“April is the cruelest month…”
That would be my kid sister quoting T.S. Eliot in between her curses this spring. She lives north of New York City and received eight inches of snow on Easter Sunday. And that was after three epic snowstorms in a row. Talk about cruel… Of course Easter also coincided with April Fool’s Day this year, so it might just have been some sort of cosmic joke.
And speaking of jokes, I was born on Good Friday. I am not making this up because, all in all, this has not been a good thing. Good Friday, you may remember from Sunday School, was the day Jesus was crucified. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious or anything, but I’m guessing Jesus didn’t think it was a particularly Good Day. I’m not so sure that my first day was a good day, either. Unlike Jesus, however, I didn’t suffer way back then, as near as I can recall…which is not “near” at all because, you know, I was only just born. But I have been suffering ever since (get out your hankies). My sainted mother took some sort of strange pride in reminding me often that that was the day I was born. She also raised me to be a gentleman. This, it seems to me now, was a sort of double whammy of a curse: Good Friday plus gentleman. It is, pardon the expression, a heavy cross to bear.
Seriously, what good does being good actually get you? This has been a mystery to me. For example, back in high school the good girls always fell for the bad boys, like it was somehow ordained. It just didn’t seem fair. My childhood sweetheart (the first woman I got in trouble with, having been caught kissing her behind the tropical fish tank in kindergarten when it was supposed to be nap time) fell for a bad boy in high school. Well of course she did. He was, after all, handsome and sleekly Italian while I was almost six and a half feet tall and so skinny I could turn sideways and disappear. I’ve tried to put that all behind me (and she and I have been lifelong dear friends), but as I recall they were the King and the Queen of the Senior Prom (happily, years later, she married the most hopelessly good guy I’ve ever known and they’ve lived happily ever after).
So here we are today, many decades later, and the curse persists. See, if you still feel compelled to be a “good boy,” you tend to DO things for people. It’s like a reflex. It doesn’t even rise to conscious thought. But it is problematic. If, for example, you grew up in a New York apartment building with a building superintendent who got all the broken stuff fixed, you developed absolutely no useful skills of your own. None. So DOING things for others, especially women you may be trying to impress, almost always ends in humiliation. Fall off a ladder with a full can of paint in one hand while trying to look useful and you’ll know what I mean. Hopeless.
But not in fiction! In fiction, see, good guys sometimes win. Not often, I’ll grant you, but sometimes. I’ve received any number of letters from female readers of my more romantic novels that claim my male lead characters are “too good.” They pitch in when there is a problem or a crisis. They don’t give up. They take risks for love. They can be depended upon. And to be honest, I feel sorry for these readers, because there are real men out there you can count on. Maybe not a lot; I don’t know. But they’re genuine. Sometimes you have to look under a rock.
Ah, but there is a curse within the curse, and here I want to be serious for just a moment. This is important. What I’ve learned…and it’s taken a very long time…is that if you are a chronic helper, the guy who rides in on the white horse, what it really does is weaken, not save, the person you most want to help, often the person you most love. You are effectively sending a signal that the other person is somehow unable to get it done, or get it done right. Ultimately, this is crippling in a relationship.
So I am still hoping for someone to give me bad boy lessons…
You can blame the following on my late mother. Her name was Hazel, by the way. On the anniversary of her birthday this year, I bought a sports car that only she would have understood and appreciated. And coveted.
The car I bought is the quintessential “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It looks like a normal German hatchback on the outside, but that is just an illusion. It is a roaring lion. Beneath its unobtrusive shell, it is a track-ready race car. I like to think we share certain common characteristics: we are not what we seem.
But why my mother? I’m glad you asked. Growing up, my mother was the driver in our family. She’d been driving since her early teens. To her, driving was a high art and if you did not know it, please just get the hell out of her way. When my sister and I were little, mom drove only cars with the biggest and most powerful engines available, typically Buicks. Later, I got her into German cars. Her favorite was a limited edition, two-seater, supercharged, Volkswagen Corrado. It was a little rocket. Young and very stupid men would tail the little old gray-haired lady in front of them on the twisty roads where she lived, thinking they could intimidate her to pull over. She would just smile, lean on the accelerator, whip the car through the tightest turns without braking, and watch in the rear view mirror as her pursuer sailed off into the shrubbery. My mother did not suffer fools.
When I got my driver's license, the first thing she did was take me out to a complicated parking lot and demand I drive through it…backwards. Her point? It takes far more skill to control a car going backward than forward. When it snowed, she taught me how to control power slides. Or she’d ask, “What’s behind you?” to teach me to be alert on all sides. Or, “When you enter a sharp curve, don’t brake, accelerate, the car will follow.”
When you were her passenger, there were any number of things she’d mutter or shout at the drivers ahead of her: “This guy is so slow he must be being paid by the hour!” Or, “It’s the long pedal on the right, idiot!” She was not a patient driver; she was a professional. She did not tolerate amateurs.
Long ago and far away, I owned a top of the line BMW 735 luxury car. It was powerful but, honestly, not very nimble. It was totaled from the rear one day. I took the settlement and bought two cars: a VW Golf for my mother and a VW GTI for myself. My mother immediately became a VW Golf fan; you can’t buy a car that’s more fun to drive than one of these hot hatchbacks.
The hottest of the line, however, was the VW GTI, voted every year since its debut decades ago as one of the top ten cars in the world. It looks so innocent under its Golf shell, but it is a monster. I had my first one (fire engine red) for—I am not kidding—twenty-seven flawless years, until some idiot pulled out in front of it and my baby (her name was “Gigi”) was totaled. I mourned her for five years. I bought a more placid and allegedly environmentally clean VW turbo diesel, which turned out to be a polluter. VW bought it back and now I have a brand new VW GTI and I am like a child in a toy store. You probably have to be a serious driver to understand, and I don’t expect you to if you’re not, but can you imagine the pure joy of throwing your sports car into a ninety degree curve, flooring the accelerator, and being completely incapable of breaking the rear end loose? No, probably not. You are a sane person.
But my mom would understand. My sister insists I name the new car “Hazel.”
Roughly ten years ago, I was walking a friend’s dog along a country lane on the small island in Puget Sound where I live. He was a very well-trained hunting dog; if you told him to “heel” he did so immediately and stayed, happily, right by your side, abundant sniffable dog distractions notwithstanding.
On that day, striding many yards ahead of me, I saw a tall, slender, blond woman with two large dogs on leashes. As the distance closed between us she heard our approach, whipped around, and barked, “Get that dog on a lead!”
Two things occurred to me immediately. One, she must be British, as “lead” is a British term for leash. Two, she must be the one I have been waiting for because, after all, she’s already yelling at me! I was right on both counts. (As it turned out, her outburst was due to having been attacked by a stray dog only minutes before; she was and is a sweet and wonderful woman).
And so we met, we dated, we married, and years later we divorced…but have remained dear friends. It is a matter of mutual admiration, abiding friendship, and an affection which has changed form but not diminished. As I’ve said, we live on a small island. Inevitably, we run into each other. And it is always a joy for me, if sometimes a heart-skipping one.
I don’t know how she feels about that horribly commercialized holiday, Valentine’s Day, which rolls around this month, but she will be “my” valentine still and my heart will send her flowers. Our past contains a rich history of companionship, respect, and admiration which does not seem to have aged. It is, to me, like the diamond that was once on her ring finger: forever. And forever to be honored.
We have all loved. Many of us have loved and lost. Sometimes there is rancor. I have been lucky. Perhaps you have been, too. On this holiday, I hope all of us can wrap our hearts around that which was once precious and, truly, never really dies.
In celebration of love, I have just released my three most romantic novels as a boxed set called: Second Chances: Love Stories for Grownups. This February, may I suggest that they would make a thoughtful gift for someone you love…or have loved…or hope will find love once again.
A New Year
No matter where your loyalties or beliefs reside—left, right, or center, politically or in any other realm—I think we can agree that 2017 was a year of turmoil. Things we took as certainties became uncertain. Things we thought we understood were suddenly in question. Things we took as normal morphed, creating “new normals.” In my own life, and perhaps in yours as well, there was disappointment, loss, and pain, one coming on the heels of the last so quickly and relentlessly sometimes that it became hard to hold steady or even to know the right course.
In such times, most people will reach out to others for help, for support, for reassurance, for encouragement. However natural a response that may seem to be, I am not at all sure it is the right one. It seems to me a search for cushioning, for insulation from the experience of being in and at this moment, no matter how unsettling or painful the moment is.
My own response to pain this year has been to take it all in—in deep—and not try to shoo it away or turn to others to make it more bearable. I bring it close. I need to own it. Because if you don’t own it, you won’t truly know it, and if you don’t know it, how can you hope to surmount it?
I pull inside a sort of metaphorical cave of my own creation. And in there I try to understand that the disappointments may not entirely have been visited upon me by unseen outside forces, but perhaps also by my own unrealistic expectations. I absorb the losses because, after all, they are mine and unlikely even to be perceived, much less understood by others. I own the pain.
And I wait.
I wait because I have two choices: pound my head against the wall of things impossible to change, including my own mistakes, or be patient and prepare for the breeze that may again fill the sails, the tide that will return, quietly, to lift the vessel that is me. So the challenge of the past year is simple: What have I learned? And the challenge for this New Year is just as simple: how will I use what I have learned?
I wish you all a very happy, hopeful, and heart-expanding 2018.
My son was born on December eighteenth. This is a perfect example of very poor family planning. No thoughtful parent would do such a thing to a child, placing his birth date so close to Christmas. Then again, I’m not sure how thoughtful his mother and I were at the time.
I remember returning from the hospital to the group house where I had previously lived with my three college roommates. We all were still in school, seniors. There was snow on the ground and the apartment, in a once lovely and grand old house, was notoriously drafty. Still, they toasted me, my young wife, and our new son with—what else?—ice cold beer. After a couple of beers a thought struck me like a lightning bolt from the heavens: You will not be able to sleep late again for many years… That sobered me right up and, of course, was completely true.
So here was this tiny little infant boy—wisps of hair, wrinkly face—with a birthday just one week, exactly, before Christmas. My wife and I lived in upstate New York at the time and had always spent Christmas with our respective parents down near New York City. I called our pediatrician and asked if it was safe for the little guy to travel. The doc said, “That kid has more natural antibodies in him right now than perhaps at any other time in his life. Go for it.”
So we did. We bought a folding “port-a-crib” (no longer available, I should think), set it up in the back of our Volkswagen square-back (a kind of mini-station wagon also no longer available), tossed the kid in the crib, and rocketed down the New York State Thruway. This was before those silly child safety seats. He might have rolled around a bit back there, but he never complained. Not once. That may be because the VW’s faulty exhaust tended to filter into the passenger compartment. Hard to say.
But I have always felt guilty. All his life (so far) the poor devil has been effectively shortchanged at both his birthday AND Christmas. Too close together, presents merged, plus there is something just wrong about wrapping a birthday present in Christmas paper.
This year, though, I am atoning. For his birthday, I am giving him a gift collection from a really fine new men’s razor manufacturing company. I think it’s time he shaved.
He’s forty-eight, after all.
I confess that every time he has a new birthday these days I find it hard not to take offense. I want to give him a good old New York “dope slap” for being so disrespectful to his only father. I mean, really, how did he get so old? And what’s with this grandson thing, anyway? A grandson? Who’s in high school? That’s just wrong, too.
But in moments of calm, I confess to myself that no one could have had a sweeter son. He’s a terrific dad and a successful architect. I count myself immensely lucky every December.
Happy Birthday, Eric. You were a magical Christmas gift.