By Tim McGrath
“Strange days have found us; Strange days have tracked us down…” Strange Days – The Doors
It’s been ongoing for years, and I really have no idea why. I have it, Dad had it, my daughter, too. Dad used to say he’d be sitting on a bench at Meijer waiting for Mom to finish up shopping, and someone would come and plop down next to him. That’s when the person would just start talking. The more they talked; the more intimate things would get. He’d hear all sorts of stuff from people he didn’t know – complete strangers. Often it was some health malady. He came home one day saying: “If I hear any more about somebody’s bowel troubles, I’m not going back there with your mother; she’s on her own.” Can’t blame him, really. Too Much Information from anyone is not cool, and especially from strangers. Ick.
Throughout my life from young child to the present, I, too, have found myself in places far and wide listening to other people, many of them complete strangers, laying it all out there. In these situations, I recall the 1990’s TV sitcom Frasier. The lead character, Dr. Frasier Crane, was the host of a call-in radio program. He offered advice to a cast of oddball characters seeking his guidance on a wide variety of topics. Cool, confident, comforting words would be given out after his signature opening, “I’m listening”, was cooed to the caller. I think I have those words tattooed on my forehead.
Now, mind you, being a good listener is an admirable quality, and, I do think I’m pretty good at it. But, just like everyone else, I have a dark side. Over the years I’ve developed a strategy to deal with the over sharers, TMI prattlers, and The Monologuers. These are the people who use every conversation as a springboard to drone on endlessly about one thing or the other in their world, apparently unaware there’s another person who’s part of the conversation. It’s called Active Non-Listening.
Here’s how it works, and it’s a magnificently simple survival strategy. It does take practice, but so worth the time. When I find myself in a situation with one of the aforementioned characters, and the conversation turns deadly, I shift to ANL mode. By all outward appearances I’m actively engaged: maintaining eye contact, leaning in, asking questions, laughing or commiserating in all the right spots. But my mind is thinking of many other things: what’s for dinner, I’ve got to stop for gas today, text the kids…, just everyday things. Raised in a culture where Be Nice was the way we were expected to behave, telling the babbler to STOP YAMMERING AND LISTEN FOR ONCE! would be frowned upon. I suppose that’s carried over into my adult life to a degree. So, even though Active Non-Listening really is a passive-aggressive behavior, it works for me.
I found myself in one of these places just recently – a truly serendipitous moment, indeed.
Arnie and I were returning from our annual Florida golf trip. Found my seat: row 18, aisle. No sooner did I park myself, than a couple in the aisle stood over me. Dutifully standing and allowing them in, they shuffled past, plunking into their seats. Me on the aisle, he in the middle, she near the window. Things were as they normally are on a flight as we all settled in waiting for takeoff. That’s when it started. “Where are you from?” Mrs. asked, leaning over her husband, who was trying to read his magazine.
“Fremont,” I cheerfully replied. “You?”
“Kalamazoo,” she said. That was all it took. She’d found a willing participant, and was off and running. It soon became evident she was a Monologuer. Thankfully, I recognized it sooner rather than later and deployed ANL. I’m not sure how long this went on, as I was reflecting back on what I needed to do to improve the inconsistencies in my golf swing, and how delicious the sushi was we’d had the night before. There was also a dim awareness we were airborne, but Mrs. was still in full cry. That’s when it happened.
“You can’t be too careful, especially now with all this sickness going around,” Mrs. said. I looked at her and saw she’d pulled out a large container of Clorox wipes, and was busy scrubbing down her and her husband’s tray tables, and armrests. “With all this Corona stuff going around, I’m taking precautions.” She then reached across her husband, dropped my tray table down, and gave it a good going over. Not satisfied with that paltry effort, she continued her quest in vanquishing the invisible foe. She was a short woman, but nimble. Stretching out her five-foot something frame, she even managed to wipe down my armrest on the aisle. Then, for good measure, she got a new wipe, leaned over Mr., and unlatched my seat belt. She wiped the whole thing down, then latched it back up again. “There, now we can rest easy.” Mr. looked at me with a bewildered expression. The look in his eyes said, “h-e-l-p m-e.”
There’s a quote from Mr. Rogers that’s been finding its way around social media lately. It goes like this:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Such wise words for all of us in these strange days.
I’d also like to add: remember to look for the ladies with the Clorox wipes.
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