Risse, M. “Your Zimbabwe Stories” in Emanations: Sidestepping Academic Dicta into the Higher Ecstatic Ethos. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2012: 305-308. (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
for Michael and Joe
I would love to hear your Zimbabwe stories. I’m the one in the corner of the coffee shop, reading a book. It’s a good book but good conversation is better than a good book. I want to hear the one about ants eating your shoes, lizards in the kitchen sink and the bats nesting in your fig tree. The one about driving in fog so thick you could not see more than five feet ahead of you, the one about the restaurant that gave you Welsh rabbit when you ordered Welsh rarebit, and the camel jail. Hysterical stories. I can’t wait to hear them.
Then I will tell you my great story about the blind snakes and the one about the herd of camels who destroyed my garden, the wild donkeys in the empty house and how the giant sea turtles come to visit fishermen who are casting from shore.
Then we will get more coffee and talk about Wittgenstein. Not that Wittgenstein, Herbert Wittgenstein, the ex-pat who disappeared to China in the second week of the semester, this will segue into a discussion of the Red and the Black, the song from Les Miserables, then on to Stendhal’s novel, then French cheeses. Then we will chat about our favorite airplane meals, the differences between Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s airport, then the worst bar we have been in, Somerset Maughn, Matisse, the Easter Bunny, the pampas and eels.
I can’t wait for this conversation. I literally can’t wait. I am so tired of conversations about how someone’s mother never though she was pretty, about how expensive the electricity bill is, how incompetent travel agents are and problems with house cleaners. I do not want any discussion which include the words “my soul,” “connecting to the Earth,” “rejuvenating,” taxes, or exercise.
I once spoke with a woman who wanted to know about getting internet connected at home. I tell her to begin by buying tranquilizers and draw a quick sketch of where the office that handled internet hook-ups was. I tell her the funny story of the woman who yelled at the telephone technician, which caused a 6 week delay in her internet connection.
I stop talking. I am done. I am now ready for her story of visiting Alexander Graham Bell’s house; dropping her cell phone in the Ganges; a funny horror story about Verizon customer service; internet service in Nepal; using ‘party-phone’ lines in Nevada or how a nervous guy caller her house to ask her older sister to prom, blurted out the question when she picked up the phone, she said ‘yes’ and her sister has still not forgiven her.
She says, “Oh, I can’t be bothered.” And there is silence. I eat my hummus and think, for the fifteenth time, “It would be more fun to converse with dung beetles.” The silence continues. I don’t want to talk more – it is no fun to yap non-stop. More silence. We are three women having dinner – we do not meet often but we have several things in common. It should not be so difficult to come up with gambits. I tell a story about explaining ‘animal metaphors’ to my students and demonstrating a charging rhinoceros for them. Silence.
I once sat, in shock and horror, while four people from a certain northern North American country discussed who had the most boring politicians. I wish I could have taped it because I could have sold the CDs as a sleep-aid. How boring my elected representative is – is this a subject for discussion at a dinner table? No, it is not.
When we meet, you and I, there will not be silence or topics of mind-numbing boredom. We will not talk about ‘politics,’ ‘the economy,’ ‘health care,’ or ‘welfare.’ We will not strive to compete, to ‘one-up’ or score points, but we will both try to be as amusing as possible, to keep the talk humming along smoothly, hitting stories back and forth like a friendly game of tennis.
We will never, never, never, never approach the conversational abyss of “things [education, manners, politics, economy, doctors, books, movies, men, women, children…] were better when I was younger.” This phrase will never pass our lips in public. Neither will related lines like “carrots were more orange” nor “stewardesses were nicer and cuter.”
“Things were better when I was younger” is what one says puttering around the house and stuck in lines for security clearance, not a line to inflict on others. With others you and I, we are (pax Oprah) our ‘best selves.’ If we didn’t want to be or feel up to being out ‘best self’ we would have stayed on the sofa, not inflicted our self-absorbed whining on innocent conversation partners.
We will know instinctively and unshakably that conversation is a soufflé, only properly done when light and airy. You say, “Ah that reminds me of when… I had malaria in Iran…I was working in the typewriter factory…I was arrested in Rio…I was making tortillas for the cardinal…I was playing drums for Jefferson Airplane…I was hitch-hiking in Zimbabwe….”