Saturday, March 3, 2012

Baseball Season Opening, Samuel Johnson and Conversation

Henry had to get up at 6:45 this morning and head over to the park for his opening baseball season game. I'm going over there, momentarily, but while I sipped my coffee this morning, I read snippets of Stephen Kuusisto's Do Not Interrupt, a neat book of essays on "the art of conversation." In one chapter, Kuusisto includes this quote from the great Samuel Johnson, written in 1751:

After the exercises which the health of the body requires, and which have themselves a natural tendency to actuate and invigorate the mind, the most eligible amusement of a rational being seems to be that interchange of thoughts which is practiced in free and easy conversation; where suspicion is banished by experience, and emulation by benevolence; where every man speaks with no other restraint then unwillingness to offend, and hears with no other disposition than desire to be pleased.
The other night, I walked around Westwood Village with one of my oldest and dearest friends in lieu of going to a performance at Royce Hall. It was a beautiful night; we'd eaten a delicious dinner and I had had a beer or two; there was nothing better than walking around and laughing, so when we sat on a bench for a bit and did some people-watching, our conversation turned toward the horrible antics of the Rush Limbaughs of the world, the Rick Santorums and the social conservatives, those who whine about wanting their country back, the hyper-religious, the America is the greatest country on earth sorts. We talked about the sudden death of Andrew Breitbart and how difficult it was to mourn a man who used lying as a weapon in his discourse. We wondered, too, why Rush Limbaugh didn't just drop dead. We asked each other, like the moderator at the latest Republican debate did, what word we'd use to describe ourselves (right after cracking up about Newt Gingrich's cheerful) -- my friend made a nasty reference to anatomy about himself, and I said unbearably and utterly gorgeous. We laughed some more and then he suggested persevere for me and provocative.

Provocative. I've been thinking about that word for a couple of days and there's a kind of synchronicity in my reading that particular snippet in Kuusisto's book. I'm afraid I am more provocative in conversation than benevolent, particularly when it comes to politics and certain viewpoints. I wonder whether I should rather talk with no other restraint then unwillingness to offend.

That's what I'm going to think about when I watch my beautiful son swing his bat.


  1. Beautiful essay. And if we should use the restraint of unwillingness to offend, is it really a conversation or is it just a trading of placating?

  2. I don't think you can live your life with the goal of never offending anyone. Whatever you say there is bound to be someone out there that will find your words offensive. So, if you're going to insult someone no matter what, might as well speak your truth.

  3. I think there is a way to speak your truth without having a desire to offend others, but sometimes it's damn hard to be heard over the self-indulgent wailings of those like Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum. The truth is, whether the intent is to offend or not, truth is truth and the ones screaming the loudest are often those who never listen.

    I believe you listen, Elizabeth, and do not think that provocative and benevolent are at odds. I would describe you as both, actually.

  4. According to the Buddha: "Teach this triple truth to all:, A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity." It seems to me you have two out of the three down pat. Not bad! Better to rant a little and let off some steam, than descend into violence and hatred. I have occasionally wondered if something like Tai Bo or kickboxing would bring release from anger. Running seems to get increasingly difficult as I get older - it hurts!

  5. I love your feistiness, Elizabeth, in writing and life. Such a great picture of the beautiful young man that Henry is becoming. x0 N2

  6. Provocative and benevolent in equal measure? It is hard to keep an even keel methinks. Sounds like a book to treasure.

  7. If we live in perpetual self-censorship will be ever say anything?

    I think good-hearted is good enough. And if someone is offended, maybe it's their issue, not your words.

  8. I strive not to offend, but also to be truthful. I don't think truth has to come with offense. But as some of your commenters pointed out, that's also largely up to the listeners/readers.

    I thought that question from the debate -- describe yourself with a single word -- was really difficult! I don't think I could do it!

    As for the Limbaughs, Santorums et al, anyone who feels such a sense of absolute certainty, a lack of appreciation for the gray areas of life, is missing out on so much!



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