Priorities 1



“I don’t really feel like the Greek tonight, Joe.” It was certainly not the first time she’s changed her mind about an evening’s plans, and with the past as prologue, it most assuredly won’t be the last. ThisPriorities 2 one stung, though, because I really wanted to go this time. It’s a Greek café in Seaport Village, which is a delightful shopping mall located on the waterfront. It’s all casual dining, a place where you go to the counter to order Gyro platters and the like and then grab a table. We almost always get a pitcher of beer; she drinks one small glass, and I finish it off (she’s the Designated Driver). Then we walk around the boardwalk which boarders San Diego Bay. I often have another glass or two of beer, and we end the evening with a cup of coffee at a bookstore/coffee shop, just for the sheer indulgence of it.


It’s been very hot this week, and I have been working some very long days on the Home Theater, ending the night at 7:00 or 7:30. Even though we live in San Diego and are forever touting the glorious weather, the plain fact of the matter is we get our share of humidity from time to time. One of those times was this week. I won’t gross you out with how many T-shirts I sweated up, but, man, this Saturday I was really looking forward to the Greek. Cool night on the bay, a few beers, walking hand-in-hand with my honey, sitting on various benches that face the boardwalk and the ocean, people-watching… It just didn’t get any better than that. But she changed her mind.


Like I said, it really disappointed me. She wanted to go someplace nearby for a burger and a beer, which is what we ended up doing, but man! This would have been our first trip to the Greek this year, and it’s been such a tough, tough week. I deserved that trip, damn it! But even as I was changing clothes and getting ready to go, I was having a little talk with myself. She works too—worked all week at a very challenging job as a Human Resources Manager—and although she wasn’t covered with sweat and sawdust like I was, she did put up with the usual quota of problems, crazies, emergencies, and god knows what all. All I did was saw boards.

Priorities 4More than that, the reason she was tired was because she’d spent the day running errands. Truth to tell, Christine LIKES to shop, but there is shopping and than there is the errand quota. Saturday’s was the latter. And some of those errands were for me! She got me a scrub brush for the shower and a bunch of new socks, which is pretty pedestrian when you think about it, but she did it for me, and did it because she loves me. Next month we will have been married thirty-nine years, and in all that time I seriously doubt I have purchased half a dozen articles of my own clothing. She always does it for me.


When we were first married, she occasionally hinted that she did not like one of the shirts I wore. I eventually figured this out (later I was to tell her, don’t hint; just tell me) and when I did, I dropped the shirt in the wastebasket. It was still a perfectly good shirt, but she didn’t like it. She felt bad and started to protest, but I said, “Hey, you dress to the nines everyplace you go. You know how I am. I will grab anything that fits. But if we’re going out together, you shouldn’t have to stand there thinking what a bozo I am because I don’t know to pick a certain color or fabric. So, here’s a thought. Going forward, just buy me whatever you want me to wear, and I will.” And from that day to this, that’s what she has done, up to and including, returning the occasional item I really do not care for. So, if she got tuckered out running errands for me last Saturday, it would be churlish indeed for me to complain when she didn’t want to make that long drive to the Greek (we live twenty miles inland), and especially so in view of the fact that she would have been the Designated Driver.


But the other part of that is my own past. My parents were in love with each other, but they did not have a marriage I would have wanted for myself. He could be very unreasonable at times, and never more so than when he didn’t get his way. He’d roar at her, and when that didn’t work, he’d pout like a little kid. He’s been gone a quarter of a century now, and her a dozen years, but I remember it like it was yesterday, his leaving the room and sitting in a chair somewhere with his chin down to his chest, her hovering over him, desperately trying to make amends. I never wanted to be that guy, and I never have been.


Priorities 5Some years back we’d made plans for something Christine was going to prepare for dinner, but when the time came, she was too tired to do it. I said, “That’s fine,” to which she immediately replied, “God, I’m glad you’re easy.” From that day to this, that’s been one of about a dozen little names she has for me, “The Big Easy.” When she went to New Orleans some years ago on business, I asked her to get me a T-shirt with that slogan on it, and she did.


So Saturday, just to make sure I was in the proper frame of mind, I made it a point to put on my New Orleans cap and New Orleans T-Shirt with “The Big Easy” on it. So, we went to dinner and had a good time, as I knew we would, and she thanked me for being willing to forego the Greek, which I knew she would, and she began making plans for next weekend, which was as inevitable as all the rest. She’s Mexican-American and cooks lots and lots of that food—and does so divinely, I must say. A couple of years ago, I came across a killer recipe for Margaritas which are, far and away, the best we’ve ever had, to such an extent that we really don’t know what’s second on that list, just that it’s a distant second. So her food and my Margaritas are now the plan for the next weekend.


Some years back I made a very elaborate backyard, and barring the unforeseen, that’s where we’ll be next weekend with a pitcher of my Margaritas and some of her homemade quesadillas, homemade tortilla chips (who the hell even does that in this day and age?), and glorious homemade guacamole. We’ll watch the sun set (we can see all the way to the ocean from our deck), have a toast or two, and enjoy the evening and each other.


When she reads this blog, I know she’ll feel a little guilty (hey, she’s Catholic) and will suggest going to the Greek in the near future, which we will, but not this coming weekend. This one’s got Margaritas and her home cooking written all over it. But, hey, that’s the secret of a happy marriage: learning how to prioritize.



Watching Her Sleep

Watching Her Sleep


 “Little Things”


“He was always there for the big things, but how often does that happen? Once or twice a year maybe. It was the day-to-day stuff that wore me down. All that little piddly stuff that goes on in a marriage.” It’s a statement from a lady I knew some time before Christine and I got together, but it’s always stayed with me. She was talking about her ex-husband and telling me why he was ex, not present. That’s one of the virtues of marrying later in life. You get a lot of time to think about what kind of spouse you want to be.


But lest I make this sound like it’s all about me, I have to point out that Christine also married later in life, albeit sooner than me because she’s younger. But for both of us this marriage came later, when we were more mature, which is what makes this first marriage feel like a second marriage at times. We have a serenity that often comes only to those who been married a time or two and have learned how to pick their battles, or better yet, avoid them altogether. Part of that is simply having those extra years to reflect on what kind of spouses we wanted to be. Part of it is being so endlessly considerate of each other.


I thought about that this morning as I lay beside her while she was still sleeping. Even though it’s a Saturday as I write these lines, she had to work today, as she’s a Human Resources Manager, and her company is throwing an employee party tonight. Between now and then there is much to be done to get things ready, and HR always gets the call for that sort of thing.


Both of us have very restless minds at times, but especially so in the early morning hours when we might have slept a bit longer, had our minds not suddenly slammed into high gear, wrestling with the many details of the day to come. On weekends especially, I am much more susceptible to that than she is because I wrote two novels while I held a fulltime job. It meant that I got up at 3:45 a.m. five days a week, so I could work in the study between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. before going to work. I have not kept those hours for a very long time now, but my mind is still acclimated to flipping on full blast in the middle of the damned night! In those years I almost never slept past 5:00 a.m. on a weekend, and even now, when I really should sleep in on the weekend, I often can’t.


It was still dark at 6:00 a.m. when I woke up this morning. She was sleeping, but I felt her stir when I got up for the obligatory bathroom trip that begins every old man’s day. At that point I had a decision to make. I was hoping I could get some more sleep, but I’d retired early last night and knew it wasn’t very likely. The other aspect was knowing that I had surely awakened her when I got out of bed, and knowing, too, that with the bed growing colder beside her, she would soon begin thinking about the day’s activities. And having gone to bed later than I did, I knew she really needed the rest. So I returned to bed.


OK, I might have gone back to sleep if I’d been more resolute, but those few minutes of indecision were just enough to get my mojo running. The next stage of my current woodworking project is a difficult one, and pretty much any period of inactivity will get my mind to wrestling with the many details of the work to be done, which is exactly what happened. In the meantime with, as she often puts it, the big Bubba beside her, she fell back asleep within a minute or two. Now I really was in the soup. Getting up a second time would wake her up again, and this time she would stay awake. Or I could lie beside her for the next hour or so mentally going over the details of my project and listen to her gentle snoring. And that’s what I did.


But, as I said earlier, this is not all about me. She does the same for me. I sleep more soundly during the week because I work all day in a shop with a concrete floor, and when the day ends so do I pretty much. During the week she is buried with the myriad details that make any HR department hum, and she sometimes faces the same dilemma. She wakes up an hour before the alarm goes off and can’t get back to sleep because her mind is racing, but when she gets up early, I must do the same, and it makes for a very long day for this old man. So she stays put and lets me sleep.


Later that morning over coffee, she will tell me that she “took one for the team,” just as I did for her this morning, but there’s a difference between that sports metaphor and those little acts of kindness we so often do for each other. It’s not a fast ball to the ribs to draw a walk, and it’s not done in a packed stadium. No one applauds, and no one but us much cares. It’s just a little gift we give each other from time to time, but that’s what makes a marriage hum. Little things mean a lot.



All or Nothing at All

All In 1 


“All In”


Don’t make me over. It’s an old Dionne Warwick song, and it’s been in my head all morning, ever since our discussion over coffee (I’m writing this on a Saturday). One of the ladies Christine works with has taken up photography and has become very good at it, to such an extent that she can hardly drive anywhere these days without seeing something she’d like to shoot. Last Christmas she gave Christine one of her photographs, which I then framed for her office. It’s a wonderful composition, and since then her friend has only gotten better.


She and Christine recently got into a discussion on her friend’s photography, during the course of which Christine stated an untruth. “I really admire you for so being so passionate about your photography. Me, I’m not passionate about anything.” I’ll have more to say on why I disagree with that self-assessment, but to continue with this, Christine then said, “Joe’s very passionate too. He writes, and he’s a cabinetmaker, and he reads a ton of history, so he’s always excited about something. I don’t have any of those things.”


“You have Joe,” her friend said. “He’s your passion.”


“Of course, I love him, and we’re very devoted to each other. But you can’t be passionate about a person; you have to be passionate about what you do.”


All In 2Then her friend turned reflective. “In a way I think you’re right. I’ve never married, but there were a few times when I thought I might. It was always with someone a lot different than me, but someone I loved. Or thought I did. But when I was with those guys I found myself changing my whole life just to be with them. Whatever they wanted was what I wanted. What they loved, I loved.” She gave a little self-deprecating laugh. “Like Ruth in the Bible. Their gods became my gods. But it never really worked, and afterwards I was always resentful that I had done that to myself for a man.”


Christine and I are as different as any two people can be. We often comment on that. How can two such different people make such a harmonious union, but really, it was my goal from the very beginning. I got out of the Army at age 21 and thought I was ready for marriage. I wasn’t, but if I’d found someone at that age, that would have been my marriage, and almost certainly, a disaster. As it turned out, I didn’t marry for ten more years, but I put that decade to good use, thinking about the kind of husband I would like to be, should I ever become so fortunate. One of the most profound things I ever heard on the subject came at the very beginning of that ten-year journey, at my first job, actually. It was a restaurant, and one of the older cooks I worked with told me he was going on vacation. I said I hoped his wife would enjoy it too and was shocked when he told me she wasn’t going. It turned out that he had very different interests from his wife, which meant they often took separate vacations. “Marriage doesn’t have to be a ball-and-chain,” he said.


Well, as it turns out, Christine and I have sometimes had separate vacations too. Most of the time we travel together to places we both love, but she also loves Las Vegas, and I don’t. When I go, I’m pretty much a wet blanket, so after a failed trip or two, she got to where she just went with her parents, little extended weekend jaunts several times a year. When I wanted to drive around the state of California for some research, I went by myself because she didn’t want to just sit in a car for four days.


But much more than the occasional separate vacation, we have let each other breathe. I am a voracious reader of history and biographies. She reads only occasionally, and almost always it is a novel. She watches TV every night. Other than sporting events, I never turn it on. During the week we have dinner together, usually watching “Wheel of Fortune,” just to have some time together. Then we chat in the living room for fifteen minutes or so, after which she retires to the bedroom and her TV, and I trundle off to the study for the book in progress. She does not beg me to watch her shows with her, and I do not press my latest history tome on her. We leave each other the hell alone. On the other hand, movies and the NFL are shared pleasures. We love going to the movies together, then discussing them later over dinner. And different as we are, we tend to like and dislike the same movies.


When we’re together it’s because we want to be together. We do not drag each other to things. A few weeks ago we visited an elaborate traveling exhibit on King Tutankhamun, an event we both thoroughly enjoyed. And, as I said last week, we can always have a wonderful time with a cup of coffee and each other. Ours is a marriage that is every bit as serene as we say it is.


The day of our wedding Christine called her mother in a panic. She told her mother she was getting scared, and her mother immediately said, “Honey, you don’t have to do anything you want to do. But it’s natural for brides to get the jitters at the last minute.”


All In 3Christine thought about that for a moment, then said, “The thing is, though, I just always feel comfortable around him, like I can just be me, and that’s going to be good enough.”


“Then that’s your answer,” her mother said.


One thing I never wanted to do was to make her into something else. We are all of us different, in how we look at things, in what we can do, in what our interests are. She is not in this world to live up to my expectations. And in any case, I cannot think of a reason in this world why I would want to change her. My woodworking friends are very vocal on that subject. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken. And now we’re back to her misstatement on passion.


Christine really is passionate, but about different things. Mostly, I think, she is passionate about life and about people. I remember once at a family get-together she was whooping and hollering over an Antonio Banderas video, and one of my sisters-in-law said, “She’s so much fun.”


Describing her to an acquaintance, I said, “She really lights up a room, whereas mine is a personality that tends to go about the room snuffing out the candles.” But that’s just the nature of things, really. I write, and I’m a woodworker, working always with my own designs. Any artist is necessarily an introvert because art comes from the inside out. But I have never tried to mold her to me.


She has an empathy for others that absolutely astounds me at times, because she has an incredible knack for getting to the heart of the matter at once. She’s been a human resources manager for over thirty years, and that’s what makes her so valuable in that role, her unerring touch for people relations. She always seems to know just what to say, and especially so whenever she is called upon to mediate between a manager and employee or between two feuding employees. She has often come into a room with a recalcitrant employee, sitting there with arms across their chest, all but defying her to say anything at all in furtherance of getting that person to, quite frankly, knock it off. And in half an hour or so, the employee in question has apologized for the bad behavior and promised to sin no more!


I don’t know why so many people who don’t have a creative bent feel so inadequate around those who do, but it’s a feeling she’s long had. In thinking that she does herself a disservice. I’m the guy who runs the table saw, but I cannot tell you how many times I have asked for her advice on certain design dilemmas—and been glad to get it! But, really, whether she does or doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.


I didn’t have coffee this morning with Christine, the famous writer, or Christine, the world renowned cabinetmaker, or historian, or any other distinguished type, not even with Christine, the great beauty, although she is still as beautiful to me as she was 38 years ago, and her heart is the same miracle it’s always been. I had coffee with my wife, my lover, my helpmate, my confidant, my best friend. And my all.