“I’m here.” That’s one of the many answers I give when someone asks me, “How are you?”
Sometimes I’ll say, “I’m here,” or “I showed up,” or sometimes, “Yes I am.” Sometimes I will say, “fine,” “well,” or even “good.” From time to time I’ve been known to answer, “I’m so damn good I don’t know what to do with myself,” or “If I was any better, they’d arrest me.”
Most times I just want credit for showing up.
You’ve heard the quote, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Most often it’s attributed to Woody Allen, but it’s similar to a remark made by Thomas Edison when he said, “90 percent of business is perspiration”. Based on my limited research a variant uses the word “success” instead of “life”. Possibly a William Safire contributed to some of this. Other sources suggest that the percentage might be as low as 50 or as high as 90.
For the record, I don’t like Woody Allen movies, but I do like lightbulbs which Edison has something to do with (possibly he stole the whole thing from an underpaid assistant).
But I digress. Well, most of my writing and indeed most of my basic research is a digression.
Still, showing up counts for something. I showed up to write this post – don’t get your hopes too high.
So the question, “How are you?” is really not what you’re being asked. If you really study why people ask the question, the conclusion you come to is that the person asking is really saying, “I don’t know what to say, but wanted to have a conversation, so I’ll just say this mindless phrase instead of something well thought out.”
The expected answer is “Fine,” or “Great,” and starting a completely unrelated conversation that will relieve the questioner of the embarrassment of not knowing what to say in the first place.
Back when I was having radiation treatments for cancer, people would ask me, “How are you?” and really expected an answer that included detailed medical information and treatment status. I found that to be a burden and didn’t want to tell people, “You know, I am sick and tired of living just for my treatments. There is more to me than having a radiation beam pointed at me everyday. Give me some peace and don’t ask.”
I’m far too polite to do that so I rely on humor instead. “I’m here,” confused people and in time becomes a code phrase for, “Don’t want to talk about it.” In the last few years the code has changed more to, “You need to find a better way to start a conversation.”
One time a close friend of mine replied to my, “I’m here,” with, “Glad you’re not dead.” Which was kind of him.
This whole post was started by me thinking about the sense of place in writing and even in our lives. I was thinking about how where we are and where we’ve lived influences who we are. I was thinking about how writers create a place for their stories and how that knowledge of the place works to create meaning in the story. Read John Steinbeck and you know you’re in California’s Salinas Valley, Eudora Welty puts you in the American South. Pickup A.A. Milne and you’re with Winnie the Pooh and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.
It’s something that is unclear for me. I tried to write about it before, but the words didn’t hit the page right so I decided to start again. I was also reminded of semiotics. Unless you’ve studied language, likely you’ve not encountered semiotics. It’s the study of signs and symbols and how we find meaning in them.
If I write the symbols, “DOG” an image is formed in your mind and if I have the same image, we’ve communicated – shared a meaning, understand the same thing. “DOG” means the four legged pet. It got that meaning because we all agreed it meant that and we can now use that to exchange information, ideas, meanings …
The phrase “How are you?” is a code or in semiotic terms you could call it a signifier that means something to people in our culture using our language. The code is also an expectation that the response is a variation of, “fine,” followed by conversation.
So this week I started out thinking about the sense of place and what that means. Which reminded me of the study of semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism and reminded me of the many implied meanings in the words, symbols, and icons of our world.
It also reminded me how sometimes we just miss the real meaning so, ask me how I am and I’ll remind you that I am right in front of you.