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It didn't seem to matter what we talked about; if we were boring, someone would interrupt and change the subject. Indeed, sometimes half a dozen of us would talk at once, and somehow in the roiling sea of words we all mastered the delicate art of talking while simultaneously tracking several other conversations.
It was mildly competitive. A well-scored point, a clever simile, an insight--possibly prepared in advance--would be rewarded by admiration and invitations to future parties. Certain rules were understood. Saying anything, however brilliant, more than once was taboo; if we wanted more widespread appreciation, we had to rely on allies to carry our bons mots from group to group. If we waxed confessional or tearful, or complained about our spouse or our boss or our parents, it was agreed that we'd had too much to drink; our friends apologized for us and took us home.
If we lapsed into power talk or intellectual superiority, nobody invited us back and we got to sit home with a good book. If we turned bellicose on the subject of The New Yorker or Republicans or war crimes, someone--usually the host--would step in to deflect us.
We were expected to have opinions, however wrongheaded, and defend them. Entertainingly. Above all, we were expected to entertain. That's what we were there for. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to explain to the young, in a world where entertainment is no job for amateurs.
It was fun.
Well, yes. Surely we all need to be listened to? Surely we all love being on stage, facing a willing, friendly, participatory audience? And surely, with all this stuff we're force-fed every day, we need to off-load it somehow? The new non-talkers, what do they do with their opinions; how can they carry them around, squeezed in more and more tightly in their heads? Yes, I know, you go log on with Internet and key in your thoughts on a bulletin board, but is it quite the same without faces and voices? Without even wine and chips?
After a good evening, with everyone in top form, sometimes the host would open the door and we'd stand there on the front steps and see that the streets were gray with dawn. We'd have to hurry home, shower, and dress for work, but somehow we weren't tired. We felt charged.
Watching the streetlights blinking off we felt curiously buoyant, having taken in some fresh mental toys to play with and lightened our heads of a hundred thoughts.
Talking, it was called
Barbara Holland wrote "Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanities, and Other Indulgences" and other books. The above commentary is excerpted from "Endangered Pleasures." ©1995 by Barbara Holland. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co.