Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Was that today?"

     For all the talking, talking, talking we do—in person, over the phone, or through conversation written out in emails, tweets and texts—very rarely does someone say something witty.  We can gossip and pontificate and bore. But it's rare, nearly a miracle to deliver the exact right word at the exact right moment, a quick, short, sharp—and it must be all three—rejoinder. Just a word or two, a phrase, that shuts down any further conversation. The French call it a "bon mot"—literally "good word"—or a "mot juste," the "right word."  
     The instance I always think of as the perfect example of this is a comic strip, of all things, a 1960 "Peanuts" Sunday cartoon where Linus is teaching Charlie Brown's little sister to clutch a blanket and Charlie -- well, it's easier if you read the strip.

    "Like her brother?" That's perfect, plucking a string that everybody is familiar with, the universally understood slough of unhappiness that is Charlie Brown's life. A great riposte does that, ringing down the curtain of truth on a conversation. For all my struggles to say something concise and cutting in print, I can't recall ever doing that myself; I need to edit, to fiddle with the phrasing first.
Kate Moss
     My wife, however, is a master. She coined one just as good as Linus' if not better. I think I told this story in a column, years ago, but it bears repeating. We were driving downtown—pre-children, back when we lived in the city, we would commute together in the car to work, she going to Jenner & Block in the IBM Building, me to the Sun-Times across the street. A CTA bus pulled up with a Calvin Klein poster on it featuring Kate Moss, the gaunt and boyish British model. There was some debate about whether she was indeed attractive, and I mused, idly, something along the lines of, "Well, I don't care what people say, I'd have an affair with her." 
     At which my wife shot me a glance and I realized to whom I was talking, and quickly added, "But I'd always come running home..."
     "To what?" Edie interjected crisply.
     I loved that. I'm as proud of that as if she had climbed a mountain. 
     This skill is passed down in the generations, apparently. On Wednesday morning, looking forward to my older son flying home from California, where he has been at college for the past three months, I sent him a text wishing him safe travels, reminding him that I would be at the airport waiting at the foot of the escalators leading into baggage claim, and asking that he let me know if the plane he is taking is delayed.
     Now there is an infinity of ways a teenager can reply to that. I suppose if I had to imagine one, I would come up with, "Sure pop, can't wait to see you." Or some such banal thing.
    Not my boy, not his mother's son.
    He replied, "Was that today?"
    Which caught me off guard. First: Could he really...? Then: No, of course not... Then: Or could he? Perfect, because for a moment I thought he was serious, or at least had to figure out that he wasn't, falling into the trap and thrashing around for a few seconds. Then trying to climb out by formulating my own smart reply, failing, coming up only with "In theory, yes," which was lame, and I didn't even send, deciding that was being too gullible. Instead surrendering and mutely waving the white flag of an emoticon: ; )
    I wanted to communicate: I get it. 
    To which he didn't reply at all. Silence is sometime even more eloquent. 
    Anyway, enough of this. Happy Thanksgiving to all. Hope you conversation around the turkey is sharp, well-informed and tempered with love and kindness. Just because you think of a really witty retort doesn't mean it has to be said.  Shutting up, as I like to say, is an under-appreciated art form. 
     The boy, by the way, got home fine. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt. No coat. No shoes, only flip flops. He didn't even pack shoes. A true Californian already. 


  1. Don't know if it qualifies, but I like this short, unanswerable retort from Evelyn Waugh to a solicitious inquiry about his well publicized deafness: "Yes, I can barely understand what my children are trying to tell me. Such a comfort."

  2. I would argue that the mot juste can sometimes be a whole sentence too, but thinking of the retort later is the usual. People who can often come up with these tend to work in places that require lots of talking to lots of people and so have many chances for such retorts. Like the guy at the bar who asks "What's cheap here?" I usually reply "Besides you?" Then say, "Well, what's inexpensive is Schlitz at $2.50" Happy Turkey Day, and I hope Ross had some shoes and a coat at home waiting.

  3. Neil, for such a smart guy how could you say something so spectacularly dumb to your wife?

  4. Dropped my guard, I suppose. An overabundance of trust.

  5. You missed your chance as he descended the elevator. One glance at the feet " Huh. I guess what they say about the difference between IQ and street smarts is right on."

  6. You sure put your foot in it on that Moss comment in front of your wife. ;)

  7. It's safer for a guy to be a bit shy.

  8. Keep your guard up, Neil. Wit is a sharp stick and it looks like you're surrounded.


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