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How to ignite -- explode? -- a dinner-party discussion

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Wednesday, August 25th, 2004 — Step aside, Stepford Wives, with your "pathological cheerfulness." Us pathologically honest wives are alive and well right here in Palo Alto.

It all started when a woman friend who works with my husband, Pat, said: "I bet Pat edits your articles. He is such a good editor!"

Well .... If I were the Good Stepfordian Wife, I would have smiled and agreed. But this got my dander up. I chuckled (chortled?): "Pat is good -- I will even concede, very good -- at a lot of things. But he and I have different writing styles. He does not edit my articles, thank you very much."

We were having dinner at our house when I momentarily shocked this poor woman -- not to mention our spouses. Then she got it: "Oh, you mean your husband is not perfect? I thought only my husband was not perfect!"

Then another woman jumped in. All of us were warming to our subject. We were having a great time laughing and joking about how we fall short of idol worship of our husbands. Or in the Stepfordesque words of songwriter Don McLean: "Everybody loves me, baby. What's the matter with you?"

The truth is, we do love our mates. We just don't need to worship them. Our honesty was in good fun, and peppered with lots of affection. True, the men would have been happy with less honesty and more affection, but they got into the act as well.

The best-behaved couple had known each other a short time relative to the rest of us. But they were quite familiar with the territory we were covering.

As the conversation toned down several notches, we all -- wives, husbands and significant others -- moved on to talk about differences in communication styles between men and women, the theme of the popular book of a few years back: "Men Are from Mars. Women Are from Venus."

The men at the table admitted to "selective hearing." But, as one put it: "Even if my wife said, 'I love you,' in the quietest voice, I would hear it and be putty in her hands."

Differences in communication styles, hectic schedules and fragile egos (both husbands' and wives') make those three little words stick in the throat sometimes. Thinking back, it occurs to me that the roadblock to understanding may not be honesty in communication but another kind: honesty about our own and other people's talents.

Each of us brings a particular set of abilities and skills to life, both in general and for specific tasks. Yet no matter how good we might be, we do not usually accomplish anything without at least some help from others. Like it or not, we are not as independent as we often think we are.

Although daily stress and tension inevitably comes and goes, the deeper tension might just be between our wanting to be independent and our desire "to need and be needed." It resonates when Barbara Streisand sings: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world."

Palo Alto can be an intimidating place to live for those of us who are not "doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs." It is a town filled with accomplished people. Many talented people are left feeling like ne'er do wells by comparison.

All of the Stepfordian cheerfulness in the world will not help us recognize our talent, or our need for others. Nor does honesty need to be pathological.

Our honesty with each other that evening was fun-loving and lively. Tensions of the day and week faded. It was the liveliest dinner party we had hosted or been to in quite awhile.

But I smile now at the intensity of my denial about my husband that got the ball rolling.

Of course I receive help from other people (including my poor, maligned husband). We all do. And we all have something uniquely valuable to contribute to others.

It has been said that real humility is simply being who we are, no more -- and no less. When we are most clear about our own talents we are best able to appreciate the talents of others -- the foundation of good communication. Even, God forbid, some modified Stepford cheerfulness.

Who knows why this dinner-table topic took off with such force? One thing is for sure: Shared laughter is good medicine. It can help us get beyond familiar ego-fortified stalemates to a deeper appreciation of ourselves and others -- the glue of empathy and goodwill that binds us together, in relationships as at dinner parties.