My parents fought like crazy, which is why the Master Sergeant spent his life out in the yard raking the driveway pea gravel. We had an award-winning gravel driveway. It was raked to perfection. He was avoiding the wrath of his bride, my mom, the matron of the manor, the Virginia Wolfe of Mayfair Terrace.
When the sirens went off on Saturday mornings I was never sure if they were warning us that nuclear war was imminent or if mom went ballistic because of a “slight” uttered by the Master Sergeant such as, “You look great.” In that case it would be best to hug dad goodbye and head for a bomb shelter.
“What do you mean by that? I didn’t look ‘great’ this morning? Are you saying I’m fat? That I’m not like those skinny floozies you work with?! Where are you going? Why are you always raking?”
Compared with the Fitzsimmons’ household, the melees on the streets of Chicago in ’68 were pillow fights. Boy, could my mom lob tear gas. In ’72, my parents won the Olympic gold in the free-style door slamming competition. By ’74 I was welcoming the UN peacekeepers assigned to our home with a pitcher of Nestle’s Quik and a tin of Spam.
Years later I still hate confrontation, a fact that inspired the perceptive Alanis Morrisette to write, “He became a political cartoonist — isn’t it ironic?”
Interested in conflict resolution, I was recently captivated by a highfalutin university study (Could have been Harvard, Yale or Tortolita Technical) that said successful couples argue differently from the couples who call each others names like “rocket man” and “dotard.”
Those couples let things get out of hand. Those silly cranky-pants end up blowing up the planet and killing millions. Sad.
Smart partners engage in what the experts (John Tesh and Delilah) call “Repair.”
“Repair” is the habit of de-escalating conflicts with a joke, a deflection or a declaration of love that blows out the lit dynamite fuse before Ralph and Trixie blow themselves into divorce court. Anything’s better than repeating the phrase, “You’re Satan. I hate you! I wish you were dead!” in ever increasing volume, until the governor declares a state of emergency and a SWAT team is called.
Smart partners know preserving their union matters more to them than their petty differences. Smart citizens know preserving our union matters more than our differences. I have spent my career confronted by thousands of conservative readers who wish to strangle, silence or banish this liberal. With that experience in mind, I have compiled a helpful guide to arguing with your fellow citizens:
1 No one ever wins a “You’re an idiot” argument. Not ever. Only top-of-the-line idiots believe their adversary will concede, “Yup. I’m an all-star bona fide idiot. You, on the other hand, are a remarkable genius!” You’ll find common ground if you fling less dirt.
2 Don’t talk at the same time. I once saw the Master Sergeant attempt to talk over Mom while she was lecturing me about my poor table manners. He dared to interrupt her TED Talk to complain his pork chops were cold. How did that go over? I watched his dentures fly past my sister, ricochet off the Magnavox and land in our parakeet’s water dish.
3 Establish you are as patriotic as your conservative adversary. Cite your great-great-grandfather who took a musket ball in the bicentennials for Washington at Pearl Harbor. My father questioned Mom’s patriotism only once. She told him the Vietnam War was a big dumb mistake and he said, “Only a stooge of the Reds would believe such a thing!”
My mother planted our porch flag in the Master Sergeant’s skull with the same ferocity with which the United States Marine Corps planted Old Glory on Iwo Jima. On the upside, he used the resulting divot in his cranium to hold pinches of salt whenever he ate celery.
4 Don’t waste your time using the silly facts to persuade anyone these days. Come to think of it, I never saw my parents reach for an Encyclopedia Britannica during a fracas. Plates and lamps? Yes. An encyclopedia? No.
5 Ask questions. Put your adversary on the defense. Peel the onion of your adversary’s logic. Get to the heart of why they believe what they believe. Learn while you burn.
6 Don’t caricature or demonize your adversary. Show me a little professional courtesy. That’s my job. To my dad, my mom was the Tasmanian Devil with lipstick. I knew the Master Sergeant had a hard time seeing her humanity when he asked a local priest if an exorcism would make her less edgy. People are people. Didn’t Barbara Streisand say that?
7 Do not tell your friend they “look great.” Lord knows what might set them off.