Exercises in Civilization

About a week ago I listened to “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.” In short, the program was about a woman who has particular conversational rules. A person should never discuss how they slept, travel routes, their period, health, money, dreams, and the intricacies of their diet.

At first I rejected this woman’s ideas as rigid and ridiculous, in part, I admit, because she had one of those posh British accents that makes everything sound like an Official Pronouncement. I like to think this is somehow related to Victorians and their seemingly-arbitrary rules for life. Maybe the British, as a people, are used to Telling You How It Is.

(As an aside, I picked up a book on Victorian culture when I was in San Francisco in October, and the one thing that stuck with me was the idea that unmarried women must never go on boating excursions with men lest they become becalmed, which would no doubt cause their legs to fly open, either willingly or by force. “Never go on a boating expedition” probably sounded odd and arbitrary to some sheltered young women.)

But then I started to come over to this woman’s side: I already have one rule in the house dictating that dreams must be recounted in three sentences or less, and no cheating with a lot of “AND THEN the wolf knitted me a poncho AND we all went to the county fair AND THEN my poncho got caught in this underground Ferris wheel AND THEN….” I’m not going to lie to you, children’s dreams are particularly dull. I also try to only tell interesting stories about work, which means none of the technical aspects. I think it’s a form of torture to completely recount every single aspect of your day to someone and expect the other person to listen.

So I suppose I am attempting the same thing in my own life–trying to avoid boring the crap out of people, and not being bored myself. I’m also trying to raise children who are as considerate of other people as they need to be, and as a side effect are lively conversationalists. What if I took my two rules to the next level?

I told the story of this woman at dinner that night. The girls listened with great interest. Then I made my pitch: “What do you think? Should we try this for a week?” We were all in agreement to be less boring and whiny.

On Tuesday morning I woke up tired, and sick feeling from getting up with the puppy a couple of times. I had been reaching the end of my rope sleeping with her, since even if she doesn’t have to pee, she fidgets a lot and tries to glue herself to me, which makes me end up some kind of weird tilde at the edge of my bed. I wanted to tell someone, anyone, how poorly I slept, and move on, but I held it in. Three weeks makes a habit, I told myself. Soon I wouldn’t even be having boring thoughts anymore. I would be like some kind of Zen conversationalist.

I took this rule to work with me, and found that I did a lot more listening than talking, which I liked. I realized that these seven verboten items took up a lot of small talk time with people I’m friendly with. I thought, if I never talk about any of these things, will anyone really know how I’m doing? I started feeling like a weird problem-free robot, but it was fake. I realized I liked hearing about some of these things, because it was what concerned them. You hear about people’s concerns and problems and you realize what motivates them, what’s important to them.

On Wednesday morning Franny woke up and gave me an earful about how poorly she’d slept. “There goes that rule,” I thought. On Thursday night, I drove downtown to see a movie and traffic was horrendous. I found myself wanting to give my dinner companion the blow-by-blow and then stopped myself. The final nail in the coffin was this morning when I woke up with some of the worst cramps I’ve had in months, followed by an unholy rain of bloody chunks. There was no way I wasn’t going to moan loudly about this uterine apocalypse, especially since I had to be somewhere at 10 and it actually hurt to walk.

When Franny comes back tomorrow I’m going to bring it up again, to see how their week went, to see if they even thought about it after Monday night (I doubt it). I know you can go too far with nattering on about your problems or listening to them, but there is something cozy about knowing someone well enough that they will tell you what’s really bothering them. And it’s a relief to say it.

In Other News

Yesterday afternoon I threw a bunch of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and three oxtails into my slow cooker with the notion that it would all melt into some kind of magic ragu that would make me not care that it’s cold outside now. DINNER IS SOLVED, I thought smugly, and settled in for an evening alone with Strudel.

We watched When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. She asked me if the latter was scary and I told her it certainly was, you could tell by the word “funeral.” I told her there was a scene where bats flew out of someone’s neck. She was disappointed and fell asleep after the second wedding.

My oxcoction was not anywhere near done by the time Strudel was ready to eat last night, so I made us bacon, apple, and mustard, grilled cheeses. I turned the slow cooker way down and let it cook overnight, which was the way to go. This afternoon I shredded the oxtails and gave them to Strudel, who made oxtail and shiitake ravioli for dinner. She was going to use a sausage filling, so being able to use this was handy.

Stollen prep.

I also candied a buddha’s hand and put it in a stollen. I’ve been futzing around on Sundays since I am relieved of cooking duties, and am telling myself I’m experimenting for the holidays, but I am actually just amusing myself (and fattening others).

8 thoughts on “Exercises in Civilization

  1. GASP children who cook for you! Finally, I understand why I had a child! If only I can keep from murdering him until then…

    Dang, I talk about my period ALL. THE. TIME. mostly because I’m tired of the shameful culture of silence around menstruation and also I love to talk about myself.

  2. I don’t talk about my period much, but mostly because it’s BORING. Short, light, and pain free. It also sounds like bragging, which I worry about doing.

    Never heard of a budda’s hand. That’s neat. I do love stollen but I’ve never tried to make one. I’ll be so glad when my knee is all healed up and I can do stuff in the kitchen again. I miss cooking.

  3. The best part of stollen is making it into french toast, in my humble opinion. My mom has made it into bread pudding, which is like double dessert or something.

    I love that you’re trying this experiment–I’ve been practicing not talking in meetings, which also makes me listen more. It’s probably good for me, but I do believe you’re a good listener already.

    Finally, I adore that Strudel is cooking! Channel that brilliance and creativity into deliciousness!

  4. I love those rules – but I don’t think they apply to those closest to us. They signed up for mutual venting and rambling!

    However, I learned to my cost that if one of the seven banned things becomes crucial to your life, you have to share it with friends and colleagues, so that they don’t think you hate them when you can’t hang out with them ‘cos you’re curled up in agony on the sofa.

  5. I am constantly striving to talk less and listen more. I always forget, though, it seems. The worst is when you find yourself not listening, but just waiting to talk again. That always stops me short.

  6. I’m kind of ashamed that your CHILD (what is she, like, 10 years old?) is making a recipe I would consider too complicated. Go Strudel!

  7. These rules are quite interesting, but I love talking about periods with other period havers. There’s a certain feeling of bonding over it, and while I am not a sisterhood-type-person, I can’t help but feel a little warm and fuzzy when I get into a car with my friends and we spend the next 30 minutes talking about what the chunk fairy left in our silicone stocking.

  8. I started listening to that piece on 7 forbidden topics. I’m glad you listened to the whole thing, tried it, and wrote about it. Makes my life easier! Better living through blog-reading. :)

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