Have you ever hated a phrase? I mean with a real -- hence irrational -- hatred: the way one may hate the atonal scale, the smell of sulfur, televised political debates, or basil in sweet drinks? Everyone hates something. Makes no more sense than most of what we love. No explanation necessary. Hate the smell? Avoid bad eggs. Love Trucker porn? I know a tumblr. Get on as best you can. But then there are the things that can not be entirely avoided: mosquitoes, road construction, relatives, etc. There's bad grammar, bad French, the French, Republicans -- the world's full of the most infuriating nonsense, yes? What I find most remarkable is how much one may and probably ought to just let slide. I work eight hours a day on a retail sales-floor, sugar, I know whereof I speak. I wouldn't be there, I honestly don't think, if I didn't want to be, if I didn't enjoy it, mostly, if I didn't think I could take it. Part of my job. One of the things that as an independent bookseller I do best, have opinions of my own, but what I do mostly is listen to other people's. In fact, I do my job better when I can solicit yours, but in the absence of that, or when I'm asked directly, then yes, I can tell you what I really think.
I don't, with customers, much. We want our opinions confirmed. If I can't quite bring myself to agree with you that Young Adult is a category of grown up thing, or that the best minds of our time write Science Fiction, or personally recommend something for a sixteen year old girl who hates to read, well... let's see how I can sell you a book anyway. I know how to smile, by God.
It's different with coworkers, even bosses sometimes, some bosses. Don't ask me, you don't want to know. You don't even have to ask me. I will tell you what I think. Let's be honest, I'll probably just talk and you might walk right into it.
I don't mean to be disagreeable or a boor, I really don't. I can only apologize.
So, then. Okay, you know what I hate? Let's see... I hate incompetence, my own and or other people's. Oh, yeah, and I hate indifference, mediocrity, laziness, cruelty. All very noble, I'm sure, right? You know what else I fucking hate? I fucking hate the following phrase:
"Tell us what you really think, Brad!"
Oh, fuck off.
That, while said with varying degrees of affection or offense, is what that phrase means. That's what I hear, anyway. Be quiet. Shut up. Stop talking. Don't argue with me. Leave me be. Oh, fuck off, please. It means, Brad, you are boring someone, you are being too loud, you have talked too long, you have said too much, you are being inappropriate, Brad, I am not persuaded by what you have already said.
Clearly, I have what my generation called "issues," which is yet another way of saying, Brad, please stop getting so red. We are afraid you are going to die.
That's a tell, by the way. Makes me bad a poker-player as well as complicating insincere conversation; blood-pressure I'm sure, from blush to boil in under five seconds. (Probably a bit of remembered shame and or childhood embarrassment mixed in that red face too.)
I really think the reason that phrase pisses me off no matter who says it to me, no matter how sweetly it's said, is that I'm hardly an exception to most social norms. I'm not. I don't actually tell most people what I think. No one does. In fact, it's a pretty clear symptom of a pretty severe behavioral impediment, if not flat out mental illness to say always what one thinks. Who does that?!
You may already have some notion of the kind of trouble I usually manage to avoid most days because I am not actually a complete fool. I do not for instance ever say anything to anyone about their weight unless they have clearly stated that they have in fact started running again, or the baby's due soon, or some other good news need be acknowledged. I'm fat. I'm as fat as I've ever been and hopefully as fat as I'm likely to ever get. Hopefully. It is funny, if I do say so, seeing me pick a nickel up off the floor. It is never okay, however, in case any of the idiots who have said something similar to me over the holidays should think I didn't mind, to tell me what a delightful Santa I would make for the kiddies this year! Clever you! I don't actually much mind being fat, but fuck you for saying so, you rude, unfunny, drunky, bitter old spinster, and a very Merry Christmas to you, my dear! See? I don't say that, and you keep the jolly Ol' Saint Nick shit to yourself.
You want to know what I think of Roland Barthes? Really? Young man, why would you care what I think about semiotics? I'm sure you're up for the challenge, and better you than me, ha ha, and may I show you anything else?
I'm sure we do have the latest Ann Coulter, right over here. I'm sure you're right, she is very popular, sir, though not perhaps so much this side of the mountains, ha ha, and may I help you find anything else?
That's the job.
I suppose it does tell on me, all these years, being helpful without actual collusion in hundreds, hell, thousands of blatantly bad choices. The good ones compensate for nearly all of it, but not all. Conversation, the real kind, even just good natured chat, with staff, with familiars from the neighborhood, with friends and loyal, trusted customers, that helps enormously. All the more reason then to hate that hateful phrase.
"Tell us what you really..."
Why wouldn't I? Why shouldn't you? We're among friends. Lord knows there's no one on the sales floor at this hour to be offended, now the Holidays are over. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, dearie. Should I not now say that no one over the age of twenty five has read a word by Roland Barthes for at least the past twenty five years, unless he or she happened to be teaching Roland Barthes? Do we not all agree that that horrid, smelly little man who always asks for the latest Ann Coulter has never actually bought the latest Ann Coulter, or any other book from the bookstore, ever? Do we not all agree that he only comes in to complain that we haven't enough of Ann Coulter's new book on display, and that he only does this because some asshole on the radio mentioned that that asshole Ann Coulter has a new book, and check it out because the liberal media won't. I don't think any of us actually hate that smelly little man, at least not the way decent people should feel perfectly fine about hating that asshole Ann Coulter, but I know we are all tired to death of him. Mustn't say so? Mustn't say asshole? Mustn't what again?
Right now there is something to do with the public position of a dear friend, a position already subject to some criticism, about which I've made the very firm decision not to say a word, at least to the party involved, even if I should be asked. My opinion, good or bad, would contribute nothing to whatever the ongoing discussion may prove to be, and I feel not the slightest obligation as a friend, a citizen and or a de facto homeowner (house is in the husband's name) to say a damned thing on the subject. Discretion, that is the watchword for me. I have decided on discretion. (Fuck you, I can too be discreet, you don't know.)
Does this mean I do not have an opinion? It does not. Might I tell you privately what that is? I may, and you may not even have asked me. I didn't say I intended to remain entirely neutral. I do not accept Buddhist detachment as an option. I just don't want hurt feelings.
That one exception in mind, and some other subject comes up -- or I change my mind -- and it is indeed on. And why shouldn't it be? Should I not tell? But why should it "spoil" Downton Abbey for you to know there's not an original word in it, not a single scene but it's been patched up from elsewhere? I love that show! We're thrilled it's come back! What? Everything must be unspoiled to be good? Yours, my dear, is such an anachronistically virginal muse! For me at least, art needn't be new, and Downton Abbey needn't be art to be fabulously well done.
Let's have it all out, I say. Right here, among friends tell it all, as it is, as I see it and so on. (Or honestly, at this point, quite alone here at my desk, typing into the much neglected void -- neglected by me I mean -- what can it matter what I say about anything so untouchable as Downton Abbey?)
A brief, the briefest of hints then at all that might be unsaid:
No, I do not have a top ten books for 2011 because frankly I thought 2011 an especially shitty year, and not just for books, but not excluding books either. Yes, I could if pressed or paid probably cobble together some such list, but honestly, what good would it do to mention Pogo and some poetry with no better context than this? And no, I didn't like the new book by X. Gloomy, toothless man...
Oh hell, you get the idea.
Don't say it. Just... don't ever say it again. It's insupportable, it really is. Disagree. Don't. Have an opinion. Tell. Don't tell. Leave me be. Play or walk away.
I will not apologize for not being indifferent. Or -- or! -- for not being jolly. I'm fat, you want jolly? Watch me try to pick up this nickel up off the floor.