COCKTAIL CONVERSATION

Listening to what others have to tell you about their own adventures is just as important as telling tales of your travels to distant lands.

Listening to what others have to tell you about their own adventures is just as important as telling tales of your travels to distant lands.

There's no graceful way to say this: sometimes production work can be brutally challenging. Hours can stretch on for what feels like days. Pressure can squeeze those with even the most gracefully zen-like demeanors. Physical labors amplified by relentlessly ticking clocks have been known to reduce strong specimens to worn out, limp rags.

Production also can provoke unexpectedly long journeys. Sometimes those journeys are intellectual, and you should not be fooled: wide-ranging intellectual journeys can take you across unexpectedly challenging distances. But sometimes those journeys move over real, geographic space, too. It's not uncommon to travel across many latitude and longitude lines. What's generally true is that any substantial geographic mileage corresponds with profound intellectual and emotional distance. These thoughts and many more ride high in my forebrain as I'm about to embark this week on nearly a month long expedition to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland with a team of world class scientists to study changes in global ice cover. It's as far away from anywhere as I've ever been, I'm pretty sure, and it's a trip full of challenge, peril, and unknowns.

I have to friend who used to work for the once celebrated, old-school news team at ABC World News Tonight. A producer with serious street cred,  Dean Hovell has been all over the world with world-class journalists. I count him among their superb number. From war zones to natural disasters to great political moments of history, travel both physical and intellectual has a long listing on his resume. These days, in the post-network era he runs a couple of smart, forward leaning media groups, always up to something interesting.  

"Did you like it?" I  asked one day a few years ago.

"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes it was just plain hard. But that's not why you do those kind of trips." Of course, he didn't always have a choice. It was  his job, after all. What's more, but this was coming from a man I know really likes to travel, likes to see the world, learn new things and meet new, interesting people. 

He offered me a bit of advice I've never forgotten. "The way to handle the pressures and challenges of production travel is not to focus on getting the job done well, because you already know that doing the job well is at the top of your priority list. The thing you need to tell yourself is that you're in this for the cocktail party conversation."

I can still remember my reaction. I still laugh.

"The what?!?"

"The cocktail party conversation." 

At first I thought he was simply being a wiseacre. But this year, with tens of thousands of miles already under my belt, I know he was onto something. There's clearly no way a person on high-performance travel can ever properly share his or her experiences with friends and family. Lives can never be lived in parallel, and serial explications of separate experiences aren't realistic either. Then when you get out of yourself  and realize that everyone else's life continued separately and simultaneously from your own, even as you were on a massive adventure, you must simply accept the dilemma. There's only so much that can be shared if it isn't simultaneously experienced. With the best of intentions, even motivated by deep love or affection, it's simply impossible to fully convey the sights and sounds, the pressures and perils, the pleasures and successes of complex travel. It's also impossible to be caught up on the many life experiences of those left behind, no matter how interested you may be. But managed properly, experiences collected from extraordinary travel experiences can be like delicate seasonings. Fine details can make all the difference. They can hold flavors together. They can be essential, even if the do not compromise the bulk and mass of experience. Properly told, details of adventures and experience can make people laugh. They can bring people out of their shells, encouraging others to share other moments of experience and epiphany from their own lives. Intellectual and physical travel can become cocktail party conversation because the experiences can reveal a lot without endless detail. Real life adventure stories describe the spark of life, and those sparks are always unique to the person doing the describing.

The funny thing is, I don't go to many cocktail parties. They're just not as common an event in my life as the fantasy characters in movies might pretend they they are.  But I take the idea of cocktail parties in this case as a metaphoric expression. It's impossible ever to re-live experiences and feelings with somebody else, especially if he or she who hasn't experienced what you've experienced. Conversations about our separate lives is a tricky art, one that can be pursued clumsily or exquisitely. The person who endlessly talks about his or her own adventures had a problem getting out of themselves. The person who never shares his or her experiences with others is hermetically sealed off from the world. Both extremes present pernicious potentials. At one end we find self-absorbed narcissism, blathering on and on about adventures and escapades that we know full well the rest of the world has not had. The other end of the spectrum presents a fully independent free agent, devoid of connection, echoing Camus's famously detached Meursault in The Stranger.

But in between those extremes we find the potential for someone who can share a story, make people smile in recognition, but also lean in, ask,--and really mean it when he or she asks, "So, tell me, what happened in your life while I was away?"

--Michael Starobin

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