The Compliment Refugee (August 14, 2013)

I was less inclined than usual last Saturday morning to put on my track shoes. A night of post-birthday revelry had left me tired and dehydrated. At the same time, wine and dessert-related bloat precluded the possibility of a lie-in. I enjoyed my 35th birthday immensely but days of decadent, unapologetic indulgence demanded some recompense. With a heavy sigh and one last longing look at my comfy, full-size bed, I grabbed the keys and headed out the front door.

The sun shone brightly, although the air temperature continued unseasonably cool, as it has throughout this Chicago summer. Goosebumps dotted my bare arms but as I trotted toward the end of the first block, I knew a healthy sweat was imminent.

As I settled into mile one, my mind drifted. For many reasons I prefer outdoor jogging to the repetitive monotony of the treadmill: the little obstacles to jump over and run through, the variation of scenery and most especially, the people watching. Lost in my own thoughts, I suddenly became aware of a roadblock on the horizon, in the form of an elderly man shuffling with the help of a walker.

I shifted left on the sidewalk approximately a half block’s distance from the man, to give him the right of way. To my surprise, the fragile looking gentleman responded with a rather quick course correction to place himself once again in my path. This was unexpected, but what occurred next, even more so.

He looked me straight in the eye as I made my final approach, and with a huge smile spread across his face, demanded “How DARE you be so beautiful?” Well! I slowed my pace ever so slightly and before I could help myself, giggles tumbled forth. To be sure I was not laughing at the man, but with him, tickled as I was with the unanticipated compliment. Only later did I wonder if he was able to tell the difference. With genuine gratitude, I replied “Thank you sir,” and continued on my way with renewed energy.

As I approached the 5k halfway marker, I reflected upon a couple different themes. The first was wonderment at the marked increase in catcalling palatability when it emanates from an elderly man. What is it about their brazenness that is endearing, where the same behavior from a guy in my own demographic would be received as boorish and imprudent?

But the second set of questions revolved around what the old man saw to elicit these words of appreciation. After all, I was drenched in sweat, unwashed, makeup remnants rolling in beads down my face and neck. Careless visage maintenance after the previous night’s fun. My wild, curly hair was tied back but the forces of adrenaline and Chicago’s famous wind had caused several face framing tendrils to zigzag wildly in all directions. In short, I had not considered myself any man’s picture of desirability as I left the apartment. I concluded that I must be radiating something from within, a sort of attractive vibe with roots planted in a recent acquaintance with internal peace and satisfaction. Unencumbered by the sort of desperate pining and searching which had pretty much defined my conscious thoughts for the first 34 years, I’ve started catching myself smiling good-naturedly at nothing at all. Those intimately acquainted with me understand what a paradigm shift this is.

In the past, my MO was to immediately deny and deflect a compliment, especially one pertaining to physical comeliness. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw the awkward girl with unruly hair, giant Haray Caray glasses and crooked teeth caused by a first grade faceplant into my grandmother’s living room radiator. The dodgy receipt of someone’s appreciation was interpreted as a lack of grace, which I preferred greatly over having to tolerate what I understood to be disingenuous politeness. I’d grow red in the face, avert my eyes and more often than not, issue a curt rejoinder along the lines of “Stop,” or “Your eyes are broken.” I learned the hard way that people don’t typically like their judgment called into question and invariably, the words of appreciation would cease to flow. Relief outweighed the shame experienced as a result of my overt rudeness.

The third theme up for consideration as I completed the last leg of my run was a sort of calm amazement at the clear manifestations of an internal metamorphosis. Not only was I able to accept my elderly friend’s compliment, I was able to share the moment, to be present rather than frantically searching for the escape hatch, offending another human being in the process.

Much later, after a badly needed shower, I arrived at the answer to the old man’s question. How dare I be so beautiful? Hard won confidence: the product of years of therapy, successful career reinvention and the survival of personal struggles that forced me to give myself some credit at long last. That rejoinder may not be sexy and I’m certain it’s more information than my admirer wanted. But how thrilling to finally comprehend (not to just hear the words repeated, but to feel them deep in my bones) that beauty stems not from the perfect coif, flawless teeth or a model’s physique. By appreciating myself more, and permitting others to do the same, a visible, organic winsomeness results. Tom Petty had it right all this time. I don’t have to live like a refugee.

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