Thursday, April 14, 2016

Oh...Bother (Or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

I can't say what kind of face I have, but it must be one that invites total strangers to engage in random conversation.  It happens to me all the time and in a variety of places.  The checkout line at the grocery store.  Seated at a restaurant.  Walking down a street.  It occurs often enough that I have to wonder why.

Ironically, I am not a very gregarious person.  Oh, I think I'm friendly and courteous enough, but I keep an emotional distance from people I don't know very well.  And, I certainly don't start small talk with people for the sake of it.  Nor do I believe I project the vibe of someone who is particularly receptive to it.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about family or close friends.  My guard is down with them, and I feel free to talk plainly and without censor to them, sometimes much to their chagrin.  No, I am speaking about total strangers and sometimes acquaintances who assume a familiarity with me that I find wholly inappropriate.  And, for the life of me, I can't figure out what about me suggests they should do such a thing.

Nonetheless, people talk to me.  All the time.  They start up conversations with me.  And worse, they ask questions.  Questions I am obligated to answer in some fashion in order to not come across as a total curmudgeon.

Thankfully, I find myself usually capable of supplying acceptable answers to some of these questions without offering information I consider too personal or too detailed.  And more often than not I am able to maneuver out of the conversation without seeming rude.

But, one day over spring break all my powers of patience and courtesy were tested as I sat in the local Starbucks trying to finish my blog review of Batman Vs. Superman.  I had just treated myself to lunch at Panera (where I did the bulk of my writing) and indulged in another movie - a matinee showing of 10 Cloverfield Lane - before topping my afternoon off by enjoying a London Fog while I put the finishing touches on my review.

I was seated a reasonable distance away from other people.  My face was planted in my laptop screen.  And, I was actively engaged in editing my review, which involved me visibly and audibly tapping away on the keyboard.  My point being: I was obviously occupied with a task and not open to conversation.  At least, that's how I would have interpreted my body language had I seen me sitting there at the Starbucks table with the look of concentration I know I get on my face.

None of these factors, however, deterred two people I will call Henry and Mildred - not their real names - from foisting themselves upon me.

Henry had been in front of me in line and took a long time to order not because he had one of those coffee orders that are as pretentious as they are convoluted but because he spent most of the time chittering away about whatever came to mind to the cashier.  It was a marvel of stream of consciousness flow in conversation, and it made me begin to wonder if this elderly gentleman was doing it deliberately or was suffering a form of dementia.  (Note: I tend to not think it was dementia as his ramblings, scattered as they were, still had a measure of coherence and were clearly tethered in the here and now of the Starbucks.  However, I digress.)

When all was said and done at the counter and both Henry and I had our respective beverages, we sat down at tables that were next to each other yet far enough apart so as not to be in each other's business.  I should also explain that our tables shared a long cushioned seat on one side with a wooden chair tucked under each table on the other.  Henry and I were both seated on the cushioned side, facing the same direction.  This visual is important to understand what happened next when Mildred showed up.

Mildred was also elderly and very physically frail.  She came ambling through the door, unsteadily walking with a cane a few minutes after I sat down.  Upon seeing Henry, she made directly for him, ignoring the line of customers waiting to place their orders.

A conversation ensued between the two.  Henry invited Mildred to sit down at his table with him.  Mildred said she couldn't sit down in those hard wooden chairs.  Thanks to Henry's circuitous approach to the art of conversation, this exchange happened about three times before I realized Mildred was trying to say that she wanted to sit where I was - in a cushioned seat at a table next to her friend.

In an effort to be a gentleman as well as respectful to my elders, I offered to move over to the next table so that Mildred could sit next to Henry and have her own table and a more comfortable seat.  I made my offer and started my move in one fell swoop before Mildred had a chance to lodge any phony protests, or before Henry could chime in with some ramshackle musing.  I simply offered her the seat and moved over.

She took the seat and cordially thanked me.  I accepted the thanks and went back to writing my blog. But, of course, it didn't end there.

Henry and Mildred started a conversation I only half heard as I continued to work on my blog.  I vaguely remember Henry getting up to go order a coffee for Mildred.  But, when Henry left, I noticed Mildred kept talking as though the conversation had no reason to stop just because Henry was momentarily gone.  When I realized this, I stole a glance in Mildred's direction and noticed her staring directly at me.  It then dawned on me that Mildred had turned the focus of her conversation toward me and was engaging me in a very one-sided discussion.

Stumbling over my words (more from surprise than embarrassment), I quickly apologized for missing what she had just said.  She asked what I was working, which I knew wasn't what she had just been saying, but I didn't mention it.  Instead, I told her I was working on my blog.

"What's a blog?" she asked.

I explained.

"What kinds of things do you write about?"

I gave her a brief synopsis of what my blog is and told her I was currently working on a movie review.

She nodded her head in a oh-that's-nice sort of way.

Shortly, Henry returned with Mildred's coffee, and the two of them began a discussion that I can only describe as kvetching about all things modern, including the old staples - technology, traffic, and today's youth.  As their conversation progressed, it became clear that I was included in the last category, which simultaneously flattered and offended me, given the level of complaining they were doing about the group they had lumped me into.  Still, it felt nice to be included in the "young" group once again.

To be clear, there were no comments made directly about me, but little descriptions, some choice phrases made it apparent where I would have fallen in their world view.  The focus eventually shifted to films, and their opinions (not surprisingly, modern films are horrible and don't compare with the old ones) prompted them to engage me in the conversation once more.

"I bet you don't watch many old films or know any of the old time actors, do you?" said Mildred.

Again, it took me a moment to realize she was talking to me, but when I did, I couldn't help but chuckle to myself because these people clearly did not know me.

"Which ones are you talking about?" I asked.

"What about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?" Mildred replied.

Now here I must admit some pleasant surprise.  Mildred didn't answer as I expected with a true golden oldie but named a film, while being 41 years old, is considered a modern classic, with the emphasis on modern.

"One of my favorite films of all time," I said.

"Oh, so you have seen it?" Mildred looked mildly impressed.

"Yes.  I'm a big film buff."

Sadly, what followed was not a discussion on what I consider one of the greatest films of all time but a long back and forth between Henry and Mildred about all the violence in today's films and how much louder (much too loud) they generally are compared with older films.  I didn't engage in the conversation any further because 1) I had to finish my blog and 2) I didn't feel I could add anything of value since there was no place to go with the discussion.  Oh, so you think today's films are too loud?  That's nice.  *chirp chirp*

Besides, I am completely uninterested in older people who have nothing but complaints about the modern-day world or younger generations.  That kind of discourse is born out of fear and lack of understanding and accomplishes nothing but further disconnect between generations.  I have heard many times that western culture lacks respect and admiration for our elders when we should be seeking their wisdom and advice.  I say our elders should lead by example by actively participating in the world without closing their minds to it or clinging to an overdeveloped sense of nostalgia for what has been and is now gone.  Because what has been wasn't as good as they like to remember anymore than what is now is completely bad.

Anyway, I'll get off my soap box now and get back to the original point of this post, which is how I often get pulled into interactions with people when all I want is to be left alone to accomplish some sort of task.

Upon reflection, my encounter with Mildred and Henry wasn't nearly as extreme as some others I've had, but it did get me thinking about all those other instances.  Am I too nice?  I hardly think so.  Too polite?  Maybe.  I affect a formal tone and disposition when I interact with strangers and acquaintances.  It's a tone that would say to me, "This individual doesn't wish to get into extended conversation.  Let me make this short and sweet and then leave him alone."  But, clearly, others don't read it like that, or choose not to.

Maybe I just need to accept the unwanted intrusion of others into my life whenever I am out in public.  It could be that I am levying too high an expectation on people to pick up on clues that would be evident to me.  Or, maybe I am not communicating as strongly as I believe.  Subtlety is a quality I admire and cherish, but that doesn't mean I should expect other people to follow suit.  Maybe a more direct and forward approach is necessary even if I risk being considered rude.

Whatever the answer, I believe I've thought long enough about this topic for one Blog post.  Happy weekend, all!

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