When I was a junior in high school, I developed what I thought was a close relationship with one of my teachers. I had her for English in both eleventh and twelfth grades, so we had a lot of time to form a solid friendship that I believed would endure beyond graduation. On the final day of class, I asked her to sign my yearbook, expecting a long and personal message. When I looked at the book later, I saw what she had written. “It was nice meeting you” was all it said.
I was stunned, as only a naïve teenager can be. Nice meeting you? That’s what you say to the man at the hardware store after he finishes grinding you a new house key. This teacher and I had almost two years of history. We’d shared countless conversations and laughs, and had slogged through Silas Marner together – she for the hundredth time, me for the last. But she had also been teaching for decades, had watched students come and go, and understood the temporary nature of the connection. I was still at that age when we see the world only through our own eyes, and believe that the things we love will go on forever.
More recently, I went out to a restaurant and encountered another example of impermanent kinship. I’d been offered a choice of unlimited Caesar or garden salad. When I chose garden, the waitress said, “Perfect!” I felt momentarily proud, in a small but discernible way, as though I had come through under pressure and managed to pick the best possible salad on the menu. It was similar, in a sense, to the satisfaction I’d experienced with the English teacher, when I’d give her a correct answer, or some novel idea that caught her by surprise. But then, not a minute later, someone at the next table ordered the Caesar salad, and this same waitress replied, “Perfect!” Maybe it was my imagination, but her voice seemed to flutter and bounce with even more enthusiasm for this other customer’s decision. Her hypocrisy stung me, almost as much as the slice of hot pepper hidden beneath the cucumber. How could both salads be perfect? I realize there are no longer any winners and losers in spelling bees or children’s soccer. But clearly, a Caesar salad has to lose points for containing hard-boiled eggs and anchovies.As our waitress flitted around her area, tending to the other diners and their ridiculous meal selections, I could hear her respond with the same spirited approval, whether they requested spaghetti or chicken, cheesecake or ice cream, coffee or tea. I was beginning to wonder if there were any options on the menu that she would deem less than perfect. What I wanted, deep down, was for someone to ask for the Caesar salad and for that waitress to slam down her order pad, point across the restaurant to me, and say – loudly enough to stop everyone in mid-bite – “Do you see that man over there? He knows how to order food. Please go ask him for advice, and then come back when you’re ready to do this correctly.” For some reason, this has never happened.
Words have so much capacity for fullness and meaning. But praise, I’m finally starting to see, is often hollow and pointless.
When I call up about my credit card statement, or if I try to get in touch with any government agency, I’m told repeatedly how important my call is. But after pressing the receiver into my ear for thirty-five minutes, I begin to have doubts. This is because when I’m expecting an important call, I answer it on the first ring, or maybe the second ring if I’m trying to give the person on the other end the impression that I get a lot of such calls, which I don’t. If I were to put someone on hold for a half-hour, that would be my way of telling them that everything else I’m doing enjoys a higher rank on my list of priorities. I’m probably rearranging pencils, or washing socks.
The world of retail, too, discharges an endless flow of flattery and gushing insincerity. The salesman at the men’s clothing store asks me if I work out, as he tugs and brushes at the shoulders of the jacket I’m trying on. The cashier at the department store compliments me on my choice of work gloves. The young man on the sales floor at the electronics store offers his solid endorsement of whichever camera or printer or graphics tablet I consider buying.
“That’s the one I have at home,” he says, inevitably. Of course, I think to myself. It’s the ideal choice, the garden salad of digital gadgets. I want to tell him to save the artificial animation for his next film project, but I don’t. I just smile and take my purchase, and offer him my own empty sentiment.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say. As I head toward the door, I hear the salesman speaking to another customer.
“So you’ve decided to go with the Canon? Twelve megapixels! Perfect!”
And I’m sure it is.