I was at the pool a lot last week. I had enrolled the kids in an intensive swimming program -- a 40-minute lesson every morning for five days. They loved it because it was super-awesome fun, and I loved it because I didn't have to get into the water (hooray for clothes).
A few of my friends had their kids doing the program too, so we spent our mornings chatting.
"Not too bad. Bit frazzled. Spent most of the day in the car actually. You?"
"Had 33 over for lunch. Nightmare."
We spoke of summer holiday plans, our husbands, children with croup, upcoming 40th birthdays, ophthalmologists; the topics were many and varied.
But on the fifth morning, my posse dispersed for various reasons -- some had to stand elsewhere because their children had been promoted to the big pool, others were busy supervising their offspring at the kiosk and playground. I accepted my solitary situation and positioned myself so that I could watch my level A kid and my level B kid simultaneously ("Yes, of course I saw that torpedo. And you were doing a marvellous job at blowing bubbles.")
Then a man I know -- not well, just through a friend -- arrived with his child. When he greeted me, I assumed it would be in passing; that he'd keep walking. Instead, he struck up a conversation, which (after some initial small talk) went a bit like this:
Him: "I work full-time as a teacher, but I'm actually a writer. I've just finished my second novel, in fact. I'm in the process of looking for a publisher."
Me: "Oh. Are you not going with the same publisher as your first book?"
Him: "It's not published. But I had a manuscript assessment and it came back with some favourable comments. Very positive. However, I'm concentrating on the new book at the moment -- I have a good feeling about it. Hopefully it gets picked up. Then, maybe I can quit my job, you know."
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
I learnt all about his unpublished novels, his aspirations, his visiting in-laws, his children and his financial situation. I found out that he can cook a tasty asparagus risotto, has just come back from a trip to Sydney and is keen to learn a language. It was interesting enough, I suppose, but after about 20 minutes I realised I was not involved in a tête-à-tête -- this was definitely just a tête. The only question the man asked me was: "Would you like to read my manuscript?" (Clearly a euphemism.)
When I was 22 I shared a house with a classic narcissist. She'd arrive home from work, tell me all about her day, or her previous life as a model, or both, and never ask me anything. Eventually, I decided to play a game called 'Don't Ask Any Questions And See What Happens'. And guess what? She still talked endlessly about herself. She needed no prompting at all. In the six months we lived together, she didn't find out a single thing about me -- including how I was.
Small children are egocentric like this, but it is both normal and generally pretty endearing. They can say "Mum! Come quick!" the very moment you have stepped into the shower, and then -- while you drip onto the floor, heart palpitating -- exclaim "I have hands!" or "Watch me spin around in circles!"
Most people grow out of this kind of behaviour. They develop empathy, pay attention to social norms and learn to converse in a less-selfish manner:
"How are you?"
"Very well, thank you, and how are you?"
They come to understand that partaking in discussions is really quite straightforward, and often enjoyable. But others, like pool man and my housemate, just don't get it.
I'm taking the kids to the pool again tomorrow and am hoping that I'll run into my friends again. But if I find myself having any more one-sided conversations with the 'writer', I might just lead him over to the shimmering, blue water and show him his own reflection.