As a Midwesterner, I was brought up to be self-effacing and make no demands of anybody. I don’t honk, I don’t wave at the waiter who’s ignoring me, I don’t want to be a problem. Offer me ranch or blue cheese dressing, I say, “Whatever is easier for you, whichever you have more of, whatever nobody else wants.” “Just choose, damn it,” the host says, and I’m tempted to ask for blue cheese but I don’t want to if it deprives someone else of blue cheese who is on the edge of the cliff already and, denied his dressing, might harm himself. “We have plenty of both,” the host says. But now I’m wondering, “What do I have against ranch? Is it my antipathy to cowboy mythology and the fetishization of guns?” And the host screams, “CHOOSE!” And I ask him, “Which one has less impact on the environment?” And he shows me to the door and locks it after me.
Self-effacement is rare in New York where I live. People don’t go around meeking each other as they do back in Minnesota, because here, the Christian faith is an oddball item, as it was in Jesus’s time. It’s a city of Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and a million people who moved here to escape from fundamentalist families, plus other minorities, Sodomites and Gomorrhians, and the people who designed the Tower of Babel and went into the practice of law.
Jesus did not say, “Blessed are they who dominate the conversation.” So we don’t. We listen. We nod. I attend an Episcopal church but I never stay for the social hour afterward because, having grown up fundamentalist, I have no social skills. I was brought up to avoid people for fear they’d lead me astray and so I have no idea how to open up a conversation with a stranger. What to say?
THEM: How are you?
ME: Fine. Can’t complain.
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Contentment is a conversation killer in New York. Complaint is an art form here. If you aren’t in a serious struggle with the world, you don’t have a life. Maybe it’s an evil neighbor in your co-op who refuses to admit that smoke from his fireplace is giving your wife asthma or the upstairs neighbors who’ve taken up clog-dancing or surely you’ve seen a miserable movie or read a nitwit novel or heard about a prestigious prize given to a piece of pigeon poop. And even if your road in life is smooth, you can still bitch about the unindicted crook who did outrageous things in broad daylight and still attracts crowds of yahoos in states with the lowest average SAT scores.
But not me. I am content.
I’m 79 and 5/6ths. It’s the age of gratitude. No more need for long-term planning. No need to be hip or cool or whatever the current word for “cool” is. I have no idea who is famous anymore and I don’t get the jokes. It doesn’t matter. Less is more: what matters is time. At this age you automatically become a Buddhist and give up ambition and discover the quiet contemplative place within your soul and stop being a big jerk.
As I write this I am sitting in the airport. I’ve come through security and the TSA woman, seeing the shoes on my feet, asked if I’m 75, which was terribly kind of her. I look like I’m 85 and have been disinterred. And then she said, “One of your shoelaces in untied.” I wanted to throw my arms around her but did not lest I be arrested for assault. I came through the scanner and the TSA guy did not grope my groin. My computer bag was not taken apart. I sat down in a café and enjoyed a croissant. The waiter offered to refill my coffee cup. This is the sort of kindness an old dog takes sustenance from.
My email is full of messages of impending doom and I can read them tomorrow but not now. Emails about the future of American democracy: give it a break. Let God guide us through the night with a light from above and the sun will come out tomorrow. That’s good enough for now. Start worrying about the long-term future and there’ll be no end to it. If it rains, start singing. Right now I’ve got a plane to catch, back to New York. When I get there, I’m going to buy a quart of blue cheese dressing and put my name on it in big blue letters.
Crossposted from Prairie Home Productions