Good conversations

by Rob Tiller

One of my favorite movies is My Dinner with Andre. The 1981 movie is about as simple in concept as possible: two old friends have a conversation in a restaurant. It starts out like a typical conversation, though livelier and wittier than most, and gradually begins to soar and swoop. It’s like a duet, or a dance in words. The friends are having fun, but are also creating something. It sets a high bar for a great conversation, but it’s also inspiring. It shows that a good conversation is a work of art.

This week at Red Hat we had a meeting of our entire legal department, including colleagues from our foreign offices. I had five business dinners in a row, not to mention five business lunches and multiple impromptu encounters between meetings. There were plenty of conversations. A number of my colleagues were inspired talkers, and knew a lot about their subjects.

Some of our conversations were fairly ambitious: talking with Monica about European IP law; with Amanda about race in America; with Madeline and Kathal about blogs and the future of literature; with Mei about refusing membership in the Chinese Communist party; with Richard about the future of open source licensing, with Winston about conservative politics; and with Patrick about religion in Utah. There were many good stories: e.g. Eric on playing tennis with Andre Agassi; Emily on working with her personal trainer; and Jean on working as a flight attendant for Singapore Airlines.

It was varied and fun, and I felt grateful to be associated with a group of such interesting and stimulating people. But as Myra and I discussed, socializing in large doses is depleting. I felt really tired and ready to relax when we finished our meetings Friday afternoon. When I got home, I did some yoga, and then played some Chopin and Debussy. It always amazes me how half an hour of immersion in making music can refresh the mind and produce great happiness.

Sally mixed us basil gimlets (one of her signature drinks) and cooked a tofu curry while we listened to a Pandora mix of contemporary Indian music. At dinner we talked about some big subjects, including global warming and species extinction, which we both worry about. The topics are, of course, anxiety producing and sometimes depressing, and depression may lead towards hopelessness. And loneliness. These issues can be friend repellents: who wants to be with a depressing person who makes you depressed? This is another reason it is good to have a committed loving partner: you can talk about serious things.

We also talked about art and science. Recently I read The Wild Life in Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn (a professor at N.C. State), which discusses evolution of humans as a story that cannot be understood without appreciating our symbiotic microbes (fact: they’re more numerous in our body than human cells), parasitic worms (which may prevent disease), our former prey and predators, and other aspects of the natural world. The book is uneven, but the vision is sweeping and fascinating. It is my latest piece of evidence for the theory that scientific intuition and artistic intuition are very much alike, and they can be thrilling in much the same way.