Thursday, 13 January 2011

Detail Man

My husband is generally not detail-oriented. I see evidence of this almost every day and it drives me half wild: empty beer bottles left on the kitchen table, an overflowing trash basket left in his wake, bits of food left on the side of the skillet after he has washed the dishes. And although he will deny this until he is blue in the face, I know he's largely responsible for the little bits of plastic I've found in the compost.

This past autumn, I turned our gigantic compost heap and picked out hundreds of little bits of junk: pieces of Styrofoam, plastic juice carton pull-tops, and foil seals from milk bottles. Every time I stooped down to pull out another bit of something that didn't belong there, I felt the rage well up afresh.

It's not as though he does this intentionally. I've watched him walk over to the compost bin, chuck a few foil wrappers into it, then move all the way across the room to carefully place used tea bags in the trash -- all the time wearing the expression of a man who has performed a useful service, not one who has put one over on his fussy wife.

When I'm cooking dinner, my husband sometimes comes into the kitchen to chat. We've had a few memorable discussions about this and he will now generally ask what he can do to help if I tell him I'm ready to serve. While I appreciate this, it sometimes drives me wild: there I am, doing a dozen things at once. I'm making a sauce for the fish I've got in the broiler; I'm mashing potatoes and whipping up a custard; I've got a pie baking in the oven, carrots and broccoli in the steamer, and tomatoes and basil ready to chop for a salad. The table has a scattering of breadcrumbs, a smear of jam, a box full of drill bits, and somebody's homework on it. There is a mobile phone in one corner, and a set of headphones tangled up with a scarf. There are two empty beer bottles on the counter; across the room the glass-recycling bag half full of bottles is gaping open, ready to receive them.

Does he really have to ask me what needs to be done? Isn't it as screamingly obvious as a four-arm-alarm fire?

And here is something truly amazing: I can walk into the kitchen when he is cooking and drive him wild precisely by doing the things I wish he would do for me! He doesn't mind (or, in some instances, notice) if I clear the table and set it, but when I clear away vegetable peels or turn the fire down under a pot, he is not grateful. When I get into his way to bundle up trash, he fumes and accuses me of interfering.

But here is something even more amazing: on two occasions, my husband has spotted details that I managed to miss. Important details, too, with possible life-threatening consequences.

On the first occasion, we were walking through the park near our house, deep in conversation. We were passing the lake when I was peripherally aware of a woman running along the bank, calling a name over and over; I assumed she was trying to find her dog. We had passed the woman and were at the busy intersection in front of the park, when we noticed a little girl about four years old. The lights turned green and I started to cross, but my husband stopped in his tracks. "She's too young to be out on her own," he said. "I'll bet that was her mother, looking for her."

"Who?" I asked. "The lady calling her dog?"

He shook his head. "Didn't you see her face? She wasn't calling a dog, she was freaking out." He frowned. "We've got to go tell her we've found her daughter."

This was a problem. My husband's Japanese wasn't 100%, but he didn't think it was appropriate for him to wait with a little girl he didn't know. Quickly I coached him on what to say to the mother, who we could not be certain would know any English. Ojosan wa kooen no iriguchi ni imasu yo. Tsuma to issho desu. My husband went to find the putative mother while I waited with the little girl. "Are you lost?" I asked her. The little girl shrugged and giggled.

A few minutes later, my husband was back with the woman. Until I saw her face, I really hadn't realized just how anxious she was. She threw up her hands, burst into tears, hugged her little girl, then pulled back and slapped her across the face. "Twenty minutes!" she cried. "Do you have any idea how worried I've been?" We left them sobbing, but safe.

Barely a week later, we were in a different park with our daughters. We were watching them playing in the sandbox when all of a sudden my husband yelled, then went racing toward the swing set. A toddler had wandered away from her mother and was directly in the path of a descending swing. Just before the hard plastic swing could crack the child across the face -- as it certainly would have -- I saw my husband swoop down and scoop her up. The momentum sent him flying past the swing set, but he managed to keep his balance. Taking a deep breath of air, he returned the little girl to her astonished, horrified mother who could hardly thank him enough. When we left the park shortly after, we felt like VIPs.

I am all about details. I can walk into a room and spot every single thing that doesn't belong there; I can proofread papers half a dozen people have given a thumbs-up and still find errors. But I did not hear the desperation in that mother's voice, and I did not see the toddler step into the path of the swing.

This doesn't mean that I'm happy about the junk in my compost heap or my husband's infuriating What do you want me to do? when it's as obvious as a cockroach on a wedding cake. But it's also obvious that when he does notice details, they're worth noticing.


Travis Erwin said...

I feel I am more like your husband. JSut tell me what you want and I'll do it but don't expect me to read any minds.

K. Erickson said...

The Queen's favorite phrase is "see a need, fill a need." right after she complains about me walking right past something that I never saw that needed doin'. I think everyone walks through life with a set a filters/curiosities which allow them to tune in/out certain things more than others. My father in law has a real hard time passing through the kitchen without lifting the lid on every pot on the stove which, much to my consternation, has ruined more than one pot of rice. When confronted, he denies that he did any such thing even though I watched him do it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm actually pretty detail oriented too, probably more like you and less like your husband. I notice very little that goes on aorund me because I'm usually in my own head. However, when I'm cooking I don't want Lana in the kitchen moving 'anything' around. I have things where I want them for a reason.

Eryl said...

You have perfectly described my own kitchen/marriage experience, I'm positive my husband wouldn't notice a rat on a wedding cake, let alone a cockroach! He did once stop and rescue a very old lady whose car had broken down though, when all I had thought was: 'what on earth is that barmy woman doing?'!

Angela Ackerman said...

Great story. It makes me appreciate my hubby a bit more, because I see a lot of similarities here.

(Sorry I have not been here as often lately--I miss your stories so much, but it seems my time is being used up at an ever increasing rate.)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Mary Witzl said...

Travis -- He'll be glad to have your support (once he forgives me for writing this).

It's not so much mind-reading we hope for, it's detail reading on a daily basis. But amazingly enough, my husband catches plenty that sails over my head, and I'll bet you catch things your wife misses. (Right?)

K. Erickson -- I suspect your wife and I could trade whines, but you are absolutely right about that set of filters. I catch all the tiny things, but my husband has a keen radar for the big ones. We actually complement each other.

Your father-in-law would drive me wild: when you steam rice, you CANNOT lift the lid! I'll bet he doesn't even know he's doing it, right? My father-in-law was worryingly detail-oriented: he could spot a tiny grease stain or a flea-sized crumb on the other side of a dark room. My husband had a hard time with him and vice versa.

Charles -- I'm like that too when I'm cooking: I want what I need where I know I'll find it, and I don't want to fish around for it. The problem is, I'm not always the one who washes the dishes or puts them away, but I am the one who does most of the cooking. Sadly, I can't get people to realize that this gives me the right to dictate where things go.

I'm glad to meet another detail man, though. But let's keep an eye out for stray toddlers, okay?

Eryl -- That's a great story, and I'll bet you felt as awful as I did afterwards!

There's a lot to be said for men who screen out details like overflowing trash bags and empty beer bottles, but can be trusted when there is a genuine emergency. It would be great to have a man who could see the tiny details AND save people, but I can think of a few things about me that don't thrill my husband.

Angela -- Good for you -- you're making real use of your time!

This blog is handy for the times I've written my WiP into a corner and can't see a way out. I tell myself that writing blog posts isn't the same thing as actual procrastinating. Sad, but true.

Vijaya said...

This is so funny because you've described my own kitchen chaos. Bless your husband for really observing matters that count. Thankfully, we're either chasing after our own children, or horribly unobservant, that we've not had such dramatic rescues as you've described.

Bish Denham said...

Sometimes I wish my hubby weren't so detailed oriented as it can sometimes drive me a bit batty...Like thinking those hard-water stains on the chopping knife must be mouse piss, even though there is not and never has been any evidence of mice in our kitchen drawers.

Robin said...

You guys make a great pair! Maybe we could make up a scientific article that says pieces of foil in compost heaps kill thousands of toddlers a year. That might galvanize him to action!

Carolie said...

Wow, Mary -- you really made me think! I was right there with you, nodding my head as I read, thinking "Yes! My husband does the same thing! WHY does he ask me 'what can I do?' when it's so very OBVIOUS what he can do?!"

And then you rocked me back on my heels a bit. What wonderful, dramatic stories you have about your husband! I began to think "Is Conrad that way? Does he notice things to which I'm oblivious?" The answer, of course, is yes (though the things he notices are not quite as life-or-death!)

He may not (EVER!) notice that the floor needs to be swept, the cat box needs to be cleaned, or know where to put the clean rice bowls (in the same place they've been put since we moved into the house!) But he remembers the oddest little spoken yearnings, whether it's the book on glass lampwork I was wistfully looking at (and regretfully putting back) years ago, when we lived in a place where I couldn't possibly have a lampworking torch, or the obscure early John Wayne film his 87-year-old grandfather once mentioned during a whist tournament a few Thanksgivings back.

Guess who got that book on glass lampwork for Christmas this year (now that we live in a house with a cement-floored utility room)? Guess whose grandfather got a copy of that obscure early John Wayne film?

Yeah. He may not notice crumbs on the table, and he may step over the crumpled paper on the floor sixteen times without thinking to pick it up -- but the things he does notice? They matter.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- I had a feeling other couples might be similar to us! We know one man (entirely straight) who is a huge asset in the kitchen in that he anticipates everything the cook does and unobtrusively helps, but I know he's not the norm.

I'd like to say I didn't spot those emergencies because I was too busy watching my own kids, but on the first occasion, they weren't with us and on the second, we were both watching them and my husband still managed to notice the dangerous situation first. But at least one of us saw it!

Bish -- Your comment made me laugh!

For what it's worth, my husband does something similar: he notices certain details and interprets them his own way. We don't have mouse pee on our knives, but whenever our kids' faces were flushed during winter, he was positive they had a cold and needed a visit to the pediatrician. When our first cat lifted one paw as stopped to stare at something, he was convinced she was lame and needed the veterinarian.

Robin -- Oh, write that article! Please! Who knows? It might just have the desired effect, and I'm SO TIRED of pulling tiny pieces of plastic out of my compost heap!

Carolie -- Good for Conrad! And your comment made ME think.

My husband remembers who said they liked cider (gift of a box of cider to her), which one of the kids loves the books of a certain writer (duly ordered on Amazon for her), the fact that I had expressed a desire to play the violin (guess what I got from him that Christmas?) I tend to give him books, socks, and slippers...

Too bad he can't see the crumbs on the table or get his head around what days our birthdays are, but those little things he notices -- and acts on -- still go a long way!

Marcia said...

Okay, that cockroach on a wedding cake line made me spit tea.

Three cheers for your husband. Since he's so great with the life and death stuff, you'll have to forgive him for the other. Or not. (Just kidding!) :)

Dale said...

Such a wonderful post, Mary!

Anonymous said...

I have told my sons, from the time they were old enough to listen, that "cleaning up after supper" includes shaking the tablecloth/placemats (and not over the floor), sweeping up crumbs that have fallen, and CLEANING OUT THE BITS OF COLD, CLAMMY FOOD FROM THE STRAINER IN THE KITCHEN SINK DRAIN.

Carolie said...

p.s.-- Mary, I'm in Sasebo for my brother's wedding. Need/want anything while I'm here??

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- I remember those two incidents and I'm filled with pride for having such a capable husband. Then I walk through my kitchen or go outside to fork through my compost and find all those bits of plastic --- and I feel like shaking him senseless. And then I think about how lucky I am -- lucky that HE doesn't have a blog. :)

(If I ever SAW a cockroach on a wedding cake, I'd spit up more than tea.)

Dale -- Thank you. Now I'm wondering what kind of details you notice -- or miss...

Anne -- And do they actually LISTEN? Because in this household, I've gone over those exact details more times than I've had hot lunches, and my words like silent raindrops fall (and echo in the wells of silence). Almost every morning I go into the kitchen and find that the dish-washing basin has been carefully inverted, but it has a greasy ring around it and the drain is filled with vegetable bits, old tea leaves, and the odd plastic milk top. And the crumb-scattered counters have spills of tea and juice on top of which clean dishes have been placed. Sigh...

Carolie -- Kampyo (dried gourd) and furikake, onegaishimasu! (But please send me YOUR address because I've got something for you -- honto ni tsumaranaimonno -- from Kyrenia that I've been meaning to send.)

Have fun in Nagasaki!

Carole said...

This is a great post to help reflect on people's differences and how we need to look beyond our noses to see the good in others.

Kit said...

Great post with just the right amount of added drama and tension to make it a story rather than a rant!

Good to make me think over the annoying things committed by my husband and compare them to the things he does do uncomplainingly... cleaning up after our vomiting/regurgitating/pooing pets for starters!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our kitchen is like a surgery when my wife is preparing meals and I am as unwelcome an intrusion as a bacteria is to a surgeon. I am banished, but I don't mind all that much as usually a wonderful meal is wheeled out.

Carolie said...

Any particular kind of furikake, Mary?

e said...

A great post, and thanks for your comment on mine. There is more I could add there...these days I roll rather than walk.

Your husband sounds like a lovely man, cockroach on the wedding cake aside (that made me laugh).

adrienne said...

I can relate to that kitchen scene (except for the husband cooking part...I don't think I'm familiar with that phenomenon).

We've heard about selective hearing -I guess there's such a thing as selective vision, too.

Pat said...

Oh just another b----y man I thought at first - but reading on I thought what a great guy and he totally redeemed himself in my eyes. Mind you I don't have to live with him but I do find it all rather familiar. And I'm not sure MTL would have such amazing foresight.

Helen said...

You and your husband probably balance each other out perfectly Mary. I know Nev and I drive each other mad at times, but the rest of the time it's good - as he says "18 years and we still got the heat baby" (such a comedian!)
The old marriage vow thing, "To love, hopnour and annoy" sums it all up pretty well!

I haven't been around much recently Mary as we had a huge adventure travelling for about three months, before settling into a new home, new job, new town and new state.

Good to be back though!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- It can be so irritating when the people around us seem to ignore the blatantly obvious, leaving it for us to do. And yet all too often I've found myself the one who's out of the loop. When that happens, I hope to be treated with compassion and understanding. My husband usually obliges.

Kit -- Your husband cleans up pet vomit and excrement? Send him to Scotland immediately! :o)

When we first moved here, my husband didn't want any pets, but the kids and I did. So we made a deal: if we got pets, the kids or I would be the ones solely responsible for feeding and cleaning up after them. (Yes, I actually fell for that.)

My husband and kids have occasionally been forced to clean up dead mouse guts or other horrors. When that happens, they tend to remember it for a long time, and that one experience goes a long way.

Robert -- I'd be happy to stay out of the kitchen myself if I knew a wonderful meal was going to be prepared, but also that all the utensils were going to find their way back to WHERE I WANT THEM, the perishable items weren't going to be left out indefinitely, and the subsequent clean up wasn't going to be phenomenal. Without those assurances, I feel like Bilbo Baggins watching his kitchen get trashed.

Carolie -- I've sent you an email -- hope you got it! Absolutely any kind is fine with my kids, who are huge furkikake addicts. And the dried gourd should be the cheapest you can find!

e -- It's hard to picture anything as incongruous as a cockroach on a wedding cake, isn't it? Though a **** in a swimming pool is another good one. (This blog is generally PG-rated)

My husband didn't want me to write this, for obvious reasons. But he's generally a good guy who can spot rogue toddlers faster than I can; I promised him fair treatment.

Adrienne -- Cooking husbands aren't always all they're cracked up to be: remember, a cooking man is also a kitchen-monopolizing, dirty-dish-generating man.

My vision is definitely selective! I can get in a car with a flat tire and not realize it until the metalwork is actually scraping the ground.

Pat -- You've been here too, I can see! Lady Astor said it all.

They say that ALL marriages are cross-cultural and after 20+ years, I think they're right. Still, I'm keenly aware that my husband could write about my obtuseness in certain areas and make me look like a ninny. I'm so lucky he doesn't have a blog!

Helen -- 18 years? You're in it for the long haul too -- congratulations! And please let me know when you finally sit down and write about those three months.

We've still got the heat too, though it's usually reserved for our spirited 'discussions'. But I can't imagine finding a better man than my husband, who is almost certainly going to read these comments at some point -- (Hi, honey!).