I have often referred to Kate as my best critic and pointed out how much I enjoy and appreciate that. While that’s true, I think it’s worth some explanation. It’s not that she just criticizes me often or indiscriminately, or that I just perversely enjoy having my flaws pointed out (though I just got a chortle imagining paying someone to dress as a dominatrix and point out that my falsetto still doesn’t quite sound good enough to deploy in public). Rather, I fully trust her embrace of the responsibility to help me be my best self, something that was central to our marriage vows and remains core to our code of ethics as individuals and together and core to my needs from my support structure, especially the person at the center of it.
I’ve written before about the dissonance that sometimes exists between being “nice” and being genuinely supportive. I think back to an aphorism I learned from my college-era roommate Roberto: your best friend needs to be capable of being your enemy because they must try and protect you from your worst enemy, even if that enemy is you – and this can’t happen if they’re more concerned with superficially harmonious interactions than with truly being your advocate. I’ve gone back to and reckoned with this idea periodically in the subsequent 25 years or so.
So do I enjoy being informed that my pants don’t match and I shouldn’t leave the house without changing? No, not particularly, but would I rather look like a fool? Not so much, as I grudgingly admit in those moments. And so it goes with more consequential things – I don’t enjoy being told that a technically-accurate statement I’ve made was delivered in an overly snarky manner but I enjoy living with the consequences of my obliviousness or denial far less, especially the consequence of moving forward in life without being able to take corrective action. More often than not the very thought of seeking Kate’s opinion on a half-baked piece of music or writing makes me know instantaneously not to bother. Not because I’m afraid of the negative feedback but because the prospect of her honest opinion puts a mirror on my own innate awareness of the flaws that I might otherwise lazily seek to circumvent – in those moments I realize that the desire for feedback is essentially the desire to get out of having to make the thing better (“sure, sounds fine as-is”) and that’s not REALLY what I want. So if I ask for feedback it’s because I actually need an objective outside perspective and trust that it will catalyze something – if I agree, if I notice myself getting defensive, if I discover “I don’t care what anyone thinks, this is how it must be,” any of these are constructive. And if the feedback is positive, I know I’m not just getting smoke blown up my posterior.
You may be thinking “but Noah, that’s all fine and good, but I read this far because I trusted that you’d tell me about the millet brick.” Well, you need wait no longer. Early in our marriage, back in the fall of ’98, she was serving as Technical Director at a youth theater, and during production season she was quite busy, while my gig-traveling was frequent but not constant, leaving me free to try and pull my weight with certain domestic duties.
So I would make big batches of food with the loving intention of providing copious leftovers for her. Sweet, except that my culinary experiments weren’t exactly consistent in quality (have you ever wondered what hummus would taste like with orange instead of lemon juice? I did). At one point I made a giant batch of an ill-advisedly improvised cold dish using millet, which tends to mush and subsequently congeal to a much greater degree than most other grains. It was questionable the first day and pretty much a solid mass of yuck by day 2.
Kate expressed some displeasure that there was a roughly 2 month supply of this – unpleasant to eat, wasteful not to – and in turn I was insulted that I was not getting sufficient validation for my earnest effort and loving intention. In what I dare say was a pivotal early moment in the marriage, we talked through it and established that while, yes, a participation trophy would be appreciated, my actual desire was for my deeds to match my words (in this case creating food that would actually be helpful rather than necessitating a trip downtown for a sandwich anyway). I wanted to actually be helpful, and an unqualified pat on the back for a bad idea, poorly executed, would enable obliviousness that served neither of us. It wasn’t that I wanted to change because I was afraid of disapproval or rejection, I sincerely didn’t want to be a guy who made romantic gestures that increased my partner’s burdens rather than helping to alleviate them. The millet brick incident was hardly the only such moment, but I look to it as a symbol of my realization that I could survive well-meaning criticism and that my fear of that was far less than my fear of looking at my life and realizing that I was not living according to my values.
Fortunately it’s all part of a healthily balanced diet. Kate and I make a point of tuning into and expressing our appreciation for one another on a regular basis, and it is both unconditional (we are in it for the long haul no matter how one of us screws up) and conditional (validating the work the other does to slog through whatever needs slogging through on the path towards being our better selves). And you’ll be happy to know that I now make experimental dishes in far smaller batches AND that we’ve recently found a way to cook millet that even she likes. Now if that ain’t proof of something . . .