Warming the Syrup

When I was in my early 20s, I once prepared an excellent Sunday morning brunch for Paul, my boyfriend. I whipped up pancakes — from scratch — cooked his eggs as he liked them, over easy (NOT one of my talents), and–microwaves then being something available only in wealthy household–fried bacon slowly to crispness in a skillet.  I set the table, poured out orange juice and freshly brewed coffee, and called him in to eat.  He sat down to this magnificent repast, and said,

“Didn’t you warm the syrup?!”

 (And let me hasten to insert right here once again that it is absolutely NOT true that I was every arrested for a boyfriend homicide.)

Warming the pancake syrup was not something that was ever done in our family. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to do so. But he had apparently never been served room-temperature syrup (which sort of begs the question, had the man never been out to eat at a pancake house?  But I digress.  That’s a topic for another blog post.)

That incident has always stood out for me as a perfect example of the way that our personal expectations overlay and often interfere with our relationships – at home, at work, among our friends and family. Unless we recognize and question our own expectations, and determine if they are reasonable, they can create enormous damage, resulting in misunderstandings, wounded feelings, resentment…or the occasional near-homicide.

In another example of how the dissimilarity of expectations destroys relationships, I was stung once by a friend (a now-former friend, let me hasten to add!) who had recently lost her spouse.  Knowing that she was both living alone and dealing with some household repairs by herself for the first time in her life,  I had innocently offered her my company and assistance, if needed.  Her response was to snarl at me, “You always think that everyone will feel the way you feel.  Some of us are different!  We don’t need somebody around at every turn.”

I did my best not to feel offended; after all, in one respect she was correct. I could only imagine another’s mindset by considering the way in which I might feel in the same situation.  Looking more closely at the circumstances, though, I realized that my expectation had been that she would feel the need for company and assistance and appreciate an offer of help; her expectation was that she be left in peace to get on with a difficult adjustment to her new situation. Even without her ungracious response, the divide between our personal expectations left an impassable gulf in our relationship. I recalled that she had never offered me any form of emotional support or assistance when I was going through difficult times, expecting me to just deal with problems on my own; friendship, to her, was a leisure-time activity.  Our expectations of what comprised a friendship were worlds apart.  I withdrew from the relationship, and never heard from her again.

I suspect these differences in expectations are what drive a wedge into many a marriage. In its most absurd manifestation, we anticipate that our significant other will “just know” what we need or want, as though love imbued one with some special form of telepathy.  The insanity of this notion doesn’t even occur to most couples, but it is probably responsible for a lot of income for marriage counselors and divorce lawyers.

It sometimes takes quite a bit of self-examination to reach the conclusion, too, that our expectations of another are unreasonable, and based more on our own neediness than on a realistic interaction between two adult human beings.

After the unwarmed syrup incident, I never prepared brunch for Paul again, and he didn’t last much longer as a boyfriend, either. But I spent years – decades – always carefully warming the syrup for my pancakes, French toast, and waffles.  I had taken to heart his expectation of my cooking, and made it my own – that was, until just a few weeks ago.  I was making waffles but forgot to set the syrup pitcher in the microwave.  The waffles were already steaming with melted butter on my plate and my coffee was poured and ready to be drunk when I realized my error.  So I shrugged and poured the room temperature syrup onto my waffles.

And found, after all these years,that I preferred my syrup that way.

I had at last freed myself of another’s ridiculous expectation.

24 Hours Too Late

Mark Twain famously said that “Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.”

He was right.

I shopped at a bookstore one day with a man I was dating; he wanted to buy a new Bible. We walked up an aisle filled with dizzying arrays of Bibles in a dozen different translations.  New International Version.  New Living Translation.  New American Standard. New Revised Standard.  New Jerusalem.  He darted from one to another, uncertain which to buy.

“I’ve always preferred the King James version myself,” I commented, “just because it’s so poetic.” He cast me a disdainful look and snapped, “That’s why you don’t understand the Bible.”

(And let me just say right here that it is absolutely NOT true that I was ever arrested for boyfriend homicide.)

Much too late, I realized I could have responded that, no, the problem was that HE didn’t understand poetry. My delayed realization just proves the accuracy of Twain’s quote.

If I had a time machine, I suspect I would wear it out going back to make all the superb, cutting, decisive responses that I just couldn’t think of at the time. I’ve wondered, though, why it is that most of us can’t conjure up this brilliant badinage when we genuinely need it.  And I think that I have hit on at least a possible answer – something I recall having read long ago in an article about the gulf between what we anticipate and what actually happens.

When we have trouble with a quick response, it’s because what was said to us is not what we expected. The veiled insult, the subtle snub, the snarky remark, the witty but utterly cutting and devastating quip – we spend a few seconds simply flabbergasted as our brain tries to rewire itself in response to the unexpected.  While perhaps it isn’t true of the most recent generation, in years past, most of us were raised to be at least superficially polite. Consequently, we assume that people in social situations will at least pretend to be polite. Coming up against a contradiction to that assumption requires a split second of adjustment – and in a social situation, a split second can be quite a long time.

This is the same sort of reaction that a teenage clerk has when, having told a customer that the total price of his purchase is $9.17, is handed $20.17 in payment. As the young clerk stares at the money in confusion for a second, the mature customer gloats over the clerk’s ignorance. But the  young clerk is not unintelligent; he is bewildered for just a moment because the money handed to him is not what he expected.  He expected to be handed a ten or a twenty or even exact change. An extra neuron or two has to fire before he makes the connection to the fact that the customer wants only paper money, not coins, in change.

I’ve heard this explanation advanced, too, as the reason that we stare for a moment or two at a person who has a physical difference – a birthmark, a facial scar, something we perceive as outside the norm. Our brains simply take an extra split second to make the adjustment to what our eyes have perceived, resulting in that graceless additional moment in our glance—a nanosecond that is interpreted by others as a rude stare.  It takes just seconds for our social awareness to kick in, reminding us that staring is impolite, but that is long enough to irritate others and infect us with guilt for what was no more than an involuntary reaction.

Returning to the question of repartee, I’ll never be any good at it. I worship those people with the ability to process a nasty remark and return some brilliantly-worded riposte with barely a pause.  My own retorts usually take weeks to evolve.

But let me just say it here and now: Morris, you don’t understand a damned thing about poetry.