March 17, 2010

How do you do?

It may seem trivial, but I hate it when people say, “Hi, how are you?” (Unless it’s Daniel Johnston.) Yes, I know it’s (probably) no more than a meaningless salutation; nobody really wants you to take the time to inventory the totality of your circumstances and present an accurate report.

They really just mean to say, “Hey, person I know! It sure is fun to see a familiar face! Tell me that everything is fine! See you again, sometime, m‘kay?”

Why do we greet one another with questions if we don’t want answers? It’s like a game of tennis where no one ever returns a serve.

I have an old friend who devised a standard response to these rhetorical questions. You might say, “Hi, Kevin, how are you?” And he would grin (in a playfully confrontational way) and say, “Perfect!” He always seemed to delight in the exchange, satisfied with his cleverness, perhaps, pleased that he could resolve such a common, annoying social situation on a high note, while avoiding any deeper interaction. But, best of all, his response and bright demeanor created an opening for a (slightly) deeper exchange, if desired.

I admired this, but while I think my friend intended for us to assume the common definition “ideal” or “quintessential,” I found it ironic because the word “perfect” has another meaning; if you have studied English grammar, you may recall that “perfect” is a verb tense, meaning “complete” or “finished.” And, given the obtuse opportunity to apply the word to the process of living, I saw a darker possibility — that perfection of the mortal condition was death. Realizing this was none too cheery an observation, I kept it to myself. Who am I to ruin my friend’s good fun by getting existential?

Another friend recently reported he had watched “Casablanca” for the first time and felt that the movie changed his life. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is one of the greatest characters in film history, and my friend was impressed that the film could present such realistic complexity in such a short amount of time. Rick isn’t perfect; he seems to be driven toward cynical self-interest, has a fairly flat public affect, but occasionally reveals a softhearted willingness to side with a sympathetic underdog. And the choice he makes in the end is heartbreaking and inspirational.

Still, the most revealing moment occurs when Rick is alone in his bar, long after closing, struggling with the unexpected reappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Mere moments prior, he had been the smooth, stoic master of his circumstances, an extraordinarily capable navigator, casually operating a gambling house in a foreign land occupied by Nazis, and then we discover he harbors an almost supernatural pain that reduces him to a sniveling, broken-hearted man, attempting to drown his misery in alcohol.

How might he then answer the question, “How you doin’, Rick?”

Don’t we all have hidden pain? Is there not a single trigger that might bring tears?

How are you doing? Does anybody really care to hear your honest answer?

Are you managing your emotions? Are you smiling your way through an ordinary day, passing pleasantries and keeping things upbeat? That’s nice and so responsible!

But we all break down sooner or later.

I often champion George Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass. Produced by Phil Spector, I will happily argue it is the single greatest achievement in pop music, a deeply searching exploration of spirit and loss, matching elements of theological truth with concepts of romantic love, struggling with ego and ultimately resolving upon the glory of living, searching, sharing. It is one of two albums that can ordinarily bring me to tears. (The other is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea.) The last time I listened to it, I broke down sobbing. And I was so surprised by my reaction that I started laughing at myself. I’m sure I would have been a sight if I hadn’t been alone. Thank goodness for that, right?

How am I doing? Great!

 

For further consideration: I’ve been thinking about the ongoing struggles that John Timmons has been having keeping Louisville’s beloved, nationally respected, independent record store ear X-tacy a step or two ahead of the reaper. And I wonder how many people still bother to buy physical copies of their music. Even more aesthetically significant: Do you have a favorite album? Have you listened to it lately? Shared it with a friend? Remember: Music is your best entertainment value.