The exam room was maybe eight feet by ten feet, with the requisite medical posters adorning the walls and the obligatory forest-green bed spanning most of the far side of the room. The nurse sat across the desk from me, clicking through the patient database, hunched forward with fatigue at just ten in the morning. She was lanky, almost six feet tall, and wore a lab coat over her blue scrubs. I wondered if it was common for nurses to wear lab coats, though I didn’t think to ask. After a protracted silence she said, “You remind me of Keanu Reeves.”
“Thanks?” I offered with a slight chuckle, imagining for a moment myself in place of the most inexplicable movie star in film history. That was a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever received one.
“Why is that funny?” she asked, tilting her head forward so her eyes bobbed above her ruby rimmed glasses.
“Oh, it’s funny because I was just reading an academic paper on the neutral mask, which helps explain why Keanu Reeves was such a successful action star.”
“Are you a professor or something?”
“No, I’m just constantly curious.”
She sat up straight. “What is the neutral mask?” I explained to her that, in theory anyway, one of the keys to blockbuster movie success is having a character who doesn’t emote much, if at all. The idea is that the more subtlety and emotion a character expresses, the more cognitive strain we feel in processing why he or she is having that reaction, and the harder it becomes for us to psychically substitute our personalities for theirs. This is why Neo is so bland in the Matrix, why Bella Swan is expressionless in Twilight, and one of the components that makes superhero films so popular: we can insert ourselves into their character and see the world of the movie through their eyes. (It’s interesting to me that the neutral mask concept was introduced by the French actor Jacques Lecoq, a mime who taught his students to use the neutral mask in order to develop their ability to convey feeling with the rest of their bodies.) We project our own feelings onto them, and that’s what allows us to feel immersed in an implausible story.
A conversation of my favorite films and directors ensued (The Lives of Others, Shaun of the Dead, and No Country For Old Men all came up). Although I inquired about hers, but she seemed reluctant, almost embarrassed to share, like finding yourself confessing to a wine snob your love of three buck Chuck. She eventually admitted to her love for Fight Club and, to her relief, I returned the sentiment.
“That’s interesting,” she said as she played with her silver and gold spiky hair. “You’re so interesting.”
Recently, and to my surprise, I’ve been told by a half a dozen different people that I am a good conversationalist. Given that at least one of these people studied communications, I found it difficult to disagree. While it’s not as though I had any particular evidence to support such a dissent, I had always taken for granted that the opposite was true. Considering the ease at which we can selectively recall certain events but not those that contradict it, I’d managed to ignore the myriad pleasant, deep conversations I’d ever had in favor of those occasions where someone I’d tried to talk to was either reluctant or shut me down entirely. (Self-scouting notes: I am quick to assume that any social unpleasantness I experience is my fault and my fault alone).
But this revelation, as welcome as it was, cast new light on some of those joyous and fulfilling conversational highlights I look back upon, a relational proxy for athletic glory days or the like. The three hours at Nina’s with my friend Katie, for example, perched upon our thrones at the top of the stairs, is a memory clear and warm to me that the paint still seems moist in my mental portrait. Or that lonely January night saved by an impromptu chat with Jasmim, spanning topics from wall art to empathy to the religious influence of our parents, her brown Disney eyes welling up with tears as she opened up to a man who was a stranger mere minutes prior. Whereas before I’d thought these times were moments of developing rapport or an emotional connection, now I have to wonder instead if they were as equally-matched tennis players sharing a long volley.
My friend was waiting for me at Five Watt when I arrived. “Just got here,” she’d texted a few minutes earlier. It’s poppin!” I’m almost always the first to show up when I’m meeting up with someone for coffee, or drinks, or what have you. Perpetually early. Saturday reminded me of a scene from 30 Rock, when Liz is introducing her new boyfriend Floyd to her boss, Jack Donaghy. “I hope this isn’t too boring for you,” Liz offers apologetically as they walk into the restaurant.
“Are you kidding? Jack Donaghy’s a legend. I’ve read his book like twenty times!”
“Jack wrote a book?”
“Yeah, ‘Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business.’” Floyd spots Jack waiting for them at their table, sipping Scotch. “Oh no, he got here before us. You’re not supposed to let that happen. That’s chapter two in the book.”
When we sat down, she told me she wasn’t thirsty. I came back with a Busy Beaver in hand (one of Five Watt’s signature drinks, made with maple syrup, Blackstrap bitters, cinnamon, molasses, black pepper, and espresso, and it is absolutely delightful) and offered her a sip. “I don’t actually drink coffee.”
She explained that she didn’t like the way it made her feel, and that listening to what her body was telling her was something she was learning how to do. More people should learn that lesson. She then sat graciously sipping water in a temple of caffeine as we enjoyed a conversation.
Kevin and I had been waiting at Lyon’s for almost an hour. His friend Mike, we had been assured and reassured, was on his way and would be with us shortly. Jon would be bringing his girlfriend: “I think she’s the one,” or some variant, he’d texted to Kevin, with the not-so-subtle subtext that we should help make him look good. I’d been warned that Jon was something of a meathead. A former pro football player, and retaining the physique of a current one, he had no patience for people he didn’t care for, and no use for pretense or drivel. Not everyone was going to like him, and he could in no way care less.
They finally arrived. Jon shook my hand and quickly turned his attention to Kevin. Laura asked all of us if we wanted anything to drink. It was 1 a.m. at this point. “Nah, we’re trying to sober up.” She smiled and headed up to the bar. “Isn’t she perfect?” Jon asked. “I mean, aside from the fact that she needs to lose like forty pounds, but I’ve told her that.”
Laura came back with a shot and a beer for each of them. Jon and Kevin were already lost in conversation about life in Colorado, a discussion to which Laura and I had been denied entry and would have had nothing to add. I decided to play dumb, one of my favorite conversational tactics. “I hear you’re a financial analyst,” I offered. “What’s the difference between that and the guy who drags me out to coffee and tries to look at my bills?”
She laughed. “That’s a financial advisor. A financial analyst gives guidance to institutions, helps them make investment decisions and things like that.”
I asked her if she liked her job. She said she loved it: it paid well, it afforded her the ability to travel to more countries she could list, and they had even paid for her to be tutored in French. “There’s been a trade-off, though,” she admitted. “My social life has suffered.”
“I have a friend who recently confided in me that she was worried the same thing would happen to her. You can’t have it all, or at least you can’t have it all at once. You have to prioritize.”
She agreed. “And I’m glad I put my career first. I’m on a CFO track. I can have a family at any point, but it’d be almost impossible to break back into where I’m at if I’d picked that first.”
Around this point, Jon started to notice that his girlfriend and I were not waiting patiently for him to drop conversational crumbs for us to lap up. Some men, when they want to assert dominance in a non-threatening way will offer a compliment. This is a subtle way to express that he is the source of affirmation, and that therefore everyone else should consider themselves lower in the hierarchy. “Hey bro, I like your coat. Maybe I should borrow it for my interview.”
I laughed to myself. I’m not sure if he noticed. “There are plenty of Banana Republics around.” I turned my attention back to Laura. She lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something I haven’t told anybody yet?”
“I’ve been offered a teaching position at Columbia.”
“Come on, you’re probably boring him,” interrupted Jon.
“I’m passionate about my job! When you’re passionate, people find that interesting!” Was I interested? Did we, over the course of a half an hour or so of polite conversation, develop rapport enough that justified making me the first person to share in her news? I don’t know. Perhaps that Keanu comparison was more apt than I’d thought.