Conversations Overheard At The Family Y

My stepdad came last week for a visit for his 80thbirthday. Dad likes to go to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Not Tuesdays. Tuesdays is when he has grapefruit for breakfast.

I’m not sure what the connection is between the two, but it’s important to him. Poached eggs are on Saturday, which is also not a gym day. He’s a creature of habit. We respect that. He’s had enough to deal with this year. His wife (my mom) of 49 years passed away earlier this year. So when he came to visit we quickly rejuggled our calendars so he didn’t have to.

I took him to the gym on the aforementioned “gym” days. My daughter, who’s a personal trainer and works at the gym, quickly showed him around. He gravitated toward a circuit that’s popular with both seniors and women. That suited him fine. When I went over to check on him, I always found him chatting with at least one -- often two -- people who were also doing the circuit.  I noted that the people were usually women.



Dad loves to chat. Through his life, he has raised chatting to a fine art.  At various times he’s been a door-to-door salesperson, a bartender and a chimney sweep. All of these careers involve chatting. I, on the other hand, am a terrible chatter. I suck at small talk. But Dad can chat all day.

The women he cornered for a chat session were -- without exception -- very gracious. They patiently listened while Dad went on about the importance of exercise, his desire to buy an adult tricycle to ride to the grocery store, his intricate recycling regime or the small town he’s called home for most of his life. 

Dad’s a bit of a charmer.

He also understands the ground rules of chatting. He didn’t bring up his recent heartache or complain about his situation. That’s not Dad’s style. He is unflinchingly positive.  Besides, you don’t “chat” about deep stuff. Chatting skips lightly across the surface of interpersonal conversation.  Chatting lays the groundwork for more permanent social connections.

To be honest, if Dad were a stranger to me, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as gracious as the women in that gym. I work out with earphones. I block out the other people in the gym. I am also not very patient with unscheduled social interruptions. I’m there to get shit done, not partake in small talk.

But I learned a lesson this past week. As I watched from across the gym, my eyes teared up as I saw Dad grinning and chatting away with his new friends. I saw him engaging with other people. That’s a very big deal for Dad. He lives alone in a small apartment in a very small town. He can go days without a conversation that lasts longer than a few seconds. While Dad loves to chat, he’s also quite content to read a book or do a word search puzzle sitting in his favorite chair.

He’s in the midst of readjusting to a life that has just had a heart-sized hole ripped out of it. His social circle was based on an orbit of two, and he hasn’t quite got around to rebalancing it based on flying solo.

So, thank you women of the local Y. Not only did you make an 80-year-old man very happy by taking a few precious moments to listen to him. You also made me realize something vitally important: We need chatting.  We need to bump into people, face-to-face, and make the mutual agreement to free up a few minutes from our rigid agendas to take part in shooting the breeze.

More and more of our social connections are becoming digital. It’s more efficient, true, but it doesn’t recharge our emotional and spiritual batteries the same way a real, live conversation does.

If you’ve ever doubted the value of chatting, you should spend some time watching a recent widower connect with total strangers he bumps into -- talking about nothing at all and not being productive in any measurable way. You need to watch how his hands gesture as he talks, how he leans forward into the interaction and how his eyes start to sparkle again. Dad comes alive when he chats. And a few moments of my time spent being on the other side of that interaction seems a very small price to pay.

More and more of our lives are being spent in navigating solitary straight lines from Point A to Point B. We need to meander more. We need to leave time for serendipity. We need to delay our workout long enough to hear how a random man we met at the gym is reading a book he just got for his 80th birthday about how the Scots helped to settle Canada.

Why is that important? I don’t know. Probably for the same reason you don’t eat grapefruit and go to the gym on the same day.

5 comments about "Conversations Overheard At The Family Y".
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  1. Richard Clancy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Media and Journalism, October 27, 2015 at 10:55 a.m.

    Brought a tear to my eye. Learned a thing or two. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kurt Ohare from ohare & associates, October 27, 2015 at 11:17 a.m.

    Great column - and relevant on so many levels especially in a world that's become "ask a question - get an answer".  The need for input you don't expect or ask for is a critical component for broad thinking diverse experience.  For all the knowledge at our finger tips - for all the answers we can receive to any possible question we ask - this is a closed transaction and limiting by its very nature.  By only asking questions you want answered doesn't open as many doors as learning new ideas to ask questions about.  It is no wonder that most people view websites whose political views they already agree with. But new ideas, interests and the inevitable questions come from being exposed to new thoughts, ideas, music, literature, etc. that you didn't know you wanted to know about.  So actually talking/listening to people -- with our mouths and minds open - not with our fingers - can be far more stimulating and exciting than: "Google - what was Teddy Roosevelt inaugural speech?" or txting "Hi  BFF - want to order in sushi for lunch?"

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 27, 2015 at 11:44 a.m.

    Absolutely !!!!! Close the phone for a few hours here, a few hours there everyday.  If it is that important, people will leave a message and you can call them back. It works and works extremely well. Follow through. Tell people what to do to leave that message. If they don't, it wasn't very important.

  4. Mary Wallberg from Maverick Media, October 27, 2015 at 12:58 p.m.

    I usually scan over some of the MediaPost emails because of time. Today I was hooked on your the point that I noted on my "to do" list to make sure and start meeting more with my vendors and friends... like in the olden days!  I loved your line:  

    More and more of our social connections are becoming digital. It’s more efficient, true, but it doesn’t recharge our emotional and spiritual batteries the same way a real, live conversation does.

    I've made a pact with myself to do it!
    Thanks for an uplifting morning read!

  5. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, October 27, 2015 at 3:46 p.m.

    I'm glad one of the many lessons my Dad has taught me touched some of you too. He's a wise man of many words!

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