Happy talk

By Mara Rockliff

The pushed-together tables in the Barnes & Noble Café are filling up fast. A gray-haired woman with a nose piercing pulls up a chair. A goateed guy in glasses and a Ralph Lauren shirt sets down his cappucino mug. A barefoot man with toenails painted blue and the grease-blackened hands of a mechanic squeezes past to take his place along the bench.
Tonight’s moderator, Steve Semienick, sits back and scans the group– 11 men and three women. “So, what should we talk about?”
People start tossing out ideas. How do you know if an emotion is real? Why do Americans try to avoid boredom at all costs? Is an affluent society a good place to raise children? What constitutes the birth of a city? In the end, Semienick suggests the topic that gets the most votes: Why do we make the choices we make?
“I’ve noticed that many aspects of my life have been affected by the choices that I’ve made,” he explains.
A man with a walrus moustache snaps back, “I defy you to name any aspect of your life not affected by the choices you have made!” And the group is off.
Welcome to Socrates Café. Started in Montclair, New Jersey in 1996 by traveling apostle of philosophy Chris Phillips (www.philosopher.org), more than a hundred of these discussion groups now meet around the country. Two years ago, Phillips himself kicked off the Socrates Café in Charlottesville.
“In two years we’ve covered a whole range of topics,” says Ken Thompson, who splits the moderator role with Semienick. “What is truth? What is justice? What is fun? With each one we examine it, turn it upside down, spin it around.”
Read Rolling Rock for tall caramel-mocha latté, and Socrates Café bears a sneaking resemblance to what some might recall from college days as a “b.s. session.” The conversation floats from thought to thought, sometimes abstract and theoretical, other times personal. It’s not exactly rigorous. (Pressed to define his terms, one member of the group replies disgustedly, “Come on, man! We’re all just people here!”)
But, hey– good company, intriguing questions, no grading. Why not?
The group varies every week, ranging in size from five to 25, and in composition from construction workers to professors and executives. “We’re open to anybody,” Thompson says. “You don’t have to read anything or know anything. Just bring your own experience.”

Socrates Café meets the second and fourth Thursday of every month at 7pm; next meeting is Thursday, June 27. Barnes & Noble, 1035 Emmet St. N in the Barracks Rd. Shopping Center. Free and open to the public.

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