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From the Clip Files: LOOKING OUT FOR #2

March 22nd, 2016

I haven’t looked at this essay in years, but after getting word today that it’s going to be recycled in an Oprahworld anthology (O’S LITTLE BOOK OF STARTING OVER, ETA October 2016), I thought I’d take a look. Still one of my favs.

Looking Out for #2
By Lise Funderburg

O the Oprah Magazine
February 2005

It wasn’t until I decided to marry again that I realized how completely uncertain and illogical marriage is. The second time around, you can’t hide behind romantic innocence. You already know how easy it is to take another person for granted. You know how hard it is to live with someone else: to build intimacy over years, to grow without stealing all the available sunlight and food, or to simply like that other person day in and day out despite chore wars, seat-up/seat-down debates, and other domestic disputes such as appropriate use of mayonnaise in sandwich-making (never versus always). The second time around, you already know how easy it is to fail.

Forget corroborating statistics that show up in print (divorce for almost 50 percent of first marriages and 40 percent of second); anyone can see that failure lurks on the other side of the next financial downturn or conflict in life directions or mountain of careless, bruising words. All around, marriages are crumbling, families are splintering, people are retreating into corners, making do, putting up, shutting off.

And yet even before I met John, even as I combed through the ashes of the first marriage, looking for what to discard and what to salvage, I realized the idea of marriage didn’t repel me. The problem had been in thinking that it marked the arrival at a destination instead of signaling a point of departure. It wasn’t marriage that had failed my first husband and me: By expecting it to maintain itself based on one sunny April afternoon of exchanged vows, we had failed it. For eight years, we left those promises untended, impending ruin masked by compatibility and goodwill.

In its aftermath, people, friends, and acquaintances seemed to anticipate bitterness — they expected bile and brokenness when breaking the news of other people’s nuptials. They got neither. I had a greater respect for the institution. I was humbled by the enterprise I had come to see as demanding courage and hope and a relentless investment of self. I was in awe.

When John and I both recognized the irreversible pull between us—the astounding affinity, the willingness to understand, the tenderness, the fun—we started to consider a future. We fit as a couple; we fit in the larger context of each other’s lives. He actually liked my eccentric family, the forces of nature that they can be. And I was crazy about his l7-year-old son, who lived with him and who stepped off the path of adolescent individuation rites long enough to allow me glimpses of his kind heart and sharp mind, as well as a chance to find my way around that phenomenon I’d never understood— the teenage boy.

John and I shared a striking number of interests (urban living, pork) and traits (bossiness, get-up-and-go). What we didn’t share we admired, and what we didn’t admire we accepted. My brilliant therapist had been telling me all along that a mature love is one in which the beloved can have flaws but still be considered a perfect match. Oh, I thought, I get it now.

After two years of tumbling and inching toward each other, John and I married. It was two summers ago, in my (now our) backyard, with 150 witnesses and 40 slabs of barbecued ribs, a mess of side dishes where a first marriage’s gift table might have been, and a feeling of pleasure that was quiet and sure. In front of a village of loved ones (and platters of pork), we pledged our troth, and I felt with equal conviction that I (a) was doing the right thing and (b) had no idea what I was getting into.

The paradox of those realizations prompted what John calls a BFO: a blinding flash of the obvious. Suddenly, I understood that marriage is, as it has often been said, a leap of faith. I had just made the leap; now came the faith. In that moment, I saw that my best hope for defying statistics and building a strong union was to consider marriage an expression of faith, a spiritual act that requires devotion and practice and the same naked honesty that people seek between themselves and their god(s).

I am not religious in the conventional sense, certainly not what some of my relatives would call churched. I grew up in a religious minority’s minority, a birthright Unitarian, and in my adulthood I have—if it’s possible for Unitarians to do so—lapsed. But I attend weddings and funerals and civil commitments, baby dedications and bat mitzvahs and any number of holidays and ceremonies. My Methodist, African Methodist, and Colored Methodist relatives have not left the church, and so I have had the opportunity over the years to witness the faith of others, a stirring and beautiful thing.

Among the friends and relations whose spirituality I admire, I’ve noted that their practice is not restricted to a particular day of the week but applied to the twists and turns of everyday life. Likewise, my commitment to this marriage is not something I dust off at anniversaries or in the wake of troubles. It is a close and constant touchstone. I am conscious of this promise I’ve made to John to cast my lot with his, to be a guardian of his unguarded heart as I offer up my own.

Consciousness introduces a higher plane on which to relate, retreat, take solace, and find answers, to rise above the petty fray. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete guarantee against quotidian tangles. It would still kill no one to put the toilet seat back down, to know where the vacuum is stored and act upon said knowledge. Or to remember that he has more than once explained to me in assiduous detail the virtues of the Norton 850 Commando, which was one of the fastest production motorcycles you could buy in 1973, when European motorcycles still dominated the market for performance and before Japan’s Honda 750 four cylinder hit and immediately took over, pushing Norton out of business within a few years, followed shortly thereafter by the death of Triumph.

Faith demands belief in what you can’t see. I know, for example, that I must have my own version of the Norton Commando story even if I can’t see it. And believing that allows me to be more patient. When John goes on about some great passion of his that I rank up there with paint drying and software downloading, I remind myself that this is an opportunity I’m being given to challenge my own limits, that it is a gift to share in someone else’s enthusiasm and imagination, and that this is what happens when you live with someone day after day after day. If all else fails, I use the time to reflect on last spring’s trip to France, how perfect the weather was, how wonderful it was to rummage through country flea markets together, and how we kept our sense of humor when all the charming hotels and gites were booked during the week of the Ascension and we ended up in a charmless motor inn overlooking a big-box mall.

Faith is a way to step outside yourself, to remember that this anecdote, too, shall pass; that being a team is more important than which exit he takes off the highway; that you don’t need to balance the checkbook the same way in order to prove that you’re evenly yoked and well suited; and that annoyance and blame are often the result of misplaced anxieties, which, if clearly identified, could most likely be addressed and resolved without leaving open or festering wounds. We are all, as the psychotherapist Deborah Luepnitz writes, porcupines. We seek the warmth of others but soon tangle ourselves in one another’s prickly quills.

Faith, among the faithful I know, is not about perfection. It’s about knowing, as Quakers would put it, that there is an inextinguishable light inside everyone that is holy. It’s about valuing the holy in the face of the flawed, about leaving room to grow, to fall down, then get back up again, all with equal dignity. And so, I find after two years of practicing, is a good marriage.


What I got called today

November 4th, 2015

Today I got called a “filthy jew.” This is not the first time it has happened, and in keeping with past instances, it appeared on the Internet and from an unnamed source: this one used the moniker “moremane.” In fact, today’s slander was a two-fer, in which I was disparaged alongside a woman who interviewed me a few years ago and posted a segment of it on YouTube. There was no more to moremane’s slur than adjectives and a noun—“Two filthy jews”—and it appeared in the comments section of the YouTube page, underneath a screen grab of the interviewer and I seated across a table from each other, Charlie Rose-style, my hands in the air as if grasping invisible baseballs about eight inches in front of my face. No elaboration from moremane, no explanation of what occasioned this declaration, no why-this-why-now context. No mention of or comment on the video’s actual content (which never mentioned Judaism or religion but did cover father-daughter relationships, black-white race relations in the USA, and biracial identity formation).

I know about the YouTube comment because I subscribe to an alert system that notifies me when anyone remarks on the segment. This is only the second alert I’ve received for this particular video. The first, which showed up in my in-box back in 2013, let me know that I had commented. As of today, “Two filthy jews” keeps company with a self-deprecating note in which I discuss the overly dramatic hand gestures I make throughout the 4:13 clip.

commentsLike many published authors, I maintain a presence in social media. This is less technological prescience on my part and more a haphazard nod to publishers hungry for platform, the elusive virtual net they believe will capture sales and/or audience and/or critical attention for their writers. So I practice indiscriminate linking on LinkedIn; I blog now and then on a website that mostly serves as a cloud-based filing cabinet for old articles; and I tweet once in a very blue moon. I have a healthy following on Pinterest thanks to visually oriented procrastinators everywhere, and I am so susceptible to the rabbit hole of facebook (baby bats! a friend’s double-dutch champion daughter! The niece off at college!) that I regularly crank up a blocking app called Anti-Social. More passively and less frequently, I show up because my work shows up and sometimes gets passed around. This, and a surname often taken as an indication of my religion, is what brings people like moremane into my world.

“Two filthy jews.” Filthy, indeed. It slithered across me, oozy and viscous, like pus from a neglected wound. I remembered the clean room scene from Silkwood and wished I could disinfect the parts of me tainted by moremane’s drive-by derision. In short order, though, curiosity replaced disgust. I imagine the sting might have been deeper and more enduring if I were Jewish. But I’m not, nor were my parents or their parents or anyone we know of in either family tree. The epithet remains just as ugly, just as offensive, but its mistargeted (or semi-mistargeted) aim exposes its hollowness, the self-contained and self-propelling nature of vitriol. What was moremane’s intent, I wondered? What was exorcised by his/her condemnation? I’m guessing moremane doesn’t rank among the 358 people who actually watched the video, so how did moremane come across it in the first place? My interviewer’s last name was Cohen…does mormane type that into search boxes as a keyword? Did moremane feel like a winner after hitting “return” and landing on us?

I won’t ask YouTube to take down this sliver of hate speech. I don’t want to give moremane the thrill of having been banned, and besides, information is power; we all need to know who’s out there, even if it’s mostly cowards and thrill seekers who have confused anonymity with lack of accountability. I did, for a short while, amuse myself with the notion of replying in the spirit of accuracy. “What kind of bigot are you, moremane?” I would have written. “Be advised that it’s one filthy jew and one filthy mongrel. Thank you in advance for correcting this error.”


When I tried to look black: A response to all the messages friends have left me wanting to discuss Rachel Dolezal

June 13th, 2015

When I tried to look black, it was the late 1970s and I was in England for a semester abroad. I had hair down to the middle of my back, the blonde of my birth long since turned a medium brown but the hair itself still fine and mostly straight, with more of a bend than a wave. It lay flat on my head most of the time, coming to life only slightly in all that London wet.

At the High Street hairdressing school where cost was minimal if you were flexible about outcome (a colorist once gave me a spectrum of highlights he called Autumn Splendour, fairly risqué then, which was decades before people took on the look of psychedelic skunks or dipped their hair into drink mixes…and then wore that to work), the student assigned to me thought it would be fun to perm my hair. “It might not hold,” he warned, given the length. “But at least you wouldn’t have paid much for it.”

Once the last coil had been unfurled, the noxious chemicals rinsed away, and the hair gently dried at a low setting, my hairdresser called over all his mates.

“Donna Summer!” he announced as he spun my chair to show off the new pyramid of hair. Like the Bad Girl herself, I even had curly bangs. I loved the new moniker and not because I was a fan of her music. I loved it because Donna Summer was black.

Growing up, I envied my best friend, Lauren. We were both mixed kids with black dads, but she had olive skin and curly hair. You could see her lineage when you looked at her. At least you could see that she wasn’t just white. But her father had darker skin than mine had, and her Assyrian-American mother, I only realized many years later, wasn’t exactly Caucasian in the American sense of the word. I, on the other hand, looked white, unless you threw me in with a bunch of cousins from my dad’s side, in which case I looked like I belonged somewhere far, far down the family spectrum at the melanin-challenged end.

I loved those Donna Summer ringlets. I loved the way my hair bounced and had substance. I felt special, more done-up than usual, especially since I wasn’t much for makeup or jewelry beyond earrings and a swipe of lipstick. And I loved that people might think, for once, that I might be all- or half- or a even just a little bit black.

When my curls lasted months past the perm’s standard lifespan, I took it as a sign that my hair liked being curly, that there was some inner kink waiting to be let out. By the time it returned to its natural listless form, I was back in the States and scraped together money for a real salon, where I also splurged on a sporty, shorter cut [see photo strip].

In the 1980s, lots of white people permed their hair—including my mother—but for me, a white-looking person who felt a deep connection to her black family, the act of changing my hair texture was fraught. I had always been fine with being mixed (we didn’t know the term “biracial” then), thanks to accepting in-laws and parents who chose to raise their family in an integrated neighborhood that spilled over with little half-n-halfers. Not being different was different to us. But other people hadn’t been fine with me. Black kids threatened to beat me up for being white; white kids thought it would be okay to call other children “nigger” in front of me. I could see that I was treated differently from my browner friends; I could see that people from all races changed their attitudes and expectations once they learned that I wasn’t white, or not the white they understood. I was a text they could not read, and it frustrated them.

So I loved my perm, but after a few refreshers, I stopped and never got one again. I told myself that it was too expensive, that it was bad for my hair, but the truth is it felt like I was abandoning the self I was in order to skip past other people’s prejudices and ill-targeted calls to allegiance. I was trying to pass, not as white or as black, but as a mixed-race person who looked mixed. Surely that kind of passing represents a rarefied version of tragic mulattoism, a true hairsplitting of identities. What can I tell you? That was the race card I was dealt.

In the end, I couldn’t give in to that passing urge because it seemed like it erased who I was, that it was an attempt to escape a challenging truth. I am the complicated reality of America’s racial legacy. I am the blurred line, and it’s the very ways in which I don’t add up and don’t meet expectations that give the lie to the expectations themselves. This is true for most people I know, no matter how many boxes they check on a Census form. What if we all just doubled down on our own authenticity? Where might we be then? In my case, living a rich and flat-haired life.


Digesting Architecture

December 29th, 2014

I’ve been exploring our built environment lately, thanks to assignments from Architectural Digest‘s website (click on the pictures to get to the magazine’s site). Topics have ranged from the precious handful of preserved historic theaters around the U.S. (giltapaloozas!) to a well-provenanced artisan’s furniture repair and restoration techniques (ciré rempli anyone?). In a testament to self-indulgence, deep passions, and big dreams (not to mention more than a few quirky work relief undertakings), there’s a slideshow of garden follies across both time and space. A new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles (through May 3, 2015) explores how coastal communities across the globe are designing in response to climate change. Two portfolios of amazing landscape designs offer green eye candy, first from this year’s ASLA winners’ circle and next from The Gardener’s Garden, an encyclopaedic, carefully annotated survey compiled by Phaidon. #BetterthanBuzzFeed