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Vol. LXIII, No. 42
 
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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“What Makes You Tick?” and Other Questions Guide Monthly “Noodle Talk” Conversations

Ellen Gilbert

In the midst of our everyday, often terse email exchanges, the art of conversation — real discussions with real people — is being practiced at “Noodle Talk,” a once-a-month gathering in the first floor Quiet Room of the Princeton Public Library.

Facilitated by leader Alan Goldsmith, a group of about a dozen men and women of varied ages and backgrounds, begins each session by taking turns responding to a set of prepared questions they have already received. At last Monday’s Noodle Talk, the “first round” questions included “What makes you tick?” and “How have you reached decisions you were comfortable with when faced with difficult choices?” Participants were also asked to “describe a memorable misunderstanding you had with another person.” Once these questions were addressed to everyone’s satisfaction, the group proceeded to pick and respond to random questions written on slips of paper — the “noodles” of the day.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the course of an evening,” observed Mr. Goldsmith, who was inspired to create Noodle Talk after he and a classmate developed a questionnaire they circulated among classmates about ten tears after they got out of college. “We sent it around to friends to see what happened to them,” he recalled. “The results were totally unquantifiable. It was a lot of fun and people liked it.”

Over the years Mr. Goldsmith, who was a photographer for most of his working life and now does graphic design work and editing, “collected questions.” Before a party, I’d type them out. The results were always wonderful. I used to call it ‘non-trivial pursuits.’” After a particularly successful Thanksgiving gathering, people encouraged Mr. Goldsmith to “turn it into some sort of book or card game. I needed to find a new way to make a living, so ‘Noodle Talk’ was born. I originally packaged it like store-bought pasta,” he recalled.

“Part of the original marketing plan was to put it on the tables of restaurants and cafes, where people could play while they were waiting for their food, and then the restaurants could sell it. At one cafe in 1994, an editor from Town and Country came in and loved it.” The response to the editor’s resulting article “was fantastic, with calls from schools, half-way houses, corporations — a full range of customers. It’s even used at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital for a vocational workshop.”

Success had its drawbacks, Mr.Goldsmith observed wryly. “At that time it was very labor intensive to produce; I was living, breathing Noodle Talk. Now it’s manufactured.”

Making Decisions

At last week’s library session, one woman cited “picking the person I married” as an example of a difficult choice. Mr. Goldsmith gently encouraged to speak to the “how” of the question, not just the “what.” “You factor in experience; you have certain criteria,” she responded.

Another women pointed out the push-and-pull between “what I want to do, and what I should do. In the professional sphere you keep it at the should.”

“I try to do what terrifies me the least,” chimed in another woman. “I want to do whatever needs to be done without freaking out too much.”

“I find it very liberating,” Mr. Goldsmith observed later, “because you’re not expected to respond to what someone says, unless you want to elicit more details about what they’re saying. It’s just listening and taking in what they’re saying. Fifty to 90 percent of my energy is usually going towards ‘what am I going to say next?’ When you’re not required to respond, you can just sit back and take in what people are saying. There are no right or wrong answers. Some people don’t feel comfortable sharing things about themselves, but what else is there? I find that we’re very lovable when that happens.”

“Sometimes my culture enters into it,” observed one young woman during the conversation about decision-making, and Mr. Goldsmith later noted the importance of the different backgrounds that everyone brings to the table. “It’s not about forming friendships,” he pointed out. “There are a lot of people in the group who I really appreciate based on their answers, but we haven’t become friends. We don’t have that much in common. Usually people in social situations talk about politics, sports, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what Noodle Talk is. It’s a way of relating that we’re not used to or accustomed to. It is intense.”

“When you’re younger, the decisions you make have more consequences,” one older woman said thoughtfully on Monday evening. Another suggested that we all tend to think that there’s a right and wrong answer when we make decisions, and there was a general consensus that this really isn’t the case. Citing her horror, as a young woman, at the description in the Iliad of Helen sacrificing her child, another participant noted the comfort to be found in knowing that others have faced adversity.

Suggestions

“So you like numbers,” observed one participant in response to another’s description of what he does at work. “There’s a T.V. program called Numbers,” someone else pointed out, which was of definite interest to the original speaker.

“What I love about Noodle Talk,” reported one person, “is that I come in thinking one thing, and then I hear what other people have to say. I’m respectful, and my mind goes in so many directions.”

The next meeting of Noodle Talk will be on Monday, November 9, at 7 p.m.

For more information on Noodle Talk, see www.noodletalk.com; http://noodletalk.wordpress.com; and http://pnjnoodletalk.wordpress.com.

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