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falling into blue 1It was a doozie.

My wife and don’t often fight. We’ve been married over 30 years and I know few marriages better balanced. But she is no pushover. I’ve always maintained that a good marriage must be based on having a “worthy opponent.” It’s no fair if you can overwhelm your spouse, or be overwhelmed. My wife can walk through walls.

But she does see many things differently. The basic difference is that I made my living writing prose, and she is a poet (her book, “Rust Sings,” was published last year.)

Anyway, this one fight we had was memorable. We never fought over the normal stupid things that bring friction to a marriage. No, we never came to words over money or brothers-in-law or politics. Our biggest fight went on for three days — three days in which we got no sleep. We argued all day and all night, with a fervor and focus usually used to keep an armed kidnapper talking instead of shooting.

And what did we argue about? The color blue.

It started innocently enough. She saw something — I don’t remember what it was: a dress, a painting, a photograph — and said to me, “Couldn’t you fall into that blue?”falling into blue 2

I took the bait. “What do you mean, ‘fall into’?”

“It’s a blue you can dive into and drown in,” she said.

“Oh, you mean metaphorically.”

“No, I mean you can fall into it.”

And we were off. I was pigheaded and literal, she was insistent that she didn’t mean what she said figuratively, but literally. Her “literal” was different from mine. I said you can’t actually drown in a color. It’s a hard surface. I poked it, whatever it was. My finger couldn’t break the surface tension.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. She looked disgustedly at me for my failure to understand what seemed so simple to her.

That’s when I lit the fuse. “Well, then,” I said, “you have to define your terms.”

“No I don’t.”

“If you don’t, I can’t argue with you, I can’t understand what you mean. You use words so loosely.”

“It’s simple,” she said, getting more impatient. “Let yourself down into that blue and swim in it.”

“How can I? It isn’t liquid.”

“Yes it is,” she said.

“No, it’s not.”

It should be obvious by now, we were not talking about the same thing at all. But deep in the discussion, it wasn’t apparent to either of us. We were both stuck to our umwelt, and her’s was liquid. Mine was lumpen.night sky window

“You know how at night, the dark blue sky can slip in under the window sash? The night is a blue liquid that wants to drown you.”

“No, I don’t know that. Night is merely the absence of daylight. It’s dark because there’s no sun up in the sky.”

“But you have to know the dark is a thing itself.”

She described how when she was a year or two old, she was out playing in front of the house and when night fell, she thought it was a dark fluid that would drown her. It scared her and she ran inside.

But inside, the dark could seep in under the window and fill her room.

“The night is a man, paper thin, like a cutout, that can just fit under the window frame.”

I shook my head. This made no sense to me, logical positivist that I was.

“All well and good,” I said, “as poetry. But scientifically, the dark is just the earth turning away from the sun for 12 hours. So, I still don’t get what you mean when you say you can fall into blue.”

“Not any blue, but that blue,” she said.

I can in no wise reproduce what transpired for the next 36 or 40 hours, but it only got more intense. I stupidly dug in my heels about the need for clear language and vocabulary, and she dug in her heels just as stubbornly.

“Why are you yelling at me?”

“I’m not yelling.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not. This is my normal voice; I’m just from New Jersey.”

I was yelling. But she only made me angrier, because her response was not to raise her voice, but to lower it to a level almost inaudible. She played the “calm” card. She wasn’t calm: It was a ploy. But it wound me up.

We tried going to bed the first night, but we couldn’t stop talking and the next thing we knew, it was dawn and we were still arguing. It continued all the next day. We didn’t even stop to eat. And into the second night. In the end, it came to a conclusion the way all such things do: The husband gives up.

Well, not so simple. The husband — in this case, me — comes to recognize that the way of understanding the world I was born into is not the only way of understanding the world. I had to enlarge my psyche to take in her way of expressing herself, and not think so literally. Maybe defining one’s terms is really only a way of cutting off conversation.

But it also defined for me the essential difference between my prose and her poetry, between prose per se, and poetry in general.hopper van gogh

My “literal” was based on the assumption that the outside world was the essential reality, and that my perception is merely the intake of that reality into my brain. Her “literal” was the experience of her mind as it takes in the things of the world. If you posit reality outside the brain, you think one way; if you place it inside the skull, you get a whole nother ballgame. “All things exist as they are perceived,” wrote Percy Shelley, “at least in relation to the percipient.”

I had an unexamined faith that the world is a thing in itself; she had no such faith, but never doubted her experience of the world. It is the only thing, she says, that she knows is true. If it can be tagged onto something measurable by a thermometer or geiger counter, fine, but that is not what is real: The only “real” is its experience. And blue, QED, is something she can fall into.

This three-day argument happened more than 25 years ago, and it has in some ways come to define our marriage, and my appreciation of my wife’s different way of understanding the world. It is why she can write poetry with no calculation — it just flows out of her. Or, rather, comes to her. “You just make your chest wet,” she says, “and it will stick.”

And it is why I can write prose. Clarity, exactitude, structure, rewriting and testing. No ambiguous pronouns, no duplicitous definitions.

But as one gets older, one either grows or fossilizes. I have tried to learn as much as I can from my wife. There is much there to learn from. She continues to astonish me.

adam and eve poster 1958

Stuart is a friend of mine and he always has an opinion. They aren’t always completely thought out, but then, that’s the way it often is with our opinions; we form them out of instinct and then seek factual support.

Stuart has always had definite opinions about men and women. The fact that he has had two official and two unofficial marriages, and continues to forge his way through one failed relationship after another has not blunted his faith in his grasp of the matter.

I recently wrote a blog about the difficulty most men have in multi-tasking (https://richardnilsen.com/2014/02/17/keeping-life-simple/), and Stuart brought it up when he came to visit on another one of his cross-country trips, unsure of where he would settle this time.

Stuart did, in fact, have a theory. Like all his theories, it was more about spouting off than about solid sociological, theological or scientific research.

“OK, here goes.

“Men are all fetishists. This is the primary distinction between men and women,” he said.

“I don’t mean all men are into leather or vinyl, but that men localize their interests. It all comes down to a focus on a single issue, and all others can fend for themselves.”

“You mean men can’t multi-task?”

“That’s a good way of putting it.

“Think of porn. Why do women not respond? Why do men? People say it’s because women are not visual and men are, but that’s not the main problem. After all, women don’t respond to verbal porn either. It’s because men localize their sexual interest in one spot on their bodies. And, believe me, it’s always the same spot.

“By the way, if you attend to that spot, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they’ll be happy. It’s really rather simple. Everything about men is really rather simple. I know that’s hard for women to understand, because women are wired for complexity.”adam and eve woodcut

“That seems like a stereotype,” I said. “As in: Women can multitask.”

“But it’s true,” he continued. “Look at D.H. Lawrence. He adds a religious layer to the whole thing, and makes a god of that spot on his body, and believes that both men and women worship that dangling deity. But it’s really only a man’s religion.

“It colors everything in a man’s life. But it especially colors his attraction to women. Not only does he believe that women care about his equipment, he actually believes women go around talking about it in hushed, worshipful tones. Is it big enough? Am I man enough? Very little thought goes into anything else that might be thought manly.

“So now, when a man looks upon a woman, that same single-mindedness makes him pick out a single attribute of the woman for worship. It is seldom her equipment. Why? I don’t know. Ask Freud. Wait. No, don’t ask Freud.

“So, for a man, it is her boobies he fixates on, or her hair, or her legs. Her big booty or the light down of hair on her arms. It becomes the trigger for his attraction.adam and eve comic

“You see it all the time. A man loves a woman because her hair is blond, or because she has a turned-up nose, or pouty lips. She can weigh 200 pounds, but because her hair is curly, he sighs and pines.

“It can be something less tangible, like a sense of humor, but it seldom is. Mostly it is a physical endowment. Some like saggy boobs, some like a high arch on the instep. Some like just the hint of a mustache on her upper lip.”

“Gross!”

“But it’s true.

“When in the act of love, it is usually this one particular that the man is obsessing on. He is wildly in love with her hair, or the mole on her cheek, or the way she cuts her fingernails short.

“It can be perfume. It can be the fact she wears short pants. It can be the one button left undone on her blouse. But it is one thing.

“Women, on the other hand, tend to see the whole man, to see him as a person. When women complain about the objectification of themselves by men, they are right to do so, but they also miss a central truth of existence and the propagation of the species.

“Men simply don’t see the counter-indications: If that blonde in fact does weigh 200 pounds, or is a shrieking harpy, it doesn’t figure into his erotic calculations.

“The woman, however, always takes all the conflicting data into account and makes a profit-loss calculation. Is there enough there to work with? Does the good outweigh the bad.”adam and eve etching

I objected, the way you do when presented with something you know is true but don’t wish to acknowledge, hoping that denying it will make it go away, at least for the moment.

“It can’t be that simple,” I said.

“It isn’t. And I always make room for the standard disclaimer: Individual variation trumps gender variation. You can find exceptions to every so-called rule, but in aggregate, women and men have their ways. There are women who could beat me to a pulp, and I wouldn’t want to tangle with one of them, but on the whole, men have greater upper-body strength.

“I’m not saying you should make laws based on this. Should you outlaw women from operating bulldozers or backhoes? Of course not. Individual variation is greater than any difference between men and women as a whole.

“But, what’s most interesting to me about this thesis about men and their fetish-oriented sexuality is this: In the long run, the whole thing reverses.”vigeland old age

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after living with a woman for 20 years, a man finally learns to see the whole woman, to access all the other parts of her personality and personhood that he was blind to in the first rush of ‘let’s-make-babies.’ She grows in his estimation. What he should have seen from the beginning, he now understands. The fire has spread into a circle, leaving the grass in the middle burnt, but a wider horizon of concern and interest expanding.

“By the way, learning more about the woman isn’t always a good thing. It also may lead to divorce.

“But the reverse is true for the woman. After living with the man for years, she is likely to latch onto the one thing, the one attribute, the one saving grace he has that makes up for all the failings.

“So, his appreciation for his wife grows, her appreciation for him narrows, but deepens.”

“At some point, though, it would seem there should be a crossing of the lines on the graph,” I said. “There should be a point when her narrowing and his expanding meet at one perfect moment of mutual understanding.”

“Well thought. I don’t know,” Stuart said. “That’s what you will have to find out. I never got there.”

Carole portrait

It is not unusual for my wife to finish my sentences. I used to find it slightly annoying, but after 30 years of marriage, I hardly notice it. When I do, I now find it comforting.

My wife and I have developed some kind of radio signal between us, and conversation can consist of little more than random adjectives and conjunctions:

”Do you . . .”

”OK, but then . . .”

”Of course, and I’ll . . .”

”Thursday.”

No one else knows the code.

It has happened that while watching television, she will turn toward me, and without saying anything, I will get up and take out the garbage.

Now, that’s true love.

Another time, the same gesture will empty the cat box. And neither of us will realize that no words were uttered.

I am not a believer in ESP, but this phenomenon has reinforced for me a belief that marriage is a kind of magic. A magic that grows perfect through practice.

For too many young people, marriage is seen as merely an extension of dating, only for a very long time and with only one person. Put that way, it hardly sounds enticing. An endless job interview.

For many others, especially for younger women sensitized to the very real sins of the patriarchy, there is grave suspicion of the whole notion of giving yourself up for the other, which is seen as the effacing of individuality. This suspicion prevents the kind of surrender that makes a good marriage.

It is no wonder the divorce rate is stratospheric.

It is a hard lesson to learn: To lose yourself is to find yourself.

It isn’t for the wife to be subservient to the husband, but for each to surrender to the other: This is the equality of marriage.

The problem is that at some level we are unwilling to admit to ourselves that we are incomplete. Feminism, on one side, has taught that a woman should not be dependent on a man. And men are taught never to be dependent on anyone. We suffer as islands.

And all around me, I see these self-sufficient people looking for love in a mirror. They look for someone who shares their interests, beliefs, personality quirks and housekeeping habits. In short, they look for themselves with different plumbing.

And when they get what they are looking for, they find it is no more than they already possess. Boredom and disappointment are unavoidable.

Magic happens when you find your opposite, not your clone.

It is a plus and minus charge that makes a nuclear family. The yin and yang of opposition.

We admit this when we say, ”Opposites attract,” but deny it when we say, ”Birds of a feather flock together.” Flocking is fine for guys sitting at a bar watching a ballgame and pulling for the same team. But marriage is more than a brew and a point spread.

In Plato’s Symposium, the comic playwright Aristophanes explains that human beings were once round with four arms and four legs, but that an angry Zeus split them in half. Love, he says, is each half’s desire to find its missing opposite.

This is a nice tale but only part of the story. The reality isn’t quite that static. Finding your other half isn’t the conclusion of love, but the beginning of a long process of growth, and it is change and growth that keep the marriage vital.

When we make mates of our opposites, they can prod us on to new things and deeper understandings. It keeps life fresh, challenging and intense.

That ”ripening” is the core of the magic in marriage.

Which is why I always advise people not to look for someone who always agrees with them, but to find a ”worthy opponent.”

Which is what my wife is to me. She has a personality strong enough to withstand mine. When I press, there is resistance.

If I try to get away with something, if I try to do less than my best, she is there as my conscience, prodding me to be better.

If I carelessly do something that might hurt someone’s feelings, she is there to make me less careless.

We have had some great fights, but they were never pointless. They always led somewhere. Neither of us wins these arguments, because we both learn from them.

The perfect coat of arms for marriage is an apple surrounded by the words ”Eros” and ”Eris.” These are the Greek deities of erotic love and discord. The two make a lovely couple.

I am loud, she is soft-spoken.

I tend to think things through analytically. My wife is more intuitive.

While I think straightforward, my wife thinks sideways. Together, we create a waltz.

This is my valentine to her.