Thursday, January 20, 2011

Assignment: Eavesdropping

The following was a study in dialogue (listening to how people speak to each other). I tracked three conversations and wrote this up as homework -- it sounded like an assignment -- but the professor didn't call for it in her next lecture. She used in class exercises which was fun too. I'm just putting it here so it'll be in the cloud and easily accessible.

We set off from the parking lot at work. My mom needed a ride to the mechanic's shop downtown. Walking out to my truck, it’s almost dark, cool but not freezing, a mild January breeze in the air. I start the ignition and we both buckle up. It’s barely a 5-minute trip, and just ahead of 5 o’clock traffic.

My mom has good instincts, socially. That is to say she won't talk your ear off. She’s not like some people who feel the need to fill dead space with the sound of their own voices? They'll talk about any random crap they can dream up in that split second where fear takes over and coerces speech out of their mouths. Perhaps they're afraid, if not constantly talking, that they'll fade quietly out of existence forever. You’ve met these people in line at the grocery store, kids’ soccer games, or waiting for a movie to start, etc. One always sits next to you on a plane, or bus, or some other manmade apparatus that herds people like cattle into confined areas, and where, with nothing else to do but wait, he or she rescues us heroically from the evil of being alone with our thoughts. Perhaps as writers, we should harness this wasted banter to study dialogue.

No so with my mother. She’s not chatty, but a pretty decent communicator when necessary. Maybe she feels an unspoken obligation as the occupant of the passenger seat to drive the topics of conversation while I drive the truck. It was fine for two reasons: first, it would do nicely as content for a writing assignment; and two, it wasn’t hard work.

We turn right onto Snake River Avenue where she begins to make small talk.

"They really need to fill in that mud hole right there," she starts. “I always seem to find it on my way out.”

“Mmm hmm,” craning my neck a little to acknowledge the mud hole in question. What mud hole? Truth be told, I never really noticed the mud hole then.

We speed up as the dull, muffled white noises of engines and passing cars fill the cab. The radio is on but not very loud.

“You guys are all studying now I bet.” she says.

“Mmm hmm.” Huh? A question was just asked. “Of course, yeah,” I recover. “Well not the blonde ones, but Emma of course, and me with my new class. Lots of homework already.”

“I can imagine,” she adds.

“Gini is taking that Quickbooks class again too,” I say.

“Maybe she’ll have better luck this time,” mom says. “Good for her.”

We round the jagged wall cliff just past ATK and stay left of the split in the road, slowing down for the a red light at Southway Avenue.

Mom changes the subject. “I don’t think Uncle Don has found a job yet, not that we’ve heard anyway,” sounding a little down.

“Nothing yet, huh?” I ask.

“No. It must really be hard on him,” she reflects.

“I know, it must be awful,” I say. “Have you heard from them in the last month even?”

“Around Christmas we did,” she says. “But not for a couple weeks. I’ve always admired the way those two always set goals and went after them; and usually got ‘em,” she hangs with emphasis. “It must really be depressing not being able to land another job. They really need the insurance. I think it’s an age thing.”

“I do too. I think when he retired all of his friends retired too,” I add. “It’s a young man’s game now, and he doesn’t have any old guys to go back to anymore.”

“Or gals,” she adds.

The light changes green and we proceed through the intersection on our journey down Snake River Avenue.

“That guy needs to turn on his lights,” she scolds.

“Mmm hmm,” I say. She’s was right, of course. It’s plenty dark just before 5 o’clock this time of year. That idiot could probably do him and everyone else a favor and flip on his headlights.

“He’s 60?” I ask, still talking about Don.

“He’ll turn 61 in May,” she corrects.

“Is she still going back and forth to Montana,” I ask.

“Yeah. She stayed the night with your sister on January 2nd.”

“Carrie has always been close to them, huh,” I ask.

“Yeah. She’s like the daughter they never had.

“That’s true,” I laugh.

We both laugh a little to lighten the mood.

Driving on, we sit in silence a few minutes with the radio turned down but not completely down. Passing the restrooms at Kiwanis Park on the left, mom asks me if I agree that it looks nicer along here lately.

“Don’t you think this is looking a lot better down here?”

“Mmm hmm,” I agree, even though we can’t really see any improvement as we peer out of the truck windows into darkness. But we’ve seen it enough from memory during the daytime to backup our assessments.

“There used to be a floating barge right there,” she points. “It was a bar. A floating barge with a bar in it. It was called the Barge Inn.”

I laugh. “Really?”

“Yeah. Your dad and Gene were known to go and have a beer there every now and then.”

“Hmm,” was all I could convincingly come up with.

We turn left to go under the bridge, not saying another word until we pull up to PDQ on “C” Street.

“There’s your car,” I nod, half surprised to see it parked outside the shop. “It must be done.”

“I sure hope so. I’m getting tired of them trying to fix it.”

She thanks me and gets out of the car. I ask her if she wants me to wait, just to be sure.

“No. If it’s not done I’ll just bring it back down another time.”

We wave goodbye.


The next conversation I “spied” on was at home that same night. I have three kids, ages 14, 12, and 6. Two girls and a boy. Writing down everything they said and how they said it was an impossible task. I scribbled as fast as I could, but they flip from subject to subject with each passing breath. I only catch one actual conversation.

Owen, 6, is packing a thick book around, “reading it” he claims. He’s the baby in the family and always handy for comic relief, as the youngest often are. A brown eyed child with blonde hair, he is all boy and spends most of his free time outside or playing the Wii whenever he can. Packing around the book was a little odd even for him.

“Owen, what’s your book about,” Lainey asks as she folds her arms and raises a chin with one quizzical eyebrow.

“It’s about a guy on a horse and he’s riding to a kingdom,” Owen answers politely. We all know Owen isn’t really reading, but looking at the pictures. He can read a little as 1st graders often can, but not thick books with more than 11 words on each page. “And you have to be four feet tall to get into the kingdom.”

“How far have you read, Owen?” Lainey presses him even further. Her tone of voice tells everyone in the room where she’s going with the line of questioning. She waits, like a cold litigator badgering a witness on the stand in some courtroom.

Lainey, 12, is notorious for her utter lack of interest in reading (much like her father was at the same age). The arts are her passion; academics not so much. Singing or performing in front of an audience is her “on” switch. Lainey deplores the thought of reading. She hates it. And to get her to read takes a great deal of mental strategy on her parents’ part. Intimidation. Consequences. Punishment. Lost privileges. Like Chinese handcuffs, that classic booby prize toy where you stick a finger in each end, the more she fights the harder it becomes for her to escape. For her, pressing her little brother like this is just an imitation of how her parents pressure her. The irony is surely lost on her. But still amusing to me.

“He isn’t actually reading,” Emma chimes in as she waltzes from her room to the kitchen. “You know that, right? Don’t you?”
The two older sisters laugh together at the younger boy.

Emma, 14, is preparing to leave for a friend’s house. She’s a straight A student in junior high school. Her life is a series of comings and goings between school, games, dance, sleepovers, and more. A flexible social life is her reward for keeping her grades up and being responsible while she’s out of the house.

“I’m on Chapter 6 already,” Owen proudly declares. There’s that six again. It’s his world, everything measured in sixes.

“Six chapters in two minutes?” Lainey is skeptical.

“YES!” Owen crumples a little under the weight of his lies. Throwing the book down, he leaves the room in almost a full blown tantrum.

“YEAH RIGHT!” Emma and Lainey laugh in unison.

“You’re just looking at the pictures.” With that, Lainey excuses the witness.

It’s quiet for a few moments as I document the exchange. Owen, who went downstairs, suddenly arrives again somber and centered.

“Will you guys be a little more respectful to me? Please?”


We gathered our things up and went to Starbucks Saturday afternoon around 1 P.M. I wanted to see if any loud talkers were within earshot at the corporate coffee house in town. Emma brings her study guide and textbook for a semester science final, while Lainey brings a couple books to read (or, more likely than not, not read).

Starbucks is busy, and a lot noisier than I realized before. I needed to take notes, so of course that would be more difficult now. Every square inch of the place is planned to maximize customer experience and profits. They have nice desks, soft chairs by the doors, muted colors on the wall arranged and offset to compliment one another, artistic pieces hanging about, music you don’t recognize but like a lot, a nice assortment of retail items and other wares placed by each exit and along the counters where orders are taken. We find the big table waiting for us, which is perfect for our group’s multi-tasking needs. I ask them what they want and go order, leaving them to get situated for the next hour. Lainey is on my heels no sooner than I leave demanding a cookie.

“Fine,” I say. “I don’t want you bugging me about lunch and how hungry you are until we go. OK?”

“OK, dad,” she says. “I am hungry, though.”

“Zip it.”

The counter is free. In addition to the warm feel of the place, it’s also ripe with afternoon beverage lovers, friends, mothers, daughters, new babies, couples, a pug and his owner, students, and the like. So many people are talking I can’t hear one over the other. It’s just as well. I have more writing to do anyway.

Emma is clearly having a nice time. Focused, she’s already halfway through her notes by the time I get back with a chocolate chip cookie, two small hot cocoas, and my venti (Starbucks for large) Pike Place with a little half-and-half stirred in to minimize its over-the-top boldness.

At first Lainey wasn’t going to share the cookie.

“Break some off for your sister, Lainey,” I ask like the grown up in charge.

Lainey sighs heavily and rolls her eyes in the direction of her older sister.

“Thanks!” Emma says.

We sit for a few moments doing our own thing. My notebook is out and a pen just in case I hear some dialogue to write about.

“This is fun,” Emma says. “It’s cool in here. It would be fun to come here with my friends and talk.”

“Or study maybe, huh?” I say.

She laughs.

“You should call your crew and meet them all here at this table,” I offer.

“You should text them, Emma,” Lainey suggests.

“Sure, text them,” I laugh a little. “Text them all and your daddy will go pick them up.” We share another laugh together.

Emma’s head is buried in her text book again, trying to find out what happens in an automobile engine that turns chemical energy into _______. Lainey is concentrating on all the people in the place.