Friday, October 24, 2014

Can We Talk?

Meet someone with whom it’s mutually pleasurable to converse and never let her go, or him!

My first marriage was to a woman whose mother, over the course of the four and a half years I was her son-in-law, asked me a total of one personal question. Not What are your most cherished ambitions? nor What will you be most intent on teaching our your daughter, my granddaughter? nor To this point in your young life, what do you regard as the most important lessons you’ve learned? I had worn to dinner with her and her obedient spouse a T-shirt a record company had sent me some months before, and her question was: Who’s this Eric Clapton?

Was it that she was afraid I might find questions intrusive, or that she didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing something she didn’t? The smart money was on the latter. Meanwhile, she was very happy to talk (and talk and talk) about her and my father-in-law’s most recent vacation, and the churches they’d viewed and possibly even taken snapshots of on the guided walking tours they liked.

At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever meet anyone with whom I derived less pleasure from conversing, but I was very mistaken. I have since realized that most people share Mom-in-Law’s belief that the two things one does in a conversation are speak and wait to speak again, rather than speak and listen.

To make matters worse, even those who listen tend to free-associate. I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with a new acquaintance who’d been courting me on Facebook, one of those people whose lives I’d changed with something I wrote 78 years ago. When I discovered that he too had been a fan of The Who before the Great Unwashed discovered them, I thought he might be amused to hear about how, trembling with nervousness, I once waited behind a Hollywood radio station for the group to emerge from an on-air interview, and somehow summoned the nerve to address Mr. Townshend, my idol at the time. The problem was that when he heard my former idol’s name, New Acquaintance happily began relating in great detail his impressions of the great man’s semi-recent autobiography. After a while, it became clear that he hadn’t noticed that I’d started telling him my  little story, which of course wound up not being told. He claims to idolize me, and I enjoy being idolized as much as the next fellow, but I don’t anticipate our getting together again soon.

I will admit with some embarrassment to having come nowhere close to getting the speaking/listening balance right a lot of the time. Feeling that everyone enjoys being made to feel interesting, in fact, I have often gotten it very wrong. After my first long conversation with First Wife, she told me she’d felt as though being interviewed. She’d wanted to ask me reciprocal questions, she said, but I’d allowed her no opportunity. Maybe that’s a function of my shyness. God forbid the conversational flame should flicker even slightly! (For me, one of the best moments in a new friendship is that at which both parties are content to be silent for a while, with neither blurting something to keep the flame from going out.) Or maybe it’s more about my low self-esteem. Maybe a part of me will never cease to be the dreadfully shy 14-year-old who never talked to pretty girls for fear they’d yawn in his face.

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying my nimble wit, erudition, voracious curiosity, vividness of expression, and what a drummer I worked with many years ago called my Jewish vocabulary. On the other hand, I’ve reconciled myself to the realization that what most people find most interesting is that which emerges from their own mouths.

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