Assumptions: Can You vs. You Can
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Apr 2013)
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            A few summers ago, I visited a writing group for the first time. I was eager and curious. What kind of writers would be there? Would they be friendly? What could I learn from their experience? I decided it could never hurt to hear from people who have taken this crazy craft seriously enough that they now have useful advice to share with anyone willing to take it. 

            After a few lively discussion items and critiques, we broke into groups of about five. Here, we would work together on an exercise after sharing why we had come to the group that day, what kind of writing we liked to do, and anything worth mentioning that we had already written – books, articles, and the like. When it got to me, I wrapped up with, “I write a column in a regional newsletter.” The next person didn’t start. Everyone continued to look at me in what appeared to be expectant silence. I suppose it was reasonable to wonder, “Which newsletter?” as it is probably what I would have wondered, so only then did I add that it was for Mensa. Nods, smiles, and the woman on my left began her introduction. 

            While she was talking, the man on my right leaned in and said either, “Can you write for them without being a member?” or “You can write for them without being a member?” As you can see, the difference between “can you” and “you can” in this case is crucial. But someone else was speaking, and I was listening to her. What can I say? I was paying little mind to this other guy so, when his question came through the fog as one of the two, I picked the first, the “can you” version. My response was to shrug and say, “I don’t know. I can find out for you.” 

            He paused, then followed up with, “Are you a member?” 

            I and my attention now turned to him, and to the light this new question had just thrown upon the meaning behind his first one, whatever the wording had been. This man did not begin his interaction with me by asking, “So, how did you get started with that newsletter?” or “Oh! Are you a member?” He jumped right to “Can you/you can write for them without being a member?” I see. He meant me.

            Upon realizing this, my brain pointed out two things. One: “Wow. This guy is a jerk.” Two: “I couldn’t have come up with a better reply if I had tried.” It is priceless to me that what he got in return for his conclusion-jumping rudeness was a casual shrug followed by, “I don’t know. I can find out for you.” Boom. I give it extra points for having been completely unintentional. Maybe there are occasional advantages to missing the insult on the first go-around.

            Still. How could it not rub me the wrong way that, to him, it was just so obvious that I could not possibly be a member of Mensa? So obvious that it was not even worth beginning with that question? Yes, I know I shouldn't care. Yes, I know it was just one small moment in a big life. But I am human. I am also incapable of choosing which memories will be vivid ones. Sometimes they are the fun or embarrassing stories. Great. Vivid memories there help me tell the tales later on, and help me want to tell them. Other times, it is an unremarkable moment like this, one that might be better off dry and faded. These are the moments that can seem even smaller in the retelling. Yet some people know how frequently the little moments come and go when insecure individuals attempt – consciously or not – to make certain others feel less worthy, less capable, less valuable. This is just one of those little moments.

            As this memory is peculiarly clear when it returns, I get to be irritated afresh that the guy felt so comfortable making his assumptions. Based on what? My apparent youth? My female-ness? My African-American-ness? All or none of the above? And why should I have to wonder? He was the one with the issues. Some element of me in comparison to some element of himself did not compute, and then he opened his mouth. My own mouth remembers a bitter taste from that moment through the remainder of the event.

            I have not gone back to the group, which is a shame, to be honest. Each time I think of returning, the taste returns first. It is just a part of the memory. I have never made a conscious decision not to go because of that one incident, nor do I cultivate a deliberate desire to avoid that one guy. For all I know, he no longer even lives in the area. Even if he does still visit the group, logic says his involvement should not keep me from an activity that otherwise interests me. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon in the city, when there are so many other, more savory things to do, that taste can be a subtle push in a different direction. A bitter taste can battle logic and win.

            When the man to my right finally backtracked on that sunny afternoon to ask me outright if I were a member, perhaps it occurred to him that he had been both rude and foolish to make his assumption leaps a moment before. Perhaps it crossed his mind that, as a writer, he might at least try to choose his words with greater consideration in the future. After I blinked, looked him in the eye, said simply, “Yes, I am,” and turned away, perhaps he was left surprised, or embarrassed, or doubtful. I don’t know. I didn’t look back. But perhaps, on the day when I do give that group another shot, or when I find another one to try, I will walk out at the end with a new, more savory memory to share.

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