Speak Softly and Carry a Big…

Someone I know asked me why I don’t respond to her e-mails—usually ones with funny links or forwarded messages—with longer replies. She’s right about my brevity. Unless I have a point to make requiring extra verbiage, I’m spare with words. If you send me a link to a funny video or a photo of a dog in flippers and a sombrero or whatever, I’ll write back, “Cute!” or “Funny!” and leave it at that. If, in another instance, you compliment a piece I’ve written, unless you ask me a direct question I’ll just reply with something like, “Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate that.” And I do appreciate it. I’m just not going to gush. That would be unseemly. Also, I never figure anyone is really waiting for me to babble. I don’t want to waste their time.

Outside of e-mail, but in the same vein, I’ve always been vaguely aware that my quietness can be taken as rudeness, especially when people try to engage me in conversation. I’m not very good at picking up verbal and visual cues, so I go for the safety of assuming I’m boring everyone. Hence, I keep things brief, unless the situation requires length.

But as I’ve grown as a person and trained myself to pick up on those cues, I’ve learned that some people are not particularly interested in hearing me speak at length, ever. People have different ideas about what “at length” means. I’ve been interrupted while offering very short answers to questions. I’ve been asked my opinion, and after 10 seconds the questioner is off speaking to someone else. In my favorite moment, I was asked a question, and as I opened my mouth, someone next to me (not Mike) started answering the question FOR me. Sometimes it’s better to be silent and still.

Largely, it’s my voice and demeanor. Like my father, I speak in low, modulated tones; unlike him I mumble. As a lawyer and ex-politician, Dad learned to project his voice when needed, but in conversation he only raises his voice when noise pollution rises in the immediate vicinity. Even then he’s not a shouter. I’m with him on that one—in most conversation there’s no need to to yell. Hilariously, if you rudely interrupt my dad, he’ll adjust the power, not the volume, of his voice and run you over like a bulldozer. I’ve noticed this mostly happens with people who fancy themselves mavericks. They ask Dad a question, and as he methodically outlines his answer they try to “help” him along, interrupting, shout-talking at him as if they’re at a nightclub, trying to prod him into reaching the answer they want, not the answer they need. Then Dad takes a breath and lets fly with his deep, bludgeoning locomotive voice. I’ve seen people step back, startled, when he does that. Defying authority has become so rote these days, it amazes people when they encounter an authority figure who won’t bend to their desires. I suppose it’s a turn off for some people, and they think Dad is being overbearing, but from my perspective he’s doing what’s best for them, even if they don’t know it. Whenever I meet someone who takes their time explaining something, I listen, especially if they seem to know what they’re talking about. In conversation, what is a person supposed to be doing instead?

So, why don’t I speak up? Why don’t I engage?

If I’m at work it’s because I’m there to work, not gabble. I shoot the breeze like anyone else, but I’ve been hired to edit and proof, and edit and proof I shall. I think my reputation for rudeness (or, at least, aloofness) comes from my habit of not realizing when people I barely speak to want to talk to me. I come into the cafeteria, say “Hey” or “Good morning” to whoever, get my coffee, and leave. When someone (again, usually someone I barely converse with) asks me “How’s your son?” or “Going anywhere for vacation?”, it doesn’t register because I’m thinking “Get coffee. Go back to desk. Proof. Edit. Write.” My co-workers often have to (“have to”) ask the question again, which boggles me for a few seconds as my brain registers what they’re saying.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“How’s your son?/Going anywhere for vacation?/Etc.”

Okay, there’s a little rude part of me that causes me to knit my brow when I hear these questions. I can’t for the life of me understand why a passing acquaintance is asking me about my life. It hasn’t occurred to me—and I suppose I’m an ass for this—to wonder about their life. I’m a liberal guy, and I believe in fair play, freedom, happiness, and all that shit, but I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of the lives of (key word) EVERYONE around me. I won’t say I don’t care, but I can’t say I care all that much because I fail to see the relevance of such conversation. It’s okay, I don’t expect my life to enthrall anyone. That’s not self-effacement, it’s just fact.

Which is minorly monstrous, I guess, though in my defense I don’t think I’m hurting anyone as long as I keep my mouth shut and maintain an expression of rapt interest. Mike has coached me on this over the years. I’ve learned to make eye contact and have a set of answers ready now. My humanity is coming along nicely.

How’s my son?

* He’s healthy and happy and growing every day.
* He’s all boy.
* He’s into everything.

Going anywhere on vacation?:

* Nope, staying home and working on the house.
* Yes, we’re heading to XYZ destination.
* I am a Lincoln/Architecture/History/Whatever buff.

I cleave to a script, and it’s interesting how little difference it makes since everyone else has his or her own script as well. I don’t do this to be a jerk. I’m just missing a necessary something that many people seem to have in order to engage in normal social interactions. When people who I don’t know very well  try to have conversations with me, I’m incapable of recognizing that they want to talk to me, because when I talk I’m usually interrupted, because, I guess, I’m not honoring the rules. I just wish I knew what the rules were. If nothing else I’d be a better conversation faker.

And that, dear children, is why I write.

Shhh! The Master Speaks! Ahhhhh! It Burns!

I want a term for an individual who receives acclaim for being an unapologetic prick from masochistic journalists and intellectuals who should know better. An individual who seems to be more about criticism not for the sake of improving art, society, or culture, but for simply being disgusted with whatever is placed before him or her, only deigning to approve of a meager handful of works or efforts. A loudmouth whom we admire for being intelligent, lucid, and well-spoken, yes, but whose tastes and ideas seem wholly arbitrary, resting on an ineffable system of ethics and aesthetics. In sum, this person is admired because they are loud, pushy, deafened, and tunnel-visioned, screaming and acting like the 600-pound spoiled, opinionated brats we’d secretly like to be.

Scapeconoclast is almost that term but not quite.

Words of Advice for Young People

So, let’s figure you’re a creative type.

You know the artsy people you look up to in high school and college? The free spirits with funny-colored hair, unlikely names, and wardrobes that incorporate all the colors of the rainbow and the ostentatious fashion sense of about seven different cultures? The ones who start dancing in public without music, insist on eating and preparing only exotic and unnaturally natural cuisine, and usually play (or try to play) an oud or zither or some similar obscure instrument? The ones who re-filter everything the hippies were into through a dozen cultural effects pedals, thereby making “NEW” art out of other’s ideas and labor? The ones who are multifaceted incompetents, reaching new heights of mediocrity in multiple genres? The ones that just. FEEL. SO. DAMN. MUCH., they’re either self-destructing, weeping, or whipping about and criticizing everyone for not acting rightly or paying enough attention to them? The, as Kerouac rambled, “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Those people wear on you like a belt sander when you get older.

Unless you’re one of them, of course.

Fair warning.

Okay, Honestly, WTF?

This? This is the reason you’ve been scraping away at the front of the Gage Group? Note too that the “restored” facade is nothing special. Jesus.

By the way, this is one of only five Sullivan buildings left in Chicago.

Also, note that they’re not calling this restaurant “Sullivan’s.” Filthy, filthy Irish.

My Crazy Old Man Training Is Coming Along Splendidly

In days of old (the late 90s) whenever I had an idea or needed to remember something, I grabbed the nearest notepad, Post it, or other scrap of paper, jotted it down, and then stuffed it in my pants pocket. When I arrived home, I amused my wife as I emptied my pockets of my wallet, keys, and a paper salad of yellow and white notes. I didn’t carry a notepad, because, at the time, I was only familiar with the small spiral-bound pads my dad favored, and while the small ones slipped neatly into my pants pockets, the metal spine invariably hooked itself onto either the fabric or my thigh’s flesh. No thank you.

Sometime in, I dunno, 2000, my friend Matt—who loves technology so much, our friend Chris suspected he was operated by a man at a control panel miles away—introduced me to the Palm m100 PDA. That worked nicely for a time. Surely, many trees were saved. My needs were basic, and while Matt kept leaping to the next technology because he absolutely, positively had to know he had an app to direct airflights, I was perfectly happy with the note-taking function. I especially liked the folding keyboard accessory. If there was any doohickey that made me feel like I was living in the future predicted by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it was the keyboard. It looked like a Underwood typewriter mated with a calculator. I got many strange looks when I used the keyboard, but I didn’t care. It was the most efficient portable writing device I ever owned. Better than a laptop, and cheaper besides.

Eventually, the m100 died, and once more inspired by Matt I picked up a Palm Tungsten E—a sharp little device. All chrome plastic and—compared to the m100—as organically shaped and sensuous as a Jean Arp piece. I got a few years use out of the Tungsten E. Like the m100, it served as my calendar, notebook, and to do list. I used it as a reader as well, and finished Paradise Lost, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a few other books on it (all found at Matt’s site manybooks.net—pretty handy during the winter months when the train was crowded.

A couple of Christmases ago Mike bought me an iPod for Christmas (she already had one, being the true techhead in our relationship). I was thrilled with the music playing, Internet, gaming, and video apps, but it slowly became evident that as a word processor and reader, it’s abysmal. Maybe that’s too strong a word. But the reader I downloaded kept crashing, and the notepad and onscreen keyboard are so compressed as to be unusable. Give me back my portable keyboard, say I!

Anyway, that’s why I’m back to stuffing my pockets with bits of paper. Nah, I’m not bringing them home to build a nest for my cats—I’m just bustling with ideas.