Tag Archives: marriage

“Amour”….et Mariage

Sex, sex, sex. FBI cell phones used for “sexting”! Roger Clemens’ tragic 15-year-old mistress, who says Roger had bedroom problems from steroid use! This fabulous infographic, “What We Can Learn From 10,000 Porn Stars”!  (Go ahead.  I’ll wait.)

We are intensely curious about other folks’ sex lives.  This is an odd subject for curiosity: Bedroom hi-jinks are generally so straightforward and pedestrian that midgets, puddings, and random buzzing implements are added to give them some variety.  There’s not much to learn from all of our curiosity.

On the other hand, we rarely are particularly curious about other peoples’ marriages.  While we love to spy into bedrooms, we rarely spy into living rooms.  This is equally odd, because marriage is fascinating.  What could be more complex and mysterious than the ways that two people work out a lifelong companionship?  What could be more esoteric and valuable than an understanding of how couples “make marriage work”?

The first fascinating thing about marriage is how such a thing is possible at all…that is, a conscious and satisfying lifetime connection with another person.  Of course, it is not hard for two people to say some vows and then live their lives as two strangers sharing a blanket.  As Gary Shteyngart’s Dr. Girshkin put it, in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:

Your mother, nu, I picture she’ll be here with me till the end.  We are like one of those many unfortunate corporate mergers they’ve had in the past decade; we are like Yugoslavia.

My touchstone when it comes to the unlikelhood of marriage is the television program “Shipmates,” a reality show produced in 2001-2003 that really should be cited more often by sociologists.  In each episode of “Shipmates,” a single man and a single woman are sent on a three-day-long blind date on a cruise ship.  Typically, the polite veneers of these strangers wear thin quickly as they spend entirely too much time together, burdened by the expectation that they will find chemistry with one another.  This inevitably results in story lines that lie somewhere between Lord of The Flies and Heart of Darkness.  The two ordinarily end up fleeing to opposite ends of the boat, putting on their game faces and dramatically grind-dancing with unwitting other passengers to prove that the failure of the blind date was the other dater’s fault.  Yugoslavia, indeed.

Unhappy marriages are as inevitable and predictable as the weary conflicts on “Shipmates.”  As Billy Joel put it, they are the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.

Successful marriage, on the other hand, is a true mystery.  What makes a marriage work?  There is a book that attempts a methodical description of marriage, Intimate Partners…but that was published in 1986, when couples were still watching Casablanca on Betamax videotape.

Understanding a successful marriage is made even harder by the fact that husbands and wives often spend their first years focused on nest-building.  They get promotions, fix up a house or apartment, raise small children, go to PTA meetings.  emergency rooms, and Home Depots.  They are not unhappily married; their romance is just on unattended auto-pilot.  Divorce often comes when this “Marriage, Incorporated” phase ends.

So, to the Oscar-nominated feature “Amour,” which is on my mind this Academy Awards Sunday.

“Amour” takes place entirely in the Paris apartment of a long-married couple, Georges and Anne, who are in their 80’s.  They are retired music teachers who love the cultural life of Paris.  They go out to recitals and discuss the performance as they make tea in their modest kitchen.  They are too feeble to carry groceries up the stairs to their apartment, and ultimately are too feeble to go out at all.  They have only one another and the daily routines of their shut-in lives.  They do this with patience, kindness, and a tender regard for one another, despite the health problems that make up the narrative of the film.

The producers were smart to title their film “Amour.”  It’s easy to think of love in the Hollywood rom-com way: Fresh-faced and big-spirited couples who meet cute and wisecrack their way into realizing that their concavities and convexities might just fit.  We are satisfied that when Benjamin rides away with Elaine on a bus, she still in her wedding dress, or when Harry and Sally finally kiss at the stroke of New Year’s Day, their story has been fully told.  But, “Amour” asks a bigger question about love: What is it that we call “love” when all that is left of a marriage is the companionship of two lifetime partners, without any of the shared activities, sex, or even conversation, that fill most marriages?  What does it mean to be committed, patient, and supportive when life consists of nothing but the routine of caretaking?

In that very French way, the answer seems to be, there is no question to answer.  There is no question of commitment, patience, or support.  Georges and Anne are married.  They are two parts of a single unit.  They nurture and feed and look out for one another in the same way that a person will look out for himself.  When Anne falls ill, there is no question about whether Georges will continue to care for her, or whether he will honor his promise never to allow her to go back into the hospital.

“Amour,” in this film, is not romance, or nest-building, or “making marriage work,” or even happiness,  It is two people living as if they are one.  If there is any satisfying definition of a true marriage, any window into that most complex and unlikely of miracles, I would say that this is the one.

 

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February 24, 2013 · 8:47 am

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 I

Every time I receive an interoffice envelope, I am convinced that it must be a pink slip.  This is not an idle notion; I have been more or less fired from every job I’ve ever held.  However, in fact my assumption comes from something deeper inside me:  A conviction that I am out of step, unworthy, and in constant peril of being found out.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having these feelings.  For example, when my freshfaced colleagues and I were shown to our first offices in what I now call my “starter law firm,” several remarked that they felt like seventh-graders playing dress-up, who would be unmasked at any moment.

It seems to me, however, that this syndrome has affected me more than most; at least it has been so vivid to me that I’ve noticed it, questioned it, and teased out some unexpected life lessons from it.

But, to understand these lessons (and the other lessons in this five-part blog post) requires some autobiography.  Mine, I’d say, is somewhere between the sympathy-for-the-devil tell-all of Keith Richards on the one hand, and the no doubt insipid rehash that’s about to be ghost-written for Monica Lewinsky, on the other.  (Chapter One:  Where I Bought The Blue Dress).

The unusual aspect of my school years is that I grew up essentially without parents.  My father, a charismatic but self-centered school administrator and dance-band leader, left the family when I was about six.  After a very brief period of visiting us for a weekly outing to a nearby diner, he moved to Oklahoma and broke off all contact with us.  My mother, a drably coquettish combination of Scarlett O’Hara and the Elizabeth Taylor character in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” then turned full-time to the search for a new male companion (though, as a song later put it, she seemed to look exclusively in all the wrong places).  She mostly disappeared from my and my brother’s lives, spending evenings and nights elsewhere, and flitting in and out of child-rearing seemingly as an afterthought.  As a result, we largely raised ourselves, and relied on our grandmother, who lived in another apartment in our Newark apartment building, for meals and a daily fresh set of clothes for school.

My brother and I differ about the benefits of a parentless childhood.  He, the younger and more carefree of us, remembers a Peter Pan life without overseers or rules.  (And, I do remember some of this, including frequent evening gatherings where we and our preteen friends would trash the apartment, without consequence).  But, I was the older child.  Not to be too Freudian, but I remember very distinctly feeling that I was the head of this Lord of The Flies household, responsible to hold it together and, most poignantly, to win my mother back to us and away from her parade of (other) men.  Of course, I failed at this, and that failure left me feeling toxic, impotent, and unloveable.

At the risk of inspiring the strains of violin music, the story actually gets worse.  In a development that would make Tommy Smothers (“Mom always liked you best!”) blanch, my brother eventually found my mother’s affections and was treated like a prince during our adolescent years, while I was shunned.  It was dramatic, and inexplicable.  While I slogged through the barbed-wire, strike-shortened Newark public schools (skipped through the grades repeatedly by administrators who had no idea what to make of me), winding up as a freshman at the Newark campus of Rutgers at the premature age 15, my brother inexplicably was sent to a first-class private high school and then on to Hampshire College, at that time one of America’s most expensive private colleges.

Much later, I learned that in fact we are the sons of different fathers.  I, dark-haired and fat, am the child of the man who left us when I was six.  My brother, blonde and lithe, is the child of one of my mother’s lost loves.  Apparently, this fellow financed my brother’s tuitions, promised (idly) that he would leave his entire estate to my mother, and was curiously invited to my brother’s wedding at my mother’s request.  All I knew as a child and young adult, of course, was that some shameful quality of mine (it was easiest to blame the fat, and to keep the fat on my bones as an easy scapegoat) made me unloveable and disfavored.

Suffice to say that I led the next couple of decades as an emotional cripple – socially awkward, unkempt, abrasive, and clueless.  I had the sense that everyone else had grown up learning a set of social rules that I had never learned; and more, that everyone could sense immediately that I was out of step with them.  What frightens me to this day is that I had no idea that I was any of those things.  This is frightening because, to invoke the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, I can’t help but believe that there are still things about myself even today that make me unloveable, but are unknown unknowns and therefore irremediable.

So, to the pink slip.

The interoffice envelope is not the only sort of pink slip that I assume is coming.  I expect that at cocktail parties I’ll wind up in the corner.  I expect that when friends don’t call, I’ve lost their affections (and even that, when Barbara stops getting invitations from her friends, it’s because I’ve become part of the marital package).  I expect that at the office I am considered the odd man out, not welcome when everyone else pals around.

So, to the lesson.

Although I still expect all of these pink slips, I’ve learned over time that my expectation (though I’ve never overcome it) is nonsense.

First, I’m now convinced that every one of us to some extent expects these pink slips.  Few of us feel loveable; no one feels he knows the social rules; all of us twist and contort to shield ourselves from our own feelings of coming short.  In fact, however, we don’t live in a world in which we’re constantly judged and found wanting.  We live in a world in which we’re mostly considered with indifference.  Friends don’t call because their own lives overwhelm them.  Invitations don’t come because people (certainly in their 50’s, as we are) don’t get out much.

Second, this pink-slip spectre can be blown away with one strong puff of breath.  Each of us, in our overprogrammed, isolated, insecure cocoons,  welcomes the attentions of others.  If I feel isolated in my office, I sit down on a colleague’s comfy desk chair and ask about his kids.  If I want my friends around me, I throw a party.

Third, because this pink-slip expectation is nonsense, the cosmos tend to contradict it regularly.  For example, a couple of years back I was suddenly rotated off of a panel of judges for a music industry showcase competition.  I assumed that I’d gotten this pink slip because I’d been too outspoken with the other judges, hadn’t been schmoozing enough at the conference, didn’t have the sunny can-do disposition of the lead judge.  Then, last week, I was called by the same organization to come back as a judge, explaining that they wanted me back because they were always so happy with my work.   Similarly, over the past couple of years I’ve stopped getting assignments from a music magazine to write CD reviews.  I assumed that my writing was not to snuff.  Then, in the last few days, I was told that I am considered one of their best writers, and the issue is purely internal housekeeping.  And finally, at work I was asked yet again last week whether I wanted to be made a partner (I don’t…give that honor to one of the young kids whose careers depend on it).

Jonathan Livingston Seagull of course said, “Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your  true  self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.  It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”  I haven’t a freaking clue what that means.  So, here is the First Lesson that has changed my life:  We’ve all had rough childhoods; we all doubt ourselves; and that doubt is bull hockey.

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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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