Out There: Conversation, simplified

It’s maddening when my teenage sons use minimalistic speech to communicate with The Wife and me.

Talking Cartoon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Talking Cartoon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Five words, and one tiny expression. That’s all it takes for my two adolescent sons – 16 and 14 – to have a telephone conversation with The Wife and me, with their friends, among themselves, even with their teachers.
Five words, and one tiny expression.
Walla (hey), achi (bro), achla (cool), sababa (another word for cool), tov (good) and ma koreh (what’s happening).
It’s astounding, actually. It’s as if their whole teenage universe can be encapsulated using those few monosyllables.
I love listening to their phone conversations.
They go something like this: “Walla, achi. Ma koreh? Walla... pause... tov... pause... Sababa, achi...
pause... Achla. (Hey, bro. What’s happening? Hey, good. Cool, bro. Cool.) And there you have it. Five words, one tiny expression and business is finished; plans hatched; ideas communicated, albeit not overly deep ones; and messages relayed.
I LISTEN to them and think back to a famous story told of Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30th president.
The story goes that Coolidge, an odd-breed politician with a distinct disinclination to talk, was told by a young woman whom he met that she bet a friend she could pry three words of conversation out of him. “You lose,” he replied.
My boys could have one-upped the president, and would have needed only one utterance: “Sababa.”
What makes my sons’ conversations even more astounding is that even these few words are not enunciated clearly, but are mumbled: achi sounding like achla, walla like some primitive grunt.
More impressive still is that those few mumbled words, uttered with a somewhat affected deep voice to enhance the macho impact, are actually understood by the party on the other side of a crackling cellphone. That all this somehow works – that thoughts are communicated in this manner – would make for a fascinating anthropological study.
I, for one, have no real problem if the lads want to employ minimalistic speech to communicate with each other and their friends. What is maddening, however, is when they use that same limited vocabulary in conversations with The Wife and me.
For instance, my youngest, in ninth grade, joined his brother and started studying at a new school this year – a school where he sleeps over five nights a week. This means The Wife and I are thirsting for knowledge, for any little morsel of information that will shine some light on what is going on in his life: Who his teachers are, who his friends are, tales about the food, information about his sleeping conditions.
But all we get are the reflexive achlas and sababas.
How’s school? Sababa.
How’s the food? Achla.
How are your roommates? Tov.
This isn’t a conversation; it’s an interview with an uncooperative subject. I ask; the boys answer. There is no free association, no volunteering of information, few genuine queries about the family or what we think of things.
Logically, one would think that by having two kids at the same school, I could find out how one is doing by just asking the other. But one would be mistaken. “Hey, how’s your brother doing,” elicits the ever-ready “achla” reply.
“This is Meet the Press with Richard Nixon,” I once complained to The Wife. “Not a father son heart-to- heart. It’s pulling teeth.”
“What do you expect,” she said, “they’re your sons.”
IT’S NOT that I can’t carry a conversation, she explained, but that I too am not big on revealing my emotional landscape. “The boys,” she said, “talk about nothing using a few words. You talk about nothing with your friends using a ton of words.”
Her complaint was more one of content than form: It’s not that I can’t carry on a conversation with buddies, it’s just that the conversation is – well – generally rather narrow, limited in scope. With my friends I talk about two things: politics and sports.
“Abba,” my youngest son asked me in great earnest after shul one Shabbat morning a few years ago, when he was in his garrulous stage. “Would anyone talk to you if you didn’t work at The Jerusalem Post?” Interesting question, that. A sobering query, somewhat jarring, but still an interesting and rather astute observation coming from a boy who had been privy all his life to my rather monochromatic weekly after-shul Shabbat conversations.
“I dunno,” I answered. “I guess someone might.
Sabba would, certainly. Your mother would have to. Visiting Nephew Danny from the US probably would, but then that’s only because he wants to do laundry at our house.”
The boy’s question is logical. Since all my conversations with friends and acquaintances seem to revolve only around the news, if I wasn’t involved with the news, would we still talk? And if we did, what in tarnation would we talk about? There is indeed a dramatic difference between what I talk about with my friends, and what The Wife talks about with hers. I tend to keep things inside, having no need to share my innermost thoughts with anyone other than my wife, and then only after getting her to sign a confidentiality agreement.
What’s private is private, and just about everything in my book – outside of politics and sports – falls within the privacy domain. I am not going to reveal weakness or vulnerability by actually expressing to someone an inner emotional thought. The inner functions of my soul I keep, well, to the inner chambers of my soul.
Not so The Wife. She has a few very good friends with whom she speaks on a regular basis – I’m talking here on a daily, if not hourly, basis – and discusses everything. Sometimes I am amazed at how often she talks to her friends, wondering what new has transpired since the last time they talked.
“You just talked to Dawn,” I said to The Wife recently, as she went back to the phone to talk to that friend yet again. “What has possibly happened in the past two hours? What new tidbit can you possibly tell her now?” “Well for one thing,” she quipped, “that you just made this ridiculous comment.”
Sababa,” I mumble, and return to watching the news. After that I’ll go call the boys to hear about their days – more kindred spirits than I might like to admit.