A Mouse in the House

One of my favorite unreal images of love is the newlywed husband and wife relaxing amid half-unpacked boxes -- obviously taking a break from moving into their very first cheap apartment, even though it has hardwood floors and a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both are wearing beautifully cut khakis and white button-down shirts that are miraculously unsmudged, although she has a cute little smear of soot on the tip of her nose. They are so in love that they have taken this moment to celebrate with Bacardi Rum. Let's drink to sharing a home! And everything else!

Oh, but I don't think so. In the real world, these two would be drinking on moving day only to keep from smacking each other, and what they would be "sharing" would be nothing but the certainty that my spouse has succeeded in making a dismal task abysmal. For the record, let me state that there is nothing wrong with such emotions: Annoyed, frazzled and liable to lash out at any second is how a normal person feels on moving day. In a good marriage, the concept of SHARING is kept to a minimum.

For example, here is a list of the few things that are shared, fifty-fifty, in my own marriage.



Chinese pork buns -- if any are left, and not without a fight.

Hot water -- if any is left, and perhaps not without a plumber.

As for things in which we own disproportionate interests, well, that would be everything else.

Unopened packages of tube socks, stashes of beef jerky and the current issue of the New Yorker are his and His Alone, at least until such time as he tires of them.

My realm includes all gifts and donations made to our union, which can be a very sweet deal. When someone asks, "What can I get you two?" I announce that "we" would like a Dremel tool or a pound of smoked salmon or a rose bush -- when, in fact, I am simply the covetous half of "we" and am therefore much more likely to get what "I" want. For "us," that is.

More complex, perhaps, is the matter of sway, as in control -- over where things should go, what things should cost, what time is bedtime or what should be done to a dog that eats garbage. At present in our household, all of these matters have been hashed out, appropriated, sent to the correct committee. As you young Bacardi people age, you may figure this system out as well. But there is one region of the domestic territory that remains fraught with peril for all of us. And that is: WHO GETS THE MOUSE?

On the surface, this would seem to be a high-tech variation on the old who-gets-the-remote argument, but it's actually a much more modern and complex challenge. After all, women quickly surrendered their rights to the television remote control, because only men are genetically coded to need to change channels every few seconds. But how are we to arrive at sexual stereotypes for men or women when it comes to the cyberworld?

The image is just as seductive as that of the Bacardis on moving day. A man and a woman -- say, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ray Liotta -- are doing a bit of late-night sleuthing on the Web. He's got the mouse, but she leans over him, unwittingly displaying deep cleavage, and points at the screen. "Go back a page," she says breathlessly. "I think I see something..."

Click. Click. Click.

"You're right," says Ray. "We've nailed them. The only thing is, the corporation's HQ is in..."

"...the Orkney Islands," she finishes.

A few clicks later, they've booked a flight on and are on their way to apprehend the bad guys.

Returning to reality, let's imagine this scene as played out in an actual relationship:

Catherine (wearing a baggy T-shirt): "Go back a page -- I think I see something."

Ray: "How do you go back a page again?"

Catherine (impatiently): "Click on the BACK button."

Ray: "Uh, that's, uh, there it is. Okay."

Nothing happens.

Ray (accusingly): "It didn't work."

Catherine (a little too briskly): "Well, you can always F7, but last time we did that, the screen froze up. Why don't you ESC out of that and do a search for 'bad guy'?"

Ray: "What did you see, anyway? Was it really that important? I thought I saw something about the Orkney Islands..."

Catherine: "Could I just sit down there for a minute? If you let me do it, it will only take a second."

Ray (frantically click, click, clicking): "Yeah, yeah, in a sec..."

At no point in this scene do Ray and Catherine acquire the slightest bit of pertinent information, except that whoever is in possession of the mouse is certain to be a selfish ingrate. Each is secretly convinced that the other is computer illiterate and that everything will be fine if the computing is turned over to her. Or him.

Don't believe me?

Melanie Dalton works the graveyard shift at the 24-hour Kinko's on South Colorado Boulevard. She admits to having seen it all, including what happens at the workstations enclosing the computers she rents by the hour. "As far as the mouse," she says, "generally couples trade off. Except. No. It works more like this: The man starts on it, and then the woman goes, 'Oh, no!' and grabs it -- jerks it, really -- and says, 'No, it's gotta be THIS way.'"

Does the man get the mouse back? Not always. Has watching this mousing ritual made Dalton shy of romantic entanglements? Maybe. She's not dating right now, but she remembers sharing a computer with her last boyfriend. "Yeah," she sighs. "It was back and forth with the mouse. Just like everyone. We were no different."

But surely some couples have evolved beyond this cyber-haggling. Sex therapists (and marital mates) David Schnarch and Ruth Morehouse come to mind. As directors of the Marriage and Family Health Center, they are famous for their Crucible Theory, which stands in delightful opposition to the "Why Don't We Commuuuuunicate" school of marriage repair. Schnarch and Morehouse have run weekend retreats for couples all over the world. When I arrive at their Evergreen office on my computer quest, Schnarch is back home in the basement, writing another book; Morehouse, however, is available and willing to talk.

"I see people in therapy all the time who are mad about computers," she says. "There's a lot of people angry because their spouse doesn't know enough about the computer. A lot of spouses get nervous trying to learn computers in front of their impatient spouse. It's today's version of 'I'm not sure I can fix the lawnmower, honey.'"

It's like learning to drive from your father, or trying to teach a teenager anything.

"The real story with us," Morehouse says, without prompting, "is that if we work together on one computer, it's David's computer, because David is always sitting and writing his next book down in the basement, and if I want to talk to him, I have to go down there and find him. It's no secret. I can't remember one time where I would take charge of his computer."

This does not seem to bother Morehouse, but she admits the situation has potential for peril.

"I can easily imagine all kinds of power plays," she muses, "all kinds of concerns expressed. You're not going fast enough; here, let me show you a trick; how come you always get to be in charge. On a deeper level, these are issues of people working out what their own shape is in a close connection with someone else. It's not about being equal -- it's about finding your own shape."

Pat Wagner and Leif Smith have had nearly thirty years in which to do this, if you figure that 1969 was the year Smith first started tinkering with computers and that when they began dating in the early '70s, they used to turn off the living-room lights and stare, nerd-like, at the grainy black-and-white screen of a very early PC. From those humble beginnings grew their now-25-year-old Open Network.

"So. Do you fight over the mouse?" I ask.

"I'll leave now," Smith says to Wagner. "You talk about it."

"Well," Wagner says. "We have fought more about computers than any other aspect of our marriage combined. Including sex."

"Maybe I should stay in the conversation," Smith decides.

"Our brains work differently," Wagner explains. "Leif makes sure we have great systems to work with, but when I ask him a technical question, he gives me the 57-hour response, and he always promises it'll only take a few minutes. All I want is for Little Thing A to go to Little Thing B. But he's an artist, a perfectionist."

"So if you're both sitting in front of one computer," I press, "who has control?"

"Microsoft," Smith cracks.

If only it were that simple.

"It actually depends," Wagner says. "We get very impatient with each other. If you don't control the computer chair, you sort of try to lean the other person out of the chair. There's a struggle. We're big people, and we never actually hurt each other, but it does get physical. And it's all over who gets to sit there and touch the keys."

"But you know, we're both equally neurotic," Smith says, almost sweetly.

"Leif's right," Wagner says. "It's not a gender issue, where the boy or the girl always wins. This is fifty-fifty."

So let me propose a fifty-fifty solution: Hock whatever you have and get two computers.

My God -- maybe Microsoft does control us all.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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