4.08.2009

Twosomes

<-- Charlie, married to his BlackBerry and Peet’s, not necessarily in that order.

When they were married, my mom and dad couldn't sit in the same room without bickering. It got past the point of embarrassment, past the point of anything constructive, toward that place where you hope one of them will give up or you hope and pray there'll be some sort of natural disaster like an earthquake; anything to end it, please God!

Interrupting wasn't an option. Which one do you interrupt? Whoever you picked would get pissed off since they weren't able to get their point across in the first place, and now there's an unfair advantage to the opponent. Neither one listened to the other, neither one respected the other, neither one waited until the other finished. They misunderstood, jumped to conclusions, made assumptions and thought the worst. They were way beyond thinking they'd learn anything from each other. That's what I thought, anyway.

They're both married to wildly different people now; they're wildly different people now, too. I've never noticed my mom trying to convince her husband of anything. She talks and he's happy to listen, it seems. It works for both of them.

My mom used to try to reason with my dad when they were married. She'd try to talk to him, lecturing him on why he was wrong or why he shouldn't do some particular thing. She'd get angry, she'd get silent, she'd lecture but nothing ever manifest her desired result: changing his behavior. His wife now, Mary, isn't so passive or aggressive. She's just exactly what he needs, what anyone needs, really. She can articulate her issue in a single sentence. Who has time for more than that?

For example, my dad sees Charlie parking the car and offers suggestions. "You're a little close on this side," he says. "You might want to go forward a couple feet." Nothing drastic but after hearing his suggestions all morning, all day for fifteen years, Mary says, "Oh Cal, you don't have to tell everyone what to do."

He shuts right up! She shuts up. They're happily getting out of the car and already moved on. I look over at Charlie and I see his shoulders hunching up and down rhythmically. I can't look at his face or I'll start laughing, too. Is there anything more humorous than the way married people talk to each other? Especially when one of them is this good, this talented with shutting down the other one?

Watching them is a gift from God, an answer to a prayer, an averted natural disaster.

We stop by my dad's office to get ready for a bike ride. He's got some paperwork to do, but first he shows me some old photos of San Francisco, lying on top of a couple of frames. "You can help me with these," he says. "I bought these at Wal-Mart or Target, somewhere like that. They go on the hallway in your building."

The photos clearly won't fit in the frame. My way of telling my dad he's wrong is to say, "you're wrong," or to smile and say nothing. Neither way works usually, but smiling seems appropriate now so that's what I do.

"Those won't fit," Mary says. Oh boy. "Those frame openings are too big."

That's what I was thinking. I'm still smiling. Charlie turns around. All I can see is his shoulders hunching up and down rhythmically.

"No, Mary," dad says, "They'll fit. These are a foot. My foot is a foot long, so let's see how big these pictures are."

He puts the photos up against his foot to measure. Mary, like magic, whips out a measuring tape. "Here, Cal," she says. Charlie and I enjoy watching the way my dad can figure things out. Not everybody uses body parts to solve picture-framing problems.

He takes the measure, measures the photos and says, "We'll have to take these frames back to Wal-Mart or Target, wherever I got them. They don't fit."

Mary, unlike anyone I'm related to, puts the tape measure back and says nothing. She doesn't sigh or harumph or make any sort of "I told you so" noise. How does she do that? She had a free pass.

We're still waiting to ride around Sutro hill. We have our bikes outside on standby, we've got our helmets on and there isn't a reason why we haven't already left as far as I can tell. Mary takes this opportunity to roll up the cord to the lamp sitting on the desk.

"Mary," my dad says, "You don't have to do that now."

She really doesn't, but I've lived with my dad for fifteen years, too. Sometimes you have to keep yourself busy while you're waiting for him.

She lets go of the cord. "Let's go then."

Genius in action! She figured out how to get my dad to quit checking his paperwork while we and our bikes wait for him. As a kid, we started many vacations sitting strapped in the car waiting for my dad to check that all the lights were turned off in the house, the doors were all locked and the car's fluid levels were sufficient. I remember sitting so long in the driveway, waiting for him to replenish the oil, that I had to pee again.

I thought I knew something about communication and relationships but now I feel like an infant in a playpen. I can't recall the last time my dad said anything sounding bickerish, to anyone. In fact, he sounds pretty excited about everything he talks about and Mary seems pretty pleased to have the opportunity to listen to him. Me, too.

I follow Charlie and his rhythmically hunching shoulders out the door toward the bikes.