In a computer file where I keep words, phrases, and reminders, I have a quotation from an Alice Munro story that catches my eye from time to time. She describes a married couple for whom “supper and washing the dishes was the time of their liveliest intimacy.” Sounds like they didn’t have much of a sex life, doesn’t it? Oh well, you take intimacy where you find it.
The line resonates with me.
It reminds me of my parents. Supper and doing the dishes (and grocery shopping on Friday afternoon, when Daddy showed up bearing his week’s pay in a little brown envelope) was certainly a time of very great intimacy for them. Don’t know if it was their “liveliest.” I sure hope not. In any case, they chatted happily and seemed more pleased to be mates when doing those things than in any other situation I observed.
Ann and I turn to a different source for lively (not “liveliest,” to be sure) intimacy ─ The New Yorker and The New York Times; less consistently, The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and books themselves. This shared reading gives us subjects to talk about that are beyond our personal preoccupations; it pushes us into engagement with ideas and events that define and color the big world we all live in. And in doing so, we immerse ourselves in stylistic excellence, an occupation that is in itself a high pleasure. Presumably, doing that also helps us to communicate clearly, occasionally even with some felicity. (I will just add here that this last benefit is sometimes difficult for Yankees to perceive. Our Texas phonology pretty well keeps it from coming up on the possibility screen. Felicity of expression and being tongue-tied ─ as we are thought to be ─ just don’t go together.
We recently returned to New York City after being at the monastery for a few weeks. During the 300-mile drive, we talked about a crime novel we’d both read in the previous few days ─ The Ways of Evil Men by Leighton Gage. We agreed on a number of points. It was a diverting page-turner, and it taught a good deal about life in the Brazilian jungle, “uncontacted” tribes, and environmental degradation.
For some reason, books — especially fiction — present a higher risk of conflict than magazines and journals. I gave up on finding anything to like in Hillary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies after about fifty pages; Ann loved it.
“Paul, it won the MAN BOOKER PRIZE,” says she.
“The judges made a mistake,” say I.
Ann’s sister agrees with me. I take that to mean I won.
The Ways of Evil Men caused no such discord.
It called to mind other novels we knew. It was a backgrounder like Dorothy L. Sayers’ books, most memorably Nine Tailors, which was formed around campanology, a word we hadn’t known before Sayers artfully taught it to us. We’ve read it and listened to a recording of it several times over, and we look forward to hearing some classic change ringing someday. Gage’s environmental degradation theme was also in line with other books we’d enjoyed, notably those by Carl Hiassen, and before him John D. MacDonald. Some similarity to Randy Wayne White, too. And when was someone going to write a good novel illustrating the damage caused by the highway salt we were at that moment driving on?
The Gage book made for a good hundred miles of calling to mind past pleasures shared, information learned, values reaffirmed. As a creator of lively intimacy, it sure beat washing dishes.
As soon as we entered the apartment, we attacked the pile of accumulated mail ─ threw away the junk, put aside bills and such for later attention, and dived eagerly into the magazines. This particular collection was an especially rich trove.
The combined New Yorker issue of February 17&24 featured some of its most accomplished writers: Roger Angell on being old (in his case 93); George Packer on the evil empire that is Amazon; Adam Gopnik on how religious, secular, and syncretist people get along or don’t; Jeffrey Toobin on Attorney General Holder’s efforts to combat voting rights restrictions. There were shorter pieces by David Denby (a review of Monuments Men) and Anthony Lane (a remembrance of Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Ann and I ─ surely most people ─ agree that the Angell piece was a wonder. Among other considerations, we took away from it and made a part of our life together his discussion of becoming “invisible” when one reaches a certain age. It was one of those points of agreement where we talked loud and at the same time and gestured exuberantly. We recognized all too well what he was describing.
It occurs in conversations with younger people. A geezer offers an opinion, and it simply goes unnoticed ─ as if it never existed. When this happens to me, I wonder if I just talk too much. I’m grateful to Angell for pointing out that even a little talk can be too much, if it comes from a person of a certain age.
Ann is younger than me by almost a generation, but she’s been going invisible regularly as she’s interviewed for attorney positions during the past two years. Typically, it has gone like this: Junior, who hadn’t gotten around to reading her resume before she showed up, goes blank when she walks in and he discovers that she’s ─ OMG ─ over fifty. After that awful revelation, there’s nothing she can do to re-establish her existence. Eyes do not meet. Junior takes phone calls.
It should be enough that aging shows up lugging hearing aids and ever-thicker eyeglasses and ever-thinner vaginal walls and varicose veins and rogue prostates and the inability to respond when spring arrives and sings out “play ball.” Those things cannot be avoided. Turning someone invisible is a deliberate act, like giving the finger. I don’t like it.
Angell’s essay helped us get perspective on this recurrent unpleasantness. Gaining perspective is preferable to overdrinking or going postal. He stood in solidarity with us in the observation that though we live in an ageist society, being over fifty or so is not the same as being in a persistent vegetative state. And he gave us a new way to characterize these little death rehearsals. So now we hold hands and laugh and do the dance of time passing in the sure and certain belief that being older is neither less nor more deserving of respect than being younger, all of which is to say that by sharing Angell’s essay, we came to a new and enhanced intimacy.
I could give this same amount of attention to the stories by Packer, Toobin, and Gopnik, but to go on that long successfully, I’d have to be as talented as a New Yorker writer.
The New York Review of Books and London Review of Books include reviews and essays of the highest quality. In fact, much of what is published there is so sophisticated, so learned, we’d have to work up a brain sweat to take it in. For my part, reading in that way is an activity I pretty much abandoned back in college when it came time to have a go at Kierkegaard. Except for following directions on how to solve the computer problem du jour or trying to wring an authoritative answer on some abstruse copy-editing question from The Chicago Manual of Style, it’s been a long time since I’ve read for any reason other than pleasure.
Even though we don’t find as many of their articles interesting or accessible, these high-toned tabloids serve in another way. Lying on a coffee table, they signal that Ann and I are really quite cultivated, don’t you know. We rather enjoy that harmless little masquerade, and we seem to be getting away with it. So far, no one has said anything, such as, “Hey, what did you two think about that long piece on new discoveries in cuneiform dialectics?”
Now and then, we do find something that readily calls to us. The London Review of Books contained a couple of engaging pieces in February. James Wood, a literary critic whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker, offered reflections on emigration. He moved to the U.S. from his native England eighteen years ago. He writes that he never intended to stay so long, he feels at home here except when he doesn’t, he has no intention of becoming a citizen. As is his custom, he cites a number of works on the subject.
When Ann and I compared our responses, we talked about Wood’s style (delightful), his erudition (inspiring), the sophisticated nature of his Christian belief and practice (affirming), and how his insights applied to our own experiences living abroad. After nearly four years in London in the 1990s, we would have considered staying on had the opportunity arisen. He sent us to thinking about how our lives would have been had we done that.
Unlikely though it might seem, a review by the extraordinarily learned biblical scholar, Diarmaid MacCulloch, of a 629-page tome, Forgery and Counter-Forgery; The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, also added a dollop of intimacy to our thirty-one-year relationship. The review ─ no doubt the book, too ─ is rather heavy going, but it wasn’t Kierkegaard-heavy, and we took it in readily.
We were interested in the book’s argument that the authorship of substantial parts of the New Testament has been traditionally attributed to men who did not write them. It was a contribution to the religious faith that we cultivate and that is at the heart of our bond. We did not, however, rush down Broadway to Barnes and Noble and buy a copy. Sometimes a review alone is sufficient.
We generally find the writing in The New York Review of Books more interesting and accessible. A case in point was a Jeanine Basinger piece on two books about Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck. Basinger brought to it the high level of expertise (she’s a writer on film and a professor of film history and criticism) that is the stock-in-trade of the magazine; this piece was not a dumbing-down exercise intended to keep people such as Ann and me subscribing. But it was also welcoming and readable. That was in part because Ann has a bachelor’s degree plus a couple of years of graduate study in film history and has seen most of the movies Gardner and Stanwyck have appeared in. A number of them she’s studied with care. Over the years her interest in movies has found its way to me. So we had a lively and enjoyable chat about the review.
I suppose film and music (for that matter, any shared enthusiasm, say, a passion for vintage hubcaps) can serve to foster intimacy between the sharers. But no other art form does it in the same way as reading.
Reading relies completely on language. That’s not the case with moving or still images or music or dance. People readily share enjoyment of those other arts, but that sharing is not realized in the same form as the artistic expression that’s being enjoyed. That matters. Couples may come home in a state of high excitement after seeing Swan Lake, but unless they are trained dancers, they don’t dance their critical reactions, they use words. That sets up a little distance between stimulus and response; perhaps enough to reduce and change the overall good-for-intimacy effect. On the other hand, when they’ve read a piece by Roger Angell, they rhapsodize, deconstruct, criticize, learn from it by using the same medium as Angell. To be sure, they don’t do so as artfully as Angell, but therein lies the gain.
I’ve long enjoyed plucking out well-turned phrases and interesting words and storing them for later enjoyment and instruction. I’ve done it on the back of a credit card receipt or some other scrap of paper while riding the subway, lest I forget to capture them in more orderly fashion when back at my desk. I carried “go invisible” around in my pocket like a talisman. From Anthony Lane’s appreciation of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I took “the plot hared on,” “a scene that shears close to farce,” Hoffman “wristily conducts his own bon mots,” (when playing Truman Capote), “the ratio of demons to angels with which he [Hoffman] had to contend.”
When Ann and I offer to each other winsome bits such as these, our responses are usually enthusiastic agreement about their merit, followed by “and did you see such and such?”. These are moments of, well, intimacy. They lift us from the ordinary requirements and concerns that make up the bulk of daily life.
I’m not done yet. It’s an article of faith with us that reading well-written literature nudges communication skills in the direction of grace and clarity, and that makes it easier for couples to connect and to combat relationship staleness by simply enjoying conversations with each other.
That’s not all either. Every sharing of a good essay or poem or book adds incrementally to shared values, experience, and understandings.
How, then, do couples who don’t read together manage? I guess there are some ideal marriages among people who don’t read much ─ even among the illiterate. They must bring to the job something I’m not aware of and can hardly imagine; for sure, something beyond having supper and washing dishes together.