Tag Archives: barbara dewilde

About Happiness

It took eight years and a Wallace Shawn play for me to appreciate Ella, the last woman I dated before I met Barbara.  It turns out that Ella, with Wally’s help, taught me two important lessons:  First, that there is value in seeking out the remarkable rather than making do with the mundane; and, second, that it is essential to happiness for each of us to find our own “remarkable”…which is not always what we expect.

Ella was an icily beautiful and shamelessly mercenary Russian woman who knew exactly what she wanted:  A wealthy man who could make a better life for her and her daughter.  And by better life, she meant a fabulous life.  One night at a restaurant, she asked me to assure her that I wanted the “five-star lifestyle” she craved.  “You know what I hate?,” she lamented. “Cheap men.  Men who want discounts.  Men who use coupons.”  I hastily tossed my Groupon under the table; soon, she followed.

Because, the fact is, I have never wanted a five-star lifestyle (or even a life that could be called a “life style”).  If Barbara would go along with it, I would happily eat at diners, stay in roadside motels, and entertain myself with whatever diversions are available at the discount ticket outlets.  I drive a fourteen-year-old Camry.  I cringe at $100 theater tickets and $40 restaurant plates.

In fact, my cheap manliness has gone deeper than clipping coupons.  For most of my single life, I dated whatever women happened to be available, interested, and more or less suitable.  I approached dating the way most shoppers approach buying a vacuum cleaner:  Of the five models on display, that one looks good enough, and lo, one more shopping chore is done.  Similarly, for almost my entire work life I’ve taken jobs that demand little creativity or emotional investment, and provide no particular satisfaction.  I’ve taken a similar approach to clothes, cars, food, and the other pleasures of life.

So, maybe I am the “cheap man” that Ella despised…or, maybe, there’s some other reason.  As to which, cue Wally Shawn.

A few weeks back, Barbara let me know that she was dying to see Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner,” in its short revival at The Public Theater.  I flinched when I saw that tickets were $90.  What could possibly make 80 minutes of theater worth $90? Isn’t there a movie version on Netflix?  Won’t it soon be produced in some nearby community theater?

Nevertheless, the dutiful husband, after I found that the entire run was sold out I stood in the lobby of the theater for five hours to get wait-list seats.  And, for my troubles, I learned two things.

First, The Designated Mourner was a pretty remarkable experience.  To be crass about it, sometimes 80 minutes of remarkable theater at $90 can be worth more than a whole week of run-of-the-mill entertainment selected from the discount lists.  I’m guessing that the same is true for remarkable music, remarkable bottles of wine, remarkable restaurants, and so on.  This is in keeping with the moral I gleaned from Anthony Bourdain’s latest book, “Medium Raw”:  If need be, go hungry for six days out of the week, and spend all your money on one transcendent dining experience on the seventh.

(Notice any resemblance?)

Perhaps I am late to this life lesson.  I scoffed at Ella’s “five-star lifestyle,” but really, she was saying only that she preferred the remarkable, the memorable, and the precious over the mundane.  And, although Barbara’s day-to-day tastes are more modest, she also has tried to pry into my hard head the message that we must not be cheap men and women when we are presented with the occasional remarkable piece of clothing, remarkable chance to travel, or indeed remarkable friend.

Second, I learned something from Wally Shawn’s character in the play.  Jack is an admitted “lowbrow”…someone “who likes to take the easy way in the cultural sphere – the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment.”  He pretends to be a highbrow – “you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby” – but finally embraces his true lowbrow tastes (including lavishing attention on a bag of pornography, which he refers to as his “Experiment in Privacy”).  Jack’s quest is to find his own definition of “remarkable.”

In other words, it is one thing to be willing to hold out for what I really want, rather than settling for what is merely easy.  But, it is another thing entirely to recognize what I want in the first place.

Like Jack (who confronts his own Lowbrowness after he leaves his wife and loses all of his friends who “can read John Donne”), and indeed like the Wallace Shawn character in “My Dinner With Andre” (who waxes elegiac about the pleasure of finding that no roaches are swimming in last night’s cup of coffee), I will soon need to ask myself the hard questions about what makes me happy.

Wise people like Barbara have a finely-tuned instinct for happiness:  For her, it’s family, beauty, deeply creative work and a successful rhubarb pie.  But, I’ve never really considered what makes me happy.  Oddly, it’s never been important to me.  I spend hundreds of hours organizing concerts (and, before that, threw myself into community theater and songwriting) :  Does that mean that my happiness is in creating entertainment?  I get an undeniable thrill from bicycling across gorgeous landscapes:  Should I seek out more adventure travel?  And, is my lowbrow enjoyment of diners, motels, reality television, Lee Childs potboilers, folk music, and Rutt’s Hut deep-fried hot dogs real happiness, or just my Cheap Manliness?

Given my current plan to downscale my work life in about four years, it’s time to ponder the Remarkable (no matter how unremarkable), and my own happiness.  I’ll consider this my own Experiment in Privacy.

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September 3, 2013 · 9:26 am

Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 3 (continued)

So, like I was sayin’:

With apologies to Tolstoy, what I learned from my dating years is that there are a thousand ways for love to be wrong, and only one way for it to be right.  Here’s what I learned about both.

First, as to the thousand ways that romance can be wrong.  I’ve been reading recently another WordPress blog , written by a single gal who catalogues the different romantic “relationships that aren’t.”  She describes the guy who “doesn’t want a relationship” but sticks around for the sex ; the guy who acts like a boyfriend but won’t commit;  the gal who allows herself to be taken out on dates but isn’t interested in a romance.  I’m sure that more examples are coming.

Fact is, these are only the tip of that very cold iceberg of false romance.  The book “He’s Just Not That Into You” lists dozens of other ways that men (the topic of that book) hem, haw, tap-dance, dissemble, clam up, and practice passive aggression, benign neglect, and truthiness when they are in romances that are too wrong to commit to but not wrong enough to leave.  Although the tone of that book is breezy and witty, I didn’t smile during the twenty minutes it took me to read it.  It was too depressing to recognize all of my tricks, which were called out by some pop-lit self-help book, and to know therefore that roughly four hundred million other men had pulled those same tricks in their dating lives.

Yes, I had done it all.  I’d done the “sweep her off her feet though you barely know her” trick, just to keep a gal pinned like a specimen butterfly while I decided whether I was interested or not.  I had kept my distance, metered my calls and emails, gaslighted, and tried to maneuver my partners into breaking off with me first.  I was never interested in one-night stands — after all, I fancied myself a gentleman who was looking earnestly for true love — but instead I did something even worse:  I stayed in lukewarm false romances for years at a time, giving well-meaning and earnest women every reason to believe in my love but never actually offering love.

And, I could have continued these masquerades for decades.  Why?  Because the decks are stacked in favor of us guys.   It is, as Bill Clinton would say (and he would know), simple “arithmetic.”  Here’s why.  Assume that what Mehitabel wants is a committed relationship and marriage.  She and Archy meet cute and begin dating.  Shortly, she and Archy are sharing a pillow, and she is writing “Mrs. Archy” over and over on foolscap.  Yet, for at least a year or two, perhaps longer, Archy isn’t expected to decide if Mehitabel will become Mrs. Archy.   Any time he wants, Archy is free to leave the romance, so sorry it didn’t work out, hello I must be going…and no one can criticize him for it.  For some guys, this is a pattern to be repeated just about as often as an oil change or a haircut.  They get the thrill of the chase, the swoon of new romance, the blueberry-muffin phase (“YOU like blueberry muffins?? I Like blueberry muffins, TOO!!!”), and then the easy exit with absolutely no repercussions.

Based on the gob-smacked tone of the above single-gal’s blog, you would think that this pas-de-deux is a matter of complete mystery to women.  This leads me to believe that we genders really don’t know one another too well at all.

Freud, notoriously, considered women to be “a dark continent” and moaned “what does woman want?”  Maybe he was snorting some powdery substance at the time, because I don’t really think it’s all that esoteric.

If you ask me, Sigmund, it’s like this.  Our primitive brains (in men, this is known simply as “the brain”) point us to mates who can produce and raise children.  That translates to women preferring men who are physically strong, tall and fit, and who also have certain character traits that mean Husband And Father Material:  Responsibility, compassion, courage, and a certain James Bondian element of cool mastery (or at least the ability to fix a flat tire).  To a certain extent, it’s still a jungle out there for janes, and women therefore appreciate men who have some Tarzan qualities – they hold fast to their values, believe in family, make plans, honor their promises, can change a fuse, are generous to others, and give some a sense that they know how to give their hearts to someone.

And, as is only right, this brings me back to Barbara, the true romance that taught me the real from the false.

Here, alas, the only lesson I can offer sounds like it could have come from my Aunt Tillie: “When it’s right, it’s right.” My single friends vent to me about the problems with their latest romances: He’s balancing the good in his romance with the bad and trying to decide where the balance tips; she has major misgivings about whether he is the guy for her but wants to give it some time; they are “redefining their relationship.” And, my feeble response is, “when it’s right, you won’t have those questions.” But, it really is that simple. When it’s wrong, a romance is confounding, unsatisfying, and constantly unsettled. When it’s right, a romance is easy, obvious, and firm.

I have no insight into how to find that true romance. I plainly stumbled into mine, fresh from three years of a false romance with a gal I’d expertly kept at arms’ length and an exotic short entanglement with the mendacious Russian. I don’t know whether some stormy relationships, full of conflict and apology, might be true romances. It happens that Barbara and I are by our nature not fighters, so we tend to compromise easily and to approach our disagreements as practical problems that we need to solve as a team.

Really, after all of these 2000 words, the Third Lesson That Changed My Life is the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers insight that unhappy romances are each unhappy in their own way, but happy romances are all alike. It’s just that it took me so many years of not knowing that I was unhappy, of believing that I could somehow alchemize right out of wrong, and of having no idea of what I was missing, that I’m thinking there’s a value in telling the tale.

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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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What Barack, Barbara (deWilde), Joe (Varga) and I Sort Of Have In Common: The Surprising Joy of Community Organizing

When it comes to community activism, I am mostly a fellow traveler with Marx  (Groucho) and Lennon (John).   Groucho, because he would never join a club that would have him as a member; and John, because, when it came to revolution, don’t you know that you could count him out?

Just to be clear:  There is plenty for us to be angry about. A perceptive banker, vacationing in the Hamptons this past summer, was heard to lament that if the rich succeed in redistributing another ten percent of wealth away from the middle class, there will be revolution.  And I do understand that community activism can be, as Saul Alinsky (who wrote the book on community organizing), put it, “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions,” and then to take action “once such hostilities were whipped up to a fighting pitch.”

But, the day to day of community organizing has always made me agree with David Bowie (via Mott the Hoople ): “What a drag. So many snags!”

It’s always been those snags that have made activism seem tedious and unlikely to me.

First, there’s the rousing of neighbors to donate time, money, or at least empathy, which means the unpleasant calling-in of favors.  Second, there’s the enormous disproportion between effort and reward: So many leaflets, so many social-networking posts, so many bake sales – that is, so much constant dripping just to wear away even the first layer of stones.

I’ll also admit that my blood is usually not stirred by Quixotically fuzzy calls to action.  In my mudgeonly way, I’ve referred to these generic jeremiads as “Power To The People!” causes (almost getting a faceful of Hungarian stew from my labor activist son-in-law Joe for my wit).  Community-organizing messages so often come out as frustratingly blunt-edged and diffuse, like “Respect Our Teachers!” or “War Is Bad For Children And Other Living Things!”  Heck, when Barack Obama was asked by his Chicago friends what exactly he did as a community organizer, all he could summon up was, “I told them it was the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

All of which is to say, I have recently been (as always) humbled and enlightened by my brilliant and big-hearted wife, Barbara, who has become a community organizer the same way she does everything else:  Confidently, open-heartedly, and with a touch as light as a bird’s wing.

For a few months now, Barbara has despaired of the run-down condition of our local park, the Watchung Plaza Park. This one-block-square bit of green is set in between a busy commercial district and a train station. The result is a neglected park covered with a blizzard of trash and graffiti, which would be difficult for the business owners and township crews to fight even if they were committed to doing so.

Earlier in the summer, Barbara began to organize. She gathered like-minded neighbors. She wrote to township officials. She took on a catchy name, “Neighbors of Watchung” (“NOW”).

And, that’s when the miracle happened. The town councilor immediately came to visit, along with the parks superintendent. They promised mulch, leaf bags, manpower, and supplies. The town newspaper and hyperlocal blogs ran stories. Another neighborhood committee offered funding. And, this past weekend, a gorgeous mob of local homeowners put on their overalls and spent a long afternoon weeding, planting, scrubbing, and thinking about the future of Watchung Plaza Park.

(Missing from this photo: The deliciously-named Wah-Chung chinese restaurant)

During the cleanup, passersby stopped to ask how they could be involved. The business owners offered thanks and promised future help. Some passersby dismissed the work, with some variant on “we pay taxes. You shouldn’t be doing the township’s work.” But, I interpret that to mean that they recognized the value of the work and just wanted to feel justified in not joining in.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  I found myself feeling invested in our community group: visiting the park repeatedly since then to scrub off graffiti and pick up litter.  As we say here in Jersey, I was ready to “have a little talk” with the next guy who dropped a fast-food container on the grass in “my” park.  I’d been organized!  And, I’ll bet that some of the business owners around the park are feeling the same way.

So, I’ve learned a lesson about community activism.  It’s about harnessing something that is all around us:  Responsibility, generosity, righteous anger, pride, and a desire to set wrong things to right.  I am proud of the community organizer under my roof, of our Professor Varga, who militates public employees who are under budget-cutting attack, private employees who earn (as he told a group of Whirlpool workers in one incite-ful speech) “shit wages in hell,” and all whose dignity and livelihood are taken from them.  Even my own trivial bit of community organizing, putting together a community of music lovers and volunteers to present a couple dozen concerts every season, has a lesson in it.  As Pete Seeger might say (if he were from Jersey): if I had a hammer, I’d hammer all over the next idiot who lifts a can of spray-paint anywhere near my freakin’ park.

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Calvin Trillin, Alice, Barbara, and Me: A Love Song

It’s quite a stretch for me to compare myself with Calvin Trillin, the prolifically urbane and quick-witted humorist, memoirist, and “deadline poet.”  He melted the barriers between reportage and first-person narrative nonfiction; most of my writing is either legal advice to insurance companies or press releases touting folk concerts.  He charms readers by sharing his everyman viewpoint on food, culture, and travel; my food experiences are limited by whatever diet I’m on, and I attend cultural events only after the buzz has died off and the tickets have gone on discount.

Nevertheless, the Deadline Poet and I have a few things in common.  We are city kids, raised by second-generation working-class Jewish parents.  We can come across as detached and enigmatic.  And, both of our lives were changed forever when we found the loves of our lives.

Calvin Trillin found his Alice at a party in 1963.  Fortunately, although he was instantly smitten, his tongue untied; and,.  as Alice later told him, he “was never funnier” than he was that night.  “Do you mean I peaked in December of 1963?,” he’d ask.  “I’m afraid so,” she’d reply.   They were married for 35 years, until she succumbed to complications from lung cancer in 2001.

Calvin Trillin’s slim 78-page memoir of his giddily happy marriage,  “About Alice,” is packed with humor, heartbreak, and a husband’s unashamed adoration of his wife.  As I am not Calvin Trillin, I’ll do my best with this blog.

Barbara is exactly what I had always pined for:  That is, she is not me.

I have a few feeble excuses for being me:  I am male.  I grew up with virtually no parenting.  By skipping school grades, I wound up two, then three, and then an untenable four years younger than my classmates, which meant that I missed most of the rites of the teenage years.  I married my first wife when I was barely 20 and came out of that marriage some fifteen years later with barely a clue as to how to be a self-reliant man.  Worse: because I had never been able to rely on anyone but myself to learn how to behave in the world, I was a tinhorn autodidact.  Rather than ask questions or pay quiet attention, I blundered through the challenges of independence and single parenthood with the stupid belief that I could figure things out by using my own intuition and doing what felt best.

Barbara is the antidote to that bumbling autodidact, me.

Though it may seem superficial, I think a husband and wife need to be a bit impressed by one another.  Calvin admired Alice for her lifetime of accomplishments, as a college professor, learning consultant to public television, and film producer.

Barbara’s accomplishments have always wowed me and created endless conversation between us.  Her career started when she boldly left college midstream and moved to New York, where she discovered graphic design by managing to get into a course tought by Milton Glaser.  After getting her degree in graphic design, she wrangled a job designing book jackets at the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.  There (at adjoining desks with her college buddy Chip Kidd), she threw out all the old rules and turned book-jacket design into an edgy art form.  A mantel full of awards, recognitions, and teaching opportunities followed.  Barbara went on to become the art director for Martha Stewart Living magazine before returning to Knopf.  A year ago, seeing the chance for one more creative chapter in her life, she put her fears (mostly)aside and became a graduate student to learn a new trade, interactive design.

I do not have a glimmer as to how Barbara can instantly summon up beauty, whether in a book jacket, a CD package, a garden, or the tie that will not clash horribly with my suit.  But I am so mystified and delighted by that rare talent that I am weak in the knees.

Calvin Trillin described Alice as  “the voice of reason, the sensible person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of her marginally goofy husband.”  Although I am not marginally goofy, Barbara’s even keel has straightened me up as well.

I come from a family that has little truck with one another, in which birthdays are often ignored, negligent telephone droughts can go on for months, and the prevailing attitude of one relative to another is mostly indifference.  I always yearned for a close-knit family that cared deeply for one another.  (I even long overstayed a romance with one woman almost entirely because she came from that sort of family).  Barbara, on the other hand, is a fierce family lioness (the photo above is cropped from a group photo in which she is surrounded by family members…note the serene and protective smile).  She is deeply loyal and loving with friends, family, and other people’s children.  Within weeks of our meeting, I began to call her orbit a “love sauna.”  I suppose she knew even earlier that I had come to her from love Siberia.  Having been rightened by her even keel, I have been able to bring a bit of that nurturing and gentle energy into my own relations.

Although I am tediously calm and almost never raise my voice, my trial-lawyer attitude toward the world can be shamefully combative.  I once publicly hounded a mail-order company that refused to acknowledge that it had overcharged me $10 to the point that it went out of business.  The wife of a proprietor with whom I had a business dispute once wrote to me to say that her husband was not well, and I would be to blame if he died as a result of our heated correspondence.  I can lose my patience with small-time offenses like texting while driving, throwing cigarette butts on the street, and misusing apostrophes.

Barbara, however, is a placid sea of kindness and accommodation.  Although sometimes this turning of the other cheek gets her nothing more than two wounded cheeks, more often she disarms the conflict and rebuilds connections.  In a single recent phone call, she kindly responded to someone who had severely disappointed her,  and then used the opportunity to send a plum bit of business to someone who had once tried to destroy her career.

Not that she has ice water in her veins.  Alice Trillin objected to being portrayed by Calvin as (in her words) a “dietitian in sensible shoes,” and in fact Calvin admitted that this “sit-com” description did not do justice to her sense of childlike wonder: “The only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, ‘Wowsers!’.”  Barbara also is filled with secret mischief and a shameless weakness for guilty pleasures.  Her work takes her into contact with celebrities from Barbara Walters to Stephen Sondheim to David Byrne; when George Plimpton or Laurie Anderson come up on conversation, she’ll always have an anecdote about her visit to Plimpton’s penthouse apartment or sharing a piece of birthday cake with Laurie in her Canal Street flat.  But, she does not boast, and she is never jaded by that life.  And, when a friend like David Rakoff dies, she weeps.  Like all of us, Barbara is on a perpetual diet; but it is never so strict that it can’t include liberal amounts of cheating, especially when there is ice cream in the freezer.

I am rarely invited to the sort of cocktail party at which Calvin met Alice.  So, Barbara and I met the new-fangled way, on the Internet (though, we later decided to lie and say we met “in France,” which as the Coneheads knew is usually sufficient to prevent any other inquiries.  This ruse failed when we embellished the story with an improbable filigree about how we came to speak after I tripped over her foot).  I had been single for fifteen years, having made the rookie mistake of dating inappropriate women for years at a time when weeks would have sufficed, in part because romance was just not important enough to motivate me to do it right.  Barbara was separated after a long marriage and was devoted to raising her children, then 15 and 10.  Like Calvin’s, my tongue untied during our nonstop email correspondence, in which we flirted and teased about everything from her favorite author Richard Ford (me: “If you read Richard Ford, does that mean I have to read Cosmo?”) to the pet names we would give each other (I insisted that she take the name Exie, from her screen name Ex Libris but based on a masked pro wrestler acquaintance who called himself Mister X).  Finally, when it was time to meet, Barbara made me promise that, even if we were completely repulsed by one another, we would continue to email.

Like everything, Barbara approached courtship with her whole heart, a fretful wariness, and finally the courage to put that wariness aside.  I’m sure she did not sleep for the entire time.  Yet, six months after the day we met, I surprised her with a proposal on a cliff overlooking the Hudson (how could she not have guessed, when the location was “Romantic Poet’s Look Park?), and she surprised me by accepting.  My trump card then was this bit of sonnet-like doggerel, read aloud to her (note that by then, her nickname was Minni, short for the Dutch endearment minniken):

 Soneta Amorosa (An Improper Proposal)

Men often think to do it on one knee—

Alas, at my age, I might not get up – or

Reveal their true intentions startlingly,

Risking massive coronaries long pre-nup. 

You and I, though, fell in love through prose.

My lord! How modern! Pixels ne’er were sweeter!

Ergo, this yearning sonnet I’ve composed –

My iambs reach for you in pentameter. 

Yes, I know it’s been scanty months since we

Met blushingly at Egan’s, white with foam.

Impatient though this prayer seems to be,

No less am I, Dear Friend, for our new home. 

Note: If you’d also have our lives entwine,

Inspect now the first letters of each line.

So much for deadline poetry.

After Alice passed away, Calvin received a letter from a young woman who confided that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and wondered, “Will he love me as much as Calvin loved Alice?”  Contrary to all reason, and surely because of some one-time loophole in the laws of karma, this is the kind of question that never has to be asked in my marriage.

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