Wednesday, January 26, 2011

inconsequential details

As many of you may know, I recently got back from a month-long vacation in India. That's a long vacation, especially in such an overwhelming country as India. And yet, when people ask to hear my stories about India, I never really have any. After all, saying, "I rode an elephant" isn't particularly exciting, even though it was a very fun experience.

I've been thinking about this a fair amount recently, since I finally caved in to popular demand and invited several friends to come over on Sunday for dinner and a vacation report. Thinking about which pictures to show and what to say about them has make me reflect on the vacation reports I used to endure as a child. It's not that I minded hearing about other countries or seeing pictures of other places. In fact, I quite enjoyed my dad's pictures and stories of Italy.

It was my grandparents' (bless their hearts) vacation reports that were so painful. Their pictures were fine, but you'd have to sit looking at the same picture for five minutes while they argued about inconsequential details that no one except them cared about.

"So, this is a picture of a large tree we saw in SomeRandomVillage."

"No, dear. I believe you're mistaken. That's actually a tree we saw in SomeOtherPlace."

"No, that's not correct. SomeOtherPlace is where we visited that nice church, and we didn't see the tree there. We saw the tree at SomeRandomVillage, where we also were shown that one well."

"No, dear. The well was at YetAnotherPlace, the church was at SomeRandomVillage, and the tree was at SomeOtherPlace."

"I'm sure you're mistaken. YetAnotherPlace is where we met that one guy who told us that one story. The church was definitely at SomeOtherPlace. We visited there on August 15, and that's when we saw the church."

"No, dear. We were in YetAnotherPlace on August 15. We visited SomeOtherPlace on the 14th. You should remember that. It was right after we celebrated the village festival at SomeRandomVillage on the 13th."

By this point, I would no longer be paying attention. I'd be vowing yet again that I would never get argue about inconsequential details, at least in front of other people who didn't care about them.

I made this promise to myself several times in my childhood, and I feel I've done a fairly good job of keeping it. (My family can feel free to disagree with this statement, if they want.)

The trick, of course, is deciding which details are really inconsequential. For instance, sometimes I decide that my name isn't all that important, so I won't bother correcting the people who call me Christie or Sarah instead of Cindy. But this has sometimes resulted in confusion when these people have turned around and introduced me as Christie to people who already know my real name.

Or, there was always the time that some girl called my apartment and said something that made me think she was one of my roommates' friends. As our conversation continued, I began to have my doubts, but I didn't realize for sure that she wasn't who I thought she was (and I wasn't who she thought I was) until a few minutes into the conversation. She had apparently dialed the wrong number, although her imbecilic identification of herself only as "me" at the beginning of her conversation had not given me enough information to figure this out from the onset. It seemed, though, that it would probably be easier to just go along with it than to correct her misapprehension at this advanced stage in our conversation. So, I just gave what seemed like reasonable but short responses to everything she said, hoping that she'd hang up the phone soon and I could get back to my studying.

It soon became clear, however, that the minor detail of misidentification might not be so inconsequential after all. She began asking about some planned "grocery store scheme" that she herself described as "sketchy," and she wanted to know whether I was having second thoughts about doing it. I was beginning to feel rather more uncomfortable with my inadvertent deception, but it seemed that telling her she had the wrong number at this point might introduce more problems than it would solve. Not wanting to condone any sketchy behavior, I simply told her that I'd decided that we'd better not do it -- I thought it would be best to avoid anything bordering on sketchiness. (Perhaps a rather ironic statement considering my situation at the moment.) Fortunately, the conversation ended soon after this, although the awkward feeling lingered a little longer.

So, perhaps the goal to avoid correcting people's errors can be taken to an extreme. And sometimes those details really do turn out to be important.

I've also realized that details can turn a dreary story into an interesting one. I think I finally told the elephant story right on Monday. Not that there is much of a story to it, but almost anything is an improvement over "I rode an elephant and it was fun."

On Monday, I realized that my audience was interested, so I described the scene for them -- the lush jungle, the quiet elephants, the mahouts in their brightly colored shirts and dhotis walking alongside and taking pictures with tourists' cameras in exchange for modest tips, and, in particular, our mahout,who walked along beside us reading his newspaper and drinking his cup of tea, while occasionally yelling out commands or singing softly to the elephant.

Rather than being inconsequential, those details really convey the essence of the story. But if my sisters want to correct me about any of the details, I won't disagree (even if I think they're wrong).