Amy Hempel writes short stories. Some of these short stories are in fact very, very short – more than a paragraph but less than a page – tiny perfect creations that capture something significant about how we live today, together and alone. Reading something this short gives us time to think more deeply about small details, to work through the narrative word by word and discover its complications and insights.
Hempel’s recent collection, Sing to It: New Stories, is a marvelous collection of stories, some micro and some longer, that exists somewhere between poetry and prose. Her work defies easy categorization and shifts effortlessly from specific to general and back again.
The dispute resolution practitioner will respond to this fluidity, given that successful practice requires the capacity to move between and among different people dealing with conflicts that range from the minimal exchange between two people to dysfunctions in larger groups to national and international discord. There is nothing boilerplate about the practice of dispute resolution, where the scope of analysis and action is always in flux. Indeed, one of the advantages of dispute resolution over traditional litigation is the way in which dispute resolution processes allow us to understand and address conflict more broadly and holistically, not confined to rigid procedures or reduced to legally cognizable issues between only parties with standing.
Put another way, dispute resolution specialists know that disputes exist within broader social contexts that we must reckon with, even as we attend to the intimate and intensely personal aspects of disputes. With this in mind, we not only take note of the broader conflict landscape but listen carefully, manage microaggressions, look for subtle cues, facilitate emotional interruptions, and pay attention to quick exchanges and off-the-cuff remarks. The practice of empathy, after all, is about noticing details, not about just getting the general gist. Our work is thus a study in contrasts. We must maintain visibility of the whole while seeking out and appreciating the specific. We must work within impersonal legal frameworks while promoting authentic, party-based resolutions.
Consider “Equivalent,” one of the shorter stories in Hempel’s book. Summarizing this story takes almost as long as reproducing it in its entirety. It begins:
The former owner was supposed to fix the door. Instead, he left behind a pool-cleaning robot.
Now this house no longer has a pool – we learn that the seller filled in the pool four years ago, after his wife died – but the seller nonetheless believes that leaving behind the robot is “equivalent” to fixing the door. The buyer, for her part, is excited about the house and therefore, although her lawyer tries to argue that the robot and the door-fixing are not equivalent and that the contract does not permit such substitutions, the buyer herself doesn’t push back.
Over the next few months, the seller drops by to retrieve small objects he has left behind. The buyer allows him to take these objects, but always asks for help in return – to “turn the mower on its side to drain the oil,” for example, or to “double-check the basement’s radon remediator.” The seller’s visits become more infrequent as the buyer strategically seeks assistance with increasingly difficult tasks:
The weeds in the garden – the buyer bets that this will be enough to keep the seller from coming back to get the child’s blackboard in an upstairs bedroom, the child’s name formed by animals carved in the wooden frame.
With this sentence, the story ends.
At first glance, “Equivalent” reads like a tale of two eccentric people, the sort of folks from whom we can’t learn anything because their situation is so peculiar to their personalities and individual circumstances.
But a closer look provides us with more. These quirky people are strangers who have entered into a relationship created through, but not circumscribed by, the law. They are more than just buyer and seller, as the buyer’s lawyer discovers when she tries to get the seller to fix the door. Both parties desired the contract, but neither party wants to abide strictly by its terms, instead coming up with their own dynamic of taking and giving, a pattern of exchange that is under their private control.
This quasi-legal relationship is reminiscent of many encounters in modern life, where people who otherwise have nothing to do with each other end up on either end of some legally circumscribed transaction. Sometimes these encounters end well; sometimes they end in conflict. Either way, there is a human component to the transaction that cannot be removed or reduced to a legal arrangement. As dispute resolution specialists know, bringing people together to talk when these arrangements go awry can lead to unexpected and sometimes quite useful outcomes, addressing aspects of the dispute or deal that on paper might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In this way, the story reminds us how subjective exchanges can be, how personalized deals can become, and how difficult it is to predict the dynamics of power in any interaction.
One turn that “Equivalent” could but does not take is the romantic twist, in which the buyer takes the place of the dead wife. The seller keeps finding excuses to return to the house and the buyer keeps giving him “husband” chores, which looks like the start of the familiar narrative convention of finding love in unlikely places. But in keeping with the legalistic frame in which they met and continue to interact, the buyer and seller do not fall in love over the lawn mower or radon remediator. Their relationship throughout remains essentially transactional, even though they modify the terms of the transaction as they wish.
Even so, the story has unexpected psychological depth and complexity, as the seller achieves emotional closure as a result of his relationship with the buyer. His regular visits to the house to retrieve random items point to an inability to let go of his past. We know his wife lived there before she died; we know he had at least one child living there as well. For her part, the buyer does not demand that he stay away, but she does maintain boundaries by asking for help with chores that she staggers in order of increasing difficulty. She knows that at some point her requests will make him stop coming, even though that means he will not retrieve the item that seems to be the most personal to him and the least personal to her – the blackboard with the child’s name on it. Eventually he must let go, and because of the buyer, he is able to do so. Indeed, the contract itself – the legal instrument that defines their respective realms of authority while remaining subject to their mutual decisions to alter its terms – makes it possible for both people to order themselves and their interactions in productive, functional ways. Their highly customized arrangement – in accordance with self-determination and consent, driven by a flexible and party-based understanding of equivalence and exchange – has made them both better off by the end.
Of course, another interpretation of the final line of the story is that their roles as buyer and seller have made it impossible for them to transcend the transactional frame of their relationship and thus prevent them from really getting to the bottom of what he is seeking and whether and how she can help. This view reminds us of the power of labels; if we characterize people as buyers and sellers, they will tend to monetize and objectify even intangible concerns.
That said, “Equivalent” leaves the reader wanting to reflect on something of primary importance in dispute resolution, namely, how we conceive of and harness the humanity of interactions involving people in deal and dispute contexts. This is more than just creating value or building rapport or crafting a problem-solving relationship. It is an appreciation for what it truly means to work together, guided by small details and the peculiarities of circumstances and context.