Friday, July 24, 2009

Scintillating Conversation

I worked the graveyard shift at the hospital when the boys were small. I doubt the second son remembers it, the first son only vaguely. Everyone comments what an odd bunch of people gravitate to the overnight shift, but I loved it. A coworker from another floor would drop in to chat on his "lunch" hour, and I mentioned how fascinating the conversations were among the night people. He looked at me a long time. "No," he corrected, "only where you are." I still hardly believe it, yet I know it is true. Conversation is of enormous importance to me, and I have long since learned to pull your most fascinating side out of you, if you are at all cooperative. Many of the Wymans have this knack. Our boys were trained to it, and even the Romanians got better at it than they ever intended. As boys wolfed down dinners and tried to escape to some non-parental area we would protest "No, stay and make scintillating conversation" in the semi-ironic way that we used to stretch vocabulary and wit.

That was the prologue to the prologue. Hold that thought.

It’s hardly original to note that there have been drastic social changes over the last century. Nor is there a shortage of commentary about the social changes of the last decade. The former is about marriage and divorce, number of children, social and phsyical mobility, and civil rights. The latter discussion revolves around communication and social networking. I don’t think I’ve seen much that puts the two together to describe the very different social world we live in compared to our ancestors. Certainly, there were great upheavals leading up to the 20th C – migrations to the New World, trade and the emergence of a middle class, the progressive fragmentation of the Christian church, nationalism and common liberty – yet in very real ways, day to day life was similar in 1909 to 1809. 1809 was similar to 1709, or 1609.

The two partial exceptions to this were the lives of African-Americans and Native Americans. Yet even here the changes can be summarised quickly, and were not all encompassing. Abolition created freedom of movement, which allowed escape from physical abuse and forced separation of families. But this free movement resulted in families fragmenting, particularly as the young moved away. The forced stillness of the reservation system paradoxically also drove family fragmentation as the young moved away. Yet work was still hard – brutally hard for some. People married once, or perhaps twice if widowed. Folks had many more children, stayed put most of their lives, and had a very narrow circle of friends. They had neighbors, church friends, work associates, and extended family. This almost sounds similar to today, or at least, to a generation ago, except that those four circles overlapped enormously. They were the same people in different contexts.

All that was prologue. Sorry.

If you wanted to have a stimulating conversation in those days, what would you do? They were few and far between, and seldom in groups. In the city, you might find a pub, tea room, or a coffee house that was congenial. Or you might have a subgroup at church, or the Grange, or at Odd Fellows interested in more adventurous discussion. If you were luckiest of all, your own family might provide the intellectual heft and variety you desired. But not every night. And not usually a wide range of topics. It was from this world that children went to college, where stimulating conversation abounded. Adolescents are shallow in intellect, true, and every successive cohort thinks the same ideas are new, but it is still a world of difference. Even at its most pseudo, it was still intellectual compared to boring old Mom and Dad talking about insurance policies, lawns, and the annual Kiwanis Kapers. (I did like those guys who painted faces on their stomachs though, their navels being the mouths whistling "The Bridge Over The River Kwai." That still cracks me up.) People thought grand thoughts about mythology and philosophy and futurism, even if they were secondhand grandness. Then you would graduate and hope to find a group of people you could work with or at least see frequently who would replicate this hothouse intellectual environment. Not easy.

The closest approximation, and an excellent one for many reasons, was to read books. A book is a sustained conversation with another person, providing the stimulation that many of us crave. Crave is not too strong a word. To those who have not experienced this addiction to ideas and information I can hardly describe it. There is something Faustian about it.

I can have those conversations every night now, as many as I want, limited only by the hours in the day and the needs that must be addressed to keep body and soul together in the real world. I go to my sidebar plus a few other sites and absorb ideas. On those sites which have discussions, I can contribute in a simulacrum of an actual conversation. Occasionally I try to prime the pump with a comment at sites which, like mine, seldom have extended discussion. This must surely be a change in the universe. Imagine if you can what one such as I would have experienced in any other age. I know you can imagine this, because many of you are in the same situation I am.

What is worrisome is how less necessary conversation with actual people has become. There are few groups, and fewer individuals, who can now compete with the internet for interest of conversation. The social networking sites hold few charms for me - the intensity of idea-sharing in the blogosphere is more to my taste.

Er, addiction.

I don't imagine the blogosphere can go on forever. Things change too quickly, and new modes will come forth. But we addicts who have now experienced the stronger drug will drive ways of preserving this 24/7/365 availability of conversation. Will that next iteration be an even stronger drug, and will I narrow my live circle further and further?

And what will happen to our sort in future generations? We are likely to be the cutting edge of virtual worlds. Though perhaps not, as the current virtual worlds have no more depth of conversation than the real one.

I worry if this is the dream-stage of Dr. Faustus or Dr. Jekyll, where everything goes unbelievably well, but is unsustainable.


Donna B. said...

I think it is somewhat unusual that I -- the mother-in-law have such conversations as you are blogospherically having.

"So what are you reading?" is the conversational opener for two of my three sons-in-law. We have a less than formal arrangement of sending books to each other.

To best explain the relationship I have with one son-in-law is my daughter's complaint after her first date with him at Barnes and Noble... where I had spent 45 minutes discussing various political and philosophical ideas... she looked at me at said, "he's mine."

I was quite thrilled when they married because that made him "mine" too for discussion.

I don't mean to suggest that my other sons-in-law aren't interesting, but I'm lucky enough to have one that hits it on every cylinder.

Yeah, I know I'm so lucky it hurts.

terri said...

Blogging/reading blogs is addictive?

I don't have a problem

I can't quit any time I want...really!

It is true that I look to blogs to fill in the missing art of conversation and ideas around me. In truth, my "real" is quite boring and conventional. There isn't much scintillating conversation going on here...though DH and I do every so often have long, deep conversations which are stimulating an interesting.....but sparse in quantity simply because of the busyness of life.

Blogs are a way of kicking around ideas with people we wouldn't normally encounter, hearing perspectives that might never appear on our radar.

It is enjoyable, but not without its downside.

Blogging might change, but I don't think it will disappear altogether. It might become less popular and live only among a certain population of committed conversants.

terri said... was supposed to say I can quit anytime I want....even my subconcious knew I couldn't truthfully type that!

Kathy Hall said...

My husband has a blog that has been a great outlet for his analytical and creative mind. With most of his male friends, the phone conversations are short - as in what time they will meet to play golf - but there is a man he met through his blog who calls him. They talk for hours on all types of subjects and it is a joy to watch him actually be able to have scintillating conversations with someone he never would have met without the internet. You can check out my husband's blog at

jlbussey said...

Another addict here. Although I have cut-back on the blog reading aspect of late. I like to follow all of these conversations, but I am mostly inarticulate, thinking more in pictures and non-verbal symbols than in words. I can never hold my own in a conversation, so I don't engage in many. I love reading yours (and many others') though!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You express your inarticulateness well.

Retriever said...

A friend of mine who has a blog with a huge readership, lots of comments, etc. has said to me that blogs are for people who might have been ham radio operators in another time and place. One may be lonely or isolated, or doing work with people who don't have any of the same interests, but in one's free time one might reach and talk to someone one may never see. And it is always a thrill getting to know someone else's thoughts and ideas, chuckling as one wonders "I wonder how X will describe THIS latest scandal, or Y will react to this awesome book or how Z will react to the family reunion she has warned us is looming over her...

What keeps me reading and posting and commenting, is a similar craving. I love it when I read somebody's post about a political or social event and realize that we feel the same. But it is more interesting when one find's one's own prejudices or ignorance diminished by another person's superior insight into a problem, or more level headed response to some inflammatory events. Much as when studying the Bible in small groups, one can learn so much more by debating back and forth.

I think others here have said it also, but I find often that I discover my real opinion on an issue after reading something another blogger has written, which leads one to post in response, etc.

Much conversation in daily life by middle age has become something like trench warfare. One digs in, aware of the dangers of exposing oneself. For example, most of us cannot be wholly candid about politics, religion, or our views on sexual or moral issues in public. Even if utterly conventional, our views will doubtless offend or (perhaps unintentionally) anger or hurt another. So, mostly, we burrow down with those we clearly know to be on our side, periodically lobbing a shell over at the enemy. Sometimes getting our courage up or following orders and charging out into No Man's Land, but usually at great cost. QUite often, the trenches we cower in become foul, flooded, and/or infested with rats and fleas, and we get claustrophobice....

BLogging, by contrast, is one of the few ways that one can struggle to both understand the truth and tell it left to us. We can opine to our families (mine are heartily sick of my views!), but it's wonderful when we can learn from another's attempt to be honest about their confusion, theorizing, and real reactions to a situation.

Our family spends many hours a day talking (my son's disability kept us walled up together for days at a time when he was younger and more disturbed), and we do discuss history, politics, literature, psychology, etc. But in a family, the lines often harden.

Blogging would have been a godsend to me when the kid was very young and we were almost completely isolated socially, despite living in a crowded suburb.

It will certainly be a lifeline if we move to the country (if I get laid off in all the economic upheavals).

I consider myself blessed that my relatives are literate and articulate and that we do have good discussions, but there is really nowhere in my community (except in small group at church) that I ever get to discuss the things that matter to me, or that I am most puzzled by, except blogging.

David Foster said...

An interesting ounterpoint from Chesterton: the clique vs the clan. (Of course, he might have felt differently had he lived in a small village rather than London)

Donna B. said...

My blogging has led to a more open and honest conversation with my sister and brother, though it first had to go through a year or so of my sister and I barely speaking to each other.

What eventually happened was that we were eventually able to express a complete opinion instead of being derailed by our reactions mid-thought.

My brother was, frankly, an insufferable elitist bore for many years. Being the oldest and the only one of us with an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, he thought he should be instructing us rather than talking to us.

(It was my beating him at Trivial Pursuit that initiated the change in our relationship, but blogging furthered it.)

It's not all wine and roses, but it's a definite improvement over 8-10 years ago.

As for reading blogs, I am SO addicted. Sometimes, I read and comment so much, I don't have the energy (or time) left to do my own blogging.