Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Virtue of Gossip

I was raised to hate gossip. There were certain rules of decency that had been handed down through generations of my family like durable intricately ugly silver table settings, heirlooms of common sense: you didn't gossip, much in the same way that you didn't eaves drop, eat with your elbows on the table or call adults by their first names.

But the urge to snoop persists. Living in cities, I noticed that people had to make do with manufactured gossip, since they had no community to fertilize the real thing. Even a cursory glance at the tabloid newspapers, and their grimly consistent sale figures, proves my point. But there's always a nasty whiff of malice and shadenfreude in these stories. Happy couples and strong marriages are of no interest whatsoever; that's why Paul Newmman and Joanna Woodward stayed out of the Enquirer and the Star. If there had even been a hint of discord, Page Six and and 'infotainment' TV shows would have been all over it like slime on tofu. Look at "Branglina". I mean, finally you have to ask -- can Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie really break up tragically every single week? Don't they ever get a week off to just hang with their dozens of kids and eat pizza?

Coming to Nantucket altered my perception of gossip. It's hardly ever a question of people spreading falsehoods for spite (or profit) here. Instead, it's a form of communal story-telling that satisfies a collective hunger for narrative. A community's literary imagination is kept alive by these speculations, the nosy questions and the dramatic answers --

"Why did they do that? How could they even afford it?"

"Drugs. They've been dealing for years. How do you think he bought his first spec. house?"

Not that every tale features a drug dealer or nefarious land speculator (though we have our share of both) . Most involve ordinary things -- marriages and divorces, misbehaving children and on-going bankrupcies. We follow the ins and outs of each others' lives and they have the same "You'll never guess what he said next" rhythm that we love in books and movies. The variety of characters and situations in any small town is richer and more compelling than most novels. There are dramas that sadden or anger you ("Yes, they really did send their daughter away to boarding school because she was dating a black kid"), the few that spur you into action ("We just ten more votes at Town Meeting and we'll finally be able to pass the Domestic Partners agreement") and the shaggy dog stories that are just good for a laugh. ("So he thought he he was doing great, charming her pants off, complimenting her dog, making her laugh. Don Juan in painting clothes. Then she goes home and calls the cops. They show up, and chew him out for scaring off the rich people, and they also notice his registration's expired. So they arrest him and tow the car away. He thinks he's a player, she thinks he's an axe-murderer. Gotta narrow the gap there.")

Granted, there's a lack of privacy involved that can be claustrophobic and depressing. No one enjoys having fifteen neighbors and co-workers watching as you yell at your kids in the grocery, and knowing that the incident is going to end up as dinner-table anecdotes all over the island. But this knowledge has a civilizing force as well. Certain kinds of urban arrogance and pretense are simply impractical when you are seen -- and seen through -- this way, every day.

And yes, it's undeniably hypocritical, but even that serves a function. I've seen a whole house full of trademen insulting some absent electrician or plasterer, only to be as friendly as dogs or salesmen when he finally shows up. You never hear an insult directly, and confrontations are rare. By the time that electrician or plasterer finally hears those insults, they will have been smoothed by many voices. To act on them he will have to betray the confidence of the person who told him. And so rumor dismantles action and allows the truth to penetrate slowly, like water through limestone, until all is known and nothing is done and life continues unruffled.

The intimacy we share compels this behavior, and redeems it. There's a constant sense of human connection here among the people you've worked for, the people who picked you up hitch-hiking or protested the Iraq war with you in front of the Post Office; the neighbors, the parents of your kids' friends at school, the people who first knew you by the history of your house, or because your dogs made friends during a walk at the Pat Gardner preserve.

The lives running next to you flow into your own. This rarely happens in a city, where lives are walled away from each other, sealed into airless channels of oligation and routine. You don't know your neighbors and most of the time you don't want to.

But I like knowing my neighbors -- even if they know more than I'd like them to about my love life and my bank account. It's often embarassing.

But it makes good stories, and that's what I care about most.

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