I've tried to ignore it, but it won't go away, so dutifully, I bring the matter to you: for something like three weeks running, a certain article has topped the Top Ten Most Popular E-mailed Articles list of the NY Times (it's been unseated from the #1 spot a few times, but inexplicably has popped back up again), which is a nearly unheard of phenomenon. I think you can file this under "Tempests in Teapots," but still -- it is a kind of news.
What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage by journalist Amy Sutherland is the hot-button article that's caused such a cybernetic flurry, and I don't entirely get it, but at least I'm not alone. Many a perplexed columnist has weighed in on this event, like Paige Rockwell over at Salon; even Maureen Dowd devoted a musing "what's the fuss?" column to it (How To Train a Woman).
The basic gist: Sutherland, who's written a book on animal training, has applied what she learned in the wild to the domestic front, using positive reinforcement (as opposed to nagging) to "train" her husband. You know, just like a pliable baboon. And it's done wonders for their marriage.
Cannily, Sutherland forestalls some obligatory outrage (though there has of course been plenty of that) by ending her discourse with a description of how her husband used her own techniques on her; evidently a wife can be trained with the same methods: goose, meet gander.
What's intriguing is that humans of both genders have apparently embraced as well as reviled the writer's report. Interviewed by Rockwell, Sutherland suggested the source of the article's popularity: "It hit on two universals. People love animals, and everyone wants marital advice."
Apparently the subtext is that human beings... are bloody ignorant apes. Given the often head-splitting complexities of the modern romantic relationship, Sutherland notes: "People are hungry for really simple techniques."
Or as Forrest Gump might have said, simple is as simple does (whatever the hell that means).
Thing is, though Jennifer Aniston's character in The Break-Up could have used a Sutherland technique on Vince Vaughn's slacker-ly mate (i.e. reward behavior you like and ignore behavior you don't), would she have managed to get him to not just do the dishes, but to want to do the dishes? More importantly, would he have been gone faster than a speeding puma once he realized he was being treated like a lowly beast?
I'm already hearing the typhoon-like clickety-clack of a thousand keyboards echoing across the Hollywood hills as any screenwriter with a Times subscription hurries to turn this material into a romantic comedy, but they may be too late. Watch the trades, 'cause I'll wager that this little sucker of a concept's already been pitched and sold. Animal Husbandry? Wifery? The mind reels, as if seasick.
In the meantime, are people glomming onto this issue because it's the same old common sense as "you catch more flies with honey" done up in a fresh package (The Dummy's Guide to Relationships), or is Sutherland truly offering news we can use? While I scratch my head (it's the simian in me), you take a look at this Shamu thing and tell me what you think.