Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Art of Talking or Not

Badfinger--"Perfection" (mp3)
Babyshambles--"You Talk" (mp3)

We were sitting in Mama Leone's in Venice, Florida over Spring Break. They have terrific pizza and other pasta offerings and the place is a big hit with "the Oldies." I'm sorry, that may not sound like an appropriate label, but you have to call them something. It is not normal to be in a place with such a preponderance of the elderly. All of the Seinfeld jokes come to mind about "the eventual left turn" being legal in Florida and the "I survived, let's see if you can, too" method of elderly drivers pulling out in front of you.

Anyway, at the next table three elderly couples chatted back and forth, the gist of the conversation being one couples' upcoming trip to Italy. It sounded like they had spent a lot of money on a villa and were trying to recruit at least one of the other couples to come along.

I've spent a lot of time in Florida, observing these social groups. Often, there is an alpha female, rather than an alpha male, who runs things. I guess by the time we pass 65 or 70 years, the women are even more in charge than ever. We're just happy to get a steady stream of urine.

In this group at the next table, there is a definite alpha female: she has more jewelry, blonder hair (her true age not a factor in hair color), and clothing that she didn't buy at one of the old lady boutiques down on Venice's main street.

So. She is saying, as if this will close the Italy deal, "And, Edward, you will like this. There is a separate exit for the boys, in case you boys want to head out at night."

Everyone looks at Edward. I think he smiles a little, but I can't really tell. There is a silence that follows, and we can hear it at the next table. Our salads are long gone, our pizzas nowhere in sight.

Edward's wife intervenes. "I try," she says, "I try and I try but I just can't get him to talk."

Then I realize that the alpha female knew this and that is why she spoke to Edward in particular, in hopes that he might speak.

Is it possible, that among the many things that fall away as we get older, the need to talk is one of them? I don't know. I'm just a nosey eavesdropper at the next table. But it doesn't seem like Edward had a stroke or anything. It's more like he just lost the need or lost the interest in talking.

Sure, it must make for a hell of a marriage, but what a circumstance. I think of the lines from the Neil Young song, "You know, I keep getting younger/My life's been funny that way/Before I learned how to talk/I forgot what to say." What if a person can simply run out of ideas for conversation?

Each night, or at least each work night, I seem to hit a magic hour when the idea of talking and listening becomes less and less attractive to me. Usually, that happens around 9 or 10 o' clock. Maybe it's something about having a job where people walk into my office all day long and want to talk about whatever's on their minds. Pastoral care, they call it. In an informal way, at least. Those of us who, however correctly, are identified as good listeners must have ears that are more like cisterns than anything else. Maybe we can only fill them so full.

And so, at some point, we don't have have anything to say anymore, and don't really want to listen to much either. Many things, we know, are finite, but we don't really think of talk, of speaking, of needing to get some point or some information across, either in a given day or in a lifetime, as one of those things.

If Wallace Stevens is right that "[t]he world is ugly and the people are sad," then how much of that can we stand to hear about? Maybe no more, I would argue, than most of us have to say about it. Maybe our internal mechanism tells us that we can only take so much, and much of our conflict, especially with our spouses, comes when that other person doesn't realize that we have had as much as we can take that day even though he or she has something about that ugliness or sadness that has to be said, to be emptied into someone else's cistern. But, we have so much more to hear tomorrow, and we have to have some time to get ready for that.

Of course, the alternative, though interesting to ponder, is awful. Trying to imagine the need to say nothing, ever, for weeks and months, like Edward, is almost more than most of us can imagine. "Successful conversation can take you very far."


"Perfection" comes from the Badfinger album, Straight Up, not currently available on Itunes and probably caught up in those Beatle song negotiations. "You Talk" is from Babyshambles' last CD and keeps alive the hope that the Libertines might one day reunite if Pete Doherty doesn't die. By the way, turn up that Badfinger song, converted from a vinyl album, and listen to how good the old technology sounds!

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