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  • Jan Flynn

What Were You Thinking?

My 13 stupidest moments, ranked

Image by Andy M. from Pixabay

People who know me think I’m smart. And by standard measures — academic grades, SAT scores, the intelligence tests I didn’t even know I was taking in early elementary school — they’re correct.

I am genuinely interested in people, which leads to a fortunate tendency: At social gatherings, I’m more interested in finding out about other people than talking about myself. People tend to come away with a favorable impression of my wits just because I genuinely listen to them.

The reality is that I can be breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly dim. As in dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers stupid.

Luckily, I’m not talking about stupid on the level of losing a spacecraft — like NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) did in 1998 when the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter went permanently AWOL because somebody forgot to convert English measurements into metric.

(I’m forever grateful to those rocket scientists at NASA and JPL, who make me feel better about my ineptitude with math.)

I’m referring to things I’ve done in the course of a normal day, using my allegedly normal brain, that were so inane that I still can’t explain them.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe that includes considering the moments in life when one’s intellect has suddenly descended to a level somewhere below the average guppy.

Ranking my “duh” moments

I like to rate them on a scale of one to ten, one meaning Momentarily Embarrassing and ten meaning Natural Selection May Have Failed.

Here are 17 such instances, ranked more or less in order of the threat they posed to my survival.

Three Accidental medical experiments (score 1–3)

It is only through the grace of my guardian angel, or whatever deity watches over fools, that my goofs resulted in nothing more than bruised skin and/or damaged dignity.

One: I was sitting on the sofa, immersed in a novel, and drinking a soda. I rarely drink soda, and this one was in one of those retro, heavy glass bottles.

Finishing the soda, still absorbed in my reading, I absentmindedly sucked all the air out of the bottle and allowed the resultant suction to draw in my upper lip, sort of like a fleshy plug.

And then I left the bottle there. Hanging from my upper lip. While I continued reading.

It was a really good book.

A half-hour later, when I got to the end of Part II and needed a bathroom break, I was surprised by how difficult it was to dislodge the bottle. At last my lip escaped the bottle’s neck with a definitive thunk.

It wasn’t until I saw myself in the mirror that I understood the effects of that much negative pressure on soft tissue. It turns out that human lips when subjected to distortion via a vacuum of sufficient strength and over a certain period of time, will retain the shape and size imposed by said vacuum.

The advice nurse I called had some difficulty deciphering my words, as my mouth now resembled a duck’s — a duck who’d lost a bar fight, since my lip had also turned dark purple.

Being a veteran nurse, she didn’t bother asking why I had done such a thing. After several hours of sitting and applying a succession of ice packs per her instructions, I could come up with no explanation.

Years later, I still can’t.

Two: Many people have come to grief while using ladders. It is only due to entirely unearned good fortune that I am not among them.

I was painting a bedroom. The ladder I stood on was just a little too far from the bookcase (covered in slick plastic drop cloths) I needed to reach behind. Moving the ladder would involve rearranging all my stuff including the paint bucket, climbing down, repositioning, climbing back up, etc.

I would have called for help, but I was home alone. I know, I know.

But if I could just reach out with one hand — a little farther, no, not quite, just a little farther, if I could just grab —

As I lay on the floor, underneath the toppled bookcase, I calculated how much it was going to cost to replace the paint-saturated carpet. More than I’d have had to pay a pro to do the painting for me, I reckoned.

Three: Should you be about to undergo a colonoscopy, I am sorry to say I can offer you this advice from personal experience.

At some point during the 24-hour fast required as preparation for the procedure, you will be asked to glug down an ungodly amount of liquid that has the power to clean out the New York sewer system.

The instructions that come with the bottle will tell you that the liquid will “take effect” in anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours. That’s good because you’re at work and this will give you plenty of time to get home before all intestinal hell breaks loose.

Do not, I repeat, do not, assume this means you have time for a quick pedicure at that cute walk-in salon that’s right on the way.

Two restaurant-associated mishaps (score 2–4)

These gaffes score as high as they do not because of any physical risk they entailed, but on the off chance that it is actually possible to die of embarrassment.

One: My husband is an actor, so he’s friends with a number of RFPs (Rather Famous Persons). Some years ago while on vacation in a tropical paradise, we had lunch with one such RFP who was there on location. He’d recommended the place, we’ll call it “Dan’s,” as it was one of his favorites. He’d gotten to know the owner.

This was my first time meeting this RFP and I was trying very hard to play it cool. Yet I felt the need to contribute to the conversation rather than sit there like a lump. So when he described his new friendship with the proprietor of Dan’s restaurant, I brightly inquired as to the owner’s name.

“Um,” said the RFP. “Dan.”

Two: At a fancy restaurant in a different city, I wore a dress I loved for its swirling skirt made of tissue-thin silk. Before the entrees arrived, I excused myself to the ladies’ room. After washing my hands and touching up my hair and lipstick, I gave my reflection an approving glance in the mirror before sailing out into the main dining room.

If only I’d turned around while still in front of the mirror.

I heard an intake of breath from a nearby diner at the same time as I detected the chilly draft on my derriere. While rearranging myself while still in the loo, I’d accidentally stuffed the back side of my skirt into my undies.

Walking backward, at high speed, in high heels, is no easy feat. Especially when trying to conceal your half-naked ass.

It’s a wonder I eat out anymore.

Three tell-me-you’ve-done-this-too moments (scores 3–5)

One: I can’t be the only one who has ever had to gate-check their roll-aboard suitcase because the plane’s overhead bins are too wee.

And then you get off the plane at your destination and walk right past the “A La Carte” trolley that has your suitcase on it.

You have this sense of having forgotten something as you trudge up the jetway.

But you don’t figure out why until you’re halfway down the terminal and notice that you don’t have your luggage.

You’ve never done that?

Two: Surely you’ve done this: you enter a dressing room in a boutique to try on a few items. The store is small, and so is the dressing room which leads directly into the main retail area. But it’s fine; there’s a louvered wooden door with a magnetic latch to guard your privacy.

The stretchy pants you thought were the right size turn out to be rather tight. Really tight. So tight that when you get them up to your knees you’re not sure you can get them any higher. You have a choice: give up, roll them back down your ankles, and go on to the next garment, or give them one last tug.

You crouch. You tug. Mightily.

The pants do not budge. Instead, your hands fly off the waistband, their momentum causing them to smack you in the face. You lose your balance and fall against the door.

The magnetic latch gives way. You crash sideways into public view.

Then you scuttle back into the dressing room with your knees still welded together by the damn pants.

That’s never happened to you?

One I’m-really-not-a-sex-worker-moment (score 6)

Just One (thankfully): Like my husband, I too once made a living as an actor. Like many a thespian with classical theater training, back in the 80s and 90s I made most of my money appearing in TV commercials.

What that meant was that I went on a lot of auditions, which were usually held in low-rent casting offices in the less reputable regions of Hollywood. Most casting calls were held in the afternoon, but sometimes they went late enough that they converged with the neighborhood’s evening transformation from merely seedy to decidedly sinister.

On one early Friday evening, I was happily heading to a call-back — which meant I’d already passed the first audition and the producers wanted to see me again. I was one step closer to landing the gig!

Dressed for a dinner party as per the commercial’s setting, I hurried from my parking spot on a side street down Hollywood Boulevard toward the casting office.

A car pulled up beside me. A smiling man within rolled down the passenger side window, leaned over, and asked, “Are you working?”

Excited about the audition, I chirruped, “I hope to be!”

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the waiting room that I realized the man in the car had mistaken my profession. That explained the baffled look the would-be john gave me when I strode cheerfully away.

Three stupid animal tricks (score 7–8)

I am an animal lover, a defender of wildlife, a staunch admirer of our fellow creatures here on Earth. Mostly that has given me great joy. On a few occasions, however, it has led me into questionable situations.

Ones that could have gone very wrong, very fast if I hadn’t been lucky.

One: back in my college years, I had a summer job at a theme park that included a fair-sized menagerie. I befriended the girl whose job it was to take care of the wild cats. How she got the job I have no idea since she betrayed neither associated expertise nor good judgment.

One morning as we were goofing around before the park opened, she said, “Hey, you wanna pet the cougar?”

I gave the only possible answer. “Sure!”

I tiptoed into the cougar’s enclosure, where the big cat lay on its side in a splash of sunshine. It wore a collar with a leash held by the handler, who looked as though she might be having second thoughts about the wisdom of this plan. So was I.

The cougar’s expression suggested we might be right.

But the handler and I were young and headstrong, AKA stupid. Neither of us wanted to back down.

“Kneel down by his back, and just pet him on his side,” she said. I noticed her free hand was clenched into a fist. “He gets outta line, I bop him in the nose,” she explained.

I wasn’t sure how much influence either the leash or her puny human fist would have on a 100-pound Canadian cougar. By now, though, I was entranced by the animal’s beauty. Slowly, I reached out and stroked the dense, buttery-soft fur on his flank.

The cougar raised his head and gave me a look that clearly said, “I’ll allow it. But move one hair of mine in the wrong direction and watch what happens.”

Reaching out one more time, I saw the big cat’s eyes narrow. The handler cocked her fist and, I noticed, withdrew to the end of the leash.

“Maybe he’s had enough,” I whispered as I gingerly backed away. I got out of the enclosure in one piece, still buzzing with the thrill of having gotten to pet a cougar.

I didn’t see the handler again for a couple of weeks. When I did, she wasn’t wearing her uniform, and her right forearm was swathed in thick bandages. “I’m just here to pick up my last check,” she told me. “F***ing cougar.”

If you have to be stupid, it’s good to be lucky.

Two: Many years later — long after I could blame poor judgment on my youth —I volunteered with a horse rescue. One summer we’d moved our herd to a new set of stables and pastures. This location was close to a fairground that hosted a Fourth of July display.

Worried our horses would be panicked by the fireworks, I stepped up to take preventative measures. This meant spending several hours trying to shove wads of cotton into horses’ ears, in the dark.

The retired Quarter horses and cow ponies put up with it politely enough, merely shaking their heads and dislodging the cotton the moment I walked away.

The high-spirited Thoroughbreds and Arabians, however, were much more offended by my stuffing tickly wads into their ears than they were by the fireworks.

I managed to avoid being kicked or stepped on by any annoyed equines, all of whom remained cotton-free despite my efforts.

Three: This one is so gobsmackingly dumb I hesitate to confess it. But here goes.

I was visiting the zoo — with my school-age boys — who should have been able to look to me, out of all the people on Earth, for a model of right action.

Maybe it’s because the cage was located right outside the children’s zoo where we’d just been feeding goats. Or because its inmates, African bat-eared foxes, were so darn cute. And they were only separated from the public by little more than chicken wire.

So when one of the foxes stood on its hind legs to lean against the wire and cocked its huge ears at me in its adorable, puppyish way, I stuck my index finger in and waggled it.

The dear little creature sniffed gently at my finger.

And then bit it.


Sometimes as a parent, one is called upon to act as an example of what not to do.

One only-by-the-grace-of-God-am-I-here-to-write-this moment (ranking: 10+)

This one is short. I wanted to cross the street at a busy intersection in a large, bustling city. To make sure no traffic was coming, I looked left before I stepped off the curb.

Which would have been sensible, if I were in San Francisco or Chicago or New York or Paris.

Alas, I was in London.

I can still feel the draft of the double-decker bus as it whizzed past me on the right, three inches from my face.

I believe that totals 13. Then again, I am still very bad at math

Of course, I can only list the gaffes I have consciously registered. Stupidity is, like dark matter, all around us. Often if it can only be inferred from its effects.

Still, I find it a good spiritual practice to recall the lapses that I am aware of from time to time. Doing so keeps me humble, and more importantly, keeps me grateful.

Because it’s a miracle I’m still here.

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