So I was talking to a friend on my cell phone just this afternoon, and this guy who was also on the phone nearby came over and started waving his hand at me. At first I literally had no idea what he was doing, and then when I realized that he was gesturing forcefully for me to "quiet down," there was also a moment of incomprehension on my part—because it is annoying when people are too loud on the phone, and I have no reason at all to imagine that I'm never guilty of that, and indeed I may well have been guilty of it at the moment, but on the other hand it wasn't like I was screaming, or talking somewhere I wasn't supposed to be talking (like outside a sleeping baby's bedroom), or anything like that; nor did he have some position of authority over me—he wasn't a librarian and I was not in a library, for example—so I was a little baffled by the way he was gesturing at me. So I think I said something like a polite, "I'm sorry?" And he just started yelling at me: "Keep it fucking down! Other people are trying to talk on the fucking phone!"
Now, I'm perfectly happy with the way I reacted to this: I said, "Jesus Christ," to which he responded with a shrill, "Fuck you," while beginning to beat a retreat, and I just basically made a face that communicated what the kids would probably express as "WTF." All good so far. I mean, the dude went immediately to rage as if we had been arguing all day or as if I had been doing something outrageous, none of which was true; if he had come to me and said, "Hey, excuse me, would you mind keeping it down?"—even if he had dropped the excuse me, just as long as he presented it as a request that one adult was making of another—then I would have conceded politely, apologetically, and immediately. But the jump right into anger is a classic crazy-asshole move, both alienating and ridiculous, and—
But, see, this is just it: here's where we get to the problem, my problem, a problem with me—what I've sat down to write about. I, as I believe I've discussed here before, am no damned good at just letting this be a disagreement—by which I mean that I'm still kind of humming from that interaction and feel like this guy and I need to talk it out or something. More to the point, I feel affronted by the fact that this guy is off somewhere thinking, "That jerk!"—when he's the jerk!
You see what I'm getting at? You see the problem?
I should be satisfied (and I am temporarily close to satisfied if I make a concerted intellectual effort) by the fact that I handled a crazy person (or, to be fair, at least a person's crazy behavior) in a relatively level-headed, nonexplosive way, neither getting into a fight nor simply conceding to his assholery. I wouldn't go back and do anything differently: in a perfect world in which I get to do everything exactly the way I want, responding to an inappropriately belligerent weirdo with a look of bafflement and disapproval and maybe a muttered, "Jesus Christ," is at least reasonably close to how I would handle it.
However, I'm not satisfied, and the reason I'm not satisfied is that this guy—although the way in which he retreated suggests that my response may in fact have deflated his rage a little and he may in fact have been a little embarrassed... But, see, I'm going to interrupt myself here because that's the problem in a nutshell, right there in the way I'm talking: it's my old setting-the-story-straight problem. The simplest way to put it, maybe, is that I care about it at all, care about how this guy felt. And among other other issues with that attitude, maybe most important is that, quite frankly, how he feels is none of my business.
The most practical, least crazy version of my concern is that he'll go around telling people how loud and awful and rude I was—which I think would bother many much saner people than I because nobody wants to be the victim of a character assassination, and if it's not even a well-grounded character assassination, then some degree of indignation comes in, as well. The trouble is that, while more understandable, this concern is both I think a rationalization for a much less logical anxiety and in itself something that any human being would be better off transcending anyway—that any human being must transcend, I might even say.
The earliest glimpse of this truth I think I ever got was when I had broken up with somebody who was very mad at me for it, and I was trying to talk to her and answer questions she had and to be as honest as I could, and my imaginary friend "Gottlieb" said, "It doesn't matter what you say to her. She's going to hate you one way or the other." And he was right. I was committed to this fallacy that a conversation between two people is always—or often, or even sometimes—an actual logical exchange in which the ideas and truth itself are tantamount. This is false. Conversations are messy, emotional interactions and to mistake their content for their essence would be like witnessing a huge accident on the highway caused by a Hostess truck and concluding that Twinkies are extremely dangerous.
If your concern is that everything you say and do always be construed and judged fairly and accurately, then you are guaranteed to be disappointed. Sometimes people aren't going to like you. Sometimes people aren't going to like you for reasons that have nothing to do with reality! What's going on in other people's heads, even if it's about you, is, again, none of your goddamned business: they can think whatever they want, even about you. And, finally, if they go around spreading lies about you? Man, that sucks. But that happens in the world, and you've just got to either just have faith that "the truth will out" (I mean, if what I witnessed was true to the guy's general behavior, then I think most people would be inclined to view whatever he rants about with some degree of skepticism) or, better yet, you've just got to accept that you cannot control your own PR.*
So did that guy think he was being totally reasonable? Did he think he was right and I was wrong? Maybe, maybe not. One thing's for sure, and that's that he's even likelier to take the position that he was right and I was wrong than he is to believe it. And it bugs me—man does it bug me—to think that he's off somewhere taking that position. I am no good at just letting it go.
And that, my friends, is nuts.
[DISCUSSION QUESTION: Is what I just wrote confessional—legitimately penitent, you could say—or is it just a way that I can do exactly what I'm saying it's both crazy and impossible to do: getting the last word, writing the history, annihilating the other side of the argument? Or both?]
portrait of the artist turning himself inside-out
* One lesson about this is that, man, being famous has got to suck in a lot of big ways. No wonder Salinger and Pynchon and I think also Kundera decided to retreat from celebrity in one way or another.