Sometimes I’ll be seated at my desk, pretending to be working or lost in thought, and someone will walk by and say, “Is it okay if I steal your pen?” As they ask me this, they’re grabbing one of the hundreds of pens that I’ve acquired over recent years, and that are now scattered around me, lying in drawers, standing in empty peanut cans, buried under a pile of papers, or tucked into books. My response is always the same.
“Yes, of course,” I reply, because I have a giving nature, and also because I know that most of the pens don’t work anyway. When I’m feeling especially generous, I’ll say, “Take two, just in case.” But on the inside, I’m still trying to make sense of their original question. If you ask permission, then it isn’t really stealing. It’s more like coerced borrowing. I guess they see it as a polite version of the note that bank robbers hand to the teller, the one that says “This is a stick-up.” Such a message strikes me as pointless, and a waste of good paper. If I were a bank teller and a person came up to my window wearing a ski mask and holding a gun, I probably wouldn’t need to read the note. I’d aim for efficiency and ask, “You want me to put all the money into a bag, right?” But maybe I’m just extra perceptive that way.
People say a lot of things that they don’t need to say. Like, “fair is fair.” I’m always tempted to respond, “And cold is cold,” but then I’d have to explain what I mean, and I don’t think I could do it. Worst of all, we’d end up talking about the weather, a topic of conversation that typically makes me want to remove my own spleen without any form of anesthesia. This, by the way, is the only time I ever even remember that I have a spleen.
My mother used to say, “You can’t win for losing.” I was able to follow her logic, but only until that very last part. It seems to me that “You can’t win” would have been sufficient, and much clearer.
Our speech is often redundant, with additional words tacked on for effect.
“They live in a tiny, little house.”
“It’s freezing cold out there today.”
“We’ve been awake since five a.m. this morning.”
I was listening to the radio in the car the other day and heard the mayor of a Nova Scotia town say that we live in a global world. Those were her exact words. “You know, Matt,” she said, “we live in a global world.” Out of sheer frustration, I had to pull over and slam my head against the driver-side window. It reminded me of that other brilliant observation: “You have your whole life ahead of you.” And that one isn’t even true. You’ve already used up part of your life. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. And so does everyone else, I’m pretty sure.
Unnecessary words can even change the intended meaning, or cause confusion, which in my case is almost guaranteed. When I was in junior high school, the phrase “same difference” appeared, without warning or explanation. All at once, everyone was using it – even teachers. It isn’t the built-in contradiction that surprises me, though. People say ridiculous things all the time. It’s that the expression has survived more than four decades, and is still around.
“Working hard?” This is the first half of a universal exchange that humans everywhere seem required to have. The response, inevitably, will be, “Hardly working!” This is almost always followed by raucous laughter, as though the punch-line had been spontaneous and completely unexpected.
When I’m watching a DVD, I often find myself enduring a five-minute propaganda piece that tells me, over and over again, how great movies are. It shows clips from famous films, including familiar scenes and memorable lines of dialogue, and ends with thunderous classical music and a melodramatic voiceover that poses a profound conclusion, usually something like: “Movies. What would life be without them?” I don’t know what life would be without them. Probably similar to the life that existed for millions of years, right up until the late 1800s. But my real point is, I don’t need to be told to watch movies, especially after I’ve already put in a DVD that contains the movie I’m waiting to watch.
It’s hard to be sure why these needless interactions irritate me so much. Maybe it’s my increasing awareness that time grows short, and is too precious to waste. I used to have my whole life ahead of me, but now most of it is back there somewhere. To allow any of it to be snatched away without a fight seems like a crime. And speaking of crime, I’m thinking of installing one of those secret alarm buttons on the floor under my desk, the kind the bank tellers use to notify the police of a robbery in progress. The next time somebody advises me that they’re stealing a pen, I’m going to alert the authorities and have them arrested. Although I’ll probably issue some sort of warning first. After all, fair is fair.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my family and friends in the United States.