Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ms Communication

Today is my birthday. Most likely, it's the last birthday I ever have. No, I'm not planning to do something rash. I'm not dying of cancer, either.

For the last two weeks, my wife asks me what I want to do for my birthday. My answer is always the same; nothing. I want no fuss made. No party. No dinner out. No movie. Nothing. Unfortunately, my wife forgets I am a man which means the words coming out of my mouth mean pretty much what they do in the dictionary. There are no hidden meanings, no hoping she won't listen to me and do something anyway.

My birthday is a time of reflection about the past year. What were my mistakes? What can I do better this year? Sometimes, reflecting happens on a hike by myself or a trip to the library. Maybe it's a drive or a walk down the street. Sometimes I like to include others so I can tell them how much I value their love and friendship. My birthday is not about cake and presents. It's about presence and the present.

On her way out the door, Robin makes suggestions about where we will go to dinner for my birthday. Since she didn't listen to what I said all week, I'm pretty much resigned to a dinner out. I even offered to make dinner myself but to no avail. During the day, I work with my editor putting the final polish on a magazine article, spend time trolling monster.com and craigslist for another writing gig, write an email to someone I worked with 20 years ago on the same subject and talk to a technician about servicing some fuel injectors.

By this time, my wife comes home with a couple of wrapped presents and is all excited about taking me out. She goes out for a run and I ponder whether I should make another case for low-keying my birthday. By the time she comes back, I decide not to say anything. Big mistake.

Now we're out at the restaurant. My skin is literally crawling because I meant what I said; no fuss please. I can't believe how uncomfortable I am with all the attention. The whole time, I'm wondering how much damage I'll do to my marriage if I bolt.

So I violate Newton's First Law of Marriage (Make your wife's happiness your own) and tell her I wish she listened to me all last week. Robin replies since I didn't say anything today, she thought I changed my mind. I try to tell her how I want to spend my birthday and why. Big mistake. Now I'm ruining her good time because all she wants to do is treat her husband on his birthday. Unfortunately, I make the situation worse by staying with the subject when all she wants to do is change it. We curtail the dinner early and she smolders all the way home. Once home, she throws my toothbrush and some toothpaste out the bedroom door and slams it shut.

So what kind of jerk denies his wife the opportunity to celebrate her husband's birthday with a few tokens of affection? Let's see if I can explain it to you any better than I explained it to her. First off, I'm horrible at both giving and receiving gifts. Talk about anxiety and flop sweat. I've built 16 car engines but I can't buy a gift without panicking. So I don't want to inflict that kind of agita on anyone else. Even if that person exhibits no such behavior.

Even as a kid, I did not enjoy my birthday parties. However, I enjoy going to your birthday parties. My birthdays themselves were always a minefield. A few of them went very badly. On my 11th birthday, my aunts, uncles and cousins are all over to celebrate. Everybody's laughing and having a good time. The television flickers in the background. Suddenly, a special report interrupts the regularly scheduled program so we all pay attention.

Okay, that doesn't sound like much, especially in this day and age where everything is a "special report." Back then, interruptions in regularly scheduled programming occurred only for real news like the Kennedy assassination. This time, a somber Chet Huntley told us astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffeee burned alive in a pure oxygen environment while testing their Apollo 1 capsule on the pad.

Talk about putting a damper on the festivities. The Space Program was a big deal and a source of pride. Now America had their first casualties in the Space Race. It was a huge blow and a horrible way to die. Everyone was numb. They all just left. I don't even remember if I got to blow out the candles.

Another January 27th celebration ended early with a heated discussion about religion. Seems the older generation was taken aback when they heard some of the younger generation didn't believe what they believed. That argument changed the boundaries of conversation in our family for many holidays to come. At least they waited until I got to blow out the candles.

There are a couple of other examples but you get the picture. I tiptoe around the date reflexively, as if too much attention means something bad happens.

There is another reason (I can hear the women reading this post saying to themselves, "There better be another reason."). Other than being born, meeting my wife is the most pivotal day in my entire life. Everything changed on February 14, 2003. I found someone who believes the content of my character is more important than the content of my investment portfolio (she's probably rethinking that one).

Every day I spend with this woman is like Christmas, Mardi Gras and a hundred thousand birthdays rolled into one. Every day she does me a million little kindnesses and doesn't even know it. Every day I wake up next to her and give thanks because she's still there. When her daughters are over and I'm cooking and the girls are laughing, I rejoice because I have people to do for. I'm part of something bigger than myself. I might be the second string, but I'm in the game.

Even when we argue, even though I'm doing some couch time when I finish writing this thing, I want to get on my knees and thank The Almighty and match.com for providing this 53-year-old balding, freelance voice talent, writer, mountaineer and mechanic with someone who loves me so much, she can be really pissed at me. You can't be that mad at someone you don't care about.

Every day of my marriage is such an enriching experience, such a huge and powerful force, anything above and beyond that (like too much attention on my birthday) is way too much. Total circuit overload. Like welding without protective goggles.

That's why my birthday is a time to sort things out. Birthdays are an unchanging milestone so they mark your progress as a human being. There are a lot of areas I must improve at or I am afraid I'll be alone again managing rental property for avaricious management companies, unrealistic owners and ungrateful tenants.

By the time I have some grip on the whole marriage thing, I'll be 127. That's the downside of a first-time marriage as a fifty-something. Twenty-eight-year-olds make the same mistakes I make. How many incidents like this can a marriage endure before it erodes? Can I work out the communication issues? I hope so. Otherwise, I'll never get off the couch.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Still Choked Up Over Christmas

What a week. Everybody in the house is or was sick, including me. My wife had a virus, her youngest daughter Natalie has tonsillitis, Natalie's visiting cousin Kyle is under the weather from a tough semester at K-State and I caught my current illness from my wife. We are so far behind, we took the Christmas tree down yesterday. That's right. Our house still had Christmas decorations up on January 9. If it wasn't for the kids taking the initiative (they pink up sooner than the old folks), the tree would still be up. Thanks to Natalie's boyfriend James for pitching in. Unfortunately, James may be next to go down because of it.

My wife Robin's blog, Pomegranate Vintage Modern, reflects her beautiful yet frugal aesthetic sense but does not reflect the somewhat crispy Christmas tree drooping forlornly in the corner of the living room. You heard it here first: A penetrating behind-the-scenes look at how tastemakers really live. Next: Secret hidden photos of Martha Stewart buying velour loungewear at Wal-Mart.

This Christmas was a memorable one in many ways. Previously, I alluded to cutting back on gifts this year so everybody got more creative. Robin gave me one night at the fabulous old Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Now I have to decide who I'm taking (That's a joke, honey. No, it's humor.... OWW!). In an effort to encourage and inspire the girls' interest in all things design, I prepaid for tours of three LA architectural landmarks (Schindler House, Gamble House and Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House).

Gift opening lasts two hours, even with
a third less booty overall. Each newly sprung present creates endless rounds of discussion about how to use the item to the fullest extent. One blouse elucidates countless combinations with various and sundry apparel either pre-owned or newly received by the recipient. Women discuss clothes like guys talk about variations in the New York Football Giants' blitz package. I'm still new to this world.

The best part was having the kids hanging out at the house all day, lounging around and watching movies. We rarely get to see them in repose anymore as they always jump up and head out on one expedition or another. Of course, this is when all the exotic bugs and diseases carried from their various far-flung habitats like Manhattan, Kansas, San Francisco and Silver Lake commingle and plot to take out the old people.

While the kids are relaxing, Robin and I make preparations for our prime rib Christmas dinner. My mom made a lovely donation so part of the proceeds went to a very nice hunk of beef, on sale of course. We're short a green vegetable so Robin asks me to sautè some broccoli. So I drop some into a skillet with hot olive oil and garlic. Robin tastes a piece of broccoli and I turn back to the pan. A second later I receive a sharp poke in the back. I whirl around and Robin mouths the word "choking!"

My first instinct is hitting her sharply between the shoulder blades. That doesn't work. Robin is caught between breaths with a fearful look on her face. Suddenly I realize we have a full-blown situation. I spin Robin around and perform the Heimlich Maneuver but nothing happens. Robin is still choking. I pull her so hard she leaves the floor with my arms gripped around her sternum. Finally, the piece of garlic or whatever moves enough for her to draw a breath. She starts coughing and finally clears her breathing passages completely. The kids are still watching a movie, unaware of the drama in the kitchen.

Funny thing about Real Life; there's no musical prelude to let us know something dramatic will happen in the next moment. One minute we go about our business. The next minute brings heart failure or an accident or choking. I lose about ten seconds before realizing my wife is checking out. When I perform the Heimlich Maneuver, I forget to ball one fist, cover it with the other hand and stick it under her sternum to concentrate the force. In wrapping my arms around her, I need way too much force to accomplish the job. If the lodged piece is any bigger, this story has a different ending.

I learned my First Aid as a Boy Scout in the late Sixties / early Seventies. In the past, I used my skills to help others. At college, I clamped my hand over a pumping arterial bleed stemming from a one-car collision with a bridge abutment I witnessed on Storrow Drive in Boston. My father and I administered mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions on a man at the Golden Lantern Restaurant in Warwick, RI. I've immobilized broken limbs, treated for shock and helped keep a fellow runner from dying of heat stroke. The upshot is I do not panic. Instead, my instinct is to move forward, not away.

However, those were all strangers. When my wife can't breathe, I take too long to recognize the danger and forget key details in administering aid. For one second, I allow myself to think about what happens if Robin dies and how I explain it to her daughters. Thinking inhibits reflexive action reinforced by repetition and sows the seeds of panic.

Therefore, my New Year's resolution is to find the funds for and take a First Responder course so I can be certified in First Aid. The most likely use for such knowledge is our backcountry wanderings and mountain climbing. Chances are, I know and love the person receiving the medical attention in that situation. Christmas is a warning. I hear it loud and clear.