Daniel Menaker

“Talking in Fractals?”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hello, Dan –

Greetings from your favorite Philadelphia analyst! I hope all is well with you; all is well here, except for Life (my version of “given the human condition”).

I confess my geezerette status by stating at the outset that this is only the second time that I have posted to a blog, public revelations being somewhat outside my professional habits. But I did want to congratulate you on this truly delightful book.  I laughed and laughed, so hard over “purée of ibuprofen” that it took three attempts for me to read the passage aloud to my husband.  My only criticism is that the book ended much too soon; I would have been happy to continue reading your wonderful sentences that made me nostalgic for my good talks with you.

I was fascinated by your analysis of the structure of conversations and wonder whether such structure exists intra- as well as inter-conversationally.  In other words, might there be a fractal quality of conversation, that is to say self-similarity between brief segments of a conversation, longer segments, and the conversation as a whole? I’ve written about this in relation to psychoanalytic discourse in my second book, finally published last year (Loving Psychoanalysis – glad to have learned that you approve of gerundive titles).  I was also interested in your various comments about how an individual’s character expresses itself in conversation; I would think of this as a personal aesthetic.  Analysts and patients (and parents and children, friends, colleagues, spouses, partners, etc.), I believe, are well-matched or not depending on whether their personal aesthetic is within the same range on the continua of complexity, humor, irony, density, and so on.  Your conversation with your attorney (putting aside the fact that there was a specific aim to this exchange) would be an example of the meeting of two different aesthetics. I’d love to hear your thoughts about any of this.

Again, my warmest congratulations and my thanks for a great read!


Well, hello, Susan, and I hope you et. fam. are well, and thank you for writing such a gratifying response to this strange little book.

Yes, I think conversations can be fractal–shapes within and mimicking larger shapes, especially in the latter stages of a conversation between two people who are in the process of getting to know each other–that is, I think people replicate and may vary their parts in the stages of role assumptions, where, essentially, first one person can be the Listener/Advisor and then the other takes that role. (In analysis, this tends to be, and should be, more nearly a one-way street.)  I also think that after the sharing of confidences, the taking of risks, many people tend to withdraw to safer ground, with a “Well”–as at the beginning of this note– and then go back into candor and confidentiality again. Very wave-like, or musical in a way, with themes, variations, reprising of earlier themes, playful interludes to lighten the darker parts, and so on.

And yes, I think that any pairing of people is a pairing of aesthetics, with successful or unsuccessful results. The matching of therapist or analyst with patient must have deeply to do with this matching dynamic, though, as with ordinary conversations, compatability can and sometimes does result from “mismatches.” The example from the book that you cited–the laconic lawyer and I–was in retrospect a crucial or at least catalytic moment in my conversational life.  This man and I were extremely different, and yet we made a really good connection–and I learned something, something well beyond the law.

Stay well, and congrats, however laggard,  on the publication of your book. I hope our paths may cross again soon.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Not a Morning Person, Then or Now

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Danny (as I remember you),

My brother Chris sent me your information and I had a small laugh.  I remember when you lived down the street from us on Piermont Ave in South Nyack and once in awhile you would give me a ride to school (arranged I believe by our mothers).  I recall that once your mother called my mother and asked her to tell me not to talk to you in the morning because you were not a morning person and did not like to talk or to hear me talk.

Good luck with everything.

Mary Devins

Hey, Mary,

I heard from your brother, Chris, and I remember you all well and am embarrassed to think that my mother said that to your mother and am even more embarrassed to say that it’s still true. Am close to vicious for the first hour after awakening. Retroactive apologies for my behavior–I have to apologize most mornings at home to this day.  My daughter takes after me, which is a comfort, in some ways, but maybe too bad for her, ultimately.  But it does raise the issue of conversation quirks, and sadly, I guess we all have to take them into account when talking to others.

Thanks for writing. I hope you are well and thriving.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Into the Unknown

Monday, February 01, 2010


As I just wrote on your Facebook page, I just finished your book and enjoyed it tremendously. Some great insights.

As a professional soldier (of 34 years…I’m thinking of making it a career), one of the reasons I read your book was I’m hoping to enliven the conversation of those military events I find myself attending. It seems the conversation is centered on our profession, and the things we do, with very little deviance. I’m sure the same is true with authors (who mostly talk about books), and Apple executives (who mostly talk about computers and how much money they’re making), but I’d be interested in something you didn’t address in the book: How do you expand the art of conversation outside of the comfort zone? In other words, do you have any suggestions to get away from the boring and the known, and get into the unknown, with my friends? I’m guessing you might say: Expand your circle of acquaintances!

Anyway, great read. Thanks for your work.


Dear Mark Hertling,

Thank you for by far the most gratifying and most interesting response I’ve gotten to this odd little book. Thank you for the compliments. And allow me, please, to thank you for your years of service to the United States. It’s hard to find words for the gratitude and respect we owe you and the men and women who serve with you. (And it does sound as though, after thirty-four years, you just might possibly make a career of it.)

Yes, writers talk, incessantly, about writing, and I’m sure you’re right–Apple execs talk obsessively about Macs and iPods, with a few minutes/hour devoted to disdaining Microsoft, perhaps. We Americans are pretty much possessed by what we do; sometimes I think we aren’t a nation of people but a nation of occupations.

How to get colleagues and friends in our circle of work to talk about other matters, outside the realm of their daily routines and duties? It’s difficult. But if anyone among those you know possesses some thoughtfulness potential, you may be able to generate a deeper–and more interesting–discussion by questioning ideas generally taken for granted. For example, responsibility must be a central concern in military (as in most other) circles. If people fail to live up to their responsibilities, they are criticized. But another way to look at such failures is to wonder about the idea of blame. If they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, is it possible that they couldn’t do what they were supposed to do?

A friend recently railed at me that 9/11 was preventable. This got me thinking, and then saying, If it happened–as it so tragically did–in some basic way it couldn’t have been prevented. This in turn led to an exchange about past historical and personal shortcomings–because they are unchangeable–and a measure of serenity about them and an agreement to try to learn from them in the future. The conversation went deeper, in other words. This is what Socrates did, again and again–question “received wisdom”–though he was usually grinding an intellectual or moral axe and ended up anything but serene. Dead, in fact.

I hope that this suggestion–of backing up to examine conversational assumptions–is of some help. Good luck, write back if the spirit moves, and thank you again for the kind words.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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