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Just Talking

“Papa, why do you talk to people?”

It was Grandchild Three.

“What?” I asked, a little puzzled.

“You know, the way you talk to random people. Like those people on the bike trail we met and just now to the lady in the window at Dairy Queen, telling her it was too nice a day to be working.”

He’s an observant kid, always coming up with some little thing that I didn’t know he’d seen. It’s a good trait, but it makes me a little nervous, a little careful about what I say or do.

His question took me by surprise, so I’m not sure what my reply was. I know what I wish it would have been.

“Because I refuse to be invisible,” I should have said, “and I refuse to let other people be invisible, too. Every time you cross paths with another human being is an opportunity for a moment of connection.”

I realize that not every person on earth agrees with me. Perhaps if I lived in a crowded place, I wouldn’t feel the need to quiz subway ticket sellers about where they went to school and whether they ever dream of spending March in Barbados. But I can’t help myself.

I understand that some people don’t like the attempted connections. It’s easy to get tired of hearing, “Have a wonderful day!” from some clerk who never makes eye contact. One of my favorite lines comes from the tv show, “Mash,” when Hawkeye is trying to win over a new nurse and having no luck. Someone suggested that sincerity was important to her and Hawkeye says, “Oh, sincerity. Yeah, I can fake that.”

Exactly. I’m guessing “How to Fake Sincerity” is a required course in many, many institutions. And we’ve all gotten good at recognizing it.

You shouldn’t ask the question unless you’re willing to listen to the answer. About once a year, not more often than that, I’ll ask someone, “Hey, how ya doing?” When they respond, “Oh, fine,” something in their voice makes me say, “Really?” and then the floodgates open. Those aren’t comfortable conversations, but I’m not sorry I ask.

People need connection the way they need oxygen. This past year has proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’ve walked into a bar to pick up a pizza and seen any number of people, who knew better, drinking beer and watching football. The beer wasn’t that good, and they all had TVs at home. Something else brought them out. My father and his buddies have been stuck alone in their apartments for a year, getting food delivered to their doors and unable to hang out in groups larger than two. The people in charge of their building are in the untenable position of keeping them safe from covid or having people die - literally die - from loneliness.

In all honesty, I talked to people long before we were all half crazed from not being allowed to attend a basketball game. It may be because I find people amazing, their stories fascinating. I think about people I know who bear the most incredible burdens – cancer, deaths, loss of jobs, loss of hope. Yet those same people get up in the morning, go to work, and summon the ability to greet you with a smile. So, it leads me to wonder what the average stranger has on their plate. If I can make a random comment that gives them a few seconds of pleasure, why not do it?

Next time I see Number Three, I’ll tell him just that.

Copyright 2021 Brent Olson