Dear Nick and Dear Nora:
During a joint session, Rose and Paul frequently resorted to “high context” communication, which made parts of the conversation unintelligible to me. A “high context” communication is one that requires knowledge extrinsic to the immediate exchange in order to be understood.
Professional education is largely involved in teaching students a vocabulary that’s deep and different from common usage. This “jargon” creates a vernacular that allows its users to talk about specialized subjects for which ordinary language is inadequate. This is the “context” for a high context conversation.
However recondite the professional jargon is to the outsider, its mystery pales in comparison to the patois created during the life of a family. A family’s intimate interactions generate a context making possible the exchange of complex messages with an economy of word and gesture. These communications are clearly understood by members of the family but cryptic to everyone else.
The context for exchanges between Rose and Paul included facts specific to both her family of origin and Paul’s extended family of origin — which includes a woman (now a physician living in Santa Barbara) who has been Paul’s best friend since the first day of kindergarten and who is Paul’s father’s protégée. While Paul told me about Laura, what he left out made her more mysterious than when she was only a name used scornfully by Rose.
When asked about Rose’s family Paul said, “It starts with grease.”
That was the opening for an extended story, so he agreed to meet with me alone — and that’s where we begin …
“Grease. You said that Rose’s family begins with ‘grease.’ Is that some kind of a put-down?”
Paul clarified, “There have been people who have thought so and the joke turned out to be on them. Rose’s family is in the grease-reclamation business. It’s a huge industry where there is still an opportunity for small, smart and motivated operators, especially families, to make a lot of money.”
“What kind of grease?”
“Cooking grease, mostly from restaurants.”
“What do they do with it?”
“They scheme, maneuver and enter into hardball negotiations to get the rights to it. Then they collect it, transport it to one of their rendering facilities and sell it as biofuel.”
“Where does the grease come from?”
“I just told you — restaurants.”
“Oh, all over the southwest. They’ve been at it for 20 years and have a system. They analyze possible locations where they can convert an old, low-cost industrial facility into one that can render grease. Then, they study and survey the area to see if they can outbid competitors to get enough grease to justify the cost of the rendering plant. If so, the plant’s converted and tanker trucks are brought in along with everyone in Rose’s family who knows exactly what to say and do to get the grease.
“They have a great time doing it. Rose’s mom is pretty and funny, so she gets the contracts from guys who want to deal with an attractive woman. Rose’s dad and brothers are jocks. They all lettered in four sports, so they can talk to anyone about any sport, and they have — or can get — tickets to any sporting event. They are all ultra-competitive and love a contest — even a fight — so they love it when they have to go head-to-head with another company to get someone’s old grease. Rose’s brother Joe, a sweet guy who likes to go into bars and play piano, has a scar that runs through his right eyebrow in a way that makes him look like a killer. He has a convincing “enforcer” act, though he says he can’t stay in role for more than an hour.
“They are all characters. They’ve got a business that sounds gross, and they love it. It’s made and it’s keeping them rich, and they have a lot of fun running it."
I stated the obvious: “And you married into it.”
“I did. I told you, they were the exact opposites of my doctor-dad and my wise, do-good mom."
“And the perfect Laura?” I asked.
Paul replied, “Whoever said, ‘No one is perfect,’ didn’t grow up with someone like Laura. But even so, she can’t be all things to all people. She can’t be all things even to herself, so human perfection might be overrated.”
I asked, “How is Rose’s family taking the breakup?”
“Not well. In her way, Rose is to her parents and brothers what Laura is to my family. She’s a great package; I married her and then walked away as soon as she started the next generation.”
“Are they angry with you?”
“What do you think? Of course they’re angry with me. Very angry.”
“How do you know?”
“What if some guy married Laura and left her with a brand new baby? I’d be homicidal. So would my mom and dad — not to speak of hers. That’s one way I know. I also get direct reports from Rose. Rose lets me know verbatim what each has last said about me.”
“Is it bad?”
“It’s extreme, but it’s the way they all talk, lots of drama. If I’m in a certain mood — usually when I’m feeling guilty — it can be scary. It can also be funny. A couple of times Rose has told me about how her mom said this, and then her dad said that, and then Joe said another thing. Then, she and I realize at the same moment that they were being facetious, and she was so deep into her own stuff that she took them literally.
“This is a Bad Thing To Do in Rose’s family. You are supposed to know when they are being ironic, sarcastic or facetious; if you can’t tell one from the other, you don’t know what’s going on with them. Unlike my family, they have fun with language; actually, they often make fun of language. I like it, but you have to pay attention.”
“So when you and Rose realize that she’s gotten it wrong, what happens?”
"She laughs. I laugh. It’s a joke within a joke because I’m usually the one who has misunderstood her family and she’s the one to correct me — or I’ve had to ask her, ‘What are these people — your people — talking about?’”
“So then what happens — between you and Rose?"
“She remembers another reason for being angry with me.”
“Do you think she uses the divorce to put on a show for her family, and if she does, do you think they encourage her?”
Paul took time to think about the question. “The answer is yes to both questions,” he finally said.
During this conversation Paul described sufficient facts for him to form a theory about what was happening in his case. With a provisional “conjecture” in mind, he could test its accuracy by predicting the effect of a deliberate action. After taking that action, he could compare its real effect to the predicted effect and revise his model accordingly. “Reflective practice,” described in earlier letters, is the methodology I’m using for this mediation. Paul is beginning to use the same method in a private and individual setting. If he can exercise enough patience and objectivity, it will work very well for him, for Rose, for the baby and for everyone else in their families.
This conversation was the turning point in the mediation, so I‘ll use two or three letters to describe what was said, why it was important and how it will affect the unfolding of the case.
[John Colapinto’s extended article on the grease business appears in the Nov. 18, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.]
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.