Putting Yourself in Parentheses


by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

In Nick Hornby’s charming and disarmingly thought-provoking new book, Funny Girl, we meet a group of people working on or near a 1960s U.K. television comedy called Barbara (and Jim). A dazzling and talented young actress who calls herself Sophie Straw is cast as Barbara, and the show blends her instinctive and spectacular comedic timing with her approachable beauty. Clive, the seasoned actor who plays her husband, finds himself determined to perform better than ever, inspired by the sheer talent and force of nature that is Sophie.

Along with Sophie and Clive, the novel explores the complicated and touching relationships of—among others—the writers, Tony and Bill, and the series’ producer, Dennis, and his wife, Edith. Between the tales of backstage turmoil and script challenges, I found myself immersed in complex relationships that were often heart wrenching, sometimes touching, and all bursting with situations and choices that would never translate into a madcap series of misadventures, no matter how much you hope for tidy endings for everyone.

With everything Hornby writes, I find myself considering aspects of his work long after I’ve closed the book. In this case, one of the things I keep thinking about is the show’s title, Barbara (and Jim). After considering and trying out a number of options, the writers and producer choose it because it clearly conveys that Barbara is the lead, gamely and lovingly supported by her husband, Jim. Their decision notwithstanding, they faced a challenge selling old Clive on the concept: “You’re saying that my character is now parenthetical?” he asks. “It’s just a little joke. To show that she’s the boss” is their answer.

Well, it worked for Clive. But then I started wondering: Who is in the parentheses in my marriage?

Before we go there, here’s a little reminder about what grammar has to say about parentheses. They “enclose information that clarifies or is used as an aside.” Writers use them to identify information that could be considered less important, an afterthought. Great. That’s encouraging.

Think about the couples you know. Whose name comes first in your mind or in your speech? Why? In the case of family members and their partners, maybe your relative comes first. With friends, it’s probably the friend you’ve known longer. Do they ever switch positions? Maybe, but it probably sounds “wrong” when they do.

Moving on to your own marriage or your own partnership: Who is in the brackets—excuse me, parentheses? (Brackets are entirely different grammar tools.) That order may change, depending on who is referring to you. But forget the rest of the world: What order do you use? And now ask yourself: Does it matter? Maybe not, but consider this about your relationship: One of you may be subconsciously costarring in the other’s life. One of you gets to rely on your partner being the wind beneath your wings, if you will (and I won’t, but you get my meaning). Then again, one of you is the wind…that never lets up, that never diminishes, that keeps someone aloft and soaring in the midst of life’s uncertainties.

That’s spectacular. Until you run out of wind. Then what?

It’s possible that this is of no consequence and who is first and who is second is simply habit or a speech tic. But it’s also possible that we put people in parentheses because they are (sort of, maybe, kind of) “an afterthought.” OK, maybe not literally, but one person may be the stronger personality, the energy that creates the public face of a couple. Top billing matters on Broadway and in the movies, but the question is whether or not it counts for anything in real life. In a partnership of two, must there be a star? Is every duo destined to be a Simon and Garfunkel? A John and Yoko? A Jay Z and Beyonce?

I imagine some people sit squarely and comfortably within their own “couple parentheses,” and God bless. If that means they’re healthy, happy and content, they’re already way ahead of most of us. But I do wonder. Instead of resisting them, embracing the parens and what they imply could be the smartest thing any of us can do. When we feel stress or sadness or uncertainty, it may be time to take shelter in their little arms. Take a breath and admit to your partner: “I’m still here, but I need to be in the parentheses for a little while. I’ll be in the background until I figure a few things out. Thanks, honey.”

Barbara (and Jim). (And Nick). They may be onto something here.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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3 Responses to Putting Yourself in Parentheses

  1. Donna in Delaware May 1, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Interesting article. I found myself thinking about this a month or two ago (isn’t it funny what I think about?) not realizing that someone else may be thinking about it also. When I send out invitations, or introduce couples to other couples, I tend to put the man first (most times). I am not sure if that is because society and etiquette states that it should be done this way, or it just somehow sounds better to the ear.

    Of late, I have been introducing the woman first, of the couple, just to “change it up a bit,” but somehow it didn’t sound the way that it use to. It wasn’t “correct” to the ear. Lately I have switched back, for some strange reason, but I find myself going back and forth, maybe to give balance to the relationship, maybe just to be progressive. Maybe it’s just how it is in life. Anyway, it is interesting how much we do certain things because it is ingrained in us. Even if we try to change it, we somehow go back to the way it was before.

    Whenever my husband hears the Bette Midler song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” he gets tears in his eyes and tells me, “You are the wind beneath mine, I tell everyone we know.” Well, that took the “wind” out of me! That was unexpected and kind, but actually, he is the wind beneath my wings, I just haven’t told him so, but he is. Maybe we compliment each other so much (not sure about that) that we don’t feel the need to introduce each other one way or the other. When we are together at some function, he introduces me first, and vice-versa.

    I don’t know what the parenthesis actually mean in this instance, but it is worth pondering.

  2. renee May 5, 2015 at 8:05 am #

    Thanks for your note, Donna. I appreciate your thoughtful response!

    Truth is, it may not matter much at all – and in the novel, the order of the character’s names was certainly indicative of hierarchy in the couple. I guess what I wonder most is this: what if it does matter and what if decades of being figuratively in the parentheses has an impact on someone?

    Doesn’t even need to be a couple. Children, too, seem to get lined up by birth order which means someone is always first and someone is always last. (I tend to vary the order I jot down the names of my kids when I list them anywhere. Not sure if it makes a difference to anyone but me!)

    I’ve been thinking about this whole construct for a few months now – since I read the book – and figured it was time to gather my thoughts about hit hereon the blog. As I told Maria, this forum has been a welcome outlet for sharing, venting, learning and bonding. Thank you for your support !

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