austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

This is where the party ends

If you had to guess where the hobby of collecting and trading dull conversations came from you probably would come up with ``late-Victorian England'', which just shows how stereotyped the time and place have come to be to us. It was mid-Victorian England, which is like late-Victorian England except they had set their clocks ahead nine minutes so as to get there on time. That started out just five minutes ahead, then shifted to fifteen minutes ahead, and then was the result of a long series of vicious editorials arguing the topic out in the letters page of leading railway journals before finally settling on nine minutes because 540 seconds makes for efficient gearing.

Thus it was in 1862 that Alfred Russel Wallace himself noticed that a discussion he overheard about gearing alarm clocks using ratios of 1:160, 1:320, or even 1:480 was excruciatingly, indeed compellingly dull, and he brought this up at the Club. This was met by a fellow club member, whose name does not come down to us, although that middle name was probably Russel too, who noted he'd overheard a conversation about wallpaper glues which was magnificently boring.

Wallpaper glues might not sound like much. But consider that even today there isn't a perfectly satisfactory explanation for how glue can possibly work --- the best theory we have is that stuff glued together sticks because of the public shame that would attach to its falling apart if there were some way to make shame adhere to broken things --- and you realize it could be interesting to learn why those sheets of yellowish flowers on a yellowish background or those sorts of wriggly diamondy shapes don't keep drooping off and flopping over on the heads of you or your pets if you know what's good for you. And yet, this wasn't, which makes it so interesting.

Dull conversation trading circles became fashionable for those with upper middle-class aspirations, where people could appreciate finding a topic one had never wondered about before, inflaming it with just enough information to make it sound interesting, and then smothering all curiosity under a heap of words.

Finding a dull conversation seems like it should be easy: simply go somewhere people are talking, and listen. This is true. Unfortunately the most audible conversation in any gathering is always the one between a couple folks sharing political opinions so mind-bogglingly stupid that you're amazed their shin bones don't leap up and strangle the speakers so as to be spared the shame of transporting these imbeciles. This can be put to good uses: if you're ever separated from the rest of your party, say at the Olympic Games or an Apollo lunar landing, you can make sure they hear you're all right by explaining your views of ``right-to-work'' legislation and China. They'll know you're alive, and they'll swiftly hate you.

However, if you keep listening and learn to tune out the violently ignorant conversations you'll find some gems underneath the surface. You might hear about how the cursive letter 'G' actually grew out of the ampersand symbol, which besides crushing the potentially interesting topic of how handwriting developed, how cursive was standardized, how it was taught and how its teaching changed, and how in 1993 everybody suddenly forgot how to make every letter and now just does a series of oscillating scribbles with the occasional cross-bar, can be traded for valuable prizes at the redemption center. Some of these prizes include decorations to put a Jets fan face on a tree, which you would think has a fascinating explanation, but if you'd prefer the explanation you could swap for a very dull conversation detailing it.

My own collection of dull conversations began on a plane flight several years ago with a man explaining to the flight attendant just how the manufacture of tissue paper differed from toilet paper. I'm careful about taking that one out for display too often, of course, lest some of the dullness wear off and listeners be left interested. But no great hobbies are perfectly without risk, as authorities on why cheese graters are like that will attest.

Trivia: Richard Kiel was considered for the part of the creature in The Incredible Hulk series. Source: Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution, Ronin Ro.

Currently Reading: Paving the way for Apollo 11, David M Harland.

Tags: humor

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