I can’t take him anywhere

It’s a great line, but it has to be delivered just right. It is accompanied by a rolling of the eyes or a slow shaking of the head. It does some very good things when it is done right and I’d like to explore some of those today.

In the senior center where I live, I see couples celebrating their 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries. [1] There are some bad relationships among these long-lived marriages, of course, but there are some surprisingly good ones, too.

In the good ones, more often than not, the woman shepherds the relationship. She characterizes the relationship as a relationship of a certain kind; she seeks out and maintains the social settings where her own marriage can be well received. Her husband is, in these marriages, more of a bit player. There are things he is good at. She sees to it that he has a chance to do those things, that he is well received, and that the cost of these small performances is kept within the tolerance of the people they are with.

It is in the context of a marriage like this that I hear lines like, “I can’t take him anywhere.” It is a line delivered with mock resignation. That is why the expression “take him” works. She wouldn’t say it of a husband who is not, for any of several reasons, socially presentable. She would be running the risk that the line would be taken seriously. She would not say it of a husband with whom she is currently and visibly at odds for the same reason.

With the proper inflection and body language, “I can’t take him anywhere” is fully compatible with “I am grateful that he still takes me places I want to go.” If the line were taken seriously, the relationship is either one in which she takes him places or he takes her places. Delivered with mock despair, as I most often hear it, it doesn’t imply either of those and the potential contradiction just sits there for anyone to use.

It is a line with a message. The message is tacit, but it is there. It is, “Whatever he just did or said is not to be taken seriously.” If it was a lapse, it was a characteristic lapse. It was the kind of lapse we laugh about in our marriage and we invite you to laugh about it as well.

I remember so well an early dinnertime conversation with such a couple. He said something like, “ I want to tell the story of my time in Texas.” She said, “Dear, you just told that story. He responded, “Well, I want to tell it again.”

At this point, I was thinking, “Oh dear. How is this going to work out.” It worked out great. She reached out and touched his arm and said, “Well it’s a really good story. You just tell it again.” And she looked over at us, away from him, and winked. She included us in the charade and assured us that the cost would be low. And it was.

The kind of recognition implicit in the line I am examining—or in the equivalent, “ Oh..George!”—has the effect of placing the lapse in the intermediate zone. It is not ignored. That would leave the others without guidance as to how to understand it. It is not seriously deplored. That would call attention to the statement or action rather than to the man himself and to his status in the relationship. It would give the others a problem to solve.

Notice that the structure of the sentence, “I can’t take him anywhere” imagines a continuing series of actions. She “takes him” places and she is going to continue to “take him” places. That is given in the tense of the verb, “take.” The clear implication is that the woman, in her capacity, at least, as the shepherd of the relationship, either likes what the man just did or has learned to bear it with good grace. The remark invites her current company to treat it the same way.

As oblique as this might seem on her part, it is much better than ignoring what he just did. Ignoring it doesn’t give the others any clues about how or whether to respond to it. For people who will be think “Did he just say what I think he said?” the wife’s response establishes that he did but that it isn’t a major flaw. So “I can’t take him anywhere” acknowledges that something has been said or done, that she takes it in good humor, and that she invites others to do the same.

In some of these relationships, I suspect that it has been the husband who has done the shepherding over much of the course of the marriage. It is clear, however, that as a rule, men’s abilities recede faster. I see that a lot although, of course, my abilities are receding faster than Bette’s. The shepherding of the relationship that he once did is now being done by her. And the best ones are really something to see.

[1] I’ve been married 58 years myself, but I have spread the burden out over three different women. Always the gentleman.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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