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Theres a fine art to small talk

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I'm not very good at small talk.

My wife can verify this. There are times, as we're driving along on a three-hour car trip, that she will punch me in the ribs simply for not having anything to say.

OK, she doesn't actually punch me, but she makes fun of me, and words can hurt, you know.

I have, in fact, been known to prepare for situations that might leave me without anything interesting or intelligent to say. I have, for example, made mental notes of things I might want to bring up at the cocktail party, barbecue or barn-raising that I'll be attending in a few hours because I don't want to be the only goofball there who can't think of something that sparks conversation.

'How about that guy who killed his kids, eh?'

I'll never forget what I thought was the most interesting conversation-starter ever. I was at a coworker's house in the fall of 1974, and a guy named Tom, the husband of my first editor, leaped into a giant, empty silence by observing, 'Do you realize that Elton John has an airplane with a fireplace in it?'

Well, I didn't realize that. And I'd never heard a comment quite like that. Some day, I said to myself, I'll top that with something equally profound or pithy or, at least, odd.

Now, as everyone knows, the top subject of conversation right after people arrive at your door invariably will be, 'How about that traffic?' or, even better, 'Which route did you take?' This always leaves a huge opening for a major debate on the merits of different highways, the freeway versus the old state route and so on.

So, if you're like me, you've always got a little list going, just in case you get stuck with that weird uncle of yours and don't have anything else to talk about. If you are like me and you don't want to be predictable, you do not want to go to the obvious stuff - the Olympics, the political conventions, for God's sakes not the weather.

Shortly after I had prostate surgery back in 2000, I joined a support group and almost immediately found myself at the annual barbecue at the home of the group's facilitator. You haven't struggled with small talk until you've found yourself sharing (and fielding) observations about urinary incontinence, impotence and the fine points of diapers and pads.

It helped, of course, that everybody there was in the same boat.

Two weekends ago we had our annual Men-Only Campout up at Mount Hood. About a dozen of us (all married, most fathers), got together for two nights of campfire singing, whiskey drinking, steak cooking, chili making and, most of all, lie telling.

I didn't go empty-handed, though. Because I've now reached the ripe old age of 61, I don't trust my memory to serve me well enough to store interesting observations in the back of my brain (and to retrieve them at will), so I took visual aids and handouts.

I created a folder, and labeled it appropriately: 'MIKEL'S WACKY STUFF: A handful of humorous tidbits, oddball writings and an assortment of unusally weird conversation starters.'

Inside this folder were such nuggets about life as important quotations from Homer Simpson ('Marge, it takes two to lie - one to lie and one to listen.'), several pages of 'Deep Thoughts' by Jack Handey ('If you're a cowboy and you're dragging a guy behind your horse, I bet it would really make you mad if you looked back and the guy was reading a magazine') and a pile of stories from The Onion newspaper ('Michael Phelps returned to his tank at Sea World,' 'Pedophile nervous for first day at school,' 'Extra slanty italics introduced for extremely important words').

As it turned out, though, I didn't need my conversation starter kit. The talking never let up during this testosterone-charged event, even though most of it was of dubious truthfulness.

The truest test of my small talk infirmity, however, was the fact that there were a couple of new faces at this year's Manfest. This is always the biggest challenge for the chitchat-impaired.

And the newest of the new was a guy named Brett. I only learned later, after getting back to work, that he's an architect. Who knew? What impressed the rest of us the most was the fact that he brought a bunch of drums and set them up just beyond the edge of the campfire's glow next to some vine maples - a cymbal, a snare drum, bongos and a cowbell - to go with the racket of the guitars, banjo, mandolin and ukulele being manned by other participants.

Playing music doesn't exactly lend itself to conversation. Drinking while playing music, of course, has the opposite effect, but then you have the added mystery of not being able to remember the next day what you were talking about the previous night.

Brett, I'm sorry we didn't have more opportunities to visit, but I didn't know you and, let's face it, I'm afraid of the unknown. Next year I'll make it a point to talk to you, maybe before the music starts. I might even bring along some architectural stuff to ask you about.

Like, 'Hey, I think I heard Frank Lloyd Wright used to have an airplane with a fireplace in it.'

Former editor of the Lake Oswego Review and former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections for Community Newspapers and contributes a regular column.