Kin Hubbard (1868 – 1930 )
THE THEME OF GREAT CONVERSATION. Not sure quite why, but the theme of conversation—of really good conversation where you actually listen to each other, learn, and exchange ideas (and change your mind if the argument is persuasive) is still very much on my mind. It’s actually not a subject I normally think much about in the abstract—it is more something one just does—but the more I contemplate conversation now, the more I appreciate how extraordinarily important it is. And, it is substantially a learned skill. Hmm. I’m far from sure we quite grasp the significance of that fact.
THE ABILITY TO ENGAGE ANYBODY. My mother—about whom I have decidedly mixed emotions, as regular readers will know—was not one of life’s great listeners—but she had the impressive ability to talk to, and engage, just about anybody, without benefit of introduction, and regardless of the circumstances—a truly admirable quality. She was socially fearless. Primarily, she used this talent to pick up men—but it also meant she attracted some extraordinarily interesting people of both sexes, whom—as like as not—she would bring home for a meal (and who frequently then entered our social circle). They would normally be unusual in some way—and entertaining. She had a particular weakness for actors, diplomats, and aristocrats.
CHARISMA. Though mother was decidedly charismatic—and had a directness of conversational style that could be most attractive—she was not intellectually curious so tended to focus on relationships above all. Matters political, scientific, and of social concern held no interest for her. She was a “people person” through and through. In particular, she had a truly uncanny ability to read someone’s sexuality—both in terms of orientation and intent—and would normally express an opinion of their sex appeal into the bargain. At a time when such matters were not discussed nearly as much as they are today, her forthrightness could be quite disconcerting. But it was also a refreshing quality and could fascinate people.
MY ADORED GRANDMOTHER. The first person I recall conversing with—who had impressively wide interests—was my adored grandmother. She was about as different from my mother as any two people could be—so I can only conclude that my mother’s personality was largely formed by her rebellion against my grandmother. And I have to wonder about my grandfather’s wilder side—because I’m fairly sure my mother’s remarkable personality was partly genetic. Sadly, having survived World War I—he was a Ghurka officer—he succumbed to cholera in Burma early in their marriage. My grandmother had a deliriously happy marriage, but a short one. She worshipped his memory until she died.
“THE OLDEN DAYS.” For my part, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother both because she adored me—and because I was frequently sent to stay with her since my mother had a hyper-active social life and had a hard time handling me. As a consequence, in that pre-TV era, I would talk to her for hours about anything and everything. She was widely read, socially concerned, and politically active so we had a great deal to talk about. When I was small, I was particularly fascinated by the two world wars she had experienced—and what it was like in “the olden days”—by which I meant when she was young. And now I can’t write any more about her because I’m tearing up. She has been dead for decades, but I her miss her so.
A TRULY FASCINATING MAN. The person who really gave my conversation bite—and fostered my sense of humor—was my much loved stepfather, Alfred Lyons. Movie-star good-looking, much younger than my mother, and more like a big brother to me, he was witty, sarcastic, vastly intelligent, conversationally ruthless—and quite, quite fascinating. Conversing with him was akin to fencing with someone who was exceptionally good with an un-tipped blade. You displayed weakness at your peril. The man was exhilarating. Sadly, the relationship broke up—as was inevitable given my mother’s destructive nature—and Alfred died far too young—but he had a profound effect on me over many years. Mind you, he was a menace where girlfriends are concerned. They all fell for him and he would flirt outrageously.
LISTENING IS A LEARNED SKILL. I can’t recall who taught me how to draw out other people—but I remember asking the question after noticing that some people just had the knack of putting people at ease. The advice I received was simple and has served me well ever since. It was, in essence, “Ask them about themselves. Encourage them to talk—and listen.”
TO LISTEN IS TO WRITE BETTER. There are many elements involved in the writing process—and I would guess reading would top the list, because that is how you learn from the masters—plus a great deal more from the content. But listening would be high on the list—very high indeed—and it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Words—one way or another (read, written, heard or spoken) are really the focus of my life. And they all emanate from people. Good grief! Maybe I really am a people person after all!