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March 28th, 2014 - Heather Bourbeau

On March 28, 2014, three items dominated the news: Liberia, Texas, and Ukraine. Other than Liberia, which saw the first cases of a deadly Ebola outbreak, you could almost be forgiven for thinking we were talking about today. In 2014, a federal appeals court upheld Texas’ then new incredibly restrictive abortion law, and Putin called Obama to “discuss the U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine.” The crisis at that time was Russia’s occupation of Crimea. We should have known. On the last two, we should have known. And indeed, we knew.  La plus ça change…


And where was I amid all of this? I was returning from a long day of work in Richmond or perhaps Sacramento. And despite my exhaustion, I went to a friend’s book launch party at Sugarlump café in San Francisco—a cafe that no longer exists. Sugarlump was the kind of place that once defined my youth in San Francisco, one where they would stay open fairly late and you could just chat or think or scribble. For a few years, Sugarlump bridged that bohemian holdover with a welcoming back yard and the digital nomad life with consistent wifi, and I was grateful.


The book What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker (with illustrations by Tony Millionaire) was the perfect hilarious antidote to the day, and the joy of sharing Chris and Rob’s success with other friends and writers I knew at a café that served delicious cookies and decent tea was most welcome.


I remember reveling in the encouragement to bring absurdity into any casual conversation (e.g., “Do you think train conductors get burned out on waving to people?” and “If you got to have one additional eye, where would you want it located?”) I remember laughing and feeling a lightness return to my body after battling stresses at my public health job and listening to the news. I also remember thinking this book was a fully amusing and sometimes practical guide. I bought it, skimmed through it, shared hilarious segues, and then placed it the toilet to be read by friends at my bi-monthly full-moon dinners and other gatherings. I could not anticipate how precious such interactions, including the frustration of working alongside other humans, would become. When the COVID outbreak was declared a pandemic in early 2020, I was returning from a trip to visit friends and my host family from when I was an exchange student in Australia. A few years before, I had left my public health job to return to contract work with international aid and development agencies. My life was full of travel, and human engagement was a deeply necessary part of my work and my happiness.


I remember thinking that maybe the pandemic would last a few months. My work stopped as flights were cancelled, priorities shifted, and budgets reevaluated. Immediately, my world shrank to my neighborhood, my ninety-something godfather who lived nearby, and my eighty-something father who lived seventy-five miles away. Before the vaccine, my only human touch came from the hugs my dad and I shared when I would travel to see him and help him do things that were considered too risky for someone his age, such as buy his groceries. Despite talking with, exercising on Zoom with, and hiking and walking friends (masked and at a distance), it was an incredibly lonely and difficult time. Like nearly everyone else, I was not engaging in casual contact with baristas, booksellers, neighbors at the grocery store, or coworkers at the office. And as the pandemic wore on, I found myself opening up Chris and Rob’s book, first for some sort of nostalgia for even awkward conversations, then for the humor, and eventually to review once simple tips on small talk.


I needed no encouragement now on absurdism. Our world was absurd enough. I needed to remember how to connect lightly, how to talk about anything other than the pandemic, the fires, or the election. I needed to remember that we would meet again in person and it was possible, a requirement almost, and a delight to simply ask, "What was the best part of your weekend? What are you looking forward to this week? Do you have any surprising hobbies or hidden talents you want to talk about?” I wanted to remember how to ask for stories, not answers.


In some ways so little has changed—the news is dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the loss of abortion rights in Texas and other states—but for me, March 28, 2014 and the book I helped celebrate that day are emblematic of how drastically my personal life shifted. I am hoping to restart my full moon dinner parties shortly, and you can bet, What to Talk About will be available, this time on my coffee table, to assist in any conversation lulls. And perhaps I will take a recommendation from a “Small Talk” section and ask an unexpected guest, “Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?” And I hope that some part of me will look out at my myriad friends gathered in my space once again and say to myself, “Me. I am.”


Heather Bourbeau’s award-winning poetry and fiction have appeared in The Irish Times, The Kenyon Review, Meridian, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She has been featured on KALW and the San Francisco Public Library’s Poem of the Day, and her writings are part of the Special Collections at the James Joyce Library, University College Dublin. Her collection Some Days The Bird is a poetry conversation with the Irish-Australian poet Anne Casey (Beltway Editions, 2022). Her latest collection Monarch is a poetic memoir of overlooked histories from the US West she was raised in (Cornerstone Press, 2023).


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