Shopping for Men–Part 2

Outside Omena in the Leelanau peninsula there is a wonderful business where a woman has turned her front yard (conveniently located right on M-22) into a You-Pick Bouquet garden. She has rows and rows of beautiful flowers and provides scissors and milk jugs full of water so you can stroll through and snip away to your heart’s content. Each blossom is individually priced based on size and availability and you are asked to keep track and pay on the honor system when your bouquet is complete. This is one of my very favorite up north activities. My mom taught me to love flowers, but I lack her patience in growing them. This lovely business owner has done it for me.

This has become my new analogy for dating. I’ve decided I am free to walk through the plentiful garden and admire as many different flowers as I like. I can stop for a closer look or check for fragrance or I can just say “no thank you, marigolds. Lovely but not for me” and keep walking. Anything especially desirable can go in the bouquet and when my jug is full I can still make some final cuts before arranging. Sometimes there will be wonderful choices that are not available—already out of season or snapped up by another shopper and I will take a moment to say “aw…” and then move on to enjoy the many species that ARE in bloom.

The problem, of course, is that flowers do not have feelings and people do. I might want someone in my bouquet who doesn’t want to come.  I might be chosen by someone I don’t want. I might be willing to try something that just doesn’t work out, and vice versa. In other words, I might get hurt or worse, might hurt others. Because I know so little of what I want right now I am sticking with the “casual relationship” label. That feels about right. Someone to share a meal with, take a hike, go to a movie. Nobody needs to fall in love or start combining households. But even that is trickier than I anticipated. I met a very nice man for a cup of coffee. We were together for 45 pleasant minutes before I dashed off to church and he sent me a note that said:

Please understand you might be the first person I have wanted to go out with more than once in a long time. I found you charming, attractive with unique life skills. It makes me feel good knowing I can still be excited after meeting a woman. After so many dates, I was beginning to think I would never be able to find a woman that intrigued me again. So even if you tell me I will always be in your friend zone, I will feel good knowing “it” can happen when I least expect it. Just like in tennis, the ball is in your court. 🙂

This was very sweet and probably should’ve made me feel good, but I suck at tennis and don’t like the ball being in my court because then I have to figure out how to hit it back! And there are only so many times I am willing to put on my Spanx. Eventually he and anyone else I go out with are going to see what Bridget Jones endearingly called “the jiggly bits” and maybe I will not seem quite so attractive.

I always wondered about those girls in college (I’d say sorority types, but my college didn’t have any real ones) who were forever blow drying their hair, spray tanning and wearing high heels to class. They seemed to laugh a lot, never lack for dates and generally be having a great time. Only decades later do I start to understand. It might be fun to get dolled up and go out a lot. Learn to flirt and tease and string people along, always looking for a bigger catch over this one’s shoulder. Uh, no. That is not and never will be me. I can slap on the makeup for a special occasion and even suck in the blub to try for a good first impression but a steady diet of that life would put me over the edge. The façade would literally crack, if it hadn’t already exploded!

So how to proceed? So far I’m sticking with the “it’s a volume business” approach and going for my 10 dates goal. I need to play the field because I am new to this sport and all my dating muscles have atrophied. Truth be told I was never good at it which explains why I married absolutely anybody who ever asked. (Oh! You want to marry me? Ok, I guess that’s what people do. Sure!) I have volleyed with nice man by sending a big tall lob to the back of his court and begged for more time before date #2. I am still browsing each night to see if the store got any new shipments, but there is a man in a flannel shirt who has caught my eye. He lives a couple hours away, but may be coming this way soon and he has me typing way more than I’d planned.

Through it all I am trying to internalize something I read recently that cautioned all of us to remember that there is another human being on the other end of every exchange—at the bank, at the grocery store, at work, at the restaurant, and yes, even on line. We are all in this together and best be careful to tend to the feelings of fellow travelers. I’m not really known for my niceness, so I may just have to channel Tom who had a deep well of it on which to draw.

All I can say is life seems a little spicier since I started this. The forsythia in my yard is a brighter shade of yellow and the possibilities for the balance of spring seem endlessly exciting. Since I’m not dead yet, this feels like the right approach. We’ll see. Stay tuned.

 

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Pet Love

If you have ever lost a pet you can empathize with my good friend who recently had to put down her extremely lovable, if high maintenance, sheep dog.  The dog had been in declining health, but the final decision had to be made during spring break week when none of my friend’s kids were around to be with her in the final moments. Worse yet, one of them later accused her of “killing” the beloved family pet of 12 years whose quality of life had declined precipitously. She sat sobbing alone at the vet’s office before finally realizing she truly had to put the pup down. No one should have to do that alone as it is one of life’s most heart breaking moments.

At the grief group I attended for several months we had a new couple one week. Everyone went around introducing themselves and saying who they had lost. The new couple was there because they had lost their cat. I will admit openly that my very first instinct, of which I am not proud, was to burst out laughing. It seemed like a staged scene from Best in Show, the terrific satirical movie about pet owners. But this couple had no children, were obviously grieving and deserved the same respect and compassion as others at the table who had lost children, parents, siblings or spouses. I bit my lip, suppressed my black comedy instinct and listened carefully as the facilitator validated their feelings.

I also thought of Sadie. Like nearly every other kid on the planet, I had always wanted a dog. My family had an extremely naughty little mutt named Taffy when I was a pre-schooler, but when we moved they gave her away as our new community had leash laws that they thought Taffy could not honor. Within a few years we somehow acquired an equally badly behaved Beagle named Snuggles. My sister and I both loved her but did not live up to the agreement to assume responsibility for her care and she was gone in just a few weeks. She was replaced by a series of turtles—all named Petey—who regularly escaped from their little turtle pad never to be seen again.

Many years went by until I was married and living in Grand Rapids when an adorable mutt followed me home from church. I waited to make sure she crossed the busy streets safely and that was all it took for her to decide she’d found her home. She had no tags and I tried placing ads, calling the Humane Society and anything else I could think of to find her rightful owner. No luck, so we let her hang around the house, but let her out each night to wander, hoping she would go back to where she belonged.

This street walking had consequences. She seemed a little plump and was acting strangely. A visit to the vet revealed she was pregnant. At this point I panicked. I wasn’t sure we could handle one dog—what would we do with a litter?!?! The vet assured me dog litters run small and usually include a couple still births. At her appointed time Sadie started “nesting” in the couch and we gently relocated her to a box lined with old sheets and blankets. I was prepared to take a crash course in puppy delivery but the vet assured me she’d do fine on her own. I was able to see the first pup born before leaving my husband in charge as I had an opera rehearsal. She did, indeed, do fine and watching the process was an incredible, life-affirming experience. It felt like a NOVA episode right in our kitchen.

Sadie gave birth to NINE healthy pups. Only because they were so varied in coloring did I learn that dog litters can have multiple fathers. Apparently Sadie made good use of the free nights when she was supposed to be finding her owners. Promiscuity aside, she was a darling dog, loving and sweet with brown eyes rimmed in black like a canine Cleopatra. We wanted to keep her but not the entire 10 member family! The vet said we need only place an ad and the pups would be snapped up. He advised not making them free as even a tiny purchase price would yield more invested/ higher quality owners. He was right. We charged $10 each and every family who came seemed very nice. The 6 weeks before they were weaned and ready for sale was an entire comedy show in itself, especially the week we had booked a non-refundable vacation and had to transport Sadie and the pups to a friend’s farm. We had no good way to contain them and I still remember driving with them nipping at my toes.

Sadie stayed with us through our marriage and was one of the only things I wanted when we divorced. I really only hired a lawyer because I was afraid the Sadie question might get ugly, but Bill was leaving town and had no place to keep her anyway. She had always slept in a dog bed in our bedroom and was never allowed on the actual bed or any other furniture. The night Bill left she came to the side of the bed, looked up at me, jumped into his spot and stayed there for several years.

When I remarried, my new husband was not a Sadie fan but she wore a big white bow and walked down the aisle with us at our outdoor wedding and eventually she wormed her way into his heart (and trust me, that wasn’t easy.) He would walk past her muttering “dumber than dirt” but when it was finally time to put her down as a very old, blind, lame, incontinent but still sweet girl he went with me to the vet and we both cried like babies. For weeks I swore I heard her step on the hard wood floors or saw her walking by a doorway. I missed her to the core, but could not fathom ever finding a replacement and never did. Instead we had two daughters together who kept us plenty busy.

I noticed that many families seemed to get a pet after a divorce. When I divorced my girls’ dad I planned to do that too. Sort of a very lame “sorry your dad’s not here anymore but here’s that dog you always wanted!” But we were renting at first and then I was teaching piano in our tiny bungalow and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to add a dog to the mix. I was smart enough to know the care and feeding would fall to me despite all promises to the contrary and I just wasn’t up to it. But the girls begged on and I finally allowed an online Humane Society search during their annual “find your best friend” campaign.

Despite a life-long loathing of cats, I agreed to get one because no one would have to walk it, it wouldn’t bark during piano lessons and litter box clean up seemed manageable. Franny and I went and chose a tiny gray Tabby and after a little in-house debate named her Lucy. She was a terror. We now suspect she was weaned far too early, never knew her siblings and got no family training in proper play and interaction. She would sit in my lap purring contentedly and then in a flash bite my arm or scratch me. Tom actually had a scar from his first encounter with her, but declawing seemed inhumane. The girls kept trying but she didn’t really take to them as I had (foolishly) been the first one to feed her thus winning the dubious honor of favorite human. Franny let her sleep in her room, but none of us could ever trust that her snuggling and purring would not end in a surprise attack. When she stopped using the litter box I finally pulled the plug.

We loved the stupid little thing despite her many flaws and wanted to find her a good home where her bathroom habits and unreliable interactions would not be an issue. This is a tall order. After crying on the phone to various organizations for a week I finally found The Devoted Barn run by a saint who takes every animal she can accommodate in her big old barn on a large piece of land as she can’t bear the thought of them being killed. I took Lucy and a big donation and went back a few weeks later to visit but she had already grown a huge winter coat and completely undomesticated herself. I hardly recognized her and she wouldn’t come near me. I was more relieved than sad and think the girls ultimately felt the same. Since then we have been petless.

Most of my friends and family members are dog people. I was once, too and think I will be again, but not right now. My only motivation would be to have a reason to walk and to make Alyssa happy—but she is two years from flying the coop and too busy to even think about taking on another chore and I don’t want to be tied down from travel or possible relocation. But if I move north I will want a furry four-legged companion, though I’m not sure what kind. My first in-laws were German Shepherd people and I watched the series of dogs come and go, Heidi, Gretchen, Liebchen—as old age and/or hip problems set in. Two college friends have Goldens who are sweet but a little hairy and slobbery for my taste. On one visit I asked my friend if her two dogs really HAD to go with us to her mountain house. She said, “Love me, love my dogs” and I know she is not alone in that sentiment.

I know several childless couples and empty nesters who are extremely devoted to their dogs. Kids take up a lot of space in life and when there aren’t any around animals can fill the void. My brother and his wife were so saddened by the loss of their dog that they booked a trip to Australia at the last minute just to get out of Dodge and not face the empty house. I am convinced my octogenarian neighbor willed his death following that of his beloved pup. Another friend cancelled a trip when her dog died unexpectedly because she and her husband were just too sad. The friends they had planned to visit were dog people themselves and understood completely.

When Alyssa was in third grade the teacher gave each child a goldfish in a bag of water on the last day of school as her parting gift. We were headed straight to the cottage and had to quickly transfer “Victoria” to a larger container and pray she survived. She weathered the trip but was floating belly up by the next morning. Alyssa was heart-broken to lose her very first pet and we staged an elaborate funeral and burial at the edge of the bluff. Years later she and friends were walking the beach and discovered an injured bird. They ran to the house and Tom agreed to go and have a look. I think he decided it was a Plover and they named it and begged him to try to save it. He called experts, fed it as best he could, made it a little nest box and drove it to a bird rescue woman the next day. She had to confess a few days later that the bird had not made it and the girls were sad. The lesson for all of us was let nature take its course in the wild.

But losing an animal can leave a huge hole. It can cause grief deeper than we might expect. After all, they are not PEOPLE. We have not shared laughter and conversation, told stories and shed tears with them. But still we have been in relationship. Sadie climbed up to comfort me when Bill left. She followed me home instead of someone else. She came into my life for a reason. Maybe they all do. When I first told my therapist about Tom and how much I liked him she asked me a battery of questions, having concluded years before that I was an exceptionally bad picker of men. She was troubled that he did not have children but moved right on to ask about pets. When that answer was also no she pretty much advised against going forward. She felt demonstrating loving care of some person or animal was on the non-negotiable list for a partner. She turned out to be wrong about Tom (he had basically kept an unmedicated bi-polar wife on a functioning plane for 30 years with his care and attention) but I get her point.

Animals teach us important things and they weave themselves into the fabric of our lives, adding texture and context and joy.  They are family as surely as the human members.  When they are gone it is wrenching and who am I to say it is any less so than losing a person? Maybe the sympathy cards for those losing a pet are not so silly after all. Maybe all grief groups should welcome pet owners. Maybe we should have more pet funerals and not leave people weeping alone at the vet’s office. Pet owners have a thousand stories of special times with their animal, funny things they did, special moments where they seemed almost human. Maybe we need to pay closer attention and do more to honor those losses, those lives.

Tom and I always said we would get a dog when we retired. Maybe I still will. Maybe there is another Sadie out there. A walking friend who might sleep at my feet at night. That might be nice. The find your best friend day is coming up again I think. Hmmmmmm…….

Shopping for Men

Six years ago I went on a dating website and came away with the jackpot—Tom. I picked a site for seniors even though I was just 55, because I knew that most men my age would be looking for 40 year-olds. I figured I would look good to some 70-year-old guy. He’d probably be feeble and bald and fat, but at that point simple kindness would’ve been such a relief that I didn’t much care about anything else.

Instead of old, fat and bald I got fit, handsome, loving and kind beyond measure. I can’t imagine for a minute that lightning would ever strike twice. Although I have never believed that people have just one right soul mate in all the world, I do know that I received more love in 4 short years than most people get in a lifetime. But I am only 61. I am healthy. I will soon be an empty nester with a lot of weekend evenings on my hands. I don’t necessarily think Tom talks to me, but I have definitely been feeling a push to get back out there and find some companionship. So I am back on line, back with the senior site for which I now firmly qualify. Back for a 30-day trial of window shopping.

It’s a funny business on-line dating. It’s not like Amazon where you can just plug in what you want (color printer, under $200) and all the choices pop up. Even if you think you know what you’re looking for you might be wrong. Tom found me and it’s a good thing because I had set up my account to screen out anybody who didn’t have kids. I was convinced a childless person would NEVER understand the competing pressures of a parent or the hard cold fact that my girls would ALWAYS come first in my life no matter what. But he turned out to be the perfect person for me, for all of us, in part because he did not have competing priorities and could and did put us first. Watching him with Alyssa was one of the great joys of my life. He got to be a dad to a child who so desperately needed a loving one. Their relationship was a thing of beauty.

But this time I can go shopping just for me. And I honestly don’t have a clue what I want. The website wants you to choose between marriage, serious relationship, casual relationship, travel partner and friendship. Some people seem to check all the boxes. They are even more confused than I am. I would like a travel partner, but my sister is a pretty tough act to follow. I wouldn’t mind having a friend, but I don’t see enough of the ones I have. Marriage does not seem even in the ballpark right now, but I have learned to never say never. I decided to check casual relationship and then immediately had a very handsome and nice sounding man say that he was only interested in someone in it for the long haul. YIKES! Do I really have to commit to that right now? Before I have even met you?

One man commented that he liked on line dating more than meeting someone in a bar because you can do your research first. You can figure out in advance if you have anything in common with the person. You can bring your list of non-negotiables to your computer and weed out the also rans. I actually read a book once about finding the right person. It was written by a woman in her early 40s who was determined to make a match and developed a system that worked so well for her that she wanted to share it. It was called something like “Calling in the One”. I don’t remember much because I met Tom in the middle of reading it, but I do know she wanted you to make an actual list of what you wanted in a mate. I did that and later laughed out loud to find that Tom fulfilled all but one item on a pretty long wish list.  Although this attests to his general wonderfulness as a human being, it also demonstrates that I had finally grown up enough to know that kindness was more important than college, an open spirit more crucial than a robust bank account and that life might, in fact, be richer with someone who was not just like me.

In the novel “A Little Life” one character is an actor and shares a favorite monologue where his character’s wife has just announced she is leaving him, doesn’t feel fulfilled in the marriage, thinks there must be someone better out there. He replies:

But don’t you understand, Amy? You’re wrong. Relationships never provide you with everything. They provide you with some things. You take all the things you want from a person—sexual chemistry, let’s say, or good conversation, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness, or loyalty—and you get to pick three of those things. Three –that’s it. Maybe four, if you’re very lucky. The rest you have to look for elsewhere.

I think there is wisdom there. All of life is a tradeoff, what my daughter’s economics text calls opportunity cost. If you become a lawyer you may have to leave stand-up comedy behind. If you settle in the warmth of Arizona, water and trees will not be part of your daily view. If you choose the size 6 blonde bombshell she may not have a PhD in poly sci. When considering members of the opposite sex it is tempting to want everything, but deep down we likely all know our big three. I don’t care how rich he was, how safe his money might’ve made me feel I could never have made Jackie Kennedy’s choice of Aristotle Onassis—no, no, and no. My non-negotiables are attraction and kindness, but that’s if I’m looking for a life partner—which I may not be.

I am reminded of a friend who years ago put forth her concept of situational friendship. I was wanting friends to be everything and she said that was foolish—just take from each person what they have to give. Let your neighbor drive your kid to school, find an exercise buddy, get intellectual stimulation from your book club, have lunch with someone who makes you laugh. Most of us stop finding all we want and need in a “best friend” somewhere between kindergarten and college graduation. It’s ok to spread your needs out among your village. Maybe that’s the same with dating, finding male companionship. I’m not sure, but I’m open to the idea. Maybe I go to the symphony with one person, bike at Kensington with another, have stimulating conversation over dinner with a third and get physical with someone not interested in any of the above. Sounds exhausting!

For those who want a permanent, all-in-one partner you cannot beat the efficiency of a friend’s father-in-law. His wife of many years died and the casserole ladies were swarming like bees because he was a handsome, fit, southern gentleman and a pillar of the community to boot. He set up 5 dates with 5 separate women on consecutive nights. As I recall he got to the second date, found the woman he wanted, tore up the rest of the calendar and was married in the blink of an eye. The speed at which all of this occurred was hard for some of his kids. But his wife had suffered from a lingering illness and he had been caring for her and, in a very real sense, mourning her for several years. He wanted to get back to living and chose a darling firecracker with whom he spent many happy years.

So here’s what I’ve decided: I will not give out my cell number nor start texting. I will do a little back and forth email typing, but only for a day or two. I will accept or initiate 10 dates— coffee, drink, a meal, whatever. I will drive as far as 60 miles if it seems worth it and I will show up looking my best and engage in the most scintillating conversation I can muster. I will ask questions and show interest in the other person and answer his questions with complete honesty. I will stay open to possibilities and will remember that my first date with Tom consisted of him talking for 90 straight minutes because he was so nervous. I was there only to make sure he didn’t seem like an ax murderer (tricky, as Ted Bundy was apparently a handsome charmer) before accepting his invitation to cook me dinner. I will remember that I didn’t really feel drawn to him until the second date, when his strong carpenter hands sliced a perfect onion in his beautiful kitchen.

I will also take a page from the protagonist in The Rosie Project who is on the autism spectrum and creates a questionnaire and spreadsheet for all his applicants. I am not great with names so I will faithfully record who I saw, when, where and any impressions. After date number 10 I will take stock and try to decide:

  1. Do I have the emotional stamina to do this dating thing again?
  2. Did I meet anyone I want to see more of?
  3. Do I want to try to keep multiple dating balls in the air at once?
  4. Do I know any more yet about what I want in a relationship?
  5. Would I have more fun watching Netflix on my computer in my jammies?

In other words, it is just sort of a science project. Do the research, expend the effort, analyze the results. I will coach myself through it like the sales manager who tells the new guy to go out and get 100 “NO”s. Of course what he really wants is “YES”es, but that is a daunting task, whereas merely getting 100 people to reject you seems like a breeze. And if you are making that many calls there is bound to be a YES buried in there someplace. Maybe one of the 10 will take my breath away, give me that giggly school girl feeling, rock my world. Or maybe I will just meet some nice, interesting people. Either way it seems worth the small chance of being hacked to tiny bits. I’ll let you know if by any chance lightning strikes.

Caution: Fragile Hearts Ahead!

I find myself being even more of a Mama Bear than normal this month. The JV tennis coach just sent a mean email to my daughter and two different driving test administrators have failed her on parallel parking. I am biting my tongue until it bleeds to keep from saying “Look. This is a sweet, kind, funny, hard-working, good kid. She is not, to my knowledge, doing drugs, having sex or skipping school. I chose as her father a miserable alcoholic from whom she finally freed herself when he drove drunk with her in the car and plowed into a stationary object last July. Her step-dad was the father she loved, needed and deserved but after only 4 short years in her life he died a year ago. Her life has been pretty sucky and still she trudges on, trying to be kind to others and find her path in the world. Can you PLEASE just give her a break? Cut her some slack? Help her along the way instead of putting up giant road blocks?!?!? Is that really too much to ask?!”

But of course, I say none of this. She would kill me. She would be mortified. She can handle all of it. Except when she can’t and sobs after each driving failure or awakens me at midnight to help draft a response to the truly horrid coach who chastised her for honoring a prior commitment to the pit orchestra that will conflict with tennis. I want to build a giant protective wall around her, made of steel and pillows. I want her to move in a bubble of construction zone or crime scene tape that warns people to stay back. I want everyone who comes within thirty feet of her to sign a pledge to be kind. I want her life to be happy and fun and exciting and full of love and adventure. I want to smack anyone who stands in the way of that, even temporarily.

I remember so well the day my oldest daughter came home with the tale of a school counselor intervention gone terribly wrong. I was furious and spewing venom until she quietly told me that my anger was not really helping her situation. As is so often the case in human interactions—especially between men and women—one is not always looking for a solution. One is often just looking for a listening ear, someone to hear us out, agree we have been wronged and give us a great big hug. But I am very male in my desire to conquer, to solve, to go right for the most effective SOLUTION. I lack the patience needed to hear the woes of others unless they will let me DO something, and fast, to help.

I showed up at pickle ball and saw a woman who had years ago called and chewed me a new one because her daughter had not been on the guest list for a party my daughter was hosting. The two girls didn’t like each other, which was my response, but she was unmoved. Her daughter was sad, crying, felt left out. All her friends had been invited and my daughter had been in her HOME just two weeks earlier. I probably should’ve said, “Oh gosh. I’m so sorry. If she’d still like to come just bring her over” but I was righteous in my belief that kids could choose their own friends. I told her this and she countered that it was up to us to teach them how to behave. I am positive I heard her give a quick summary of this ancient encounter sotto voce to her sister at pickle ball. And honestly I don’t blame her as I could still probably recite chapter and verse of every wrong ever done to one of my kids. I have long ago forgiven those who were unkind to me, but people who hurt your kids are branded for life.

One of the best lessons infants teach us is resiliency—theirs, not ours. We are positive the hospital has made a horrible, possibly fatal mistake in sending us home with such fragile tiny creatures and no instruction manual. We are sure we will unwittingly kill them. We cannot be trusted, don’t they see that? But we soon discover that most of the time they take our errors in stride and bounce right back. They are tiny, yes, but also programmed for toughness, programmed to survive all our parental failures. I once walked twenty feet to the bathroom while infant Franny was lying smack in the middle of a queen-sized bed. I needed a damp cloth to wash her or change her or something. I was gone 10 seconds and she managed to get to the edge and fall off. She cried like crazy, I was horrified and ready to turn in my mommy badge. In 5 minutes she was fine, nothing broken, nothing harmed.

Once when Alyssa was small she had been awake for 24 hours with an ear infection. She finally fell asleep in the car on the way from the doctor’s office to the pharmacy. There was no drive-up window back then and wild horses could not have convinced me to awaken that exhausted child. I parked smack at the front door of CVS, locked her in the car safely strapped in her car seat and ran straight back to the prescription drop off. I was gone less than 3 minutes, but when I returned a concerned woman had gathered a group around the car and was just about ready to call Child Protective Services or the police or SOMEBODY to report my abandonment. All I can say is I am very glad that phoned-in scripts and drive-up windows are now on the landscape.

We want to protect our kids and we can’t –not always, not fully—and they don’t really want or need us to. I worry constantly that Alyssa will crumple in the real world when she leaves the nest in two short years. Who will have her back? Who will wash her clothes? Make her lunch?  OMG—SHE WILL!!! She should already be doing all this anyway. I have babied her beyond all reason because it fed my need to feel useful and needed. She has allowed it (mostly) because being babied is not all bad. But those who are babied don’t get to grow. They don’t get to try life out on their own. They don’t get to fail. And they don’t get to captain their own ship and THAT is the dirty little secret behind the baby-ers. We like to be in control, set the schedule, decide on the lunch contents, choose the temperature setting on the washer. Holy mackerel! Someone send an intervention team!

That’s it. This has to stop. The caution tape is coming down. This bird has got wings and must be allowed, forced even, to use them. I suspect she will do just fine. I suspect it is I who will suffer under the strain of superfluousness (superfluosity?) Being needed has always been at the tippy top of my most wanted list. That ship is in the harbor taking on supplies for a long journey that is just about to begin. I better get busy making myself indispensable someplace else or get that dog I’ve been postponing. Gonna need some hobbies. Gonna need a LOT of hobbies. The heart that may need caution tape is—-mine.

Learning to Drive

Watching Alyssa learn to drive has made me thank God for the 100th time that I am not a teenager. I would never have gotten through high school in today’s world where every class is taught at a college level. I would’ve flat out flunked the SAT and would definitely not have been granted a driver’s license.

All I remember of learning to drive was taking the class one summer at my high school. Some sports coach or another taught it and I remember knocking over many, many orange cones in the parking lot before realizing he was going to pass me anyway just to be rid of me and my sub-par spacial awareness. In my memory there was no third party testing firm, no parental participation in 50 hours of road time. You took the class, they tested you right there and if you passed you were off to the Secretary of State.

Alyssa is a good driver. We have spent 50 hours plus in the car together and I am confident of her abilities. But that is not how the game works any more. She tried to explain the scam to me but I was not paying attention. She told me that ALL her friends failed the test the first time. That that was simply the way it worked. They collect your $50, spend 10 minutes watching you run over their trickily placed cones and offer you a retest later at a slightly reduced rate. Sure enough, that’s what happened.

You must pass the parking portion before you even get to show them you can drive. When Franny took Driver’s Ed. I swear we were given no home study materials and when we arrived at the testing site she was stunned to find the first test was backing into a driveway. Neither of us had any idea this impossible task was on the test and she failed with a capital F. She always claims I was a neglectful mother. I don’t own that across the board, but here it might be true. I ASSUMED that the nice folks at Sears Driving school would have covered all this. But no, not only did they not teach her, they didn’t even provide the little booklet showing what was going to be included on the test.

I vowed not to make the same mistakes with Alyssa. I got the booklet. I read it cover to cover. I dutifully marked it and logged her hours, sometimes nearly dragging her to the driver’s seat when she wasn’t keen because I knew we both needed her to drive ASAP because I teach every week night and can never get her anywhere she needs to be. We did fine on the driving, but I knew I was not the person to teach her to park. I have seen people get out their cell phones and shoot video of my parallel parking attempts. For all I know they’ve gone viral on YouTube such is the comedic value. I got the name of a private driving teacher and paid her a whopping $50 an hour to get Alyssa ready for the test. After the first hour Alyssa was completely confident, but I insisted on one more session for insurance.

We were up north over spring break and it struck me as the perfect time to get the test out of the way, thus paving the way for a Secretary of State visit on her exact birthday and the coveted (by her) Facebook post of her behind the wheel with her freshly minted license. Miraculously there was a testing firm with an opening at the exact moment we would be driving through Traverse City. The tester was female and friendly. I was so nervous I couldn’t watch. (It is a gift from God that I was not the parent of any team sport players as even in my cheerleading days watching people I care about do anything hard or competitive makes me sweaty-palmed and nauseous.)

You can get 6 demerits in parking and still pass. She adjusted her position one too many times in the parallel parking and missed by one point. The woman was kind and helpful, giving us a sheet to help with parking and offering a re-take later in the week. Alyssa cried all the way to the cottage and refused to return to that site (where I could now pay a mere $35 for a re-test) as it seemed jinxed to her. Ever the queen of “Let’s get this checked off the to-do list!!!” I booked with another company and drove 40 minutes to the site at the end of our vacation. This guy was gruff and old and didn’t even tell us how many demerits she got, just offered the reduced rate retest. The fact that he told her to reposition and then took off points when she did, made me once again wonder if there was a scam at work. OR maybe the poor kid just got my bad parking gene.

The elephant in this room is that Tom had a commercial driver’s license. He parked his giant work van in tiny postage stamp spaces with ease. He also had the patience of Job and he and Alyssa adored each other. In other words—THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HIS JOB!!!!  Alyssa’s biological dad tested cars in another life and also has the skill set (if not the personality) to get this done. But that ship has sailed and she would rather get driving instruction from Donald Trump. So……… I am now digging deep. I have taken my kind sister up on the offer to ask her ex-husband to step into the abyss and as a back-up (belt and suspenders seem like a good idea about now) I have reached out to a friend’s husband, a kind, patient, handy engineer who was foreman of the team of neighbors who rebuilt my porch. If he pulls off this equally monumental task he will only need to utter one word if questioned at the pearly gates about earthly good deeds—“Mary”.

So all this just brings home again our interdependence. There is nothing more frustrating (at least to me) than being incapable of helping one’s child do/learn/understand something. With Franny it was reading and math tutors who saved me along with a roster of mental health professionals. With Alyssa the list has thus far been pretty short—a tennis pro and a clarinet teacher. I am fine with hiring folks to do what I can’t, but when it comes to something like operating a car I feel like a big fat LOSER when I can’t help her. When I took a battery of aptitude tests at one point in my career I was off the chart low on the “if you take this piece of paper, fold it twice and make this cut, what will it look like when you unfold it” test. UGH! I could weep even now at how this makes my brain throb.

So thank you, Jim. Thank you, Rainer. Thank you anyone else who steps forward to help my kid get a driver’s license. I think on balance I have done ok as her mom so I am going to try to lose the guilt for my inadequacies here. We are all supposed to get two parents to help cover all the bases. I wish I could have given my kids that, but in that most annoying of all modern phrases—IT IS WHAT IT IS and we will all survive. Next test April 24. Send out some love and light that afternoon, ok?

Having People

A sweet-voiced 12 year-old sang a beautiful solo in the Fiddler on the Roof revue I directed. It is called Far from the Home I Love and is the lament of a daughter who has made the wrenching decision to leave her home and family and tight-knit, supportive community in order to be with the man she loves. I only today realized that the mother of the girl accompanying this solo had done precisely that—left Israel and her entire family to move here and make a life and family with an American husband.

My daughter had some tough times this week and it made me wish for the 1,000th time that she had living grandparents. We have so few family elders that I am making a big detour after an upcoming college reunion to go visit an aunt (age 101) and some first cousins that I barely know. And my sister wants to come too. There is something about aging that makes relatives so much more precious. They are, no matter what, your people and I so envy others who have lots of them around—annoying and demanding and smothering though they may be. I’m sure it would drive me insane and yet I long for it.

Sometimes you get lucky and have people you choose or who choose you instead of having the same blood running through your veins. Often these are old and dear friends who have been to war with you—the marriage war, the parenting war, the college war, an actual war—they have seen you at your best and your worst. They have let you lean heavily on them when you were broken and you have done the same for them. You learn to trust that they will pick up when you call, be your emergency contact on the school forms and drive you for your colonoscopy. They are as essential to the fabric of your life as food. You hope fervently that you remember often enough to tell them this.

But sometimes there are other people who are more on the fringe—they live in your peripheral vision—who come through for you in surprising ways. They save you when you need it most even though you would never normally think to ask them for even a ride to the car repair shop.  The seven year-old who decided he was going to make sure I had an actual roof for the fiddler to play on, the piano mom MD who tore up her office schedule to see my kid on a moment’s notice, the sweet teen who helps me do things with computers I could otherwise only dream of, Marla at CVS who has walked me through how to print photos from my phone no fewer than 6 times without once calling me an idiot.

Occasionally there are odd attempts at connection that feel wrong. The woman I barely know who sent me an article on preventing theft of my dead husband’s identity. Really? Or a woman I have never met but who attended Tom’s funeral because her daughter was coming, who left me a voicemail suggesting coffee because we had both been through “the same thing”—except that I lost the kind, good love of my life and she lost a child abuser who committed suicide rather than face prison. I’ll pass on coffee.

Right now my roster of people is feeling a little thin—an adult daughter with whom I am just now finding some sort of balanced relationship, a sweet teen just two years from leaving the nest, a sister an hour away, a brother many states away. My closest friends are also far away (oh dear—is it possible I like it that way?!) and my dearest local chum will likely be leaving pretty soon as she has a better life waiting for her elsewhere. I am a bad phone person and couldn’t Skype with a gun to my head so instead I swoop in to visit my nearest and dearest or plan trips with them and then let that sustain me until the next round of nourishment. In between I knuckle down and work hard at teaching and fill my time with other group activities that seem intimate, but aren’t—book club, meditation class, yoga, church choir. I say truthful things because I know I only see those people in that setting. Nobody will be in my living room asking what I meant or how I’m feeling now.

Lately I have even realized that I am physically stingy. My children crave my touch and I seem to offer it grudgingly. Even Tom’s nightly request for back scratches were always made apologetically. God! It is as if I am afraid to give too much—information, affection, praise, love because it is in short supply—which is, of course, ridiculous. What exactly am I saving it all for?!!

I have carved out a reasonably successful and sustaining professional niche—people seek me out and I self-promote and together it supports me and makes me feel useful and productive and maybe even like I am spreading some good in the world, since my “product” is music. But on the personal side I am not at the top of many guest lists and definitely not who you call for a fun lunch or girls’ night out. I’m old, I barely drink, I am highly critical, I fall asleep at 9 p.m. and I can be very snarky. Usually I am fine with this until I learn of parties/outings I was not a part of. I liked the one hostess who announced at a party—no pics and no Facebook posts, saying “I did not invite your friends tonight and I would rather they not see evidence of that fact!”

So I seem to have a few openings. Perhaps I should advertise: Wanted: people who will know and love me despite the paucity of information I am willing to provide, who will be my go-to in emergencies and invite me to at least one event per year—dinner, concert, kid’s graduation party—something. Extra points if they think I’m smart enough to discuss quality books with and they think I’m funny (ha-ha, not strange.) That really is about all I want. I have slowly but surely come to grips with having a much bigger introvert component than I would ever have admitted in my youth. I think I was wearing a mask and faking it for many years and it was exhausting. Maybe it is my connection to music, but noise really bothers me—loud radio blaring over my head at a restaurant, people talking all night on a red-eye, even some kid swinging their legs against the chair in class. I like to be with people in short, well-defined doses where they are there by my invitation or are in some way under my direction. That makes me feel safe and then I can let loose and pretend to be a chatty, funny, extrovert for a half hour before I need to fold up my little tent and go home for a hot bath.

I wish I was a little closer to one end of the spectrum or another. My first husband would come home from a party at midnight and immediately start looking for another one. A piano teacher friend shares that her teen wants to answer the door and greet each and every student who arrives at their home. She is such an extrovert that the thought of missing an opportunity to connect is almost painful. I have another friend who is very spiritual and can go days without seeing others as she reads, writes, meditates and gathers her strength from solitude. My favorite scenario is where there are people just at the edge of my space who are mostly quiet and don’t need me for anything. Having them there makes me feel “normal” and not alone, but having them demand anything real of me makes me long for isolation. My girls refer to this as the “Need my own aisle” syndrome stemming from a long ago trip to CVS where I had a long list and little time and just wanted to efficiently move through the store while my (then young) children occupied themselves looking at this or that. Instead they followed half a step behind me and talked non-stop, asking questions, making comments, pointing things out and expecting appropriate responses from me. I finally said in exasperation, “Can you just go look around a little? I really need my own aisle!”

All of this makes me miss Tom with a longing close to pain. First and foremost he was willing to put up with this strange push me-pull you relationship I have with fellow humans. As with most difficult realities it didn’t seem to faze him. If he wanted to be close to me—and he usually wanted to be close to me—he just would be. He’d sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch, hold my hand in the movies, sling an arm around me in church, spoon all night in bed. Sometimes it was too much and then I’d go take a bath or have tea with a friend, but mostly it was flattering to be so wanted and comforting to be so connected. I have never found that perfect balance before and I can’t imagine it would ever happen again. At the very best maybe I will find someone I want to have sex with a time or two before I die and who feels the same about me. I’ll just have to hope nobody gets attached at the heart because the love of my life has already come and gone and that position is not being re-posted.

But I could use a few more people and I could try a little harder to find them. I suspect they are already there—right within my field of vision if I just pop on the cheaters and take a closer look. I think I’ll start by following the advice of one Virginia Byrnes (now Horton) who opined our freshman year in college “If someone asks you to do something try to say yes. It is almost always the things you don’t do that you regret far more than the ones you do.” I will see her in a few short months at our 40th reunion. She is still my people despite the four decades that have passed with sparse communication. She knew me when and thus will always be my people. Old friends are special, but that doesn’t mean there might not be some cool new ones out there too. Maybe at pickle ball (where I suck), maybe at church (where I don’t), maybe up north where retirees abound and there are more book and walking and mahjong clubs than you can shake a birch branch at. It is a little exciting to ponder the possibilities. And my electric bill might go down if I spend less time hiding in the bath!

Trying Again?

I have recently realized that despite all protests to the contrary and truly against the laws of nature and statistics, I might be willing to try romance again. I have already been married three times: one a youthful mistake, one a disastrous rebound and one an improbable late-in-life thin slice of bliss. A wise woman would go to her grave still savoring the sweet after taste of that wonderful 54 months with Tom, but I have never been wise in love and I am likely (please, God) very far from the grave. As I sit by the pool on an early spring weekend get-away I have hours to people watch. And the people I seem to be watching are men. I take this as proof that I am not dead yet.

As with gelato flavors or any other tough choice, it is easier to start with what you don’t want. I don’t want pistachio or the obese man with black hair on his back who stations himself squarely in my lap lane and orders an entire tray of Bloody Marys at 9 a.m.—all for himself. I don’t want chocolate chip or any of the tatted up, buff 20-somethings although they are nice eye candy. This is fortunate as short of trying to have their own Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate moment (a movie they have never heard of) they would not want me either. Call me shallow but I also do not want anyone who believes men can wear sleeveless shirts nor anyone with the belly of a very pregnant woman. As my sister and fellow ogler points out—all the men I seem to find attractive look a lot like Tom. He was a handsome man, but I do feel a little like Annette Benning in that movie where she falls for her late husband’s doppelganger.

I spent a lot of time being angry after Tom died (and maybe even before). I was angry that he didn’t have insurance or visit doctors, that he believed his pain was just the family curse of kidney stones and never had it checked out, that God would throw this wonderful man right in my path and then take him away. Why?! What did I do? I felt like Eve getting bounced from the Garden of Eden except I didn’t remember eating any forbidden fruit and my Adam was beyond reproach. But if Tom is truly gone (I have finally stopped thinking he is on a long ice-boating or sailing excursion with old friends or just hanging out at the cottage waiting for us to come back) maybe I need to at least consider starting over. That term feels so wrong—as if I were playing a piano piece and made a mistake. That is not the case. This time I did not make a mistake. This time I followed my heart right to the end of the rainbow only to find that somebody had swiped the gold!

My friend Jill sent me a terrific NY Times Modern Love piece about a widow letting go and allowing another man into her life, someone as hurt in his own way as she was, someone who understood what she’d lost and respected it/him. This got me thinking. Do you suppose maybe there is someone out there in my same boat? That maybe if I leave shore we will bump oars and meet? That maybe it will be good? For now it’s just food for thought.

Meanwhile, I’ll have dark chocolate AND rum raisin, thank you very much.