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Love and Learn

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There are some lessons that can't be transmitted down the generations (or else this column would not be a regular feature) and the most conspicuous of these is the choice of your life partner.

There's no damn heritability. In fact, this is a case where you can't even profit by other people's mistakes. Which of us has not seen a friend whose parents didn't get along make the very same blunder? Which of us has not seen a person from a happy family ignore her mother's fine example? Which of us has not known a couple, contentedly living in sin, fly apart as soon as they tie the legal knot? All I have learned, from absorbing moisture on both shoulders, is that what you find out about others is almost never what you would have expected. And as for yourself...

You learn as a child that a paper cut can be more painful than a badly banged elbow, and that a tiny injustice can ruin your whole year, and then you forget this as life gets bigger. And then you learn it all over again. The domestic devil is in the details: The negligible thing that wasn't even worth mentioning. The annoying remark at the dinner party. The uneven division of labor. I don't need to go on about this; everybody knows, and has their cherished instance. (Did I just actually write cherished?) If pressed to give an example--and gallantry becomes my enemy here--I do recall how, in the case of someone very dear to me, a certain unpunctuality and forgetfulness seemed to be a vital part of her carefree charm. Fine, as long as you don't mind that much about punctuality yourself (it's a paltry virtue, but excuse me, I do possess it). Funny how small things can become really quite big ones.

I have been married twice, and a father three times. My main fault--though there have been other nominations for this coveted award--is that I do not like to lose an argument. Arguing is my life. It just happens to be what I do for a living. Being up to speed with a quick riposte, or a very long, slow, measured, patient explanation, is everything to me, and more. This has not always been delightful (to my partners, I mean), though it has been good practice. Looking back, I can sometimes see where another man might have decided to give way gracefully, or at least quickly. Not moi. For what do you take me? I have a position to maintain here. In fact, I often return to it at later points, having polished it a bit.

My ability to keep up a flow of burble has sometimes been considered part of my charm. What this reveals, of course, is the dualism that most relationships involve. The trick lies in not allowing your advantages to negate themselves. Also, in at least trying to picture how you look to others.

Never mind all of that (for now). I mentioned "heritability" at the beginning. Well, there's no real point to a childless marriage, as the supporters of gay adoption have admitted. And here is what can't be argued: When the child arrives, your wife at once, and by some alchemy, knows what to do. Both Eleni and Carol--each of them loved by men, adored by women, and married to me--seemed even to their best friends to be implausible as the sort of "officer material" that motherhood demands. But both were immediately and splendidly not just officers, but field marshals. It has once or twice occurred to me to think: Give your mouth a rest, big boy, she's raised your children. But I'm moving from the point, which is that nobody can teach you anything much about this in advance. Though you may eventually notice your own children trying not to date people like you ...

I gave fair warning by publishing a book entitled For The Sake of Argument, and I could claim that the women who have put up with me were aware of what they were "getting into." But that would be ungallant also. So I prefer to think, in the encroaching autumn of my self-regard, that it all helped in honing the point--and to hope, as I watch the children grow, that some of my better arguments will actually outlive me.

Cross-posted from Tango.com

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