A Little Romance

Courting-Couple-at-Midnight--Post-cover--1919-...
Image by x-ray delta one via Flickr

 

A Little Romance

 

Men are like a fine wine. They all start out like grapes, and it’s our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have at dinner” Kathleen Mifsud

Men and woman have a different definition of what “romantic” means.  To psychologists, a romantic state is an endorphin and dopamine fueled experience – – a neurochemical “matrix” that allows us to see things as we want them as opposed to the way that they really are.  Romance’s accessories are lighting, old movies, alcohol, nostalgia and anywhere in Europe.  Men, generally do not get high marks for being romantic.  They are “explicit “creatures, and much further down the emotional evolutionary chain.  Men, like Pokemon, evolve in stages.  Most start in the “Pig “stage, a sort of larval state where everything is about them.  They eat, sleep, make noises, don’t call back and tell their friends everything that happened on your date. In time, life punishes this behavior and men move to the “Clueless“ stage.  Cluelessness is most commonly characterized by the statement, “what did I do? “ Clueless men take a three day trip with their college buddies every year and always come home too tired to take out the trash. Finally, after dedicated coaching and nights on the couch, men begin to walk erect and enter the “Considerate” stage.  This final stage is fragile and highly vulnerable to regression back to Clueless or even Pig phases.  Maintaining the Considerate stage requires years of marriage, therapy or the ability to admit to at least three Pigs that you cried during the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. Pigs can sometimes pose as Considerates.  However, they inevitably get caught.

There are documented records of an even higher stage called “Romantic” but it seems no male has ever been able to truly stay in this position.  It is a bit like climbing Mt Everest and being over 22,000 feet.  It is a death zone where no one can survive. Remaining in this zone too long begins to psychologically damage a male.  Binary brains cannot function with open ended questions such as “what are you thinking “and “who would you have married if you did not marry me?” Romance by its sheer nature is built on the seemingly conflicting virtues of spontaneity and meticulous preparation.  Therapists refer to it in metaphoric terms such as “setting the table” or “playing the mood music”. Men generally fail to understand the concept of playing mood music.  Men are rap musicians and clanging gongs.  They are overt, direct and venal.  Men march out to the windy plain and fight the enemy until the death.  Women, on the other hand, are folk musicians and piccolos.  They prefer to move stealthily, never engaging in direct confrontation, slowly winning a war of attrition through relentless passive aggressive behavior.

“Men always want to be a woman’s first love – women like to be a man’s last romance.”   – Oscar Wilde

The fact is if romance was a shirt, men would buy ten of them and be out of the store in five minutes.  Men don’t generally like ballads or love songs by Cole Porter.  They hate poetry. Walt Whitman?  Uh….wasn’t he…? ……Not that there is anything wrong with

that.! Shelley, Keats and Yeats? Weren’t those the names of the girls on Charlie’s Angels? Guys don’t want a soul mate, they want a cell mate. Guys want to be John Belushi in Animal House smashing the guitar of the guy with the goatee reading poetry and singing ballads on the stairs.  For some men, romance is as simple as having the lights out while watching Charles Bronson in “Death Wish”.  They can’t understand the difference between The Newark Marriott and Auberge d’Soliel in Napa Valley, except that one is a lot more expensive and has a smaller pool.  These men are the target demographic of the floral, greeting card and confection industries on Valentine’s Day.  Red roses, a Whitman Sampler and a beautiful card and you will be Charles Boyer.  Wait, wasn’t he a third baseman for the Milwaukee Braves?  

Marriage is the process of finding out what kind of person your spouse would have really preferred – Anonymous

 

Lack of romantic IQ is an age old liability.  The Greeks had myriad words to describe the many facets of love – – Eros was perhaps the most applicable word for romance and passionate love. In Southern Europe, many men are born “Considerate” and sometimes attain the highest evolutionary form of “Romantic”.  However, this only applies when they are courting a mistress or college student backpacking for the summer.  Across the Southern Mediterranean, men have a reputation for being hopeless Romantics but regression is always around the corner.  It is quite a different story in Northern Europe where being romantic is still synonymous with wearing a clean pair of underwear.  

 

The great question… which I have not been able to answer is, “What does a woman want?” — Freud

 

In the 19th century, there was a brief surge of estrogen in the cosmos in the form of the Romantic movement which encouraged impulse and intuition over repetition and reason.  Men liked the part of romanticism that encouraged them to be reckless and unaccountable. Men felt more free to read poetry, enjoy art, and pick petals off daisies while on a picnic in the country.  However, the Pigs began to worry that they were being overrun by the Clueless and the Considerate.  No one was showing up for hangings, bare knuckle fist fights or helping to break up local picket lines during labor strikes.  The bars were empty in the middle of the week. The Pigs started a rumor that anyone who read poetry was indeed a Communist.  This quickly led to a massive peer pressure regression known to many historians as “The Great Backslide of 1898”.  With Romanticism dying, the bell curve of behavior was more balanced, The Pigs breathed a sigh of relief.

 

However, society has continued to evolve.  Pigs are increasingly chastised for their misogynist views.  The Clueless attend classes with their partners and use “I“ phrases for sharing how they are feeling.  Considerates understand that relationships are a zero sum game and one is always in danger of being in a deficit position.  These men are beginning to realize that a little romance is not life threatening.  It may require watching a movie about far away places or star crossed lovers caught up in epic conflicts that conspire to keep them apart.  It may mean sitting outside listening to John Mayer music float gently on a warm summer night.  Romance means appreciating intrinsic beauty whether it is found in a lingering glance or a spontaneous kiss.  Considerates are finally grasping what Gable and Lombard had going.  They appreciate sunrises and sunsets.  They understand even the most ancient ember can be rekindled and that romance is its oxygen. They see integrity in monogamy.  Some even recognize when another man is a Pig, although this is a very advanced state of Considerate.

 

Valentine’s Day is framed with sepia sentiment, devoted nostalgia and stories of lovers whose words, music, and deeds transcend time. It targets the Clueless, occasionally snags a few Pigs and is supported by legions of Considerates.  Valentine’s Day for most men is a compulsory 24 hour chick flick.  For women, it is another chance for their partner to show a modicum of romantic intelligence and perhaps evolve.

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.

Der Gute Gartner ( The Good Gardener )

Der Gute Gartner ( The Good Gardener )

 

If you tickle the earth with a hoe she laughs with a harvest. -Douglas William Jerrold

 

My mother would often sit late at night and tell us of her childhood.  At the end of a long summer day, we would burrow under a mountain of soft blankets as she sat at the edge of our beds, a soft silhouette gently walking us back in time.  I was always fascinated with her stories of her father, a stern Teutonic conundrum who seldom showed affection but exuded fierce loyalty and conviction.  He was tough – – parsimonious with praise and quick to disapprove.  He once attended my high school baseball game where I severely sprained an ankle sliding into second base.  I will never forget him coming out of the stands to chide me for not going back into the game. “You’re fine.” He said gruffly. “Walk it off”. His eyes darted across the crowd as if to gauge whether people were mad at me for leaving my post at first base.  He was embarrassed. 

 

He grew up at the turn of the century in Germantown, an ethnic enclave in urban Philadelphia.  It was a community where people began work before dawn and never really stopped laboring until they died. God was found in the Lutheran church and in the sweat and toil of a six day work week.  My grandfather found the city suffocating and only really felt alive on weekend trips to the country.  He loved the smell of rich earth leavened with manure.  He did not mind working in the outdoors and later would find work on a local farm.  The boy had endless energy and a circumspect manner inherited from his father. He was handsome with dark wandering eyes and a dimpled chin.  Later in life, people would swear George was the spitting image of cinema star, William Powell.

 

He ran away at 15 after a bitter fight with his father, lied about his age and joined the navy.  He never talked much about his time at sea but my mother shared that he had been thrown in the brig for hitting an officer and commended for saving another man’s life.  He had deep scars on his leg that he never discussed.  The ocean could not hold him and as was the progression for many sailors of his time, he found himself discharged on a foggy wharf in California.  He quickly married and began a family. 

 

He raised his children to “be self sufficient“ and required them to tend his massive garden and care for a menagerie of chickens, ducks, swans, goats, cats, dogs, rabbits and tortoises.  As they got older and moved on to their own lives, he turned to his garden for solace and companionship.  Each spring, he would transform his backyard into a massive arboretum of flowers, succulents, herbs and vegetables.  He would painstakingly mend the soil of his garden to produce a prodigious bounty.  He would not allow pests to establish a beachhead in his green kingdom.  We actually suspected him of using radioactive material as it was the era of genetic mutation and science fiction, and was the only logical explanation for the absence of insects and his basketball sized tomatoes.  Whenever he would visit, he would descend like a vegetarian St Nicholas showering us with unpopular bags of squash, green beans, peppers, onions, carrots and citrus from his orange, grapefruit and lemon trees.  It was not good. It meant weeks of zucchini for dinner.  Invariably, his offering was too much even for our family of six and the cornucopia became a spawning ground for rot and swirling fruit flies.  My grandfather would shake his head at our aversion to vegetables, soft hands and limited work ethic.  We were boys and boys were “made and molded by work”.  We, the lotus eating progeny, would whine and complain when we were forced to help him work in the garden.  He was disgusted by our lack of inspiration and perspiration.  The agrarian age was coming to an abrupt end and we were the final weak link in a long blue denim line. 

 

While he saw character in the neglected, broken dirt of our yard, we saw only weeds and blisters. We called our back garden “the gulag” and avoided its sharp sprinklers, overgrown bottle brush bush plants and ever present dog dirt.  My grandfather would arrive each spring like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano and ritualistically replant our garden.  He was not just landscaping, he was weakening the grip of nature and striking a blow against neglect and poor work habits.  He fashioned redwood grow boxes for vegetables, planted rose gardens and tended numerous fragrant citrus trees. He installed an irrigation system and carved a deep compost pit.  As he toiled silently, we grew fascinated by his carpentry – – grow boxes, trellises and elaborate hanging nets to train peas and vines.  The gentleman gardener taught us how to fashion a secret mulch, leavening just the right amount of chicken manure into compost and soil to stimulate growth in even the most fickle of places.  He could, perhaps, even grow hair on the head of a balding man. 

 

As George entered the winter of his life, his ambition for gardening never diminished.  Yet, his back and poor health conspired to keep him from his heavy bags of topsoil and his great need to excavate as much irascible Northern California clay as possible.  When I was 16, my mother tricked me into assisting his annual planting ritual.   I was not prepared for his fiercely discriminating glare but I plowed his garden, tilled the topsoil and became a co-owner of another season’s harvest of blood red dahlias, sunrise marigolds and lavender foxgloves.  What I did not realize was the German gardener was also planting seeds in me.  His love of the earth would germinate years later when I purchased my own home and with it, came the latent need to bury my hands in the soil, plant and reap the harvest of my own labors.  In his life’s December, he was ensuring his perennial return through his grandson.

 

On one visit, just a few weeks before he passed away, I watched him chastise the landscaper accusing him of neglecting the azaleas and holly in the front garden of the assisted living facility.  “Those are acid loving plants and they need fertilizer.” The apprentice gardener smiled and dragged his hose across the mown grass.  We crossed the manicured grounds and made small conversation – the gardener and grandson.  He guided me to some chairs near some potted plants where we sat and talked about business, football, politics and weather.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him absent mindedly picking at the potted petunias and snap dragons, dead heading the spent petals.  As we ended our visit, we approached the entrance to the facility.  As he walked past the front desk, he opened his hand and dropped the dead flowers into the garbage can.   The good gardener was working “his” plants right up until the day he died.