That darkness engulfed me for years.
The living seem to be imbued with the desire to escape. We all aspire to it, always wanting to be some place else, any place, anywhere but here.
A late afternoon it was, and I was alone at a desk, internet open to me. I dove in, and came up gasping, with this:
I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.
1st, I love you.
2. You never let me down
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 and with a dead mother who I needed still.
I lament the demise of the art of good conversation. I’ve been working abroad for close to 8 years now, and in that time, I realize my conversation skills have deteriorated to the level of Neanderthal. How can one regress that bad? I’ll tell you how — years of brain-mushing, soul-crushing, vocabulary-shrinking non-talking to people here.
I’ll call it as I see it: No one here makes the effort to keep up a decent conversation anymore. And I don’t even look for witty banter; I just want a minimum amount of articulation, a world view, an informed opinion. Believe me, I’ve tried. Countless times. Standing in line at chow, opening with, how bad does that chicken look, do you really like asparagus, did the Talibans win today? Not much in reply. Mostly a grunt or two, some vague syllables running together, maybe a stupefied look on their faces. Yes, you — I am talking to you, make an effort to answer coherently.
It’s so sad — no — it’s downright miserable to have to sit with people that appear animated, but stay mute. It’s like watching TV with the sound off. Pointless, like an admission of defeat.
I miss being engaged in a good discussion. I miss having my brain cells stimulated, sitting with other people around a table full of wine and tapas, arguing over world events, the impending nukes from NK, guerrilla art taking over the streets, the deadly politics of drugs, heck, even what new fashion trends are popping up in the streets NY and elsewhere. I miss being asked to think for myself, having to cultivate an informed opinion, or being corrected for an erroneous one. I miss the civilized discourse that is the exclusive province of all humans, the thing that sets us apart from the animal. Conversation skill is the equivalent of having an opposable thumb in one’s brain, able to touch all lobes and bring forth an engaging discourse.
But instead, we sit mute in separate chairs and look down on our hands, when we should have had evolved so far as to look up and say something to each other.
Fellow human, talk to me.
This will be one of those interminable flights, I think as I look around at a full plane. With no in-flight entertainment, I resort to spying on my hapless seatmates.
The man in front of me in 37J, has his laptop open, he is going through work emails. From my spy’s vantage point, I could see his screen so clearly as to read each word as he scrolls past them. The ones in Chinese I see as a picture, as one might view a postcard. The ones in English, I scroll through as he pages down on them, outpacing the owner as only those that are uninvested in their contents can. From what I surreptitiously perused, I learn this man is grappling with organizational changes, an incident involving lost cargo, a petulant superior.
After a single pass through all the unread emails, he opens a blank page and begins to tap tap tap slowly, filling the screen with words. I read along, wishing he would type faster. He begins with an apology, a deliberate set of taps, the words formal and phrased with care. Apologies for my absence, he writes, sorry for having run out of time. I read, unable to stifle the desire to edit. You could be more concise, I think. A lengthy apology consumes time you say you don’t have.
He finishes the email, signing off with a habitually typed “Kind regards,” then he reviews the content line by line, careful to edit for typos. He revises a line or two, but on the whole, seems satisfied with what he wrote — a meticulous and polite man. I appreciate all this from my secret vantage point. He hits send, waits for the email to fly off, and then shuts the laptop, plunging us both into darkness.
Some days, when it all gets to be too much, I go outside and secretly touch the trees.
Sometimes our dark side shows up in in public dressed like an ordinary thing, able to blend into the crowd, absolutely unmemorable.
I much prefer evil to reveal itself. The bland, expressionless version of it often obfuscates one’s vision, and the fight tilts to the other’s favor.
In an airport lounge in Colombo, I remember being woken up unceremoniously by a blond guy, late 30s, herding two toddlers. In a gray haze, I heard him saying loudly at me, “There are people that need these seats, you know.”
Half-awake, I scramble to sit up, thereby freeing two seats for this irascible man and his toddlers. I vaguely register people sitting near me look on, startled by his loud voice. I see his wife sitting on the floor, cradling a baby. A moment passes, and the pair begin to argue. I tune them out, thinking what bad luck to wake up to such negativity.
When my wits have fully returned, I look around and notice that three feet or so away there were maybe thirty, no, probably 40+ empty seats all around us. I didn’t need to be summarily jolted out of my sleep.
I stand up, walk over to the man with the toddlers and say to him, “Look over there. Look. Look real hard. Those are empty seats, all what, 40 of them. You didn’t have to wake me up. You’re an asshole.”
I walked away from the sight of his gaping mouth. The lounge was quiet. The wife didn’t say a word.
Touchdown: 3 July in Sri Lanka. I arrive near midnight in Colombo, and get into a Kangaroo taxi to go to my hotel. Not even 5 minutes on the road, the driver looks back at me and says:
Driver: Madam, ah… what are you?
Me: (goes into immediate existentialist crisis) Uh, um… what am I?
Driver: (smiling indulgently) I mean, you are Japanese? Malaysian? Chinese? What are you?
Me: (relieved, whew!) Oh no no no to all that. I’m Filipino.
Driver: I see, from Philippines.
Me: Yes. Don’t I look Filipino?
Driver: Look Japanese.
I’m usually very zen, but when my limit is reached, I do get pissed off. And I’m not at all shy to express it. After a brief discussion, the boy and I reached an agreement of sorts and put the matter (including ourselves) to bed. The next day, early in the morning, he messages me.
H: How are you this morning?
M: Well, I slept good, so I’m not that pissed off anymore.
H: Last night I told my guards to watch my door very closely.
M: So I put some fear in you. Good.
Well, I’m glad we got that resolved.
Some days at work can be slow. On such a day, my boss came into my office to show me a new knife, part of his collection. He knows that I also have an appreciation for knives.
Me: (looking intently at the knife) That blade can easily go through a rib.
Boss: (grinning) I like the way you think.