LONG DISTANCE LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I used to have a vibrant and full social life with lots of lunch dates with women and dinners with couples. There were trips to museums and shows with friends, dinner parties at people’s homes, meetings with fellow volunteers and ‘play dates’ with our children.

This sounds normal, but it assumes that your friends actually live near you. That was the case when I was younger – not so much anymore. Now I’m removed from most of my friends – separated by geography. My closest friend moved from the next town to Virginia many years ago. Another close friend moved to Florida. Two other couples moved to LA and Portland, Oregon, respectively.

Several good friends live in New York City which is driveable, but very inconvenient. We often spend over two hours in the car one way and have to pay $30 or more to park our car when we get there. Two other friends live in Massachusetts, a two and a half hour drive, which is not taken often.

Other nearby friends have drifted away over the years, like the parents of my kids’ friends who were apparently only convenience or proximity friends. Add to this the fact that my wonderful daughter has lived in LA for almost ten years!

The upshot of all this is that my connection with the people I love is more electronic these days than face to face. I have had to adjust to a life of texts and emails and the occasional phone call. I actually make ‘dates’ with one friend to have a long phone conversation every few weeks to stay caught up and to just chat.

My daughter and I have long phone conversations about everything but she hates the phone so this doesn’t happen as often as I would like. I love talking on the phone so staying in touch by phone satisfies my desire for connection.

It seems that my everyday contact is more and more through texts and emails, which are good for some things but not for others. It’s great to be able to share a cute photo of my dogs or show off the new lamp, or dress I just bought. My daughter has sent me selfies from the dressing room of a store to help her pick which outfit to buy. That is great. So is sending quick news flashes about insignificant happenings.

It falls short, however, when complex things are going on in your life or when there’s an emotional issue that requires more than a few lines to explain. Sometimes you just need a reassuring voice in your ear. On the other hand, sometimes a few lines of moral support from a distant friend can be very meaningful and helpful. Not quite a hug, but not all that bad.

My intimate conversations are mostly done by phone now. I have a few close friends nearby but they are not retired yet and have very busy lives. So finding time to sit and talk isn’t always easy, even when we live down the road.

I’ve gotten used to this situation and can feel satisfied after a good phone talk in lieu of an in-person interaction. I don’t love Face time or Skype. I don’t feel seeing a small, usually distorted photo of my friend on a small screen, really adds anything to the conversation.

My son has also moved one and a half hours away so we talk on the phone every day and text a lot – mostly jokes and memes and quick updates. I still feel very close to him, which may be easier because I get to see him every few weeks.

These in-person visits add to the relationship because they give us time to just hang out together. I’ve realized how important that is. I’m closer to my boat friends because we spend lots of time sitting on each other’s boats, talking laughing, drinking or just reading together. It’s this unstructured time I miss most when I have to rely on my cell phone for personal contact.

My future holds more texts, emails and ‘phone dates’ and less in-person contact as more friends retire and move away. I’ve coped so far, so I guess I’ll just get to love my phone more as my main contact with the outside world.

WAS THAT A COMPLIMENT? – Marilyn Armstrong

It can be difficult to tell compliments from insults. You’d think it would be easy and obvious, but it isn’t.

As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic witty lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely, probably odd child, it took me a long time to find my social persona. But Mom could always reassure me in her own special way.

“There’s someone for everyone,” she assured me. “Even you.”

1970
1970

And then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable and of far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls (those girls have been around forever and live everywhere) just said, “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?”

It wasn’t ugly. They were ugly.

Nicer, kinder people (adults mostly) would say, “Oh, your mother must have made that for you. It’s so … interesting.”

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I eventually got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from “friends” who knew just the right words to make me feel good.

“You dress really well for a fat girl.”

“I don’t think of you as fat. You’re just Marilyn.”

Later on, no longer fat, but still me, compliments have streamed in nonstop.

“I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all-time favorite, from the woman who never managed to get my first husband to the altar, though had he lived longer, she might have worn him down (she just needed another decade or two) and who couldn’t figure out the source of my continuing popularity with men. I said: “I’m nice to them. I make them feel special.”

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting more nasal by the minute, “How come they marry you?”

And finally, after I published my book.

“It was much better than I expected.”

What were you expecting?

A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, was bipolar, but he wasn’t diagnosed until thirteen years into our 25-year marriage. However, the ups and downs were a part of my life from the beginning. Larry could be fun, smart and affectionate. He had a wicked sense of humor (including clever puns), tremendous energy (sometimes too much, manic energy), a great “joie” and endless enthusiasm.

Larry in a jocular mood

He loved to read and was interested in a wide variety of subjects, ranging from physics and biology to history and sociology, to law and mysteries. He also loved the arts, particularly the theater and at one point we had five theater subscriptions at the same time. In addition, we also went to Broadway shows quite often, which kept us very busy and very up to date on the theater scene of the day.

One of Larry’s passions was shopping and when manic, he was a true shopaholic. He couldn’t resist buying anything that tickled his fancy, which was a lot of stuff. On the other hand, I loved it when Larry would shop with me in my favorite stores; craft shops, art galleries and jewelry and clothes stores. He would even come into the dressing room with me and help me pick out what clothes to buy. He had wonderful and sophisticated taste, though his taste was often a lot bolder and flashier than mine.

I really shouldn’t complain, because Larry loved to buy things for me. However, when he was manic, he would overspend and buy everything in sight. I was in charge of the budget and it was frustrating to see all my budgeting and saving go out the window with Larry’s shopping sprees. It got to the point that I would pretend that I didn’t like things we looked at because if I said I liked it, it would be mine in no time flat!

Two pendants with matching earrings Larry bought for me on trips out West

Once my son, David, then around twelve, went to an electronics store with Larry. Before they left, I pulled David aside and instructed him to try to keep his father’s purchases down. They returned with not one, but two VCR’s and I asked David why he had failed to rein in his dad. “Hey!” he said. “I talked him down from three, so don’t complain!”

Another positive side to Larry’s love of shopping was that he was always an active partner with me in decorating our homes, helping me choose everything from wallpapers and fabrics, to furniture and window treatments to bathroom fixtures and door knobs. We also designed our house in Easton, Connecticut together with the help of an architect. It was a wonderful, shared experience and the house meant so much more to both of us for the experience we had in creating every nook and cranny and picking every design element. I remember jumping out of bed late one night to draw out a new plan I had just thought of for the kitchen/breakfast room area. It was a wild idea and it was the design we eventually used in the house. I still love it 30 years later!

The kitchen design – with rounded eating area and round sunroom off of kitchen island area

Larry exhibited his sense of humor and fun one Christmas when he and David, like many other Jews, went to the movies on Christmas day. Before the show started, as a joke, Larry stood up and started singing the Jewish classic “Havanegela”. To his delight, the rest of the audience joined in and Larry acted as conductor for the group sing-along!

Larry didn’t sleep much and was always on the go. I needed a lot of sleep and ample amounts of downtime, which created much conflict between us. On weekends, he would get up early and want to go out and do something, get something to eat or just window shop. David was also not a morning person so we would take turns appeasing a very persistent, and often annoying and inconsiderate Larry.

Larry playing with David, 6 and Sarah, 1

One day, when Sarah was about eighteen months old and couldn’t talk yet, Larry got up and started pestering David, who was six and a half, and me to go out with him. Suddenly, our toddler ran into her bedroom, grabbed her coat and then ran to the front door. It was her way of saying “Take me, Daddy! I want to play with you!” Now Larry had a new playmate for his early weekend excursions and David and I were thrilled! When Sarah could talk, she’d say to Larry, “Let’s go sopping!”

Larry and Sarah continued their ‘sopping’ trips for the rest of Larry’s life (he died shortly before Sarah’s 21st birthday). He and Sarah also traveled and went to lots of shows and movies together from early in Sarah’s life and it was something wonderful she shared with her dad. Those memories are important and comforting to her now.

But there was a dark side to Larry’s bipolar disorder. When he cycled manic, as he did every year or so, he became volatile, paranoid, angry and agitated. He would fly into rages about the slightest thing, real or imagined and he would become verbally abusive. To our frustration, he would often ‘forget’ these episodes as soon as he calmed down. He was what is called a “rapid cycler.”

A classic example of that syndrome happened one Thanksgiving when we were supposed to drive from New York to Larry’s sister in New Jersey. In the morning, Larry was curled up in a ball on the bed, refusing to even get up. I eventually got him up and we started to drive to New Jersey when he suddenly went berserk over something.

I don’t remember what it was on that occasion, but once the kids were making too much noise in the back seat of the car and once I left the dirty dishes in the sink. To Larry, that proved that I didn’t care about him, that he didn’t matter, that he wasn’t important to me and that I was a bitch.

The four of us when David was 13 and Sarah was 8

On this Thanksgiving drive, Larry pulled the car over to the side of the street and stormed off, refusing to come back to the car. David finally talked him down and got him back into the car, because, as usual, Larry refused to even talk to me. We eventually made it to New Jersey, but Larry had gone from paralyzing depression to raging mania in the course of one day.

Another holiday in New Jersey ended badly because of Larry’s manic overreactions. He stormed out of a lot of rooms, houses and cars over the years, often on major holidays with family. But this one was special, even for Larry.

We were playing a game with Larry’s sister, Robin and her family, my kids and Larry. Larry was being hyper-competitive and was trash talking everyone constantly, which I think he thought was funny. After asking him to stop several times, Robin finally got exasperated and told him to shut up and Larry snapped.

The four of us when David was 16 and Sarah was 11

He stormed out of the house, but this time he took our car and disappeared. We eventually got a call saying he was at the train station and was taking a train back to New York, even though he was supposed to be going back to Connecticut with me and the kids for the long holiday weekend. Robin had to drive David to the train station so he could drive our car back to Robin’s so I could drive back to Connecticut with the kids. Robin talked to Larry at the station and they patched things up, but Larry still insisted on taking the train to New York, disrupting and appalling everyone. I was mortified and everyone else was shaken and upset. This was not an uncommon situation for me, but each time it happened, it was like a punch to the gut.

In some ways, it would have been easier for me if Larry had always been abusive and impossible to live with, but he wasn’t. He was eventually put on Lithium, which worked well and contained his mania, but he kept going off the meds.

I loved the non-manic Larry, so the hope that Larry would get help, and then that he would stay on his meds, kept me with him for 25 years.

NATURE VS. NURTURE – DOES HARDSHIP MAKE YOU STRONGER? – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #20

Kelly Clarkson song leverages something originally attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” That quote is attributed to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Anyway, the song got Fandango thinking about the validity of Nietzsche’s notion, so here is this week’s provocative question:

I have always hated being told: “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The people who spout it are usually people who have never experienced anything harder than a long walk with a foot blister. I particularly resent people who add “God” to the expression because if there’s one thing that could give me a strong anti-God point of view, the idea that he does this sort of thing as a kind of  “video game with us as the playing figures” is disgusting.

Does hardship make you stronger? Tougher? Or merely meaner? Does it make you more able to deal with the rough parts of your journey from birth to burial — or does it just turn you mean, angry, and depressive?

Depending on the person, his DNA, and natural “state,” perhaps it does all of the above in varying degrees. Certainly coddling children and making sure they never have to cope with the bumps and dings of “real” life won’t make them stronger.

I think it’s healthy to allow children to deal with reality as they mature because sooner or later, you won’t be there to fend off “the bad stuff.” So letting kids handle at least some of the difficult aspects of life helps them grow up and more importantly, helps them understand what it means to not be protected from everything. It’s always difficult to know when to let it go, let a child stand up for him or herself — or to take a hand in the matter. I suspect one ought to at least consult the kid about it. Some of them have strong feelings on the subject.

But that’s talking about intelligent, involved parents who are not desperately poor, lurking on the edge (or middle) of criminality, abuse, or worse.

So let’s roll this back a bit:
“Do abused children grow stronger?”

My answer? Sometimes, but let’s not count on it. Many abused kids grow up to be abusive parents and criminals. Others become psychiatrists, physicians, lawyers, police officers, or other caretakers. Or writers, artists, and teachers.

We make choices. We live by the choices we make.

The argument over “nature vs. nurture” in child development has been going on as long as I’ve been alive and has probably been going on since anyone had a family and could argue about it.

I used to be all about nurture, but watching children grow — the three in my terribly dysfunctional family, my son in mine, and his daughter in his … I’m inclining more towards a 60-40 nature-nurture split. Before Owen was a week old, he could push himself up on his arms and look around the room. I remember the doctor saying “Oh, this one is going to run you ragged!”

He didn’t run me ragged. He ran himself ragged. These days, kids with that kind of energy are instantly put on drugs because teachers want placid students. They don’t want energetic boys who need activity, not all day stuck behind a desk.

Does being DRUGGED from first grade make you stronger? I think it turns you into a druggie always looking for a better pill to solve your problems. Not to diminish the role Big Pharma has in the current mess, parents who allow themselves to be bullied into drugging their kids from first grade on shouldn’t be surprised if their kid grows up still looking for the right drug to fix everything.

There’s more than one person at whom we can point our fingers.

2010

I grew up in a family of three children with a child-molesting, abusive father — and a mother who simply could not believe things were as bad as they seemed. My brother built a life, but I don’t think he ever stopped being angry. His childhood had been torn away and the pain never left. But he managed to have a marriage that lasted from when he was 20 until he died.

My sister got mired in drugs and vanished into a world of chaos and I don’t even know what else. I haven’t seen her for years and no longer know if she is alive. I’m assuming if she had died, someone would have called me. The last time she was hospitalized, they found me, so I’m sure they’ll find me again if they need to.

2012

And then there’s me. I was probably the tough one. After growing up with my father, I was never afraid of anyone. I was probably just a little bit hostile in my earlier years, mellowing out somewhat as time has marched on. There are still a lot of areas regarding men and especially ANGRY men that push all of my buttons at the same time and I have a temper that I’ve spent a lifetime holding in check.

I worked hard and I don’t think anyone ever referred to me as “easy-going.” Did childhood make me tough? Or would I have been tough anyway?

I was always determined to do my own thing. Unlike many of my peers, parental pressure — really, any kind of bullying — has had little effect on me. On the other hand, coaxing, suggestions, and a fine editor have done wonders. I listen when people have good ideas. I’m always ready to try things a new way.

I think I was born this way.

I think if my mother had tried coddling me I’d have been out the door and miles away before she could call me home. I was also extremely responsible at a very early age. I recognized danger, didn’t do things that would get me killed or hurt anyone. I could (did) babysit for my sister when I was six and no one thought that odd because my brother was older, but I was more responsible.

So this is one of those “maybe yes and maybe not” answers. Nature — DNA and the way our particular helix is designed has more to do with how we turn out than parenting. But other things — manners, taste, and interests — come from our environment. Kids brought up with books read books. Kids whose mothers drag them to art museums learn to love art.

Energy, determination, will-power, and talent are gifts. What we do with them are 50-50 culture and DNA.

Now, let the arguments begin!

MY TWO UNROMANTIC PROPOSALS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve been married twice so you’d think I had two wonderful, romantic proposal stories. You’d be wrong. I don’t even have one. I could argue that I never really got a proper proposal at all. And to top it off, I’ve never even gotten an engagement ring.

I was in law school dating my first husband, Larry and we moved in together in January of 1974. Larry had said several times that we should get married. He may have even asked me to marry him, technically a proposal, I guess. I said I wasn’t sure and needed more time since we had only been dating for a few months. In response, in true lawyer form, Larry said that his offer of marriage had an expiration date, January 31, 1974.

Larry, shortly before our wedding

Sometime in February, I decided that I was ready to accept his proposal. I asked Larry to take out the garbage. He said if we were married he would gladly take out the garbage so I said okay, then let’s get married. In our law school classes, we learned that in contract law, once an offer for a contract has expired, any belated ‘acceptance’ is deemed a ‘counter-offer’. These semantic distinctions have legal significance but they are too abstruse to explain here.

Of course, Larry cited this legal principle. He said that since his ‘offer’ of marriage had lapsed, my ‘acceptance’ was now a ‘counter-offer’ of marriage and he accepted my counter offer. For the next 25 years of our marriage, Larry told everyone that I had proposed to him!

Skip ahead half a lifetime. Now it’s 2002. I was divorced from Larry and living in Connecticut with my two kids.

I had been dating Tom for over three years and Tom and I had discussed marriage several times. But Tom was not ready.

I told him that my alimony ended on December 31, 2003, and that when that happened, I would no longer be able to afford to live in my house unless we were married and I had Tom’s income to supplement mine. So that meant that by Jan. 1, 2003, we either had to be married or I needed to have sold my house and moved to a smaller, less expensive place in another, cheaper and distant county.

Tom and I at our wedding

I reiterated this situation to Tom in May of 2002. He said that he wanted things to stay the way they were but I patiently explained, again, that that was no longer possible. When faced with having to commute to see me (we lived ten minutes apart at the time), or marry me, he said something like, “Okay, I guess we can get married.”

Once we were married, Tom apologized for his reticence about getting married and he admitted that he had no idea why he was so gun-shy about remarrying. In his defense, he had been married to a crazy woman for 22 years. On top of that, he had the most horrific experience moving from Long Island to Connecticut and dreaded the thought of ever having to move again. Nevertheless, I ended up with less than a heartwarming, romantic proposal – a second time.

Apparently, unsentimental proposals run in my family. My mother also had to settle for an iconic proposal from my father.

My father had told my mother that he never wanted to get married. He was in his late 50’s and had never even lived with one of his girlfriends. So my mother took him at his word.

My Mom and Dad before they were married

After dating him for close to three years, Mom told Dad that she wanted to get married again and so she was going to stop dating him and start dating other men in a few months. My Dad did not take this news well. He stormed out of her apartment and didn’t call her for days, which was very unusual. He reappeared, disheveled and unshaven and announced that they would get married in June. He then told her that he had decided that “living without you is worse than living with you!”

Mom insists that he then got very romantic and told her how much he loved her and that he couldn’t live without her. But I still categorize this as a classic, unromantic proposal.

As for an engagement ring, Larry and I decided to use our wedding gift of cash from my parents on a three-week honeymoon in Europe rather than on buying an engagement ring. Interesting aside – Larry and I were still in law school and wanted to get married over our summer vacation at my mother’s summer house in Connecticut.

My mother insisted that we get married in her New York City apartment, to which she would return in September when we were back in school. So we had to take a pre-wedding honeymoon in June, three months before the September wedding.

Larry and me – our pre-wedding honeymoon

Four years after my first wedding, in December of 1979, my father went to their vault at the bank and came home with a small box. Luckily I was at their apartment that day. Dad said, “Look what I found!” and opened the box to reveal this gorgeous, emerald cut diamond ring. My mother’s first husband had died suddenly from a massive coronary at the age of 42. After his death, my mother had put her engagement ring in a safe deposit box and refused to even look at it.

Mom and her first husband

So, when my father showed her old engagement ring, my mother recoiled, like a vampire on seeing garlic.

“Take it away!” she said.

“Over here, Daddy!”, I said.

I had the ring sized the next day so my mother couldn’t change her mind about it! I’ve been wearing that ring for almost 40 years! I’ve had to have the setting redone twice in that time. But I always kept the inscription, with the bride and groom’s initials and the date, June 1936. I have promised it to my daughter when she gets engaged since this ring was never a real engagement ring for me.

My mother’s engagement ring, now mine

So, no rings, no romantic proposal stories to tell. But I got two wonderful kids from my first marriage and I have a terrific, happy second marriage. So all’s well that ends well!

STRAWBERRY JAM – Marilyn Armstrong

I was 46 years old when my homemade strawberry preserves jelled properly.

Probably what broke the barrier was overcoming a longstanding aversion to putting sufficient sugar in the mix. Alternatively, I could have solved the problem by adding tapioca starch or pectin, but I’m a bit of a food snob.

I wanted my preserves made of just fruit and sugar.

The day the preserves came out perfectly was the day my first husband finally died. He had been dying for a long time. It was a Friday, a rare brilliant spring day in New England.

Jeff had been sick for almost a year in what we politely called a coma, but which was actually a vegetative state. Now gone. I had not come to terms with it though I’d had plenty of time. Probably no amount of time would have been enough.

Other than Jeff’s dying, it was a good time for us. Garry and I were happy. We were good together, busy with career and friends.

Yet there was an underlying sadness we could not avoid, the knowledge that death was near.  Happiness and sadness don’t cancel each other out. The good things are not a balance against pain. Feelings aren’t an equation. You can’t add columns of positive and negatives in your life and come up with a number in the middle. In the real world, joy and misery cohabit. We live with both.

Emotions are messy.

My head was a wheel of memories, a slide show carousel. Faces, places, good years, bad. Bittersweet, sad, joyous, funny. Strawberry jam that never jelled.

I married Jeffrey at 18 and thought myself very mature. He was almost 30, but he thought me very mature too. Both of us were wrong.  We muddled through. We were hard triers. When we had no idea what to do, we faked it.

Eventually, we became the people we pretended to be and it turned out, not the people we needed to be.

1965 in the WVHC office

Though we went in different directions, we stayed friends. No matter where on Earth I was, I knew Jeffrey was there for me. We had a better divorce than most marriages.

Decades passed.

Jeff’s health deteriorated. He survived things that should have killed him, so what a shock he should die of the thing that was supposed to extend his life. The heart surgery should have given him years, maybe decades.  When Sue called late on an August evening it upended reality.  His body wasn’t dead, but his brain was. The future world would be without Jeff.

I would never call to tell him something funny that happened, hear his sarcastic, drawling response. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Someone rewrote the script when our backs were turned.

Fall passed and winter too. Jeff remained in a vegetative state. Someone who looked just like him was wearing his body and that shell remained alive through the seasons. We visited. I stayed for weeks to help care for him. Finally, as spring was nearly summer, the piper played. Now, the ashes were scattered.

Just the other day, Garry glimpsed someone in a crowd who looked exactly like Jeff.

HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY, JEFF – Marilyn Armstrong

I married Jeff in 1965. I was 18, he was 26. I was still finishing my B.A. Both Jeff and I needed to get out of our parent’s homes and make a life. It was a  classic “jailbreak” marriage and for a long time, it worked well.

But time marched on and I wanted to move on. He wanted everything to stay the same — and so we parted. I went to Israel and he stayed where he was.

Graphic Jeff, Studio A

When I was sad, Jeffrey used to sing to me. This is the song he sang.

For one birthday, I bought him a wind-up snow globe. It played “You Are My Sunshine” and had a big green frog on a lily pad in the water. When you wound it, it played that song. He kept the globe as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough.

Happy birthday, Jeff. You would have been 80 years old today and I wish you were alive so I could tease you about your age.

You should still be here.