Tuesday, August 18, 2009

(Post)Modern Love: Honey, My Head is On Fire


Unless something is burning, sputtering fumes, bleeding profusely, or beeping, my husband Vlad, a family medicine physician in his last year of residency training, does not feel the urge to act. I’m not talking about what he’s like on the job at the hospital, goodness no! I’m merely describing my husband’s approach to domestic situations – unless something or someone is burning, sputtering fumes, bleeding profusely, or beeping, why should he get up from his comfy lounging position on the red couch we inherited from my parents?

The problem, dear reader, is that on certain occasions when Vlad sees none of the four tell-tale signs of an emergency, I see embers drifting quickly towards us, embers poised to land on that stack of interwar novels I borrowed from the library (ay! a red hot one is wafting awfully close to Vlad’s foot!), which makes me conclude that unless we spring to action, we will roast alive in our apartment.

If not catastrophe by fire, then water will do. On the afternoon that Vlad is blissful, napping in front of a tennis match on television while our toddler Théo plays quietly with his blocks (for a few minutes anyway), I feel the flood levels rising – because we are going to run out of milk in the next couple of hours, and I have three days left to pay our credit card bill on time, and we have yet to decide whether or not we are going to attend Vlad’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding in the mountains. And then there are those embroidered sheets my grandmother gave us that I’ve been meaning to iron. And the book proposal for the novel I started working on in college? I must respond to these looming tasks post-haste, lest we drown in a pool of inactivity.

Sometimes Vlad and I go see our shrink CK. CK is smart and funny and forthcoming. When I talk to him about my parents and my in-laws, CK recounts strategies he and his wife (a therapist who practices in the office next door) came up with to deal with his mother. He is also a good listener and he knows when to ask pesky questions. When Vlad and I told him about the moving violation Vlad got several months ago – Vlad’s driver’s license is pending suspension and his car will be impounded imminently, according to the reprimanding letters we keep receiving from the court and the Department of Motor Vehicles – I said that I was frustrated and pissed off, I felt let down.

CK asked me what made me anxious about Vlad’s driving infraction from hell and how Vlad was dealing with it, so I tried to tell him that I was not anxious, I was angry, I was furious, I was an Amazon warrior betrayed by my longest-standing ally (aka my husband who might not be able to pick up our kid from daycare, or drive himself to work for several days or weeks or months, because his driving privileges have been suspended). CK repeated his question.

And that’s when it began to dawn on me – where I saw a fire raging, getting more and more out of control, Vlad saw a gang of persistent bureaucrats who had figured out how to send form letters in scary tones. Unlike an untamable fire, threatening form letters from government agencies can be dealt with during business hours.

Vlad settled my burning questions about his legal status as a driver and vehicle owner after some internet research and a twenty-minute phone call: no, he did not need bail posted, and no, he would not have his license suspended, nor would he risk losing his car if he drove to the market to buy that gallon of milk we so desperately needed. He simply had to fill out an online form, pay a little fine, and show up in three months for the scheduled court date (three months?!).

When another threatening letter showed up a few days letter, Vlad decided to get aggressive about the situation (after much screaming from a woman he had once agreed to marry and who suddenly resembled a fiery dragon on uppers), so he drove to the court in the county where the ticket had been issued (this all happened, by the way, because a police officer saw him make an incomplete stop at a stop sign inside the hospital campus where Vlad had just gotten off shift around midnight on a weekday). You can imagine that at this point I was diagnosing third-degree burns and mumbling to myself about the months of rehabilitation.

Given the deserts and oceans that seem to separate my and Vlad’s points of view, I am eager to ask CK for his off-the-record opinion, not as my shrink, but as a man who interacts regularly with a wife and mother and daughter and female patients (oh, the hordes of women prone to crying wolf in the eyes of their male mates!). The problem is that I am currently sharing my weekly hour on CK’s couch with Vlad (so we can debate each other with a third party present – and CK does call time-outs, by the way). So far we have discovered that Vlad wants more romance (in other words, sex and all the excitement-building activities that promote undressing). We have also learned that I want to get our carpets steam cleaned.

Until my one-on-one hour with CK materializes, I am busy elaborating a few theories about me and Vlad, and about women and men in general, that have been enriched by a small constellation of trusted sources and friends. First, Women are from Mars and Men are from Venus – at least, that’s how Vlad would tell it when I’m in the middle of a Queen of the Night aria-gone-wrong while he’s trying to sweet talk himself back into good standing with the DMV lady over the telephone.

Second, as my acupuncturist says: men are simple. Men are stones and women are water. Water must move around the stone, and stone is polished and shaped by water. She also says that when I am flowing around my husband like a river around a medium-sized boulder, I have to do it happily – I cannot resign myself because I have no better choice.

“Happy water!” I say in return to her, as I wonder how her college-aged daughter would explain the stone-water dance in post-feminist terms. “I’m a happily flowing river. Gurgle gurgle!”

My friend Sara, who teaches kindergarten, recently told me how different her little girls and boys are, year after year. Even the ones who have been given both dolls and trucks as toddlers and named gender-neutrally (Jordan, Hunter, Mackenzie) separate into boy and girl-like activities during playtime. The girls set up house, prepare meals, invite each other over to primp and discuss the day. The boys show up to put out the fire that accidentally started when the girls forgot to take the pot roast out on time.

Once the boys have dealt with the emergency, the girls invite them to stay for supper, but their rescuers can’t afford a sit down meal – the boys have other fires to put out, other people to save. The girls dish up thick slices of play pot roast that they proudly administer. The boys crowd around the table as they wait their turns to receive. Suddenly one of them says, “hey, I’m gonna carry mine in my mouth, like a lion – rrrrrrroah!” The firefighters-turned-lions depart in a cacophony of roars spurred on by pot roast (veggie roast for the vegetarians in the group, of course) while the girls giggle or grumble (how rude!) and then resume their conversations.

As much as I love Sara’s stories about kindergarten, I have other sources who don’t care for anecdotes or metaphors – Venus/Mars, stone/water, firefighter/Betty Crocker – and who focus their energies on practical solutions – ahem, strategies.

My neighbor collects all the balled up socks her boyfriend leaves around the house, and once a week she puts them under his pillow. The next day, inevitably, he shows up with a pizza, a six-pack, and the latest fashion rag, and puts his dirty socks away neatly (to be technical about this, he flings them atop the heap of unmentionables in the back corner of his closet).

Which reminds me: men and caves. A sacred duo! Virginia Woolf should have thought that one over and written a sequel: A Cave of One’s Own: the Twentieth-Century Man. Whenever I can’t find Vlad in our apartment, I call him on his cell phone. He never answers, but he usually shows up 5-15 minutes later with some story about going down to the storage basement to find a tool he’s been looking for or to put something away for me. I don’t dare ask if he had a nice retreat into his cave, because identifying it spoils the action. He needs to disappear to do his guy stuff undetected.

Fortunately, Vlad and I have fully accepted that we think and behave differently in many cases. We cannot explain the differences, and sometimes we cannot understand them, but nonetheless we trust each other. This morning I convinced Vlad to go to yoga with me because he was feeling especially stiff after too many overnight hospital shifts.

“It’s not going to be that military-style yogaerobics, is it?”

“No,” I said. “The class is very relaxing – a lot of stretching and breathing and simple poses.”

I was true to my word. We didn’t do fast paced sun salutations and push-up sequences, no flying crow pose, bird of paradise, or little thunderbolt. Our teacher, Mary, led us through hip and shoulder openers, and a slow series of cat and cow stretches. As we alternated the two movements – rounding our backs like midnight cats, and raising our gazes while dropping our bellies like mooing cows – Mary instructed us to add the lion’s breath.

Vlad laughed out loud as he discovered he was the only man in a roomful of women hissing like mountain lions ready to put out a fire. And those are two of the many reasons why I love my husband – he has a sense of humor, and he knows that girls like to be firefighting mountain lions just as much as boys do.

*** Magdalena Edwards lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She is working on a memoir about becoming a mother in unexpected circumstances.

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