December, by Steve Safran

December. This is a notable month for me and Britt. It was two years ago that we shared our respective big news, albeit on markedly different fronts. I moved out of my home, in the first step toward a divorce. Upstaging me considerably on the Oh Crap meter, Britt told us, her friends, that she had breast cancer.

It took years to work up to a divorce. Britt stole all my thunder with one mammogram. I have yet to forgive her fully.

So, for both of us, December 2013 marks the second anniversary of our reorganizations. Britt’s changes involved an unplanned physical assault on her body and peace of mind, a year’s worth of rotating relatives, hair loss, hair growth, and a blog. My reorg was self-imposed, required the packing and unpacking of many boxes, job changes, post-marital dating (and a blog). Within a span of three months, I’d lived in three different locations, finally settling into an apartment near Nordstrom’s. I hardly expected that years of domestic disharmony would lead to the mall. But for me, Black Friday simply means I can’t get out of my driveway.

The second part of my reorg was my mental health. I had suffered years of depression and anxiety. Although I have regulated the depression, the anxiety remains. I suspect it always will. A visit a couple of years back to Dr. Drug Dispenser yielded this diagnosis: “You’re fucked.” Not kidding. Direct quote. Let it be noted that I, like Britt, do not approve of candy-coated health information. “Fucked” was an excellent diagnosis, accurate and pithy.

In what now seems an absurdity, one year into my reorg in December 2012, I became a producer on a series for the Discovery Channel called “Amish Mafia.” The highly rated “reality” show was a lot of fun. The pay was good and the hours, though long, were tolerable. But the commute blew. It meant weekly trips to New York City, coming back to Natick on weekends to cram in a week’s worth of quality time with the kids. And the awesome paycheck was largely wasted on overpriced New York sublets. After two seasons, I’d had enough, and announced The Amish would have to keep being Amish without my guidance.

Reorganization needs support, and I had plenty. My family and friends were there. Last December, when I was at a particularly low point, I arranged a “grownups cocktail hour” over here above the mall so I could spend an evening drinking and laughing and reminiscing with Britt and our other college cronies. When reorganization leaves you feeling adrift and lonely, seeing old friends in their holiday finest and reminding you that you are loved and occasionally funny… well, that helps.

You know what else helps? Fate. Luck. Love. Britt would call it the Holy Spirit (and there she goes, wielding her editorial power), but I wouldn’t. This December also marks a year since my first date with a woman I met on Match.com. She billed herself as “Agent 99” and, as I am a huge “Get Smart” fan, drew my attention immediately. After a few exhanges, 99 and I took our virtual relationship into a nice restaurant. I met this smart and funny and pretty woman. I also love the fact that she found a typo in my Match.com bio describing myself as an annoyingly fastidious writer. My life turned on a typo, unearthed by Agent 99.

This December, I don’t have a job and Britt has chin-length hair. Our reorganization continues. But as the pair of us head into another holiday season that evokes all sorts of bad memories, an intervening year creating better ones makes it all seem like there are many reasons for drinks to be poured. And next week is the second annual Grownups Cocktail Hour.

HELLO DECEMBER

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Dating, by Steve Safran

Steve is dating: a process brimming with the potential for family flare-ups, justified teenager defiance, logistical scheduling difficulties, and the unmistakable solicitation of help from a Higher Power.

Oh God, dating.

Yes, the subject causes me to invoke the name of Britt’s beloved deity.

This is not another a Dating Is Hard essay. We all know that, so stop with the complaining. Dating should be hard. If dating were easy, we’d never go to work. We’d be too busy making reservations. No– dating should be difficult. You’re looking for a match, and that’s tough to find. Post-divorce dating carries the added struggle of comparing the new girl to the ex, which although unavoidable, is unfair.

I won’t whine about the difficulties of meeting single women, either. Thanks to the web, it is insanely easy to meet women. (Or men, or your same gender, or whatever inspires a 6pm shave and the good cologne.) Where was this wonderful tool when I was 20? It remains difficult as ever to find a match, but at least there’s a digital icebreaker now. Although I will say the questionnaire is a bitch, and my humor translates poorly to a Match.com profile. (Example: What are you looking for in a mate? “Someone with exceedingly low expectations.”)

Instead, this dating discussion is about the kids. When I date someone now, I date her kids; she dates mine. It’s Brady Bunch Dating. It’s speed-relationship-ing. (“The kids are at a dance. I have one hour now. Bring some popcorn and a very short film.”) If you have x kids and your date has x ± 1 kids, you have a geometric relationship with multiple variables and exponential difficulties. (Something like that. It’s a metaphor, so calm down, math majors.)

In baseball, if you can hit the ball four times out of ten, you’re a God. In the more than 125 years of professional baseball, it’s only been done once over an entire season. But even if you’re the Ted Williams of relationships, at least two of the kids are going to hate each other. Or everyone (especially if they’re teens). Or you. Probably you.

So you and the significant other (will someone please come up with a better term?) have an automatic handicap. It’s a given that some fraction of the kids is going to be displeased with the situation. That’s OK. You expected this shifting Venn diagram illustrating the get-along-ness of your brood with hers. So what do you do? Occasionally you think it might be easier to forego adult company for the next decade. But that seems lonely, if more affordable. You can live with the kids’ protestations, knowing The Divorce was bound to have repercussions past the logistics of who sleeps where. So you proceed with good intentions, encourage your mate to do the same, and hope you don’t cause more problems for the kids than you already have.

Which, of course… you will. I don’t know.

Oh, God.

An entire post could be made of Venn diagrams...

A math image seemed apropos. Drawing my own to illustrate divorced dating logistics did not.

FAIL, by Steve Safran

Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court
Probate and Family Court Department
Standing Order 4-08

This court finds that the interests of the minor children of parties appearing before it would be well served by educating their parents about children’s emotional needs and the effects of divorce on child behavior and development. It is hereby ordered that all parries to a divorce action in which there are minor children are ordered to attend and participate in an approved Parent Education Program. No (divorce hearing) will be held until the court receives a certificate of attendance from each party.

I needed a piece of paper. One last piece of paper. A piece of paper that showed that I, a divorcing parent, had attended a class mandated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts instructing me in “Understanding the Effect of Divorce on Children.” My lawyer warned me: do not show up in court without this piece of paper.

You do not need to take a class to get married. There’s no required reading to become a parent. But the great Commonwealth requires divorcing parents to complete coursework. The need for this escapes me. I suppose the reason at heart is solid: you should know how to be a responsible single parent, even if you can’t stand your ex-spouse. And listening to my fellow classmates, that certainly seemed to be the mood. The 15 attendees were much more interested in talking about the bastard/bitch they were divorcing than listening to anything the state had to say.

And I was much more interested in listening to them. And, occasionally, debating them. Because, you know– me.

As if “Divorce Class” could do anything else, it is designed to make you feel absolutely awful about your impending split. The only practical advice given about co-parenting is “communicate with your ex-spouse,” but of course if we could do that, we probably wouldn’t have been in the room. Take that, Standing Order 4-08.

And although the State insists on shaping the quality of Divorcing Parents, it does so by providing material that is 30 years old. The extremely bored class leader outlined the syllabus for single parenthood using an overhead projector and transparencies. He screened two, ten-minute “films” off a VHS. (“What? No Beta?” I asked. Nobody laughed.) Bored Teacher showed us examples of children’s crayon drawings that are so on the nose, I cringed at what the state must think of me.

We see a crayon drawing of a happy family.

“What can we say about the family in this drawing?” asks Bored Teacher.

Silence.

“That they’re happy?” I half-ask, half answer.

“Good!” he tells me in the way you might praise your schnauzer for finally pooping outside. Then he shows a crayon drawing of a sad family. Frowns. Tears. Bad stick-body language. He asks what we can say about the mood of this family. Again, silence. Really? I’m going to be the only one in this class who answers stuff? I’m the only one who wants this to end?

“They’re sad,” I say, and I get the same verbal pat on the head. I get an unwarranted sense of pride. I have skillfully read the mood of a 6 year-old with a box of Crayolas.

Several drawings later, and it occurs to me that I’m not looking at a random selection. The state has picked the saddest drawings from the saddest children in the saddest homes. I begin to wonder if the state didn’t just draw these itself, using its left hand, and thinking about being picked last for sports. Another shows a plane labeled “747” with a crack right down the middle and a family falling out of it. Heavy. But I spot the glaring error: the plane has only one level, and 747s have two. Sloppy work, Standing Order 4-08.

The program is supposed to consist of two classes of about two and a half hours each. But I find a “condensed” class that is four hours on one night. I can get my piece of paper– in one hour less! Take that, system! Even though we’re supposed to be listening and asking about the information in the program, people can’t help but make it about themselves. So when the topic of safety comes up, one parent asks:

“What if my ex- decides it’s OK to go skydiving with my child, but I don’t think it’s OK?”

Bored Teacher agrees that could be (could be?) dangerous and that a conversation should be had and that there should be communication. Most of the night is like that– in the passive voice. Discussions should be had. Timetables should be set. Ideas should be shared. A ten minute smoke break should ensue.

Outside, I talk with a guy who has the thousand-mile stare. I make small talk. He lights up and goes right into his divorce history with me. He did nothing. She took his daughter. He will never marry again. He’s not mad, just disappointed. I nod a lot. I didn’t ask, so I’m not really going to follow up. But I’m all for venting, especially while smoking, so I let my companion ramble on.

Side note: I would never recommend smoking. However, if you ever find yourself bitterly complaining to a stranger in the dark, light up a cigarette. It really adds to the noir effect and lets you punctuate points with that small, glowing ember. And your deep sighs of pain and regret have a nice smoky air swirling about them.

Back into class. There are lots of discussions about me Me ME. It feels like a state-mandated self-help book club. I start to sort out the likely dumpers from the dump-ees. I know– there were plenty of mutual divorces going on, just like mine. But what fun is that to imagine? Plus, people were dishing. Some stories were unintentionally funny. Some, like the brave and wrenching confession of an abused woman, were decidedly not.

Bored Teacher finally got back to the materials. He talked a lot about our failed marriages. How we will cope after the failed marriage. What the children of a failed marriage can expect. How a failed…

And suddenly I turned off my humor meter.

It’s that word: fail. All of us in that room– the skydiving worrier, the smoking sigher, the woman brave enough to leave the abusive husband–we’ve failed. The state is telling us we are failures. As in getting an F. That there is exactly one guideline for a passing grade in marriage: being married until you die. Anything else is a failure. The couple that stays together 30 years after they’ve lost all interest in each other is a success, but the couple that decides to split and find new happiness is not? The woman who escaped abuse? She was supposed to stay in that situation to “succeed?”

I had plenty of failures in my marriage. And plenty of achievements–three teenage successes, for starters. So maybe I give myself about a C. But an F? We need to start grading marriage on a curve.

(Oh, and I still have that piece of paper. The state never collected it, yet I successfully divorced. Take that, Standing Order 4-08.)

Divorce Class didn't cover this.

This happened while their parents were at Divorce Class. (photo: DIYfail.com)

So Ordered

Steve writes about The End with brutal, hilarious honesty. The judge made it official, and the anticlimactic end to two years of divorcing is a Fluffernutter.

The divorce courtroom as you picture it: Last minute accusations. Long-lost lovers come forth with shocking revelations. Doors fly open with grown men claiming to be the divorcee’s long-lost son. Lawyers fly at each others’ throats as soon-to-be ex-spouses are restrained by beefy bailiffs.

The divorce courtroom as it is: The DMV meets your principal’s office. With Georgian columns.

The actual, final act of getting a divorce was as painless as the process was painful. It’s an exchange of paperwork: a very bored-looking judge, thinking “I went to Columbia Law for this?” looking over the 30th complaint for divorce that day. (“Complaint,” indeed.) Finally, the judge broke his silence. It was so quick it startled me, as I was spacing out considering what to have for lunch. A peanut butter and Fluff, perhaps.

My heart raced, as I feared I’d get something–like my name– wrong. A few perfunctory questions later and the judge pronounced the divorce “so ordered into the record.”

Briefly I looked at my ex. What is the etiquette for this? What does one do? A hug? Surely not. When you marry, the officiant spells it out: now, you kiss. But in this moment, a small tip would have been appreciated. Even a “You may now ignore the bastard” would have helped. I don’t remember what I did. Possibly some looking and nodding? Something stupid like that. A knowing look, like giving her a poker cheat. What can I say? I panicked. Nothing you have learned as a civilized, well behaved, Miss Manners Man prepares you for the protocol involving what you do as you “walk down the aisle” in reverse.

But I did not flash back on years of marriage and heartache (although my friend Jenn Lane describes this brilliantly.) No. I didn’t well up, as I thought I might. No. I thought about my kids, but only in terms of hopes for their future. Nope. In this awkwardly brutal moment, the only thing going through my mind was…

Don’t sneeze.

I had to sneeze so badly. Spring allergies. And the courtroom was dusty. And I hadn’t taken an Allegra. But I didn’t want to sneeze in court in front of the judge. I have no idea why. I must have thought “If I sneeze, he will see I am clearly the unfit person in this and will award everything to her.” It was a big, big empty room and the sneeze would have echoed… possibly through today.

Two days earlier I found myself in the state-mandated divorced-parent class. This is a real thing. You have to attend divorcing parent class before you can get a divorce. The class was exactly as useful as you would imagine a state-mandated class on being a divorcing parent would be. The materials were from the ’80s. They used an overhead projector with transparencies. They showed “movies” on VHS with health-class quality acting (inexplicably hosted by Timothy Busfield in his leaner, 30-something years). The only excitement came when a mom brought up how much she hated that her ex-bastard let her kids eat peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Wait.

She was defaming Fluff? Into the fray I jumped, defending this New England confection, this ambrosia, this perfect peanut butter pal. Perhaps Fluff ended her marriage, I fancied. Perhaps he made One Sandwich Too Many. Perhaps he used Raspberry Fluff, for which there is no excuse.

I had thought of Fluff in the courtroom, as I didn’t sneeze, or hug, or listen to a judge who wasn’t paying attention to me. That was my divorce court experience: empty calories. How’d that happen? Two years of drama led up to this moment. There should have been something. A musical number. A trumpet. A small firecracker, perhaps? No?

Just Fluff.

Don't knock it.

Don’t knock it.

Communication

Steve is feeling the chirpy-birdy, sunshiny effects of Springtime in Boston. Here’s his wake up call to all of us: communication is not a competitive sport.

Have your love, your lust, your crazed, Cirque du Soleil sex. Enjoy your puppy dogs and rainbows, this-person-is-perfect-for-me, Teenage Dream early days of a relationship. Treasure the weeks and months you will likely never get again– not because of cynicism, but because you simply can only have the joy of discovering someone once. After that, what you need is communication.

Want a great relationship? Communicate.
Want a divorce? Don’t.

It’s almost as simple as that. The communication needs to be respectful, which is equally obvious as it is difficult. But when you hear shit you don’t like, the healthy couple response is “I’m sorry you feel that way– let’s talk it through.” The guaranteed divorce response is “You shouldn’t feel that way… oh, and screw you.”

“All You Need is Love?” Due respect to Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, it’s not so. But “All You Need is Healthy, Respectful Dialogue” wouldn’t have been a good hippie mantra and would have been harder to sway to.

We communicate so poorly when we’re trying to win the argument. But in our competitive world, this the one time we should be aiming for a tie game. (Apart from soccer and don’t get me started there.) Communication, done properly, is a mutual win. But that’s marriage counsel-y stuff, and I don’t have the right feel good degree to help with that. (See: every other post of mine.)

Here’s what I do know. When you cut someone off in traffic, they’ll give you the finger. When you brush shoulders on the sidewalk, you’ll say “I’m sorry” and they’ll say “No problem.” Internet and TV arguments work the same way. It’s what Roger Waters called “The Bravery of Being Out of Range.” But in our closest, most intimate, important relationships, we can get out of range right there at the kitchen table.

(Incidentally, I respond to all rotary enraged bird-flipping by blowing kisses. Smootches, jerkface!)

I really have no other relationship insight. Oh—wait. One more: double sinks. When you’re buying a place, be sure the master bath has double sinks. You have to trust me on this one. Double sinks will make you a nicer person. You won’t fight over toothpaste, how she takes too long, how he leaves his shavings, why there are eleven different bottles of hair goop– double sinks win. In the space of one morning, this means four fewer arguments in tight spaces.

So in the Springtime of the relationship, enjoy the circus sex, the romance, and the googly-eyed sink sharing and synced swaying. That’s what the Beatles were crooning about. But we need to communicate less like Boston drivers to keep things humming. We need to continue the conversation… sidewalk style.

Let's stay on the sidewalk together.

Let’s stay on the sidewalk together.

Visitors… by Steve Safran

A brief tour inside the mind of an every-other-weekend Dad.

VISTORS, by Steve Safran

When the kids come to visit… STOP. RIGHT. THERE. When my wife and I separated a year ago, I swore words like “visit” and “my apartment” would never be a part of our collective vocabulary. We don’t visit. These are my children… we see each other, we hang out, we eat and fight and laugh and watch YouTube videos. It’s not my apartment. It’s ours.

Bullshit.

What do you call people who show up at your place with suitcases, who get clean towels, take-out food, and temporary control of the remote? What do you call these people who pack up their suitcases after two days, leaving you to clean up the mess?

Visitors.

And what do they call the big place with their own bedroom, the dog, a backyard, the good computer, the video games… and Mom? That’s their house. My place is the apartment and Mom’s is home and the sensitive language police can’t change that. When I ask these young visitors to call the place they stay every other weekend their “home,” I’m really asking my kids to tell me that all of this is OK. And of all the things we’re asking of these exceptional kids, I can’t insist that they make me feel better about it.

I’ve done what I can to make the apartment feel like a home. There are video games, toys, and other trappings. When I was first looking for an apartment, I imagined a four-bedroom place for the four of us. Absurd. I scaled down, searching for a more reasonable, three-bedroom place. “Let the boys share a room!” I conceded. Ha. We’re in a two bedroom, where my daughter’s “room” is the living room, and a couch bed substitutes for her far more comfortable quarters at, well, home.

Then there’s the “Zoo Dad” conundrum. I don’t want to be a “Zoo Dad.” I don’t want the pressure of taking the kids to ticket-requiring weekend events with all the other Sad Dads. But I don’t want them to have nothing to do, either. If we were all together at “home,” a lazy weekend would be just fine. But a lazy weekend at my apartment feels like lethargic parenting. I only have 40 bi-monthly hours with them, so I should probably be filling those hours with something other than pizza? I don’t know; there’s no pamphlet for this crap. Do they watch Netflix and sleep late at Zoo Dad’s?

Sometimes, in the darker hours, I look to the kids for comfort. And sometimes, simply watching them is a relief. Kids this great mean I’ve done OK. Sure, they fight, do strange things, and have odd notions of proper public behavior (they are, after all, my kids). But we’ve done all right. And after untold hours spent comforting them, it is all too easy to look to these too-quickly growing bundles of my own DNA to assure me I’m not fucking them up. I will take unearned credit where I can.

Who will comfort the comforter? (And, for that matter, who will wash the comforter? That thing’s huge and does not fit into an apartment-sized washing machine.) Making sure the home feels like “home” and that Everything Will Be Fine is my job. Putting my kids in that role is scary, and unfair, and weird. Part of being a grownup is artful pretending, and unfortunately, I suck at it. I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve guy. And my own children come and they leave because they are Visitors. Cousin G put it into perspective: “They were going to leave eventually. With you, they just left sooner.”

The child shrink has told me not to indulge myself by showing my pain. Well… screw that. You might as well ask someone passing a kidney stone to sing “When You’re Happy And You Know It.” My youngest son has learned as good a lesson as any: grownups cry, too. Especially mushy, fluffy, squishy grownups whose idea of “being a man” is more Alan Alda than Alec Baldwin. So, yeah, I tear up.

Especially when my visitors go back home.

VISITOR

The Accidental New Yorker

Steve Safran takes a break from whoring-his-talents-for-television to explore the heart breaking impossibility of perfect parenting. We can only hope that the bystander trauma of our (mid)-life dramas will make them more compassionate and resilient for having endured ours.

The Accidental New Yorker, by Steve Safran

It’s getting harder and harder for me to tie in my writing to Britt’s Boob Blog. If I am to be a columnist here, you may have to settle for the mundane details of my life without my stretching past credulity any metaphor to Britt’s. (“I had a sandwich today. Britt couldn’t have sandwiches during chemotherapy because they made her throw up. Mine was ham.”) Recently, however, I’ve landed on a legitimate theme for a site that often includes ways we unintentionally traumatize the children:

Change, uncertainty, absence, loss: the inevitable and difficult aspects of life we’d like to shield from the kids until they can afford their own therapist.

A month ago, I was your standard issue, work-from-the-home-office, nap-often kind of guy. I have six years of bedside coffee rings and navel-gazing Facebook status updates that prove my tenure of freelance-ability. But now I’m a New Yorker four days a week, producing a TV show, and suffering the whiplash of mid-life career reinvention. I don’t even have a place to live. I stuff boxers into a backpack, crash on couches and in cheap hotels, ride the rails, and eat meals out of bags.

At 45, I’m a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass.

This is plainly absurd. Yet it is a fine example of “Mixed Blessings Come to Those Who Wait and Wait and Give Up.” It’s great to have work. It’s fun to be back in TV. I’ve been out of the game since 2006 when I was last a news man. Now I’m firmly in entertainment, producing a reality show for Discovery. I’m at once at home in the environs and homeless in the city I’ve cursed all these years as a proper Bostonian. I have, by accident, become One Half New Yorker.

This week’s schedule:  Sunday: Natick, Monday: New York, Wednesday morning: Natick (son’s birthday), Wednesday night: New York, Friday: Natick

At the time of this writing, it’s Thursday. Don’t tell anyone, but I just woke up in an empty NYC office, when I swear I’d dosed off watching Boston local news.

Did I mention I’m 45?

As taxing as this is on the middle-aged body, I’m more worried about what this is doing to the kids. They have a Dad who is unavailable during the week and is exhausted on the weekends. They’re doing OK.  I know they’re OK. (I’m telling myself they’re OK… feel free to chime in and agree.) But it’s not fair. I told my son I had to go where the money is. He said, through tears, “I’d rather you were here and didn’t get the money.”

Me too, kid.

In the last year, these awesome little people have endured their parents’ separation, ongoing divorce, and now their dad is… gone. Here’s where writing for Britt’s Boob Blog becomes no stretch at all. If a child’s greatest fear is his parent’s divorce or death, then Britt and I are doing a bang up job scaring the crap out of them. It’s difficult enough just being a kid, without us getting diseased, and divorcing, and hobo-ing across three states to provide a steady income. Of course, Britt is better and her boys are relieved. But kids’ fears exist in the moment, and between us we have five kids who have had more than their share of scary moments. But we’re OK. (We’re telling ourselves we’re OK… feel free to chime in and agree.)

Shuttling Stevie between Boston and NY. His car will never be the Quiet one.

Shuttling Stevie between Boston and NY. His car isn’t likely to be the Quiet one.