A Man and His Shrike
Mel put his finger on it the other day. He had been watching old videos and was struck by how stressed he used to be. It was like I was being followed by a shrike, he said. That pretty much summed it up - there were three of us in the marriage for a long time: Mel, his shrike, and me. This was the hard part of the relationship, the make or break part - you know, the part that either bonds you or tears you to shreds.
There were a few things which were especially bad about the shrike: first, how very attached Mel was to it; second, how it showed up at the most inopportune times; and third, how Mel would get me confused with the shrike. Do you know what I mean? That horrible feeling when your husband (or it could be your wife) responds to you as if you are some malevolent crazy person and you have no idea what you have done.
The shrike, of course, is blind and deaf, but it is not dumb in any sense of the word. It tends to be very loud and extremely crafty. In addition, the shrike is totally irrational and feasts on confusion and destruction. In technical terms, the shrike thrives on projection and loves to create paranoia. The shrike gleans strength from argument, and is adept at manipulating language, so the more you argue with it, the more you will prove it right.
There are several ways to defeat a shrike. One approach is to starve it out. This may mean withdrawing into a remote corner of the house and seeming busy. A quicker tactic can be to do something unequivocally loving (but remember, this must be non-verbal because words are too vulnerable to misinterpretation.) I discovered that if I showed up with a corned beef sandwich on rye or tickets to a Yankee game I could lure Mel from shrikedom. (Do not make the mistake of getting corned beef on rye with mayo. I did this once, and Mel still claims that this was such a gross misunderstanding of who he is that he can't believe he ever married me.) However, the very, very best defense against the shrike is humor; it cannot stand the sound of laughter.
Usually after a shrike attack I was mad. Really mad. This is how it would go: the shrike would retreat into hiding for a while (probably feeding on the livers of innocents somewhere), and Mel would feel ever so much better - kind of like the sun coming out after a storm (say, a tornado). I, however, was left with a huge emotional mess. So I did my Midwestern thing - surrounded myself with a frozen fortress and hurled daggers of ice rays at Mel. Being smart, Mel usually tried to smoke me out of my ice castle. He did not seduce me with fur coats or cheesecake, no. Mel tried to get me to laugh. See, he knew that once he got me to laugh all the ice melted. He would work on me, and work on me - until I smirked. Yes, it always started with a smirk. And I always tried to get on top of the smirk, just so I could stay mad a little bit longer. But before long he'd say something so self-deprecating and funny and true that the smirk spread to a smile, and I'd be done for. Once a giggle squeaked out and blossomed into a laugh the shrike was banished.
The more I write these essays, the more Mel is beginning to say things like, You really are funny. This is a problem for me because I was using stealth humor against him. See, once I figured out that the shrike and all it's attendants (the crab, etc.) cannot stand up to the power of humor, I began to use humor against Mel. (Yes, I must admit that I turned his own weapon against him.) Now, when I see an ill mood descending on Mel, or hear the squawk of the shrike in the distance, I quickly get out the big guns. I raise my voice a few decibels, start following Mel around - gesturing in the campiest way possible, and get real sarcastic about the topic at hand. Now, this could be dangerous - but my approach is to keep ratcheting up the silliness until I notice a smirk creeping on to Mel's lips. Once I have cracked him up, I can be sure that soon he will be hurling barbs back at me (such as, You are the Margaret Dumont of the Midwest.) This tactic has kept conflict at a minimum, plus it has given me the confidence to compete with Mel on the comedy circuit of our kitchen.
Now that the shrike is exiled, and we have humor to spare in our household, I suggested to Mel that he start a rent-a-personality business. We could lease him out to depressed Midwesterners for half a day or so. All he would have to do is show up and his client would be laughing before he knew it. Mel could be really busy during the winter months, which do tend to be prime season for shrikes in Minnesota.