Small Talk, Big Talk

The New York Times recently published an interesting article pleading for an end to “small talk.”  Written by a man who is dealing with the end of an important relationship and a plunge back into the dating world, it tells of an experience in Costa Rica that convinced him that we should focus more on “big talk,” and his successful experiments in doing so on first dates and, most recently, in the workplace.

The thrust of the article is that small talk — talking about your commute, or the weather, or the local sports team — is a meaningless time-waster, and everyone knows it.  Why not move directly to the big stuff, and really learn something important about the person you are talking to?  So the writer has taken to asking first date questions like “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” and “What place most inspired you and why?” and, during a business trip, asking a new colleague “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”

Businessteam at a meetingIf this is a new trend in social interaction in America, I’m glad I’m happily married.  I’m also glad I don’t work with this guy.

I happen to think that small talk serves an extremely useful social purpose.  Some people are eager to share intimate details about their lives with the world at large, and no doubt would welcome intrusive personal questions from somebody they just met, but most of us don’t.  If I were on a business trip with a brand new colleague and they asked me a question about how I fell in love with my wife, I would find such a question incredibly presumptuous and off-putting, and I wouldn’t answer it.  Sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to decide whether a workplace colleague will end up a close personal friend.  And it’s hard for me to believe that at least some women who were asked “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” on a first date wouldn’t groan inwardly, question whether they’ve been hooked up with a creepy potential stalker, and head for the exits as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Small talk allows you to get to know a person before you decide whether to broach weightier topics.  Sure, the substance of the small talk might be meaningless, but the nature of the small talk can tell you a lot about the person across the table.  Does the person have a sense of humor?  Does the person seem thoughtful or thoughtless, smart or dumb, well-mannered or crude?  Is the person so self-absorbed and egotistical that they end up talking entirely about himself?

And that last point is an important one.  People who immediately ask questions about “big talk” topics clearly want to share their own deeply personal experiences; they no doubt ask the pointed questions with the expectation that they will get the same question in return and then launch into their own stories.  There’s a fair amount of conceit in that; the lives of complete strangers just aren’t that compelling.  Small talk prevents me from being awkwardly inundated by the intimate affairs and feelings of people I don’t know.

I come down strongly in favor of small talk.

Is Bill Clinton’s Sex History Fair Game?

Bill Clinton’s sex life has moved to the forefront of the news again.

Thanks to Donald Trump — who wrote a tweet stating “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!” — there’s a lot of chatter about Bill Clinton’s affairs and alleged predatory behavior and unwanted advances against women.  The Washington Post has even done a “fact check” that separates “Bill Clinton’s womanizing” into five “consensual affairs” (one of which was a “consensual affair” with a 22-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, when Clinton was the President) and other “allegations of an unwanted sexual encounter.”  And some are asking:  is it fair to delve into Bill Clinton’s sexual history?

article-2624332-1d9ec7da00000578-278_638x517Fair?  Seriously?  Since when does “fairness” enter the equation in presidential politics, particularly when Donald Trump is involved?  The lack of “fairness,” and the harsh spotlight that tends to shine on the families and friends of candidates for the Oval Office, is one big reason why some people decide never to throw their hat in the ring in the first place.  Every candidate — and every member of their families — has to know that.  It would be absurd to think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who have spent a lifetime in politics, don’t understand that reality.

I guess the better question is, is Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” — as an opinion piece by Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post described itrelevant to deciding whether Hillary Clinton should be president?  Marcus says it is, reasoning that if Hillary Clinton is going to send her husband out as a campaign surrogate and play the sexism card against Trump and others, it’s fair to point out that, in Marcus’ words, Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior toward women or his inexcusable relationship with a 22-year-old intern,” in “the larger scheme of things,” is “far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.”

The Wall Street Journal goes farther, contending that there was a “Clinton war on women” during Bill Clinton’s presidency and arguing that “Mr. Clinton was a genuine sexual harasser in the classic definition of exploiting his power as a workplace superior, and the Clinton entourage worked hard to smear and discredit his many women accusers.”  The WSJ opinion piece adds:  “This September Mrs. Clinton declared that “every survivor of sexual assault” has “the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” But when her own access to political power was at stake, she dismissed the women and defended her husband.”

There are many of us, I think, who would prefer not to revisit these topics. We don’t want to hear about Bill Clinton’s lechery or think about what kind of marriage could survive so many affairs and allegations of sexual misconduct.  But if Bill Clinton is going to be out on the campaign trail, and if Hillary Clinton is going to play gender politics in her bid for the White House, Bill Clinton’s personal record inevitably is going to come up.

And the Clintons had better be ready for it, because it can’t really be fully dismissed as old news.  One thing is true:  American culture has changed a lot since the ’90s, and the notion of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the sexual arena has perhaps changed most of all.  In an era where California has enacted a “yes means yes” statute to define what constitutes sexual consent, where workplace sexual harassment allegations are much more prevalent, and people’s careers can be effectively quashed simply by using language that is deemed not politically correct, how are people going to react to detailed information about a President having an “affair” with a 22-year-old White House intern, his initial lies about it, and the humiliation the intern endured at the hands of minions seeking to excuse or explain the President’s egregious behavior?  I may be wrong about this, but I doubt that a modern politician who admitted to Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky — to say nothing of the other allegations about what Bill Clinton has done — would be able to survive it.

If a new generation of voters, steeped in our current culture, are hearing about that conduct in detail for the first time, how will they look at Hillary Clinton?  And how will revisiting Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” in the light of current social mores affect his historical reputation and his status as a kind of avuncular figure on the American political scene?

Lilliputian Lodging

We all know that New York City housing prices are absurd and out of control — so much so that city officials subsidize the housing needs of people who are making six-figure incomes.  Now there’s a new potential solution to the Big Apple’s housing problems.  It’s called micro-living.

The idea is simple: make apartment units that are smaller than standard New York City apartments.  Much, much smaller, in fact.   The apartment units at Carmel Place range from 265 square feet to 360 square feet, which required a waiver of the NYC minimum-size requirement of 400 square feet.  The units feature kitchenettes and space-saving devices, like a desk that folds into a table and a bed that retracts from the wall, as well as a small balcony.

cramped-spaceTo get a sense of how small these apartments are, consider that the standard size of a two-car garage is 24 x 24, which equals 576 square feet, or more than twice the size of the smallest micro-apartment.  The largest micro-apartment is less than two-thirds that size.  But the market price tags for the micro-units aren’t small — at least not by Midwestern standards.  The market-rents for the micro-units range from $2,650 a month to $3,150 a month.  (New York City being what it is, 40 percent of the units have rates set by affordable housing programs that top out at $1,500 per month, which still seems like a lot for the privilege of living in the rough equivalent of a one-car garage.)

I’m all for living in smaller spaces and making more efficient use of space; it’s one of the reasons we moved from the ‘burbs to our current home.  265 square feet, however, seems way too tiny for comfort — even if only one person lives there.  Maybe New Yorkers are conditioned to being crowded and cramped and jammed cheek to jowl into subway cars, but I think I’d end up climbing the walls of my little shoebox after sitting at my little desk and staring at the wall a few feet in front of my face and venturing out onto a dinky balcony.  For the mental health of the micro-inhabitants, I hope there’s a nice park or spacious coffee house nearby.

Sad Selfie Spot

  
Here’s another modern cultural development that falls squarely into  the “ugh” category:  the Savannah airport has a designated “selfie spot” where you can take a “selfie” in front of an autumnal display of hay bales, mums, and pumpkins.

It’s bad enough that we have to put up with people taking “selfies” at every opportunity.  Now we’re encouraging them to do so on airport concourses?

Her Majesty’s Bloomers

It seems that people collect almost everything these days, and are willing to pay amazing amounts of money to do so.  Still, some of the “collectables” are decidedly . . . odd.

Consider a recent auction in England, where an anonymous collector paid $16,500 for a pair of Queen Victoria’s underpants.  The white cotton u-trou, which are, well, expansive, bear a monogram with a crown and a “VR,” and experts believe they were worn by England’s longest-serving monarch back in the 1890s.

This story is weird on two levels.  First, why would anyone want to acquire such items?  Were the Queen’s old bloomers bought to be part of a collection of royal family memorabilia, or as part of the apparently growing interest in underwear collection — with people paying big money for the unmentionables of Elvis and Michael Jackson and even the dingy undergear sported by Walter White on Breaking Bad?  Are these underwear collections ever actually displayed to anyone?  Can you imagine being invited to someone’s country estate and, while there, being taken by the proud owner on a tour of their collection of celebrity boxers and briefs, nicely displayed in glass cases?  Small wonder that the bidders at these auctions are acting anonymously.

Second, it’s sad that people are selling this stuff, and it’s got to be embarrassing for the descendants of the long-deceased Queen.  Who wants to see an ancestor’s underwear being publicly displayed, especially when it is very much plus-sized?  Apparently Queen Victoria’s clothing was parceled out to staff members after her death, and some of the staffers’ families kept the garments for generations before finally being unable to resist the temptation to make a few bucks.  If I were Queen Elizabeth, or any member of the current royal family, or any kind of celebrity, I’d make sure to include a provision in my will that required all of my underwear be cast into the bonfire as soon as I breathed my last.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Queen Victoria so characterized primness and propriety that people now use the phrase “Victorian attitudes” to refer to antiquated, repressive views on gender and sex — and yet Queen Victoria’s underwear is being publicly displayed, sold to strangers, and made the subject of jokes because of its size.  I think the Queen would be shocked and sternly disapproving of this regrettable development.

Breaking Badathon

Kish and I admittedly have been derelict in our hot TV show watching.  We have never watched Mad Men, or Dexter, or the vast majority of the other shows that have dominated the national conversation and shifted the zeitgeist over the past decade or so.

That includes Breaking Bad.  And our out-of-itness meant that, for years, when one of our friends would ask what we thought of the latest episode, we could only shrug and say we don’t watch the show — a response that was typically greeted with a puzzled look and then a heartfelt “You’ve got to watch it!”  But somehow, with everything else on our plates, we just never got around to it . . . until now.

We’ve decided to do a crash course in cultural catch-up.  With AT&T U-Verse as the platform, we’ve subscribed to Netflix, installed Roku, and started our studies.  Breaking Bad is the first class on the schedule, and each night after I return home from work we’ve become immersed in the weird world of Walter White and his pal Jesse and his crooked lawyer and watched mini-marathons of episodes.  We’re now nearing the end of season 3, and things just seem to be getting worse, big picture, for the ever-rationalizing OCD cancer-battling chemistry teacher turned bad-ass meth cook.

Some people argue that Breaking Bad is the best show that has ever been broadcast on TV.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, I would say it is a superior show, although I’m not sure that it is quite at the level of The Sopranos or The Wire.  Still, it’s got all of the elements of a great show — fascinating characters that you care about, great acting, evil, unexpected violence, stone-cold criminals, difficult moral choices, and little touches that just make the show a bit more interesting, like a character who always wears purple.

But here’s my problem:  I simply can’t watch too much non-sports TV programming without dozing off.  I don’t care how good a show is, and whether Hank is in mortal peril — there’s something about sitting on a couch and watching hours of TV that makes me nod off.  Three episodes is about my limit, and that’s OK by me.  I prefer to parcel out and savor the episodes of a great show, rather than watching them all in one big gush.

A Response To Those Angry, Ignorant, Anonymous Comments

Our college friend and fellow Lantern alum Jim McKeever writes for an interesting and lively blog called Irish Investigations.  Yesterday he wrote a post about anonymous internet comments that is worth considering.

The context of Jim’s piece is straightforward.  Among his other positive qualities, Jim is a runner and an active participant in charitable causes.  In his community there is an Independence Day 10-mile run.  Two 12-year-old twin boys with muscular dystrophy wanted to participate in the race by being pushed in adapted “running strollers” by willing runners.  Amazingly, the race organizers initially denied the boys permission to participate, but news coverage and a social media firestorm caused them to reconsider.  The event occurred, the boys participated, and they were cheered along the race route.

But the on-line news stories about the incident elicited some of the angry, ignorant comments that any regular reader of on-line content has seen all too often, all made by people using pseudonyms.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t feel good about letting disabled boys participate in a community event, but the anonymous comments showed that, pathetically, some sad, mean-spirited people did.  Jim’s piece reacts to their comments, but also raises the larger issue of whether websites should permit anonymous postings in the first place.  He thinks that people who post anonymous comments are cowards and websites shouldn’t allow them to spew their venom, secure behind the protective veil of their fake on-line names.

I get Jim’s point, but I have a different take on the issue.  I think there is value in allowing pseudonymous comments precisely because it allows people to expose their innermost thoughts.  Usually those thoughts aren’t offensive, and the posters just want to avoid any concern that they might get blowback or provoke a nut to begin stalking them — after all, the internet can be a scary place.  But even if the thoughts are angry or stupid, like the comments Jim describes, I think it’s worth seeing them precisely because it allows them to be exposed as ignorant and idiotic.  Although Jim didn’t mention this in his piece, I hope that good people like Jim responded to every one of those ignorant posts and, maybe, helped to convince the anonymous posters that their views are terribly out of line.

Technology allows so many people to live their lives in a cocoon, without much meaningful interaction with the world.  The haters at their computer keyboards may believe that their hateful views are widely shared.  When they surface from their dens to make ignorant anonymous posts, we all have the opportunity to disabuse them of that notion.