It is not often that I volunteer to go shopping with Ivan, so I thought he would be pleased when I offered to go with him to Home Depot and then the Tibetan restaurant.
Usually Ivan likes me to accompany him to shops, provided no grocery stores are involved. He does not like to go charging from the cat food aisle to the Cheerios aisle without even looking at the aisles in between. He might not specifically need carrot juice or diet cheesecake, but he wants to be able to see them. So he prefers to go grocery shopping without me. As long as groceries don’t come into it, however, he likes to have me along.
Every couple of months or so, Ivan will talk me into going on one or two small errands with him — the ceiling fan store and a bookstore, maybe, or a cookware store and a bookstore, or perhaps a music store and a bookstore. By the time we are through with the one or two small errands, we have been to three bookstores, four non-bookstores, and the post office, along with a couple of delis, and my Saturday is shot. Ivan has never shown any remorse over this state of affairs. It occurs to me that his trickery might be retribution for the time we were in San Francisco and I sweet-talked him into walking all over San Francisco by telling him, at two-block intervals, “There is a bookstore only two blocks from here, if not right around the corner; there’s no sense in getting a cab for just two blocks.” I did have to agree to take a cab back to the hotel; the bookstore-around-the-corner business was not a trick I could work both coming and going. I have, however, been able to work it in different cities and even different countries. In Vancouver, I worked it on both Ivan and Frank at once. After a while, it became a rather transparently implausible ruse, when we found ourselves on a long road flanked by forests, but by then it was too late to catch a cab.
Yesterday, I suggested that after going to Home Depot we might want to get take-out from the Tibetan restaurant in the Avenues. Almost every week, we get take-out from the Shambala Café, and usually it is the same order. As Ivan walks in the door, one of the owners starts writing down the order. “Any changes?” he asks, as Ivan comes up to the counter. Then he hands the order back to the kitchen, and his wife, who does the cooking, leans out the door and waves, knowing that it will be Ivan.
Normally, Ivan goes to the Tibetan restaurant by himself, but yesterday I thought I would surprise him. “I’ll even go with you,” I said magnanimously.
“Oh,” said Ivan. “Well, the only thing wrong with that is that I won’t be able to sit there and read while I wait for dinner.”
“Is that a big deal?” I asked. “Can’t you read at home, later?”
“No,” said Ivan. “I have other things that I have to do at home. I might watch television or work on my web page. I know I have email to catch up on. I may have to take a look at that new motherboard, too. I don’t know when I’ll really have time to read.”
“Ivan,” I said mildly, “you read all the time. There is no way that this is some unique, special occasion on which, finally, you were going to be able to read. What is so special about reading at the Tibetan restaurant?”
“It’s a tradition,” he said. “It’s just the way it has always been done. I always go to the Tibetan restaurant and read while I wait for take-out. It’s never been done any other way. Also, it is very peaceful there.”
“Isn’t it peaceful in your study?” I asked.
“No, I can’t really read in my study,” said Ivan.
“It would be more peaceful in your study if you turned off your television,” I pointed out.
“No, it wouldn’t. I have the sound on so low you can hardly hear it,” Ivan said.
“Couldn’t you just turn the television off, then?” I asked.
“No,” he told me. “I need the TV on for the light.”
“What happened to your three lamps and the overhead light?” I asked.
“The bulbs burned out,” said Ivan.
I didn’t accompany Ivan either to the Tibetan restaurant or to Home Depot. As long as he didn’t want me to go with him to the restaurant, I figured, we could wait till the next day to go to Home Depot. The only reason we were going was to look at doors and windows that we wouldn’t need for another two months, so I figured that another day couldn’t hurt. I was wrong, as it turned out. Unfortunately, Ivan said, he would not be able to wait till the next day to go to Home Depot. He needed to go right now.
What Ivan had to go to Home Depot for was a toolbox. Those of you who know Ivan will be surprised by this, having assumed that Ivan would already have a toolbox. In fact, he has several toolboxes, but this new one was to be a special toolbox that he planned to reserve for the various instruments needed to take apart, put together, and accidentally bust holes in motherboards. As he only has three motherboard-specific tools, he said that the toolbox could be quite small and would fit neatly into almost any convenient little niche. Actually, we are rather short on convenient little niches. The few niches that we do have are crammed with junk that we feel we may someday need but don’t want to look at too closely in the meantime. So I knew that the new toolbox might not be as easy to store as Ivan said. But at least Trillin would no longer be sleeping on pointy motherboard instruments. Trillin doesn’t have to sleep on motherboard tools, of course; she just likes to.
When Ivan came home from his shopping expedition, he had with him, amidst a remarkable number of other things, a very large plastic toolbox in the shape of a footstool. “What is that?” I asked, although I could see quite well what it was.
“It is a toolbox that doubles as a handy footstool,” said Ivan.
“Why do you need a footstool?” I asked with some interest.
“To reach things with,” he said.
“What things?” I asked warily. “The ceiling downstairs is less than seven and a half feet high. You can touch it without stretching.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said. “That’s why I’m thinking of keeping the toolbox in the living room.”
I don’t want you to think that I am some wimp who never gets her own way, but it is often like that around here. Several years ago, we were at Frank and Donna’s house for dinner; it was a little after nine, and we had just finished our meal. “There’s a house for sale about a block and a half from here,” said Donna. “I want to see inside it. I think you guys would like it. Should we go see if you want to buy it?”
At the time, we were not looking for houses, but this did not stop Ivan from saying yes. I protested. “It’s getting dark out. We can go look some other time,” I said, by which I meant, “Maybe. If ever.” I did not really want to go house-shopping.
“No, let’s go now,” said Ivan.
“Yes, let’s,” said Donna.
“It might be nice to take a walk,” said Frank.
“We’re not walking,” said Ivan.
“No, we’re driving,” Donna agreed. She already had her car keys out. Donna doesn’t hesitate to walk up your average mountain, but she does not believe in walking where there are streets and sidewalks. If there is a road, Donna believes in driving on it.
We went to see the house, and the next day we were in the house market. It took us a long time and we saw hundreds of houses. On weekends, we would go to all the Open Houses. At first, Ivan and I went into all of them together, but after a couple of weeks I had Ivan stay in the car while I dashed in. If the house seemed like a likely prospect, I would come out and get him, but if it was hopeless, I could be back in a flash and we’d be on our way. The alternative was to spend a minimum of forty-five minutes in every house. Even if we could tell from the moment we walked in the house that we would never want it, Ivan would still walk from room to room, opening closet doors, examining paint jobs, and checking the number of outlets per room, as if he were debating whether to buy the place. If this sounds a lot like going down unnecessary aisles in grocery stores, looking at diet cheesecakes that you already know you don’t want, then you see what I mean. In grocery stores, Ivan will walk triple the distance that any normal person would, and he will also do this in houses that he does not want to buy, but he will not walk a block and a half to see a house that he does want to buy.
In the end, we bought the house a block and a half from Frank and Donna’s.
Now, whenever we are going to Frank and Donna’s house, we negotiate. I will say, “We are walking. Don’t bother to argue,” with great finality, whereupon Ivan will say, “I don’t want to walk. We’re going to drive.” I usually win these arguments, possibly because, in his heart of hearts, Ivan knows that I am right. But winning does not come without a cost. A few years ago, I successfully reasoned Ivan into walking to Frank and Donna’s with me. When Frank opened the door, he immediately asked, “Did you walk or drive?” Frank is always very interested in who has won the latest walking versus driving round. Partly this is because he is on the side of exercise and wants it to be the winner; partly it is because he is deeply interested in the kinds of arguments that philosophers get into at home.
Heather and Bruce were there, and when Bruce found out that we had walked, he was very intrigued. “I’m surprised you walked,” he said. “I thought that Ivan didn’t like walking.”
“Ivan doesn’t like walking,” said Ivan. He was not in a pretty mood. “Don’t think that that isn’t going to cost you,” he added to me. “It will cost you. It will cost you to the tune of 100,000 points.”
“I didn’t know you guys had a point system,” said Bruce.
“We don’t,” I told him. “This is the first I have ever heard of it.”
“Well, we do now,” said Ivan bitterly, “and you have just lost 100,000 points.”
“How many did I have to start with?” I asked.
“None,” he told me. “So you are definitely in the hole.”
“How does one go about getting points?” Heather wanted to know. “Did Audrey get any points for getting her article published in Harvard Ed Review? That should earn her some points.”
“She can have a hundred points for that,” said Ivan.
“What about tenure?” Heather asked. “Are there points for getting tenure?”
“Okay. She can have a hundred points for that, too,” Ivan agreed.
In the end, as it happens, I was able to get the negative one hundred thousand points credited back to me, which would have brought my status back to zero, except that I now also had the two hundred points that Heather had wangled for me.
What happened was that, as we were starting for home we saw three or four police cars blocking the open end of Frank and Donna’s dead-end street. It became clear that we would have had to walk home anyway, and, what is more, Ivan would have had to walk back up the hill to get his car in the morning. I would not have done it for him, or at least that’s what I told him.
Ivan did not want to give me back all hundred thousand negative points; he only wanted me to have half of them back, on the grounds that it was not as if I could have known that there would be police cars blocking the road on the way home. But he finally gave me back the points he had debited, with a stern warning to the effect that, as I was now just barely out of the hole, with only two hundred points to my name, it would be rash to gamble with them.
The point system only lasted one night, or rather, it only lasted one night for us. But it turns out that it has been an inspiration to others. When we saw Heather and Bruce the next time they were in town, they greeted us with great enthusiasm as fellow travellers. “Guess what!” they said. “We have our own point system now!”
As is my usual practice, I have given this story to Ivan to read in draft form so he can offer constructive suggestions or issue any little compliments that might occur to him. Ivan has refused to do either. In spite of laughing at my story, he maintains that it is a pack of filthy lies and that he did not get the toolbox at Home Depot, “as you very well know,” because they didn’t have the kind he wanted; he got it at Office Depot.
“I know that,” I agreed, “but I didn’t put it in because it isn’t interesting.”
“To some people it is,” Ivan insisted. So I have put it in. However, I am considering taking it out again, now that Ivan has begun hinting that he never really agreed to give back the one hundred thousand points that he fined me.
You have to stay on your toes in a relationship. Some of you may complain that this is not restful, but negotiation, seduction, and artful rearrangements of reality are what help keep relationships from slipping into that wearying predictability found in 1950s family sitcoms and in most of Woody Allen’s movies after Annie Hall. There is a complex give and take in partnerships that Woody Allen seems not to have grasped in Husbands and Wives, a nasty, depressing movie oddly characterized by reviewers as “mature” (a description that raises troubling questions about the home lives of movie reviewers). No doubt Allen’s failure to grasp the nuances of relational negotiation is explained in part by his never having had to negotiate which utilitarian and decorative objects he wants to keep in his living room. When Woody Allen decides to keep his toolbox-footstool in the living room, you don’t argue with him, for fear of winding up in his next movie looking and sounding like Nurse Ratched. Ivan and I rely on a more subtle, open-ended approach to disagreement. Needless to say, we are always interested in the other’s point of view, however peculiar and misguided it might be; should it in fact turn out to be wrongheaded, we find tactful and illuminating ways to convey the possibility of other perspectives.
After inquiring curiously why I allowed my shoes to congregate in the dining room — the air of interested detachment only slightly marred by his referring to them as “attack shoes” — and upon receiving an unsatisfactory reply, Ivan took to arranging the shoes in bold, striking patterns, as if they were decorations. This reframing maneuver was not entirely successful, in that it did not lead to a change of habit on my part; instead of putting the shoes away, I took pictures of them. Teddy, who has a small shoe fetish, took to sleeping among them. But it was successful in that Ivan did win his point. And sometimes when your partner has made a good point, you should let them have the last word.
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