Nobody’s been asking me recently what I think about Caroline Kennedy’s being the new senator from New York, but I continue to dither, anyway. That’s something I do quite well.
So, I read an essay that said oh, yes, of course, Caroline would be a great senator. Sure, she’d never run for office or anything. But she’d grown up around Uncle Teddy and a bunch of other high-flying politicos — so how could she not know a lot about politics?
Interesting, very interesting, but only to a point. I immediately stopped thinking about Caroline Kennedy and all her high-profile problems and started thinking myself. If I were ever being considered for a position I might lack experience for, what would people say I would have inhaled by virtue of being brought up in my particular family?
Unfortunately, I knew the answer: sulking and passive-aggresive behavior. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been trained by the best.
“Nothing’s wrong,” my mother would say, sighing, gazing mournfully and tragically out a window that usually featured a gray, cloudy sky or a dark and stormy night. (Or, as my sister once wrote me, Mother often “smiled bitterly.”)
“So what if it’s my birthday?” she once told my father. “Go ahead and go bowling.” He did and there was hell to pay. He never learned that — or maybe he did and it didn’t do him any good. It’s hard to fight and win against a passive-aggressive person.
So I’d been well- — or even brilliantly — trained by the time I got married.
“What’s wrong?” my husband would say.
“Oh, nothing.” And then I’d sigh portentously.
I’d wait for him to barrage me with questions since, after all, another person lying around with a tragic and wounded look on her face who sighed all the time is kind of hard to ignore. Somehow, though, he managed to do it. I swear to God, he even went around whistling.
Listen, have enough of those demoralizing experiences, and you start to doubt the efficacy of sulking as a communication tool. Besides, sulking is very hard work. You have to stay silent for hours or even days at a time. It’s not a quiet kind of silence, either; it’s looming, omnipresent, obvious. You have to draw attention to yourself and your deeply suffering silence on a minute-by-minute basis or, watch out, you’ll be ignored. There is nothing worse than being ignored when you’re sulking.
The years passed and I finally gave up on sulking and being passive-aggressive, which is really a shame, since I’m quite good at it. Only now and then have I found occasionally good uses for it — namely, standing in line. As a passive-aggressive person, I can stand in line and hold my place and shut out any place-jumpers better than anybody you’ve ever seen — all the while maintaining a placid, if not sweet, facial expression. It is, believe me, an art form.
In fact, when I visited my sister in Israel in 1999, she commented that she’d never seen someone get to the front of the line at the Wailing Wall faster than I did. And this involved competition against Israelis, who are notorious when it comes to line-hopping.
Anyway, I just hate it when you’re really talented at something and have nowhere to practice it. It’s like being proficient at Gregg shorthand, which I also am; I occasionally dream that someday there will be a great mystery that’s solved with a knowledge of Gregg shorthand — and I’m the only person on earth who still knows it, a human Rosetta stone.
In the meantime, if any job requires aggressive waiting in line, I’m your woman. It’s in my blood.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)