Dorothy Wilhelm: When the grumbling begins, toss out a penalty flag

Contributing writerNovember 3, 2012 

It was an ordinary yellow penalty flag; the sort you’d see the referee dropping on the field at any football game. That penalty flag whizzed the length of the table, missing Bob’s left ear and plopping down next to his mashed potatoes. Startled, Bob glanced up the table to where his wife, Sally, was eying him severely and flashing the straight arm, hands up signal for “interference” that any football fan would recognize.

“He was interfering with my story,” Sally told me later. “He doesn’t understand that a story is not a scientific paper. It doesn’t have to be factual.”

This is a common dilemma for a fun-loving storyteller who is married to a fact-loving spouse – most often an electrical engineer – who needs to bring her best stories down to accuracy. This is, of course, ridiculous. If you’ve got a good story to tell, the last thing you want interfering are facts. The penalty flag is this couple’s light-hearted solution to what could grow into a real problem.

“I was doing some sewing and I had some yellow material. It just came to me,” Sally said modestly. “Bob is both 100 percent German and a Taurus. He requires frequent stirring or he will turn into a tree.” (Author’s note: I’m not even going to try to guess what that means.)

“I never know what to expect,” said Bob, who happily appeared to be stirred, not shaken.

I wasn’t there at that dinner. (Note to self: Find out why Bob and Sally never invite me to their parties.) But as I reconstruct the incident, I think you’ve got to admire someone who can take a problem into her own hands – and throw it.

“A pretend fight is a lot more fun than a real one,” Sally observes. “Most of our penalties are ‘interference’ or ‘illegal motion,’ ” she says.

Sally cautions that you can’t throw the flag too often. “Nobody likes a referee,” she says.

Just imagine the possibilities. In these days when everything is settled on Facebook by a variety of “friends” you never heard of or by texting (which in my case is misspelled and misunderstood), it is important to keep looking for and finding ways to connect and laugh together.

Many years ago, before Facebook, my mother and I had a genuine knock-down-drag-out, write-to-Dear-Abby and I’ll-never-speak-to-you-again sort of fight. There should have been at least an “excessive pouting and moderate profanity” penalty flag or something to bring laughter into the situation. But nobody laughed, and the stony silence dragged on and even required the mediation of my oldest daughter in her official position as senior grandchild.

No progress.

Finally, Mom sent me a package. There was a moldy, moth-eaten, stuffed, fake bird inside, with a note. “This is the Dove of Peace,” she wrote. “It’s pretty beaten up, and I think the time has come for us to let him out while he’s still alive.”

I wish I still had that dove.

Some ideas that have worked for me: Try softening up fortune cookies one or two at a time in a 300-degree oven and replace the commercial fortunes with your own personal ones to pass around. Red noses work, as a reminder that laughter is always welcome. I carry them with me, and if you ask me, I’ll have a previously unused red nose in my pocket to give you.

Last week, I was telling my tai chi class a pertinent and delightful story when suddenly an unidentified yellow thing streaked through the air and landed at my feet. Sally stood there with folded arms. Does that mean “Delay of Game” or “Eject the Player?”

I picked up the flag and went home. Now if there’s discord at the Thanksgiving table, I’m ready. I’m just waiting for my chance. Let tempers flare. I’ve got my penalty flag ready and I’m not afraid to use it.

Contact Dorothy Wilhelm at P.O. Box 881, DuPont, WA 98327; 800-548-9264; or She’s written a book, “No Assembly Required.”

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