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[1993]: I was living in Panama City Beach and my father in Seagrove Beach, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico about a 40 minute drive from where I lived. My father was retired from a career in engineering, a job he had been extremely good at and took pride in, and had settled down supposedly to finally enjoy his lifelong dream of living the life of a beachcomber in a tropical paradise. But in his retirement he seemed to be at loose ends, without purpose. He had spent his life searching for the perfect place to live, the perfect woman, the perfect life. He was very smart in many ways but in his retirement he suffered, as he had all his life, from a profound and all-pervasive dissatisfaction with life in general. Life was just not good enough for him.

I knew that he wanted very much to have a relationship with a woman but things were not working out for him very well in that department. When I was young and my parents were still married it seemed to me that my father didn’t respect my mother very much and was constantly critical of her, which is why she eventually divorced him. And although in his later life he seemed to be able to find many women who took an interest in him, these relationships became problematic for various unexplained reasons and didn’t last long. I suspected that the basic reason he had difficult relationships with women was simply because he had a difficult relationship with the entire world.

So there he was late in his life, retired and with too much time on his hands, sitting in his apartment and watching television and drinking by himself. He must have had plenty of time, probably way too much time, to reflect on his frustrating failed love life, clearly a big issue for him. On one of my weekend visits we were talking in his apartment and he surprised me with a little soliloquy on the subject of women.

“You know,” he said, “women have always had a pretty tough time of it. There have been very few opportunities open to them, they’ve been treated like second-class citizens throughout all of history. And furthermore they get raped. It seems to me that women would have every right to hate us.”

He stood in the center of his living room in front of the big glass door that faced the ocean, with a drink in his hand, still shirtless from the beach, as he delivered this odd little speech. I was surprised to hear him talk this way because it seemed like such a departure from his usual style of thinking and talking, and also because he spoke with such conviction. But I was basically in agreement, having come to similar conclusions myself quite a while ago. “They do hate us, Dad,” I replied. By then I was a battle-scarred veteran of the relationship wars myself, and had come to harbor a certain amount of melancholy pessimism about the prospects of men and women ever really getting along with each other.

On a few subsequent visits to my father I heard him make the same speech after he had had a couple of drinks. It was clear that this was something he had spent much reflection on. I think he was struggling to understand his own loneliness, and thus had started to question his previously long-held assumptions about men and women and had come to this, for him, breakthrough insight. I thought it was good that he was finally developing some empathy for women but I also thought it was sad because it seemed to be an acknowledgment that he was facing up to his fundamental aloneness.

The sad truth was that there could be only one true love for my father, and that was the ideal lover of his imagination. She would be the personification of the paradise he was always searching for, timeless, always young and beautiful. She would be waiting for him on the beach, in the white surf and the brilliant sunshine. Smiling, holding out her hand. Forever.

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Cindy

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[1988-1989]: After the traumatic marriage and breakup with my wife Diana I moved to an apartment in Pensacola. I was a neurotic, anxiety-filled mess. I was still working as a contract programmer/analyst at the Naval Training Systems Center and studying part-time for a master’s degree in the evenings at the University of West Florida. I met Cindy in Dr. Ken Ford’s UWF class on artificial intelligence. She seemed to take an interest in me for some reason. She was a nice quiet and very normal young woman who worked as a programmer at some kind of medical information-systems company. We started dating. We became a couple. She was likable and not nearly as neurotic and self-absorbed as I was, though I eventually came to find out that she had come from a family that was at least as dysfunctional as the one I’d come from. I had no idea what she saw in me.
For some reason she wouldn’t tell me her age. Once I managed to sneak a peek at her drivers license and found that she was eight years younger than me. Maybe she had been afraid that I might think she was too young for me? I don’t know.

Cindy was charming in a nerdy, unpretentious sort of way and I liked her very much, but eventually I felt restless and bored in the relationship. I think she was a bit too conventional to me. We didn’t seem to have all that much to talk about, but then at the time I was so hopelessly wrapped in myself and my neurotic quest to try to make myself into some kind of exalted person, that it’s hard to say what kinds of things we might have found in common if I had been able to get free of my self-obsession.

By chance I happened to meet a woman named Gayle, an older woman who was going back to school after working many years as a nurse, and who had an interest in anthropology. It turned out we quite a bit to talk about. We started going to lunch together. Our conversations were filled with energy. She had many interests and a wide-ranging imagination and an adventurous spirit. But she also seemed very tense, and could be brusque, and a little defensive. At times she came across as a bit arrogant. In contemporary parlance, she was “edgy.” I could see that she was at least as neurotic and crazy as I was, but she was also interesting. All the danger signs were there. I should have stayed clear of her but I didn’t want to.

I found myself in a painfully awkward situation. I felt a great rapport with Gayle, even if she might be a little wacko, and an alright but not-all-that-great, and rather bland, rapport with Cindy. I felt the need to break off the relationship with Cindy but I didn’t know how to do that. I couldn’t face up to the harsh necessity. Why was I not able to just be straightforward and honest with her? Instead I became increasingly distant toward her, not realizing at the time how cruel that was. Cindy became frustrated with me. She wept. I think she had wanted us to continue as a couple. We finally just stopped communicating with each other. I never heard from her again. I felt very bad about the way it ended with Cindy. I still feel bad about it even now. She was a good person and did not deserve to be treated like that.

Formalities

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[1986]: After I moved out of the house I had shared with Diana and her kids it took me a while to calm down enough and collect enough presence of mind to start thinking about practical legal matters, i.e. divorce. A couple of times Diana called me and begged me to come back to her, but I knew for certain I could not. She was mentally ill and she was destroying my life. I still cared a lot about her and hoped she would somehow find a way to overcome her mental problems but it was impossible for me to go on with her.

My friend Leah, my fellow volunteer from the crisis line, recommended a lawyer and I went to see him. He was very smart and very kind. In our first discussion in his office all of his questions seemed routine and easily dealt with. Except for one, which is when he said, “When we go to see the judge he’s going to ask you why you are suing for divorce. What are you going to tell him?” Of course I should have anticipated this question but I was caught off guard and didn’t quite know how to respond at first. I stammered out something about Diana and I having fundamental personality differences that made us incompatible. He didn’t look like he was convinced by my answer but he just nodded and went on. I felt too inhibited to tell him the truth, which was that my wife had very serious mental problems and living with her was so stressful for me that I was afraid I might actually kill myself. It was the truth, but it was a truth I couldn’t bring myself to articulate. There was something much too awful and shameful about it. There was an unspeakable darkness at the center of my relationship with Diana. I couldn’t face it, at least not completely.

A few days later I walked with my lawyer over to the courthouse and met with the judge in his office. For a judge he struck me as being a little brash and rude and not terribly dignified. He wore a ridiculously artificial-looking toupee and had on a garish plaid sport jacket. He didn’t look at me as he asked his questions. It was as if I weren’t even in the room and he were addressing the wall. When he got to the question about why I was seeking to divorce my wife, something changed in me this time, a sudden lack of inhibition, and I started to talk about how Diana had unpredictable and extremely intense outbursts of rage and paranoia that would last for days, and that she wouldn’t admit that she had a problem or get help for herself, and so on. My lawyer looked like he might have been a little alarmed but he didn’t say anything. The judge actually looked at me this time, and cut me off, apparently having heard enough to satisfy him. He went on to the next question and it was all very routine from then on.
Diana was served with the divorce paperwork and she didn’t contest it. I heard that she graduated with high honors from the University of West Florida with a degree in psychology, then went on to enter their master’s degree program. A few years later I heard that she had entered a Ph.D. program in psychology at Auburn University but I don’t know what happened to her after that. My stepson Arnie went on to have a successful career as an actor and comic. My stepdaughter Deedee, who had an amazing singing voice, went to Florida State University to study music but I don’t know what she did after that. I don’t know what my stepson Toby is doing. It’s a much different world now and we are all different people than we were. I send them all my love, Diana too.

Exit

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[1985]: It was difficult. Diana and I, at her suggestion, started going to see a marriage counselor, Dr. Saywell. These marriage counseling sessions were strange and frustrating. Diana and I talked about our problems and Dr. Saywell rarely offered any significant commentary on our problems, but listened carefully to everything we said, absorbing it all. He seemed to have an unlimited capacity for absorbing other people’s anguish. Diana mainly expressed her paranoia about me and her kids, how we were all bent on destroying her life, etc., and I talked about my frustration in not being able to get through the barrier of her paranoia and communicate with her. Nothing ever came of these counseling sessions. It was all just empty talk.

I stayed with Diana as long as I could, which was probably about a year and a half. I clung to the remnants of our marriage with an instinctive desperation, like a shipwrecked man clinging to a piece of wreckage to try to keep himself from drowning. I stayed through her fits of crying and screaming that typically went on for hours (sometimes days) and that often included throwing herself against the walls and against the floor, and her paranoid rages against me and her own children, and her threats of suicide. When I finally called it quits it was because I felt I was close to my breaking point. I was so severely stressed that I was afraid that in some blind paroxysm of intense despair, brought on by another of Diana’s psychotic rages, I might actually kill myself or even kill someone else. I moved out of the house I had been renting with her and into my mother’s house. It was a strange feeling, like suddenly moving to a foreign country. Being freed up from the immediate emotional stress of having to deal with Diana, I felt as if I didn’t recognize myself. I was disconnected from the world and emotionally numb. Everything around me looked different than it had before, strangely devoid of substance. I walked around staring at ordinary things, trees, buildings, cars, people walking, as if I were seeing them for the first time. I had a feeling that a big heavy line had been drawn through my life dividing the before from the after, and that I was a different person after than I had been before, and that from then on I would always be conscious of my life consisting of these two separate parts, and of myself as consisting of these two different identities. I didn’t know yet that eventually there would be many more such cruel, heavy lines drawn through my life at various points in time, and many more different selves that I would become along the way as a result.

Women and men and me

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From early in my life I thought there was something very strange and perplexing about male attitudes toward women. I found this troubling. Even as a young kid in my teens I noticed, in hanging out with my male peers, that much of their talk was about ridiculing girls and putting them down. Why was that? Among all these young guys there was certainly a great deal of talk about sex, accompanied by all the absurd bravado typical of teenage males. At that age all of my male friends were certainly naïve about sex but they tried very hard to act like they weren’t, and almost all of their sex talk was combined with disturbingly contemptuous dismissals of all of the girls they knew. I wanted to understand what was going on. I felt like a social outcast and I was trying hard to learn to fit in with my peers and to be a normal person, but I felt confused and out of touch, as if I were a stranger in a foreign culture I had little understanding of. The social world I was trying to fit into was bizarrely paradoxical. I could see that my male friends desired women, but at the same time they despised them. That made no sense.

In the interests of trying to fit in I made a few half-hearted attempts to join in the male sexual banter, so generally contemptuous of women, that I heard going on around me, but it didn’t feel right to me. I felt very much an oddball, clunky and out of sync with the male culture but also, in time, with the whole American culture that seemed so often to foster inhumane attitudes. It seemed that a great deal of what passed for normal social behavior just consisted of various ways of putting other people down and of aggrandizing oneself.

Later in life I encountered a lot of casual sexism in many of the places I worked, such as when I was a sailor in the Navy, certainly, and later as a civilian in workplaces that were predominantly male. Eventually I realized these behaviors were the natural result of male sexual insecurity and its accompanying labyrinthine psychological complex of interrelated fears and resentments. There is a great sadness at the heart of it, the sadness of alienation. I definitely had such insecurities myself but I just couldn’t bring myself to join in with contemptuous treatment of other people, whatever their gender. So I resigned myself to always being something of an odd person. Looking back on my experience I regret now that I never had the courage to confront the sexist rhetoric (and other expressions of bigotry) when I encountered it among my peers.

And I still feel, as I have all my life, that a large part of what’s commonly accepted as “normal” human behavior makes no sense and is not only inhumane but also ultimately self-defeating. For some reason it’s always been my nature to be a kind of social outlier, standing a little bit outside of the normal world of people, looking in and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in there, and why it is that people do the things they do.

Mysteries of parents

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As a child growing up I, like most people I suppose, accepted everything that happened to me at face value, as being the natural and normal order of things. It didn’t occur to me until much later, far into my adult life as I reflected back on my childhood, how strange, indeed pathological, my childhood was. What were my parents really like behind their respective personas? Is it just me who feels this, or does everyone eventually reach a point at which they suddenly realize that their parents were a mystery, or more accurately, two separate mysteries, to them?

My father and my mother were to a great extent hidden from me behind the parental roles that they played. Neither of them had a clue about child-rearing but I think they both tried to play their parental roles as best they could, as they understood them. But they were just roles. My father’s approach to the family was apparently formed by the culturally-pervasive values of his generation in America, in which conformism and keeping up proper appearances were all-important, and the main (perhaps only) role of the father and husband was to be The Boss of the family. The role of women in a family was to be the minions of their husbands or fathers and to be supportive and carry out their assigned tasks. In our family there was little or no sense of emotional bonding or family cohesiveness, largely due my father’s oppressively overbearing and domineering persona, but also, I’m sure, due to the fact that both my father and mother had grown up in families that had very little significant communication or closeness. I think it must be often that human beings who are more or less strangers to each other get thrown together by the forces of chance, by the accidents of marriage and birth, and live out their lives in uneasy familial relationships with people they don’t really understand.

As I said my father was The Boss and he made sure that we all knew it. It was the sum total of his role within the family and in my life. What was most maddening and frustrating about him was that he apparently believed that his own opinions and preferences must have universal validity and thus ought to be shared by all other right-thinking people. He could be shockingly intolerant, and for the most part I felt bullied and harassed by him. I don’t remember him ever saying anything positive about me, or about my siblings or our mother. Nor did he ever offer any words of comfort or encouragement. As a young person I so thoroughly resented his heavy-handed authoritarianism and his utter disregard for my (or anyone’s) feelings, opinions, or preferences that I grew up with a profound distaste, even antagonism, for all forms of authority. But, as with most people who have been bullied, I also grew up with a great sense of empathy for all those who are unrespected and unacknowledged, those who have little or no status and who seem to be overlooked and ignored by our excessively status-conscious social culture. Though I never had the courage to defy my father openly, a quiet but extremely deep wellspring of rebellion was developing inside of me, which would inevitably grow into a lifelong (mostly peaceful) resistance to authorities of all kinds and to conventional behaviors.

My father and my mother were astonishingly different from each other in every way. They seemed to have no interests in common and no real rapport. One of the great mysteries of our family was how they ever became a couple at all. How does this happen?

As for my mother, it took me a long time to appreciate and fully comprehend how extraordinary and interesting she was. She was a mostly quiet person who didn’t draw attention to herself, and she, like most women of her generation, deferred to her husband in all things, at least in those ways that were outwardly apparent. But she was also extremely smart and had an unusually wide-ranging and inquisitive intellect. When I was a young kid I assumed my mother was just an ordinary housewife and mother, but eventually I noticed that there was something unusual about her when I started to take note of her books. She had a lot of them. She had a keen interest in ancient history, the history of religions, Biblical archaeology, the classics of antiquity, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. She also had amazingly wide-ranging interests in literature. She had a tremendous appetite for everything literary, from the classical to the avante-garde. Especially intriguing was her collection of counter-culture, “subversive” literature. She had read all of the Beats, especially Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. She had a great interest in Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. She was fascinated by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. She read contemporary satirists like Tom Wolfe. She was interested in everything, but especially in points of view that were outside the mainstream and that challenged long-established cultural orthodoxies. Underneath her humble housewife persona she had this sharp and rebellious mind. It took me a long time to realize that my mother was a little unusual and that other kids’ moms probably were not knowledgeable about the history of the medieval Church, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the satires of Juvenal, the histories of Livy, or the philosophy of Schopenhauer as mine was.

Much later in my life, in middle-age, I remembered with a sense of awe and also some perplexity those bookshelves of my mother’s. I realized that all along there must have been a much deeper and more extensive mental world going on within her, a world I wished that I could have known better. Of course, we talked from time to time about her literary/historical/philosophical interests, and it was actually during such talks that I felt most connected to her. Perhaps it was her instinctive and habitual emotional reserve that led her into this quiet and solitary passion for inquiry, this lifelong private exploration of the whole world of ideas. I wish now that somehow I could have followed her more in her mental explorations, participated in them more with her.

While my father could be an extremely difficult man, I had very conflicted feelings about him. His lack of regard for me and my siblings and our mother was infuriating, but I came to see that it was not really direct malice on his part but instead a strange lack of ability to see others as complete human beings, probably because of his upbringing and his cultural conditioning that had trained him into such habits of mind. It was like some weird kind of disorder of perception, a huge blind spot in his way of perceiving others that made it impossible for him to see another person except in terms of his own preconceived ideas and his personal likes and dislikes. His own personality imposed itself on everything he saw and experienced in an automatic way, as if it were the most natural thing for him. I have often wondered how a person gets to be that way. What strange forces in his own family and his own upbringing shaped his personality to be like this?

On the other hand, as maddening and frustrating as he could be, he did have some admirable qualities. He had a great respect for learning and for genuine skill, although unlike my mother he was much more interested in technological and scientific knowledge than cultural. He was scrupulously honest and his integrity was sincere and unaffected. He took on challenging tasks without fear or hesitation. He was generous in contributing his help to his friends and neighbors. He was extraordinarily competent in many skills in which I felt I was, and probably always would be, painfully deficient. He was apparently capable of fixing anything and building anything. He knew his way around the world. He didn’t seem to ever doubt his own ability. He had an amazing ability to take the initiative in difficult situations. What was really awe-inspiring about my father was that he just seemed to assume that he was capable of doing anything that he needed to do, and so he approached each thing to be done with a calm confidence, and he did it. In fact he seemed to know how to do everything except how to get along with and communicate with other people. I was simultaneously awed and infuriated by him. At times I desperately wanted to emulate him and at other times I wanted to be the exact opposite of him. Sometimes these feelings coexisted simultaneously. To say that I felt conflicted would be a great understatement.

My father and my mother were these too strangely mismatched, utterly incompatible people, brought together by who knows what mysterious chance events and random forces. And I, in an agonizingly difficult process, somehow grew up into a weird, awkward amalgam of the two of them, and other strange things as well, perhaps destined to always be incompatible even with my own self.

An anniversary

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It was exactly 5 years ago to this day that my former girlfriend (whom I call Laurie in my book Meet Me in the Distance), in a fit of rage, told me to move out of her house. This is a date which has taken on some significance in my mind, an anniversary of sorts. It marked a traumatic upheaval in my life certainly, although by that point in my life (I was 57) I’d experienced plenty of traumatic upheavals in my life and had gotten through them. But this one was qualitatively different. Much more than the bitter fact of the trauma, I have come to see this date as the beginning of a strange new rebirth, of a new broadening and deepening of my ways of looking at everything: at myself, at other people, and of a sweeping reevaluation of all of my assumptions and values. The beginning of a falling away of my old life and old identity. Sometimes trauma can have the unexpectedly positive effect of helping you to cast off your old, burdensome psychological baggage, which was the case for me.

That day, Dec 5 2010, as painful as it was, set me on a strange, intense, and strangely beautiful path of creative and psychological exploration which has led me here, to the great love of my life, in this beautiful little town, and to this quiet life of peaceful, ordinary human joy and love that I could not have imagined 5 years ago. The difference between the person I was back then and the person I am now is hard to comprehend.

 

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