Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Art of Faking It in Public

My best friend worries about me.

"I'm fine, happy," I assured her when she stated her case during her recent visit to Bangkok.

Of that, she had no doubt. She said I did seem calmer, more at peace, you know, kind of happy -- but she was still concerned. She knows I've always been a lone ranger. She's become accustomed to it over a decade and a half of knowing me. But she could tell that my proclivity to solitariness had intensified since the last time we'd seen each other two years earlier.

Part of it is getting older, part of it is being disappointed by people, part of it is being bored with people, and part of it is a genuine appreciation for my own company. I've often said that I'll probably end up like Greta Garbo, a total recluse tucked away in my ivory tower. But that's a decade or two off.

My best friend was more concerned with right here, right now (the time and place, not the song). Sometimes, she said, she worries that my tendency to withdraw into the seclusion of my own brain -- or my apartment -- might prevent me from giving people a chance. Not just every kind of people, The One, the proverbial Mr. Right, with whom I might have a shot at living happily ever after. If I'm going to retire to an ivory tower, would it kill me to have a little company there?

Usually whenever anyone tries to psychoanalyze me, I tune them out, but I knew she had a point. So did my last boyfriend (I grudgingly admit): "There's a reason why you're alone," he said to me shortly after we broke up, and I could tell this was what he was getting at, too, my tendency to be so guarded with people, physically and emotionally.

I don't think it's really that simple, though. It's not always all about me, and what I do and what I don't do. It's only been in the last few months that I feel like I've made a conscious decision to be single. For most of my life, I've been single mostly by default. It's not like guys are lined up outside of my door waiting to take me out. But who knows? Maybe if I spent more time outside my door, they would be.

I'm speaking metaphorically here. I get out quite a bit, but just because I'm outdoors doesn't mean I'm outside. I spend the majority of my life deep inside my own thoughts, regardless of my physical location. Even at 10 years old, when I listened to Gino Vannelli's Top 10 hit "Living Inside Myself," I heard the title as a sort of personal statement. That's exactly what I was doing.

That's exactly what I'm still doing. It takes a person who is independent and self-sufficient to perhaps an almost-unhealthy degree to pack up, kiss his loved ones goodbye, and move to the other side of the world, to a country where he knows no one and doesn't speak the language, just because he can. And I've done it twice! (Thrice, if you count Aussie English as a foreign language!)

Don't misunderstand me: For all my reclusive tendencies, despite my monastic existence, I can play the social butterfly as good as anyone. It's always been easy for me to meet people, to make acquaintances (making good friendships, however, can't be faked -- they take time and genuine interest on my part). I can cold rock a party like nobody's business.

But every time I enter Mr. Congeniality mode, I'm wearing a mask, one that I usually can't wait to go home and wash off. When I'm standing in a crowded room, laughing and pretending to be charming, I'm often panicking on the inside. Whiskey helps, but as I heard someone on TV say recently, monastic types often tend to overdo that bit.

Most people laugh when I tell them I'm painfully shy (I'm pretty sure my British friend, now visiting Thailand from Sydney, guffawed when I broke the news to him on Saturday night), but I am. It can be a huge effort being around people because I often don't know what to say or where to even look. I see people so effortlessly engaging in small talk, without the benefit of too much whiskey, and I feel a twinge of envy. Sometimes I wonder, why can't I be you? Then I dive in and pretend that I am. Apparently, I pull it off.

As long as I can control my whiskey intake, my best friend shouldn't worry. I would never want to trade places with those authentic social butterflies who can't bear to be a party of one, people who fear what they might find out if they're allowed to sit still and alone with their own thoughts for too long, forced to dig too deeply into their own psyche.

I've already been there, done that and lived to write about it. Not everything I've found out is pretty, but for a writer like me, there are no tools more useful than a twisted psyche, a love of solitude, and the ability to fake it in public.

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