Hurt Boyfriends

I’m sharing this quote only because I thought it was rather profound. It certainly gives guys a lot to think about.

Driving home from work Friday, I was listening to “The Right Time” with Bomani Jones, a (largely) sports-themed radio show on ESPN radio. A male caller to the show had made the point that a certain sports figure – it doesn’t matter really who – was acting “like a hurt girlfriend” when the host of the show, after thanking him for the call, said this:

“… we like to use analogies like ‘he’s acting like a hurt girlfriend’… I’m not going to, like, go over the top about that, but always remember this: you tell jokes about the things that hurt girlfriends do. Hurt boyfriends kill people.

Like, seriously… when you stop and think about that, ask women how afraid they are on a consistent basis about what’ll happen if some dude gets his feelings hurt.

We don’t ha-ha-ha about that on the radio.”

Emily Dickinson Once Beat Me At Arm Wrestling

Well, it’s true. Her name was Emily Susan Dickinson, and we were both in third grade Day Camp in Shalimar, Florida. Last I heard, her name was Emily Susan Lanham, and she had left the country. There was little left to accomplish, I guess.

Still, remembering getting my keister handed to me by a sickly 19th century poet got me thinking about another famous literary character of that century, Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, wishing someone would hurry up and invent the camera phone.

The name of my sister blog, “No Talent for Certainty”, comes from Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (the line does not appear in the novel). One of the old taglines of that blog was, “Varnish and gilding hide many stains,” which is from the original novel.

Clearly, I’m something of a fan. Why?

It is a question I can only answer by recording a conversation I had once about my predilection for steak:

“You seem to love filet mignon. Why?”

“Because its GOOD.”

I know many people don’t like steak, and some people don’t like Jane Austen. All I can say to that is, there is nothing more needed to disprove once and for all the ancient Persian theory that we are all really the same person.

About to dig into some more Jane Austen.

Those of us who love Jane Austen love her for all kinds of reasons. The main ones for me are that her stories are timeless, her characters are interesting, and her writing is exquisite. In addition, she has a unique voice; nothing else is quite like her.

The world of Jane Austen fandom has some true fanatics: these are the so-called “Janeites”. These are people who do quite a bit more than post a few reviews on blogs and reread the novels every few years. These are the literary version of cosplayers, specializing in the reenacting of the various dance scenes from Pride and Prejudice and the wearing of Regency gowns.

Which brings to mind a big stereotype: that only women like Jane Austen. My mother thought that way at one time: when I asked her what these books were (her complete Jane Austen set) she said, “These? These are probably my favorite books. But you wouldn’t like them. They’re more for girls.”

(When I repeated this story to her a couple years ago, she laughed. “That was an idiotic thing to say,” she said. “Well I was only twelve, and it was 1974,” I said.)

I also think that Jane Austen – like Emily Dickinson – is a sort of patron saint for struggling writers. Not terribly well-known in her day, she’s gone on to be seen as one of the titans of literature, influencing tens of thousands of authors and millions of readers around the world. Her stories are still read every day: the characters she created are still very much alive.

So maybe I should have arm wrestled one of them, instead.

Rants: “Well, Bully For You”

Years ago, I noticed that while everyone remembers encountering a bully in their life, almost no one remembers being one.  Something about the math there doesn’t quite work.

I mean, if you think about it, the odds seem pretty long that hundreds of millions of people in this country could have all been bullied by say, twenty people. Just getting around to everybody, for even the most dedicated team of bullies, would be exhausting, and bullies aren’t typically known for their blue collar work ethic.

No, it seems more likely that the number of bullies is pretty close to the number of people bullied. Maybe not quite as many, but — close. Certainly closer than “none”, which is the number of people who seem willing to admit to it.

If one were to admit to having treated people cruelly in one’s life, the appropriate response would be shame at the memory of having done so. Shame has gotten a bad name these days, but when it’s needed, nothing else will do quite as well.

Kids, particularly when they are with their friends, don’t need to be taught how to bully; it kind of comes natural. Feeling shame is usually sign of coming out of that. If you meet an adult – say in a dating relationship – who has never known what it is to feel shame, chances are, they’re still a bully.

Remember this: a person who has never felt shame is saying they have been perfectly justified in every single action that they’ve ever taken. If you are thinking about marrying a person like that — a person who never apologizes, that is — you may want to think again. “No shame” = “Most likely still a bully” in my book.

Countless words are written every day trying to understand or explain the wellsprings of human cruelty. Given cruelty’s prevalence, however, it is more possibly the occasional human kindness that needs explaining. However, one needn’t look far for what causes bullying: look into yourself, and think of times you just had no use for certain people you’ve come into contact with. You may have been a kid of any age, or a college student, or, it might be at work, or anywhere else.

When it’s “us” that needs to get better, we may; but when it is always “them” who need to change, nothing ever does.

Rants: “Contests”


Human beings make everything into a contest. Absolutely everything.

I’m watching a fabulous pianist on YouTube. The video is great. The comments below the video, however, are about everything wrong with the performance, and why such-and-such other performer is better — as though it is some kind of contest. (Or that there is one objective interpretation of a work of art which is definitively the “best”.)

Poetry slams are another example. Because the purpose of writing poetry is to win, apparently.

Dance battles. Lip sync contests. America’s Got Talent. Eurovision. Because whoever more people vote for must be better. Even if the singer you liked best was eliminated early. Because popularity is what it’s all about, right? That’s winning, right?

People in marriages refuse to see counselors because the counselor might “side with their wife (husband)”. Because the purpose of counseling isn’t to get insight that would aid a marriage, the purpose of counseling is to support the purpose of marriage, which is, seemingly, to win. Whatever that means, given that it isn’t a contest, there are no rules, and no one cares anyway, because trying to win arguments, most of the time, is just stupid.

In fact, the people most likely to “keep score” in a relationship are typically using criteria no one agreed to and, what’s more, they aren’t really in a position to be objective in keeping score. We all know this, but we don’t care, because — we’re trying to win some kind of contest, one where we’re more right than the other person. Because that matters to us for some reason.

In politics, people consider their side to be right by definition on every issue, and then indulge in meaningless faux arguments online, typically with no one, as people don’t really brook interaction with others who disagree with them. Or, if they do, they do so in an argumentative and abusive way that convinces absolutely no one except themselves. Look at me… I won that argument. That other person just got served.

Except, they didn’t, because they don’t care what you think. Or, better yet, they can tell by your self-serving behavior that you don’t think — not that they necessarily do (actually think), either.

I understand that competitiveness is part of human nature, and that a whole range of activities have developed to cater to it, from games and sports to spelling bees and karaoke contests. It’s the turning of things that are not contests into contests that bothers me. Marriage is not a contest. Friendships are not contests. Of course, arguably, things like spelling aren’t really contests either, unless we make one.

Life is not a contest, where we “win” by appearing to be better than our neighbors. It’s more like a meal we all enjoy more when we share and pass things to each other.

Oh, who am I kidding. If life were a meal, people would claim they make it better back in their hometown.

Highways, Highways

The many hills, the turning miles,
Complaisance in the summer sun;
A hundred tears plus twice the smiles,
The everything, the anyone

The streets of friends and would-be friends,
The cul-de-sacs of turns gone wrong,
The highways, highways everywhere
That lead us far and keep us long

I see your face in truth-filled dreams,
The warmth and light you give, my friend,
As highways, highways, bring us back
And to each other’s side again …

I know the route. Turn off the highway onto Broad Street. Follow that out of town to the county road. Turn off of that onto a street with no sign, but a red barn, and from there onto a dirt road that leads here.

I first came here for a wedding rehearsal more than thirty-three years ago. I was twenty-two, and the wedding was of two friends: one new, one I’d known since childhood. For the first time in my (then young) life, I had not been asked to provide music; instead, I was in the groom’s party. I had come to know the bride-to-be in the previous year, and I loved her in the same way I loved my old friend — without thought, really, because love was like breathing in those days. I just did it.

The wedding the next day was very beautiful. Later in the day, as we watched the newly married couple depart under a beautiful country sky, I took in the scenery, breathed in the air, and thought  — remember this. This day, these feelings. Remember this joy.

Twenty years later, I remember driving to this same church under very different circumstances. Her brother had been murdered.

She had two brothers I had known for years; one very refined, one very much a quiet country type. It was the second one who had died; he was involved in recreational drugs, and a fellow user killed him in his own home, the little trailer around the way.

The church was filled with mourners at the funeral; her parents, her other brother and his wife and child, and a large group of cousins were among the large family there in front. I was with a group of her husband’s old friends, all of whom had attended their wedding decades before, most of whom stayed an extra day or so.

Death is the great dividing line, and it often divides even the survivors, if they allow it. We clung together then in support of our friends, knowing we could not possibly really understand the insupportable weight of their grief.

With maturity comes the illusion of human control; but life teaches us otherwise, and the one thing left we can control – love – is the only recourse we have worth pursuing.

About five years after that, I drove up here again, this time for no reason at all. (We live about ninety minutes away.) It was a Saturday during the fall, and I had taken a series of roads I’d never been on; when I realized I was nearby, I drove the familiar route out to this church.

I got out of my car and could hear the University of Georgia football broadcast coming from a radio nearby. It was a cool autumn day, and Georgia was winning, I believe. I could hear voices of people listening to the game.

On a whim, I drove over to my friends’ house, but they weren’t home. I left them a note I wrote on an envelope from my car’s glove compartment, telling them I’d stopped by and hoped they were well, then left to do more wandering. She called me about two hours later, and we caught up for a while, they I talked to him for another thirty minutes or so while I was driving. They both had started new jobs, and were planning an annual summer party they wanted us to come to next year.

The fourth year of their summer party was last year, but there were more no-shows than attendees; one couple from central Florida made it, and I made it, but no one else showed. One couple had even called them from the road, then inexplicably changed their destination.

Who even death cannot divide, time often can.

Three days ago, I read on Facebook that her mother had passed away. The funeral was to be on Wednesday, so I scheduled time off work to go. I left work and made the familiar drive up here, following the route I’ve come to know so well.

I am the only one of the old friends here, but then I’m the only one who lives close by.  I provide whatever solace I can through the act of showing up. I murmur words of sorrow, we hug each other, and I walk outside the ancient country church, blinking at the light and through tears, wishing I had answers I’ll never have, and that no one ever has, because they are beyond us.

We all get tired, and one day, we lay our heads down to rest, and don’t get up again. Love and life go on, but without the once-living and once-loving.

… There’s sorrow that’s beyond beyond
We walk within it every day;
The bliss of ignorance is this –
We don’t see things turn out this way

But love still travels where it can,
And does its best to do its part —
The highways, highways of the soul
The dirt roads of a broken heart

We now know battles will be lost,
And yet we all must do our best —
To love while we have love to give
Until, at last, we take our rest

The clouds above go sweeping by,
The trees stand silent on the way;
The church stands sleeping in the sun,
While living folks go on
About their day


(First published December 2013. – Original title, “A Precious Gift I Didn’t Know the Cost Of”)

In 1975, when I was thirteen years old, my parents paid for me to attend Interlochen National Music Camp, there among the lakes of Interlochen, Michigan. I was there to study piano with Ms. Peggy Erwin, a famous piano teacher from Coral Gables, FL. I had the summer of my life there, enjoying drawing classes (I drew prodigiously in my youth); attending theater, ballet, opera (which truthfully I did not enjoy at age thirteen), and symphonic concerts; and, of course, studying and practicing the piano. I made friends, saw sights, got exercise, had a sick weekend at the infirmary, attended church, developed unrequited crushes on girls, and brought back a lifetime worth of memories. I also cemented a lifelong of love of classical music, live drama, and the arts in general.

I was there for ten weeks, and didn’t really get homesick until about the eighth week. I wrote very detailed letters home, describing the place and what all we did, letters my mom had until very recently when she gave some of them back to me.

When my father had retired from the Air Force four years before, we had moved into a three bedroom ranch-style house on the opposite end of Florida from where Ms. Erwin lived. The yard that came with that house was odd in that it included an empty lot next door and half of an empty lot behind the house. A year or so after we moved in, my dad went away to school for 10 months, and when he came back, he used the half-lot in the backyard to build a workshop for his new business: custom-building and repair of musical instruments. The empty lot next door he used for a great labor of love — a garden. He grew fresh strawberries, onions, tomatoes, watermelons, and I don’t remember what else in that garden.

That empty lot yard was kind of important for another reason. It contained half of our semi-circular driveway.

When I returned from camp, my parents had sold the lot next door. It was weird because a fence went up and we no longer had a semi-circular driveway: we had a quadrant. Easy to drive in, but clumsy to back out. I thought my dad would miss his garden, but he said it was so much trouble keeping the squirrels out that he was relieved to be rid of the nuisance.

I didn’t think much more about that empty lot; the people who bought it never built anything on it during the remaining years my parents lived in that house – nor has anyone to this day, to my knowledge.

Around 1996, my parents had decided to sell the house and move to Arizona. My whole family gathered there. There was my older sister and her boyfriend (now husband), my older brother, my (now ex-) wife, my 10-year-old stepson, and my 1-year-old son. We were going through boxes of old pictures, and my ex, who was a very inquisitive person, was asking my mother questions about the photos.

“Now where was this taken?”

“That photo — was from the lot next door, back before we sold that. We had a garden there we loved to work in, and that was taken when were getting ready to bring in our first strawberries. They were so good, so fresh.”

“Why did you sell the land?”

“To pay for Interlochen.”

I was stunned.

It had never occurred to me as a child that my parents made financial sacrifices for me or for us. I knew that there were things we wanted we could have, other things we wanted we couldn’t, which seemed par for the course. But it had cost my parents quite a bit to send me to that place, and the eyes of a thirty-four-year-old man saw it very differently than a 13-year-old boy had.

“I never knew,” I told my mom. “I didn’t realize you had to sell land so I could go there.”

My mom laughed a kind of joyous laugh.  “You had the best time there. Probably no week of your life went by for the next five years when something wouldn’t remind you of that place. Best money we every spent on you.”

In my teens, I cared a lot about myself and my friends; by my twenties, I carried about very little else, and I blamed my parents for both their shortcomings and mine. I am truly ashamed to think of the way I sometimes spoke to my father; and it saddens me greatly to realize the poor return they got from me for all of the time, love and money they invested.

Still, that summer I spent at Interlochen was one of the great formative experiences of my life. My parents gave up a lot — literally — so I could go. The only thanks they got from me for years were the excited stories I would continue to tell about the place. This made it all worth it to them, something I understand now as a parent.

When you love someone, you don’t do things for them for the thanks; however, it’s the love that gives that’s the most precious gift, even more than the things love gives.

I just wish I’d known that.