Tact or Tack?

June, 2000

Greetings Wordsmiths!

The Read and Delete Newsletter for (late) June, 2000!

The Great Coordination Test - or can you think and talk at the same time?

       Those who have known me for a short time may have concluded or strongly suspect that I have no tact. This belief is absolutely devoid of truth. The politically correct term for being minus any conversational grace is "socially challenged", as demonstrated by the way John Rocker acts as spokesman for ethnic sensitivity. In my case the truth is somewhat difficult to explain. Let's just say that in certain situations, I seem to have the innate ability to say something "just wrong" enough to make everybody stare at me as if I just fell off the turnip truck. This is true. I am always falling off of turnip trucks. But this phenomenon has nothing whatsoever to do with tact. It's just that I spend too much time with academic engineering types, so I can't think and speak coherently at the same time.

     I tend to be a fast thinker when I think. At least I think I am--- or is it 'I think I can' (the little engine that could... be Descartes) I spend so much time in deep rapid thought that when I 'come up for air' as it
were, I can get lost. I might find myself standing in the middle of a group conversation of which I have been only partially cognizant. Someone who has been bonded into this conversation from its inception will ask me to comment, and I, not realizing that my mind has been going in and out of the "son et lumiere" (French for 'sound and light show') for the last ten minutes, will say something I believe to be poignant and totally apropos-- only to discover that what I just said was absolutely perpendicular to the conversational thread. 
     The term used to describe this phenomenon occurring in most people is a "glitch,"- an occasional momentary synaptic mental lapse, causing temporary confusion and slight embarrassment. But I am not one of "most people". I am not even one of "some people". I possess the Maloney Super-Collider, a
cerebral device capable of firing a stream of thought around the perimeter of the great Cranial Gulch with enough force to dent the inside of my skull.  Unfortunately, the gun is not always well aimed and sporatic thoughts may ricochet off of my intelligence and go out in a most embarrassing direction. 
     It works like this. Let's say that I am in the vicinity of a group discussion going on about 'favorite foods'. As a listener, my borderline bipolar brain goes right to work on the topic, thinking about what I like to eat. My mind is actively jumping from Tortillini Bolognese to New York Strip steaks to Teriyaki Chicken and then ribs and pork. But I don't stop there. I go on to think about pigs (pigs are pork) and pig farming and then the old barn my in-laws used to raise feeder pigs in -- then proceed to ponder about the barn cats that used to live there and how my son James used to play with them. At that strategic moment, somebody in the discussion looks at me and asks the inevitable, "What do you think?" My brain then downloads to my mouth the thought I was processing that very instant, which is: "I like cats." Judging by the strange looks I receive at that moment, I figure that I must have 'missed something'. Later on, when I splice the conversation back together mentally, I realize that not only did my train of thought go thundering past the terminal, but it switched tracks and rammed into an oncoming express. At this point I start looking for the nearest rock to crawl under.

       Then there is the phenomenon that I call 'running aground'. This occurs when I bring a deep thought into a shallow conversation, without thinking about the mindset of the listeners. This is especially dangerous, as related in the following story:
     One day this week, when I was at work at the plant, I was assisting one of our test operators at her workstation. On the corner of her workbench, she had a small gift box containing a bottle of nail polish and matching-color lipstick . When I picked up the box to examine it, the test operator said, "I got it on sale. Most of the other women say that this is brown," as she pointed to the bottle of nail polish, "but I think it's red." 
     As I looked over the bottle, she continued. "What color do you think it is?"
     "It's sort of both", I said innocently, "kind of a Burnt Umber," (Burnt Umber is one of the few colors I remember from my childhood Crayola crayon box, so I notice it at every opportunity). "It looks like," I
continued, "the color of dried blood."
     Instantly a chorus of female voices behind me went, "Eeeooowwww!" The test operator exclaimed, "Thanks a lot!", and the next time I saw the bottle, it was in the trash.
     It really did look like dried blood to me, but in relating that fact, I was totally oblivious to the concept of a negative reaction to my word-picture. In my tunnel vision, I was unconscious to the unconscionable.
It wasn't necessarily an aesthetically warm remark, but I hasten to add that any male in any situation where he is outnumbered six to one by females--- is labeled as "insensitive"-- end of story.
     But that's not all! In the process of cogitating excessively deep thoughts, my mental faculties tend to take extended sojourn in the 'upper brightness'-- to the point where my ruminations are so far removed from the physical plane that I need a passport to return to reality. In this scenario, my consciousness gets locked so deeply into the abstract that there is no room for any mental process related to humanity. Any sudden interruption to the stream of cognition creates an effect similar to one dropping a large boulder upon a medium-sized birthday cake. In a twinkling the cake is changed (permanently, I might add) and now bears no resemblance to its former self.
       Another example: I am hard at work, calculating 10-bit binary data encoding for a computer network, or attempting to troubleshoot an assembly process error, and I am crunching numbers furiously. At this point, if anyone were to walk up to me and ask a simple question like, "Where is the bathroom?", I would most likely look blankly at the asker with an expression on my face akin to a deer staring down an approaching Pontiac, as my thoughts flail about like a fish out of the water. I know where the bathroom
is, I use it all the time. I just can't remember *what* a bathroom is, or how it relates to Boolean Algebra.

and after all of this..........

     Finally, a word about tact. Actor David Niven was attending a fancy dress ball in which all of the ladies in attendance would descend down a long staircase into the ballroom and meet up with their escorts at the bottom. David was standing with the other men as they waited for their ladies to descend.
When two ladies who could most politely be described as "homely" began their decent, David (making a BIG mistake) said to the man standing next to him, "That is undoubtedly the ugliest woman I have ever seen in my life." The man instantly gave David an icy stare stating, "That's my wife." David quickly responded, "No, the other one." The stare got colder. "That's my daughter," the man added. David looked away for a moment, then looked back at the man as if seeing him for the first time. David reacted to the man's glare by saying, "I didn't say anything."

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is tact.

Gotta go......... my vocabulary needs a rest.