Days of Love Forgotten

February 14th, 2017
Columbus, Georgia
9:00 PM

Last night, the fever seem to break on this viral fever I had (not flu, as it turned out). I felt well enough to go into work for a little bit, then came back home to work the rest of the day; however, by about 2:00 in the afternoon it was evident that my wife now had contracted this same illness.

I gave her a Valentine’s bag (her favorite Jelly Beans, some Chocolates, and her biggest wish, a bag of Logan’s Turnpike Mill Grits). After our daughter picked up her 20 month old, I ran out and got my wife some soup. She ate a few bites, then went to bed.

For all of you singles dreaming of Valentine’s day with the person you love – sometimes it’s like this.

We started a tradition of taking a vacation in January of last year (2016). We had something like 12 hours in the car on the way there. We talked the entire way.

She has a career, and she keeps our grandkids. Her career involves looking after people, as well, many of them elderly. I get up early, go to work early, go to bed early. We have had a Thursday date night every week straight for something like sixteen years, but still, there’s much going on with each of us we never get the chance to talk about.

Last year, I booked a special short trip for our Anniversary in August. There, she ate the aforementioned Turnpike Grits, informing me (as a grits connoisseur) that these were the best grits ever, and that she had to learn how to make them. Only I forgot to get them for her for Christmas.

The subject came up (gently) while we were in the car for this year’s January trip. It got taken care of.

It amazes her that, after sixteen years of marriage, we haven’t run out of things to talk about. Part of that is how rarely we actually get to talk. The other part is that when we are finally together, and can focus completely on each other, it’s like a new experience almost every time.

One of my favorite lines in any movie is in the old 1940’s film “The Best Years of Our Lives”. The daughter of this couple is telling her parents they couldn’t possibly understand her love for her (married) boyfriend, because they (her parents) never had any trouble. Her mother answers her daughter, while looking at her father, thus:

“We never had any trouble.” How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?

Having to fall in love all over again. That puts it perfectly.

I don’t have answers for people who are lonely on Valentine’s Day. I have empathy, however. Because I’m fortunate to be where I am, and I won’t be there forever. I don’t want days of love to become days of love forgotten.

Remember, love is like light: so much more than we give it credit for; able to find its way in through every crack and crevice, there for us when we least expect it.

You are loved, my friends. You are.

Happy days.

Infomercials

For 25 consecutive days now, I have made it to the gym that is exactly 1.4 miles from our house. Weekday mornings, I’ve been arriving there around 4:00 AM, a few hours later on the weekends. There are televisions on there, and, it being a time of morning officially designated as “Ungodly Early”, they are usually tuned to channels showing infomercials, i.e., commercials disguised as something like news stories. I never change the channels, no matter what channel they are on; I’m typically listening to music or stories, anyway. However, one can’t help but see them, and it has struck me that there is a lot to learn about people from infomercials, even if it isn’t exactly what the infomercials are selling.

The first thing you notice is exactly who companies think will be awake at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and the answer appears to be (a) old people and (b) lonely people. If we happen to be both old and lonely, that’s just a marketing bonus for them, I suppose. They sell things like LifeAlert, and motorized wheelchairs, and miracle hearing aids for the aged; marketing to the lonely appears to be a little more gender-specific, other than the online dating (or even hookup) services.

With men, the marketers would have you believe that, if you are lonely, it’s clearly physical. They market weight loss pills, and testosterone boosters, and panacea workouts, and cleanses, and diets towards men, clearly implying that, with the right physique (or sexual performance, frankly), one need never be lonely. Since we men are prone to believe that (in spite of what women tell us) I’m sure that form of marketing works.

With women, there is some common ground (notably cleanses and diets) but there are also fabulous skincare products (usually being sold by recognizable, and good-looking, celebrities), innovative makeup application, and weight loss products that differ in emphasis from what is presented as being primarily for men. With women, the ubiquitous message seems to be: look young, no matter what age you are, because “looking young” has been deemed better by… somebody, I’m not sure who, why are you asking? Since the “look young at all costs” cultural norm seems hardest to question for women, I’m sure that it, too, is an effective marketing technique.

I have nothing against any of these companies or products; having tried none of them, I could not reasonably opine as to their efficacy as a class. I’m not really at the gym to try to improve my appearance, I’m there to try to improve my mood, as regular exercise seems to have that effect, and it is a busy and stressful time at work and elsewhere.

I read out here on the blogosphere all the time that the way for men to reach women is more mental (or emotional) than physical — yet, men (as evidenced by infomercials) clearly believe the opposite to be true. If I search my own mind for reasons for this disconnect, I find that many men believe grown women will act the same way as girls. When I was a boy, it was hard to escape the observation that most girls preferred the same exact guys, frequently on either a physical or social basis. Over time, however, girls become women, and their criteria typically matures as well. Many men, however, think about women like boys do about girls.

There is also the rather more obvious deal where men expect women to think about men the way men think about women.

It’s always interesting when an idea or practice becomes widespread even though there is no evidence whatsoever that it actually works: for example, men yelling at women from cars. I feel pretty confident saying, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop it from happening though. I suspect the same is true of many of the online overtures men make towards women as well. They don’t work, but we do them anyway. Which is strange.

Of course, the whole business of marketing is built on the oddity that human beings can be maneuvered into continuing to do things even after they realize that those things don’t work. Which is another lesson from infomercials, I suppose.

I’m typically back home from the gym around 5:00 AM, give or take a few minutes. If I’m going to write at all, that’s when I have time to do it, because I am usually at work from around 7:00 in the morning until 6:00 to 9:00 at night. It will shock no one who reads this or my other blog to know, I write at speed and do absolutely no editing whatsoever; I only edit a piece if I happen to repost it. This piece has actually been accumulated over a few days of a paragraph here and a paragraph there.

I sometimes think my various blog posts are essentially infomercials, only I’m “selling” my own thoughts and feelings, portraying myself as more objective and thoughtful than I really am. In truth, I’m just a middle-aged man, huffing and puffing on a treadmill at 4:15 in the morning, trying half-heartedly to lead something like a healthy life, dreaming up ways of saying something out here so clever that people might remember it for a few minutes, if I’m lucky.

But maybe if I took Super Beta Prostate…

Reasons

[Originally posted March 24th, 2017. My mother passed away December of 2019. – Owen]

One of the things I love about abstract classical music is that the listener is free to graft any meaning onto the notes they choose. The last three times I have been out to Arizona to visit my aging mother, I have ended up listening to one piece of music or another that seems to capture what I’m feeling or experiencing. This particular time, it is the following, “joined in progress” as they say:

The Setup

On Monday of this week, I had the following text conversation with my sister:

I had called my mother and she told me she was tired of living the way she was, and was eating less as a way of gradually “letting go”. After our conversation, I told my wife that I was going to fly out and see her, texted my sister words to that effect, who told me to please keep her posted.

My mother has been, throughout her adult life, a fervent believer in the right-to-die movement, as was my father — one of the few things they agreed on, politically. I was not surprised by her actions as much as intensely saddened to realize how unhappy she was.

To outward appearance, my mother has everything a person could want. She in no way wants for money. She lives in an extremely affluent assisted living facility. She is universally beloved by the other residents and staff. She has a boyfriend she loves who loves her. She is a young looking 85 years old. Even though she has Parkinson’s and other health issues, she had appeared to be handling them all with as much humor as a person could manage.

However, the warning signs were there to see. She told me when I visited here three months ago that she had been struggling with depression. That the sheer number of medications she was on left her befuddled.

When I spoke to her on the phone, she told me that one particular health issue she had was so embarrassing that she’d rather not go on than have to live with it, as it had ruined her life.

As I spoke to my wife about flying out to see her, tears formed in my eyes. My mother was so unhappy she wanted to die: that’s about as unhappy as it gets. Maybe I had been kidding myself about what a great life she had.

I took a sleeping pill that night to get some rest. The next morning, I spoke to my boss about taking the time off, got it, then made plane, hotel and car reservations. I called my mom and told her I was coming for five days, then left my sister a message to that effect.

The Conundrum

Before I began availing myself of the wireless access on the plane, I sat thinking: what reasons do you give to someone to go on living when they do not want to? What reasons are there?

My own experience is that we don’t live for “reasons” we live because we feel like living. The desire to live is just that – a desire. You either have it, or you don’t.

My mother had deliberately chosen to live across the country from any of her children so as not to be a burden on any of us. Even though the three of us had each been to see her in the last three months, we all had very short (two day) stays. My feeling was, she missed seeing us, so maybe just going to see her would make her feel better. (The fact that she said “You’re coming for five days? Well, that should cheer me up,” was a pretty good clue.)

Reason is just a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. That’s another quote from a book I read recently, making the point that reason is only there to serve the emotions. My mother’s elephant was getting tired, she wanted to lay down.

All I knew was, I was going, and I was going to stay almost a week. What I’d find I wasn’t sure, but I thought sure it would be bad, whatever it was.

What I Found

What I found, upon arriving, getting my rental (which was torture) and driving down to where she lived was entirely baffling.

She seems fine.

We’ve now eaten four meals together. She has eaten at all of them. Her health does not seem any worse than last December; although her memory is poor, it seems better than most people there.

Her boyfriend, on the other had, who also has Parkinson’s, has degenerated horribly. He is also very temperate and good-natured — a “roll with the punches” kind of guy, as they say. It made me think that maybe part of her depression is realizing she’s liable to lose him, but I don’t know. She has made several oblique or direct references to “what she’s doing” as in, “The staff here don’t approve, of course, of what I’m doing.” – indicating that she is still in that gradually letting go process she described to me over the phone.

Still, we’ve laughed and talked about various things. We looked at pictures of her great-grandchildren, neither of whom she’s ever seen in person. We talked to my brother on the phone. We watched five hours worth of westerns yesterday – she had not been able to watch movies lately, as she cannot remember how to operate her DVD player. I taped instructions to the remote with labels to help, and she practiced several times while I was there. However, I know enough about short-term memory loss to know that this is unlikely to help once I’m gone.

Either her boyfriend or the staff would be happy to help anytime, and the staff is always available. She would have to think to call, though. What she’d been doing was stare helplessly at her DVD player,  overwhelmed with the realization that she could not figure out how to operate it.

When I texted my sister again, I said that at the rate she was going, she will have finished herself off (physically) by the year 2043. However, there is more to life than just our physical capability. She’s having a hard time remembering how to do simple things, things she’s done for years. She can’t really go anywhere. Even though she has company, this isn’t the life she wants, as she mentioned last night…

About Last Night…

“Moving from Florida to Arizona, leaving [35 years worth of] friends behind, was one thing. Losing your father [11 years ago], was another. Deciding to move here [into an Independent Living apartment within the retirement community she is part of 10 years ago] was still another. But moving from Independent Living to Assisted Living [14 months ago] was the biggest single change I’ve been through.

It’s now been more than 3 years since I had to stop driving; Ed [her boyfriend] had to stop last year. Do you know what it is like when you can’t drive? Even though they have people here who will take you places, you have to schedule it, and you may have to wait if other people are already using the drivers. Driving gives you so much power, and you don’t realize it until… until you lose it.”

Of everything you’ve lost, personally, I mean, in the way of capability — what do you miss most?

“Singing. I can’t even sing in the shower now. I can barely talk, my voice is so shaky.”

I’ll bet you can still recite hours of poetry, though.

[Ed indicated with vigorous nodding and that indeed she could.]

“Yes, well the number of people who want to hear ‘The Highwayman’ is surprisingly low,” she said, archly.

I looked around the dining room of the Assisted Living facility. The difference in the walker or wheelchair bound residents there versus the hale, healthy, tanned group from the Independent Living facility two blocks away was stark.

My father’s memory had started to go the last year of his life, and my mother always said it was a “blessing” that he didn’t have to live through the complete loss of the mental powers he had always been so proud of. She on the other hand, was living through her loss. Who was I to say she should want to?

On the other hand, who could really tell she was trying to end her life? The process was so subtle and gradual (eating less rather than not eating is what most people call “dieting”), and the only meds she was refusing were those that exacerbated her “embarrassing condition”.

Reasons

I rose at 4:00 this morning (don’t be alarmed, I always do that) and went for a three mile walk, listening to the Bartok String Quartet referenced at the beginning of this piece. After a period of harmony and disharmony, it ends with two voices together, much like my mother is ending her life.

I wish I understood anything about life. My own emotional elephant feels like its rider is blind, aimlessly trying to pull this way and that, not really knowing where he’s going. I love my mother, yet, throughout much of my life, I resented her for the degree of emotional distance she kept from me, or us. I realized with age that she was the product of a horrendously poor and violent upbringing, and had made the most possible out of it; and that she loved us according to the best she had to offer. Love is all the reasons: all the reasons there are, or could be.

I will be eating with her again, in an hour, and will we tell more stories, and laugh, and, yes, eat.

Because even tired elephants have to eat.

 

 

Session 6

It is 1998. I am in my bedroom around 11:000 at night, and my pager buzzes. I dial her number.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.”

“Are the boys asleep?”

“I think so.”

“Good. I have a couple of things I want to talk to you about.”

“Okay.”

“First, I got a new job! I interviewed over at Cosmetic Associates and got it. It pays more. I gave my two seek notice yesterday, but since we’re overstaffed right now, Dr. Ibis told me I could go ahead and start over there Monday if I want to. He was totally cool about it, said if I ever needed a reference or whatever he’d give me one, or that I’d be welcome back if things didn’t work out.”

“Well, that’s exciting. Good for you.”

“The other thing is… I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Oh. Okay.”

She’s waiting for me to ask why, but I’m not going to do it.

“The truth is, I still have feelings for…”

“… your ex, I know. It’s fine, really. I’m glad you’re able to admit you have feelings for him… well, for anybody, really. You are a loving person at heart, I know it.”

Silence for a moment, before she breaks into “Tuesday, did you tell that little girl I would take care of her, and make sure everything was okay? I thought it must have been you.”

“Yes, that was me.”

“That was very sweet.”

“You’re great with kids, I’ve seen you.”

“She was adorable. She just clung to me the few minutes her mother was in with the doctor.”

There are a few more moments silence.

“You aren’t making this easy, you know,” she says suddenly.

“How? I’m not even arguing.”

“Because you’re so nice to me, even though I’ve told you I don’t love you. I haven’t been nearly as nice to you. It isn’t really fair.”

“Look, you’ve always been totally honest and upfront with me, and that means a lot. You and I are just not… we’re not ‘destinations’ for each other, not stopping places. It’s no more complicated than that. We each move on.”

More silence, which I break this time.

“Look, Lisa — I am very fond of you,” I say. “I hope you’ll be happy with your new job. I know you’ll do great. Although, honestly, I won’t miss your horrible taste in music.”

She laughs.

“Great. We break up, and only then do I get my first laugh out of you. You know what else is ironic?”

“What?”

“That we break up just as it becomes cool, workwise, for us to be seeing each other.”

“Wasn’t that part of the attraction?” she asks.


“… oh, and one last thing: the woman I was seeing broke it off.”

“And how are you feeling about that?”

“Relieved, honestly. She never lied to me – and it wasn’t my fault if I was lied to in the past – plus, we just weren’t right for each other. I am as worthy of love as anyone, I know.”

“Do you mean that, or is that part of the exercise I gave you?”

“Some of both, I think. Which is pretty damn good.”

“How are things at work?”

“Better. I’ve been able to focus better.”

“Well, truthfully, even though you have a session left, I think we’re done here. Unless there is something else you feel like you want to get done, I think you have what it takes to deal with what you’ve got.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“Keep in touch. Let me know how things are going.”

He claps me on the shoulder as I pass back through the door into the lobby. The girl and her mother are back, and the girl, who appears to be about nine years old is asking the new receptionist where Lisa is.

“You must be LaTonya,” she says. “Lisa’s gone to work somewhere else, but she left some things for you,” she said, bringing out a stack from underneath the counter.

On top of the stack was a card. The girl opened it, reading it carefully. She smiled as she read.

Next was a package she opened. It contained a diary. “She said she writes in hers every night,” the girl said to her mom.

I moved to the side of them, telling the new receptionist I need to cancel my last appointment.

“Hello, there” the mom said.

“That’s quite a daughter you have there,” I said, and they both smiled at me.

I turned to leave. It was time to get on with my life.

Session 5

“… I’ve had what seems like hundreds of female friends, ever since I was in my mid-teens.”

“Why is that?”

“Two reasons, I think. The first is that I genuinely like women. They just think… differently. I’ve always enjoyed the way different people process the world. I like variety, genuine difference, people who, frankly, don’t see things the way I do.”

“What’s the other reason? You said there were two.”

“Oh, yeah. The other reason I have been friends with so many women is that I figured out years ago that if I wanted to be around women it was the only way. I went for years intensely desiring girls but being rejected at every turn. I concluded I was not attractive, and that friendship was the best I could hope for.”

“But you’ve been with women since then, right? You are with someone now… sort of?”

“Yes, but she wouldn’t be with me except I spend money on her.”

“Do you like her?”

“Yes. She’s a very, very good person at heart, kind of humorless, but a really good person. She got hurt, really badly, by a guy she was really, really in love with. He cheated on her, and dumped her, and she still loved… or loves him. She insists she doesn’t love him or anyone, and that love is all just bullshit. She’s shut that part of her down. She likes sex, she says, and she like things. She likes having company when she wants to have it. And she likes being around a man who would never hit her, frankly.”

“I don’t think you heard my question. Do you like her?”

Sigh.

“Not really, not as someone to date. She’s offered me an alternative to getting my heart broken again. You’ve got to understand, my ex didn’t love me. She never wanted to be with me, she just was with me, because she thought being attracted to women made her ‘abnormal’ and I was a chance for a ‘normal’ life. And she felt sorry for me, coming out of all those years I was really sick.”

He waited before speaking.

“Your ex never loved you? So no one can love you?”

“That sounds about right, yes.”

He got up from behind his desk and pulled a picture off of the shelf. It was of him, his wife, and their two kids, both in their teens.

“Is this what you want?”

“I already have kids,” I said.

“No. Do you have an image in your head of what a family or love is supposed to be? Not this image, but this will do as an example. Close your eyes, and tell me what love looks like. What the love you want looks like.”

I close my eyes and think. I see Lisa as I last saw her, peacefully sleeping, totally at her ease. And I think, I could love her…

… but then, I think about that long, silent car trip we took, where we couldn’t think of anything to talk about. How bored she was with my stories, and the awful music she played on the radio…

What am I doing? What am I doing with her? She does still believe in love, she loves him.

I’m just providing her an alternative.

I open my eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the love I’m looking for looks like.”

“Now listen very carefully to me,” he says. “We only have a few sessions left. I want you to think about something this week, and I want you to do something.”

“Okay,” I say.

“First: it is not your fault you were lied to. Repeat that.”

“It is not my fault I was lied to.”

“I want you to repeat that to yourself, every day, at least twice a day.”

“It is not my fault I was lied to. Got it.”

“Secondly, I want you to understand something, and I mean really understand and accept it. That is ‘you are as worthy of love as anyone’.”

“I am as worthy of love as anyone.”

“I don’t know what your deal was when you were younger, but believe me, you are as worthy of love as anyone. I know women are attracted to you. Hell, weeks ago, when you first started coming, our freaking receptionist said she thought you were cute, to one of the other doctors. And she has guys falling all over her.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I want you to repeat that last bit as many times of day as negative thoughts come into your head.”

“I will.”

“Anything else this week –?”

“Yeah, one thing. I have met a woman I’m really, really attracted to. I’m staying away while she’s going through a divorce, though.”

“Do you think the attraction is mutual?”

I looked out the window, at where a mom was walking up to counseling center, holding the hand of her pre-teen daughter.

“Yes, I am as worthy of love as anyone.”

He smiled. “Get out of here. I’ll see you in a week.”


Closing the door, I see her a few feet away, talking to one of the nurses. She doesn’t look up, and since I’m already prepaid and my next appointment is set, I walk out the front door. Just outside, the woman I saw earlier is hugging her crying daughter.

“Do you work here?” the woman says, seeing me.

“No. I’m a … um, client.”

“Could you tell her it’s okay? That they don’t hurt people?”

The girl is hugging her mom, and her face is blotchy with tears. I sit down on the step, a couple of feet away, so the girl and I are more at eye level.

“They are very sweet here, very gentle. If you ask at the desk, Ms. Lathermore will help you. She’s the really pretty woman with dark hair and glasses. She’ll introduce you around and show you the place before you meet the doctor. The doctors are really nice, too.”

The girl stares at me as her mother strokes her hair.

“What is her name?” the girl asks, tremulously.

“Ms, Lathermore — Lisa is her name, she’ll want you to call her Lisa. She’ll take care of you, I promise.”

They turned to go inside, the mother looking back over her shoulder at me. “Thank you,” she mouths.

“Lisa will take care of you,” I say, turning away.

Session 4

I’m riding in the passenger seat of a van, four hours away from our destination. The woman driving is a co-worker; we’re headed to a university to talk to college students about coming to work for our company.

“How have you been since the divorce?” she asks.

“Not … not terrible. Okay, I guess. The boys are okay, which is the main thing.”

“Did you end up using the visits?”

“Yeah, they’ve been helping. I think I have four sessions left… or maybe three.”

“What have you learned?”

“That the divorce has left my priorities kind of screwed up when it comes to relationships… and that I try to buy affection.”

I look over at her. She’s more than halfway through her pregnancy; she volunteered to drive because her vehicle is so much more comfortable than mine.

“How many kids do you and Adam plan to have?” I ask, changing the subject.

“We plan to have three, which means one more after this one. We’re so excited.”

“How are you feeling?”

“So much better this time, there’s no comparison.”

Silence for a full minute.

“What does that mean, ‘buy affection’?” she asks.

“I guess it’s a pattern he picked up on.”

“Have you dated anyone since the divorce?”

“Oh, yes, I went on a date with a girl from my son’s day care who turned out to be way, WAY too young; then I dated Karen who interned here last year…”

“Seriously? You and Karen? How long?”

“Six weeks maybe. I don’t think either of us was really feeling it. And now I’m…”

“… now you’re what?”

“Not really seeing anyone to speak of.”

“Have you met anyone you really like?”

Truthfully, the answer was “yes”. A woman I had met who was going through a divorce of her own. But my rule was, “Still married = off limits,” a rule I thought wise to keep in place. As I sat thinking these thoughts, she seemed to guess some of it.

“So there is someone?”

“Yes, but she’s going through a divorce, and I don’t want to go there. Once that’s final though, I’d like to… although I doubt she’d be interested…”

“Well, that made absolutely no sense. If you like her, ask her out. That’s how this is supposed to work.”

I thank her for her advice. “Rejection has always felt worse than acceptance feels good,” I say, as she turns on to the state highway.

It strikes me though: it never even occurred to me to mention Lisa.

= = = = =

“How are things going with your mystery relationship?” he asks me, about thirty minutes into our session.

“She never laughs,” I say. “Nothing I say strikes her as being funny.”

“And that’s important to you?”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Do you want to know why I think that is?”

Usually he tries to get me to explain myself; if he is going to cut through the questions and do it himself, I’m certainly not going to stop him…

“Because you want her to be with you for the delight being with you brings, not for what you give her. You want LOVE. Not barter. Not even barter that results in sex; you want love.”

“Love?”

“Yes, love. That thing that men supposedly don’t want. Look, your ex-wife left you because she realized she was a lesbian, but she did love you. She’s never wanted anything from you, no alimony, no money, and there’s been no real rancor over the divorce. I think there’s a part of you that’s trying to assert control: you think if you are in a relationship where you are paying for everything, you have control. But you hate it, because that’s not you.”

I stare at him, dumbfounded. “Damn, Doc, people told me you were good.”

= = = = =

The boys are asleep in their rooms; I’m reading an old book in bed. Her home number pops up on my pager. I pause a moment before calling.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi.”

“Did you want to get together Friday? You said the boys would be at their mother’s.”

“Yes,” I say, more or less automatically.

“Thank you for the spa package last weekend, that was heavenly. Do you mind paying my rent this month? I’m a little behind.”

A pause.

“No problem,” I say.

Session 3

“You seem perturbed.”

“I am. I spent a small fortune this week, money I don’t even have, buying jewelry for this woman I’m seeing. And she only really kind of hinted at wanting it.”

“Yes, that stuff is quite popular. Miss Lathermore,  our receptionist, just got a bracelet she was showing off to everyone a few days ago. The nurses were oohing and ahhing over it. I don’t really get jewelry. Luckily, Mrs. Ibis has never been that big of a fan.”

“I’ve been thinking… you might be right about me trying to buy affection; I think you’re on to something. What can I do about it?”

“Are you ready to start talking about this relationship you are in?”

“Um… almost. I haven’t introduced her to the boys; I’m not sure the relationship will last long enough. She’s an expensive sort of girl to date.”

“Is she the materialistic sort?”

“Yes, very baldly so. She says that I have what she wants, and she has what I want, so the relationship is pretty much perfect. She thinks love is a big hoax, a scam. Everything, she says, is about tradeoffs.”

“She doesn’t really seem like your type,” he said, musingly. “What do you get out of the relationship? Sex?”

“That’s pretty much it. That, and a more interesting-to-read credit card bill.”

“Do you agree with her, that love is not a real thing?”

“No. Love is real. I mean… she’s younger than me, and very attractive. I’ve never had anything like this happen before. I’m… a gentleman, I guess you’d say. Women feel safe with me, they are safe.”

I laugh, thinking about two other women I had dated. “I’ve known others who wanted me to spend money on them, but I never got anything in return. A least this one has her own sense of honor.”

“You call that ‘honor’? To fuck you in exchange for money?”

I stared at him. “You aren’t a typical therapist,” I say, at last. “Yes. She uses me, and I use her, each with the others’ full knowledge and consent.”

“How many people know about your relationship?”

“No one.”

“Why is it a secret?”

“It’s … not entirely appropriate, given what each of us do.”

“Ah, a work relationship.”

“Sort of, yes… I don’t really like feeling as though I have to buy love, because that is how I feel. What do I do about it?”

Now it was his time to stare. He took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “Gambling and spending addictions are among the hardest to overcome, and it sounds like you have a bit of both. If you don’t mind me asking, is the sex addictive?”

“It’s okay. Honestly, she’s a little skinny for my taste.”

He laughed. “Yes, young, thin, and willing, men hate that.”

= = = = =

“I love this hotel, I’ve always wanted to stay a night here,” she says, in between eating grapes on the bed.

“I thought a weekend out of town would be fun. Last night was.”

“Let’s go shopping today.”

She sees the look of reluctance on my face.

“Maybe I can persuade you,” she says.

She does.

Session 2

“Hello, Sir, it’s nice to see you today,” she says to me in a cheerful, professional voice. “Doctor Ibis is running a little behind. If you don’t mind having a seat in the waiting room, he will be with you as soon as possible.”

She smiles at me fleetingly, returning her gaze to her computer screen.

The hint of her perfume reaches me, and it reminds me strongly of our last few hours together, three days previous. I return to the waiting room, where even the depressing sight of four year old Sports Illustrated’s and Ladies Home Journal’s in the waiting room can’t dampen my suddenly elevated mood.

Some minutes later, engrossed in an article on how long the Jimmy Johnson / Cowboy dynasty would last (he’d been fired years before) I hear her say “Sir — the doctor will see you now.”

The door closes.

“So how was your week?”

“Not too bad.”

“Any episodes?”

“No, none at all.”

“Did you do the exercise I set for you last week?”

“Yes, I thought of all the ways I could think of that love is shown, then tried to figure out if I was using the most appropriate ways to show it.”

“And what did you come up with?”

“Here, I wrote it all down, and brought you a copy,” I say, handing him my notes.


WAYS TO SHOW LOVE (OR AFFECTION):

  1. Kind words
  2. Physical affection
  3. Doing things for others
  4. Gifts or presents
  5. Giving people time and attention

WAYS I SHOWED LOVE (OR AFFECTION) THIS WEEK:

  • I called my parents and talked to them for an hour (category 5)
  • I helped my elderly neighbors change their air conditioner filters (category 3)
  • I spent a few hours with category 2, no details
  • A (category 4) gift or two might have been given at the same time as the immediately preceding bullet

It seems to me each one of these was appropriate for the situation. I also guess I didn’t have any kind words for anyone. I might want to work on that.


He put the paper down after reading it. “I see you’ve read ‘The Five Love Languages’,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Are you seeing someone?”

“Yes.”

“You never talk about her.”

“No.”

“The first person you’ve dated since your divorce?”

“No.”

“Why are you reluctant to talk about her?”

“She’d rather I didn’t, I think.”

“How are your parents doing?”

“Great. My dad’s about to retire; my mom retired just this year. They plan to do as much traveling as they can.”

“Do you often help your ‘elderly neighbors’, as you call them?”

“No, I don’t, because I’m horrible at fixing anything. But installing ceiling filters I can do. And they’ve been really good to the boys and me.”

He decides to go back to the earlier subject. “You do know that sex and physical affection are two different things, right?”

“They are not coterminous,” I say, reverting to my own form of professional voice, “but sex is arguably a subset of physical affection.”

“Or can be,” he corrects.

“Or should be,” I assert.

We return to the subject of my parents for the remainder of the session. They had high expectations for me that were never really met…

= = = = =

“How long can you stay?” she asks from the other room.

“I need to be at work early, so, maybe… two or three hours,” I say, unbuttoning my cuffs and sitting down on the chair in her bedroom.

She comes in and lays down on the bed. She looks overpoweringly beautiful.

“You should be with someone your own age,” I say.

“So should you,” she says. “Now get over here.”

Session 1

“So, why do you feel like you have to buy people’s love?”

I hate therapists. They are always asking questions like that.

“Strange question, given that I have to pay you to talk to me,” I say in response. He smiles, faintly, but won’t be deterred. He continues to look at me, fixedly.

“I don’t think I’m that different from many people, many men. My value to people is in what I can do, or provide. No one’s every liked me for my looks; I was never the guy women wanted to meet just seeing me. I had to impress them somehow. With age, though, I’ve gotten less impressive, so, money works better.”

He continues to look in my direction, encouraging me to keep going.

“My mother asked me the same question when I was nineteen. I had just bought a friend of mine an expensive going-back-to-school dinner. ‘Why do you feel the need to do that?’ she asked me. ‘He’s already one of your best friends.'”

“What was your answer?”

“I don’t remember really having an answer.”

“And you still feel the same way?…”

“Yes, and no. I’ve learned that no one gets appreciated by others quite the way they might want. That people with good looks want to be known for their minds. That people with steady loves want flaming inconstant passion instead; that people who play the field want permanence. We’re all insane, really.”

“Do you really think that last part?”

“That we’re all insane? No, I suppose not. Only if you compare our actions with our stated beliefs about what constitutes a good life.”

“Do you have a good life?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I say.

“Which brings me back to the original question: why do you feel you need to buy people’s love?”

Now it’s my turn to look at him. I take a long sip from the water bottle I brought with me.

“If I can help people, I will. It’s not so much buying love as showing it. People did it for me, when I was younger, and when I couldn’t possibly pay them back… Look, I know myself at heart, and I am as selfish as the next guy. All of us work from the same set of motivations, at least in part… I’m not trying to gain anything; I’m not trying to get in women’s pants, and I’m not trying to buy affection or whatever it was you said.”

He looked away from me, clearly unconvinced.

“Do you feel your illness makes you lesser than other people?”

“At times, yes.”

“Are you willing to accept help as easily as you give it?”

I could tell he thought he had me with that question by the slight smile on his face.

“Yes, actually. I don’t mind people doing for me, or giving to me. It’s not a power thing.”

“Hmmm,” he said, frowning slightly. “I think we’re at the end of this session.”

I take my keys and water bottle from off his table and rise to go.

“I want you to think this week about ways people show love,” he said, walking across to open the door. “Determine for yourself if you feel like you are always acting the most appropriate way for how you are feeling.”

“I’ll try,” I say, walking out into the reception area as he closes the door behind me. The receptionist looks up at me from the desk outside, her bright eyes showing even through her glasses, her dark hair shining under the fluorescent lights.

“What time are you coming by tonight?” she whispers.

At Cemetery Ridge

[Originally published November 6th, 2016. S.R.]

I’m not alone at Cemetery Ridge this morning. There’s a thirty-year-old man here with what appears to be his ten-year-old daughter.

She lays a bouquet of bright yellow roses on a grave. As gray as the morning is, they stand out all the more. The only other color is the girl’s deep red coat.

He puts his hand on her shoulder, as she begins to cry, uncontrollably. He puts his arm all the way around her, as she sinks to her knees, and he follows.

I can’t stare at them anymore, it feels indecent. Instead I wander on from where I was visiting (my father-in-law’s grave) to some of the other friends we’ve lost these last years. One grave, a particular woman who I knew as a singer, is over where the trees grow thorny and wild. The gray and desolate morning only makes the trees look wilder.

This cemetery has a name, of course, but for as long as I can remember, people have called it “Cemetery Ridge”. This hill slopes down on the other side of the trees, and I can see the gray town in the distance. I visit this grave, and then two others, finally heading back to my car.

In the parking lot, I see the man and his daughter approaching their car. To my surprise, there is a woman wearing sunglasses waiting for them within it. I had assumed from what I saw that the man had lost his wife and the girl her mother; but, apparently not, as the woman has obviously been crying in the car. She’s holding a sort of shapeless stuffed animal.

Oh my God, she lost a child. The little girl lost a sibling: a sister, maybe, or a brother.

Now, my eyes are filling with tears. At that exact moment, just as the man finishes helping his daughter into the car and the arms of her mother, he turns and sees me, tears streaming down my face; and I could tell, in that brief moment, that he was concerned about me, and whatever grief might have brought me to this place.

His grief was my grief. My grief was his grief.

They leave within moments, driving slowly away. I stand by my car as a gray wind blows across the ridge, moving the leafless trees.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

The Solace of Imagination

When imagination is the only thing in your life you can control, it can become everything.

Everything. And, anything.


When I was young, I first perceived “imagination” as a consolation adults offer to children when they’re unable to find other kids to play with. “Use your imagination,” they’d say.

“Think of ways to amuse yourself without bothering me,” they meant.

After a time, however, I realized that, even with friends to play with, imagination was needed. Otherwise, you play only the same old games, the same old way, which gets boring, frankly.


I started reading very young. As people who like reading instinctively know, a book is a like a friend, and one with a very good imagination, to boot. In addition, books spurred my imagination, although they also revealed a deficit in my particular imagination, namely, my inability to “picture” things in my head. Children’s books provide pictures, however, as do comic books, so for years — possibly including this year — children’s books comprise many to most of my favorite books.

It’s one of the reasons I use a photography service in my blogging. I’m inspired by the visual imagery of others, but unable to generate much on my own.


My sister had a collection of marionettes when we were growing up. Puppetry is still alive, of course, both as a practice and an art form. Still, in decades and centuries past, it would have been a necessarily larger part of the imaginative life of children.

When my sister left home for college, I temporarily moved into what had been her room; in it, I found boxes of marionettes. I didn’t remember ever seeing them before; being seven years younger than she was, it was quite possible she had enjoyed them most in times before me, or at least, my memory.

I remember that the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood show made extensive use of puppets. So did Sesame Street, of course; but somehow, I never thought of the Muppets as puppets. The Mr. Rogers puppets were more old school traditional puppets.

I remember trying out some of my sister’s marionettes, but I couldn’t seem to create any sort of life in my manipulation of the strings and wires. My father saw me doing it, and boxed the valuable marionettes back up before I could do them mortal damage.

Which I no doubt would have.


A year and a half after my sister left home for college, my brother left for the army.

Even though he was five years my senior, we had been pretty close; or, at least, we had a good relationship. Now he was grown up and gone, and I was thirteen and very unsure of how family life was going to go, being the only kid left at home.

Books and comic books (particularly the latter, by this point) were my great solace. I had a hard time making friends at school, because, bluntly, I was a jerk. Gradually, I met other jerks (just kidding, I met kids with similar interests who tolerated my misanthropy), but most of them, too, loved books and comic books.

I was interested in girls by that point, as well, but few of them that I could find had much enthusiasm for comics, or indeed, for me. So now, imagination started serving another purpose, one I couldn’t really help at first. I found myself beginning to imagine being with girls.


You’ll often hear superhero stories described as “adolescent fantasies”, and believe me, for me, they were. I wanted to be impressive to girls, but reality wasn’t permitting that. However, in the world of my imagination, I could be.

It was all I had.

I remember my favorite fantasy, although I’m sort of embarrassed to tell it. I would imagine having the power to stop the rest of the world, i.e., to freeze everyone except me and the girl. Somehow, in my fantasies, if the rest of the world was just “stopped”, the girl would fall for me.

A better story, of course, would be her immediate and passionate attempts to get the rest of the world turned back on so she could continue her own fantasies, ones about pop stars and football players. Because she wasn’t having them about me.


Real life rarely goes exactly like we want it to, but made-up stories can. This is one of the chief solaces of imagination. As adults, we are expected to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, however.

In real life, we don’t have superhero powers. We’re all just human beings, presumably dealing with each other respectfully and as equals.

Or we should be.


A young woman friend of mine asked me, just two days ago, if couples that had been together as long as my wife and I have been still have troubles. I laughed.

“Yes, we do,” I said.

“Somehow, I always imagined that, when you get past a certain point, everything kind of smooths out.”

“I like that picture,” I said. “Yeah, it was touch-and-go there for a minute, but I hit, like,  fifty, and, now, everything’s great.

Now, she was laughing. “Are you saying what I imagined was silly?”

“Nothing we imagine is ever silly. Not really.”

Not really, indeed.

 

Never My Love

You ask me if there’ll come a time
When I grow tired of you
Never my love
Never my love

You wonder if this heart of mine
Will lose its desire for you
Never my love
Never my love

What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you (on you)

Never my love
Never my love

You say you fear I’ll change my mind
And I won’t require you
Never my love
Never my love

How can you think love will end
When I’ve asked you to spend your whole life
With me (with me, with me)

The Willow Tree (John Rutter)

O take me to your arms, love
  for keen doth the wind blow,
O take me to your arms, love
  for bitter is my deep woe.

She hears me not, she heeds me not,
  nor will she listen to me.
While here I lie alone
  to die beneath the willow tree.

My love hath wealth and beauty,
  rich suitors attend her door.
My love hath wealth and beauty,
  she slights me because I’m poor.

The ribbon fair that bound her hair
  is all that is left to me.
While here I lie alone
  to die beneath the willow tree.

I once had gold and silver,
  I thought them without end.
I once had gold and silver,
  I thought I had a true friend.

My wealth is lost, my friend is false.
  my love hath he stolen from me.
While here I lie alone,
  to die beneath the willow tree.

Memory Road

I lead a sort of Twilight Zone existence, in that I frequently think, as I’m turning onto a road I’ve never been on before, that I will, by turning there, get to visit a different time period of my life.

I found one such road today. Seeing scenery and homes and people for the first time reminds me of all the other first times I’ve had, when people long gone were still here, or when life was mostly a future thing.

We lived in Florida when I grew up; I now live in Georgia. However, my dad had a once a year trip here (where I am as I write this). He used to bring home photographs of this place, a beautiful set of gardens.

I am always expecting to see him on these drives, and I pull over to look at the flowers, which are stunning.

Many of you have lost a parent, or both parents; my dad is gone, but my mom is still here, just far away. I realized, recently, that both of them gave us (my sister, my brother, and me) everything they could of themselves, inside and out, and that I carry them around everywhere I go, really.

I stopped at a convenience store, really to use the bathroom, but I always try to buy something when I do. A very young woman was the only one working; their ice machine was broken and customers were complaining (it is almost 100 degrees today). I asked her how she was when I got to the front of the line (there was no one in line behind me) and she said she was having an anxiety attack. So I told her, if it would help, that (1) I didn’t need any ice (she laughed, which was a good sign) and (2) I could stand outside a few minutes and warn customers the ice machine was broken. She thanked me with a sort of watery smile. After about 15 minutes, when there was a lull, she came out and thanked me, and that she was feeling a little better.

“Hang in there,” I said. “You, too, sir,” she said.

Love is the recognition, I think, that we are really all the same. We live in time, people come and go, but all of us, everywhere and in every age, look for our loved ones, remember the best days, gain life by breathing in a garden, and need a little help, every so often.

So, maybe one day, you’ll be out driving in the country, and you’ll find a highway new to you, and we might see each other there. I’m the crew cut guy with giant sunglasses, you can’t miss me. Come up and say hi.

Then I’ll have a new first time to remember.

– Owen

My Real Life

“My Real Life”

3:00 in the morning, and I wake up like a shot. I look down at the time, then see that my wife is just now finishing up getting ready to come to bed. That happens fairly often with us; I’m getting up as she’s coming to bed.

I cough a few times, which is awkward, because I sleep hooked up to a CPAP machine. I don’t even know what “CPAP” stands for; I think it’s something like “Survival Kit for Fat People”, except it’s in Cyrillic. I disconnect myself from it and sit up, rubbing my eyes. Since I went to bed at 9:00, I got six hours sleep, and that will have to do.

I put on my glasses, disconnect my iPad and trudge off to the other end of the house. I see that I got a message from an online friend during the night, but my brain isn’t really functioning yet, so I say something inane back to her via text, then my wife comes in.

“Did I wake you up?”

“No, I was coughing.”

She tells me about the rough night one of our grandkids had (he got sick and threw up) and how she was on the phone with our daughter much of the night. We hold on to each other for a few moments, then she’s off to bed.

It’s 3:20 or so by this time, and I have a morning workout to do; however, I put that off for a few minutes while I ingest some caffeine and get caught up on my blog reader. I also edit my post that went up during the night (I changed the title for clarity), and repost that.

I also check my (two) Facebook accounts; I posted a video of me playing a piano piece on one of them, and I’m looking at comments and such. I once posted a video of one of my daughters and me playing a piece (she plays the cello) and that got, like, 100 likes; just me playing gets something like 12. This is what the system of “likes” does to you: it turns everything into a weird sort of contest. My stepdaughters, like my wife, are all ridiculously beautiful, which never hurts when you are posting pictures and videos: if it is both them and their kids, the response is even more enthusiastic.

This, in turn, leads to me to the recognition I had, years ago, that pictures of attractive women or beautiful scenery (or both) seem to attract more people to reading blog posts than anything else; hence, my frequent use of each. Which seems cheap and manipulative, now that I think of it in those terms.

Around 4:30, having delayed as long as I could, I change into my workout clothes and do today’s workout. It’s a short one, only about half an hour long, but it seems to be doing its job, as I feel terrible doing it, but pretty good afterwards.

I go back to the other end of the house and get out some clothes for work (being careful not to wake up my wife, who is sleeping blissfully) and then go back to shower in the bathroom near where I worked out.

I only shave the bottom of my neck, so that doesn’t take long; however, the sheer number of shaving mistakes I can make in a small area defies statistical likelihood.

I work as an officer at a large Fortune 500 company; this week is employee recognition week. Having dressed for work, and realizing it’s not even 6:00, I sit down to write, deciding, in this instance, to post the poem on Instagram.

Before leaving home around 6:30, I open the blinds so she wakes up to sunlight (her preference), take out the garbage, and bring in the newspaper. I also heard from the online friend I said something stupid to earlier (for those of you wondering about that particular plot thread). Online conversations can be odd in that they don’t necessarily have real beginnings or endings, and you never know if the other person is even there; or you just send your words out into the ether and rely on others to eventually respond.

My wife packs me a lunch most days. It’s really very good of her; it’s also really healthy. I pick it up (some of it is in the refrigerator, and some on the counter) and head off to work.

In the car, I’m listening to an audiobook of “The World as Will and Idea” by Schopenhauer. I just started it a few days ago. I loved this book when I read it, years ago; audiobooks seem to work better for me these days, so I will probably be listening to this for weeks.

It’s about a fifteen minute drive to work; I park in a parking garage and walk into work. The company I work for is rather large, but the location I’m at only has about eight or nine-hundred people. Most of the rest are in a larger facility across town, not counting ones spread across the country or concentrated overseas. I have a team of about 10 people who report to me; I’m responsible for doing financial forecasting for the company. I am an actuary by profession, according to the certificates beside my desk, and a mathematician by education, according to the degrees I have on the shelf behind it.

The short version of what I do is that I’m supposed to know what’s going on all over the company before it happens, so we can take appropriate actions and inform investors. I’m also supposed to remember everything that ever happened.

Now, at this point in time, you might be wondering: wait – you post (on NoTalentForCertainty.com) something like five poems a day. When do you find time to write?

I write mostly in the mornings; sometimes at night before bed, and at lunchtime, which I can do, having usually brought a lunch. I also write at speed (with frequent mistakes being the tell-tale sign) and usually edit only when I get around to reposting.

But, back to the company I work for. I was attracted to it, years ago (I’ve been here more than twenty years) because it did something I believed in (help people financially who are sick or injured) and because I like the company’s ethical stance, where the people running the company are genuinely more interested in doing the right thing than maximizing their own incomes.

I realized years ago, being “backstage” at this company as I have been, that no company like it has ever been described in any literature I’ve ever read. The art of politics, sadly, is often little more than organized calumny – and highly effective calumny, I might add. Most writing is shaped by some political viewpoint or another, and people in a large company being concerned about ethical issues just doesn’t seem to fit anyone’s idea of what companies do in the real world. But at least one does.

I don’t really have a “normal working day”, per se. I have a great deal of independence in terms of what I do, but I’m asked to analyze and answer a lot of questions of differing sorts, plus I’m just curious about other things, and spend a lot of time researching, analyzing, or synthesizing information that seems important to me to look at. I spend a fair amount of time discussing or conducting that work with others. My daughter (the same one that plays the cello) has now worked here more than five years; she commented, when she first started here, that everyone here seems to know me, which was pretty fair at the time. My job since then is much more insular and public; still, I know many hundreds of the thousands of people here, and work in some rotation with virtually all of them.

Incidentally, I missed saying it earlier, but I ate the lunch my wife packed me for breakfast on the way to work. So, at lunch time, I take a drive, listening to more Schopenhauer, dashing off one poem to post on NTFC, and eating in my car.

Back to work, and I work steadily until about 6:30, with one break around 2:15 when the little group of us went outside for a team photo. I look like a whale in the photos.

Alas for the merciless realism of the camera.

I get home st 7:00 pm and my eldest daughter is still there with her 2 year old boy and 7 month old girl my wife watches almost every day. They leave around 8, a few minutes later, my middle daughter drops off her 4 year old son, who has been sick, do she can run an errand. My wife watches him 5 days a week.

He’s just pitiful. He clings to my wife.

My wife, by the way, is something like a miracle. She’s a minister: teaching classes, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, and yes, preaching sermons. I play the piano and organ at the church she works for — which is where we officially met, 20 years ago this fall.

I took a shower and am writing this sitting on our bed. I realize, reading over what I just wrote, that I left off the part, during lunch, where my son texted me, asking for help with rent and electric.

Which I did.

I also finished my conversation with my online friend, to the degree text conversations ever really end. I’ve only made three or four friends from blogging, but they are all inspirational to me in different ways. My natural personality seems to largely consist of being very positive, except in reference to myself; every one of these friends have noted this trait and been puzzled by it.

As am I. I’m just more used to it.

When I go out to say goodnight, my grandson is asleep and my wife is sprawled across the sofa on her stomach, looking up remedies to send home with our daughter in a few minutes.

I’m very lucky to have her, my kids, my grandkids, my job, and all of you, for that matter.

This is my real life.

You Can Close Your Eyes

Well the sun is surely sinking down
But the moon is slowly rising
And this old world must still be spinning ’round
And I still love you

So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it’s all right
I don’t know no love songs
And I can’t sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone

Well it won’t be long before another day
We’re gonna have a good time
And no one’s gonna take that time away
You can stay as long as you like

So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it’s all right
I don’t know no love songs
And I can’t sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone

– words and music by James Taylor


Alive With Stars

I saw as though alive with stars
The sky. The desert cold and still
Beneath a breathing canopy,
And you were shiv’ring, shiv’ring next
To me. I placed a blanket ‘round
Your shoulders, as we sat upon
The back of some old vehicle,
And bright upon your eyes I saw
Reflected like eternity
The hopes of one whose heart is full
Of doubt, but some serenity,
For knowing what one’s feeling is
Enough — enough for two like us —
It has to be enough for two

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