Have you ever asked someone a question that could be answered by a “yes” or “no” – and gotten a reply that sounded like the last two pages in an insurance policy? You were waiting for a “yes” or “no,” but your spouse overloaded your auditory circuit with linguistic cues and shorted out your sensory system. You still don’t know if the salivating dog by your chair can have the leftover pork chop or if you’re going to get it warmed over tomorrow.
When digression complicates communication in the home, deaf old men either take it upon themselves to make executive decisions or get hearing aids.
Our first words to each other in the morning can sound like knock-down drag-out fights. These intimate tête-à-têtes usually end with my wife, Marsha, screaming, “I’m not talking to you until you put in your hearing aids.”
Many famous storytellers have waxed wealthy by turning domestic digression into an art form. Their readers realize that punch lines are even more delicious when one has to sit back and wait for them to hop out of the woodwork and bite. Mark Twain, O. Henry, Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner were notable practitioners. You have your own favorites.
On another level, some of us who talk or write must confess to simply being long-winded. It’s not that we’re paid by the word or that we have an allotted space to fill on the page. In most cases we know exactly where we’re going, but while your eyes are on the page we feel obligated to tell you why our neighbor has a three-legged pig.
Years ago, when asked to submit my favorite recipe to “A Maine Writers’ Cookbook,” I wrote over a thousand words on Spaghetti For The Single Person before even getting into the kitchen. I strongly suspect that the only people who have ever opened the covers of that book are those of us who contributed to it. So Maine writers are the only people who know that Stephen King’s favorite recipe is a greasy concoction he calls Ghoul Lash. Much to the dismay of dozens of Maine writers who wrote pieces for that book, this recipe is probably the only thing ever published by Maine’s most famous author that didn’t sell over a million copies.
If we’re writing about a lobster catcher in Tenants Harbor, is it necessary for the gentle reader to know that while housekeeping for Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the great-grandmother of the protagonist tripped on a chamber pot and fell down a flight of stairs? Yes, it is. A tumble from over a hundred years ago might not add anything to the story, but if we were born with the digression gene, we’ll find a place for it just because.
It is natural to be enamored of the sight or sound of one’s own words, but some of us are more enamored than others. Was it Disraeli who paraphrased Pogo by saying something about being inebriated by the exuberance of your own verbosity?
Please raise your hand if you hold your breath while your significant other tells the same long-winded story to every person who will stand still long enough to listen. Does he or she digress to the point of forgetting which story was in the telling to begin with? Do you jump in to get things back on track, or are you now at the point in your marriage where you just take a deep breath and let it go?
On the other hand, there is something about a “Me Robert you Csenge” type of conversation that eliminates digression. Talking with a person who doesn’t speak your language often facilitates communication.
In 1960 I was living in Sweden with my aunt, who introduced me to a Hungarian refugee. Unable to speak enough Swedish to clerk in a store, she modeled bras for a lingerie catalog. At the end of a pleasant evening of chatter in our less-than-elementary Swedish, I was startled when she invited me to visit her the next evening if I had “lust.” I didn’t know that “om du har lust” meant “if you want to.”
A friend told me that he knows exactly what I mean when I say that my wife has difficulty answering questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” He says his wife talks forever when he asks her a yes-or-no question. It gives her time to make up her mind.
The humble Farmer can be heard Friday nights at 7 on WHPW (97.3 FM) and visited at his website: