Thursday, November 01, 2007

L'esprit de Stutter

I was in high school when I first heard of l'esprit d'escalier - literally, "staircase wit." Some French guy named Diderot came up with the notion, though I think I read about it in a Sandman issue or something. (I'm just glad it wasn't invented by Seinfeld, because I'd never want to use it then.) Anyway, l'esprit d'escalier is the phenomenon of coming up with the perfect retort long after the fact, supposedly when you have exited the conversation and are going back down the stairs towards your pathetic, non-witty life.

I get bouts of the ol' staircase wit all the time. Who doesn't? It's sometimes taken me years to come up with the very thing I should have said.

My wit's reflexes are crap.

Most of the time, when something happens to inspire a post hoc retort, it's something that completely catches me off guard. I don't engage in verbal sparring, so I don't expect it. It often takes me a minute or two to even register if I'm annoyed or offended by something said to me.

Like this evening, at the gym. An older woman I've seen a few times came up to me and said, conversationally, "Have you lost any weight yet?"

"Mm. Yeah," I mumbled.
"How much?"
What the hell? "Um. Dunno." (This is a lie.)
"'Cause I haven't lost any weight yet!"
"Well, just keep going," I said in a half-hearted attempt at encouragement.

The appropriate response, of course, would have been "THAT is a PERSONAL question!" You'd think I would have figured that out right away. I was certainly thrown by the question, and on some level I did recognize that it was out of line, since I didn't give her the details of my weight loss. But I wish I could have said "hey, that's not right" while still on the Stairmaster, not outside in the stairway.

I don't think she was trying to be offensive. I attributed her question to a misguided but friendly, Jean Teasdale-esque hybrid of curiosity and small talk: "Gee, I've been lifting these three-pound weights twice a week for two weeks and nothing's happened!" But it did make me feel a little bad about myself. After the fact, I thought, Oh my God, I look like someone who works out just to lose weight! I mean, yes, I work out to lose weight, but also to gain muscle strength and energy, and because I've gotten to the point where I kind of like running a mile after a long, hard day of sitting on my butt. And, now that I think about it, I work out so that I won't look like the kind of person who works out just to lose weight.

In situations like this, though, I think our too-slow wits help us rather than hinder us. There are thousands of things I could have said to her, things along the lines of how maybe she'd lose some weight if her workout routine involved any actual physical challenge, or how she has no idea of what exercise I do or how long I've been doing it or how healthy I am and therefore she has no right to judge me or make assumptions. I could have taken the opposite tack and talked her ear off about all of the things over the past six months to get me where I am now. I could have just huffed about how it was a personal question. I did none of those things. I just grunted a noncommittal answer and we were both on our separate ways, she on the treadmill, I on the elliptical. She's probably forgotten about it by now. If I weren't writing about it right now, I would have too. I don't want to punish her or hurt her or teach her a lesson.

I'm fine with just letting it go.

If you ever do think of a great comeback after the fact, all is not lost - there's a blog devoted to such anecdotes.

Meanwhile, I'll check out Diderot's Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown. That's something I can relate to.

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