Friday, June 5, 2009

Growing Smaller

[The College stories start here.]

When it comes to arguments
I had with Mary, back in college, most of what I can remember involves me being an idiot. She put up with a lot, and pretty graciously.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression though. Let me first tell you one I cannot be totally blamed for.

We're going to do this like one of those television shows where they show you how the crime was committed, using actors and dialog and hand-held cameras. It's almost like being there. You won't be able to stop reading this. If you have something you have to do right now, come back. It's a real screen pager (that's like a page turner, but online). Compelling stuff. You'll be telling the neighbors about it.

The scene. College days, Saturday, in October or November. Mary and I were covering the full ten to six at Burgess-Carpenter Library. We're sitting behind the charge-out desk. We're not looking at each other, because we couldn't stand to look at each other, but we're both sitting there in those high wheely chairs, and looking at the shelving on the far side. Mary is not reading her book.

Me, on the weather, always a sure fire conversation starter: "The days are growing shorter. I don't like that
it's dark now when we leave."

Mary, making the opening move: "A thing can't grow shorter."


"If it's growing, it wouldn't be shorter."

"People say it."

"It bothers me. How can something grow shorter?"

"Just does."

"No, it can't."

"What word would you use?"

"I don't know. Some other word. The days are shorter now."

"They are. They've been growing shorter since mid summer."

"They've been shorter. They didn't grow shorter."

"Sure they did. It was still light at six a few weeks ago."

"That's because they've been..." She stopped in time. It was hard to trip her up. "The days have become shorter."

"In the spring they'll get longer."

"Yeah." She trailed off in that midwest drawl.
Steady now.

"But now they're growing shorter."

"Yeah. No. They can
grow longer but they don't grow shorter."

"Can they
get shorter?" Now I was working without a net. I was counting on figuring out where to go in the next few seconds.

"Yes. Do you know
where they get it?" Oh no.

"Get what?" I stalled.

"Shorter. Where would you
get shorter?" St Basil's pumpkins. Did she have something in mind here, or was she drowning too?

Break. Luckily, someone had finally come to the desk to check out a few books. Mary ran the ID card and book cards through the machine (an early automated circulation system that I should write about sometime) and handstamped the due date on the cards and put them back in the books, and the person left. While she was busy I noticed we were almost out of the temporary book cards we used for books that didn't have cards yet. I knew what to say.

"This pile is growing short. I'll go in the office and get more."

"OK". Wait for it. "The pile can't grow short."

"Well, just look at it."

"It is short, but it's not..." Mary had this sigh sometimes. She was right though. One of us needed to bring in something new. I had just restarted the same thread.

"They're running out and they don't have legs. They're getting exhausted but they haven't moved. The supply is growing short. It's figurative language."

"I know, but even so, they can't grow short. It doesn't make sense."

"Can they run out?"

"Well, just look at them." Generally repetition is frowned upon, but sometimes it is the right play. I nodded respectfully.

"But they can't run, in any sense of the word."

"But they can run out. That's different."

"This is growing old." Could I get her to say a thing can't grow old? No. Damn, she was quick.

"Yes. It can't grow young though, can it?" This is why you need to think ahead one or two moves. She had that wide grin on her face now. I called time and went off to get the cards.

Intermission. Something about this reminds me of a remark made in a match I had a few years later with a girl I worked with then. Someone unfamiliar with the rules overheard us and asked, "Are you two married?". I said truthfully, "I am but she isn't. Why?" A tangent run could have been started but the person was not able to reply.

As I got back with the cards, someone else needed books checked out. I took this one. Like the books in the previous transaction, these all had computer cards in them already. The temporary cards I got were being used less and less often. Mary noticed it too.

"There aren't so many books without cards any more. What would you say about that?" She was baiting me. I needed a moment to follow through.

"The number of books without cards is growing smaller."

"No, it's growing fewer. It couldn't grow smaller."

"Fewer means a smaller number." I nearly had her. Growing fewer? But she recovered with a
disjuncta obfuscura move so fine that I went along with it.

"A smaller number of things. The
cards don't get smaller, because a thing can't grow smaller."

I took a temporary card and ripped it in half.

"It didn't grow smaller. All of it is still there. It's just in two parts."

"What if I took a card out in the rain and it shrank?"

"I don't think cards shrink in the rain. If they do, they don't
grow smaller."

"The books wouldn't grow smaller either."


"Now that we're discussing which things can grow smaller, we imply that it is possible for some things." Ha. Point for me.

"No we're not." This was contradiction, not argument.

"I am thinking of something that grows larger." Move on, move on.

"OK. Is it bigger than a breadbox?" Standard question, but, oof, now I was thinking of a different thing.

"Sorry, no."

"I knew it. Does it actually
grow larger, or just become larger?"

"Please. I don't know." The word "grow" was starting to sound strange now. I was no longer sure what it meant.

"Are you growing tired?"

"What does that mean? How can a person
grow tired?" I was thinking that a person could grow hair, but could a person grow tired? My voice was getting close to that whining tone that even I can't stand. A glance at the wall clock showed me I was saved. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

"Familiarity breeds contempt."

"Q E D. I mean it's break time. Do you want to go see Lisa or do I?" Going to see Lisa was not some weird expression we had. It meant going to cover break time in Philosophy Library. I usually did it, but I wanted to make the offer.

"I don't know about you but I want to get out of here." So do you, dear reader, don't you?


OK, let's calm down now.

For some reason I cannot resist telling you the worst argument ever. I guess it's for balance. This will show you what can happen when you are clueless. I still kick myself about it. We won't recreate the dialogue this time. I just can't do it. Let me just describe it.

Our supervisor told me something one day that I thought was very cool: I was the one in charge on Saturday. Yes, even though Mary had worked there longer, it was me. Maybe it was because she had skipped out that summer while I had stayed and worked full time (when I lived with the communists). Maybe it was because I was doing a better job in some way— this idea appealed to my vanity. Or maybe it was because our supervisor thought the girl should not be in charge. That last one was actually the reason.

Did I see the truth? No. It was not a surprise coming from the man it came from, so I should have thought of the possibility. And I believed in equal rights for women. Our generation were going to change the world, and this was one of the thing we were going to set right. It was something I strongly agreed with Mary about (there had to be something!). Absolutely. If the truth had been pointed out to me I would have acted differently. But why would I need to be told? Was I really that oblivious? Yes. I do need the whack on the head sometimes.

What made the situation especially volatile is that our supervisor did not tell Mary. He didn't have the guts. So the time bomb ticked away. For quite a while it never mattered. Mary and I both had the same work ethic. We divided up the work and just did it, and we got everything done without any problems with each other. We were practical people. We didn't need anyone to be in charge.

So here we go. A time came when Mary and I were both sitting at the desk, and some person was returning overdue books, and wanted not to pay overdue fines, and we were going in different directions about whether the excuse was working for us. When I saw that I was not convincing her of my position, I played the in-charge card. We have discussed this enough, I stated like the head umpire, and I will now make the call, because I am in charge. An idiot, but in charge.

Mary took the news remarkably well I thought. We did what I wanted. Once we were alone she made it very clear that she did not know anything about this being in charge thing nor was she fine with it. She did not doubt my word even though it was news to her. That's why she did not contest it. She had no trouble believing that our supervisor had told me this. She knew who she was dealing with. Oh no. I got it.

I wonder what else Mary had had to put up with. What an ass he was. And this one time I became his accomplice, delivering another insult to her on his behalf. That's what gets to me even now. She deserved better.

It would be sweet to be able to go back in time and whisper in my young ear, on a few choice occasions, words of wisdom like No! You idiot! If only. This one wasn't fun, Mary. I'd love to undo it.

We got over it somehow. But I wonder how long it stung.

Argument from authority is always weak anyway. If you can't convince someone on the merits, you've lost, no matter what force you apply. You grow smaller.

(First Alice illustration by John Tenniel, The Nursery Alice, 1890, and two more by Margaret Tarrant, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1916.)

[The next college story is Steps.]

Next time: Anthem.

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