Sunday, January 13, 2013

“No one likes a smart ass.”

Last Friday I woke up at my usual early morning hour when I do my thinking and a memory from over 40 years ago jumped into the forefront of my waking consciousness. In 1972 my brother, some friends and I went to the University of Utah for a showing of some award-winning experimental short films. I don’t remember much about the program except one truly awful film, a home movie of some young children playing on the floor of a bedroom. There were visual effects done to the film, warping and distorting the image. It was a loop which repeated over and over again. It went on for a long time. I think 20 minutes, but it may have just seemed that long. Accompanying the film was a soundtrack that I remember sounded like WAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH, a low, slow tone that might have come from an early synthesizer. When the film was over there was a silence of several seconds, broken by me exclaiming out loud. “THANK GOD IT’S OVER.” There was a small amount of tittering, and then the audience gave some light applause, not for my remark, but because it was polite to applaud each film.

Here is what I thought about in those small hours of morning a few days ago. What if the person who made that film had been in the audience? I went cold with the thought. Perhaps he’d brought his family to witness his triumph, since his film was an award winner (what he won for I’m not sure), and then, at the end of the film as he was set to bask in the adulation of the crowd some bass voice, my voice, spoke up from the back: “THANK GOD IT’S OVER.”

I made a note in my insomnia notebook: “short films, 1972, U of U, thank god it’s over, what if filmmaker heard me.” Usually I can write my note and then roll over and go back to sleep, but that time no sleep came. I was upset with myself over a distant memory of an event I hadn’t even remembered until waking up with it on my mind. Where had that memory been all those years? My brain jumped to the commercial on television for a shingles vaccine. Shingles, the ad says, comes from chicken pox. If you had chicken pox as a child decades later the virus can come out of hiding and attack your body in the form of a painful rash. That was the story of this memory; it had suddenly attacked me without warning, giving me not physical pain, but psychic pain.

Nowadays remarks like I made would be called “snarky,” which is a catchy word for sarcasm. I had grown up using sarcasm; it was a defense mechanism. I couldn’t throw a punch, but I could sting with a remark. I made cutting remarks like that in school, in the Army, and on my job. If they handed out plaques for putting someone down I’d have a room full of them. Such comments usually got me in trouble. In that early morning rumination I suddenly felt bad, but comforted myself slightly by reminding myself I have gotten less acerbic as I’ve aged. I haven’t resorted to such tactics for a long time. Well, not in person, anyway. Writing about politics brings it out in me, but late night TV hosts and people like Jon Stewart make a living with snarky remarks. It’s expected. But it doesn’t mean it’s always fit and proper, especially in everyday situations.

I remembered what my dad used to say to me when I was in one of my sarcastic moods. “No one likes a smart ass,” he’d say. It’s true, because in that moment, sitting up in bed writing, I didn’t like a smart ass either, and that smart ass was me.

No comments: