Friday, July 22, 2011

No Small Talk

I just had my first haircut. That is, my first haircut in a barber shop. (They wouldn't give me a damned lollipop, though.) See, my mom, a hairdresser, by necessities of old (i.e. she is a musician just like the rest of my family), always cuts my hair, but she just had to have surgery to correct the damage of those necessities.

So, I walked in to the barber shop and had no idea what I wanted. (Cut it like my mommy does?) The long and short of it is, I finally worked it out and the haircut is pretty good and they even slapped hot towels on my face afterward. (I'm not sure why -- there was no shave forthcoming, but it felt pretty good. Scared the hell out of me, though.)

Still, no stinking lollipop. I suppose I should have pressed that issue harder, but I have sneaking suspicion they didn't think I was serious. (I tried everything short of grabbing one of them by the shirt and saying, "Seriously, give me a f@#%ing lollipop.") Maybe they don't know that I like lollipops so much. (And ice cream, incidentally. I have a theory that ice cream must be good for you. Anything that makes a person that happy cannot be bad for his health.)

Oh, and all that said, the experienced changed my life pretty dramatically.

"How," you ask? By doing what unexpected experiences sometimes do to us: by pushing away a myth I had created about myself. By showing me that a facade I had built up and convinced myself of was just that: a pasteboard mask.

I've often said that I can't stand small-talk. It is a waste of time. Who cares, right? Give me talk of string-theory and quantum mechanics. Give me Hegel and Descartes! Give me Milton! What is the point of street corner gabbing with strangers? That was an attitude I had convinced myself I carried. The attitude an intellectual is supposed to have about such things.

What am I an idiot? I'm a writer, for the love of God.

It is rare that I am forced into "small-talk," but sitting in a barber's chair, there is little hope of escape until the last hair is snipped and the Jefferson is handed over. So, my barber, a tatooed young woman with shorter hair than I have ever had, talked. I listened. I talked back about her son and his learning disabilities (she found out I am a teacher) and we talked about music (some of the other barbers are musicians in the shop) and we talked about my mom and her carpal tunnel syndrome and about how my barber sometimes gets pain and wears a brace. We talked about whether my mom would welcome my going to a barber, because my barber hates when family members ask her to cut hair when she is off. We wandered a comfortable maze of ideas.

And you know what, it was fun. But more than that, it presented me with a character study -- a person I might never have talked to. It gave me an understanding of a fellow human unlike myself, who wonders, for example, why they make kids read so many books in the summer and why the hell anyone would ever read 1984 (I disagree with her evaluation) and why can't they read more books like Animal Farm (I agree with her evaluation).

There is no such thing as small-talk, and to think there is reveals only one thing about the person who believes it: he is a snob. Whatever a barber has to say between snips is just as important as what I say here or what Eugene O'Neill said in Desire Under the Elms or what the President said in his speech. If Steinbeck felt otherwise, the Joads never would have made their mark on the world. What am I, better than Steinbeck? (Oh, stop, I am not [blushes].)

I never really belived small talk was a waste of time, but I had almost convinced myself I did.

You have to watch out for those everyday lessons, or you could miss them entirely. It's why I'm always looking around.

Of course, I still dig a deep philosophical chat.


  1. I think you were lucky with your barber - more usually, in my experience, the conversational topics available are less engaging, and rather a lot of dispiriting comments about the uninspiring nature of my hair are made. Apparently, I should be spending a great deal of money on peculiar colouring processes and also the application of strange unguents to transform the stuff into a curtain of silk. Hmmm.

  2. After all that guff, did you, at least get a lollipop?

  3. I just spent the past three days in New Jersey making what some would consider small talk with friends and family, and I was struck, first, by how much I enjoyed listening to anyone say anything in the accent of a state I often miss. That said, I think you're right not to dismiss small talk, because often, in a conversation about axle boots, or Lego instruction booklets, or gardening, or even the weather, people really are telling you something important about who they are and what they value. At that point, you're merely a nudge or two away from getting them to tell you a terrific story...

  4. A great way to look at it, Jeff -- the mundane and the life-affecting verbal encounters might be just a question of development.