I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to everyone who called, texted, emailed, or otherwise reached out. It was a good day.
Birthdays are a kind of natural demarcation point. They lend themselves to reflection, to thinking about where you are, where you have been, and where you are going. For me, this birthday left me thinking a lot about the ways we communicate with each other.
Communication is challenging, even under the very best of circumstances. We have to take ideas and concepts and thoughts from our brain and share them with someone else in a way that enables the recipient to hear, understand, and acknowledge. Literally no part of that is easy. And put it all together?
It is a constant wonder to me that we are able to communicate at all.
That's what this week's essay is about. How we talk. Small talk. Deep talk. How we understand others and, perhaps more importantly, the way that how we communicate helps (or hinders) us to understand ourselves.
First, some links and stuff.
My weekly list of the random things that have irked / irritated / otherwise annoyed me.
He's baaaaack... and he chose to make his return in North Carolina. On the one hand, yes of course he did. We seem to be in a battle with states like Georgia, Florida and Texas for the lead in stupid. And. It also underscores how important NC is for the future. We are a true unicorn - a genuinely purple state where statewide elections can go either way. So those of us who are local need to be prepared for the fight.
Much is given to professional athletes. They have prodigious physical and mental gifts that allow them to do things that most human beings can only dream of. They have regard and standing. In the right sport, these young men and women (many of whom are black) have the ability to provide generational wealth for their families. And they are still people. And they are people who are placed under ENORMOUS pressure and live their life under a microscope that few of us can imagine. Naomi Osaka got tired of answering questions that were awful, dehumanizing, and often racist. And she chose to walk away from a major tournament rather than deal with the bullshit. I am glad she did. I am loathsome of the fact that we collectively drove her to that place instead of just appreciating what she does as well (or better) than anyone else on the planet.
A few weeks ago, Antarctica calved what is now the largest iceberg in the world when a chunk of ice 70 times the size of Manhattan fell into the sea. Another reminder that much of what we worry about day to day is dwarfed by the climate catastrophe that is here, ongoing, and represents a very possibly terminal event for humanity as we know it. Scary stuff.
My weekly list of stuff that I find funny / inspiring / interesting.
I think that I am a decent writer. And I know lots of people who are good at their job. Once, in college, I played a pickup basketball game that included Stephon Marbury and saw what a truly gifted player was like up close. It was like he was from a different planet. And despite seeing very good up close, I have never ever been around anyone who was simply the very best ever to do what they do. Without argument, without dissension. I think about what that must be like for someone like Simone Biles. She is so good at what she does that she has literally broken gymnastics scoring. She is so gifted that no other person has ever even attempted some of the things that she makes look effortless. I have watched this slow motion video of her doing a back flip with 3 FULL TWISTS dozens of times and my brain still can't process it.
Five time dad here, and I am also confused.
I still prefer Coke.
Watch / Listen / Read
This is a new addition to the newsletter. My weekly recommendations of something to watch (TV show or movie), something to listen to (podcast or music), and something to read (article or book). I hope you like it.
Those of you who know me know that I am a big fan of horror movies and books. With last week's release of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, all 8 movies of the Conjuring universe are now available on HBO Max. If you like horror, I highly recommend all 8. If you don't like horror, I am sorry.
I can't recommend this segment from this week's NPR show On The Media enough. It is a great look into the way that the right wing media ecosystem works, and the cynical way disinformation and outrage is propagated through that system. The purposely disingenuous way that stories are packaged and outrage is generated has had grievous consequences for our democracy, and the disinformation will only grow. Well worth the listen.
This Vice article about the Citizen app highlights how social media has created a template for some of the worst actors in our society to take advantage of some of our work human instincts. Don't know what the Citizen app is? Think of the most awful, racist thread about "dangerous" individuals "lurking" in the neighborhood you have read on Nextdoor. Then give it extra strength vitamins.
Talk, Small and Deep
After 2 weeks of being at home on leave, Matthew went back to the Air Force yesterday. And he drove back in his new car.
We got to go through the whole car buying process with him. It struck me that buying a car is a pretty good proxy for how we communicate with others. Think about it. When you first walk onto the lot, you have someone introduce themselves. The conversation starts off really generally. The first question is generally something along the lines of "what brings you in today?"
That's where the conversation starts. A few hours later, though, the person you are talking to knows as much about you as anyone. They know your credit score, where you live. The good ones know your hopes and dreams and insecurities. What starts out as a pretty basic conversation built around small talk has become a large financial transaction, locking you in to a future commitment.
While buying a car gives this process an accelerated timeline, this is how most communication goes. It starts small and - over time - gets deep. That's because most of our communication is transactional. We start conversations because we have a goal in mind, something we want. It might be a car, or sex, or a job. It might be greater knowledge or personal growth. It might be to build a relationship that seems interesting or a bond that can be impactful. But not many of us talk just to talk. Especially not about deep stuff.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that wanting something from a conversation is bad. We all want things. Wanting a conversation to grow something greater is value neutral. But the transactional nature of conversation does shape the form of the conversations we have. Small talk, establishing rapport, building trust, all of these things become really important. They are part of building the path to where we want to go.
But what happens if we never make that pivot? If we never talk about things that are important? If we never get where we are headed? What happens when conversations just stay on the surface?
I remember reading once that southerners are polite, but not kind. And that New Yorkers are kind, but rude. Like all stereotypes, this one is grounded in anecdote and propaganda, not fact. And there is also something to the idea that someone can be polite and warm - be a master of small talk - while not being at all kind or generous. And some of the most giving people I know can come off as brusque at best, a complete asshole at worst. Whether or not someone is good at small talk (as important as it can be) is not at all a good proxy for their worth.
I had brunch recently with a friend who talked about the drive to create "safe spaces." While on its face, this seems like a laudable goal - I mean who doesn't want to feel safe in conversation - in practice, safety often means creating safety for people of the majority: white folks, cisgendered straight people, and the typically abled. "Safe spaces" turns into places without dissension or disagreement. Places free of hard conversations and hurt feelings. What if instead, my friend argued, we thought about creating "brave spaces"? Spaces meant to give ALL people the ability to speak their truth and follow the conversation wherever it leads?
What would happen if we focused less on small talk and just went straight for deep talk? What if we shared what we really saw, heard and felt?
It's hard. I pride myself on being open, honest, and vulnerable. I try very hard to create brave spaces for myself and others. And I still struggle. Every day there are things I leave unsaid. There are conversations I avoid, hard truths I don't tell. I worry about sounding dumb, being mean, having someone reject me. My insecurity and anxiety shut me up.
I can't help but wonder how that ultimately affects me and the world around me. Does it keep me safe? Or just keep me from being brave?
I want to help create a world where people, places and things can be safe and brave at the same time. Where we don't have to choose between small talk and deep talk.
When you buy a car, you need both. So it is for building a more just world.
Thank you so much for reading, and for the way you challenge me to do both things every day. I appreciate each of you, and I hope you have a wonderful week.
For those of you on Facebook, please remember to check in on Friday and share the best part of your week. That starts with noticing the good things all around you.
Be well y'all.
And keep pounding the rock.