Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Down One

It has been an ongoing bit of light humor in my life that I have three mothers (and Molly has three mothers-in-law) - that, when someone asks me about my mother, I first have to clarify, "Which one?" There is the mother who bore me and gave me birth, the mother who adopted me, and formed the first nine years of my life, and the mother in whose family I lived and thrived from the age of ten to the present day.

But now, as of last night at 10:10 PM, that number is one smaller. At least in terms of those living in this world. My 'first mother' - my dad's first wife, who adopted me (and my brother, a year-and-a-half later), and raised me through the fourth grade - died last night. She had only recently moved back up to Michigan, having lived in Florida for the past 30+ years. Last Friday, she was hospitalized with a blood infection, with some related complications. It didn't seem like anything major at the time, but she just kept sliding downhill (there are no 'minor' illnesses when you're 88 years old), and the end came last night. I am so glad we got to visit her on Sunday.


Her death provokes an odd, and somewhat conflicted, set of responses in me. First, and most fundamentally, I am sadddened. She was, obviously enough, a major player in my life, in forming me into the person I am today. She pushed me into my earliest musical training, and such joy as I am able to take today from playing various instruments, and singing, can be largely credited to her early influence on my life. In fact, I first pursued searching for her when our eldest daughter showed precocious musical aptitude, and we started her on piano lessons. And I remembered the woman who had given that to me. . .

I was glad to have her back in my life, and in the life of our family. It enriched the lives of our children to know her, and hear her stories of growing up in Germany (under the Nazis from the age of 12). We went to visit her and her (second) husband in Florida twice, and they visited us on several other occasions. Her husband died in 1998, and after that, she didn't travel much.

But there was always the background 'irritant' that she had left us. She spoke with me a couple times about my dad, and how stubborn he was, and how hard he was to live with. And I, by that time having lived with him longer than she had, could acknowledge the justice of everything she said.

But she never really acknowledged that, in leaving our dad, she was leaving my brother and me in the process. Or that, however justified she might have been in leaving dad, she might still have wronged my brother and me. I didn't hold a grudge over it - please be very clear, I was unambiguously happy to have her back in my life - but a simple apology would have been very healing, probably for both of us.

But, in the ensuing years since she left, I've come to understand that adoptive motherhood comes with a whole set of baggage relating to the mothers' own infertility, and she seems to have had it gilt-edged and embroidered. Some years ago, in the course of documenting something for my family history, I got hold of the paperwork from when we enrolled in our new school when we moved Up North. She had taken us to the school, and all the signatures on the papers were hers. And on the line labeled 'Relationship to Student', she put 'stepmother'. And, even 30 years later, that just floored me. Even having had me in her family for seven years, she didn't think of herself as my 'mother'; just someone filling in, in lieu of the 'real thing'.

She was a very sensitive person, sometimes spilling over into 'insecure'. And, combined with my dad's farm-boy bluntness, I can easily understand how they were a bit of a mismatch. But, even having long since 'moved on', I can't quite bring myself to 'accept' their divorce. It still seems to me to be a tragedy that, at bottom, didn't have to happen. It happened, and it is what it is, and my life has been what it's been, and I'm OK. But, if between the two of them, they could have mustered up a bit more love and determination, it didn't have to happen. In my mind, I have tended to lay more resonsibility on her for having been the one who left, but I am well aware that my dad could've pursued reconciliation with a bit more interest than what he did. . .

When she left, she effectively walked out of our lives completely. Dad remarried within a year (basically as soon as the divorce was final), and we immediately moved on to life with our new family. I remember getting a few phone calls from her, which always felt awkward, sort of like one of those 'what doesn't belong?' panels from the kids' magazines. She sent my brother and me birthday cards for a few years afterwards - I remember the last one I got was when I was 13.

And then nothing, until we got back in touch 20-some years later.


When we got back together (fall of '88; we first visited them in spring '89), we had a warm - if somewhat nervous - reunion. Her new husband was a great guy, and welcomed us warmly himself. She was his second wife, his first having died after 17 years of marriage, with no children. They met each other, funnily enough, in the swirl of the celebration after the Tigers won the '68 World Series, and married within six months.

And we learned that, until I got in contact with her, she had never told her new husband that she'd had kids - when I showed up, she had some 'splainin' to do. And it occurred to me that they were married shortly after my 13th birthday, after which I didn't hear from her.

We discussed what to have our kids call her husband; we thought of having them call him 'uncle', after the fashion of those 'friend-of-the-family uncles' that many families have, who are 'uncle', even if they aren't really 'related'. But he nixed that - having had no children from either of his wives, he was very close to his brother's sons, and 'uncle' was, for him, far more than a mere 'term of endearment'. Not something he was prepared to hear from kids who'd only just showed up on his doorstep. So, we ended up at 'Mister', which seemed way too 'formal' and 'arms-length', especially in light of the warm relationship we eventually built with him. 3M, especially, seemed to have a special 'resonance' with him. He fell and broke his hip in '96, and his health steadily declined until his death in '98.


As I said, she and her husband were very close with their nephews, and for their part, the nephews embraced her as their own. Especially after their own mother died, they looked after her as if she was their own mother. When she started having some difficulty last fall, it was her nephews who looked after getting her the care she needed, and oversaw bringing her back to Michigan, where they could be in immediate touch with her.

It was a little nervous for us to contact them. Their uncle, after all, had been a bit slow to 'bring us in', and who were we to insinuate ourselves into their family matters? But I needn't have worried - we could not have gotten a more gracious welcome. It's funny - we aren't really 'family' to each other, but we are most definitely 'connected' through the person of my mother, their aunt. And, between the five of them, and my brother and me, we are the sum total of her family left to mourn her passing. We'll have the funeral this weekend, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, we'll sit down and get to know each other better. Something that probably should have happened long ago, but sometimes the obvious things can elude our attention. . .


So, my 'first mother' is dead. Not, I am given to hope, in the 'eternal' sense, but she's not here for me to speak to anymore. The phone calls that were never as frequent as they should have been, won't be happening any more. And the joys and conflicts that bubbled around inside me, relative to her, and our relationship, will be left to bubble around without any further input from her.

I was glad to know her. I am sorry that she's gone. I will miss her.

Requiescat In Pace, Mutter.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Angels Watching Over Me. . .

A couple months ago, I wrote about my 'first mother', and the recent downturn in her health. Just recently, she had moved back to Michigan, so she could be closer to family members who could look after her much more easily than when she lived 1000 miles away.

Last week, we got a call from one of her nephews, inviting us to a surprise 88th birthday party for her, scheduled for yesterday (her actual birthday is today). Which we were really looking forward to, never having met any of her nephews, and of course, we haven't seen her for a few years, either. But then we got another call on Friday, saying that she'd taken ill and gone to the hospital. It seemed like no big deal, but the birthday party was called off.

Then yesterday, we got another call, saying that her health had deteriorated significantly, that she was in a 'critical zone', and within the next 24-48 hours, we would have some idea as to whether or not we might be planning a funeral later this week. The speed with which things had gotten to that point was a bit shocking. So, we decided we needed to drive down to see her, since it could possibly be for the last time.

Our four oldest kids all had personal memories of her, and wanted to come with us to see her, so we borrowed a minivan from friends of ours, so we could all travel together, since our cars are all small, and could only carry five people at most (and not very comfortably, if all five are adults).

We were finally ready to leave around mid-afternoon, and we all piled into the minivan and hit the road. We hadn't even gotten outside the city limits of OurTown, and I was still 'getting the feel' of the unfamiliar vehicle, driving in the left lane, when the vehicle in front of us (a black Avalanche, if anyone cares) suddenly put on its brakes. Hard. I stepped on the brake pedal, and it was instantly apparent that I wasn't going to be able to stop before rear-ending the Avalanche, so I veered left, onto the paved shoulder of the freeway, to miss him.

When I got onto the shoulder, I suddenly saw what had caused the Avalanche to brake - a red Honda Civic in front of the Avalanche had braked suddenly, and was turning into an emergency turnaround, so as to head back in the opposite direction. So, when I veered onto the shoulder, the Civic was also on the shoulder, a couple car-lengths in front of us - still not enough room for me to bring the minivan to a stop before I hit the Civic. So, leaving the pavement, I took the minivan onto the freeway median.

At this point, I was mainly trying just to hit the Civic at an angle, with a 'glancing' impact, rather than T-boning directly into the driver-side door (even though the idiot probably had it coming). It was a foregone conclusion that there was going to be a collision; I was just trying to make it as non-catastrophic as possible. A road sign announcing that the cut-through was for 'Emergency Vehicles Only' passed within inches of my window as we dipped down onto the median, then up-and-over the turnaround lane. Evidently, the driver of the Civic saw enough of what was happening that he stopped before turning fully into the cut-through, so we found ourselves back down on the median, on the far side of the cut-through, having somehow missed the Civic completely.

We were still going somewhere around 50 mph, and fortunately, the weather was cold enough that the median was frozen, and not a mud bog, so I was able to angle back over, and popping over the snowbank (it was not at all clear that we wouldn't roll the minivan in the course of attempting to pop over the bank), we got back onto the freeway, virtually as if nothing had happened. For several seconds, the six of us sort of looked around at each other, as if to say, "What just happened here?" And when the realization set in that we were all okay, and the minivan was okay, and we were still on our way to Detroit, suddenly everyone was talking at once, in high-pitched, excited voices.

Behind me, I heard two 'clicks' - 3M and 4M hadn't had their seat belts buckled. 3M was sitting in the middle seat, directly aligned behind the 'gap' between the two front seats, occupied by Molly and me. If we'd had a collision, he'd have been catapulted directly into (and possibly through) the windshield. 4M was seated behind me - he'd have been slammed into the back of the driver's seat (where I was sitting), possibly breaking my neck as he flew into me. And somewhere along the line, it occurred to us that our four youngest kids came very close to being orphans in those few seconds. . .

But somehow, miraculously, we completely avoided a collision. The entire episode might have taken 3-4 seconds, and we were back on the road as if nothing had happened. Our guardian angels earned their pay in those 3-4 seconds. . .


We did get to the hospital safely. My mother was heavily sedated and sleeping when we got there. We got to sit by her bedside for a while, speaking into ears that couldn't hear us, but still we said things that we needed to say to her - 'Thank you', mostly, and 'I love you'. It is, of course, sad to see someone whom you've only ever known to be in robust good health, suddenly clinging to life, with various tubes passing in and out of her. I don't know if she could hear us; but I can hope that, in whatever deep and hidden way, I was able to speak to her one more time; perhaps the last one.

It was very gratifying to meet her nephews - her late second husband's brother's sons (four of the five of them were present together, and two of their wives), and to trade stories of how we'd known her. They mostly knew nothing of her life in the years before she'd married their uncle, and so were glad to hear me tell them what I could about those years of her life, and they had some fun stories from the years in between when she'd left my dad, to when we were reunited, more than 20 years later. It was a warmly friendly time, and I am so grateful that we could meet (although, as is always said of such things, it might have been nice if we could've met in more pleasant circumstances; but then, why would we?)

So, perhaps my 'first mother's' time in this life will be coming to and end soon. But even if so, I'm at least glad that I could see her one more time before she leaves.


As bizarre as it might seem, yesterday was actually the second time our family had a vehicular near-miss while traveling to meet my 'first mother'. Seventeen years ago, in the spring of 1992, Molly and I and the four children we had at the time (along with 5M 'in the oven') drove down to stay with her and her husband for a part of spring break. We were traveling southbound somewhere on I-95; traffic was heavy, and flying - thousands of northern college students had similar ideas to ours of heading to the warm weather for spring break.

At one point, while we were driving in the left lane, in the course of doing a regular scan of my mirrors, I noticed that there was a small gap in the traffic just behind us, in the right lane; I remember thinking to myself that it was a possible 'escape route' if I needed one.

And almost instantly, I did. The vehicle right in front of us (I don't remember what it was, but it was a gold-colored compact) suddenly did a nose-down panic stop. There was absolutely no time, nor space, to bring our car (our old minivan) to a stop before rear-ending the car ahead of us. So, hoping that the 'gap' that I'd just recently noted in the other lane was still there, I cranked hard on the steering wheel, hoping that (a) I'd miss the car in front of us, and (b) some other car hadn't filled the 'gap' in the last few seconds.

I don't know how it happened, but we missed that collision, probably even more narrowly than the one we missed yesterday. Molly and I both had the same reaction - in our minds, we 'heard' the collision, so convinced were we that we were going to crash.

But we didn't crash, and I think between the two of us, and the occupants of the car we'd just narrowly missed, there could hardly have been any people in the eastern United States more surprised to find themselves still moving down I-95 at 75 mph. Driving side-by-side now, we looked at each other with identical 'what just happened?' expressions.

Of course, there remained the question of what had precipitated the whole thing in the first place. As I pulled alongside the gold car, I saw the car that had been in front of him, peeling across the wide median, throwing a rooster-tail of dirt 15-20 feet in the air, trying like mad to get over to the northbound lanes. I wondered what had provoked such a precipitous response from him, until I saw a state trooper sitting on the median-shoulder of the freeway, about a quarter-mile further on. Apparently our hero was eager not to be seen by the police. I'm not sure that peeling out across the median, throwing up a huge dirt rooster-tail behind himself, was the most effective strategy in that regard, but he certainly gave it his best shot.


I'm not sure what connection there could possibly be between going to see my 'first mother' and vehicular near-misses, but it is at least amazingly coincidental that we've had two incredible close calls (and with the same six people in a minivan both times), both while on the way to see her.

And we've apparently got some very capable guardian angels. . .

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Growing Up In the 60s

I was born in 1956, the last year of President Eisenhower’s first term, and my adoption was final a few weeks after his second inaugural. I have vague memories of Elvis from when I was a small child. I was seven when President Kennedy was assassinated, the same weekend that our family moved Up North. The Viet Nam war, and the anti-war protests, dominated the headlines for most of my junior-high and high school years; my first campus visit to the mega-university which today is my alma mater had to be re-routed due to a massive sit-in which closed the main avenue through town.

But, for me personally, in my own young life, three things captured my imagination during the Sixties – the Beatles and their music, the space program, and the Detroit Tigers. . .


I was a month or so shy of my eighth birthday when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. I really couldn’t tell you what it was that so struck my young fancy, but I was instantly smitten. The next day, I, along with most of the boys in my 2nd-grade class, collected such length of hair as we had available, and combed it forward, imitating, as best we could manage, their ‘long’ hair (and it is a source of considerable amusement to me, in retrospect, how really tame those 1964-vintage haircuts were, especially considering our parents’ reactions to them; to say nothing of what came to be considered ‘long hair’ in subsequent years).

I talked my mom into taking me to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (and ‘Help!’ a year later), and I turned such disposable cash as I could scrape together into 45rpm records (the ones with the huge center-hole, containing one song on each side; for my birthday, or other occasions where I might have a bit more available cash, I could afford a whole album!), which I played until they were too scratchy to hear anymore. One of my cousins actually went to one of their concerts, at the Olympia in Detroit, which made me quite envious, and miffed at my own parents that they wouldn’t take me (the five-hour drive notwithstanding).

The Beatles’ musical development seemed to track perfectly my own growth process - I was 10 when ‘Revolver’ came out, 11 for ‘Sgt. Pepper’, 12 for the White Album, and 13 for ‘Abbey Road’ – and their songs, like ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Get Back’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’, etc, etc, became the soundtrack for my adolescence. I memorized entire albums, and I can still sing dozens of their songs, by memory, from beginning to end.

I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why the Beatles captured my imagination the way they did. I suppose their music was just interesting (at a time I was learning to play) and a lot of fun.

I was 14 when Paul McCartney put out his first solo album, effectively announcing the breakup of the Beatles. But their music remained popular all through my college years, and beyond. I followed their solo careers, and some of the music was still very good (I still regret not at least trying to get tickets when Wings came to Detroit in ’76, but I was a poor college student at the time), but it wasn’t quite the same. And when John Lennon was murdered a few months after my wedding, it just put the final ending to all the hopes of a Reunion Tour (which, c’mon, wouldn’t have been the same, either; but it would’ve been a hell of a lot of fun), and the Beatles passed definitively, once-and-for-all, into history. . .


I was within a week or two of my sixth birthday (maybe it’s a February thing) when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and that was the beginning of what has become a lifelong fascination with space and space exploration, and other worlds. . .

Especially when I was in 5th grade, during the heyday of Project Gemini, my teacher would bring a TV set into our classroom, to watch the launches and splashdowns, and all the talking heads playing with the models of rockets and space capsules, and it was all very cool, thinking about being in outer space, where the sky was black, and there was no air, and no gravity. Such a strange, exotic place!

But the real kicker came over Christmas of ’68, when I was in 8th grade, and Apollo 8 orbited the moon. That was just the most incredible thing – three men in what was really a tiny little can were a quarter-million miles from earth, orbiting another heavenly body! I was glued to the TV set watching the pictures that Christmas Eve, of the lunar surface passing below the Apollo spacecraft. And the Earthrise photograph that came back from Apollo 8 was one of the great paradigm-shifting images of all time – suddenly, the earth didn’t seem quite so huge – just the notion that those three men in their tin can could look out their window, and see the earth whole and entire, rising above the surface of the moon, and really kinda small against the backdrop of space, was a revolutionary shift of perspective.

And I was advancing in my own education to the point where I could begin to have some understanding of just what the physics of space flight were, and how the machines worked. (It was maybe 15 years or so ago, that young engineers started coming into the work force, who were born after the moon landings; I remember asking one of them, “Without the space program, whatever inspired you to become an engineer?” Because so many of the engineers of my generation grew up watching the moon shots on TV).

The following summer, when I was 13, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I, and my whole family, along with most of the United States, and a large proportion of the entire world, watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually walked on the surface of the moon – another world, entirely separate from the earth! I was utterly, completely fascinated, and I spent hours reading all I could get my hands on about it, and imagining what it was like to be there, on another world, and fly in a spaceship, and all that stuff.

The moon landings continued, roughly two a year, for four more years, ending in December 1972, my senior year of high school. And I was glued to the TV set for every one of them. At the time, Apollo 13 was a huge disappointment to me, but I have since come to understand the magnitude of the accomplishment of simply bringing three men home safely, whose spacecraft had exploded 200,000 miles from home. But once the moon landings resumed, the TV images of lunar mountains, and astronauts driving moon-buggies across the moon, just never got old for me.

Once I was in college, though, the moon landings were securely in the past. The Skylab missions were interesting, in their way, for a year or so more, but earth orbit seemed like a tame retreat, after the exotic glory of seeing men walk on another world. But some of the engineers who helped put those men on the moon became my professors, and even if I never got close to the space program myself, it left an indelible mark on my psyche and my intellect. . .


It’s funny, but even growing up in Michigan, I really didn’t follow the Tigers until 1965, when I was nine years old. Until then, I’d been pretty much of a bookish little nerd. I had vague memories of Rocky Colavito (all the little kids tried to imitate his ‘stretching exercises’ with the bat in the on-deck circle) and Jim Bunning, and the ’61 Tigers who chased the Yankees into September. But, my dad had to force me to go out for my first baseball team; physical activity just wasn’t my first choice of activities, at that age.

But, in ’65, my ‘first mother’ left, and Dad started dating the woman who would eventually become my ‘new mother’. She had a son who was my age, and he was a complete sports nut. So, at least partly out of self-defense, and partly just so I could have something to talk with him about, I started to follow the Tigers, who were an average-to-above-average team that year, with a promising crop of young players like Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain, to go along with established veterans like Al Kaline and Norm Cash.

Kaline, especially, grabbed my imagination – something about the quiet, elegant way he played the game, at such a level of excellence, just compelled my attention. Because of him, I think, to this day, my favorite play in baseball is the right-fielder throwing to third base, to keep the runner on first from advancing two bases on a single (or even better, to throw the runner out on the attempt).

And in 1968, it all came together for my Tigers. They got on this incredible roll, and just never looked back. Denny McLain (one of the great assholes in sports history, by the way) won 31 games (the only 30-game winner between 1934 and the present day); Jim Northrup hit four grand slams (three of them in a week, and two in one game); and something like 40 times, the Tigers won a game in which they were behind after the 7th inning. My dad took us to a game in August, against the Chicago White Sox; Mickey Stanley tied the game on a home run in the 8th inning, and Jim Price (go to the head of the class if you remember Jim Price) won it with a homer in the 10th.

The ’68 Tigers won the American League pennant going away, and played the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. After falling behind three games to one (and with Denny McLain being thoroughly outclassed by Bob Gibson), the Tigers came back (in typical fashion) to win the Series, largely on the left arm of Mickey Lolich. I still look back on Game 5, when Mayo Smith left Lolich in to hit in the seventh inning, trailing by a run, and Al Kaline drove in the go-ahead run in the pivotal game of the Series. The Tigers won Game 6 behind Denny McLain (finally not matched up against Bob Gibson) and a 10-run inning (featuring another Jim Northrup grand slam), and then Lolich beat Gibson in a tense Game 7, when Northrup’s triple flew over Curt Flood’s head. For a 12-year-old Tiger fan, there could not have been anything closer to heaven – the Tigers were World Champions!

The Tigers stayed decent for a few more years, winning their division in ’72, before losing the ALCS to the Oakland A’s. But by the time I was in college, all the players I’d grown up watching were getting old, and the team was rebuilding, toward another eventual championship in ’84, which was very cool in its own right, but by then, I was married and a father, and the Tigers didn’t absorb my attention like they did when I was 12. . .


The Sixties, as such, at least in terms of the popular imagination, really ran from 1964 or so (they could be considered as starting with the Kennedy assassination, or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan) and ending roughly 10 years later (roughly with Watergate and the Nixon resignation, or the final pullout from Viet Nam). The headlines were filled with Viet Nam, and the anti-war movement; the popular culture suddenly became ‘druggier’ than it had been before; hair got longer – a LOT longer – and the sexual revolution took hold. All of those things were the cultural backdrop of my growing-up years.

But the things that most caught my youthful imagination were the Beatles, the moon landings, and the Detroit Tigers. . .

Friday, February 13, 2009

Long-Stemmed WHAT?

Molly and I have never been particularly big on Valentine’s Day. We’ve tended to view it as pretty much an over-hyped ‘Hallmark holiday’, designed to sell candy and greeting cards. And we’ve figured that really, it’s much better if we spend 365 days a year finding ways to express our love and commitment to each other, than it is to ride in on a white horse every February 14th to say what, honestly, we should be saying (albeit, perhaps not in quite such extravagant form) all the time.

But, maybe that’s just us.

I did get in trouble once over Valentine’s Day, though. My birth-mother, as it turns out, is a HUGE fan of Valentine’s Day. And so, when the first V-Day after our reunion rolled around, and I gave it my typical blasé non-observance, she was pretty upset with me, and told me so. I mean, how hard would it have been for me to send her a card, or some candy hearts with cheesy ‘romantic’ messages stamped in them, expressing the true depth of my feelings for her, right?

So, I didn’t make that mistake again. The following year, I was in the card shop a month ahead, searching for the perfect V-Day card. And I found it. On the front, it had an old photo of a gnarly, scowling old gentleman, standing behind a chair on the lawn. The caption read, “Here’s your damn Valentine”, and inside it said, “Now sit down and shut up.” Molly wouldn’t let me send it to my mother. But I still have it in my files, to this day (I swear I still have it; I was gonna scan it for y'all, but I couldn't immediately lay hands on it).


We have occasionally had a bit of fun with V-Day observances, though. Many years ago, when we were married only a few years, I was in my office, working, on Valentine’s Day, when I got paged to the receptionist’s desk by the front door, so everybody in the office could hear it. When I got there, there was a long white box sitting there – the kind that long-stemmed roses often come in. “Your wife was just here,” said the receptionist. “She said she couldn’t stay, but she left this for you.”

Curious. . . Molly is definitely not the sentimental sort. She used to pooh-pooh it when I brought her flowers, but over the years she's grown more appreciative of the thought, and the effort (and the flowers are nice, after all). Getting roses for me would be way out-of-character for her.

I picked up the box. It was heavy. WAY too heavy for flowers. What the heck? So I set the box back on the desk, and opened it, to see what in the world it could possibly contain, that was so heavy.

And I saw six cans of beer, laid end-to-end. A linear six-pack.

Sometimes, you know, there are just no words. . .

I married a great, great woman. . .

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Culpably Clueless

The business of the Universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise.

-- George MacDonald


There’s the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally, where Harry is telling Sally that men and women can never be ‘just friends’. And I understand what he’s saying. Because of the whole opposite-sex thing, men and women can’t have the same kind of relaxed, carefree friendships that men can have with other men, or women with other women (although, our culture is doing its very best to ‘sexualize’ even same-sex friendships). You always have to ‘be on your guard’, at least on some level, with members of the opposite sex.

I have had, and still have, good friends who are women – people whom I find interesting and challenging, whose company I enjoy. My GF2, who is now Molly’s best friend, is one of those. And virtually all of them are married themselves, which, in its way, is probably helpful – my friendships with the women can happen in the context of a relationship between the two couples. It’s never just ‘one-on-one’ with me and someone else’s wife (or, more to the point, any woman not my wife). But, as a man, and especially as a married man, I always have to ‘watch myself’. A few times in my life, I’ve had to ‘step back’ from a friendship with a married woman, as I’ve begun to recognize within myself an attraction to her (I mentioned one of these to Molly recently, thinking that I had managed to back off gracefully, without the woman knowing what was going on with me; “Oh, she knew,” my wife assured me).


Which brings me to the present day, and the special dynamics of blog-space friendships. My favorite part of blogging is the friendships you form, with all sorts of really fascinating people, both men and women. I don’t think I’m breaking any new news here, but lots of y’all are really interesting, and really great people; that’s why I keep hanging around. And a few of y’all, I’ve gotten to know better, ‘off-blog’, via email, phone calls, or even face-to-face. And I’ve enjoyed every one of those.

But the thing is, the ‘distance’ of blog-space – the fact that, while we’re in blog-space, we aren’t physically present to each other – can make it all seem ‘safe’, moreso than it would be if we all lived in the same neighborhood, and got together for coffee on our lunch hours, instead of sending electrons to each other in different states. And so, we can get a little ‘casual’ with each other, and ‘let our guard down’ with each other, in ways that we wouldn’t, if we were actually physically present to each other. And by and large, that’s not a terribly big deal.

But, I’m aware that, just as I have to be ‘circumspect’ in my real-life friendships with women, I also need to be careful about my opposite-sex blog-space friendships. I don’t want my blog-space friendships to undermine my real-world marriage (and you all know how much I value my marriage, and love my wife). So, I’ve tried to keep things ‘open and above-board’ with Molly – telling her about the various and sundry folks I meet in blog-space, keeping things ‘where she can see them’. Like many bloggers’ spouses, she’s not terribly interested in blogging herself; she’s mainly quite content to treat it as a hobby of mine, and have as little to do with it as she can get away with (even while being generously indulgent of driving multiple hours to another city with me to spend a weekend with a group of y’all). But, from time to time, I’ll print off some of my email exchanges, and have her read them, just to ‘keep me honest’. Just seems like a good idea to me. . .


So, I did that recently – printed off some of my emails, and showed them to Molly. Mostly just to let her see what I’m up to, but also to get the benefit of her eyes, and her mind – am I OK here, or should I be more careful with how I’m relating?

And she got upset. Which totally blind-sided me.

See, some of y’all ladies, I’ve made some strong friendships with. We’ve traded emails, and talked about our lives, sometimes on a pretty down-and-dirty level (I hasten to clarify that ‘down-and-dirty’ shouldn’t be construed in anything like a ‘sexual’ way; only that we’ve talked on a pretty deep and heartfelt level), about our lives, our marriages, our kids, our faith – really basic, nitty-gritty stuff. And to Molly, that looks a lot like something that comes way too close to something that might be called an ‘emotional affair’ – an ‘inappropriate emotional attachment’ with a woman who is not my wife (recalling the scene from 300, when Queen Gorgo tells Leonidas, “There’s only one woman whose words should matter that much to you, and that’s me.”).

There’s actually a fair bit that appears around blog-space about ‘emotional affairs’, and how many women are even more upset by the emotional attachments their husbands might form with other women, than they would be if they were sexually unfaithful. And being a man, I don’t tick quite that way. My own ‘inner moral compass’ is set to something like, ‘don’t get sexual with women who aren’t your wife’ – simple and straightforward. And I totally missed the whole ‘emotional attachment’ thing. Which is a really big deal to my wife. And therefore, it needs to be much more on my radar. And that’s my ‘culpable cluelessness’.

I love Molly more than my own life, and I understand what kind of a Gift from God our marriage is. So I dare not jeopardize it in even the most insignificant way. Molly is not a jealous or fearful woman; quite the opposite, actually. The problem here is not her reaction, but my cluelessness.

See, to Molly, my close blog-friendships with women have the same ‘look and feel’ as if they were co-workers who I see regularly, and she rarely, if ever. And then I strike up close friendships with a few of these co-workers, and we discover lots of common ground, and get together regularly to talk about all the things we hold in common, etc, etc. Even if we had the best intentions, and nothing 'untoward' ever happened, such a friendship would be dangerous and unwise. Again, the ‘artificial distance’ of blog-space can kind-of tempt me to think that we’re not ‘connecting’ as much as we really are.


So, I need to come up with a way to adjust my thinking, just a bit, to have my ‘radar’ tuned to pick up on the kinds of emotional connections that are all too easy for me to make, without it even occurring to me that they’re happening.

It’s sad, in a way, that men and women can’t just be as relaxed and carefree around each other, as what we can be with our same-sex friends. Because I’ve met some women who are really wonderful people, whom I’ve wanted to get to know a whole lot better, and benefit from their experiences, and perspectives; and I just can’t do that quite as freely as I might wish I could. Because we’re human beings, and not angels – we’re not disembodied spirits, or ‘pure minds’ – and it doesn’t help to think that maybe we could be.

And so, once again, the Universe has made a fool of me. Now, when do I start to become wise? . . .