Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy Talk

They say that the difference between crazy and sane people is that the crazy people never think they’re crazy.

They also say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Once a month, thoughts like these butt heads in my psyche and next thing you know, I’m sobbing over a long distance carrier commercial. Nothing in particular seems to be causing the interior commotion. Every horrid, self-defeating thought swirling round my brain juts to the forefront and seems to makes perfect sense. A quiet sets in. Pensive. Mournful. And always existential.

And then, at some point during this mental beating, a stray thought enters my brain. A vision, of sorts. Something resembling a calendar. I think back in my head to exactly four weeks ago and go, “Ooooohhhhhh…..”

THIS, my vaginally-challenged friends, is PMS.


Or Velkommen, as Kierkegaard would say.

It’s not quite so dramatic every month. Frankly, it depends on life’s little circumstances and just the overall force of that month’s surging hormones. For me, about twice a year, it can get pretty dramatic.

The stereotype of a PMS-infused woman is a complete ranting bitch. Me, not so much so. My PMS turns itself inward to break all that hell loose. The only victim of my hormones is me. In fact, I find myself particularly kind to others. Almost lovingly so. To the point where I detail out how wonderful they all are and how I’m not blaming them at all before I slip the virtual noose around my neck.

This month was one of the bad ones. It started last weekend when I decided that I just couldn’t make small talk anymore. During a particularly long train ride home, I had plenty of time to think. And after almost an hour sitting on the A Train, I calculated that approximately 95% of my daily speech is small talk. Being a waitress, this is part of the job. And being a waitress who works in an establishment where the vast majority of the staff and I have literally nothing in common---well, small talk eats up almost my entire day. And if I go nowhere but work and the corner store on a particular day---well, small talk then becomes 100% of the words coming out of my mouth. Even with friends (good friends, even) you’d be surprised how much small talk you make.

And if you don’t get much of an opportunity to see your friends…

Well, you suddenly feel like a human dispenser of vapid information.

As a waitress, my primary job function is to tend to the needs of strangers. Their food needs, to be exact. For approximately eight hours of my day, I have witty exchanges such as:

“What is the soup of the day?”

“Chicken noodle.”

“And the decaf---is it fresh?”

“I just made it myself a few minutes ago; so, yes.”

“Well, I’ll need a few more minutes. But can you bring me some lemon for my water?”

“Of course.”

Oh yeah, it’s practically The Algonquin Fucking Roundtable at my job.

And then there’s the staff. Nothing against the vast majority of the people I work with---but I just don’t have much in common with them. And frankly, they most likely think the same about me. I’m no good at talking sports. Have no desire to sit around praising Jesus and Yahweh and Allah for everything. And, while I have learned quite a lot of small talk in Spanish and Bengali, I certainly can’t have deep meaningful discussions in either of those languages.

So, what we’re left with, the vast majority of the time, is a small selection of choices. There’s company gossip. Some of which I will partake in, but most I just find uninteresting and bitchy. Then there are the two biggest subjects of my day---the weather and how busy it will be today.

This weekend, I called my Mom. She started out by asking how I was. This is a phrase I am now completely over. “How are you?” strangers in the restaurant ask me about fifty times a day. I always reply back, “Very well, thank you. Can I start you off with something to drink?”

These people don’t care how I am. If I started sobbing at the table and telling them about my lousy day, they would probably complain about their “bad waitress” and demand a complimentary round of drinks for their inconvenience. I know they don’t care. And they know I know they don’t care. So, already, we’re starting our temporal relationship off with a lie.

But that’s why we get paid the big waitress bucks---because the best of our profession put on our waitress masks like a Commedia dell’arte troupe. Plaster masks with rosy cheeks and big smiles and we utter the stock lines that have been handed down from our waitress ancestors for hundreds of years, “I’m very well, thank you. Can I start you off with something to drink?”

Only the nightly drink special changes.

So when my Mom uttered these words, it seemed to be the first time in days I’d been asked this question by someone who actually cared.

“I’m not okay,” I answered.

“Oh, honey---what’s wrong?”

“I…I just can’t talk about the weather anymore.”

My Mom, who is a grounded woman not prone to non sequiturs, nevertheless, answered back, “You can’t talk about the weather? Awww. Why not, honey?”

I’m sure she had no idea what her crazy daughter was talking about. But she’s Mom. And apparently, if you are a good Mom, you get your own Commedia mask---the caring, understanding face.

To this day, I don’t know if she quite understood. But she listened. And I know she cared.

I calculate that I spend approximately 20% of my speaking time discussing the weather. I discuss the weather with customers, with co-workers, with the guys at the corner bodega, with strangers and even with friends I run into on the street. It doesn’t help that it’s starting to get cold now. Everyone seems to want to talk about how cold it is. Scintillating.

Boy, it’s cold outside.
It was warm yesterday.
Tomorrow is going to be even colder.
It’s mostly the wind.
If it weren’t so windy, it wouldn’t seem as cold.
It feels cold enough to snow.
I wore my coat today because I knew it was going to be like this.
I guess I should be wearing a hat, but I just didn’t think of it.
They say that the weekend is going to rain and then the temperature will go up a bit during the day but it’s going to drop down to the forties at night then next week is going to be even colder because the earth is going to explode soon and then we’re all going to die and no one will be around to talk about the weather.


Yet, I continue to do it. Why? Because if someone mentioned the weather and I either ignored them or simply walked away, they would take offence. So I have to stand there discussing the wind chill for a solid five minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Do people REALLY want to talk about the weather? There are so many other more interesting things to talk about. Why talk about the weather?

A few years ago, while studying screenwriting with Tom Noonan, he offered his hypothesis that all human speech is designed to do one of two things: People either want you to get closer, or they want you to go further away.

I thought of Tom Noonan’s teaching this week as I listened to hours upon hours of testimony about the weather.

My conclusion: Tom Noonan was right---except when it comes to The Weather. Sometimes, people don’t care where you physically or mentally are, or where they physically or mentally want you to be---sometimes, they just want to hear the sound of their own voice. Even if that voice is just mindlessly uttering the weather report.

Or maybe, they just want SOMEONE there. It doesn’t have to be you. They just need someone there to hear their voice to convince themselves that they’re still alive.

Sure, I occasionally have a need to ask someone about the weather. A legitimate need to know. Do I bring an umbrella or not? We’ve all been in that metaphysical quagmire. But I ask, I get an answer, and then I move on with my life. If I stand there discussing the weather with you for ten whole fucking brain-numbing minutes of my life, YOU’RE the one discussing it. I’m just trying to be polite.

The second most-discussed topic of my day is how busy it will be.

People who work in restaurants will spend a good portion of their day discussing how busy or not busy the day will potentially be. Then, if it’s busy, they discuss WHY they think it’s busy or if it’s not busy, they will spend all that free time they have discussing why it’s NOT busy. This can go on for hours. Literally, hours.

It starts the moment you walk in the door.

“So, how was lunch?”

“Eh. Not so much. But that means that it will be busy for dinner.”

This seems to be some kind of unproven, yet Gospel, truth. And then, as half an hour goes by with no big rush, people start to hypothesize.

Oh, there are all sorts of reasons why we’re not busy.

The big game is on TV.
The debates are on TV.
The kids are going back to school next week.
It’s a Jewish Holiday.
It’s a Federal Holiday.
It’s the day AFTER a holiday.
It’s cold out.
It’s hot out.
It’s rainy out.
It’s not rainy out.
This week is always bad.
There’s no one on the street.
People are on vacation this week.
This is graduation week.
This is a big wedding week.
Stocks were up.
Stocks were down.
Everyone’s in the Hamptons this week.
Everyone’s downtown this week.
Everyone’s uptown this week.
There’s a convention.
The President is in town.
The Pope is in town.
There’s a street fair 26 blocks away and Batman Pt. 18 is opening and this is the week everyone takes their cats in to get spayed and neutered.


This will go on till close. Even after close, the staff will sit there counting their tips and still hypothesizing on why we had no business.

Do I join in these conversations? Yes. Because if I didn’t, I would be looked upon as an outsider. As much as pouring coffee, doing sidework and folding napkins---this banal exchange of chit-chat is part of my job.

Like a serial-killer blending in with society---if you’re going to survive, you have to fit in. So you put on another Commedia mask---that of Small Talk Making Co-Worker. And you utter tantalizing stock lines like, “Well, last Wednesday we were busy. But then, Madonna was in town and we had that party of 20 from the Ukraine that just walked in…”

Sometimes, I occasionally do walk away from these conversations. But when I do, I always get the sense that they suspect something’s “not quite right” with me. Frankly, I don’t understand how they can spend so much time discussing this topic without blowing their brains out---but that’s just me. Particularly, me on PMS.

By the way, these conversations do absolutely nothing to change or affect the amount of business either way. There’s no effort made to change anything. It’s just one long, tedious discussion over fate and what it is about (or not about) to deal us. Like living in a Beckett play with no curtain's end in sight.

A few days ago, as the PMS crept upon me, I began to question my existence. If I cannot effect change, I wondered, do I really exist? My friend Terry reminded me of Descartes, “I think; therefore, I am.”

But I never liked Descartes. When I read Discourse On Method, I was so infuriated with it that I looked up an old Philosophy Professor friend of mine to try to get him to clarify a few things.

Descartes was influential for his day in that he was a scientist and mathematician who brought the methods of science and math into philosophy. Discourse On Method was his attempt to get philosophers to reason their way to the philosophical questions of the day.

Reading the tome, however, takes a lot of energy. And a lot of caffeine. At one point, he goes on about the circulatory system for about 20 pages---all 20 pages designed to show you his method. But then, somewhere in there, he simply throws in, “Oh, but God just automatically exists.” Apparently, God was excused from his method. It was not long after this chapter that I was emailing good old Professor Swanson in Pennsylvania.

However, by my reasoning, God does exist. He (or perhaps the spirit of him in the faithful) effected change. So, even if he doesn’t exist, just the faith of his followers and the change they brought to the world prove his existence.

I, on the other hand…

It became like the reverse version of It’s a Wonderful Life. I needed an angel to turn up and show me what people’s lives would be like if I HAD existed.

My PMS doesn’t always take me to such depths. Generally, it lends itself more to a few tears during a Bette Davis weepie and a hankering for chocolate. This month, I doubted my existence. And no amount of walnut brownies was shaking me out of it.

Recently, I started attending a local reading series for writers. However, as a newbie, in order to meet people, you have to make a lot of (you guessed it) small talk. Luckily, I do have one friend there with whom I can have an actual conversation. This week, as I walked in and headed towards the bathroom, I ran into him and he said, “Hey! How are you?”

In full-blown PMS-mode, I kind of gave a little laugh and hung my head, “I’m just so tired of people asking how I am.”

He laughed and promised that he wouldn’t ask how I was anymore. I knew he didn’t actually get it; but at least I felt like he wouldn’t see me as an outsider for being fresh out of small talk for the day.

A few minutes later, we took our seats and the readings began. Lots of scenes from plays and screenplays and monologues all dealing with real things. Scenes of people having real conversations about things that actually meant something to the characters, the writers and even the actors. For two hours, I watched actors sitting in chairs; reading words off pages they’d just been handed a few minutes before.

They were the most fascinating conversations I’d heard all week.

Two hours later, it was over; and I found myself at the after-bar with the group.

A roomful of people engaging in small talk.

A lot of chitter-chatter. People trying to get laid. People promoting this thing they’re doing or that thing they’re working on. Some mindless political banter that no one (except one very drunk woman) seemed to really care about. A few stories. Some movie reviews. And, of course, the weather.

In the midst of all the small talk, I went outside for a cigarette to think.

Why do people waste so much of their lives making small talk about virtually nothing? What do they want from it?

To a certain extent, I understand the ritual of it all. Small talk is often a conversational dance in which the parties are trying to feel each other out. Can I trust her? Does he have anything remarkable to say? Are we significant to each other? Can we be friends?

Some small talk can also just be fun. An exercise of wit and a form of play with words, friendships and life.

And I can do the small talk. I can do the dance and the exercises. But, at a certain point, I need something more substantial. Not that I want to go around discussing deep, heavy thoughts all day long. But small talk is like candy---you can’t live on it.

But, in full-blown PMS mode and on the verge of non-existence, I was like a kid living off the contents of a Trick-or-Treat bag---I felt sick to my stomach. As more discussions about things no one really cared about spilled out onto the sidewalk, I began to make my getaway. Here I was, surrounded by seemingly intelligent people---and all they wanted to do was make small talk with each other. I could understand their making small talk with me. After all, I didn’t know too many people there. It’s understandable that I would be sent to the kiddie table for awhile. But with each other? Did these people actually KNOW one another? Care about each other? Did they have any idea what was going on in each other’s minds? Did it matter? To them? To each other? Was there anything going on inside their heads except basic human needs and small talk?

By the time I got home, I surmised that I didn’t exist.

By the next morning, I had full-blown cramps and suddenly realized why I had come to this deduction.

That’s the other thing about PMS---sometimes, you just forget what time of month it is. As soon as you realize it, you also realize that you’re not losing your mind, after all. All those imperfect (yet seemingly rational) thoughts suddenly become clearer. You now understand why. PMS. Oh.

The problem is, if you don’t realize this soon enough, the damage has already been done. Yeah, sure, it’s PMS; but, to paraphrase the Latin: In PMS veritas.

The damage was done. I knew it would take about a week to shake off the negative thoughts.

Currently, I’m two days out of my not-existing phase. But I still can’t make small talk. Today at work, I walked away from anyone engaging in such nefarious activities. I’m sure I was looked upon as an outsider. But, on the up side, I didn’t have to hear about the weather or why it was so slow tonight.

Luckily, my PMS only gets this bad about twice a year. I don’t think I could spend a fourth of my life not existing. Although, just existing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. I’ve always believed that the great wonder of the human race is that they strive for more than just existence.

But, if that’s the case---why do you all make so much damn small talk?