Striking a balance can be difficult. If you know how to talk to your partner about how you feel, what you think is happening with the relationship, and it doesn’t turn into a fight, you’re going to be home free. I’m sure it was their fault, not mine! Maybe I was just bad at it. It was an issue in both cases, and they’re very different people.
… to be able to talk about the “state of the union.”
God, what a great idea! If you are in a married or a serious relationship where this is going to be it for the foreseeable future, you should do this. Every six months, each of you should make a state of the relationship address, don’t you think? The other person listens, then you can respond, like Marco Rubio responding to Obama’s address. “I think you should, I think I should.” I think it would be really good, but I don’t know whether it’s possible. I think too much stuff doesn’t get said.
I think it’s difficult to feel comfortable with the outcome, to be afraid of what their reaction is going to be. That can be an issue.
I dated this girl I really cared about. She had some roommates and one of them was a guy and they were really close, so anytime we had relationship problems, she would talk to him. Any time he had relationship problems, he would talk to her. So they’re getting all the feedback with the wrong people, and six months after her and I broke, they started dating. They’ve been together for a while and she even moved out to California to live with him.
Are they going to get married? Are they married?
I don’t know. We started dating in 2009, broke up in 2010. They’ve been together for almost three years. Geez – that kind of sucks. I hate that kind of competition where the guy she’s dating now has been dating her longer than you, or you’ve been broken up longer than you were dating.
How about your brother marrying a girl that you’ve dated?
Did that happen to you?
Older brother – they’ve been married fifty years. He was just two and a half years older.
How do you feel about that?
Actually, great. A funny things about that was that my brother said, “She’s just the right girl for you.” I was very free-spirited at that point. In my day, in the 1950’s, early ’60’s, in high school, people did something called “going steady.” You get a little bracelet with the person’s name on it. I thought it was stupid! If you saw anybody else, it was like being unfaithful in a marriage — it was really frowned upon. I was very free-spirited, so she was perpetually upset with me. My brother, at some point, said, “It’s not going to work.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m just going to have to admit this.” We just kind of let it go, and a couple of years later, there they are. I felt like, “Works for him, doesn’t work for me – I’m okay with that!”
Personally, I have a hard time accepting things like that.
Losing a girl to a close friend is whole different thing. You get over it, but oh, man!
It sounds like your break-up was pretty mutual with that girl.
She was upset and said, “I’m going to break-up with you.” This was happening on a biweekly basis, and I would make the effort of being really nice. This time I said, “Okay.” That was that.
Any final words of advice?
No, I’m not a good advice-giver. Boy, I’d get burned doing that.
What can you do to be happy in a relationship or stay happy or stay positive?
I talked about communication, because that’s really important. Other than that, I think you can really celebrate your differences. I think it’s a big mistake to think that you have to enjoy everything together. You have to have your areas — your music, for example — that may not be of any interest of hers, and that should be a matter of celebration. That is really a good thing.
I think being friends with the person you’re in love with in a romantic sense is really important. Not the opposite of what I just said, and kind of the corollary: I think it’s important that you have some stuff that you really, really enjoy doing together.
I had a relationship with a woman who was really too young for me. We became really good friends. Her background was Jewish-Uruguayan and she was a poet, so I romanticized that. Being Jewish was very important to her. I don’t happen to be Jewish, so the relationship was not going to go beyond a certain point. We were so close. She felt it as well, and we talked about how this is never going to go anywhere because of differences in culture, age, and all of this. But there was no question that we felt attracted to each other. We still communicate. She went off to get married to somebody that her father approved of, a Jewish doctor, and they have two kids now. Before they had kids, after she got married, she came back and stayed with me for a week at my house — totally on the up and up. She felt like she could trust me – to bang my head on the wall, but she could trust me. It’s hard for me to think about that as not a romantic relationship. It’s just taken so many different forms.
That’s something else I’ve read about, too. The term “romance” came from the knights and they had a wife, but they also had this woman – there wasn’t anything sexual to it – that they worshipped.
There’s a book about this – The Art of Romantic Love in the Middle Ages. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? So the woman might be married and she’d have this courtier be devoted to her – give her his scarf or take her scarf. And he went off and fight in the joust.
To maintain that intensity.
That was not bad.
Another question that’s related to me personally: do you try to maintain relationships with your exes?
Do you find it distracting?
No, absolutely not. And if I’m seeing somebody, as I am now, I tell her that I’m friends with these two women that I’ve been married to, and I don’t find that distracting at all. I think it would be different when you’re younger. Some of this stuff changes when you get older. For example, both of my ex-wives have health issues now. I worry intensely about them. I can even manage to bring up some good old Christian guilt about the fact that we didn’t stay married. That’s why you get married — to take care of each other when you get really old. Nobody really gets married for that reason. “I can marry you, so when my liver fails, you can be there for me” – that’s not going to fly, is it? It turns out to be an issue as you get older. I’m not able to say, “I’m not married to this person, I no longer have any concern, It could be anybody else.” I would be incapable of feeling that.
As you’ve gotten older, do you think your perspective has changed on romantic love?
No, not too much. Well, it must have.
Like you said, you try and learn, try and fail and learn, etc.
I’m trying to think if I ever had a perspective on it and what that would be. That would mean that I had some idea about it.
You were talking about your passion for writing, like how your illness made you more passionate about writing. I don’t know if there is anything like that that you could relate to your relationships.
Boy, I wish I could.
What about when you had kids?
That would be close.
Would you say your relationship changed?
If not writing a single word meant that one of my children would be happier or better, I would just stop. They mean that much to me — no question. And yet, I don’t know if I felt that strongly about the wives. I should have been able to say I could give up writing if it would make her happy, but I think I would have felt like that was an unfair thing, because we were equals. I think two people have passions of different kinds. I never did want to be involved with a woman who would be a traditional wife, and everything would be centered around me. At times, that sounded great, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t like it. I ended up being married to women who were smarter than me and are very passionate about other stuff, so it was always exciting, but always difficult.
I’ve just been in situations of being introduced or knowing each other for a while.
I think women feel more comfortable with that. I’m sure guys do, too. That familiarity is what helps the most.
Has that been true for you, too?
Not with online dating, but that’s something I need to ponder about.
You’ve done some of that? Wow – I wonder if I could do that.
It’s interesting. You get a partial picture of somebody. Then, when you meet them it gets a bit more filled out. And then when you break up, you’re like, “Oh, okay – now I get it.”
I don’t know many people who have had good experiences with online dating, but I’m sure people have.
It depends on what you do or what you’re looking for.
A woman I could say I loved, very attractive, came to teach in my department. She’s quite a bit younger, but we dated a bit and I knew she had a guy back where she’s from. He came to visit, I fell in love with him. He was one of the most important people in my life. We became really, really close. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to continue dating her, but we were all friends.
He died suddenly – way to soon. He was a really big guy, way unhealthy. He had so much energy and was such a great teacher that nobody ever thought he would just suddenly die, but that’s what happened.
She and I are still really close. She called me about having lunch and never really did that before. I’m trying to figure this out. I realized I’d do anything for the woman except I could never… I think she probably felt the same way. She’s got a wonderful guy now and I’m very pleased that life is going that way for her. It’s just one of those things.
That brings up a really good point and something that I struggle with – the idea of redemption.
I like the idea.
Just the idea that if I try hard enough and I work at something that I can fix it or I can make it right. Out of relationships, that’s like, “Okay, I got dumped. What went wrong wrong or what can I do?”
I remember, especially in the first marriage, when we didn’t even really talk. The kids were old enough where they could stay home for a few hours. We could take a walk to the Country Kitchen and get a cup of coffee together and figure out what was going wrong. It was so frustrating – I thought this could be fixed, but it didn’t get fixed.
Some people, especially my old relatives, think: failed marriage. I don’t think so. I don’t think the fact that it ended means it’s a failure. That would be saying that a lot of really great stuff didn’t happen or didn’t count. No, that’s wrong. Without giving you any names or specifics, I can tell you that there are marriages that I have seen go on and on, never end – absolute failures. I don’t think the end of the marriage or divorce is a failure at all, its a huge misconception.
So, do you have any idea what we’re talking about? Do you know what love is?
Well, I’ve done a lot of reading and research on the subject – and I’ve done some writing. From what I’ve read, it’s basically a genuine concern for someone else’s well being and happiness. And, sure, you can do that, but how does it return? How do you ignite that? How do get there?
Are you going take sexuality out of that mix then? I meet a very attractive women and ended up marrying her and sex was part of that – that’s very different. Doe sex change that? Does it get in the way? Or are we using a word that we’re trying to apply to too many things, and it really doesn’t mean this when we’re talking about that?
I’m thinking in terms of romantic love.
Romantic love means sexuality. I’m thinking about a woman who said that — we had been lovers for a while and had gotten back together — she really did love me, but it would not mean anything romantic. The message was we could be good friends, but there would be no sex! Romance, in that sense, was all something we’ve, as a culture, developed to talk about wooing, getting married, that one special relationship.
One of the things I was going to bring up was about a specific period. I had been dating a girl for about a year and when we broke up, I thought, “I’m going to forget about her; I’m going to date a ton of girls,” usually two girls at a time over the course of a year.
How do you manage this?
In the advent of online dating, it’s fairly easy to get, but yeah, it’s tough to manage.
They didn’t know about each other?
No. In the beginning, I didn’t have to stress about one specific person. I could just switch my focus and I didn’t have to really worry about it. It got to be really stressful after doing that for a while.
Inevitably, there are going to be conflicts that result.
We didn’t date for very long, just the initial sort of anxiety was easier to get over because I can shift my focus to something else.
Is this the longest time you’ve been without having a significant other?
No, I’ve been single for a long time. My first girlfriend I dated when I was nineteen. After we broke up, it was two years. Then, I dated some other girl and it was another two years, so it’s been a while.
And you’ve never been married?
No, which I am grateful for. I would like to. To go back to what you were saying earlier, “marriage isn’t the end-all-be-all.” It can be a cultural thing or a religious thing. For me, it’s both. I’d like to have a kid and I think that the best way to do that is being married so there’s some stability there. Those things seem really far off now right now, but it’s something I look forward to. I say that in almost the same breath as saying, “I’m dating two girls at the same time.” It’s this really weird conflict. You get the cognitive dissonance – I’m doing this just to see if I can get laid, but what I really want is this other thing.
Believe it or not, I actually have a theory about relationships based on my own experience. That is, there is something in almost all people that makes us want to be in a relationship, in close relations. And there’s something in us that wants a fair amount of space and doesn’t feel really comfortable in close relationships. It’s a contradiction at the heart of human relationships. Nobody talks about it much. You don’t want to talk about it with your partner unless you’re really very good at communicating! Boy, could that be misunderstood. In fact, a couple of times in my life, I felt I was not in the relationship.
Like we were saying about significant figures.
Yeah, that’s a hard way to put it, but I think it’s true. The third person that I was very close to and talked about broke up with me by e-mail! I was going to be away teaching in Germany on a Fulbright. We talked about how this relationship would resume when I got back. Instead, she just felt that I had not committed myself to that relationship. It’s very hard to win that argument if you’re on the other side of the ocean.
That’s a really good point — what you were saying about space and proximity. You can’t be in relationship without being spatially close. It’s tough.
I have written a memoir of my life up until I married my first wife. It even includes a little bit of the marriage and certainly a lot about me.
Are you going to make a part two?
That’s a good question, but I did it primarily for the daughters and grandkids to get an idea of all the crazy stuff that happened in my life. There’s a whole section about high school when I started becoming interested in girls. I have never, ever found the ability to walk up to a woman that I don’t know and utter something witty and say, “Would you like to have a cup of coffee or something?” Never happened. It’s remarkable that I reproduced. I don’t know how that happened, because I was totally clueless and frightened of the whole thing. I married a woman that I met in class. I married a woman that I actually had as a student some years before. The third person had been a student to people I have been really close to.
Another thing happened to me recently. I dated this girl in college and then it was a messy breakup. I hadn’t talked to her or seen her in eight years. Then, I saw her in La Crosse, which was surprising. I didn’t expect her to be here.
She moved on.
Yeah, we went to college together and she’s originally from a nearby town, so it makes sense that she would be back here, but she transferred a couple of different times. The part that frustrated me, though, was she’s dating this guy, someone in my circle of friends. He’s the really tall guy, he goes out a little, he was at trivia one night. Do you know him?
Is he’s friends with our mutual friends on the trivia team?
I don’t think he’s friends with them, but he’s friends with another teammate.
He doesn’t come to trivia or anything like that?
He came once with her, which really sucks.
Maybe I wasn’t even there that time.
You might have been. If you were, I might have been on my way out as you were coming in, because I thought, “I’m leaving this situation.” So those two situations in tandem are disheartening, so now I’m expecting to find out some other ex-girlfriend is engaged now or something.
Maybe my story I wanted to share with you is not so bad after all. You just keep trying, and the more you fail, the more you’re likely to…
… to learn.
I can remember two times in my life when I’ve felt there wasn’t a woman in my life and there wasn’t going to be, so I’m kind of sour about it.
How old were you?
The first time, I was really quite young, just before I married the first time, so somewhere around 19-21. I was in college and moved to Madison and was trying to get to know people. That was very difficult for me to get to know women.
The other time, was after my second divorce, which was less than ten years ago. I’m still not really attached to anybody. Sometimes that feels bad, but I feel like I’m not very much alone. In between, life is great. And life is good now. Sometimes I think that I don’t really want to be involved. I’m getting kind of old, I don’t really need to be, I don’t have all the youthful fire anymore. I like to husband my energy and spend it on the stuff that’s really important to me like writing.
That seems to be one of your passions. You don’t really need to write, but you like to do it.
I have to write. It’s almost a biological question. I guess this comes under the heading of love. Its a passion. I’ve published a few stories, and am doing fairly well as a writer.
After I married and started teaching, I was writing a lot less and I kind of put it aside. I thought, “I’m not going to be a writer.” After about ten years of not writing much at all, I became really, really ill. I have a disease that was interesting and highly treatable – it’s called Addison’s Disease. Kennedy had it. That’s not what killed him. Makes you want to stalk Marilyn Monroe; that’s one of the major characteristics. It will kill you pretty quickly, but if you treat it – it’s very easy to treat with medication – then you’re fine. When that happened and I started sorting out my life, I started writing and getting really serious.
How old were you?
That happened in my middle thirties. The kids were little.
Kind of a midlife funk.
It was like a midlife crisis. Things went haywire. It’s a tricky disease. Basically, it’s an adrenal gland insufficiency. One of the weird things about it is that it’s really hard to frighten me. I’m serious! Really being frightened, like if a bear comes – my adrenal glands aren’t going to kick in and make me go crazy, I remain absolutely cool. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I think in a couple cases, in a near car accident, it’s been very, very good. That’s a biological, weird phenomenon. My first wife said my personality changed after the onset.
Anyway, my passion for writing became really important. You’re a writer – you said you wanted to write this. I try not to think about it when I talk to you, but you are.
The fellow that just walked out, I met him and his significant other and they had been together for a long time and they didn’t get married. I almost feel like that’s more of a commitment than actually getting married and being together for that long.
I actually like the phrase “significant other” even though it was invented way, way into my life, and I tend to be hesitant about new language like that. I really like that because, when I think about people who I knew were married where there partner was not their significant other. Usually it was the man who simply didn’t treat his partner as if she was that significant.
And it’s gonna change, because now as we become more and more comfortable with same sex couples. The question is going to come up when guys or women live together and are asked, “Oh, are you guys married?” That’ll happen and eventually people are going to see that as very much part of the natural landscape.
Initially that didn’t strike me as odd, but even if you are straight and you’re living with another guy – “Are you guys together?”
Well I did in college, but it was different in college. If you live with a guy in college, everybody assumes — well, they assume what they assume. If you are like my friends who ran the library for the first fifteen years they were here, they were, for their time, pretty open about their relationship. I guess everybody in town did know, but people who didn’t know them always assumed they were a couple of middle-aged guys living together. Indeed they were, but they wouldn’t have had to have been. Everywhere you can think of, the landscape about love is changing.
The definition of family is an issue, especially in urban planning. When you talk about lending for houses, it depends on your definition of family.
Is that part of your profession?
That’s more of a federal issue, but it’s related to housing.
Okay. I’m not going to ask any questions about it – you go ahead with your questions.
We were on to something kind of good, but here’s something that’s more personal and recently came up for me. I have a female friend. We dated for a while, and then we were just friends afterwards, but I really started to like her a lot more.
You’re attracted to her.
She became this kind of surrogate girlfriend.
I’ve been through that.
It’s kind of weird, because it made me think about another girl who was kind of like a surrogate girlfriend, and then I ended up dating someone else and that relationship…
Yeah. Then, she said, “What’s up? Why aren’t we friends anymore?” It’s difficult. Now I’m on the other side of it, because I talked to her yesterday.
Now, this is the woman that you feel attracted to?
Yes. I think she’s dating someone, which is good, but its a little heartbreaking. I don’t know what to say about it, but I’m talking to her tonight on the phone, because she cut our last conversation short. She said, “I gotta go meet up with, uh … a friend.” I texted her, “You can tell me if you’re dating someone or if you’re going on a date.”
What did she say to that?
She just laughed and she said, “I know.”
So she didn’t really answer the question. She may or may not be seeing someone.
She said it was complicated, so who knows.
I’m glad that my coworker brought up the question. She had gotten dumped recently and brought up the idea of, “Is there at least someone you’re working towards, the focus of your affection?” I thought about that and said, “Yeah, there is.” If you’re single, it’s nice to have someone you’re focused on.
No kidding. I agree. I almost always have that, even if it was working well or not working at all. Even now – I mean, I’m getting old – I still feel better if I have somebody I can see regularly. That is a tough one.
Do you have several women friends? Is there also a good group of women that you are friends with, and that’s it?
I used to in Minneapolis, but I’ve live here for a year and a half. I have female friends, but they all have boyfriends. It’s a little disheartening. I think there are other options available. It just really struck me hard.
That recorder doesn’t make me nervous, incidentally. You’re going to ask me questions and you may not get answers. I’ll even try to make stuff up if I have to, but there’s a whole lot of blankness on the subject of love.
I got some general questions. You said you have a daughter, right?
I have two daughters.
Do they live around here?
No, unfortunately. They grew up here. They were both born in La Crosse, they both went to school here, they both went to university in Madison and they became entertainers. My youngest daughter, improbably, spent a few years working as an aerial acrobat with the Cirque du Soleil.
It was and I loved watching until I found out there were no safety devices, but by then she was out of it and she didn’t tell me or her mom until it was over. She married, of course, a helicopter pilot, naturally. So he’s in the Air Force, and they were just transferred from Vegas, and then they got transferred to Cheyenne, and now, just two weeks ago they were transferred to Shreveport, Louisiana. And the other daughter lives, still basically in Vegas, Henderson. She’s married a lawyer who works for a big firm there and it’s not likely she’ll be moving here any time soon. They’re both far away and that pretty much takes care of my travel budget. And the question of love, of course, they’re right at the top of my list. They’re my heroes – they are very, very decently good people.
That’s what I was kind of thinking. So, were you ever married?
I’ve been married a couple times.
Are your daughters from the same wife?
Yeah, they were born to my first wife within a year and a half of each other.
How old were you when you got married? Your first time?
I was just twenty-one.
And how long did you stay married?
Oh, that’s good. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?
If it gets too personal or complicated, I won’t get into it. That’s a question not so much I won’t, but I probably couldn’t. It was more of a slow kind of separation. Separating took a long time. I just spoke with her this afternoon. She lives in Idaho now and we’re good friends. I’m still friends with my second wife as well.
How long were you married to your second wife?
We were together for close to ten years, but we were married four. So it was a much shorter marriage, but we’re still good friends. I came close to getting married a third time. At that point, a friend of mine said, “You know, You’re not good at this.”
I guess it depends on whether you feel like marriage is the goal of everything. I don’t know if it is or not. I don’t disapprove of marriage. I think it felt good to be married when I was married, for the most part, but I don’t advertise it for everybody, I really don’t. I think there are lots of other ways people can be really happy in relationships.
There are a couple of questions that I’m very shy of asking people. For example, if I see you together with somebody all the time, even if I know you live with the person, I would be very shy to say, “Are you married?” I’d also be very hesitant to say, “How much do you make in a year?” There are just some questions I don’t feel comfortable asking people.
I have one set of friends, a couple. Here I’ve known these people for twenty years, but didn’t know whether they were married or not. They didn’t fuss about it, but my first wife and I knew them quite well as a couple. “What do you think? Are they married?” We kind of batted it around ourselves, but we didn’t know. And then we were at a dinner party and I’m thinking maybe this was when I was single again; I don’t think my first wife was there. In the middle of the meal, a young member of the Spanish Department at the time suddenly said, “Well, you know, Joe, Sarah, everyone wants to know: are you married or not?” Everybody looked stunned, except Joe and Sarah. They were very happy to say, “No, we’re not married, we’re not going to get married, we don’t believe in that.”