Whenever I start writing up a profile on someone, I always end up going through things like fan blogs and message boards to find links to their material. And sooner or later, I always run into someone who thinks it is fun to start a conversation with, "If you could ask [celebrity] one question, what would it be?"

It might surprise you to learn that I very rarely have a question that I'm dying to ask anybody. The few that do accumulate are universally either too stupid for words or very very nosy, except for the ones that are both stupid and nosy. The problem is that all of the really good, useful answers belong to questions that I don't know enough to ask. In real life, when something happens to bring a specific question to mind, I handle it by just asking point-blank for what I want to know; sometimes people are flustered or embarrassed, or flat out lie to me, but even the fact that they feel the need to lie about something gives me a lot of information. With the celebrity profiles, about 99% of the time I can get my answer just by paying attention.

This is particularly baffling to most people because I'm quite capable of asking anything I damn well please of anybody. Whatever gene historically coded for 'fear of God', expressed in modern society as 'gibbering in the presence of celebrities', I don't have it. I am a human being and I am afraid of a squintillion different things, some of which make sense and some of which are completely moronic. Talking to strangers isn't anywhere on the list, even if the stranger in question happens to have been on TV. The worst that could happen is that someone I've never before met face-to-face and whom I will probably never personally talk to again will think I'm some sort of weirdo. I am some sort of weirdo, and also the world won't end if some random person doesn't like me, so this is not exactly something that keeps me awake at night.

That's not to say I'm entirely sanguine about the idea of talking to one of the interesting people in person. It seems to me that the situation is entirely unfair. Not because I'm talking to someone who is rich or famous or beautiful or otherwise possessed of a lot of the things that we traditionally think of as combining into social capital -- they're random people to me, remember -- but because I always go in holding ridiculous amounts of information on them, which I've generally already processed into useful knowledge, and they don't know me from Adam. It makes me feel very ham-handed. It's bad enough in my ordinary life when I accidentally convince people I'm psychic, and that's just using what I've gotten off them in person, where they have fair warning and could in theory get the same off me. How would you feel if someone you'd never clapped eyes on before started making frighteningly shrewd guesses about you not thirty seconds after you'd said hello?

I have a feeling that the eidetic memory clips do nothing to convince people I'm not some sort of mad obsessive stalker, either. I remember about that much to about the same level of detail about anyone I find even remotely interesting -- ask Moggie how long it took me to retain her regular coffee order at Starbucks and to meet her at work with it unprompted -- but if you don't know me, you wouldn't know that. I startle people who already know I work like this. Incredible genius and total insanity look remarkably similar if you lack that vital piece of background information.

I not infrequently have things I'd like to say to these people, which drives me up a goddamn tree. They are never things I would feel appropriate saying point-blank to someone who is essentially a stranger. While they're generally very nice things, which I think would reflect well on whoever it is I'm tempted to say them to, they're also generally very weird things that are well outside the scope of what most people would probably get out of consuming whatever media the stranger in question has created. I don't think I'd be knocked for a loop if anyone said them to me, but we established a couple paragraphs ago that I'm weird. Most people are not conscious of leaking the kind of information I pick up on, and it's been my experience that telling them what they're broadcasting has an unfortunate sort of quantum-observer effect -- once I tell people what I see, they feel judged or defensive or anxious and stop doing whatever it was out of sheer paralyzing self-consciousness.

(Don't bother, incidentally. I don't know if it has to do with my brain or how I taught myself to intellectualize all the people-reading, but I am annoyingly blind to a lot of social camouflage. I can't comment on how well your efforts at masking are working for much the same reason as the radiologist reading your chest x-ray can't comment on the color of your shirt -- I assume it's probably there, but it's transparent. Most of the time I can pick up if someone's uncomfortable and anxious about certain kinds of attention, but don't necessarily know what or why. About half the time I completely miss what the anxiety is linked to and therefore also miss the fact that someone is trying to cover for something in the first place. Gets me into fuckloads of trouble. I do it with media, too; I inadvertently tick people off more often than I should probably admit by mentioning what I think are the obvious signs of an upcoming plot twist only to find out that it's a total shock to everyone else. I know what people look like to me, but in order to figure out how they look to others I have to see them interact with someone else, and get it via bank shots from the second person's reaction.)

Most of the weird things I successfully stop myself from saying to other people come from the fact that I find a lot of the non-verbals I read to be very catching. I can't watch most sitcoms, because the entire basis for them is people tying themselves into knots over whether someone else will find out they're not completely perfect and awesome all the time. 99.9% of all sitcom plots could be solved within five minutes if people just fucking said what they were thinking. With a shitty cast, it's just uninteresting, but with a brilliant cast, watching people successfully convey awkwardness and discomfort doesn't scan as funny to me, it scans like people existing in a perpetual state of dysfunctional social terror. That's almost exactly the opposite of hilarious. Can't stand it. The better the actors are, the less I can sit through.

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  1. Have you ever watched the British soap opera "As Time Goes By"? It starred Judi Dench. It took me half a dozen episodes to even realize it was a soap opera, because it was so realistic and humane compared to mainstream American ones.

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    1. I've never even heard of it. I tend not to watch dramas, unless there's some other draw to it, like a murder mystery or sci-fi elements. I find I dislike most of them for the same reason I dislike most sitcoms -- and the reason I dislike stupid office gossip and histrionic people, for that matter. I lose interest right around the first time I find myself yelling at the TV, "You could have fucking fixed that in thirty seconds if you would just say what you mean and quit being terrified of what people might think."

      A lot of things people call soap operas these days are technically just melodramas. A soap opera is specifically a serial melodrama that's aired during the work week, usually in the early afternoons. The name comes from the fact that the original ones were all scheduled when only housewives were likely to be home to watch, and were sponsored by companies who wanted to advertise products bought largely by that demographic -- such as the makers of dish and laundry soap.

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