relationships

THE NEIGHBOR

This isn’t a friendly town. People fraternize with the people who attend their church and seem to regard anyone else as potentially hostile.

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Of course we didn’t know that when we moved here. We knew that it was a very white town, that Garry was likely to be the first (only) person of color, and I might well be the first (only?) Jew. In fact, apparently well-intentioned people said stuff like “Gee, I’ve never known a Jewish person before” and honestly didn’t see anything wrong with this. Meanwhile, Garry got stares. No way to know if they were staring because they’d seen him on TV or because he’s brown. Both?

Our situation was made even more complicated by our neighbor, Ned. A big guy. Rode a Harley. I love Harleys, but there are Harleys and then, there are Harleys. This one was chopped and really loud. When Ned started his bike, the vibration alone could knock me out of bed.

Ned was massive. Tattooed. He hung with a bunch of skin-head friends. They had raucous parties with lots of beer. We didn’t expect to be invited, nor did these seem to be our kind of party.

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Ned flew a Confederate flag over his house. Prominently. We learned he’d always done this. It was part of some family roots thing tying him to his original home state of Georgia. Me? I think it’s time the south moved on. The war ended a more than a century ago. Time to get over it. But I’m from New York so I probably don’t understand.

Our neighbor’s house was the only one in the Valley flying a confederate flag and we were the only mixed-race couple in town. Ironic, to say the least. And we were a poster couple for hate groups.

black jockey racist statue

Garry is pragmatic and tough. His mild-mannered demeanor belies his Marine Corps interior (semper fi, and note I did not say “former Marine” because there’s no such thing as a former Marine). Moreover, he couldn’t have survived 40-years as a reporter without being tough.

One fine summer’s day, music screaming from Ned’s boombox, Garry looked at me and murmured those fighting words: “This is ridiculous!”

He marched down the driveway, through the woods that join our two houses, to Ned’s front door. Garry knocked. Loudly. When Ned finally answered, Garry said: “Hi. I’m your neighbor. Garry Armstrong. Do we have a problem?”

Shortly the flag disappeared along with a noxious black jockey statue. Turned out, Ned was a plumber. He fixed our bathroom pipes. The whole skinhead thing dissolved in the face of a brown-skinned guy who did news on Boston TV. Seemed it was less important who Ned was than who Ned, with a little encouragement, was willing to become.

Eventually Ned got into drugs. Or something. We were never sure what. His wife left. His life fell apart. One day, he vanished. Fortunately, he returned our extension ladder before going.

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Other folks live there now. They are not actively hostile, which is about the best one could say of them. In the year and half they have lived there, they’ve never bothered to say hello and I doubt they ever will. They object to our dogs barking so much. Hard to argue with that. I wish they’d shut up too, but hey, they’ve got dogs who do their own share of barking. (There are a lot of dogs around here. If you are outside in the evening, you can always hear a dog barking somewhere.)

I miss Ned. No one fixed pipes like Ned and he always gave us a huge discount. He turned out to be a funny guy and a good neighbor. Who’d have thunk it.

LIFE-CHANGING MOMENTS

Not for Thee — What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you wouldn’t give to anyone else? Why don’t you think it would apply to others?


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I’ve gotten some really great advice over the years. From professors at college, from people I worked with or for. From a husband or two. From friends. Advice that changed my life, career, and destiny.

I suppose, in theory, it could apply to someone else. But I doubt it because important advice is not pithy or necessarily quotable. It’s specific to an individual. Not aphorisms or “rote” messages. Not the kind of thing you toss around in casual conversation.

I remember the very first piece of life-changing advice. It came from a professor who’d become a friend and mentor. I was a music major, a pianist. Doing pretty well. I aced most of my classes. The only bothersome worry nibbling at my mind was what in the world I could do with this education? My talent as a pianist was limited. To a non-professional, I sounded great. To a professional, not so great. In short, not good enough. In classical music, not good enough is a million miles from good. Either you can compete — or not.

Dr. Deutsch accosted me as I was leaving a practice room one afternoon. “We should talk,” he said. I knew I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. And I knew I should listen.

“You’re good at this. You do well in your courses. Your grade point average is high. Very high. But your heart isn’t in it, not like it needs to be. Music is a hard road. If you aren’t fully committed, you won’t survive. Make a decision to get into it … or get out.”

It was a critical turning point. I was a single credit short of completing the major, but here was time to start a new major without delaying graduation. My choice of music had been based more on loving music than where it might take me professionally. To my surprise, I was more relieved than upset by what he said.

Practical young woman who I was, I selected Comparative Religion for my new major. As we all know, there are so many jobs opportunities in that field. I hedged my bet. I was already involved at the college radio station, so I majored in communications too, though I had no interest in working in radio, television, or theater. I just enjoyed messing around.

By then, it was obvious I would be a writer. I wrote. Always had. Even when I did it with a pencil on lined paper. It was obvious I had talent for words. I had fantasy visions of a Stephen King-like career living in a solitary retreat on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There, alone with my grand piano and a typewriter, great novels would emerge and take the world by storm.

Not exactly the way it all came down. While taking long hours of psychology, philosophy, and history of religion courses, I gained discipline. I had a wonderful, wise, perceptive professor who not only read what I wrote, but could tell the difference between when I’d done the work, and when I was glib and faking it. He was the only professor to ever give me a grade of A+/D on a paper. A+ for style, D for content.

Under his tutelage, I learned research methodology. How to write so others could follow my reasoning. Although I would later be surprised when technical writing became my career, it wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as it seemed. All those papers in college had paved the way.

Could either of these pieces of advice have been given to anyone but me? Would they have made sense to anyone else?

Later, there would be a husband who suggested I stop moaning about the past and move on. Pointing out there was little future in the past, he combined this with keeping my father out of my life to give me a chance to grow up in peace and safety. I will always be grateful.

Sometimes, a relationship lasts exactly as long as it is supposed to. That first marriage let me become an adult, with a husband who supported me, friends who cared. When I was ready to move on, he didn’t stop me. It was a good marriage that ended in divorce.

There was more. A lot more. I wonder, often, if the advice givers knew how much they were influencing me. How much their advice rocked my world, changed the direction of my life and career. Sometimes, a single sentence at the right moment was enough to illuminate the darkness. Perhaps one of my gifts has been knowing when to listen and who to trust.

These days, non-interference is the social gold-standard, but that’s part of the whole “me, me, me” mentality of the 21st century. Thoughtful, intelligent advice is never a bad thing. Whether or not it is appreciated or taken to heart is another issue.

Silence will never offer anything of value — while one important moment of truth can mean everything.

Take a chance. Save a life.

SHOCKING DISCOVERIES

You think you know someone. You hang out with them, exchange emails, jokes, and anecdotes. Maybe you even work with them. Then, one day, out of the blue, you discover they are fundamentalist Christians who believe you are going to Hell, a hard-core right-wing Republican. Conspiracy theorist. Believer in the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

fobidden planet poster

I lived in Jerusalem for almost 9 years. Big surprise, you meet a lot of people who are sure they are Jesus Christ come back to finish his work on Earth. One of them worked at the local pizza joint and seemed perfectly normal, until in the middle of a casual conversation, he would drop a bomb about his mission and there you were, transported to wacko central.

I had a casual friend who was a piano player. He sang and played at fancy hotel lounges, like the Hilton Hotel lounge. He was, like me, an American, so it was inevitable we would meet. We struck up a little chatty relationship. One night, he called and invited me over. He had something important to tell me.

Important? Our relationship consisted of reminiscing about life in the U.S. in the 1960s — and I’d done his horoscope. I was (coincidentally) the astrology columnist and managing editor of a short-lived English-language weekly. Please, let’s not discuss astrology or my psychic abilities (or lack thereof). You don’t want to know and I don’t want to tell you.

Having nothing better to do at the time, I walked over to his house (just around the corner) and we got to talking. Suddenly, I knew. He was going to tell me one of two things: he was an alien and came from on another planet or galaxy … or … he was Jesus Christ.

edward-gorey-donald-imagined-thingsIt was the latter. Another Jesus. He wanted me, because of my brilliant psychic abilities, to be Paul and spread the word. I worked very hard to tell him that his timing was off and I would be sure to advise him when the right moment arrived. Then I fled into the night and home. He was one of several people who convinced me there was no future for me in the psychically predictive arts.

Then there was the guy I worked with at one or another of the many high-tech companies at which I was employed who one day informed me of his intention to quit his job and move to an underground bunker in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. I hadn’t even done his horoscope.

Not surprisingly, a series of these unwelcome surprises has made more than slightly wary of prospective friends. I’m afraid of what will be revealed as we get to know each other better.

spaceThe thing about people who believe in cabals, believe they were dropped from an alien space craft (or will be leaving on one shortly), are certain that God has assigned them a mission … ?

You can’t argue with them.

You can’t point out the incongruities and contradictions of their beliefs. They believe what they believe and that’s that. There’s no point in offering facts. They will ignore all evidence that goes against their world-view.

These folks make me nervous. What happens when they (inevitably) decide I am one of their (many) enemies?

WHAT DOGS KNOW ABOUT WOMEN

Marilyn Armstrong:

Today’s a perfect day to reblog this one. It made me laugh. It made me laugh a lot and I have to admit, it did not make Garry laugh nearly as much.

Sometimes I think there is only one husband in the world. He comes in a variety of packaging options — size, color, age, ethnicity — but underneath, it’s the same guy.

Originally posted on Stuff my dog taught me:

woman and dogThe other night I had an argument with the husband so I harrumphed up the stairs and went to bed early.  (Actually, I harrumphed up then back down then back up, since I had forgotten the ipad in the living room.  This took away a fair bit of the effect from my initial harrumph but it also allowed me to watch a new season of The Vampire Diaries in bed, so…).

Buster the Schnauzer did not have even a moment of angst over what to do in such a situation.  Without hesitation, my loyal friend followed me up the stairs, AND back down, AND back up.  As I settled under the covers, he sat upright on the bottom of the bed with a look that clearly said, “You are everything wonderful and perfect in the world and HE is an ass.” (Buster has a very expressive face).  As we shared…

View original 469 more words

LIKE, UNLIKE

Oil, Meet Water — Of the people who are close to you, who is the person most unlike you? What makes it possible for you to get along?


Of the people close to me? That’s a tiny number of people. Back “in the day,” (whatever that means), I was popular. There were always people in my house. A perpetual party was in progress. I had so many friends, their relationships with each other was more than a little contentious as they vied for my free time.

At first it was flattering. Eventually, I felt tired and used up. So I left, moved to Israel, and stayed there nearly 9 years. When I came back, the party was over. Everyone had moved on. I hadn’t been forgotten, but my place in the scheme of things was gone.

Marilyn and Garry by Bette Stevens

Marilyn and Garry by Bette Stevens

Now? Those few who are close to me are like-minded people with whom and from whom I take comfort. We don’t argue about politics or even taste in books or movies. We share ideas and learn from each other, more alike than different.

I have no interest in abrasive relationships.

Who is the most different? Probably my husband because — gasp  – he’s male and I’m — gasp — female. He will watch sports when I would prefer reading a book. When he reads, it’s mostly about sports figures and movies while I want to read about vampires and werewolves. But he’s begun to enjoy the occasional werewolf and I’ve gotten serious about baseball. The last things that made us so different, other than plumbing, are gradually smoothing out.

Soon, no one will be able to tell us apart.

A G-SPOT FINDER APP?

Back when I was very much younger and hornier, there were lots of discussions about The Spot. You know. That critical, yet somehow elusive spot on the female anatomy?

I assumed I knew what everyone was talking even though it never had a name. We never call anything by its proper name because despite there being nothing dirty, offensive, or immoral about using correct names for body parts, we are prissy about sex.

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This bashful unwillingness to just say what we mean produces some bizarre communication problems between the sexes. It’s akin to taking a vacation but not being allowed to say the name of the hotel. You can only identify it as The Resort. You are also forbidden to give the street number. It’s “somewhere on Main Street.” Good luck finding your destination.

It’s not only men who can’t find The Spot on wives or girl friends. It’s also persons of the female persuasion who (apparently) can’t find it on themselves.

Say what? A friend of mind commented that even if the finger can’t figure out which does what, the spot itself should immediately contact the brain with the information — DING, DING, DING, THIS IS THE SPOT!

So what’s with all these girls growing up who can’t find it? I’ll bet every little boy in the world knows where his Spot is. He didn’t have to take a seminar. His brain said “Right here!”

More relationships have been destroyed by a woman’s inability to say “A quarter inch to the left, please” than by adultery. The same people who fight, argue, email, text and post online the most intimate details of their lives, are unable to tell a partner that he (she?) is missing The Spot. Oh puleeze.

I thought we got squared away on this 50 years ago. Or more. Apparently not. What are all the people who can’t find The Spot doing in bed?

The time has come for technology to take a hand (no pun intended). We need an app for that. How about one for the iPhone? Grab your phone and like a Geiger counter, it tells you when you’re hot — and when you’re not.

As you zero in, the Hot Spot Finder App says “YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION!” in stentorian tones. The Hallelujah Chorus starts playing.

Everyone uses a mobile phone for everything, so let’s solve this problem once and for all. Please, give us an app for that!

JUST SHOW UP IN A TUX

We just celebrated our 24th  wedding anniversary. As I ponder the upcoming 25th, I hear distant bells. I remember the wedding. The thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of getting there. How, by the time I got to the altar, I was a nervous wreck, but Garry was cool as the proverbial cucumber and looked dashing in his tuxedo.

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Photo by Bette Stevens

After it was clearly established that we were definitely, unquestionably, without any doubt, getting married, it came down to details. Dates. Rings. Caterers. Bakers. Flowers. Music. Photography. Videography. And (trumpets) a ceremony.

I had been married twice before — okay, three times, because I’d been married in a registry office in London, then the whole Jewish medieval ceremony in Jerusalem. Having been there and done that. I wanted to elope or maximum, go to city hall, have the mayor marry us. He would have. We knew the guy. We could have been married at City Hall, I’d toss a bouquet, someone would throw some confetti, and voilà. Married. After that, us and our actual friends could all go out for Chinese.

Garry wanted a Real Wedding.

He was 48 years old. Never married. This would be his one and only wedding and by golly, he was going to Do It Right.

“I want a real wedding. In the church in which I grew up. In New York,” says Garry. “And I want my old pastor to officiate.”

“Pastor G. is retired … like fifteen years ago.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.” When he said we, I thought he meant he and I would do this thing together. Because where I come from, that’s what we means. I was deluded.

“Why can’t we just have something here in Boston? New York is 250 miles away. You haven’t lived there in nearly 30 years. Everyone you know except your parents are up here or in another part of the country entirely.”

Garry’s face is set. Stony. He wants a hometown wedding in the church he attended as a child. With the minister he had when he was a kid. Did I mention my husband is stubborn? He is very stubborn.

“This is going to be a lot of work. It’s hard to plan a wedding long distance,” I point out. “And I have a job too, in case you’ve forgotten.” Garry is unfazed.

“We can,” he repeats, “Work it out.” There was that we again.

“Fine,” I eventually agree. “We’ll have a wedding. In New York. At your church.”

There were caterers to hire. Music to be arranged. A bagpiper (don’t ask). Battles over the guest list. A cake to be designed. The cake was my favorite part. It went like this. Having settled on a vanilla cake with lemon filling, we needed to decide on decorations.

“Do you want the bride and groom in white or black?”

“Can we have one of each?” No, we could not. In 1990, they do not have a mixed couple cake topper. I offer to take a marker and paint the groom black, but inexplicably, Garry finds this objectionable. I suggest they take two sets and cut them in half, but it is deemed too complicated. In the end, I opt for wedding bells, the DMZ of wedding cake toppers.

So, Garry got his wedding. It was (for him) as simple as simple could be. Marilyn arranged the wedding. Garry showed up in a tux.

You see? We worked it out.

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