Oh, to be “unobtrusive, modest, subdued”

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

In a shopping mall in expansive building at a major intersection in the center of city with a population of 4,000,000 (the mall is adjacent to a hotel with 825 rooms) is a hamburger joint that recreates a 1950s diner with red faux-leather chairs and booths, black-and-white checkered tiles on the walls, and large photographs of iconic entertainers such as Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and Bill Haley and The Comets. The diner serves the “Texas Burger,” the “Double Cheese Burger,” the “Bacon and Swiss Burger.”

I ordered the “Texas Burger.” It was very much like a burger one might get at Smash Burger in Dallas except the fries were potato wedges, not French fries, and I had to pay extra for ketchup (Heinz in small packets).

The "Baltic Princess" - too crowded for comfort.

The “Baltic Princess” – too crowded for comfort.

The city intersection where the mall, hotel, and diner are located is the end of the Nevsky Prospect where it connects with the main bridge across the Neva River into the center city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Across the street from the hotel is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Elvis Presley’s first RCA hit single was “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. I was eleven years old and could sing it from start to finish (if my parents were not nearby). I’m (obviously) 86 today. I can’t even get the melody well enough in my mind at the moment to start it, much less finish it.

The etymology of the word “retire” is not to tire of something and then tire again. We use the word in such a way that it might seem that’s where it came from. I tired of working when I was about 50 (or 35, or 25), and now I have again tired of working. It’s time to stop.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “retire” comes not from some form of getting tired but from the Middle French verb meaning retirer “to withdraw.” That’s a transitive verb, meaning it needs an object, so it must be used (the Middle French, that is) in the construction “to retire something.” The first use in English was “to withdraw oneself,” specifically “to withdraw oneself and go to bed.” By 1640, the word had come to mean “to withdraw oneself from business.”

By 1766 the adjective form of the word had come to mean “fond of retiring, disposed to seclusion,” hence “unobtrusive, modest, subdued” (1766), as in “he is the retiring type.”

My friends on the upper deck.

My friends on the upper deck.

I am somewhat disposed to seclusion.

This will be a somewhat trying week for me. I went to a party two nights ago with the kind and gracious group with whom I traveled in Europe last month—a group of which I have grown enormously fond, and of which I am delighted to be a part. Today I will attend a birthday party for someone of whom I am exceptionally fond. He is—dear me, can it be?—less than half my age, and he is attached to and understands the cultural world in which he lives and in relation to which I often find myself an outsider looking in and wondering what the hell is going on.

My primary goal as far as parties and such occasions is to be “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued.” This is not a new phenomenon for me. Even when I could sing “Blue Suede Shoes,” both words and music, from memory and not only knew who Bill Haley was but could sing “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as vociferously and flawlessly as any of my junior high school friends, what I really wanted was to be in a corner (or preferably in the next room) singing by myself. Or, better yet, to be listening from the private world in my mind.

The enervating crowd disembarking

The enervating crowd disembarking

I’d guess that few people who know me as an acquaintance would expect me to say that about myself. After all, I have supported myself all my life in two very public professions, music and teaching. An “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued” person can hardly manage those two professions. Perhaps I haven’t. The common pop definition of “introvert” applies to me, that is, a person who feels energy sapped by being with too many people, as opposed to the “extrovert” whose energy is increased by being with groups of people.

I want to retire in at least two senses of the word. I want to “to withdraw [my]self from [the] business [of teaching]” because I’m old, and I want to make myself “unobtrusive, modest, subdued.”

Don’t misunderstand. I love teaching. And, if student evaluations are reliable evidence, I’m very good at it. And I love such experiences as running off to Scandinavia and Russia with a kind and generous group of people.

But I love being retired from too much social interaction more. “Unobtrusive, modest, subdued.” Ah, yes.

I may be as confused as a picture of Elvis Presley in a ‘50s-style diner in St. Petersburg in 2013.

Finland's coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

Finland’s coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

2 Responses to Oh, to be “unobtrusive, modest, subdued”

  1. bobritzema says:

    I’m also an introvert and, like you, have spent my life doing things that require quite a bit of interaction with others (I’ve been a therapist and teacher). I enjoy both of those activities, but don’t enjoy the social aspect. That’s not to say I don’t like people; I do, but my preference is as you stated, to be unobtrusive, modest, and subdued. So I can come from interacting with others thinking both “I had a good time” and “I’m glad that’s done with.”

  2. Pingback: “. . . a lantern, burning in the midst of parenthetical opaqueness. . . “ (1) | Me, senescent

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