Jeff Farrell: Foot in mouth often a result of not thinking

Jun. 09, 2013 @ 11:40 PM

“We went on one date, and she took me to a traffic jam.”

It took a lot of work to decipher that utterance from one of my cousins, who came down from New York last weekend for a wedding. He’d spent a few months down here years earlier for an internship, and someone had asked what happened with one girl he’d been set up with by some friends.

He didn’t know the names of many towns outside of Oak Ridge, where he’d worked, and Knoxville, where he stayed. It wasn’t until he said “well we’d look at some other old cars” that we realized she’d brought him to a rod run.

Sometimes hearing a different perspective can make you puzzle over something you take for granted.

For people who come for the bigger classic car shows — the ones that turn the Parkway in Pigeon Forge into a near parking lot — the shows are a blast. And for classic car enthusiasts who unknowingly book a trip down here on those weekends, they must come as a welcome surprise.

But for people who don’t get them, they’re just a traffic jam. I’ve said before that I hope the city eventually finds a way to give the rod runs their space somewhere off the one main road other tourists use to make it through the county. I’m still hoping to see that. The story isn’t meant to lead into a reflection on the pros and cons of car shows, though. 

Actually, the last few days have made me think about how often we don’t reflect on the baggage someone else brings to a conversation. It turned into something of a running theme.

For starters, a friend was telling me about the great conversation he’d had with his mom. The best he’d had in years, it had really meant a lot and “When’s the last time that happened to you?”

This is not a question you ask someone whose mother has been dead for years. It wasn’t intentional, of course. But it took him a few seconds to catch on to the blank look on my face before he started apologizing.

It was an awkward conversation for a few minutes, but I hope I got him thinking that maybe he should try to have those conversations a little more often.

And it came up another time, on my own behalf, when I was interviewing Circuit Court Clerk Rita Ellison about her battle with cancer. She brought up the fact that lots of people tried to console her with stories of friends or loved ones who had cancer. The trouble was, many of those people died. Of cancer.

I’m pretty sure I was one of the guilty parties. Those stories are meant to encourage someone with a new diagnosis, usually about keeping a positive outlook and not buying into a bad prognosis.

Mine, about Mom, is that she was told upon her diagnosis that the cancer had spread and that she shouldn’t think long-term. Her days of fishing with Dad or of getting out were likely behind her. But she wasn’t one to give up easily, and she lasted years past the doctors’ expectations and returned to camping, fishing, watching Vol sports and everything else she loved.

I’ll wager that everyone who told similar stories was trying to tell Rita to stay positive in the face of adversity. Every person who’s dealt with cancer knows that keeping a positive attitude is as beneficial as any treatment.

But I also understand Rita’s perspective. When the story ends with the protagonist’s death, what you hear might not be, “they really showed those doctors, they lasted for years and had a great time.” What you might focus on is, “They died.” When that’s the outcome you’re trying to avoid, you don’t want to hear multiple stories that end the same way.

It’s easy to assume the person sitting across from you shares your perspective, but making that assumption is an easy way to stick your foot in your mouth.

— Jeff Farrell is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 216, or e-mail to jfarrell@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @jeffmtnpress.