Monday, November 01, 2004

The Art of Not Doing

I am in a contemplative mood. I am musing about life in New York.

I think that I have discovered a new art. But perhaps it is not entirely new. And I realise on reflection that I've come across it before. I wrack my mind. When and where was it?
I remember. Several decades ago. A small village in Java. At a time long before Westerners were the enemy. The locals tried so hard to please. So much so that it seemed to our Western minds that they were lying.

You'd enter a shop and ask, "Do you sell rice?" "Yes!" you'd be assured. Only to be answered when you attempted to actually buy some, "Sorry Missus but we have no rice."

You'd walk away bemused. What the hell was going on.
What was going on was two realities, both equally valid. The shopkeeper, eager to please would agree to anything. If you'd asked did he sell Porches no doubt his answer would still be yes. Anything to please. "Yes" is good; "No" is bad.
The locals understood. Just because he said "yes" didn't mean "yes". You were not meant to embarrass him by actually following through. What he really meant was, "I wish I had rice to help you, but I do not, even though I do so wish it."
Westerners would rant and rave and go red in the face, feeling they were being tricked or ridiculed. The shopkeeper would be shamed.

Not a good thing.

But those days of freedom and travel, of a safe Asia and a happier world are far away. Memories are obliterated by the hard reality of life. There is only one reality now, and that is of hard work and the daily grind. Or is it?

It seems to me that dual realities are alive and well and embedded in New York.
In New York people work hard, and play not at all. But just because they can't play, does not mean that they would not like to.

So they have two realities. The one that they live through daily. This is Reality #1. Reality #2 - the "other one" - is an easy life of social engagements, friendships and the warmth of human interaction. And it exists. Really!

It doesn't exist on the subway, the work-place, on the streets or in apartments. But like the Javanese storekeepers rice, it is nevertheless a fact.

Deep in the cerebral cortexes of the New Yorker's brain lives this other happy and social life.
At times however there is a disconnect and the happy life that bases itself in New Yorkers' brain cells, Reality #2, appears to be part of Reality #1. "I'm having a fiftieth birthday!" a friend told me. "I'm holding it in a restaurant and there'll be a band. I'm inviting fifty people. PLEASE come. Yes bring Jo and it starts at 9:00 Friday 23rd. You MUST come."

When I was new to New York I'd enthuse, and hurry away to write the details in my diary. I'd wait for the day, excited to be going to the party. The days would pass. The party would never be mentioned again. I'd assume I was no longer invited. The 23rd would come and go.
But of course it was never held. It was never meant to be held. Like the Javanese vendor's rice, it existed in Reality #2.

"You MUST come to our family Christmas dinner," a new acquaintance told me when I was fresh to the city." Are you sure?" I asked. She insisted.
That was in November. I waited for details. None came. I started to worry. Was I meant to just turn up? Perhaps she'd changed her mind. But why didn't she say?

Eventually I fronted her. "What can I bring on Christmas Day?" I asked. She looked puzzled - "What?"

I explained. Like the rice vendor she looked embarrassed. She didn't know what to say. She was struck dumb.

I sensed I'd made a cultural faux pas. I changed the subject. All was well. Reality #1 reigned supreme and all was well with the world.
Another evening after work, several years later. "Please come to dinner at my place," a colleague insisted. My mom will cook. Southern food. You'll love it."
"Yeah, yeah", I though. Reality #2. But a few days later she questioned me, "You haven't forgotten? Saturday night. OK?" "Sure!" I replied. My god, this was for real! Lucky she reminded me.

So on the Friday before the big day I phoned her to get her address. "Why do you need it?" she asked, obviously completely stumped. "For tomorrow." "What?" "Dinner...", my voice trailed off. "So were you really going to come. It is too late now. You should have said!" She was clearly annoyed. Another social faux pas.

Sometimes the Art-of-Not-Doing progresses right to the knocker. Talk about skating on thin ice. Arrangements will be made. Subway maps consulted. The pretence - or should I say, Reality #2 - goes on right up till almost the appointed start time.
Then the event will be 'cancelled'!

Oh but we had such fun. The anticipation, the plans. It was all worth it. And what a grand occasion. We really MUST do it again! Perhaps we'll do it next month. Better still, why not make it a monthly event?

Think about it. It makes perfect sense to me now. Just because you don't have time to do anything ... Just because you are too bloody exhausted in the weekends and at night after work, doesn't mean that you can't PRETEND that you have a social calendar. Well, "pretend" is the wrong word. The events are are happening. Social events are organized, planned to suite everyone concerned's social diary. Venues are carefully selected. It's all there but the actual event itself.

And who cares about that anyway.

Now I am a New Yorker. Without Reality #2 I'd been socially deprived. After all, one needs the occasional dinner party, the occasional drink with friends after work, the trip to the country on a Saturday. Just because I don't have the money or the time doesn't mean I should be deprived of life's essentials.
"Yes we must meet for drinks next Friday," I tell my friend Barbara as we talk on cell phones while we travel to our respective workplaces. Barb, being a true New Yorker agrees. "YES! she says. Let's do it".

We go into detail. What time is convenient to us both? Where will it be busy but not noisy? We will both have to re-organise our schedules.

An observer from another country could not be blamed for thinking that we are planning a major life-event. An expedition to Antarctica perhaps. But no, it is a simple half hour social appointment to a bar mid-way between our two apartments. After all, we are BUSY PEOPLE.
There was a time that I'd call Barbara the day before to confirm. Or even a time when I'd turn up at the appointed hour.

Not so now. Like Barb, as soon as I've closed the flap on my cell phone, the rendezvous is forgotten. Maybe I'll think of it when my mind wanders as I'm on hold to AT&T's customer service center in India. Nice to think I have a social diary. Nice to catch up with Barb!
But there ends the experience. And after all, why not. We had our fun. We didn't really need to actually meet.

So nowadays I forget it. We planned it. We enjoyed it. It's over.
In my rare spare nanoseconds my mind wanders. I remember being cross with the non-rice vendor. Thinking he was a loon or a liar. Now I understand. He couldn't afford the rice. We can't afford the time. That doesn't mean that we don't want it; that we can't pretend, that it isn't a reality.

I feel like traveling to Java to find him. To apologise and to explain that I now understand. In fact I think I'll do it! Why not? It should be a good break.
And perhaps YOU would like to come too? Make it next January. We can book on Singapore airlines. I've heard they're quite good. I've got the frequent flyer miles. And it's years since I've been to Indonesia. We can stay in a nice hotel and read books on the beach. It'll be so much fun! You WILL come, won't you?

Promise me you won't forget ....


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