The joy of rambling conversation

In the bestselling novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles, the protagonist,The Count, and his daughter, Sophia, play a game they call “Zut.” In the game one player proposes a category with a specialized subset of phenomena, for example stringed instruments, or famous islands, or winged creatures that are not birds. The two players then go back and forth until one of them fails to come up with an example within a suitable amount of time. In the novel, they allow two and a half minutes to come up with an example. The first player to win two sets is the victor. According to the Count in the novel, the name of the game came from the expression “Zut alors!” - the only appropriate expression upon losing.

As we have been driving, we have been playing our own version of the game. There are areas of our lives where we are a bit competitive, but for the most part we enjoy working together more than competing, so we’ve eliminated the sense of competition. We don’t bother to take turns. One of us comes up with a category and then we both just try to list as many things as we can in that category. We aren’t French, so nobody has been declaring “Zut alors!” in our conversations. And frequently as we are thinking another topic of conversation comes to mind and we are sidetracked. Sometimes one of us will come up with another item for the category later in the conversation - or later in the day and we’ll return to thinking of items in that category.

For example, “animals that are black and white” generated zebras, skunks, Dalmatians, some cates, orcas, penguins, osprey, bald eagles, and holstein cows right away. Some time later, I added “other dogs” to cover the malamute that we once owned. Siberian husky might also fit the category as would elkhounds. A while later we noted that there are a lot of other birds, such as magpies that are black and white.

We didn’t compile such a long list for the category of “works of art or literature with allusions to purple.” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” came to mind right way, as did Prince’s “Purple Rain.” I recited, “I’ve never seen a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you this right now. I’d rather see than be one!” Then we thought of “One Horned, One Eyed, Flying Purple People Eater, and got distracted trying to figure out the lyrics to the song. That led to a discussion about when the song came out. I thought that Chuck Berry was the one who recorded it, and Susan could remember listening to it on a white radio that they had had in their house in Libby. Our memories sort of placed the song in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but we weren’t sure. That led to looking up the song on a phone to see when it was recorded: 1959 by Chuck Berry. Perhaps one of us should have exclaimed, “Zut alors!” in celebration of getting both the date and artist right. I’m thinking that we might have come up with some other work of art or literature that has an allusion to purple. The best we’ve come up with so far is the poem, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.” That prompted a few memories of red hat society gatherings in which my mother participated. We haven’t gotten back to the topic of the category yet.

As we were walking in the rain last evening the category that came up was songs that refer to places we have been on this trip. You’ve got to include “Sweet Caroline” (bum, bum, bum) in that list. Since we are camped very near to Rocky Top, Tennessee the song with that name came up. I suggested that since the Tennessee Volunteers went to the aid of Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and we are staying in Volunteer Park, the song “Battle of New Orleans” would fit.

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn't as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Susan was impressed that I could come up with those lyrics. I commented that I used to know several more verses, but now I couldn’t come up with any more. That got us off topic and we started to talk about how our memories work and how when I have a partial memory, sometimes singing a song over and over can prompt more lyrics to be remembered. Susan said that other than church hymns, she doesn’t have many songs memorized. I pride myself in being able to come up with at least a song, usually from musical theatre, to respond to many different topics of conversation. The song “Memory” from Cats comes to mind.

Memory, all alone in the moonlight
I can dream of the old days
Life was beautiful then

Of course I can’t remember the rest of that song.

Our version of the game and our conversations around it bear little resemblance to the conversations between the Count and Sophia in Towles’ novel. It is, of course, a work of fiction, and the conversations are imagined, not real. I suspect that most real conversations are a bit less focused and wander off to other topics as often as ours do. We have a lot of shared experiences after 48 years of marriage, so we have a lot of topics about which to converse. Having the travel time gives us more time for conversation and even after all these years we haven’t run out of things to say to each other.

Are all skinks black and white, or just some of them?

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