Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Venerable Personage

I am not a central player at the place where I'm now employed. No one looks to me for nuanced advice on handing the administration, no one turns to me for measured diplomacy when tensions run high among the faculty, no one breaths a sign of relief when I agree to take on the thorniest of thorny issues, no one ever makes the comment that "with McFawn at the helm, by god, I think we just might make it through." No, I am not a central player, and probably that's best: I would get too far into the role, be all things to all people, and then forget (or get too lazy) to hide that I was all things to all things to all people, and people like nothing less than when your all-thingness isn't exclusive. My cleverness doesn't backpedal well, so when my divided loyalties and two-facedness were outed, I'd have no recourse but to avoid eye-contact and halfway shrug.

I make up for my lack of this type of centrality by sitting smack dab in the middle of it all. I plop myself down right there in the main office, right in the hub of all the activity. All around me, copy machines, mail slots, computers, printers, secretaries and staff function and whir, while I sit still, only moving slightly to turn a page or find a pen. Sitting so quietly and so centrally, I might look, to an alien observer, as if I were the cause of all this scurrying, as if all these bustling people and machines were working so hard so that I, honored as I was, might remain unperturbed.

In my central spot, I see a lot of comings and goings, a lot of pleasantries exchanged, a lot of papers being gathered and disseminated: in short, there's not much to see. However, there is one venerable personage, as Hawthorne might say, who makes himself known several times a day when I'm there. He's probably in his sixties somewhere, maybe older, and uses one of those canes with the three pronged base. I say he "makes himself known" becomes every time he appears in the office, he does so with a strange air of purposeful conspicuousness.

Because he uses a cane, he is, maybe unfortunately, more conspicuous by nature. A cane and two feet, however well orchestrated their routine, make for a dissonant approach. At first, I speculated his conspicuous personality might be a response to the cane. Perhaps he's disgusted by the implications of trying to downplay the limp and the cane; perhaps he thinks that would smack of shame and meely-mouthed denial. In defiance of such a simpering response, he proudly doubles his conspicuousness by piling on the strange mannerisms. He always talks: sometimes he mutters to himself in mock-annoyance, just quiet enough to be out of earshot, just loud enough to wish you were closer to see if you were indeed making his words out right. He seems to find a lot of reasons to talk to office workers, and his end of the conversation always is loud and general enough to sound like an announcement.

There's also a lot of theatrical emphasis to his movements. He'll smack his hand down on the main desk, in the same manner as someone smacks the hood of prize car after calling it a "beauty." He'll tear his mail out of the mail-slot as if anticipating it might give him a fight, and when he talks to office workers over the counter, he puts his whole forearm up there and leans in--an overstated gesture of familiarity and heartiness. Sometimes he gets a look of dramatic puzzlement on his face, as if sending up the image of the befuddled old man who wandered into too-modern times. "What's a PDF file? Eh?" And when he can no longer maintain anyone's direct attention, he addresses himself in an amused tone, perhaps reminding himself of his next task, or admonishing himself for forgetting what his next task was.

The overall impression he gives is of someone who wants to be engaged. His out-loud observations seem to be beg to be put into play and bantered back from somewhere else . On the other hand, his way of speaking is addressed to everyone, and therefore to no one. Responding to him directly and personally would seem strange, like thanking the intercom at Meijer's for mentioning a sale in aisle C. But since I don't shrink from addressing the un-addressable, I've thought about responding to him in some way. Yet something about the look on his face pulls me up short. How is it that someone who seems to socialize with the world-as-a-whole would look so downright unsociable?

It might be that all his presentational joviality is not really social at all. In his actions and talk, he seems to acknowledge everything a passerby might think of him: "Sure I have a cane! And don't you forget it! Watch me bring it down with conviction!" or "You're damn right I'm from another time. And you're doubly right that I don't belong here one bit! See! I don't understand the way things work 'round here! " The function of his whole persona might be to preempt these perceptions of him. By displaying that he knows what he is, no one can think to themselves 'I've got the old guy pegged." Still, what's point of it? What is he preventing or encouraging by this showy self-knowledge?

I've seen this behavior in other old men, and in a recovering alcoholic. People who have a weakness that they believe they can't hide sometimes make a show of acknowledging it. The recovering alcoholic had what seemed to be a purposely unpolished manner, a way of saying "It would be absurd for me to act poised or in control of anything with my history." Old men get into playing old men to confirm they're in complete acceptance of their lot. This venerable personage might consider both his age and his cane a weakness, one with which (he tells himself) he's made a mirthful peace. And it is this he so forcefully displays. Still, displaying such a thing so strongly is actually off-putting. Imagine a conversation where two people excessively introduce themselves:

"Hi, I'm McFawn. I am in the marginalia of society. I make notations on what I see. I scrawl, but the world is in typeface. Does that make me an iconoclast? You're thinking I think that I am. But believe me, I am too skeptical to believe in iconoclasm as anything more than inverse conformity. And I know that has no inherent worth."

And so on. Nothing is more antisocial than trying to control someone else's perceptions past the point where they would even bother to perceive. But there's still something appealing in it. People who announce themselves tend to talk more freely, tend to be more amusing, and often have the delightful habit of speaking in confidence with strangers. It's as if they figure everyone already knows them because their introduction is built into their mannerisms. This is a charming misperception.


DSYoung said...

Maybe he just became habituated to enjoying the additional attention his original, somewhat sweetly social behavior obtained before it became a cloyingly smothering of everyone around him? Still, I tend to agree that people who are noticeable, and know they are noticeable, are doing it for show, for purpose. And, from the sound of it, he appears to have gone beyond caring what response he elicits; it's the show that matters, not the result.

Not that we know ANYONE who fits that description...

Paul said...

"...a strange air of purposeful conspicuousness", was it? I'm going to have to try that.

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