Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Fri 21st Apr, 2006

Song: "The Living Years" by Mike and The Mechanics

I have my father staying with me for ten days or so; he came down to Canberra for the National Folk Festival and is staying to see a few sights and generally catch up with us. His visits, and ours to him, in the past have felt too short to have really good chats. So this time he's stayed over the break. I took a week off work to be with him and also to get a few things done around the place.

Two things have soured this for me slightly. Firstly, he's working on a degree in English Literature and has numerous assignments that are due by the time he gets back. So he's been closeted in his rooms for quite a lot of the time - we've had a few chats and a few walks and a few drives but no extended period of time where we've got bored of eachother's company. So that might be a good thing, but I can't help feeling we'll be both regretting not spending more time together when he comes to get on that plane home to Brisbane.

The second is that there's been a number of unpleasant arguments. Never quite the same level of protracted intensity that we managed when I was down in Melbourne, when we argued heatedly and without progress for an hour as we wandered around the outside of Chadstone Shopping Centre. But that's because, after that incident when Dad said, "Let's just forget this argument," I said, "No, let's remember it, and whenever we feel ourselves getting worked up like this we're just going to back off and let things cool down so that we can spend more good time together." It works, sometimes.

Part of the problem is that both Dad and I like to be right. We often take a contrary side in an argument because it's interesting to explore things from that perspective. I think that we have a few other less desirable habits, too. I tend to have instant sarcastic answers leap into my head, and only training and vigilance prevents them from being spat out at the other person in an attempt to do them more damage than I do myself. Dad, when he gets worked up, will interrupt, claim he doesn't interrupt, criticise you at great length when you interrupt, tell you you're shouting, start shouting at you, criticise your way of delivering your point, and, in fact, use most of the tactics of Conversational Terrorism. I see the problem as him (innocently or deliberately) forgetting the original topic of conversation and getting caught up in Wanting To Be Right - he'll do anything so long as you eventually say "OK, you win, you're right, whatever," even to the point of insisting you say why he's right and that you sincerely believe whatever he was saying. And you better not try this in a resigned, can't-be-bothered tone of voice...

I try to not do any of these things. I also try to steer around them when Dad veers toward some lurking back alley in the conversational roadmap. The frustrating thing is that we also have perfectly normal conversations where we discuss a wide range of political viewpoints (for example) with perfect equanimity. I've had one conversation about his writing this week that has turned into a seething miasma of ugliness, and another that went twice as long that was perfectly amiable and (moreover) in which he agreed with me over several points. The only conclusion that I can come to is that the circumstances are entirely within Dad himself - that if he's frustrated over something he'll tend to be frustrated in the conversation, and if he's relaxed then everything's fine. I'm still not ruling out the "wants to be right" idea, because the things that we've discussed when it's all gone smoothly have been things we've generally agreed upon (like politics) and have just been espousing our own particular views rather than trying to convince the other person of some particular point. It could even just be me, unconsciously shifting my point of view around to run parallel to rather than crossing his in an attempt to not bring up any point of conflict. I don't think so, but I can't be sure.

At other times I've watched him, hunched over his guitar while his hands that normally shake with Parkinson's Disease find their way unerringly over the fretboard, plucking or strumming out a melody with skill and musicality. He's writing a story about the musical thread that connects him with his mother and daughter - maybe this is the thread that keeps him together? Or listening to him talk about recording the Folk Festivals in '77, '78 and '79 - times I can barely remember but are as clear as day to him. "Bernard Bolan? Is he still playing? I remember him at the Adelaide Festival..." Or the other afternoon, when he played handball with me and some others, including kids young enough to be my children - and did well! OK, he wasn't so fleet of foot, but he played a good game and he was definitely no worse than any of us. He got to Ace a couple of times and held his own there too.

This is the Dad I love. And it's the one I want to spend most of my time with.

So I stuck my neck out a bit and, when we'd had breakfast and Kate had gone out for some shopping, said that I wanted to talk to him a bit about why sometimes we wrangle and why other times we agree.

The first thing he said was that he'd been wanting to talk to me about the same thing.

And so we did talk about it. I still don't entirely know what conclusion we came to. Partly because we're such unrepentant talkers that any example we give is likely to be corrected, expanded and continued rather than just demonstrating a point. But I think the key was that we both need to give the other person space in the conversation. We both tend to give elaborate and lengthy expositions, complete with two to five examples of varying complexity, including corrections. It all starts sounding like an Iain M. Banks sentence, which can take up to half a page. Though I hate to use the term, we need to go for soundbites and bounce them off the other person in more of a dialogue. Now there's a concept. Dialogue, eh? I'll have to think about that. :-)

Dad also knows he gets frustrated when he thinks people are being patronising to him. He hated me wanting to help him do up the zip on his jacket, even though he knew I was only offering to help rather than doubting his ability to do it at all. This also works against him when he feels like he's being treated as incapable of understanding a point. (Unfortunately, I do think sometimes he gets so fixed on his own point that he fails to listen to anyone else, and that's where things go downhill). But anyway, I suppose I can understand this; no-one argues at their best when they're already frustrated by something else.

Finally, the time came for me to drive Dad to the airport. We talked about some small, inconsequential things, moving onto the (children's) story he's writing for one of his subjects which he's been showing my nieces and the critique he received from Julie (sister-in-law-in-law-sort-of) on it. He said that he'd come up with this good idea about using the large number of big words that he's attempting to in his story: a glossary at the back. It's just such a spectactulary bad idea on so many levels - no book I've ever read has had a miniature dictionary in the back except for technical references and stories where you need to translate from elvish or imaginary friend language or whatever, and a second mini-dictionary could be called unhelpful, incomplete or supernumary amongst other things. The solution to using big words and adult phraseology in a chidren's book is to not use it, not to try and make workarounds and excuses for it.

When I stated this opinion, of course, it was on for young (me) and old (Dad).

I really tried. I tried telling him that this was just my opinion, that he didn't have to accept it if he didn't agree with it. I tried telling him that he was dominating the conversation. In short, I tried to give all the signals that I'd sort of previously set out as ways that he should pick up that this conversation was not going anywhere. But no, he can't leave it, until finally I just cut him off with, "This topic is over," and stop talking. Eventually he simmered down, and even (amazingly) let me help him with the QuickCheck McDonalds-style checkin that Qantas now has (i.e. make the customer do most of the work). It was not a good way to see him off.

So now I have to come up with an email to tell him the problem: he just better get used to being wrong. Because he is sometimes. Making the other person abandon the argument because he's being a conversational terrorist does not make him right. He's just going to have to learn how to deal with this, and the sooner the better. I want to remember him cuddling his guitar, or doing bold new things (like offering tapes of the 1978 National Folk Festival performances 24 hours after they'd been performed...), or hiking. I don't want to remember him as The Man Who Couldn't Admit He Was Wrong.

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