Have I been talking shit? I told some stories about how a friend of mine exasperates me with some of his squarish and intensely insular behaviors. For example, this friend of mine—and I should emphasize I do love the guy—frequently tells the same anecdotes and jokes over and over. He can’t help it. Life triggers the same folders of responses for him and he’s not updated those folders in years. He also claims to love music, but not a bit of the music I’ve brought to him has had any impact on his collection he plays for us at classes over and over again as background music. One year I had all his students create him a collection of their favorite music so he could add things into his mix. Of course, he never did. His walls erected to impede influence are impenetrable. He has silly childlike eating habits (he avoids grapes because they resemble ticks!), and even more remarkably silly puns. I was trying one day to get him to listen to some Stewart Lee comedy, having just enjoyed Lee’s send-up of the conservative British immigration opponents (Yes be angry at these people who brought you a cuisine, and enriched your culture with their arts), at any rate within seconds he’s pummeled my messenger feed with piles of ancient clips of chronically parochial jokesters sounding like Hee-Haw had never left the air. OK I get it, we all have our tastes and there’s no accounting for it honestly, but I was hoping to have some impact on his homogeneity. It gets under my skin that he so effectively blocks any sort of introduction to anything new through a method of defensive barrage of his own favorites. Look, I’m not saying you don’t have things you love, all I’m trying to do is introduce you to something you may not have been familiar with before. The response should be “Oh great! I’ve never seen this guy, or heard this before! Thank you!” Instead, the response is more like, “Well here’s what I like.” I hate to sound vicious but, I didn’t ask, I assumed you had a collection of things you like (because I’ve heard it all over and over again over the years we’ve been working together).
All of a sudden a lady friend who works with us hollers at me, “I really try hard not to shit talk about people.” She gives me a stern censorious look, as if I’ve broken some social trust and should be ashamed of myself. At first I’m taken aback, of course, I feel some guilt and I want to apologize, but then I start to think about it.
What do people talk about after all? We talk about other people. We talk about sports figures and celebrities and our friends and relatives. We complain about their behaviors, and choices, especially when we’re married to them. Occasionally we brag about folks’ accomplishments or kindness, but mainly we are relating endless anecdotes about how funny, or silly, or wild people are. It’s how we learn about people. It’s how we relate experiences to one another. This idea of “shit talk” is entirely irrelevant. If my goal was only one of disrespecting someone because they are a bad person then the discussion is one of warning and necessary. If it is a story relating character or humor, it certainly isn’t abusive, or destructive. If I were telling a story about a friend who had an affair and I’d been asked not to discuss this, I’d understand the complaint. Don’t confide in someone who is likely to tell these stories.
My friend sometimes does his hilarious thing. He’ll start talking about a favorite food or place he’s been, and he’ll wind it all up with an incredibly dull reveal. For example, one day, during a discussion of favorite treats, he pipes up, “Oh you know what I like?” We look his direction implying the “What?”. “I love a really good, maybe a Haagen Dazs brand vanilla ice cream.” It takes this form. You have the wind up, you imagine he’s going to treat you to something you’ve not had before, something you’ll be excited to go try right after work, a whole new experience you’ve never heard of. But instead, he lets you down with the most obvious and possibly even weakest of choices to get excited about. He really is this funny with his boring-ass preferences. Vanilla! Who hasn’t had vanilla? It’s like going to the sushi restaurant and only ordering white rice, and then acting like, somehow, that plate of white steamed rice (about as special as those industrially produced soft white-bread dinner rolls at most restaurants) is the most satisfying thing available on the menu. He does these sorts of things all the time and they are hilarious. It becomes a kind of comedic performance that we often joke about. Going into an international cheese shop and walking out with the five pound block of yellow “American” cheese. These are childhood experiences that should be built on in adulthood, but instead have been preserved in his psyche, untouched from those years as the best! And hey, I’m not saying vanilla isn’t good! I’m just saying that no one needs it expressed at this point in our lives. We’ve all had vanilla.
Shit talk. I got into a discussion about music with someone online one day in a Captain Beefheart fan-group. I love Captain Beefheart but possibly not as much as some folks. One day I found myself faced with a fellow who wanted to argue that the Beatles were, once again, the best band ever. This is a tiresome argument at best and usually ends in a disappointment when I realize that this isn’t a quantifiable communication, it’s an outlook that has established itself and become unshakable. Of course the Beatles were terrific, but they by no means need to be flagged again and again by the stalwart supporters who imagine that we’ve somehow lived our lives so insulated from the world that we’re not familiar with them (though, actually these days, fifty plus years on from some of it, it is entirely possible to be ignorant of the British Invasion and much of the old psychedelic rock—no judgment, there’s really no reason to worry about it). This fellow went on to suggest that you needed no other band! This idea left me a bit breathless. What do you mean we don’t “need” any other band? What the hell kind of argument is that? Music is a vast sea of variety and beauty that can be dipped into at any point and amazing treasures can be retrieved through that rewarding exploration. This fellow, however, was satisfied with his one band. He stipulated the many ways the Beatles covered all varieties of music. They had acoustic and electric styles, they occasionally dipped into old jazz and humorous takes on twenties singing styles (that appealed to their older producers), they had love songs, they had rebellion songs, they had rockabilly, blues, and even crazy experimental pieces. You see? he wound up with a triumphant flourish, everything you need! One imagines the fellow seated in front of his stereo pondering what he’ll listen to today. Obviously one of the Beatles albums at his fingertips, but then, which of the wonderfully diverse styles will he delve into. The connoisseur style of appreciating a beloved collected item usually involves a circling of a very narrow range of focus expanded into a universe of detailed familiarity. Imagine living in a fish bowl like a little goldfish. How each familiar day would have to be spent looking over the same bits of gravel and swimming through the same little plastic treasure chest. How your daily highlight might be when the owner comes and sprinkles a pinch of pink and red flakes of food onto the surface of your water. You’d pick at that, you’d maybe swim a few laps, and then? Well I can tell you I’d be looking to leap out in a suicide plunge to end the monotony. Obviously goldfish don’t suffer this kind of mental torment, their most devastating experience is getting toilet flushed. But also, it seems to me many people don’t apparently suffer from the endless familiarity much either. My friend reaching for his vanilla over and over again, the fellow who only needs the single band’s album output to be satisfied, folks who are perfectly happy to never leave their apartments, or watch the same old reruns of television programs over and over. These people fascinate and somewhat terrify me. The goldfish-like ability to never leave the self-proscribed limits of interest would make my life not worth living, and yet these folks seem to thrive!
Shit talk. Again it’s inevitable. I was watching an episode of a comedy show in which Jerry Seinfeld was discussing the business with Jim Carey. Carey very astutely pointed out that most comedy is about superiority. We are laughing down at others who aren’t as erudite or clever as ourselves. Could be a variety of other qualities that we might laugh at as well, but in so many ways what is comic is us feeling a bit better than those who somehow don’t measure up. Maybe this is my argument, maybe I’m feeling superior about not living what I see as the limiting lives of some of these people I’m discussing. Just because I’m not interested in telling or hearing the same jokes or music every day, day in and day out, doesn’t mean others can’t be satisfied by it. Who am I to say? And what judgment I level at it is possibly entirely subjective. I see our world as this massive place that we’ll never get to put our arms around entirely, but that we should do our best to appreciate and experience through any means available to us. However, there is fear. There’s not just fear of the unknown, but fear of not knowing!
As a young man I was a bit ashamed of my inexperience. I was quite limited, as I am now, financially and so I worked hard, out of this insecurity, to dismiss things I wasn’t familiar with. One day someone mentioned that I should read Jack Kerouac and I was stunned. I’d not heard of him. Who was this artist that this guy knew about and I didn’t!? Eventually I got my hands on the famous On The Road and blew through it with an eye toward hating it. What a shitty book, I cried with laughter. What ridiculous style, what silly anecdotes. What were we going to learn from this dope? Nothing! I concluded, my defenses up and my walls against influence secure. Uh oh. Yes there I was feeling insecure and afraid and doing my best to avoid changing and enjoying and experiencing. I heard Henry Miller describe much the same feelings writing in his treatise Books In My Life. I longed to be superior, and I thought if I could dismiss all the influences and experiences other folks had that I had not, then, I was equal. By the way, it is remarkably easy to be stubbornly untouched by the world. You only have to keep your habits as they are. You only have to ignore the new offerings. Or at best, simply skim them and hate. It’s as easy as ignoring a homeless fellow, or dismissing a workmate because of their ferally southern accent.
What you soon learn as you expand outside your fishbowl, the thing you should have left as a child, as you get more skillful about navigating the more dangerous world outside your baby crib, is that some people never do. Some people hate challenges and hate having to open themselves to scary new experiences. They “hate” people, and they “hate” social situations they haven’t got control over. We’re all like this to some degree.
Am I wrong to want to get people to expand their experiences? To argue for more unfamiliarity in our lives? To break conformity and comfort bubbles that surround many of us to the point of fearing anything not immediately in our circles of experience? Isn’t this, in fact, what causes, at least in part, xenophobia and terror about the world? Most of what is in our lives, easily on offer, is the sameness that can be sold to the most people. Almost all products are aimed at that middle-of-the-bell-curve of human desire and experience. It’s why there’s an isle in the grocery store called “international”, rather than the products scattered throughout. It’s how various forms of religion develop and perpetuate. Progressive change is impeded by the fear of experience. Impedance is a factor of a natural human reaction to fear of experience.
Shit talk nothing, shit talk is necessary. We have to break these barriers and we have to cause experiences to happen, good and bad. The bubbles need to be burst because they’re impedance on social improvements. Fear is not an option. Shit talk undermines superiority. Shit talk is our tool!