The Wisdom of Jim


Here is another piece of wisdom from the mind of Jim Hourihane, my late father in  law.

Conversations are like plates of biscuits.

Four people sit at a table for tea.  In the centre of the table is a plate of biscuits.  All the biscuits are the same type and there are eight of them.

As everyone is putting milk and sugar in their tea one of the people at the table starts eating.  He scoffs down three biscuits, and picks up a fourth.

At this stage the other three people have worked out the maths.  This guy has eaten his own biscuits and half of the biscuits of two others.  The rest of the tea break is uncomfortable.  Three biscuits are quickly snatched up, and the remaining one sits there just daring anyone to pick it up.

It is so much more pleasant for everyone when people sit back a little, relax, and take one biscuit.  Wait to make sure everyone has a biscuit before taking another.  The biscuit muncher quickly finds that others avoid sitting with him at break time.  If he is lucky an outspoken colleague will tell him to stop hogging the biscuits.

So what has this to do with conversation?

Some people are like the biscuit muncher.  They barge their way into conversations and talk at everyone, without assessing if anyone is listening with interest.  They speak seemingly without taking a breath, in case anyone else interrupts.  If someone else speaks they don’t listen because they are more interested in working out the next thing they want to say.

They are so interested in what they want to say themselves that they often interrupt others mid-sentence to get their points across.  If someone else has done a thing they have done it bigger or better.  No matter what problem you have they will tell you how to solve it.  If one person dominates the conversation then it is like one person eating all the biscuits.  It becomes awkward for everyone else, and they slip away.

The art of good conversation is to include everyone.  Some people are a bit shy and need to be coaxed to engage in conversation.

As children we were told that when someone offers you a biscuit you should refuse the first time out of politeness.  Then accept only when they press you a little.  The general rule in Ireland is to refuse twice and accept the third offer.  This little politeness was born in times of extreme poverty.  People would offer food to a guest out of politeness while they starved themselves and their children.  An astute guest knew the difference between a polite and a genuine offer.

In conversation we sometimes need to give a bit of time and space to the shy or quiet person if we want them to join in.  That patience can pay dividends.  Still waters run deep and it is often the person who speaks least and last that says the thing worth hearing.  But the quiet people who take their time to make their point never get a chance in the company of a biscuit muncher.

I come from a whole family of biscuit munchers.  Conversations amongst my siblings have a lot in common with the Hunger Games, they are a blood sport.  One-upmanship is the norm, interruptions are frequent, listening is for wimps. Growing up in this way does not make you a fine conversationalist.

This, of course, is why Jim tried to teach me about the biscuits.  I did listen!


Biscuits and Milk

Turkish Tanks

My brain is taking a duvet day.  It is a time for me to sit down and eat some biscuits and drink some milk.  It’s just that nobody is giving me biscuits and milk.  When I say I need biscuits and milk they look at me funny.  They don’t know what I am talking about.

Walt Whitman used biscuits and milk the way Jesus used bread and wine.  Simple grounding staples of our society.  Foods that bring the ego and the id closer together and nourish me, who I am, myself.

In Freudian psychology the dream state is envisaged as a time when the id floats free and projects away from the physical world.  In this projected state it can interact, through dreams, with the pre-conscious layer of the mind, the buffer zone between the sealed unconscious and the waking conscious state.

Think of ISIS as the unconscious state, we really have no idea what is going on there in ISIS.  What do those guys want?  It is a dark and scary place.

So, the Turkish Border, with the Patton tanks lined up on the hill, that is the Conscious state,  hard, grounded, real, factual.

The Kurds in Kobani are like the Id, floating freely in the pre-conscious, wishing they could wake up to the sound of Turkish Tanks firing shells at ISIS.  In Kobani the Kurds want security, safety, surety (good alliteration kiddo).  They want biscuits and milk.  Breakfast food.  Simple, uncomplicated, bland, plain breakfast food.  They want to get their heads together.

Now do you understand?  I don’t actually want you to put a plate of biscuits and a glass of milk in front of me!  I am not hungry for food.  I just need to get it together in my mind.  So when someone asks for Biscuits and Milk, give them a bit of space.

Song of Myself; by Walt Whitman
Stanza 46
I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again.

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.

You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.

Sit a while dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.

Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.