Recollections of the finer days of dialogue

SUSAN REIMER

September 16, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

"We don't talk anymore."

Bet you thought that was me speaking. Another woman whining about the quality of marriage to a man who reads the paper during meals and watches TV the rest of the time.

Well, you would be wrong.

My husband, who often begins the day by opening the newspaper and then saying, "Your boy Clinton has done it again," doesn't feel like I am holding up my end of the marriage, conversation-wise.

He is right, sad to say. At the end of the day, I just don't have it in me for much more than, "uh-huh."

It wasn't always this way. I used to be his conversational equal.

As probably the only husband and wife pro football writers in the country, we could talk NFL business until the final gun sounded.

How many women do you know who can explain why small, quick linemen are so important to a trap-blocking offense? Or who can handicap a playoff game without so much as a press guide in her hand? My husband didn't know how good he had it.

Then we had kids.

When they were young and I was starved for intelligent conversation after a day of burbles and cooing, I found the energy to talk sports -- plus politics, the economy, neighborhood crime, international affairs or gossip about the stars -- when their father came home.

With a newborn at the breast and a toddler on the hip, my body ached badly at the end of the day. But I could still talk.

That has changed. Now at the end of the day, I have no energy to answer my husband, the human op-ed page. Now, it is my brain that aches like an overworked muscle. I am all talked out.

"How do you get to be homeless?" "How can a baseball player make more money than the president?" "Can you have a baby without being married?" "Can a burglar get up to our bedrooms if he uses a gun to shoot out the alarm?" "Why didn't our army just find Saddam Hussein and kill him?"

My two children pepper me with questions all day long. Some are pretty heavy, and mine will be the first words they hear on these subjects.

And so I measure my words with care. Each response should be worthy of being stitched onto a sampler, I tell myself. I try to answer them with some combination of the real and the ideal. Little glimpses of how the world really works, shaded with hopes for how it should work.

I admit, most of their questions don't deserve such a civilized answer: "Why can't we watch 'Married With Children?' " "Why can't we go to the pool now?" "Why can't we go to Chuck E. Cheese?"

"Because I say so," will do nicely on those occasions. "I don't want to hear about it" is another of my favorites, along with "Not now, I'm on the phone."

My job description has changed as my children have grown older. I no longer am responsible for simply feeding them and making sure neither one falls down the steps. I spend my day helping them form their values, their view of the world, their feelings about themselves. It is the toughest talking we grown-ups ever do.

And it is not always convenient. They rarely ask this stuff during a quiet moment in front of the fire. They come to you with their earnest questions across the floor you just mopped. Or they wait until bedtime, when you are at your lowest ebb, to start a conversation worthy of a Harvard Divinity School round table.

Of course, some of my work is not so high-minded. "Because no one wants to hear you burp." "Save that bathroom talk for your friends." "We do not eat while standing up. I want both cheeks on the chair until you are done." "When a grown-up says something to you, you should at least look at them."

Raising children is a constant process of civilizing them. They are born with an innate sense of fairness, but they are not born with an innate sense of manners. It has become clear to me that you have to teach them every single one. And if your children don't attend Gilman School, where civility is currently on the curriculum, you have to do it yourself.

And so forgive me, husband, if at the end of the day, all I can do is read the newspaper or stare numbly at a television.

The poor, neglected man has had a vision of how this will play out.

"You'll become a famous columnist and then you will get your own radio talk show," he predicted. "One day, you'll say, 'Let's go to Gary in Annapolis,' and it will be me, calling to talk about Bosnia."

Susan Reimer's column will now appear Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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