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Unqualified, Inexperienced, and Yet Somehow an Expert
For some reason, they asked me to write an essay for The Dadly Virtues: Adventures from the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love, despite being an unmarried and childless man. Although maybe that makes me especially qualified to write this?
A son once asked his father to explain what marriage was like. His father answered by taking the son’s iPod, removing every song but his son’s current favorite and handing it back to him.
“That, kid,” his father said, “is what it’s like to be married. So before you get married, better ask yourself: is this my favorite song?”
Which is, when you get right down to it, the gist. You can only listen to one song for the rest of your life, but it’s your favorite song, so it’s okay. Or, if you’re not ready to make that kind of commitment, you can keep listening to all of those other songs, skipping happily from track to track, as long as you’re prepared never to listen to your favorite song again.
I’m not sure I would have answered the question the same way, but then I’m what you might call a disinterested expert in the fields of marriage and fatherhood because of my current (and likely future) status as an unmarried and childless male. Like Dr. Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees of Africa, I have a unique vantage point on the institution of marriage.
“The problem with women,” said a friend of mine who is married to a stubborn woman, “is that they’re all so stubborn.”
“Guys are stupid,” said a woman I know from college who is married to a stupid man.
Because, like Dr. Jane Goodall, I don’t have a chimp in the fight, I’m able to think about marriage from a neutral perspective. Unburdened from the specifics of a particular relationship – but often given awkward front-row seats to the marriages of my friends – I can watch and take field notes and pass silent judgment at the mistakes and missteps of my married friends.
Okay, not always silent.
A few years ago, I was visiting some friends of mine who were living, temporarily, in Paris. They were a young couple with a newborn, living in a small apartment in the 7th arrondissement – and if you just read those words and thought, “Wow, that sounds romantic and glamorous” then you are clearly unmarried and childless and need to read on – and as often happens at moments like this, when everything is supposed to be infused with joy and wonder, they were stressed and sleep-deprived and fighting a lot.
In other words, a perfect time to visit.
The husband was an old friend of mine, and one afternoon we were tasked with taking the baby out for a bit. His wife needed a nap and some time alone, and the idea was, he would walk the few short blocks to my hotel and we would sit in the warm lobby – this was February, when Paris is particularly cold and damp – and after an hour or two he would report back to headquarters with the bundle of warm baby, returning her in roughly the same condition in which he checked her out.
“Make sure she has her hat,” his wife told him. “It’s too cold for her little head. Just sit in the lobby. Make sure she’s warm. Make sure you take the blanket. Make sure you…”
And what followed, I suspect, was a litany of “make sure’s” and “don’t’s” including, I’m fairly certain, a specific instruction not to take his baby outside for a walk in the Paris winter, despite the fact that the day was sunny and dry, despite the fact that strolling the Paris boulevards is an ancient and lordly practice, despite the fact that Cuban cigars are legal in France and that I had two of them and that nothing could be better than sauntering up to the Jardin du Luxembourg with the little baby in the pousette and lighting up like gentlemen, and despite the fact that we did just that and, boy, let me tell you, was she mad.
Like, volcanic mad.
Apparently, anyway. I was safely in my hotel room – or maybe out and about, drinking heavily without consequence, as is my prerogative as a childless unmarried male who will die alone.
“She’s still furious,” he told me the next day. “She’s using all those words they use. I ‘disrespected’ her. I treated her with ‘disdain’ and ‘dismissal.’ I ‘arrogated’ – is that even a word? – to myself the right to make ‘unilateral’ decisions about our child.”
“So what did you do?” I asked as I broke into my croissant and sipped my café crème.
“I apologized and apologized and blamed you.”
“Hmmm. Probably a good move,” I said. “But wait. How is what you did ‘disrespectful?’ I mean, did she ask your opinion about what to do with the baby? Did you guys come to a consensus?”
“No,” he said, eyes widening a little. “She just gave me orders.”
“Well,” I said, “talk about unilateral! Talk about disrespect! Talk about arrogating – and yes, it is a word – the right to make childcare decisions!”
“You’re right!” he shouted. And went back to the apartment to renew the battle, which re-ignited and fizzled and re-ignited and fizzled over several years – and different provocations – but ended, eventually, in divorce.
Which was not – despite what I know you’re thinking – my fault, although you’d be right to point out that Dr. Jane Goodall rarely if ever gave the chimpanzees relationship advice.
* * *
I once met a man who had pioneered a new way to teach English to foreigners. English can be a baffling and irrational language to newcomers. Our grammar is a landmine of contradictions and special cases; our spelling is a chaotic mishmash of dozens of other languages; and our rules of pronunciation are considered, in some university faculties, complex to the point of racism.
So how did he do it? How did he manage to re-engineer the teaching of English as a second language?
Simple, he said. “My feeling is,” he told me, “that everyone is basically a foreigner. My kids are foreigners. My co-workers are foreigners. My wife is a foreigner. They all speak their own weird language. So when you realize that no one is really speaking the same language, it’s a lot easier to come up with ways to bridge that. It’s not about English or Japanese or Swahili. It’s about this person in his or her own head thinking they’re making sense when actually you have zero idea what they’re saying.”
Which, along with the one-song iPod, is another way to explain the challenges of marriage.
What my friend, years ago in Paris, didn’t realize – and what I didn’t either, but then, I didn’t need to – was that his wife wasn’t expressing actual rational concern about the weather and the baby and the dangers of the Jardin du Luxembourg. What she was expressing was the very real and natural reaction many women have after the birth of their first child: fear that something awful is about to happen, guilt at every moment spent not transfixed with the baby’s physical presence, a sense that this precious object which was so recently tucked safely inside her is now outside and helpless and unprotected.
That catechism of “don’t’s” and “make sure’s” was in a foreign language, and the translation was, “I’m really terrified about this, about being a mother, about being tired, about failing at this job before I’ve even really done it.” His job, as a husband, was to do his best to hear what she was saying in her (maybe crazy) language, understand it, accept it, and turn to his friend with the cigars and say, in language unprintable in this volume, please stop talking, we’re not leaving this lobby, this is just the way it is, please stop talking.
So, after you hand the one-song iPod back to your kid and tell him (or her) that marriage is like one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals where it’s one song, over and over again, at differing volumes, maybe also add this:
Ask yourself: can you learn the personal and nutty language your intended insists on using? Not – and this is a crucial distinction – can you teach your intended to speak your language. But can you learn what she means when she says, take a blanket. Or what he means when he says, I don’t know what to do about this AMEX bill. Because from my vantage point, looking through a telescope at the community of chimpanzees, all trying to make their marriages work and thrive, when you know what your partner means – really means – you can get through anything. And when you don’t, you can’t get through a simple disagreement about a walk in the park.
And it really doesn’t matter if you love each other.
* * *
“Love,” says the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “never fails.”
My guess is, had he known that this particular passage of scripture would be legally required at every single wedding ceremony – along with Etta James’ At Last and some awkward intergenerational dancing – he might have gone straight from 1 Corinthians 11 (“Everyone who is hungry should eat something at home”) to 1 Corinthians 14 (“ Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?”) without taking the troublesome and difficult detour to love.
That’s what your kid will want to know, when you tell him or her about the iPod and the foreign language thing. They’ll want to know about love, which – sorry, Paul – fails so regularly and so spectacularly that the Book of Corinthians should come with a release form.
There once was a young couple that loved each other very much. (This is a true story, despite the rather unbelievable opening.)
They had an expensive and elaborate wedding planned in a swank location in San Francisco. About an hour before the ceremony, the bride and her party were in their gigantic hotel suite preparing for the event – there were makeup artists and photographers and dressers and minions circling around – and one of the bridesmaids – the one none of them will ever speak to again, probably – was looking around for a place to hang her outfit when she had an idea.
With a piece of string, she fashioned a makeshift clothesline from one side of the room to the other, attaching the string to the fire sprinklers which were (unusually, but there you have it) along the side wall.
Do you see where this is going? She somehow wrapped one end of the string around the little doo-dad inside the sprinkler housing that trips the fire alarm, so when one of the other bridesmaids tugged a little too hard on the string, the alarm went off. Which made three things occur:
First, a heavy black fire-retardant powder sprayed all over the room from multiple ceiling vents. Then, the sprinklers went off. Then, everything was covered in black mud. Then, everyone was screaming.
Okay, that’s four things. But two of them happened at the same time.
All of the gowns were ruined. All of the hairdos were collapsed and wet. All of the women were streaked with tears and black soot. It was like Prom Night at Goth High.
The hysterical bride picked up the phone and called the groom and wailed out her news.
Let’s hit pause. Pretend you’re the handsome groom. What would you do?
Think about it. Expensive wedding. Expensive gowns. Church filling up with people. Stores closed. Weeping bride. This is a testing moment.
Here’s what he did: he called down to the concierge and asked for help. He explained the situation and together they tracked down someone at the local fancy department store and managed to cobble together some wedding attire and they pulled off the wedding, a mere two hours late.
At the reception, making the traditional groom’s toast, he told the story – now, hours later, crisis over, it was sort of funny and charming – and swaggered a bit. I got it done, he wanted everyone to know. I’m a young man who executes the mission, his beaming smile seemed to say. And his bride beamed too. My husband saved the wedding.
“For a minute,” he said, “what I was going to do was come down to my wife’s room and tell her to put on some jeans and scoop her up and bring her to the church. Because it doesn’t matter to me what she wears. And I would have said to you all right then and there to imagine her in the most beautiful gown in the world, looking like the most beautiful woman on earth, because that’s what I see every time I look at her.”
Most of the guests swooned a bit. There was applause, there were some tears, but I couldn’t help but notice – it’s my job, after all, to keep an eye on the chimpanzee who isn’t talking -- the smile on the bride’s face change a bit when she heard what dashing and romantic thing her husband almost did, what his heroic and manly impulse almost was, before he squashed it and called the concierge and got them to call the lady to open the Saks.
Hours after her marriage ceremony, the bride learned a new and disappointing thing about her groom: he knew the right thing to do but would not do it. Love never fails, except when it does. Except when it thinks twice, gets sensible, and calls downstairs for help.
* * *
By now, of course, any reasonable child will regret ever asking you about marriage. All you’ll have said – aside from referring, inexplicably, to an outdated MP3 player – is that it’s important to listen and if you’re thinking about doing something bold and romantic, do it or don’t do it, but if you don’t do it then shut up about it. You’ll have said some disparaging things about love – and maybe, if you’re the father of a potential bride, saved yourself some money on a pricey hotel suite by reminding her that they don’t have those tricky sprinklers at the Days Inn – but what you won’t have done is answered the big question, which is: how do I know?
How do I know this is the one for me? Because despite the divorce rate – which, it needs to be said, is flattening – people go into this thing with the thought that it’s forever. I’ve been to dozens of weddings – I’ve even officiated at one – and I’ve never heard vows that included the phrase, “You know, we’ll see how it goes,” or “We’re going to play this thing by ear.”
The young person who’s looking to you for advice, to explain this mysterious institution that tests our patience and practicality – and one to which some of us have wisely opted out and others have unwisely tried and been ejected -- is looking for what every young person is looking for these days, and that’s a trick that makes the whole thing simpler and cleaner, a way to know for sure that the boyfriend or girlfriend deserves, as they say on Facebook, a relationship status upgrade.
When your kid asks this question, there’s only one thing to do. Put him or her in the car and drive to Starbucks.
Not just any Starbucks. Pick one in a suburban or ex-urban area – something surrounded by nice neighborhoods and good schools and well-kept roads and parkways. Go in the middle of a weekday, when kids are in class and the place is filled with grownups. Stand there, somewhere around the case of sweet carbohydrates and the bins of water, and point out who’s there.
I’ll tell you who will be there (it’s who’s always there): a lot of middle-aged guys sitting alone at tables with big Dell laptops opened up to their LinkedIn profiles. They’ve got their phones plugged in to a power strip they brought with them, a venti latté and a lemon pound cake slice at hand, and they’re sending out emails and updating their resumés and networking and paddling furiously along because life, at their age, has gotten very hard.
The middle-aged dudes at the local Starbucks are out of work, but they’ll call themselves “consultants,” and they’ll mean it, too. They’ll be consulting here and there – for local merchants or friends-of-friends – and doing whatever it is that can do to catch up to an economy that seems to be moving just a little faster than they can run along behind. When the financial system went bananas a few years ago and the country’s economic engine sputtered to a crawl, a lot of those middle-aged guys got caught on the wrong side of the ledger.
At one point or another, in all of our lives – man or woman, young or old, married or single – we’re that guy at Starbucks. We’re sitting there with the unfashionable laptop just trying to make something happen. And the young person in your life won’t really believe it – that’s part of being young, of course – but seeing the Men of Starbucks in person, seeing their dogged tapping and scrolling and the way they gin up a cheerful and optimistic tone to answer and place calls – “Hey, Steve, this is Doug just giving you a shout back in regards to the email I sent last week, hoping you’ve had a chance to look it over and that we can discuss it at your convenience. Happy to talk anytime. Take care…” – well, it has to make some impression on them.
Tell them this: we will all – you can count on it – be lost in the Starbucks Wilderness in our lives. We will all – you can count on it – lose jobs and run low on confidence and feel like we missed the magic express train that everyone else caught. And when that happens, ask yourself: will there be someone in my life who knows me, knows how hard I’m trying, knows that I’m scared about the baby and about money and about us and about everything? And – equally important – will I know that about someone else? Is it the person across from me right now? Is it my boyfriend who doesn’t always listen or my girlfriend who has annoying friends? When I’m here having my metaphorical Starbucks moment, who do I want in my corner, sending me encouraging texts and cheerful emoticons?
When the Men of Starbucks pack up their laptops and toss their napkins and head out into the night, there’s only one thing that will make them feel strong and loved and ready to try again, and that’s their favorite song. Just that one song.