The Conversation Desk

The conversation desk is a tool I use to keep track of things in long and winding conversations. It is an extremely cutdown version of the Memory Palace. I did not learn about the Memory Palace from classical sources, but from Hannibal Lecter via Thomas Harris.

The concept of a memory palace is simple, though execution can be tough. In order to remember things, people, dates, contact information, whatever, you associate the memory with particular colors, sounds, smells, and locate that memory in a mental construct. The more detail you can add in, the better. Dr Lecter has a huge castle (several actually) based on real castles. Happy memories are in lighted rooms, or gardens. Sad or scary memories are in dungeons. Lonely memories are often in towers. Lecter is aided in searching his memory palace by all the objects along the way. The corridor to memory X passes painting D and one pads across carpet Z while smelling the fragrance of flower K in vase Y. Each of these sense triggers relate to their own memories, and at least for Lecter, blend together in such a way that it is natural to pass by these smaller/shorter memories on the way to more intricate/elaborate memories.

I am not a terribly visual guy, so I don’t know that an elaborate memory palace would work for me, but a desk, yeah, I can do that. My friends John and Zander and I collaborated to come up with the conversation desk and a few corollaries to it in 1992. Not surprisingly, one begins with the image of a desk in their mind. You can use any kind of desk. For most applications, I don’t have to get very fancy and use a version of the desk I am always building in the back of my mind: 2x4s and plywood with lag bolts, something like masonite to coat the top surface, and a variety of sizes – 4’x8’, 3’x8’, 4’x6’, and 3’x6’.

If circumstances demand, I use more detail, or imagine an actual desk I have used or owned in the past. But, given that this is a Conversation Desk and not a place for permanent storage and retrieval such as the memory palace, it is very rare that I have needed such added details.

The next tool you need is the Piton. You need not imagine an actual climbing piton. I never do. I used to envision a series of letter spikes. Since 2001, I envision what I do actually use as paper weights – different colored 2” sections of marble thresholds left over from many a tile job. Imagine whatever suits you, so long as it is specific. The object does not matter, but the name “piton” stuck due to how “piton” is implemented when using the conversation desk.

Ok, you have your desk and your pitons ready! You are all set for a long talk with a good  friend or two. Maybe it has been awhile since you have seen one another and there is a lot to catch up on. Maybe you see each other all the time, but you are really creative, or passionate, or just can’t shut up. I fit most of those descriptions plus having the genetically mandated inability to tell short stories.

I have not seen John or Zander for many years, so I use the desk mostly with Jake now, but there are a few others friends that I have turned onto the conversation desk system who have found it useful. To explain how to use the desk, I will use Jake and I as the sample participants.

I have been at home writing and cooking and out shopping and walking and when Jake gets home from school, I have lots to tell him. Jake has taught 4 classes had office hours and 10,000 interruptions from thankless students and hapless faculty. He has a lot to talk about. He can see that I am ready to go and as he walks in the door he says, “Piton Dr W and blue shoes, go ahead.” This simple sentence has accomplished a few things.

  1. I have pitoned Dr W and blue shoes on top of my conversation desk. I have imagined a little piece of paper, part of a slice of paper that I have used one side of and saved for note taking before recycling (detail helps). I have written “Dr W – blue shoes” on that piece of paper in my mind. I have placed that paper in the top left corner of my desk and put a piece of marble threshold paper weight on top of it. At this time, I have no idea what “Dr W and blue shoes” means, but it is on my desk, and if Jake forgets it for any reason, I should see it on my desk and remember to ask about it.
  2. Jake has pitoned Dr W and blue shoes on top of his conversation desk. I don’t know what his desk looks like these days. But as the party initiating the piton, it is Jake’s job to clothe his piton in such a way that the rest of the memory will come fully to mind from the details assigned to the piton – Dr W and blue shoes.
  3. Jake has informed me that he has a story to tell, but he is yielding the floor so that I may tell my story first, and he has thrown out a memory buoy so that each of us has a good chance to remember that Jake had a story to tell and provides a few clues as to what the story might be.

The last element involved is the “Real Quick”. The Real Quick is the most subjective and ethereal element of the conversation desk system. Implementing a Real Quick, and the ensuing battle for speaking primacy is similar to what happens when you are on a road trip with someone, you have both had tons of beverages over the past 300 miles, and you get to a rest area with a one person bathroom, and you have to decide who gets to go first. Sometimes it is simple, sometimes, not so much.

The rules for judging who gets to speak when a Real Quick has been issued are very loose. Evaluating such a thing is based on levels of intensity and less specific factors. Given that, even the Real Quick has some strictures.

A Real Quick should be exactly that – real quick.

In case of dueling Real Quicks, generally the fastest uttered “Real Quick” wins out. Not the one said first mind you, but the one said more quickly.

Real Quicks are not used to launch 5 minute speeches, highjack the conversation, or switch the topic by force. One could use a real quick to sneak in a piton – like so:

Jake: So, then Dr W was like, “Blue Shoes on the window? How did those get there.”

Nick: Real Quick, piton big boobs Safeway.

Jake: Cool. And I was like, “Why do you keep asking me? I don’t have blue shoes. I don’t know anyone with blue shoes. I didn’t take your candy or mess up your desk and I did not leave a pair of blue shoes in your office.

Nick: What a weirdo? Did he really think you took his candy? What the hell is happening over there?!

Jake: Oh, who cares, tell me about big boobs Safeway!

That is the conversation desk system my friends. Enjoy and use responsibly!

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