One of my friends decided last year to host a monthly potluck, to gather friends together during difficult times. We have met several times now, with good food and good conversation the result.

Our latest dinner was a few days ago, with good food and amazing conversation that spun from topic to topic. Most of us were there for over five hours, with conversation starting over hummus and pita bread in the kitchen as people arrived. The first topic (while still in the kitchen) was how most of us there are generalists, pursuing a variety of interests and activities, who have trouble focusing on just one or a few interests, vocations or avocations. No one seemed willing to change that passionate involvement with their world.

Dinner started and we enjoyed:

  • my toss salad (lettuce, snap peas, turnips and mandarin oranges, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; all ingredients homegrown by me and Allison, except the olive oil)
  • Jean’s split pea soup
  • Allison’s roasted root vegetables
  • Jonathan’s lentil dish
  • George’s sweet potato pudding
  • Cynthia’s cookies
  • lots of wine, of course, from Pat and others.

The core group met on a natural history trip to Costa Rica several years ago, so nature’s diversity of life is of interest to all of us. The first topic to really get going was “name your five favorite species.” Of course, the rule quickly was modified to allow bonus picks as well as whole genera and families. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Allison: monkeys, motmots, antelopes, axolotls, giant otters, Urania moths
  • Ed: elephant seals, river otters, coyotes, Caledonian crow, great horned owls, California newts
  • George: dogs, fermenting bacteria (eg, Lactobacilli), orcas, morels, Tasmanian Devils
  • Jean: trees, cyanobacteria, bats, rotifers, banana slugs, bonobos
  • Jonathan: manatees, snakes, cats, hawks, lizards
  • Bob: great blue herons, western tanagers, Mariposa tulip/lily, black panthers, dogs, horses, gray wolves, Amanita muscaria
  • Pat: elephants, lemurs, eagles, wolves, oak trees
  • Cynthia: giant Pacific salamander, ravens, sea cucumbers, puma, California brown bear, honeybees

Now that is a diverse list of favorites! What are your favorite species (or genera, or families)?

It was fun learning everyone’s favorites, but even more fun hearing stories and explanations of why these were favorites. It was also hard to stay on topic, naming the above favorites, because we kept getting side-tracked into other topics and issues. These included:

  • animal intelligence and social behavior
  • the different uses of the word “animal” that sometimes include humans, sometimes do not
  • endangered species and their protection
  • chimpanzee, crow, cat and cockatoo thinking and planning ahead behaviors (maybe all the “C” animals are smarter?)
  • human thinking and planning ahead
  • cats and dogs
  • retirement and how it can change your life as it opens up new possibilities for exploration (and has for those in the group who are retired) and how it can be disorienting for those whose identity is tied strongly to their job
  • envy by those of us who are not yet retired of those who can retire and incredulity at those who can, but do not, because they don’t know what they would do besides work
  • the state of the world and current uncertainties
  • watching television (or not!)
  • ways we can exert influence on the world
  • figuring out what it is we want to influence
  • human nature: Do we have an innate need to be influential?
  • human nature: What are our inner needs as opposed to our outer needs? How do we tap into the inner needs?
  • human nature: focusing our attention and efforts to be influential.

This last topic took us full circle to the question with which we started the evening, of being generalists vs. specialists. It’s hard to be influential as a generalist. After five hours, it was time to go home and ponder the issues raised, to “sleep on it.” I think the dinner provided excellent food for thought. And, I think we would all agree that it beat television.