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'Can We Talk?' : At O.C. salons, people from different walks discuss a variety of issues in an atmospherethat welcomes differing points of view.


ALISO VIEJO — On a Sunday evening in August, 23 men and women form a meandering 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 meeting, 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.

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."

"Well," someone says, "that's a personal dilemma."


Historically--whether in 18th-Century Paris or early 20th-Century Taos--society women ran salons. They saw to it that the artists, intellectuals and bons vivants of their day had a pleasant place to gather and trade witticisms on political and cultural topics .

The contemporary salon movement is a much more democratic phenomenon, jump-started by an article in the March/April 1991 issue of the Utne Reader magazine, a progressive-minded 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 also wanted to be in a salon.

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 investigates "self-help" solutions to inner-city problems, was a post-riot outgrowth of a salon based in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles.)

At least one salon (in Beverly Hills) thrives on outspoken debate; others try, in a more touchie-feelie 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 North 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.

Members emphasize the sense of community salons foster. Leslie Roth, a textile mill representative who facilitates 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.

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