Thursday, December 18, 2008

A card, to say you care

I have friends I haven't talked to in months. You know what it's like -- you mean to send an e-mail. You mean to call. But time slips away, and before you know it, the end of the year draws near. And if you're like me, when December rolls around you find yourself driving to the post office with a stack of holiday cards sliding around on the passenger seat.

I'm not one to get too excited about holidays -- you work enough of them, the magic fades -- but this is the time of year when I look forward to checking my mail. There's just something about spotting a bright green or red envelope mixed in with the bills and magazines. No matter how bad my day has been, it's hard to stay grumpy when you open a goofy card from a person you haven't heard from in ages, or you view a friend's family portrait with cute kids growing up impossibly fast.

The holiday card is the great equalizer. It says, "I know we haven't talked, but that doesn't mean I don't care." It says, "In the midst of all the shopping-eating-family drama frenzy, I took a moment to think of you, and wanted to let you know." It says, "We're family."

It's sort of the renewal of a vow: you stay in my life, and I'll stay in yours.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Finding my sometimes father

I haven't seen my father in more than 16 years.

If you've known me for at least that amount of time, that wouldn’t surprise you. My dad has always had a sometimes there, sometimes not presence in my life. When I was very young, he worked a difficult job with wacky hours, and didn’t always make it home. Sometimes, perhaps he wasn’t working, and he didn’t make it home.

He and my mother had at best a strained marriage for all sorts of reasons. They got married young, had kids quickly and struggled to pay the bills. They separated when I was in junior high, and divorced several years later. He remarried, and his new wife often pressured him about his commitments – financial and emotional – to his former life. There were periods of time when my siblings and I didn’t hear from him even then.

We stopped talking the last time, this one by more of a general agreement, right after I got married. We had a falling out about his new girlfriend and his family, and their involvement in my tiny wedding ceremony.

At least, that’s how I remember it. He may have a very different and certainly valid recollection. There's all sorts of blame to go around when it comes to what went wrong in our family.

My dad does, however, acknowledge the general framework of our past – he and I began talking again intermittently about two years ago – but I haven’t asked him to confirm details or asked him to explain why any of it happened. I don’t think either of us is ready for that.

But when he called me, he did admit to this: He said that he wrongly put other relationships in his life ahead of his relationship with his children.

I think that’s part of it. I also think he doesn’t much know how to relate to his children. He has always wanted a very traditional, family-ties kind of relationship, but we have never had a run-of-the-mill family. And I think it would have been difficult to deal with three tweens/teens even if there isn’t a divorce involved.

All of that is to say this: In the end, I know my dad’s a pretty good guy. He means well, even if he doesn’t always do good. (I sadly report that he currently isn’t returning my calls.) I don’t always like him, but I can say that I don’t want to regret not having tried to rebuild a relationship with him. I want to give him and my children the opportunity to know each other. And I think that, should I peel away all the years of armor I built up to keep from getting hurt, I probably would say I love him.

Maybe it won’t take another 16 years for me to be able to tell him that.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Counseling shouldn't stop after marriage

I asked a newlywed pal how her marriage was going. She said it was good, but hard. "Because we're both stubborn, and we're older," she explained. (They're in their mid-to-late 30s). It takes work to meld two strong, independent lives.

So the newlymarrieds have decided to keep seeing the person they met for pre-marriage counseling. They don't go often, only when they have a problem they feel they need an objective opinion on. And my friend says it has helped a lot.

I think that going to a counselor is a great idea. More people are marrying later in life -- I have a friend who married for the first time when she was 41. It's not easy to change your life from one where you have your space the way you want it, and your daily schedule the way you want it, to sharing it with another person. Some compromises may be simple; others, not so much. So talking out your issues with a third party who has no stake in the outcome can be a good thing.

Also, the counseling doesn't have to end once newlywed issues have worked themselves out. I heard a recent radio interview with caustic actor-comedian Denis Leary. He's been married for 26 years. He was talking about his new book, "Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid," and offered men advice on marriage counseling:

"Number one: Do it," he said. "You're not gonna find a guy who's more anti-therapy or anti any kind of counseling than me. I'm a stubborn, pigheaded Irishman and that's sort of in my DNA. And it takes me a long time to learn a lesson."

After going through three counselors in about six weeks, Leary said, "We finally went to a male marriage counselor, and it dawned on me -- 'Oh, I'm completely - I'm totally wrong. And emotionally unavailable.' Goes right back to that Irish-Catholic upbringing. Once I figured out I'm wrong, and emotionally unavailable, we started to make some progress.

"I gotta tell you, the male, the man shrink, that's the way to go," Leary continued. "It's a person, a man, who gets paid to sit in a room and listen to women complain about what's wrong with men. It's the female version of hiring a prostitute. ... and it works. Sitting in that room with that guy -- I guess it was because he was finally a guy I listened to him -- I started to realize yeah, you know what? I am not right about most things. I am sometimes right about things in sports and show biz, because I'm a sports fan and I work in show business, but in terms of raising children and making a marriage work, I'm 0 for 7 million. That's my batting average. But I've learned how to learn from the man shrink."

So there you go. If he can learn, can't we all?

The one you don't forget

Some breakups, you just never get over. No matter how bad the relationship. And maybe because the relationship was so bad.

Take my friend, Melissa. She dated this guy for close to two years. She was sure he was the man of her dreams. Little bit of a bad boy. Had traveled a bit, and he seemed to know a lot about the world and could carry on a conversation about anything. Attractive.

(She overlooked some major red flags -- still lived with his parents? -- so she caused herself some unnecessary heartache, she concedes.)

The first time he broke up with her, she was blindsided. During a date, he stopped her on a sidewalk in a busy neighborhood, suggested they sit down on a bench, and listed everything he felt the relationship was lacking: She tended toward the quiet, when he was a little more outspoken (took him a year to figure this out?); they seemed to be a different stages in their lives (a fair concern); and the sex was so-so (you only get what you're brave enough to ask for, my man). Then he let her loose. He said he was sorry. Melissa dissolved into tears, he took her home, and she tried to forget about him.

Then, about a month later, he apologized. He said he wanted her back. She agreed.

It was about three weeks of happy-happy joy-joy, Melissa once again got lost in the relationship, and she was blindsided yet again.

He broke up with her -- in a park, this time. She says she was a little less weepy that time around, a lot more angry, and a lot quicker to move on.

But she was always haunted by what she should have said, how she could have expressed her anger a little more clearly. Maybe a little more loudly.

She ran into him about a year later. He apologized again for how he had treated her. He blamed it on depression, and said he was taking medication to address it. Then he asked her back to his place. She says she smiled at the silliness of it all, but she declined.

Still, the regrets of that relationship follow her -- like those nightmares you have about missing a final exam long after you've received your diploma -- despite many years and several solid, healthy relationships under her belt.

She says she'll probably never get over those regrets. Given that she's held onto the regrets of the relationship for so long, would she ever take him back, should they again cross paths? No, she insists. She'd rather just live with the old regrets, instead of creating new ones.

But how would she react? She's says she can't know until she's in the situation. But she guesses she might have a few words of advice for him. That her tone might be a lot harsher, the volume a little louder than the last time.

Maybe she even has those words ready to go now. Don't you?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cussin' up a public, political storm

One of the most fascinating aspects about the impending fall of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is the excerpts from his wiretapped conversations. The man talks like he's filming a Quentin Tarantino movie, only not quite as clever.

"I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden," Blagojevich said of his authority to appoint the replacement for President-elect Obama's Senate seat, "and I'm just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing."

And his wife is right there with him on the cussin' front. She unleashed an obscenity-filled tirade suggesting Tribune Co. ownership should "just fire" Chicago Tribune editorial writers if the company wanted the state to help it unload Wrigley Field.

"Hold up that (expletive) Cubs (expletive)," she's quoted as saying in the background as her husband talked on the phone. "(Expletive) them."

OK. I cuss. Quite a bit. I've never believed that business about how you're not a lady if you use foul language. I swear in English and in German, and sometimes in French. But even I got a little slack-jawed when I heard what came out of the Blogojeviches' potty mouths.

I really began to question my own use of salty language when I read this story, which mentions a 2006 study that found 74 percent of Americans frequently or occasionally hear people cursing in public and that most believe the use of profanity is on the rise.

But, “there's a huge difference between a person who drops a swear word once in a while and a person who uses it in every other sentence,” the story quoted Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and an author and lecturer on business etiquette, as saying. “There's a certain level of arrogance in it that says I can do anything I want, I can speak any way that I want.”

Noooo, I don't feel that way. I moderate my language depending on who I'm talking to, of course. In casual conversations with friends I may pepper my sentences with profanity, but even so, I don't think I'm as blue as the Blagojeviches. Or am I? I wonder what tapes of my conversations would sound like?

I don't think I'll give up swear words completely -- in many situations a "gosh darn" or "crap" just doesn't cut it -- but I will make an effort to use less of them.

What about you? Do you use profanity in everyday language? Have the Blogojeviches made you rethink your cussin'?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What are you doing, Oprah?

This week, Oprah Winfrey disclosed that she has ballooned to 200 pounds. She details her troubles in the January issue of "O" magazine, which features an image of her fit, flat-tummied self next to her current curvier self, with the headline, "How did I let this happen again?" And in the magazine article she talks about how she wanted to hide during an "Oprah" episode with Tina Turner and Cher because she felt like "a fat cow."

Alicia: Talk about roller coaster relationships -- Oprah Winfrey really has to come to terms with her weight and what it means about who she is. Seems to me she keeps making the issue more public than it needs to be.

Deirdre: I'm glad you brought that up, because I have mixed feelings about what she's done. On one hand, millions of women -- including me -- can identify with her. This just shows she's human. On the other hand, there is some serious masochism going on.

Alicia: Really. It's not that she does it -- to a degree, she has to address issues like her weight head-on, because she's a celebrity. But, you're right, she does it in such a dramatic and self-deprecating way. Many, many people struggle with their weight. But I don't know if you can solve your problem by beating yourself up so much.

Deirdre: But, A, isn't that usually the first impulse -- to beat yourself up?

Alicia: I suppose that's true. And heaven knows I've kicked myself about stupid things I've done (including a run-in or two with a plate of hot wings). But she just keeps kicking herself in front of so many people -- some supportive, and some just dastardly -- almost setting herself up for failure.

Deirdre: It's interesting you say that, because what's the popular advice when you're trying to lose weight? Tell other people about it, as a way to hold yourself accountable and build a support system.

Alicia: I don't know, I've only seen that work when you tell a small group of people who you know will support your goal, and then you open up to others as you move toward your goal. Otherwise, don't you just get a lot of people asking you how it's going -- putting pressure on you, which stresses you out and drives you back to what you're trying to overcome?

Deirdre: I can tell you from personal experience the answer is "yes." But what I find poignant about this situation is that Oprah Winfrey is one of the richest, most powerful women in the world. And the struggle with food and her weight -- when she could hire any chef, trainer, or plastic surgeon -- is like her Achilles heel. So what hope is there for us peons?

Alicia: That's what I'm saying -- is she setting the example that could help those of us who can't afford to hire an army of experts to help us, let alone pay a monthly gym membership or Weight Watchers fee?

Deirdre: She has inspired millions over the years who have followed her struggle.

Alicia: Maybe you're right. She's showing her humanity. I just hope she can find a way to succeed for the long-term.

Deirdre: Well, I'm heartened by an excerpt I saw from her article: "My goal isn't to be thin. My goal is for my body to be the weight it can hold -- to be strong, and healthy and fit, to be itself ... My goal is to learn to embrace this body and to be grateful every day for what it has given me." That's a far cry from back in the day, when she went on a liquid diet to fit into size 10 jeans that were too small the next day.

Alicia: That whole thing was a circus -- and being healthy is the right goal. I hope we can learn a lot from her this time around.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When is special really something else?

Welcome to a very special episode of We Can Relate.

It’s so special because well, you’re so special. And the day is just so beautiful and peaceful and … special. Could there be anything better than spending such a special time with you on a day like this?

Annoyed yet? I am.

But that’s how this couple I know talks to each other. Yes – in front of actual people. It’s all so saccharine it makes me want to heave, or at the very least roll my eyes – which is what I do when they’re not looking.

It annoys me because I shouldn’t be hearing it – when they set off on these dialogues they’re always very wrapped up in each other. They’re not making general conversation with the others in the room. The dialogues can last five minutes – or 20. And one of the two often interrupts conversations the other is having to begin the you’re-so-special babble.

And, no, they're not newlyweds. They've been together for more than a decade -- and still it persists. And it annoys not only me but also others who witness it; I always have a partner in eye-rolling.

It all just makes me suspicious: Can things at that moment really be that special – and, long-term relationship-wise – that good, if you have to say it over and over? And, perhaps most annoying, in that really cloying I’m-talking-to-a-cute-widdle-kitten tone?

My money’s on no.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

He just wasn't that into me

I'd been at a friend's Christmas party for a couple hours when her neighbor showed up. Her single male neighbor. Her sexy single male neighbor.

I had met this guy before at another party; he was laid-back, confident and witty, in addition to being easy on the eyes. And when a small pack of us moved to a nearby bar to continue drinking and talking, I figured it was the perfect time to get to know him better.

At this point, I'd been drinking for awhile, so my reaction time was slow. I mention that because signs I normally would've noticed went right over my head. Signs like while we did talk and laugh at the party and at the bar, he didn't come over to join my conversations, but rather, I joined his. Also, he spent more time with other women at the bar than with our group. But all was made clear when, at one point, we were standing next to each other, but his attention was on a thin blonde nearby.

"So ... you like skinny white chicks?" I asked.

"Yep," he replied with a nod and a smile. A refreshingly pithy response, actually.

And ... that was that. I'm not skinny, or white. I will never be skinny, or white. I looked really good that night, and conversation flowed smoothly, but if I'm not his type, there's nothing I could do, you know?

I think a lot of women beat themselves up when something like this happens. I know I used to. You think that, because a certain man isn't attracted to you, there has to be something wrong with you. You must've said the wrong thing. Wore the wrong outfit. If only you were prettier, smarter, skinnier, taller, funnier. The truth of the matter is, it's not even about you, really. We all like what we like. Just because one particular man isn't attracted to you, that doesn't mean all men feel the same way. But I think that some women (and men, too, don't wanna leave you out) take a lack of interest personally, when they shouldn't.

So I shrugged off the sexy neighbor. There's plenty of men who do like non-skinny, non-white chicks. Of that, I'm sure.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Speaking the language of love

Let’s play a little relationship multiple choice.

I feel most loved when the important people in my life:

(a) don’t hesitate to show affection through all sorts of physical manifestations – hugging, kissing, whatever … depending on the person and our relationship.

(b) tell me that they love me and offer other encouraging words. I need to hear it before I can feel it.

(c) stop their busy lives for a little while to talk, walk, go to a movie – doesn’t matter much the activity, as long as we’re spending time together. I crave that connection.

(d) gives me gifts when I don’t expect them – they’re not always expensive, but they’re always thoughtful.

(e) does things for me – washes my car, gives me a shoulder rub after a long day at work, cooks me a great meal. It’s always things that make my life easier or more enjoyable.

Got your answer?

Then you’re on your way to understanding the five love languages as conceived by Gary Chapman, author of a series of books that started with "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate." His theory is that people give and receive love in five ways: through (a) physical touch; (b) words of affirmation; (c) quality time; (d) gifts; and (e) acts of service. You can love someone so much it hurts -- but he won’t feel it if you don’t show that love using his love language.

I’m fairly certain I’m an E, though A probably runs a close second most days. And my husband has figured it out without reading a book – when I’m stalking around in a foul mood, he’ll tell me to soak in a bubble bath while he cleans up the kitchen after dinner. (Or is that code for go soak your head?)

Can’t hone in on just one love language? Could be that you speak several very strongly. Could be that your love language changes depending on the person you’re with, or that your love language has changed over time.

Or could be you’re just high-maintenance. Let your friends, family and significant others be warned.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Concessions to manhood

My friend and her husband couldn't beat the prospects: Spontaneous sex without the hassle of birth control. No reaching for a condom. No taking a daily pill that caused less-than-sexy mood swings. (My friend has a health condition that makes life with her an amusing little roller coaster without the help of synthetic hormones, thank you very much.)

However, the dream required a little outpatient medical procedure. For her husband. And first, he had to clear the huge emotional hurdle that the specter of a vasectomy can create.

And she had to help him.

He approached the procedure as a challenge to his masculinity, his role as chief breadwinner and head of household.

The problem: She’s strong-willed and independent – and she doesn’t hesitate to tell you if she thinks you’re acting stupid. Which is what she called her husband when, leading up to his surgery, he started picking at her for not consulting him on every decision she made. (Roll your eyes here.)

So, to maintain peace in her family – and to ensure she’d never have to dial-a-pill again – she had to sublimate her living-out-loud personality for a while. She had to show her husband that she needed him, despite what the doctor snipped.

Which is where the story gets amusing.

Leading up to her husband’s appointment with the knife, my friend started inventing ways to make her man feel, well, manly.

She called to ask him how to open the garage door when the power was out – even though she knew full well how to pull the chain. She sought his advice on how to get their toddler daughter’s hair cut. She consulted him about the grocery list.

She succeeded. The arguing stopped. He got the snip.

And since I wasn’t on the receiving end of that procedure, I don’t know that I’m qualified to pass judgment on the lengths it took to get it done. But my friend and her husband should be home-free.

If she can convince him to schedule the follow-up appointment – to ensure it all worked.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Someone new to relate

Deirdre: I've got a treat for you, Relate readers: the addition of a new writer! Her name is Alicia Roberts, and she works with me here at the Observer. As you will soon see for yourselves, she's smart, sassy, sexy and full of opinions about everything relationship related. Say hello to the readers, Alicia! (And readers, you be nice to her.)

Hey there. I might be full of opinions, but I'm no expert, as you'll find out all too soon. But a wise colleague once advised me that it's good to know your limitations.

Amen to that! And speaking of limitations, my former co-writer, Jason Benavides, recognized his. Jason realized his life is too crammed to squeeze in writing time, so Miss Alicia is taking his place.

Alicia: I think I have some interesting ideas, and I like the, um, lively conversation Relate readers have been known to start. So gimme feedback. And we'll see how it goes.

Deirdre: This blog started as a platform to discuss all types of relationships -- marriage, friendship, dating, co-workers, etc., and bigger picture topics like race relations and other social issues -- and I'm glad you agree we should keep it that way. But what fascinates you the most about relationships?

Alicia: You know, I'm fascinated in general about interpersonal relationships. I'm kind of a loner by nature and an observer by trade ... so I tend to analyze a lot. And maybe criticize a bit. In private. My husband hears an earful quite a bit. But he's a chatter, so it doesn't bother him.

Deirdre: Alicia and I are going to experiment with a schedule. She'll post Mondays and Wednesdays, I'll post Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we'll post together on Fridays. But since she's new, we'll start her off with her first post tomorrow. So come take a look!

Alicia: Thanks, D. I'm looking forward to it.