So, the holidays are kicking our asses, as usual. Christmas shopping has reached a new level of consumerism this year in our household, as Chris and I are doing pretty well for ourselves these days. Sarah is going to be spoiled right to death, this year, more so even than prior years (during which she was pretty darn spoiled), but she won't know it. "Spoiled" brings to mind visions of screaming, greedy, misbehaving children placated only by material sacrifice, and Sarah is no such thing. She's well provided for, more than well, actually, but she's grateful for each and every thing she's got. She is equally excited by an expensive electronic doll, a new computer, or a 25 cent rubber bounce ball from the supermarket vending machine. It's all good. She's the quintessential good kid, parental bias aside.

We've a few more people on our list, and with it being the 20th, we're frantic. Holiday shopping and holiday stress intermingle and intertwine with the regular routine, which combines with the we-just-bought-a-new-house-and-oh-my-God-it-needs-work phenomenon we're now experiencing, and the pace of life is a blur. It's the same for everyone. Regardless of the actual burden (not everyone has a new house or some other major life change to deal with in concert with the holidays), people are stressed. They're not at their baseline, ordinary background level of urgency, but at a newly (if temporarily) elevated level that seems much worse than last year, even if it isn't. Everyone's a mental case.

And, in that environment, even the base, insincere pleasantries normally exchanged by strangers begin to fall by the wayside. Not all the time, of course. There are wishes of "Merry Christmas" and the suddenly more acceptable "Happy Holidays" sprinkled in with the drivers cutting you off in the parking lot. There are the occasional few who wave you ahead in line with your one Betsy Wetsy doll even though they're in just as much of a hurry as you mingling with the haggard looking soccer mom who rips the last Amazing Amanda from your fatigued fingers, feral animal snarl contorting her botoxed features. People are not, generally, on their best behavior.

And so it was in that whirlwind of indifference, thinly veiled rudeness, and outright survivalist behavior that we found ourselves at the grocery store yesterday for the closest thing to a normal routine errand we've had all week. I'm just trying to set the context here (only took me three paragraphs, eh?). Now, in the supermarket, people aren't (generally) shopping for gifts to prove their lifelong, undying love to their children and significant others, so they're at least civil. We're back to the background, baseline levels of civility. The sort of civility that makes people say "Excuse me" or "Thanks" but never "Good Afternoon!" or "Hello!". I recognize that this particular level of indifference is not universal, but neither is it unique. We're in southern New England here.

We had come for a box or two of frozen vegetables (which of course means that we ended up spending about $75 on 'really good deals'), and after forty-five minutes or so of leisurely filling a grocery cart, we ended up in line behind a shorter gentleman in plaids, overalls, and a bright orange helmet. Curly brown hair poked out all around it. I can't recall whether or not the chin strap was fastened, so you'll have to fill that bit in yourself.

I started piling my order up on the belt behind his, and, slightly annoyed that he hadn't put the divider down after his last can of beans, I reached across him with a tacit "excuse me" to do it myself.

"Oh hey I'm sorry, I should have reached that for you," he said.

"It's no problem, don't worry about it."

A long pause here. The woman ahead of helmet guy finally finishes writing her check (honestly, who still pays with a check at the grocery store??!) and the cashier greets him.

"Hey, I like your hair!" he says to her.

"Thanks," is her timid answer. The guy is, from his facial expression and tone, not quite all there. I'm beginning to think I understand why he's wearing the helmet.

"It's very unique," he says. Her hair is pale pale PALE bleached blonde. She's wearing foundation so light that her skin is practically white, and black eyeshadow extends beyond her eyelids until the entire hollow of each eye is almost completely darkened. There's a bit of mistletoe clipped to a barette on her head.

"Thanks, my boss says it looks like a tree," she answers, smiling politely.

Another long pause here. Helmet guy turns to me. Oh boy, I'm thinking, here we go.

"So how's your holiday going?" he asks.

"All right. Very busy," I smile, offering a standard platitude from my vast library of non-commital utterances.

"Tell me about it," he says. "My niece and nephew are gonna make out this year. They're the babies of the family."

"Yeah, my daughter is an only child. She's got no idea how spoiled she is."

"Yeah, the kids always get spoiled."

"But that's how it's supposed to be."

"Absolutely!" He turns to the bagger. "Hey thanks. Merrry Christmas."

The bagger, a 90-year-old looking dude with liver spots all over his loose wrinkled face grins wide. "Merry Christmas to you, sir."

Helmet guy turns back to me. "So I've been doing tree work all day. I can't wait to get home." Aha! The helmet explained. We had an ice storm a few days back, and we just had a tree removed from our street this morning because it had fallen across the road a bit. I feel bad for thinking that the helmet was for his soft head, but in my defense, it was a perfectly reasonable conclusion given his behavior and demeanor. As a matter of fact, maybe he DOES wear it all the time.

So our conversation continues for a bit, and his bags are all packed and he gets his receipt, and he's ready to leave the store as the cashier takes my shopper loyalty card. He turns back to me as he starts the carriage rolling.

"Hey, Merry Christmas. Thanks for talking with me!"

I wished him a Merry Christmas in return, but was struck with how odd it seemed for him to thank me for merely having a mostly superficial conversation with him. I wonder if most people just try to ignore him. He seems the sort of guy who tries to strike up a conversation on the bus and gets shot down, you know? I feel sort of bad for him. Then I feel sort of bad for myself. My first reaction to the guy was Oh boy, here we go... And why? Because he wanted to strike up an ordinary, friendly conversation with me for no other reason than that we were standing together in line?

Do you have to be brain damaged or developmentally challenged in order to not realize what the rest of us realize, that we're only embarrassing ourselves when we try to breed familiarity with those we share our world with? How freaking sad is it that it's an exception and not the rule when strangers strike up a conversation on the spot and talk for just a little while? Why do we need an ice-breaker? We're all human beings. We're all stuck in the same, human, condition.

I guess you've got to be brain damaged to not worry about stigmatizing yourself by being a decent human being. How embarrassing it is to be friendly and companionable with someone you don't know. What shameful behavior that is.

Good grief.

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