I am told I need to participate in the national conversation.

I am not exactly sure what that means, but It seems like everytime I turn on the news some authoritative figure addressing the most recent topic of the day decries the need to “have a conversation” or “add to the conversation” or “join in the conversation”.

Who exactly am I supposed to be having a conversation with?

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Is this some sort of national Zoom call I don’t know about? You know, with the rest of the country. To discuss important issues or something. And does the nation really want my two cents? I am not sure I have much to add that hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseam by others much more articulate than I am.

But sure, I’ll participate. How do I get started?

Hi. I’m John. Let’s talk about abortion.

I’m not really good at starting conversations. I am not great at finishing them either. Or for that matter, contributing to the long parts in between. The parts with lots of words conveying meaningful ideas or revealing thoughts or perceptive observations.

The pandemic has not helped my conversational artistry either. For a long stretch of time in the Covid dark days, I hardly saw anyone outside my immediate family. At the time, I wasn’t really keen on the idea of calling up friends to talk vigorously about immigration reform.

And I find Zoom to be an uncomfortable platform to converse. No one ever makes camera eye contact when they speak and it’s hard to pipe into a conversation without being called on. And if someone’s camera is off, are they even there?

People fall asleep in Zoom meetings.

I also find it awkward talking through a mask. I wonder if people believe I am actually speaking if they can’t see my lips move. I feel like a ventriloquist and a dummy all at the same time. Especially when I don’t have anything enlightened to say. Which is most of the time.

So except around my family, I haven’t really had much in the way of deep conversation for a good year or so. I am out of practice. My small talk has grown even smaller if that is possible. I have lost all sense of warmup chit chat.

Some weather we are having. I heard it is supposed to rain tomorrow. I think the private sector should be doing more to address global climate change. What about you?

Or when I see my neighbor taking out the recycling.

How’s the family? Everyone good? We are healthy, but I am really concerned over the dangerous concentration of microplastics in the ocean.

I am not really sure how to join in the national conversation when I have trouble conversing with people one-on-one. If I knew how, I would talk to someone about this.

These days everyone seems to be initiating conversations guided by the current state of their vaccination schedule. It has replaced weather as the universally safe topic of conversation, at least among the group of people who aren’t afraid of needles. That might help.

I get my second shot next week. I heard it can be a killer. But not nearly not as bad as the gun violence which is infecting this country.

I clearly have to work on non sequiturs.

The irony is that I like talking with people. Especially when they are interesting and I don’t have to think of something to say. Especially when they don’t ask me questions that might reveal that I am not interesting. Especially when there are no awkward pauses that I feel compelled to fill.

So . . . how about those Yankees?

I don’t even like the Yankees.

I sometimes think expectations for revealing truth through deep, exhaustive conversation have been elevated to unrealistic levels. I blame daytime talk show hosts like Phil Donahue and Oprah for giving extensive dialogue television ratings. For making us all feel compelled to talk and talk and talk about the important issues of the day. Sexism. Racism. Police Brutality. Losing weight.

And here we are still having conversations about the same things. After all this conversation, shouldn’t we be doing something?

I was more of a Jerry Springer kind of guy, where meaning was vividly expressed by throwing chairs.

Conversation wasn’t always this hard. A hundred years ago the great romantic writers of the day like Hemingway and Fitzgerald demonstrated the raw, intimate power of sparse dialogue like this:

What do you think of Paris?
It's swell, I guess.
Do you think so?
I just said so.
It’s good to see you.
No, I don’t think it is.
Pour me a drink.
Can’t darling. I’m leaving for Spain.
Spain? What is your position on the separatist movement in that country?

Hemingway had difficulties with non sequiturs too.

It is not easy to talk candidly with others about touchy issues.

So before we jump in the national conversation, maybe we should relearn how to talk to each other. Because we all have something to say, we just may not know how to say it.

Heard any good jokes lately?