Blogging is an important outlet for me, because I don’t often start conversations off-line. I was raised to wait to speak until spoken to, and to keep my answers short and to the point. I now see that upbringing as part of an abusive past, but the habits stick with me. Keeping up in conversation is also difficult for me, possibly because of autistic traits, though it’s hard to parse that out from the way I was raised.
I’m starting to develop an analytical grasp of dramatic rhythm and conversational skill, but only as an outsider looking in. My new job at a restaurant gives me a wealth of “people watching” opportunities to learn from, but when it comes to making conversation with coworkers I rely on a few considerate colleagues who reach out to me more often than the rest and aren’t bothered by awkward silences or blank stares in response to what seem to me to be inane conversation starters. They’re always the ones to initiate conversation, but they don’t seem to mind.
Lately my personal preoccupation with PTSD and other aspects of trauma has led me to feel a little jilted by the way people who don’t have PTSD seem to minimize my experiences in conversation, saying normalizing things about what happened instead of recognizing the gravity of the situation or the intensity of my fears and disorientation. But I’ve come up with a hypothesis for explaining some of those seemingly unfeeling reactions away.
Petty trauma is social drama, and conversation can’t continue without it. Finding dramatic rhythm in conversation involves storytelling, plot conventions, a climax and an anticlimax, and lots of repetitions and role reversals. Everyone gets a routine turn at airing a grievance, something exciting to talk about, an event. Alleging that your grievance dwarfs anyone else’s problem of the day is bad form.
Just getting through the day is supposed to be an adventure for everyone, and egalitarianism is strict in this regard. To be congratulated on your adventure narrative you have to have already slain your dragon and you have to show your scars with pride, not with self-pity. This is part of fitting in – you have to be prepared to minimize your own hardships and to carry on as if it were a normal day, if you want to be respected.
Conversation elevates the trivial to epic proportions on a routine basis, and the price everyone agrees to pay for this glamorization of minor insults is that major struggles are to be trivialized in turn, to maintain the illusion that everything anyone wants to talk about is fair game, to avoid the oppressive self-seriousness of formality and evaluative judgments. This is protective of everyone’s feelings on most days, but extremely demanding for those who are having a run of bad luck.
Compartmentalizing helps ease the strain of equalizing pressures and conformism a little. If you have a health problem, it’s just your doctor’s purview, and talking about it isn’t the same as talking about yourself, there’s sure to be a prescription and if it isn’t perfect that’s one of the ironies of talking about health. Talking about family is another compartment with rules favoring forgiveness and cohesion – it’s bad form to counsel someone against mending fences with family members. Family is supposed to be a bulwark against the vagaries of other social ties, and if you don’t have one to go to there are no substitutes.
But compartmentalizing eases tensions by formalizing social boundaries. Talking about health is different from talking about how you feel, it’s “just” a health problem and you have to be satisfied with the doctor’s solution and leave it at that really. A chronic condition with no cure is still “just” a health problem and you can’t keep talking about it indefinitely, you have to respect the fact that healthy people get bored with illness narratives quickly.
I’m bad at compartmentalizing lately. I’ve become resentful and suspicious about conventional wisdom and informal economics. I’m getting too strident to reason well as a social critic, too emotional. Everything seems related to me, the connections are intrusive and nagging rather than illuminating, and I have a constant feeling of information overload every time I sit down to write.
Part of me wants to become a Marxist and let my personal frustrations be subsumed in an ideological critique of capitalism that has a certain abstract coherence and reasonableness to it. Part of me wants to understand economic theory better than an idealogue would though, part of me is greedy for knowledge despite the information overload. I spend most of my free time with books.
I’m trying to spend more of my free time in conversation. I’ve joined a PTSD support group on the internet and that has helped me resolve the frustration I had with making myself understood when I need to talk about just how dismal I feel. I’ve decided to take up a meditation practice and focus on the concept of friendship when I meditate. And I’m trying to become more self-aware at work, more conscious of how I come across, more willing to do what it takes to fit in.
I want to learn more about dramatic rhythm and conversational form, and in search of a discipline that may begin by “examining listening as an activity” I got a lot out of these passages from a book I read recently about jazz piano playing and “talk” as such:
“Consider the guided hand at the piano .. The finger starts out for a note, then stops, backs off from another note, and then comes back to where it is being told to go.
[.. In time, the fingers needn’t be watched while they work.]
They feel the edges of adjacent keys not as treacherously named places to be avoided but with almost the degree of intimacy with which the fingers feel each other ..
You listen to another person speak in order to say what he is saying as quickly as he says it, repeating his sounds aloud, trying to stay in spatiotemporal touch with his speech, anticipating forthcoming places to second-guess his movements .. Your efforts to repeat involve you in talking when you need to listen still more; it is like trying to follow a dance step with your eyes and feet at the same time.”
I like the analogy between talk and piano playing, because one of my favorite piano pieces is in counterpoint, and it really feels as if your hands are having a conversation with each other to play it.
The author describes how the body ascertains and expresses a natural understanding of math, how we listen, and how we relate to each other as individuals when he describes the uneasy listening style characteristic of modern life:
“You listen to the voice to hear its nervousness.
You listen to identify the language.
You listen to see if you are interested.
You listen to be able to repeat it later.
You listen so as to write a piece of criticism.
You listen to show you are listening.
You listen for your turn to talk.”
– Talk’s Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards
The analogy to music works for me because I used to study the piano and the viola, and I especially enjoyed the viola because it gave me more opportunities to perform counterpoint in an ensemble, where the instruments seem to talk to each other.
Lately I use music more as an emotional thermostat, and spend more time than I should on YouTube watching music videos and just zoning out.
“…we have developed a series of emotional thermostats as well, by far the most potent of which is television itself. Instead of really experiencing the highs and lows, pains and joys, that make up a life, many of us use TV just as we use central heating – to flatten our variations, to maintain a constant ‘optimal’ temperature.”
– Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information
Some days it seems therapeutic and needful, others just a bad habit. I’d rather be relating to my favorite films with a solid critical distance for analytical appraisal. To have a response to film is important to me. But right now I just don’t have the self-discipline to compose a good film review.
That frustrates me – not having anything to say for myself here on wordpress. This is a fandom blog, and lately I’ve only been using fan references for emphasis, not to explore film subjects in depth. I’m hoping it’s just a phase and that I’ll pull out of it before long.