Compliments are funny things. Some people want them, seek them, love and need them while others shun them and are flustered by them. I ride that line. I like praise and even seek it but only when I feel I deserve it, otherwise it freaks me out. I’ve found that when someone says something nice to me, I have one of two reactions, neither of which are “Thank you.” If I agree with the sentiment, I tell a story. For instance, if someone says, “That’s a darling outfit,” I say, “I know, right? I got the skirt at the thrift store and the shoes were on sale and the top was a hand me down and my great grandmother made the sweater during the blizzard of ’43.” It’s like I need to explain why the praise is true even if my explanation has nothing to do with the original compliment. If I don’t agree with the sentiment, I argue. I’ll act all demure with a, “Oh, that’s so nice, but I had nothing to do with it,” or “It just happened this way,” or something equally vague and somewhat insulting to the praise-giver. I know I’m just supposed to smile, accept the compliment and move on. According to childhood lessons in etiquette, I should return a compliment but that’s even worse than accepting one. A forced compliment is hollow, isn’t it?
There was one compliment, though, an off-hand remark that had nothing to do with anything I did but that left me speechless, nonetheless. It was, and remains, the best compliment I have ever received in my life.
Back during our early high school days, my BFF, T, began to conserve her syllables both, I think, as a matter of communication efficiency and also maybe a little due to verbal laziness. During the school day, we had a lot to say, so much so that every moment in the hallway was spent chattering over each other at our lockers and when we were apart in separate classrooms, we wrote notes to one another. When we finished our homework in the evenings, we’d call each other. This was back in the days when the house had a main phone because cell phones were a thing of science fiction; we’d tie up the line for hours. I still don’t know why our parents let us do that but I suppose it was a good way to keep telemarketers from disturbing the peace. So knowing there was a lot to be said in a short amount of time (because, really, we probably only had 4-5 actual hours per school day to express our thoughts), T started shorthanding her speech and, as a result, my name lost two syllables and simply became “Er” (as in Eyre, Jane Eyre) This easy-to-say new name stuck and I am still “Er” to T and a few others, including my Longest Running Friend, April. April’s been calling me Er since T coined it so by the time she and I got to Korea, it was my default name. I don’t think she could have added the “ica” if forced.
South Korea was my first legitimate trip out of the country. It was scary and culture shocky for the first month or two but we eventually found our places in the environment and functioned appropriately as young twenty-somethings abroad. So one night midway through our year there, we were out with our co-workers/friends and were the only non-Koreans in the group. I was walking out of the bar with Michelle (real name: Sae Kyung), April and Julie (I don’t remember her real name) right behind us. I heard Julie ask April, “Why do you call her ‘Er’? Is it because as your friend, she is so important to you, like the air you breathe?” I think we laughed, April and I; Julie’s logic seemed hilarious. April explained the shortening of words for the ease of communication. Obviously, the name had nothing to do with anything I’d done, nothing to do with me at all, really. It was just a question based on linguistics and the desire to understand our tradition of nicknames but it hit me hard and has stuck with me all these years, the thought that I could be as important as the air someone breathes, I could be that necessary in a life and that my necessity was apparent to another individual. What a wonderful thought, this gift of belief in the worthiness of one single regular human being and her potential impact upon another. I’d like to say I try to live each day with this beautiful sentiment in mind, that I try to be as important as air, but I don’t. I don’t believe that’s how life works, that any one person is truly irreplaceable. We can’t be; there’s no guarantee any of us will be here tomorrow unlike the air which will most likely be here for all of our tomorrows and probably our great-great grandchildren’s tomorrow if we don’t jack things up too badly. No, of course, our air won’t last forever, either, but we know we’re transient and the air, in comparison, is probably more permanent. Also, I never had a child, probably the only instance in which that statement of importantce is true or as close to true as possible. So, no. I am not as important as the air we breathe. I just have friends who don’t speak my full name. And yet, that is the best compliment, the most meaningful sentiment, I’ve ever received.