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Walker: Lost in the noise

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By Joseph Walker
Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 6:28 p.m.

William is only 11 months old, so he isn't much of a conversationalist just yet.

But that doesn't stop him from talking.

I honestly think he thinks he's communicating. He certainly seems sincere and determined in the sounds he makes. And sometimes his babbling grunts and bellows do seem to elicit the desired result: a bit of cookie, a little fruit, a sip of water. But most of the time he's just making noise. A joyful noise, to be sure. Noise that makes me smile. But noise nonetheless.

Rico, on the other hand, is much older than William. We're not exactly sure of his age, but it's around 40. So yeah, he speaks. But it is with the shrill, penetrating, sometimes obnoxious tones of an Amazon parrot. Which means that like William, he isn't much on conversation. He's got about 15 specific sounds and phrases that he can say. But when he says them, he says them loud — especially the wolf whistle, which can probably be heard in the next area code.

Recently William and Rico have been spending quite a bit of time together. William is absolutely fascinated by Rico. Rico is scared to death of William. So William will bellow and grunt at Rico, trying to converse with him. And Rico will whistle and shriek right back at William while he cowers as far away from the toddler as he can possibly get in his cage.

My daughter AmyJo, who is currently baby-sitting both William and Rico, says it's pretty funny to watch — and listen — as the two of them go at it.

“They're both trying to say something,” she told me, “but whatever they're trying to say just gets lost in all the noise.”

No. Wait. That wasn't AmyJo. That was the news analyst I just heard talking about the political impasse that has resulted in the government shutdown. For some reason, thinking of one situation just naturally gets me to thinking about the other.

As a reasonably intelligent — and yes, I realize we could spend a lot of time debating that point — citizen, I have tried to understand the issues that are polarizing American politics these days. But everywhere I go looking for information — CNN, Google, Twitter, Stephen Colbert — it's all just people pointing fingers at each other and making noise.

Like William and Rico. Only without the wolf whistle.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not inherently opposed to noise. Back in the day, I played in a rock band that had the philosophy that if you can't play well, play loud — and we couldn't play well. There's nothing more thrilling to me than the deafening roar of an impassioned football crowd after a huge play for the home team. And you haven't lived until you've heard the Walker family's raucously dissonant version of “Happy Birthday,” which has been known to bring tears to the eyes — and hands to the ears — of the uninitiated.

So for me, the issue isn't noise. The issue is communication. I hear people talking, but I don't hear anyone really communicating. The voices are so shrill, the messages are so harsh, and the positions are so extreme that it all starts blending together into one noisy mishmash of accusation, bloviation and contempt.

And it makes me wonder: Is this what passes for public discourse today? Is this the model for dispute resolution that we should follow in our homes, our businesses, our schools and our churches? Or is there a better way to get things done, a way marked by thoughtful dialogue, reasonable responses, attentive listening and — wait for it — compromise?

Thankfully, I think most of us know the answer to that. We live it every day of our lives. It's how we get along with others in our families, our neighborhoods and our communities. It's how we get things done. Maybe our leaders could take a lesson from us.

As opposed to William and Rico.

Joseph Walker is an independent columnist.

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