“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, sleeping and dreaming are actually tools we use to make sense of the flood of information we encounter on any given day. I could make no sense of what Jeff was saying during the day, and when I failed to make connections in the dream world, it ejected me back into the real world in frustration.
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 a 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 lured in by the premise of his confusion. 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 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 was eager and earnest, in a manner similar to Alan Alda. Jeff was so interested in minutiae that he bogged the brain down with it. I wondered if Alan Alda did the same thing when he wasn’t on being edited by a number of people before his words are televised.
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 think I’m complicated and loaded with potential and promise, and I want people to understand how I plan to get there. I also 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. Jeff does not arc. He is the literary equivalent of those novels I should read. He is complicated, nuanced, and loaded with description. There is no greater understanding reached, and no culmination for the listener. He is cotton candy.
Cotton candy has all the visual allure in the world when you’re young. When a young person sees it, they have to have it. It’s big. It’s fluffy, and it sticks to people’s tongues when they laugh. No one can explain this allure sufficiently, especially when they’re young, but they’re so intoxicated by cotton candy that they will willing to suffer the ramifications of badgering their parents to have it on their tongue when they laugh. Meeting someone new has that same allure when that person is interested in interesting the listener. When he gravitates to us in a room full of strangers, we appreciate the fact that he’s singled us out to help us feel a little more comfortable than we were in a room full of strangers. That appreciation ends when we become more acclimated to the crowd around us, and we want to venture out to them, but people like Jeff don’t pick up on visual cues. They don’t even pause. 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 forget 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 her action. I don’t think a person can perform such a reaction once, I tell her it takes skill, and all skills require practice to hone to perfection, and I consider her recovery perfection. I applaud her for this action later, when I asked her about it, but I want to know how many times she’s done it before. I want to know if she’s ever done it to me. She has no explanation for it, and she says that she’s never done it before. She says her goal was to try to avoid being rude. I cannot accept that as an answer, and I marvel at her reaction while continuing to ask her to dig deep for influence. She tires of my questions after a time, and she suggests that my line of questioning is bordering on ridicule, and she says that she finds it insulting. We move onto other subjects.
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 hit that third syllable, Luther is looking around the room to see if there is someone more interesting. It might have something to do with the idea that I bore more people than the average person, but I am keenly aware of the signs another offers when I am boring them. I can spot these signs within seconds, but I didn’t have to use these skills with Luther, for Luther made it abundantly clear, within seconds, that if anyone else expressed any interest in him, he would prefer to speak to them.
I developed a rule for Luther, if he feels stuck speaking with a person he has no interest in, or he’s stuck speaking with a person because no one else will speak with him. I decided that Luther should require himself to feign interest for ten seconds. Ten seconds is an entirely arbitrary figure, of course, but I decided that it is enough time to avoid having the speaker believe they are not interesting. Ten seconds is enough time to leave the speaker with the belief that it is the material they chose that the listener is not interested in hearing. Ten seconds is also enough time to avoid having a more confident speaker believe that the source of discontent lies with the listener’s rudeness.
I purposely cut my answer short and begin looking around the room 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 again, 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. He laughs so hard and so congenially that I’m taken off point. I still want to get this guy, until he drops a rejoinder that’s quite funny. I’m shocked by this. Is Luther a good guy, and I’ve read him wrong, or is he in departure mode?
In departure mode, those that want nothing to do with another can shore up any perceived acts of rudeness by asking the speaker to indulge any acts of rudeness, and the one in departure mode doesn’t have to pay the price of continued involvement because they are leaving.
I politely wave away any perceived acts of rudeness with a smile, but Luther continues to stand before me for a couple of seconds, and I do not know what to do. We don’t know each other, and we have established the fact that we 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, and 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 the run-ins I had with the people that surround my people, but I do begin to see the sense and senselessness these two players brought to my bipolar understanding of humanity and myself. Jeff was so easy to figure out that he bored me, and I wanted to be anywhere but the focus of this man’s attention, and the next day I experience the exaggeration of the opposite in the form of a Luther growing bored with me before I can say two words. 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 find anything out about me?