I talked to my mother tonight. For those of you who have never met my mother it’s important to understand that there is a fundamental difference between my mother and me—she believes in sharing everything, I believe in sharing the bare minimum where my family is concerned. I’m not actively hiding anything, I just often think things aren’t important to share. My mother responds to this by pelting me with questions. She insists it’s just about wanting to be part of my life (my brother and sister spoiled her by buying houses within 20 minutes of her so she feels like I live in outer space). Tonight she was asking me about the school work I’m doing right now. I tried to give vague answers. She persisted. So finally I explained I’m writing a paper about moments of nourishment in The Sowdone of Babylone and how those moments are used by the text to try to resolve issues of conversion, assimilation and neighborlove.
There was silence and I imagine my mother was blinking blankly at the phone.
There’s a bigger problem here—the further you get into any area of academic (or I imagine technical) specialty, the harder it becomes to have conversations with outsiders about it. I’m guessing this is why so many academics wind up pairing off (memo me: add “must understand middle English” to personal ad). Take, for example, the conversation I had with one of my friends at our swing dance class about the aforementioned paper:
Me: Well, there’s this magic girdle that the Saracen woman has and it nourishes everyone but they only get to use it once because Roland accidentally throws it out a window.
Her: Of course, he does. Fuckin’ Roland! He always does that. I hate that guy!
This conversation made perfect sense to us, but I’m guessing many of you have no clue who Roland is or why we hate him so much.
The resolution to a situation like this and the one I have with my mom is what is called “The cocktail answer.” This is the explanation you give at cocktail parties when someone asks you “what kind of folklore you do.” It’s like how I say Cammy’s an international arms dealer because I don’t understand her actual job. My problem is I’m no good at cocktail answers. I kind of have one for my dissertation topic, except that what I wind up describing bears very little relation to what I’m actually writing about. But perhaps that’s the beauty of a cocktail answer. It doesn’t have to be accurate; it just has to shut people up. And if I can figure out how to shut up my mother (who I really do love like crazy), that will be a miracle.