Saturday, May 8, 2010

Name calling

My wife and I call each other names. This doesn't mean that we fight; quite the opposite.

Perhaps because she is a poet and writer specializing in stories for children, Lynn has always had pet names for me (that I keep private) and in fact rarely calls me by my given name. Nor do I call her "Lynn" except when we're in public. I doubt if I will become like the octogenarian in the joke who impressed visitors by calling his wife of 65 years "honey" and "sweetheart" all the time. People were so amazed that his marriage was so romantic after so long that he finally confessed to one of his friends: "To tell you the truth, I forgot her name about 10 years ago."

We not only have such pet names for each other but we have something I recommend to others: a cast of invisible characters who can take the blame when things go a bit wrong. For example, we have "Ruby," named for the scullery maid in the TV show "Upstairs, Downstairs." If Lynn has forgotten to do something in the kitchen, I avoid any hint of criticism or complaint by simply blaming Ruby, who is not the brightest of creatures. This makes for a refreshing contrast to Lynn, who is brilliant, and who enjoys shifting the blame.

My own persona in the kitchen, since I do a lot of the cooking, is Chef Andre, who takes credit (and blame) as the case may be. Then there is Suzette, who makes soup and other good things. Rather than express disappointment about the taste of a dish, I will shift the responsibility to Suzette, who, we have decided, is still a novice cook and demands patience. "Do you think Suzette can put less salt in the soup next time?" I will ask. "Will Jeremy (another persona of mine, the office manager) mind filling out some insurance forms?" Lynn will ask. These characters are limited, as of now, to 6 or 7, but they might increase as the need arises. Even our cat, Lizzie, has an imaginary attendant, responsible for cleaning her box. It's a private in-joke that Lizzie is not privy to (pun intended).

Although I would never have come up with such a scheme on my own, I see how valuable it is in turning potential conflicts and hurt feelings into something amusing. To refer to oneself in the third person, as a friend wrote to me in a recent e-mail, is to take some of the potential danger out of a situation.

No two people can live together without disagreements and conflicts, mostly minor; yet these conflicts can easily build unless there is an element of silliness or at least comedy built into the style of communication the couple uses.

So if I were asked for a helpful technique to smooth out the wrinkles in a relationship, I would say at once, use humor; then, specifically, create a character, a pseudonym, a persona. Such a character is especially useful if there is an area where one of the partners is not too skillful, such as my inability to repair things. Tap into imagination; be silly; lighten up the atmosphere. Comedy allows for distance and detachment.
Most of the issues people argue about are essentially trivial anyway.

Eventually the character you create will develop a "real" personality and identity, like a character in fiction--as long as you don't forget the identity of your real partner.

If you think I'm crazy, consider: Don't we all play many roles on life's stage, as Shakespeare wrote? Aren't we all made up of many facets?

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