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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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