Meeting of the Minds, moderated by Gary Grine, meets Wednesdays at Filter Coffee House. Grine formed this group when he decided that the Thursday discussion group he had founded became “too political and too liberal.”
From their chairs around a long rectangular table, several participants have made convincing points to the group of 15 attentive listeners. When the moderator recognizes another raised hand, Carl Lock rises, pauses, and gesticulates slowly before speaking. Lock, of Native American and Scottish descent, chooses his words carefully and articulates a well-constructed argument for a minute or two, referring now and again to “his people.” Is he putting on a senatorial effect, more ancient Roman, perhaps, than contemporary American? After all, he describes himself as a history buff. Or, one wonders, is he a member of Toastmasters? Later, he tells me: “No, I got into the habit of standing to speak in meetings after I was elected to student government at the old San Diego Evening College. Standing up gives the diaphragm more power. I tend to speak softly. So I stand to be heard.”
Lock is a regular participant in Civilized Conversations, a Thursday-evening discussion group that meets at Filter Coffee House on Thirtieth Street in North Park. People become members unofficially, simply by attending meetings. They come from numerous walks of life and many areas of San Diego County. Linda Navarro, formerly a Bay Area newspaper reporter and now a local attorney, wonders why more attorneys don’t participate. “After all, lawyers like to argue,” she says. “They probably don’t have time. I make time to come to the meetings.”
There is a second group, called Meeting of the Minds, which convenes on Wednesday evenings, also at Filter. Both were started by Gary Grine, a local small-business broker who in his free time loves not only to talk but to start other people talking. Grine is a fan of coffee houses, he says, explaining the meetings’ origins. So often, those who sit in coffee houses are “alone and not alone. There is a social and an individual context enjoyed simultaneously there. I thought it might be interesting if people wanted to converse with the other patrons.”
Seven years ago, Grine started Politics and Religions, progenitor of both current discussion groups. Grine, who is 57, grew up in Maryland and attended Kent State University in Ohio, where, in the wake of the 1970 National Guard massacre of four students, he “became radicalized.” He later drifted in a rightward direction, especially after becoming involved in the business world. For several years, he gave tennis lessons in Lake Tahoe before moving to San Diego in the late 1980s.
Last summer, Grine left his first group, and soon afterward they dropped Politics and Religion as a title and renamed themselves Civilized Conversations. Looking back, Grine is surprised his baby lasted as long as it did. He retains “many fond memories of six years of meetings” and vividly recalls “some terrific meetings” among more than 300 he has moderated. Those that stand out were ones where “you encountered new thoughts” and came away with “a charged energy, a kind of brain-high that sends endorphins through your system.” Grine believes that “the brain is always seeking new ideas, and there is a neurological reward for new thought processes. There are people who have to discuss things.”
But even close families have their squabbles. “A schism became inevitable,” says Grine. Politics and Religion became “too political and too liberal.” He confesses that the group’s original name contributed to the situation he now laments. But it didn’t take him long to start the new group, Meeting of the Minds, whose focus is more consistently on science, history, and philosophy, rather than on contemporary politics.
When I ask Navarro if the group has tilted left of late, as Grine charged, she says: “Probably Gary tilted right.” In the face of Grine’s criticism, Civilized Conversations is hardly backing off its fondness for politics. The group occasionally discusses other topics, a legacy Grine can say he left them. Shortly after starting Politics and Religion, he was inviting speakers on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Baha’is. Eventually, after boning up, he would give the group introductory talks on Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, and Nietzsche, among other well-known philosophers.
Meeting of the Minds, Grine’s new group, struggled to get off the ground last summer, most often attracting only four or five participants per meeting. The problem may have been that the meetings were first held on Friday evenings. Since the move to Wednesdays, attendance has improved and is now hovering at around eight or nine participants, a number Grine finds conducive to good discussion.
∗ ∗ ∗
A former participant in Politics and Religion, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me by phone that when Grine first became interested in starting a discussion group, “he wanted to better himself, to talk to others who knew more than he did about various topics. So he gathered a few people about him, which became the first group’s core. It was kind of a social experiment.”
The group’s ideal, says this man, was that along with contributing your thoughts, “you must passionately listen. Gary would say that the group was for personal change and for the brain to get a workout. But it was also a civic workout, something to help people become good citizens. I usually attended to participate on specific topics because sometimes the other talk drove me crazy. Conspiracy theories were especially maddening. And sometimes people said things harshly. The attack mode just doesn’t work well in a discussion group. Neither does an insistence that only you could possibly have a worthwhile view.”
The policy of the meetings has always been to allow anyone to come and stay, as long as they are polite. That means addressing the group only when the moderator acknowledges your raised hand, limiting your speaking time to two minutes, and not chattering with others while the speaker is making points.