Monday, July 31, 2006

The Utility of Geometry in Measuring Fields

Recently I listened to an NPR series on maximum security prisons where the commentators described the reactions of prisoners released after long stays in solitary confinement: difficulty around people, distrust of new places, inability to make eye contact... all the problems you would imagine. I would think there's probably an accompanying shrinkage in vocabulary and ability to articulate as well. Coming to Tokyo has led me to wonder if I'm not undergoing a similar social atrophying. Not that I would go so far as to equate my situation in Osaka with solitary confinement! But I do find that, on the rare occasions I meet new people, I am having quite a lot of trouble lately with simple social niceties -- carrying on a conversation and making small talk, for instance, feels totally beyond me at this point. To be fair, I've never been any sort of expert in this field. Most initial encounters have always required constant self-prodding to respond both verbally and non-verbally in the appropriate manner. Lean forward Katie, smile, nod a little, murmur something encouraging, make eye-contact, focus Katie, focus... It's not that I'm uninterested in the other person (well, usually), but more that the parallel conversation you and I are having in my head is ever so much more pleasant than anything I could hope to verbalize. Immediately after speaking I invariably want to draw back in the words and revise them for rerelease, so that the second or third edition is the only one that should count. I find the inherent imperfection of speech irritating. This is why reading and writing work so well for me as forms of communication -- pausing to reflect over a well-crafted sentence provides me with near endless spasms of pleasure. (This morning, for example, I reread Bertrand Russell's sentence "No one can doubt that this was for him a voluptuous moment, unsullied by the thought of the utility of geometry in measuring fields" at least 10 times. He was describing Hobbes being transported by Euclid's Pythagorean theorem; I thought the phrase 'voluptuous moment' was something approaching linguistic flawlessness.) Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, I get distracted with trying to keep a particularly nice turn of phrase afloat in my mind just a little longer...

At any rate, I hadn't realized how socially rusty I'd become over the past 4 months until running headlong into a section full of friendly, considerate Tokyo JOs, all asking politely about my trip from Osaka and my first impressions of the embassy. Embassy? Impressions? I hadn't considered that I might need to prepare any sort of speech. My head was still full of 'voluptuous moment'. I grappled with what to say, trying to nod and look interested while mumbling something about the short commute. My smile and my answers felt plastic and stilted; I could tell I was making a horrible impression. What I really wanted to do was pull out my collection of Bertrand Russell essays and ask them what they thought about his descriptions of 1920s Europe. I'm not terribly good at pretending to care about something when I don't, and I can't say that I particularly care about the embassy one way or the other.

Thus, being in Tokyo has underscored the sad fact that, along with my Japanese, my already rudimentary social skills are dying a slow death. I'm not quite sure how to correct this problem. The honest truth is that I don't really talk to anyone all day long. I don't have close friends in Osaka, and (contrary to earlier hints at the beginnings of a social life) no regular social engagements whatsoever. Bertrand Russell is great, but unavailable to meet me for coffee. I only wish that someone here wanted to discuss the ancestry of fascism or the joys of useless knowledge. And I wish I didn't feel so snobby whenever I long for that. I prefer to discuss topics either utterly nonsensical or completely serious -- the point where those two things converge represents the pinnacle of conversation for me. Too bad all social interactions have to start at the level of the weather and the Cubs; my social transmission doesn't seem to have come with middle gears.

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