I’m a distractible person. As an obvious example of it, I think I had planned a really clever way of telling this part of the story, then my daughter started running around nearby. Now I’m left thinking, “What was I going to say? And why am I wearing one shoe?”
I’m distractible. I know it though, and can sometimes take steps to prevent it. This is what I tried to do when I was on my math holiday and my wife interrupted me by shopping. I tried to keep my focus on my numbers and to dispense with her disturbance a quickly as possible. I should have known better; wives can be tricky. (You know, in addition to being worth attention)
Sadly though, the part of my brain that can process prudence (and basic kindness) was occupied by math. I had called up my mental reserves, so to speak, and dedicated them to a temporary but urgent mission: remembering my calculations. The only leftover parts were the thuggish bits that weren’t trustworthy enough to earn that kind of employment.
Instead they got entrusted with crisis management, a role for which they were even more unfit. Crises require finesse and precision, not to mention a piercing awareness of what’s at stake. The dregs of my mind, the available parts, were more like a bull strapped to a boulder that’s toppling off of a cliff onto a china shop full of explosives. They’re strongest qualities were awkwardness and an aura of foreboding.
I’m sure that they would have performed admirably if I had only been required to stand in one place and grunt noncommittally, which is what I expected. Instead my wife asked a question. Not a rhetorical question. Not even a harmless question. She asked the question equivalent of dynamite with the fuse already lit.
There are a couple of ways to deal with questions in general. The first and most obvious way is what I’ll call the “straightforward” method. In the straightforward method, a person considers the words in the question, considers the common definitions of those words, and constructs a meaning for the question from those definitions. That meaning is analyzed with reference to any available facts until some sort of factual answer can be produced. Finally, that answer is rendered using a process very like the first step, but in reverse: meaning is divided into definitions that are used to select words that are then spoken.
I’m pretty confident that this is, in general, the method of addressing questions that men prefer. As far as I can tell though, when women ask questions, in the entire history of the planet this has never been what any of them have ever wanted anyone to do in any way. Women prefer one of the other methods of addressing questions. Unfortunately, no men understand what any of those other methods might be. I think they’re some sort of secret.
Generally of course, we know that women want some other mysterious sort of method, and we can fumble around to provide it. Maybe other men can even do that while they’re also doing math. I cannot. My thuggish mind-dregs were exactly capable of rising to the straightforward method; they could rise no further.
You’ll remember that my wife had tried on a pair of trousers and been dissatisfied with their fit. After some deliberation, she tried on the same trousers in a larger size, but was still unhappy. This is when she summoned me to the dressing rooms. I presumed that she wanted to have another conversation with herself in my presence; I went grudgingly, but I went.
It’s possible that she explained to me what she was thinking, but I can’t be sure. I was rather more successful than usual at ignoring her. Then a silence happened, the sort that’s accompanied by an expectant look. My leftover brain scrambled to figure out what had caused it and, while replaying the previous few seconds, discovered what seemed like a simple question:
Wife: “Do these trousers make me look fat?”
In my defense, she was interrupting me. I just wanted some peace and quite to calculate the area of the store, and I didn’t want to forget my place and have to count all the floor tiles again. I didn’t expect her to levy the matriarch of all riddles, or I would have been paying more attention.
Instead, my thuggish mind-dregs were straightforward: they answered factually. Factually, if you squeeze any healthy adult into clothing that’s sized for a small child–no matter how thin the adult may be–that adult is going to bulge out like a fist full of butter. Also factually, the first pair of trousers that my wife had tried on had been too small. Thus my response:
Me: “Well, not as fat as the other ones.”
Then titanic alarms started wailing. Not literal ones of course, although stores should think about investing in those so as to prevent this kind of thing. Something in my brain, however distracted, registered that a terrible thing had just happened and that a very real danger had appeared. It was a bit like waking up naked and discovering that one is surrounded by lions. (Not, I suppose, that clothes would help in that situation.)
Me: “Um. That was the wrong answer, wasn’t it.”
Yes, I said that. That’s how swift I am.
Which is precisely why it’s good to have a merciful wife. She looked at me for a moment with her head tilted to one side, and then she started to laugh. Fortunately for me she knew me pretty well even then, enough to know not only that I didn’t actually think she was fat but also that I was exactly the sort of person to stumble into saying it anyway.
I like to think that I’ve improved since then, but I suspect that, if I told my wife that, she would give me just about the same look again, with her head tilted and her eyes sparkling. Then we’d both laugh. On the plus side though, she hasn’t taken me clothes shopping since then.