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Resurrecting the Fine Art of Talking : Culture: In homes and coffeehouses, salons are giving people a chance to exchange ideas, be earnest, witty--even long-winded.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a Sunday evening in August, 23 men and women form a circle on two sofas, an assortment of chairs and the carpeted floor of an airy, white-walled living room. Some people look as though they’ve come from church or a social event; others wear hang-loose weekend gear. A few were of voting age when Eisenhower was President; others don’t remember when there weren’t co-ed dorms in college.

During the week they do all sorts of things--insurance underwriting, family counseling, looking for a job, selling cars, psychotherapy, financial planning, running a computer business, accounting, practicing law. At tonight’s salon, however, they are united in a single goal: to revive the endangered art of conversation.

Salons are gathering places for people who yearn to exchange opinions about a broad range of topics in an atmosphere that welcomes differing points of view. During the past year, this group has discussed such subjects as crime and fear in the United States, religious beliefs and the meaning of God, physician-assisted suicide, women’s rights, child care, immigration, and advertisers’ use of sex and fear to sell products.

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Tonight, after a meandering hourlong discussion of “Myths and Heroes” and a half-hour break for buffet-style goodies, everyone is back in place for Topic No. 2: “Aging in America.”

The conversation turns to the notion of a “war” between baby boomers and their parents over jobs and other economic resources, and whether older people are a “drain on society.” A middle-aged man says he wishes his mother, who no longer knows “beans from Shinola” had died years ago.

“It really isn’t up to you,” remarks Joann Kison, a middle-aged woman who works for a scuba certifying agency. “My 75-year-old mother had a couple of mild strokes. She’s not bedridden, and she has her full mental capacity. But she remembers what it was like to be energetic. She wishes she could die, but the doctors revive her (each time). The choice has been taken away from her.”

“Who takes her to the hospital?” someone asks. “That’s where the choice is.”

“It’s not your decision,” someone else suggests. “Aren’t you going according to your mother’s wishes?”

Other voices chime in, talking about living wills, not using “heroic measures” and authorizing someone to have power of attorney.

“She’s also a very religious woman,” Kison says, almost as an afterthought.

“Ah!” the salon members cry, practically in a chorus.

“In her mind,” Kison says, “you do everything you possibly can, and if it’s your time, God will take you home.”

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“Well,” someone says, “that’s a personal dilemma.”

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Historically, society women ran salons in their homes. They invited the literary, artistic and political figures of the day and presided over witty discussions of aesthetic, philosophic and political ideas. The contemporary salon movement is a much more democratic phenomenon, dependent on the variable talents and enthusiasms of whoever decides to join. Dazzling reparte has given way to earnest, sometimes tedious, conversation sparked by the occasional gust of humor or passionate outcry.

The most recent incarnation of salon culture was jump-started by an article in the March/April 1991 issue of the Utne Reader magazine, a progressive digest of articles that have appeared in other periodicals. Readers interested in forming discussion groups were asked to send in their ZIP codes; in return, they got lists of other people in their neighborhoods who wanted to participate.

Two-and-a-half years later, Utne Reader-style salons are thriving in the Los Angeles-Orange County area, from Culver City to Dana Point. Although some have folded, more than 25 remain vital, and new ones are constantly forming.

Some salons restrict themselves to conversation, while others are dedicated to social action. (The Next Step, an organization that studies solutions to inner-city problems, was a post-riot outgrowth of a salon based in the Hancock Park-area.

At least one salon (in Beverly Hills) thrives on outspoken debate; others try, in a more touchy-feely way, to reach consensus. The salon format has even spread to coffeehouses (Cafe Mocha on Melrose Avenue, St. Germaine Cafe in West Hollywood, and Lulu’s Alibi Cafe in West L.A.). Some younger people prefer “on-line” salons, conducted via computer.

There are Southern California salons that concentrate on specific topics or activities, such as female spirituality, postmodernism, creative writing and talking about books. A “creative” salon in northern Orange County has engaged in such activities as collage-making, a percussion session with pots and pans, and storytelling. Would-be salon keepers have proposed ideas ranging from a salon on a cruise ship to a group for amateur film reviewers.

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Members emphasize the sense of community that salons foster. Leslie Roth, a textile mill representative who runs the Aliso Viejo salon, says she meets for brunch once a month with several members. Her salon once helped find a member a new job and has spun off both a men’s group and a book group.

“I feel the people are my extended family,” she says. “We all have a common interest in communicating and reading and keeping up with information.”

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For the past two years, the Southern California Salon Community Network, founded by Ronny Barkay, has labored to coordinate local salon information and help fledgling salons stay on track. Barkay, who recently stepped down as regional coordinator to concentrate on building up a new business, has attended meetings of more than 10 salons, some of them on a repeated basis.

“What I find,” he said recently, “is that the poor topics are the ones that become either overly intellectual--so people are not speaking from their personal experience--or the kind where people give free rein to their opinions to the point of being (argumentative).”

In his experience, the majority of committed salon-goers in Los Angeles seem to be in their early 30s, white and middle-class. Most are politically left of center--despite oft-voiced wishes for a few Republicans to help stimulate discussion--and either single or divorced. For some reason, the few married salon-goers are rarely accompanied by their spouses, Barkay says.

He believes salons work best when they meet frequently--every two weeks as opposed to once a month--to help create “a feeling of family.” As in a relationship, “chemistry” is important, he says, but people also have to be willing to participate and assume responsibility for suggesting topics.

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The smoothest-running salons have 10 to 14 people, Barkay says. “Everyone gets to talk, and there is a feeling that, ‘I’ve said everything I want.’ ”

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Although Barkay’s own Hancock Park salon has about 12 core members, a recent Wednesday evening meeting drew 17 people to Erika Sukstorf’s cozy wood-floored living room. Ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-70s, they had come from the immediate neighborhood and the Westside, North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks.

The topic for the meeting was “self-respect,” suggested by Joan Didion’s 1961 essay “On Self-Respect,” in which she wrote, “The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others--who are, after all, deceived easily enough.”

Much of the discussion, however, revolved around whether you have to do good things for others to have self-respect.

*

After about two hours of conversation, there was a loud exploding sound and lights in the room suddenly went out. Amid the buzz of jokes (‘Maybe it’s a self-respect terrorist’) and reminiscences about past blackouts, Sukstorf lit candles.

The intimate glow had the effect of a campfire. The conversation began to lose its abstract, confrontational quality and become more searching and personal, particularly among the women and younger members. People talked in urgent tones about confronting their origins, trying to be less judgmental, looking for ways to contribute to society and learning to appreciate their own strengths.

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Someone said she wanted a future salon meeting to discuss how busy everyone is these days, to cover their feelings of despair and depression. Someone else launched into a long--yet raptly received--monologue about her spiritual quest. Several people discussed how important it is to find time for self-criticism and yet also to interact with others and confront the way they see you.

“We need community and connection . . . “ Melanie said.

“Otherwise there’s just the void,” Erika finished.

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