Welcome back to a new episode of Trading Spouses, where we have the opportunity to root out America’s most bizarre families that could be lurking behind the doors of a home near you...dare I say your very block? Next door? The calls are coming from within the house! If you are a regular viewer of this show, you’re like me - starting to see your neighbor’s quirks as hiding deep, disturbing habits that should never see the light of day. Does the widower down the street shuffle out to get the paper barefoot because he’s too lazy to put on his slippers, or does he believe shoe-wearing people are helplessly co-dependent on their enabling footware? Is the woman feeding pigeons in the park a bird-lover, or is she equating their feathery state of being with tool-bearing humanity? And are the Chinese a charismatic group of go-getters bent on taking over the world? Huh? Think I’ve strayed off-topic? Not in the rich cornucopia of life that is Trading Spouses.
Taoism For Dummies
Nestled between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Pacific Ocean is the bustling community of Santa Cruz, long known for its high content of hippie-granola types. This seaside California town is home to Leslie and Carl Abbot, and their sons, Luke, 18, and Kyle, 14. The Abbots are your typical ... well, they are not typical anything. Last time I checked, your garden-variety hippy wore Birkenstocks. This family chooses to not wear shoes “as a matter of principle,” as Carl tells us. After all, “people who are dependent on shoes can’t not wear shoes.” Clarity dawns. Until this moment I never realized what a disfunctional relationship I carry on with my sensible Lands End slipper-mocs.
The no-shoes theory comes from their belief in Taoism, which they have trouble explaining, but essentially boils down to this: keep it simple, stupid. Among the trappings of modern life they find extraneous are chairs, tables and beds. After all, furniture is “just an odd human development.” They live in a pleasant two-story Victorian, filled with, well, not much. But there’s plenty of room to stretch out a yoga mat, which they do on a daily basis. The sons are home-schooled and seem to be stuck on a first-grade science experiment involving paperclips. Carl has the time to instruct his sons because he inherited enough property from his father that he doesn’t need a job to support them in their chosen lifestyle. But it’s not like they’re buying designer shoes at the drop of a hat like those gals on Sex and the City, is it?
Carl has a full white beard, and has no compunction about performing yoga shirtless for the camera. I always wished I could see a gangly Santa look-a-like contort his body in nothing more than a pair of navy walking shorts, but it’s not the eye-candy fest I’d imagined. Carl found his soulmate, we learn, by writing a “Dear Woman” letter and distributing it to one hundred people. Leslie read the letter and found him intriguing, but I find his constant Taoist expressions - “people are ducks and ducks are people”- ringing off the pomposity scale. For example, he tells us it’s not easy living with him. But he says it like this: he looks at the ceiling, groans, then looks at the camera with his eyes half-closed, looking annoyed. “I’m not the EASIEST person to LIVE with,” as if it’s something to be proud of. No argument here, Shirtless Yoga Santa.
We learn that the Abbotts like to play bluegrass on the street together, bare feet and all. I bet they’re big favorites of the homeless people in downtown Santa Cruz, who have to be one-upped by the barefoot family. They leave their guitar case open, and the cash piles in. Musically, the boys can pick like crazy and they’ve got a pleasant four-part harmony going on. Nice.
You Only Thought You Were Crazy
Next, we meet the Lowe family from Nashville, Tennessee: married folks Vickie and George, and their children, Hope, 19 and George Jr, 16. It’s not easy having two George’s in the house, so they both have nicknames - which both happen to be Ricky. At least that’s what it sounded like; father and son both switch back and forth during the episode.
Vickie describes herself as crazy and loud and wild, oh my! We see scenes of Vickie crashing on the leather sofa, tickling her grown kids, and giving Hope a wedgie. Sure, it’s crazy, but not in a we don’t believe in furniture type of way. One notable quirk of Vickie, though, is that she has the vocabulary of a drunken stevedore. She swears up a storm over nothing. As for her philosophy of parenting, she tells us she believes in giving her children freedom and space. She will soon learn that’s not the same as giving your children freedom from furniture and acting like you’re from outer space.
Leslie bids goodbye to her family. They huddle in a group hug while the taxi waits in the pre-dawn darkness. The two boys admit to having nervous tummies at the thought of mom leaving, and Leslie cries a little to be leaving her kids for a full week. Carl remains stoic. It’s a perfect opportunity for him to pontificate on his wife, whom he finds more attached to the family unit than he is. Furthermore, he’s not about to cry over her departure, since he believes tears are not real, but an exercise in self-pity. Ouch! Granola he may be, but touchy-feely he is not.
On the receiving end in Tennessee, George Sr. (or is he Ricky today?) is nervous, because he doesn’t know what to expect. In California, the three Abbott men are unsure if they will greet the new mom with a hug, a bow, or a handshake. Can we stand the suspense all the way through a commercial for Sponge Bob wrist watches?
Lo and behold, Leslie arrives, multiple guitars in tow. We hear their first impressions of each other - Ricky is “different” than Carl, Leslie is “older” than his wife. No one mentions the elephant in the corner, namely, that the families are of different races. It could be chalked up to editing, but more likely, it just didn’t matter one whit for these two families - they had a lot of ways to measure their differences before falling back on the old standbys.
As for Vickie, she emerges into the California sunshine to greet the Abbots. As Carl awkwardly asks if she’s a “bower” or a “hugger,” she ignores him and gives him a big old hug. The teenagers aren’t allowed to get away with a handshake, either. Thus ends the great “shall we hug” suspense of the episode.
From there, it’s all downhill for Vickie. On the ride home, she learns that the family doesn’t have coffee, although why a Taoist can’t drink caffeine is left unexplained. She asks the boys if they have a television, and when they answer “no”, she wants to know if they’ve seen Beyonce dance. Their befuddled responses says it all: Be-yon-say-what? Vickie doesn’t know whether to laugh or cuss, so she does both. Bleepin' bleep!
Pull Up a Chair, Friend - Oh, Wait, We Don't Have Any
Mrs. Taoist arrives at the Lowe homestead - a large, brick building on a spacious patch of lawn. Hope Lowe is peeking through the curtains, and whispers to her brother that the new mom looks mean. But they both go outside and extend a friendly hand to Leslie. George Jr. even carries her bags in like a proper Southern gentleman. (Note to self: now Ricky seems to be the Dad, George is the son. Got it.)
A tour of the house ensues, and Leslie makes what I can only assume are Tao-influenced comments like “there’s a lot of rooms” and “they have a lot of furniture.” *sigh* Even Lao Tsu used an adjective now and then. Okay, this is what I saw - large, spacious rooms filled with gorgeous, tasteful furniture. They walk through room after room filled with hardwood sleigh beds, glass dining room tables, and overstuffed leather sofas. And we can’t forget the four bathrooms, one of which includes a jacuzzi. By this point, Leslie’s stoic assessment cracks a little; she’s worried about what Vickie will think of her house in California.
Back at the Abbot homestead, Vickie has just discovered that the menfolk are all barefoot. She asks if she will be required to leave off her shoes, and Carl tells her it’s not necessary. So far the niceties are being preserved, well, nicely.
When Vickie enters the house, she takes off her sunglasses, but there’s no table in the entryway to plop them down on. In fact, there’s no chair to sling her purse on. Good golly, there’s nothing but a few bookshelves and plants! Where’s the TV? Forget that, where’s the couch? Oh Vickie, you and your dependency on “odd human developments.” Luckily, the Abbots have running hot water - something Vickie makes sure is in the cards, or she’s not staying - and there is a back sitting room with a futon. Trust me, her knees are breathing a sigh of relief to find a few scraps of furniture for her use.
The real shock comes when Vickie learns that the Abbotts sleep in a “family bed,” which is somebody’s theory about primitive societies sharing their sleep space. I’ve never heard anyone advocate the family bed for kids beyond the age of four, but in this house, it’s parents and teens sleeping together in “the jungle.” Mom and Dad seem to have a mattress at least, but Luke and Kyle are relegated to mats and blankets. Aesthetically, I’d like to add that sleeping on the floor en masse makes for an overall sloppy look to a room. It’s hard to make a bed when there’s no, you know, bed. It just looks like a jumble of blankets and pillows no matter what you do.
Vickie’s take on the Abbotts is that they are “earthly” people. Scratch that, they’re “like Amish” people. Okay, so she’s not too clear what they are, but we can see that she’s struggling with the thought of the mother and the father and the kids all in one...never mind, you get the picture. My head’s still reeling at the thought, too.
No One Laughs During Yoga. Seriously.
It’s 5:38 A.M., and a pair of feet can be seen upside down through the upstairs window of the Abbott house. Eerie flute music plays, and it’s not the Trading Spouses soundtrack, but Luke and Kyle, making toneless sounds on exotic-looking instruments. The racket wakes up Vickie, sleeping on either a mat or futon - neither of which is the plush-looking dark cherry sleigh bed she left behind in Tennessee. She heads upstairs to investigate, and walks in to find Luke, Kyle and Carl, standing on their heads. Excellent timing.
Vickie is invited to join, and she enthusiastically plunges in. Carl is pleased that she is willing to give yoga a try, but his face looks more strained as Vickie (as she puts it) says a “whole lotta four-letter words.” It’s not the peaceful atmosphere the Abbott yoga team is used to, and as Vickie cusses and chortles her way through the routine, the Abbotts grow grimmer and quieter. At the sight of Carl Abbott folding himself into a wrinkly little Santa pretzel, Vickie does not hold back on the laughter, literally rolling on the floor. By the time Vickie tells Luke that she has a “cramp in her ****”, he can barely bring himself to smile in response. That doesn’t stop her from enjoying the experience, or from announcing that she has to fart, then running out of the room. Despite the constant giggling, yoga took a toll on Vickie, and she declares that she will never do yoga again.
Back in Tennessee, Team Yoga’s long-lost member is carrying on with the program. Leslie gets up early, slaps down a mat, and gets right down to it, stretching and balancing like a pro. Eventually, the sleeping family is a challenge to morning-person Leslie, who trots upstairs to wake Hope and her father. She assembles them for an impromptu yoga class. “How about you set up there and I set up here?” asks Hope, pointing at the couch. She never raises her voice, but Leslie nags, prods and fusses at Hope to participate until the girl declares she has to go to the bathroom, then slips back into her warm, comfy bed.
Despite Leslie’s meek demeanor and lack of superlative adjectives, she’s quite the pit bull when it comes to dealing with Hope. Ricky tells Leslie that it’s too much to expect Hope to change all in one day, but Leslie’s not content with platitudes. She charges up to Hope’s room, finds her in bed, and pours on another dose of nagging. Hope tells Leslie that she stretches up to turn the water on when she takes a shower - and that’s the limit of her exercise. Maybe it’s the lack of showers in her own home (apparently baths are preferable to Taoists - less of that complicated water splattering in chaotic directions) but Leslie finally gives up, leaving Hope to cover her head with blankets and go back to sleep.
Plum Crazy, Part One
Carl Abbott invites Vickie to church, which is conducted in his own basement. Yeah, that can’t be good.
The service consists of the Abbotts sitting cross-legged on a bare floor in meditation. Occasionally, Carl rings a bell. Vickie wonders why all the “booty action” means sitting on the ground for these folks. Carl, we learn, wants Vickie to “experience this cosmic saucer”, the “virtual self.” How kind of him, I guess. Vickie squirms uncomfortably, and asks questions about the bell-ringing, which go unanswered. Eventually, she breaks free to smoke a cigarette outside.
That night, the two women learn the twist - that each will decided how the other family can spend their $50,000. Leslie prissily says that she doesn’t want to spend their money on frivolous things, and Vickie? She thinks the twist is total bleeeep!
Plum Crazy, Part Two
It’s a beautiful day for a walk in the woods, and the Santa Cruz mountains are home to ancient redwood groves and spectacular views. The Abbotts take Vickie to one of their favorite spots among the redwoods for a bracing hike. The path looks muddy and full of pine needles, but does that stop our barefoot heroes? Not likely.
Vickie doesn’t take to the outdoors experience too well. In fact, before they’ve even left the car, she’s disturbed by the sight of the San Lorenzo River at the bottom of a gorge. When the walk commences, she’s nervous and unhappy, and astounded that anyone could imagine this was fun. Carl tells her to look up at tree and to move closer, but she’s not getting any closer to that tree - she tells him nervously that she’s fine right where she is, as if she’s expecting the tree to take a bite any second. Considering that Carl’s not even clear on the lifespan of the trees (“hundreds or thousands of years old”) he’s pretty militant about Vickie looking up at the right angle to experience the tree properly. *sigh* This kind of argument makes me hit the mute button, then bang my head on my keyboard.
Vickie concludes that she doesn’t like the wilderness, what with the dirt and the plants and the possible wildlife. It’s probably a good thing that she didn’t run into a banana slug. Meanwhile, she is almost frantic to get back to the car, and the experience has convinced her that the Abbotts are crazy. They’ve meditated, they’ve contorted themselves, they’ve showed her their lack of chairs - now she thinks they’re crazy?
Yo’ Daddy Insane! Plum Crazy, Part Three
After the day’s hike, the Abbotts take Vickie to a Chinese restaurant they know, and we learn that along with studying Eastern religions, Papa Abbott has spent time learning Mandarin Chinese. His reasoning, the boys tell us, is that the Chinese are filled with charisma and drive, and will be taking over the world some day. Ni hao! It’s going to be a handy language to have mastered in about fifty years, Carl figures.
At the restaurant, Carl and the boys converse easily with the waiter in Mandarin, while Vickie observes with wide eyes. She’s flat-out astounded, slack-jawed with incredulity...but she’s also irritated (and I would be too, if I were the only one left out of a conversation conducted in another language), and she’s ready to tell us what she’s concluded about the Abbotts: that Papa Abbott has brainwashed Luke and Kyle. There’s no way, she tells us, that the three of them can think exactly the same way. I’m not clear if she thinks knowledge of foreign languages is a way of thinking, but what she really means is that teenage boys who don’t watch Beyonce shake her booty have been tampered with. That’s just not normal.
Leslie Sings the Blues
Remember Leslie Abbott, and the bluegrass guitars she towed all the way to Nashville? Ironically, in the midst of bluegrass country, Leslie is not feeling much at home. She finds a quiet room in the house to strum and sing herself into a better mood, shamelessly lolling on the leather sofa like she’s never heard of transcendental meditation. Around the corner, George Jr. and Hope hear her singing and giggle helplessly, fingers in their ears. If you haven’t heard traditional bluegrass singing, it’s kind of a ragged, no-nonsense voice - miles away from an R&B singer’s (or a Dixie Chick’s) polished, studio-ized voice. And when Leslie sings, bless her, she’s got that ragged thing going on in spades.
When she finishes, the kids come in and pick up the extra guitars surrounding Leslie, who realizes that she’s stumbled upon a way to connect with the Lowe children. She encourages them to sing along, and shows them the fingering for a rousing rendition of “I ain’t going to work tomorrow.” Pretty soon, the Lowe siblings are cracking up, as Hope ad libs, “I ain’t got a job.” Leslie is not amused (is she ever?) and lectures them that “it’s not a rap song.” Learning a new song isn’t going so well, so Leslie switches over to “Amazing Grace”, wavery voice and all. Hope looks like it’s killing her to keep a straight face, and George Jr. (whom Hope called Ricky this time - huh?) collapses with laughter so that he is literally rolling on the floor. Like mother, like son - giggly goofs, the lot of them.
Back in the land of bare feet, the Abbotts and Vickie are walking to the beach for a morning of Tai Chi - not to be confused with a cup of steaming Chai Tea, mmm. On the way, Vickie and Carl swap their philosophies of parenting. Carl gives a long dissertation on Eastern influences pointing to the importance of the family above all other relationships. Vickie interrupts him to point out that she wants her children to learn independence. Carl would rather see his children content than independent; in fact, he whines, independence brought him suffering. I have to admit; as parenting theories go, that’s one I’ve never heard of. Of course, I’m behind on the barefoot trend, too.
Vickie seizes on this point, and Carl digs himself in deeper by saying the kids have a tribal mentality and don’t wish to engage in activities outside of the family. Vickie wants those boys to start developing independence NOW. She stops in the street and yells out for any teenage girls within the sound of her voice to come out and meet them. That early in the morning, the only teens up and about are all doing yoga, so you wouldn’t approve of them anyway, Vickie.
At the beach, the Abbott men stretch and contort and contemplate. A few feet away, Vickie sits and smokes and mocks. “Y’all crazy!” she tells them, as Carl Abbott lifts one foot over his head while balancing on the other leg. Vickie is now convinced that the Abbott boys are brainwashed. She tells us that Papa had a chance to find himself, and he should give that chance to his kids.
The Bitter and the Sweet
Leslie has had time to reflect on the music lesson, and has come to the conclusion that Hope and George Jr. were laughing at her. She feels “mocked;” she seeks the solace of her guitar; but she can’t complete a song before she breaks down crying. She admits that it’s silly, since the swap is only for a week, but she misses her family. She hasn’t had much screen time, and now she’s using it to sob piteously; let’s just tiptoe out of the scene and leave her to it.
In California, the Abbotts are planning the usual Trading Spouses Party O’Odd Friends ™. They’ve happily settled on a theme - a bluegrass jam party. At least it will be more lively than the Taoists meeting to meditate on cosmic saucers or some such nonsense.
But Vickie announces that’s she’s had enough of bluegrass. Can such things be? Yes - in fact, she’s got a plan for the party, she tells them. It’s time to listen to Vickie’s style of music. All three Abbotts look dubious; maybe Vickie’s on to something with this thinking exactly the same way talk. Carl, looking tres Santa today, says that if they invite bluegrass people and play other types of music, they’ll be out of there in about ten minutes. Vickie doesn’t look troubled to hear it.
Furthermore, Vickie orders that Kyle and Luke go shoe shopping with her in the morning. The boys look disturbed, but Kyle starts to negotiate how long they will have to wear the shoes - just to the end of the party? Carl halts the conversation with a “no, no, no”. No one will force his boys to wear shoes - in fact, his kids have never been forced to do anything since they were born. Vickie looks skeptical. Carl explains: “I don’t order. And I don’t be ordered. Nobody orders me.” Vickie vows that tomorrow the Abbotts will enjoy a "different social life." Carl vows that “he’d sooner die.” We’re talking about shoes and Beyonce, right? Not really worth killing yourself over, if you ask me.
Leslie receives a gift from the Lowes. Vickie tries to pry the boys away from Carl. The moms meet, and the money is divvied out.
Where would we be without adjectives? firstname.lastname@example.org