those three years, it's almost exclusively with regret. I cringe at the memory of myself.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at April 29, 2009 8:53 AM

In the early days, we were at a gathering of my now husband's family. I was still getting to know them, but was "in" enough to be left on my own.

I extended my right hand to greet his Aunt Clara. They ALL shake hands, coming and going. I know everyone does, but this family seems to take it to a more surreal, obsessive level. It's a farmer thing I guess.

She gave me her left hand and smiled, happy to see me. It seemed weird so I thrust back my right hand and said something like "Kaammaaan!" also smiling, of course. She re-extended her left hand, expression not changing. I shook my right hand to her left and, but am pretty sure I gave some kind of judgemental (but teasing) "tut tut" look.

Eventually back in the car, I told Max of this exchange. He said "you mean, Aunt Clara, the one who had polio as a child? And has limited control of the right side of her body? And whose right hand is rather obviously shrivelled? That Aunt Clara?"

Yep. That Aunt Clara.

Posted by: harmzie at April 29, 2009 9:21 AM

I could stack my cringeworthy moments and shuffle them like a Vegas dealer. Shudder.

Posted by: Writer Dad at April 29, 2009 11:01 AM

I may have totally missed this but where in PA were you??

Posted by: Carmen at April 29, 2009 11:43 AM

I'm sure I've got dozens but I seem to be unable to recall them at the moment.

However, I'm about to create another cringe-y moment by self-publishing the book I wrote. Okay? It's not an awful book. It is also not the great American novel. It's s fun romp, but what's cringey about it is that now my friends will know what I'm thinking when I'm spinning stories and I'm afraid they'll be all, "That's all?" Or, since the story arc is kind of but not really autobiographical, they might be all, "She sure thinks she's hot shit." But I don't. Much.

Posted by: Brooke Habecker at April 29, 2009 11:49 AM

Wouldn't it be funny if all those street musicians were like we f**cking hate What A Wonderful World but these people who work around here go crazy whenever we play it so we'll just keep on playing it.

Posted by: aimee at April 29, 2009 1:22 PM

First boyfriend, with whom hubby and I went to engineering school...

He dumped his first girlfriend to go out with me. Then I dumped him. He started dating his next girlfriend when I started dating my 2nd boyfriend.
When he found out I dumped my 2nd guy, he dumped her to date me again.
Then I dumped him for good to start dating my now-husband.
But because the tech community in this city is relatively small, hubby ended up working with him a couple of years ago. Awkward.

Posted by: Nenette at April 29, 2009 1:50 PM

Well, there's the time in 7th grade when a teacher complimented me on my name (Catherine) and I said, "thanks! I'm glad it starts with a 'C' instead of 'K', because 'K' is ugly." And then I realized her name was Karen.

The time my 2-year old niece patted a heavy woman on the stomach and asked if she was pregnant, and I hissed loudly, "Jordan, that's rude! She's not pregnant, she's just fat!"

The time I was with a co-worker at a bar and a guy who had once taken me out and then never called showed up, and my co-worker said, "hey, that's Eric!" and I said, "That guy? He's an asshole." and it was her brother.

Believe me, I have more. I have problems keeping my mouth shut.

Posted by: Catherine at April 29, 2009 5:13 PM

I feel rather silly that I can't think of any cringe worthy moments/judgements. It isn't that I haven't made mistakes because I have made many. It is just that they don't make me cringe.

All I can come up with are the physical manifestations of nervousness (e.g., shaky hands and voice) while speaking in public and my response (e.g., blushing, stammering) to someone being nice to me.

Posted by: MariaV at April 30, 2009 5:16 AM

I used to have an apartment on the second floor and the third floor was occasionally occupied by my landlords kids. I've had to go up there and tell them to quiet down on a number of occasions. One night I got fed up with the noise and went out onto the back stairwell (closer than going out and up the front stairwell) and headed up to the third floor to bang on the door and demand they quiet down. When I got to their door, the sounds were coming from the room to the right so I glanced through the open blinds to find out what they were doing so I could be specific when I tell them to knock it the !@#$ off... and of course the daughter was with her boyfriend having sex. At the moment that I realized what they were doing she shrieks and yells out "There's someone in the window!". I FREAKED and bolted down the stairs and dived into my apartment and sat with the door locked and lights off pretending I wasn't home. I don't think they ever found out it was me and I never heard the "banging" again... I bet she won't have sex again until she's married...

Posted by: J at May 1, 2009 5:43 PM