The Social Skill of Conversation

This is an awkward post to write. First, it’s mostly about the mariner himself. Secondly, it is about others who have impressed mariner only to intensify his rambling, unmanageable mind. Controlling a thread of meaningfulness written by a wandering mind about a wandering mind is fraught with digression.


The common term is attention deficit disorder. AD folks often talk about forgetting things and places and forgetting tasks. In his early years and throughout his career, mariner did not have much difficulty with forgetting (do not count ignoring). Almost entirely, it was keeping a thought long enough to be completed. Within seconds, mariner’s mind would jump off the focus of a task, a conversation, a situation to be resolved.

When mariner was a toddler, he remembers learning to speak and understand how words related to reality. Then he learned that there was another form of speech called writing. Very frequently mariner would drift into thoughts about talking and writing and the experience of applying language. Forever – even to today – mariner is willing to ponder what life must have been like during the great vowel shift; that time when the letters O-U-G-H had no specific sound. Examples are enough, slough, bough, thought, etc. Why these specific letters? At the same time, spelling was not an exact science. One can read handwritten letters from important people who lived around 1400 – 1750 and spelled words as they saw fit. A spelling bee in those times wouldn’t have had a chance. Mariner digresses.

Mariner always has been distracted easily by new perspectives. For example, he wrote a post recently that proposed each brain talks differently. Not knowing this can lead to condescension and belittlement. Has the reader ever thought during a problem solving conversation, “He doesn’t understand where I’m going with this.” No, he doesn’t but he is thinking the same thing about you.

When mariner and his wife were in the early days of their courtship, he posed the fox and rabbit puzzle to her. How many fox strides would it take for the fox to catch the rabbit if the rabbit took shorter but more frequent strides? She took a sheet of paper and began drawing cute little bunnies in a straight line across the page. Larger fox icons were drawn above. Mariner was quite taken by a graphic solution to an algebraic problem. What his wife had done was design a tool to measure the solution without algebraic input; she designed a yardstick with a dual scale – exactly like a yardstick with metric on one edge and inches on the other. Today, his wife doesn’t bother with solving; she goes straight to the answer. After years of professional library service, his wife is as good as Google. Mariner digresses.

But before mariner digresses, he learned about two Native American brothers who spoke poor English. They were carpenters. A common practice among carpenters is for one to build and measure and the other to cut lumber according to the measure. Not speaking English well and especially not versed in fractions and feet, they had developed a telegraph-like code to share exact lengths. The code consisted of raps on wood of different durations and repetitions; feet were a scraping sound; less than an inch was a quick series of taps. Aren’t these digressions fascinating? Perhaps the reader can think of another method for communicating.

Very quickly, we have traversed a great range of distraction moving from toddler to mediaeval language to his wife’s graphic algebra to wood rapping Indians. It is a pleasant environment unless one is obsessive compulsive. Mariner watched a neighbor pressure wash his truck and RV immediately upon pulling into his driveway despite the fact that it was raining. Mariner digresses.

What was the topic? Oh, yes: The Social Skill of Conversation. In his younger years, mariner, like most of us, was able to handle two thoughts at the same time. Not exactly at the same time because the brain automatically prioritizes what is most important but can switch back and forth almost instantaneously. The switching time slows dramatically as we roll through our sixties. Further, if we delay long enough or intently enough on the second thought, the first thought is gone.

Mariner, as he has demonstrated, has a wandering brain. Any second, any microsecond, he will be drawn to another subject entirely then another and another – whatever occupies his thoughts. Consequently, he can participate in conversations that are speculative or problem solving in nature but fails miserably at standard, sociable chitchat. Mariner’s slowing brain has difficulty recovering focus with general conversation. His term for typical conversational patterns is ‘show and tell’ – a term referencing that time in elementary school when each student in turn went to the front of the class to tell about their summer. It was then that mariner first began to draw stick-figure pictures to occupy his mind. In later years, he was interested in body language and became an art major in high school. Mariner digresses.

To illustrate his failure at conversational skills, he will describe a common experience when having lunch at a senior center. Everyone easily had several years of age beyond retirement. Inevitably, everyone shared their memories and experiences about the many years behind them. The most common topic was a conversation about who was related to whom three generations ago and which houses they lived in. Embarrassingly, mariner often was caught not listening. The leader would call on him for his opinion and he had to climb from a deep vacant hole confessing he was distracted. This pattern of distraction has wandered into general conversation. Someone will be talking to mariner and at a certain point will pause to allow his response. Too many times he is alerted to the situation by a lingering silence.

It isn’t that he has a vacant mind. He is intently thinking about some distracting idea, issue, conundrum or other abstract (if not abstruse) topic. What has begun to fail is mariner’s mental discipline when it is not appropriate to wander. He speculates that it is a condition similar in old age to physical conditioning or arthritis: use it or lose it.

Further, he had an insight into cultural influence on one’s self when he became a grandfather. The torch had been passed to the next generation – those full of responsibility, career, lifestyle, and pursuit of identity. Grandfather can take a break from toeing the line.

So he has.

Ancient Mariner


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