In general, this is a great situation, but there is a specific dilemma that accompanies such occasions -- that is, the precarious possibilities of small talk.
It seems like there are two main choices that one faces once you've gone through the:
[Insert NAME here]!
[Insert NAME here]!
I haven't seen you for...!
I know! (looking around at all the chaos)This is crazy, hunh!? Great!
THEN, the real dilemma arrives.
There are two appropriate questions. Both have their merits and demerits. They are either:
How are you?
What's been going on?
(obviously there are slight derivations on choice two like: What are you up to? and What's up?)
So the downside of How are you? is that it either illuminates a certain shallowness that nobody really likes OR it demands a kind of rigorous authenticity, self-disclosure and careful evaluation that doesn't fit the situation that well.
Essentially the multiple choice answer categories are either Fine. (then we've clearly chosen a polite, but distant conversation) or an essay-answer that catalogues the major themes, hopes and disappointments of the past ...year? month? season?
I am a fan of the creative: Things are alright. with a little smile and a little cringe to let the other person know that you've BOTH chosen to be HONEST, *and* you're aware that the situation limits more complete disclosure.
A word of warning, though: this improvisational authenticity-with-caveats approach should only be used with tested-and-true conversational partners. Folks who absolutely have the same sensibility that you have when it comes to social situations.
Which is why almost everybody these days goes for the What's been going on? option. This question demands far less of the askee. The number of appropriate answers to this question are really boundless. Technically, you could chronicle a recent trip to the convenience mart or give a longwinded account of your most recent heartbreak. There's a lot more openness here. Which is, generally good.
But I always feel the burden of digesting and editing on the spot and coming up with a Highlights Reel or Best-Of Clips....
and it's those moments when I realize that I am middle-aged.
(which is really the point of the post, it's my birthday, after all.)
I have the keen sense that every potential highlight is counterbalanced by a significant shadow, or worse, presages a shadow-to-come.
The other thing is -- I've got a lot of things locked down. I have a rhythm, a pattern, a groove. I don't always like it, but I often do.
I keep it going because it serves the interests of a lot of people around me, and, unlike the way I felt in my twenties, that doesn't feel sad or misbegotten or disappointing.
At least not on most days.
The truth is -- middle age feels like a Photoshop Smudge Tool has been heavily applied to my everyday life and the general contours of my overall life -- and things feel really unremarkably grey.
So answering the What's been going on? question almost always feels less than satisfying.
The hybrid How have you been doing? seems to accrue all of the negative baggage of how are you but without any unique advantages.
Perhaps the answer is that the What's been going on? is perfect for that friend in their twenties who is, most likely experiencing a dynamic, fluid and remarkable pace of change, and perhaps the How are you? is good for our more senior friends, who, by this time, are less bound by social convention, and quite likely to give whateverthehellanswer they please.
But I do think that we should try, together (eh? join me?), to invent a good get-things-started-conversation that will work for our smudgy middle-aged set...