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Sharpening skills in
by Paula Mikrut
“Why are my slippers in the toaster?”
M and I have gotten along well in this time of pandemic. We’ve staked out separate areas of our small house to work from, and we’ve been careful to respect each other’s need for quiet and privacy. We’ve taken long walks together, shared reruns of favorite shows, and we haven’t even fought over who should do the sky when we’re working on a jigsaw puzzle.
But, in one area, our conflicts have grown more intense.
I have never figured out a way to convince my husband to pick up after himself and to put things where I might have some chance of finding them, or of not tripping over them. I know he’s capable. His guitars are always returned to their stands the second he finishes playing, his picks in the little bowl where they belong, sorted by color. He just seems incapable of putting away things that are important to me.
I have, to be honest, found myself yelling at times. “Put your fucking slippers away!” But M is a gentle soul, and yelling only causes him to blank out which, paradoxically, makes it more likely that I will trip over his slippers tomorrow.
When I’ve gotten to the point of yelling, M has argued the problem isn’t that he left his slippers where I could trip on them but that I got upset about it. “Can we talk like adults? Just tell me what the problem is and what you want me to do.”
Sounds good, in theory. But in practice, it works differently.
“M, can you please put your slippers away so I don’t trip over them?”
“Right, sure. Thanks for letting me know.”
“M, you left your slippers in the middle of the floor. Can you put them away?”
“Oh, right. Thanks for letting me know.”
“My darling, you left your slippers in the middle of the floor. On MY side of the bedroom. Why can’t you just put them away?”
“Right, right, right. Thanks for letting me know.”
“M, put your fucking slippers away!”
“Why are you yelling? Talk to me like an adult.”
Talking calmly doesn’t work. Yelling doesn’t work. Putting the slippers away myself REALLY doesn’t work. I’ve tried it, and what he hears is, “Don’t worry, sweetie, I know you have much more important things to think about than whether I trip over your slippers and break my nose on the nightstand, so I’ll just follow you around and clean up after you.”
Clearly I was doing something wrong. So, since we have this special time together, I have been experimenting with alternative communication methods. This is a good time for creative thinking.
Slippers in the middle of the floor. I didn’t get mad. I didn’t even plug in the toaster, which would have been over the line. I just put the toaster on the counter, inserted the slippers, and went about my business.
“Why did you put my slippers in the toaster?”
“Why, where are they supposed to go?”
“They’re supposed to be under the bed or in the closet.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” I said, and went about my business. I didn’t waste time or energy on anger. I haven’t seen the slippers since then unless they were on M’s feet.
Though I was overcome with a heady feeling of power, I knew I couldn’t get overconfident. The Toaster Method of Communication wouldn’t work for everything. The teapot, for example, wouldn’t fit in either of the slots. And I needed to think strategically about what I wanted to accomplish.
I decided my primary goal was to keep myself from being angry, and my secondary goal was to change M’s behavior. Life is too short to let a pair of slippers ruin my day. I’d rather let it ruin his.
Silverware, utensils. “Where is the whisk?” I asked, knowing he was the last to use it. He ran over and started to rummage through drawers, finally yelling, “Here it is!” and pulling it from the Tupperware drawer, looking as though he was choreographing a victory dance in his head. We’d already gone through the progression from “Honey, would you please put this away?” to “Where is the fucking spatula?” and I needed a plan. I took inspiration from him and, every time I ran across a utensil that had been put in a randomly strange spot, I moved it to the Tupperware drawer.
Eventually, he asked, “We’re out of spoons?”
I batted my eyes. “I don’t know. Where are they supposed to be?”
WD-40 in the medicine chest. Yes, this really happened. Long story. No, it just doesn’t belong in the medicine chest. My first priority, not to give in to anger, trumped everything else. In the garbage, end of discussion.
Knives in the sink. M loves his knives, which is good, because we had to take out a home equity loan to buy them. I never have to wonder where they are, because they’re in the second drawer to the left of the sink, in order of size, in the knife organizer he bought for them. Except that, sometimes, he leaves them in the drainer to air dry (after he has towel-dried them). I’ve explained that it is a problem for me (and him) because he piles other things on top, and could he please not leave the knives where one of us might accidentally cut off a finger when we reach into the sink?
“Oh, right, sure. Thanks for letting me know.”
Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I needed to try something bold. I found a cheery greeting card and wrote, “Dearest, remember when you said you’d keep the knives out of the drainer so I don’t cut off a finger?” I put the card into a cherry red envelope along with the knife, handle sticking out. I sealed it with a half-roll of tape and put it back in the drainer where I’d found it, under the crockpot. Later that day the sink was empty, the knife was in its proper home, and the card was gone. It’s still too early to tell whether we have successfully communicated about this issue, but I’m hopeful.
In the meantime, M went to throw out a banana peel. “Hey, did you know that you threw the WD-40 in the garbage?”
“Huh. Thanks for letting me know.”
A lot of us have been working to learn new skills during lockdown. I’ve learned a little dollar-bill origami and am trying to teach myself how to clean the house, but I’m most proud of my improved ability to communicate with my husband. I find myself looking forward to finding unusual ways to break through the fog in which M often seems to be enveloped.
And I will keep working at it. As soon as I find the teapot.
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