Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

The Thinker

I’ve grown accustomed to her face

I’ve grown accustomed to the tune that
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles, her frowns,
Her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.

Henry Higgins
“My Fair Lady”

The popularity of TV shows like “The Office” are easy to understand when you spend much of your life in the office. Offices are mini communities, except you see largely the same faces every day. Most of us spend much more time with coworkers than with our spouses, our children or even our pets. Unlike the latter, you don’t usually choose your coworkers. You can’t vote them off the island. You just make the best of them and hope they are not too toxic.

Occasionally you are blessed with someone singularly unique to hang around with for a decade or so. For nine years I have been blessed to have my boss Susan three doors down the hall. Today we said nice things about her, ate cake, drank punch, gave her presents and plaques, and basically said goodbye. For Susan is out the door tomorrow. She is retiring from the federal government after a career of thirty years, ten of them in her demanding managerial position. Like Captain Hornblower she has been directing our ship adroitly. But unlike the taciturn Hornblower, she has done it with smiles, intelligence, wit, laughter, great dedication, tenacity and millions of emails and text messages. How she made it that long without psychiatric assistance is a mystery; how she bore up so well under the stress of it all an even larger one. Unsurprisingly, she had more than her fill of it. Like others I have known with her responsibilities, the moment they are eligible for retirement they are out the door. I cannot blame her.

Susan is (was) an awesome boss, human being, manager and general person. This would not be obvious to anyone unless you observe him or her day after day. You see the crap they are given, the politics they are embroiled in, the money they must adroitly manage and the thousands of regulations they must adhere to and you wonder how anyone could possibly do it successfully. Her GS-15 salary was very good, but not nearly enough to adequately compensate her for the multidimensional problems thrown at her by the complexity of her job.

People at her level that I observed in the past had certain attributes. First, they were generally promoted to their optimized level of incompetence. Second, they came burdened with inflated egos. In short, power tended to corrupt them and make them ineffectual. It was just the opposite with Susan. Her competence was beyond dispute. As for an ego, she had none that I could detect. She was grounded, realistic, pragmatic and empowering. She saw herself as one of the guys. She rarely issued orders. Rather she spent most of her time closely listening. She saw her job as giving people like me the resources we needed to excel. She fought for those resources tenaciously day after day. How could we not give her our best in return? I certainly gave her mine, or aspired to do so when my human limitations encroached.

She is all this and just delightfully fun to be around. I am one of many of people in the office who frequently go home to difficult family situations. Susan was almost always sunny. She hummed in part to let you know she was coming to see you. She laughed a lot. She drew you into intimacy by sharing juicy bits of gossip.

She is also incredibly brilliant and incredibly perceptive. I don’t know how I know since I keep my cards pretty close to my chest for the most part. But somehow I know that she knows who I am inside better than any person I know, including my spouse. And it’s all cool. She sees the warts and pimples but chooses to focus only on someone’s positive aspects. Mostly, she is filled with honest mirth. She is someone who in spite of her stressful job has this ability to be happy almost all the time.

She also hired me, for which I am eternally grateful, in part because I got to know her as a result. She brought me into an organization that let me use my talents to their fullest extent. She allowed me to make major changes to the system that I manage, and take it into whole new directions that have proven very successful. She cajoled her management to support me and played a sophisticated ground game to make sure the resources I needed were there. She saw me through a few personal crises and coached me through various issues with people on my team. She channeled not just excellence on the job but modeled how to live a happy and successful life.

Come Monday when I return to work though her office will be vacant, her pictures off the walls, her name off the door, her email accounts removed and her electronic accesses taken away. There will be no daily sunny presence with a smile on her face humming in the hallways. There will be no one with quite her wit and style to banter with. Work will feel more like work and less like fun.

I’m sure we’ll keep in touch, send each other the occasional personal email, see each other at sporadic functions like holiday parties, but of course it won’t be the same. She has moved on and so must I. All relationships must end, or at least change to be a shadow of their former self. But god, I will miss having her around. Like Professor Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, I find that I’ve grown accustomed to her face.

 
The Thinker

Taking myself on a date

It turns out that I am a pretty good date, at least if I am dating myself.

It used to be highly unusual to find myself sans spouse or other co-dependent. That was before my wife started going to conventions and my daughter went off to college. I don’t hold those long weekends by my wife out of town in Boston, Las Vegas or sometimes right across the river in Silver Spring against her. (This weekend it’s Boston.) She doesn’t hold my extended business trips so I can see a friend or sibling against me either. Four years ago, I disappeared for close to a week to attend the general assembly of our denomination.

We still take vacations together. And of course there is all that togetherness at home, often coming together over dinners we each prepare separately but at least consume at the same time. Otherwise during the evenings she is more likely watching television and I am upstairs on the computer. I don’t know how typical our marriage is, but it strikes me that ours is less engaged than many.

With her conventions, I find I am more frequently finding myself home alone for days at a stretch. Well, not completely alone. Our cat Arthur remains a full time occupant. He provides companionship of a sort, but mostly we inhabit separate worlds during the day, except at feeding time or when I am slathering steroid cream in his ear. Which leaves me to be my best friend. This generally suits me fine. There are certainly friends I could visit locally, but more and more when these opportunities arise I am finding that I prefer my own company. I’m not lonely, just alone. And it’s okay.

Thus last night I found that I was taking myself to the movies. A review of Oz, The Great and Powerful will come. I know some people who feel weird going to a movie alone. I’ve never let that stop me and in truth my taste in movies often differs from my wife’s taste anyhow. When I go by myself I always arrive just in time to avoid the obnoxious ads but to see most of the trailers. I also avoid the overpriced popcorn and find a nice comfy seat near the back of the theater, preferably away from the speakers. I have my smartphone for entertainment if the trailers fail to amuse. Last night I found myself in Theater 6 at the Reston (Virginia) Bow-Tie Cinemas, back in the same row where some six months earlier I had seen some other movie with a good friend. It obviously did not make much of an impression on me as my mind was elsewhere. Fortunately, Oz turned out to be a fun and engaging movie.

Perhaps the single life becomes quickly old, but when it returns in these periodic bursts I find that I welcome them. I have all the comforts of home because I am home. I find a certain freedom in not needing to accommodate my wife, or my daughter who when she is home can easily sleep past noon. And so I had Broadway music on at 9 a.m. and only the cat seemed a little miffed by the noise and went to sleep downstairs.

I have been taking these four days and three nights alone at my own peculiar pace. It’s a good time to watch movies on DVD that I have seen many times before, simply because there is no one occupying the TV room to compete with or object. I don’t believe in take out food, but when I am home alone I can be lured into indulging, even if take out means a six inch steak and cheese sandwich from Subway. Last night after the movie I felt in the mood for a snack. Alas, after ten p.m. the Baskin Robbins was shutdown, as was the Dairy Queen. The bakery at the Giant Food was still opened. It worked.

This life suits me very well, at least for a few days. I exercise when the mood strikes, but mostly I indulge my hobbies, which over this three day weekend has mostly been about serving a few customers with my software consulting services. Last week I successfully rehosted a client with a forum of over 100,000 posts, a major challenge as it turned out because his search tables were corrupted, which meant the database extract could not be imported. I ended up surgically snipping them out of the 600 mb file using text editors and the Unix split command, then rebuilding the search index manually. I upgraded software for three clients; in one case removing dozens of plug-ins that were causing performance problems. It’s kind of geeky but it put a few hundred bucks in my PayPal account, and no one objected. It also kept me out of strippers’ bars and red light districts.

Music has been playing from the stereo, music that neither my daughter nor my wife would enjoy much if they were here. I indulged in waffles for breakfast one morning. I slept deeply at night, which is not hard if you are home alone and there is no spouse in bed to distract you. I walked for exercise with podcasts to distract me. At the gym I put in an extra fifteen minutes of aerobics and lifted a set of weights. And it was good.

Tonight though the wife returns from Boston. My momentary days reliving my bachelorhood will abruptly end. Likely after she settles in trash TV will be coming out of our entertainment room tonight. So it will likely remain until her next convention when I plan to take myself out on a few more dates.

 
The Thinker

Advice for the lovelorn

I won’t claim that this advice is directed to anyone in particular, but it was inspired by reading this blog. Asplenia wears her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her blog. I am glad she remains anonymous, and also grateful that she reads my blog and occasionally leaves a comment. I’m not sure how many regular readers of this blog I have, but I suspect she has more.

Nor can I claim to be a fountain of wisdom on matters of the heart. It is true that I can point to a marriage of twenty-six years, but neither my wife nor I will claim we have had an easy marriage. I often think that if you have an easy marriage, something is wrong. Life is not designed to be easy; hence love should not be easy either. In my experience, love is more about continuous challenge than comfort.

No, love is not easy, so it might seem like it is something only the foolhardy should attempt. However, avoiding love is not easy either. There is nothing wrong with being single, just as there is nothing wrong with being married or in any heavy relationship. I don’t live in the delusion that I would necessarily be better single. Instead, I suspect I would be chasing other issues. Maybe I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me, and it would tug at my inferiority complex. For we are all relational creatures. Like it or not, we almost universally assess our self worth based on the quality of those relationships.

Asplenia is recently divorced and is actively searching for a new mate. She goes on lots of dates. Reading her blog the last year or so has been heart wrenching, so heart wrenching that it is sometimes hard to read her posts because they cut so close to the heart and often are so pierced with pain. It’s hard to put yourself back on the love market after a long marriage, particularly when you thought overall it was pretty good. It is hard to invest time in relationships, hard to think things are going great and then to find yourself dumped or disillusioned and back on square one. Asplenia has spent a lot of time riding reasonable expectation waves only to find them dashed. She has expectations for what a solid relationship should look and feel like. It is doubtless borne out at least partially by experience, but she also invests time in pondering the opinions of relationship experts, who she often quotes. If you have a hard time judging what a solid, intimate relationship should look like, these experts will sort it out for you. Good luck to her and the millions of others who deserve a terrific, long lasting, enduring and permanent partnership. Perhaps it will be an ideal one that checks off all the boxes the relationship experts tell us should be checked.

The temptation to keep looking for the perfect relationship keeps gnawing at most of us. Surely someone out there is better than what we got, or what we had, right? Surely, when I marry a perfect 10, I won’t end up getting someone who deliberately farts in my presence. Surely I will get someone who is not a spendthrift, and who can ignore a line of cocaine at a party? Surely there is someone out there without baggage, who will understand me intuitively, who is always kind and gentle and who never has a bad day, or doesn’t have a fatal flaw?

Maybe there are a couple of these creatures out there, but I haven’t met any yet. I think they are a myth, like the unicorn. On reflection, I’m not sure that even if I was fancy free and one of these wanted me that I should marry one of them. This is because I might feel the pressure to be perfect also and, well, not to give away a secret or anything, but I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I too am saddled with baggage, some light, some not so light. I too am the product of a mixed childhood and a mixed parenting experience, and it shaped my personality and I carry a lot of it into middle age. I will probably carry it into old age and to my grave. I will die an imperfect creature, as will my wife.

I am not sure where this desire to chase perfection comes from. Maybe it comes from going to church at a young age, where we learn God is perfect and we can be too in some nebulous afterlife. Meanwhile, if we rigorously follow the rules and spend much of our lives repressing our less than perfect aspects, we can sort of look perfect, at least most of the time. What typically happens is we give it a modest try, but we soon fail. This happens because, unlike God, we are programmed to be imperfect. But it also happens because perfection is just an idea, and what we think the perfect is is largely due to what others have told us all along should look like perfection. How did they know? Well, someone told them. And so it probably goes back to the point where us apes came down from the trees and started crawling on terra firma. All they really knew was that much of life was miserable, and hunting mastodons and spending evenings on animal skins wasn’t much to get excited about.

If we can’t be perfect, maybe we can look perfect instead. It may take losing forty pounds, or a nose job, or a tummy tuck, or spending three times a week at the local gym getting exhausted and sweaty. All that work doesn’t make us perfect, but may feed the illusion that we can become perfect, or at least more perfect than many. Sometimes it works, at least for a while, but just as often or more it fails because we discover some new flaw in ourselves.

Much of falling in love is based on a self-delusion. We see in others things that are not really there. It’s the phenomenon of psychological projection. To see our new lovers as the imperfect creatures they are is actually kind of hard, and perhaps makes it impossible to fall in love with them. We have to unlearn our innate talent at tuning out their flaws so early in the relationship. That stuff is supposed to come later, long after the wedding bells. And if we can deal with their reality, then we have to ask ourselves a harder question: can I live and love this imperfect person for maybe the rest of my life as he/she is? Is there enough commonality, shared interests, love and caring to make the relationship, on balance, good or very good?

It’s my opinion that wise people will realize this sort of relationship is probably as good as it is going to get. Surrendering to this reality won’t exactly bring total happiness, but it may bring acceptance that can lead to greater happiness elsewhere. This is because lots of things can make us feel happy, and a love relationship is just one of them. Surrendering to an imperfect loving relationship may allow a space to open up where we can be in a generally positive relationship. It may allow us the freedom to escape relationship-expectation hell for a while, or maybe forever, and wallow in the rest of life instead, which will have its challenges too.

Alas, I can’t claim the credentials of all the great relationship gurus that Asplenia reads, as my learning comes mostly from the School of Hard Knocks. But at least when it’s quiet, I can ask my gut. I may not like the answer it gives, but it has the aspect of feeling uncomfortably correct. It takes courage to accept not the best, but the pretty good. And that’s probably where we will find our optimal happiness, which won’t ever be at a hundred percent, at least not until our self-delusion phase wears out and we realize that perfection itself is a cruel illusion. However, with luck, maybe we can cruise somewhere around eighty percent most of them time. It may not be where we want it to be, but it may be what we need.

 
The Thinker

Love can be unlovely

Just as saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” does not at first trip naturally off the tongue, telling someone you love him or her can be awkward to say. After a while though it becomes engrained. It bubbles out unprompted when you are with your significant other. For myself, after twenty-two years of marriage I no longer know what I mean when I say I love my wife. “Love” has become squishy and abstract. Sometimes it feels like a lazy word. There are times when saying I love my wife feels more like a platitude than something meaningful.

It is a little like that question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” There is no way to answer it without feeling slimed. “How much do you love your spouse or significant other?” If someone to ask this of me, would I recoil? What the hell kind of question is it anyhow?

Just how do I measure my own love? Would I jump off a bridge if my love asked it of me? Hell no. Should she stay with me after I beat her black and blue because she loves me? I would hope that she would get the hell out of Dodge. Would I take care of her 24/7 in sickness and in health in her old age, giving up all semblance of personal happiness? I don’t know. I would probably try to find home health aides. At some point, the burden might become so crushing that I would put her in a nursing home. On the other hand, she will be going in for back surgery next week. Will I be there for her? Of course, I will. In addition, I will be with her at home for a few days while she lies flat on her back. I cannot imagine not doing any of these things for her.

I suspect very few couples have this kind of discussion about the boundaries of their love prior to tying the knot. I know my wife and I never did, but there were certainly many implicit assumptions about love that we carried with us into marriage. Instead, we just say we love each other and leave it at that. We cross our fingers and hope the positive aspects of loving someone outweigh what can be its crushing burdens. In fact, we do not really know the boundaries of our love for someone until they are put to the test.

When they are put to the test then love isn’t so much fun. That is what I have discovered. My wife is a lovely creature, but when God handed out bodies to inhabit, she was handed something shabby. Without getting into details, suffice to say that she is a challenging case for her doctors. In fact, she has a whole team of doctors of various specialties working to alleviate her suffering. You would think after working on her for more than twenty years that they might have cured something, but no. Her body is like a beanie bag chair. If one problem is fixed then another emerges to replace it. This means her life on a good day is full of discomfort, and on a bad day is full of wrenching pain.

Do I love my wife? I must, otherwise I would have checked out years ago. Do I love providing the persistent physical and emotional support to help her cope with her medical issues? Are you crazy? No. In fact, hell no. Frankly, I would rather be in Tahiti, but who wouldn’t? Nonetheless, I love her. In addition, I inherited the dutiful gene. I got it from both sides of the family and at this point, it is reflexive. Moreover, I have certain values, including kindness and compassion. Since I love her, I cannot imagine anyone who deserves more of it from me than her.

Nonetheless, I have discovered some inconvenient truth about values. Having values is easy. Living up to them is hard. Most of us do not have to get a root canal more than a couple times in our lives. How many of us, if called by conscience, would volunteer to get a root canal three times a week? Not many, which is what makes Mother Teresa’s story so interesting, and why I was so drawn to recent revelations. I sometimes feel by providing a high degree of support to my wife, that I am volunteering to get regular root canals. At some point a more dispassionate observer might infer, Dude, your values are really whacked.

It strikes me that all these love problems are easily solved. If love gets too burdensome, just bail out. This assumes, of course, that you can deal with the aftermath. I am quite confident that in my case, because I do love my wife, if I bailed on her the guilt (not to mention the wound I would feel acting at variance to my deepest held values) would likely be worse than providing the support she needs. Nonetheless, bailing out seems to be a popular option, given the divorce statistics in the United States. I do feel some satisfaction being there for my wife, and feel it says much about my character. I cannot say that it is fun. Nor was it fun to be the little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, although doubtless the citizens of Holland were grateful.

If you are in a love relationship, hope that your values are not put to the test too often. If they are, expect it to be a learning experience about just whom you really are.

 
The Thinker

Advice I dare not utter

I will be as discreet and obscure as possible in this post. It is possible but extremely unlikely that its subjects will read this post. I am willing to take that risk because I feel better saying my peace at last somewhere. If I cannot utter it aloud, then I can at least write it somewhere. A blog is probably the appropriate place. Moreover, by publishing it here perhaps some will see themselves and do a midcourse correction.

I acknowledge that I, like most people, have huge blind spots. Particularly when it comes to parenting, my experience has been mixed, as has been documented in blog posts like this one. Every child is unique and no one style of parenting will fit all children. I like to think I have been a good father but I can hardly be objective. There is no real measure of successful parenting, but our daughter, age 18, seems reasonably well adjusted. As best I can tell, she harbors no particular grudges toward either my wife or I. We get along well and still do things as a family. We talk freely and exchange regular hugs. Our daughter does not smoke, do drugs or hang around with bikers named Thor. While it is too early to say for sure, I suspect we are doing better than most parents are. Our daughter is unlikely to be an Ivy League scholar, but I see nothing that would lead me to believe she will not eventually find her way into a successful, meaningful and independent life. I am sure she will have challenges and slip-ups on her own path. After all, as I once noted, failure is extremely useful, providing you learn from the experience.

Having given all the requisite disclaimers, both my wife and I knew this girl was going to have issues from the start. It was not because she was a particularly unusual child; it was because her parents had adopted parenting styles that left us both alarmed. A few years after their daughter was born they paid us a visit. We prepared a nice meal for their family only to find out that, well, C would not eat it. You see, C only likes X and Y, and not just any X and Y but X made with brand Q and Y made with brand R, which meant that Mom had to run to the local Giant and stock up on C’s special food. Moreover, it had to be prepared by Mom is a certain way and cut just so. Then she would eat it. She might even finish it.

She was not beyond getting the occasional timeout, but she was allowed unusual freedom for a young girl. For example, it was okay for her to use crayons on the walls, provided they were washable crayons. Her Mom would simply come by with a sponge every once in a while and remove her markings.

As for affection, the good news is that her parents loved her. The bad news is that her parents loved her. Gosh, how they loved her, devoting their complete attention to her whenever she made the smallest request, always in a cheerful voice, always in a tone that sounded like half baby talk and always with lots of hugs and kisses. As for praising her, they excelled in that. She was nurtured with the finest children’s toys that they could find. She had every childhood opportunity to explore her creative side. Hand me downs were not for her. God forbid she should wear clothes from a Wal-Mart. They shopped in stores like Baby Gap instead. She was trained by her mother to be a clotheshorse.

She is a naturally brilliant person, perhaps helped by her parents’ genetics. Her father has a PhD. Throughout school she excelled and routinely brought home all A’s. Mom and Dad were thrilled. She was lavished with praise and privileges.

Eventually she reached her teenage years and expressed the usual interest in the opposite sex. Suddenly, Mom and Dad who had been so encouraging were watching her like a hawk instead. She was kept out of the dating pool until she reached what she felt was an advanced age. They made sure she was closely chaperoned and were very strict with her curfews. She did not seem to mind too much. She filled her bedroom to overflowing with stuffed animals and furry cats and lived in what seemed like an extended childhood, if not infancy. Thanks to her excellent scholastics, she earned a full scholarship to a state university. Her parents bought her a brand new car so she could commute to class.

C is now twenty. She lives in her own apartment that she shares with a longhaired boy about her age. This longhaired boy though is a step up from the last one, a true bad boy James Dean type. Perhaps that is some small sign of progress. She still has her scholarship but since her parents did not approve of her lifestyle choices, they repossessed her car and ended all financial assistance. She gets by on her scholarship and a part time job. She works as a waitress in a restaurant that features nearly naked women who poll dance. Her mother and father spend much of their waking hours distressed over their daughter’s choices and hoping she will see the light. She showed up briefly in their house for Thanksgiving and Christmas but her estrangement is obvious.

They have not asked for my advice so I have given them none except for one small suggestion: if her daughter would consent to it, they might want to try family therapy. I have no idea if this will happen or not. Other than that, I simply offered them a shoulder to cry on should they need it and bite my tongue.

Here is what I would tell them if it were my place. There is a reason that your daughter is hanging out with men you do not approve of. There is a reason she is working as a waitress in a topless joint instead of at a Burger King. There is a reason she seems to go for bad men. It is because the two of you modeled the plastic parenting of Ward and June Cleaver combined with the 1960s “freedom to be the person you want to be”. The result was toxic. Mostly you smothered and micromanaged her. You wanted her to grow up to be like you and emulate your values. You were directing strong parental rays at her that said, “You must grow up to be a syrupy and surreal adults just like us.” Only, she could not utter her horror at the idea aloud. She did not know how and you were so nice all the time that she would feel like a heel if she did.

She is a young adult now. She can do what she wants and what she really wants to do is make you feel the pain she repressed because she was smothered, overly praised and micromanaged through her childhood and adolescence. Moreover, her actions, no matter how much they appall you, are necessary for her to find out who she is. She is finding herself by trying on a lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the one she knew. That is why she is attracted to bad boys.

How long will this go on? It will go on probably until you treat her as a human being who has dignity and not just the right, but your permission to make her own choices. It is obvious you do not agree with her choices. She is feeding off your energy and anxiety. Her life will probably look a lot like it currently is until you come to grips with a few things. You cannot change the way you raised her. However, you can love her.

You can love her by neither condemning nor approving of her behavior. You can love her by loving her in a way that will be meaningful to her: expressing unqualified and compassionate love for her and by acknowledging that despite the best intentions, you probably made some major mistakes raising her. Right now, your love has all sorts of strings, implicit and explicit, attached to it. She is discovering what it is like to not be like you, but she still does not know who she really is. To find her real self, you can help by lowering the voltage. You do this by both letting her make her own choices and turning off the parental guilt rays. If asked, express confidence that while her adult life may not be as you modeled it for her, she will always be okay and loved in your eyes.

My belief is that after a couple years of this she will likely lose her attraction to bad boys. She will move from rebellion into true personhood. You need to give up the role of being her parent. If you are lucky though and can win back her respect then there may come a time when you can be her coach. A coach does not make choices for someone, but helps them think through various alternatives and encourages them to be their best. This is the proper role for a parent of a 20-year-old young woman. When you decide you care more about your daughter as a person than that she model your values, that is when your relationship will truly begin to heal.

 
The Thinker

Marital lessons on love courtesy of my cat

In spite of what you are about to read, this is not “Let’s beat up on my wife day”. I love my wife. Obviously, there are things about her I wish I could change. I am sure she has a list of things about me that she would correct in me if I could somehow reprogram myself. We both are who we are. We are the people we were before we entered into marriage 22 years ago, plus the unique dynamics of those last 22 years. Our fundamental personalities are immutable.

Like many households, we have pets. Actually, we have a pet, one four-year-old male cat named Arthur that we picked up from a no-kill pet shelter about a year ago. Arthur too is a product of his conditioning. He was found on the streets of Lovettsville, Virginia where he probably lived a very scary and Spartan existence. At his core, Arthur is a sweet and affectionate cat, just incredibly skittish.

Arthur gets plenty of attention from us. The basement is his sanctuary. When he needs to escape, he retreats there and sleeps on the couch. When he is awake, he wants our attention, but he does not want to be picked up. When I am at my computer like now, he will often sit on the floor next to my chair. I have to reach down to pet him. This is not terribly convenient for me. It would be much more convenient to have him on my lap, like my last cat Sprite. Perhaps he will achieve this level of trust someday, although I doubt it.

When he deigns to pay us a visit, we greet him warmly. “Hello Arthur!” we generally say and we pet him and he purrs and he wraps himself around our legs. Even though we are confident that he does not understand English, we talk to him as if he understands us. I ask him how his day is going. I know his favorite spots. He likes scratches behind his ears, long belly rubs and to have his tail gently pulled. Generally, we try to keep him engaged but eventually one of us loses interest. He seems content to sit near us. Eventually he will find another human to greet, or will go back to the basement for more sleep. Should he ever feel bored, he has ready access to our screened in deck. Some months back I installed a pet door that insets into one of our kitchen windows. He traverses in and out of the deck dozens of times a day. In short, for a formerly homeless cat he has it made in the shade. The idea of escape does not occur to him.

I find myself more and more envious of Arthur, and particularly my wife’s reaction to him. I keep thinking to myself, why can I not get from her the level of attention that she gives the cat? I guess the same is true with me. I fuss over the cat probably a lot more than I do my wife. All I know is that if I got the same amount of attention from the people in my house that our cat gets, I would feel much more loved.

As an experiment the other day, I bounded down the stairs into the kitchen where my wife was preparing something and I said, “How are you? How is you day so far?” Of course, we had just talked about things a few minutes earlier, so she looked at me puzzled. I told her that I wondered what would happen if I started to give her the kind of focused attention that I gave the cat.

If I got that kind of focused attention from her, I suspect my marital satisfaction level would skyrocket. Oh, we do regularly trade the news of the day. I tell her what is going on in my life. (I leave a lot out actually, knowing that the intricacies of office politics would bore her). She keeps me up on what is going on in her life too. Yet I often suspect that her mind wanders when I tell her what my day is like. Moreover, truth be told, my mind often wanders too. Her boss is a voice I have only heard on the phone. Yet there are all sorts of details about her relationship with her boss and coworkers that she is willing to share. Therefore, some part of me is faking my interest in her non-home life, and I suspect the same is true when she asks me about my day. The reality is we do not care that much because these are separate areas of our lives largely walled off. This interaction may be more about giving the appearance of caring than actual caring.

However, we are both intensely interested in Arthur’s life. Every coming and going in and out of the deck is reported. If Arthur is in a playful mood, we will enjoy his antics. We pay attention to the sheen on his coat and monitor his urinary and bowel habits. We are fascinated with his reaction to bugs. (He plays with them more than tries to kill them.) Particularly as our daughter transitions into adulthood, the cat is becoming our new surrogate child, ever fresh and wide-eyed, recipient of enormously amounts of interest and love.

Perhaps it speaks to a relative paucity of engagement in our own relationship. There are times when after 22 years it feels like we are more like strangers living together than a married couple. Both of us are quite introverted. Our activities in common seem to be diminishing over time. She has little interest in most of my activities. If I can drag her to the Unitarian church I attend, it will not be more than once a year. The church thing does not interest her probably because it was not a product of her childhood. She believes in worshipping God by sleeping in late on Sundays. On the other hand, her fascination for adult fan fiction and in particular slash leaves me cold. I took the time last year though to attend a slash convention in Las Vegas with her. Her friends were all quite interesting people in their own right, but the slash thing bored me to tears. Perhaps in response I infuse more of my spare time in blogging. She has little interest in exercise, and certainly does not want to join my gym, so I exercise alone. Her knees do not allow her to go biking with me so my twenty-plus mile biking journeys tend to be a solitary experience.

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps this is the natural state of marriage between two introverted people after more than twenty years. Still, something must be missing because I observe our cat and the love he receives from all of us. I wonder, what would it mean to our marriage if we invested the time and attention in each other that we invest in our feline? Would it be healthy or counterproductive?

Scarier still, is the main purpose of our cat to allow us to express feelings that we find it hard to express with each other? Is it the simplicity of the cat’s life that we find so appealing?

All I know is that I have a new vision of heaven. It does not include God or the choir invisible. It involves in my next life being a spoiled and pampered housecat where human affection is always readily available, I never have to worry about food, water or a dirty litter box. I can bask in the joy of a sunbeam or spend enrapt hours looking out the window as life passes by. Perhaps one such life as a cat would suffice and I would want to go back to the complexity that is human life. I do know there is something very appealing about being this kind of cat. I could deal with hairballs and the occasional urinary tract infection. All I know is I would feel so loved and I would be so happy.

I strongly suspect that this kind of love is simply not available in human experience, at least not for very long. Human life is too complex and our pathways through life are too stressful to allow this kind of love. Still, I want it even though I know it will never happen.

 
The Thinker

Even more thoughts on love

(I wrote two earlier essays on love, here and here. In addition, I have expanded on marital love’s purpose in this essay. In fact, I have a whole tag library on love. This essay is more of the same. Maybe it is time for me to write a book.)

If you spend an afternoon pruning, planting, weeding and hedge trimming as I did today then your mind will probably wander. Mine wandered into the challenging subject of human relationships. By the time I was done five hours later (okay, I don’t do outdoor chores as often as I should) I realized that loving is both selfless and selfish.

This may well be obvious to you but was not obvious to me at all. I was schooled in Catholic theology. I learned that the highest form of love was expressed by doing things for others that gave you no pleasure in return. By the time the sweepings from that last hedge had been bagged, I realized that you have to get something back from your loving acts. Otherwise, you will stop doing them.

I do not know why it took me fifty years to figure this out. If you slavishly perform loving acts even when you do not want to and in particular, if you are not getting much reciprocation, you probably have a pathological condition. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to visit a headshrinker.

Nowhere is this truer than with romantic love. You respond in a loving way to your lover because you want to make them happy. Why do you want them to feel happy? You want them to feel happy so that they will have incentive to keep finding ways to make you feel happy. This is why mutual infatuation is such an adrenaline rush. It is also why, after a period of weeks, months and occasionally years, it comes crashing back to earth. Eventually you realize you were just playing mind games with yourself. Enduring romantic love is actually something quite a bit different.

The problem with romantic love relationships is that over time we tend to become complacent. If, for example, we perceive true love as getting our feet rubbed every night, this works great until, of course, you get it every single night for years. After a while, it does not feel quite so special anymore. You take it for granted. You will notice it if your spouse stops rubbing your feet, and you will probably resent him/her because of it. Most likely, though, unless you are the type who can be content through endless simple repetition of the same loving acts, you will want all those foot rubs and something else. Your spouse, trying to make you happy, will try to accommodate. However, the way the love paradigm works, you are not supposed to come back at your spouse and say, “Hey, because I am now also giving you a back scratch every night too, will you now agree to take out the trash all the time?” Your partner is supposed to want to give more back unilaterally when they are given more love. The typical reality though is that after a while, this quid pro quo arrangement gets too burdensome, and one side will unilaterally stop it. This may be at the crux of much marital unhappiness.

Thus unless we temper our expectations of romantic love, it can ultimately become self-defeating. It will lead to the loss of that loving feeling and, ultimately, that “I’m not in love anymore” feeling. We have to put romantic love into perspective. This kind of love is great while you can get it, but it is unrealistic and truly myopic to think you should expect this degree of love to be demonstrated all the time. It is like Pavlov’s dog hyper-salivating every time the bell rings. After a while, poor Pavlov’s dog’s brain was probably damaged from all the focus that food could be delivered at any moment. This suggests to me that too much romantic love is inherently unhealthy. Perhaps that is why I am suspicious of certain religious figures, say nuns who are “married to Christ”. They spend much of their day in prayer, presumably communing with God, endlessly playing through the same script that I love God, God loves me and when I die if I am worthy enough I will be embraced in God’s love for eternity.

In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World the cure for all of life’s traumas and disappointments was a soma pill. Soma was guaranteed to make and keep you mellow. Love too can be like using soma. It can distort the brain, set false expectations and, perhaps most importantly, keep you from engaging life. If there is a reason for being alive, it is likely not to stay in the flush of romantic love indefinitely. We are likely here on a mission of some sort. While mutual infatuation can feel addictive while it consumes you, we must be sanguine and realize that love expressed as mutual infatuation must necessarily be temporary. A love that feels more like the contentment of a cat purring on your lap is nice, but not terribly exciting. Yet this is the long-term kind of love, if we are lucky enough to get it, that we will experience with our life partners. This kind of love, of course, is the healthy kind because it is limited in scope. You can put on the shelf as needed so you can engage the world. It may feel about one tenth as powerful and interesting as the infatuatory phase of love, but it is the one on which we need to settle.

Of course, there are other kinds of love. Parental love. Fraternal love. Unrequited love. Altruistic love. Regardless of its form, unless you receive something back in at least the measure in which you give it out, it is unlikely to endure.

Of all the forms of love, parental love is perhaps the most challenging. It is true that parents do tend to get love back from their children, particularly when they are very young. As they mature, of course, children feel the obvious need to create more distance from the parents. The early bond, at least if it is strong enough, allows for both parent and child to keep expressing love in different ways as the child pulls away. As any parent can tell you, parental love can be extremely challenging and vexing. Most who get through it successfully claim that of all forms of love, it is the most rewarding. Perhaps because like many parents I have found it so very challenging, I am a big believer in planned parenthood. If you are not psychologically ready to invest so much of your time and energy for such a long period then you should simply not be a parent.

Unrequited love is an illusionary love. It thrives on the wan expectation that it may someday blossom into genuine romantic love. Fraternal love is so amorphous that it may not count as genuine love. Of course, you will tend to have positive feelings for people with whom you share much in common. Altruistic love is fine, providing that in dishing it out you feel a sense accomplishment that you made the world a better place. I still think that obsessive altruistic love is ultimately unhealthy, however much it may help those on the receiving end. Human beings needs time apart from others. An extreme form of altruistic love, such as Mother Teresa’s, may win brownie points in heaven, but is likely the manifestation of coping with childhood feelings of shame or low self worth.

For most of us, romantic love will remain our favorite kind of love. It is important for us to keep romantic love in perspective. Its adrenaline phase by necessity must end. This is both healthy and necessary. We should not sell ourselves on the illusion that we need periodic doses of infatuating love. We should feel grateful if it comes but a few times in the course of life. Genuine romantic love is more often expressed through the gifts of presence and compassionate listening. These are wonderful gifts and if we can get them in a partner, we are truly blessed. They provide a solid foundation to a committed relationship as well as provide a support structure that allows us to tackle life’s many challenges.

 
The Thinker

A woman of substance

They say that circumstance makes heroes out of many of us. Risking your life to rescue someone who is injured or wounded would frighten many of us, comfortable as we are in the cocoon of our civilian lives. For a soldier in battle rescuing a fellow wounded soldier is just doing your duty. The medals for bravery come afterward.

There are many quiet heroes among us. I would like to introduce you to one you will not find in the history book: my wife’s paternal grandmother, Lillian Savannah Bowden. I will not use her married name, which she carried for most of her life. However, I will honor her by using her maiden name: Bowden. Like a soldier rescuing a comrade in battle, Lillian’s story is remarkable too. At the same time, it was not that remarkable at the time, given the poverty that wrapped up much of America in the midst of the Great Depression and the many lives such extensive poverty warped.

Lillian Savannah Bowden

Here is a picture of Lillian in her prime. Born in 1896, she appears to be a young woman age sixteen or so. I imagine this picture was taken shortly before the start of the First World War. She is strikingly attractive so I have little doubt she had many suitors. If she made a big mistake in her life, it was marrying her husband Robert. Their family, consisting of five daughters and one son, lived a respectable life in Flint, Michigan. Prior to the Great Depression, her husband had a contract with the city to put in sidewalks. When the Great Depression struck, he was out of a job. He ended up drunk and abusive much of the time. In a time when virtually no one got divorced, Lillian and Robert divorced. Robert left Lillian holding the bag, trying to support six children with minimal job skills in the midst of the Great Depression.

Many people in this situation would collapse. Maybe people were made of sterner stuff, or maybe motherly love triumphed all. Regardless, Lillian suddenly had to become the breadwinner as well as play the role of both mother and father. Her solution involved a lot of working from home doing sewing and laundry, which except for sleep meant working virtually all the time at Depression wages. Like many during the Great Depression, she occasionally needed a little charity to get by. She raised her six children, but at best, they were one step ahead of poverty. Despite her extreme circumstances, she raised her children in love. She never remarried.

She realized that her children needed both education and a faith. Flint, Michigan came complete with an Adventist school. It was there that her three youngest children were educated as well as learned a faith. (The other children were already in high school by that time.) One of those children is named Patricia Adelaide. She is the fifth of the six children. The sixth child, the only boy, Robert grew up to be the father to my wife. His sad story is chronicled in this recent entry. While Robert grew up acting out his father’s vices, the rest of the family grew up poor but with good values. The younger children embraced the Adventist faith. Patricia, or Aunt Pat as my wife and I know her, remains a devout Adventist to this day. Much of her career was spent working for the Adventist Church.

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Aunt Pat and her husband Paul, whom we had not seen in more than a dozen years. Now 78, half crippled and with five stints inside her, Pat has clearly seen her better days. Yet the faith she learned in the Adventist school in the 1930s still fills her with joy, certainty and solace. At their house on a reservoir in Pennsylvania, we were pleased to meet four generations of their family, most of whom we had never met. Many of these grown up children came complete with spouses. There were two adopted children in the brood.

I had exchanged emails with Pat and in the process learned more about her family and her mother. The family does not have much in the way of historical pictures of their family, but during our visit, Pat shared what she had. The husband of one of her grandchildren was kind enough to scan these pictures and provide them on disk to us before we left. I have printed a number of them out. Soon the following picture of Lillian Savannah Bowden will be gracing our family portrait gallery.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, as a grandmother

My wife’s father was the exception that proved the rule. There are certainly medical issues in that side of my wife’s family. I know now where my wife’s problems with arthritis and weight come from. Breast cancer also runs in her father’s side of the family. Pat lost a daughter to breast cancer fourteen years ago. Another daughter has had two breasts and part of her colon removed due to cancer. Despite these misfortunes, Pat, her offspring and extended family are a remarkable bunch, at peace with themselves and imbibed in a faith that gives their lives meaning and living prosperous American lives. They are good and kindhearted people. Now I also know (a bit to my surprise) where this side of my wife comes from.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, may she rest in peace, deserves full credit for the remarkable children that she raised. She stood by her six children when circumstance threw the worst at her. Somehow, she filled them with love, faith, spirit, reverence and generosity. Her daughter Pat, many years later, even added a PhD to her name.

Outside of my little entry about her, her life will likely only be a fading memory for the family. She deserves more. So here is my small attempt to immortalize Lillian Savannah Bowden. Lillian was not alone in triumphing over great adversity, but her work was remarkable nonetheless. I wish I had had the pleasure of knowing her. However, in a way I feel I do know her from her remarkable daughter and the four generations we met this weekend.

Lillian, you done good.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion of a FWB

So, do you have a FWB? If you are like me (i.e. married), you may not know what a FWB is. I had seen the acronym around though. A simple Wikipedia Search quickly satisfied my curiosity.

A FWB is a “Friend with Benefits”. He or she is a person of the gender you are attracted to whom, in addition to being a “friend” (a rather amorphous term) also puts out for you. I have to admit, at first blush having my own FWB sounded great to this old married dude. Providing my wife went along with it (“It’s just sex dear, it’s not like I am in love with her. We are just good friends.”), it could be very convenient. If my wife is having another one of her interminable migraines and I am feeling a bit randy, I could just call up Judy, or Ashley or Kim, and, good friends that they are, would say, “Sure come on over for a quick roll in the hay.” Afterwards (since I do not smoke) we could play cards or talk about Lindsay Lohan’s latest adventures in rehab. Oh, by the way, shall we pencil in going to the art show a week from Saturday?

I suspect the number of married people with FWBs is tiny. It seems to be the single folks out there, usually recovering from the complications of a failed relationship that are drawn to finding a FWB. After all, a FWB relationship has many of the positive sides of a relationship without any of its downsides, like the emotional wreckage. Just as having sex with a condom (hopefully) protects you from sexually transmitted diseases, having sex with a friend protects you from all those nasty relationship issues. At least that is how the FWB theory goes. It is not like having sex with a bunch of strangers at an orgy. You are having sex with your friend, and since he or she is your friend, well, they would not lie to you about anything like having herpes or AIDS would they? In addition, since they are your friend, and they care for you, well, they will be circumspect and avoid becoming intertwined into a deeper emotional relationship with you.

Meanwhile, while you recover from your latest failed relationship, you are not left high and dry. There is no need to resort to your vibrator, or your right hand or the love doll in the closet to respond to Mother Nature’s urgings. While your emotional wounds heal, you can get the sex you need with your FWB. Since you are just friends, when you do not need him or her anymore and find that next special someone then everything is cool. Their feelings will not be hurt when you drop them as your sexual partner. Moreover, in the event your next relationship implodes, your FWB will be there. Well, maybe.

That, as best I can decipher it, is the lure and logic of a FWB. A casual search of Washington Craiglist personals today shows that women in particularly are looking for FWBs. (Men often say they want a FWB, but from their postings it appears they just want a woman who will act like their whore.) Oddly enough though, they do not have one already, so they have to advertise for one. Just some guy or gal to “chill” with. This seems to involve have a few beers in a sports bar, maybe seeing a movie together and then going back to your pad for some harmless conjugal sex.

Even though I am married, one of the reasons a FWB appeals to me is because I think it would be great to have someone into casual sex who liked me as a person and who (here’s the amazing part) is not struggling with their own personal issues. I do not know about you but here I am, age 50, and I struggle with personal issues every day. So does my wife. So does every person I know beyond a surface level, i.e. my friends. We are all embroiled in a certain amount of toxic crap. But not my FWB. She would be special. She would have her head together. That is why, if I need a FWB, I expect that she will be a psychologist or social worker. In my mind, only psychologists and social workers truly have their stuff together. So I am thinking if I need a FWB I will go around town and leave my card at the office of each female social worker and psychologist in my area between, say, age 40 and 50. Do you want a FWB? Call Mark at 703-555-1212. Let’s meet for drinks at the local sports bar. According to my wife, I give great back scratches. Also, I like blogging, classical music and politics. We can have great sex when we both feel like it and no commitment! And we can keep meeting at a sports bar occasionally just to chat. That should intrigue them!

It is just that the more I think about it the more I suspect that psychologists and social workers are in some crucial aspect of their lives also messed up. In fact, the only human beings who (allegedly) were not messed up were messengers from God. Unfortunately, both Jesus and Mohammad are long dead. Moreover, I seem to be attracted to women. Finding my FWB is going to be tough.

I have not had much casual sex. It is probably just me, but I am not very successful divorcing sex from having human feelings for the person I am making love to. The couple of times I tried casual sex left me feeling empty and a bit dehumanized. For me it was like drinking soda that had gone flat. I was left to conclude that those people who tried casual sex had not gotten the real thing: sex within a caring relationship, which if you can get it is amazing. However, if you are having sex with your friend, isn’t that a caring relationship? Well, maybe. When I think of myself having sex with some of my female friends what I suspect would happen is: (a) even if I were single, there is no way I could convince them to have sex with me in the first place; (b) if we did have sex then our relationship would change fundamentally, and probably not for the better; (c) it would be significantly inferior compared with having sex with someone I love; and (d) both of us would likely end up more screwed up than we were before we became FWBs.

If you are in a FWB relationship feel free to leave me a comment telling me that I am all wet. I would particularly like to hear, not about the FWB you coupled with last week, but the one that you coupled with five years ago. Are you still friends? Or has your friendship been reduced to sending Christmas cards once a year? Do you still feel the same about your friend as you did before you made love with him or her? Overall, was your FWB relationship healthy or hurtful?

I will leap to a conclusion and suggest that for the vast majority of you the answers will be no, no and yes. And I will also bet that for about 10% of you, one of your “friends” left a calling card that, if it can be cured, required a trip to a doctor or health clinic. If they did not, I will bet that another 20% of you are or have worked through this issue with a therapist, or wish you had the money to do so.

I believe that sex and the relationship between two people cannot be divorced, as much as at times we might want to be. If they were, perhaps we could better deal with the wacky stuff life throws at us. We might be able to fool ourselves for a while, just as we can pretend that there are no dusty bunnies in our house even though we have not dusted in a year. I suspect if you have a FWB then you have merely sold yourself on its illusion, rather than acknowledge its less than perfect reality.

Perhaps rather than posting that ad on Craigslist for your FWB, maybe you should be finding a therapist instead and discover why you want a FWB in the first place.

 
The Thinker

Unlamented

Las Vegas attracts many of life’s losers. If people are going to gamble on living then why not die here in this neon filled city that epitomized the extremes of American living? In 1998, my wife’s father, a man who I never met, died indigent and homeless here in Las Vegas.

His death was suspected for many years but for a long time could not be confirmed. He had a habit of disappearing for a few years then reappearing. When he reappeared, it was usually not a joyful experience. Generally, he was petitioning his siblings for two things: money and shelter. He must have been something of a smooth talker because over many years he talked them out of thousands of dollars. They wanted to believe in his rehabilitation. He promoted cockamamie business schemes involving their money, all of which eventually failed. At about this time that he crept out of town.

Around the year 2000 after many years of no one hearing from Bob, one of my wife’s aunts entered his name into the Social Security Death Index. When his name and social security number came up positive, some basic facts about his death were gleaned. Date of death: September 14th, 1998. Age: 67.

Earlier this year I happened to speak to one of his sisters, my wife’s Aunt Pat. I informed her that her brother had died. She expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. However, she did take the time to get a copy of the death certificate, and she sent me a copy.

The death certificate filled in a few holes about his last days. He died at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a town just outside of Las Vegas. His place of residence did not list a street address, but Searchlight, Nevada was listed on the death certificate. Searchlight is a town of about 500 people an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. There is not much in Searchlight, but it is the birthplace of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Bob must have died indigent because the Clark County Social Services Department was listed on the death certificate where his parents’ names would normally be. The certificate showed he was never married but here too the facts were incorrect. He was married to my mother in law for many years. In addition, he sired not only my wife but also my brother in law. He died of “end stage cardiac and pulmonary failure”. In other words, his heart stopped, but he was likely suffering from some form of congestive heart failure. He was reputedly quite obese as well as an alcoholic.

Among his entire family, including his former wife (my mother in law) there has been a noted absence of curiosity about Bob. When I broached the subject with them, what I usually heard was that he was just a bad man. The less said about him the better. Yet I found myself wanting to know more about Bob. For better or for worse he help shaped the woman I married.

My wife essentially grew up without a father. In the first six years of her life, her father did live in the household. However, he was not the nurturing type. My wife does not remember much about him in part because she was so young. What she does remember is not flattering. He was loud. He and her mother argued a lot. Perhaps that is how she acquired her introversion. Perhaps it was safer to be alone in a room reading a book than to deal with the ugly reality of two parents yelling at each other.

By early grade school, her mother and father were divorced. Her mother had custody, but her father had informal visitation rights. Her father’s idea of daughter-father time was to take her to bars to meet his friends. Since her brother was nearly ten years older than she was, she spent much of her formative years living with only her mother. There was no June Cleaver mother waiting for her after school with milk and cookies; she had to work. In the mid 1960s, she was the only child of divorce in her entire class and felt its stigma.

Trying to know her father so many years later is a challenge. Bob apparently was loud. He argued a lot in front of the children. At times, he had trouble maintaining a job. He was obsessed with his son excelling in sports, but not enough to bother to attend any of his games. My mother in law claims that he never physically abused her, but her son remembers differently. He recalls one episode when he was so angry that he put his fist through a wall. For a day or two, my wife was an innocent six-year-old girl embroiled in a nasty marital dispute. Her father essentially abducted her for a few days. Her brother, then sixteen at the time, threatened to kill their father if he ever showed up in their lives again. Apparently, he took his threat seriously and disappeared. He reappeared only to sympathetic siblings that hoped for his rehabilitation.

I had this image of Bob as fat, a drunkard, coarse and abusive. However, a discussion about Bob with my mother in law this week (we were in Phoenix, Arizona) portrays a somewhat different man. He did not always drink to excess, but when he drove a beer truck, he had more opportunities to imbibe, so that may have started his addiction. That and perhaps his loveless marriage seemed to tip the balance toward dysfunction. I imagined him running around with other women but that was not the case. He wanted to desperately to save their marriage. My mother in law wanted it to end because she was not in love with him. Much of his emotional abuse was manifested as reckless attempts to keep their marriage together. He had a hard time coping with the reality that there was no way he could win back her love. Moreover, my mother in law was doing quite well in the workplace by the standards of Flint, Michigan. She could provide for her children on her own income. She was eventually able to purchase her own home and even furnish is with brand new furniture. As she entered her teens, my wife had a home in the suburbs at last with her own bedroom and supportive neighbors. My mother in law made the best life she could for her daughter.

Nor was Bob a bad provider. He managed to stay employed in decent blue-collar jobs throughout his marriage. It appears that the divorce and his messy abduction of my wife triggered a long descent. He lived in Denver for a while, close to one of his sisters. I have heard that he probably had adult diabetes. He may have lost a leg because of his drinking. He sounds like a man who was probably clinically depressed for much of his life. Like most people born in the 1930s, he chain-smoked.

Talking with Aunt Pat I learned something of his family of birth. He was raised in a poor North Carolina household. The family eventually moved to California. He grew up in a family full of marital strife and high drama. Perhaps I assumed he was a philanderer because he had the opportunity to learn it from his father. His father and mother eventually divorced. Bob became the family’s black sheep. Aunt Pat was pulled toward the other extreme. She embraced religion. Now in her early eighties she remains a devout Adventist who despite her background managed to add a PhD to her name. Pat also sponsored my wife for several months when she moved to the Washington area. Were it not for Pat’s loving heart, I would never have met my wife.

Only my mother in law offers a different perspective of Bob from the other stories I heard. He was a good provider when they were married to each other. He only actually hit her once, and he just pushed her. She was not physically injured. She just did not love him. She wanted to be free of him. In particular, she wanted to follow her infatuation with the man who was her boss.

It appears that their divorce instigated Bob’s long, slow and painful downhill spiral. Eventually he ended up homeless in Searchlight, Nevada. He ended up sick but made it to a hospital in Henderson, Nevada. He died there ignobly and most likely alone. With no one to claim his body, the Clark County Social Services Department took up the slack. They paid for his cremation. His remains are now deep in a county crypt somewhere in here in Las Vegas. They can be released to the family if sufficient documentation is provided and for a $200 fee.

While I am forwarding these details to Aunt Pat, I doubt anyone will claim his remains. No one mourned his passing. In fact, everyone seems glad to know that he has exited this world. With Bob gone, their lives became just a little less stressful too.

We arrived in Las Vegas today, where my wife and daughter will attend a convention. I was going to try to track them down along with any records maintained by the county that may exist. However, after a couple phone calls I know not to bother. There is no place to go to see what is left of my father in law. There is no county crypt with his name on it that I can photograph. They will not even release his records, not even to family. It is prohibited by HIPAA regulations. There is a possibility that I could retrieve his hospital records, if a local probate court grants the writ, but it is unlikely it would shed much information about the last years of his life.

Therefore, I fill in what I can with sketchy information, anecdotes and a certain amount of reasonable conjecture. I should be angry with my father in law too. I should be angry at his abduction of his own daughter. I should be angry at how he used her, a vulnerable child, as a pawn in a larger personal war. Nevertheless, I am also now aware that in many ways Bob was acting out the behavior he witnessed inside his own dysfunctional family.

I do not know how long Clark County in Nevada will hold his remains. They will likely not stay in county custody forever. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in a hundred, Bob’s remains, like the many of indigent homeless men and women who have the misfortune of dying out here in the desert, will be unceremoniously dumped into a county landfill. After all, there are plenty of new desperate and homeless people in Las Vegas. Others wandering the streets here tonight are doomed to also share his fate.

Everyone just wants to forget about Bob. Perhaps I should too. Perhaps instead of keeping his death certificate, I should throw it out with the garbage. “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,” the poet John Donne once wrote. My Unitarian Universalist values call me to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every human being including less than stellar humans like my wife’s father.

It is nice to know that Bob was not entirely a bad man. Most likely, he was just a lost man, who never knew love and consequently did not know how to show it. It is good to know that he loved my mother in law in his own inept way, even if she did not feel the same way. It is good to know that even though he never paid child support, he helped support his family for a number of years. It is also sad and a bit pathetic that his life devolved the way it did.

This leaves only me, lamenting only not knowing the man who sired the woman I love. I wish I could have a conversation or two with him and hear about life from his perspective. It may be that after such a conversation, like his son, I would want to kill him. Instead, I feel an unrequited mild curiosity. It might be the hardest thing I would ever do, but if he were alive here in front of me, I would try to give him a hug. Somehow, I do not think he ever received one.

There is just a cardboard urn of his ashes somewhere here in the Clark County crypt. There they are likely to remain forever unclaimed.

 

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