Driving into rural Elgin, I'm thinking about something Henry Miller once said when asked to describe the art of conversation. "We do not talk," he opined. "We bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines, and digests."
The road ahead is dark, and my headlights illuminate a blanket of fog almost swimming in waves before my windshield. Heading out to Elgin to partake of a conversation salon, I'm hoping for better than Miller's description.
Kathy Hamill has sent directions to the home she shares with boyfriend Robin Slater on Koshare Road (named, she says, for a "Hopi trickster god"). She's a lawyer for the office of the state appellate defender in Elgin; he does computer tech support at Sears's corporate office. They started the salon about four years ago "to engage in the art of intelligent, deep conversation," as their flyer puts it. Skimming through the material, I notice another description: "We host salons for our own entertainment." I start to feel like a trained monkey--entertainment--but I'm willing to keep an open mind. After all, they have a waiting list.
Hamill, who opens the door, seems lost in the long, flowing green shirt she's wearing. She has feathers in her hair, and her face is so youthful it's hard to believe she's going to be 50 this year. She giggles when she greets me. Slater, who's behind her, is tall and whippet thin, with sharp, angular features. His black shirt is open at the chest, and his black jeans are so tight I wonder how he can sit down in them. Parted in the middle, his long hair frames his pale face.
I add my shoes to the pile by the door and follow them past a Jim Morrison poster, through a beaded curtain into the kitchen. The ceiling is hung with large sheets resembling sails.
I introduce myself to the first people I meet and ask if the fog was amazing as they drove in. "It's pretty thick" is the general answer. As I start to describe the surreal feeling I had driving through it, I get the distinct impression no one cares. Of course! I'm talking about the weather. According to Hamill's material, this group has tackled such topics as the ideal social gathering, personal freedom, creativity, aphrodisiacs, truth, education, taboo, marriage, sex, and drugs.
Hamill and Slater met a few years ago when Hamill was still married. Her ex-husband, Roger Thompson, is here tonight. So is their son, Fletcher, a lawyer in Ottawa. I ask Thompson if the house looks much different to him. "Well," he says, "we used to have furniture."
I check out the rooms. Sure enough, only futons. Futons and lava lamps. Melted candles on the floors. The walls of one room are painted with sayings like "Gravity is the law around here" and "Flash!" Hamill and Slater follow me around. "The best conversations I've had were when I was sitting on a bed," Hamill says, explaining the futons. When I start jotting down the sayings on the walls, she adds, "My kids moved out, so I was able to be a kid again."
By 1998, Hamill and Slater had become a couple but felt lonely. An article in the Utne Reader about the history of conversation salons, from those in 16th-century France to Gertrude Stein's 20th-century versions, gave them an idea. They placed classified ads in the Daily Herald and the Reader: "Looking for something remarkable: suburban unconventional thinkers starving for imaginative, intelligent conversation. A salon in the making? Entertainment highly likely--community, affinity, celebratory connections possible. Fox Valley area." They've held a salon every month since.
There are 18 people here tonight, a mix of men and women, most between 40 and 60. Only one minority: a black man named DeWitt. Four people are sitting with their arms crossed. One asks if I'm going to use her name. Another wants to know if I should get everyone's approval before starting to take notes. Hamill intercedes. "It's all right," she assures them. Some bring possible questions for discussion, written on slips of paper and drawn at random.
Questions: Should we pay reparations for slavery to African-Americans? No one speaks at first, then everyone looks at DeWitt, who says, "You put a poor black person next to a poor white person, the first person that's gonna be taken seriously is the poor white."
Hamill interjects: "Is there another way to settle the slavery issue besides having reparations?"
DeWitt jokes, "I will take a million dollars right now, then I'm done talking about it."
Words fly back and forth--it's hard to know who's saying what.
"Black people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. They are blocked from advancement..."
"Isn't that what affirmative action was supposed to address?"
"But they're going to get rid of affirmative action?"
"Who are 'they'?"
"Most of the people in the Republican Party."
"It's an issue of equal treatment." DeWitt reenters the conversation.
"That's impossible to dictate," someone shouts.
"Then I'll take the money," DeWitt flips back.
"Money isn't going to change the way people think," says Hamill.
Another woman interrupts: "Should my family get reparations because back in the 60s, when they were starting affirmative-action programs and they had the mayor's summer youth program and my brother applied, even though we were a poor Polish family, he was denied a job because he was told he was the wrong color? It didn't matter if he was poor, he wasn't black."
"What's your question?" DeWitt asks, sounding annoyed. "If your brother back in the 60s was denied a job because of his color, you can certainly bet there were a whole bunch of people denied jobs because they were the wrong color. The difference is today black people are still denied jobs. I'm not saying that blacks are the only people being mistreated, but they are treated worse."
"One way to start changing the situation is to prove you're equal," one man says.
"Why? You don't," DeWitt snaps.
Slater leans forward. "Let's move on," he says.
Slater, who has a quick smile and an easy manner, says later, "I'm not here to give people a hard time. This is not a workshop, it's not therapy. If it's uncomfortable, I don't press the issue. I don't go to a party and dig into things that are uncomfortable for people." He likes people he calls "doers," people who don't follow sitcoms or banter about sports. "I don't give a shit about the Cubbies," he says. "I'm not here to entertain myself with a machine. I want some real conversation." Slater says he and Hamill have a television set in one of their rooms in order to watch rented movies.
Hamill describes what they do as a benign dictatorship. "We invite people into our home, but we control the situation." Do they screen their guests? "We take a chance, is what we do," she says. "For our very first one we were quite worried. Everyone was a stranger to each other and to us. In three and a half years, we've had over 400 people here. We've had nothing disappear.
"We're very relaxed about it. When someone answers the ad, I call them. I'm listening for that psycho sound. I speak to criminals often, so I think I would know. Ted Bundy could call, and I suppose we are vulnerable, but as a practical matter it has not happened."
Question: Why do fools fall in love?
"Hey, DeWitt," someone calls out. "Are those black fools or white fools?"
DeWitt laughs: "I shouldn't let you get away with that!"
The group breaks once for about ten minutes. Several people rush outside for a smoke. Slater goes to get some fresh air in the backyard, which has a large deck, a pool, and a giant hot tub. "We hang sheets and swim nude," he tells me. They also have occasional drumming parties. I ask about their neighbors. "People pretty much keep to themselves," he says. "And the house is on an acre of land."
Hamill appears and says that before creating their salon, she and Slater checked out the Unitarian Church and some other local groups. Nothing satisfied them. "In Elgin there's really not a place to meet interesting people," she says. "We wanted more social stuff, and we didn't like the kind of games you play in a bar--you know, forced conversation.
"One of our projects is to find out how intricate and involved a relationship can become between two people. How clearly can we communicate with each other and share what's in our heads? We never get talked out. The salon for us is a human laboratory--we experiment with how we can frame the topic, the lights, the music."
Question: What things are too personal to discuss with someone else?
A University of Michigan researcher in the group admits to asking very personal questions as part of her job.
"Like what?" DeWitt asks.
"Like: when you're making love with your partner, do you put your lips on him?"
DeWitt is hooked: "Get outta here..."
An older man speaks up for the first time: "I don't feel comfortable talking about how much money I make. I suppose everyone feels the same way."
The group nods in agreement.
Hamill and Slater try to select people close to their age. "If they're under 40, we discourage them," he says. "People in their 20s are kind of naive. I can't feed off that energy. They can give you great advice on what makes a great relationship at 19, but I can figure it out at 58. We've had discussions about politics, and I don't want a bunch of flag-wavers thinking the government is correct." They make an exception for Hamill's son. "He always comes with something interesting to say," Slater concedes. Tonight, however, Fletcher is fairly quiet.
Slater's ex-wife lives in Seattle, and his three kids are all in their 30s. He doesn't see them very often. "My oldest son is in the military," he explains. "I don't really have anything to say to him."
I ask him to describe the best conversation he's ever had. "You know, I was once in Washington, D.C., on a consulting job and I went down to the hotel bar. There was a guy there from some country I never heard of. I don't remember who struck up the conversation, but I remember it was during Desert Storm. This guy talked about how Kuwait was really at fault because they were stealing Iraq blind, taking their oil. So that conversation made me take another view of the situation.
"That's the best kind of conversation, when you walk away changed."
Question: What are the social, ontological, psychological, and practical implications of discovering intelligent life other than ourselves in the universe?
Just about everyone chimes in.
"That means we're intelligent life?"
"We could be pets."
"We could be someone's aquarium."
"Something like 65 percent of Americans believe in the possibility of life on other planets."
"There are hundreds of thousands of other planets. What makes us so fucking sure that we're the only ones here?"
"Very few photos come out of NASA that aren't doctored," says a guy named Steve, who hasn't said anything until now. Hamill leans over and whispers, "Steve's a character. He E-mails his dreams to me every morning."
"How do you know aliens exist?" someone asks him.
"Because I've talked with them," Steve says. "Aliens are snotty. Most of the aliens who visit this planet don't breathe air. Air is pretty much an unusual substance. Most are water dwellers, and they never get out of their tentacles."
Hamill closes this conversation: "Now we're getting pretty far afield." The salon ends soon afterward, clocking in at about three hours.
"We try to avoid the 'ain't it awful' party," says Hamill. "We try to frame the topics so there's creative, affirmative thinking. I try to make an effort during the discussion to flip the discussion around to the visionary side of things." She adds that "60 or 65 percent of the time, the group meets my approval. It's usually because a dance happens, an intellectual dance, and there's something very exciting about that."
Readers interested in Hamill and Slater's monthly salons can call them at 847-741-4297.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.