The Power of Conversation

quote2First I direct your attention to a recent blog post entitled “It’s so typical of me to talk about myself, I’m sorry.

Full disclosure: this is my daughter’s blog and she works as a children’s librarian in a community just south of Albuquerque. She raises some interesting points and voices some frustration with the current state of social conversation.


Conversation is a lost art…lost long ago…and it is becoming a lost personal skill. Human evolution on the mega time scale and personal development of individuals in a micro scale, from the cradle to the grave, depends on meaningful human interaction. We have to be able to carry on a rational conversation with our doctor when we are sick or having a check-up. That is just one example but we have maybe a dozen events during a typical  day when we have to speak with and listen to another person and communicate in a rational manner.

I recently went to a meet-up — one of those scheduled social get-togethers where strangers introduce themselves and converse over drinks or a meal or maybe engage in a common activity, like photography or dominoes or whatever. There were twenty people there and several were attending for the first time — like me. Some were familiar with each other and they fell into a friendly and joking evening of conversation. I was sitting next to and across from people who were not familiar with the group so we just talked among ourselves. The young guy next to me was a zookeeper at the city zoo. He was a bird man but at other zoos where he worked he had different assignments with different animals. The retired woman across the table recently returned to the US from a thirty year career abroad, mostly in Germany. She was a civilian employee of the military. Our conversation, over about two hours covered travel in Europe and specific countries (Portugal in particular), various foods, zoo operations in different cities, zoo emergencies and emergency preparations.

It turned out that the zookeeper was the guy on call to drop a rogue or escaped animal before it attacked too many visitors. Too many, he said…it seems to be a given that someone is likely to get hurt before the situation is under control. This was, to me, a very peculiar aspect of zoo management…one I had never considered. He said that the chimpanzees might be the most dangerous of animals if they escaped. Most animals would try to run away and not intentionally hurt anyone but the chimpanzees can become very aggressive. They apparently have a plan at the zoo as to what caliber bullet will take down what animal. This was news to me and this fellow was very serious.

The lady across the table was very fond of Portugal but not very complementary regarding Italy. To her way of thinking, the Italians are too ego-centric and can’t see beyond their borders. If something wasn’t Italian it was unworthy. I was surprised at that perception because it didn’t agree with my own experience. On the other hand, she was very impressed with the little towns and villages of Bavaria where she spent several years on assignment. Never having been to Bavaria or Portugal, I was interested in her experiences.

I personally didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation other than to ask questions  and follow along. The zookeeper wasn’t much interested in Europe and the retired woman wasn’t much interested in the zoo or animals escaping. Somehow, I became the glue that held the conversation together by asking questions and giving an account of a few experiences I had in Italy or at the zoo. We had a fairly enjoyable evening.

Another night this week I went to my local brew pub. This is something of a regular Tuesday night event with me and a friend spending a couple hours mostly talking about music or our past careers…we are both retired but had very different jobs. I was a little late this week but when I got there my friend was engaged in a conversation with another patron, I’ll call him Al, who we see from time to time at the brew pub. Al is a force of nature as far as conversation goes. He has the broadest range of interests and is fairly knowledgeable  on all sorts of topics. He is a retired mechanical engineer. He can talk for hours but he has a special skill in drawing others into the conversation. You can’t sit on the sidelines. I knew when I walked in it was going to be a wild ride.

The topic, when I arrived, was the various pros and cons of brewery and brew pub business plans. This morphed  into how the craft brewing industry seemed to be falling into several different categories and how some were “selling out” to big brewing conglomerates while others were intentionally staying small and flying under the radar.

Before we were finished that evening the topics went from the initial subject to the Theory of Relativity, E = mc 2, and string theory; laser technology in several forms; Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines; the future of Chinese economics and consumerism; my home brewing prowess and home brewing in general;  gravity and mag-lev technology; migratory bird perception and sensing of the earth’s magnetic field; variations of time on different planets and in space travel in general; the Doppler Effect and the properties of sound under different atmospheric conditions; and a half dozen other topics I don’t even recall now. Granted that this was a brew pub but we were so engaged in conversation that not a great deal of beer was consumed. This was about a three hour conversation and we were exhausted when Al left but energized at the same time. He has a way of stretching your engagement and keeping your interest. My friend and I have had these types of conversations with Al a few times before and sometimes we try to go off on a parallel or tangent topic and he will go along for a minute or two but then circles back to the course that we were on.  I haven’t had conversations like this since graduate school and only a few back then came close or equaled our discussion that night.

quote1I have had similar long conversations with fellow passengers on Amtrak travelling cross-country although the topics usually were not so wide ranging. Actual face-to-face prolonged conversation is invigorating. There are some topics that can get people enflamed and angry but over these two recent evenings and about five hours of talk we never touched on politics or religion or immigration or anything that normally gets people enraged.  I will go to a popular chat forum about once a day and just look at the topics and some of the comments. People are very willing to stick their thumb in your eye in a verbal sense on these forums. Civility is the first victim in many of these forum conversations because the parties are anonymous and feel they can say anything and not suffer the consequences. In real live conversations that isn’t the case and people measure and filter their words and their topics seem to keep some civility if not cordiality.

Social interaction doesn’t have to be prolonged or deep. Two people talking about the weather at a bus stop could turn out to be the bright spot of your day. I have become somewhat chatty over the last few years and people will usually be happy to talk. I can recall only one occasion in the last year where someone refused to be at least cordial and respond to a simple verbal encounter.

So, your assignment is to go out there and talk to strangers or engage your friends in a substantial conversation. Report back on how it went.


The Self-Discovered Victim

You might recall in “The Charlie Brown Christmas” where Lucy, in her psychiatrist booth, tries to diagnose Charlie Brown’s phobia. It seems to be free advice, she never gets paid for her psychiatric care. She runs through a list of various phobias and Charlie settles on Pantophobia…the fear of everything.

We are getting lots of free advice these days on who or what we should fear.

  • Fear climate change…or worse, fear those who are sounding the alarm about climate change. Bury your head in the sand while you still can!!
  • Fear Muslims or anyone who you think might be a Muslim. Don’t fall for those claims that only a small minority are militants…
  • Fear those illegal immigrants because they want something that is rightfully yours. The Indians should have thought of that and where I live, the Spanish/Mexicans as well but it’s too late for them. See what happens?
  • Fear the legal immigrants…don’t stop with the illegals. They want my job and my house and my town and probably my kids.
  • Fear anyone who is not the same shade of skin color. I don’t need to tell you why…just do it.
  • Fear people with tattoos, skin piercings, shaved heads, bushy hair, and guys with ponytails or braids….especially if they are in a public place or walking down the street or (Heaven forbid!) on a motorcycle.
  • Fear the homeless. There must be a reason why they are homeless… drugs or alcohol, right? Gambling? Disease?
  • Ditto the mentally ill.  Probably payback for something.
  • Fear the terrorists. They are everywhere and just waiting for the right time to attack.
  • Fear the Gays…oops, almost forgot.
  • Fear the Cops…this is a new one, recently added….still working on the reasoning but go ahead and fear them anyway.
  • Fear liberals, progressives, labor unions, commies, and socialists because they are all sympathetic toward all the other categories on this list, with the possible exception of the Cops.

We, of course, should not fear the ones who are telling us this stuff. They always have our best interests in mind. Some of us are surely blind and can’t see the truth in what they are telling us but if it is repeated over and over like a mantra we all will be okay. This is kind of like the old Hare Krishna mantra sung on street corners years ago (OMG! The Hare Krishnas!).  If you remember, we were (supposedly) elevated and made stronger by hearing or repeating the mantra. Fear mongering seems to be the same principle but is operating in reverse.

There are, probably, a few things we should fear but they rarely make the list…poor education, childhood cancer, etc.

All of these popular fears, promoted by various religious or politically motivated interest groups or extreme wingers generate victims. It is very popular to be a victim these days. When “they” moved into the neighborhood we became a victim.  When “they” built a mosque it was a horrible thing to behold. We can’t walk down the street because of the homeless or the counter-culture people are there. Obama did it to me. The government won’t let me do what I want.  Gays are lurking everywhere — you can’t be too careful. We can’t go to movies (or…?) anymore because someone might be a terrorists or a mass killer. It’s the progressives fault.

One encounters the self-discovered victim on various internet forums or on social media.  They are on call-in talk radio and sometimes on TV. They seem to hangout in places where they can find other self-discovered victims and reinforce their victimhood. Of course, victims need protection. This is obvious by their mere status as victims. As usual, the NRA is always available to help. Everyone needs a weapon. Concealed weapons will help a little but open carrying weapons is much better. We also need a strong leader. We need someone who is vocal and can tell it like it is. Someone who isn’t afraid to offend those whiners and sympathizers.  We need someone who can lock up those other people or, better yet, stomp the bejesus out of them.

Then things will get better….you know, like they used to be.


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This All Could Be Gone By The Middle Of Next Week

I’m sitting in a booth in a local coffee shop nursing my bagel and drinking coffee while reggae music seeps out of the sound system. The place was crowded until a few minutes ago when several big groups left, probably going back to work. Somebody had a Reuben sandwich based on the lingering smell of sauerkraut. There’s a fireplace with a fire going — this is a cloudy, mid-December day and it brightens the mood. There’s been a lot of chatter but it is growing quiet. I notice the broken plate glass window high up over a corner table where another small group of architects sit and drink coffee over unrolled building plans.The glass looks unstable and I appreciate architecture enough that I wouldn’t want to see them sliced and diced by falling chunks of glass. I point it out to a passing busboy who looks and says he never noticed it before. ”Maybe people shouldn’t be sitting there” I said. He shrugs and says he will mention it to the manager. I’m glad this isn’t a windy day. He never returned nor did the manager. The mahjong ladies are starting to show up at thier usual table — two tables away from my usual table. We’ve never spoken.

I’ve taken to noticing such things a lot more lately. Partly because I just recently was fitted with hearing aids in both ears. I didn’t know how much I was missing. I knew I had some hearing loss in my left ear…I once worked on the tarmac of a busy airport and it was too loud to be healthy  but also too dangerous to wear ear protection. This was back in the 1970s and my hearing has been adequate for most things – I thought. I noticed a while ago that I can’t hear a whistling teakettle ….probably the teakettle’s fault. My daughter came to visit and said I had an alarm going off in the house —”what alarm?” I asked. It was a smoke detector on the fritz making a high-pitched beep…not the usual blasting horn alarm.  And it’s true that some people say the most outlandish things, don’t you know. But now I realize why I get strange looks when I reply or comment on what I think they said.

So now I’m hearing all sorts of things I haven’t noticed that I couldn’t hear. Bacon frying is deafening…I forgot how it sounds. There are so many creaks and groans in the house that I never heard before. I hear sounds I can’t identify at all. My cat finally got my attention about that empty water dish. Water running, dishes clincking, assorted beeps and signals from various appliaaces are all entering my consciousness again. Conversations make more sense and I’m not smiling and nodding while wondering to myself ”What the hell — did he say what I think he said?” All those BBC dramas might make more sense.  Doctors tell me that eventually my brain will learn to filter out some useless sounds but for a while it is freaking out over sounds I’ve not heard in years or never heard. That makes me so much more aware of things – not just sounds but everything in my environment.

Another thought that comes to mind this time of year is remembering the folks we celebrated holidays with last year who are no longer with us. My next door neighbor died in June after being sick for less than a day. Here today and gone tomorrow. My wife has been gone seven years but she was only sick five days.   My father-in-law went to a local horse track with his best friend but the friend keeled over and died in his arms. There are a few people I worry about and wonder if they will be here next year.  I’m not being morose or melancholy — it is a fact of our existence. Lives are fragile and temporary….and too often not sufficiently appreciated.

This is Christmas season – or Chanukah – or solstice – or whatever. People are out going places and socializing more than usual. There is a special someone on their list. They’re shopping for that perfect gift. They are giving hugs to people that maybe they see only once a year. I’m noticing all of this plus I’m out running around more than usual so I’m in the middle of it. I’m in a higher state of physical awareness than I was.  Things happen quickly. Look around — all that you have and all that you hold dear could be gone by the middle of next week. Maybe next week I’ll say something to the mahjong ladies.


Who Was That Guy?

Have you ever met yourself?  Not like some sort of “know thyself” touchy-feely exercise. I mean really meet someone, a complete stranger, who is essentially you at a younger age. I have and it’s spooky. When it happened I was immediately struck by the parallel life choices and the coincidental events that led the two of us strangers  to be at the same place at the same time. After it was over, even now, I am somewhat amazed and wonder how this happened. I perceive myself as being a little different from most guys based on my interests, life experiences, sense of humor, etc.  What would I say to myself at a younger age?

I was on a solo vacation trip, over 1,000 miles from home, and had spent the day visiting a few places that appeal to me but would not appeal to many other tourists. That’s often the way I travel. I might be considered a little bookish and perhaps overly thorough when I plan a trip. Planning is half the fun but I am also just as likely to strike off on an unplanned tangent way off the beaten path. On this day I had spent several hours driving up a dusty canyon road to visit an old archaeological site that used to be famous but has since been pushed aside by other discoveries. Once I got back to civilization I decided to stop at a microbrewery close to my hotel. I sat at the bar and struck up a casual and sporadic conversation with the bar maid — I brew beer and we talked about different styles and what they were brewing. What they had on tap was pretty good and the place was a beer geek’s paradise. They even had a blackboard where they recorded the brew details, dates and specific gravity….really.

After a while a young guy in his mid 20s took the bar stool next to me and ordered a beer and started reading a book. The book was ‘The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn’ by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is not a book I’ve read but one I’d probably like to read and by an author I have read. I asked him how the book was and we ended up talking at length about authors and various books. We had read the same books in many instances and some others by the same authors. If you have ever met an old friend after many months or years apart and began talking like you had never been separated — this was almost what the experience was like.  It turned out that we had the same interests. He was a government researcher who had moved to this city a while back and was about to get married in the next few months. This is somewhat close to my own experience at the same age. We talked for quite a while and had several beers. We talked about our work careers and job changes and hobbies and the more we talked the more it seemed like I was talking to myself at an age almost 40 years younger than I am now. Pretty soon it was time to go find something to eat so we parted ways and said our goodbyes. I have no idea who this guy was but as I left I really wanted to tell him to hang in there and stick with his plans and that it was all going to work out OK in the end.