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Television killed the conversation. That’s how I think of “family” dinners growing up. As an only child in rural northern California, my parents didn’t converse at dinner. Instead, my mother prepared the meal on tv trays, and we watch Laverne & Shirley, MASH, or Benny Hill — whatever the three networks televised between 6 and 7 pm.
Conversations happened elsewhere and involved other people. Often, late at night after a search-and-rescue call (my father was a volunteer) several deputies and other volunteers would converse around the kitchen table we never used for dinner. From my bedroom, I could hear the adults talk, and some of the harrowing stories they’d tell.
Coming from a story-telling culture, I grew up listening. Even now, I consider myself to be a story-catcher. However, I never really learned the art of conversation among non-story-tellers. I always enjoy meeting other story-tellers because we swap stories in a dynamic of your story/my story give and take. I’ve noticed that as more and more screens dominate our lives, we tell fewer stories and have less time for conversation.
When I met the Hub, I spent that first evening with him and his friends, listening to their stories. We laughed, and the camaraderie shared through stories enveloped us all that night. Often, I judge the quality of stories told as to whether or not I’m going to connect with this person. I liked his stories, a lot! Over 30 years, we’ve made our own stories.
And I think that’s what I miss, our narrative sharing, our personal conversations. The Hub suffers from a diminished focus. He tests in the one percentile, meaning 99 percent of his peers can out-focus him. One way he compensates is to tell remembered stories — it’s like living in the past.
Conversation is awkward because he can only follow so far. New stories get mixed up because he doesn’t get the details right. By the third detail of a story I’m trying to share with him, he’s gone elsewhere. Focus leaves, zooming in an out on unrelated information, and I feel unheard. I also feel like he has nothing to new to say. It’s a frustrating place to be, especially when his memory is actually sharp.
He remembers, but focuses on the past I want to get beyond. He can’t focus on the future, and planning causes anxiety because he can’t do it. It’s almost like being time travelers who can’t share the moment, always somewhere different on the timeline of life. And the Hub is migrating toward a different screen. He plays Solitaire because it helps reset his brain after an anxious episode.
Conversations seem to get sucked into the vortex of screens in modern times. Give me a good campfire, and people willing to sit around it and tell stories and dream of the future.
This post is in response to Irene Waters’ Time Past memoir prompt and reflection on generation and geo-location. Leave a reply or link to it on her current post at Conversation Time.
Generation X, Rural Northern California
Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.
When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is: The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.
I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.
The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.
On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.
Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.
Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.
And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.