- The Conversationby Jim Wile
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Having a good conversation can be extremely rare these days.
The Conversation by Jim Wile

Bob Hendricks was a quiet man. Like most quiet men, there was a lot that went on inside his head, just not a lot that came out of his mouth. It wasn't as though he had nothing to say; he actually had a lot to say, but nobody he knew seemed to want to hear about it until one day when he had the best conversation of his life.

Bob had been a computer programmer back in the days when Cobol was the predominant business programming language. He was 60 when he decided to retire because his skill set had largely become outdated as the newer programming languages and web-based applications began to make obsolete the mainframe system he was used to. He became the dinosaur in his department as his retiring peers were being replaced by younger and younger programmers. He was the last to go as the mainframe and the programs he supported were eventually phased out completely.

He had no regrets, though. He'd had a great career that he had found challenging and interesting, and felt that the time was now right to leave it to the younger kids and their new methods.

Bob and his wife Irene had done a bit of traveling after retirement, but as the years went by, and the aches and pains in their aging bodies became more assertive, they both decided that they preferred sleeping in their own comfortable beds at home, and traveling, like Cobol, became a thing of the past. A once-a-year trip to visit their daughter and two grand kids now represented the extent of their travels.

Bob had played golf in his younger years, in a league at work and occasionally with friends on weekends, but the implacable unwinding of time and the accompanying toll on his body eventually brought this chapter of his life to a close, as well.

He was a chess enthusiast and played with his chess buddies at a club a couple of afternoons a week. He and Irene volunteered on Mondays at a local food bank. Bob also liked to read and had a book or two going at all times, but he found after a while that he needed something else in his life to occupy his time.

During his years as a programmer, he had written over a million lines of code and thousands of pages of documentation. He actually liked technical writing and was very good at it, but it was pretty dry stuff--no real creativity to it.

When he came to the end of a novel one day, he thought of a much better ending than the one the author had written, and that got him to thinking: Perhaps I should try my hand at fiction-writing.

In the past, he had occasionally come up with plot ideas that he thought would make good stories if someone were to write them, but he had never dreamed of writing a story himself. Well, why not him? He had the time now. It would just be for fun, and he could write whatever interested him without worrying about trying to publish it. Maybe he would share it with Irene and a few friends, but it was mainly for his own enjoyment.

And that's how it started. He began with short stories, then a novella or two. Irene and his friends seemed to like them and encouraged him to keep writing. Finally, he tried a full-length novel. He found his creativity and skill grew the more he wrote. And the more he wrote, the more he wanted to share his stories with people because he thought they were actually good.

One of the many challenges of good writing, Bob thought, was the ability to write realistic, believable dialog between characters. Of course, you can't be completely realistic with all the 'ums' and 'ya knows,' the twisted grammar, and repetitions you often hear in real life. He was going to a party tonight for patrons of the community theater whose plays he and Irene often frequented. He knew none of the other patrons, and he thought it might be a great exercise to really listen and try to remember all the conversations he would participate in to help make his own characters more believable in their dialog.
He and Irene often split up at parties: he gravitating to the men and she, the women, at least at first. His first attempt at a conversation was with a man he saw standing by himself near the hors d'oeuvres table. They introduced themselves and he asked the man if he frequented these affairs often.

"As little as I can get away with. Me, I'd rather be home watching basketball. How about you? Do you like watching sports on TV?"

"Some golf now and then. No team sports, really."

"Me, I'm strictly a Brooklyn Nets fan. Hey, did you hear they just traded D'Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant?"

"No, I didn't."

"Do you think they'll try to turn Durant into a point guard like D'Angelo or keep him as a forward?"

"Uh, I couldn't really tell you."

"Yeah, he'll probably continue to play forward for T.J. Warren who's out with a foot injury. Of course, who really knows with the rotten performance from the point guards lately."

"These look good. Nice talking to you," said Bob as he helped himself to a deviled egg and moved on.

He carried his deviled egg and a glass of rum punch over to a sofa and sat down. He was soon joined by another gentleman similarly armed with refreshments. They introduced themselves, and the man asked, "Do you play golf, Bob?"

"I used to. I'm afraid old age finally put the kibosh on that. I still like to play the occasional round on the computer, though."

"Well, I just shot my career best round!"

"Really. What did you shoot?"

"It was an 89. You ever play at Clearview?"

"Once a long time ago."

"First hole, I take a double bogey. I'm thinking: routine start. Then second hole, I find the fairway bunker, hit the 5-iron of my life right onto the green and sink the putt for a birdie! Third hole: long par 3. Just miss the green on the right, knock the chip up to 5 feet, but miss the 5-footer. Fourth hole: good drive just into the right rough, pretty fair second shot to about 50 yards from the green, mediocre pitch to 25 feet, but I sink the putt for a par. Fifth hole,"

"Well, tell me about the last couple of holes when you saw breaking 90 was within your grasp."

"Nah, I haven't gotten to the best part of the front 9 yet. Fifth hole, long par-5, I hit probably my best drive of the day, 3-wood to the"

"You know, I see my wife beckoning from over there. I'd better see what she wants. Would you excuse me?" and I beat a hasty retreat.

She wasn't beckoning me, but I decided to join her anyway. She was talking with an elderly couple like ourselves. After the introductions, Irene resumed her story: "So, being a teacher's aide, I was asked to accompany the class on their field trip to the farm. Now, none of these kids had been to a farm before and were quite unprepared for the sights and smells of a farm. One little boy saw an ox lift his tail and pass a load of excrement, and he said, 'It looks like Campbell's Bean with Bacon Soup. I'm never eating that again!' Don't you just love kids' perceptions of things?"

We all laughed, then the wife said, "My Aunt Millie grew up on a farm up near Concord, and she"

"I thought the farm was near Groley," put in her husband."

"No, it was Concord. You're thinking of my Aunt Ethel. Now she was from Groley."

"No, I'm pretty sure Ethel lived in Peterstown. It was Millie that lived in Groley."

"Well, we'll have to agree to disagree on that, Henry. As I was saying, my Aunt Millie grew up on a farm, and I don't believe she'd ever been to a big city until she was about 18."

"No, you're right. It was Millie that lived near Groley...I mean Concord," said Henry.

"Did she have any funny stories to relate about her first experience in a big city?" Bob asked.

"None that I can remember. I don't know if we ever discussed it."

Irene and Bob looked at each other then. "Well, it was very nice meeting you. I think we're going to go mingle some more," Irene said as she took Bob's arm and they wandered off.

"Thank you for rescuing me," Bob said to Irene. "I glanced over at you a few times when I was across the room. How did you manage to talk to those folks for as long as you did?"

"Now, be nice, Bob."

"I've been trying to analyze the art of conversation for my writing, but this isn't going very well, Renie."

"Well, keep trying. I'm going to go join those ladies over there. Catch up with you later."

As she left, he looked around for a group of men to join and spotted three fellows about his age engaged in conversation. This looked promising he thought as he made his way over to the group. They welcomed him in, introduced themselves, and said they were discussing what they all did to keep busy since retirement.

"How about you, Bob? How do you spend your days?" asked a man named Ken.

"I've recently taken up fiction writing."

"Oh really! What kind of fiction, short stories, novels, science fiction?" asked one of the men.

"I started with short stories, but I've gone on to longer works. I'm currently working on my second novel."

"The only fiction I ever wrote was the time I left my wife a note saying I had to visit my ailing sister for the weekend when I was really going fishing instead," said Ken.

"So, you're a fisherman too, are you, Ken? Where do you usually fish around here?" asked another man.

"There's nowhere good around here. You've got to go down to Sherman's Reservoir for that. They've stocked it with bass, and there's plenty of 'em."

"Anyone ever do any deep-sea fishing?" asked still another fellow, and Bob decided to wander off again after that.

This was very discouraging. Bob had been part of four conversations now and had probably said fewer than 100 words, while his fellow conversationalists had probably said over 1,000 and not one of the four was interesting to him or interested in him. He decided to give it one more attempt before giving up.

He saw an attractive-looking younger woman standing by herself, walked up and introduced himself. Her name was Lydia. He asked Lydia if she had attended many of the plays this year.

"Why, yes," she said. "Did you happen to see the recent production of Little Shop of Horrors?"

"I did," said Bob.

"Did you enjoy it?"

"I did. I thought it was"


"I was going to say campy, but I guess gruesome also describes it, though it was tastefully done."

"My favorite character was Seymour. He was such a nebbish at the start. Who was yours?"

"Oh, that's easy; it was"

"No, let me guess...Audrey?"

"Actually, I was going to say Orin Scrivello. He was so..."


"Well, that too. I was going to say slimy. I think he deserved his fate. That really wasn't my favorite show this year, though. I most enjoyed Min"

"Flashdance! That was my favorite. Wasn't the dancing fantastic?"

"Actually, I didn't see that one. I was going to say Minnesota Moon. I thought it was very..."

"Depresssing. That's what it was. I really prefer something lighter than that one. Look, I see my friend, Sylvia, over there and I have to ask her something. It was nice talking with you, Bob."

Is that what we were doing? thought Bob.

He threw up his hands in desperation. He'd had enough. He saw Irene across the room chatting with her lady friends and took the opportunity to duck out for a while. He made his way out into the night, crossed the street to a park, and found a bench to sit on. What a revoltin' development that turned out to be, he thought, recalling those famous words from Chester A. Reilly on The Life of Reilly. He had learned nothing in the way of dialog except negatives. He did, however, get plenty of ideas for boorish and boring individuals to use as possible characters in his stories.

As he sat there on the park bench, ruminating about human nature, he saw another older gentleman cross the street, enter the park, and sit down on the park bench.

"Mind if I join you?" he said to Bob. "I couldn't help but notice you in there talking with Lydia. Were you able to get a word in without her filling in the blank for you?"

"Not many. And every blank she filled in was the wrong answer. Let me ask you: Is it just me, or is everyone in there terrible at conversation?"

"It's not only in there. It's rampant. When is the last truly good conversation you've had with an acquaintance?"

Bob thought for a long time about that.

"See what I mean? A good conversation is very rare."

"Why do you think that is?" asked Bob.

"I think it's because most people are self-centered and only seem to consider things from their own point of view. Not all, but the vast majority. They think everything they say is as fascinating to others as it is to them. If they would only put themselves in their listeners' shoes as they babble on, they might get a rude awakening. But they never will. To many people, it's so much easier to talk than really listen."

"Well, I think you're right about that," said Bob. "I think it was the writer Chuck Palahniuk who once said: 'The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.'"

"I hadn't heard that one. That's good!"

"And have you noticed that even if a person has nothing of substance to add to a conversation, they do it anyway?"

"Do you have an example for me?"

"Sure. A man in there asked me what I did in my spare time, and I told him I had developed a new interest in fiction writing. He made some inane reference to the only fiction he had ever written was a lie to his wife about visiting a relative when he had really gone fishing. Naturally, the conversation turned to fishing, and my writing hobby became a distant memory. There was no way to bring the conversation back to it."

"I would have said something like, 'Hey, that makes a great idea for a new story about lying to your wife and suffering the consequences when she smells fish all over your clothes the next time she does the laundry.'"

"Well, I'm not as quick as you. I didn't think of that. The conversation probably would have turned to lies told to wives after that instead of my writing hobby."

"Yeah, you're probably right," he said. "How did you happen to develop fiction writing as your hobby?"

"I've always been a reader, and one day about a year ago I finished a book with, what I thought, a very unsatisfactory ending. I thought of a much better ending myself. Then I thought of a possible sequel to the book based on my ending, and then I thought maybe it would be fun to try that out. It was surprisingly easy for me to write a short story sequel to this book. It was only for my pleasure, but I did read it to my wife, and she enjoyed it."

"That's an interesting way to start. So where do the ideas for your stories come from?"

"Mostly from my own life experiences and the things I'm knowledgeable about."

"Do you have to do any research?"

"That's what Google is for, isn't it? I can't imagine how tedious and time-consuming research must have been for authors before the internet."

"Have you attempted to publish anything yet that you've written?"

"I'm working up to it. I don't really relish trying to find a literary agent and going the traditional publishing route. I tried self-publishing a few novellas, but I don't know how anyone would ever find them to consider buying them. The only ones I know who've read them are the few people I told about them. But I tell you what: the most fun is just in the writing--the thinking up of the ideas and then committing them to a story. I like my stories, whether anyone else does or not. That's mainly why I do it."

"If you like them so, don't you want to share them with others?"

"Yeah, but I need to improve before I go about that in a big way. The last one is a novel I sent to a structural editor to get her input on the overall structure of the novel. Not the grammar or spelling or anything like that, but the big picture of the story. She sent me back a whole list of revisions to consider, and I learned that the first draft of something usually isn't very good. It needs a lot of tweaking--some of it major. So, I no longer try to self-publish my first or second draft of a story, or even share it with too many people anymore until I'm convinced that I really have something special. Hey, enough about me. What do you like to do in your spare time?"

"I like to play golf."

"No kidding! That was my sport too until I had to give it up. So, what do you like best about playing golf?"

"Well, that's a tough question. I like almost everything about it. I like the fact that almost anyone can enjoy it, but the more you put into it and the better you become at it, the more enjoyable it gets to be. It's not like just going to plays or concerts. Those are enjoyable, but you didn't really do anything except sit there and enjoy other people's talents. I like making my own enjoyment."

"More fulfilling that way," Bob agreed, "and ultimately more pleasurable."

"It certainly is."

"Anything else about it you especially like?"

"You'll laugh."

"Try me."

"Alright. I love the sensory pleasures of golf. Nothing beats that feeling of hitting the ball right in the center of the club face and watching it soar straight down the fairway. Whether it soared 250 yards when I was younger or only 175 now, the feeling in your hands is still the same."

"I'm not laughing. I know exactly what you mean."

"I even wrote a poem about it once."

"Can you remember it to recite it to me?"

"Sure. It's called, "A Well-Struck Golf Ball," and goes like this:

There is nothing to compare to the feeling that is there
In your hands from a well-struck golf ball.
If this subject you are dissing, then you don't know what you're missing
From the feeling of a well-struck golf ball.
And of course, there is the CRACK! That arises from the whack
That's the product of a well-struck golf ball.
Was there ever such a sound? Why, it's music that abounds,
Emanating from a well-struck golf ball.
Experience the vision that derives from the collision
Of the club and a well-struck golf ball.
I'm sure that you will treasure and enjoy the retinal pleasure
Of the soaring to the blue of a shot that's straight and true.
Your soul will resonate with vibrations you create
From the essence of a well-struck golf ball.

"Bravo! I think you've nailed it. So, you're a poet too?"

"An occasional one. The mood has to strike me."

"I'm not much of a fan of modern poetry. I recently looked at a book of the best poems of the year 2020, and I couldn't find a single one that rhymed. What do you think about it?"

"Oh, I agree with you. Give me a poem which rhymes and has good meter any day over what passes for poetry today. Those types of poems took such skill to write."

"Do you have a favorite example?"

"How about Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven?"

'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."'

"It doesn't get any better than that. Maybe we're just old fuddy-duddies who can't change with the times."

"Maybe, but I think too many poems today are so sloppily written and convoluted in their choice of words, that you have to read them ten times before you can understand them. Often, the point isn't anything special. They just try to fancy it up with a lot of portentous phrases they hope will make it sound meaningful. Give me a good Robert Frost poem any day. I could understand those."

"I hear you. Now, getting back to our first point about bad conversations, how do you talk to someone who won't shut up and keeps talking without taking a breath, changing topics willy-nilly without a pause to let you jump in?"

"You seem like a polite kind of guy. I'll bet you don't like interrupting people, do you?"

"No, not really."

"Sometimes you have to for your own sanity. It's the only way to get a word in edgewise with people like that. And they deserve to be interrupted. It's not polite of them to hog a conversation like that. They may not realize they are being rude, but they are."

"Well, that's a good point. I always feel guilty about interrupting someone, but I guess you're right about maintaining your sanity. Sometimes you have to do that too when people keep making the same point over and over again. You've got to cut them off."

"Yeah, and the worst thing is when they keep making it over and over, and it isn't very interesting to start with. People can be awfully boring to listen to."

"What do you think it is that makes some people boring and some interesting to listen to? They could be relating the same story, but one is boring and one is interesting. What's the difference?"

"I think it's all a matter of selectivity. Tell me about a boring conversation you had in there tonight."

"I was talking to a man who, like us, played golf. He told me he shot his career best round today--an 89. Not all that great, but it was his best. He then proceeded to tell me shot-for-shot how the round went. It was awfully routine. I finally cut him off after the 4th hole and asked him what it was like as he got near the end and a new record was in his grasp. He virtually ignored me and went back to the 5th hole, at which time I beat a hasty retreat."

"What could he have done to make the conversation interesting?"

"He could have treated me to one or two highlights of the round. He could have told me what his feelings were as he neared the end, or what was the difference in how he played today versus his usual game? Had he gotten any tips or new swing thoughts that he was trying out for the first time? Anything but a blow-by-blow description of every shot. Could he not tell that I was getting bored when I asked him to jump to the end?"

"Apparently not. People get so wrapped up in themselves, they don't pick up on clues."

"Well, this has been fascinating--the most enjoyable conversation I've had all night. I wish now I hadn't wasted my time in there, but I guess if you don't talk to people, you never learn anything."

"Why don't you write a story about it--a good conversation?"

"Hey, I'll think about it. Now I'd better get back before my wife comes looking for me. Nice talking with you."

"You too."

Bob hurried back in then. Most of the patrons were putting on their coats about to leave when he spotted Irene looking around for him. He walked over to her, and she looked at him curiously.

"What were you doing out there, Bob. I saw you through the window."

"I was having my best conversation of the evening."

"But who were you talking to? There was no one there."

The End

Author Notes
Being one of those people who generally provides only 10% of the talking in most conversations, I got to wondering why that is? Like Bob, I have plenty to say, but so few people seem able to draw it out of me. I know part of it is my desire not to want to be a bore. I just wish others would feel as constrained.


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