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26 June 2003

"I'm afraid I have some very bad news," she said, starting the conversation.

This was a woman I've never met. A woman I've never spoken to.

But she's the mutual friend of a friend and she was calling with "bad news." From the tone of her voice, I was certain she was calling to tell me of the friend's death.

"You know how she lives alone," she began... Then she went on to describe her living situation, how the caller's child lived in the same city and how the friend had become a "sort of godmother" to the child, how the child was married and a parent, how there had been a party, and how the child's son had been there.....

...the voice droned on and on and on with irrelevant details about her family, her job, her husband, her children, her grandchildren and finally the "bad news" she'd called about (the friend is in critical condition and her prognosis is iffy at present).

After a brief discussion of the medical condition, she returned to telling me about her children, her grandchildren, her visit to the friend in the hospital, how her child had brought pictures of the grandchildren because the sight of their beautiful faces would certainly give the patient a desire to live.

The voice continued to drone on and on and on. It was over 30 minutes that we spent on the phone together, our very first conversation, our very first interaction together.

It's not like this was prompted by nervousness. We have, in fact, received yearly family updates from this woman, always filled with much too lengthy descriptions...the stereotypical Christmas letter telling of how important the family is.

Now, it may seem strange that someone who has put her life on the Internet for over three years, who posts photos of everything minute and who calls out to "take a picture!" as they are loading her into the ambulance would have a right to criticize this woman for taking up half an hour or more of my life talking about her kids and grandkids, but maybe my resistance was low today.

She's not the first person like this I've encountered. The ideal relationship between people is one where I ask you how you are and you tell me, briefly--and then you ask me how I am, and I respond briefly. We may then go on to talk more in depth about our respective lives. Camaraderie comes from lives shared, not monologues delivered.

The caller today reminded me of another person whose path I cross perhaps once a year, or less. To this day, I don't think this person has ever asked "how are you?" or "how are your kids?" But by the end of the conversation, I know everything that has happened (the more impressive the better) with everyone in the family and extended family. It's almost become a family joke. "I talked with so-and-so today," I'll say to the family. "Oh? And how is the family?" they respond, knowing exactly what the conversation was like.

These are nice people. I know they're nice people. (Even if they didn't feel compelled to work so hard to convince me of that fact.)  But somehow they just can't see beyond trying to impress people with the achievements of their children, the impressive jobs of their spouses, their position in social organizations or anything else.

If they'd just relax a bit and admit to being normal, with normal ups and downs, a few flaws in the system now and then, and a little bit of interest in someone outside their own circle, I suspect they'd be a lot easier to like.


The reason we are so pleased to find other people's secrets is that it distracts public attention from our own.

~ Oscar Wilde

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Created 6/20/03


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