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Making Conversation

December 11, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

duck

During my four years as an undergraduate, I retained my allegiance to various New York sports teams (Yankees, Giants, Knicks, Rangers) and my complementary hatred of their Boston counterparts (Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins). This was stupid for many reasons, the largest of which is that I didn’t get to enjoy the greatest years of the greatest hockey player ever, Bobby Orr. When I stayed on in Cambridge for graduate school and got my own apartment, I started to feel like a resident for the first time, and I started paying more attention to local news, the local newspaper (The Globe), and local TV sports coverage. By spring of my first year in graduate school, I was transformed. The Celtics won the NBA championship. The Bruins lost to the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals. And I was rooting for both of them. The next year, the magical year of 1975, I became a devoted Red Sox fan. That’s when I discovered that being a Red Sox fan was like holding a free pass to get into any conversation anywhere in greater Boston. You could talk to anyone, anywhere. And I did. I didn’t know how to talk to people before. Suddenly I had the ticket.

I mention this because I recently read William Deresiewicz article The Disadvantages of an Elite Education from the Summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar, which opens like this:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

I wanted to say “Gosh, William, couldn’t you just have talked to him about the Red Sox?”

This passage also made me think of a conversation I had just had the day before, about duck decoys. For a couple of decades now, Gail’s extended family shows up at some member’s house on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for the annual lefse-making, Norwegian-culture-celebrating party.

With the death of Gail’s father, her first cousin Mark became the honorary leader of the clan. He retired a couple of years ago after a distinguished career as a Thurston County sheriff, with some high-profile investigations to his credit. Now he is free to pursue his hobbies, including duck hunting and the crafting of stunningly beautiful decoys: mallards, snow geese, swans, whatever. I’ve never hunted. I imagine I never will. But listening to Mark, I was mesmerized, as he spoke about the different species of wood he uses, their strengths and weaknesses, how he does the color patterns, how his son missed a duck and shot the decoy.

Still, Deresiewicz has a point. I wouldn’t have engaged in such a conversation when I was younger. Harvard didn’t prepare me for duck decoys. And it was my loss.

A sharp contrast to Deresiewicz’s plight when the plumber came is provided in Garry Wills’ remembrance of Studs Terkel, which I read a few days later in the latest New York Review of Books. Terkel could talk to anybody. Here are two excerpts, the second of which describes how Terkel handled the surprise appearance of a burglar.

The printed interviews do not reveal the ways Terkel established a rapport with his subjects. But listening to the full tapes shows what empathy he had with them. When a woman said she was “just a housewife” who never accomplished anything, unlike her daughter, Terkel replied that her daughter’s career showed what a great mother she had been, and the woman began reflecting on the good things in her life. People left his interviews feeling good about themselves

That ability to connect with anyone was best demonstrated when his home was burglarized. As he later told the story, Terkel’s wife, Ida, was ill, so she lay on the couch downstairs rather than going up to her bedroom. Terkel had been in a chair reading to her till she went to sleep and he turned off the light. A burglar came in through the window, not realizing the room was occupied. When Terkel turned on the light, the startled man demanded money. Terkel talked in a soothing voice and pointed out his sick wife. He told the man all he had was two twenties in his wallet. The man took them and was about to leave, but Terkel said he needed money for a cab, to go in the morning to buy medicine for his wife. The man looked at her, gave back one of the twenties. Terkel said, “Thank you”; the man said, “You’re welcome,” and started to go back out the window. Terkel said, “You don’t have to do that,” and conducted him over to the front door. The man went out, turned, and said “Thank you,” and Terkel said, “You’re welcome.”

So do you think the Red Sox should sign Teixeira?

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