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August 28, 2006

Unclenching

Twice lately, I've been shoved into a state of teeth-grinding anger, the kind of anger you just know they’re talking about when they refer to “unhealthy stress”.

First, there was Earl, the taxi guy.

My husband found Earl in the phone book and booked him several days in advance to take us all to the Oakland Airport at 7am. [I had suggested a different guy, a guy named Ala that my totally-on-top-of-it friend, Michele, recommended.] Earl was 15 minutes late, which is not late enough to cause any real problems but just late enough to make you pace, panic, reconsider, and bicker.

A 101 Psych student could have decoded my sudden coffee brewing as a nonverbal cue that I had lost faith in Earl. Finally, he pulled up. I must mention, though it doesn’t forward my thesis, that Earl drove a white stretch limo, the kind you may have rented with ten friends on prom night, the kind with fake, often mauve flowers and dusty liquor decanters clinking around in the “bar” area. My husband posited that Ala probably didn’t have nice place for our morning whiskey.

Anyway, as the girls marveled at Earl’s luxurious chariot, I passively aggressively coached them to "Get your seat belts on now or we're going to miss our flight." To which Earl said casually, "Plenty of time, plenty of time." I was really hoping for something more like "I'm sorry I'm late." It was then that I knew I'd be writing about Earl some day.

Next, the snit at the doctor's office.

S., as we’ll call her, is the manager of all the admins at the medical center I use. She became the manager, I presume, because she is extra good at following the rules. When I signed in at the front desk, S. informed me, over the shoulder of her tongue-tied subordinate, that I did not have the necessary authorization and would not be able to receive service until such authorization was in hand.

Did I mention that in order to be there begging S. for "service," I got a babysitter, drove through the rain and found the last parking space in a five-story underground garage. And did I mention that—as is often the case when people go to the doctor—I wasn’t in there for something optional like Botox or a new pair of perky breasts.

Anyway, twenty minutes after I promised her that my HMO didn't require an authorization for this procedure, S. was informed by her now-vocal subordinate that she had reached my HMO and apparently, I didn't need an authorization for this procedure. But by then, S. had sent the only qualified medical technician on duty off to lunch. He'd be back in about thirty minutes. Here's where an "I’m sorry" would have really loosened my jaw. S. just said, “Please be seated. It won’t be long now.”

I know the feelings that make apologizing so hard—a little shame, a dash of defensiveness, even a smidge of self-loathing. I know because I have to apologize a couple times a week, mostly for choosing to indulge myself in some way instead of doing something I’m suppose to. Like today, I wrote this essay instead of finding the eyeglasses my mom left in my car last weekend, the ones she’s called about twice so far. I'll have to apologize for that. And although it was on my calendar, I forgot my sister-in-law’s birthday, again. [She never forgets my birthday. Unfortunately.] And I borrowed my friend’s galvanized tub for a cocktail party I had a few weeks ago and as I type, it sits on my deck with the last few Sierra Nevadas on their side, sun bathing in an inch or two of water. So I’ll have to apologize for that.

But I will. I will "own it" as my therapy-lovin' friend always says. And as that same friend taught me, while I’m owning it, I will neither complain nor explain. In other words, I will not smother the apology in so many excuses that it is unrecognizable as an apology. I will just put it out there bare: “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back sooner.”

Thanks to people like Earl and S., a timely, unadorned apology is still an impressive act of interpersonal bravery. And like most acts of bravery, it will be rewarded. The payoff for saying those two little words is forgiveness, which is, as the old saw goes, divine.

But what to do with my anger? How to spare myself the buzz of self righteousness that may be doing permanent damage to my jaw? Well, there’s always breathing, sure. A mantra perhaps. An imaginary trip to my happy place? Maybe for you.

For me, I’ve decided the only way is to smile. Like a first grader in front of a camera. Big and dumb. Because it makes me laugh. Because it makes me remember that almost everything is silly and who really cares and it happens to everyone. All of us. All six billion of us. Every day. So really, next time life rubs up against you and leaves you chafed, refuse to give in. Force a smile, even a phoney one will do. Trust me. You’ll see.