Filling Out the Forms
I sit there, casually entertained by banal conversation granted import by the irregularity of the event. It is, if nothing more, a dinner party designed as much to break the monotony of life as it is to celebrate the event in question. Filling the periphery of the evening are a collection of folks—and despite their erudite and varied backgrounds and education, they are, rest assured, folks—cemented together by a mortar far more recognizable than the aggregate that marks the majority of the population.
Within an hour, I’ve become a marionette whose strings are limited to a handful of experiences pinpointed in each introduction. Others at the party are clearly tethered in the same manner, the whole of their being summed up in a few choice tidbits, lacking the nuance and individuality of detail.
“Have you met Phil?” I hear her ask. “He knew Isaac Asimov as a child,” she tells me as she fades away for the two of us to be inextricably embroiled in a conversation we have no choice but to participate in, the subject matter chosen for us and our existence defined in the most limited of terms. Her words don’t say it, but the meaning is easily inferred: The two of you should talk about science fiction as it’s clearly a point of commonality.
My mother is guilty of the same social form, introducing me to myriad friends as a traveler and inciting discussion of foreign locales and hobbies, of strange foods and events, and of the repetition of times past and the rehashing of plans coming. After the third introduction, I feel stuck in a loop, having told the same stories and expressed the same opinions again and again. I want nothing more than to extricate myself from the situation.
To be honest, it’s not quite as bad as the common conversation starters among my generation: what do you do, what did you major in, what do you want to do with your life. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that my answers sound pat and prepared, but I’ve had plenty of practice and don’t relish repeating myself. In the past, I had succumbed to the temptation to lie, applying small falsehoods for intellectual variation, only to realize that the gullibility of my audience, the enigmatic existence of new acquaintance, and my god-given talent as a storyteller allows most of these minute transgressions to pass unnoticed. The lack of recognition makes the exercise useless and perverse.
I begin to watch the clock, its slow ticking toward exodus, freedom, and immediate release from the completion of social formalities weighing heavily in my head. My father filled the house with classic instruments of timekeeping, their pendulums and chimes marking every passing second and creating a nervous anger at my self-sedation and lack of progress at any given instant. Despite the music, the soft-spoken chatter, and the constant clanking of silverware on plates, the ticking seeps into my soul with every repetitive word uttered.
Finally, with a moment of respite, I slink into a chair to gather myself, feigning interest in the conversation as my mind burns through my mental to-do list.
“You know, Benjamin,” my mother says, her use of my full first name immediately grabbing my attention as I decypher her tone of voice for any tone of trouble, “I am on Facebook.” The revelation doesn’t surprise me. “I wanted you to know that I haven’t tried to friend you.”
“That’s ok,” I quickly respond, my words effortlessly rote. “I wouldn’t accept.”
There is a moment of frozen terror in my mind as I realize the implication of what I’ve just said. There’s no animosity in the statement, no disgust or haughtiness, simply fact and a resigned understanding that my mother is savvy enough to realize the boundaries the new world of technology has forced us to implement.
Facebook is, of course, a formalizing of the same social repetition that’s plagued me all evening. It’s a paltry representation of personhood, a collection of facts, opinions, photos and random information that attempts to define us. I am a list of books, films, music, schools, links posted, groups belonged to and likes. I could spend a lifetime clicking the little thumb, filling out my persona with every detail of my existence, and it would still be as imperfect a representation of who I am as the one sentence introductions that pigeonhole me into conversation.
If I friended my mother, what would it do for our relationship? It wouldn’t improve our communication, as we talk regularly, we email, she has access to my revelations here and elsewhere.Over the years, we’ve come to know each other well, the nuanced details of our personalities understood even if they’re not apparent, and these details would not make themselves known in the shallow and simplistic summation of self that is a Facebook profile.
Instead, it would subject our friends and acquaintances to the intersection of two different worlds that already rises above the incompatibilities. We would each, on occasion, be put in a position of defending the others action to people completely disconnected from us. Perhaps worst of all, it would divest us of the careful control we exert over the other’s image.
“So what do you do?” one of my mothers friends inquires.
“I’m a ski instructor,” I answer truthfully, reentering the party with the beginnings of another repetitive interaction I’ve already had a dozen times this evening. In moments, I’ll be resentfully lamenting higher education, defending my abnormal societal shift from the erudite east coast upbringing expected of me to the unexpected rarity of a low-end professional athlete, and finding a way to ingratiate myself to my current audience while humorously separating myself from the life I’ve chosen.
“Excuse me,” I say, successfully having navigated the trappings of social form, “I think I need a refill.”
As I remove myself to the kitchen, I am a mix of emotion. I dread the ongoing onslaught of repetitive conversation. I originally began to write about my life as a way to avoid repeating myself, but over a decade later I’m still damned to tell the same stories over and over to an ever changing landscape of stages and audiences. And yet the repetition provides an opportunity to perfect control, allowing me to project the image I want as earnestly as possible.
I cannot be summed up in a few key points. I am multifaceted and nuanced. And, most importantly, I have the choice of what elements I stress and hide at any given moment.
“This is my son, Benjamin,” I hear my father say as I turn away from the faucet.
“I hear you’re a traveler,” one of his friends remarks. I lick my lips, once more preparing my pathway through the same topic. The difference this time is palpable.
No matter how many times I repeat myself, I have, with every uttered sound, an electrifying freedom of speech.