Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and there is no more delightful and perhaps on-target advice book on love than Patricia Marx and Roz Chast’s recent collaboration, “You Can Only Yell at Me for One Thing at a Time: Rules for Couples.” The two New Yorker contributors—Marx is a writer and Chast a cartoonist—were touting their new book last month at the Somerville Armory.
Here’s how they describe their bona fides for writing a book for couples: “We both live with someone.” And here’s the reason they wrote the book: “There are dating books on how to reignite the spark in your romance. We’re much more interested in how you can live with someone and not kill the other person. We’re setting the bar kind of low.”
Chast’s signature black-and-white illustrations capture the visual, emotional and very humorous captions Marx pens. Here’s one of my favorites that the comedic duo calls “Zoning Laws:”
Step 1: Divide house into zones.
Step 2: No yelling from one zone to another.
Step 3: If someone breaks this law, whisper: “You’re not in my zone. I can’t hear you.”
Step 4: Endlessly debate whether the hallway to the bathroom is in the same zone as the bathroom.
I confess that I flagrantly breach Step 2. I yell early and often from the upstairs to the downstairs. What turns out to be screeching is mostly intended for my husband of 28 years. For complex reasons that are a bit dark, my husband knows that I’m yelling for him to confirm that he’s still alive. Being the saint that he is, he always gives me a get-out-of-jail card for violating Step 3. This is not to say he’s not annoyed with me. He understands my anxiety, and at the same time, I’m sure he wishes I would just stop. Marx added a footnote to Step 4 in her presentation, an important rule that causes a lot of fights: “My boyfriend and I have an ongoing argument about what constitutes a zone.”
In addition to being creative work collaborators, Marx and Chast are dear friends. They told the Somerville audience of a few hundred that they never fight. Chast attested to their closeness as well as to their fondness for playing their ukuleles together. “Patty and I have known each other since our childhood in Ukraine,” she said. “At one point, we called ourselves the ‘Ukular Meltdown’ and then the ‘Daily Pukuleles.’ We made the Cold War worse and have now been forgotten in pop culture.”
At one point, the two women took a Zelig-like turn in their presentation to appear in photoshopped pictures with the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. “We were the first ones to tell Dylan to go nasal,” they said. “And we told Joni Mitchell to grow out her pixie cut.”
Marx and Chast are the perfect team to dispense advice to couples. Their relationship is warm and supportive. They described their creative process as one in which they share ideas and then write and sketch them out together. “Collaborating with Patty [is wonderful],” Chast noted. “She has a visual sense, and I do some writing, so it’s a great combination. The late Harold Ross [the first editor of The New Yorker] used to describe cartoons as ‘idea drawings’ in which words become the cartoons.” If that’s the case, then Marx and Chast have mastered the art of executing idea drawings.
Bearing in mind that the following pieces of sage and relatable advice are paired with charming and comical cartoons, Marx and Chast offered the resulting observations during their January visit to Somerville:
- Beware of anyone who takes you to a walk-in dermatology clinic or a crime scene. It’s a sign that it’s not going to work out.
- Don’t walk ahead of your person unless you’re checking for landmines.
- It’s more fun being the pessimist than the optimist, so take turns.
- Queen-size beds—king-size blankets.
- Any two people living together is a mixed marriage.
- The answer to any question is yes.
- Lower your expectations for Valentine’s Day.
- Adultery Day! Have one day a month that you can pretend to be single. No questions asked the day after. (But don’t have Adultery Day on Valentine’s Day.)
A couple of reasons for being in a couple:
- Someone can watch your luggage at the airport.
- If you lose your cellphone in the house, someone can call the phone.
And perhaps very apropos and deliciously ironic for Valentine’s Day:
- Force yourself to say, “I love you.” It makes the other person feel guilty, and that always works to your advantage.