If My Spouse and I Sit Watching Our Own Stuff On Our Own Devices, Will We Drift Apart?
A: Ever seen Poldark? It’s a “Masterpiece”—that brand of miniseries on PBS. It may be an actual masterpiece too, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen a single second of it. That said, let me tell you what I do know: We are in England, sometime shortly after the American Revolution. Ross Poldark, a hunky, brooding redcoat, returns from the war to find his family’s mine—coal, probably?—in disrepair. One day he saves a penniless lady’s dog while the lady is dressed like a boy (I didn’t catch why she was dressed like a boy) and winds up hiring her as his maid. Her name is Demelza. She is “fiery,” according to the PBS website, which I looked at to make sure I was spelling her name correctly. They get married. Their partnership is beautiful and respectful and modern. But eventually, a vertiginous distance is cleaved between them.
Here’s some of what happens, as I understand it. Poldark gets sad. He comes to blame himself for the imprisonment of one of his mine workers—a good-hearted, sickly guy whom the magistrate tosses into some sewerlike jail, where he gets gangrene—and withdraws into solipsism and alcohol. Demelza, meanwhile, begins operating behind Poldark’s back to reunite his cousin with a disgraced sea captain. There’s a confrontation in a courtroom! A big fight at a ball! A duel! But the most heartrending drama is subtle and domestic. Because, you see, Poldark and Demelza stop communicating; the trust between them corrodes. There are scenes of them lying in bed together, talking but not really talking, cloistered behind their sorrow and secrecy. Or at least there’s one scene like that, which my wife said was very important though she couldn’t remember the dialog exactly.
That’s where my imperfect understanding of Poldark comes from. My wife watches the show just as religiously as I avoid it. I’m sure it’s great, but it’s just not my thing. Not at all. The last time Poldark was on, I curled up on the other side of the room and read a magazine profile of beefcake Channing Tatum.
Still, the next day my wife and I went out to lunch. It was warm and we sat outside. I had a bagel with salmon; she had a hummus plate. A finch hopped around the café’s patio like some destitute miner’s child, scrabbling for crumbs. We kept our phones in our bags. And we talked. She told me what she thought about Poldark, and I told her what I thought about Channing Tatum. It was wonderful.
We’ve all been like Ross and Demelza: in the same room but far away, separated by the parallel streaming narratives we’re embroiled in. Sometimes that’s inevitable—and totally OK. It’s not always possible, in every circumstance, to be together, together. In fact it’s proof of how lucky we are. Once, you might have been trapped in some drab, oppressively mannered coal-mining backwater where, on any given night, you could either (a) go watch some terriers fight or (b) sit at home watching the fleas hop around your bedspread until your candle burned out. Or—shoot, I don’t know—(c) mend a hat. Those were your only options! Now, you and your partner each have access to universes of knowledge and entertainment and taste.
The truth is, human experience feels too gorgeous and expansive right now for individuals to make sense of it on their own. Life goes better when it’s a two-person job: You go that way, I’ll check out this way, then we’ll meet over there. Differing interests—natural inclinations to diverge instead of run in narrow parallel—make relationships vibrant.
So please don’t panic. Sit on the couch; carry on. Just be sure to create other, more favorable circumstances in which to connect too. I think Channing Tatum said it best in a little movie called The Vow: Truly loving someone means always knowing “in the deepest part of my soul that no matter what challenges might carry us apart, that we’ll always find a way back to each other.”
A: Giovanni Cellini was a draftsman, musician, and musical instrument maker—a hunky Renaissance man, figuratively and literally, “the stoutest youth of Florence and of all Italy to boot,” his father bragged in the late 1400s. And yet, Giovanni believed many unscientific things.
Take salamanders. Centuries of pseudoscience swirled around the creatures at that point—that they vomited a milky ooze that made people go bald; that they could withstand even the hottest fires; or they were born out of fire; or that fire was their only food. They lived at the beguiling, supernatural edge of people’s imaginations, somewhat rare as physical creatures, outsized and powerful as ideas.
Well, one day Giovanni had a fire going and was sitting beside it, playing the viol and singing. “Happening to look into the fire,” his son Benvenuto writes in his autobiography, his father “spied in the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard, which was sporting in the core of the intensest coals.” Instantly Giovanni called his 5-year-old son over and clobbered him on the side of the head. Giovanni told Benvenuto he punched him only “to make you remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander.” Boxing his son’s ears, in other words, was a way to ensure that little Benvenuto never forgot this blessed event—to make it a special memory.
What I’m trying to say is, Giovanni Cellini would have made a lousy nanny. But what disqualifies him from child care isn’t that he believed a salamander to be some kind of necromantic devil-lizard. What disqualifies him is that he thought it was a good idea to punch a child in the head to make him remember seeing an amphibian.
So, how well do you know your nanny? Because unscientific convictions alone aren’t likely to spill over onto your child in an irreparable way. Even if she does proselytize, you can tell her to stop or you can offer more intelligent counterprogramming at home. The more important question is, how is her judgment otherwise? What goodness, and what lunacy, is she capable of when standing with your child—without you—in front of some furious fire?