234 – The Art of Conversation

Do you ever wonder about the people who draw clip-art? Somebody actually designed this thing. Isn't that marvellous?

With political upheaval in the Middle East — and my own period of great upheaval still ahead of me — within the next couple months I’m due to attend an interview that will change the course of my life. This is no mere child’s dam I’m talking about; not a collection of sticks bundled in the path of a stream but a concrete trench taking life’s river slantwise ‘til eventually it reaches a brand new ocean. I hope everything goes well but I’ve never had to converse with someone in such a way it’ll take me elsewhere to new, more exotic climes, and as such I’m already rather nervous about it. We don’t yet have a date set for the interview but my wife decided to quiz me on some of the things The Man might ask me.

“What are your wife’s parents’ names?” asked my wife.

This is easy, thought I, rattling off her father’s first name, then her mother’s, and then to be flash I said: “And her maiden name is ‘Rourke’.”

“Is what?” said my wife, clearly relishing her part as immigration officer cum gestapo.

“Er. Rourke?” I said, now unsure because I’d realised the first time I said it: my mother-in-law’s maiden name wasn’t ‘Rourke’ at all but something similar, something I couldn’t for the life of me remember.

“Sir,” said Herr Flick of the US C&I department, “That is not her maiden name.”

It took a few moments for the mental letters to click into place, by which time I’d already failed the interview and been sent home with my suitcase between my legs. Serves me right for trying to be clever.

I don’t know if this is something everyone has a problem with — maybe it is — but I sometimes get hung up on similar-sounding words, to the point where I can’t circumnavigate or rearrange them but stand before them saying over and over “It’s like this word, I know it is.” In conversation I’ll often say “What’s the word I’m thinking of? It sounds like ‘charter’ only you put it on your legs and it’s sexy” and after some discussion about what manner of charter might actually be alluring the loose cog snaps back in place, the brain press whirs and stamps out the word ‘garter’ at which point I’m fairly jubilant that I’m not in fact losing my marbles, even though clearly I am.

It’s worse when I’m writing, not just because I have to contend with all my ingrained spelling errors (for which see the first instance of ‘upheaval’ at the top of this post, which I’d corrected from ‘upheavel’ and then, as if I’d forgotten all about the correction, returned to ‘upheavel’ once more a mere thirteen words later) but tricksy homophones and words that practically sound the same, should you speak them in a comedy Mexican accent. I’m terrible at distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘these’. I know the differences between them both in spelling and in meaning but when writing it’s as if my mental supply of thises has toppled into the these tray and vice-versa. No matter what I write I have to disentangle the two before I publish it, and given neither one is caught by the word processor’s spell-check — why would they? — that usually leaves an errant ‘this’ floating about my work for some scumbag to pick up on after publication and feel superior about.

“How old is your wife, sir?” said my wife.

“Um. Let’s see . . .  twenty-five.”

This prompted her to broke character. “Campfire, I’m not twenty-five.”

“Yes you are,” I said — rather indignantly, I’m afraid.

“No, I’m twenty-seven.”

“No you’re not. You were born in 1981; that makes you twenty-five.”

“I can assure you I’m twenty-seven,” she insisted. “I should know: I’m me.”

“But . . . wait a minute; if you were born in 1981 that would make you thirty. But you’re not thirty, you’re twenty-five.

“Twenty-seven.”

“So you keep saying. Oh! My sister was born in ‘81. You were born in ‘84. Which makes you-”

“Twenty-seven, like I’ve been saying.”

“-twenty-seven, like you’ve been saying,” I said. “I wonder why I keep thinking you’re twenty-five. It’s probably because you only look twenty-five. You do look young.”

“Don’t you try and sweet-talk me,” she said, ticked off. “I can’t believe you said I was born in 1981! That’s, like, the Dark Ages. I am not happy with you.”

Which is understandable. Still, what a stupid, simple matter on which to trip: fancy not knowing your own wife’s age! And while I admit she does look young (“Why, to look at you wouldn’t even know you’d been born. Where are you hiding your umbilicus?”) that’s not exactly something I can explain to an officer of immigration services as they reach for the ‘FAILED’ stamp to add to the ‘UGLY’ one they’d picked up as soon as I entered the booth.

It’s fair to say that I’m panicking ahead of time. I hope on the day itself I’m cool as — oh God, I don’t even know what’s cool anymore. Lady Gaga? Louis Walsh? David Hasselhof’s screwy ex-wife? I’m so old. So old.

While this isn’t the first interview I’ve had (which was probably my French oral GCSE, in which I discovered I could uhh and ahh my way through, so long as I did so in a thick French accent. While my vocab wasn’t up to scratch I sounded just like a forgetful Frenchman and netted myself an A grade) it is the most important. Mess this up and I ruin both of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure to be under.

I’m not so great at talking to people as you’ll know if you’ve ever spoken to me. A transatlantic chum who’d met me in real life recently expressed surprise that I could say more than two words at a time, when on a podcast to which she was listening, I’m actually very talkative — annoyingly so — but you’d never know that unless you’re one of the few people I’m closest to or, well, me. I talk to myself without end; it’s an infuriating habit I picked up from my mum that I’m doing my utmost to curb. I’m thankful at least that I don’t write my articles in an office environment, because when editing I read the whole damned thing aloud, muttering over the placement of words, berating myself when I’ve typed ‘this’ instead of ‘these again, trying out different sentence configurations and occasionally ripping words like stitches — no doubt with an accompanying zip sound — to rewrite segments again from scratch.

In person I often say nothing. It’s not like I don’t have a lot to say — trust me, I do — but I can never find the conversational wiggle room in which to insert them. I hate talking over people, which is another bad habit I’ve developed that I’m a little more successful in stoving in. Like a paper boat I’m at the mercy of the flow of conversation, never knowing where the current runs slowest so I might sail in and make my point. On the podcasts I’ve appeared on the presenters generally have to ask me flat-out what my opinions are before I’ll chime in and give them, and in real life, in everyday conversation with everyday people — boy, you don’t want to know how bad I am at that.

These conversational skills are, I’ve been assured, learnable. Just as I now know that my wife is twenty-five — god-damnit, I mean twenty-seven — so hopefully over time I’ll refine my conversational technique and not make as many mistakes as I currently do. This seems unlikely seeing as I’m old — so old — and haven’t had much success with it up to this moment, but with a new people and a new life on the horizon, maybe out where people barely understand me as it is they’ll be a little more tolerant when I get words mixed up and forget the maiden names of their mothers.

Time will tell. As it is, this week I have an exam ahead of me that I wish was only a French oral. So for whatever superstitious worth it has, wish me good luck for that, please and I’ll take this well-wishes with me.

These well-wishes.

God-damnit.

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