Rice and Rationality
by Lesley Reece
Norbert, this weird little guy at work, was driving me crazy. I was in the break room one boring afternoon, buying a package of fat-free caramel-corn flavored rice cakes out of the vending machine. They aren't my favorite snack, but I was hungry and they looked more nutritious than the fritos and gummie bears. I had just sat down to eat them when Norbert suddenly appeared behind me.
"Those aren't very good for you," he said, shaking his little grey head.
"Yeah, I know," I said, stuffing one into my mouth.
"Well," he said, "They look like they're healthy, but they aren't."
"Yeah, I know," I said, trying not to spit rice fluff on him.
"The worst thing is what they do with them," he said, pouring some overheated Yuban into a dirty white plastic mug. "They sell them to third-world countries, you know."
I didn't know that. I didn't believe it, either, but I knew he'd go away faster if I agreed. I tried to say "Yeah, I know," but my mouth was full and "Mmmbf" came out.
Norbert helped himself to five or six sugar packets and shook them by the corners. Crinkle crinkle crinkle. "Then when the poor people get ahold of the rice cakes and eat them, there's this stuff in them that expands in your stomach and robs you of all the vital nutrients." He kept shaking his packets.
"Uh huh," I said, wondering if he intended to add the sugar to his coffee anytime soon. Crinkle crinkle crinkle.
"Then the poor people starve" -- at last, he opened all the packets with a little whispery rip -- "And it's all our fault. We could stop this." He turned, looking for a plastic spoon to stir his coffee with. I jumped up, almost knocking over a nearby chair, and hurried out of the room without saying anything else. My break was over anyway, and I didn't want to stick around for more.
The rice-cake scandal turned out to be one of many theories. Over the next couple of weeks, I watched Norbert as he collared other coworkers and lectured them nonstop. He didn't seem to have to breathe between sentences. His favorite subject was, naturally, Them. They had talked the health care industry into making everyone sick, They had invented a supervitamin but were keeping it a secret, They knew all about extraterrestrial intelligence, They had captive aliens working for Them. Behind his back, we called him Flying Saucer Man.
Avoiding Norbert wasn't easy. He lurked in the break room and hallways, in the elevator and around the lobby, waiting for victims. Twice I had to run for the ladies room when I saw him coming at me, smiling, grotty coffee cup in hand. The whole thing was starting to piss me off. Luckily, I was pretty good at staying away from the office weirdo. I'd had experience. They love me.
I don't know if it's something about my face that makes me seem like I'd be a good listener. Maybe it's that I'm not incredibly talkative, especially with strangers, but the Norberts of the world always find me, wherever I work. It's not just the office, either. Since I don't drive, I'm exposed to a lot of crazies in bus situations. They usually look normal enough, and they try to hook you into a discussion by asking you what time it is or if you have change for a dollar. The minute you respond, you're lost; they take it as a sign that you want to talk to them and start off on a tirade. Aliens and health care conspiracies have been popular for the last couple of years, but before that I remember the Russians coming up a lot, as well as various theories about plots to kill all poor people.
Supermarket checkout lines are bad, too, because the tabloids are right there, providing subject matter. Even college campuses have their share of ranters. Last year, in the registration line for the community college I was attending, I stood next to a guy in a blue velvet leisure suit who treated me to a long recitation of his problems with the Veteran's Administration. "They think I'm crazy," he kept saying. Every so often he'd step out of the line and do a couple of James Brown moves, his badly-fitting pompadour wig bouncing along in time with the music in his head. I made sure to find out what he was taking so I could sign up for something else. Fortunately, it was his lifelong dream to become an optometrist.
The only way to keep the Norberts at bay is to wear sunglasses and a walkman at all times, while having a couple of foreign accents ready so potential assailants will believe you don't speak English. I have tried this, and it works. The problem is, though, that you miss the interesting stuff. Once on the bus, a really good-looking man in a spangly pink evening gown turned to me and said, "I don't know how women wear pantyhose every day. These things are killing me! How do you manage?"
"I stopped wearing them," I said. It turned out s/he hadn't been doing drag performances very long and was still getting used to the "beauty" process. We ended up talking about makeup as theatre, and how so much of the male-defined feminine ideal depends on sacrificing physical comfort through these strange cosmetic rituals. I got off the bus with all kinds of new ideas about women and beauty, whereas if I'd just worn my walkman I would have been worrying about my homework or wondering what to eat for dinner.
The case for sane, rational conversation is that it greases the skids of communication. When everyone knows what everyone else means, transactions are conducted much more quickly. If you ask a store clerk how much something costs, getting a lecture about aliens in return is anomalous. You don't need it. It slows you down. But if all conversations are restricted to "rational" subject matter, life gets boring. There's nothing to laugh at, nothing to start your creative processes, nothing to make you feel sane in comparison.
That's why I've decided to listen to old Norbert once in a while. So what if his ideas are badly thought out, at least he has a few. At any rate, aliens are certainly more interesting than my other coworkers' personal problems. As for the rest of the Norberts, I'm going to keep my ears open. I'll probably kick myself a lot, but at least I won't miss anything . . . .
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