The Wheels Go Round

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, April 13, 2008

MY SISTER threw me under the bus shortly after Barack Obama was accused of throwing his grandmother under the bus in his speech in which he did not throw his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, under the bus. And then I threw my husband under the bus. This was not long after an MSNBC reporter got thrown under the bus for a comment about Hillary Clinton "pimping" Chelsea, and Roger Clemens threw his wife under the bus when he said she had used human growth hormone. Bloggers and pundits inevitably started questioning the "under the bus" construction, rightly proclaiming us all sick of it, while many of us continue to be thrown, or to throw.

Is this a bad thing?

I am trying to remember if I had ever used the phrase before it lodged so suddenly and so firmly in the public's communal frontal lobe. I don't think I had, but the precise action it describes is important and not one that I am willing to, well, throw under the bus. It is not, at least in my usage, the same as betrayal. Not at all. It is more specific and collaborative than that.

My sister: She had to break the news to her 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, that the family would not be renting the same beloved beach house this summer, but instead would take a different one around the corner. No big deal. I told Claire: Just say it casually and talk up the new house. Claire knew better. The beach house, which her family and mine have shared for one week for many summers, represents tradition, and the coolness factor cannot be denied: a creaky old Victorian with crazy little rooms, hideaways, staircases, gardens, carvings on the trees and even a pool in the back yard. It is a fantasy house rich with memories and friendly ghosts and a destination to build a year on.

Elizabeth did not take the news well -- she sobbed and sobbed uncontrollably, wailing melodramatically: "Why??!"

"Oh, you should have blamed it on me," I said to Claire when she reported this. "Why didn't you just throw me under the bus?"

"I did!" she said. "It was the only thing I could think of. I just said you messed up." (I did not. The complex clerical error that resulted in the loss of the house had nothing to do with me.) "Well {lcub}hellip{rcub} good," I said. When done right, getting thrown under the bus feels {lcub}hellip{rcub} good. It's a sign of trust, of true connection between two people. It's a way of knowing that your relationship with someone is solid enough to withstand the utterly misplaced crush of blame.

Spouses should go ahead and regularly throw each other under the bus, especially when dealing with in-laws ("She never told me you wanted us to come to Sunday dinner!") and credit card companies complaining of late payments ("He put the wrong postage on the envelope! You'd think he'd know what a stinkin' stamp costs!") and, of course, teenagers asking for stuff you don't know how to deal with ("Your mother says you are not allowed to hang out with the girl with pierced nipples"). It's a sign of teamwork, of togetherness and, for heaven's sake, one of the reasons to be married.

My husband: I forgot, just completely forgot, to return the neighbor's weed whacker as promised last fall, and it sat in our garage, under a leaky roof, and I didn't notice the rust until the neighbor came over recently to ask for the weed whacker back.

"Oh, my husband said he would bring that over to you!" I said, thinking maybe he did say that, maybe he didn't, and realizing that, no, of course he didn't. My guilt somewhat assuaged by saving face, I offered to buy a new weed whacker, which the neighbor accepted, and we shook our heads at how absent-minded husbands can be. "Heh, heh," I said. "Oh, it's crazy running around keeping track of everything for him." (It is not. In fact, the reverse is alleged to be the case.)

When I told my husband I threw him under the bus for the rusted weed whacker, he said, "Good job." And he meant it. A happy spouse knows that reducing the everyday stresses of the world is honorable work.

Politicians and pundits need to stop throwing one another under the bus if only because they are getting sloppy with the definition and will soon rob the rest of us of a perfectly functioning relational tool. You throw people you love under the bus, and you do it to make yourself seem vaguely more acceptable to others, all the while knowing that your loved one would likewise throw you: You are each other's shield.

Barack Obama did not throw his grandmother under the bus when he made the point that she, a white woman, expressed a fear of African American males. He made an observation about race in America that we don't like looking at: We are all mixed up. That's a statement with at least a century's worth of nuance to consider.

There is no room for nuance when you are throwing someone under a bus. My sister threw me under the bus. I threw my husband under the bus. Nothing fancy, nothing subtle, a basic inconvenience of being loved. Let's just all be thankful that another bus is due to come by in a few minutes.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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