“Is this a fake hang-up? It’s a fake hang-up.”
— Bob Wiley (1991)
“The older you get, the more your life becomes a quiet conversation with the dead. I find that very sad and at the same time very comforting.” — Paul Auster (1995)
I’m terrible at making small talk.
I miss conversation. Listening. Asking questions, having a back-and-forth, throwing in a different take. And enjoying the breathtaking surprises that come from having a great conversation.
Yeah, those were the days.
At least for now.
I get that this oddly named self-referential trilogy may not apply (or appeal) to everyone. No matter. Your experience isn’t something I can truly know — at least until you open up and reveal yourself and maybe I can learn something from you.
In forthcoming posts I’ll explore Daytalking, Nightwalking, and Stargazing, how my life has been shaped by it, and lessons I might learn going forward. If it’s useful to you too, then hey, all the better.
So let’s start with a phone conversation. Imagine an old dial tone: Ring, ring, ring. Someone is calling someone.
“If only I could talk to someone…”
I’ve been overhearing cellphone calls, as I’m sure everyone does.
Mark Twain was so surprised by the “new tech” back in 1880 (which was just having a telephone installed in the house) that he wrote a satirical piece about overhearing his wife on a call. His trenchant observations were amplified over 70 years later by Bob Newhart.
Most overheard conversations these days hardly qualify as entertainment, however much the caller might think so. To me, talking on the phone is an exercise in further isolation, distance, dislocation. It’s the norm. Quick calls, texts, and emails are the fast food of conversation.
And a strict diet of that is gonna eat you alive.
While researching this post I ran across a short film made in 1972 by Spanish director Antonio Mercero, titled La cabina. It stopped me up not just because it was a deliciously produced surrealist short horror film, but because it resonates with today’s siloed, social media-echo chamber world.
In the movie, actor José Luis López Vázquez plays a man who enters a newly installed phone booth to make a call, only to discover the phone doesn’t work — and he becomes trapped inside the booth.
La cabina is still well worth seeing and underscores how, over 40 years later, social isolation is exacerbated by social media.
What are we exchanging when we log on to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other platforms? Are these places just another form of Trapped-In-Phone-Booth-to-Hell, carting us away from the people we love? How can the flimsy attempt at a text or email make up for long, deep conversations and super-quality facetime?
And can we return to simpler ways of relating?
Or has that ship already sailed?
In 2016 I quit most social media cold turkey.
At first it wasn’t easy, but it got better when I made up for “what’s missing” with things I used to enjoy doing, or just discovered new things. I read now more than ever; if I don’t enjoy a book I’ll give it to someone who might and find a new one. I don’t own a television, so I don’t “binge watch TV” anymore.
I spend more time in the world: taking in a movie, visiting a bookstore or library, trying new restaurants, or hanging out with friends new and old. Soon I’ll be catching more live theater and music, making time for exercise and new classes, and maybe playing my own music again. Earlier this year I rediscovered drawing and sketching and hit it without missing a beat.
Now, maybe my way of solving this “social media conundrum” isn’t to your taste.
But I do recall how wonderful life was when I felt the giddy anticipation of seeing a dear friend again and spending hours in that friend’s presence.
Those were happy times.
And that is exactly what I mean by Daytalking.
It was probably while we lived out East when I saw the movie Secret World on late night TV. It starred Jacqueline Bisset and a young French actor named Jean-François Maurin.
I haven’t seen it in forever, but it’s stayed with me, probably because I was roughly the same age as Maurin at the time and must’ve identified with his character.
He plays François, an 11-year old living with his uncle after his parents have died in an automobile accident. Also living with his uncle is the uncle’s American mistress, played by Bisset, with whom François forms an attachment. Admittedly he’s smitten by her beauty, but there was something deeper in their connection, something that resonated with me about how to approach a beloved “other.”
I recall François’s inability to speak, whether from shyness or grief at the loss of his parents, that added an element of Nightwalking to his character. He’s trying to get from that place where there are no words to reaching out to someone who makes him feel free and reconnected.
It may be a cheesy old movie, but hey, it still speaks to me.
Fast-forward to this past week and this wonderful 2011 TED talk by actor Thandie Newton on the subject of “Embracing otherness, embracing myself.” Her message is profoundly moving.
It got me thinking about how this all might connect with social media, isolation, missed (or one-sided) conversations, and how to move past the barriers many of us face. Newton highlights the sense young children have of “oneness” in the world, and how that sense is beaten out of us as others begin to define us and we incorporate those definitions into our selves.
“How many times,” Newton says, “would my self have to die before I realized it was never alive in the first place?” She recounts her journey through race and identity, belonging and dislocation with clarity and purpose. “Self,” she proclaims, “is a projection … perpetuating an epidemic of disconnection.”
Maybe this is why we all struggle to find our way in the world: we’re comparing others’ lives to our own. Then we’re defining ourselves against others’ expectations.
It seems like a neverending cycle.
How is this even possible with our so-called wonderful network of social media today? Likes and “friending,” multiple stars and claps and emojis and thumbs up — and all the fresh little happy neurotransmitters they’re strangling the life out of. None of which, my friends, remotely compares to the high of Daytalking — reaching out in person and engaging with the people we love the most.
It’s like the final scene in My Dinner With Andre. Wally, played by Wallace Shawn, treats himself to a taxi home, mulls over the conversation just ended with his old friend Andre, and reminisces about his past.
Then he arrives home, joyfully greeting his girlfriend Debbie and telling her everything about his evening.
Wally doesn’t phone her. He doesn’t email or text (of course the film predates that technology).
He doesn’t write Debbie a letter.
He’s there, in the flesh, Daytalking with someone he loves.
If that’s not a part of being joyfully alive, then I don’t know what is.