On Everyday Conversation

I remember my final day of work in Baltimore. That I’d already experienced a really generous series of farewell lunches, happy hours, and farewell notes from my friends and colleagues. And that three o’clock on that final day, a dear friend from the preceding six and half years came to my office.

It was his last day, too. He suggested we grab a beer to celebrate.

I still had work to do. A lot of it, for 3 p.m. on a Friday, with very little to hold me accountable. Still, I recognized this as a final opportunity to have final drink with someone I’d talked to on a daily basis for a period of years, and thought I would be foolish and hard-hearted to decline.

So, we walked down the hill to the tavern some of us had frequented in years past, that I’d only made it to a half dozen or so times in the past year. We grabbed a table near the bar and sipped our pints. Talked about the adventures we were both moving on to, and his son, and TV. We finished our first drinks and, in good spirits, I said I could go for just one more if he liked.

My friend had a family to get home to, and politely passed.

On my way back to the office, I walked my friend to the car. I said to keep in touch. He said that our friendship had always been an easy one, and he was sure we would remain in contact.

And I remember talking with another, older friend about this exchange. “You really think you’ll keep in touch?” he asked.

I wasn’t certain, but in the direct aftermath of such good conversation, riding high on all of these fond farewells and the nostalgia they had conjured, I said, “I think so.”

We texted a handful times along my drive across the country and that fall. The following summer, when I returned to our old mutual employer for seasonal work, we caught up on the phone and ended up meeting for drinks at the same bar.

“Keeping in touch” is a relative and arbitrary term. I still have a small handful of friends my teenage sleep-away camp experience with whom I’m Facebook friends. We’ll “like” one another’s posts here and there, sometimes offer a comment. I expect if we ever found ourselves in the same city again, we’d say hello, maybe grab lunch, but it’s hard to earnestly say that we’re really in each other’s lives now.

That friend from work--I like him a lot and I wish him nothing but the best. Just the same, it’s hard to say that we’re really still in touch in any meaningful way.

I got to thinking about all of this upon listening to the “What’s Going On In There?” episode of This American Life. One of the segments profiles a young man who grew up in the States with his Chinese immigrant father who never learned English. The son reports that the family made a conscious decision to focus on the English language opportunities that would afford their son opportunities in the US, assuming he would pick up Chinese more casually at home.

Only, he didn’t.

So the boy grew into a man without ever having a conversation that extended past pleasantries with his father.

This relationship depicted on this show conjured thoughts of my own relationship with my Chinese grandparents--strikingly similar, if even more distant for only having seen them for three weekends a year growing up, plus strained weekend and Christmas morning phone calls in which we fumbled through polite how-are-yous before giving up on account of the language barrier.

All the more so, this episode got me thinking about my relationship with my own parents.

Growing up, I tended to see my father as a monster--a man with a temper who was quick yell at and demean me, my sister, and even my mother for any transgression. I remember him saying that all I did was make more work for other people when I spilled gravy at one family dinner, and years later asking how I’d ended up so stupid when I dropped a gallon of milk as I fetched it from the fridge.

My childhood memories of my mother tend to be faded, like out-of-focus photographs, in the shadow of my father. I remember hugs good night and singing along to Beatles songs, but these memories are fewer and factor less prominently in my childhood psyche.

As an adult, I don’t harbor ill will told either of my parents. I believe that they were each mostly doing the best they knew how in the mind-bogglingly complicated domain of trying to raise other human beings. And I like seeing them now, though it typically doesn’t happen more than two or three times a year, and typically not for visits that last more than two or three nights.

I’ve thought from time to time that one of those visits might be the one in which we break new ground. When I tell them something profound about my life and uncover pieces of their past that I’ve never heard--origin stories or secrets or even forgotten memories from times I would have been too young to fully recall.

But we rarely move much past basics. My mother and I share a limited capacity for small talk and once we’re through with the essentials some chatter on the TV shows we watch, our conversation tends to run dry. Conversations with my father usually gravitate around his obsessions—ballroom dancing, Texas Hold ‘Em, the stock market. We get stuck when we talk about my life--when he doesn’t know what to ask about my writing or teaching, and when my childhood instincts for assuming that what I have to say isn’t important resurface.

Still, when I listened to “What’s Going On In There?” I sensed a common drive to know more, to have a connection.

I listened on. And it became clear that a meaningful connection there, too—even with the help of translators and the written word--didn’t come to fruition through any grand revelation or moment of truth.

But this segment of the podcast spun off. Away from big changes, into the everyday.

The father and son began emailing. Texting. Nothing profound. Just how-are-you-doing questions, the father’s reminders to make sure his son was eating enough. These exchanges began to happen more regularly. Until the father and son were, for the first time, part of one another’s lives.

And I thought about making more of an effort to do this with my parents. With my sister. With all of the friends I mean to keep in better touch with, but rarely make the time for.

I got overwhelmed, just imagining it. You can’t maintain a consistent connection with everyone.

And then I think that perhaps I don’t have to. That these everyday conversations with people in my everyday life, for as trivial as they may be, are not unimportant. They’re the foundation for shared experience, for a shared life. And when our time together passes, it doesn’t mean that that connection goes away or didn’t matter, but rather that it’s served it’s purpose, and might be there waiting for us down the road or on the other side (however abstractly, profoundly, or literally you want to take that).

I know most of my readers are friends or family--some from today, probably all the more so from some time in our shared past, drawn together now only through Facebook or Twitter. And to you, I say, “Hello,” “how are you,” and “don’t be a stranger.”