Read Old Man Scanlon


21 May 2009

It is not widely known that I belong to an athletic family. Cousins once removed Burnie and Oscar were involved in semi-pro baseball, and my nephew Mike was a varsity runner. My grandson Jordan shows promise in the baseball line. My granddaughters Alison and Hunter would sooner cartwheel across the yard than walk, and I myself have had the visceral pleasure of hearing 30,000 fans roar "Youk!" as Kevin Youkilis enters the field at Fenway Park.

It is even less well-known, indeed, hardly even suspected, that my father and I hold the current world record for Marathon Conversation (Doubles). It's an esoteric game, not familiar to most mainstream sportsmen, which demands massive endurance and stamina as well as finesse. The rules are deceptively simple: a team comprising a Transmitter, and one or two Receivers, carries on a polite, civil, uninterrupted conversation, standing, never leaving the venue, for as long as possible. Clearly, the major burden falls on the Transmitter, but good Receivers are essential. The split-second timing of a well-played interjection of "Is that right?" or "Yes, that makes sense" can maintain a team's momentum and seal its victory. Our time in the doubles event was four hours; our competition could only mutter and shake their heads in awe.

Our Transmitter teammate in that contest was my brother-in-law Tom, who discusses his talent matter-of-factly. It's not bragging when he says, "I could talk a buzzard off a meat wagon." Also a maniacally meticulous and detail-oriented carpenter, he's ill at ease in today's construction world, where the idea is to slam together a McMansion in the least time possible, competent craftsmanship be damned. If you want something done right and time is of no concern, perfectionist Tom is your man.

On Easter Sunday I had asked Tom if he'd be willing to replace the gutter on my house. The supporting brackets were pulling out, it was sagging to an alarming degree, and in winter dumped melting snow directly on the steps, resulting in a small glacier — an open invitation to a lawsuit. Now, toward the end of May, work on his current job was suspended to wait for a wrecking crane, so Tom had the time and inclination to get the gutter done.

Work was over at 5:30. Tom had a cigarette and a Bass Ale. I joined him in the driveway with a Bass of my own and we started to talk. (Steroids, of course, are forbidden, but alcohol and tobacco are time-honored adjuncts to competitive conversation. A master of the game must be adept at balancing the productive loosening of inhibitions against both the civility rule and the demands of his kidneys, since he must maintain his position at all times.) Cheryl left for church an hour later as we were warming up. When she returned at 9:00, night had fallen, crushed mosquito corpses surrounded our feet, and the only illumination was from Tom's occasional cigarette and a lone lightning bug in the side yard. We were in the zone, at the top of our game; time had no meaning. We covered, among other things, kayak surfing, white-water kayaking, Nascar and motorcycle racing, marriage, in-laws, fatherhood, growing up, drug and alcohol abuse, boxing, the construction business, and Peter Frampton concerts. I am invincibly ignorant of most of these topics, and it may seem paradoxical to the casual observer that conversation would even be possible. But what is conversation but the exchange of intelligence between two humans? In electrical terms, the greater the potential difference between Transmitter and Receiver, the easier it is to overcome the resistance to conversation.

A few minutes later Tom made a bold move, picking up his kayak paddle and duffel bag as if he were going to get in his truck and leave. The spectators went wild, and we continued to converse. Cheryl appeared at the door several times, offering us supper, asking Tom if she should notify his next of kin, but we were still solidly in the zone and going for the gold. When she announced at 11:00 that she was going to bed, Tom's concentration snapped and the game was over. We are awaiting official notification from the International Committee of Conversation, the sport's governing body, that 5.5 hours is in fact the new world singles record.