Living With a High-Tech Spouse

By Eve Kushner
This essay appeared on the op-ed page of the San Francisco Chronicle on September 2, 1998.

At dinner, he asks about my day. “It was good,” I respond. “The Wales piece is finally coming together.”

“Wonderful!” he says. “How’d you change it?”

When he last read it, we discussed pacing, tone, and characterization. To be sure, he’s a left-brained engineer, not a literary critic. But after our eight years together, he has learned to assess my writing. He determines what’s working and how the piece could improve.

Tonight, over spaghetti, I explain that I’ve made one character more complex and shifted the thematic emphasis. He nods his approval.

“But how was your day?” I ask.

“Fine,” he answers. “Busy.”

“Mmm,” I say, twirling the pasta into a manageable clump. “How’s your work?”

He frowns. “Lots to do.”

High Tech Donkey
When I don’t understand my husband’s work, I feel like such an ass.

“Mmm,” I say again, wondering where to probe next. I inquire about his lunch, his co-workers, the company’s cash flow. And then I’m at a loss. I’d love to say, “How’s that cell characterization eval going? Are the results matching the silicon?” Later, I’d ask, “Are there any constraint violations, or is the circuit timed synchronously?” But even if I mastered these openers, I’d have no idea what to do with the answers. It’s been this way for years. What’s worse, he changes jobs annually. Every time he does, I make him describe his new work until I can summarize it in a sentence. “I see,” I’ll say after 20 minutes. “You make software that helps people create hardware.” Or “You analyze circuits to see where they’re inefficient.”

“That’s right!” he’ll exult.

Even though I’ve missed 90 percent of his explanation, I’ve boiled it down to a sentence. Now, when people ask what my husband does, I won’t look like a total idiot. There are times, though, when I just can’t grasp his meaning. We isolate terms that stump me, but the definitions involve other high-tech words: object-oriented databases, logic synthesis, flip-flop vector optimization. The words refuse to lodge in my brain. To understand, I’d need a refresher course in physics. We’ve gone over the basic ideas, but they traumatize me all over again. I recall the bowling balls and pendulums that I never understood.

Equations start floating before my eyes, and I remember how my bearded teacher presented them with a goofy grin, feeling that they embodied the essence of life. To me, they never stopped being letters and numbers. If I wanted to sum up life’s essence, I’d look to words from Sartre or Camus, not physics.

I never dreamed I’d marry a man who saw things just as my physics teacher did. Or that I’d have conversations like the one last Sunday.

As we lazed in bed, savoring the morning sunlight, we launched into a discussion of electromagnetism. He noted that our bedroom fan creates an electromagnetic field. Alarmed that such fields are somehow linked to cancer, I asked for a quick definition. “Well,” he began, “we’ve got energy moving through a coil, right?”

“I don’t see a coil.”

“There’s one inside.”

“OK,” I said.

“And you remember Faraday’s law, don’t you?”

I laughed. He actually thought I could recall Faraday’s law if I felt like it. “No, but it sounds familiar.”

“Do you want to know?” he offered.

“No, that’s OK.”

I lay back, wishing I’d been more open to physics in high school. Maybe something would have stuck. It never seemed relevant, though. Boyle’s law. Newton’s laws. They couldn’t help me through adolescence, and they’d do even less for my writing. But oh, what they could have done for my marriage!

Eve Kushner is a freelance writer in Berkeley.