Here you are again. Welcome back. I was just thinking about you.
No, I really was. These days, I think about you quite often, in fact. Is that surprising? It shouldn’t be. For one thing — and I get how this will sound — what alternative do I have? I mean, come on, let’s be honest about this. I’m almost 55 years old. To be exact, 54 years, 8 months, and 17 days. Which works out to 19,982 days since my entry into this world. That’s 469,568 hours. Or approximately 28,774,080 minutes. And the vast majority of my waking hours has been given over to working out answers to questions like these, from childhood and beyond:
- I’m hungry. Which one of my heartless siblings finished off the Captain Crunch and put the empty box back on the pantry shelf?
- I’m bored. Should I spend the next several hours mindlessly shooting baskets? Again today, like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that? And when is someone going to get around to inventing video games?
- I’m sad. What right do I have to be sad? Acne is not exactly a terminal illness, now is it? But if it isn’t, why does it seem like a terminal illness?
- I’m so happy! Our baby slept for almost two full hours before he woke up and started crying again. Strictly speaking, would it be illegal for me to carry his bassinet onto the front porch and leave him out there?
- I’m frustrated. These students are behaving as if they have no interest at all in learning how to use the present subjunctive mood of verbs to express an exhortation in Latin. What would happen, I wonder, if I were to choose the most mischievous of these children and throw him bodily into the hallway outside my classroom? (N.B. I tried it, also chucking out his desk for good measure, and it’s amazing how intently focused the other children became.)
- I’m angry. What did I do to deserve Dick Cheney? Or Rupert Murdoch? The Koch brothers?
- I’m puzzled. Does the universe revolve around me or not?
- I’m aggrieved. I answered the preceding question honestly, and yet it seems that no one else is aware that I am the true center of all things. Or perhaps everyone is fully aware, but out of mere spite, you’re all pretending that it’s someone named “Beyonce” instead.
I … I … I. Enough already.
So, recently, I’ve been looking around. At you. Behind the wheel of your car, double-checking your makeup in the rearview mirror. In the lobby of the medical center, your frail body slumped in a wheelchair. Holding forth to your buddies from your perch on an overturned bucket under the scrawny trees in front of the CVS. Pierced and tattooed behind the counter of the little grocery down the street. At a bus stop: nondescript in your unremarkable clothing, your indeterminate age, your vacant expression. Or impossible to miss at your table in the restaurant: those razor-sharp cheekbones, the beautiful clothes, the way you hold yourself.
Yes, I’ve been looking. And it turns out that you’re a lot more than just a distraction. It’s obvious to me now that I’ve been missing out. (Which pains me. Almost 55 years of missed opportunities!)
How to explain? Picture a street or store in your mind’s eye. Now imagine around each person a nimbus representing the little universe of which he or she is the center. Usually these murky clouds of preoccupation move past each other without making contact. But look over there: one person has glanced at the cashier’s badge. Noted the name printed there. She addresses him by name. They start a conversation over the scanner’s blips and the hum of the conveyor belt. He’s a student, she discovers. Studying graphic design at SCAD. She says she’s envious: she loved to draw when she was younger, but her life went in a different direction. She’s on her way to a housewarming, he discovers. Which explains the bottle of wine and the orchid. He asks what neighborhood and then expresses approval: he’s been there often to visit a friend who rents a carriage house apartment from the nicest woman, an old lady who lives alone and treats her tenant like a grandchild.
And here’s the thing. The thing that happens. When they part, this customer and that cashier, you can tell that her private universe and his are both smaller and brighter. Why brighter? It has something to do with the fact that for a moment, he saw his life through her eyes, and she saw hers through his. Or here, let Proust explain what I mean (from Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis):
But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.
Right. Or as the Russian philosopher and literary critic Bakhtin puts it (from Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by Vern W. McGee):
A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the soul of the speaker and does not belong only to him. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener has his rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all, there are no words that belong to no one).
Moreover, it turns out (or so it seems to me now, almost 55 years into this thing) that it can be invigorating (and not just a welcome distraction) to partake in exchanges that incorporate “all the notions,” that offer each other glimpses of the “total picture.” You know, “Wow. What’s this bounce in my step? I haven’t sighed loudly in at least 15 minutes: what’s that all about? Can it really be something as simple as having a random stranger give me a glimpse of my life that makes it seem … I don’t know … richer somehow? More tightly bound to the lives of others? Part of something larger?”
So don’t mind me. The skinny, bald-headed guy who keeps glancing in your direction. Who may try to engage you in conversation in the checkout line or while you’re both waiting for a table at a restaurant. If you’re perfectly happy in your bubble, if you can’t imagine needing anything more than the opportunity to post your selfies on Facebook, just ignore me. But if the stage on which you are acting out your drama is starting to seem a little shabby, your monologues a bit tiresome, I’m right over here with a question or two for you.