Category Archives: life lessons

Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life — Lesson 3

It took me fifty years to learn the difference between love and the thousand bad compromises that masquerade as love.   I know, because over the decades I was involved in just about every variety of those sort-of-love relationships.  Usually, I sailed through those romances with my emotional bags pre-packed.  And, almost always, I left my partners half-destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn…well, at least, stunned and mystified at how a romance that seemed to be so solid turned out to have no foundation at all.

But, to me, there was nothing mysterious about it at all.  Here is my confession, and the lessons I learned.

The unusual part of this story is, I was 35 years old when I first went out on a date.  Not that I had been the world’s first Jewish priest, the celibate Father Moishe.  Rather, my romantic life until age 35 had never involved dating.

Back when we hippies roamed the earth, I’d married a gal I met on a commune when I was 16; she was the first girl I’d ever kissed.  And, when that marriage broke up, I fell naturally into a romance with a coworker who was a close friend.  So, when that coworker broke off our engagement a few years later, I was that rarest of creatures:  A 35-year-old man who had never been single, never had dated, never had experienced that odd tarantella by which two strangers somehow become lovers.  No Improvised Explosive Device, left at a crowded roadside market, could have possibly been more dangerous.

On the one hand, I was fascinated by the courtship process.  It was completely new to me.  And, it was more than a little bit scary.  I wanted to do it right, and I went at it the way a general plans a military campaign .  Like some hirsute Carrie Bradshaw, I gathered my single friends around me and we talked endlessly about our searches for love.  I kept a diary.  I was thoroughly insufferable.

On the other hand, and for no fault but my own, I was incapable of accepting love.  My childhood had taught me that the flip side of accepting love is experiencing abandonment and disappointment.  I had become very accustomed to finding love, praise, and support in ways that did not require me to be vulnerable.   When it came to romance, I had become expert in allowing myself to feel loved but holding myself aloof, distancing myself just enough that I would never risk disappointment.  As I said:  Dangerous.

I had a job, hair, teeth, and a house.  Heck, I was a trial lawyer, with all my hair, all my teeth, and a really nice house in a snootily upscale town.  And, I was tall, with a droll sense of humor, and with an inventory of fun ideas for evenings out and weekends away.  I was, as they say in the law, an “attractive nuisance.”

I dated for fifteen years.  Fifteen freaking years.  This was not because I had trouble meeting women.  A man in his late thirties or forties who is willing to date in his own age range will have no trouble finding potential mates.  In fact, those years were sometimes a blur of condominium complexes (“I’m in unit 5E; park only in the spots marked ‘visitors’!”) and cute pet cats.  And, as much for my demographics and availability than for my quick wit and dazzling smile, the passing of fifteen years was not because the women were at all elusive or standoffish.

No.  The reason I dated for fifteen years was that I had not the first clue about what I was looking for.  And, for that reason, like Joe Strummer, I was completely incapable of knowing whether to stay or to go.  I never saw a future with any of the women I dated during these fifteen years.  I never even imagined proposing marriage.  Instead, I was happy just to keep company with them, often for years, ending things only when it became inescapably clear that the romance could not continue.

The end of this story takes place, of course, when love clobbered me over the head like a right cross from Daisy Mae on Sadie Hawkins Day.  I’ve written often about why I fell in love with Barbara; but never about how unexpected and eye-opening it was.

When I met Barbara, I was dating a Russian woman from my town with magazine-model looks and an outspoken and businesslike desire for a wealthy man to care for her.  During one of our dates, she confided in me: “Do you know what I hate?  Cheap men!,” and she asked me whether I was willing to pursue a “five-star lifestyle.”  Yet, despite her gleefully avaricious intentions –and despite how completely modest my tastes really are — I was prepared to keep company with her, hold her at arms’ length, until the conflict between her Robin Leach tastes and my Jack Benny wallet finally boiled over.

Meeting Barbara made one thing clear to me:  There are a thousand ways in which a romance can be wrong, but there is only one way it can be right.  As for all of the ways that a romance can be wrong, and as for the lessons I learned from fifteen years of counting those ways….well, that’s another thousand words, so this post is To Be Continued.

 

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 2

I was born in 1957, in the Eisenhower age of contented suburban families and pots full of chickens; but it was not until I was in my forties that I discovered the value of family.  Because I had to learn in middle age what most people are able to intuit starting in their earliest childhood, and because I had to stumble my way through most of my life without that knowledge, I think my angle on the value of family is worth exploring.

The streetcorner sociologists say that we Jews, like all Mediterranean societies, hold our families close.  I think immediately of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” where the members of an extended Jewish family crowd around a dinner table and argue whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean.  Every bell curve, though, has its tails; and our family was certainly one of the most non-prehensile of those.  Put simply, our Jewish family were so politely distant from one another that we may as well have been from another tribe altogether.

First, there were very few of us.  My father’s family had nothing more to do with us once my parents were divorced; I never knew them.  My mother’s family had only nine members: my grandmother, her two daughters, and each daughter’s two-child nuclear family. If those nine of us had any aunts, uncles, nieces, or fourth cousins once removed, I never knew any of them, and they certainly were never part of our lives.  Neither did we have any of the sorts of close family friends who drop by of a Sunday morning with a cheese strudel and some mischievous stories to tell.

Second, we behaved (and still behave) like vaguely friendly acquaintances. Other than at holiday gatherings, the only time I remember spending any time with my aunt’s family was the one out-of-the-blue occasion when my uncle took my brother and me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never know what inspired this outing, but the inspiration to spend time with us, to go with us to a movie or to offer to throw a ball around, never struck again. My two cousins, then and now, forged their own very separate lives. They have never demonstrated any desire to be close to me or, indeed, to one another.  In what may very well be a common modern suburban development, we lived our parallel but separate lives and rarely thought of one another.

The notion of a “nuclear” family brings to mind the old foam-balls-and-toothpicks model of the atom, with the nucleus (parents) in the center and the electron (Buffy) and proton (Little Billy) in close orbit.  Of course, the actual distances within an atom are not close:  the distance between an atom’s nucleus and (what we used to think of as) its orbiting particles is in roughly the same ratio as the Sun is to Pluto, multiplied by about 140.  In that sense, my family is indeed “nuclear.”  Even after we four cousins all were done with college and were back in the same area, we family members rarely saw each other, almost never called each other, and by and large left birthdays and holidays uncommemorated.

This is not a commentary on our own separate families.  I came to parenting, at barely age twenty, with no experience of being parented or of being a part of an intact household.  Nevertheless, my children and I wove a family on our own terms, picking our way along that path as we went.  In that sense, I certainly experienced the rich value of being part of a family, as I’m sure my aunt and uncle, brother and cousins, did as well in their separate households.  But, that inevitable bond of parents and children who share one roof is not the “family” that I’m talking about here.

The “family” that I’m talking about here – the loving community of relatives and friends – was unknown to me until years after my own nest was empty.  I discovered it in a country farmhouse in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania, nigh to Christmas, about a dozen years ago.  I was invited there with the Dublin-born woman I was dating, to spend a snowy holiday dinner with her Irish-born relatives.

My entry into this Irish family was not easy.  My girlfriend was reluctant to tell her Catholic parents back in Dublin that she was dating a Jew.  When, finally, she confessed to her Dad, there was a long silence, followed by the Yoda-like pronouncement, “A Jew, is he?  Fierce intelligent race, they are.”

Just so, when I arrived at this Christmas-season dinner, I saw how very different my tribe was from theirs.  Gathered around a fireplace (!!) groaning with decorations and stockings were a dozen chattering relatives, each teasing the other mercilessly about some silly foible, and each giving back in kind.  Presents were exchanged, one more thoughtful and truly welcomed than the next.  They bantered with delight, the way old friends do when they truly cherish each other’s company.  Well, you get the picture; cue Norman O’Rockwell.

I was in my early 40’s then, and I had never in my life witnessed such a thing.  It was transformative.   For the first time in my life, I wanted that same family connection, that same warm community of others.

I wish that I could say that I was able to carry this life lesson into my own family.  I did try.  I gathered the dates of my relatives’ birthdays and anniversaries, startled to find that no one in the family had such a list.  Although I began to send cards and gifts to family members for birthdays and holidays, no one ever reciprocated (though my aunt continued her kind lifelong practice of sending me a birthday card).  I began to host elaborate family dinners.  These, however, were often tense (at one, I asked for some help to move furniture after the dinner, and my relatives stormed out in anger, demanding an apology afterward); and, once I married Barbara, for some reason we stopped being invited to family dinners (though we continue to invite the whole mischpucha to family gatherings at our house).  As for this generation (me, my brother, my cousins and their families), the long careless telephone droughts can last for months.

Nevertheless, the lesson of that Christmas dinner (and the many big-hearted lessons of family and community that Barbara delivers effortlessly) have changed my life.  No longer the autocrat of my own island, I now am happily surrounded by friends and deeply involved in my own and Barbara’s extended families, as well as the enormous community that I’ve created among the thousands of regular patrons and the dozen volunteer staffers at my concert series.

Tolstoy (whose family life at Yasnaya Polyana was certainly no model) of course said that happy families are all alike; and this lesson shows that is true.  Happy families seem to live for one another’s company, and for the joy of delighting one another, comforting one another, and huddling together in a loving conspiracy of family.  I continue to aspire to live that lesson, for yea as we learn from The Godfather:  ” A man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

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