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Getting together to talk: People really

Date published: 3/2/2013

RECREATIONAL talking is, along with private singing, one of our saddest recent losses. Like singing, talking has become a job for trained professionals, who are paid considerable sums of money to do it on television and radio while we sit silently listening or, if we're truly lonely and determined, call the station and sit holding the phone waiting for a chance to contribute our two cents' worth.

I'm told there are residual pockets of private talk left, in the Ozarks and in nursing homes in the Deep South; graduate students converge on them armed with grants and tape recorders. It can't be long, though.

It happened quite suddenly, as these things do, and few people noticed until it was too late. A generation had grown up with passive entertainment and music too loud to talk over; they grew up with drugs that sucked the mind inward and blunted the urge to chat. Later they bought VCRs and invited friends over to watch movies.

Oh, they talk, of course, but not for fun. They talk about their grievances, called "therapy," and their anger, called "venting," and their relationships, called "communicating." They talk at the conference table ("brainstorming") and the kitchen table ("bonding"). But when they hear that their parents once gathered in groups of friends or relatives for the express purpose of amusing themselves and each other with talk, they're as bewildered as if we'd been sacrificing virgins at the full of the moon.

"But what did you talk about?"

What indeed? Sex and politics and civil rights, the best restaurants we'd ever eaten in, seven things to take to a desert island, how we'd go about faking a Jackson Pollock, what we'd do with a million dollars, what to keep in a bomb shelter, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, Tennessee Williams, Richard Nixon, lunatic teachers we'd had in school, cats, communism, astrology, Catholicism, the British monarchy, how we'd recast "The Wizard of Oz," how we'd redesign the human body, a funny story about our Aunt Ellen, a funny story about our refrigerator, and shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings.

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