Dirty Windows

“I assume, therefore I am wrong.” 

When I am a famous writer, that will be a famous quote.

In elementary school Lisa Casey chastised me for assuming something, I have long forgotten what.

“Never assume, Betty.” she said, her voice thick with undeserved authority. “Especially when you haven’t the facts. That’s a bad habit.”

She was precocious for her age, having learned too young from her detective father to distrust and manipulate. Her mother was a judge, and when I met them both, they seemed not as sharp as the detectives and judges I saw on TV, but Lisa was another story. I wish I remembered what it was I had assumed to better flesh out this story, but the point is that I made an assumption, was wrong, and was called out on it by a girl my age who knew most importantly that one must have the facts to make a true, sound judgement. I felt deeply ashamed. What I do remember are my cheeks burning and my self-questioning: why did I assume that? What gave me the right to jump to such conclusions? What a terrible and embarrassing habit!

If my brain were a processor, it would be the latest Intel whatever, albeit a defective one. I’m the queen of snap judgements, (if titles were given for that sort of thing), and what’s more (and worse), I tend to stick by my judgments until slowly proven otherwise. It is a terrible thing to be: judgmental and, for lack of a better word, narrow-minded. I am too lazy to do the research required to flesh out my skeletal judgments and instead, assign labels and story lines from afar. So and so much be such and such because of this and that. For some, “narrow-minded” and “judgmental” are synonymous. For me, they ought not to be. I have no qualms with being judgmental; rather, I’d like to be judgmental in a broad-minded and accurate way.

There is plenty of literature on judgment and more specifically, snap judgement. Most notably, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the title itself which in the wrong hands, can be misinterpreted as encouragement and, more recently, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow which warns that we must recognize both the “power” allotted us by snap judgments as well as the limitations.

Whatever power I find in judgment is almost always without fail, taken away once I come to understand that which I judge. Usually, people. Over and over again I learn that my particular kind of judgment, based upon baseless assumptions, it is not power at all but a weak and brittle shield. It is a filthy glass window I erect between myself and the subject. Once this shield is up, I almost never choose to clean the glass first. They, unexpectedly more broad-minded than I, wipe a bit off their side, allowing me a glimpse into their world. Only then, with their light shining through, do I begrudgingly wipe some grime off my side.

August Renoir, Portrait of Madame Alphonse Daudet, 1876. Or, Me Judging You.

 Perhaps you have already learned. Perhaps you can meet someone and take them at face value – it is not a game to you because you are not judgmental in a bad way. You evaluate, sure, but you do not make a game of it by guessing their inner nature, interests, passions, relationships with their family, the way they treat their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, children, employees, etc. etc. etc., but I play this game because that’s what writers do. It’s how fiction is born, how profiles are made – it’s safer, from a reporting standpoint to lay out the facts and let the readers assume what they will about certain people, but where’s the fun in that?

Fun yes. Dangerous, too.

Take the office, for example: ninety-nine percent of the assumptions I made during my first week have already been upended. The fact that my assumptions were proven wrong is not surprising – it is a large part of my life story, this never-ending sentimental education. What’s frightening is the smug certainty, still, with which I made these assumptions, each one so damning and limiting for both myself and others. 

I was so sure that the stony-faced IT guy with a name not unlike Howard David and who always wears a short-sleeved plaid shirt over a t-shirt was awkward and antisocial and lacked a sense of humor, until he came up to fix my computer and made me laugh uncontrollably with his straight-faced sarcasm. And even after many of these encounters, I still assumed unfairly, that he was single and had trouble getting girls, until I asked about his weekend plans and he said simply that he was going hiking with his girlfriend of two years rather than staying in and playing WOW, as I had imagined.

Along the same vein, I was so sure that Cindy, the overweight accountant who had generously supplied me with company gossip in her cloying little girl’s voice, was single. She had to be. She was fat, for one thing, and she dressed horribly in ill-fitting trouser shorts (a stupid sartorial oddity), fishnet stockings and knit-poncho tops in patterns and colors inspired, it seemed, by puddles of vomit in the streets of Downtown LA. She insisted on tying her hair up in a little top knot which from behind made her look like a retired, cross-dressing sumo-wrestler. Worse yet she had a FOB’s penchant for all things pink and Hello Kitty. I failed to notice the engagement ring, so distracting was her ensemble. And really, I thought, who would date her?

“She’s had a live-in boyfriend/fiance for the past two years,” Jane said dryly, which killed me just a little bit. If for some reason her man is tall, handsome, kind and successful, I may shoot myself in the face.

I was so sure that the short and stocky VP of Marketing was a pompous asshole with the world’s worst Napoleon complex until I began gathering evidence of the opposite: that he was just a yes man who struggles to please his boss along with the rest of us and has to, because of his position and his stature, put up a front of extreme confidence. How else would he be credible in his position? I learned that he is somewhat a broken man, his wife having left him some time ago, and that whatever is left of him is being torn across opposite sides of the country, his job tugging him to the west and his daughters to the east. Life is a balancing act, but he juggles too many people in too many states and the obligations they all come with, none of which can be neglected without painful emotional repercussions. I thought he had aged well, until I realized he was ten years younger than what I guessed.

I was so sure that Janet, a girl only a few years older and who had started out as the assistant to the President, would have much in common with me and would, when I suggested we have dinner one night, be as helpful and insightful as our dinner would be fun. I mistook the grime for beautiful stained glass and imagined a possible friendship with a woman who, at work, was pleasant with a sing song voice, all of which I now find to be fraud of the highest order. Instead, she was neither helpful nor insightful, but supremely condescending and as pretentious as our dinner was meatless (very, as we ate at a vegetarian restaurant). She had studied Chinese Art History at Yale and then was halfway through a PhD program at Cornell when she called it quits and via family connections, came to work at the company. When I asked why she quit, she shrugged and in the world’s longest non sequitur, rattled off all the PhD programs she had been accepted to – all the Ivies, essentially, except for Harvard, whose program was just “decent” anyway, and that she ultimately chose Cornell because it seemed like a great fit and blah blah blah… I tuned her out then, concentrating on my vegesoy patty and silently congratulating Harvard for having exercised excellent judgment in the case of denying Janet admission. Whatever others may say, it is indeed a world-class institution.

I was so sure that my Boss, in the easy, relaxed way he interviewed me and his overall calm demeanor, would not be as detail-oriented as he claimed to be. This was among the most dangerous assumptions to make and one that I am still struggling to correct, though in my defense I am certain my boss made the opposite assumptions about me, as I arrived on the scene on time and well groomed with a bright and vivacious energy I reserve expressly for interviews. Though perhaps this is more my acting and projecting an idealized version of myself rather than his assuming anything. 

I was so sure that Peter, the pale guy in marketing with the rather ostentatious fuel-guzzling German sports car and a penchant for tony, waterfront dining establishments was a modern princeling of sorts. In addition to the labor associated with a computer keyboard, his white hands seemed to know only the touch of his steering wheel and the stem of a full wine glass. He lived alone and I, curious about princeling’s dietary habits, once asked him if he cooked.

He thought for a moment, then replied, “I boil.”

I was unsurprised. His response nestled nicely into the formula of my assumptions, and I was hell bent on my faulty math, too focused on single variables rather than the whole equation. Thus I was immensely surprised when I learned that Peter was quite the handyman and rather enjoyed tools and building things.

“I’m all home projects, all the time,” he said, “Over Christmas break, I’m converting half my closet into a workshop. I need the space for my tools.”

“That’s so strange,” I said, “I never thought you’d be the type to do anything like that yourself.”

“Why?”

I mentioned our brief dialogue about his limited culinary repertoire.

“You thought I was a pussy who feared tools because I can’t cook? How are the two even related?”

Not quite that, and they aren’t, but it was futile to explain my though process because my final answer was wrong. I had flattened Peter out along with all the others, stepped on his dimensions and assigned him a role and a personality that fit as poorly as Cindy’s trouser shorts. I had turned the truth into a pale fiction and writer or not, that is never a good thing.

Edouard Manet The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1868-69
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