Saturday, March 03, 2012

List of the Month - Strange Talents

It's been a while since I did a list of 'personal revelations', so here's an addition to that genre: a list of defining attributes of the Froog, a collection of distinctive talents that are really of very little use.

Tamer of beasts
OK, I'm not quite The Dog Whisperer or St Francis of Assissi, but I do seem to have an affinity with animals. Jittery horses rapidly calm down in my presence, cats that are supposedly chronically shy and nervous will soon come and fall asleep in my lap, dogs with an alleged tendency to being suspicious of and hostile towards strangers will immediately introduce themselves to me by licking my hand.

Charmer of women
Perhaps it is somehow related to the above skill that I also usually seem to be able to get women "eating out of the palm of my hand" rather easily. The drawback with this is that it is strictly an unconscious talent. It only works within the "non-threatening" sphere, with women who I do not fancy or would be unlikely ever to fancy me. As soon as I start trying to direct this ability towards a 'chat up', the magic vanishes. Moreover, one of the most dangerous consequences of this ability - a special variety of its operation - is Getting On Too Well With The 'Mother-in-Law'. There have been a couple of occasions where a girlfriend of mine was a little creeped out that her mother became so instantly besotted with me.

Beguiler of small children
Not that there's any great secret to this, really, I don't think, but it does seem to be a relatively rare knack; and it is something that friends who are parents invariably comment admiringly - and enviously - upon about me. It is perhaps just a special sub-set of the above two skills: I seem to naturally project openness, sympathy, affection, and lack of threat - so, people and animals alike tend to feel comfortable around me. And I am genuinely interested in other people's lives and experiences, curious about how they express themselves; I don't have to fake the interest, nor, usually, do I struggle to maintain my level of attentiveness - and this, I think, is the essence of being a 'good listener'. My extra 'trick' with children is simply this: Don't talk down to them. I used to hate it when my parents adopted a 'special voice' when talking to me; or, even worse, when introducing me to strangers, those strangers then being cued into using the same sort of self-consciously superior voice when they spoke to me; just talk to me like a regular human being, for heaven's sake! It probably also helps that I am so closely "in touch with my inner child" - heck, he's still running the show! I'm still fascinated by, and rather envious of children's perception of the world. And I really do enjoy playing games. (And I don't mind letting other people be in charge for a while. Perhaps that's another big trick; most adults are inclined to get a bit bossy around young kids - or at least to betray a slight resentment at having to submit to the kids' silly rules. If you just go with the flow, everyone has more fun.)

An intuitive judge of character
It's something of a curse, really; I am often reminded of Ray Milland in The Man With X-Ray Eyes, tortured, driven to insanity by knowledge that no man should have. I have to struggle not to be too judgemental, to force myself to maintain some open-mindedness, to allow for the fact that once in a while my gut instincts about people might prove to be mistaken. I don't believe these instincts have ever been mistaken, though. They have been very useful in helping to choose my friends, in preparing me for likely disappointments in business relationships, and for putting me on my guard as to which friends or acquaintances might prove to be not super-reliable in times of trouble or not to be trusted with cash loans. The downside, the danger is that there are lot of people I write off almost instantly as jerks and creeps, and never even bother trying to get to know. I do try to guard against doing that too much.

A plot mechanic
My years of sitting in cinemas composing film reviews in my head have doubtless honed this ability. As have all the years I've now spent working as an editor. But I think it was always in me, innate. Some of my earliest recollections as a reader - at the age of 6, 7, 8 - are of picking a story to pieces, fretting minutely over plot-points, constantly questioning why this and not that? I fear I am now too much of a compulsive analyser ever to accomplish much in my own creative writing: I am too harsh, too relentless a critic Just because I always know what's wrong doesn't mean I know how to make it right - not in my own writing, anyhow. With other people's stuff, my insights can be annoyingly comprehensive; with even a short sample passage, I can invariably find 8 or 10 things that don't quite work, and suggest a simple cure. Heck, I'm like Fonzie sometimes: I find that 'magic spot' to hit, and everything starts working perfectly. I should probably try to get a job as a manuscript doctor.

A predicter of 'twists'
A sort of combination of the last two 'talents' is my almost psychic ability to foresee likely plot developments - especially in films, but also in novels and short stories and so on. I am very seldom surprised by anything any more. Instead, I tend to appreciate narratives on a meta-level: I respect that writers or directors have tried to break free of genre expectations, or that they haven't telegraphed a 'shock' development too obviously; I understand - and am vicariously impressed - that a lot of people will not have seen this coming. But I almost invariably have.


John said...

You and I share a lot in common, well, the skills mentioned here as least. Maybe that's why I enjoy reading your blog, apart from that whole being in China thing.
You're probably already aware of this but you may be interested to know that people who have such skills usually have them due to a passive nature. So for example- the animals thing is because you ignore them and animals for the most part (cats are the best example) hate attention from all these larger hairless creatures. The only difference between us here are dogs, I hate them but the feeling is mutual I can assure you. The same thing goes for women; you're not showing an immediate interest, you mentioned that you even felt like you had no chance with some in terms of dating and so this passive, defeatist attitude imbues a comfortable confidence in both parties. The other traits perhaps don't fit as well with such a nature but it wouldn't surprise me if it's responsible for them also somehow.

Froog said...

I think there's rather more to it than a "passive nature". Actually, that wouldn't be a very good general description of me at all.

If there is a common thread to all of these things, I think it's something to do with empathy and openness - but this has to express itself in different ways in different circumstances. Cats get freaked out by large gestures, but they don't like you to show no interest in them at all (hmm, so, yes - much like women!).

Animals and children are probably particularly good at picking up on anything negative as well - it's always said that "animals can smell fear", but they're acutely sensitive to any kind of anxiety or hostility. I think actually I'm losing 'the knack' with dogs a bit because I do actively dislike most of the dogs I encounter here in Beijing - the small, yappy kind - and that irritation slightly infects my openness-to-dogs.