Small Talk

DSCN0535I’m one of those pathetic, lonely guys who still does his banking in person. Sure, I could do everything online, but then I’d miss out on some great conversations.

Take this morning, for instance. I was making a simple deposit at my local bank, and was gazing off into space with what I hoped was a look of serious contemplation when the teller glanced up from his computer and asked me, “So how’s your day going so far?”

The question startled me with its bold directness. It seemed as if the teller were trying to engage me as a real person, not just another of thousands of customers. And he wanted to know how my day was going?

I stared dumbfounded at the young man, who seemed as eager to hear my reply as if he were in a bar waiting for the punch line to a dirty joke. After several minutes had passed, his expression turned to concern, as beads of sweat and a look of panic appeared on my face.

You see, he didn’t just ask how I am, in which case a simple “fine, thank you” would have sufficed, but asked me how my actual day was going, which seemed to indicate that he wanted details. What really threw me, however, were those troubling last two words—“so far.” This demanded some quick evaluation of how my day was progressing at this precise point in time, as measured against my general existential standard of what a good day should entail.

Franticly I considered my options. I could take the easy way out and say that it was going great so far, but then come back at him with that grim reminder from the Don Henley tune about how “in a New York minute everything can change.” Make him think about the fragility of our daily lives and that “Nothing in the world lasts/Save eternal change.” (Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan). Maybe my teller would start worrying about what his day had in store for him, furtively looking behind his back and searching his car for explosives before he drove home. That would take the smile off his face.

But I think what the young man wanted was a piece of me—some little vignette in the life of the real person standing across from him. Ideally, it would involve something more interesting than the fact that I had just picked up the newspaper and had enjoyed a great walk up Fourth Avenue, except that I had stepped on some gum and been nearly stampeded by a gang of college students late for class. So I thought of some possible replies with a little more pizzazz, as for instance:

“Well, in just the past hour, I’ve researched my next book, visited two porn sites, made an appointment for a colonoscopy, decided which organs I wish to donate in case of my death, and was recruited by three separate terrorist organizations, one of which promised me an extra dozen virgins in heaven if I acted NOW.”

Or I could take a more somber tone, tearing up and shaking my head sadly. “It was going so well between us. Just this morning, we talked about having our first child and naming him George (or Georgiana if it’s a girl) after my uncle, who died from a heart attack after mistakenly taking three Viagra pills when he couldn’t remember if he had taken them or not. I was so happy. Then my wife suddenly turned to me and began to sob uncontrollably. “It’s all been a lie,” she said. “I was going to tell you, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Then she told me the truth. She—I mean he—was a transvestite, which now that I think about it does explain why he had to have his own bathroom.

Or maybe I should keep it short. “How’s my day going so far? Well, I’ve just been to my doctor and he told me that I have exactly two months to live, not counting any unused sick days or vacation time, and demanded that I pay him at the time service was rendered, meaning right now. And you want to hear the really sad part? I was stupid enough to pay him.”

In the end, I decided to be honest. “Please tell your corporate masters that my day was going just great until I heard that you’re raising my bank fees, and that my day would be going much better if I could get a little more interest on my CD’s.”

                                                       ©Gene Twaronite 2016

Impolite Conversations

Gene Twaronite's The Absurd LifeIt seems that whenever we set out on a family visit, my wife takes me aside and reminds me about not discussing certain topics. “What good does it do?” she’ll say. “You can’t change people’s opinions. You’ll just get all hot under the collar. Just relax and be sociable.”

“So what should I talk about?”

“You know! No politics, religion, environment or health stuff.”

“Can I at least talk about philosophy or economics?”

“Hell no. You start talking about the meaning of life and the nature of good and evil, and people get uncomfortable. And you know where any talk about economics will lead. It’s capitalism versus socialism, the 1% and the 99%. You want to start a war?”

The only things left are sports and TV, and even those can lead to trouble. “What’s with their left baseman? He’s got dreads down to his knees. And their catcher’s wearing a prayer shawl and a yarmulke. What are you, some kind of bigot? Speaking of bigots, did you see the Donald last night? Man, what a buffoon! Hey, don’t knock Donald. He makes a lot of sense. I don’t see you making billions of dollars.”

You can always talk about the weather. “Say, wasn’t that some storm last night? My house is underwater, and they say all of Florida will be soon. Well, at least it put out the wildfires. Do you think all these things have anything to do with …? Don’t say it! Say what? You were going to bring up climate change, weren’t you? Actually, I was going to say that it might signal the apocalypse, as revealed in Revelations.”

Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but wasn’t there a time when we could simply talk about things without risking the total meltdown of civilization? Today, there is no real desire to listen and consider anyone’s opinion but one’s own. We launch our talking points like missiles, hoping to score points. “Oh, that was a good one. She got you there.” Instead of trying to digest what people say, we’re too busy thinking about our next clever retort. We ask questions only to embarrass or put off guard anyone who dares to challenge our cherished beliefs. We push our opponents’ buttons and laugh as they get flustered.

Have to admit, I’m not always a polite conversationalist. I grow impatient with small talk. I want to suck the marrow out of you, to know what it is you think and feel down to your bones. As far as I’m concerned, the only topics worth talking about are those which inspire, ignite, or anger us, which may explain why I don’t receive a lot of dinner invitations.

I miss some of the family dinner discussions we had growing up. Not that they were always civil. I do recall a lot of yelling, but no hitting, biting, or scratching. There would be something in the news about some politician, labor strike, or cultural fad, and we were off. The conversation might veer toward diets, as for instance the time my younger sister became a vegetarian. I remember pummeling her with questions. “What’s the matter with meat? Eating meat is natural. What are those canines for, if not to tear flesh? You have to kill something. How is killing a carrot more ethical than killing a cow?” There was much laughter around the dinner table, at my poor sister’s expense. As I look back on it, though, beneath the sarcastic veneer, there was a desire to know and understand her reasons. She must have got through to me. It was not long before I, too, became a vegetarian.

Our family was fortunate to have an official discussion referee. Whenever things got too hot in the dining room, my mother, holding a plate of steaming pot roast, would enter and give us all that look. In a grim voice, she would say, “Nutilk!”—the Lithuanian word for “shut up.” Then she would smile and tell us to eat.

In her quiet, no nonsense way, my mother was telling us that we were still a family and to put away our differences. For her, la famiglia always came first. She saw the dangers of a divided house. Our country is not a family, of course, but as citizens we do, or should, all share a common allegiance to our nation—a nation of many voices, voices that have become increasingly shrill and unyielding. There comes a time when we need to stop shouting at each other and listen for a change. Sit down and break bread. Raise a glass of wine as you toast your differences. And remember to laugh. In the immortal words of both Lincoln and Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

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