Speaking of conversations, the other day in a New York Times’ new feature called “Here to Help,” came this offering: HOW TO HAVE MORE ENGAGING EVERYDAY CONVERSATIONS.
Wow! The New York Times has spoken! I guess I don’t have to offer any more tips now do I?
I’ll link to the article at the bottom of this column, but here is the opening of their story:
” Ask people what they miss most about college, and many will mention something similar: the intellectual stimulation of living near hundreds of thousands of potential friends, studying physics, psychology and literature, with the time to talk over a meal or some drinks late into the night. But there are ways to keep that conversational spirit alive no matter where you are. Here are three pieces of advice.
Unite around a common interest
Be friendly, open and polite
Don’t overthink it “
I want to add these most excellent convo kickstarters from my friend Nick O’Connor, lines he says he heard Spalding Grey try out:
What do you do for fun?
What happened to you on the way over here?
So as I head to a college reunion in Middletown, Connecticut, I’ll leave you this link to the Times column and make sure that as I walky the old campus I talky into the night with me old college chums…
A major announcement today. I am finally getting around to reading Sherry Turkle’s bestseller from 2015, “RECLAIMING CONVERSATION: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”
Is she just the guru to teach an old WalkyTalky some needed new tricks?
Her thesis is that our, “new mediated life has gotten us into trouble.” We’ve lost the art of conversation.
But she claims the way to reclaim it is: FACE TO FACE CONVERSATION
That’s what can save us.
A sociologist and psychologist, Turkle calls conversation: THE TALKING CURE. The problem is, “these days we find ways around conversation.” Today’s mediated life (online, on smartphones) she writes, is “a flight from conversation. At least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”
(Which is what I’ve been trying to stimulate as a local folk journalist)
Real conversations, like the ones she enjoys, “require time and space, and we say we’re too busy” for that.
(Exactly how I feel about meditation: I’m too busy!)
Seriously, Turkle warns that today’s loss of talk signals a new Rachel Carson SILENT SPRING.
That serious? Yep.
“Only this time,” she writes, instead of an attack on the environment it is an attack on empathy.”
EMPATHY? OH NO! I FEEL YOU, NO?
Turkle studied American youth in schools, at home, and at play for this book and discovered that they’re not developing emotionally. A 12 year-old will whine on the playground, “YOU CAN’T PLAY WITH US,” like an 8 year-old would. No empathy there.
Old conversation used to teach empathy. But today’s students seem to understand each other less. And she blames our constant connectedness, ironically.
“Computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
“We are being silenced by our technology,” writes Turkle. In a way, “cured of talking.”
With tech always around (phones at the dinner table), “Conversation is fragmented and everyone tries to keep it light.”
KEEP IT LIGHT
Tech gives us a “Goldilocks Effect”: having, “each other at digital distance—not too close, not too far, just right.”
In contrast to human relationships “which are rich, messy and demanding.”
And this Goldilocks Effect, she writes, “is part of the move from conversation to mere connection.”
But what about E.M. Forster’s fabulous admonition to, “Only connect.” Aint that enough anymore?
Connection through conversation, yes, she says. “Technology enchants,” she admits. But it also “makes us forget what we know about life. Every time you check your phone what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”
WHOA! DID YOU KNOW PLAYGROUND ACCIDENTS ARE INCREASING BECAUSE PARENTS ARE ON THEIR PHONES?
AND DID YOU KNOW FACEBOOK HAS NO THUMBS DOWN?
Turkle says that on social media you learn to only share the positive. That when we don’t communicate face-to-face, it’s much easier, “to compose, edit and improve as we revise,” conducting that conversation online.
But conversation is about the narratives in our lives. “Conversations with a good teacher communicate that learning isn’t all about the answers. Its about what the answers mean.”
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT MR. NATURAL?!
So what does this mean? More importantly, what does it mean for your average WalkyTalky seeking clever conversations?
I cannot say it better than she does. I’m sure it will come back, creativity-filled fun conversation. Everything old will be new again, etc. “Thrilling conversation” as “a crucible for discovery,” as Turkle reminds us.
BORING SIDNEY, BORING!
But in the meantime, to kids today the greatest fear is BOREDOM.
However, Turkle posits, “boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation….like anxiety, it can signal new learning.”
So what is to be done? “Conversation?” says one of her college-age friends. “It died in 2009.” (Right around when people began sharing things on Facebook, where the attitude is. “Don’t talk it. Post it. Share it.”)
Well, since I certainly don’t want to be boring for our younger readers…herewith no more trying to tell folks how not to bore other folks anymore…..zzzzzz….what a snoozer, right?
And so from now on, this blog will feature short narrative compression about other things. Things like FOOTBALL and MUSIC and DEATH and SHAKESPEARE and RADIO and wacky WalkyTalky man-on-the-street-scene interviews about LOVE and GOD and ELROY JETSON.
Stay tuned. Next time I’ll try to explain this empathy thing. And who knows? This stuff may even stimulate conversation.
“RECLAIMING CONVERSATION” The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (Penguin 2015)
[TODAY’S ENTRY INSPIRED BY YESTERDAY’S IWOSC PANEL REMINDING ME OF MARX PANEL]
So this was out in the high desert just after dinner with the son of Harpo and Susan Marx telling us one of his parents’ favorite jokes.
Bill Marx, now in his 70s, pianist by profession, twinkle in his eye by lifestyle, had just hosted “Marx Madness” — an evening at the Rancho Mirage Public Library in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Marx Brothers’ first appearance on stage. We sat at a long table in the back room of what was formerly Bing Crosby’s restaurant. Now its an Old Spaghetti Factory across Highway #111 just inside Palm Desert.
Bill’s sister Minnie Susan Marx, now Minnie Susan Marx Eagle, was here, too. Along with two of her grandchildren visiting from Orange County, as well as a journalist who came from Toronto and a funny woman named Trudy who came all the way from England for the event, where everyone sang old funny songs and Bill showed home movies featuring Groucho with children in Beverly Hills with nothing but farmland around, and Harpo and his children at 701 N. Canon — and other goofy stuff for a few hours. Also around this grand groaning board were Paul G. Wesolowski, editor of the Freedonia Gazette in Free Hope PA, comedy writer David Misch author of Funny: The Book and a panelist with me at “Marx Madness,” as well as seminal biographer of the Brothers (and of Walter Lantz, too!), Joe Adamson. Plus, Gummo Marx’s son Bob Marx, and also across from me, Robert S. Bader, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. Robert is an archivist of mucho Marxian memorabilia and author of the upcoming book about this very stage career we’ve been celebrating tonight: Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage.
Now Harpo’s son Bill stood up at the end of the table, telling us this joke. He said his mother Susan Marx loved to tell the children this one, about three guys in a mental hospital who are offered the chance to get out, if they can answer the question:
“What is 3 times 3?”
“270!” says the first guy.
“No, sorry,” says the hospital administrator who is administering the test.
“Tuesday!” says the second guy.
“Sorry,” the hospital head says again.
Finally, he asks the third guy: “What is 3 times 3?”
“3 times 3 is 9.”
The administrator is amazed. “Okay,” he tells the patient. “You can leave the hospital now. Oh by the way, how did you know that?”
“Simple,” says the patient. “I just took 270 and divided by Tuesday.”
It’s been a few weeks and I was starting to miss talking to you.
Ever find yourself nostalgic for good conversation?
I found myself in a long discussion with four writers on a panel recently. The Topic?
Was it Nietzche who said nostalgia was, “looking backwards with bullshit in both eyes”?
Well this panel was certainly full of it.
And full of fun too.
Presented by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) at the Veterans Memorial Building in Culver City, CA: “Writing Nostalgia: When the Past Sings, Make it Zing.”
LET’S MEET OUR PANEL
IWOSC host Gary Young quotes Noel Coward to get things going: “May you have a warm hand on your opening,” Coward told a starlet before her show. Warming to the idea of a raucous couple of hours, I lean into the microphone when moderator Bob Birchard asks us how we became nostalgic, and say: “I’m nostalgic for good conversation and can’t wait to hear some tonight!”
I take my cues from the venerable experts here tonight, like Jordan R. Young, showbiz historian and author of books like, Spike Jones Off The Record. He recalls a time, he says, “Before camp, before nostalgia,” way back in the 1950s when he could call up Silent Movie actors names he saw listed in the phone book.
They don’t make researches like that anymore.
Through such determined journalistical sleuthing, Jordan sought out celebrities, holding conversations with Hollywood figures like King Vidor and John Carradine, eventually starting Past Times Publishing. One of his books, I truly loved: The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age featured an interview with Irving S. Brecher. And I got to help Irv complete his memoir The Wicked Wit of The West in 2009.
I met Robert S. Bader once in Palm Desert at a dinner thrown by Harpo Marx’s son Bill. Tonight he talks about Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales. It’s been translated into “dozens of languages, including Catalan.” Bader, a producer of PBS specials on Dick Cavett and Bing Crosby, tells us he didn’t know it was being nostalgic when as a kid he got into the Marx Brothers. But upon sharing that interest, discovering that some other people found it “cool too,” he knew he’d “made a group of friends forever.”
Panel moderator Birchard, writer of a book series called Cecil B. Demille’s Hollywood, makes a point of describing we few fellows on the dais as: “Not Historians.” He wants us to explain to the packed house of Southern California writers how we do our research. Herbie J Pilato, author of The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery and Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomerysuggests using classic stock photo agencies like Globe and Photofest.
“Hey whatever happened to Black Star,” I interject. “Does anyone remember them?” When I first saw their photo credits in magazines as a kid I thought it was an African-American agency. (It was around the same time I learned that “Black is Beautiful.”) Bader and Pilato think Black Star is long gone or was bought up by a larger stock house.
Pilato, a one-time actor and NBC page, is founder of a nonprofit called the “Classic TV Preservation Society,” dedicated to shows that reflect “positive things,” including old programs like, “Life Goes On,” “Kung Fu,” “That Girl,” and “Gidget.”
“Herbie, you’d make a great host on the TVLand channel,” I offer.
“I’m working on it,” he says.
Robert S. Bader thrills the Culver City faithful with this tale of research: He discovered two hundred Marx Brothers photos in an attic.
“From that early 1900s period of the Brothers performing on the road.”
Bader’s book comes out in October and is called, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. Devoted to Minnie’s boys’ pre-Hollywood movie career. I can’t wait to read about their earliest vaudeville shows and see that trove of pix. (NOTE TO SELF: I also need to pick Bader’s brain about getting The Wicked Wit of the West translated into Catalan.)
INQUIRING IWOSCERS WANT TO KNOW
We take questions from the audience. (Flo Selfman, President of IWOSC, at panel above)
One man says he wants to write about a B-movie actress who did pin-ups and died young, but he can’t remember her name.
One woman says she’d like to write a biography, but read a Marilyn Monroe book that was nothing but erotic stories never documented in any history. Three panelists tell her you can write anything you want about a person no longer living. You see, one says, just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean it can’t also be a lousy read.
Wow. Shouldn’t it matter if a life story is true to the page its printed upon? Neal Cassady offered this advice to Jack Kerouac after reading an early draft: “Embellish.”
Robert Bader says, regarding his Marx Brothers research, Groucho would give two answers to your question, “and then tell you both of them were lies.”
Okay then. I jump in with an “IWOSC mini-seminar,” telling audience members not to worry, but “YOU’VE GOT TO HIT THE TYPEWRITER BROTHER! CREATE YOUR OWN MYTH SISTER!”
In other words, get the dang thing written. To another writer waiting for permission from a subject’s estate: “Write the book already; it’s easier to be forgiven than it is to get permission.”
(Also thinking now of Scoop Nisker, the unique radio man at KSAN in San Francisco who ended every broadcast of “The Last News Show” with, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”)
“Any one of these gentlemen up here will be happy to write you a perfectly good biography or memoir,” I add, although of course I’m thinking of myself on the prowl always for next writing gig.
THE LAST ARCHIVISTS?
A question for Herbie Pilato:
“You can write about Elizabeth Montgomery,” a man asks. “But how can you write about a TV show?” Isn’t that program — product — a corporate property?
“Nah,” Pilato aces it. “There have been ninety books about Star Trek, none of them authorized by Gene Roddenberry.”
“And isn’t everybody an archivist now?” I toss in. “Able to look up anything in a single bound on the web and assume they’ve done the research?”
Jordan Young says he thinks the millennial generation is the last who actually do archive things. “The next generation won’t.”
The first archivists, in Jordan’s field, were the people who audio-taped TV shows. Robert Bader makes a joke about a guy who audiotapes silent movies. I playfully punch him in the side. Later, after I blurt out something, he will say, “You’re scaring me.” (Which you love to get that from an adult. It’s only when you get it from a 4th-grader that you should worry.)
Bader, who said he loved the research part of his job, has been very generous to me this evening, praising The Wicked Wit of the West which he told the audience he read before beginning his new Marx Brothers book. (Yes, fine, but did he believe any of it?)
Realizing my fellow panelists are the kind of people who tape TV shows on reel-to-reel audio, I must confess to being part of that techno-nerd set, taping The Bill Cosby Show, but adding the caveat that this was in 1971 and I was using a cassette recorder.
BEST PART OF THE NIGHT
About halfway in I realize: this is not nostalgia, these are pop historians. Jordan Young describes his work as, “the diggings of a cultural archeologist.” Afterwards, I ask his wife if she thought the panel had covered the basics pretty well — the legal aspects, dealing with a subject’s family members, getting their memories straight. Yes, she says, “but it did skirt into the weeds a bit.” I think back on one panelist who described “looking for stills from Nancy Drew movies,” and another bringing up clearances and contracts. Still another mentioned Emil Jannings (1884-1950) in regards to a bon mot from Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947). I wanted to blurt, “Where’s my MTV?” into the microphone I was forced to share with Robert S. Bader, but that would have sounded ancient…
Inside baseball to be sure, but this was about nostalgia.
SEMI PROFESSIONAL PANELIST LOOKING FOR TWO-HOUR POSITION
I could have been a better panelist. When moderator Birchard, author of King Cowboy: Tom Mix and the Movies, said he recalled Shakespeare’s “Richard III” appearing on TV’s “Omnibus” in the 1950s, I asked why, with today’s plethora of stations we still have no Shakespeare channel. “Springsteen claimed in song how there were ’57 Channels and nothing’s on. But today there’s like a zillion aren’t there? Thornton Wilder said at the end of every civilization there’s a period of great creativity and production. Look at the stuff being churned out, the platforms, the programming!”
Oh well. Just trying to get the conversation beyond clearances and contracts. At the panel’s completion, some of us rush off to greet well-wishers or potential customers, some remain seated there at the dais, basking all self-actualized, awaiting groupies. A woman comes up to tell me the story of a young actor in the closet who marries a woman, Hollywood style, but she kills herself, and a year later with the same gun, he kills himself.
“Great Story, huh?”
Um, I did make two nice contacts. One said she had a friend in Madrid who could translate the Italian version of The Wicked Wit — A PESCA CON GROUCHO — into Spanish. Then I’ll translate from Spanish back into English to see if any jokes exist at all.
As well as the IWOSC panel went, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has never booked me to appear, despite my applying for “Memoir,” “Hollywood Biography” “Senior Memoir” and “Humor” panels, and despite having written for the paper for ten years including two stories about Irv Brecher, THE wicked wit of the west, given that moniker by Groucho himself.
Perhaps I’m bitter about never making it onto their rarified USC and UCLA stages in late April every year since 1995? (See picture of typical panel above) Listen, I spend a lot of time alone writing, so when I do make public appearances — slide shows about Irv Brecher pretty much — I tend to get excited.
But hey, IWOSC wanted me on their panel, right?
Perhaps I could learn how to become a professional panelist. Should I try and become more nostalgic? Anyway, if you know of any upcoming panels, I might be able to add some semi-comic relief to the proceedings.
(I mean, the guy’s own wife thought he got into the weeds; this is from someone who gets all his arcane references, you know?)
Finally, one more IWOSC audience member came up. She’d seen me reading TWWOTW at Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont in Los Angeles a few years ago. “Remember when you gave me the Groucho glasses and nose?” she asked. I didn’t, but I told her I should have given her a kiss instead, and leaning past the microphone stand, pushed into her as she stood on her tippy toes to reach the dais and I thought: That’s showin’ em! If a semi-professional panelist can’t get a kiss, he aint doin his job right.
Nostalgia Writing/When the Past Sings Make it Zing!
Jordan R. Young, Herbie J Pilato, Robert S. Bader, Gary Young, HR, Flo Selfman, Bob Birchard