Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Occupational Hazards"

Every job has them. 

You’re a competitive shot putter – you wake up one day with this gigantic shoulder.  You’re a schoolteacher – as I was for a while, living in England – you find chalk dust on the sleeve of your suit jacket.  You work in a bakery – “Sure, I sneak the occasional donut.  But how did I gain thirty-five pounds?”

It happens.  Under the radar.  You’re a happy coal miner – suddenly you’re coughing green stuff into a handkerchief.  And it’s not just dangerous jobs.  (Or jobs around blackboards or sugary pastries.) 

Just recently, I noticed an occupational hazard in this racket.  (If you define “occupation” broadly enough to include unremunerated scribbling.  And I do.) 

The first time I became aware of this affliction was while co-hosting a dinner party for a handful of people.  That’s when it hit me.

The occupational hazard of the blog writer (or least this one):

We cannot tell a story short.

It was embarrassing.  Somebody asked me a question, and off I went.  I was unable to control myself.  A succinct answer was beyond my capabilities; it was the “gantzah megillah.”  (The “full, detailed narrative.”  It’s amazing how many “Yiddishisms” slip into your vocabulary when you have proceeded beyond seventy.)

After eight-and-a-half-years of blog writing, there are no more “brief responses” to anything.  Which is understandable, I suppose.  I mean, I am not a “Twitter Person.”  They probably can’t do long answers.  They get to 140 characters and they stop.

LISTENER:  “Very interesting.  Tell me more.”

HABITUAL TWITTERER:  “What do you mean?”

I no longer recall the issue that inspired my loquacious ramble, one I noticed that half way through made my dinner companion wish they had never asked the question in the first place.  (If a glazed-over expression is a reliable “Indicator of Distress”, and it is.)  You could sense the mental calculation of my listener:  “What if I die now?  I have to ‘’go out’ listening to this?

Analogous example of the problem (and it could easily have been anything):

“Where’s the cat?”

They had visited us before.  There was once a cat on the premises, and now there wasn’t one.  Understandable question:  “Where’s the cat?”  To which the appropriate response is, “It got sick and we had to put it to sleep.”

Not good enough.  Not for Professor “Talks-A-Lot” (because he writes a lot.)  You are given an opening and, not a direct answer, but a full-blown narrative inevitably unfolds:

“You know, it wasn’t really our cat.  It belonged to the people living behind us, who apparently have lots of cats.  And one day, this cat – who we wound up calling “Franky” but whose name we learned later was Clara – climbed onto our back porch and began scratching on the screen door outside our kitchen while we were eating.

“For a while, we deliberately ignored her.  But before we knew it, there was a saucer of water out on the porch.  But we were ‘drawing the line’:  There was no way we were feeding that cat.  

Well that didn’t last.  Soon we were offering the visiting feline scraps uneaten table scraps.  We were going to throw them away anyway, so why not? – You see how that works?  Not long afterwards, we were picking up tins of cat food at the supermarket.  It was a whirlwind surrender.  First it was water, then table scraps, now we’re scooping up “Friskies” at “Albertsons”, eight tins at a time.

“We never let her in the house – it wasn’t our cat; and besides, Dr. M has allergies.  But every day, there it was, scratching at our screen door, demanding her dinner.

“To be honest, I have never been a ‘Cat Person.’  There is something weird about taking care of a pet that rewards its generous benefactors with haughty disinterest.  To be honest, I’m a little afraid of cats.  I have this joke:  ‘I believe if you mistreat a cat – or if it just thinks you’re mistreating them – they can go to the phone and call lions.’

“Eventually, Franky won me over completely.  I’d drag myself home, you know, two in the morning after an arduous rewrite, and Franky’d be standing by the garage, waiting to greet me.  There was this little game she liked to play.  As I went up the stairs, Franky playfully cut directly in front of me, trying to trip me. 

“Sometimes, Franky’d bring me a dead bird as a ‘present.’  The greatest ‘acting job’ I ever did was pretending to be grateful.

“Anyway, she was around for about six years.  And then, one day, Franky refused to eat anything.  She got thinner and thinner, and we finally took her to the vet.  It seems funny – taking someone else’s cat in for medical care – but by then, we felt totally responsible.

“I went with Anna, and after the examination, we were told that Franky had terminal ‘F.I.P.’, a kind of peritonitis ‘outdoor’ pets frequently contract. 

“And that was that.

“We called the rest of the family so we could be together to say good-bye.  And this amazing thing happened.  After a few minutes, Franky abruptly turned away from us, and she wouldn’t look back.  It’s like, ‘I appreciate the sendoff, but it is time for you to go.’

“And then it was over.  No more Franky.  We miss her to this day, but I guess it was ‘her time.’”     

Can you believe it?  All that from “Where’s the cat?”  The listener looked exhausted.  Like they’d gone ten rounds with a tedious adversary.    

Occupational hazard – my responses to anything are now nine hundred words long, or longer.  A simple question, and the verbal floodgates are unstoppably thrown open. 

It is a small satisfaction, I suppose, that our dinner companion was spared the “Worst Case Scenario.”

At least I wasn’t a novelist.


FFS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JED said...

I liked that story a lot. I'm glad you didn't stop at, "The cat died."

I think another incentive to being wordier is when we are in school because there is a word count or a page count involved. You think you've completely covered the subject but then realize the assignment was for a four-page paper and you've only written three.

But since I've been working, I've found the need to keep my responses short. If I go on too long, my colleagues and customers either ignore or misunderstand what I've written.

Brev said...


ed.j. said...

My wife often says that my middle name is "Never use one word when twelve will suffice" which is an interesting quote and I think it actually came from .... what? Oh, right. Nice talking to you again; bye.