#27. Meeting new people

As the Year o’ Change rolls on, sometimes I get stuck for ideas. Or, rather, get stuck for ideas for changes I would actually undertake. Fortunately, my readers are quick to make suggestions. They generally do so with a little gleam in their eye, as though they were the organ grinder and…well, we know what that makes me. It can be a little unsettling. I’ve also found that, when coming up with changes for me, readers sometimes either forget – or take a great deal of poetic license with – the part about “change for the better.” They’ll say, “Why don’t you have sex every day for a week?” Or, “Why don’t you try to go a week without talking?” What? It’s not “I will make a change for the better of my husband.” Sheesh.

But a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine -- let’s call him Nick, since that’s his name – suggested that I try meeting someone new every day. Generally, I’m most enthusiastic about changes that require very little effort on my part and, especially, those that don’t interfere with my eating or TV watching. This fit the bill. It sounded like a piece of cake. Haven’t I been doing this long enough to know that if it sounds like a piece of cake, it’s not?

Oh, my friends, how I underestimated the naivety/evil genius of Nick’s suggestion.

In a word: it blew. It turns out, I hate, hate, hate meeting new people. I’m not a hermit or xenophobic. I’m happy to shake hands with and chat up a new friend I’m introduced to. But make no mistake: actually going out there to seek people to meet is deeply uncomfortable to me. It also, for lack of a more sophisticated phrase (see: “it blew,” above), made me feel like a freak.

Bear in mind that I work from home, so the opportunities to meet someone new in the course of any given day are beyond limited. It meant I would have to leave the house in order to make this happen. And I don’t like to leave my house. (Maybe I should revisit the “I’m no hermit” claim above.) But the spirit of this exercise is change, and in good faith, I forced myself out and about to see who I could meet.

Hold on, though. The question arose very quickly: what does it mean to meet someone? Need I introduce myself? Must names be exchanged? Meaningful conversation ensue? I wasn’t entirely sure what the parameters would be.

On the first day, I went to my orthodontist’s office, where I am the only patient over the age of 12, it seems. As I sat in the waiting room with the parents, I glanced around, trying to make eye contact. The woman next to me was so intent on pretending to read Redbook, you’d have thought I was trying to mind-melt her. Clearly, meeting new people isn’t part of the waiting room culture, and understandably so.

But then, my name was called…by a new dental assistant I’d never met before. We shook hands, briefly. We exchanged names. And then she put her fists in my mouth. Surely, I thought, if anything qualifies as meeting someone new, that does.

By day two, though, I was doing a lot of waffling about the previous day’s encounter. It felt less like Meeting Someone and a bit more like Victimization. I suspected that this change demanded a little more of me. Surely, in the natural course of my day, it couldn’t be that hard to just introduce myself to someone new. Meaningful conversation was off the table. Expectations were clear and set.

Thank goodness for dinner parties, eh? That evening, I went to dinner at a friend’s house where there was precisely one person I hadn’t met at the table. There was no question that this encounter qualified: hands were shaken, small talk was made, mutual areas of interest sort of half-heartedly explored. I mean, no one said I had to make new friends, right?

The next day, emboldened by the ease of the previous evening’s encounter, I headed to the gym. The gym is full of people. People joined in a common goal. People grunting away on machines in close proximity to one another. People, it seems, who Do Not Want To Acknowledge One Another. Perhaps I’ve never noticed how self-focused people are at the gym because, well, when I’m there, I’m usually too self-focused to think about others.

However, as I scanned the room from the vantage point of my elliptical machine, it was clear that all these people were sharing the same space, yet existing within their own bubble. How strange. People sweating right next to one another with their eyes fixed straight ahead. I glanced around the cardio room: surely somebody here was open to meeting someone new. What about the nice older lady hobbling along on the treadmill? Or wait. What about that young lady on the bicycle? She has a friendly face.

Oh, God. It was all so creepy. I was starting to suspect this is what it feels like to be a pedophile/serial killer scoping out her next victim. I suspect the only people gym-goers want to meet are hot, available potential sex partners. In other words: not I.

Back home, seeing how worried I was that I’d failed in that day’s requirement to meet someone, my darling husband suggested I get a massage. On him. Genius! I could meet a new massage therapist! And so I did. I met a nice Nordic man with piercing blue eyes. Hands were shaken, names exchanged, but as I lay there, realizing no conversation was going to happen, I felt a little sheepish about the whole thing. My husband, essentially, was buying me a friend. It was all a little pathetic and slutty. Not in a good way, either.

The next day – day four – one of the first things that popped into my mind upon waking was dread at the notion of having to meet someone. What the hell? This week was torturous. Was my being filled with anxiety and dread truly a change for the better? Whose crazy idea was this? Nick, that’s who. I decided to go right back to the source. I sent him a whiny email, demanding to know his logic, why he thought for a minute that this effort would lead to self improvement.

He responded:

Oh, well, it IS a positive experience for ME when YOU meet other people, then write about it in a funny way because you hate meeting other people so, so much. So it works out. See? The circle is closed, no?

Then, a follow up:

Ok. More seriously. When you meet new people you expand your circle of experiences and you become more empathetic. You are already very empathetic, so your response might be "why should I give a flying fleep, Nick, about empathy?" I would then reply "Why Julia, empathy is like a flower, you must nurture it so it will grow and blossom into a OUCH!" That is when you punch me in the face. Sorry. I tried to be serious because I know how important my input is for your writing.

Now, Nick is a fancy professor at a fancy institute of higher learning. Therefore, his reasoning must be flawless, right? Entertaining and flawless. Fine. He’d made his case. I would see it through. And see it through I did. For the remaining three days, I met no less – and no more – than one person each day.

Thus, to Walter, the nice young man in line at Sweetwaters coffee shop, I apologize. I’m sorry if I freaked you out by interrupting your latte anticipation to manically thrust my hand in your direction and ask you your name. I’m sorry I forced you to make awkward conversation with a stranger, but I so appreciate your kindness in doing so. I’m sorry if you worried that I was a cougar and you were my prey. Kudos for being game.

To the baffled – and baffling – young Korean man who got more than he bargained for when he knocked on my front door to ask if there were any Korean people living inside, I thank you. I hope I did not set you up for a false expectation of what generally happens when someone in our culture opens the door to a stranger.

And to the teenage gym employee I tried to force into a conversation about the towels, you needn’t avert your eyes every time I come in from here on out. The ship has sailed, my friend. The week is over. People were met. Discomfort was thoroughly explored and, to a certain extent – the extent requiring the least effort possible, that is – change was pursued.

Whether or not I have emerged, as my friend theorized, more empathetic probably remains to be seen. Except in one area: I’m much more empathetic towards people who are trying to meet someone, anyone new. To them, I have only this nugget of advice to share, hard-earned from the past week’s endeavor: don’t do it. Stay home. Be friends with your TV. Hang out with your cats. Pathetic, sure. But easier. Much, much easier.