That French expression—l’esprit d’escalier—has been knocking around my head lately. Maybe this is one reason to write—to say the thing you’re not quick enough to utter in the moment. I know I feel a day late and a dollar short most times I open my yap.
I looked up the English equivalent and wit of the staircase popped up. Clunky, imprecise; staircase wit is a little more elegant, but still not quite right. The Russian one’s not bad: задний ум which roughly translates to back wit or maybe wit in retrospect. My birth country and its people are horrible in many ways the world is being reminded of now, but no one can argue about their way with words.
I’ve never been that quick with words. Zingers and witticisms don’t naturally jump out of my mouth. I resume conversations in my head that ended hours, sometimes days or years ago, all the time. Even then, in the imaginary continuation, I rarely form the sharpest phrase or the subtlest insight.
I marvel at natural talkers like comedians. Their minds and mouths are synced in such a way that what they say comes out seamlessly, without effort. That’s probably not so, but it looks that way from the seats. The times I’ve spent onstage have mostly passed awkwardly. It’s gotten easier with reps, but it’s rarely a thing I look forward to or believe myself to have any aptitude for.
My stage is made of paper and canvas rather than boards.
It’s rarely revenge or payback that my staircase witticisms consist of. But I find myself wishing I could’ve said what I felt in the moment. It’s like there’s a time-delay in my brain. A lag needed to process what people have said until it makes sense and I can formulate a response. Nobody should have to sit there quietly while the creaky gears in my head do their thing, so what they get is something flippant or smartass, more often than not. I have to stop doing that and tell them to wait for a proper response next week or next month. But would anyone actually be okay with that?
On the staircase, back at home, in other cities and times, the conversation can go and go and go for as long as it needs or wants to. But in the room there’s a time limit. When dinner or drinks are over, the talk is supposed to end as well. But it doesn’t. I wonder what percentage of people never consider what they’ve said or would like to reedit or amend their half of the conversation?
I feel so ill-equipped and unskilled while talking. Yet, now I spend hours recording conversations, then, literally replaying them over and over. Granted, this is mostly to edit sound quality, but I can’t help catching this or that fragment of my parts off these files and wanting to go back and redo it better. The only time that wish comes true is when my technical ineptitude forces me to ask a guest to rerecord our talk. That’s not a thing I can do too often for logistical and ethical reasons.
Everyone’s time is in short supply. Comes the moment when we must get off the stairs and move on.
—I wrote about Heather McAdams’ art show , discussed Heavenly Creatures with Mallory, and talked to Emmett Kelly. Keep an ear out for my talk with film writer Kat Sachs this Wednesday. Listen to other talks hu u no here.
—Listen to my pal Gil’s talk with the painter Celia Paul about her book of letters to Gwen John. So strange how things align, because my new thing is also made of letters, though not to a famous dead artist.
—I contributed a drawing to a forthcoming anthology of Chicago poetry. Pre-order your very own copy right now!