On Marital Infidelity

From the point of view of a child, a spouse, and a parent.

This is going to be a pretty tough one to write, but it’s been brewing inside me for a while and needs to come out.

My grief counsellor, who was helping me get through the feeling of loss and betrayal I felt (and still feel) at the end of a relationship that lasted more than half of my life, recommended writing to help deal with my grief. I’ve been writing about this on and off since my husband first asked for a divorce on my birthday in June. Writing is cathartic — it helps me sort out my thoughts and put things in perspective.

Although I had hoped the ordeal of my divorce would be over by now — indeed, I’d hoped to be finished before Christmas! — it drags on for a variety of reasons best saved for another post. Every day I’m stuck alone in a house I once made a home with the man I loved is another day that gets me thinking of — and writing about — the tragedy of the situation. After all this time — nearly nine months now — I still have trouble believing everything that’s been happening. As a friend recently remarked, it’s bizarre.

But this post will concentrate on one topic: marital infidelity. You see, this isn’t the first time I’ve lived through a husband’s betrayal of his wife’s love and trust.

Childhood Lost

I was about 12 years old, the oldest of three children, when my parents split up.

My dad had been having an affair with a woman 13 years younger than him — only 9 years older than me. She was 21 and already had a child with another man who she’d apparently married and divorced. She was young and, I guess, attractive. My mother, who was only 3 years younger than my father, was overweight and caught up in the task of raising his three children. When we went away to spend the summer in a travel trailer in the Catskills, my dad was left behind to go to work and the affair began.

My sister, brother, and I were shielded from most of what was going on for quite some time. Shielded from the cause, but not the fireworks. The arguments were loud and fierce, leaving my sister and I to seek shelter from the verbal storm in our attic bedroom. Eventually, the situation became intolerable and divorce was inevitable.

You know how there are events in your life that you can remember perfectly as if they happened only yesterday? Well, I still remember the day nearly 40 years ago when my dad came up to our bedroom to break the news. I was sitting on the floor in front of a low table my dad had made out of particle board and formica and screw-in legs. I was working on a floorplan — I used to sketch floorplans of dream houses that I made up in my head. This one was a one-story masterpiece with a central courtyard that had a built-in pool. All the rooms had doors out to this wonderful courtyard. When my father came up to talk to me, I was painstakingly drawing in the irregularly shaped patio blocks around the pool.

He told me that they were getting divorced, but didn’t say why. I probably already knew about the other woman. He assured me that he still loved us all and would still see us a lot. I don’t remember replying. I do remember the tears dripping down my face and onto those carefully penciled patio blocks.

And just like that, my father left. There was a brief time when they attempted reconciliation, but I can’t say it lasted very long. My dad moved into an apartment with his girlfriend and her baby daughter. The divorce dragged on — in those days, I think there was a required separation period. My mom lost weight and started dating — she was in her early 30s and had two single friends (one divorced, one widowed) that she’d go bar-hopping with. It was important to her to not only find a new husband, but to find a new father for her children.

My father fought for visitation rights and got them — every Sunday, I think. In the beginning, he visited us regularly, taking us out to a local hobby shop where they had slot cars that we would race. We did other things, too, but I don’t remember them much. I do remember that over time the visits became less regular and the frequency dropped off. But by that time, the divorce was final and both he and my mother remarried. He married the woman he’d left us for and adopted her child, who is technically now my half sister. My mom married a divorced man who had been through a similar situation; his three kids lived with his ex-wife. We moved to Long Island where my stepfather started a new job. My dad came to see us just a few times a year. And then he stopped coming.

Lessons Learned

There are many ways all this affected me as a child and as an adult. It’s interesting to take a look at them.

  • I titled the previous section “Childhood Lost” for a reason. Although I was just 12 or 13 during my parents’ divorce proceedings, I was forced, in a way, to grow up fast. Because of the dire financial situation we were suddenly thrust into, my mom had to get a job. I had to take responsibility for watching my sister, who was 16 months younger than me, and my brother, who was 8 years younger than me. At age 13, I got a paper route — I still remember the first day of school one year when my paper route collection money was needed to buy school supplies for all of us. The financial situation qualified me for free school lunch and enabled me to get a summer job working with other underprivileged kids scraping rust off a chain link fence with wire brushes. Yes, I still played with other kids and had a life, but I’d gotten a very good look at a side of life most preteens don’t get to see until much later. It changed me and forced me to grow up a bit sooner than I should have.
  • Seeing my mother abandoned by her husband also taught me a lesson — it taught me that there’s only one person you can rely on in life: yourself. It taught me to be independent, to have my own career and goals in life, to not depend on anyone else for financial stability. It taught me to work hard for whatever I wanted and to save money and to keep my finances in my control. These are lessons I’ve carried throughout my life.
  • Being left behind to babysit while my mom and her friends hit the singles bars to find new husbands made me feel that having children can be a real burden. After all, she wasn’t just looking for a new mate. She had to find one who didn’t mind moving into a household that already had three young kids. That can’t possibly have been easy, especially for a 30-something in the mid 1970s when divorce was far less common. In the end, she found two men that she was willing to continue her life with, but she chose the one who would make a better father for us. I know it was a sacrifice, in a way, for her. But I also know that she made the very best decision, despite any doubts she might have had at the time. My stepfather is a wonderful man — a great provider who truly became my dad when my father left us. In any case, the lesson I took from all this is that having kids can keep you from getting what you really want in life. And I think that’s why I never had kids.
  • When my mother married my stepfather, our financial and social situation improved dramatically. We went from middle lower class to upper middle class (if there is such as class system in this country). We could eat better and dress better. My stepdad took us to museums, giving me my first real taste of culture. We ate in real restaurants — the kind with cloth napkins and attentive waiters. When we vacationed, we flew on airliners and stayed in hotels. We got a good look at some of the better things in life, some of the things within our reach. And, for the first time in my life, I started thinking college might be an option — indeed, I became the first person in the history of my family to graduate college.

As for my father, our relationship isn’t bad but isn’t good. It’s hard not to feel abandoned when he simply stopped visiting all those years ago. We talk occasionally on the phone and I did see him at Christmas time last year. He’s still married to the same woman. Their daughter is on her second husband and has two kids. I haven’t seen her since her first wedding years ago and doubt I’d recognize her if she knocked on my door right now.

I know my father reads this blog once in a while and can assume he’ll read this. I’m sorry if what I’ve written here hurts him, but it’s the truth. Actions speak louder than words. It’s one thing to tell a 12-year-old child that you love her but another to prove it.

Husband Lost

I’ve written quite a bit about my husband’s infidelity, discussing it in bits and pieces in blog entries since I discovered the other woman in August 2012. I’ll recap here. If you want details, follow the divorce tag.

My relationship with my husband had been deteriorating since about October 2011, when I got back from my summer work in Washington. He’d become moody and uncommunicative, never enthusiastic about doing anything interesting, always disapproving of anything I wanted (or needed) to do. He was 55 at the time, stuck in a dead-end job he hated, working for a boss who was becoming a bigger asshole every single day.

I was losing my patience with the situation, especially since he’d promised me five years before — right around the time we married — that he’d join me on the road in the summer months to pursue other more interesting ways of making a living. I was financially secure; he could be, too — if he’d just sell the Phoenix condo that was costing him so much money every month. Instead, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend, he insisted on keeping it; that forced him to be a slave to the 9 to 5 grind that was making him miserable.

There were some arguments — I won’t deny it. His mom’s visit from mid January through mid March 2012 was a serious strain. I’d been led to believe that she’d spend most of her time in the assisted living apartment he’d rented for her in Wickenburg, but yet she was at our house almost every single day. We had no time alone together at home. After a huge fight in February, I buried myself in my work, which had to be done at the Phoenix condo where I’d moved my office — ironically, so I could spend more time with him.

In March, he asked me to go to a marriage counsellor with him. I agreed. My anger had cooled off and I truly wanted to fix our broken relationship. We each attended one session alone and then one together. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure the counselor recommended that we talk things out. I tried on several occasions to get him to talk to me about our problems, but he always said, “Not now.” And then it was time for me to start moving my equipment — the RV and the helicopter — up to Washington for the summer. And to make a trip to Colorado to record a course for Lynda.com. I left for the summer on the last day of April, feeling the strain of unfinished business.

In May we spoke on and off on the phone and exchanged emails. We started talking about him coming with the dog to spend the summer with me. He’d gotten a new job and he could work from anywhere. The job involved a bunch of travel. If he came with Charlie to stay with me, I could watch Charlie while he traveled for work. Then, when my summer work was over, I could travel with him. It was his dream job — my dream job for him, too — and I really thought it would save our relationship.

But despite what he said on the phone to me, he was really doing other things. I didn’t discover what was going on until much later, in August, long after he’d asked for a divorce and had assured me several times — including to my face — that there was not another woman.

In reality, less than seven days after I’d left for Washington, he’d joined at least one online dating site. In May, he went on at least one date with another woman — and may have even taken her on a trip in his plane to Las Vegas. When that affair fell flat, he tried again with a woman who sent him photos of herself in lingerie. He was dating her for less than a month when he asked me for a divorce. He’s living with her now, letting her manage our divorce for him.

The pain of my husband’s betrayal cannot be overstated. Simply put, after 29 years together, I trusted him with my life. Although we each did our own thing throughout the years of our relationship, I thought we were still partners working for the same goals. But instead, he’d changed his goals and hadn’t sent out a memo. I was working hard to make a good summer place for both of us; he was working on another goal: to replace me.

What makes matters even worse is the way he’s treated me since asking for the divorce. Lying and cheating is only part of it. Dropping all communication, leaving me to wonder what the hell was going on at home. Sharing my personal financial documents — like tax returns and investment statements — with his girlfriend and lawyer. Locking me out of my home and hangar. Fighting me in court to keep me out of my own home, thus trying to make me homeless. Lying about me in court, under oath. Demanding the return of a truck he told me I could keep in the settlement. Instructing his lawyer to send my lawyer threatening letters. Falsely accusing me — without any proof — of destroying his property. Preventing me from selling my personal property. Sending the police to my home to investigate me on unsupported claims of harassment. Allowing his girlfriend to present false evidence in court to support her injunction against me — which, fortunately, was overturned when I presented the truth.

Bizarre is a word a friend used to describe the situation. It’s fitting. Most of the people who know us both well can’t believe the things that have been going on — the things he’s been doing purposely to torment me for the past few months. It’s beyond simple marital infidelity and betrayal. It’s a systematic attempt to wear me down so I accept the absurd settlement proposal he insists on presenting to me and my lawyers.

And it hurts. It hurts because I remember what our lives were like for 29 years. I remember the good times and the bad times. Learning and doing things together. Traveling all over the country. Sharing the excitement of good news and achievements. Crying together at his dad’s funeral. Walking hand in hand on beaches and city streets. Cooking and cleaning and making homes together. Sitting across the table from each other at mealtime. Making plans. Making love.

I remember all of that. Doesn’t he?

I could never to do him what he’s done to me these past nine months. Never!

And I’m left wondering: How can he do this to me? How can he do this to us?

How does love turn to hate? How can he show such utter disregard for the woman he spent half his life with?

And that’s why I cry every day. I cry because I just don’t understand. I cry because I know I’ll never understand.

The Intent Makes it Worse

One of the most painful aspects of what my husband has done to me is the fact that he knows my parents are divorced and he knows why they split and he knows how I feel about it. He knows the emotional toll it’s taken on me and my siblings and how we all feel about cheating on spouses.

So never in my wildest dreams did I think my husband would do to me what my father did to my mother nearly 40 years ago.

But there is a difference here, subtle as it might be. It has to do with intent.

You see, I believe that my father had an affair because he was young and bored and wanted a little excitement in his life. I don’t think he actively went looking for a new wife. I think the affair probably just “happened” and he went with it because it made his life interesting. Sex with a younger woman, an escape from family life. I don’t think he ever intended his extramarital activities to destroy his family.

My husband, however, was actively looking for a replacement for me. He dated at least two women within a two month period before finding a replacement and promptly asking for a divorce. He intended from the start to dump me for someone else. He wouldn’t divorce me without a replacement lined up because he simply isn’t brave enough to live life on his own, no matter how unhappy he might be with his relationship. And, at age 56, he probably realized that his options would be limited so he took the first suitable replacement he could find, a woman who just happened to be 8 years older than him and even more desperate to secure a mate.

So although what my father did was bad, what my husband did was far worse.

Misleading me by making me think he wanted to stay together — even while he was shopping for my replacement — is despicable.

There’s More than One Victim

I think that’s what’s affecting my family — my mom, sister, stepdad, and brother — so badly. You see, it’s not just me who’s traumatized by what he’s done (and doing) to me. It’s also them.

As my mom said more than a few times, he didn’t just betray me. He betrayed all of us.

Family PhotoMy family loved him as a member of the family. My mother and stepdad thought of him as a son. My sister and brother thought of him as a brother — hell, my brother was still a kid when I brought him home for the first time. They all loved him and trusted him, probably just as much as I did.

I still remember the day, not long after we met, when I talked to my mother on the phone. “I think this is the one,” I told her. She was thrilled. We never thought he would be the one to shatter my heart and leave my life in shambles 29 years later.

Worse yet, knowing firsthand what I’m going through, my mom and stepfather are being forced to revisit the feelings they had when their spouses cheated on them. My mom is now talking about things that happened years 40 years ago, things she’s never told me, things that make me understand how much pain she endured while she was trying to rebuild our lives.

No parent wants to see their kid go through the same painful experience they suffered through. My mother has been losing sleep since all this began; it’s been affecting her health, too. Many times, when some new shit hits the fan in my life, I hold off on telling her about it until things settle down again. No need to make things worse.

Both my mother and sister are also angry about the way he’s betrayed all of us. My stepdad, who had a very strong connection with him — they used to hang out and talk or do little projects whenever they were together — doesn’t want to talk about it at all. Neither does my brother. I know it hurts all of them when they see or hear me cry.

Divorcing me because of irreconcilable differences is one thing. But cheating on me, lying about it, and then tormenting me for months afterwards?

How can he do this to us? None of us can explain it.

An Unusual Question from my Friends

There’s one more topic to cover in this blog post before I wrap it up and dry my eyes. It’s a question I’ve gotten from a number of friends.

Was my husband jealous of my friends?

You see, the vast majority of my friends are men: tech people, editors, pilots, winemakers, the list goes on and on. Even when we first met, my best friend was a guy — although personally, I think he was gay. In general, I find guys more interesting than women — they like to do more interesting things. Most women seem so hung up on petty things like gossip and shopping and getting their hair and nails done. Or family things like school or their kids or their grandkids. That stuff simply doesn’t interest me. Even my few female friends aren’t interested in that stuff. Most of them have mostly male friends, too.

So the question is, was my husband jealous of my friends? Did he think I was sleeping around?

Before all this crap began, I would have said, no, of course not! After all, I trusted him and I assumed he trusted me. Given my family history and my feelings about cheating on spouses, it was out of the question for me to even think about such a thing.

But now that I know he was untrustworthy, I can only wonder if he thought the same about me. After all, if he thought cheating was okay, did he think that I thought the same thing?

Was my husband jealous of my friends? At this point, I honestly don’t know.

But I do know this: I was faithful to my husband throughout our relationship. I never slept with another man. I never wanted to.

Even now that our relationship is over, I’m finding it tough to even think about sleeping with someone else. It just doesn’t seem right.

That’s just another thing I need to get over as I rebuild my life.

A Visit with Grandma

Real life turned to fiction from my files.

The following is a “short story” I wrote back in 1989. My sister might remember it; I’m pretty sure she read it back then. It’s a fictionalized account of a typical visit to my grandmother’s house in New Jersey. Out of all the things I wrote back then, this was one of my favorites. I found it earlier this month while cleaning out and packing up the papers in a closet.

My grandmother died about 11 years ago at the age of 89. Even on her death bed in the hospital she was looking ahead — “I’m going to be 90,” she said proudly to one of her visitors when asked how old she was. She was a hard-working woman who had a tough life. One of nine children, she began working in a garment factory in the Bronx when she was 15, lived through the Depression, bore two children eight years apart, had an alcoholic husband who later was paralyzed by a stroke, and worked until she was in her 70s. She was a simple woman with a minimal education who could do all kinds of mathematical calculations in her head.

I have her to thank for my work ethic, which has always convinced me that people who work hard (and smart) are rewarded for their efforts.

This is her birthday. She would have been 101 years old today.

I’m typing the 2,700 words of this story into my blog to help archive it in a safe place and share it with blog readers. I hope you enjoy it.

– = o = –

A Visit with Grandma

by M. L. Langer

The house sits on the right side of the street, beside the others it has been sitting with for the past forty-five years. It is a small, squat ranch, with a concrete terrace out front. There are five others on the street that looked exactly like it when they were new, but years of landscaping and home improvements make them look more like cousins now than the siblings they once were. This house has a dark green awning over the terrace — the stoop, your grandfather used to call it — and bright white aluminum siding. The driveway is straight and short; a rectangular piece of concrete with an irregular texture left on it from the sweeping broom that smoothed it down before it was left to harden. The grass is rich green and perfectly trimmed and, although it is the height of autumn and there are a number of trees in the yard, very few leave litter the lawn. Instead, they are piled neatly at the curb, waiting for the noisy vacuum truck to come by during the week and take them away.

You park on the street and start down the driveway, walking past the three-year-old Buick parked on the pavement. You remember the car before this one: another Buick, a pale green Skylark that had been bought the same year your brother was born. You remember seeing your grandmother maneuver it to the curb in front of your house when she was taking driving lessons and you remember hitting your head on the metal frame around the back window when, years later, it was rear-ended on the highway while she was driving you and your sister to visit your grandfather in his nursing home. For years your grandmother had said she was going to replace it, but it wasn’t until your brother was in his last year of high school that you finally dragged her to the Buick dealer and made sure she left a deposit on a new one. She still talked about the old one, and how faithful it had been all those years.

The garage door is open and you go inside, right up to the door in the back. You knock loudly, then open it, then shout into the house so as not to startle the woman you know is inside. The television on the kitchen counter is on, showing a commercial for a series of home improvement books; the announcer’s voice is blaring into the empty room. As you turn down the volume, your shout is answered by a voice coming from back toward the bedrooms. You wait, pulling off your gloves and jacket, and your grandmother appears, talking a mile a minute about how she was just getting ready to do some work in the yard.

You kiss her hello and ask why her house is so cold. Don’t you have the heat on? you want to know.

It’s on low, she tells you. Are you cold? I can turn it up.

But then she goes to the television and turns up the volume a little and starts telling you about how much trouble she had getting her neighbor to start her lawn mower for her the day before. In the middle of a sentence, she stops suddenly and asks you if you want tea. You say that would be nice and she goes over to the stove where a kettle is waiting. She fills it at the sink, now talking about a birthday party she is going to later on for one of the girls at work. You watch her put the pot on the stove, then turn on the gas beneath it. The automatic lighter clicks twice before the gas comes to life. She stops talking long enough to concentrate on lowering the flame, then starts up again, now about your mother and how she called just the night before. You sit down at the kitchen table and listen with one ear; you know that if you miss something important, you’ll get a chance to catch it later on.

While she talks and busies herself with a ceramic tea pot, you look at her carefully. She is a very short, stout woman, with an almost barrel shape to her. She is wearing one of her sweatsuits, this one black. The pants are too long and bag up around her ankles, the top is comfortably loose around her big chest and stomach. She has short blonde hair with silver gray roots. Her nose is long and hooked at the end; if it were green and had a wart, it would look just like the one on a witch. When you look at the face around it, the cliché wrinkled with age comes to mind. You remember all the times she told you she was going to get a face lift and how, each time, she’d pull the skin up and away from her face with her fingertips. It had always amazed you just how much younger she would look. But although she could well afford the expense, you knew she’d never do it.

From the sink, she asks you if you heard from your father lately. You tell her you haven’t. She tells you that she drove past his house a week ago and saw that he’d cut down another tree. Then she starts talking about one of the trees in her yard and about how many leaves come off it each fall. She tells you that she’s thinking of cutting it cut down. She asks you if you know who she can call about it and you tell her you don’t. You tell her to keep the tree, that it shades a quarter of the yard in the summertime. You tell her that if she needs help in the yard, you can come by with the blower. She tells you that one of her neighbors has a blower, then comes to the table with two cups and spoons and starts talking about the new menus they got at work and how much the price of a hot dog has gone up to. She tells you she doesn’t understand why people eat there because it’s so expensive.

You watch her go over to the cabinet under the television set and open it, talking the whole time. She bends over to get out some napkins, then asks if you want some cookies. You tell her you don’t, that you’re really not hungry, and watch her come back to the table with a package of Peek Freans anyway, now talking about how she went to pick up a few things at the supermarket earlier that morning. She tells you that she bought two bags of Halloween candy for the kids in the neighborhood and would you like to take some home with you? Before you can tell her you wouldn’t, she starts telling you about the time when your mother came to the elementary school to watch you and your sister in the Halloween parade and a man from the newspaper took a picture of her and your baby brother, who was wearing a Mighty Mouse costume. On Wednesday, when the paper came out, the picture was right on the front page. You remember the event well; you were about ten years old when it happened. You remember how your mother had drawn whiskers on his face with her eyebrow pencil. You remember the little mouse ears she’d sewn onto a sweatshirt hood. You just don’t remember what your costume had been that year.

Restless, you get up and walk over to the stove to turn up the flame under the tea kettle. Your grandmother is bending over the cabinet again, looking for something else while she tells you about the birthday party she’s going to later that night. It’s a surprise party, she tells you, and the birthday girl’s roommate is throwing it. She’s going to be twenty-two. She straightens from the cabinet with a package of the same brand of raisin cookies you’d been eating at her house for years and tells you about how the girl graduated from college in May but couldn’t find a job as a teacher so she still works at the store. She tells you that she doesn’t understand why girls go to school to be teachers when there isn’t enough jobs for them and the pay is bad anyway. She tells you that she tells all her friends at work about you and about how you’re a CPA. She pronounces the three letters clearly and separately, giving each equal importance. You try again to tell her that you’re not a CPA, that you’re just an accountant, but she’s not listening. She’s telling you how she told her friend Sally Connelly about your promotion and about the time she came to see your office.

She puts the package of cookies on a plate and sets it on the table while you walk over to the television and turn down the volume. Then you tell her you’ll be right back and you head down the hall to the bathroom, past the confused collection of valuable antiques and worthless nicknacks that sit side by side on tabletops and in glass-fronted cabinets all over the dining room and living room. On the way, you check the thermostat and find it set to fifty-five degrees. You turn it up to seventy, catching bits and pieces of her voice as she talks to you about your sister and her new apartment. Then silence as you close the bathroom door behind you.

When you come out, the tea kettle is whistling loudly and your grandmother is talking away, now about how she wants to have her bedroom repainted. As you come into the kitchen, she turns off the flame and removes the screaming kettle from the stove. She pours the water into the carefully prepared tea pot, telling you about how her mother used to dry out the tea bags so she could use them again. You open the refrigerator and retrieve a half gallon container of skim milk. You see the other things in there: cans of Shop Rite soda and eggs and blackened bananas. You ask her why she has beer in the refrigerator. She tells you she keeps it for when Sally Connelly and her boyfriend come over. Her boyfriend John likes beer. Then she starts telling you about what your mother had to say on the phone when she called the night before.

You sit down at the table, putting the milk down on the plastic tablecloth beside a tin tray of Sara Lee pound cake that she must have pulled out of the freezer and sliced while you were in the bathroom. She comes over with the tea pot, which is now wearing a crocheted sweater your mother calls a tea cozy. You look at her hands as she pours your tea, telling you the whole time about the trouble your mother and stepfather are having with the roof and how much money the men want to fix it. Her hands are small but broad, with short, crooked, big-knuckled fingers. Hands that have done a lifetime of work. Real work, not the writing and punching of calculator keys that your hands do. These hands helped raise sisters and brothers. They went to work in the sweater factory at age fifteen and didn’t retire from that work until they were age sixty two. They raised two children and kept a spotless house for a husband. They tended to that husband when he got ill, bathing and feeding him until the task of lifting him out of bed every morning became too much for them to handle and was turned over to more experienced, less loving hands. Now, five days a week, they go to work in the restaurant where they scrub tables and seat customers. They take care of the house and the lawn, they scoop leaves out of the gutters and pull down the heavy, dark green awning every year. They make tea for you when you visit and, when you leave, they take the dishes out of the dishwasher and wash them by hand.

She puts the pot down on the table, now telling you that she gave your brother fifty dollars before he went back to school because he needed a new pair of sneakers. She walks over to the sink to rinse off a knife that she used to cut the pound cake, talking about how big your brother is getting. You tell her to come sit down, that her tea is getting cold. Then you get up and look in the cabinet on the right of the stove for the sugar bowl. She opens the cabinet on the left and removes a jar filled with sugar packets from the restaurant, then comes back to the table with you.

You sit there drinking your tea, eating Peek Freans and partially frozen Sara Lee pound cake. She sits on the edge of the chair across from yours, a piece of pound cake in her gnarled fingers, telling you about your cousin in the Marines and how beautiful his two sons are. She tells you that she spoke to the older son last week while she was at your aunt’s house and that he told her he missed her and wanted her to come to North Carolina to visit him. You listen with one ear again, thinking about the chores you’ve got to do at home and wondering what you’re going to make for dinner.

When your second cup of tea is gone and she starts telling you about your mother’s phone call for the third time, you realize that it’s time to go. You rise and start clearing plates and cups from the table, putting them in the dishwasher. She tells you not to worry about it, that she’ll take care of it, that it’s no bother. Then she helps you, telling you about her boss and how much he thinks of her because she helps clear the tables when other hostesses don’t. She tells you that he gave her a raise and you wonder if it’s another raise or the same raise she told you about last time you visited. Then she starts telling you about your uncle and how he came by the store one day last week while she was working. You listen politely, pulling on your jacket and gloves. Then you thank her for the tea and bend down to give her a kiss on the cheek. The kiss comes with a hug and you hug her back, feeling how small and warm and soft she is and remembering, for a minute, all the times you slept over her house when you were younger and how she made farina and tea with lots of milk in it for you in the morning. You remember your grandfather, now long gone, and how he used to call you skinny melinks. You remember how you and your sister used to get into the old, green Buick with them on autumn days like today and go to the farm stand where you’d get apples and pumpkins.

Then the hug is over and you stand up straight again, telling her that you’ll invite her over for dinner soon. You go out the door and she follows you, talking about what nights she works and what nights it’s best for her to come. It’s cold out and she’s wearing only her sweatsuit and slippers. You can see wisps of vapor by her mouth when she talks. You tell her to go back inside, that it’s too cold to be out without a coat on, but she follows you down the driveway anyway, right to the end where your car is parked. As you get into the car, she bends down to collect a few leaves that lay on the grass near the curb, then points up to the tree in the side year, saying something that you can’t hear through the closed windows of the car. You start the engine and toot the horn once, then wave and drive away.


Grandma’s Table Photos

Lost photos, odd traditions.

I spent Christmas with my mom and stepdad at their St. Augustine, FL home. They do a great Christmas, with lot of decorations and gifts for everyone — even dinner guests! Very festive.

In addition to my sister and me, my mom invited some friends of hers: a couple slightly younger than me and their two college-age kids. That put a total of eight at their dining room table.

TableAs expected, my mom set the table with her good china and silver on a lace tablecloth. She also had gold plates under the plates, linen and gold napkins, and holiday napkin rings. And candles. The table looked beautiful.

It reminded me of holidays in years gone by. My grandmother, who passed away more than 10 years ago, always took a photo of the holiday table — no matter what holiday it was. She had an old Kodak 110 point-and-shoot film camera — the kind that took so-so photos because of its tiny negatives. She’d wait until the table was all set and then point the camera at it. Flash! An image was captured on film. Maybe she’d do a second one just to make sure. And if there was a turkey, it was always photographed before being carved, sometimes after staging it in the middle of that beautiful table.

The odd thing about this is that I don’t recall seeing any of the table photos she took. Come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing any photos she took.

Yesterday, I wondered about this. Did the photos ever exist? Had the film in her cameras been developed? Was there even film in the camera? If the pictures existed, what happened to them when she died?

These are questions I know I’ll never get answered.

But as I thought about it yesterday and I admired my mother’s beautiful table, I decided to take my own photo — sort of in memory of my grandmother and all those lost photos she took over the years.

I miss you, Grandma.

A California Thanksgiving with Friends

Something different, something fun.

As Thanksgiving approached this year, I was faced with the prospect of not having anyone to spend it with for the first time in my life.

Past Thanksgivings

When I was a kid, it was a big family event that often involved my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins. I can remember more than a few Thanksgiving dinners in the tiny dining room of our house in Cresskill, NJ. For at least part of that time, the dining room table was a pool table with a piece of plywood on top and a nice linen tablecloth on top of that. (Not quite Beverly Hillbillies.) I distinctly remember being able to fool around with the pool balls while siting at the table. Of course, my grandmother always insisted on taking photos of the table all set with my mom’s best china. And a closeup of the turkey before carving. I wonder where all those photos are today?

Later, after Mike and I began living together, we’d occasionally host Thanksgiving dinner at our Harrington Park, NJ house. It was a big deal for everyone to travel out our way — most of his family and even some of mine were in New York and had to deal with the horrendous traffic. But we tried hard to make it worth the drive. Thanksgiving 1996Thanksgiving 1996 was probably the best ever. By that point, we’d discovered the U.S. Southwest and were in love with it. I’d gotten a cookbook filled with southwest recipes and we decided to make the entire meal from it. I whipped up a fancy menu with funky fonts and southwest style borders and printed it out for our guests’ reference. Mike set up our dining room table to seat all 14 guests together. I don’t know quite how we pulled it off, but we managed to serve every single dish piping hot. It was the absolute best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had and I’m so proud to have been one of the two people who prepared it. I still occasionally make more than a few items from that menu. (I would have made some this year, but the cookbook was already packed.)

My FamilyLater, when we moved to Arizona, we didn’t spend many Thanksgivings with family — although I do recall my mom, stepdad, sister, brother, and sister in law coming out to stay with us for Thanksgiving 2004. That was the first — and I believe only — time that I got to use my good china for a big dinner. My mom had been buying me place settings over the years and I added a few right before they arrived so we had enough to go around. I don’t remember the dinner itself being that special, but I do recall the trip to Torrance, CA, that my sister, brother, and sister-in-law made a few days before to tour the Robinson Helicopter factory. Assembly LineOddly enough, that’s the day they put the shell of my helicopter on the assembly line. And, of course, the visit also gave us the opportunity to get a group photo outside, in front of our house.

Other Thanksgivings in our Wickenburg home included friends who weren’t fortunate enough to have someone else to spend Thanksgiving with. I remember one Thanksgiving when we invited a friend, his girlfriend, and his dad to join us for dinner. I think it was just the five of us, but our guest brought a dozen bottles of wine. No, we didn’t drink them all — but it sure was a fun meal.

Howard Mesa KitchenIn later years, once our camping shed at Howard Mesa was fully set up for simple living, we had Thanksgiving there at least once, in 2008. It was a bit of a challenge preparing a large meal in the tiny kitchen and we had to be sure to buy a turkey small enough to fit in the apartment-sized oven. I’d planned to make mango chutney (in addition to cranberries with Mike’s mom’s recipe) but had forgotten to bring the mangos. So I used the same recipe to make apple chutney with the apples we’d brought along. Not a bad substitution. It was a quiet Thanksgiving with just the two of us and our dog, Jack. The horses, Jake and Cherokee, roamed around outside. And the sunset was beautiful.
Howard Mesa Sunset

Dealing with the Prospect of Having Thanksgiving Alone

Although I’d hoped to have the divorce settled long before Thanksgiving so I could get on with my life, by October, I realized that was not going to happen. Apparently, my soon-to-be ex-husband and I had different ideas of what the word “fair” meant. So I slowed down on my high-speed packing and prepared to stay, probably through Christmas (and maybe as long as through March). And that’s when I realized that I might not have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with.

I was going to be like one of those unfortunate people that we’d taken in for Thanksgiving in the past.

All of my friends without family in the area were traveling. Some were skipping dinner altogether. As the day came closer and closer, it seemed more and more likely that I’d have Thanksgiving dinner alone — just me and Penny the Tiny Dog. At first, I was okay with that — after all, I’d lived mostly alone every summer for the past five years. And I’d spent plenty of time alone when my soon-to-be ex was spending weeks in New Jersey or weekdays in Phoenix. But for some reason, Thanksgiving was different.

I realized that it bugged me that I’d be alone on Thanksgiving for the first time in my entire life — especially after 29 consecutive years spending it with the man who would be spending his day with my replacement instead of me.

The emotional pain from that realization was fierce.

Meanwhile, I’d gotten two Thanksgiving invitations that required travel. One was to my brother’s house in New Jersey. I really didn’t want to take that long trip for such a short stay. The other was to my friends Rod and Liz’s house in Georgetown, CA. I gave the situation a lot of thought. And on the Monday before Thanksgiving, I finally decided and bought my round-trip tickets for Sacramento.

Flying Commercial with Penny the Tiny Dog

I’d planned a six-day trip, arriving on Wednesday before Thanksgiving and departing on Monday, after the holiday crowd had gone home. I decided to keep things simple and pack a big bag, which I would check. I’d carry Penny on board in her travel box.

Penny in a BoxPenny is an excellent flyer. Not only is she perfectly at ease in any seat — front or back — of the helicopter, but she doesn’t mind curling up for a nap in her travel box when its tucked away under the seat in front of me on an airliner.

I usually keep her on her leash until just before boarding time. We’ll walk through the terminal and she’ll wait patiently while I grab a latte. Then we’ll hang out by the gate until they start boarding. Everyone loves her — she’s cute and funny to watch, especially when she’s playing with her toys. When we’re ready to board, I’ll coax her — admittedly, sometimes forcefully — into her box and close the door. Then we get in line, board the plane, and I tuck her under the seat. I don’t usually even check on her in flight. She really does just curl up and go to sleep.

When we get off the plane, I carry her out in her box and then get her on her leash as soon as we’re clear of the crowds getting off the plane. Occasionally, after a long flight, she finds a place in the terminal to take a leak or a poop. You can’t really blame her — it’s not as if they have restrooms for dogs. (SEATAC has a pet area that is so stinky, even Penny wouldn’t go in.) I’m prepared for that eventuality with paper shop towels and poop bags, so it isn’t a huge deal. Arriving from Phoenix in Sacramento was accident-free. While waiting for my luggage, I took her outside to a grassy area where she was able to take care of business before my friends arrived to pick us up.

In case you’re wondering, the airlines do charge a fee for carry-on pets. Alaska Airlines charges $100 each way; US AIrways, which is what I took to Sacramento, charges $125 each way. The pet case counts as your carry-on bag, so unless you travel very light, you’ll likely have to spend another $25 to check your bag, too. I think this is outrageous. In fact, Penny’s return fare cost more than my seat on the plane for that flight. According to the check-in folks, I could buy a seat for her. I suspect that’s bullshit, but I’ll try on our next trip.

Although I prefer a mid-sized dog — I sorely miss my border collie, Charlie, and his border collie/Australian shepherd mix predecessor, Jack — I admit that it’s a lot easier to travel with a tiny dog. And she really does seem to like to travel with me. A real adventurer!

Our California Stay

The weather was just clearing out when I arrived — low clouds after some morning rain were burning off. The weather turned perfect and stayed that way straight through our departure on Monday.

My friends picked us up in their old but meticulously maintained Land Rover and whisked us away for a late breakfast. It was great to see them and we talked about all kinds of things. I brought them up to date on the divorce bullshit, even though I’d purposely neglected to read the latest correspondence from opposing counsel. (I didn’t want more bullshit to ruin my weekend and it turned out to be an excellent decision.) Then we climbed back into the car where Penny was waited and headed up to Georgetown, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Rod and Liz live in a great little house on a big piece of land south of Georgetown. Georgetown is a tiny town with even fewer services than Wickenburg, so they do most of their shopping and dining out in either Placerville or Auburn. Their area is quiet and the huge front lawn — which, by the way, is large enough to land a helicopter on — is shielded from the main road by a barrier of tall trees and a creek.

Zoe and PennyThey’d done a lot of work to their house since my last visit and the guest room was completely redone and very comfortable. I set up camp in there for me and Penny. Penny, in the meantime, got to meet their dogs: Emma (a pit bull), Bentley (a hound), and Zoe (a border collie). Of the three, Bentley is the oldest and wasn’t very interested in his tiny house guest. Emma wasn’t really, either. But Zoe and Penny soon became fast friends, sharing the few toys I’d brought along for Penny. Whenever we just hung around the house, they’d play together. In the evenings, when Zoe stretched out on her big bed, Penny would curl up beside her.

Red TreeAutumn was in full swing in the Georgetown area and trees were turning color everywhere. The best I saw, however, was right in my friend’s front yard: a small maple tree brilliant with shades of red and orange. Every morning, the sun would come through the other trees, sprinkling this little tree with splotches of golden light. Day after day, I pulled out my camera, attempting to capture the glorious colors. I think this shot came out the best.

We had Thanksgiving Dinner at Liz’s mom’s house. She lives in a 55+ park in Placerville. A friend of hers had made the stuffing and she’d started the turkey. When we arrived in the afternoon, Liz made a few other things and put the finishing touches on what had already been prepared or started. A friend of Liz’s mom, John, joined us and we had a nice dinner for five around her dining table with the four dogs lounging around the little house and Liz’s mom’s cat hiding out in a bedroom. The food was good and, as you might expect, I ate a lot more than I should have. (I fully expected to gain a few pounds during this trip because of the sheer quantity of food I ate and was pleasantly surprised when the scale at home on Tuesday morning registered roughly what it had a week before.)

We spent the next few days just getting out and around in the area.

On Friday, Rod and Liz needed to run some errands down in the Folsom area, so we took the Land Rover down. We had lunch at the excellent Sutter Street Grill in Folsom, which serves breakfast all day. I had a great omelet and took half home for the next day. We fetched Penny out of the car and walked around town. I bought a[nother] scarf — blue with fish on it — and let Liz treat me to some gelato. We made our way back to the car, past a skating rink full of kids. It was a great place, a great day. I felt really alive to be out and about in a new place with friends.

Rod and Liz

Maria and Penny

On Saturday, we went for a short hike close to their home. It was a nice spot, with several creeks coming together on their way to the American River. Although most of the leaves were gone, it was pleasant to be in the woods, especially after months in the Arizona desert. There was a little bridge across the creek and we took the opportunity to take photos of each other. Here’s Rod and Liz in one shot and me and Penny in the other.

On Saturday night, we were invited a burn party at a friend’s house. Let me explain. In this area, folks have lots of trees and brush. To get rid of this stuff, they burn it. They’re allowed to do this with a permit on certain days and under certain conditions. Unfortunately, our host discovered after inviting everyone that she wasn’t allowed to burn that day. But the party went on anyway, on the back patio of a wonderful little rental house she owns on the American River. There was a fireplace back there and we kept feeding it logs. Lots of food: shrimp cocktail, sausages, salads, dips, and chips. Our host was a part owner of a 100+ year old winery in either Napa or Sonoma valley (I can’t remember which) and served up the best cabernet and zinfandel (no, not the pink kind), making me feel a bit embarrassed about bringing along some of the white wine from Washington that my husband had left behind in our house. Later, when the fire was good and hot, we took turns roasting marshmallows. I was thrilled when our host offered me a bottle of her winery’s award-winning Zinfandel to take home. (I’m saving it to share it with someone special who will really appreciate it.)

Fire Good Roasting Marshmallows

Sutters Mill MapOn Sunday, Rod took us in his Volkswagen Thing for a more strenuous hike without the dogs. We started near the site of Sutter’s Mill — where the California Gold Rush began in 1849, in case you’re not familiar with this bit of history — and hiked up the trail in the Marshall Gold Discover State History Park. The trail was steep and Rod set a good, fast pace that had me huffing and puffing. Funny, but in my fat days, I never would have been able to keep up. On that day I worked up a good sweat but never really lagged behind. At the top of the mountain were some nice view points. We found a picnic area and stopped for a rest and a snack. That’s where I set up my camera and timer for a fun shot of our three heads between two tree boughs and a few more portraits.

Three Heads are Better than One Rod and Liz

Walnut TreeAfterward, we headed down to where Liz works, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm. This interesting historic site is the location of the first Japanese settlement in the United States. It’s also where the first child to Japanese immigrants was born and the site of the first Japanese immigrant’s death. Today, the farm has trails, the gravesite, and other farm buildings more recent to the area. We walked among the black walnut trees, picking up and munching on walnuts that had fallen from the trees. I’d never had fresh walnuts before and really enjoyed the experience. We hiked past a big pond, followed by the farm dog who bugged Rod to throw sticks for him. We went as far as the gravesite before turning around and going back to the car. The moon had risen in the east and flocks of Canada Geese were flying.

Moon and Geese

We took it easy on Monday morning. I helped Liz clean up some debris from a tree removal job while Rod took his other Land Rover down to Placerville to get something checked on it. By the time he got back, I was packed up and ready to go. We made a leisurely trip down to Sacramento, stopping for lunch at the excellent Newcastle Produce for a sandwich and other treats. Liz bought a big bag of seedless mandarin oranges and gave me 8 of them to take home. (I shared three of them with my seat mates on the flight home.)

We said goodbye at the airport and I admit that I was very sad to go. It had been a great weekend with friends, doing lots of fun, new things.

My New Life: It’s All about Getting Out and Experiencing New Things

I feel, in a way, that I missed out on a lot of things over the past few years of my life.

Over the past few years, I was stuck in a rut with someone who either couldn’t or didn’t want to get out more. Although I felt that something wasn’t quite right during those years, I now realize that I felt sort of “trapped,” with most of my time spent either at the cavelike Phoenix condo or at our Wickenburg home. Day trips with my “life partner” were only possible on weekends, and even that was limited to places we had already been. He used all of his vacation time traveling back east to be with his family — people who never made me feel welcome or comfortable. More often than not, especially in the last year of our relationship, I felt as if my presence and desire to get out and do different things was an inconvenience to him.

He solved the problem for me, although the way he did it was neither kind nor honorable. That’s something his conscience needs to deal with — if he still has a conscience.

In the meantime, I’m making a special effort to get out more and do more things. The past three months have been among the most active in my entire life, with several trips out of state to visit friends as well as lots of day trips with new people.

But among all the things I’ve done recently, this Thanksgiving trip was the best. Many thanks for Rod and Liz for making me feel so welcome and keeping me busy!

Jack the Dog

The best dog.

Our first exposure to Jack was in mid 2001. The year before, we’d put our 14-year-old Dalmation to rest after a life of controllable health problems became uncontrollable with age. He was my third dog — my family always had dogs — and my husband’s first. His loss was shattering and we took some time off to see if we could live without a dog in our lives.

Nine months later, we were thinking of trying again. We’d decided that we wanted a smart dog. While Spot had been smart enough to fetch the newspaper from the curb, fetch my slippers, and distinguish one toy from another by name, he wasn’t quite smart enough to stay out of the Arizona sun or avoid the back end of a protective mare when a newborn filly was in the area. I didn’t think Dalmatians could fly, but ours did. He was never quite the same after that, either.

Jack in the PaperWe’d been talking to people about dogs and learning about different breeds well-suited for ranches. I’d decided that something like a border collie or Australian shepherd would be a good breed. So when the newspaper mentioned a border collie/Australian shepherd mix up for adoption, we decided to take a look.

Understand that Wickenburg is a small town and nothing much happens. In order to fill the pages of the local weekly rag they call a newspaper, they’d often show photos of pets up for adoption. (I don’t know if they still do this. We stopped reading the crap they printed when they became the propaganda arm for a corrupt mayor and Chamber of Commerce.) The town didn’t have a Humane Society back then, so all unwanted pets were brought to Bar S Animal Clinic, which happened to be the vet we used for Spot and our horses.

The story we got about the dog — who was already named Jack — was that he’d been owned by a family that neglected him. He was frequently out loose and had been picked up by the local dog catcher at least three times. The first few times, the family paid the fee and picked him up. But the last time, they’d decided not to. He was up for grabs. They figured he was 9 to 12 months old.

The newspaper clipping completely understated his personality. When they brought him out to the waiting area at Bar S for us to meet him, they practically had to drag him out on a leash. He was terrified. He didn’t want to come to either one of us.

Although he looked like a nice enough dog, I had doubts. I didn’t want a dog that was afraid of his own shadow. Mike and I talked it over and then talked to the folks at Bar S. I distinctly remember asking if we could bring him back if it didn’t work out. They told us we could, so we coaxed him outside to the car.

That’s when we noticed Jack was really different. He wouldn’t get in the car — it was like he didn’t know how. Finally, I sat in the front seat and Mike put him on my lap. He closed the door and we headed back to the office in town.

In those days, I owned a condo in downtown Wickenburg. After dealing with the last set of abusive and destructive tenants, I’d decided to turn the place into an office for us. I had the living room, Mike had the master bedroom. Our home was across town, about 5 miles away by car.

The condo was on the second floor. That’s when we discovered that Jack didn’t know how to climb steps.

His first gift to us was a big poop on the living room carpet.

He started coming around to us very quickly and that scaredy-dog personality faded away. He listened, came when we called him, and didn’t need to be on a leash around the yard. He also seemed to get along fine with the horses. And he understood what shade was.

Jack and MikeHe bonded to me — probably because he’d been sitting on my lap on that car ride. This was not ideal. I’d planned to get a parrot in a month or so and Jack was supposed to be mostly my husband’s dog. So for the first few days, I began ignoring him and Mike started lavishing him with attention. After a few days of that, he was Mike’s dog, although he responded to me equally well. But when we were together, it was always Mike that he went to first. That was fine with me.

We’d had him about a month when he fell out of the back of Mike’s pickup on the way to the office. It wasn’t light yet — Mike was telecommuting for a job on the east coast back then and would routinely get to the office around 6 AM local time. He wasn’t sure where Jack had fallen out, but he was able to narrow it down to a 1/2 mile stretch of road about a mile from our house.

We spent the entire day looking for him, calling the dog catcher, Bar S, and any other group that might know something about a found dog. I used my Jeep to drive up and down all the sandy washes in the area, calling him by name. We were convinced that he’d been injured and was hiding in the bushes somewhere, possibly dying.

When night fell, we knew the coyotes would get him. We were shattered. In just a month, we’d grown to love him.

At 3 AM, Mike climbed out of bed, unable to sleep. He came downstairs to get a glass of water. And who was at the back door, waiting to be let in? Jack. I don’t know how he spent his day, but he found his way home, safe and sound.

The next nine and a half years left indelible memories on my mind:

  • Jack and Mike at ParkerJack sitting on the edge of the back patio, watching the road that leads down to our house, racing around to the front when Mike’s car or truck rolled down.
  • Jack barking at the UPS truck or FedEx truck before it even came into sight, climbing into the open UPS truck door as I chatted with the driver and he fetched my package, accepting cookies from our mail carrier.
  • Jack at Howard MesaJack running around on our 40 acres in northern Arizona, chasing rabbits, crawling under the shed, looking for mice and rats.
  • Jack barking at the sound of coyotes, close or far, sometimes in the middle of the night.
  • Jack chasing lizards in the backyard and, more than once, catching them.
  • Jack riding in the back of my Jeep as we explored the old forest roads just south of the Grand Canyon or out in the desert along Constellation Road or up in the Bradshaw Mountains.
  • Jack “herding” the horses up the driveway at the end of the day, dodging Jake’s hoofs as he tried to kick him.
  • Jack in the ForestJack hiking with us up Vulture Peak, through the Hassayampa River bed, at Granite Mountain, inside Red Mountain, at the Grand Canyon, in the forest at Mount Humphreys, in countless other places.
  • Jack in the back of my helicopter, looking out the window as we flew over town.
  • Jack on the trail in the desert as we followed on horseback, watching him take off with high pitched yipping sounds as he closed in on a jackrabbit or cottontail.
  • Jack with Lee and Sharon PearsonJack riding in the back of the pickup, his head out in the slipstream as we drove around town. (He only fell out of the pickup that one time, although he did fall out of my Jeep twice.)
  • Jack playing with my neighbor’s dogs, who used to come visit for cookies and attention.
  • Jack racing around the side of the house when he knew we’d be coming out the front, looking at us with the “Can I please come?” face and racing to the truck when we said yes.
  • Jack whining when we prepared to leave and told him he’d have to stay in. It’s that whine that Alex the Bird picked up and mimics to this day.
  • Jack meeting us at the door as if he hadn’t seen us for years when we came home from a day out.
  • Jack ignoring Alex the Bird when he whistled Mike’s whistle or issued commands: “Hey, Jack!” “Go lie down!” “Go outside!”
  • Jack on his dog bed at the foot of the bed, or by the open french doors in our bedroom, or on a rug on the floor of our cabin or RV while we slept.
  • Jack trotting along ahead of us, on his extension leash, as we walked the few blocks from our Phoenix condo to Wildflower Bakery for morning coffee and breakfast croissant.

I could go on all day, listing the snapshots in my mind. Jack didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Everyone loved him.

He never seemed to slow down — until recently. In the 20-20 vision of hindsight, I should have realized there was a problem. I noticed about a month ago that he seemed to be breathing heavily, even at rest, once in a while. I mentioned it to Mike, but he didn’t notice.

Last weekend, he seemed a bit under the weather, spending more than the usual amount of time just lying around. We thought it had something to do with his food; Mike had bought something new. Jack had a sensitive digestive system and could only eat dog food. (People food literally made him sick — even good stuff like steak!) But by Sunday, he was back to his old self.

On Monday morning, Mike went on a business trip to Georgia.

Jack stopped eating on Tuesday. I took him to the local vet on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. He had blood work. He spent Thursday at the vet. His labored breathing prompted the vet to take an X-ray. That’s when he saw the fluid around his lungs.

I took him to another vet in Peoria for an ultrasound on Friday morning. By that time, he had to be carried everywhere. He was alert but weak, struggling to breathe.

The ultrasound picture made the problem obvious. The doctor was able to diagnose in less than a minute. Jack had a large tumor on his heart. It looked to be about 1/5 the size of his heart, so it had obviously been growing there for a while. The tumor was causing fluid to leak into the sac around his heart. That fluid was crowding out his lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

The tumor, because of its placement, was inoperable. Chemotherapy was not usually effective — although I admit that I don’t think we would have gone that route. Draining the fluid could buy him a few hours or days, but his condition would come right back to the way it was. There was even a chance that the fluid could fill as quickly as it was drained.

In other words, Jack was terminally ill and likely had a very short time to live.

Jack the Desert DogThe decision wasn’t hard. The worst thing you can do for an animal is try to keep it alive when it’s suffering. Jack, although maybe not in pain (yet), was laboring to breathe. It was taking everything he had. He couldn’t even walk anymore. He hadn’t eaten in more than three days. His condition was deteriorating quickly. I wasn’t even sure if he’d be alive when my husband came home that night.

After breaking the news to my husband, I did what I needed to do. The folks at Bar S Animal Clinic were unbelievably kind to both Jack and me. I cannot thank them enough.

Jack’s gone now and we’ll miss him. He was the best dog ever.

Note: I’ve closed the comments on this post in an effort to head off condolences, etc. While I appreciate any kind thoughts you might have in this difficult time, I believe that reading them will only prolong my grief. If you want to leave a comment, instead consider a small donation to your local Humane Society. And the next time you want to add a pet to your life, visit the local pound or Humane Society first. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll get to take home a pet as wonderful as Jack was.

The Name Game

I don’t get it.

A few weeks ago, I got a birthday card from a step-aunt. She’s my stepfather’s sister, a very nice woman with a daughter my age. In fact, her daughter and I went to the same college at the same time, although we had different majors and never saw each other on campus.

But I digress.

The card was addressed to Maria Chilingerian.

My name is not Maria Chilingerian. It’s Maria Langer. It always has been and it always will be.

My husband’s last name is Chilingerian. He might not have had a choice about that as a last name, but I did. I decided I wanted no part of it. It’s too long to spell, too hard to say. (And frankly, even I’m tired of the waiters and customer service people making a game out of trying to pronounce it.) So I stuck with Langer. Six easy letters, very seldom mispronounced.

It wasn’t just the spelling and pronunciation of the the name that made me stick with Langer. It was the fact that Langer is my name and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to change it just because I’m married.

The way I see it, when a woman changes her name to match her husband’s, she’s giving up part of her identity. She’s sending the message that her husband’s identity is more important than hers.

Or, worse yet, that she has become one of her husband’s possessions.

That may have been the case in the old days, before women were allowed to vote or own property. It may have been the case in the old days, when a man was the breadwinner and the woman’s role — which wasn’t even considered the job it is — centered around the home and family. It may have been the case in the old days, when a woman’s main goal in life was to find and marry a man and bear his children.

But that’s not how it is today. Not with me, anyway.

I think about all the inconveniences associated with a name change. All the paperwork for new license, passport, credit cards, bank accounts. It doesn’t seem fair that this should all fall on the wife.

And what happens when a woman divorces and just wants to forget her first husband and marriage? Kind of hard to forget a man when you still carry around his name.

I also think about how difficult it is to get back in touch with the women I’ve known throughout my life. If they’re married, they’ve likely taken their husband’s names. I don’t know their husbands. How can I find them on Facebook or Twitter?

And yes, I am aware of the rare instances when a husband takes his wife’s name. In every instance I’ve heard of it, the man’s name is so horrible that anything would be better. (“With a name like Smuckers…”)

Although I’m kind of bugged by my aunt’s error, I can’t fault her for it. She doesn’t know any better. She’s old school, she naturally assumed I’d take my husband’s name in place of my own. I never told her or anyone else that I wouldn’t.

I didn’t see a need to.

Taming My Skeptical Side

And how a podcast helps guide me.

As a skeptic, I’m not likely to believe any outrageous claims without solid proof. Unfortunately, I’m surrounded by people with all kinds of weird beliefs.

I have friends and relatives who believe in things such as ghosts, astrology, psychic power, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, crystal power, and other tested yet unproven concepts. Over the years, as I’ve learned more and more about how unproven these ideas are, I’ve wanted to share my insight to “enlighten” these people in my life. All I’ve faced, however, is frustration. They cannot let go of these beliefs — even enough to see how “proofs” can be faked.

Strained Relationships

One example of this is psychic power. I know people who watch John Edward on television and visit psychics and swear that they’re proof of real psychic power. Yet it’s pretty obvious to me that all these “psychics” are doing is using cold or even hot reading techniques and relying on human nature to remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” I try to convince these people that what they’re seeing is a scam, but they don’t believe me. In the end, frustrated and disappointed, I feel a great loss. My inability to reconcile my knowledge with their conflicting belief causes me to lose my connection with them. I can’t see them the same way anymore. It puts a huge dent in our relationship.

In the end, I simply begin avoiding the person with the wacky beliefs.

I should clarify here. There are a lot of things people believe in that I don’t. For example, God. I’m an atheist, but I understand why people believe in God and how it helps them in their daily life. If we don’t discuss it, their belief does not affect my relationship with them. The same goes for any other relatively harmless belief that they have but generally keep to themselves.

It’s only when a wacky belief becomes a regular conversation point that I start to back off. Some people want to “convert,” me, to make me a believer, too. But they’re unable to provide the proof I need to believe. I’m unable to convince them to look at things from my point of view. We’re deadlocked. If this becomes an issue each time we’re together, I’d rather just avoid them.

And yes, I realize that “wacky” is a strong and possibly derogatory term. But from my point of view, many of these beliefs are just that: wacky.

Realistic Expectations, Curiosity, and Caution

Actually SpeakingEnter the Actually Speaking podcast. This is a different kind of podcast for skeptics. Instead of preaching to the choir by providing us with the facts and scientific evidence we need to understand the reality of unproven beliefs, Actually Speaking helps us deal with non-skeptics in a way that won’t ruin our relationships. Podcaster Mike Meraz offers advice, not facts. And the advice is, on the whole, very good.

Want an example? Well, the frustration I feel when dealing with the wacky beliefs of my friends and family members is a perfect example of how my skepticism can damage my relationships with these people. My reaction — to just back off — isn’t doing anyone any good. Mike suggests, in Episode 2, to develop realistic expectations for discussing conflicting beliefs. My goal should not be to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong but to try to guide them to the point of Episode 3, curiosity and caution. After all, does it really matter what they believe? Isn’t it more important that they consider looking at their beliefs from other points of view and not get hurt by decisions made based on faulty beliefs? (For example, using homeopathy to cure a real problem rather than visiting a physician and getting real medicine.)

I realized, after listening to these two episodes back-to-back, that I had actually taken this approach and had a very positive outcome. I thought I’d blog about it to share my experience with other skeptics.

The Dowser

The situation dealt with dowsing. According to Wikipedia, dowsing is:

…a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials, as well as so-called currents of earth radiation, without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is also known as divining (especially in reference to interpretation of results), doodlebugging (in the US), or (when searching specifically for water) water finding or water witching.

A Y- or L-shaped twig or rod, called a dowsing rod, divining rod (Latin: virgula divina or baculus divinatorius) or witching rod is sometimes used during dowsing, although some dowsers use other equipment or no equipment at all.

In this situation, an acquaintance — we’ll call him Joe — claimed to be able to dowse gravesites to determine the gender of people buried. He uses this “skill” out in the desert to comb through pioneer cemeteries and other unmarked gravesites and report about people buried there.

A friend of mine — we’ll call him Bill — often writes articles about desert exploration for a Web site I manage, wickenburg-az.com. He went on an outing with Joe and documented Joe’s findings. He then submitted an article about their outing for inclusion on the Web site.

While the general content of the article was interesting and I was sure the site’s readers would enjoy it, Bill included a detailed listing of the gravesites Joe had dowsed, including the number of graves (all unmarked) and the genders of the people buried there. I had a problem with this. I don’t believe that dowsing can provide factual information like this.* Including an account of the dowsing and its results could undermine the otherwise fact-based account of their outing. It could make the site look like a supporter of unscientific beliefs or, to use a term that’s falling out of fashion among skeptics these days, woo.

Worse yet, the article could provide a source of information for serious researchers attempting to find gravesites of specific individuals. Was the female grave at the site the grave of so-and-so’s long-lost aunt Mabel? How could I allow the article to state that there was a female grave there at all if there was no real proof? After all, the only way to be sure there was a grave at all would be to dig it up — which was completely out of the question for so many reasons.

I was in a quandary. I wanted the article, but I didn’t want the dowsing information in it. Bill, I felt, was a reasonable person. I was surprised that he believed in the power of dowsing. So I asked him straight out if he thought the dowsing results were reliable. I told him that I hadn’t heard of any scientific proof of dowsing claims. I told him I was skeptical and didn’t want to report unreliable information.

Bill, to his credit, considered my words. He got on the Internet and started doing some research. He found some documents that seemed to support dowsing. But then he found better documents from better sources — scientific sources — that indicated that dowsing was unproven and likely not possible. He sent me links to everything he found. He seemed embarrassed that he had been taken in by Joe’s confidence in his abilities. He rewrote the article to remove the mention of dowsing. I published it on the site.

By encouraging Bill to be curious about dowsing, I’d helped him come to his own conclusions about dowsing. He made the changes I needed in his article to feel comfortable about publishing it. Our relationship didn’t suffer at all. In fact, Bill seemed genuinely glad that I’d questioned him about it and that he’d had an opportunity to learn more.

Exploring the Human Side of Skepticism

Actually Speaking has helped me see how the way I dealt with Bill’s belief was the right way to deal with it. I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I didn’t belittle or insult him. I treated him like the intelligent human being he is. I made him curious enough to do his own research and come to his own conclusion. This tells me that the advice is Actually Speaking is good, solid advice because it can work.

Are you a skeptic or critical thinker surrounded by people with wacky beliefs? If so, give Actually Speaking a try. I think it might help you with your relationships with these people.


* Curious about dowsing? Check out this article in the James Randi Educational Foundation Library: “The Matter of Dowsing.” You can also read about an actual test in James Randi’s book, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.