In poetry I prefer haiku to epic. With TV give me a half hour sitcom—which actually has just nineteen minutes of actual programming—and don’t expect me to sign on for any of PBS’s eternal British melodramas. Short stories, yes. Novels, no. Russian novels, absolutely not! Perhaps because I first started listening to music in the era of two minute pop tunes, do wop will always triumph over the Grateful Dead and sonatas will defeat symphonies in my appreciation of music. O yes, no wedding is better catered than one in which hors d’oeuvres replace the sit-down meal.
Brevity, for me, is far more than merely the soul of wit—although, to be sure, it is indeed that. Brevity is my gold—make that my platinum—standard in all communication. My heart still thrills when I recall the words of Osgood J. Conklin, principal of Madison High School on the radio program Our Miss Brooks when he’d answer the phone:
Time is money, money is time
Osgood Conklin on the line
which, in service to our shared ideal, he eventually reduced to a crisp:
How this came about I have no idea. I suspect it might have to do with the image of men, real men, as being strong, silent types. John Wayne and my father, also named John, come to mind. Wayne entered American folk lore as the prime example of rugged silence. Dad brought it home. He loved silence, a love followed only by quiet. He spoke of nothing at length and, as much as he loved political dialog with others, his contributions to such were inevitably succinct. When it came to father and son conversations, his half could usually be described as a series of “yeses,” “um hums” and “ask your mothers.” His content had little impact on me. His role modeling, however, was incisive.
With the passage of more than fifty years of sociopolitical change in the roles and presentations of men in these United States, my attachment to the concise has become both more ingrained and less acceptable to others, particularly to those I care about, most particularly to my wife. And while I’ll sometimes attribute my love of the quick to a medical condition—I’m particularly fond of attention deficit disorder—she has no difficulty recognizing that as either deceit or irrelevance. As for the behavior itself, she finds that the prime source of marital discord based on cross purposes.
I want information. She wants to tell stories in which information is contained. I want the bones. She gives the flesh then the bones. It sounds like this:
Laura called. She sounded upset. You know how, when she’s not feeling right about something, there’s kind of an upturn in her voice at the end of a sentence, that thing that gets you really irritated when you hear it from people? There’s some name for it, but I can’t think of what it is right now. Anyhow, she and Harry are living alone together now that Larry has gone off to Santa Cruz. I don’t know why he chose Santa Cruz. Sure, they’ve got a great computer science department. What do you expect? I mean, they’re so close to Silicon Valley and all, and, I suppose, the weather is nice–.
At this point—maybe a few sentences earlier—I might say,
What’d she want?
The important thing to understand here is that I’d think of this as “saying.” To my wife this is “interrupting” for the purpose of “jollying her along,” expressing impatience and being outright rude. Hence, she responds with The Look. You know The Look. The one in which the eyes go up almost through the eyebrows, the latter accentuated by numerous “emphasis wrinkles” on the forehead. Simultaneously with this facial display the shoulders go down pulling the corners of the mouth down with them. Anger, exasperation, frustration, annoyance, humiliation and rage, all combined into one significantly tense and soundless moment.
Some would think that over the years of our being together she should have learned that I cannot abide long rambling tales of non-critical everyday events and would develop a style of communication acknowledging my predilection. They’d be right. Others might opine that, after a similar period of time, I should have developed the patience to allow my wife to give full moment to her reportage and delay my responses until the time at which she found them appropriate. They, too, would be correct if the word “should” had any meaning in the real world. Quite clearly it doesn’t. My wife continues to regale me with tales beginning, “In the beginning…” and I continue interrupting as if I had to get to the bathroom.
Both of us continue full belief that we are right and—how could it be otherwise—the other is wrong. We each go through annoyance, upsets and even hurt. Sometimes the conversation will come to an abrupt end and a separation into different rooms. More and more often though there will come the realization that, “Oops, we’re doing it again,” followed by laughter and a hug. Frankly she takes this much more seriously than I do at this point. I’d like to discuss it with her, but you can imagine what would happen.