Under normal circumstances, I might hesitate to review a book by a Washington Post colleague and a friend. But because Alexandra Petri and I recently shared a stage to talk about her new book, “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences,” I wanted to share some of my insights about the essay collection.
A lot of people will find something powerful and very funny in “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences”: nerds, the overly polite, the newly minted Freshmen At Life who are graduating from colleges all over the country right now. But I think it has particular resonance for the class of people who are most strenuously trained to avoid being awkward or causing discomfort at all costs: women.
Embracing awkwardness removes one of the substantial arguments against pursuing new experiences, which in Petri’s case means entering punning and whistling competitions, trying out for “Jeopardy!,” and, in one memorable case, getting baptized into a cult that embraces both odd readings of scriptures and logic puzzles. It makes it easier to get to know new people, especially those who might not be seen as natural candidates for her friendship, including older men like Mr. Oliver, with whom Petri talks writing and embraces day drinking, and Bertram Wittington, a friend of her family’s who was an endless font of trivia that cohered into something like wisdom.
If you’re willing to look ridiculous, Petri argues, you may find your bliss, and more specifically, people with whom to share it. “My social circle shrank to those who could tolerate long, rambling jokes that concluded with a triumphant ‘AND THAT’S WHY PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN GRASS HOUSES SHOULDN’T STOW THRONES,’” Petri writes of her obsession with punning. “No chance of falling in with a bad crowd who would introduce me to Boys and Liquor and Jazz – but, hey, as the fern liked to say, with fronds like these, who needs anemones?”
Some of this sounds silly, but there’s a lot of joy in it that comes to full flower in the final chapter, about her lifelong best friends, a group of equally nerdy women. “We were the ones who liked books and Monty Python and (to our chagrin) LiveJournal and (even more to our chagrin) Hot Topic,” she explains in a poignant reflection on what it means to grow up and out of the universal awkwardness that is everyone’s lot, at least for a little while. “One year we performed the Monty Python sketch ‘How Do You Tell A Witch’ on the class camping trip. Nobody laughed. We realized, after we sat down, that this was because anyone in our class who would have enjoyed this skit was onstage performing it.”
And while Petri doesn’t dwell on this at length, if a willingness to be awkward can help you enjoy your true passions, it can also be a way for women to remove themselves from bad or even dangerous situations. She fends off street harassers and a persistent swain at a “Star Wars” convention. And while Petri is too polite to blow off the cult that tries to recruit her, she doesn’t let herself be guilted into coming back to a second evening of services.
Petri told me that she loved the scene from the pilot of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in which a member of a rather more intimidating cult explains that she didn’t want to offend the leader during an appearance on the “Today Show.” “I’m always amazed,” Matt Lauer muses, “at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude.”
“Mortification was a poison to which I had built up immunity after years of exposure,” Petri writes early in “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.” When we think about the scary ends to which being accommodating can lead, a refusal to be felled by the threat of awkwardness can seem genuinely empowering.
“I enjoy being a girl, whatever that means. For me, that meant ‘Star Wars’ figurines, mounds of books, skirts and flats,” she says in a chapter about being insulted by Rush Limbaugh. “It means Civil War re-enacting and best girlfriends I’d give a kidney to and best guy friends I’d ruin a liver with and making messes and cleaning up some of them and still not knowing how to apply eye shadow.”
May everyone overcome whatever awkwardness stands in the way of reaching that same sense of self-knowledge.