I always thought I was an excellent communicator.
Today I went out with my husband in the rowing double. He sits in front of me so I can stabilize the boat. So this means I see his back as his blades hit and move the water. That’s it; but it’s not nothing: I see his posture and his slide technique and so I can tell him (or whomever is in that seat) what’s up with the strokes, how to improve form and the rest. It’s not so much that I’m a genius, it’s that I’ve got experience and when you’re dealing with novice rowers in a double (the theories are different in larger boats) the more experienced rower sits in the bow seat, behind the stern seat.
This was our second outing and per the rules of the boat club, I can’t take him out any more; he’ll have to join. I’m allowed to take a person as a guest twice; I can take you if you’d like, but only twice. It’s fair.
It’s also a good thing that I can’t go any more to teach my husband.
I don’t know if our marriage would survive it.
The thing is, no man wants his wife telling him how to do anything; least of all anything athletic and as exquisite and responsive as a sport as rowing. Even though he rationally defers to my expertise, I suspect that deep inside he’s thinking, “It can’t really be this hard… I mean, she does it…” and this is not to paint a broad brush of antiman-ness: my husband is extremely open-minded about this stuff. It’s just that it’s an adjustment.
But in the boat, I’m not his wife: I’m a rower and a member of the club. The equipment is signed out on my name with my person being the responsible party.
What all this means in the boat and on the water is that I’m a coach to him. So I’m more technical, detached, professional and … intense. It’s not my $7,000 boat to screw around in. But as much as he benefitted from my teaching, he wanted me to be softer, more patient, more “here’s a sandwich I made for you”: more wifely.
No frigging way. Our chances of tipping were low because I was holding the balance with my blades flat on the water while he gained experience. Today we rowed four miles and were out for about 90 minutes. He liked it and when I was rowing us around turns, he got a few moments to watch the sunlight dance on the water as it just crested the trees while being rocked to the rhythm of my rowing.
My husband is smart, mellow and athletic, so his catching on to the work, technique and gaining confidence is simply a matter of time and he’s well on his way.
What I learned from our second outing is something I’ve always known, but it was made phantasmagorically obvious (despite our 22 years as a couple) in the shell: he’s nice and tender and I’m a bull in a china shop. I know the lingo, I know the sport, I know the effects of lifting one hand over the other and what that does to the boat’s balance. The first time we went out, we had only an hour when we planned on having two hours. We lost all that time due to technical difficulties with the equipment which resulted in our having to take the entire first shell out of the water and bringing it back to the boathouse and trading it in for another one. I was glad he was undeterred about getting the second boat because he was sort of playing hooky from work for that extra hour. That first outing made us both slightly more efficient and clippy in our chatter and the resulting intensity was not entirely welcome.
When we docked after that first outing, the head coach of a local university crew quipped, “Are you still married? How’d it go?” He knows how this can go.
Because I know the jargon, I take a lot for granted. My husband wanted me to not use the jargon or to use the jargon and then its street equivalent; he wanted me to tenderize it all for him a bit.
No frigging way. I learned with coaches saying “weigh nuf,” followed by the street “stop rowing” about three times and then I was on my own and people in the boat would yell at me with both versions if I didn’t figure it out. Same thing with “square and bury your blades. That means to put them in the water perpendicularly.” It was the same with “sit ready at the catch” (which means to sit all the way up the slide with your shins perpendicular to the water and you’re ready to press / slide back for the boat to move beneath you, as in the picture above) – I told him what it meant, but I wasn’t going to add, “honey” or “sweets” to it.
It can be overwhelming on the water: it’s wet, deep and murky and the air is cool now. You don’t want to fall in. You want to succeed and so much of what you’re learning is multi-sensory. But the number one thing that’s gonna blow it for you on the water is thinking, so just be. I stated commands (he’ll probably tell you I barked them) and was clear about them. I could have been gentler, but he’s not a child and part of sitting behind the person is that I can’t see what he’s actually doing so my comments are based on evidence and results of his actions rather than the actions themselves.
At about miles two and three, things began to significantly improve. We did a couple stationary drills and some balance work and I was very enthusiastic about his progress: he really started to get it! And then…
At the end of the fourth mile, he was getting tired, his posture was fading, he was making old mistakes and becoming easily frustrated. It was time for a naaaap. We’d been out for more than an hour and we were both ready to head in (he’s heavy!). We had a successful outing and all of it –from my china shop bull to his love me tender– started to gel and sink in. For him, the action is a part of his muscle memory now and just needs more experience and time. And another partner. He can go with RICK next time and I’ll take her husband in my shell.
All this got me thinking: despite my best intentions, our communication is not as strong as I thought it was and this was slightly dismaying to me because we talk a lot.
And then there’s the filter, or the perspective or the perception of both parties: I had an unfair expectation that he was able to deal with the massive amounts of information on a physically unstable surface and he had the expectation that I was going to be wifely and kind and patient.
The same sort of disconnect happened last month for his birthday. He wanted these super-awesome TRX bands for his workouts and I ordered them for him. I’d never used them and he used them in his bootcamp last year. The thing is: they take a while to set up and then you’re supposedly good to go. He was so excited to show them to me that he opened the box and tried to demonstrate them. I am TRX-neutral: I don’t care and I probably won’t really use them as I have my own routines. The thing is: he wanted me to see how easy and awesome they are and he couldn’t because it took a while to set up and I stood and watched. In a lather of frustration, he ended up throwing up his arms and not being able to show me. I said, “I’m glad you’re excited and I’m sure they’re great…” and he took that as a dismissal. The thing is: there was no winning or losing for either of us. He was thrilled but he wasn’t prepared to show me and I waited in neutral for him to show me while he couldn’t get it to work. If I said nothing, I’dve been a jerk. If I said “yay!” I’dve been insincere.
. . . . . .
These expectations and filters bring lots of thoughts and memories and personal experiences to my mind and I’d like to share a couple with you.
I’m reminded me of a demonstration I saw on a middle-school children’s TV show, “Zoom!” a few years back when my team still watched public television. The challenge was simple enough: instruct a partner to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They had four pairs of the kids and each pair built its success / communication formula off the previous pair’s demonstration with not much time between sets. In each pair one person was the director and the other person was ops. The director was blindfolded and the ops person was not allowed to speak back or ask questions, the ops person simply had to do what it was told.
The first pair’s basically ended up with a loaf of still-bagged sliced bread crushed under the weight of a closed jar of peanut butter and a closed jar of jelly and then both ends of the bagged bread were pressed together. That was funny and it showed me how much we all take for granted when we communicate — these kids on Zoom! are supposed to be the creme de la creme of their peer group. The second pair improved but only slightly: two slices of bread were taken out of the bag and the jars were still closed, but the jelly jar was on top of the peanut butter jar and both jars nested between the slices of bread. The third pair took out the slices, spread the peanut butter on a slice of bread and then spread the jelly on a slice of bread and then stacked the slices, condiment side up so it looked like this from the top: jelly on bread, peanut butter on bread. The fourth pair got it figured out and enjoyed the sandwich. Their cups of milk were already poured for them and everyone learned a valuable lesson: slow down, use details, listen and watch.
Another example is holidays — personal, national, dubious (Hallmark) or imaginary: If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I look askance at New Year’s Day as a time for personal renewal: every day is a chance to change our lives. Valentine’s Day is a gimmick (to me) and I don’t get stupid drunk on St. Patrick’s Day.
In my home on birthdays, we make a cake and frost it and sing and give nice gifts. It’s not a full-bore blowout experience. In my family of origin, birthdays were special, but not considered reasons to have explosives and helium tanks and gunships. I used to know someone whose family of origin dwarfed coronations with their birthday celebrations: balloons at breakfast, the table festooned with used car lot flags, party hats, noise makers, the works. So when this person’s birthday came around and I was in the picture, I presented a card and a thoughtful gift. Sometimes I was late, but I never forgot the person’s special day and I’d call or send a note if I didn’t present the gift on time. The reception was frosty and any recognition was doomed to fail. This was based on both our filters: she was used to people taking out second mortgages to celebrate and I was used to people giving a hug, singing a song and life resuming to its normally scheduled programming. Even after we talked about our historical differences and expectations and filters, the experiences were never fulfilling for either of us. On my birthdays, she’d come over with a cake and balloons and her kids and they’d all sing to me and I’d be all like “WOAH” and “GetthefuckoutIjustwokeup!” and whatnot.
As I ponder all these experiences and examples of communication and filters and expectations, it makes me think of how to best survive on this big blue rock: have an open mind and have an open heart. I can do myself a favor by not expecting people to be able to read my mind and I can try not to anticipate what other people might have in their minds. I was at a wedding a few years ago and the celebrant said this, “My mother often reminded me as I grew up that I have two ears and one mouth for a reason. As our beloved couple embarks on their lifelong journey together as husband and wife and as we all bear witness to their union, I propose to all of us here tonight that we remember to use our ears more than our mouths.”
And I’ll add this: when we use our mouths, we do so with kindness and efficiency.
Sometimes easier said than done.