Thursday, February 27, 2014

Former Classmates and Mortality

I carry so much baggage around with me that, if you could see it, I would look like a bag-lady with the biggest shopping cart ever. A sizable percentage of that baggage comes from the experiences of youth, those formative years when everything seemed daunting and overwhelming. Family is a large component of this weight but high school and junior high loom large in my legend.

That’s why I was caught off guard when I looked at a web page of my high school classmates from the class of ’69 and saw the large number of folks who have already died (about 50 out of around 650). While this percentage isn’t huge, it still seems like a lot for folks in their early sixties. I know it will grow larger with each passing year. That really hit home with concrete evidence of my own mortality.

I remember hearing about Kim’s death in the late seventies. She was found hanging in a jail cell tripping her brains out on acid. She had hung herself with her belt. Neil was killed in a car accident. But these recent deaths were from more natural causes. I googled them for their obits and found out a little about their lives as well as their deaths. Studious David had run a bookstore in Seattle before his number came up and sexy Sarah had worked for a lumber company for 40 years then finally retired and died the same year.
These facts are neither earth-shattering nor startling. In fact, of the other living classmates I found online some moved away and some stayed in Ohio, had gotten married, divorced, had kids or didn’t, were prominent or impossible to find. Some others, like me, had even come out as queer. 

The ways they died weren’t particularly noteworthy either. They include the ways all of us will probably go. Marcia died from breast cancer, Donna succumbed to complications of lupus and with Carol it was Crohn’s disease.

Then I realized the truth: the kids who made my life a living hell as well as those who made it worth living were simply people, totally blown out of rational proportion because of the pressures and lack of perspective that are part and parcel of youth.

None of these folks caused me to feel inferior or less than the person I truly was. Even my misguided, neglectful parents didn’t do that intentionally. I still can’t figure out exactly what it is about being young that can make some people mean and heartless. When I read about the bullying that still happens at that age, I don’t find more clarity.

But I can find greater compassion. We all do the best we can with the tools that are available to us at the time. Can I humanize and forgive those who were imperfect actors in this short, one-act play called life? At this point, I think so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Living Apart Together: Another Option

Getting married didn’t change my life at all. My partner (please don’t call either of us “wife”) and I still live in different cities. My house is in Berkeley, hers is in Oakland. We talk by phone every day but spend only about three days a week together. We have separate and joint friends, separate bank accounts, separate and joint lives. And it’s not just a stage we are going through. Last year we celebrated our anniversary of fifteen years as a couple.

In Scandinavian countries my relationship with Deborah is called LAT, short for living apart together.  We consider ourselves really fortunate that we are financially able to do this. Deborah is still teaching and I am a retired librarian. We both have, or in my case had, civil service jobs with pensions and health benefits, as well as life-long work histories. It is definitely more expensive to maintain two individual residences than to live together. As we both age out of our working years, who knows what the future holds? But I can unequivocally say that, for the past fifteen years, having a relationship that includes a certain degree of separation been great.

Still, this past summer we tied the knot. Both of us are sixty-something so we wanted the legal protection that marriage brings. In this way each of us are protected in case of death or serious injury. Her family is predatory, mine mostly non-existent. This year we will fill out our first married but filing individually tax return, so we’ll see more concretely what our new financial relationship entails.

The city of Oakland forced us to pay, not only 100 dollars for the marriage application, but around 80 dollars more for a ridiculous ceremony with some judge who took the whole thing far more seriously than we did. We had trouble trying to keep from cracking up with all that somber sanctity of marriage crap. And we needed witnesses so we brought along two friends, a heterosexual old hippie couple who have the same ambivalent relationship the m-word that we do. It was a contrived formality containing a dose of pathos and ridiculousness in equal measure.

It’s not that Deborah and I don’t love each other, it’s just that queer marriage, like gays in the military, is not a struggle to which either of us have hitched our proverbial wagon. As folks who want to transform society, including marriage, trumpeting its virtues is not the place I want to begin. And both Deborah and I are unimpressed by consumerist occasions that turn out to be meaningless, gift-grabbing Hallmark moments.

The marriage industry in this country is massive with tremendous financial power and influence. It is part of the reason that the sustained drive for marriage equality is finally meeting with some success. Little girls are brainwashed from birth that the most wonderful day of their lives will be their wedding day. Working-class people who are barely keeping their heads above water in this economy are persuaded to call out all the stops and spend money they don’t have for a big blowout wedding. 

So how does living apart together work for us? For one thing, we don’t have to have the same cleanliness style or personal habits. I am free to be disorganized but clean, and Deborah is free to be a total neat freak. We have a more urban home, mine, and a more suburban option. When we go to events together, we can stay at the closest place. We can stay together when friends come in from out of town and give them the privacy of their own place. We can entertain at either house or have private meetings without disturbing the other but the main advantage is, we can take breaks from each other when we need to and enjoy each other’s company only when we choose.
There is also a level of solitude that allows each of us to pursue our creative interests. I am a writer. Deborah is a photographer, collagist and ceramicist. Having separate spaces helps us each get more accomplished in our chosen work lives.

We share one cat, Luna, who lives with Deborah. That way, when we travel during the summer, we only need house sitters for one place. I love the access to cat energy as well as the freedom to leave my house for long periods of time without having to worry about a pet. During our various travels, and teachers with summers off love to travel, we do inhabit the same space and it has always gone well.

Of course living apart together has a down side. When the weather is bad it takes more effort to visit. Coming home alone from sustained time together on trips can be disorienting. But the added expense is the biggest drawback.

Friends used to continually inquire when we’d be taking that famous lesbian U-Haul trip. Today, for the most part, they have given up that line of questioning. Many couples we know, even ones who live together, no longer have one single answer for that eternal question, what did you do today?

So, I am technically married now. It hasn’t changed my life at all save for the fact that if I get seriously ill or die suddenly, my non-traditional partner who is now my spouse, will have the legal right to make decisions or to inherit my house. That gives me a sense of security. We are also about to complete our first tax return together: married filing separately.

But let’s face reality. No matter how we delude ourselves with spouses, children and flowery promises of love that lasts forever each one of us is traveling through this world alone. Still, it can be quite nice to have company on the journey. And only the two individuals that comprise a couple can decide the form that joining will take. I’m only sure that commitment is something that must be done by choice not by contract.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Friends and Cohorts: Small Talk and Big

According to the Washington Post, the Inuit people have approximately 50 words for snow and the Sami people who live in Northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. These language differences expose the relative importance of snow and reindeer in the lives of the speakers. Unfortunately, the English speaking world has a dearth of words for friendly relationships that are neither romantic nor sexual.

We are limited to the words acquaintance and friend. Friend implies a whole range of intimacy from catching a movie together, to the kind of genuine soul mate that can help make the world a less lonely, unforgiving place. I feel compelled to add another category, the label of cohort. Cohorts are important but not as intimate as friends. They are folks we have genuine connections with, often meeting in places like political organizations, classes or support groups, but they fall on a different level of intimacy than friends. You might call a cohort to help process an issue but you probably wouldn’t call her if you just found out really terrible or very wonderful personal news.

Cohorts have always been important in my life, but they are not the cogs it turns on. Those cogs are friends. Friend is a word that gets thrown around recklessly in our society. In the span of a lifetime, I have had few friends at any given moment but have cycled through many of them over periods of time. When paths diverge and interests shift many times friends are left behind, leaving deep memory traces and inevitable feelings of regret and nostalgia. Friends are precious. Cohorts are valuable. Acquaintances are nice. Folks who don’t care one way or another are numerous and enemies, well, I’m not even going to go there right now.

The division between cohorts and friends is often one of small talk versus big talk. Small talk is just filler in life, like popcorn it can be fun to consume but lacking in nutritional value. This fiber aids personality digestion, but is completely devoid of in protein. An acquired skill and a staple at larger parties and gatherings, it is often goes hand in hand with the word mingle.

Big talk goes beyond simple observation into connection. It reflects back into personal experience. Big talk can cause people at parties who are looking for more superficial interaction to recoil, make polite excuses and walk away. The new online initials for big talk can be TMI (too much information). To some, it is the exclusive domain of lovers and college students, a tacky tendency left behind in youth. But to weirdos like me it is the first step to making friends.

So, some folks find probing parlance threatening or just mildly irritating. Others find it interesting and ingratiating. I guess it all just depends on the perspective of the speaker and whether she wishes to become your acquaintance, cohort or friend.