For a lot of men conversation is slightly competitive. I certainly spend some of my conversational time working out the next snappy comeback or the Great One Liner. Obviously I know men who are not conversationally competitive and women who are endless streams of witticism, but I think of the oneupmanship of conversation as a male dominated place. This probably stems from an adolescent need to impress girls or, given how witty many of my gay friends are, boys. Boys have no idea what actually pleases girls so we assume that what amuses us will amuse them. Mind you, I was given to conversational dominance before I realized that girls were the whole point of our existence along with beer and sleeping. Even as a five year old I was cracking wise, or as wisely as a five year old can which I discovered after having a child is actually quite wise indeed. Perhaps in some subliminal way I already understood this when I was very young and somehow believed that I could win girls’, indeed people’s, affections by being wittier than the other boys since, though I could run like the wind I was too small to be a fighter and being a good fighter, as all boys know, is what really attracts the females. I can sit in the midst of a conversation and quietly interject a bon mot or a sharp retort that is heard only by the person sitting next to me and as long as that one person is amused I feel my time has been well spent. In fact there is some strange pseudo intellectual pleasure in cracking jokes that only one or two people get, a kind of smug entre nous humor (always enhanced by the dropping of an occasional French word). Now I sit silently in the few conversations I encounter. Torture. I can feel my brain turning off because there is nothing to engage me, I have no quip with which to top the last utterance, no phrase that will show my extensive reading and the fact that I took Latin and Ancient Greek in school. Try cracking a joke with a pen and pad. I am forced to sit there while parents talk about their children and, worse, oh, much worse, the education of their children. Or watch helplessly as women talk about their feelings and the men present, ever optimistic that life could get a little better if they just behave in what is taken to be a mature manner, nod sagely while seething with the desire to discuss sports or have an argument just for the hell of it. I, too, am silent though not nodding sagely. I am inwardly smacking my head on the table. Perhaps, unaware, I am actually smacking my head on the table. How did this happen? How did the notion that discussing one’s feelings, being in touch with one’s emotions, is somehow more appropriate, more intelligent, more anything than what a man might prefer to be doing? Even unto middle age the men are convinced that this sage nodding and their little confessions of their tiny emotions will get them laid. Which man among us would prefer that he be remembered as emotionally open rather than for the Great Line? I remember sitting at a packing machine in a Dutch razor blade factory with three other men and we were just finishing the night shift during which we had laughed uproariously the entire time. Our laughter had been reported to the factory foreman who came on shift just before we left. He was, strangely, a former prison guard from Kentucky though he had a Dutch last name. He told us we had been laughing too much and that he would check our work closely and talk to us again the following morning. He was as good as his word and returned to our packing table with two sets of razor blade packets, one of which had one set of blades turned the wrong way up, the other containing an ear plug. I pointed out the ease with which the upside down blades could happen and sort of smirked at the earplug, squashed and yellow in the bubble pack. The foreman then waxed lyrical about his own start there on the factory floor, how he had worked every single machine that we could see and how, without question, “a monkey could do this job.” Now, the sage nodders, the faux empathizers, the New Men, would accept this information and their role as quasi monkeys and carry on. But there it lay, one of the great opportunities, the chance to be enshrined forever in my own Witticism Hall of Fame, a candidate for lifetime achievement in snappy comebacks. The moment seemed to stretch as I contemplated my looming unemployment, the dreary search for menial work in a foreign city, but it had to be said. As the echo of “a monkey could do this job” faded into the hiss of machinery, out it came: “Well, you’re proof of that”.
Here in my silent life I contemplate those Great Moments, such as going into work the morning after a drinking session with my boss, knocking on his door and hearing him say, that whisky went straight to my head. Well, I observed, Nature abhors a vacuum. For sad, vaguely intellectual people such as myself this is scoring the goal, the touchdown, the game winning home run. Sitting there in silence is painful, watching the opportunities even for a small riposte float by on the river of redundance. I cannot wait until it is over.