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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 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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