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L’Esprit de l’Escalier

That’s what you call it in French–the spirit of the staircase–that the verve, the wit, the perfect words, will save up their zest to spring on you as you turn to descend the stairs, stepping down, walking away, giving up.

This is, in short, one of the guiding ironies of my life. I am the queen of the socially awkward. I envy my cousin, who, in those childhood Thanksgiving and Christmas kiddie tables, could reel off joke after joke, perfect delivery, perfect timing (which we all know in comedy is absolutely essential). I sit silently among my friends, while they bandy smart references and witty remarks. I can keep up. I can appreciate. I just can’t do it myself.

I have a slower wit, I think, the same way I can read French, even watch French programs on TV…but can’t produce. I’m a consumer, in a sense, taking in the words, the jokes. And that’s important, let’s not lie. A joke without a laughing audience is a wasted thing, a bridge that only makes half the span. Words want to be heard, to be taken into the heart, the brain. And I can do that. I’m needed, to listen, to laugh, to get the joke, to understand the reference.

But I can’t produce, even after the event. I have no quick burst of OH DAMN I SHOULD HAVE SAID. Instead I worry, and fret, over what I did say, how I could have said it better or maybe not spoiled the moment by speaking at all. When I speak, at work, I sit and pick over my words, like a trash picker trying to find some prize among junk, thinking of a hundred things I did wrong–bad turn of phrase, a metaphor muddled, repeating things too much or not at all, going on a tangent that violated the maxim of relevance (the worst part of knowing linguistics is how it highlights one’s own flaws). I feel like I can only spot wrong, never come up with anything better, bright, shiny or perfect.

I don’t think the perfect words ever come to me, so I content myself (or try to) that listening, laughing, being the appreciative, in-awe audience, is good enough.

Drawing a Blank

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