As we walked to the parking lot after a workout, one of my gym-rat pals, fairly new to the university, asked me whether rumors that the campus swimming pool would shut down soon were accurate. Not missing a beat, our other companion shot back, “Dumb question! His answer’s always, ‘I have no idea.’ He never, ever has any useful insider info!” I smiled at his not entirely playful little vent, mainly because it confirmed the effectiveness of a personal policy, the product of a wise marital collaboration.
My wife, Elaine, and I sometimes craft strategies to accommodate our individual traits and the imperatives of her profession. She, a university president, has been amply gifted with patience, thoughtfulness and future orientation. I thoroughly admire those qualities, especially patience, an attribute I’ve sometimes found frustratingly elusive. While I think I’ve mellowed a bit over the years, I’m still vulnerable to the impulsiveness that’s lurked in me since my street kid days in Philadelphia.
Its persistence can have consequences, largely because, as an educator myself, I deeply believe in the insights and vision my wife brings to higher education. I’m especially proud that she’s a powerful crusader for her causes, not a careerist. In her 20 years as a president, she’s faced many challenges, as most of her peers have. Predictably, I’ve had to resist tendencies to disagree strongly with people who, in my not entirely objective view, are benighted enough to resist her ideas. This urge has been largely tamed, but not always without a struggle.
Given the refusal of this flaw simply to slink off and disappear, Elaine and I reached an agreement years ago. For my own good, but mainly for hers, I’m deliberately kept out of the loop of discussions of university business. What I don’t know can’t hurt her. So, even her newer associates quickly adapt to avoiding exchanges about policy or practice in my presence. At first, I was mildly put off by this tactic, but after extended thought, I recognized one benefit: no longer would I feel the self-imposed obligation to devise instantly several excellent solutions for every major problem she faced. My tranquility has benefited from no longer having to deal with this burden.
But there’s one exception to living in an information void. Frequently, I drive long distances with Elaine to professional meetings. On those trips, our noninstitutional conversations, supplemented by diversion from iPod recordings of “On the Media” and New Yorker short stories, ease the monotony of miles. But the summons of her cellphone sporadically interrupts that relaxation with demands to deal with university business. That’s when, to compensate for interruption of other forms of amusement, I begin my CIA-like game.
From the flow of phone conversations, I try to construct the substance of what’s transpiring in my awareness-forbidden zone -- although, technically, I realize, this is a violation of our agreement. Initially, I found myself stimulated to do this not by idle curiosity or the desire to be an academic precursor to soon-to-be snoops Assange or Snowden, but by the challenge of patching together wholeness from shards of a conversation. I attributed that enterprise to my long addiction to solving puzzles, particularly the crossword variety. I’m stimulated by trying to overcome anything designed to thwart me.
Over time, I’ve refined my key code breakers. For example, the length of conversation isn’t that revealing. Elaine’s executive assistant may be clarifying details of an impending event. Conjecture about ceremonies doesn’t really trigger my quest to interpret. But other notable reactions from my wife do. Stern facial expressions and the frequency of interruptions from the other end put my sensors on high alert. From these specialized markers, I can often identify the other party.
For example, while most participants conventionally allow their telephone partners to complete thoughts, one, who will go unnamed to protect the diligent, tends to be issue driven and barely tolerant of diversion. Being averse to anything off topic, if discussion seems to meander, she abruptly cuts in and refocuses it. She has, in short, a powerful sense of purpose that dare not be compromised. So, when such fragmented exchanges begin, I tighten my grip on the steering wheel, knowing they’ll probably expose my fallibility. These abrupt conversations require utmost attention but still account for most of my deciphering problems.
In other instances, from fidgetiness and sighs discernible from the passenger seat, I can generally infer a degree of perplexity, which signifies resolution of the problem won’t be child’s play. Particularly disconcerting are the narrowing or rolling of the eyes that I sometimes catch in the rearview mirror. They accompany unpleasant news -- perhaps about a burst pipe resulting from interminably delayed state maintenance funds or about the unrelenting budget stalemate in Springfield. Disturbing information of this sort can be the start of short, vexed periods of unspoken but palpable discontent, so I gear myself to concentrate on passing scenery. Sometimes, I do regret having to deprive Elaine of one of my guaranteed money-back solutions, but I can’t give in to the temptation. To do that would obviously out me.
Some indicators can be reassuring. I’ve come to welcome brief, almost obligatory, bits of laughter between Elaine and her phone partner as tension-reducing conversational tics. Few topics are so earnest and demanding that little respites from seriousness, like ironic little chuckles, are inappropriate. Yeah, these signify, things may not be ideal, but face it, they’re still under control or we wouldn’t be laughing.
To be honest, I don’t want to exaggerate my skill in penetrating the forbidden code. For me to be completely uninformed about university business would be impossible. Given the number of social events we attend where conversation ranges widely, it’s inevitable that tasty appetizers of information are passed to me despite my restricted diet. And sometimes, like my friend from the gym, people make comments or ask questions assuming, not illogically, that I’m informed. From these gleanings, I can develop fundamental ideas of what’s actually occurring in the world intended to be beyond my ken. Our road trips provide opportunities to flesh out this rudimentary knowledge.
However accurate the results of my quests, I doubt Wikileaks would be intrigued by them. I further doubt my trolling for classified information will force me to seek refuge in Russia or Ecuador. Actually, living in Illinois, where fiscal responsibility represents the impossible dream, is penance enough.
There’s nothing ominous about my being drawn to the classified. I consider myself simply a competitive information opportunist, not a KGB type. Being cagey provides motivation enough.