A mathematician, an artist, a lawyer and an MBA walk into a bar…
You might think this is the start of a joke about null sets, oil paint, sharks and private equity, but it’s something completely different. It’s a salon, a real Salon, like the Algonquin Round Table in Manhattan, or Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. These people meet every Friday night at the brightly-lit, well-appointed Solano Grill and Bar in a bustling Berkeley neighborhood, and they say it’s the highlight of their week. And everyone has something to contribute -- from the theoretical to the personal, from the serious to the laughable, from the logical to the seductive.
How did the Salon get started? What is so compelling that the people spend their Friday nights together – laughing, learning, pontificating, flirting, quoting and quipping? What is this – the new Facebook? People actually interact with each other, sharing ideas – in person? How… enlightened!!
First, some history. Salons sprung up in 16th century Italy, and spread to France and England in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the first Salons – the original Meet-Ups – aristocrats invited others to their “salone,” the villa’s reception hall, for literary discussions. Salons were essentially an extension of the court, where civility and good manners were displayed as a measure of status. Their purpose was also to develop communication skills and moral character. If you were an aristocrat with lots of time on your hands, hanging out at a friend’s Salon was no doubt a pleasurable way to spend the day.
During the Enlightenment period in the 18th century, conversation groups in cafes, clubs and homes flourished. Why? A new and ambitious middle-class, densely-populated cities, and society’s interest in things intellectual.
Discussion shifted from “politesse” to academic topics. The ground-rules included formulating one’s arguments in a way that helped others develop their viewpoints, and never directly confronting or refuting. The well-known Salons took place at prominent women’s homes, and social classes mingled. Salons facilitated the debate of radical ideas, in fact laying the groundwork for the French Revolution.
As for this 21st century Salon, there’s a core group of four, and beyond that, others regularly drop in and join the conversation. Bartenders, waiters and restaurant regulars watch the show unfolding before them – each week a new act and another plot twist.
There are no rules at the Salon, no topic is verboten. Digression is encouraged and dispute is the norm. Research is recommended and you can bring handouts. You get points for witticisms, and gold stars for knowing academic trivia. You can enter a discussion at any point, or just listen while the verbal volleys whiz back and forth. You may slam down three martinis or just sip an iced tea; eat a Niman Ranch grilled lamb entree or simply savor a Portobello mushroom appetizer.
Who are the members? Vince, writer-turned-mathematician/physicist–turned–professor–turned–software entrepreneur started it all. He came to the SG&B often, sitting at the far end of the bar after his workday for some serious thinking and writing.
Carla, a local artist, dropped in on Fridays to check on her paintings displayed in the restaurant. One Friday, Vince and Carla struck up a conversation and discovered they had things in common – Carla’s ex-husband was a physicist; Vince’s girlfriend owned a restaurant that also displayed local artists. Next thing, the two shared drinks and dinner at the far end of the bar on Fridays, discussing art, the restaurant business, science and relationships
Some weeks later on a Friday evening, my friend and colleague Bruce, a lawyer, wandered into the SG&B for some de-stressing at the bar. Bruce had studied physics and philosophy in college, and also follows economics and politics with a passion.
His ears pricked up when he heard the couple deep in discussion about a prominent Berkeley physicist. A bit later, he heard the man say that Aristotle was the worst thing to happen to western civilization. Bruce was dismayed, but intrigued. He asked if he could join them, and they got into a detailed discussion about classical philosophy. From that point on, the three convened every Friday for wide-ranging discussion and debate.
Bruce told me about his conversations with “Madame Artiste” and “Sir Poet” as he called them, not even knowing their names. He thought I might enjoy these intellectual explorers. I stopped by, and was hooked, becoming a frequent participant. Now a foursome, we decided to call our gathering a Salon – but a 21st century variant.
There are giggles, nodding heads, and sometimes scornful snorts, albeit gentle. There are pithy statements and playful sarcastic zingers. But heaven forbid you should pause to gather a thought or grope to refine the pun half-formed in your brain – BAAM – someone swoops in to launch a tangent or new topic.
What do we talk about? Depends on who’s there and the latest news. Politics and economics are biggies, and this being Berkeley, our take on these topics is not unexpected. Yet there is dispute even among the Left Coast Keynesians. And much speculation. What would have happened had the Russian Revolution and communism confronted an industrialized, rather than agrarian-based Czarist Russia? Are we in an “end-of-history” period, where Cold War ideological and geopolitical struggles are over and the spread of liberal democracy is inevitable?
Here are Bruce’s comments on U.S. politics: “In the history of the world, is there any political party that has ever been so bad at marketing as the current Democratic Party? Why do more Americans agree with the Democratic Party on specific economic issues, while Republicans have a four-point advantage among voters? Democrats’ fecklessness may have been building for a time – for as Will Rogers proclaimed, ‘I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.’”
One evening we had an intense discussion on the causes of World War II, and the implications for today’s international conflicts. That night I had invited my grad-school friend, Barb. Several weeks later, she announced she’d read ten books on World War II, the Salon had so stimulated her. A bizarre factoid she shared – Hitler had only one testicle.
Poetry readings – that makes for a non-sequitur as good as any. One evening I recited lines from a favorite poem, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” about an aging king still seeking adventure and noble purpose. The section includes:
“Come my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world,
push off, and sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrows,
for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset…
tho’ we are not now that strength…we are strong in will…
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
After the group’s moment of contemplative silence, Vince rolled his eyes and sighed. “Tennyson – what an overwrought, provincial, imperialist egomaniac!” Apparently Dorothy Parker didn’t care much for Tennyson either.
Particle physics inspires debate. Of major interest to the Salon is the finding that two particles that have been separated seem to “know” the properties of each other, and indeed, somehow communicate, and sometimes at great distances and at speeds that appear to be faster than light. This is a great mystery and a paradox, violating many laws of physics. The connection between the two particles is known as quantum entanglement, and even Einstein admitted he was stumped, calling it “spooky action at a distance.”
Salon members have differing views as to how entanglement happens, and the implications. Bruce says, “I think this is evidence of additional dimensions; in other words, the two particles could remain close enough to each other in other dimensions to avoid violating the speed-of-light limit.” Bruce’s argument is based on “non-locality” – that these particles are not necessarily near each other in space and time that we perceive.
Vince, mathematician and physics purist, says that’s nonsense. Those particles are also a wave, he reminds us, albeit a very big one, and the wave function simply collapsed when the particles were observed and measured, regardless of how far apart they were initially. So there really was no exchange of information, since they shared the same wave function to begin with. And there certainly aren’t additional dimensions.
Pretty spacey stuff! I whip out my tablet to look for more info on waves vs. particles while the guys are at it, to see if I can contribute anything meaningful – NOT likely! Besides, the conversation has already moved on. And Carla, whose ex-husband was a physicist, wanted nothing to do with the topic in the first place – she’s heard it all before. At any rate, “No Locality” became the first of the Salon’s slogans.
Fashion is high on the list of the Salon’s interests – novelty, elegance, or humor in design is applauded. Artistry in presentation is revered, since we have a painter in the group. Items found at second-hand stores are especially valued. Not surprisingly, it’s the girls who are fashion-forward. Bruce generally wears his dark business suit, and Vince a T-shirt and the same pair of hole-y jeans. Although Vince admits to selecting his T-shirt for maximum intellectual impact.
So, is fashion vanity or art? Does it convey the personality of the wearer, or a persona? Is it worn to affect men – or women, and for what purpose?
We have an ongoing debate about how important aesthetic sensibility is. Vince believes a man’s character can be judged pretty much by his aesthetics: he says wearing a baseball cap backwards and drinking beer directly from a bottle are signs of poor aesthetics, and therefore, of weak moral character. I point out that some of the most rapacious, double-dealing leaders live in beautiful surroundings and possess exquisite taste. And what about Gandhi? I’m starting to doubt if the guys know what they’re talking about, or actually believe what they say!
If aesthetics defines the man, how to evaluate a woman? The guys say that “a little bit of crazy” is desirable, but not borderline-psycho-crazy. No temper tantrums, plate throwing or stomping around and storming out. Sexy is good, but not over-the-top-sexy as in 4” heels, hot pants and a ruffled lace bustier. Especially if you’re over 50. Even if you still have a nice bod. So aesthetics defines a woman’s character. Hmmm…I wonder if they really believe that either…
Often we indulge in adult play and play-acting. But, unlike in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when bar encounters frequently led to bed (although today they certainly can in young-adult-hook-up culture), no one goes in that direction here. The Salon’s boundaries are limited to seeing each other for three hours as a group.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no flirtation or seduction. This is a good venue for practice of these nearly-lost arts. In fact, some of us enjoy playful, benign manipulations of each other’s feelings and proclivities. Like in the French court, we sometimes put on “masks,” indulge in ritualized interest, try to win one another over, saying what we know the other person wants to hear. And there can be jealousy if someone feels left out. Kind of like a benign, or even Disney, version of the 18th century French novel, Les Liasons Dangeureuses. Some of us are more masterful at these skills than others – newcomers, beware the tractor beam of the articulate conversationalists and charming raconteurs!
And that leads to another favorite topic, what we call “chic-talk.” What brings a man and a woman together? How can you determine if someone is right for you? When is it time to pull the plug? We’ve come to some shared conclusions – our Salon aphorisms. Do you agree with these?
A man wants to be cultivated not tested, seduced not criticized.
A woman wants her intellect respected, her emotions explored, her competence valued, her body adored.
A man needs a woman who can help him conquer his fears and harness his demons -- without destroying her in the process.
A guy deserves exactly the shit he gets.
Still, we debate some fundamentals. Bruce posits that “men have regrets, women have recriminations.” Everyone else thinks that’s ridiculous – both genders equally regret their actions and sling recriminations back and forth. However, our disagreement did lead to the Salon’s second slogan, “No Recriminations, No Regrets.”
Sometimes the Salon functions like a therapy group. We’ve come to know a lot about each other. Since the Salon’s boundaries are so circumscribed, it’s easy to share without consequence. We talk about work, friends, spouses, lovers, and even lovers’ former lovers. Of course, the advice is only as good as the experience of the advice-giver, but the collective wisdom is often pretty good.
So, in the end, are we really a Salon in the traditional Parisian sense, helping clarify each other’s understanding of complex issues, or simply a handful of well-lubricated people, verbally jousting as folk have done for centuries? Or maybe we’re just a bunch of over-educated nerds, carrying on the tradition of dorm-hallway bull sessions from decades ago.
Perhaps we’re a kind of 21st century family – independent people with our own lives; friends who are loyal to each other, with delightful interpersonal chemistry. Or maybe we’re like an improv group or ensemble theater, the colorful characters making up a new scene each week, the bar as proscenium and bartenders as audience. Or perhaps we’re post-modern performance art, where irony and fluctuating definitions of reality are the rule, and participants pontificate without believing a word they say.
Come next Friday, and you’ll find out!
Bay Area-based Susanne Houfek is a Bohemian/ Adventurer/ Photographer/ Writer/ Artiste/ Renaissance Girl who loves history, delights in living in the moment, and enjoys sharing her discoveries, experiences and observations. She grew up on Chicago’s North Shore, graduated from Stanford University with a degree in French Literature, and has an MBA from the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. She advises start-up companies and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and world-wide.