Authors: Tim Dowling
Suspicious Packages and Extendable Arms
The Giles Wareing Haters' Club
Not The Archer Prison
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Tim Dowling
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dowling, Tim, date.
How to be a husband / Tim Dowling.
1. HusbandsâHumor. 2. MarriageâHumor. I. Title.
PN6231.H8 D69 2014040710
n the summer of 2007 I was asked out of the blue to take over the page at the front of the
magazine. I say out of the blue, but I'll admit it was a possibility I'd considered long before the invitation was extended. I therefore received the news with my usual mixture of gratitude and impatienceâshocked, thrilled, immensely flattered, and not before time. There was no question of turning down the offer, just tremendous apprehension at the idea of accepting. If I'd thought about wanting it a lot over the years, I hadn't really given much thought to doing it. What would my weekly column be about?
“I don't want you to feel you have to write about your own life,” read the only e-mail I received from the editor on the subject. Perhaps, I thought, she doesn't want me to feel constrained by a particular format, or maybe she was wary because the only time I'd ever stood in for my predecessor, Jon Ronson, I'd
written about an ordinary domestic event, and the magazine subsequently printed a letter that said, “May I suggest that the mystery smell in Tim Dowling's house is coming from his own backside as he emanates his natural air of smugness and pomposity?” Whatever the reason, I felt I had my instructions: write about anything you like, except yourself.
The editor promptly took maternity leave, and I heard nothing more. The only additional information I received was a date for the first column, in mid-September. As the deadline approached I panicked, and wrote a piece about the dog and the cat following me around the house all day, precisely the sort of thing I'd been warned against. As I hit send I pictured myself having to defend it (“It's true! They do follow me!”) at a hastily convened crisis meeting.
Nothing was said, and the column appeared as written. I wondered if the ban on domestic subjects had even been passed on. I decided it didn't matter, because now I had a full week to get my shit together.
The next column was a tightly wrought spoof apology taking in some recent scandals dogging the BBC, which had the twin advantages of being extremely topical and almost exactly the right length. Two weeks later, however, I suffered another failure of imagination, and at the last minute I wrote about my wife's amusingly callous reaction when I got knocked off my bike by a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get sacked less than a month in.
Already I was beginning to feel the pressure of a weekly column; on the following deadline day I found myself in South America on another assignment, jet-lagged and bereft of
inspiration. After a lot of hand-wringing and hair-pulling, I concocted a parody of those book group discussion questions you find at the back of paperback novels, based entirely on the only reading material I had with me.
A week later, in response to a report suggesting that Neanderthals may have possessed the power of speech, I cobbled together a hilarious dialogue between a Neanderthal couple who were expecting the
next door for supper. With more time I might have come up with a better ending, but as I read it over I felt I was finally starting to find my feet.
The panic returned soon enough. The upcoming Christmas deadlines required several columns to be done in advance. Over the next few weeks I wrote almost exclusively about domestic crisesâarguments in front of the telly, arguments about the children, the window cleaner, even about the column itself. I filed each one with a sense of failure and a silent promise to myself that I would adhere more closely to the original brief the following week. When I finally managed to write something with a less personal, more sophisticated conceit, I received an e-mail from the editor, the first real feedback I'd had in months. It said, “What happened to the funny wife?”
And that is how I came splashing my marriage all over the papers. I never really had time to sit down and consider the ethical implications, if any. I know other people see writing about one's family as a pursuit full of interesting moral pitfalls, but I lacked the luxury of that perspective. In fact, a full six months elapsed before I actually realized what it was I trying to achieve with my new column: I was trying to make my wife laugh.
She is almost the only person who reads what I write in
front of me, and I have come to think of her as the planet's main arbiter of what is and isn't funny. Even as I was struggling to produce less personal, more abstract columns, I was noticing that she wasn't laughing at them. She read the Neanderthal one in complete silence in bed one Saturday morning, and then sighed and said, “I miss Jon Ronson.”
But she was reliably amused by any column in which she was featured, often laughing out loud while reading back her own words.
“I'm funny,” she would say, cackling. “You just write it down.”
It is, of course, a delicate balancing act, requiring tact, sound judgment, and a good deal of empathy, which is why I have on several occasions got it badly wrong.
“I don't like when it says âmy wife' in the headline,” said my wife one Saturday in early 2008. She had never before objected to my referring to her only as “my wife”âappreciating, I think, the halfhearted stab at preserving her anonymityâbut spelled out in big letters, the term suddenly looked dismissive and belittling, especially in a headline like the one she was reading: “I don't like it when my wife hires people and then leaves their stewardship to me.” It was an understandable objection, one that required a tactful, carefully worded response.
“I don't do the headline,” I said. “They do the headline.”
Some months later she told me I couldn't write about our eldest son referring to her as a “self-esteem roller,” but it didn't feel like a gem I could relinquish easily. I wrote about it anyway, including her objection in the piece, and decided to treat her stony silence as tacit approval.
Six months after that my wife exclaimed, apropos of
nothing, that she would divorce me if I ever wrote that I found her watching
. It seemed like a bluff worth calling.
One rainy day during our summer holiday in Cornwall, she looked up from the newspaper at me with very angry eyes.
“You've gone too far,” she said. I looked back blanklyâby the time the paper comes out, I don't always remember what I've written.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“You compared me to the Canoe Wife!” she shouted. Then I remembered: we'd been bickering while watching something on the news about the Canoe Manâwho had disappeared after rowing off in what was, I believe, technically a kayakâand his wife, who conspired with him to fake his death so they could start a new life in Panama.
“I think you're misreading it,” I said. When I looked at it again later I could see where I might have inadvertently drawn some parallels between my wife and the Canoe Wife, but I still thought her interpretation required a pretty ungenerous assessment of my intent.
She spent the rest of the afternoon ringing people who she knew would agree that I had gone too far. Under the circumstances I did the only thing I could think of: I wrote about that too.
More than a year went by before it happened again: this time my wife was furiousâproperly furiousâbecause I had written something she didn't like, in a column in which she barely appeared. Her explanation didn't make much sense to me (I won't risk attempting to reiterate it), but there was no mistaking her anger.
I realized that it didn't matter that I didn't get it, that her reaction was reason enough to stop doing the column if she wanted me toâshe didn't even have to give me a week's notice. I briefly thought about offering to quit, until I weighed the chances that she might, in her current mood, take me up on it.
There were a couple of obvious solutions to the problem. I could have steered clear of writing about my marriage, although my wife insisted she was not uncomfortable with the column itselfâshe just got occasionally pissed off with an infelicitous phrase she thought might get her into trouble at work, although this only happened once, and neither of us saw it coming that time.
I could, I suppose, show her the column beforehand to give her a chance to voice specific objections, but I don't like her seeing it ahead of time, because then she might not laugh the next Saturday. It's meant to be a surprise.
To be honest, I wish I'd upset my wife with a callously worded phrase as few times in real life as I have done in my column. I do lots of stupid and unkind things in the course of my marriage, but with the column I get a whole week to figure out where I went wrong and, in effect, apologize.
An obligation to write about one's marriage carries the risk that one might be reduced to creating conflict simply in order to fulfill a weekly word count. The truth is, I've never had to. People may find this hard to believe, just as I find it difficult to imagine a marriage so well conducted that it lacks the disquiet required to sustain a weekly column. To be honest, I'm not sure I'd want to be part of a marriage like that, anyway. Chances are the couple in question wouldn't be that into it either.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
wenty years ago my wife and I embarked on a project so foolhardy, the prospect of which seemed to us both so weary, stale, and flat, that even thinking about it made us shudder. Neither of us actually proposed to the other, because neither of us could possibly make a case for the idea. We simply agreedâwe'll get marriedâwith the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods. Except that if you did agree to bury a body in the woods, you probably wouldn't ring your parents straightaway to tell them the news.
Two decades on we are still together, still married and still, well, if I hesitate to say “happy,” it's only because it's one of those absolute terms, like “nit-free,” that life has taught me to deploy with caution. It feels inherently risky to express contentment: I know that twenty years of marriage doesn't necessarily guarantee you ten more.
I can only really speak for myself, and while I would concede that I am on balance, content, there also isn't a day that goes by without my stopping to think: What the hell happened to you? Not, you know, in a bad way. But I'm still surprised, every day.
This is not really a self-help manual. If you come across anything that resembles advice in it, I would caution against following it too strictly, although I'm aware that is, in itself, advice. The kind of people who read self-help books are not, I'm guessing, looking to be more like me.
This is simply the story of how I ended up here, and along with it an examination of what it means to be a husband in the twenty-first century, and what is and isn't required to hold that
office these days. I can't pretend to offer much in the way of solid advice on how to be a man. Just as my sons think admonitions such as “Don't panic!” sound a bit rich coming from me, so would any tips I could possibly give about attaining manhood. I tried to become a man, but in the end I just got older.
But “husband”âit's one of the main things on my CV, right below “BA, English” and just above “Once got into a shark cage for money.” “Husband” is the thing I do that makes everything else I do seem like a hobby.
Although I wear the distinction with pride, I'm aware that the title “husband” is not one that affords much respect these days. It was always a bit of an odd word. Of Old Norse derivation, “husband” basically means “master of a household,” a sense that still lingers in the word “husbandry,” referring to the stewardship of land and/or animals, and doesn't apply to me at all.
No other European language uses a word like “husband” to mean husband. In Sweden they say “man”; in Denmark, “mand.” The French use the much more egalitarian “mari,” which just means “married male,” although it's easy to confuse with the girl's name “Marie,” and also the French word for “mayor's office.” As a consequence I often mistake the most basic French pleasantries for admissions of intrigue.
“Husband,” on the other hand, sounds like an arcane office long shorn of its trappings, and is therefore faintly comical. It's like calling someone for whom you have no respect “chief.” So while I feel able to use the word “wife” with a mixture of pride and delight (“Hey look! Here comes my wife!”), my wife only ever uses the phrase “Have you met my husband?” as a punch
line, generally when she overhears people discussing the perils of self-Googling.
But, I hear you ask, are you a good husband? Ultimately that is for my wife alone to judge, but I think I know what she would say: no. Still, I can't help feeling there's a longer answer, a more considered, qualified way of saying no. If nothing else, I can look back and point out the detours round some of the pitfalls I was fortunate enough to overstep, and relate a few cautionary tales about the ones I fell headlong into.
When the well-off and the well-known retrace their path to success for the benefit of people seeking to follow their lead, the accounts tend to be colored by “survivorship bias”âthey simply don't reckon with the examples of thousands of other people who followed a similar route and ended up nowhere. In hindsight, success can look like a repeatable formula composed of hard work and a series of canny decisions. No entrepreneur ever wrote a memoir that said, “Then I did something terribly risky and not all that clever, but once again fortune chose to reward my stupidity.”
I don't have the luxury of revealing the secret of my success, even in hindsight. I didn't get where I am todayâhusband, father, gainfully employed personâby executing a deliberate strategy. I got where I am today by accident. One cold winter's evening twenty-four years ago, my life jumped its tracks without warning. As far as I'm concerned, all I did was hang on.
My successful marriage is built of mistakes. It may be founded on love, trust, and a shared sense of purpose, but it runs on a steady diet of cowardice, impatience, ill-advised remarks, and low cunning. But also: apologies, belated expressions of
gratitude, and frequent appeals for calm. Every day is a lesson in what I'm doing wrong. Looking back over the course of twenty years it's obvious the only really smart thing I did was choose the right person in the first place, and I'm not certain I did that on purpose.