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Close to Home: Ping-pong balls and barges

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While pan fishing on the Mississippi I have the opportunity to observe barges slowly going up or down river. There is never any erratic movement, just a long, slow motion as the barges move toward their destination. A psychologist told me that men are like barges. They have their destination in mind and generally do not notice what is going on between themselves and their goal. Well, it may not be true for all men, but I’ve witnessed it, myself. My husband Dave can walk right past me, never seeing me as he makes his way from garage to shop, his mind on his next project. It’s funny.

Mr. Psychologist said that women are like ping-pong balls. They aren’t multi-tasking, but rather are moving through their day sort of like a ball bouncing back and forth on a table. I do that. I talk to my sister on the phone while I’m doing dishes, the washing machine humming in the background, bread already baking in the oven. My attention flits to this and to that with very little effort. He also said that this ability to move from here to there with such ease is a result of evolution. An early human woman needed to keep the fire going, forage for nuts and berries, watch for wild animals, maybe make clothing, all the while keeping those in her charge safe. It was a survival technique. What was the man in her life doing while she was keeping all those balls in the air?

Hunting. An early human man out on the hunt with a spear or bow and arrow had to keep his eye on the goal. When his prey came in sight, he had to watch it, never glancing away even for a moment, lest he miss his one opportunity to let the spear or arrow fly. He only got one chance. If he missed, the hunt for another target would be on again, making for a rather long day.

Could this be the reason the buns burnt on the woodstove? One evening last November the electricity went out just as we were making supper. Dave was outside, grilling hamburgers. I was inside, getting things on the table. I lit candles, got a couple flashlights, and continued supper preparations. I buttered some good hard rolls and laid them open-faced on the kitchen cookstove griddle. Dave came in and out of the house, enjoying the novelty of the situation. He even took out his cell phone and photographed me at the woodstove, standing over the buns.

Then I made a bad play in my game of ping-pong that evening. I decided to call my brother, Mike. He had COVID-19, and I wanted to see how he was doing. With cell reception somewhat dicey in our little hollow, I decided to use the trendline corded telephone, the kind that sits on a shelf, and does not need electricity to work. It’s in an upstairs room and used only as a last resort. I put the griddle on a trivet, still over the heat, and went to make my call. As Mike and I talked, I could smell the buns from my position at the far end of the room. Certain that Dave was monitoring things, I talked away, but became increasingly aware that the buns were burning. Where was Dave? What was he doing? I didn’t want to yell to him, as we were working on talking to each other only while in the same room, making for better communication.

I got off the phone and followed my flashlight beam to the kitchen, where the buns were burning. Dave was in the dining room, sitting at the table, staring straight ahead at a lit candle, apparently deep in thought. I raised my voice more than a little. What was he thinking? His response was, “What buns?” He said that he didn’t see the buns; he only saw me at the woodstove. “What do you mean you didn’t see the buns — you took a picture! You didn’t smell them burning?” No, he didn’t. I should have laughed, but I didn’t. I am embarrassed to say that the night didn’t end in a pretty way.

Now, as I write this, I am laughing. It was so ridiculous. The next day as he scrolled through his photos, there was the photo of me and the buns at the woodstove. Dave’s ability to concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of everything else is finely honed. Hunter. Focused. Barge.

I didn’t know about the ping-pong ball and barge analogy when we had this little adventure. If I had, I might have pointed the buns out to Dave before I made my phone call, and the outcome would have been different. I know it now, though. One more tool in my communication toolbox to use when the lights go out.

Doreen moved to the woods from Green Bay in 1984, married back-to-the-lander Steve O’Donnell, and stayed to raise their three children after he died in 1997. Dave Short joined her there in 2016. Doreen welcomes feedback at


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