Is brevity the soul of wit?

Isolation is different than I thought -not quarantine you understand, or imprisonment in a little cell, or anything. No, it is merely the inability to physically interact with other people: shake their hands and hug them -stuff like that. Pandemic stuff. I mean I’ve always been content with my own company; I seldom get lonely, or suicidal (I’d miss me); I’ve never been much of a drinker, and unless we’re talking about the ones prescribed and labelled in a pharmacy, I’ve never taken any drugs. And frankly, I’m quite happy with occasional food in a restaurant -or, better still, an invitation to somebody’s house for dinner. When you live alone, out is good; it’s better than television or reading in bed.

But all things in moderation, eh? It’s certainly not just a year without dinner invitations -it’s a digital year, of trying to pretend I’m popular enough to persuade a friend to Skype me (I’ve never really mastered Zoom) instead of just talking on the phone. All my friends are in their yellow leaves and a little frightened of seeing themselves or others on a screen; they don’t trust the image, or who else might be watching. Maybe it’s sort of like hearing your own voice on a tape recorder for the first time: it’s not really me, right? So, other than a continuing search for sanity in a troubled world, what’s left?

Well, the pandemic has unleashed more than a virus on the fettered world. Words, for example: ‘Words, words, words,’ says Shakespeare’s Hamlet in response to Polonius’ question about what he reads – words are only thoughts, when what is needed are actions.

My action, I suppose, is to hike in the nearby forest. But even in its depths, other desperate souls equally desirous of company, but forced like me to listen to the wind whispering through the branches, hope for chance encounters with real people, real words. But they are still wary of the virus on strangers’ breath so they hesitate to participate -at least for long- and stand so far away it often amounts to yelling at each other. It is a dilemma for both of us; our need is to engage, to exchange soupçons of useless information, unleash our thoughts, unburden our souls… But alas, most of us are unmasked in the woods and suspicious of asymptomatic viral contamination.

Me? I am so pleased to see non-digital beings I can barely contain my words, and my thoughts roll out like Ciceronic orations boring even myself -but only in retrospect. Only in the post-speech analysis, as I am walking away sated and satisfied, do I realize that I very likely said too much, compressed an entire day’s ruminations into a non-stop verbal assault on a total stranger.

But so many words, so much information, has been trapped inside, it’s like what happens with air in a balloon through only a tiny hole. And although I have so far assumed that when the person on whom I’m venting turns their back on me after a few dozen exuberantly exhaled words, they’re merely trying to escape nanoparticulates from my airstream, I am now beginning to wonder if I have overstayed my welcome.

I mean, in the past at parties or at somebody’s dinner table, it was fairly easy to judge when I should stop talking -their eyes would wander, or they would sigh loudly enough to rattle the nearby plates. But a turned back, or a wandering head, can mean different things in a pandemic; it’s not always impolite; realpolitik is the new doublethink, the new memory hole, to memorialize George Orwell’s turns of phrase.

Still, pandemic newspeak notwithstanding, I may have misjudged my sense of when to break off a conversation, even ten feet away in a rustling forest. During one of my interminable episodes of solitude at home, I discovered an article in my Smithsonian Magazine app that disavowed any assumption that I could tell when I had overstayed my vocal welcome: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/most-conversations-dont-end-when-we-want-them-180977143 It was actually a summary of the findings of Adam Mastroianni originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This was devastating news, of course. There were two parts of the study, one of which was online and the other in the lab. I wasn’t too bothered by the online thing -I mean everybody lies online… well I sometimes lie on dating sites anyway. But the lab part might be harder to fake when you’re being watched by people with clipboards. ‘In the lab conversations between strangers, the participants were similarly out of sync. Nearly 70 percent of the people reported wanting the conversation to be over before it ended. Just two percent of conversations wrapped up at a time both people were happy with, and a mere 30 percent of them ended when one of the parties wanted.’

“Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong,” says Mastroianni. “So you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.” I probably wouldn’t have finished what I wanted to say, of course, but I suppose if I’d lessened enough of my cerebral verbal pressure, I could live with that.

In fact, I already have, I think. I had met someone on a trail, and inadvertently cornered her against a socially-distanced tree. I was telling her about how I normally find myself wintering in New Zealand but had to come back on one of the last planes to Canada when the pandemic was declared. I mentioned that I’d had a troublesome cough at the time –“I always have a cough, though -had it for years… It gets worse after I go for a jog,” I reassured the stranger who could back no further away. “But I knew I wouldn’t be allowed on the plane if I so much as grunted… And it was hot in the Auckland terminal, so I think I was also sweating a little.” Then I realized that I might have been admitting to an incriminating fever, or something, so I quickly added that I also took one of the aspirins that I had packed for the 14 hr plane journey  -just in case. I mean it couldn’t hurt.

I could see the woman staring at me in obvious horror at my selfishness and brazen indifference to a planeload of innocents (some of whom were also coughing into their sleeves after looking around furtively, by the way).

I was about to explain that I always carried cough drops in my pocket for when I went into a restaurant, or a movie theater -even back in Canada- when my cell phone beeped. I had to fumble around into a rather inaccessible part of the inside of my jacket to find it, and by the time I looked up again, she was gone.

And it was a wrong number… ! But maybe things happen for a reason; maybe it was a warning not to tell the next stranger about the fevers and coughs I keep having…

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