“Scentliessly,” Jeff says to me. “Scentilessly,” he says. “I did this in a scentilessly fashion.” He is pounding that word home. I can’t figure it out, and I am so confused by it that I awake. It’s a dream, but it makes so little sense to me that I awake complete with that word splashed on my brain. I can’t go back to sleep, until I make sense of it. I don’t know why I bothered trying to make sense of it. Jeff made no sense. I spoke to him for three hours that night, and nothing he said made sense. I tried to make sense of him when he spoke. I tried to find something linear that would cause Jeff to make sense, whether he liked it or not.
Psychologists suggest that our dream world tries to make sense of our day. “Let me sleep on it!” is more than a clever catch phrase they say, it’s actually a tool that when used properly can produce surprising results to those who need to make sense of too much information gathered during the day. The word scentilessly was never uttered by Jeff in the three hours we/he spent talking, but it was the word my dream world used to try and make sense of everything he said.
When we were both awake, and he wasn’t invading my dreams, Jeff said that he liked to work with his hands. He said he had an agile mind. He said that when left to his own devices, he could make miracles happen, and he turned to me with that smile that attempted to punctuate the point. He didn’t say he was a misunderstood genius, but that was the import of his almost uninterrupted dialogue.
“We all are,” I would’ve said if he tried to plant that flag on me.
Jeff’s stories were as satisfying, and nutritionally valuable, as cotton candy. I was a stranger in a strange land trapped by his allure. Everyone was polite to me in this world, but most of these people couldn’t think of anything to say to me. Most people try to come up with interesting things to say to people they don’t know, but they’re also frozen in place by the fear that they can’t. Most people can’t speak just for the sake of speaking. They often ask questions about you and feign interest while you’re speaking. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and everyone knows this, so they ask questions about you to help you get started. Most people aren’t so driven by the need to be interesting that they’ll talk and talk, until the listener is forced to try and find something interesting in what they say.
Jeff is eager and earnest. In the manner Alan Alda is eager and earnest. Jeff is so interested in minutiae that he bogs your brain down with it. I wonder if Alan Alda does the same thing. He doesn’t do it on TV, but he is edited by a number of people before his science shows reach the air.
I know that Jeff just wanted me to understand him, and he wanted me to like him, and when I did end up showing him a little interest he went off like a liquored up alkie at the end of a bar at closing time. I did understand Jeff. In many ways, I am Jeff. I want people to understand me. I want them to be entertained by me, but I know how to clip my stories better. I know good stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. I know how to arc a story. Jeff does not arc. He is uninteresting in the manner cotton candy is uninteresting.
Cotton candy has all the visual allure in the world when you’re young. When you see it, you have to have it. It’s big. It’s fluffy, and it sticks to people’s tongues when they laugh. You can’t explain it, when you’re young, but you’re so intoxicated by cotton candy that you’re willing to suffer the ramifications of badgering your parents to have it on your tongue when you laugh. Meeting someone new has that same allure when that person is interested in interesting you. When he gravitates to you in a room full of strangers, you appreciate the fact that he’s singled you out to help you feel a little more comfortable than you were before he called you out for conversation. That appreciation ends when you become more acclimated to the crowd around you, but Jeff doesn’t end. He doesn’t even pause to recognize the visual clues you’re giving him that you would now like to broaden out to other members of group. His allure is gone, and you’re stuck searching for ways to finish the conversation, but like cotton candy, you can’t just throw it away after you went and badgered your parents relentlessly for it.
Jeff is a hodgepodge of quotes and anecdotes that he’s heard over the years, but he forgets that it should all mean something at the end. It doesn’t matter what it means, you think while he’s speaking, as long as it means something. There’s no personalization to his stories. He just talks. He forgets to personalize his anecdotes so that you’re more interested in him. He forgets to have a point. He forgets to have a central theme, and you forgets to concentrate on the stories for which you’ve displayed interest. At one point, you’ve worked your way through the Rolodex of responses you know, and you fear that your last couple attempts at appearing interested were unsuccessful. You don’t want to appear rude, but there was some response that you gave that he smiled at. You can’t remember what that was.
My wife nods off in the middle of one of Jeff’s stories. When she nods off, her head falls. She pulls her head up quickly. She’s embarrassed. She nods down again and pulls her head up and says, “Yep!” on the second pull up. To Jeff’s mind, she’s just given him an exaggerated nod of full agreement to everything he’s just said. He has no idea he’s just put this woman to sleep. I find art in this action. You simply cannot perform that action once. It takes practice. I all but applauded her for this action when I asked her about it later. I want to know if she’s ever done this before. I want to know if she’s ever done it to me. She has no explanation for it, other than the fact that she was trying to avoid appearing rude. She tires of my questions, she’s insulted by my prodding, and we move onto other subjects.
I do know that even in her most blatant moments, my wife has never been as rude as a man named Luther. Luther, Jeff, and I are all attendees of a funeral of one of my wife’s best friends. I meet Luther in the dining hall of a church, following that funeral. Luther is a nice guy. I ask Luther about Luther, and Luther is more than happy to tell me what makes Luther tick. He is a Colorado Buffaloes fan. I can’t remember much of what Luther said about Luther, other than the Buffaloes thing, and he said a lot. I had no problem with that though. I asked him about him, and I was curious about him. I like to know what makes people tick. We exchanged a few competitive statements about the Huskers and the Buffaloes, all kind ribbing, and I thought that was the end of our conversation. Luther wouldn’t let it end that way though. He wanted to know a little something, something about what made me tick. He was being polite, and I knew it.
The first question Luther asked me was where I was from in Nebraska. I tell him. The city I’m from has three syllables in it, and before I’ve reached that third syllable, Luther is looking for someone else to speak with. I know when people are bored with me, most people do, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have more practice boring people, but I feel I am especially keen to the signs. I can spot these signs within seconds, but it’s rare that someone is this bored with me within seconds. I’m intrigued.
If you didn’t want to speak with me, or you’re stuck speaking with me because no one else will speak with you, you should at least be required to feign interest for longer than a couple seconds. I turn to someone else in direct retaliation to Luther. Luther asks me a follow up question. I turn back to him to answer. He’s off to someone else again. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I’m done with Luther. I stop my answer short, and he breaks into a third question. This time, I lay a trap for him. I insult my people. I insult the Huskers. He enjoys this, and he joins me. He doesn’t know I have a haymaker waiting for him on the other side of his rejoinders. I’m going to lay his people out. I have good material. It’s factual. It’s damaging. I decide I’m going to slip this shot in, I need to make it an Ali v. Liston slip shot. It’s going to be a shot he doesn’t see coming, and he won’t know what hit him. I’m going to be genuinely curious. I’m going to see if he will defend his people, the Buffaloes, after we all had such a whale of a time insulting the Huskers. I’m going to see what kind of character this Luther is. I’m going to see if Luther has character. It’s rude, of course, but he’s been playing games with me, so I’m going to try this out on him. I’m going to see if Luther has the moxie to wriggle out of my game with political finesse. We get cut off by the emcee of the event making a profound statement about why we’re all gathered here today. I’m disappointed by the interruption, but the emcee’s words take me off point.
Luther comes up to me later, when he’s decided to leave, and he is surprisingly gracious. “I was hoping we would have a chance to talk, but with so many people around …well, you know.” I say something insultingly funny about my people again, and he laughs hard at that. He laughs so hard and so congenially that I’m taken off point. I still want to get this guy, until he drops a congenial joke that’s actually quite funny. I’m shocked by this. Luther’s a good guy. I read him wrong. The question arises: where do we go from here? We don’t know each other, and we really have little to talk about, but we get along. How do we prolong this? Is there a progression? Before I can fully digest these thoughts, Luther is politely parting. It was a quick, worried, and harried exit. His game is clear to me then. He’s not rude, he doesn’t find me as uninteresting as I thought. He’s just worried that I’m going to figure out how uninteresting he is.
I refuse to use the word scentilessly to describe these two days of Summer, and these run-ins with the people that surround my life, but I do begin to see the sense and senselessness each person brings to my table to help me figure out who I am. One guy is so easy to figure out that I desperately want to talk to someone else. Then someone else comes along and decides that he wants to talk to someone else before trying to figure me out. Am I one that others try to figure out, or do I blather? Has anyone ever seen me as such a blatherer that they wanted to escape a conversation with me, or do I cut them off and make a hurried and harried exit before they can reach conclusions about me?