We’ll Always Have Paris: On Hanging In

T&D happy in parisWhat Mindy Kaling says about her parents’ marriage is all well and good but are WE pals, the many rest-of-us coupled up and marching together in life? Based on my experience, here’s how you can tell:

You’re pals if you started married life thinking it was funny to throw cups of cold water from the bathroom sink over the shower curtain and onto your spouse, all nice and toasty and soaped up in there.

You’re pals if, even decades later, you both still laugh when one of you reaches for the drinking cup while the other is just stepping into the shower

The two of you are pals if you say nothing about the fact that a CERTAIN PERSON in the marriage never, ever wipes off the sink after shaving, leaving puddles that drip down to leave white marks on that nice wooden vanity you had to really stretch to buy.  (You used to say plenty about this habit, but your remarks had no effect so you gave up. “Pick your battles,” wise older souls have told you all along and now you get what that means.

You’re pals if that person says nothing about the fact that for some reason you can no longer cook a meal without opening all the doors to the kitchen cabinets and then leaving them open. (It’s a mystery why you do this. “Creative ferment?” you try telling your spouse, who just gives you that studiedly neutral look on seeing them and before quietly going around shutting them all.

You’re pals – and you can stay pals – if you can master this neutral look, as it is far safer than a smile, which can be seen as a smirk, or a gloat, or what it usually is: the ill-fitting mask for a scowl.

In fact in the name of marital accord you must ban many looks, from the I-Told-You-So look to the I’m-a-Saint-For Putting-Up-With-You look. Facial expressions like these send malevolent veils out into air that twist and curl and choke off all good will in a marriage.

Kaling says no, she never did see her parents gazing into one another’s faces – unless perhaps her mom was administering drops to her dad’s eyes. She says gazing isn’t necessary when you are pals and I think she’s right. If you hang in long enough to become pals you can tell how the other one’s day has been, just at a glance.

When I first got married, my mom started referring to my husband as ‘Silent Sam,’ as a joke, just because, unlike the rest of us in the family, he didn’t feel the need to talk until his listeners all lapsed into comas. Maybe I too wished he talked more at first, but after a time I began to ‘get’ him.

I remember thinking he didn’t care that much for our little cat – until after she went missing for several days. Then one morning she suddenly popped out of the bushes. “Here she is!” he cried from where he stood in our driveway and just for a second I saw his knees buckle with relief.

I think Mindy’s exactly right: Spend enough time living right close to people and you can’t help starting to love them . And gazing and pretty speeches hardly come in to it at all.

Oh and that’s us, above . November of 2004, Paris. Gooood time!

Meet in the Middle

I had never fought fair until I fell in love I had never learned to ‘fight fair’ with anyone. To disagree and be civil? It was a skill I never possessed. I was raised by a mother and an aunt, two sisters who were used to saying the blunt frank thing, as siblings will do.

Certainly I did that with my own big sister, as she did with me. We said harsh things and we did harsh things. When we were still young, maybe ten and 12 years old, she still got a kick out of knocking me down, sitting on me, then slowly releasing a long thread of saliva over my face, sucking it back up at the very last second. It was like something out of Edgar Allen Poe.

I was 12 and she was 14 that time locked herself in the bathroom with my diary, and then threatened to share my adventures with our mom.

But I gave as good as I got and took my revenge a week or so later when she was bleaching her hair on the sly. I watched for the moment when she stepped out of the bathroom for the 20 minutes it took for the bleach to work, then zipped in there myself, slammed shut the door and locked it too. I wouldn’t let her in, no matter how much she begged and pounded. It didn’t matter to me how crucial it was that she get back in to apply the neutralizer that would halt the work of all that peroxide. She went to school for a whole week with hair the color of straw – green straw, in actual fact.

But that’s how it is with siblings. There often are no rules.  It isn’t until you take a vow to stick with someone through thick and thin that you start to be a little more careful.

That’s what happened to me when I met this boy. Before two months had passed we knew we were in it for keeps.

And so, slowly, we learned how to fight – ‘disagree’ is a better word – without scorching the earth all around us.

I learned to say “That’s not how I see it,” instead of “You’re crazy!”

He learned to say, “really?’ instead of “Don’t be ridiculous.”

We both learned not to give a superior smirk when the other one took a position we didn’t agree with.

We learned – slowly! – to change the subject and move to a more neutral topic. We tried not to nitpick, find fault, so that kind of case-building we all can do when we’re just so sure that the other guy is in the wrong.

And mostly we have learned to stay connected. To brush a hand across the other one’s shoulder after a disagreement. To say a decent goodbye instead of slamming the car door after one of our tiffs if they took place in the car, which they often did.

We don’t agree about everything. He thinks the sponges and the bottle brush belong in on the kitchen counter while I think they belong in the sink. He takes them out. I put them back. Neither of us ever speaks about this or criticizes the other.

It’s just too important to us to remember that we are one. Maybe it’s important for us as citizens to remember that too.

Velcro!

What is it that binds people in marriage, really? I wonder this often. Especially I wonder it after yet another tussle with my mate over whose turn is it this time to clean the cat-vomit from the rug where an artsy feline of ours likes to ‘work,’ creating colorful collages of grass and fur and mouse parts, all bound in a matrix of recycled cat-chow. What is the agent, that cat-chow-like, holds couples together? 

For some maybe it’s the flowers and greeting cards that bind people like duct tape over the years of birthdays and anniversaries. For some it’s the vows alone maybe. What I think really holds couples together? Shared moments of humor. For me the real glue comes from the laughs you have, which hold  you together not like duct tape (stickily)  or like Superglue (permanently)  but more like the scratchy kiss of Velcro, which by its nature binds like to unlike.

Study Velcro up  close and you’ll see it: A zillion tiny hooks catch a zillion tiny loops and there it is: the good firm fit, the yin and the yang, the unification of opposites. So too, my mate and I are vastly different. While I sleep like the dead at night, he has trouble sleeping at all and says he ponders shaving my eyebrows off or drawing whiskers on my face as I snooze on, oblivious to all. Me, I can‘t sleep mornings. By 5:30 I’m up, organizing the world and running loads of wash. I can’t stand to see others indulging the sleep-late habit, which to me shows weakness of character.

He claims I barge in and make the bed, even while he’s still in it but I deny it. Much humor in marriage arises from denying the obvious.

Another difference between us, between many men and women in fact: Men like teasing and find it funny. Women hate teasing and find it cruel.

Old Dave and I were brushing our teeth together one day lately and when he got done he leaned down, as is his habit since boyhood, to slurp water directly from the faucet.

“What are you, 12?” I said, pointing to the two nice ruby-tinted tumblers. “When will you start using one of the cups?!”  “Never,” he answered. “The cats drink from them.”

That stopped me for less than a second. “Only from yours,” I said,  thinking, “Ho! This wiseguy stuff ain’t just for the fellas.”  

The truth is, we get a kick out of our differences. And, after all this time, we’ve stopped trying to change each other.  So big deal, we’re apples and oranges, hooks and loops. So we pull away from each other with a good rip now and then. The laughs we have join us up again. 

Old Dave in days of yore. The poor guy didn’t stand a chance

Adam’s Apple

Yesterday was Father’s Day, today’s my anniversary – how much fond personal narrative can  the blogosphere stand? And yet, I can’t resist…

Robert Louis Stevenson called marriage “a sort of friendship recognized by the police.”

I guess that’s one person’s account of it.  

Here’s another, from Annie Dillard’s beautiful novel The Maytrees.

The Maytrees are in this scene a young husband and wife, living in Provincetown: 

She lay shipwrecked on the sheets. She surfaced like a dynamited bass. She opened her eyes and discovered where on their bed she had fetched up. She lay spread as a film and as fragile.… She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism his, especially, abdomen…

Maytree, flexed beside her, was already asleep. He usually fell asleep as if dropped from a scarp. From above he would look as if his parachute failed. Intimacy could not be unique to her and Maytree, this brief blending, this blind sea they entered together divng.

His neck smelled as suntan does, his own oil heated, and his hair smelled the same but darker. He was still fresh from an outdoor shower. Awareness was a braided river. It slid down time in drops or torrents.

Now she as he woke the room seemed to get smarter. His legs moved and  their tonus was tight. Her legs were sawdust; they were a line old rope shreds on sand. All her life the thought of his body made her blush.

“We should get up”  Maytree said and moor the dory. Tide’s coming in.”

Now he stood and brushed sand from the side of the sheet. They always had sand in the bed it. It was a wonder she was not slimmer….

I’m happy to say I find marriage to be more like this second account than the first. Friendship is crucial of course – also the ability to laugh at yourself, to forgive and to admit that you’re no picnic to live with either. But if you also have those times when you get taken outside yourself? Well, that’s just the icing on the cake. 🙂

Because He’s a Pro

My tactic in the face of trouble: whine for a while, then curl up with a book and forget about it. In a kitchen that is for the third night in a row  far too cold to cook in I say the heck with everything, make a fire in the living room fireplace and do just that.

Old Dave has been doing this for hours already and is now cozily reading one of his bizarre futuristic semi-sci-fi tomes. His solution for any frozen pipe: let God thaw it. Sooooo on this third cold night, I suggest a plumber.

“He’s not going to tell you anything different,” sez Dave.  “How do you know?” say I. “Because I know” sez he. “So now you’re the Energy Czar? I mean, you’re no professional” say I. “Yeah but I’m right,”says he.

Then about ten minutes later up he gets and disappears down into our 1890s cellar. When he comes back up he asks if we have a space heater but – ack! – I have just hours earlier donated our one space heater to a family in much worse shape than we are with our books and our fireplace and the wise-cracking wife giving continuous grief to a nice quiet man.

“Come down and see,” he says and so I go down and  see what he has done which is to stand first on a rickety old chair and then on a very tall radiator and then  pry off a two-by five-foot length of paneling fat with pink insulation to reveal the bare earth floor under the kitchen addition , where running its entire length is the skinny ice-filled pipe that is causing all the trouble.

“Let’s see if this helps,” says Dave, turning the antique black knob on this radiator we have never used, and back upstairs to the fireside we go and whaddya know, what do you know, what DO you know, within 30 minutes we suddenly hear hot water coursing  through a well-thawed pipe and into kitchen baseboards. Hurrah!

So maybe he IS the professional after all, what do I know? But hey: I’m the Queen. Oh and I meant to say: this is Dave at the top  with that ‘I told you so’  look he so often gets  … And down at the bottom here, well that’s  me in the rocking throne from which I rule this roost, allowing my subjects to sometimes approach (as  long as they stay on their hands and knees. :-))

WHO’S Dumb?

I once had this quiet but sneaky boyfriend who was always doing the weirdest things: “Let’s roll down this hill right now!” he’d suddenly enthuse as we’d be standing on some grassy cliff. “OK!” I’d gamely say back and down I would go, rolling clear to the bottom, and look around for him – and there he’d be, still standing at the top and laughing his head off.

Once we were approaching a set of escalators to go upstairs in this fancy mall, me chattering away – I was quite the little one-man-band in those days – and before I realized what was happening he was making the “after you” gesture and I was trying to stumble UP the DOWN escalator because that’s the one he was trying to put me on  – I guess to find out just exactly HOW absorbed I was in my own narrative.

Pretty absorbed was the answer. I tried going ‘up’ those fast-moving ‘down’ stairs and ended up performing a series of lightning-fast stumble-jumps to keep from breaking my neck.

He actually caught me at the last possible second and handed me on to the right escalator but still – what kind of boyfriend takes pleasure in  another’s confusion?

The kind you marry of course so you can keep on with the teasing and sabotaging until you’re both pushing 100 but hey I DON’T MIND because tell ya the truth his ways rubbed off on me. Tonight I lift the lid and seal the toilet over with Saran Wrap. 🙂

And now this funny video ad just because it ties in so nicely with our title:


Lucky He Doesn’t WHAT?!

David has been away  for 2 days but I still feel like killing him I don’t know why, maybe it’s the heat. Or maybe it’s because he never listens when I talk  – but just goes “Uh huh, Uh huh” while continuing to read his newspaper the way a man will do. Or sometimes he isn’t even reading but just keeps silent anyway when I’m telling him something, which  makes me do what a wife should probably never ever do: take shots at his mother. Who is dead. Who he worshipped.

“What, your mother didn’t teach you to speak when spoken to?” I bray at him in such cases.  “Oh I know how it was in your house, I was there! Four male galoots lazing about on couches while their poor widowed mother waited on them hand and foot! What, she never mentioned that in civilized society people acknowledge others when they  speak?”

Turns out it’s a mistake to go after a man’s mother  –  and it’s a worse mistake to complained TO a man’s  mother ABOUT her son. “He doesn’t even  talk to me when he comes home from work!”  I said once to my mother-in-law, hoping for a little female solidarity and what  did she say back?  (a)  “Most  men don’t speak until you’ve fed them  dinner, and  (b) “You’re lucky he doesn’t beat you.” Hello!

I remember this one time when I was just sort of mildly criticizing her behind her back: David fixed me with this piercing look he sometimes gets and said, “Don’t think YOUR mother doesn’t make a mighty wide target,” – which, I’ll admit, she did.  But  when she got in the kind of nasty mood I’ve been in lately she’d get herself out if it by suddenly stopping mid-kvetch to shout, “Gad! Somebody take me out in the yard and shoot me!” – which actually  gives me an idea: I think I’ll go out in the yard myself now and pick a fight with the neighbor’s cat but first I have to say it: We sure do miss our mothers though, don’t we?



Countertop

It was bad news for me when the Wall Street Journal called the Gores’ breakup after 40 years the ‘new normal.’ because I’ve been married 40 years this month. AND, and my veil looked just like Tipper’s!

And the similarities don’t end there. Dave was in Al Gore’s class at Harvard, though he’ll be quick to tell you he didn’t invent the Internet. He says all he did was play Freshman Football and, since he couldn’t afford to buy the books, read his course assignments in the library, starting around 48 hours before Finals. He also played cards by the hour and just generally did a whole lotta Not Much Else until I came along his Senior year and we began hanging out with my big funny family. And it’s been such a Big Top of fun-and-fightin’ ever since I can’t imagine walking away after the early innings like the Gores did,

In that Wall Street Journal piece Jeff Zaslow also cites a survey sponsored by the British dating site ForgetDinner which reports that people married one year spend 40 minutes of an hour-long dinner talking. By 20 years, they’re down to 21 minutes, by 30 years, 16, and by 50 years all of three. To which I say: fiddle-faddle. We sure never spent 40 minutes over those first-year dinners. We didn’t have enough food for that. We could’ve eaten the roaches to extend things maybe, crisped ‘em up in one of the zillion fondue pots we got as wedding presents.

By our 20th anniversary it is true that our dinner-talk only lasted about 21 minutes but that’s just because we could hardly make ourselves heard over the offspring resulting from that yeasty early years. And by our 30th, we were too busy executing our kids’ desire to have people join us for dinner: pals of theirs, pals of their pals, even a doorbell-ringing solicitor if they took pity on him. And Dave and I, we just keep bringin’ on the chow. Who could talk?

Since the survey is silent about what happens at 40 years in I can tell you right now: At 40 years in you can break all the rules, because it’s just the two of you again.

David has recently taken a notion to eat standing up like a horse, maybe because he can’t wait to get back to the crossword he’s afraid to bring to the table since that time I took a match to his Sudoku. It used to drive me crazy to see him standing and eating at the island like a commuter at a pushcart – until I got the idea of sitting ON the island countertop, legs crossed under me, to eat my dinner like that.

And it works, We’re at eye level. We chew. We talk. And if  people look in the window and see two diners, one a standing man and one a woman in apparent I-Dream-of-Jeannie-style levitation, sure they might be flummoxed. Hey, we’re flummoxed ourselves most of the time, and if not laughing 24/7, havin’ some pretty good times.


Hop on Pop

The man we’re celebrating this Fathers Day had just one suit the year this picture was taken. It was bought for his middle school graduation. That was fine with him. We’ve been married 40 years today and in all that time I have never heard him utter a single boast. I remember before his 25th college reunion he didn’t want to fill out the survey. “Look I’ll read the questions and write down your responses,” I said, and took out my pen.

“It’s asking for your special achievements. “Leave it blank,” he said.  “Or else put ‘My family.’” “It asks if you’ve served on the Board of Directors of any companies. You have!” ” I said. “Leave it blank,”  he said.

He doesn’t care if the world thinks him successful. It just doesn’t matter to him. I remember asking him that day how many suits he had now. “One,” he said. “One that I can wear.”

The year our son was going into 8th grade he spent all eight weeks at a summer camp in the Berkshires.  On that first Visiting Day, most of the other campers had parents with fancy cars. At one point we found ourselves next to the basketball court where a lone father in fancy shoes and a Versace shirt was shooting baskets. David had on shorts and his Dr. Seuss T-shirt with Hop on Pop stenciled on the front.  I knew he wanted to shoot with our son, but was holding back, not wishing to interrupt this well-dressed dad. “Go on out there!” I said under my breath. “This guy’s just some cardiologist! ”

He laughed. He knew what I meant. I meant, “Some rich guy in fancy clothes? Some rich guy is no match for a man with just one suit.”

Happy Fathers Day Old Dave! And Happy 40 Years With TT who loves you even more now than she did when she snapped this picture.

It’s Just that You’re Such an …

I bet everyone knows about that internet ‘glossary’ for what women mean when they say certain things to their men.  Like when we say ‘Fine’ and it means ‘we’re done talking now and you should shut up.’  Or when you ask us what’s wrong and we sigh and say ‘Nothing’ and really what we mean is ‘It’s just that you’re such an asshole.’

Well, in my house we don’t have that. In my house we have one brightly chirping saint and one lumpish mammal resisting all chirps.

Example: Every morning I tell Old Dave how great he looks. “Blue is your color! “ I gaily call, or  “Who would have thought you’d have such wonderful silver hair!” and so on. He just gives me this level gaze and goes on tucking in his Polo shirt. It’s like he doesn’t believe me. Or doesn’t believe that I believe me. Or doesn’t want to be yet another recipient of my Ministry of General Chirpiness.

He has a million Polo shirts by the way, all given to him by companies hoping to do business with the company he works for. He hasn’t bought a shirt of his own since 1993 – and yesterday morning here he was unwrapping his latest free one before putting it on. We were in the bedroom where I was simultaneously returning phone calls, ironing and affirming the houseplants.

“That shirt’s kind of BIG isn’t it ?” I innocently asked and got the deadpan gaze again – only this time he didn’t look away. “But oh yeah!” I quickly add. “I guess you always tuck IN your shirts, don’t you? I guess it’s ME who has stopped tucking in shirts!”

“You know it makes me wonder how I ever got dressed at all without you in my life,” he suddenly said. As if he could really remember back that far, I think to myself, he who couldn’t tell you the names of his childhood pets if you drove hot toothpicks under his nails.

But the remark did get my attention and made me see myself; made me flash on the many times I looked at one or another of our hapless kids and said, “Is that what you’re wearing?”

I felt a tad remorseful, so went for the amend.

Sort of.

“What’s wrong?”I said in my relentless female hunt-you-down-in-your-cave  way.

“Nothing,” he said with an airy sigh.

And never mind that the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure I knew exactly what sentence he was leaving out. It looks like men really are from Mars and women from Venus. And what  Oscar Wilde said about Great Britain and the U.S applies to the genders as well: we’re two countries divided by a common language.