An interesting thing about growing older is that your character flaws eventually bubble up to the surface.
For example, it has taken me 59 years to learn to shut up. When I was younger — a mere lad of, say, 58 — I said anything that came to mind. If it hurt someone's feelings, well, sorry, but that's the price of wit.
Now, several times a day, I swallow a sentence just as it is about to escape my lips. Who knew that restraint could be satisfying? That it took me over a half-century to understand this is quite pitiful; especially since I am so tender-hearted myself that I still harbor tiny embarrassments from things people said in my childhood.
Drifting off to sleep last Monday night, I remembered three anecdotes from childhood that still make me shiver. All three are mundane scenarios, but each touched a nerve.
Here's the takeaway: Never intentionally embarrass your kids — or anyone else, for that matter. Try not to do it accidentally either. Otherwise you may scar them into middle age.
When I was 10 years old, my parents took my sister and me to the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville. I remember the sharp smell of cattle mingled with the sweet aroma of cotton candy. More importantly, I remember tramping through bent grass over to the fair's midway with its array of thrill rides.
One attraction caught my attention. It involved a half-dozen tiny cars racing around a wooden track. I remember standing in line and then tearing off a line of tickets. A twitchy carnival worker took the tickets and pointed me to an empty yellow car. Climbing into the driver's seat, I instantly realized I was in over my head, as the car had a clutch and a shifter.
As the other drivers heeded the green light and went tearing around the track, I remained stuck at the start line. My mom started shouting unhelpful advice. When it became apparent I was hopelessly stuck, Mr. Twitchy Man ran out onto the track and jumped onto the back of my car. Squatting there, smelling of Marlboro cigarettes and motor oil, he reached over my shoulder to grip the steering wheel and proceeded to drive me around the track like a 3-year-old being pushed on a tricycle.
"What's wrong? Can't drive?" Twitch said derisively.
My embarrassment was instantaneous, sharp and unrelenting. Just thinking about this makes me want to blurt nonsensical words, a psychological tick that I have lived with forever.
A year or so after that, my family visited my dad's brother, who was an Air Force officer living in Dayton, Ohio. My uncle, a colonel, took our family — me, my mom, dad and sister — to the officer's club at the base for lunch. I remember ordering a cheeseburger, which is only important because of what happened next.
While waiting for my burger to arrive from the kitchen, I reached to the middle of the table to take a dinner roll from a basket.
"Honey," my mother said urgently, "those rolls aren't for you."
Bewildered, I sat motionless, mouth agape, my right arm still extended with a toasty roll in my hand. I meekly dropped the roll back into the basket just as a wave of nauseating embarrassment engulfed my body. Eating in a restaurant was not an everyday event for our family, and I was not aware that the rolls were reserved for those who had ordered entrees, not cheeseburgers.
"Oh," I said, folding my hands back in my lap.
Dang roll. How could you still be tormenting me a half-century later?
Episode No. 3 happened when I was in college and decided to invite a summer roommate to my parents' house 40 miles away for dinner. I didn't know him well but had surmised from conversation that his dad was loaded.
As we approached my childhood home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Columbia, Tenn., I chirped, "almost there."
"You're kidding, right," he said, as he we passed block after block of little frame houses. "Your parents don't live here, do they?"
"No, I'm not kidding," I said blithely, suddenly wanting to stop and toss the little twit into the nearby Duck River. "Our house is right down here."
Nobody in any of these memories was being especially malicious. Each of the embarrassing episodes was the product of my own insecurity.
Still, if we are careful and keep our eyes and ears open, we can sometimes avoid triggering embarrassment in others.
Ultimately, that's more satisfying — by far — than fishing for a laugh.
Old dog. New trick.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.