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Moments of revelation don't come often in a marriage, so you have to take them where you can get them. I recently had one such epiphany while sitting in my father-in-law's well-worn leather recliner, which, of course, directly faces the television.
I picked up his remote and started flipping through the channels, eliminating the offerings on channels 2 through 37 in less than 10 seconds. Diane claims this quick changing gives her motion sickness but, really, how long do you need to look at a curling match on ESPN 7, or a raccoon peeing on Animal Planet, or Happy Days in Portuguese to know that you don't want to watch it? I settled on a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond that I hadn't seen in a while (maybe a week). Assuming the show could provide up to eight minutes of viewing pleasure before a commercial sent me surfing again, I nestled into the comfy chair.
And then the channel changed.
Stunned, I peered first at the disobedient TV, wondering how it suddenly had sprouted a mind of its own, and then over to the chair, on the other side of the reading lamp. And there sat my wife, her face transfused with glee. She was wielding a second remote control.
I quickly changed the channel back, then she changed it again. As this escalated, we each got more and more aggressive until we were brandishing the remotes like weapons.
"Boy," I thought, "this could get ugly."
Apparently, when my father-in-law bought one of those all-in-one remotes -- which works your TV, DVD/VCR, cable box, and the "bagel only" button on your toaster -- he decided to let my mother-in-law keep the channel changer that came with the TV as a souvenir. He knew she would never abuse it.
Diane, however, apparently had been waiting her entire married life for her own remote -- and the opportunity to push my buttons.
As I sat there dueling with her, it occurred to me that the world might actually be improved by inventing a dual remote system. But only if the wifely model -- something with more clearly marked buttons, maybe -- became fully operational after the husband had fallen asleep. It could have, say, a snoring sensor in it.
But two live remotes in one marital TV room? Isn't this what defense experts used to call "mutual assured destruction"?
Luckily, we were called to dinner before spraining our thumbs. But the whole incident made me think about just how many marital issues are played out during the seemingly benign act of watching television together -- especially since so much movie viewing that once was done in theaters is now done at home. I'm starting to believe that the TV is a window into the soul of your marriage.
Actually, before that remote-control battle I had always thought of Diane and me as being fairly tele-compatible. But that's because I was thinking mostly about programming, where our tastes in TV shows are pretty similar. Yes, she refuses to watch football and I could live my life very happily without Will or Grace. But we mostly agree on what's good, which is convenient because we've always been a one-TV couple, den only. (One of my basketball buddies says that, growing up, his parents had two TVs in their bedroom and watched separate shows with his dad using one of those little white earplugs; he and his wife have the modern equivalent, with his-and-hers TiVo boxes.) Diane is even sympathetic when I come home from the picked-over video store and announce we're having another evening of "Best Available Films."
It's in nonprogramming areas that we run into problems. For example, I feel when you're watching a show you should actually be quiet and, y'know, watch it. Diane, however, wants to interact. She likes to talk to the TV and talk to me about what's on the TV -- criticizing flaws in plotlines, free-associating on what a character is saying, doing, wearing. For a while I just slowly turn up the volume. When I finally can't hear over her din, I have been known to shush. But, I must say, shushing is a risky thing for a husband to do to his wife, and I usually regret it. If I'm lucky, she'll playfully do that zipping motion over her lips or the pantomime key that locks her lips and is dramatically tossed away and won't speak until the next commercial. If I'm unlucky, she'll give me dirty looks all night long until...well, until Jon Stewart, who makes her laugh even when she's mad.
There are also technological problems. While Diane claims she wants her own remote, the truth is that when she's left alone with ours, she invariably pushes the wrong button, or combination of buttons, instantly blanking out the TV screen. And then she proceeds to push pretty much every other button, until the TV screen itself has turned a lovely shade of blue, the VCR is scheduled to tape a show in 2009 and the cable box is set to a channel number that requires a trigonometric solution. Then she calls me on my cell phone, and I can't tell you the number of interviews -- or sound sleeps in different time zones -- I've had interrupted to help her undo her handiwork.
In her defense, I've had my own technology issues. At the house we lived in for 15 years we had the old TV and VCR I brought into the marriage -- fairly low tech, but we both knew how to use them and even had jury-rigged a system for taping one show while watching another. When we moved, we bought a new flat-screen TV with a picture-in-picture feature, which I told Diane was worth the extra money because I'd be able to monitor games on the little screen while still watching a show we could both enjoy. Two years later, however, I am still unable to get the little screen up and working -- something Diane likes to tell pretty much everyone we meet at cocktail parties. We also got a new DVD/VCR, which is supposedly much more user friendly, yet it ignores most of my recording requests.
I find this deeply emasculating. But not as emasculating as asking someone for help.
Actually, my biggest complaint about our marital TV viewing involves where we sit. When we were young marrieds, all we could afford in the den was a brown sleeper sofa where you couldn't help but sit close and snuggle. Today Diane has this great leather mission chair and ottoman, and I lord it over a very cozy black leather couch. She's only six feet away, but I must admit I kinda miss her. Sometimes during commercials, I'll go over and visit her, or she'll come visit me.
It's my favorite part of the show.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.