Have you ever wondered...

how many seconds the average community television viewer could bear to watch any of the discussion groups you’ve ever been in? I just spent two hours during which I learned nothing and enjoyed nothing—except for the snacks. Why do I go to these things? I don’t mostly, but flattery works, and I was flattered by someone who thought I had a lot to contribute, although that I knew very well that I did not.

The following is a synthesis of how I commonly experience such groups.  Whether they are social, religious, political, literary, or hobby oriented,    hardly matters. Many people experience groups differently. I suspect that most of those people are raging extroverts.

I arrive early but the meeting starts late, and people continue to arrive well after that. Sometimes, it will be in a place where everyone can be seen and heard, other times not. We are instructed to “tell us your name” and to answer a getting-to-know-you question. No waver is extended to those like myself who had rather be taken out and shot than to answer such questions. I can’t focus on what anyone else is saying until I’m done with my own little speech, so I try to be among the first to go.

With introductions out of the way, the discussion begins, often when either the host (if there is one) or a self-starter from the group tells about something they heard or read. The subject thus presented becomes the group’s focus for one to seven minutes, which is about how long it takes for someone else to turn the conversation in another direction, a direction which might be an enlargement of the current topic but is usually unrelated.

Politics and religion are always popular subjects, but since people are generally in basic agreement, the discussion often degenerates into snide remarks about the opposition under the guise of humor. This soon becomes tedious and to the seeming relief of almost everyone, a new topic is born. The pace accelerates when someone makes a trenchant point regarding this topic, and someone else either offers a doubly trenchant enlargement or a doubly trenchant counterpoint. Then follow more points, enlargements, and counterpoints and, finally, counterpoints to enlargements of counterpoints, combined with an occasional clarification or question (often rhetorical).

A woman who hasn’t said a word for an hour tries to speak, but a loquacious man talks over her, and everyone joins him in pretending he didn’t hear her. If people allowed themselves to acknowledge his rudeness, their silence would imply approval, so it’s better to keep quiet in the interest of inner peace and outer harmony.

A woman whom I would suspect of being on meth if she were young and skinny becomes so frantic to speak that she squirms in her chair like a child who needs to go potty. When more people are watching her than the speaker, he surrenders the floor. Her victory ends six minutes later when someone finally interrupts her in mid-sentence, which is the only way to interrupt her since her speech lacks commas, periods, or even spaces between words. Upon losing the floor, she looks stunned, like a rich child whose lollipop was grabbed from her hand by a Bowery beggar before she even got in the first good lick.

The host of the group—knowing a little of my difficulties in such settings—makes a few attempts to draw me out by calling my name and asking what I think of such-and-such. Silence reigns as every pair of eyes turns my way. I read in them the question: “What’s wrong with you that you need encouragement to talk?” I look at the host who is smiling a self-congratulatory smile that seems to say, “I’ve done my part; now let’s see if you can do yours,” and I mumble something—I don’t know what. The discussion soon moves away from me like a receding tide behind which I lie choked and battered.

A man takes the floor from the person who took it from the person who took it from potty dance woman. As he talks, his voice gains volume and his gestures gain speed. I speculate that he’s subconsciously trying to forestall interruption by working himself into a frenzy of passion and implied volatility. A third of the group speaks little if at all, but the talkers are either: oblivious, accepting, resigned, or like it that way. Maybe they mistake silence for attention and consider it a tribute to how adoringly scintillating they are.

I’ve wanted to leave since the meeting was fifteen minutes old, but it’s impossible to exit gracefully that early. I decide to stay for 90 minutes, but I stick it out for 112 so I won’t scream "NO!" if someone asks, “Do you really have to leave so early?” There’s a fair chance that no one would, but there are people who delight in directing everyone’s rapt attention at some poor schmuck whose only crime was trying to sneak out the door. I remind myself to walk slowly when my mind finally rebels and orders my body to get it out of there. The cold air and silence are welcoming, but I’m too drained to enjoy them. I’m also sleepy, and my head hurts. I ask myself what good I got from going, and I can’t think of anything.

So, Snowbrush, why the hell don’t you just charge in there and take the group in a direction that’s more pleasing to you. They might even welcome it.

I’ve tried that on a few occasions, and I found it to be a constant uphill struggle that few if any people supported—at least openly—but that did attract criticism. My belief is that groups are as they are because that’s how the majority of the people want them. If I’m in a group, and I don’t like the way it works, I do better to leave at the outset rather than try to implement change, make enemies as a result, and then leave.

I also have a personal problem that makes me ineffective in groups. Namely, my pause time is slow. This is a term that I made up to represent the interval between the time when one person finishes speaking and another person begins a response. When slowness to speak is your style, and you’re shy on top of it, you’re dead meat in most kinds of groups. For me to speak in a group, I have to work myself into a pace that feels aggressive, if not hostile. This guarantees that I won’t enjoy speaking or have anything worthwhile to say even when I do get the floor. In fact, I’m sometimes so surprised when every eye in the room finally turns in my direction that I forget what I wanted to say.

On top of this, people often don’t hear what I’m saying, or they can’t understand my pronunciation (when I was a child, I had multiple speech problems, and I’m not completely past regarding my voice as an ineloquent embarrassment with an icing of Southern hick). Like the woman who finally tried to speak only to have someone talk over her, people sometimes talk over me. Whether they actually talk over me anymore than they talk over anyone else, I can’t honestly say because I haven’t kept count. Maybe I just hate it more. I not only consider interruptions rude, but I take them as proof that I wasted my time even trying to be heard.

I also see most discussion groups as being mostly dishonest. Beneath the shallowness that passes itself off as rationality, erudition, and politeness, lay the deeper truths of dominance and submission, of right brain versus left brain, of why groups create unacknowledged roles for their members, of what part our species’ tribalistic nature played in bringing us together, of why different groups appear to react to conflict so similarly, and of whether the apparent acceptance of the thinly-veiled rudeness that some people use to get and keep the floor suggests that it is interpreted as a strength.

I believe that the people who understand the most about group dynamics aren’t the ones who do the most talking. The silent ones are essentially outsiders, and as such we can better observe the finer points. This outsider views most groups as embarrassingly bad theatrical performances in which the same players perform the same painfully shallow roles before the same silent and unexpressive audiences, sometimes for years. Whatever good I possess—and I see this as being true of most people—isn’t likely to appear in the context of a discussion group.

Why she turned out like she did, I just don't know

My pet name for Peggy is Fluffy after a squirrel that was in a Little Golden Book that my aunt got me when I was four. I personally hated the book and loathed the squirrel (I wanted to cut its tail off and hang it from a car antenna), and I even told Peggy this, but she said I had damned well better call her Fluffy (she says it reminds her of how cute she is), so naturally I call her Fluffy in order to make her shut-up already. If she’s looking the other way when I say it, I sneer at the back of her head in order to prove that I’m not some little woozy-man who’s going to let a woman push him around. I have to be careful that she’s not looking at me in a mirror when I sneer because she often stares at me through mirrors as if she thinks I’m too stupid to notice. It’s like she can never let me out of her sight. I don’t think she trusts me, probably because she has a guilty conscience. You’re no doubt wondering how she got this way. I'll tell you what I know, but it's not much.

After Peggy and I got married in 1971, everything went great for about two weeks. After those two weeks, I noticed that Peggy would still do what I told her to do, but that she wasn’t doing it with any enthusiasm. At first, I figured she was just sick, but I didn’t say anything to her about her sickness because it weakens a woman to give her sympathy—or appreciation, for that matter. It also encourages her to pretend she’s sick when she’s not sick in order to get out of work and to force you to treat her nice. Women are devious that way, so it’s best to play it safe and only talk to them when they screw-up.

After another two weeks, Peggy’s behavior was no better, but it was a lot worse. She had deteriorated to the point that she wasn’t just slow about getting things done, she wasn’t even doing them. It was like I had married a really sweet and sensuous dog (an Afghan maybe), but then a mongrel cat from Planet Bad-Ass had crawled into the dog’s brain through its nostrils. It got to where I would tell Peggy to fetch me another beer, and she would look at me like, “Yeah, right, when hell freezes over.”

I finally spoke to her about how I was the husband, and she was the wife, and the wife is supposed to do what the husband tells her to do because it says so in the Bible. When I said this, she got really mad, so I never brought it up again, and I finally gave up trying to make her do anything—her or the cat for that matter because I knew they weren’t going to do it anyway. Now that the dog is deaf, blind, arthritic, and hard to wake-up, I don’t even get the satisfaction of telling her what to do, although, god knows, she would obey me if she could. I feel like a captain whose ship sailed right out from under him in shark-infested waters.

When Peggy and the cat sleep until noon (which is pretty much every day), she makes me bring them breakfast in bed along with a small vase of yellow roses and a large vase of fresh catnip. I hate doing it, but I hate it worse when she yells at me. We’ve been married for forty years, and I don’t know how much longer I should give her to get her act together.

Baptists, Atheists and Christers

The Southern Baptist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in America, and by far the largest in Mississippi. Like a few other churches, it got its start during the American Civil War (1861-65) when Northern Christians used their Bibles to prove that God thoroughly loathes slavery while Southern Christians used their Bibles (effectively, I thought) to prove that God simply adores slavery, and that, as an added bonus, slavery gives white people a convenient opportunity to preach Jesus to all them poor benighted niggers who would otherwise go to hell, and who don’t have brains enough to be anything but slaves anyway.

My church, the Church of Christ (henceforth Christer), was a distant second in size to the Southern Baptist in Mississippi. The two churches were so much alike that you would be pressed to tell one from the other except that the Baptists had pianos and Sunday School literature. The Christers shunned musical instruments because “Jesus and the apostles didn’t use them,” and they shunned books other than the Bible because “Jesus and the apostles didn’t use them.” You might not consider such differences important, but the way the Christers saw it, “any deviation from the clear and concise Word of God” was intentional and would land you in hell.

Did you have Baptist friends, and did you worry about them going to hell?

Yes, I had Baptist friends, and, no, I didn’t worry about them going to hell because I was taught that they defied God by choice. Such a condemnatory attitude toward other beliefs shouldn’t be taken to imply that Christers spoke with one voice. The far left Christers allowed women to teach Sunday School; the middle-of-the-road churches (which I was in) wouldn’t let them talk at all; and the far right churches were the same way, but they also limited themselves to one “cup” for the weekly communion (that’s how many Jesus used), while the other Christers used stackable trays that contained enough tiny glasses for everyone. I thought these were way cool, and I loved the smell of Mogen David, so I always made myself available to “serve The Lord’s Supper.” I also said prayers, led the singing (badly), and delivered sermons. I think it was assumed that I would go into the ministry, but when I stopped attending church after my teenage efforts to liberalize it failed, nobody came looking for me.

I considered the Baptist Church hypocritical and insufferably plebeian, but my main objections were that, as I was told, Jesus didn’t get himself crucified so his church could be named after John the Baptist; and I added to this my own observation that my Baptist friends didn’t know much about the Bible. Christer preachers said this was because they didn’t read it; they just read Sunday School books that contained “man’s interpretations.” What more proof could anyone want that Baptists deserved eternal hell for “living in open defiance of God’s Holy Word”? Of course, Methodists and Presbyterians were even worse because they sprinkled babies; Catholics were worse yet because they worshipped the pope; and Jews were worse than all of them because they hated Jesus. There were people worse than Jews though—atheists, godless professors, secular humanists, and Communists. You will note that the common thread (the “underlying evil” as the Christers called it) in all these groups was atheism. As they saw it, the only thing worse than an atheist was a Christer who became an atheist because God wouldn’t forgive him even if he changed his mind.

I have found it indescribably strange and hurtful to become the very person whom I was told, week in and week out for eighteen years, is the most foul piece of Satanic excrement in the whole universe, and then to look at the institution that told me this and to think the very same thing about its approach to truth: namely that of basing it upon sketchy stories in an ancient, contradictory, and historically inaccurate book by unknown authors, a book which presents a “fully human yet fully divine” being named Jesus who was likewise fully God yet one-third God. The mischief that has come from accepting such an authority as the starting place for ethics—and even science—is too great for me to wrap my mind around. And yet some Christians say that this authority is really very good—perfect even—and, properly understood, couldn’t possibly inspire the violence, oppression, and other evil acts that other Christians perform everyday. When I hear such statements, I wonder where the line is between religious faith and delusion, the two appearing indistinguishable to me.

My drinking years—the latter days

When I started college in 1967, my new friends were light drinkers, so I became a light drinker. When I transferred to another school three years later, this situation continued, not because I had grown in virtue but because I wasn’t ready to make my own decisions based upon my own values. I’m not even sure I had values, although I was certainly overwhelmed by feelings that pointed in the direction of values. For example, I felt that the universe had special plans for me, and that they would be realized without any great effort on my part. I also felt that everything I had ever heard about God was a lie, including his existence. You will note that the first feeling necessitated belief in an extremely powerful entity that controlled my destiny, whereas the second feeling denied the existence of that same entity. So have I ever lived, unable to go in one direction but equally unable to go in another.

A month after I finished college, I began to feel tired and feverish, and dropped from 165 pounds to 130. My doctor concluded that the problem was imaginary, and since I believed that doctors were geniuses, I kept going back to him for another try at being taken seriously. When I finally turned yellow, I was thrilled because I figured that this would get his attention, and it did. I probably had hepatitis, and I probably got it from a girl, but liver testing was still primitive, so I can’t say for sure. In any event, I got well while lying around the hospital awaiting a diagnosis. Maybe I needed the rest. My illness had forced me to quit my first teaching job; I had no prospects and no place to live (I was still in the dorm); and I was getting married in three months to Peggy whom I had met two months earlier.

After my illness, I got drunk so infrequently and my hangovers were so horrific that I probably remember every occasion. On one of them, I drove my father for a visit with my sister and her cotton-ginner husband near Tallulah, Louisiana, some hundred miles distant. We three men took a one-night camping trip upon which we mostly drank. When the two of them went back to drinking the next morning, I told my father that I either needed to sober up, or we needed to plan on spending the night at my sister’s. He said we could stay, but when nighttime came, he wanted to go home. I reminded him of his agreement, and he said that, by god, if I wasn’t man enough to drive, he was. When I objected, he set out walking—or at least it looked a little like walking. While my sister and brother-in-law went to fetch him, I prepared as best I could for our drive across the battlefields of the Old South.

My last drunk occurred in the early eighties when Peggy and I stopped off somewhere on our way to an overnighter with Peggy’s teetotaling parents some fifty miles distant. My first trick was to stagger into their house and vomit on their bed—the evening went downhill from there. Doris and Earl no doubt rued the day that their daughter met me, but as my mother used to say about my sister's husband, “Well, at least he doesn’t beat her.”

That night was the end of my heavy drinking, not because I was overcome with shame—which I wasn’t—but because I couldn’t handle the hangovers anymore. I’ve rarely had more than three drinks at a time in the decades since then, and seldom that many. As I write, I have wine, beer, and even some 190 proof (leftover from a marijuana tincture) in the pantry, but I long ago lost most of my interest in the effects of liquor. I don't miss it.

My drinking years—the early days

I started drinking in 1964 when I was fifteen. I didn’t exactly decide to get wasted every weekend; I just didn’t consider the possibility that there might be an alternative. It was either drink or date, and I did my share of each. Every Saturday, I would have supper while watching the The Wild, Wild West, and then drive the three miles into town in my ‘56 Fairlane. When I had rounded up a few friends, we would go to a bootlegger’s, usually the one on Highway 51 a little past Della's Motel. I always bought gin and drank it straight from the bottle. I never had a mixed drink until my sister took me out on the town in New Orleans when I was eighteen. Because of my inexperience with liquor that didn’t taste like liquor, I got a whole lot sicker than I had ever been and felt like a fool in the bargain.

I was in two drinking-related wrecks in the same night. In the first, my friend, Penny ran his car off a dead-end road and into the wet earth of an embankment. This scared everyone aboard except him and me—I had survived so many close calls that I didn’t believe cars could hurt me—so they got out as soon as we got back to town, but I was still with Penny when he slid backwards into the high curb behind Dr. Reel's office. A few weeks later, he flipped that same car and was crushed by it. Mississippi roads back then were narrow, hilly, and curvy; bootleggers would sell liquor to anyone; drunk drinking was commonplace; and you could get your license at fifteen. All this together meant that a lot of teenage boys died in car wrecks.

When a popular kid died—most popular kids came from prominent families with money—their classmates would hit everyone up for the cost of a wreath, but when an unpopular kid died, he didn’t get a wreath. My friends and I weren’t the kind of people who got wreaths. We were the kind of people who wouldn’t have been missed had we died. Even if we passed a year—I flunked three years but made two of them up in summer school—we did it by the skin of our teeth. We also cut school when we could, and we avoided every sport, club, and organization that might have given us a sense of belonging. We did this because we believed that such things existed for the popular kids.

Another night, I hungout with four friends who were camping by the railroad tracks, and when I got ready to leave, I was so drunk that I had turned partway onto the tracks before they stopped me. On yet another occasion, I got drunk early, and drove home to find my mother and sister watching TV. I tried to walk into the house as if I was sober, but I bounced off the patio door like a bird and fell flat on my back. The next day, I found that my car was full of puke and bottles, but I didn’t remember where I had been or who I had hungout with. I did remember the hurt in my mother’s eyes as she helped me to bed.

My parents never said a word about my drinking except for the time that I put a dent in the car. My father had a good bit to say about that, but he would have said most of the same things had I not been drinking. His belief was that a real man could do anything drunk that he could sober. Of course, there was that night when he came home drunk (a rare event), missed the driveway, and ended up in a ditch. Staggering though he was, he set up a come-along to winch himself out of that ditch before daybreak.

I concluded at a rather early age that my parents thought I was a bit of a loser. My mother would often say: “Boy, you’ll never amount to anything.” I told myself at the time that she was saying mean things because that’s what I deserved. Now, I understand that she was probably taking her anger toward the father and the two husbands who had abused or abandoned her out on me, the only defenseless representative of my gender.

Psychological pain is like physical pain in that you can’t share it with anyone even when you try. I find it fascinating and terrifying to know that I am utterly and irrevocably shut-off from other people. We can reach, but we can’t touch. Yet, the reaching still matters, at least until we die when nothing matters anymore.

RIP, Nollyposh.