Life is Not a Soundbyte And You Are Not Your Elevator Pitch

2009 August 24

In a recent email interview (you’re gonna dig this one, kids), I asked the interview subject which moments in his current life stand out as ones he would never have believed plausible or possible a few short years ago. The question actually prompted me to ask the same thing of myself.  As it stands, my penchant for living in my own head makes me pretty darn savvy at recognizing these previously unimagined moments in my own life. Absurd, touching, hilarious, heartbreaking; it’s all there and all worth at least a couple of minute to shake your head and ask, “How the heck did I get here?”

elevatorPhoto by shinryuu

Most recently, I recall an evening spent at an Eastern European open-air cafe with two colleagues. Sipping wine and listening to a local singer serenade us with a half-English half-local language version of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight while they chatted amiably about their firsthand experiences with war. Obviously, they were skimming the surfaces of their recollections and only cherry-picking the details suitable for discussion over cocktails. Nonetheless, it started me thinking about how we catalogue our own history and serve it up for the consumption of others. Heartbreak resurfaces as an amusing anecdote. Effusive happiness can be summed up in a cliched sentence or two. When immediacy fades, poignancy often seems to go with it. Given enough time and perspective, even war becomes so much conversational cannon fodder.  We summarize our emotional histories in much the same way we summarize our job histories. We reduce our 9-5 existence down to a series of bullet point duties and accomplishments and as we accumulate more experience, we further condense or even omit the oldest entries.  The same goes for our non-work lives. It’s all about the editing, the reframing and boiling down to the basics and if we can spin things to make ourselves look more noble/desirable/capable in the process, well so much the better, yes?

In a way, it’s a social time and grace-saving measure. Instead of describing someone as, “the girl I was dating between junior and senior year who ended up doing an exchange to France and we were going to try the long distance thing, but it just sorta faded out around Thanksgiving,” you call her your ex-girlfriend when you’re telling your coworker that story about how much her cat hated you and used to pee on your sneakers if you left them by the door. When you’re trying to sell your date on a cute little Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, you tell him it was recommended by a friend and not by fellow posters on a message board for fixed gear bike enthusiasts that you’ve belonged to since 2003. When it comes to hearing about other people’s lives, we have short attention spans and we like unambiguous descriptors. The tangled webs that you weave are interesting to you (and maybe your mother or therapist); the rest of us will take the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thanks.  And keep the emotions out of it, if you please. Better to be thought glib and cavalier than to reveal how raw you still are about your father’s death four years ago or better to crack jokes about having to move back in with your parents than to admit what a number unemployment is doing on your self-esteem.  How gauche!  As much as we like ambiguity, we’ve also been conditioned to appreciate arms-length self deprecation, with a side of non-committal blandness.  We react better to the sight of blood and mangled bodies than to an outpouring of genuine rage, passion or grief.  Never mind that this preservation of the social status quo has given rise to a population of people who reflexively reach for humor as a shield, who have convinced themselves that there isn’t a situation or experience (no matter the gravity) that can’t be shrugged off or solved with the appropriate one-liner.  Sarcasm is our generation’s version of stoicism. Snappy comebacks as a replacement for the stiff upper lip.  Hey, it works in Hollywood, right?

We react better to the sight of blood and mangled bodies than to an outpouring of genuine rage, passion or grief.

For the sake of not boring my audiences to tears, I’ve gotten better at condensing my own history into soundbyte-appropriate snippets and distilling relationships down to their elemental nature*. No easy feat for someone as A) in love with back stories and B) seemingly incapable of magnanimous hindsight as I am. But not so deep down, I strongly resent this reductionist approach to presenting our lives and times. Forget rote responses to close-ended queries, there’s so much  more to all of us. We’re more than a 15-second elevator pitch of our high points, more than a self-penned draft obituary (born here, went to school there, etc.) that we can recite on cue when someone asks for our back story and more than bloodless memories floating in jars of formaldehyde. We’re petty, we’re politically incorrect, we’re verbose, we’re by turns ponderous and whimsical. We’ve got baggage, all of us.  We’re complicated in ways and for reasons that cannot be neatly abridged. And it’s heartbreakingly sad to think that we’re all just biting our tongues, polishing our emotional resumes and waiting around for someone (the right one or just anyone?) to ask us the right questions and show more than a cursory interest in our answers.

N.B. In a way, this post is an exploration of the small talk wasteland I previously wrote about.

* Although I do confess that I sometimes still think “brother-in-law” and “niece” sound strange coming out of my mouth.

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