A few years ago my wife Joyce and I bought tickets for the ultimate experience, a 23-day motor-coach tour of Europe. A few days later a friend stopped by my desk at the office.
I had never seen him so serious.
"I heard about your trip," Billy said. "I want to tell you something that just might be the most important advice you'll ever get."
"You know," he went on, "that spending 24 hours a day with a loved one, week and in and week out, can be very dangerous."
"To your marriage," he said.
I reminded him that my wife and I had been together a lot of years. "Billy," I said, "how could it be dangerous?"
He paused for a moment as if he wasn't sure he wanted to confide in me.
"You know, Sylvia and I have been together a lot of years, too, but during that trip we took to Germany, it almost got to the 'D' word."
"The 'D' word?"
Seeing that I didn't understand, he leaned closer and almost whispered. The word was "divorce."
"And you know what the answer is?" he went on. "Space. You got to give each other space."
Somebody yelled that Billy had a telephone call. He moved to the door.
"Want my advice? When you go on your trip, take a book. A good, big book."
"You mean instead of Joyce?" I said.
"Hey, that's cute," said Billy, not laughing.
"We're going to Europe," I said. "We're going to have enough to handle just seeing the sights."
"That," said Billy, "is not when you'll need the book."
He told me he'd catch me later and went to take his telephone call. But he didn't catch me later and I immediately discounted the advice. I had my reasons.
You see, there's a genetic failing in my family. It's not like being born with the Hapsburg Lip or extra fingers or toes. It's worse.
It's readaholism . My paternal grandfather was such an avid reader that he could read and play the harmonica at the same time.
He could also read and talk to my grandmother at the same time. She didn't like that. In fact, it's been said she quit speaking to him for a while to punish him, but he didn't notice. My father was also a voracious reader. He read at the table, in the bathroom, on streetcars, buses and while walking. He'd even read in the living room while the radio was on. That he'd read during "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round" and "The American Album of Familiar Music" was understandable. But during "One Man's Family" and "Jack Benny"? My sister and I couldn't understand that, let alone my mother.
"Don't you realize," she used to say, "always burying your nose in a book is as much as telling me you don't like my company?"
His eyes would always kind of slip out of focus on that one. He'd close his book and walk around the room for a while to show he could do other things. Then, he'd count his pocket change and announce he was going down to the drugstore for a cigar. Which also got to my mother.
It wasn't any one thing that caused my parents' marriage to fail, but it did seem his reading habits had a lot to do with it, just as they had probably figured in the "cooling" of his father's marriage.
So, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, I had resolved early in my life to be very careful in that particular area.
I do read at the table, but only during breakfast and that's because I'm an early riser and eat my breakfast alone.
But you can see why I didn't even consider Billy's advice till about the second week of our tour, when it was suddenly brought to my attention.
We were in our hotel room in Sorrento, Italy. Joyce was putting on her makeup and I was helping her by walking up and down, with my hands in my back pockets, asking her if she was "ready yet" about every two minutes. She finally stopped applying her makeup, turned to me with one eye made up and the other not--a fairly sinister picture--and asked, "Don't you have anything else to do, like falling out a window or something?"
"Boy," I said, "putting on makeup sure makes you testy."
She gave me that baleful stare for a few seconds. "No," she said, "I am not testy. I'm about half-bonkers from having you around while I'm trying to put on my makeup. That's the problem. Don't you have a book to read or something?"
"Read a book? No, no, that's not being much company."
"Read a book!" she said. "Stop hovering!"
It all came together then, the things Billy had said. And I wondered how close I, too, had come to hearing the "D" word. Billy had told me to take a book and give your loved one some space. I went down to the hotel shops to check out the bookracks.
Since that time I've never gone on a trip without taking a book along. It really was some of the best advice I ever had. During those earlier weeks it seemed like I had spent a lot of time standing around fidgeting, while Joyce was putting on makeup, or giving something a little touch-up with her travel iron, or shopping.
Now I never have to wait anymore. "Waiting" is anticipating something while doing nothing. With a book and a chair, a park bench, fire hydrant, curbstone, patch of lawn or a little floor space, I've got plenty to do.
And I'm managing to keep it under control, too. For instance, I still don't read at the table except during breakfast, and then it's usually just the papers.
Of course, if I happen to get up a little earlier than usual, rather than just wait for the papers or reading cereal boxes and milk cartons over and over, I might glance at a book.
Choosing the right one can be a lot easier if you just check the book reviews. But take a book anyway. Even a bad one can help you sleep.