They bought a few bulbs to plant last fall, anticipating an early summer filled with bright colors and enviable floral arrangements. They worked the soil together, laughing and talking. Everything was perfect until The Wife mentioned that she really liked the forsythia at their friend’s house and suggested that they might consider some plantings along that line.

The Husband—gently, sweetly, thoughtfully—corrected her and pointed out that their friend’s house was bordered, not by forsythia, but by hydrangeas.

Laughing again, she—thoughtfully, sweetly—corrected his correction, and reminded him how much more she knew about landscaping. She read magazines; she, after all, had purchased books on the very topic. With a smile, she also reminded him that when it came to recalling the names of things, he wasn’t exactly first in line for the prize.

Gently, lovingly, with a husbandly concern for her well-being, he responded that, until fairly recently, she couldn’t tell a rose from a pair of pants, for all she knew about gardening, whereas he had grown up with a trowel in his hand, to which she replied that he better get ready to throw in the trowel because he couldn’t tell his pants from his—; oh, well, you know how the story ends.

And it doesn’t end with the presentation of a  big bouquet.

You think that every time one of them mentions the “forsythia-hydrangeas” there isn’t just a tiny, little shard of sarcasm in it?

It’s as awkward a linguistic truce as folks who saddle their unsuspecting young with triple-hyphenated surnames (“Let me introduce you to my daughter, Muffy-Turquoise Wheelwright-Schonenberg; M.T., say hello to Mr. Fred”), and who are later surprised to hear that their daughter tells everyone at school that her name is “Alice.”

It sounds like a good alternative in theory, but in practice becomes more of a burden than a boon. And at least the naming of offspring is something of real importance and is therefore worth the argument.

What confuses me is why we argue about details. Why do we waste breath and time on incidentals, on quarrels of no real importance? Half the arguments in this world are over trifles of little urgency or significance (the other half are over money).

The first time Michael and I had one of these “It’s Right No Matter How Wrong It Looks” moments was about nine years ago. I had a cold and he offered, like a sweetheart, to make us soup. 

He heated up a can of tomato soup, and then decided it would be nice to have tomato soup with rice. So he flung, into the pot, a handful of rice—straight from the box. Uncooked. Real rice.

Even in my flu-y delirium, I laughed. He sniffed and began to explain, which great authority, that this was always how he made tomato soup with rice and that he would prove exactly how delicious this was in a minute. The rice simmered and soaked and remained as hard as metal pellets as the soup boiled.

Finally, driven by hunger, I asked if he could strain some of the soup so we could eat. He agreed to skim riceless soup off the top for my benefit, since I didn’t know any better,   all the while insisting that he loved soup made exactly this way. We sat down to eat. You could hear the rice crunching against his teeth; you could see it sticking, in what must have been a painful manner, into his gums. “Yum, yum” said Michael, making a brave face. It wasn’t pretty.

We’ve laughed about it many times since then. I laugh harder than he does.

Not that all that much has changed, mind you. The last argument Michael and I had was over what color napkins go best with what tablecloth. Now we’ve been married long enough to know when the arguments are about the issue under discussion (napkin/tablecloth color coordination) or mere disguises for larger issues (the accusation that one cannot be trusted, even in such slight matters, to exercise good judgment).

This was strictly a discussion about the fabric on our table rather than the fabric of our lives. It ended quickly with a Bronx cheer and the use of paper towels during the evening meal. 

 Our friends thought the flowering bushes had different names—so what? They could have gone inside and settled the dispute  amicably by finding a reference guide with photographs, or they could have just said “You know, let’s call these bushes ‘Lucy’ or ‘Fred’” and left it at that.

It would have made a nice, cute story. “Oh. did you water Fred today?” they could ask one another. You know what they do instead? For real? They call the bushes “forsythia-hydrangeas.”

I’ve heard them go around the yard, talking about what to change, what to keep for the next season and say things like “Shall we extend the forsythia-hydrangeas to the back wall? Wouldn’t that work beautifully?” 

Seriously, that’s what they do. Calling them “Fred” would have been a lot easier.

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