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Are You a Wife in “Machine Gun Mode”?

Are You a Wife in "Machine Gun Mode"?

There is something that happens to me during the flurry of activity that accompanies anything I’m in charge of. Like hosting people in our home. Bill named this setting on my dial “machine gun mode,” and I think it feels good. Things need to be done, and I do them and check them off. Ahhhh. I am a list-maker by nature; the rat-a-tat-tat of ammunition firing is a beautiful sound to me. A list in motion!

Here’s what I’ve learned about machine guns: if I am not careful with mine, it can create carnage. I can drastically reduce the collateral damage if I aim the gun only at myself, but I do better if I put down my weapon altogether. But I am addicted to this turbo-charged form of perfectionism. I love the rush of accomplishment and activity. Until I breathe the dust I stir up. So I have finally admitted I have a problem. Workaholic, thy name is Kitti.

The funny thing is I don’t even have a full-time job. I stay busy, though, and have for years. Projects. Meetings. Parties. Causes, even. I got odd part-time jobs once all our boys were in school, but that was more like a lark because I got to dress up and leave the house. Even then I continued to do things. Thinking back, I have to say I have always approached certain tasks with a kind of fervor most would associate with drivenness. At least that’s what Bill would say. He is not. Driven, that is.

I love the rush of accomplishment and activity.

Bill says I am addicted to closure. Early on he recognized that it’s not activity I crave, it’s completion. The value of the list is the “done” feeling it evokes. Callie, wife of our son, David, is just like me in this regard. David is more like Bill, uncannily so. One day Callie observed, “I think David is addicted to loose ends” and I thought, “Brilliant! She just put words to the other end of the continuum where Bill lives, too.”

Here’s what I’ve learned about loose ends: I need them.

And they can be downright lovely when offered as a gift by the one who is exactly not like you and exactly what you need. The man who loves loose ends is the man who is at peace—even when you think he shouldn’t be. He can look at you while you are hyperventilating over … whatever it is you happen to hyperventilate over and tell you it just isn’t worth the trouble.

In a good marriage, there are often two messages bandied about. This isn’t worth the trouble and This is worth the trouble.

I’d estimate that roughly half the time I am right, that things are indeed worth the trouble. Which means Bill is right the other half. He naturally questions trouble. Maybe not aloud, but with a lifestyle that would rather leave a few loose ends than go to all that trouble. Usually when I am going to the most trouble to tie things up, his loose ends provide a kind of respite for me.

Confession: I typically do not welcome this forced intermission.

I remember the first time Bill formally imposed one of these times of rest on me. Friends were coming over for dinner and I was bustling about our apartment in a lather of preparation. We lived in an old 1930’s townhouse, with wood floors in the dining room that I polished with Pledge the morning I invited all our elderly neighbors over for brunch. I served coffee that looked like iced tea and grabbed elbows as six little old ladies skated, their bangled arms flailing like windmills, across the slick floor. This is the apartment where Bill and I taught our friends’ children to slide down the stairs on their rears and, unwittingly, got those kids in trouble. It’s where we wondered if we’d ever be parents and, then, it’s where we first were.

On this particular night, Bill says to me—has the gall to say—“I want you to stop everything fifteen minutes before seven and sit here with me on the couch.”

Seven, of course, is when our friends will arrive. If you’ve ever had guests over for dinner, you know this is the interlude wherein all the drama takes place. It is the make-or-break quarter hour of the night. And he wants me (no, tells me) to sit still on the couch with him. He wants me to cease and desist from tying up loose ends.

I have to add that Bill always does his share to help me. Don’t assume, like I am ashamed to say I have a few times in the past that laid back equals lazy. You know how the view from the window of a moving train is a blur? Well, when you are the blur, all other motion looks still.

So I do it. I stop and I sit. Quarter till seven. And I see Bill’s face. I see who he is a little more clearly. I tune in to something he has to say. And when our friends show up, I see their faces and tune in to them too. On this night nothing catastrophic happens in the kitchen or in the dining room or in the universe. We have a delightful evening, achieved with fifteen minutes less trouble than I thought possible.

Mostly, Bill’s life and mine connect because one of us has to modulate the pace.

One of us has to make peace with the achievement quotient of the other. And when I am the one adjusting, a respite feels like an unwanted delay. Like when he refuses to dance with me in that “I’m on a roll, don’t slow me down” dance. Or when I am convinced he needs to go to Procrastinators Anonymous and I might need the support group for the victimized spouses. When I moralize his lack of trouble because it thwarts my particular brand of turmoil.

But I am learning to recognize the loose ends for what they are to me, for the way Bill and me were put together with a potential for breathtaking harmony. The loose ends are invitations to savor. To enjoy. One of the glorious reasons why my husband was made so … so opposite from me. To give me rest.

And this respite is not a chore; it is a gift. The times of rest that Bill scatters within my week are like gift cards to my favorite store, the one I hardly ever allow myself to enter. Or like short dream vacations. Or the water stations at 10k races or the Bradford Pear trees lined up on our street in spring that make me stop the car and marvel. Or like spring itself.

The word respite comes from the Latin respectus (It does not mean, as it appears, a do-over for spite). Respect: I need to remember that. When my husband loves me enough to stand in front of the hurtling freight train that is my life and all but command me to stop, whether directly with words or obliquely just by being who he is, I need to respect him. If not for his bravery, for the fact that I can deduce that I was given such a husband on purpose.

Giving in to the good that drives you crazy in another is good for you.

It’s healthy. And it changes your perspective. That’s how I’ve learned to appreciate loose ends like art. Consider the beauty of loose ends—a little boy’s cut off jeans (the kind you absolutely cannot wear in the swimming pool), which are especially cute worn with cowboy boots and a train hat (I have pictures). Tassels, fringe, flowing tresses on those “you’re worth it” commercials. A pony’s tail. All manner of flora at the precise moment when it explodes into maturity. All loose ends. All ruined if tamed into something braided, managed, or controlled.

But what about the lists? What do I do with my desire for carpe diem in a meted-out, measurable format? And if Bill contributes a loose end here and there in the textile of my day, what do I contribute to his?

It’s obvious, isn’t it? We had been married, oh, a hundred years, when Bill said, “People who write things down get things done.” This, coming from him, was profound. Here’s what I heard: by observing others—my wife included—I have learned that loose ends are only lovely in season. The other season is the one where commitments are made and honored in writing. Where stuff gets done. Where drivenness is necessary and the machine gun is a worthy instrument. Where some things are worth the trouble.

We make a good pair, don’t you think? What could have been a collision of opposites has become, over time, a woven fabric of depth and beauty.  If marriage is time, we’ve put our seasons together in a complete year. Just when one weather pattern gets old, another follows. Each is a respite for the other. And over and over and so on. And this, we both agree, has been worth the trouble.


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Kitti thrives when making new friends with refugees, teaching them the art of coffee, and continuing to raise her tribe of kids and grandkids.

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