When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?

This page written circa 4 May, 2000.

As I write this it is the afternoon of May 4 in Australia, and the wee small hours of the same date here in California. I have just hung up the phone. Amelia rang... not to wish me happy birthday, as you might have guessed, but to ask if I had updated her web page, and to ask, in a rather hostile manner, what I think she should change in herself so that I will like her.

Well, I tried to explain that I actually do like her - sometimes I wonder why - but if I wanted anything to change it would be that she become more adventurous. Now I'll explain what I mean by that a little later, but the conversation was not about that at all, really.

It was about the fact that Amelia feels frustrated, angry, and cheated because she has never had the benefit of a father living with her, doing all the sorts of things fathers are supposed to do with their children, which I suppose includes growing up more, well, adventurous. She has never had the chance to become close to me, nor I to her. You can see from her diary page that she does not blame Meri or number 3, but they get me and she does not and that adds aggravation. I believe she knows, as I have often told her, that nobody is to blame for that, it just happened that way. It is sad, but not fatal, plenty of people have had worse, we simply have to do our best to cope.

Recent conversations have touched frequently on the subject of money and responsibility, on the premise that if I liked Amelia I would be footing part of the bill so she can buy and maintain a horse, or giving her a digital camera. These largesses would hardly cure the problem, but beyond that they stumble on the question of balance in the equation. What would I get out of these deals? Responsibility must be accompanied by reward. I have long offered Amelia my digital camera as a present whenever she visits us here by herself. She will not come to California by herself. She would not visit Sydney from Brisbane by herself. Her usual response is "in your dreams". Jan has bent over backwards over the years to facilitate Amelia seeing me, going to lengths to which I would not for any child, not Amelia, not Meri. Amelia is not giving an inch, but then with the exception of relating to me, that policy seems to have paid off, at least so far.

By adventurous, I mean being willing to take some risk, to be brave, to explore, perhaps to break rules, all in the pursuit of pleasure and knowledge and self-knowledge. Not to break rules for the sake of breaking rules, but to be willing to break them if it becomes necessary to escape boredom, conventionality, timidity. Countless children's books centre on stories where children embark on projects or investigations (often contrary to advice or instruction, and they often become entangled in improbable intrigues or magical worlds); in real life children might explore parks or forests, build tree houses, experiment with speed trials on billy carts or bicycles; later on they experiment with chemicals and blow things up or make hydrogen balloons and get caustic foam all over the garden or fill the laundry with ammonia or climb cliffs to go fishing off the wave-swept rocks or run illegal radios or build rockets or ride motorbikes. Not having a father (at all, rather than nearby), I missed out on much of that sort of stuff too. I would like Amelia to miss as little as possible, plus of course I want her to visit me, which would be an adventure.

Well, I had updated her web page, and I had emailed her days before as I promised I would when the update was done. I tried to reassure Amelia that I do like her and love her, and so her question of "what do I have to do to get you to like me?" turned into "what would you most like me to improve about myself?". Now for all the hatred Amelia expresses for Toni, this was just like her: One of those conversations that you just cannot win because it is not about what it is really about, and every question is seeking a negative answer, or admitting of no answer that is positive. "What can I do to stop you hating me?" is on a par with the classic "Please tell the court, Mr Smith, just when you stopped beating your wife".

I started by saying that I had just hung up. Amelia was still talking at the time, but it was clearly hopeless as I could not get a word in edgewise, and that is not hyperbole though I have no simple words to describe the complete inability to deal with what seems to have been logically impossible. I had the phone at arms length staring at it, pointing to it raving on and looking across at Kay. After a while I tried to explain to it that my last sentence had been repeated back to me with a "not" inserted, blatantly inverting the meaning and making the whole tirade preposterous, but the phone would not listen. Conversations with Amelia have become less and less conversational and more and more a debate, chiefly characterized by the one-way flow of pre-prepared opinion that literally cannot be interrupted. If it is interrupted, or refuted, it just comes back paraphrased and including one of those unanswerable questions. Frightfully sophistocated, for a thirteen-year-old. There is an up-side view: The American version just shoots you, probably with your own gun.

I didn't mention the date, though.

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