It may have been Alan Bennett writing in Vogue magazine a number of years ago, but whoever it was, had a brilliant insight. It was this: it could be that one of the very best reasons for supporting monogamy is that it would be too enormously difficult to develop a shared language with more than one partner.
That “language” might be described as a sort of shorthand of shared experience. Imagine how time-consuming and laborious it would be to explain in detail and from the beginning each time. Consider making a reference to “summers in Eagle River” and having to explain the what, when, where and how of such an annual escape to the glories of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Or a reference to ring-bearer Jimmy and his pre-wedding sit down strike as the Processional rang out in Saint Patrick’s that long-ago April Saturday.
Take that to one of its logical extensions and you may find yourself nodding agreement with the recognition that the luxury of a shared set of references applies not just to married couples, but also to extended families. Every family also has its own private language, so that a single word or phrase can recapture experiences that all shared and all are likely to remember without too much explanation or coaching. Until it was explained and over-exposed, the original, subtle mention “FHO” would have passed over the heads of the guests but served to warn the “family” to hold off if offered seconds of a menu item that turned out to be in short supply. “A bit more of the Trifle, Mrs. McThing?” following that, a subtle FHO, would lead all family members to stand warned that a similar offer did not really apply to them and should be graciously refused. That illustrates how the private language loses its value if explained in detail to “outsiders.” The value of a couple’s or a family’s private language is at its highest value when not translated, elaborated too many times, or to too many people.
In my family, there were references that spoke volumes because of what they called up to those who knew their origins and needed no elaboration. My niece, the skilled writer and performer of improvisational comedy has a habit of coming up with such insights. Her fresh and original observation, “I think people who design the plastic packaging for grocery items are clearly angry people,” was based on that painful process of struggling to get at the mango slices you see, but are unable to reach without doing battle with the “pull this, twist that and lift from the sides” protocol faintly appearing on the package. Or the bottle of wine that leaves you and your guests thirsting in vain while you unwrap the outer packaging or pop the cork that so firmly separates you from the contents.
With that memory, it’s quite possible to have to say no more about one of the recent performers at White House briefings than to say, “I think he’d make a great designer of plastic packaging. An ideal second career should Steve decide to leave his current post.” To those who heard Meagen’s original insight it would speak volumes. To those who didn’t, it would just come off as a charming non-sequitur.
“Socks up, Boss, very happy,” speaks to people who have shared a viewing of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” on Turner Classic Movies. It was the byword for all being well when spoken by the bemused Okinawan Sakini (played by Marlon Brando in a role created on Broadway by David Wayne in the long-running Pulitzer Prize winning play) as he assisted in the construction of a teahouse on a military base that left most scratching their heads with wonder. As a shorthand entry in a family language it is a five-word assurance that a family member is weathering whatever storm may be threatening.
“Keep your feet loose” is an eloquent reminder to people who have commonly enjoyed an offbeat essay in which the writer explains that the people who are probably not disposed to “going with the flow,” can be recognized by their tendency to keep their feet at rigid right angles to their legs when supposedly relaxing.
Just this week I was reminded of the scope and value of an ability to “read the signals” without having to have them spelled out in detail. A gifted homilist took a highly creative approach to urging his early morning Mass-goers to reflect on a sophisticated card player’s ability to convey a message without even speaking. He explained “the take” as a subtle (the less discernable the better) message to a partner to beware because his “hand” is very weak. A lifted eyebrow, for instance or the opening and closing of the hand not holding the cards. In this case Dominican Father Thomas More Garrett creatively suggested the wisdom of noting how the correspondence of a junior devil with his mentor, Uncle Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ delightful The Screwtape Letters might have favored “the tell” when partnering in a strategy to lure someone into temptation with great subtlety.
If this Sunday conversation sends you searching for and finding the verbal cues that play a part in your marital, familial, corporate or long-standing friendship relationships, the time spent reading will not have been wasted. And I’ll be able to say, “Socks up, Boss, very happy.”
Opening photo: Bigstock by Shutterstock