Pinball, Ping Pong, and Personality

The “big ones” are home from college, and our house sings – the music of the three boys, the laughter, the banter – nothing is better. If you know me, you know that nothing makes me happier, more content, more whole, than when the five of us are together, and it is only enhanced when we get to throw in the presence of more family and friends. I love my people.

I hate being alone. I’m perfectly capable of being alone – I can get things done, I can entertain myself – but I generally have a deep desire to be in the presence of others. I’ve always been this way, and it’s been a little bit complicated by the fact that, by nature, I’m quite shy. Those who knew me as a child will certainly nod their heads in recognition of my shyness. Those who met me later, even in my teens or young-adulthood, will likely say, “What the hell is she talking about? That woman is not shy.” Those who met me later are wrong.

I gain strength connecting with others. I hate being alone. The underlying shyness is a fundamental fear of rejection by others, and hence a fear of being alone. But that fear of rejection leads to an avoidance of potential rejection, which leads to an avoidance of people, which leads to being alone, which sucks, which led me to learn to force myself to defy my shyness and put myself in positions in which no sane shy person would put herself. For example, my second year of medical school found me on stage at a full Fox Theater in Detroit, solo-ing at the top of my lungs for our annual Lampoon show, about pubic lice. This illustrates the extent to which I’ll go to fight my innate personality traits so that I can connect with people.

So why am I thinking about being alone? Today is Sunday – Doug is not at work, Andrew is not at school, Zachary and Ryan are home from college, I don’t have any particular pressing things to get done – and I chose to stay home alone while my men are at an annual pinball expo all day today. This wasn’t a last-minute decision – I made the choice weeks ago, when tickets to the event needed to be purchased – and I still stand by my decision. Which doesn’t make any sense – kind of like it doesn’t make sense for a shy person to sing in public about crabs.

Doug and the boys argued with me when I made the decision not to go. “It’ll be fun, Mom!” “You don’t hate pinball – I see you smiling when you play!” “They’ve got so many great games!” “C’mon, all the cool people are doing it!” (I made up the last one). They’re correct – I don’t hate pinball, it’s fun, the collection of machines is incredible – and I still didn’t want to go. How do I reconcile my deepest drive to be with people, and especially to be with people I love, and my decision to spend today on my own? It’s the machines.

The pinball machines. It’s specifically the pinball machines.

The machines stand in rows, one next to the other, filled with people staring into them and hitting flipper buttons. And while someone is staring into the machine and flipping the flippers, for the duration of the time each ball is in play, he is fully connected with the machine and disconnected from the people around him. And when you’re good at it, each ball’s play time is significant. It is fundamentally isolating. While I enjoy a reasonable amount of time playing, I don’t like the feeling of that isolation for a whole day.

I could play ski-ball for hours. Each throw requires focus, but you can chat with others between every throw. I can play ping pong for hours – it requires focus, but when you’re in the middle of a really good rally, even if you’re not making small talk nor engrossed in deep philosophical conversation, you’re very much in connection with the person across the table, anticipating her moves, reacting to her spins, adjusting your actions and reactions to interact with her as she adjusts hers to interact with you. I love ping pong.

I’ve spent my life making calculated decisions to increase my ability to be close to people. I chose to major in psychology as an undergraduate so I could understand people. I chose to power through my pre-med classes and medical school years of intense basic sciences (which did not come easily to me) because I had the ultimate goal of being a physician and helping people. I spent the clinical years of medical school, years of residency, and even some time as a hospitalist in a rural area, working 80 to over 100 hours per week, away from the people I was closest to, caring for people who were sick, injured, worried, grieving, and scared. That’s some pretty good interpersonal connection material.

The vasst amount of time I’ve spent alone, studying for exams, was done with the goal in mind of the ultimate connection of the doctor-patient relationship. The time I spent singing about sexually transmitted parasites and other things I’m unlikely to tell my children about, despite significant stage-fright, was done with the goal of connecting with my classmates in creativity and stress release. The times I stand and give talks in front of large groups of people (remember the aforementioned stage fright?) are done with the goal of sharing information and promoting discussion with others. The times I swallow down my shyness and chat with a random person at a conference, or on an elevator, or at my kid’s track meet, or at one of the boys’ jazz concerts, my drive to connect wins. When I walk in and stand in front of a class of medical students, my shyness is defeated by the pull of the teacher-student connection.

Today, the pull of the day-with-my-family was outdone by the aversion to the prolonged isolation of the pinball machines, which produced enough loneliness and self-pity to pull me into this self-reflection, which pushed me into sitting in front of my DocThoughts keyboard and reconnecting with you.

The men have returned home, happy and a bit glassy-eyed. I’m going to suggest some family ping-pong.

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