This is my entry for Week Twenty-Three of The Real LJ Idol competition, where the topic is "The Best Thing." I'll post an update about voting later in the week. If you haven't already, you may want to join therealljidol, since some voting will be restricted to community members. Again, I really appreciate all the support so far!
A sign obscured by snow
In my family, we often don't have conversations. We have alternating monologues, where first one person details the important events of his or her life, and then the other chimes in with a similar monologue. To anyone listening from a distance, it's almost as if we're really conversing, but it's more like cross currents.
A Wilson family conversation might go something like this. My brother describes the snow they've received in Vermont, the snow banks taller than his toddlers' heads. I tell him that I'm excited to be in the top 15 in an online writers' contest. He pauses for a second and then tells me how he pulls my niece and nephew on a plastic sled through the deep snow, and they shout, "Go Daddy, go!" until he's exhausted. We may as well be posting Facebook status updates.
Get more than two of us together, and it's chaos. As I was growing up, the dinner table was a contest of voices as everyone battled for the opportunity to be heard. As we gathered around our the table, a bit too large for our small dining room, the chatter echoed off the china cupboard, made the upright piano vibrate. The only one who refused to compete was my sister, a tiny center of calm in the midst of madness. To this day my sister grows quiet when we interrupt her, pressing her lips together, a hurt look in her eyes. She insists that we should ask each other follow-up questions, to show that we're genuinely interested in what the other person is saying. No wonder, really, that she's a family counselor.
In an effort to teach myself what did not come naturally, I used to write out my side of a conversation before calling a boy I liked, trying to anticipate what he might say to me. Then I'd commandeer the olive-colored rotary phone in my parents' bedroom, straightening my notes on the flowered bedsheet before calling. I became befuddled and frustrated when the boy went "off script," and I made pained efforts to get him back on track. "That movie you just saw sounds interesting, but I wanted to talk to you about the Snow Dance." No wonder I didn't have more dates.
High school journalism was a godsend. Since I was forced to interview so many of my classmates, I found that my careful lists of questions didn't always suffice. When my interview subjects brought up topics I hadn't anticipated, I found myself in strange territory, with no map. There was only one way to navigate, I learned: by truly listening to the other person, so that I could respond to comments in a meaningful way and, therefore, keep the discussion going. Gee, who would have thought the key to good conversation was listening?
These thoughts were running through my head as I fought through the snow Monday to return a video. The wind bit through the scarf I'd wrapped around my nose, and I was beginning to regret my decision not to stay home and pay a late fee. But the repetitive slosh of the cars put me in a meditative mood. The Simon and Garfunkel song "The Dangling Conversation" came on my iPod, a song which seemed strangely appropriate. Sometimes I think my iPod is hard-wired into my subconscious, digging up songs to serve as my personal soundtrack.
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives. (full lyrics)
Really, I thought, my family is not so unusual. Whether it's Twitter or Facebook status updates, or the latest Live Journal posts, we constantly chipper about our own days, our own lives. We are the frogs in the Emily Dickinson poem, who tell our names the livelong day to an admiring bog.
We're self-obsessed, self-important, always focused on me, me, me. Do my problems mean a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things? Do anybody's? The answer is simple: of course, those experiences matter. All human experience does. But experiences don't matter until they're shared. That is what compels us, in an increasingly fractured world, to sit in these electronic bogs and chatter our names. Yet, the truth is that we don't just want to speak; we want to be heard.
A Google search of the term "the best thing" reveals a dizzying array of chatter: One writer proclaims, "Microsoft's Photosynth, the best thing to happen to photography," while another says, "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me." A video link teases me with "The Best Thing Ever Caught On A Jumbotron."
A blogger reflects, "Divorce was the best thing to happen to us. It makes you realize what is important and you look at everything differently." A political blogger declares, "The Best Thing Barney Frank Could Do For Gay People . . . aside from stepping down? Speech therapy." Personally, I think the best thing about snowy days is taking great pictures, which is far preferable to sloshing through snow to return videos. Aren't we funny, this choir of frogs? On a daily basis, we talk sideways at each other, when the best thing is to listen.
The very tendencies I've fought against my entire life are common on the Internet. When our friends announce their latest triumphs, we say congratulations, but too often, instead of asking them to tell us more, we brag about our own accomplishments. We rail at the injustices of our lives, bitch about our bosses, roar into the abyss, but when our friends do likewise, we complain they're being too "emo." Sure, we tell ourselves, we care about our friends, but really? Do we need to hear for the hundredth time about that crazy coworker with the annoying phone habit? I mean, really? As Simon and Garfunkel would say, we are "verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme."
To celebrate my sister's birthday last year, she threw a barbecue. At the time, she and her husband lived in a brick townhouse which she'd decorated with an eclectic mix of colors and patterns, including some original art. My mom and I were helping her to whip the place into shape before the guests arrived. With three floors and as many pets, we faced plenty of work. We gathered in the roomy kitchen, lined with oodles of pale green cupboards that, like her sweet deal on this large place, made me green with envy.
My sister, dressed in her cleaning clothes a faded T-shirt and shorts was trying to give us instructions, while my mom and I rattled off all the things we thought should be done. Exasperated, my sister finally raised her voice, stunning my mother and I into silence.
Her whole body quivering, she asked, "Will you please just listen?"
"I'll try, I told her." And I do. I really do.
Bonus video: Simon and Garfunkel's "Dangling Conversation"
It's amazing what you learn when you simply shut up.