I’m going to go way out on a limb and make the following claim with a feeling of absolute certainty. Not a single person reading this post has had a conversation in the last six months in which the affairs of Tzarina Yekatarina (a/k/a Catherine the Great) was a topic to be discussed. Am I right? However……. A few weeks ago, a fellow whose company I much enjoy was sitting in my living room, and, sure enough, he started talking about the tzarina – as in her ability as absolute ruler over all of Russia to select and purchase whatever works of art she wanted with an unlimited budget and no one to say ‘no’ to anything she chose. I won’t go into his train of thought, but it led him from her autocratic rule to the role of today’s ‘self-selected’ art critics and curators, who decide on their own what works will be shown in publicly funded museums. My friend’s point was that decisions on these matters should be made wholly or at least in part by ‘elected officials.’

You mean politicians? You want politicians to decide what goes into museums, what books kids can read in school, etc.? I’m not really a full-fledged libertarian, more like a libertarian-light, but the last individuals I would want to weigh in on cultural matters are politicians, regardless of their stripes or persuasions, in general a cowardly and ill-informed lot – and that’s being generous.

I felt the uncontrollable urge to demonstrate to my friend why his suggestion was a terrible idea. My first impulse was to bring up the example of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. My edition of the book (purchased from the C.C.N.Y. bookstore in 1961 for $3.45) includes the landmark decision by U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey, in which he decided that the work was not ‘obscene,’ therefore could be imported legally, and that the United States of America could take its ban and stick it where the sun don’t shine. That decision was rendered on Dec. 6, 1933, meaning that, for most of the eleven years after its publication in 1922, this novel, which only a few of us literary types ever want to read, had to be smuggled into the U.S. like bootlegged liquor.

But I decided to go for a more topical approach, so I mentioned the efforts of school boards in Southern states today to remove books like To Kill a Mockingbird from library shelves.From there, our conversation veered off into a discussion of the merits and demerits of various news sources, whereupon my friend had to leave. Several days later after his return to The States, he felt the need to email me to reiterate and amend his ideas.

Rising to the challenge, I responded. You sat down in my living room and right away started talking about politicians having a say in cultural affairs. I have to assume that you consider that matter to be of some importance. Given what’s going on in the world right now, do you really believe that?  I even threw in the term ‘Woke Derangement Syndrome.’ From across the wide ocean, I could sense the light bulb being turned on. It seems that my friend had been discussing this issue with somebody else before he stopped by, and that was why the topic was on his mind. No, he agreed, the matter was not of super-importance. Finally…. We were making progress; at least, we understand what the other one was thinking – no small matter. Now I have to decide if I want to continue the discussion.

I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about Conversations, what people say to each other once they get past the obligatory How are the kids, do anything interesting lately, anybody get COVID yet?  It seems to me that we can rank conversations by quality. An excellent conversation is when pretty much everyone involved benefits somehow from what is said or posted. A good conversation means that at least somebody learned something. A typical conversation – one I’ve had to many of might be something like:

            Me: The sky is blue.

            The other guy: But the clouds are white.

Me: I realize that. But the rest of the sky is blue. In fact, there are times when there are no clouds, and all you see is blue.

T.O.G. But the clouds are white…

Like talking to the wall.

How much time have we all wasted in discussions that go nowhere, when no one is listening to anybody else, when we keep repeating ourselves to no avail, when we might not even care one whit if the other party winds up agreeing with us or not? What I have been trying to do is avoid those kinds of conversation like the proverbial plague – or, these days, like the actual pandemic. Whenever I detect any unusual activity on my prattle-ometer, I have found it effective to blurt out in my best stentorian tone, WE’RE NOT HAVING THIS CONVERSATION!!! That usually does the trick. However, I’ve wondered if there might be a more subtle way to get the other party to cease and desist. After all, how much yelling do I want to do?

A few days ago, we had lunch with a very old friend of Barbara’s and her husband. These two float back and forth between The Land and The States, and we wanted to get together for lunch before they returned to the heartlands of America. They suggested a place near where they live in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem, which restaurant we did find with some effort. We walked into its makeshift indoor seating, and I remarked to nobody in particular that I hoped the food was better than the furniture. We needed an audition to find a few chairs that were fit to sit on without damaging our clothing, and other customers were arbitrarily moving tables from the inside to the smoking area outside. It was that kind of a place. The woman waiting on the tables was a friend of the owner, doing him a favor by helping out in a pinch. After she left, nobody else knew what we had ordered; we had to remember what we ate so they could tally up the bill, which they still got wrong. As I said, it was that kind of a place. But it was the only place within a kilometer in any direction to get a salad and a coffee. So, yes, it was crowded.

Our conversation started slowly. How’s Natania doing?  We were filled in on the achievements of their grandson in The States. We shared our COVID experiences, which we all had contracted at different times in different places. Now we were getting perilously close to thin ice. I knew from past experience that Barbara’s friend firmly believes that a certain American epidemiologist, who is in league with the Chinese to destroy the world economy, is primarily responsible for the pandemic.

I was prepared for the inevitable. When she started repeating her delusions, instead of, WE’RE NOT HAVING THIS CONVERSATION!!!, I calmly explained to her the futility of continuing the discussion. Nothing I would say would help her climb out of her rabbit hole, and nothing she would say to me would be of any use. So why bother?

When you put it that way… We were able to switch gears and continue our meal without throwing food at each other. Barbara, my soulmate and sternest critic, told me later that I had handled the situation very well. If only I could do that all the time. Most of the time? I’ll settle for some of the time. Wouldn’t you?

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