The Marriage Gene

My sister called last night to tell me about a hot job prospect in the Bay Area.  She’s hoping she gets the job so that she can move back into her house at the end of the renters’ lease term.  I don’t blame her for hoping that her days as a traveling sonographer might be over.

Just as she called, I received a text from my cousin on the east coast.  This is starting to get freaky.  First, my sister, who I often don’t hear from for months, calls me twice in one week.  Then my only first cousin, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1996, appears out of nowhere.  “Who is this?” I asked when he texted me.  I didn’t even recognize the area code.

I am guessing that my cousin, who is only two weeks older than I am, is trying to reconnect with family for some reason.  Apparently, my brother-in-law in Texas finally accepted a Facebook friend request that my cousin made two years ago.  In our younger days, my cousin had a little crush on my Texas sister, but of course nothing came of it since we’re first cousins and all.  Instead, he ended up marrying one of her best friends.

Putting two and two together, I suppose my Texas sister or her husband gave my cousin the phone number for my Bay Area sister.  Then she gave him my number.

My cousin and I are such opposites that, from childhood on, we never had much to do with one another.  He was always a thin, tall, good-looking guy, while I’ve always been short and obese.  I was always well-behaved and did well in school, while my cousin had a sassy mouth, was constantly in trouble and struggled with grades.  My earliest memory of my cousin is when, at the age of five, in a fit of pique he took off his shoe and threw it at my grandparents’ console television.

I’m sure that a good part of my cousin’s early problems were related to his upbringing.  His parents were constantly screaming at each other and, I am told, had fistfights.  His father was a skinny little 98 pound guy, while his mother was a huge woman with a huge voice.  They both had huge tempers.

My parents bought a house in the suburbs and moved us out of New York City when I was six years old, while my cousin slept in the living room of a tiny, roach-infested apartment until he graduated from college.

When we were in our early twenties, my cousin bemoaned his bad luck with women and wondered aloud why a fat guy like me always had a girlfriend.  I didn’t bother mentioning that personality might have something to do with it.  There are not a lot of people who find a wiseass endearing.

I haven’t felt the need to keep in contact with my cousin over the years.  At some level, I think I associate him with bad childhood memories.  So now he gets in touch with me via text and says he wants to call.  What can I do?  It would be rude to tell him not to call.  Maybe I need to give the guy another chance.  However, considering that he lives 3,000 miles away, what hope would we have for a normal familial relationship even under the best of circumstances?

I texted him back, telling him to call me on the weekend.  This should be interesting.

In text, I explained to him that I work in state government and that my wife and I enjoy a happy life.  “That’s good,” he responded.

Then he texted me a photo of himself with his wife.

His third wife.

My cousin has always chosen his partners badly.  When we were younger, I thought that, because he had difficulties with women, he settled for whatever he could get.  First it was his New York wife, my sister’s friend, with whom he had two sons.  Then he divorced her and married his New Jersey wife, who referred to him as “my prince.”  Then he divorced her and married his North Carolina wife, whom I hear has cancer and is undergoing the hell that is chemotherapy and radiation.

My sister says that, if NC wife passes on, Cuz will quickly move on to a fourth wife.  Her theory is that some people have a “marriage gene,” an innate trait that compels them to hitch their wagon to “anyone with an XX chromosome.”

My cousin’s mother died of cancer about a dozen years ago, and his father, already past the age of 70, remarried.  His new wife suffers from a variety of serious illnesses.  Sis is laying bets that, should she pass away, my uncle, now well in his eighties, will marry again.

My father says that a second marriage represents the triumph of hope over experience.  I wonder what a third marriage represents.

When a relationship fails, we often resort to the defense mechanism of blaming the shortcomings of our partner.  After a couple of failed marriages, however, what would make one think that a subsequent attempt would fare any better?  At some point, a reasonable person would take a good hard look in the mirror and say “maybe it’s me!”

After my sister divorced her husband, he stated that he “doesn’t want to die alone” and promptly remarried.  Someone should have broken the news to him that we all die alone.  Nevertheless, I get it that some people just can’t stand to be without a steady bed partner, particularly after years of marriage.  I get it that having lots of family, friends and coworkers isn’t the same thing as having a life partner.  Or an until-I-get-divorced-again partner, at any rate.

Or maybe my sister is right.  Perhaps there really is a marriage gene.

I’m A Terrible Friend

friends

I have a confession to make:  I am a terrible friend.

I realized this the other day when I received a Christmas card in the mail from a friend who I haven’t been in contact with for nearly two years.

He doesn’t generally send out Christmas cards, but I had a pretty good idea that I’d be receiving one from him this year because he recently messaged my wife on Facebook and asked for our address.  This makes sense because he had no idea where we are living and he is aware that I do not do Facebook.  I suppose he could have emailed me, as my email address has not changed.  He may not have it in his computer’s address book, though.

The last time my friend contacted my wife on Facebook to ask for our address was because he wanted to send us a wedding invitation.  We were unable to attend the wedding due to the distance involved, but we did send a gift.  I hope he received it.  I wouldn’t know, as we never received any kind of acknowledgment.

Of course, I could have called him to ask whether he and his wife received our gift.  But I didn’t.  I figured it didn’t really matter.  Usually, when you send something, it does arrive.  So I’d just make him feel bad about not sending a thank-you note, and I wasn’t about to do that.  I always hated being forced to write thank-you notes as a kid (usually for gifts I didn’t even like) and there is no way that I am going to hold against someone the fact they choose not to participate in this outdated social nicety.

As I see it, there isn’t anything all that unusual about losing touch with someone for two years or even a whole lot longer.  I’ve always believed that it’s a natural thing for friendships to wax and wane; people come into our lives and go out of them and sometimes return again.  We all have our own problems to handle and staying in contact with old friends and acquaintances is not necessarily a priority.  I’m not going to give you an autograph book to sign “2 sweet 2 b forgotten” and vow to be your BFF on Facebook.  I graduated from junior high a long time ago.

We need to accept that life has its ebb and flow.  We need to ride those waves rather than becoming sucked into the mire of the past.

However. . .  It is just possible that this attitude is one of the reasons that I have very few friends.  Despite the fact that I write a blog that is shared with people who live in countries I’ve barely heard of on the other side of the world, I am basically an introverted person who does his own thing and doesn’t feel the need for regular socializing.

My wife, on the other hand, has what I suspect is a more healthy approach to friendships.  She has friends from one end of the country to the other.  I’m not just talking about sending messages on Facebook, either.  They may be 3,000 miles away, but my wife and her friends still call each other during the day, during breaks at work, during the evening commute, on weekends.

I’ve wondered for a while whether some of this dichotomy may be attributed to the gender divide.  I pondered about this in “On Friendship,” one of my very early posts to this blog.

But if I am to be perfectly honest with myself, I must admit that I am a terrible friend.

You think I’m kidding?  As if not contacting my friend for two years isn’t bad enough, when I did receive his card and letter, he started out his message by informing me of his recent separation and impending divorce.

Okay, now I feel like a crud for sure.

I am tempted to make myself feel better by saying, hey, he could have called or emailed me to let me know what was going on.  If he wanted advice or sympathy or another opinion or just a listening ear, he could have called or emailed me.

But I’d be fooling myself by taking this approach.  The real truth is that I would have known what was going on if I had made even the slightest effort to keep in touch.  And this I did not do.

Sure, this is a friend who asked for my address once to announce his wedding and a second time to announce his divorce.  But at least he felt enough of a connection to me to share these life-changing events.

I like to think that distance is a factor.  For four years, we lived in the same city and met over a Scrabble board nearly every week.  We made more than a few out-of-state road trips together.  But then I lost my job and had to move eight hours away when I found another one.  Now we live only about 3½ hours apart, but that is still too much of a distance for a normal relationship.

Or is it?  This takes me back to my wife’s friends on the other side of the country who call her on their lunch breaks or while driving home from work.

I don’t know whether the error of my ways is a man thing or an introvert thing or just a me-being-an-ass thing.  But I do know that there has to be a better way.

So I hope I can somehow make this right.  Within an hour of reading my friend’s letter, I sat down and wrote him back.  And I plan to visit him next week.

This can never make up for my two-year absence, but at least it’s a start.

Lewis, you have the address of this blog now.  I hope you read this post.

 

The Answer: Fathers

father

We were watching episodes of The Voice on DVR the other night when one of the profiled contestants began discussing his childhood by saying “I grew up with divorced parents, like most kids.”

Say what?

Is it really true that most American children grow up in single parent families today?  The old chestnut about newlyweds having a 50/50 chance of their marriage succeeding is supposed to be woefully out of date.  I found one article that cites the divorce rate in my home state of California to be 8 out of every thousand residents, with the highest divorce rate in the United States being Alaska’s, with 14 out of every thousand residents having called it quits.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, nationally, the divorce rate has decreased over the past decade from 4 to 3.6 out of every thousand Americans.  These statistics, of course, are subject to interpretation.  One of the many problems with them is that they refer to the number of people who are divorced in a particular state or nationally, not the number of marriages that fail annually.  However you look at it, though, the anecdotal 50% figure appears to be much higher than reality.

In popular culture, children of divorced parents are painted as pawns in a chess game between battling parents or shuttlecocks swatted back and forth from father’s house to mother’s house.  Examples include such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer, Table for Five, Shoot the Moon, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, not all divorcing parents are awarded joint custody of their children and not all fathers stick around.  Then there are the millions of children who, while not reflected in the divorce statistics, are raised by their mothers exclusively because their parents were never married to begin with.

On one side, I think of my niece, whose father faded out of the picture when she was three years old and her parents divorced.  On the other side, I think of her daughter, my grandniece, whose parents were never married and who is growing up without a father in her life.  It’s hard not to think that the former may have helped to produce the latter.

Leslie Grimard, a researcher for The Heritage Foundation, points out that 60% of kids in Richmond, Virginia have no father in the home.  Whether their parents were divorced or never married at all, that is a lot of children growing up with only one parent and, in most cases, no regular male influence.  Nationally, Grimard reports, about one out of every four children lives with his or her mother only.

While some may view these statistics as a cause for condemnation of a social or moral breakdown, the real problem is that more than half of children of single mothers live in dire poverty.  Of the one trillion dollars we spend on welfare programs for low-income families with children, over three-quarters goes to families headed by single mothers.

Despite federal and state efforts to keep these families above water, children growing up without fathers have a high incidence of battling depression, abusing drugs and getting in trouble with the law at an early age, according to Grimard.

Grimard posits that the answer to these social ills is not throwing more money at the problem (which our broke government cannot afford in any event).  The answer is fathers.

“When fathers play an active role in the lives of their children, they make a tangible difference,” writes Grimard.  “Children whose fathers spent time with them doing day-to-day activities such as homework, eating dinner or playing sports earned better grades on average than peers who had less access to their fathers.”

Many single mothers wish that the fathers of their children would take an active role in their kids’ lives.  It is easy to criticize absentee fathers for what appears to be moral bankruptcy, but the fact remains that no one can force fathers to do right by their children.  Then there are those mothers who, regretting ever having become involved with the father of their children, believe that everyone is better off if he stays out of their lives.  These fathers may have problems with alcohol or drugs or may be physically or emotionally abusive.  I once worked with a woman who, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s absent father, referred to her ex as “my sperm donor.”

But the problems engendered by fatherlessness persist.  The cycle of poor school performance, dropping out of school, committing crime, teen pregnancy and poverty seems like a generational curse that never ends.  I have to agree that fathers are the most direct way, and possibly the only way, to break this cycle.

It is sad that the single, impoverished mother has become a fixture in American society.  In his widely heralded book, The Working Poor, David Shipler pointed out a decade ago that this entire sector of society has become “invisible.”  The chambermaid who cleans your hotel room, the cashier at Wal-Mart and the young lady handing you your Big Mac and fries through the McDonald’s drive-through window are all likely to be single mothers (either divorced or never married) silently suffering from grinding poverty.  Part of this poverty is the product of one-income minimum wage families.  But there is also the poverty of spirit of children of these households who grow up without the influence of a father.

In fatherless families, boys often grow up without significant male role models.  As for the girls, the image of a man who is husband and father may be totally foreign to them.  Likely as not, their home life experience is shared by many of their schoolmates and neighborhood friends.

The picture is rather depressing, and I can only wonder whether my grandniece will one day perpetuate the cycle by making babies early and struggling along as a single mother.  Despite the reduction in divorce rates in recent decades, it is statistically likely that my great-grandniece or great-grandnephew will also grow up without a father.

I was lucky.  My parents have been married for nearly 61 years.  Not all of those years were happy.  As a teenager, I remember my parents having acrimonious shouting matches that lasted half the night, complete with the vilest kind of curses, accusations and threats.  My sisters and I were scared to death and horrified.  We thought we were witnessing our family being torn asunder before our very eyes.

When I was fifteen, my mother vowed to divorce my father if he failed to concede to her demands.  While I am sure that each of my parents had grounds for justification for their positions, I remember wishing that they’d just get divorced already and get it over with.  I was sick of the bickering, arguing and foul language.  Like the Biblical character Jonah pouting beneath a vine when things didn’t go his way, I was terribly disappointed when my father caved in and stayed.  It wasn’t the first time he justified his actions by saying of my mother “if I didn’t love her so much, I’d leave.”

But I think the real reason he stayed, which I couldn’t fully appreciate as a teenager, is because he loved his three children and knew what might happen if he left.

Thanks, Dad.