My boyfriend has been talking about physics a lot recently. “Do you want me to explain relativity to you?” he asked me the other day.
“Nah,” I replied.
He has also been talking a lot about rockets. He’ll launch (ha ha) into a long explanation about rocket fuel and combustion while I nod, glassy-eyed, saying “uh huh,” at what I hope are the appropriate moments. He’s also been watching a lot of rocket videos on youtube, and he gets slightly offended when I don’t want to watch them with him.
Yesterday I was sitting on the floor making a Christmas card while Paul lounged on the couch reading about relativity. “OK, think about this,” he said. “You’re standing still watching a runner. At two different times, he’s in two different places. But if you’re the runner, in your reference frame, you’ve never moved. Those two points are the same.”
“No,’ I said flatly. “That’s dumb.”
“But wait, listen…”
“Nope,” I said. “For all practical purposes in my life, two different locations on a coordinate grid are two different locations whether I’m running or not. This is just semantics. End of story.”
“You’re just trying to impress me with some crazy-sounding statement. You’re trying to make me say “whoa, that’s blowing my mind, tell me more about relativity!””
Paul agreed that this was, in fact, his hope.
I felt a little bad about shutting down the relativity discussion, but I was bored of him talking about physics. The problem is that it’s always a one-sided conversation. He has a PhD in physics; I don’t. I have nothing to add to the conversation. It’s not even really a conversation so much as it is Paul lecturing to me.
“You know what,” I said after a moment of silence, “my Christmas card list is getting out of control. Look at all the people I’m sending cards to this year.”
Paul looked up from his book briefly. “And who are these people?”
“You know. Friends, family. Basically everyone I know.” I considered my list. “The problem is that I have some leftover store-bought cards from a few years ago that I want to use up. So I have to figure out who’s going to get those and who’s going to get the handmade ones. And I have to remember who I sent those to last year because I wouldn’t want to give them the same card I’ve already given them. ”
“Uh huh,” Paul said.
I looked down at my card. I’d drawn the space needle and colored it green, like a Christmas tree. “You know, last year I made two different cards, but I don’t know if I have it in me this year. I might just stick with this one.”
“Hmm, yeah,” Paul said.
And suddenly I realized: I was boring him.
Recently there was an episode of This American Life in which a snooty British woman (Mrs. Matthiessen) expounds on the seven forbidden topics of conversation, according to her. “Never talk about how you slept,” she advises. “Nobody cares. Never talk about your period. Nobody cares. Don’t talk about your health, either. Nobody cares.” She also forbids describing your dreams or what she calls “route talk” (how you got from one place to another) because these subjects are so boring.
In a general sense, I agree with her. When people start talking about their ailments or go into convoluted descriptions of their dreams, it is boring. This American Life took on the challenge of finding stories about these topics that would be interesting to Mrs. Matthiessen. They interviewed an astronaut about how she sleeps in space and recorded a family of health-obsessed hypochondriacs at dinner.
At first, I was considering doing the same thing with my blog today – telling what I hoped were interesting stories about these supposedly boring topics.
But now I’ve realized there are a lot more subjects to add to the list. Like physics. And, apparently, Christmas cards.
“You know what’s so exciting about rockets?” Paul asked last night as we were getting into bed.
“They go up into space?” I said, yawning.
“Yes, and –“
“Paul,” I interrupted, “I’m tired of hearing about rockets. You’ve been talking about rockets for weeks, and I just don’t care. I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
“OK,” he said, pouting a little. “I understand. I won’t say anything else.”
“I mean, I know I talk about things that bore you, too. What do I talk about that’s boring? My Christmas cards?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t care about your Christmas card dilemma about who gets which card.”
“I know. I was being boring!” We both laughed. This was good. We were clearing the air. “What about when I talk about clothes?” I prompted.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “When you were telling me today about oh, I’m going to wear this now but I’m going to wear this other thing later because of this, I was just staring at your butt the whole time. I wasn’t even listening.”
“OK.” I nodded. “See. This is good. So we’re both boring sometimes. So I’ll try not to talk about things that are boring to you, and you try to do the same.”
Paul agreed to try.
* * *
The thing about Mrs. Mattheissen’s seven deadly topics is that they produce one-sided conversations. And that’s what’s boring. As This American Life tried to prove, anything can be interesting given the right circumstances. And as Paul and I have proved, anything can be boring when it’s one-sided.
Which leads me to think about my own writing, especially this blog, which is, essentially, a one-sided conversation I’m having with the world. How can I make it interesting to people other than myself?
Sometimes I feel like I tricked Paul a little bit. When he first met me, my friend Nikki was reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History in Time, and so she and I were having regular conversations about physics. I think Paul got the idea that I would happily talk to him about physics, too. But the difference is that with Nikki, neither of us knew the answers. We were pondering things together, offering each other ideas and discussing them on an equal playing field.
Is that what I need to do with my writing? Ask questions I don’t know the answers to? Try to engage my readers in an open dialogue? I don’t know. What do you think?
* * *
“You know why I love physics?” Paul asked me the other day. He didn’t wait for my answer. “It’s like, imagine you’re reading a really good story about the universe, and it’s your job to just keep reading this story and see if you can add to the plot. That’s what physics is. That’s why I have trouble reading other kinds of books. Because physics is just such an exciting story.”
“To you,” I added. “It’s exciting to you.”
“Yeah,” Paul conceded. “To me.”