Good arguments gone bad

indexMy parents learned how to fight. Properly. They took a marriage enrichment class back in the 70s that taught them how to argue. A mantra I heard repeated around the house was that using the word “you” was wrong. The ban on “you” statements forced my mom and dad to carefully couch their disagreements. “I feel strongly that I am married to an idiot,” my dad might say, proud of himself for never lapsing into the verboten “you.”

My mom was no slouch. “I hope one day to be married to someone worthy of me,” she responded – her first person pronouns proudly on display. Any war that involved deft manipulation of the English language was not going to end well for my father. My mom taught English at a community college, and my dad was only an economics professor at a local university.

“We do not use the word ‘fault’ in our house anymore,” my mom announced one day after returning from the marriage enrichment class with my father. “I hold you responsible for breaking the vacuum cleaner,” my dad said carefully to me later that week. “You will be punished. No one is at ‘fault.’ This is all about punishment.”

Public disagreements are uncommon to witness in the South, but it hasn’t taken long to see some verbal fireworks on the city streets since we moved to New York City a year ago. Passions run high here, and they cannot always be contained and preserved under glass like a stamp collection.

On the subway six months ago, a little boy in a yellow rain jacket was getting chewed out by his mother in Mandarin or Vietnamese or some other language I can’t comprehend. He looked to be about seven years old. He had his head down the entire time. His little sister sat primly by his mom, her feet swinging charmingly below the subway seat. It was painful to watch. I wanted to know what the mom was saying. At the same time, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what she was saying. This went on for four subway stops. I hoped he had done something far more severe than get a B on his report card.

About two weeks ago I rounded the corner on the esplanade along the Hudson River and saw a man getting chewed out by a woman. There was finger pointing and shouting. I was sure he deserved it. I felt his pain. I hoped he mended his ways. I went a city block out of my way to avoid them. I pondered my own transgressions. I hoped if the hammer came down on me like that, it could at least happen in the privacy of our apartment.

I have learned over the years that being right in an argument is not enough. It’s helpful sometimes, but not decisive. Really, what is required is the stubborn will to win despite how long it will take. Hours. Days. It’s all about commitment. Of course, I don’t have that kind of commitment. So, I lose every argument that matters. I’m at peace with that. I make my point. When things go south, I try to forge a treaty, let the Indefensible Position go and embrace my wife.

About 15 years ago, my wife was pregnant with my son Avery. Extremely pregnant. One evening in the dead of winter, I left our warm home to get a bagel sandwich for her. I ordered it just the way she liked it, without the tomatoes. My wife is not a fan of tomatoes in any way shape or form. I delivered the bagel sandwich she ordered and sat down on the couch.

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“I said no tomatoes,” my wife screamed suddenly as she tossed the sandwich at me. She claims she merely threw the tomato-infected bagel sandwich to the floor in disgust. But this is a matter of long-running dispute and will probably never be resolved. I am sure that I apologized for not making the bagel sandwich myself with no tomatoes because rationally constructed arguments will only get you so far with a woman who is about to burst open with your child.

The bagel sandwich incident was over quickly. Other arguments take longer to resolve. This is how we got my dog Boo Radley. “I would really like a dog for my anniversary present this year,” my wife says sweetly. “Are you kidding?” I ask. “You’re aware we live in an apartment the size of a postage stamp. No one is going to want to walk the dog in a blizzard. The dog is going to bark a lot, and we will have to find a new apartment to live in.”

My lovely wife pouts. “It’s clear you have a closed mind when it comes to this topic. You don’t even want to have a rational discussion.” The silent treatment begins. This is worse than arguing. This heavy silence permeates the room and hangs in the air like a thick cloud. I could reach out and break a piece of this silence off it’s so thick. “I love you,” I tell my wife. “I just don’t love your idea of getting a dog.” The wall of silence on the other side of the bed absorbs this information and erects a pillow barrier between us.

Sleep is hard. You can turn on the television, but the silence is much louder than the television. It drowns out everything. I toss and turn. How long can this possibly go on for? This silence.

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When dawn finally breaks, I am losing my grip. “I guess we could just go into a pet store and look at some dogs,” I say. My wife brightens. Gives me a hug. Wants to snuggle. “I’ve done a lot of research on this dog question and come up with just the right breed of dog for us,” she announces.

“Well, if we go, we’ll just look,” I say. “We won’t buy a dog today. We’ll just think about it and imagine how the dog would fit into our lives.” She nods into my shoulder. “Absolutely.” This is abject defeat, but still feels like victory. Like I’m in control.

Of course we find the perfect dog. He is a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. My wife assures me that no dog of his breed will ever think about barking. That he is a perfect apartment dog. That she will walk him daily. Absolutely she will. No doubt about it.

Only two of these are lies. He hardly ever barks. That much is true. He chews pencils, hats, shoes and carpeting. My wife walks him once a day for the first week and a half, then quietly gives up on walking him. It’s too cold today, she explains. Then it’s too hot. And the next day it might rain. I couldn’t walk him in the rain. When it comes to walking the dog, the weather is like bad porridge. Never just right.

So, I lose the dog argument, but I love the dog. I also don’t love arguing with my wife. There is little chance I could win any given argument against my wife because I have a terrible memory. My wife can always bring up some past inconsistency of mine that displays with clarity why I am wrong and she is right. My sister says her husband has this same total recall when it comes to argument ammunition.

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Times are hard, and life is short. If you are not stubborn enough to win an argument and the facts keep getting in the way, you do best to admit defeat with a kiss and go walk the dog. That’s my experience.

Good arguments gone bad

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