Pacific Northwest | November 9, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 9, home
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Marriage by the Book
From whispering sweet nothings to muttering sneaky somethings
WHEN YOU GET married, you are like an explorer in uncharted territory. Sometimes the natives are friendly and sometimes they seem to be hostile and capable of caving in your head with a baseball bat.

I look at my quarter-of-a-century marriage to the Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston as a daily adventure. Each day I wake up, feel for all my vital parts and, if none is missing, begin my day's new adventure. I know there will be surprises in store because Mrs. Johnston insists on keeping me on my toes.

"If you're not on your toes," Mrs. Johnston likes to say, "you may get run over by an SUV loaded with kids heading to soccer practice!"

In the past few years, Mrs. Johnston has taken up muttering. This has made my life a living hell because I cannot find anywhere that addresses "Muttering" in the "Wife Manual" that I was issued after our wedding.

The "Wife Manual" seems to start after you've been married 20 years or more, so maybe the editors don't think it is necessary because you should be used to each other by then.

The truth is, you are still exploring this new and hostile real estate, and any guidance you can get would be helpful. But maybe "Muttering" is in Mrs. Johnston's "Husband Manual" under the general category of "Ways to Confuse Your Mate."

In this section, it would tell the woman to establish guidelines at the beginning of the marriage where a husband is expected to listen to whatever you have to say. If the male's attention drifts away — say, after 20 to 30 seconds of nonstop talking — the wife is supposed to ask, "ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?!"

After she frightens the male into thinking she is actually insane and may harm him when he isn't paying attention, the female is instructed to change tactics.

"After the 15th year of marriage," the manual advises, "you may start addressing the cat or dog in the same tone of voice that you use when addressing the male. This will cause the male to believe you are telling him not to drink out of the toilet or asking him if he wants a bone to chew on.

"The male will relax and think you have given up talking to him. He will get back to doing something like reading the newspaper or watching TV. Now is the time to strike! Approach the male with a simple question, such as, 'Did you pick up the dry cleaning like I asked this morning?'

"Watch for the panic in his eyes. He may start to stammer. He may say something like, 'You didn't say anything about it this morning.' Just nod your head and look disappointed. Now you are ready for the next chapter:

" 'Muttering: The Attraction of Distraction.' " This chapter will show you how to talk to yourself while letting both the dog and spouse believe you are talking to them."

The reason I happen to know about this ploy is because I overheard a conversation between Mrs. Johnston and her female friends. You know how women invite couples over for dinner and the men go into one room and the women go into the kitchen?

Well, the women are going over the "Husband Manual." It's like they are in a book club. They talk about what chapter they are reading and what is working and what isn't.

Mrs. Johnston was talking about muttering under her breath, and she was giving demonstrations. "I like to tell him something just when he steps in the shower," she said, "and all he can hear is my voice with his name attached."

The women all laughed, but stopped as soon as I came into the room. As quick as a cat, Mrs. Johnston changed the subject to hot flashes.

That's in Chapter 22 of the "Husband Manual."

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.

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