Thursday, December 28, 2006

Divorce in the Narrow End

Late or last minute Christmas cards are trickling in now, late enough that they can reference this year's Totally Impersonal Christmas Letter. I started the TICL in 1992 when I left Albany, NY to go to Philadelphia for law school. Its mailing list has grown every year; roughly 140 were sent out this year. I usually send it out early, but with the transatlantic thing (we didn't return to the U.S. until mid-December) and other factors, people received it quite close to Christmas.

As you might imagine, it was a slight challenge to explain about my divorce from Stobex. When we got engaged in 1998, his mailing list was incorporated with mine, and thus the TICL went international. A lot of people commented on how happy we seemed, and we were. So I knew going into this year's TICL that people would perceive the divorce as disappointing. I tried really hard to explain how it was the next (healthy) step for both of us, that we were both happy, that all three of us (Stobex, the boyfriend and I) were good friends, and so forth.

Sure enough, I got a card today that said, "Sorry to hear about the divorce. . ." I wasn't annoyed, precisely, but perhaps a teeny bit irked. Did they not read the TICL? Did they doubt my explanation? But then I realized, they're not Narrow End people. In the mainstream, divorces are unhappy (I speak as a statistical matter, you understand). One person is usually disadvantaged in a divorce, or didn't want it and thus loses both the spouse and a sense of security. Stobex's and my situation must be pretty rare: two people who evolve to a spot where divorce is genuinely the continuation of the good of marriage. I can't really blame people for assuming ours had to be like that and I was just painting an artificially happy picture. (Some people also assume Stobex has to be the injured party. Hah! If they only knew. . .)

Also, divorce is a tofu word. What I mean is, it's something that everyone brings their own flavorings to. If someone's parents went through a yucky divorce, that colors how the concept is received. Or, if one is in a happy marriage but thinks how devastating divorce would be, that's influencing the news of someone else's divorce.

This is a tiny example of life in the narrow end: I don't know what it's like to be mainstream, so I'm constantly trying to extract some awareness from other's behavior and reactions. But most mainstream people don't even know there IS a narrow end, let alone that anyone actually lives there. Communication is occasionally challenging.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What's in a (pseudo) Name?

Sweet smelling he might be, but my boyfriend needs a name for this thing. Yes, he has a name, and it's a delightful name, but if I use his real name, he can be Googled, and that would, in fairness, mean I should be clearing my posts with him, and that would add a LOT of effort to this thing, so no, he's got to have a pseudonym.

In fact, I've invited him to name himself -- seems fair, right? -- and he's not come through for me. First, he came in from chopping wood and announced his blogonym could be "AxMan." Right smack in serial killer territory, would you not agree? Next, he suggested "Poldark" because of a connection with his own name, and I ruled that out because I don't know the story. He's a big fan of Dickens, and Little Dorrit is his favorite novel, so I suggested the hero's name, Clennam, but that's not quite right, and anyway, Clennam is a bit of a prig (in my personal opinion). He's also a fan of Evelyn Waugh's works, and sees parallels between me as Mrs. Stitch, the fictional name Waugh gave his friend Diana Cooper in various works. In the novelization of Waugh's WWII experiences, Mrs. Stitch shows up at a key time and sparks the hero's emergence from a deep depression. That's a nice metaphor for my effect on my boyfriend's life, but in the book the hero's name is Crouchback -- and that obviously won't do!

I do care about this stuff. Names are powerful, in my experience. I have used my real name, Magdalen, because I know how powerful it can be. I had a series of really nasty nicknames as a child, starting with "Queen Chub" as a baby, "Ten Ton Twinkletoes" when I was in school (can you detect the delicate touch of older brothers here?), "Mags," "Baby," and "Maggie," before I finally insisted at age 26 that everyone had to use my given name. D'you know, my mother refused? On the grounds that she was (at 55) too old to change? She was as strong willed as I in some ways, so it was a stand-off: she wouldn't call me Magdalen, but she wouldn't introduce me to others as anything else.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend has put a lot of thought into this subject as well. He has a first name, John, that he doesn't use (just as well, there are three other John/Jacks in our familial sphere as it is), and he also talks about swapping his first and last names so that the longer name comes first. So, if his name was Todd Dickinson, he'd prefer it to be Dickinson Todd. (That's not it, by the way -- Q. Todd Dickinson was the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a while; I actually went through telephone training with him at a large Philadelphia law firm about ten years ago, before his stint at the PTO. But the boyfriend's name is structurally the same.) I've told him this is stupid, but he sites Douglas Adams' theory that bestselling authors have longer first names so that when they design the dust cover art work, the last name can be in a larger point size. Stephen King; that kind of thing. I've countered with J.K. Rowling and Nora Roberts, but he's not interested in logic. Nor my observation that he's not an author, bestselling or otherwise.

However, he is published. Both Stobex and the boyfriend have compiled really hard cryptic crossword puzzles, and those traditionally call for pseudonymous attributions. The boyfriend has used astronomical names, but I think he's used all the cool ones already. I mean, really: Alkaid sounds like an over-the-counter antacid; Phecda is almost certainly a curse in Albanian; Rastaban listens to Bob Marley and has the munchies. So, his blogonym isn't in the stars.

There are all sorts of names that partially get it right. For example, I gave him "Spirited Away," the stunningly beautiful Japanese animation by Hiyao Miyazaki. In it, Chihiro has to survive an ordeal in a bathhouse controlled by a witch; she does so in part with the help of Haku, a boy who shares a psychic connection with her. That's so close to how I feel about the boyfriend that for a while I addressed my e-mails to him as Haku. But Chihiro and Haku aren't boyfriend/girlfriend, so that's not quite right. My cousin, Coffee Jones (, is great at naming things, and when she saw his photo for the first time last spring, she declared, "He's adorable!" so "Adorable" stuck for a while. From a literary/movie point of view, he's a little bit Mr. Darcy, a little bit Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard's character in "Brief Encounter"), looks a little like Rupert Everett, and really loves me like . . . well, pick your favorite romantic movie hero! It's all good, but I'm just not getting a name out of any of this.

And Lo! it's time for dinner. I'll keep working. I'll also ask Coffee J. for her thoughts -- she's really good with names!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

So how did I get two brainy Brit guys?

Yesterday morning, as I hefted my many stocking stuffer gifts over to my chair, I actually said out loud: "Boy, if I'd known I'd get twice the presents, I'd have lined up the husband and boyfriend thing years ago." Stobex (the husband) smiled. He's gotten what he wanted -- two friends of the close variety. And I'm happy to have him as a friend; after all, I've been happy in precisely that way for the almost eight years of our marriage. It wasn't time to get rid of him, just time to unmarry him.

Still, I am bemused and a bit befuddled to find myself in this situation. When Stobex and I were engaged, we attended my sister's annual New Year's Day party. She's 10 years older than me, and has been married for 35 years now, happily or otherwise. Stobex and I were both 42 when we married, and it was a first marriage for us both. Ann (my sister) had asked me during our engagement if I "had given up hope" that I would ever get married. Remember, this was not too long after the media made a fuss about how unlikely it was for a fortysomething woman to marry . . . I think 9/11 got our priorities sorted out, but in the heady days of the late 90s, marital status and the difficulties of dating seemed really important. So, at this party, Ann brought several of her unmarried friends over to meet me, introducing me as the one who's about to get married for the first time. I think I was meant to be Exhibit A in the "See, if she can do it, you can too" argument.

When she'd asked me if I had given up hope, I'd truthfully said no, that I'd always assumed I would marry. What had surprised me, I went on, was how happy I was. I hadn't thought I would be so blissed out. And I remember that feeling, and I still feel it around Stobex. It's a warmth of familiarity and companionship. It's a mug of tea, a warm fire, and a piece of something yummy. All good things. In hindsight, it's not everything one could want in a relationship, and I came to want more, but I never tired of what was on offer. I truly love Stobex precisely the same today as I did the day we married.

So what happened? To explain, I have to use some shorthand for stuff I know I'll explain more fully in future posts. Both Stobex and I are damaged souls, youngest children in dysfunctional families where the siblings reenacted bits of the Lord of the Flies and fought over the scraps of affection, comfort, and support. Damage was done. No one is the evil villain in either his story or mine, but as youngests, we didn't get the chance -- thankfully! -- to do to even smaller children what was done to us. Advance the story a few decades, and we came together for unlimited amounts of affection, comfort, and support that companionship can offer. We healed each other, not all the way but enough to manage the next stages in our respective lives. His next stage is to live on his own for the first time ever (his story is a hoot, but I'll save that for later, too) and mine is the boyfriend.

If Stobex is a cuppa & warm feet, the boyfriend (I know, I know -- he needs a pseudonym, but this isn't easy in his case. I'm working on it, I promise) is this divine recipe I made recently: beef tenderloin steaks with a port-cranberry sauce and topped with Gorgonzola cheese. Ohmigod -- really good, not hard to prepare, but not cheap. (It's an recipe, btw: He's also a cuppa & warm feet, your favorite music on the iPod, and silk boxers, and well -- I don't want this to be too racy a post, but you get the idea. And he's great conversation, which he sometimes even initiates. He's not a better person than Stobex, he just ticks more of the boxes on my hypothetical "What I'd Like In A Guy" list.

[Sidebar: I met a woman once who, like me, wasn't anyone's notion of the Woman Most Likely to End Up With Her Dream Dude. I asked Marty how she'd ended up with her husband, who was a good bit older than she was. She'd told me she had a relatively short WILIAG list, with only four items. Her dream dude had to have blue eyes, be a good driver and a good dancer, and not be racist. The husband ticked only one of those boxes: he had blue eyes. She kinda minded that he didn't like to dance, and she'd learned that it paid to do all the driving herself. But the racism? I asked. Well, she told me, it was mostly ignorance. This was in Maine in the early 80s, when there were about 250 blacks living in the state. This guy was in his sixties then, so he'd grown up when the state was virtually all white. He believed blacks smelled different from whites; it's a factually incorrect, demeaning, and objectionable opinion, but according to Marty, he literally didn't know any better. She set him straight, but didn't rule him out because of that. So, there's the truth about WILIAG lists -- everything's negotiable except the stuff we don't even list because they aren't negotiable: cruelty, lack of generosity, etc.]

The answer, then, to how I scored two great brainy Brit guys, could be that when my WILIAG list was pretty basic (bright, kind, complicated, and companionable) I found a guy whose WILIAF list was similarly basic (good cook, enough-but-not-too-much-like-my-mother, and companionable) and we hit it off. When I had a longer list (all of the above, plus sensitive, introspective, loves music & movies, and can initiate conversations), I found someone whose WILIAF list had lots of boxes I could tick (affectionate, sensitive, self-aware, loving, and a good cook). But I know that's not what actually happened. What happened is that Stobex and I had similar childhoods, but the boyfriend (I've charged him with picking his own pseudonym) and I have very specific psychological lacunae as a result of our respective yucky childhoods. Our damage fits together like a lock & key. I'd love to spout some pop psychology about making up your WILIAG/F list and sticking to it, but I know better. The answer is singularly unhelpful, and won't get me a book contract for the self-help aisle any time soon:

I was lucky, and I earned that luck.

Narrow-end karma is a very smart lady!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Welcome to the Narrow End of the Bell-Shaped Curve

I was at dinner a few years ago with my husband, Stobex (well, that's not his real name of course; it stands for Soon To Be Ex -- our divorce is in process as I write this), and some cousins of ours. (Stobex and I are second cousins who didn't meet until I went to England at the age of 15. The cousins we dined with are D, Stobex's first cousin & my second cousin, and D's husband Jack, and someone's son, Tom. I still don't know if Tom is Jack's son -- and thus no relation to Stobex and me -- or Jack & D's son, in which case he'd be my second-cousin-once-removed, and Stobex's first-cousin-once-removed. You are taking notes, aren't you?)

Back to dinner. D and Jack are famous mathematicians. Fame, in this context, means other mathematicians may have heard of them, but you and I (I assume you're not a mathematician...) have not. Stobex isn't a mathematician either; he studied physics at Cambridge, though, which puts him closer than me (I was a biology/philosophy student a million years ago; I took calculus, but can't remember it) but he's still just smart about mathematics, not actually trained. So, imagine my surprise when Stobex trotted out some doggeral that -- I gather -- is extremely funny to mathematicians. Certainly Jack & D laughed; Tom and I just stared.

It was one of those moments when things click into place and you understand life as you previously hadn't. Stobex fit in with these professional mathematicians, and I didn't feel as though I did. But I know Stobex to be even less mainstream than me, so how come he felt at home with these people and I didn't? For that matter, now that I thought about it, Stobex behaved like he fit in at his job. At the time of this dinner, Stobex and I were both lawyers at top-tier law firms in our city. He's a patent lawyer; I was then a corporate bankruptcy lawyer. He's British and beyond geeky, so in theory he ought to feel slightly weird, but he was happy as a clam. I was older than my peers, but otherwise should have felt reasonably at home. Instead, I chafed at the job, the other women, and the dissonance between what I was supposed to be and what I felt like.

I quit a month later.

My point is, I've always felt like I'm at the narrow end of the distribution schematic known as a bell-shaped curve. You may remember them from school: if you plot all the heights of a random group of people, and if you have enough people, you'll get dots that bunch up in the middle and taper off at the ends. There are a few people under five feet, and a few people taller than 6'8", say, but most of us are somewhere in between. (At 5'11", I'm taller than most women, but not tall at all if your sample is the WNBA.) Stobex is definitely narrow-end, but he doesn't feel like he is. I'm narrow-end, and I do. I pick my friends among narrow-end people. If I qualify to belong to a group, such as quilters, I feel like I am different. I think, "Yes, but I'm a lawyer." When I'm with lawyers, I think I'm different because I'm a quilter. (I was at a quilt convention last spring -- Paducah, if you're in the know -- and taking a class with 20 other women, two of whom were lawyers-who-quilt. They were from L.A., so I still didn't feel kinship with them, but that's just me being bloody-minded.)

This blog, then, is my way to think out loud about being narrow-end. I actually think a lot of people feel the way I do, they just don't think about their feelings the way I do. I've known distinctly narrow-end people deny (quite vehemently!!) that they are statistically unusual, and I've known some really mainstream types nod their heads (quite energetically!!) to signify how much they agree with my narrow-end philosophies. I've thought about all of this a lot. It's time to write it down.

Next up: How it is I have a husband and a boyfriend (currently out together photographing signal boxes in a place called Alford and pronounced Alfred) despite looking like Roseanne Barr in a bad year. Which is another way of saying, Personality really does count in Narrow End Land!